school was simply the noise: the clatter in the classroom, the bells ringing, the stampede after lessons, the screaming children in the playground. There was enough noise at home. What he had longed for was silence. He had started skiving off school to go to the local library. There, no one was allowed to speak, noise was banned. It was three months before he realised that with a library ticket he could take books home. Solemnly he read through the alphabet of childrenâs literature. It was Mr Montgomery, the senior librarian, who found AJ reading
and with his help AJ discovered the rest of Mr Dickensâs work.
The Museum proved to be an education in itself â a library of criminal cases. AJ studied the ancient writing â legal mumbling that he didnât understand â but underneath were stories of real people, people like him and Leon and Slim. By the end of the day he had barely started.
On Wednesday Mr Baldwin returned, looking pale. He came to see for himself how AJ was doing.
âCome across any old skeletons?â he said.
âNo, sir,â said AJ.
âIf you do, bring them to me.â
On Thursday AJ pulled a dusty file from the shelf. What was written on it made his stomach churn.
Jobey. The name that didnât belong to him but somehow did. He still hadnât dared raise the matter with his mother and didnât quite know why. He opened the file, hoping it might answer a few questions but it contained only a map, hand-drawn on yellowed paper. Grayâs Inn Road was clearly shown, and Mount Pleasant, just a few streets away â but what did Coldbath mean? And why was there an X just to the left of it? AJ took a photo of the map on his phone.
It was getting dark on Friday afternoon when he lifted the lid of the last battered cardboard box. Inside was a rusty iron key about ten centimetres long, the stem turned and decorated. The end that went into the lock had a zigzag line down its centre. It belonged to a time when a key had more weight to it than it did today. This was a key you didnât lose.
A label was tied to the ring. Written on it in beautiful handwriting were the words:
The property of A. Jobey, Esq.
2nd October, 1996
AJ blinked and looked at it again to make sure he had read the date right. It was the day he was born.
It must be a mistake. The writing looked genuine enough: firm, slanted, in sepia ink. Maybe whoever had written the label had been in a hurry and got the date round the wrong way. He went to find the file he had come across the day before, the one marked Jobey. Perhaps heâd missed something. But it was not where heâd put it. Neither was it under the table, nor had it slipped down the back of the bookcase. The more he looked the more certain he became that something was wrong.
He had worked hard that week and the table was cleared of all its bizarre items, each marked and filed to the relevant case. Only the key was left. It was dark outside now, the year closing down in the November night. AJ put the key in his pocket. Come Monday he would ask Morton if he knew why his name should be on the label and if he knew who had taken the file.
Everyone had gone home and the place was in darkness. AJ stood in the corridor, running his hand along the wall, unable to find the light switch. Each of the rooms was closed, as was the clerksâ room, and he could barely see the reception desk. It must have been much later than heâd thought, for the only light there was came from the glow of the street lamps. The building smelled of old documents, musty papers â not unpleasant but a smell AJ hadnât noticed before, as if it was the same place but wasnât. Fear crept up on him. The chambers are haunted, thatâs it, he thought. Theyâre ancient enough to be jam-packed full of ghosts, all of them miserable, all of them feeling the law had wronged them. The sooner he was out of