From grand social events to elite gentlemen’s clubs to the inside of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the search for a brutal murderer takes Lonsdale and Hulda through the many and varied strata of Victorian London.
December, 1882. Attending the opening of the new Natural History Museum, reporter Alex Lonsdale of The Pall Mall Gazetteand his colleague Hulda Friederichs are shocked to discover a body un the basement, hacked to death. Suspicion immediately falls on a trio of cannibals, brought over from the Congo as part of a museum exhibit, who have disappeared without trace.
Lonsdale, however, has his doubts – especially when he discovers that three other influential London men have been similarly murdered. When he and Hulda discover a letter in the victim’s home warning of a catastrophic even planned for Christmas Eve, the pair find themselves in a race against time to discover who exactly the Watchers of the Dead are and what it is they intend to do …
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London, Monday, 4 December 1882
‘This reminds me of the last time I stood in the cold, waiting for the Queen to appear,’ muttered James Burnside, shivering inside his fashionable but thin coat. ‘I hope she won’t need saving a second time, because my hands are blocks of ice.’
He was speaking to Alexander Lonsdale, a reporter for The Pall Mall Gazette. They were in the crowd that had gathered outside the new Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, a glorious edifice, almost cathedral-like in its grandeur, which had taken some eight years to complete. Her Majesty was due to open it that day, and the two men were there to record the event – Lonsdale with words, Burnside with his camera.
It was a bitter afternoon, and a wicked wind scythed down from the north. The Queen was late, and they were chilled to the bone. Both seriously considered giving up and going home.
To take his mind off his discomfort, Burnside told Lonsdale how he had saved the Queen’s life. Lonsdale had heard the tale several times already, but listened politely as it was trotted out again. Wryly, he noted that the roles Superintendent Hayes and the Eton boys had played grew less significant with every telling.
‘Poor Maclean,’ he said when the photographer had finished. ‘Hunger and privation must’ve driven him to lose his wits.’
Burnside spat his disdain. ‘He’s a violent killer, and I risked death to disarm him. Of course, I got barely a nod of thanks for my pains. I should’ve been appointed Royal Photographer. Indeed, I wrote to the Palace suggesting it, but they haven’t bothered to answer my last three letters. Maybe Maclean was right to take a shot at the old harridan.’
Lonsdale regarded him askance. ‘The last three? How many have you sent?’
Burnside shrugged sheepishly. ‘A fair number. But this is important, Lonsdale! Credit should go where it’s deserved, not to a police officer who was just doing his job, and two boys who happen to come from wealthy families. Without me, the Queen would be dead.’
‘Here she is at last,’ said Lonsdale in relief – it meant the end of Burnside’s tirade.
The royal carriage clattered to a standstill and important men hurried towards it. Once she had alighted, the Queen did not linger in the icy wind – she aimed for the massive porch at an impressive clip, glancing up as she passed through it in acknowledgement of its grandeur. Once inside, she made a short speech and unveiled a plaque, then indicated with a regal nod that she was ready for the guided tour she had been promised. Most reporters left at that point – the building was now officially open, so what more needed to be said? And it was far too cold to stand around outside.
Lonsdale longed to go too, but his sense of duty kept him rooted to the spot – he had been charged to report the event, and leaving while it was still going on was hardly professional. Burnside stayed too – he was so down on his luck that he had no choice but to follow every event to its bitter end in the hope of getting the picture that everyone else had missed. Their breath plumed in front of them as the temperature dropped even further.
‘There’s Alexander Haldane,’ said Burnside, nodding to an elderly gentleman who was almost running in his haste to escape the wind. ‘The famous barrister.’
‘He owns The Record, too,’ said Lonsdale, watching the man in question disappear through the Royal Courts of Justice’s massive front door. ‘The newspaper for Evangelical Christians. The assistant editor at The PMGreads it. It’s quite influential in certain circles.’
But Burnside did not seem very interested in newspaper politics, so Lonsdale let the subject drop. They stood together in silence, watching the busy hubbub of the traffic clattering along the Strand.
It grew ever colder as the short winter day faded into dusk. Smoke from tens of thousands of chimneys belched into the air, rendering it thick and choking, especially when a mist swirled up from the river. The evening was dull and gloomy, and the elegant spires and pinnacles of the Royal Courts of Justice were soon lost to sight. Burnside mumbled something about thawing his camera lenses, and loped away, unsteady on feet that were numb with the cold. Lonsdale considered following him, but professional pride kept him in his spot. That and his old-fashioned, but warm, woollen greatcoat.
After an hour, Burnside returned, his face pink and glowing. Lonsdale assumed he had been in a tavern, but there was no scent of alcohol on his breath. Then it occurred to him that the photographer might be so hard up that he had no money for drink, so had settled for a brisk walk to drive out the chill instead. He was about to suggest tea in the café opposite – his treat – when several solicitors emerged from the courts, talking in hushed, horrified whispers. Burnside stopped one and asked what had happened.
‘Roderick Maclean,’ replied the lawyer, and he shook his head worriedly, although his eyes were alight with excitement. ‘The police have just released the news that he escaped from Broadmoor sometime this past month. Let’s hope they catch him soon, as no one’s safe with him on the loose.’
‘Especially me,’ said Burnside importantly. ‘I’mthe one who stopped him from committing regicide. He may well want an accounting with me. I’ll be ready, though.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Or perhaps I should beg sanctuary in Buckingham Palace …’
At that moment, there was a ragged cheer from the hardy few who had waited for the Queen. She hurried down the steps and was inside her carriage long before Burnside could ready his camera. He swore softly to himself; he might as well have gone home.
‘Someone must’ve told her about Maclean,’ said the solicitor, watching the royal coach clatter away. ‘And she decided she’d rather be safe at home until he’s back under lock and key.’
As Lonsdale and Burnside turned to leave, there was a commotion inside the courts. As the Queen had gone, the building was open to the public, so they went in to see what was happening.
‘They’ve just found Mr Haldane in the basement,’ explained a clerk, who was sitting on a bench in the lobby, his face pale and his body shivering with shock. ‘He’s been murdered.’
‘Haldane?’ breathed Burnside, shocked. ‘But we saw him a couple of hours ago.’
‘How do you know he was murdered?’ asked Lonsdale.
‘Because I saw the body,’ whispered the clerk, shaking his head in stunned disbelief. He looked up at them slowly. ‘He’d been chopped to pieces.’
All is not glorious and progressive in Victoria’s capital city, as London has another side replete with crime, murder, and poverty.
London, 1882. Alec Lonsdale, a reporter for The Pall Mall Gazette, is following up a story about a fatal house fire. But the post mortem on the victim produces shocking results: Patrick Donovan’s death was no accident. But why would someone murder a humble shop assistant and steal part of his brain?
A young prostitute approaches Lonsdale, claiming to have information about that and other murders, but when Lonsdale goes to meet her, he finds her with her throat cut, and her companion also dead.
Lonsdale and his spirited female colleague, Hulda Friederichs, begin seeking answers, only to find their efforts stymied at every turn by the police. Nevertheless, they manage to uncover evidence of a conspiracy that reaches the highest echelons of Victorian society. But will they ever get to finish their investigation, or will they join the list of victims first?
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The visit to the Garrick Club had not only been unproductive, it had made Lonsdale late for his meeting with Cath Walker. The bells had long since finished chiming eight and the light had almost faded when he reached the Gloucester Gate entrance to Regent’s Park. He headed toward the huge drinking fountain on the Broad Walk – the wide but poorly lit road that traversed the park from north to south.
As Lonsdale neared the fountain, which was illuminated by its own lamp, he slowed and became more cautious. The path that led to the bandstand, a short distance west, appeared to be deserted. He peered into the darkness, and could just see the outline of the bandstand, eerie in the deepening shadows. He had not realised how few lights there were and how dark the park could be; a lone, unarmed man was an easy target. But he told himself that his experiences in Africa – which had taught him more than a modicum of self-defence – combined with having boxed at Cambridge, made him capable of defending himself reasonably respectably.
He approached the bandstand warily. It had a conical roof supported by wrought-iron pillars and was surrounded by waist-high railings. The chairs on which the band sat were piled in the middle and covered with a tarpaulin. There was no one to be seen.
He was reaching for the railing when a rustle brought him to a standstill. Away to the right was a row of bushes and trees, a pleasant, shady area for those who did not want to sit in the sun to listen to music. Had the noise come from there? He took several steps towards it.
‘Miss Walker?’ he called softly. For several moments, nothing happened, then there was a dull thud behind him. He had spun round before realising with disgust that he had fallen for an old trick: someone had thrown a stone behind him to make him turn, so he could be attacked from behind.
He had barely started to whip back around when he was knocked from his feet. He went sprawling onto the wet ground, feeling sodden grass against his face. He rolled, aware that his attacker was already bearing down on him. Against the dark grey sky, he saw something glint before it plunged down.
A party of scientists can only hope to elude a gang of killers looking to cover up their illegal whaling – and worse – in the Antarctic. But for how long?
Having spent the summer conducting fieldwork on stark Livingston Island, marine biologist Andrew Berrister is looking forward to returning to civilisation. But his final days in Antarctica take an unexpected turn when it becomes clear that he and his small group of scientists are not alone on the island. Deducing that the intruders are a crew of illegal whalers, the scientists face an increasingly desperate struggle for survival when two members of their shore party disappear and their supplies are deliberately sabotaged.
As Berrister and his remaining companions flee across the treacherous, icy terrain, they are pursued relentlessly by ruthless killers whose true reasons for being in the Antarctic are darker and more dangerous than the scientists could ever have imagined.
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He went to the cook tent, and found Mortimer already there. The fat glaciologist gave him a haunted look.
‘We’re in a fix here, Andrew.’
Berrister nodded. ‘We’ll ask the Chileans to evacuate us today.’
Mortimer narrowed his eyes. ‘Didn’t you hear what I told you last night? We can’t call the Chileans – neither long-range radio works and the generators are down, so we can’t power them up. We can’t call anyone.’
Berrister recalled very little about the return journey and their arrival back at the camp, assailed as he was with the sense of having abandoned two friends to their deaths. He scrubbed at his face with his hands. ‘Then we’ll repair the generators.’
Mortimer’s expression was grim. ‘I’ve been trying – all night, as it happens. But they’ll never work again. Never.’
Berrister frowned. ‘They were working okay yesterday. What’s the problem?’
‘Sabotage,’ replied Mortimer. Berrister gaped at him. ‘I’m serious, Andrew – someone mixed sugar with the fuel. To put it in layman’s terms, the inside of each motor is full of sticky gunk.’
Berrister shook his head, unwilling to believe it. ‘You must be mistaken. You’re upset over Dan and Freddy—’
‘I am upset, but I’m not mistaken: someone deliberately destroyed our only means of communication. And obviously, whoever it was also stole our food. You clearly think I’m mad, but the facts are that we’re marooned here with no supplies and no way of calling for help. Go and look at the generators yourself if you don’t believe me.’
Berrister went, but it did not take many minutes for him to see that the glaciologist was right. He returned to Mortimer, his stomach churning.
‘Do you think Freddy did it?’ asked Mortimer. ‘Or Dan?’
‘Of course not! Lisa heard a boat, Graham and I found tracks and a cigarette end … but who would want to do this to us? We’re scientists, for God’s sake.’
‘Good question,’ said Mortimer. ‘But two of us are missing, and Graham says he found blood on the beach. Perhaps Dan and Freddy aren’t so much missing as … dispatched.’
‘No,’ said Berrister, stubbornly refusing to believe it. ‘There must be a rational explanation – an innocent one.’
‘Such as what?’
‘I don’t know,’ admitted Berrister. ‘But –’
The tent flap was wrenched open. It was Joshi, eyes alight with excitement.
‘There’s a ship on the other side of the scarp – a little rust-coloured thing, anchored about a kilometre out. It must’ve come in during the night. We’re saved! Now we need to work out how to contact it.’
‘Let’s look at it first,’ cautioned Mortimer uneasily. ‘And if it seems friendly, we’ll let off a flare. I’ll fetch some while you wake the others.’
‘Is it true?’ asked Sarah, as she emerged from her tent. Her eyes were red; she had been crying. ‘Rescue is at hand?’
‘Maybe,’ hedged Berrister. ‘We’re going to look. Coming?’
Graham emerged fully clothed. His hair was matted and his ginger beard was more straggly than usual. There were dark rings under his eyes, and he looked pale and unhealthy. He also smelled of whiskey, and Berrister was not entirely sure that he was sober.
It did not take them long to don warm clothes and begin their ascent, although Berrister, ever safety conscious, was the only one who thought to grab the knapsack containing their emergency supplies. It was a dishevelled, gasping group that reached the top of the escarpment to gaze down at the ship.
She was a curious vessel, red with rust, and with an odd collection of winches and hauling tackle on the afterdeck. Berrister had never seen anything quite like it. He was about to suggest that she was a fishing trawler, when he happened to glance behind him, back down at the camp. Two figures were moving about in it, setting it on fire.
It seemed like just one small mistake of judgment, but somehow there was no stopping the flood of events that followed on from it.
When young police constable Helen Anderson takes the files for a forthcoming court case to study over the weekend, she commits a cardinal error. For those files are not supposed to leave the police station – and the moment they fall into the wrong hands, Helen’s ordinary, uneventful life begins to spiral out of control.
For one small lie will lead to another, then another – culminating in a rendezvous in an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary Bristol street … the scene of a gruesome and extraordinary murder.
But that is only the beginning of Helen’s saga of increasing personal insight, desperate concealment, and more and more shocking crime.
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My name is Helen Anderson, and I’m a murderer. This is my story. It isn’t a confession, as those tend not to make very interesting reading. It’s my story – how I came to do the things I did, and why. For all their diligence, I don’t think the police fully understand what happened, and this is my chance to explain – for myself, as much as for anyone who happens to read it.
It won’t be easy to write, given that I’ve learned things that no one should ever have to know: how to kill, how to conceal it, and how to lie to protect myself. There was a stage when I exulted in the power that brought – to offer a hint and watch the police doggedly follow the road I had selected, knowing their efforts would be wasted. But mostly, I was just scared and confused.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. It sounds trite put like that – all stories should start at the beginning. But when did mine start? The first time I met James Paxton? Our single, fumbling, sordid date years later? The point when he realized that a friend in the police might be good for more than a few cheap jokes about handcuffs? I think I shall go back to the very beginning, when we were still young, although even then there was a sharp distinction between his world and mine.
The distinction became clearer as we grew older, and perhaps that’s where the problems started – my ridiculous gratitude at being noticed by the bright star that was James; my pathetic pleasure at being invited into his exclusive world. But, of course, that was before I learned that all that glitters isn’t gold.
A grisly murder on a hot, sultry night in July 1907. Could it be that someone does not want Ernest Shackleton and his expedition to set sail for the Antarctic?
On 30 July 1907, members of the British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton, sailed down the Thames on the tiny, refurbished sealer Nimrod. Some six months later, in February 1908, the expedition landed in Antarctica.
At Cape Royds, Shackleton and his companions built a hut and set up camp. They then began their long wait for the following spring, when Shackleton would head into the icy unknown in an attempt to become the first man ever to reach the South Pole. In the worldwide fame and glory that followed the return of Shackleton’s party to civilisation, little was ever said about a dark incident that almost halted the expedition before it had even sailed.
On the eve of the departure of Nimrod to the Antarctic, the body of the assistant biologist was found in the East India Docks. Without a doubt he had been murdered.
Raymond Priestley, just short of his 21st birthday, had been appointed expedition geologist and was one of the first on the scene. Now it fell to him to undertake an investigation, along with Inspector William Taylor, an old school friend of Shackleton’s, into the events surrounding this dark deed. Priestley had no knowledge of the danger into which he would soon be plunged.
Taylor dismissed them and leaned back in the chair, staring through the porthole to a dismal view across the Blackwall Railway Terminus and the skeletal cranes that stood sentinel along the filth-strewn banks of the Thames. He glanced at his pocket watch and wondered why Inspector Andrews was taking so long to arrive. The man was not usually tardy. He began to wonder if Shackleton had been right, and Chief Superintendent Hamilton had interfered with his detectives’ rota.
He reviewed what he had learned so far. It was not yet known what time Scudder had died, but the biologist had probably left Eaton Square before ten, and was dead by quarter past two, when he was discovered by First Officer Davis. The murder weapon was a letter opener of the kind favoured by officers who had served in the Royal Naval Reserve, and there were four men who might own one: Shackleton, Captain England, Adams and Mackay. All would need to provide alibis.
Taylor considered the facts, and was inclined to think that the killer had wanted one thing: Scudder dead. Scudder may have been slightly drunk, which perhaps accounted for the lack of defensive wounds, but Taylor guessed it more likely that he had known his assailant, and had not considered himself to be in danger. The killer had been able to come close to him, and then drive the blade clean through his neck.
It was a very personal way to kill, necessitating the killer to stand close to his victim when he delivered the fatal blow. Did that mean it was a crime of hate? Taylor’s experience told him that a common robber would have been more likely to have stabbed Scudder in the back, not driven a knife through his neck in such a bizarre manner. Marshall had claimed that Adams was the ‘murdering kind,’ whatever that meant. But, as a policeman, Taylor knew that any man could be the ‘murdering kind’ given the right circumstances. Of course, it was also Adams who had sent the watchmen off to the eastern end of the quay, far from where the murder had taken place.
Taylor also knew the victim had not been popular, although Priestley was unwilling to say anything unpleasant and Shackleton had not considered Scudder abrasive enough to cause conflict. However, Marshall had clearly detested him, while someone had disliked him enough to damage his nets and perhaps do something to the loading hatch to prevent the Monagasque trawl from being stowed according to plan. Could the latter have been a ploy to ensure Scudder’s later appearance at the dock? Taylor thought it a definite possibility.
Then there were others who had reason to want the victim out of the way: the three ‘hopefuls’ seemed dependent on his good will in order to be selected for the expedition, but it was clear the victim had not been easy to please. And one of them – Yaxley – had had a public argument with Scudder. Had he been afraid that the row had spoiled his chances, so had taken steps to ensure Scudder was not in a position to do him harm? Meanwhile, O’Brien, whom Scudder had apparently liked, was considered by Shackleton ‘not the right fit’ for reasons the Boss did not understand himself. Then the awful possibility crossed Taylor’s mind that Shackleton might have seen Scudder as an impediment to the smooth running of his venture, and regretted the appointment.
But no. Taylor had been friends with Shackleton for a long time, and even if Scudder had become a problem, no aspect of the scientific programme was worth risking the goal Shackleton had been intent on ever since he had returned from Scott’s expedition four years before – the attainment of the Pole. Taylor dismissed Shackleton as a suspect: one of his staff might have made an end to an unpopular colleague, but Shackleton would have had nothing to do with it. Or would he?
The Eighth Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
A journey into Wales becomes more dangerous the farther west Geoffrey, Roger, and their party proceed.
When the former Crusader knight Geoffrey Mappestone is ordered by King Henry to deliver a series of mysterious letters to the restless western reaches of Wales, he agrees only due to the possible repercussions against his family, should he refuse. Geoffrey’s conviction that the seemingly simple task hides something more sinister is strengthened when the scribe who wrote the letters is murdered before the journey begins.
Geoffrey and his friend Roger of Durham are forced to travel with an odd selection of companions, but when one of them is found dead soon after they set off, Geoffrey knows he must uncover the secret that lies behind the letters, and unmask the killer, before any more victims are claimed.
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Geoffrey thought a floorboard creaked outside the bedroom door, but Hilde had hurled some garment to the floor at the same time, and he could not be sure. He sat up abruptly, straining to hear, then flopped back again when his head cracked against Hilde’s in the darkness.
‘What are you doing?’ she demanded angrily. ‘That really hurt.’
Geoffrey signalled for her to be quiet, but she did not see him and continued to berate him in a voice that made it difficult to hear anything else.
‘Hush!’ he snapped. ‘I thought I heard something.’
At that moment, there was a cheer from downstairs, followed by a lot of jeering. Roger had won something – no great surprise, given that he always cheated.
‘I really will be glad when he is no longer with us,’ Hilde muttered.
Geoffrey sat up a second time when the merest of draughts touched his cheek – the door was open. Reacting instinctively, he grabbed Hilde and hauled her off the bed, snatching the dagger from her belt as he did so. At the same time, he heard something thud into the mattress. Most other women would have screeched indignantly about being hurled around in the dark, but Hilde was blessedly silent. There was an advantage to marrying a woman who was a warrior.
Geoffrey was also silent. Then he heard the creak of a floorboard, this time to his left. He stabbed with the dagger, thinking that if someone was coming to rob them, then the thieves only had themselves to blame.
He heard a grunt as the blade connected, although he could not tell whether it had done any harm. He stepped forward, to place himself between the invader and Hilde. There was another creak, and he lunged again. This time, the dagger met thin air, but something crashed into his shoulder, making him stagger. He went on the offensive, suspecting he might not survive if he confined himself to defensive manoeuvres. He struck out wildly, moving towards the door as he did so, aiming to haul it open and yell for Roger.
Then something cracked into his head, and he saw stars. He lunged again, but he was disoriented, and the blow lacked the vigour of the previous ones. He had his attackers on the run, though, because he could hear footsteps moving away. He tried to estimate how many sets of feet, but it was difficult to be sure.
He sensed rather than saw someone flail at him, and fought by instinct, predicting which way the blows would come and parrying them with his forearm as he jabbed with the dagger. There was a howl and a curse, and then more footsteps. He became aware of Hilde next to him. She grabbed his arm, and he felt his sword shoved into his hand.
Howling his Saracen battle cry, he charged forward and saw at least three shadows in the hallway. How many were there, given that several had already fled? He swiped wildly, but he was dizzy and blood dripped into his eyes. He brushed it away impatiently, then whipped around when he heard someone behind him. A blow across the shoulders drove him to his knees.
He was not sure what happened next. He tried to tell Roger to give chase, but he could not make himself heard over the racket. He attempted to go himself, but his legs would not support him. He thought he heard Sear and Alberic coming to report that the culprits had disappeared, and was also aware of Pulchria regarding him in a distinctly unfriendly manner. Surely, she had not organized the attack, because she had objected to him depriving her of his squire’s company?
He rubbed his head, knowing his wits were not working clearly. However, he was not so muddled as to miss the fact that the attackers had ignored everyone else in the tavern and come after him. Perhaps Roger’s theory about the letters was not so wild after all, and what he had feared from the first was coming to pass: that there was more danger in the King’s errand than Henry had led him to believe.
The Seventh Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
Murder, betrayal, and open rebellion …
When the former Crusader knight Geoffrey Mappestone and his friend Roger of Durham try to slip out of England to the Holy Land, a ferocious storm destroys the ship they are on and casts them ashore not far from where William the Conqueror had landed decades before.
The two knights are unwillingly thrust into the company of other shipwrecked passengers. These include two women who may have committed murder, a mysterious merchant who apparently pushed his closest friend overboard, and a seemingly crazed man alleging he is the son of former Saxon King Harold – and therefore the legitimate claimant to the English throne.
As Geoffrey tries to evade the unwelcome attentions of the more dangerous members of the group, he meets yet others claiming the throne and is drawn deeper into a plot that aims to overthrow King Henry and return England to Saxon rule.
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The track twisted through several copses, then reached land that had been cleared for fields. Directly ahead were more trees with a hamlet nestling among them, comprising four or five pretty houses and an attractive church. A short distance away was an unusual building, which looked as though it had just been hit by a snowstorm. Geoffrey regarded it curiously.
‘Ah! Werlinges,’ said Harold in satisfaction. He pointed at the building that had caught Geoffrey’s attention. ‘And that is one of its salt-houses.’
Geoffrey frowned. The village was strangely deserted at a time when men should have been tending fields or livestock. And someone certainly should have been in the salt-house. Salt was an expensive commodity and usually well guarded. Meanwhile, the door to the chapel was ajar, moving slightly in the breeze. The dog sniffed, then growled, a deep and long rumble that made up Geoffrey’s mind.
‘Stop,’ he said softly. ‘There is something wrong.’
‘Wrong?’ demanded Magnus. His voice was loud and rang off the nearest houses, and them seemed even emptier. ‘What do you mean? Are you afraid? Like father, like son?’
The scorn in his voice was more galling than his words, and Roger bristled on his friend’s behalf. But Geoffrey was more concerned with the village. Bale gripped a long hunting knife and started to move forward, but Geoffrey stopped him. He had not survived three gruelling years on the Crusade by being reckless, and all his senses clamoured that something was badly amiss.
‘I do not want to go through this place,’ he said. ‘We will walk around it.’
‘But what about the horses that Harold arranged to be waiting?’ demanded Magnus angrily. ‘You cannot expect kings to arrive at La Batailge on foot, like common serfs.’
‘Then we will wait here,’ said Roger. ‘Go and collect your beasts.’
‘Alone?’ asked Magnus, immediately uneasy. ‘When you think it is dangerous?’
‘It is all right,’ said Harold in relief. ‘I can see the horses in the field over there. I asked Wennec the priest to hire me good ones, and he has! I confess I was concerned he might renege.’
‘Why?’ asked Geoffrey, scanning the trees. There was no birdsong again, and the entire area was eerily silent. ‘Is he dishonest? Or just loath to have anything to do with rebellion?’
‘Werlinges has always expressed a preference for Normans,’ admitted Harold. ‘I imagine that was what prompted the Bastard to spare it.’
‘So why ask its priest to find your horses?’ asked Geoffrey suspiciously. ‘Why not go elsewhere for help?’
‘Harold has just told you why,’ said Magnus impatiently. ‘All the other settlements were laid to waste. Werlinges is the only village available, so he had no choice but to approach Wennec.’
‘Then that is even more reason to leave,’ said Geoffrey. ‘Surely you can sense something oddly awry here? There are no people, but there are the horses, flaunted in an open field. It is a trap.’
‘Nonsense,’ declared Magnus. ‘Everyone left because of the storm. But enough of this blathering – go and fetch the nags at once.’
Neither knights nor squires moved. Then, casually, Roger drew his sword, testing the keenness of its blade by running the ball of his thumb along it. Geoffrey stood next to him, his senses on full alert.
‘If you want the horses, get them,’ said Roger to the Saxons. ‘If not, we shall be on our way.’
‘All right,’ said Harold, moving forward. ‘We shall show you Saxon courage.’
‘I will come with you,’ said Brother Lucian. ‘I do not fancy walking all the way to La Batailge, so I will borrow a pony if there is one to be had.’
‘Do not make your selection before your monarch has picked one for himself,’ ordered Magnus, hurrying after him.
He broke into a trot. So did Lucian, until they both made an unseemly dash towards the field, like children afraid of losing out on treats. Juhel chortled at the spectacle, although Geoffrey was too uneasy to think there was anything remotely humorous in it.
‘Perhaps I had better ensure our noble king does not lose out to a “Benedictine”,’ said the parchmenter. ‘Because I suspect he is incapable of selecting a good horse.’
Geoffrey regarded him sharply. ‘You are sceptical of Lucian’s vocation, too?’ he asked.
Juhel gave one of his unreadable smiles. ‘Well, I have never seen him pray. Of course, it may just be youthful exuberance that makes him forget his vows.’
‘He is certainly not bound to chastity,’ said Roger. ‘I am sure he and Edith lay together on the ship. And that gold pectoral cross he wore speaks volumes about his adherence to poverty, too. If he is a monk, then he is not a very obedient one.’
‘His worldliness makes him an inappropriate choice for such a long, lonely mission,’ said Juhel. ‘So either Bishop de Villula had to choose him for reasons we will probably never know, or Lucian is using a religious habit to disguise his true identity.’
‘And why might that be?’ asked Geoffrey, regarding Juhel warily, aware that these were probably observations that had been fermenting for some time. But why was the man so interested in his fellow passengers?
‘Lord knows,’ said Juhel. ‘An escape from an unhappy marriage, perhaps? He was the first to abandon ship, and, although he claims he took nothing, I saw him towing a small bundle. And I am sure it did not contain a psalter.’
He ambled away, leaving Geoffrey confused and uncertain. Was Juhel casting aspersions on Lucian to deflect suspicion from himself? Or was he just a man who liked to watch the foibles of others?
‘This village has a smell,’ said Bale, his whisper hot on Geoffrey’s ear. The knight eased away from his squire, not liking the hulking figure quite so close. ‘A metallic smell, and one I know well.’
‘Something to do with the salt-house?’
‘Blood,’ drooled Bale. ‘I smell blood.’
‘You do not,’ said Geoffrey firmly. ‘But we are leaving as soon as Harold has his horses, so go and make sure the road north is clear. Take Ulfrith with you. And be careful.’
‘You were right: there is something wrong about this place,’ said Roger as Bale slipped away. ‘And Bale might be right: I think I can smell blood, too. The sooner we are gone, the better.’
Geoffrey’s reply was drowned out by a monstrous shriek, and he saw men running from the woods wielding weapons. At their head was the pirate Donan, his face a savage grimace of hatred. In the distance, Geoffrey was aware of the Saxons, Juhel and Lucian swivelling around in alarm. They scattered immediately. Magnus ran awkwardly, all knees and flailing arms, while Juhel tipped himself forward and trotted like an overweight bull. Harold and Lucian were less ungainly, and Geoffrey did not think he had ever seen a faster sprinter than the monk.
‘Death to thieves and saboteurs,’ Donan howled, sword whirling. ‘Now you will pay!’
The Sixth Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
Geoffrey’s new inheritance brings with it not only challenges from those who hope to grab his estate, but, even more troubling to him, the prospect of having to marry.
When the highly unpopular Henry Mappestone is found killed in the stables at Goodrich Castle, his last surviving brother, the former Crusader knight Sir Geoffrey, unwillingly inherits the castle and the rest of the family’s estates in the Welsh Marches. Immediately, his sister attempts to push him into a marriage that will ultimately provide an heir and, therefore, long-term stability for their family in a tense and troubled region.
But while visiting his friend Bishop Giffard at a nearby manor, attempts are made on Geoffrey’s life, and several other guests are killed. Are these deaths related to Henry’s murder, to his potential brides, or to the death of the Duchess of Normandy, which Geoffrey has been asked to investigate? As Geoffrey tries to make sense of a maze of intrigue, further killings begin to destabilize the area and threaten to lead to a Welsh revolt.
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Goodrich, September 1102
Henry Mappestone was drunk. He had finished off two jugs of wine, reaching the point where he no longer bothered with a goblet. It was easier to upend the jug, and if some spilled, so be it: his sister Joan had made astute investments in Bristol, so he had plenty of money to spend.
When Henry thought about his sister and her husband, his flushed face broke into a sneer. He hated them both. Goodrich Castle and its lands were his – he had inherited them when his older brothers had died. But it was Joan and Olivier who had made them profitable. It was good to be wealthy after many lean years, but Henry resented the way Joan pursed her lips when he – the lord of the manor – enjoyed his wine, or hit a labourer for not working hard enough. In fact, he was of a mind to throw her and Olivier out altogether.
But then he would be obliged to run the estate himself, and, unlike Olivier, Henry could not read – he would have to hire a clerk to keep the accounts and the man would surely cheat him. Henry scowled. No, Joan and Olivier would have to stay, much as it infuriated him.
It was late, and most people were abed. It was harvest, so servants and masters alike were exhausted from gathering crops. Everyone was forced to lend a hand, even Henry. He was tired, too, but did not feel like sleeping. He seldom did, which Joan said was because his innards were pickled. But there were times when he thought the only way to survive until dawn was to drink.
He climbed unsteadily to his feet and lurched across the hall, treading on fingers and feet as he waded through weary bodies on straw pallets. But no one dared complain. It was only an hour or so since Henry had punched Torva – Goodrich’s steward – and no one else wanted to attract his attention. Henry wished he had not hit Torva so hard, because he was sure he had broken his hand.
He reached the door, and staggered across the bailey towards the stables. Animals would be better company than peasants with their resentful, fear-filled glances and, like most Normans, Henry liked horses. He especially liked the spirited palfrey called Dun. He reeled inside the stable, trying to see in the moonlight. He slapped Dun on the rump, then cursed when there was a searing pain in his knuckles. He leaned against the wall, cradling his hand to his chest.
He shouted for Jervil the groom, who slept in the loft. When he appeared, Henry tried to kick him, but Jervil melted into the darkness. Henry was incensed. How dare he dare slink away when he had been summoned by his master! But then there was a shadow beside him. Jervil knew his place.
‘Get me some wine,’ Henry snapped, easing into Dun’s stall. The horse had seemed lame earlier, and he wanted to check it.
But the shadow did not reply, and Henry suddenly felt something hot near his liver. Then he was gripped by a deep, searing ache, and he slid down the wall into the straw. When he reached for his stomach, his hand met a dagger protruding from it. He raised his hand to where silver moonlight slanted in through the door; it dripped black with blood. He felt light-headed, and then people he knew started to walk in front of him in a silent procession.
His wife, who had died the previous year, went first, her face no more than a blur; she carried their two little sons, who had died of fever that spring. His brothers were there, too – the two older ones and Geoffrey behind them. He did not remember being told Geoffrey was dead, but perhaps he had died on Crusade. Joan followed Geoffrey, and Henry saw she was laughing at him, mocking him. Had she thrust the weapon into him, or was it someone else? Henry did not know, but the knowledge that he was dying enraged him. He screamed at the ghosts and shadows, cursing them until his last breath.
The Fifth Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
Geoffrey’s fondness for his sister draws the Crusader knight and his friend Roger into an investigation based on King Henry’s love of his money and his hopes to preserve it.
Westminster, 1102. Once again about to depart for the Holy Land, Sir Geoffrey is furious to be summoned back by the King, trusting neither His Majesty’s methods of persuasion nor his motives.
When he arrives at Court, Geoffrey finds two argumentative groups of Saxon moneyers, one accusing the other of devaluing the King’s currency. There may be more to it than mere greed, however, and, unappealing though the prospect is, Geoffrey has no choice but to accept the King’s commission to investigate whether this is part of a treasonous plot – especially as it is his only hope of saving his sister from the consequences of her own involvement.
As Geoffrey and Sir Roger of Durham delve deeper, men like the powerful William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester and former Lord Chancellor of England, appear to be involved. Can the two carry out their investigation without someone trying to stop them – permanently?
Bath, November 1102
Geoffrey did not feel like returning to John’s house to be insulted – or worse – so set out in search of the hot springs for which the town was famous. The gate of the largest fountain was locked for the night, so he decided to look for some of the smaller ones, in the hope that they would still be open.
He discovered one in the southwest quarter of the town, housed in an unstable structure that was made of the same pale sandstone as the abbey. Its guardian had either forgotten to secure it, or it was not considered worth locking, because its door was ajar. He walked inside and waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. Finding a lamp near the door, he kindled it to discover walls that were thickly coated in slime, but saw faint splashes of colour underneath: once, when the town was more important, they had been decorated with bright and elaborate paintings.
In front of him was a cistern full of a sulphurous liquid. It was fed and drained by lead-lined conduits, so it would never overflow but always be full and, although the system was ancient – its stones were worn and its channels furred with salt deposits – it still worked. He knelt to dip a tentative hand in the water, and was pleasantly surprised as the warmth soaked through his chilled skin.
Geoffrey did not take baths – although he had once made an exception in the Holy Land – because only a fool divested himself of clothes and armour and sat in a vat of water. But there was something appealing about the green tank before him, perhaps because it was hot and not topped by a layer of scum from previous users. He thought about the number of people who had recently told him he was dirty, and made his decision.
He closed the door and placed a stave across it. It was not a particularly strong door, and the bar was soft and rotten, but it would serve to keep out casual visitors and afford him some privacy. Then, for the second time in as many days, he divested himself of his clothes. Clad in tunic and baggy braes, he walked across the floor to the bath and stared at the steaming water. The lamplight gave it an emerald sheen, and the spring that provided its fresh water rippled its surface. He could not see the bottom, and was inclined to abandon the whole foolish venture and join Roger in his game of dice. But it had taken him some time to clamber out of his armour, and it seemed a pity to give up now. Not liking the notion of a wet tunic when he dressed again, he shrugged it off and laid it on the floor, although the braes remained in place: only Greeks, heathens and the insane bathed naked, as far as he was aware.
He sat on the side of the bath and lowered one foot. The water was hot and tingling, so he dipped the other one in, too. He remained there for some time, enjoying the sensation of heat bubbling around his legs. Then he took a deep breath and launched himself forward, keeping one hand on the edge in case some hidden current caught him and tried to drag him away. But the water only reached his chest, and he discovered underwater benches that allowed bathers to sit. Reclining against the hot stones with the water flowing around his body, was one of the most pleasurable sensations he had ever experienced. He closed his eyes and relaxed properly for the first time in weeks. The sound of the wind outside made him feel warm and comfortable, and soon he did not even notice the rank smell of sulphur and mould.
He had no idea how long he had been asleep when he woke with a start. The lamp had burned out, and it was dark. He raised one hand, feeling fingers that were tender and wrinkled from being soaked too long. He was overly hot, too, and sweat trickled in his eyes. He listened hard, wondering what had woken him, and wished his dog were there, because it was an excellent warning for lurking menaces. Rain had started to patter on the roof, but the only other sound was the gurgle of water from the spring. He was about to climb out, assuming the heat had roused him from his doze, when he heard something else: the soft tap of a leather-soled shoe on a flagstone.
He tensed. His sword and knives were with his clothes on the opposite side of the chamber, and he cursed himself as a fool for wanting to take a bath when he should have known no good would come from it. He stood slowly, and glanced at the door. It was still closed. Then he scanned the room and saw a dark space where earlier there had been a wall. There was a second way in that he had not noticed, and he supposed the algae covering the walls had disguised it, along with the fact that he had not bothered to conduct a proper search.
He stayed stock still for a long time, feeling the water move around his body as he listened for any indication that someone else was there. There was nothing but silence. He took a step forward, towards the centre of the bath, and then he was underwater. Too late, he realized it was deeper in the middle than around the edges, designed to give bathers the choice of immersing themselves or sitting. He splashed to the surface and made his way to one side, eager to put solid ground under his feet.
Then the attack came. He saw a dark shadow looming over him, and knew from the elongated arm that it held a dagger. He jerked back in time to avoid the blow, but that put him in the path of a second assailant. Strong hands fastened around his throat, immediately tightening, so he could not breathe…
The Fourth Sir Geoffrey Mappestone Mystery
King Henry I draws an unwilling Sir Geoffrey further into his own intrigues – and into the danger that accompanies them.
March 1102, and Robert de Bellême, the scheming, dangerous Earl of Shrewsbury, is summoned to appear before King Henry’s Easter Court. Bellême must answer for siding with Henry’s older brother, the Duke of Normandy, in an attempt to steal the throne.
Meanwhile, in the crowded and dangerous streets of Southwark, south of the river Thames, Crusader Knights Sir Geoffrey Mappestone and Sir Roger of Durham witness a murder in a disreputable inn. But the victim is not just any man – he is Bellême’s illegitimate nephew, who had apparently been holding a meeting with two mysterious men. In fact, it turns out that the inn has been used for many meetings of the earl’s spies, and there are plans afoot to obtain a terrible weapon to use against the King, one that Geoffrey and Roger remember with a terrible fear from the Siege of Jerusalem – Greek Fire.
Thrust into the middle of a devious plot, solving the murder is only the first step in uncovering the treasonous plot against the King.
London, March 1102
Sir Geoffrey Mappestone and Sir Roger of Durham were experienced and heavily armed Norman knights, yet both felt uneasy as they made their way through the streets of Southwark towards the London Bridge. It was nearing dusk, and the narrow alleys were alive with characters who were never seen in daylight hours – robbers who stalked their prey in the darkness, sharp-faced prostitutes who enticed men into dimly lit taverns for the contents of their purses, and fallen priests who had prospered in the lax reign of William Rufus with their black arts. Rufus’s successor, King Henry, was not so tolerant, and peccant priests were obliged to hide, to emerge only when the sun had set and they would not be recognized and pointed out to the King’s spies.
Geoffrey knew the London Bridge closed at dusk, sealing Southwark and its shadowy activities from the more prosperous city of London, which sprawled along the opposite side of the River Thames. He pressed his knees into the sides of his great warhorse to urge it to walk faster, reluctant to linger in a place where he, Roger and their three men would not be welcome. It was not long since the Conqueror had invaded England and made Saxons inferior subjects in their own country, and the defeat still rankled. Geoffrey sensed there were many Southwark night-folk who would relish an opportunity to kill a Norman knight, steal his horses and plunder his saddlebags. His black and white dog whimpered uneasily, and Geoffrey knew how it felt.
The daylight was fading fast, showing how short a March day could be. It was not yet five o’clock, but shadows lay thick and black across the streets, and lights burned in the houses of those wealthy enough to afford a lamp and fuel. It began to rain, too, and the mottled clouds that slouched overhead played their own part in bringing an early dusk. Gradually, the occasional drop became a pattering downpour, blown in spiteful, sleety flurries by a chill north wind.
‘We should find an inn,’ said Roger, running a thick finger around the neckline of his cloak, sodden from where water had run in rivulets from his conical helmet. He glanced around him. ‘It is not pretty here, but I have slept in worse places. We can cross the bridge tomorrow at dawn and still be in time to obey your summons from the King.’
‘No,’ said Geoffrey, thinking that if Roger had stayed in worse than Southwark, then he must have graced some very insalubrious towns with his presence. ‘It is not safe.’
‘Not safe?’ scoffed Roger. ‘We are knights, armed with the finest steel gold can buy, and with Crusaders’ crosses on our surcoats that tell people we are Jerosolimitani – those who freed Jerusalem from the infidel two years ago. Who do you think will harm us?’
‘This is different,’ argued Geoffrey, who knew that while the residents of Southwark were unlikely to engage them in open battle, they might well fire arrows from dark alleys or abandoned houses.
‘Rubbish!’ declared Roger uncompromisingly. ‘No one would dare.’
A slithering sound made Geoffrey tense, hand on the hilt of his sword as he scanned the street for danger. But there was nothing to see. He looked up to where thatched roofs formed a jagged margin to the thin strip of grey sky above, and thought Roger a fool to be complacent. Neither they nor their servants carried much of value, but their cloaks and armour were of good quality, and their warhorses expensive and well-trained. They were certainly not beyond the ambitions of an opportunistic thief who was handy with a bow.
Ahead lay an inn, which illuminated the dirty street with slivers of light escaping through cracks in its window shutters. A sign above the door swung back and forth, creaking loudly enough to be audible over the hiss of sleet and the sounds of drunken conversation coming from inside the tavern.
‘The Holy Hero,’ said Roger squinting at the sign. It depicted an unhappy-looking Crusader, whose head appeared to be coming away from his body. Words were scrawled underneath, which meant nothing to the illiterate Roger. ‘I have had enough of traipsing in the wet for tonight, and we are too late to cross the bridge anyway. We will stay here.’
‘We will not,’ said Geoffrey, whose ability to read made most of his fellow knights regard him with rank suspicion, Roger included. ‘It is called the Crusader’s Head and the sign shows your “hero” being decapitated by a Southwark whore. It is not the kind of place that would welcome us.’
‘I agree,’ said Geoffrey’s sergeant, Will Helbye, edging his horse forward so he could speak. ‘I do not like the look of it, either.’
Helbye, a grizzled veteran in his late fifties, had been in Geoffrey’s service for many years, and it was well past the time when he should have retired to his home on the Welsh borders. But Helbye did not want to be a farmer, and Geoffrey supposed he intended to remain a soldier until he either was killed in battle or dropped dead in his saddle.
Geoffrey’s squire, Durand, nodded agreement, but Durand was fussy and cowardly, and Geoffrey seldom took any notice of his opinions. Durand was old for a squire, older than Geoffrey himself, and was a neat, slender man with a head of long, golden hair. Geoffrey had been amused at first when Durand had been mistaken for a maiden from behind, but one or two misunderstandings over his sex had turned violent, and he quickly learned that his squire’s appearance was more of a liability than a source of humour.
‘It not only smells, but I just saw a whore go inside,’ said Durand with a shudder that had his companions regarding him warily. Durand’s disapproval of prostitutes extended to women in general, which the others found difficult to understand.
‘It is perfectly respectable,’ argued Roger. ‘My horse is lame and it is time we stopped. Geoffrey does not have meet the King until noon tomorrow, so we do not have to cross the river tonight.’
Geoffrey understood his friend’s reluctance to continue travelling when the prospect of a warm bed beckoned. They had been in the saddle since dawn, and Roger was ready for a rest, particularly in a tavern well supplied with prostitutes and ale.
Geoffrey surveyed the Crusader’s Head warily, considering his options. It was one of the largest taverns on the south bank, and comprised wattle-and-daub walls and a thickly thatched roof. It had been extended and rebuilt more than once, because the different parts of it did not sit well together and formed a complex jumble of windows and walls. Stains seeped from the oils that protected its timbers, and its roof was covered in moss and rot.
As he hesitated, Geoffrey became aware of a strange smell lurking below the stench of sewage and filth that coated the street. It was acrid and somehow dangerous, and vague memories clawed at the back of his mind. It was an aroma he had encountered before, but could not place where or when. He identified the warm, rotten stink of sulphur and the sharper scent of something alkaline, and wondered what sort of ale the landlord served to his patrons.
It did not take many moments for him to conclude that Roger was wrong, and that the Crusader’s Head was not the sort of place he and his companions should patronize. He was about to ride on when there was a yell from one of the building’s upper windows. He glanced up just in time to see something large drop out, almost directly above him. He raised one arm instinctively to ward off the plummeting mass, but it never reached him. Instead, it stopped just above his head, accompanied by an unpleasant snapping sound.
Durand gave a shrill screech of fright and promptly lost control of his pony, while Geoffrey’s dog barked furiously and began to dart in tight circles around the horses’ legs.
‘It is a man!’ Durand babbled, pointing at the bundle that swung back and forth with rhythmic creaking sounds. ‘And he is dead!’