Eye of the Crow

The Unusual Boy

   As the sun climbs, its rays spread light through the lifting yellow fog, filtering down upon a brown, flowing mass of people: on top hats and bonnets, heavy clothes and boots swarming on bridges and along cobblestone streets. Hooves strike the pavement, clip-clopping over the rumbling iron wheels, the drone of the crowds, and hawkers’ cries. The smell of horses, of refuse, of coal and gas, hangs in the air. Nearly everyone has somewhere to go on this late spring morning in the year of our Lord 1867.
   Among those moving over the dirty river from the south, is a tall, thin youth with skin the pallor of the pale margins in The Times of London. He is 13 years old and should be in school. From a distance he appears elegant in his black frock coat and necktie with waistcoat and polished boots. Up close, he looks frayed. He seems sad, but his gray eyes are alert.
   His name is Sherlock Holmes.
   Last night’s crime in Whitechapel, one of many in London though perhaps its most vicious, will change his life. In moments it will introduce itself to him. Within days it will envelope him.
   He comes to these loud, bustling streets to get away from his problems, to look for excitement, and to see the rich and famous, to wonder what makes them successful and appreciated. He has a nose for the scent of thrilling and desperate things, and all around these teeming arteries, he finds them.
   He gets here by the same route every day. At first he heads south from the family’s first-floor flat over the old hatter’s shop in grimy Southwark, and walks in the direction of his school. But when he is out of sight he always veers west, and then sneaks north and crosses the river with the crowds at Blackfriars Bridge, for the glorious centre of the city.
   Londoners move past him in waves, each with a story. They all fascinate him.
   Sherlock Holmes is an observing machine; has been that way almost since birth. He can size up a man or a woman in an instant. He can tell where someone is from, what another does to make his living. In fact, he is known for it on his little street. If something is missing – a boot or an apron or a crusty doorstep of bread – he can look into faces, examine trousers, find telltale clues, and track the culprit, large or small.
   This man walking toward him has been in the army, you can tell by his bearing. He’s pulled the trigger of his rifle with the calloused index finger of his right hand. He’s served in India – notice the Hindu symbol on his left cuff link, like one the boy has seen in a book.
   He walks on. A woman with a bonnet pulled down on her head and a shawl gripped around her shoulders brushes against him as she passes.
   “Watch your step, you,” she grumbles, glaring at him.
   An easy one, thinks the boy. She has recently lost in love, notice the stains around her eyes, the tight anger in her mouth, and the chocolate hidden in her hand. She is within a year of 30, gaining a little weight, a resident of the Sussex countryside where its unique brown clay has marked the insteps of both her black boots.
   The boy feels like he needs to know everything. He needs advantages in a life that has given him few. A teacher at his school once told him he was brilliant. He’d scoffed at that. “Brilliant at what?” he had muttered to himself. “At being in the wrong life at the wrong time?”
   On Fleet Street, he reaches into a cast-iron dustbin and pulls out a handful of newspapers. The Times … toss it back. The Daily Telegraph … toss it back. The Illustrated Police News … ah, yes. Now there is a newspaper! Every sensation that London can create brought to life in big black-and-white pictures. He reads such scandal sheets every day, but this one, with a riveting tale of bloody violence and injustice, will reveal to him his destiny. He tucks it into his coat.
   At Trafalgar Square he looks up to find the crows. There are often a few in a row on the edge of Morley’s Hotel near majestic Northumberland House on the southeast side, a league from the fat pigeons and the crowds near the fountains. It makes him smile. One of the most prestigious hotels in all of London, crowned with crows. They’re Sherlock’s kind of birds.
   He weaves through traffic and crosses the square to a spot on the stone steps of the National Art Gallery. The black birds move too. Sometimes, he thinks that crows follow him. A couple swoop down and settle nearby.
   “Good morning, you two. Let’s see what’s in the news.”
   He unfolds the paper. The front page shouts at him.
   Under the headline is a lurid drawing of a beautiful young woman lying on a London street, soaked in a pool of blood.
   The crows shriek and fly off. Sherlock reads on.
   It had happened east of the old part of the city in the dead of night. No one had seen it or even heard a scream. A long, sharp knife had been used.
   Sherlock turns the page. He devours the story: a lady of mysterious social status, no name revealed, no known enemies. He realizes with a start that she looks like his mother.
   The boy hears people talking as they walk by.
   “That poor woman.”
   “Must have been a street person, a foreigner.”
   “There’s that dreadful boy sitting there again. I wish he’d move on.”
   “Were they crows? That’s not a good sign.”
   “Dodgers they are. Nothing but gypsies, I say. Here they come! I’ll call the constables.”
   Sherlock glances up. It’s the Trafalgar Square Irregulars. He can almost smell them.
   “Master Sherlock Holmes, I perceive,” says a dark-haired, tough-looking boy at the head of a dirty gang who are smaller copies of their leader. He is dressed in a worn-out long black coat with tails, a dark stovepipe hat is perched at an angle on his head, and he carries a crude walking stick in his hand. “I think you’re sitting in our spot.”
   They’ve never sat here, nor will they today. They gather around and loom over him.
   “My dear Malefactor …” replies Sherlock. He waves at the Irregulars, “… and friends.”
   “At least I have some.”
   “Move! Or we’ll beat on you again.”
   “’alf-breed Jew-boy!” snarls a nasty one named Grimsby, of whom Holmes is always wary. His yellow, sharp-pointed teeth look like a ferret’s, ready to bite.
   Sherlock gets to his feet and straightens his third-hand clothes. He hates Malefactor; hates him with the deepest admiration.
   “Seen this?” he asks, holding up The Illustrated Police News.
   “Slit ‘er from stem to gudgeon, ‘e did! Right steady job!” shouts Grimsby.
   The boys laugh.
   “It isn’t funny,” says Malefactor, silencing them. “It isn’t right.”
   “What’s the word?” asks Holmes, aware that the young swell mobsman and his gang know every rumor that creeps through the alleys of London.
   “For the streets to know … and keep to themselves,” says Malefactor. He pauses. “I don’t like the –”
   “I know,” sighs Sherlock, “I know … you don’t like the look of me.”
   There is something vaguely similar about the two boys, though the gang leader is a little older and speaks with a barely detectable Irish lilt. It goes beyond their dark looks. It is in their way of expressing themselves and the careful manner they dress in their tattered clothes. They both know it, but Malefactor doesn’t like it.
   “You’ll never be an Irregular. Not you, Sherlock Holmes.”
   “And yet, I’m as irregular as I can be.”
   The constable is coming, dressed in his coxcomb helmet and long blue overcoat with a neat vertical line of shining buttons. He carries a hard wooden truncheon in his hand. He is watching the carriages rolling past, looking for his opportunity to near.
   “Irregulars!” hisses Malefactor. And in an instant they are gone.

   Sherlock wants to stay in the Square; never go home. Why should he go home to sadness, to hopelessness, to Rose and Wilber Holmes? Better to be here on the streets near the thrills and the success where he’s seen so many fascinating and frightening things. He saw Lewis Carroll, one day, carrying his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in his very hand; another time, Disraeli, the greatest politician in the land, strolling quietly through the Square; Anna Swan the Giantess with her head high above the crowd, the amazing high-rope star Blondin, and the one and only Mr. Dickens, his black goatee streaked with grey, his eyes on fire. He’s seen the Square packed with protestors shouting at the government to change its ways, and filled with citizens roaring for the feats of the Empire. He’s seen the black-faced chimney sweeps, the deformed beggars, and the pickpockets of the street. Why should he go home?
   But he always goes. When Big Ben, the clock tower at the Parliament Buildings, strikes 5:00, he flies, intent on getting back before his parents, so they will think he’s been to school. For many months now, he’s been truant. In his heart, he knows they more than suspect him: they see right through him. It can’t continue. If he doesn’t go to school, he will have to work. The family needs his contribution. He will have to accept his lot among the poor working classes of London.
   Dark clouds are gathering.
   Sherlock realizes that his heart is racing, that it’s been pumping faster since the moment he opened The Illustrated Police News. Something is burning inside him.
   He looks down at the newspaper: he crushes it tightly, strangling the word MURDER in a fist.

Taken from Eye of the Crow
© 2007, Shane Peacock, published by Tundra Books