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.
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.