The Sixteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Thieves never prosper. But do killers?
When a wealthy benefactor is found dead in Michaelhouse, Brother Michael and Matthew Bartholomew must find the culprit before the College is accused of foul play. At the same time, Cambridge is plagued by a mystery thief, who is targeting rich pilgrims. Moreover, pranksters are at large in the University, staging a series of practical jokes that are growing increasingly dangerous, and that are dividing scholars into bitterly opposed factions.
Bartholomew and Michael soon learn that these various mysteries are connected, and it becomes a race against time to catch the killer-thief before the University explodes into a violent conflict that could destroy it forever.
There was a fringe of ice along the edge of the river Cam, and its brown, swirling waters, swollen with recent rain, looked cold and dangerous in the grey light of pre-dawn. Frost speckled the rushes in the shallows, and John Jolye wondered whether it would snow again. He hoped so. The soft white blanket that had enveloped the town the previous week had been tremendous fun, and he and his friends from Trinity Hall had spent a wonderful afternoon careening down Castle Hill on planks of wood.
‘Have you finished yet?’ he called softly, stamping his feet in an attempt to warm them. Acting as look-out was not the most exciting of tasks, and he wished he had been allocated a more active role in the prank. It had been his idea, after all. ‘I am freezing.’
‘Almost.’ The reply was full of suppressed laughter. ‘And if this does not confound the dunces from the hostels, then I do not know what will. They will never work out how we did it!’
Jolye was not so sure about that – hostel scholars were not stupid. But he did not want to spoil his friends’ sport, so he held his tongue. Besides, it had been more than a week since members of Essex Hostel had sneaked into Trinity Hall when everyone was asleep and filled it with scores of roosting chickens, and it was becoming urgent that the challenge was answered. Honour was at stake, after all – it would not do for a poverty-stricken, lowly hostel to get the better of a fine, wealthy College.
‘Someone will come along soon!’ he hissed, becoming impatient. What was taking them so long? ‘It is already getting light, and this is a public footpath.’
‘It is far too early for anyone else to be up,’ came the scornful response. ‘There! It is done! Chestre Hostel’s boats are now standing stern to bow on top of each other, rising in a column that is almost the height of three men. When they try to dismantle it, the pegs we used to lock to boats together will drop unseen into the water, and they will assume we did it by balance alone.’
‘They will marvel at our ability to confound the rules of physics!’ crowed another. ‘Well done, Jolye! This plan was a stroke of genius.’
Jolye felt a surge of pride. At fifteen, he was one of Trinity Hall’s youngest students, and his cronies did not often praise him. He was about to respond with a suitably nonchalant remark when he heard voices from farther along the path. His classmates heard them, too, and began trotting towards the lane that would take them home.
Jolye started to follow, but he had not been involved in the warm work of lugging heavy boats around, and his feet were like lumps of ice. He tried to break into a run when the footsteps drew closer, but could only manage a totter. Suddenly, there was a hand in the middle of his back, and he was shoved roughly forward. He stumbled, and a second push sent him face-first into the river.
The shock of the frigid water took his breath away, and for a moment, all he could do was lie there. Then his body reacted, and he found himself turning and flailing back towards the bank. It was not easy, because the current was strong, and threatened to sweep him away.
‘That was a stupid thing to do!’ he gasped angrily to the three dark figures that stood by the boats. His teeth chattered almost uncontrollably. ‘Help me out.’
He held out his hand, expecting to be hauled to safety, but none of them moved. He blinked water from his eyes, trying see their faces. Were they hostel lads? But the hostel–College competition was only a bit of fun, and certainly not serious enough to warrant shoving rivals in icy rivers. Or were they townsmen, who hated the University and would love to see a scholar get a soaking? Unfortunately, the light was not good enough for him to see, and they were just silent silhouettes.
‘Please!’ he croaked. The water was so cold it hurt. ‘You have made your point. Now help me.’
He staggered forward, and had almost reached dry land when an oar touched his shoulder, and he found himself prodded backwards. He floundered, choking as his head went under. The current tugged him downstream. What were they thinking? Did they want him to drown? He managed to grab a rotten pier as he was washed past, and struggled towards the bank again.
‘No!’ he screamed, as the paddle pushed him back a second time. The river caught him, carrying him some distance before swirling him into a slack pool near the back of Michaelhouse. Again, he tried to escape the water’s icy clutch, but the silhouettes were waiting and so was the oar.
‘I am sorry,’ he whispered pitifully. He glanced at the opposite bank, knowing he could escape his tormentors if he managed to reach it, but he had never learned to swim, and it might as well be a hundred miles away. ‘Whatever I have done to offend you, I am sorry. Now please—’
The next poke propelled him into the middle of the river, where the current was strongest. Water filled his mouth and nose. He tried to call for help as he was swept under the Great Bridge, but no one heard. His head dipped under the surface and did not rise again.