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The Black Book of Secrets, Page 2

F. E. Higgins

  ‘This is the place,’ he said and let himself in.

  The shop itself was quite tiny. The distance between the display window and the counter was no more than three paces. Joe went behind the counter and opened the solid door that led into a back room. A tiny window on the far wall allowed the dusty moon-glow to lighten the gloom. The furniture was sparse and worn: two ladderback chairs and a table, a small stove and a narrow bed pushed up against the wall. In contrast the fireplace was huge. At least six feet across and nearly three deep, it took up almost the whole of one wall. On either side of the hearth sat a faded upholstered armchair. It was not much but it would do.

  In the depths of the night, Joe busied himself settling in. He turned up the wick and lit the lamp on the table. He unwound his scarf, took off his hat and unfastened his cloak and put them on the bed. Then he opened his satchel and, as a silent observer peered through the window, Joe emptied it out on to the table. The onlooker never moved, though his already huge dark eyes widened impossibly as Joe pulled out clothes, shoes, a collection of trinkets and baubles, some rather fine jewellery, two loaves, a bottle of stout, another bottle, dark-glassed and unlabelled, four timepieces (with gold chains), a brass hurricane lamp, a rectangular glass tank with a vented lid, a large black book, a quill and bottle of ink and a polished mahogany wooden leg. The satchel was deceptively spacious.

  Deftly Joe fixed the tank together, then took his drawstring bag and loosened the tie. He set it down gently on the table and a second later a frog, a rather spectacular specimen of mixed hue and intelligent expression, emerged daintily from its folds. Very carefully Joe picked it up and placed it inside the tank, whereupon the creature blinked lazily and munched thoughtfully on some dried insects.

  As Joe dropped another bug into the tank he stiffened almost imperceptibly. Without a backwards glance he left the room, the eyes at the window still following him curiously. But they didn’t see him slip out into the street. No human ear heard him tiptoe around the back of the shop, where he pounced upon the figure at the window and held him up to the light by the scruff of his scrawny neck.

  ‘Why are you spying on me?’ asked Joe in the sort of voice that demanded an answer without delay.

  Joe had the boy in such a grip that he was half choking on his collar and his feet were barely touching the ground. He tried to speak, but fear and shock had rendered him unable. He could only open and close his mouth like a fish out of water. Joe gave him a shake and repeated the question, though less harshly this time. When he still received no answer he let the young lad fall to the snow in a crumpled pathetic heap.

  ‘Hmm.’ Joe took a long, hard look at the boy. He truly was a pale and sorry figure, undersized, undernourished and shivering so hard you could almost hear his bones rattle. His eyes were striking though, dark green with flecks of yellow, and set in a ring of shadow. His skin matched the snow in tone and temperature. Joe sighed and pulled him to his feet.

  ‘And you are?’ he asked.

  ‘Fitch,’ said the boy. ‘Ludlow Fitch.’

  Chapter Four

  Poetry and Pawnbrokers

  Ludlow sat at the table shivering in silence while Joe tended the fire. A blackened kettle hung over the flames and every so often Joe stirred its contents.

  ‘Would you like some soup?’

  Ludlow nodded and Joe ladled the thick mixture into two bowls and set them down. The boy gulped his noisily in spilling, overfull spoonfuls.

  ‘Where have you come from?’

  Ludlow wiped soup from his chin and managed to whisper. ‘From the City.’

  ‘I see. And do you wish to go back?’

  He shook his head violently.

  ‘I cannot blame you. In my experience the City is a rotten, diseased place full of the very worst of humanity. The lowest of the low.’

  Ludlow nodded again and drank at the same time with the result that the soup dripped on to his grey shirt collar. Without hesitation he put the stained cloth in his mouth and sucked out the juices. Joe watched unsmiling but with amusement in his eyes.

  ‘And what did you do in the City?’

  Ludlow put down the bowl. The warming soup had brought life back to his frozen limbs. ‘All sorts, really,’ he said evasively but then, under Joe’s intense gaze, he continued, ‘though mainly I picked pockets.’

  ‘Your honesty is refreshing, Ludlow, but I doubt there’d be much of that sort of work here,’ said Joe drily. ‘This is a small village. There’s little to take.’

  ‘I can always find something,’ said Ludlow proudly.

  ‘I believe you could.’ Joe laughed, looking at the boy thoughtfully. ‘Tell me, have you any other talents?’

  ‘I run fast and curl up so tight I can hide in the smallest places.’

  Whether this impressed Joe or not, it was difficult to tell. ‘Useful I’m sure,’ he said, ‘but what of schooling? Can you write and read?’

  ‘Of course I can,’ said Ludlow as if Joe was a fool to suggest otherwise.

  If Joe was surprised he did not show it. ‘Let me see your skill.’ He rummaged through the pile on the table, then handed Ludlow a quill, a pot of ink and a piece of paper.

  Ludlow thought for a moment then wrote slowly, in his plain, spidery hand, the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth:

  A Pome

  The rabit dose be a gentel creture

  Its furr is soft, its tale is wite

  Under the sun a gras eater

  In a burro it doth sleep the nighte.

  Joe stroked his chin to conceal his smile. ‘Who was it taught you to spell? Your parents?’

  Ludlow snorted at the very suggestion. ‘My parents care not for the written word, nor for me. I was taught by Mr Lembart Jellico, a pawnbroker in the City.’

  ‘Lembart Jellico?’ repeated Joe. ‘How very interesting.’

  ‘Do you know him?’ asked Ludlow, but Joe was busy looking for another sheet of paper.

  ‘Write this,’ he said and dictated a couple of sentences, which Ludlow wrote carefully before handing back the paper to be examined.

  ‘Two b’s in Zabbidou,’ said Joe, ‘but you weren’t to know that.’

  He stood back and took a long hard look at the boy. He resembled so many City boys, dirty and skinny. He certainly smelt like one. His clothes were barely functional (apart from the scarf and gloves which were of a much higher quality) and he had a distrustful face that gave away the wretchedness of his past existence. He was bruised and his mouth was very swollen, but there was a spark of intelligence – and something else – in those dark eyes.

  ‘I have a job for you if you want it.’

  Ludlow’s eyes narrowed. ‘Does it pay?’

  Joe yawned. ‘Let’s discuss that tomorrow. Now it is time to sleep.’

  He threw Ludlow his cloak and the boy curled up in the space beside the fire. He had never felt such soft fur before and it wrapped itself around his legs almost of its own accord. Ludlow watched through half-closed eyes as Joe stretched out on the bed opposite, his legs not quite fully extended, and began to snore. When he was certain that Joe was asleep Ludlow pulled out the purse he had stolen from the carriage and hid it behind a loose brick in the wall. Then he took the paper and read it once again.

  My name is Joe Zabidou I am the Secret Pawnbroker

  A secret pawnbroker? thought Ludlow. What sort of job is that? But he did not ponder the question for very long before drifting off into a sleep full of wild dreams that made his heart race.

  Chapter Five

  Fragment from

  The Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  I hadn’t meant to tell Joe I was a pickpocket and I don’t know why I told him the truth. As for pawnbrokers, naturally I knew what they were. I’d been in and out of their shops enough times when I lived in the City. Whatever Ma and Pa managed to steal and had no use for, they pawned. Or they sent me to do it. There were plenty of pawnshops, practically one on every corner, and they were open all hours. Th
ey were busiest after the weekend, when everyone had spent their wages on drink or lost them at the card table. By mid-morning on Mondays a pawnshop window was quite a sight, believe me. People brought in every sort of thing: shirts, old shoes, pipes, crockery, anything that might fetch even a ha’penny.

  The pawnbroker, however, wouldn’t take just anything. And the money he paid wasn’t good at all, but when people grumbled that he was cheating he would say, ‘I’m not a charity. Take it or leave it.’

  And usually they took what he offered because they had no choice. Of course, you could always buy back what you pledged, but you had to pay more. That’s how a pawnbroker made his money, getting rich from the poor.

  But Lembart Jellico wasn’t like the others. For a start he was hidden away down a narrow alley off Pledge Street. You would only know he was there if you knew he was there, if you see what I mean. I found him because I was looking for somewhere to hide from Ma and Pa. The entrance to the lane was so narrow I had to go in sideways. When I looked up I could see only a thin sliver of the smoky city sky. Mr Jellico’s shop was at the end of the lane and at first I thought it was shut, but when I pressed my nose against the door it swung inwards. The pawnbroker was standing behind the counter, but he didn’t see me. He looked as if he was in a daydream.

  I coughed.

  ‘Sorry,’ said the man, blinking. ‘How can I help you, young lad?’ he asked. Those were the first kind words I had heard all day. I gave him what I had, a ring I had taken from a lady’s finger (a particular skill of mine, to mesmerize an unfortunate passer-by with my sorrowful gaze while relieving them of the burden of their jewels). Mr Jellico’s eyebrows arched when he saw it.

  ‘Your mother’s, I suppose?’ he said, but he didn’t push me for an answer.

  Mr Jellico looked as poor as his customers. He wore clothes that people had never come back to claim (and he couldn’t sell). His skin was white, starved of the sun, and had a slight shine to it, like wet pastry. His long fingernails were usually black and his lined face was covered in grey stubble. There was always a drip at the end of his nose and occasionally he wiped it away with a red handkerchief that he kept in his waistcoat pocket. That day he gave me a shilling for the ring, so I came back the next day with more spoils and received another. After that I returned as often as I could.

  I don’t know if Mr Jellico made any money. His shop was rarely busy, the window was dirty and there was never much on display. Once I saw a loaf of bread on the shelf.

  ‘Young lass,’ said Mr Jellico when I asked him about it. ‘She swapped the bread for a pot so she could boil a ham. She’ll be back tomorrow with the pot and she’ll take the bread, a little harder maybe, but it will soften in water.’

  Such were the strange arrangements between pawnbroker and customer!

  I don’t know why Mr Jellico showed me such kindness, why he chose to feel sorry for me over the hundreds of other lads roaming the perilous streets. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t complaining. I told him what Ma and Pa were like, how they treated me, how little they cared for me. Many times when it was too cold to stay out, and I was too afraid to return home, he let me warm myself by his fire and gave me tea and bread. He taught me the AlphaBet and numbers and let me practise writing on the back of old pawn tickets. He showed me books and made me copy out page after page until he was satisfied with my handwriting. It has been remarked that my style is a little formal. I blame this on the texts from which I learned. Their authors were of a serious nature, writing of wars and history and great thinkers. There was little room for humour.

  In return for this learning I carried out certain chores for Mr Jellico. At first I wrote out the price tags for the window, but as my writing improved he let me log the pledges and monies in his record book. Occasionally the door would open and we would have a customer. Mr Jellico enjoyed talking and would detain them in conversation for quite some time before taking their pledge and paying them.

  I spent many hours in the back of the shop engaged in my tasks and Ma and Pa never knew. I saw no reason to tell them about Mr Jellico; they would only have demanded that I steal something from him. I had the opportunity, many times, but although I would not hesitate to cheat my parents out of a few shillings, I could not betray Mr Jellico.

  I would have gone to him every day if I could, but he wasn’t always there. The first time I found the shop closed I thought he must have packed up and left. I was surprised that he hadn’t said goodbye even though it was the sort of thing I had come to expect from people. Then a few days later he came back. He didn’t say where he had been and I didn’t ask. I was just glad to see him.

  This went on for almost five months until the night I fled the City. As I lay in the fireplace that first night at Joe Zabbidou’s I had only one regret, that I had left without saying goodbye to Lembart Jellico. There was little chance I would see him again.

  So, when Joe said that he was a pawnbroker I was pleased. He seemed different from Mr Jellico and I knew that Pagus Parvus was nothing like the City, but I felt safe. I thought I knew what to expect. But of course I didn’t know then what a Secret Pawnbroker was.

  Chapter Six

  A Grand Opening

  Pagus Parvus was indeed very different from the City. It was a small village clinging for its life to the side of a steep mountain in a country that has changed its name over and over and in a time that is a distant memory for most. It comprised one cobbled high street lined on either side with a mixture of houses and shops built in the style that was popular around the time of the great fire in the famous city of London. The first and second floors (and in the case of the home of wealthy Jeremiah Ratchet, the third and fourth floors) overhung the pavement. In fact, sometimes the upper levels stuck so far out that they restricted the sunlight. The windows themselves were small with leaded panes, and dark timbers ran in parallel lines on the outside walls. The buildings were all at strange and rather worrying angles, each having slid slightly down the hill over the years and sunk a little into the earth. There was no doubt that if just one collapsed it would take all the others with it.

  The village was overlooked by the church, an ancient building mostly frequented these days when someone was born or died. Entry into this life and exit from it were deemed noteworthy occasions, but for most villagers the intervening existence did not require regular church attendance. On the whole this suited the Reverend Stirling Oliphaunt very well. He didn’t seek out his flock; he preferred them to make their own way to him.

  Besides, the hill really was unusually steep.

  Despite this, and the snow, by mid-morning a small crowd had already gathered outside Ludlow’s new home. Even before the sun had fully risen behind the clouds, a rumour was circulating that the old hat shop had a new occupant. One by one the villagers puffed and panted their way up the hill to see for themselves. The murky windows were now clean and transparent, although the varying thickness of the glass distorted the display somewhat, and the people pressed their faces up against the panes eager to see what was on show.

  ‘Is it a junk shop?’ asked one man. A reasonable question under the circumstances, for the contents of the satchel, excepting the food and drink, had been priced with tags and placed in the window. The wooden leg was propped in the corner but there was no indication of its cost.

  ‘It’s animals,’ said another.

  Joe’s frog was clearly visible, sitting in its tank on the counter. In the daylight it was quite remarkable in appearance: its glistening skin was a patchwork of vibrant reds, greens and yellows. It was most unlike any frog that lived in the soupy ponds of Pagus Parvus. Its feet were not webbed, instead they were more like long-fingered hands with knobbly joints and toes, which would have made swimming quite tricky.

  As if on cue, Joe’s face appeared in the window. He was holding a sign which he placed carefully at the bottom of the display. It read:

  Joe Zabbidou ~ Pawnbroker

  The villagers nodded to one another, not necessar
ily in approval, more as if to say ‘I told you so’, even though they hadn’t. Joe then emerged with a ladder which he propped against the wall over the door. He climbed confidently to the top and unhooked the old hat-shaped sign. He fixed to the pole the universal symbol of the pawnbroker: three polished golden orbs stuck together in the shape of a triangle. They swung on their chain in a lazy arc, glinting in the low winter sun.

  ‘Is the frog for sale?’ someone asked.

  ‘I’m afraid not,’ said Joe solemnly. ‘She is my companion.’

  This admission amused the crowd greatly and their titters created a cloud of breath around their heads.

  ‘’Ow much for the leg?’ asked another.

  Joe smiled benevolently, descended the ladder with remarkable speed and stood before the crowd.

  ‘Aha,’ he exclaimed. ‘The leg. Now there’s a tale.’

  ‘A tail?’ queried a youngster known less for his wit than for his inquisitive nature, while beside him his two brothers sniggered.

  ‘A tale indeed,’ said Joe. ‘But one for another day.’

  There were sighs of disappointment and Joe cleared his throat and raised his hand.

  ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Joe Zabbidou,’ he announced, pronouncing the ‘J’ with a sort of shooshing noise so it sounded more like ‘sh’. ‘And I am here to serve you. I stand under the sign of the three golden orbs because I am a pawnbroker, a respectable profession in existence for centuries, of Italian origin, I believe. I give you my guarantee –’ here he placed his right hand on his heart and cast his eyes heavenwards – ‘that I will pay a fair price for your goods and take a fair fee when you choose to redeem them. All items accepted: linen and shoes, jewellery and watches—’