April, 1555. A priest has been stabbed to death in the village of St Botolph, to the east of the City of London, his body left to rot by the roadside – and Jack Blackjack stands accused of his murder.
As well as clearing his name, Jack has his own reasons for wanting to find out who really killed the priest – but this is an investigation where nothing is as it seems. Was it a random attack by a desperate outlaw, or do the answers lie in the murdered priest’s past? As he questions those who knew the dead man, Jack is faced with a number of conflicting accounts – and it’s clear that not everyone can be telling him the whole truth.
But Jack is about to be sidetracked from the investigation … with disastrous consequences.
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There are times in a man's life when he has to accept that he might have made an error.
This was one of those times.
If you have ever found yourself staring down the barrel of a pistol, you will know that the thing looks big enough to dive into. This one was enormous – seriously, it looked as though my thumb would slip in without touching the sides, and I was appalled to think what a slug of lead that size might do to me. I had only recently been forced to work with a gun like this, a wheel-lock. Truth be told, I had taken to carrying it around with me – a fellow in my line of work cannot afford to be without a means of protection, after all – and I knew what damage such a gun can do to a man. I was highly unwilling to be exposed to this one.
At that moment, the main thing that took my interest was the gun itself. Everything else around me took second place as far as I was concerned, and when the woman sharing my bed clutched at my arm, I yelped in surprise. I had forgotten she was there. I confess that my first thought, on being reminded, was that I might swing her before me and protect myself – but, slim as she was, she was heavier than I could manage while lying in the bed. It was nothing to do with morals or politeness; I simply didn't think I could wrestle her into the bullet's path from my recumbent position.
Yes, I was in bed. Not my own, I should say. I was in a pleasant chamber in a house in Pope's Lane, having enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant time with this lusty wench in a tavern near St Paul's, which led to her suggesting that we repair to her rooms to complete our evening to mutual satisfaction with a saucy entanglement. I was very content to agree.
'Who the hell are you?' I demanded, trying to feign righteous anger. It made me sound like an adolescent with a broken voice.
'I am her husband, and you are in my bed!' he snarled.
My day had started to go wrong from the moment I rose from my bed. I stubbed my toe and was set to hopping about the bedchamber, clutching my poor foot and swearing at the excruciating pain. Shortly afterwards, while washing my face, fate conspired to upset the dish, hurling water all over me and the floor, the bowl landing on the same injured toe and making me hop about in agony once more until I tripped over a stool and fell headlong.
Raphe, my peculiarly incompetent manservant, appeared to smile at my discomfort as I carefully descended my staircase. I dislike the fellow, but he was set in my household by my master, John Blount, and I do not consider it likely that my dismissing Raphe would be well received. I believe the lad to be related to Blount, and that he was sent to serve me either from despair at the fellow's inability to find any suitable employment of his own, or because he was to spy on me – I did not know which it was, but I could guess there was a good admixture of both.
My servant added his own peculiar brand of idiocy that morning when he managed to spill a cup of wine over my hosen while I broke my fast at table. I had been about to go out, and my leggings were particularly fine, setting off my calves to good effect. They matched my new jacket, which was green with red piping, and I had a cloak of emerald with a lining of red silk. Topped with my hat, which had a scarlet feather in the band, I was a figure of great style. Those who knew me at the Boar or the Pheasant Without were always complimenting me on my elegance. In short, I was a man known for my effortless style. Now my green leggings were sent a dirgeful brown with the red wine he had sent over me.
I was furious. Raphe received a cuff about the head that would have rattled his brains, had he possessed any, and I had to dress again, this time in my second-best hosen and jacket of a pleasing faun, which once had been first quality, but now bore the marks of a dozen unfortunate accidents. Still, they were at least dry.
As I walked from my door, I instructed the fool to have my clothing cleaned before I returned, or I would colour my hosen with more red, but this time it would be his gore. He gave me that sneering smile that showed his disdain for me, and I slammed my way to the taverns with my companions.
At noon I was to be found at the Boar, drinking with some pleasant cock-robins at the back. The fellows were all keen to try their luck, and so, after feeding, I and the others made our way to an alehouse nearby, where we were entertained by a series of cock fights. The money flowed from one man to another, and a riotous, fun afternoon was enjoyed by us all. We had a few drinks, and then some more, but at the end of two hours together, many of us had lost the funds we were willing to risk, while others had been tempted by the women offering themselves for a quick alley-fumble and had already departed. I took my leave too, happily enough, but as I was on my way, I happened to meet Arch and Hamon.
These two are well known in certain parts of London. If there is a game of chance, they will be involved, be it dice, cocks, dog fighting, or even betting which rain drop will run fastest down a window pane. And often they will make loans to those who lose, so that they can throw themselves further into the mire. And Arch was particularly keen to extract all his debts in full.
I was walking past them when a hound saw a cat who, deciding that he had already risked too many lives in his time, disappeared like a streak of black-and-white lightning up a nearby tree, from where he hissed and spat at the hound, who stood on his hind legs and barked and snarled for all he was worth.
'That cat would've been eaten alive if 'e'd had to run further,' a voice at my side said.
It was Arch, an unenticing sight at the best of times.
'Yes, very likely,' I said.
'You think I'm wrong?'
'No, not at all.'
'Yes, you do, don't you? You think the cat was fast enough to flee, don't you?'
'I wouldn't know.'
'Well, 'ere's five shillin's says 'e would.'
'I have no need of gambling.'
'You callin' me a liar, then?'
'No!' I protested. 'But I have no money, and I don't wish to gamble with you.'
'I'm not good enough, you mean? 'Ere, 'Am, 'e says I'm not good enough to gamble with!'
A rumble at my side told me that Hamon had joined us. I could have cursed my luck. Hamon had a fearsome habit of getting into fights, his ginger hair a warning about his peppery spirit, while Arch was no less choleric, for all that he smiled all the while.
'I cannot place a wager. I have no money,' I said, thinking that would save me.
Arch's face lit up. 'I can 'elp you there. I'll lend you the stake, and you pay me back when you 'ave the dibs.'
'No, seriously, I ...'
Of course, it was no good. In a trice, Hamon had reached up and grabbed the cat, throwing him into a sack, while Arch and another fellow threw a coat over the hound and wrestled him away. They held him, still snarling, while Hamon dropped the sack in the road. A hideous shrieking and yowling could be heard. Arch looked over at Hamon, and I saw some silent communication pass between them. Then Hamon released the cat, and as he did so, Arch let slip the hound, who took three bounds, scarcely believing his luck, since the cat was at the moment expounding upon his extreme displeasure at having been bundled into the sack. There was a vicious spitting and then a startled yowl, and a crunch as the hound's jaws snapped over his spine.
'That will be ten shillin's you owe us,' Arch said. And then he said a lot more, all about debts that should be paid as soon as possible. I gave him one of my false names and hurried away.
I was already half seas over after my drinking, but not so far gone that I would give out my real name or address to a fellow such as Arch.
So you can see, when I discovered that a man with the looks and intelligence of a gorilla was pointing a pistol at me for galloping his wife, it seemed to me to be only the capping of my misfortune.
Of course, I was not to know that this was not the cap, but only the beginning.
That evening had begun so pleasantly, too. I had met Mistress Catherine at the Cheshire Cheese. She was sitting in a corner and trying to repel the advances of a pair of swine-drunk oafs.
'Leave us,' I said firmly, crossing to her side.
'Go swive a goat,' one said.
He looked so drunk that he could barely keep both eyes open, so I took the risk of hauling him from his seat by grabbing his ankles and pulling. He was too far gone to defend himself, and slid from the bench, his head bumping on the floor as he went. Once on the floor, he closed his eyes with every sign of comfort and began to snore. His companion took the view that I must be some form of Hercules, and scurried away without a backward glance.
'Thank you, master,' she said nervously, as though she was alarmed as much by me as the two drunks.
'There is only one way to deal with brutes like them. A strong hand and a firm determination,' I said. 'Are you new to London, maid?'
'Yes. I have only been here a few hours,' she said, and there was a faint note of anxiety in her voice. Her accent was plainly not from the city, but from the east, if I was a judge.
'Where are you from?'
She didn't answer that, but looked about the room with trepidation.
Well, when I had been a cut-purse, I had always enjoyed the process of putting my gulls at ease, and with this one it took a little longer, but soon she and I were engaged in wordplay of the most promiscuous kind, Cat complimenting me on my new codpiece, and I staring at the assets that were scarce restrained by the thin material of her blouse. There was not as much as I would usually hope for, but a good handful that would make a reasonable pillow, so I thought. For all her slenderness, she had a wit and ready enthusiasm that was most appealing. Her tongue was by turns sharp and tender, and I was soon given to understand that she would happily consider a bout in the lists of lechery.
It was when Arch and Hamon arrived that I decided it was a good time to leave; I had no wish to be discovered by either so soon after the hound and the cat. I saw them walk through the door and over to a table at the farther side of the chamber. The fact that I owed Arch ten shillings over the 'gambling debt' was potentially enough to make him reach for his dagger rather than his fists. Except it was no gamble. He had rooked me.
Ten bob was a mere trifle to a man like me, of course, with my advantages, but a rich man wouldn't remain rich, were he to give away money unnecessarily. Besides, I had the impression that Cat was in a hurry, and since I was eager as well, leaving suited me fine.
London, so it is said, is a place where a man can never grow bored. I would wholeheartedly agree with that. Tedium was never a part of my life. But I would prefer a little of it, in preference to the regular moments of terror that plagued me. Arch and Hamon were more than capable of making my life very exciting indeed – if only briefly.
I was fortunate, so I thought; neither of the two sons of vixens appeared to notice me, sitting in the farthest corner as I was, so I threw myself over my companion, making her squeak with feigned alarm.
'Fie! You want to cover me here?' she giggled. 'I am not a draggle-tail to be serviced in a tavern. Come, my fellow. You must take me to a bed first. Then we shall see whether you deserve a reward of some sort!'
'To my home? I doubt I can make it that far,' I said with a leer.
'Well, master, if you are so hasty and incapable of staying the distance, perhaps I should find a man with more stamina? A woman like me needs time to be satisfied. I don't want a man who'll be spent in a moment!'
'I'll be happy in your service, maid,' I said with a quick leer.
'So long as your service is matched by your stamina,' she said tartly.
'Come with me and I shall gladly demonstrate,' I said.
I rose, carefully keeping my hat's brim towards Hamon and Arch, leading her behind me, where she would conceal me from their gaze. Although there were many men in the Cheese at that time, we made our way quickly enough from the bar and were soon in the road, where Mistress Cat grappled again, but with little urgency. She was anticipating a wrestle as keenly as I, but she would not agree to a trembler against an alley wall. I had already asked. No, she wanted a warm bed with a lighted fire, so we broke off the engagement and made our way to a house in Pope's Lane, where she had a key.
And all was going swimmingly, until this great brute appeared with his cannon.
You will perhaps understand me when I say that I was rather reluctant at this point to go into details with the man. Truth be told, I was more than a little befuddled from wine, and being interrupted early on in a grapple with a cheerful maid by what looked like a gorilla with a gun was enough to leave me confused.
He was one of those fellows who seem to have been born with too much hair. He had a shaggy brown thatching that ran down the sides of his head and somewhere became a beard. A fringe smothered his brow so heavily that he was forced to keep pushing it from his face, which was fixed into a scowl of such ferocity that it looked as though his brows had been bunched together like a fist of rage.
There was one other aspect that drew my attention, of course, and that was the size and number of muscles that rippled up and down his arms as he looked from me to my bedmate and back. He wore a thin linen tabard without sleeves, and his arms were distinctly impressive in a way that was not appealing at this moment.
'Perhaps I should leave you both. I am sure ...'
The gun moved back in my direction. I took the hint and was silent, but a doubt was raised in my mind as I stared.
Despairingly, the woman clutched at me. I was irritated by that. Cat should have been able to appreciate that this was a rather serious moment in both of our lives, which were likely, all things considered, to be curtailed. I wasn't ready for death yet.
'Who are you?' the man demanded. His eye moved to my jack and clothing, which had been dropped on the floor near the bed.
'I am called Hugh Somerville,' I said.
He sneered at that. 'What's your real name?'
I quickly ran through some of the alternative names that I had used in the past, discarding those that had been stained with arrests or accusations, and returned to one that I felt was safe enough. 'Peter of Shoreditch.'
'Well, Peter of Shoreditch, you've been swiving my wife, and you'll have to pay for it.'
'Don't, Henry! He's not worth it! Don't kill us! I'll make it up to you, honest I will.'
'Too late, slut! You've dragged your backside past a gull once too often. I knew you were steeped in treachery, but to take an old fool like this – this is an insult too far. You'll both die!'
'Old fool?' I repeated with some asperity.
'No, Henry! I won't do it again, Henry,' she protested, and as he pointed his gun's barrel at her, something clicked in my head.
You see, before I became a professional assassin – or, at least, a professional contractor of assassinations – I had a moderately successful career as a pickpocket. In those happy days, I lived with other disreputable characters in a number of properties of greater or lesser elegance, and I had come to know experts of lock- picking and gambling, and cheats of all stripes and colours. There were many women who would sell their bodies, and some who would pretend to, before practising their best purse-diving and bolting.
'Why should he live? He's taken advantage of my wife!'
'Oh, Henry, please, don't do anything rash!'
'I'll make him pay!'
'Oh, Henry, think of the children!'
And although many of those same women would have convinced on the stage, this one – well, she was a poor actress.
I pushed Cat gently from me and bent to pull on my hosen, setting my codpiece in place. 'I am sorry, but if I want to watch play-acting, I will go to a good inn and watch it there with a quart of ale in my hand.'
'You think I'm play-acting?' the man said, the barrel turning to me once more.
'No, I don't think it; I know it. In the first place, your wife was too quick, too keen to take advantage of me. And while I know I am better-looking than most, I feel sure that her eyes were more fixed on my purse than my cods,' I said, 'and in the second, your story is not convincing.'
'What?' the man said. His tone was threatening, and the barrel was a hideous sight. I peered at it and then pressed on.
'If you wish to continue with this line of work, I really must recommend that you have your woman instructed in how better to show alarm. Her feigned concern really will not do,' I said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dead Don't Wait"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Jecks.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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