The Fourteenth Thomas Chaloner Adventure
Chaloner finds the murder of a powerful courtier to be just the beginning of a series of events that threaten to lead to widespread death and destruction as the people of London look forward to celebrating Easter.
In the spring of 1666, everyone’s first reaction to a sudden death at the palace of White Hall is that the plague has struck, but the killing of Thomas Chiffinch was by design, not disease.
Chiffinch was holder of two influential posts – Keeper of the Closet and Keeper of the Jewels – and rival courtiers have made no secret of their wish to succeed to those offices. To Thomas Chaloner, ordered to undertake the investigation, such avarice gives a whole host of suspects an ample motive for murder.
The same courtiers are at the heart of the royal entourage endorsing the King’s licentious and ribald way of life, and Chaloner has some sympathy with the atmosphere of outrage and disgust at such behavior. London’s citizens, already irked by the wealthy fleeing to the country at the outbreak of the plague, have scant patience with the Court on its return. The city is abuzz with rumours of dissent and rebellion, fuelled by predictions from a soothsayer in Clerkenwell of a rain of fire destroying the capital on Good Friday.
Chaloner initially dismisses such talk as nonsense, but as he uncovers ever more connections to Clerkenwell among his suspects, he begins to fear that there is also design behind the rumours – and that, come Easter Day, the King and his Court might find themselves the focus of yet another rebellion.
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‘I have had another vision,’ a loud voice that was perfectly audible from inside the coffee house declared. A crowd formed around the open door to listen to her.
‘Mother Broughton, I presume,’ murmured Chaloner from his seat outside.
‘It must be,’ Swaddell whispered back, ‘and we should take heed of what she is about to announce, because some seers are not above making sure their predictions come true – and I do not like the sound of the wailing, gnashing of teeth and darkness that she has claimed will afflict London on Good Friday.’
‘The dead will walk again on Tuesday,’ declared Mother Broughton in sepulchral tones, which caused a frisson of fear to ripple through her listeners, the ranks of which were rapidly swelling with folk who lived around the green.
‘What dead?’ called someone uneasily. ‘Not plague victims?’
‘If they lived godly lives, they will rest in peace,’ replied Mother Broughton grandly. ‘But if they were evil, they will rise to move amongst us, clad in long black cloaks to hide their mouldering bones. In their hands, they will hold red lights – not lamps to illuminate their way, but the vessels that contain their tainted souls.’
‘Crikey!’ breathed landlord Myddleton, turning to regard his customers with frightened eyes. ‘I do not like the sound of that.’
‘The first sighting will be in Bunhill,’ Mother Broughton boomed on, ‘where too many Quakers and Baptists are being buried. The second will be in Westminster Abbey.’
‘I have an uncle interred in Westminster Abbey,’ Swaddell told Chaloner conversationally. ‘It will be interesting to meet him again.’
Chaloner regarded him askance, but then his attention was caught by a remark from Eliza Topp, who was speaking anxiously from the back of the crowd.
‘But if only the wicked will have their eternal rest disturbed, we shall we inundated with nasty people: wife-beaters, religious fanatics, bullies, thieves, killers, courtiers—’
‘Courtiers!’ spat Sarah. ‘Scoundrels to a man! God forbid that they should make an honest living. Or engage in something that might tax their intellect, like devising ways to end this stupid Dutch war or to help the downtrodden poor.’
‘You cannot tax something you do not have,’ put in Eliza, an assessment that drew a rumble of appreciation from the crowd.
‘The government taxes uson what we do not have all the time,’ countered Sarah. ‘They take our hard-earned wages to support a palace that is full of expensive, worthless toadies.’
‘Goodness!’ muttered Chaloner, wondering if she would be so frank if she knew the Spymaster’s favourite assassin was listening. ‘She is bold.’
‘She is,’ agreed Swaddell worriedly. ‘Our informants are right to say that something dark is bubbling in Clerkenwell. The whole area is ripe for insurrection, and Sarah Shawe will be at the heart of it.’
‘But the dead will not stay among us,’ Mother Broughton went on, eager to reclaim the attention. ‘They will return to the soil. Then I predict that three things will come to pass.’
‘Why are there always threethings with seers?’ muttered Swaddell. ‘Never two or four?’
‘Just be thankful she did not choose thirteen,’ quipped Chaloner, ‘or we would be here all day.’
‘The first will be on Maundy Thursday,’ she announced. ‘Five days hence. There will be a death, which will cause much sorrow.’
‘Of course there will,’ spat Swaddell. ‘We live in the biggest city in the world. Someone will also die today, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.’
‘Who?’ called Eliza, alarmed. ‘Did you see that in your vision?’
‘The second will be on Good Friday,’ Mother Broughton went on, ignoring her and dropping her voice to make her next words full of dark foreboding, ‘which falls on the thirteenth day of the month in the year sixteen sixty-six.’
‘She is a charlatan,’ scoffed Chaloner, as the crowd exchanged fearful glances. ‘How can people not see through these clumsy theatrics?’
‘There will be a rain of fire, which will destroy the wicked,’ Mother Broughton informed everyone confidently. ‘It will be followed by a darkness that will cover the entire city. I have already told you that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth on Good Friday. This is why.’
‘Her predictions are vague enough to mean anything, yet contain enough detail to make them seem convincing,’ mused Chaloner. ‘She is crafty.’
‘Yes, damn her,’ muttered Swaddell. ‘Which means my colleagues must squander precious time keeping an eye on her. What is wrong with the woman? Can she not see that we should be concentrating on the Dutch, not wasting our time on the likes of her?’
‘The third thing I foresaw will happen on Easter Sunday,’ Mother Broughton finished. ‘And it is this: the wicked will be gone and the righteous will take their places. There will be such happiness that even the Sun will dance for joy.’
‘That will be a sight, Tom,’ said Swaddell, as the seer was helped off her box to tumultuous applause. ‘Let us hope you and I will be in a position to appreciate it.’
The Thirteenth Thomas Chaloner Adventure
Chaloner has to contend with the efforts of Dutch spies, murderers of twenty sailors, and a discontented political faction in order to halt a rebellion that threatens the monarchy.
By January 1666, the plague has almost disappeared from London, leaving its surviving population diminished and in poverty. The resentment against those who had fled to the country turns to outrage as the court and its followers return, their licentiousness undiminished.
The death of a well-connected physician, the mysterious sinking of a man-of-war in the Thames and the disappearance of a popular courtier are causing concern to Thomas Chaloner’s employer. When instructed to investigate them all, Chaloner is irritated that he is prevented from gaining intelligence on the military preparations of the Dutch. Then he discovers common threads in all the cases, which seem linked to those planning to set a match to the powder keg of rebellion in the city.
Battling a ferocious winter storm that causes serious damage to London’s fabric, Chaloner is in a race against time to prevent the weakened city from utter destruction.
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Beale could tell him no more, so Chaloner returned to the main body of the building, where he began the tortuous business of trying to persuade a lot of selfish and dissolute individuals to stand still long enough to talk to him. Not even the news of Olivia’s death made a difference – they professed themselves to be sorry, but not enough to stop enjoying themselves, and he could tell they considered him and his questions a nuisance. As evening turned to night, it became more difficult than ever, as cask after cask of wine disappeared down intemperate throats.
Eventually, he took his leave, tired, disgusted and of the growing conviction that Urban’s Men were right to point out all that was wrong with White Hall. Perhaps he should lend his sword to those who aimed to topple the government from power, because he was sure that the country would be a lot better off without such a worthless rabble trying to run it.
He stepped into the street, and was immediately aware of someone watching him. As it was a person wearing a long cloak and a hood that hid his face, Chaloner was instantly suspicious, especially when the figure took to his heels the moment he realised he had been spotted. Chaloner followed him back inside the Banqueting House, and thought he had lost him until a clatter of footsteps told him that his quarry had gone down the stairs to the undercroft.
He took the steps three at a time, and saw the edge of the cloak disappear around a pillar. He hared after it, but when three men materialised in front of him, all armed with rapiers, he realised he had made a very elementary mistake. He whipped around, aiming to make a tactical withdrawal, only to find two more swordsmen blocking his way. He was trapped.
He drew his own weapons – sword in one hand, dagger in the other – although his chances against five opponents were slim, to say the least. As one, they advanced for the kill.
Although Chaloner had never liked firearms, which he considered noisy and unpredictable, he wished he had one that night. The sound of it discharging would have summoned the palace guards and thus saved his life – and he needed help desperately, because he was not going to win the confrontation alone. He yelled at the top of his voice, but the revellers in the hall above were making far too much racket for him to be heard.
He evaded defeat a little longer than he expected, because his attackers were hampered by the fact that they could not see very well with their hats pulled low against recognition. But the inevitable came when one kicked his lame leg, which buckled and sent him sprawling. Even then he refused to give up, flailing wildly with his sword, so his assailants were reluctant to close in for the kill. For a while, there was a stalemate, then one, braver than the others, moved in.
The Twelfth Thomas Chaloner Adventure
Chaloner discovers that men are prepared to commit murder in order to determine the fate of one of London’s most famous landmarks.
The plague raging through London in 1665 has emptied the city. The only people left are those too poor to flee, or those who selflessly struggle to control the contagion and safeguard the capital’s future.
Among them, though, are those prepared to risk their health for money – those who sell dubious cures and hawk food at wildly inflated prices. Also among them are those who hold in their hands the future of the city’s most iconic building – St Paul’s Cathedral.
The handsome edifice is crumbling from decades of neglect and indecision, giving the current custodians a stark choice – repair or demolish. Both sides have fanatical adherents who have been fighting each other since the Civil Wars. Large sums of money have disappeared, major players have mysteriously vanished and then an unidentified skeleton is discovered in another man’s grave.
A reluctant Chaloner returns to London to investigate, only to discover that someone is determined to thwart him by any means – bullet, poison or bludgeon – and he fears he has very little time to identify the culprits before he becomes yet another victim in the battle for the Cathedral’s future.
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Tunbridge Wells, September 1665
Not for the first time since his appointment ten months earlier, William Sancroft wished he had never accepted the post of Dean of St Paul’s. His canons were fractious and opinionated, his cathedral was falling to pieces, and to top it all, there was plague in the city. It had started with two or three cases in April, but was now claiming thousands of lives a week. Sancroft knew he should have stayed in London, to comfort the sick and dying, but he was not brave enough. He had nominated a deputy, and fled.
He stared at the letter in his hand. It was unsigned, but he knew who had sent it – years of teaching crafty undergraduates at the University of Oxford had made him adept at identifying handwriting. However, it was not the anonymous nature of the missive that bothered him. It was the content, which detailed a worrisome discovery.
But what could he do? He had no desire to return to London and investigate the matter himself, and he was not so craven as to ask someone else to do it. Yet nor could he do nothing, as ignoring it would make him look weak and indecisive. He half wished the informant had kept his nasty news to himself, although he supposed he should be grateful that at least someone had taken the trouble to keep him informed.
‘What is wrong, old friend?’ asked the Earl of Clarendon kindly. He had come to Tunbridge Wells for the healing waters, and the two men had been enjoying a glass of claret together when the post had arrived.
‘A body,’ replied Sancroft unhappily. ‘Found in a place where it should not have been. Duty dictates that I should return to the city and look into the matter, but there were more than six thousand plague-deaths last week …’
‘I heard,’ said the Earl, and shuddered. ‘But one of my gentleman ushers is good at solving mysteries, and he is usually discreet. Would you like him to go instead?’
‘I cannot send a healthy man to that place of death!’ cried Sancroft, appalled by the notion. ‘My conscience would never allow it.’
‘Nonsense,’ countered the Earl briskly. ‘Chaloner will be delighted to help.’
Sancroft stared at him, moral indignation receding fast as he realised that a solution to his problem might be to hand at no risk to himself. ‘Will he?’
‘Of course! He loves a challenge, and will jump at the chance to show off his talents. And do not worry about his safety – we shall give him plenty of medicine to ward off infection. London Treacle is said to be the best, although sal mirabilis is cheaper.
Sancroft ignored the niggling voice at the back of his head that told him neither remedy worked – if they did, the plague would not have claimed so many victims. He became businesslike before the Earl could change his mind – which he well might, as there was a very real possibility that the retainer could die, and loyal men did not grow on trees.
‘In that case, summon him while I prepare the necessary paperwork,’ he said briskly.
‘What paperwork?’ asked the Earl, puzzled.
‘A pass to get him through the city gates – one can no longer stroll in and out as one pleases – and a writ authorising him to ask questions on my behalf. Assuming he is willing to approach strangers, of course – strangers who might have the plague.’
The Earl shivered again. ‘This dreadful pestilence has spread to Colchester and Salisbury now. I blame General Monck and Mayor Lawrence, personally. They were told to make sure that did not happen – to keep the sickness in London, so that the rest of the country would be spared.’
‘It must be like trying to caulk a sieve,’ said Sancroft, shaking his head at the enormity of the task. ‘And I admire their courage. They are brave men, and I cannot find it in myself to criticise or condemn their efforts.’
‘Did I tell you that Christopher Wren is in Oxford with the King?’ asked the Earl, disliking the censure implicit in Sancroft’s remark, and so changing the subject before they quarrelled. It was too hot for an argument, and he was comfortable in his friend’s airy parlour. ‘They want to tear down your cathedral and build another. Do you mind?’
Sancroft shrugged. ‘They may do as they please. I have no strong feeling one way or the other, although my canons’ opinions are deeply divided.’
‘They squabble in Chapter meetings?’ probed the Earl, who loved ecclesiastical gossip.
‘Incessantly,’ sighed Sancroft. ‘Will you send for your man now? If he leaves today, he could be in London by Thursday. I only hope that we are not sending him to his death.’
The Eleventh Thomas Chaloner Adventure
A series of murders in a bucolic setting leaves Chaloner puzzling over whether the killer is an escaped prisoner of war or an inmate from a madhouse.
In the sapping summer heat of 1665 there is little celebration in London of the naval victory at the Battle of Lowestoft. The King, his retinue and anyone with sufficient means has fled the plague-ridden city, its half-deserted streets echoing to the sound of bells tolling the mounting number of deaths. Those who remain clutch doubtful potions to ward off the relentless disease and dart nervously past shuttered buildings, watchful for the thieves who risk their lives to plunder what has been left behind.
At Chelsea, a rural backwater by the river, with fine mansions leased to minor members of the Court avoiding the capital, there are more immediate concerns: the government has commandeered the theological college to house Dutch prisoners of war and there are daily rumours that those sailors are on the brink of escaping. Moreover, a vicious strangler is stalking the neighbourhood.
Thomas Chaloner is sent to investigate the murder of the first victim, an inmate of a private sanatorium known as Gorges. There have been thefts there as well, but the few facts he gleans from inmates and staff are contradictory and elusive. He realises, though, that Gorges has stronger links to the prison than just proximity, and that the influx of strangers offers plenty of camouflage for a killer – a killer who has no compunction about turning on those determined to stop his murderous rampage.
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Chelsea, 16 July 1665
Nancy Janaway was terrified. Strange things were happening, and she no longer felt safe. She had tried to tell people about it, but no one would listen – at least, no one in a position to help. That was the trouble with Gorges House. Officially, it was an establishment that catered to ailing gentlewomen. In reality, it was an asylum – a place where the rich deposited their mad female relations – and who cared what lunatics thought?
Eventually, she had plucked up the courage to confide in Dr Parker, the senior physician, but although he had sat with every appearance of interested concern, she knew his mind had been elsewhere. He was of the earnest belief he had been put on Earth to cure insanity, so he had almost certainly been thinking about his next experiment. She doubted he had heard a word she had said, much less taken her seriously.
She grimaced when she recalled how he had ended the discussion – by telling her that she would soon be ready to go home. But she did not want to go home! She felt safe in Gorges, with its tall walls and sturdy gates. Outside was where the shadowy figures lurked, especially on the road that wound north through the marshes. She had lost count of the times that she had seen their sinister shapes from her bedroom window.
As it was stifling indoors, she decided to go and sit in the orchard. The towering walls that surrounded the house and its grounds were partly to keep the residents in, but also to provide them with privacy. Gorges was not like Bedlam, where inmates were regarded as entertainment for the general public. It was a haven of benevolence and compassion, and spectators were never allowed in to gawp. It was expensive to stay there, of course, and Nancy knew she was lucky to have been offered a place – she was not wealthy, but Dr Parker had agreed to treat her free of charge because she was local. She had made great progress under his kindly care, and might have been happy … were it not for the shadows.
Yet her fears eventually began to recede, because the orchard was lovely that evening – sweet with the scent of ripening fruit and freshly scythed grass. Bees droned among the summer flowers, and birdsong drifted in from the surrounding fields. She perched on a bench under an ancient apple tree and closed her eyes.
Suddenly, there was a rumpus from Buckingham House next door, which made her start up in alarm, but then she sank back down again, chiding herself for a fool. That particular mansion had been leased to a courtier keen to escape the plague, and wild revels took place there on a daily basis. It was said that the fellow missed the scandalously debauched atmosphere of White Hall, and aimed to recreate it in Chelsea. Sometimes, Nancy watched their antics from her bedroom window with her friend Martha Thrush. They made her laugh, and helped her forget the dark shadows that lurked in the marshes.
She leaned back gazing up at the fruit-laden branches above her head. Then there was a sharp snap as a twig broke underfoot. She started to turn, a smile on her lips. Who was coming? Martha, perhaps, wanting to sit and chat. Or Mrs Bonney, to tell her that there were freshly baked cakes in the kitchen.
But before she could look, hands fastened around her throat – large ones, which immediately cut off the air to her lungs. She struggled, and tried to cry out, but no sound emerged other than a choking gasp. Terrified, she fought harder, but the fingers were strong, and she could not twist free. She felt herself growing light-headed, and the sounds of the summer evening merged into a meaningless roar. Eventually, she stopped fighting and went limp.
The shadow stared at her for a moment, and seeing she was dead, slipped soundlessly away.
Thomas Chaloner’s Tenth Exploit in Restoration London
The murder of a wealthy goldsmith-banker leads Chaloner to a murky underworld of debt and treachery.
London in the spring of 1665 is a city full of fear. There is plague in the stews of St Giles, the Dutch fleet is preparing to invade and a banking crisis threatens to leave Charles II’s government with no means of paying for the nation’s defence.
Amid the tension, Thomas Chaloner is ordered to investigate the murder of Dick Wheler, one of the few goldsmith-bankers to have survived the losses that have driven others to bankruptcy – or worse. At the same time, a French spy staggers across the city, carrying the plague from one parish to another.
Chaloner’s foray into the world of the financiers who live in and around Cheapside quickly convinces him that they are just as great a threat as the Dutch, but their power and greed thwart him at every turn. Meanwhile, the plague continues to spread across the city, and the body count from the disease and from the fever of avarice starts to rise alarmingly …
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Cheapside, January 1665
It had been a terrible night for Nicholas Colburn. He had been a wealthy man, proud owner of a country estate, founder of a reputable wine business, and fêted as a shining beacon of respectability and virtue by his fellow vintners. Now he had nothing, and he doubted that even his most loyal friends would hold him in very high esteem once they learned what he had done.
As he left the illicit gambling den the sun was rising, presaging the start of another crisp, blue winter day. Then he saw the man who had introduced him to his vice, and who had been whispering for weeks that his luck would change. The fellow was smirking. Colburn stared at him. Was that vengeance in his eyes – that he had wanted this to happen? Colburn shook himself irritably. No, he would not blame his ruin on someone else. He had always had a weakness for cards, and the higher the stakes, the more exciting and irresistible he found them. It had been his own choice to continue playing in the face of all reason.
As his fortune had dwindled, he had applied to the goldsmiths for loans – goldsmiths were also bankers, men who stored money for some clients and lent it to others. They had been astonished that such a rich man should need to borrow, but he had invented a tale about expanding his business, and had offered to pay twice the usual rate of interest. Naturally greedy, they had scrambled to accept his terms. However, being gentlemen of discretion, not one had discussed the arrangement with his colleagues. And that was unfortunate, because if they had, they might have prevented what was about to happen.
It was too late now, of course. The previous night had seen Colburn lose the last of the vast sums he had begged. Unbeknownst to each other, virtually every goldsmith in the city had accommodated him, and many had overreached themselves to do so, flattered that they should have been chosen by such a prestigious customer. Many of the smaller concerns would not survive when he defaulted. Indeed, even the larger ones would suffer a serious blow.
Bowed down with remorse, Colburn trudged along Cheapside, which was bright, lively and chaotic. And noisy – the sound of iron-shod wheels on cobbles and the honks, bleats and brays of animals being driven to market was deafening. It reeked, too, the hot stench of dung mingling with the contents of the drains that ran down either side of the road – slender ribbons of water that were wholly incapable of coping with the volume of rubbish tipped into them.
As he passed the church of St Mary le Bow, a royal herald climbed the steps, resplendent in his fine uniform. Two trumpeters blared a fanfare to attract attention, and Colburn went to listen, although he did not know why – what heralds proclaimed could not matter to him now.
In a penetrating bawl, the man announced that war had been declared on the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Colburn wondered why the King had waited so long to say so – the news was weeks old, and had already been thoroughly discussed in the coffee houses. He experienced a familiar, sharply agonising stab of guilt as the little procession marched away to its next destination. Wars were expensive, so how would His Majesty pay for one? The answer was that he would expect help from the goldsmith-bankers. Except that many of them would not be in a position to oblige, thanks to Colburn and his gambling.
He hid behind a cart when he saw several bankers in the crowd that had gathered to hear the herald. Taylor, Wheler and Backwell headed the most powerful enterprises, while Angier and Hinton were smaller, but still influential. They stood talking in low voices, no doubt discussing how best to fund the enterprise. But some would have nothing to give, thanks to Colburn. Misery engulfed him. What if the Dutch invaded because the King could not afford to defend his realm?
Sick with shame, Colburn stumbled away. How could he live with the knowledge that his fondness for cards had put his country in danger? He could never repay what he owed, and no one would ever spare him a smile or a friendly word again. He would be a pariah, shunned by all until the day he died. Gradually, he began to see what he must do. He waited until a particularly heavy cart was lumbering past, and flung himself beneath it.
There were cries of horror as the wheels crunched across him, and people hurried to stand around his mangled body, shaking their heads in mute incomprehension. Some were the bankers.
‘It is Nicholas Colburn,’ said Backwell, unsteadily. ‘One of my biggest clients.’
‘And mine,’ added Angier. ‘In fact, he owed me a fortune, so I hope his estate can pay, or I shall be ruined.’
Blood drained from faces as others said the same and the awful truth dawned. The sum total of the loans that Colburn had taken out were far greater than the value of his assets, and he had offered the same collateral to all. No one would receive more than a fraction of what had been lent.
‘The war,’ gulped Backwell. ‘How shall we finance the war?’
Thomas Chaloner’s Ninth Exploit in Restoration London
The sinking of the pride of the navy in the Thames starts an investigation that leads to a group dedicated to changing the government of England beyond all recognition.
In 1665 England is facing war with the Dutch and the capital is awash with rumours of conspiracy and sedition. These are more frenetic than normal because of the recent sinking in the Thames of one of the largest ships in the navy – a disastrous tragedy that could very well have been caused by sabotage.
As an experienced investigator, Thomas Chaloner knows that there are very few grains of truth in the rumour mill, but the loss of such an important warship and the murder of Paul Ferine, a Groom of the Robes, in a brothel favoured by the elite of the Palace of White Hall makes him scent a whiff of genuine treason.
As well as investigating the murder, Chaloner is charged with tracking down the leaders of a fanatical sect known as the Fifth Monarchists. However, he suspects that the order for him to infiltrate the group is intended to distract him from uncovering some unsavoury facts about Ferine and his courtly associates. Then, as he comes to know more about the Fifth Monarchists and their meetings on High Holborn, he discovers a puzzling number of connections – to both Ferine’s murder and those involved with the defence of the realm. Connections that he must disentangle before it is too late to save the country …
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7 March 1665
His Majesty’s Ship London was a magnificent sight as she sailed down the Medway from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham. Carrying some eighty guns, she was one of the largest ships in the navy, and the Admiralty expected her to play a crucial role in fighting the Dutch – war had been declared two weeks before. She was the flagship of Admiral Sir John Lawson, and would sail up the Thames to collect him from Queenhithe, after which she would join the rest of his fleet in the Channel.
London had always enjoyed a special relationship with the city after which she was named, so the crew was looking forward to taking her there, relishing the opportunity to show off her exquisitely painted woodwork, new bright sails and gleaming brass cannon. There were three hundred seamen aboard, and those not on watch had contrived to be out on deck, proud and trim in their best embroidered jackets and snowy white trousers.
There was also a smattering of passengers – a few of the Admiral’s relations making the journey between Chatham and Queenhithe as a treat. They would disembark in the city, after which London would revert to a fighting machine. The festive ribbons that fluttered from her masts would be taken down, her crew would exchange their smart, shore-going rigs for working clothes, and all would be battened down ready for combat.
Captain Jeffrey Dare, in command until the Admiral boarded, ordered the mainsails set and London heeled over as the wind caught her, a sharp bow-wave hissing down her sides. He was glad to be away at last, although he was concerned about the failing light. He had intended to get underway at dawn, but there had been some wrangling over paperwork with the dockyard’s commissioner, and it was noon before the matter had been resolved.
Wind sang in the rigging as London picked up speed, a joyful sound that drove the petty frustrations of the refit from Dare’s mind. He smiled. It was good to feel the deck alive under his feet again, and although he thought the King and his Privy Council were insane to declare war on a powerful maritime nation like the Dutch, he was eager to do his duty. And at least they had had the sense to put the Channel Fleet under Lawson, not some clueless aristocrat who had never been to sea. The Admiral might be a rough-mannered, salty-tongued braggart, but at least he knew his way around a ship.
Thoughts of Lawson reminded Dare of the two large chests that had been brought aboard earlier that day. Did they really contain the Admiral’s bass viols, as Commissioner Pett had claimed? Dare had been astonished to learn that Lawson was interested in music: no matter how hard he tried, he could not imagine that gruff old seadog engaging in anything so cultured.
He had challenged Pett about the weight, too. The boxes were extremely heavy, and he was unconvinced by the explanation that Lawson had purchased a new kind of instrument made of metal, so they would not lose their tone in the damp sea-air. But the Admiral’s luggage was none of Dare’s business, especially now, when the ship was underway and he had duties to attend.
He bellowed a complex stream of orders that changed London’s course as she flew out of the mouth of the Medway and into the Thames Estuary. She responded immediately, like the good ship she was, and he was pleased both with her and her crew – the Dutch would not know what had hit them when London met them in battle!
Her motion was different once she was in less sheltered waters, and she began to pitch and roll; Dare grinned when several passengers made a dash for the rail. Normally, he would have tacked immediately, but the wind was capricious that day, and to the east lay the Nore, the hidden, shifting sandbanks that had brought many an unwary ship to an ignominious end. Wisely, he deferred until he was certain the danger was past.
He happened to glance landwards as London passed the little village of Prittlewell, a low huddle of cottages strewn along a bleak, muddy shore. Fishermen and their families had gathered on the beach, tiny figures who brandished their hats and waved joyously. Some of the crew waved back, as did those passengers who were not retching. Dare felt a surge of pride, knowing what a noble sight London must be, with her great press of canvas billowing white against the dark pebble-grey of the sky.
The delay in leaving meant they had missed the tide, so Dare climbed up to the crosstrees – the beams that attached the rigging to the mast – wanting the better view that height would provide. From that elevated perch he could really read the water – interpret the ripples and changing colours that warned of currents, shoals and contrary breezes. It was an undignified thing for a captain to do, but Lawson did it, and what was good enough for that staunch old mariner was good enough for Dare.
He fixed his eyes on the course ahead, and shouted directions that would alter their bearing a fraction. It was not really necessary, but there was no harm in working the crew after so many weeks in dock. The wind made his eyes water; it was much colder aloft that it was below, with a brisk south-westerly blowing.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous crack, followed by an explosion, and the ship heeled violently to one side. The lurch was so great that it almost dislodged him from his precarious perch, and for a moment, he could do nothing but flail about in a desperate attempt to regain his balance. He glanced down as soon as he was able, and was horrified to see clouds of billowing smoke and bodies in the sea, bobbing and lifeless.
With a tearing groan the main-mast behind him began to topple, taking with it a mass of sail and several shrieking sailors. Dare did not understand what was happening. They could not have run aground, because they were in the middle of a wide, deep channel. Had the powder magazine exploded then? But how? No one should have been down there, and it was locked anyway. With a shriek of protesting timbers, London listed farther to starboard. Dare swung in the air for a moment, then lost his grip to cartwheel sickeningly towards the churning brown water below.
On shore, the villagers of Prittlewell watched in stunned disbelief. One moment, London was ploughing with silent grace up the river, her sails full and fat, and the next she was tilting heavily to one side, belching smoke. Corpses littered the water around her, while tiny splashes of white showed where the occasional survivor was frantically struggling to stay afloat.
‘Launch the boats!’ bellowed Jeremiah Westcliff, Prittlewell’s oldest and most experienced fisherman, the first to recover his wits. ‘Hurry!’
He had to shove some of his shocked neighbours to bring them to their senses, but then all was action and urgency as brawny arms heaved the little crafts into the waves. Once away, the villagers rowed for all they were worth, sinews cracking and breath coming in agonised gasps. Terrified screams and a gushing fountain of water told them that London was going down fast. They intensified their efforts, summoning every last ounce of strength to send their boats skimming across the grey-brown water.
But their labours were in vain: by the time they arrived, the ship had gone. The fishermen leaned on their oars, panting hard as they gazed helplessly at the bodies that floated everywhere they looked. The dead would not stay long, of course: the tide was never still, and Father Thames was already tugging some of his gruesome cargo away from the scene of the disaster.
Yet there were survivors. Several clung to a mat of cordage and spars, while a few more flailed in the water. The villagers began to pull them out, but their number was pitifully small.
‘Twenty-four,’ Westcliff eventually reported to the only officer they had found, identifiable by his fine blue coat. ‘How many were aboard?’
‘More than three hundred.’ Dare’s face was grey with shock. He had no idea how he had survived his fall, although the lower half of his body was numb and he wondered whether death might claim him yet. When his eyes were drawn back to the horrible swirling wreckage and the bodies of his sailors, he hoped it would. ‘What happened?’
Westcliff shook his head uncomprehendingly. ‘One moment London was going along as proud as Lucifer, and the next she was blown to pieces. Were you carrying much powder?’
‘One magazine was full,’ Dale replied hoarsely. ‘But we were going to load the others in Queenhithe.’
‘Then it was an accident,’ surmised Westcliff. ‘A tragic, dreadful accident.’
‘No,’ whispered Dale. ‘It was not.’
Thomas Chaloner’s Eighth Exploit in Restoration London
Five years after Charles II’s triumphant return to London, there is growing mistrust of his extravagant Court and corruption among his officials.
Adding to the beleaguered monarch’s troubles are rumours of an invasion by the Dutch, the sudden appearance of his mistress’s husband, and the ever-present threats of plots either to restore the Commonwealth or to bring back a Catholic ruler. All are gleefully discussed in the coffee houses, and fill them with more steam and stench that rises from their kitchens.
When a cart laden with gunpowder explodes outside the General Letter Office, it is immediately clear that such an act is more than an expression of outrage at the inefficiency of the postal service. As intelligencer to the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Chaloner cannot understand why a man of known incompetence is put in charge of investigating the attack, while he is diverted to make enquiries about the poisoning of birds in St James’s Park. He becomes even more suspicious of his employer’s motives when he discovers that the witnesses he needs to interview had close links to the General Letter Office, where activities are more firmly centred on intercepting people’s mail than delivering it.
Then human rather than avian victims are poisoned, and Chaloner knows he has to ignore his master’s instructions and use his own considerable wits to defeat an enemy whose deadly tentacles reach into the very heart of government: an enemy who has the power and expertise to destroy anyone who stands in the way…
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Tuesday 10 January 1665
Post House Yard was a pretty square, located just off the busy thoroughfare called Dowgate Hill. It was dominated by the General Letter Office, the place where the country’s mail was received and dispatched. This was a handsome building taxed on thirty-three hearths, although there was a wing at the back that was disused and said to be falling into disrepair. It boasted an elegant stone façade, and five marble steps led up to its imposing front door.
The other buildings in Post House Yard were equally attractive – a row of neat, brightly painted cottages on the right, and the brick-built mansion owned by the eccentric Sir Henry Wood on the left. The square was cobbled with pale pink stones that were kept unusually clean, and someone had planted two long borders with a variety of shrubs and trees.
The two conspirators stood in one of these gardens. It was a clear night, and they could not afford to be seen, so they were grateful for the shadows cast by a spreading yew.
‘I am not sure about this,’ the first muttered unhappily. ‘Gunpowder is so indiscriminate. We might harm a lot of innocent bystanders.’
There was a crackle as the second man fingered a letter. ‘It says here that we should not allow that possibility to discourage us – that there will be casualties in any struggle for justice.’
‘I suppose that is true. When do they want this explosion to take place?’
‘At noon on Thursday.’
The first man stared at his companion’s silhouette, aghast. ‘But that is when the domestic mails are collected! The square will be teeming with people – we might kill dozens of them!’
The second shook his head quickly. ‘Not if it is done properly, and the noise and commotion will work to our advantage. It means that our powder-laden cart is less likely to be noticed, which will increase our chances of success.’
‘I do not like it.’
‘Neither do I, but the situation cannot be allowed to continue. You know this – we have talked of little else for the past four years. Look!’ The second man pointed at the sky. ‘It is the comet. It appeared on the very evening that we received our instructions, and it has grown steadily brighter ever since. It is a sign of God’s approval – what we are doing is right.’
The first man nodded, but he remained uneasy. In two days, the dead would litter Dowgate Hill, and London would never be the same again.
Thomas Chaloner’s Seventh Exploit in Restoration London
Murder, greed and treachery in the corridors of power…
Thomas Chaloner is relieved to be summoned back to London from Tangier, where his master, the Earl of Clarendon, has sent him to investigate a case of corruption. He had not enjoyed his travels, not least because he had only been married a few days before being ordered away. Thus he is happy to be reunited with Hannah, although the trivial reason for his recall exasperates him – the theft of building materials from the construction site of Clarendon’s sumptuous home just north of Piccadilly.
But within hours of his return, Chaloner is thrust into other investigations, ones involving threats of assassination, a stolen corpse and a scheme to frame the Queen for treason. And there are connections between them all that thread through the unfinished Clarendon House.
These connections make Chaloner realise that the violence, intrigue and corruption he has witnessed on the north African coast has its roots in the heart of the capital’s establishment: courtiers vying for a share of the vast wealth to be had from trading overseas. Determined to belong to the most profitable syndicate, they will stop at nothing to deter those who dare to undermine their ambitions…
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Tangier, 4 May 1664
William Reyner watched Lord Teviot lead the five hundred soldiers to their deaths. It would be easy to prevent the massacre – just gallop after the column and tell Teviot that more than ten thousand Barbary corsairs were lying in wait ahead – but he made no move to do so. A large amount of money was at stake, and that was considered far more important than the lives of mere warriors. Besides, Reyner had never liked Teviot: the man was a greedy fool, who should never have been appointed Governor of Tangier in the first place.
He glanced around him. Tangier had come to England as part of Queen Katherine’s dowry, but it was a paltry place – a few winding streets huddled on a hill, rich with the scent of exotic spices, sun-baked manure and the salty aroma of the sea. It was being fortified, in the hope that it would provide British ships with a secure Mediterranean anchorage, although personally, Reyner thought the King should have held out for something better. Tangier’s harbour was too shallow and too exposed, while the surrounding countryside was full of hostile Moors.
When the last infantryman had marched through the town gate, Reyner and his fellow scouts followed on horseback. Colonel Harley was in the lead, sullen and scowling as usual, while the impassive Robert Newell brought up the rear. All three were careful to keep their distance: they did not want to become entangled in the slaughter that was about to take place.
Teviot’s destination was a wood named Jews Hill, a place where corsairs often gathered to harry the town. The three scouts had assured him that it was safe that day, a good time to chop down some of the trees, and make it more difficult for raiders to use in the future. The reality was that it had never been more dangerous.
It was not long before the first sounds of battle drifted back on the hot, dusty breeze – the yells of men roaring an attack and the spluttering crack of gunfire. Reyner, Harley and Newell reined in.
Reyner did not care about Teviot, but he had always been uncomfortable with sacrificing half the town’s garrison into the bargain. Harley and Newell had scoffed at his faintheartedness, reminding him of the fabulous rewards they would reap when the deed was done, but he could not escape the conviction that the plan was unnecessarily brutal, and that a less bloody way should have been devised to realise their master’s plans.
The first skirmish did not last long, and the British cheered when the Moors turned and ran. Reyner stared hard at Harley: there was still time to stop what had been set in motion, to warn Teviot that the first attack was a ruse to lure him and his men deeper into the woods. But Harley ignored him. Oblivious to the peril, Teviot rallied his troops and led an advance up the hill.
The British were jubilant at the enemy’s ‘flight’, and it was clear they felt invincible. They walked a little taller in the wavering heat, the fierce African sunlight glinting off their helmets and weapons. Teviot was at their head, a tall, athletic figure on his white horse. He looked like a god, although Reyner knew he was anything but: the Governor of Tangier was a vain, stupid man, whose incompetence was matched only by his venality.
The corsair commander timed his ambush perfectly, splintering Teviot’s column into clusters. There was immediate panic: the British had been trained to fight in a specific formation, and did not know what to do once their orderly line had been broken. Teviot did his best, bawling orders and laying about him like a demon. Grudgingly, Reyner admitted that, for all his faults, the man was no coward.
The battle was short and brutal. Pikes and short swords were no match for ten thousand scything scimitars, and the British were cut down in ruthless hand-to-hand skirmishing. Teviot managed to rally a few men at the top of the hill, where he mounted a brave last stand, but it was hopeless. The Moors advanced in an almost leisurely fashion, and Teviot was hacked to pieces.
Without a word, Reyner, Harley and Newell rode back to Tangier, ready to feign shock when news of the catastrophe reached the town. They did not have long to wait. Miraculously, about thirty soldiers had managed to escape. They stumbled through the gate, shaken and bloody, gasping their tale to the settlement’s horrified residents.
Reyner closed his ears to the wails of shock and disbelief, telling himself that the massacre was Teviot’s own fault for choosing the wrong side in the struggle for riches and power – his master had had no choice but to order his elimination. But he was uneasy, even so. The order to kill Teviot had been delivered with a ruthless insouciance, and Reyner had sensed a dark and deadly power.
Not for the first time since he had been recruited, he wondered whether he had been right to throw in his lot with such a person. He had been promised a handsome payment, it was true, but what good was a fortune if he was not alive to enjoy it – if it was decided that those who had engineered the atrocity were too great a liability, and should be dispatched themselves?
But what was done was done, and there was no going back. He, Harley and Newell would just have to ensure that no one ever learned the truth about what had transpired on Jews Hill that pretty spring morning. And if that entailed more murders, then so be it.
Thomas Chaloner’s Sixth Exploit in Restoration London
London swelters in a heatwave in the summer of 1664, and in the corridors of power, the temperature is equally high as war with the Dutch looks set to become a reality.
In the dilapidated surroundings of the Savoy Hospital, a delegation from the United Provinces of the Netherlands has gathered for a final attempt to secure peace between the two nations. Thomas Chaloner, whose duties as an intelligencer had taken him to Holland during Cromwell’s time, knows many of the delegates, including the sister of his late wife. Her husband, Willem Hanse, is more determined than most that the two countries should not go to war.
Then Hanse’s body is found in the Thames, and Chaloner discovers that his former brother-in-law has left enigmatic clues pointing to a motive for his murder. Was Hanse involved in a plot to steal the crown jewels, or had he fallen foul of one of the many people in London who are determined that the peace talks will fail?
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Willem Hanse carried a terrible secret, and had no idea what to do with it. He was a stranger in a foreign land, and did not know whom he could trust – not among his fellow Dutchmen, who had travelled to London with him in a final, desperate attempt to avert a war with Britain, and not among his English hosts. He was also unwell, suffering from an unsettling, gnawing ache in his innards. He pulled off his gloves – stupid things to wear when the city was in the grip of a heatwave, but they had been a gift from a friend and it comforted him to don them – and wiped sweat from his eyes.
He glanced behind him as he walked, pretending to gaze across the river at the twinkling lights of Southwark, but really looking for the malignant Oetje. His heart sank when he saw she was still there: he had not managed to lose her, despite his best efforts. She had followed him out of his lodgings at the Savoy Hospital – the rambling Tudor palace that had been lent to the Dutch Ambassador and his staff for the duration of their stay – and then she had lurked outside the Sun tavern while he had spent the evening with his friend, Tom Chaloner.
Poor Chaloner had been exhausted. He had spent the ten days since his wedding desperately trying to solve a murder, while simultaneously struggling to pay court to a new wife and serve a demanding master. He had wanted to go home to sleep, but Hanse had detained him with idle chatter, hoping Oetje would tire of her vigil and leave. Unfortunately, her patience appeared to be infinite, because she had stood in a doorway all evening, silent and watchful.
Eventually, Chaloner had fallen asleep at the table, which had relieved Hanse of the burden of pretending all was well when it was not. Hanse had let him doze for a while, then had reluctantly shaken him awake when he knew he could dally no longer, and would have to leave the safety of the tavern – Oetje or no Oetje.
Chaloner had wanted to accompany him back to the Savoy – London was unsafe for Dutchmen, and one out alone at such an hour would be an attractive target for English ‘patriots’ – but Hanse, unwilling to embroil him in such a deadly matter, had refused. In the end, they had compromised: Hanse had taken a hackney carriage instead of walking as he had planned. Chaloner had not been happy with the arrangement, but had been too tired to argue. He had seen Hanse into the coach, and then turned for home.
Once he had gone, Hanse had made a spirited effort to lose Oetje, directing his driver on a tortuous journey through a maze of narrow alleys. In a particularly dark spot, he had scrambled out and paid the man to keep going without him. Then he had visited several crowded taverns, entering through front doors and slipping out through the back ones, but all to no avail – Oetje had stuck to him like glue. Now he was all alone in a particularly dangerous, squalid part of the city.
Hanse believed, with all his heart, that the business he had undertaken was worth his life, and he was prepared to do anything to see it through. Of course, he thought grimly, as he broke into a trot, he could not complete what he had started if he was killed. Pushing such macabre thoughts from his mind, he blundered on.
A figure materialised ahead, so Hanse jigged down the alley to his left, but there were footsteps everywhere, echoing in his aching head. Clutching his stomach, he began to run, unease blossoming into full-blown fear as his pursuer gained on him. Then he tripped over a pile of rubbish in the darkness. He knew he was near the Thames, because he could hear its gentle lap on the muddy shore. He tried to climb to his feet, but his limbs were like lead. Someone came to stand over him.
‘Please!’ he whispered. ‘Do not—’
His adversary issued a low, mirthless chuckle that turned Hanse’s blood to ice, despite the heat of the summer evening. ‘You should not have interfered.’
Thomas Chaloner’s Fifth Exploit in Restoration London
Thomas Chaloner has forged a living as a spy for the Earl of Clarendon since the early days of the Restoration, but are they about to come to an abrupt and perhaps fatal end?
In February 1664, Chaloner is aware of an undercurrent on the streets of London. The coffee houses are thick with rumours; there is anger at the new laws governing church attendance; and Londoners are viewing with ever deeper contempt the debauchery of the King and his courtiers. And there is murder.
The infamous church-smasher Dick Culmer is killed among the ramshackle buildings of London Bridge, and Chaloner’s investigations link Culmer to a group of Puritan conspirators. Meanwhile, in the Palace of White Hall, Chaloner realises that the ring-leaders of a rebellion are planning an explosive climax to achieve their goals. Desperately racing against time, Chaloner is determined to thwart them – as determined as they are to prevent him from revealing their true intentions…
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London Bridge, late January 1664
The Earl of Clarendon hated the London Bridge. He disliked the way its narrow-fronted, teetering houses loomed over the road, meeting overhead to turn it into a shadowy, sinister tunnel. And he disliked the fact that it was always so busy – thick with carts, people and animals. Usually, he hired a boat if business took him south of the river, but a spate of abnormally high tides meant they were not currently available – so he had had no choice but to brave the Bridge.
He sat in his fine coach and glowered out of the window, furious that no oarsman had been free to ferry him across the churning brown waters. Then he remembered the last time it had happened. It had been a few days before, and he had been somewhat startled to see several of his enemies loitering around one of the Bridge’s rickety houses. Moreover, he had also been told that dubious characters had taken to lurking there – men such as the infamous iconoclast ‘Blue Dick’ Culmer.
And if that were not enough to raise eyebrows, there were the Bridge’s two wardens. The Earl did not trust them at all, mostly because they were rumoured to be incorruptible. Who was incorruptible in Restoration London, where only the devious and dishonest could expect to prosper? As far as the Earl was concerned, anyone extolled as men of honour automatically earned his suspicion!
He narrowed his eyes as he passed Chapel House, a shabby affair that had been built on the site of a church dedicated to St Thomas Becket. It was swathed in scaffolding and canvas, because someone had decided it needed refurbishing, which effectively shielded it from passers-by. But the material was poorly secured, and through a gap, the Earl glimpsed a gaggle of his enemies’ servants. They were huddled together, speaking in low voices.
He experienced a surge of unease. What were they doing? Hatching another plot against him? After twenty years of civil war and military dictatorship, England was an unstable, restless country, full of shifting loyalties. Uprisings occurred on a weekly basis, and no government minister who valued his life and his position ignored that fact. It was not impossible that his foes were planning some sort of coup that would see him discredited – or worse.
The carriage rattled on, passing Nonesuch House, a fabulous jumble of onion domes and great glass windows, currently rented by a fellow named Sir John Winter. The Earl pursed his lips. Not only was Winter a Catholic, but he was reputed to be an authority on gunpowder, too. And if that combination was not sinister, then the Earl did not know what was. He would have ordered Winter put under surveillance, but the only man he trusted to do it – Thomas Chaloner – was in Wimbledon on other duties. Still, Chaloner would be back soon, and then he could look into whatever dark business was fermenting on the Bridge.
Finally, the coach reached the Stone Gate, where the Earl’s eyes were drawn upwards, to the severed heads that had been impaled on spikes above the arch – traitors, all executed since the monarchy had been restored three years before. Some were men the King would have spared, but the Earl had urged him against clemency, lest it was seen as a sign of weakness. He felt no remorse, though, as he stared at the blackened, unrecognisable features. It was hardly his fault they had backed the wrong side.
As his carriage passed under the arch, there was a sudden violent thud that made him jump and set his heart racing. Immediately, people started to shout, then laugh. It did not take the Earl long to realise what had happened. One of the heads had come off its pike, and landed on the roof of his coach. The vile things dropped not infrequently, especially during windy weather, but the Earl was seized by the immediate and unshakable sense that it was an omen of evil to come.
He could not prevent a shudder as the head was brandished outside his window by a grinning apprentice. He told himself he was being fanciful – that the falling skull was a chance event, and meant nothing at all. But his stomach continued to roil, and gradually he accepted what he knew to be true, deep in his heart – it was an omen, and it boded ill for him, for the people who knew him, and for London.