Fine silver wire gleamed in the sunlight as deft fingers wound it around a barbed hook. A twist of feather, coloured thread, a second plume to form a crest. The water was lazy and still around the old narrowboat, the late June afternoon hot and languid, as Perry Beck tied off the fly. He laid it carefully aside, to start on another.
A shadow fell over him. He looked up.
“They say you can open locks.”
A girl. Pale, nervous, wearing one of the local school uniforms. She stood on the bank, hesitating to come closer to the young man sitting on the deck.
It was bad enough when word got out, but for a kid to know? Perry said nothing. He reached for another hook and some blue thread. His hands started to wind it around, forming a perfect thin, tiny spool. He needed something to do with his hands. They were restless.
“You have to help me. It’s my stepmother. She’s going to murder my dad.”
There was a sob in the girl’s voice and it jarred with the heavy haze of the day. Cow parsley grew thick on the banks, everything was overgrown following the wet of spring and the heat of early summer. Lank, dank, the willows trailing in the water. Perry wanted his peace back. It was the fear in the child’s voice that did it. It disturbed him.
“You need the police, then.”
He tried to look back down at the fly but his eyes flicked back up and he saw her bite her lip. Saw the desperation there.
“She’s got a box. I know she writes stuff in it. A journal, letters. I know it’s in there. She wants to kill him, she really does. She only married him for his money. I hate her. I need to get in the box so I’ve got proof. No one will listen to me otherwise.”
It was a child’s story, a fantasy. A locked box hiding secrets. A hated stepmother. But the distress was real.
Still Perry said nothing and the girl was silent for a moment, trying to win his trust. “My name’s Rose. My dad’s Arthur Stanton. He runs the brewery. Please. You’re the only one who can help me.”
Perry knew of him, of the brewery anyway. He didn’t want to feel sorry for the girl but he did.
“I can’t help you, Rosie. It’s for the police, a matter like that.”
She stopped for a moment, looking at him in despair. Not more than twelve, he thought. Too young to have her head filled with fears like this. You run along, he wanted to say.
But then she turned suddenly and left. Rose of the speedwell-blue eyes. Perry wished she had never come, because then he wouldn’t have to feel like he had failed her.
“You couldn’t do me a favour, could you Perry? I’ve lost the key to the cashbox and I need to pay wages. Ray’s got a spare somewhere but he’s not due back for hours.”
Perry was sitting at the bar in the Boatswain a couple of days later. It was still early evening and most of the regulars weren’t in yet. Late sun streamed in a warm gold beam across the back of the bar, making the bottles and optics shine like a row of potions. The smell of old wood, stale cigarettes and the soft treacly malt of old beer infused the public saloon.
Mary, the publican’s wife, pushed a black metal box towards him. She tucked back a strand of fair hair behind her ear. Her cheeks were pink from hauling a crate up from the cellar. Perry would have carried it up for her if she’d asked.
“Drinks on the house if you can get into it, Perry. You’d save me a lot of bother.”
Perry regarded the lock, a typical thing of its kind. He delved into his pocket and drew out a short length of wire, about half an unbent paperclip. He reached for the box and quicker than a key could have been turned, clicked it open and pushed it back to Mary.
To the young man sitting at a table a couple of yards away, it appeared that Perry merely brushed the lock and it opened. He was impressed.
“That’s quite a party trick you have there.”
Perry hadn’t realised he had been observed. It was always the way. No wonder word got out. But you had to expect it, at a pub. There was always some drunken fool staggering around losing their keys. Once or twice he’d walked someone home and let them into their own house, if they lived nearby.
The other week he’d opened a bloke’s car door for him so he could sit inside and sleep it off for a few hours. He shouldn’t drive in that state of course, so Perry wasn’t going to encourage this by hot wiring the vehicle as well, something else he could have done.
Anyway, what could you do when someone asked? When it was no real skin off Perry’s nose, and twenty quid and hours of waiting if they had to call up a locksmith.
Perry looked at the dark-haired man at the nearby table. He was young, about his own age. Early twenties maybe. Any similarity ended there though, because the other man was gown. A student, from one of the university colleges, as opposed to someone from the town. Gown and town rarely mixed. Funny place for him to be drinking, given all the colleges had their own bars with cheap beer for students.
“Join me for a beer?”
It would be churlish to refuse yet the only other polite option would be to make his excuses and leave. But Perry didn’t want to go just yet. He was waiting for Priscilla, one of the barmaids, to start her shift.
“May as well.”
The other man introduced himself. “Martin Harcourt.”
“Perry Beck. Student, are you?”
Martin raised his eyebrows at the inquiry, more of an accusation than a question, and then laughed. “When I feel like opening my books. I’m local too though. I grew up here, or near here. My family live in Tackley.” It was a village a few miles to the north of town.
“Nice place.” Perry took another gulp of his ale.
Martin found himself intrigued by the local man. Perry Beck was weirdly colourless and nondescript, yet there was that almost preternatural ability with a lock. Martin had heard the term “rubbing a lock” before but had never really understood what it meant.
Until he saw Perry’s display of the dark arts.
His eyes were unusual too. Martin didn’t spend much time analysing other blokes’ physical features, he wasn’t interested that way. But where you’d expect a muddy colour to match everything else, they were a distinct grey-green. A brighter colour than they should have been, Martin thought.
“So where did you learn the lock thing?” Martin asked.
“It’s just a knack.”
It was a deliberately evasive answer. “You’re not a locksmith, then?”
Perry shook his head.
“Never considered it?”
There was a flicker of something in the greenish eyes. “You need certificates and stuff. A licence.”
Martin had spent enough vacations doing work experience in his uncle’s law practice to recognise that guarded look. He’d seen it any amount of times among a particular fraternity.
“Form?” Martin asked, referring to a criminal record.
“Just a stupid kid.” Perry didn’t want to think about it, it had blighted his life long enough.
Martin drained his pint and signalled to Mary for two more. “If you were a kid it’s probably long expired by now. I could check it out for you. My uncle’s a solicitor.”
Perry said nothing. He saw that Priscilla had arrived behind the bar. He wanted to ask her out one of these days but it was too early yet. For now he liked it enough when she spoke to him, and she was something to look at. Irish looking, he thought, with black hair and dark eyes, though her accent was English.
She was talking to Damon, Mary’s brother, who had recently come to stay at the pub. He’d been living overseas. Damon’s hair was too long, he wore faded velvet jackets and his pupils were like pinpricks. Perry had his number and he could tell Priscilla did too. So he wasn’t unduly worried by her conversation with him.
Martin observed Perry observing Damon and Priscilla, and guessed where the land lay. She came over to them, bringing them two fresh pints. “Awful, isn’t it?” she said. “I was just talking about it with Damon. You wouldn’t think such a thing would happen in a quiet little place like this, would you?”
Neither Martin nor Perry had any idea what the barmaid was talking about. Martin made this known. “So what’s up?”
Priscilla frowned, her pert and pointy little face showing surprise.
“The brewery bloke, of course. Arthur Stanton. Shot dead last night. Murder, not suicide. Just outside his home. Point blank range, they said.”
You have to help me…
Perry stood up. He felt sick and wanted to be back on his boat.
“I’ve got to get going.”
He left, not saying goodbye to either of them, and oblivious to the greetings of some regulars who passed him on the way out.
No one will listen to me…
He wasn’t going to think about the kid. She wasn’t any of his concern. She was someone else’s problem. What could he have done anyway? Like as not there was nothing incriminating in the box anyway. What sort of an idiot would write down those sorts of plans in black and white?
You’re the only one who can help me…
The houseboat creaked and gently rocked as he stepped onto it. It was a cocoon. Inside it was Perry’s world. He owned it. It was all his. He’d named it Emerald, after his mother.
He’d never had a father. No one ever spoke of him and so he’d never asked. Perry had only guessed that he might have been a dub – a lock picker – because they gave him locks to play with as early as he could remember.
A couple of them spoke of his mother but he was never quite sure how she was related to them. Everyone was “uncle” and “aunt” and even “grandpa”, though they weren’t anything of the kind.
His earliest memory wasn’t of his mother. How could it be? She’d died before he was a year old. A great loss, Old Owen had said once or twice. They said she was beautiful, with emerald eyes.
Perry thought that she might have loved him. For the rest of them, life was more about survival than love.
The lock and the picks put into his hands were his first memories. Learning to play them, much like a violin. Learning by trial and error and perhaps also instinct the perfect pressure, speed and rhythm.
Someone, it might have been Jake the Flick, had tossed him currants each time he picked it. Or so he thought, because even as his hands itched these days to hear that click, that solution, he sometimes felt a craving for currants.
It was so easy. Too easy, even when they gave him other locks. A kid spends its whole life at that age learning to interact with its physical environment. No wonder he picked it up like he had, genes or no genes.
What if they’d given him a piano, a paintbrush? Bribed him to master those? Would he feel the same urge in his fingers to play a pleasing sequence of notes or paint a beautiful scene to find release?
But they’d put different instruments in his hands. And so the rub was his stroke, the click was his music, the lock’s release his release.