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.Amazon.co.uk Hardcover Kindle Edition Waterstones Amazon.com US Hardcover US Kindle Edition The Book People
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.’