Authors: Andrew Lane
Dedicated to the memory of my father, Jack Lane, who passed away while I was writing this book.
Rest in peace, Dad.
And with grateful acknowledgements to: the lovely people from the Scottish Children’s Book Trust (who kind of gave me the idea of setting a book in Edinburgh without ever actually saying so); the guys from the Book Zone for Boys in Ireland (who probably deserve to have a book set there as well); Helen Palmer for mentioning Mary King’s Close; Polly Nolan for editing so comprehensively and sensitively; Nathan, Jessica and Naomi Gay for being so interested; and to Jessica Dean, who made sure that this series of books got the highest level of visibility.
The small Chinaman held the needle in steady fingers and dipped the point in the bottle of ink that sat on the table in front of him. Next to the ink rested the forearm of the sailor who was sitting in a chair on the other side of the table. It was huge – like a ham on a butcher’s slab.
‘You sure you want blue anchor?’ the Chinaman said. His name was Kai Lung. His face was lined with age and the plait of hair that hung down his back was the colour of ash.
‘I told ya,’ the sailor said, ‘I want an anchor! Cos I live on a ship, an’ I work on a ship, right?’
‘I could do a fish,’ Kai Lung said quietly. Anchors were easy. They were also boring. He seemed to spend half his life tattooing blue anchors on the muscular forearms of sailors, sometimes with the name of their sweetheart beneath, inside a nice scroll. The problem was that he seemed to spend the other half of his life turning the tattooed names of
sweethearts into other things – barbed wire, flowers, anything that might disguise the underlying letters. ‘I could do you a nice fish, maybe a goldfish with scales all the colours of a rainbow. You like that idea? Fish tattoo good for sailor, yes?’
‘I want an anchor,’ the man said stubbornly.
‘Fine. Yes. Anchor it is.’ He sighed. ‘You got any special type of anchor in mind, or just the usual?’
The sailor frowned. ‘How many different types of anchor are there?’
‘Usual anchor it is then.’
He prepared to make the first mark with the needle. The ink would flow into the small pinprick in the sailor’s arm and stain the underlying tissue. The skin on the outside of the arm would fade, change and tan over the years, but the ink would always remain there, beneath the skin. With enough small pinpricks and enough different colours of ink he could draw anything – a fish, a dragon, a heart . . . or a blue anchor. Another blue anchor.
The door burst open, pushed hard from the other side. It hit the wall, the handle on the inside leaving a dent in the exposed brickwork. A man stood in the doorway. He was so tall and so wide that there wasn’t much space on either side of him or above his shaven head. His clothes were rough and dirty. They looked as if he’d been travelling in them for some time, and possibly sleeping in them as well.
‘You,’ he growled in an American accent, looking at the sailor, ‘out!’ He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, just in case the instruction wasn’t clear.
‘Hey! I got an appointment!’ The sailor stood up, clenching his fists ready for a fight. He took a step forward, towards the doorway. The man who had pushed the door open stepped forward. The top of the sailor’s head barely came up to his chin. Without looking away from the sailor’s eyes, the man reached out with his left hand and took hold of the metal handle on the outside of the door. He squeezed. For a moment nothing happened, and then with a sad heart Kai Lung saw that the handle was bending and twisting under the pressure. Within a few seconds it looked more like crumpled paper than metal.
‘Fair enough,’ the sailor said. ‘There’s other tattoo parlours around.’
The newcomer stepped to one side and the sailor pushed past him without looking back.
‘You lose me customer,’ Kai Lung said. He wasn’t scared of the newcomer. He was so old and he had seen so much in his long life that he wasn’t scared of anything much. Death was an old friend by now. ‘I hope you bring me other customer to replace him.’
The man stepped back, out of the way, and another man entered the tiny front room of Kai Lung’s lodgings. This man was smaller and better dressed than his herald, and he was holding a walking stick. A wave of coldness seemed to enter the room with him. A feeling swept over Kai Lung, and it took him a moment to work out what it was.
Fear. It was fear.
‘You want tattoo?’ he said, trying to keep his voice from quavering.
‘I would like a tattoo on my forehead,’ the man said. His accent was American as well. ‘It is a name, a woman’s name.’ His voice was calm and precise. The light from behind him put his face in shadow, but in the meagre illumination from Kai Lung’s oil lamp the head of the walking stick gleamed. Kai Lung thought for a moment that it was a large, rough chunk of solid gold, and he drew his breath in, amazed, but he suddenly realized what it was. The head of the walking stick was carved in the shape of a human skull.
‘You want sweetheart’s name on
?’ Kai Lung asked. ‘Most people want sweetheart’s name on arm, or maybe chest – near heart.’
‘The girl is not my “sweetheart”,’ the man said. His voice was still calm, still precise, but there was a tone somewhere deep inside it that made Kai Lung shiver. ‘And yes, I want her name tattooed on my forehead, near to my brain, so that I can remember it. Your work had better be accurate. I do not tolerate mistakes.’
‘I am best tattooist in whole city!’ Kai Lung said proudly.
‘So I have heard. That is why I am here.’
Kai Lung sighed. ‘What is name of girl?’
‘I have written it down. Do you read English?’
‘I read very well.’
The man reached out his left hand. He was holding a piece of paper. Kai Lung took it carefully, trying not to touch the man’s skin. He looked at the name on the scrap. It was printed in a careful hand, and he had no trouble deciphering it.
‘Virginia Crowe,’ he read. ‘Is that right?’
‘That is exactly right.’
‘What colour you want?’ Kai Lung asked. He was expecting the man to say ‘blue’, but he was surprised.
‘Red,’ the man said. ‘I want it in red. The colour of blood.’
‘Stop it!’ Rufus Stone cried out. ‘You’re
Sherlock lifted the bow from the violin strings. ‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’
‘I’m not being melodramatic – another few seconds of that and my heart would have leaped out of my throat and strangled me just to ensure that it didn’t have to experience that cat-squalling any more!’
Sherlock felt his confidence shrivel up like a dry autumn leaf. ‘I didn’t think it was that bad,’ he protested.
‘That’s the problem,’ Stone said. ‘You don’t know what the problem
. If you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t fix it.’
He rubbed the back of his neck and wandered away, obviously struggling to find a way to explain to Sherlock just what he was doing wrong. He was wearing a loose striped shirt with the sleeves roughly rolled up and a waistcoat that seemed to have come from a decent suit, but his trousers were rough corduroy and his boots were scuffed leather. He swung round to look at Sherlock for a moment, and there was a kind of wild bafflement in his face, along with what Sherlock realized with a sickening twist of his heart was
Sherlock turned away, not wanting to see that expression in the face of a man he considered a friend as well as a kind of older brother.
He let his gaze roam around the room they were in – anywhere so that he didn’t have to look at Stone. They were in the attic of an old building in Farnham. Stone rented a room on the floor below, but his landlady had taken a shine to him and let him rehearse and practise his violin – and teach the one music student he had so far taken on – in the expansive attic area.
The space was large and dusty, with beams of sunlight penetrating through gaps in the tiles and forming diagonal braces that seemed to be holding the triangular roof up just as well as the wooden ones. The acoustics, according to Stone, were marginally worse than a hay barn, but considerably better than his room. There were boxes and trunks stacked around the low walls, and a hatchway off to one side that led down, via a ladder, to the upper landing. Navigating the ladder with a violin and bow clutched in one hand was tricky, but Sherlock liked the isolation of the attic and the sense of space.
One day, he thought, I will have my own place to live – somewhere I can retreat from the world and not be bothered. And I won’t let anyone else in.
Pigeons fluttered outside, blocking the sunlight momentarily as they roosted. Cold penetrated the attic from the street, fingers of frosty air finding their way through the spaces between the tiles.
He sighed. The violin felt heavy in his hand, and somehow clumsy, as if he had never picked one up before. The music stand in front of him held the score of a piece by Mozart – a violin transcription, according to Stone, of a famous aria called ‘The Queen of the Night’s Song’ from an opera called
The Three Oranges
. The black notes captured between the lines of the staves were, as far as Sherlock was concerned, like a code, but it was a code he had quickly worked out – a simple substitution cipher. A black blob on
line always meant a note that sounded like
– unless there was a small hash in front of it that raised it slightly to a ‘sharp’, or a small angular letter ‘b’ that lowered it slightly to a ‘flat’. A sharp or a flat was halfway towards the note either directly above or directly below the one he was playing. It was simple and easy to understand – so why couldn’t he turn the written music into something that Rufus Stone could listen to without wincing?
Sherlock knew he wasn’t progressing as quickly as Stone would have liked, and that irked him. He would have liked to have been able just to pick up the instrument and play it beautifully, first time and every time, but sadly life wasn’t like that. It
be, he thought rebelliously. He remembered feeling the same way about the piano that sat in his family home. He’d spent hours sitting at it, trying to work out why he couldn’t play it straight away. After all, the thing about a piano was its relentless logic: you pressed a key and a note came out. The same key led to the same note every time. All you had to do, surely, was remember which key led to which note and you should be able to play. The trouble was, no matter how hard he had thought about it, he had never been able to sit down and play the piano like his sister could – flowing and beautiful, like a rippling stream.