London, 1555. Queen Mary is newly married to Philip II of Spain – and not everyone is happy about the alliance. The kingdom is divided between those loyal to Catholic Mary and those who support her half-sister, Lady Elizabeth.
Former cutpurse turned paid assassin Jack Blackjack has more immediate matters to worry about. Having been ordered to kill a man, he determines to save him instead. But Jack defies his spymaster at his peril … and even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. When it appears that Jack has killed the wrong man, he reluctantly finds himself drawn into affairs of state, making new enemies wherever he turns. Can he survive long enough to put matters right?
This engaging Tudor mystery will appeal to fans of S J PARRIS and RORY CLEMENTS.
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The man was plainly alarmed, as he should be. He was about to die.
He had a thin, weaselly face, his lips dry and pale, under a thin mop of grey hair. With features that were already pasty from lack of exercise and living indoors all year long, he looked little better than a corpse. But for all that, his clothing was not too shabby. His doublet looked of good quality, and he had a short cloak, more for decorative use than protection against the weather, which was trimmed with golden needlework.
'Who're you? What do you want?' he demanded.
I was in no mood for lengthy explanations. We were down at The Brokenwharf at that point, and for all I knew, Humfrie would soon be there too. I had to hurry, to get this fool away. Yes, it sounds daft, but having ordered this man's death, now I was desperate to save him.
'Just follow me,' I said.
A sour wind blew along the Thames, bringing with it the scent of rotted fish guts and ordure. At that time of the night, it was at least quiet. There was none of the constant calling and shrieking of the gulls trying to steal food from your hands, or the curses and bellows of the men emptying ships, the chandlers calling their wares and the thousand or more other peddlers of dangerous snacks. Instead, the air was thick with the smells of the great city.
It wasn't pleasant.
'Who are you?'
I drew myself up to my full height. 'I am the man who's trying to save your life!'
'Who'd want to hurt me?' he said. He had a wheedling, whining sort of voice that set my teeth on edge. I was sure that if I shook his hand, it would be as clammy and manly as a dead carp.
I gazed at him scornfully. 'Probably those who know you are overly keen on the Spanish controlling our country. Perhaps someone who knows what you have been getting up to with the Spanish ambassador? Master Renard is a devious fellow, so I have heard tell. But you are lucky, because I choose to save you.'
There was no need to mention that I only knew of him because I had been instructed to kill him.
I didn't think that would endear me to him.
He gaped and goggled a bit at that. It was obvious that I had shaken him with my confident assertion. For a few moments, I enjoyed the sight of his shock, but only for a few. Just now I had an urgent need to be away from this place. As did he.
The thing is, I had been ordered to come and do this. I didn't want to, God knows, but I could hardly tell my master, John Blount, that I was discontented with the thought of completing his instructions. There I had been, enjoying a number of ales with the Spaniard, sitting in plain view in a glorious little tavern, armed with the perfect alibi, and now – well, now it was all changed. Like God interrupting Abraham in his busy son-killing schedule, Master John had changed his mind. He countermanded his order to kill this rather sad-looking fellow. Which, for a man like me, who dislikes the sight of any blood, especially my own, should have been welcome news. But it wasn't. Not today.
'I don't understand? Why do you think anyone would want to hurt me?' His tone was that of an offended choirboy who has been told of an impending caning.
'Look, just follow me, will you? There's a man coming who wants to murder you,' I said, and turned. Over my shoulder, I added, 'That's why he got you to come here to this place, at this ungodly hour.'
The wharf's boards were cold with the early breeze from the east. Where the fish had been unloaded early that morning, they were wet and very slippery. Overhead, the sky was clear, and the moon's light shone silver, gleaming on the flecks of fish scales that lay all about. Ropes and nets lay where they had been dropped in an unholy mess of cordage. Once I had been told that shipmen were neat and tidy, else they might become entangled in their own ropes and injured. The same was plainly not true of dock workers. This place was a disgrace. Even a pirate would have been disgusted.
I made my way cautiously away from the river. Behind me came that querulous voice again. 'What makes you think I know Renard?'
'Because you are Jeffry of Shoreditch, and you are here. I sent you the message to come and meet him here today. You have already been paid two bags of gold to do the bidding of Renard. You sold your soul to that Spanish devil for the benefit of your purse, and now there is a reckoning.'
'Do I look like a man with money?'
'Your contract with Renard was overheard. My master heard it.'
'I wasn't going to do anything for it!'
Oh, the cry of the child through the ages: It's not fair! It's not just! I hadn't been expecting that quite so soon. Still, it got the conversation out of the way.
'You weren't going to do anything? Master Jeffry, no one pays two bags of gold for nothing to be done! If you didn't meet the terms of the contract, you would not have lived above two days! You think the Spaniards will be forgiving? No, I know all about you. I know that you have been paid to foment trouble for the good Lady Elizabeth. Renard wishes to see her dead, because he sees her as a threat, and you are commissioned to make his task all the easier, since you are a committed Catholic like the Spaniard.'
He blenched at that. 'This is nonsense! How should I know a man such as him?'
'Your wife was once a maid for Queen Mary's mother, wasn't she? She served Catherine of Aragon long before you married her, and she has reinforced your popish opinions.'
He winced and withdrew a little. 'My wife died a long time ago. You are here to kill me?'
'No!' I said, perhaps a little more emphatically than I needed. 'I am here to save you.'
'You're going to kill me! I have a little girl, master, and two boys! My wife is dead already! Don't make them all orphans!'
Ignoring his whining, I made my way to the entrance of the alleyway. The usual path down here to the wharf was Denebury Lane, but that was watched by too many houses. This little alley was a narrow walkway, barely three men wide, with a small kennel in the middle, a gutter, down which the rain could flow, washing the detritus of the street before it. The alley gaped like the maw of hell, black and foul. Anyone could be in there, I thought to myself. Humfrie, Blount, or any number of footpads. It was tempting to call this old fool and have him march before me, but I truly did not like the thought of being the hindmost. My craven back crawled with the thought, as if a shovelful of worms had been deposited there and were wriggling their way down towards my arse.
'Oh, ballocks to this!' I muttered, and plunged into the alley.
It was dark. I stumbled over trash and garbage, mostly moderately quietly, until I pitched into something on my left. It was a pillar or section of wall, and my shoulder caught a nasty blow. I turned to face it, rubbing my injury and cursing builders who stick bits of building into darkened alleyways, and when I turned to continue on my way, I struck my knee against a barrel sitting beside the wall. Swearing again, I kicked it and pressed past. It was then that my ambition of maintaining silence was thumped hard on the nose. On top of the barrel there rested a circular tray of some sort; I saw the barrel, but not the thing on top, nor the collection of odds and ends of metal that were placed on it. They sounded like a lot of metal hinges, with a few horseshoes, and perhaps a light chain thrown on top for good measure. The pan itself decided to land on an edge and proceeded to spin about its rim, making a whirring row that must have woken Satan and all his demons, until it finally gave a tinny little rattle and was silent at last.
I stood stock-still, listening with every fibre of my being. There were mumbles and sleepy grunts from one of the nearer buildings, with someone muttering about 'Clumsy, godforsaken, drunken bitch sons' from a window not far away. Here at the wharves, the men had to be at work before dawn to begin their labours, so most would be abed before dark to rest before beginning the new day.
Relieved not to be accosted, I turned.
In the place of the walking corpse, there was a trim fellow. He wore dark clothing, a cap with a feather, and a cape that swirled as he marched to me. His square shoulders and barrel chest told me all I needed to know. If I had needed another clue, the thin-bladed dagger in his hand would have told me enough.
'Oh, ballocks,' I said.
This was the man sent to murder the man whom I had been saving.
He had succeeded.
'Master, what are you doing here?' he asked, not unreasonably. After all, the whole point of his being here was that I would be at the other side of the city engaged in loud play with Willyam, Leadenhall Bob and the Lawyer, as well as other members of my drinking club.
'Never mind that for now. Where is he?' I hissed.
This was Humfrie, and he was, I suppose, sort of my father-in-common-law. Not that it was through any choice of mine. I distrusted the old rogue. He was one of the few men I have met who seemed to be able to read me, and I don't feel comfortable around such people. Others made assumptions about me, but Humfrie appeared to be able to read me.
He stood an inch or two taller than me and had the frame of a man who has worked all his life, slightly bent, with a head that hung low between his shoulders.
'Where is he?' I demanded again. 'What have you done to him?'
'Over here. I knocked him on the pate and he went down like a ninepin.'
I saw a huddled shape at the edge of the wharf. It was Jeffry. Hurrying to him, I grabbed at his shoulder and pulled him on to his back.
I stared down into Jeffry's face. The old man looked still paler in the moonlight. In the silvery light, he appeared waxen, with a blueish tinge to his features. He could have been dead, but when I set my ear to his breast, there was a slow thudding heartbeat. A sudden loud snore reassured me, and I sat back on my haunches with relief.
'What now?' Humfrie said.
I shrugged and gave the cool cheek before me a slap. It sounded no louder than the waters of the Thames slapping and swirling about the piles supporting the wharves. A rat jumping into the water would make more noise. I slapped him again.
Bleary eyes opened and tried to focus on me. 'What? Did you knock me down? Why did you knock me down?' he demanded petulantly. 'I thought you were ...' His eyes took in the sight of Humfrie over my shoulder. 'It was him, wasn't it? Who is he?'
He scrabbled at the ground to put some distance between himself and Humfrie, like a crab on ice, clambering to his feet. I rose and held up a hand placatingly. 'There is no need to —' I began, but then my foot found more trash left behind by the wharf's godforsaken stevedores. I had stepped on a rope's end, and it rolled. It felt just like a large rat, and I squealed like a rabbit bitten by a fox, springing forwards.
Jeffry was startled. I suppose he saw my hand reaching for him, and what with my shouting, he thought I was going to harm him. He gave a squeak himself, and the fool sprang backwards, away from me. I was too late.
The problem, as he was about to learn, was that the wharf ended where he had been. His feet landed on empty space.
Jeffry opened his mouth to speak, as though he thought he was about to land on firm boards, and then his eyes widened, and suddenly he wasn't there any more. There was only a disappearing wail.
In my defence, I did try to grip his shirt as he fell away from me, but he was gone before my hand could reach him. There was a quiet plop as he tumbled into the waters and disappeared from view.
I stood at the wharf's edge and stared down, filled with a sort of disbelieving horror; the river had swallowed him up as effectively as a frog gulping down a fly. If you haven't seen it, it's an impressive display of now you see it, now it's gone, and the frog looks smug after he's swallowed his morsel. The river didn't look smug. It just looked filthy and grey, the same as usual. A turd floated past.
'Oh ...' I said. Then I added, 'Oh, ballocks!'
'Cor! He went down quick, didn't he?' Humfrie said with a kind of wonder. He had joined me and was staring into the depths with keen interest.
'I tried to ...'
'Yeah. Nice,' Humfrie said, adding with a display of professional pride, 'No injury when the body's found, if they do find him. How'd you know he couldn't swim?'
'So just a lucky guess, then, eh? Good move. Mind you, I would have stabbed him, just to make sure. I suppose I should have thought of that before I left him to speak to you.'
He looked mournful at having missed his opportunity.
I left him there, still peering over the edge of the wharf into the turbid waters only a couple of yards below.
There was a man I used to know who swore – well, a lot really, but mostly about the health-giving virtues of a morning's dip in the Thames. I was always rather wary of him. He was one of those fit, healthy types, who would only ever eat and drink what he thought was best. Rationally, he stuck to good, healthy English foods, like plenty of beef, dripping, suet and bacon, washed down with a half-gallon of ale. His arms were impressively corded with muscles. He would clamber into the water every morning and emerge later further downstream, puffing and blowing like a wrestler after a bout. Of course, I would have thought that swimming in amongst the detritus of the city would be less than appealing to any man who didn't want to leave the water smelling of old shit, but be that as it may. One day, he went for his swim and came out of the water white as a ghost.
'There was a body in there,' he said. To hear him, you would have thought that there was something unusual in this. Then he explained that the body was caught by one of the piles of the wharf, and as he passed by it, the corpse waved to him, in a mildly friendly manner, as though wishing him Godspeed, or welcoming an old friend whose acquaintance he hoped to renew soon.
My fellow caught a chill, and within the week he was dead. I always wondered whether it was the turd-water he had drunk while swimming in the cesspool that was the river, or whether his erstwhile companion of the deep had in fact beckoned him to join him.
Whichever was responsible, I was firmly determined never to go paddling in the river after that. Even using a wherry made me anxious. Not that I had ever enjoyed crossing water in boats; I could get seasick crossing a puddle.
This was a ridiculous situation. My brain was wandering with the shock, and I made my way back to the alley, mind churning the whole way. All I had to do was stay at the alehouse where I'd been, and my alibi would be complete. Now, instead, I had actually been there when the man had died. If anyone saw me near this area, it could go badly for me if his body was ever found. I hurried on my way, back into the narrow passageway.
I reached the place where I had struck the pillar, a dim shadow in the deep blackness of the alley. A doorway this side of it made another black sweep in the gloom, but I was keeping away from both. My shoulder still ached from where I had hit the pillar earlier. I gave it a wide berth and went to hurry back to where I had left the Spaniard snoring. I'll explain about him later.
Anyway, I was dashing along the lane when my boot hit something. Instantly, there was a swirling clamour of metal. In my attempt to avoid the damned pillar, I had forgotten the blasted things I had knocked from the barrel. It was a clattering timpani, a rising chorus of metallic pandemonium. Startled, I almost stained my hosen. I sprang back, and only after a moment did I take a breath and continue on my way. But then something struck my brow. It was sharp, I thought, and massive. And that was about all I thought, because as I fell on my arse I could feel my consciousness slipping away.
Sometimes, when I have been injured, I have been able to recall the moments leading up to it. Other times, like this, there are only sparks of memory that flash and fade.
I know I collapsed, I know I landed on my back, and I know my head hurt because I had struck it. But apart from that, all I know is, as I lay there, I began to slide into what felt like a pool of warm, thick, black oil that had opened up beneath me, and now swallowed me whole.
The evening had started so well, too.
I was out with a club of friends, drinking, when the message was given to me. And what a messenger!
When I first saw her, the main thing that impressed me was the low cut of her bodice and how insufficient it appeared for the restraint of her natural attractions. Why, I thought, a swift slice with my little knife at one of the laces would bring down the entire edifice. It was a rather ignoble thought, perhaps, but it was enough to bring a smile to my face. Any man would have thought the same.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Missed Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Jecks.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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