The Pirate's Blood and Other Case Files
By Simon Cheshire, R. W. Alley
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2011 Simon Cheshire
All rights reserved.
It was about seven o'clock on a Tuesday evening in the summer. The sky was the clearest, deepest shade of blue I think I'd ever seen, and the air was motionless and warm. I've just had a look in my dictionary, and the perfect word to describe it is balmy.
So, not exactly the kind of weather or the time of year you'd expect to come across a tale of blood-chilling horror. And yet, that was exactly what I was about to come across.
I was standing outside my garden shed, with a jam jar of red poster paint in one hand and a brush in the other. As readers of my earlier case files will know, I'd been fighting a losing battle with the wooden sign — Saxby Smart: Private Detective — which I kept trying to nail up on the shed door. It kept falling off. I am not good at practical things like that.
It had taken me a surprisingly long time to hit on the simple idea of having a painted sign instead. I guess even brilliant schoolboy detectives like me sometimes miss the obvious, ahem, ahem. Anyway, I'd decided on red lettering against a white rectangle painted directly on the door.
I stood back to admire my handiwork. It said: Saxby Smart: Privat Detective.
"Oh rats," I muttered to myself. I painted in the missing "e." It looked a bit squashed, but it was okay.
"Hi Saxby," came a voice from behind me. I turned to see a boy from my class at school, James Russell, poking his head around the garden gate. He looked as nervous as a kid in his first spelling bee. "I need your help."
I opened the freshly painted shed door and ushered him into my office. "Sorry, just step around the lawn-mower," I said. "Watch out for the garden hose, that's it. You sit in my Thinking Chair, I'll sit on the desk. Now then, you have a tale to tell me?"
"It's a tale of blood-chilling horror," he said shakily.
"Excellent," I said. "Begin."
For a moment or two, James cast his eyes around the cluttered interior of the shed. He was known around school as a quiet, serious kid. He had a face that looked like it had been sculpted out of assorted sizes of triangle, and a shock of curly hair that tended to sway as he walked.
"Have you heard of Captain Virgil Blade?" he said.
"Nope," I said. "But I'd love to borrow his name sometime."
"He was a pirate in the seventeenth century," said James. "He commanded a ship that raided merchant vessels all along the French and Spanish coasts. Pirates never lasted long in those waters, because the local navy ships went after them, but Captain Blade outran and outgunned them for ten years. He was the most feared pirate on the seas, and he thought nothing of killing entire crews just to get at a valuable cargo. It's said he had his own grandmother beheaded, just so she couldn't give away his location."
"Nice man," I muttered.
"When he was caught in 1675," said James, "he swore to gain vengeance from beyond the grave. As he stood on the gallows at Portsmouth dock, he vowed that his ghost would haunt anyone who ever touched his possessions. A lot of artifacts survive to this day. His coat, a hat he wore, there's even a bottle that's supposed to contain some of his blood."
"Oh yuck!" I said. "For real?"
"It was collected from Blade's dead body by his cabin boy. There were those who believed he'd come back from the dead one day. Over the centuries, there have been rumors of strange noises and eerie sights every time his possessions were moved."
"And they've been moved recently?" I said quietly. I was starting to get a cold feeling at the back of my neck.
James nodded. "My dad is curator at the local museum, up in town. A whole load of Virgil Blade's stuff arrived there a couple of weeks ago. And, I swear to you, Saxby, I think his ghost has arrived along with it!"
For a moment or two, I went as shuddery as Jell-O in an earthquake. Then I leaned forward, my eyes narrowing.
"Tell me more."
"Captain Blade was born just a few miles from here," said James, "which is why our little museum has managed to get all these artifacts on loan. They're normally kept at some huge maritime archive in London. This is the most important exhibition the museum's ever held. It opened a few days ago."
"And it's attracting a lot of visitors?" I said.
James wrinkled his nose. "Well, no, not really. Even my dad admits the museum isn't exactly a major tourist attraction around here."
I remembered the town museum from a school visit a couple of years before. And what I remembered most was it being rather dark, rather drafty, and rather boring.
"So where does the ghost come in?" I said.
"For a start," said James, reaching into his pocket, "there's this." He unfolded a newspaper clipping and handed it to me. Underneath a picture of a woman who'd obviously been told to look unhappy and to pose like a dummy in front of her shop window was:
Ghosts Scare Local Trader
Spooky noises are making life a misery for Mrs Janet Gumm, owner of Nibblies Cheese Shop in Good Street. Mrs Gumm, 49, has heard ghostly sounds for the past two weeks. 'Almost every day, while the shop is open, I hear strange scraping and clanking noises,' she comments. 'It sounds like a spectre rattling its chains and groaning.'
Mrs Gumm claims that the weird sounds are loudest behind the counter of her shop. 'When you stand next to the cellar hatch,' she says, 'if you hush everyone and strain your ears, now and again you can just make it out. This is ruining my trade. I demand that the council take action or reduce my rates bill!'
"That shop backs onto the museum building," said James.
"Well, it's hardly conclusive," I said. "Old central heating pipes can make noises like that."
"I wouldn't have thought anything of it either," said James, "if it hadn't been for ... what I saw today."
"You ... saw something?" I said. That cold feeling at the back of my neck was coming back.
James nodded. He was genuinely scared, and his nervousness was starting to make me feel a little jittery too.
"The Captain Blade exhibition is in the museum's main room," said James. "A lot of the most important items — well, the creepiest items, anyway — are in a very large display case that stands against one wall. I take a look at it every day after school. I went over to it this afternoon, as usual. And near the bottom of the glass, over to one side, there is now a handprint. Quite large, certainly a man's."
"On the glass," I said quietly.
James nodded again. "It's very faint, but it's definitely there. And it definitely was not there yesterday. And ... this handprint is a reddish color."
"I have a terrible feeling that ... it's blood."
That cold feeling was starting to turn my neck into an icicle. "Blood?" I said.
"That bottle I told you about?" said James. "The one with Captain Blade's blood in it? That's one of the artifacts in this display case."
"Hang on a minute," I said. "Let's be logical here. Even if that handprint is made in blood, and I don't for a minute suppose it really is, then we still don't have to start talking about ghosts. Think about it. Even a quiet museum like yours is going to have a few visitors each day. Someone has obviously been looking at the Captain Blade exhibition and touched the glass, leaving a print. You never know, it might even have been left there deliberately, by someone trying to create exactly the spooky effect it's had on you."
James shifted forward in the chair. "You don't understand, Saxby. That handprint is on the inside of the glass. It's been made by something inside the display case."
That cold feeling was now freezing half my spine and turning my nerves into running water.
"It's ... what?" I whispered.
"Now do you see?" said James. "It's Captain Blade's ghost. It has to be. He's come back to guard his possessions, just like he said he would!"
I took a couple of deep breaths. "Who else knows about this handprint?"
"Nobody," said James. "Just you and me."
"Okaaaaay," I said. I wanted to sound as if I had a definite plan. But I didn't even have a vague and sketchy plan, let alone a definite one!
"I'll come over to the museum after summer school tomorrow," I said. "There's got to be more to this than we're seeing. There's simply got to be. In the meantime, I'll need my Thinking Chair. Saxby Smart is on the case!"
Hanover Street is a long, narrow road, and all its buildings had originally been houses. Most of them had been converted into shops or offices years ago.
The museum was the third door along, in a block of four. This block was a huge, three-story Georgian slab, with a plain-looking cream-colored stone facade looking out on to the street, and tall windows in an exact, symmetrical pattern.
To the right of the museum (looking from the pavement) was one of the street's many shop conversions, its ground floor fronted with glass. This was a branch of SwordStore, which sold plastic combat game kits at eye-wateringly high prices. (Stuff like FrogWar figures and Meka-Tek 9000 vehicles — popular with a lot of kids at school, but not something I'd ever been interested in myself; see my earlier case file The Fangs of the Dragon.)
To the left of the museum was one of the few addresses on Hanover Street that was still a house. However, judging by the vacant look of the place, and the For Sale sign outside, the house wasn't currently being lived in.
The museum itself looked very much like another house from the outside, except for a couple of colorful banners announcing the Captain Blade exhibition — Open Daily until September.
It was another warm, blissfully calm afternoon when James and I arrived and heaved open the museum's hefty front door. James and his dad lived in an apartment at the top of the building, while the first two floors were the museum itself.
Inside, the place was all creaky floorboards and dusty smells. Even though one or two of the interior walls had been taken out, the basic layout still reminded me of its original use as a home: there was a long central corridor, with exhibition rooms leading off to both sides, and a wide staircase leading up to the galleries on the upper floor.
Beside the entrance, in a space created by one of those wall removals, was the museum's tiny gift shop. It was overflowing with guidebooks, personalized pencils, and loads of other stuff that looked like it had been sitting around waiting to be bought for about ten years. It was also rapidly filling up with cardboard boxes. A short, round woman in a woolly skirt and a pink cardigan was carrying boxes out of a room behind the sales counter and depositing them beside a rack of cuddly toy dinosaurs.
"Hi, Mrs. Pottersby," called James.
Mrs. Pottersby blinked delightedly at us, as if she'd just heard her name read out in a door-prize drawing. "Hello there, luvvy," she said, in a voice which reminded me of sandpaper. Her cardigan buttons were done up in the wrong buttonholes, making her look lopsided. A huge bunch of keys jangled from the waistband of her skirt.
"Do you need a hand?" said James. "Are you clearing out your stockroom?"
"All finished, thank you, luvvy," said Mrs. Pottersby, bustling over to rearrange some display of pens. She picked out a key from the extensive collection at her side and locked the stockroom door. "Just making space. I'm expecting a big delivery of novelty erasers," she said. "You never know when there'll be a sudden rush."
I looked around at the remarkable absence of people in this museum. I could imagine many things going on here, but a sudden rush on novelty erasers wasn't one of them.
"Have we had many visitors today?" said James.
"Oooh, yes," said Mrs. Pottersby, as if James's question had reminded her to share some really good news. "Three. Not bad for a Wednesday. One of them was only six months old. Awww, lovely little fella. He came in with his mom. But he cried, so they had to go out again."
"This is my friend Saxby," said James.
"I've come to look at the Captain Blade exhibition," I said.
"Sorry, what did you say your name was?"
"Saxby," I said.
"Oooh, you poor luvvy," said Mrs. Pottersby, as if I'd said I was a starving orphan. "Do you need a guidebook — only two-fifty?"
"Umm, no, I think I'm fine, thanks," I said.
James and I made our way past a display of local prehistory and a tall case containing Bronze Age pots. The Captain Blade stuff was in a large room on the left-hand side of the museum. Around the walls were various framed maps and documents, and there was a big, beautifully detailed model of his ship, the Wavecutter, on a table beneath a bright spotlight.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was a wide display cabinet almost as tall as the room. It was positioned up against the wall that adjoined the empty house next door, and about fifteen feet from the window at the front of the building. (Remember that — it will become important later on!)
Up as far as waist height, this huge cabinet was made of dark paneled wood, which looked every bit as old and solid as the creaky floorboards beneath us. From that point up, it was glass on three sides, the fourth side being the wall against which it stood. The case had a chunky wooden top, and the whole thing was locked in place against the floor and the wall with heavy metal clips.
But it was the items inside the case that really caught my attention. There were lights set into the lid of the cabinet, pointing down at the exhibits. In the middle, worn by a section of dressmaker's dummy, was a faded and threadbare coat. It must have once been an emerald green, but was now patchy and discolored with age.
Next to it, held on a see-through plastic stand, was a vicious-looking cutlass. Its handle was dark and worn, but its blade shone brightly in the overhead lights. To the other side was a battered wooden chest, with its lid propped up. Inside shone a pile of roughly minted gold coins.
And placed to the front of the cabinet, as if dropped there by the unseen inhabitant of the coat standing behind, was a crumbling three-cornered hat and a squat, age-darkened bottle. Just visible through the encrusted, smeary sides of the bottle was a liquid that looked black and sticky.
"Wow," I said quietly. "That's the guy's blood, I take it?"
James nodded rapidly. "So the legend says."
I took a deep breath. "Okay. Show me this handprint."
James skirted the cabinet at a distance, as if not wanting to even approach it. He pointed to an area on its right-hand side.
I crouched down, so that my face was level with the point at which the glass started. At first, I couldn't make out anything in the glare from the overhead lights, but then suddenly I saw it.
Low down on the glass, toward the back of the cabinet, fingers pointing into the room, was a very faint outline. I turned my own hand around in front of it to gauge its size and orientation. It had been made by the right hand of someone quite large. James had been right in judging it to be a man's hand. I touched the glass. A creeping sensation rippled right through me.
Sure enough, the outline was tinted red.
No, more pinkish than red.
"What do you think?" whispered James.
"Hard to say," I said. "But I don't think that's blood. Look closely — it's got a sort of dusty edge to it. Sort of grainy."
James edged a little nearer the cabinet, screwing up his eyes a bit. "Are you sure?"
"Well, no, I'm not sure," I shrugged, "but it's the wrong color for dried blood. When you've read as many crime stories as I have, you'll know that when blood dries it goes brown. This is a kind of reddy, pinky, sort of color."
I reached into my pocket for my phone. I needed to take a picture of this handprint, partly as simple evidence, partly because my great friend and Official Queen of Research, Isobel "Izzy" Moustique, might be able to determine what that reddish substance was.
"Ah," I said, feeling inside my empty pocket, "I've left it at home. I'll have to come back tomorrow."
As I stood up, I noticed a thin line of something pale up against the base of the tall baseboard. I kneeled down again and blew at it. It puffed aside, scattering across the dark floorboards. It was sawdust.
"Have you had any alterations done in here?" I said. "Any wood been sawed up?"
"Definitely not," said James. "There are very strict rules about even decorating in this building, because it's so old and historic." I stood up again and cast an eye over the whole display case. "I ought to get a sample of the stuff that made that print, if I can. Do you think your dad would let us open this case up?"
"I doubt it," said James. "It's hard to move, because it's so tall and heavy — even Dad struggles with it. And it's locked to the wall and floor. And it's got an alarm system."
I put on my best lost-puppy-dog expression. "Could we just ask him?"
"He's not even here, he's on the other side of town," said James. "He's been out every day since this exhibition started. He's really cross about it, because he wanted to be here to tell visitors about the exhibits." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Pirate's Blood and Other Case Files by Simon Cheshire, R. W. Alley. Copyright © 2011 Simon Cheshire. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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