Thomas Chaloner’s Fourth Exploit in Restoration London
Christmas in London in 1663 is very different from the austere celebrations during the rule of Cromwell in the Commonwealth …
Of course, many disapprove of the relaxed revelries, including a Treasury clerk respected for his diligence and probity. On Christmas Day, he works in solitary piety in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster. But he is not truly alone. A killer waits in the draughty hall to ensure that he will not live to see the end of the month.
The clerk is not the only government official to die that season, and in the malicious atmosphere of White Hall, the Lord Chancellor fears his enemies will use the investigation into the murders to do him harm. He decides to commission his own inquiries and orders his intelligencer Thomas Chaloner to prove that another clerk, a man named Greene, is the culprit.
Chaloner, though, can prove otherwise, but unravelling the reasons behind his employer’s suspicions is as complex as discovering the motives for the killings. His search for the real murderer plunges him into a stinking seam of corruption, where the pickings are so rich that men are prepared to go to any lengths to protect their profits: corruption that leads towards the royal apartments, and to people determined to make Christmas 1663 Chaloner’s last.
The Westminster Poisoner is also available as a Soundings Audio Book, read by Gordon Griffin. It can be ordered as either CD or cassette or downloaded from iTunes.
Westminster, Christmas Day 1663
The Palace of Westminster was an eerie place after dark. It was full of medieval carvings that gazed down from unexpected places, and when the street-lamps swayed in the wind, it made some of the statues look as though they were moving. The killer was sure he had just seen Edward the Confessor reach for his sword, while a few moments before he had been equally certain that a gargoyle had winked at him. He took a deep breath and tried to pull himself together, increasing his stride so he could complete his business and go home. It was no night to be out anyway, with a fierce storm blowing in from the east, carrying with it needles of rain that hurt when they hit bare skin.
He walked towards the building called the Painted Chamber, which was a long, draughty hall hung with tapestries so old that they were grey with dust. Ancient kings had once used it to receive important guests; nowadays it was where the two Houses of Parliament met when they needed to confer. However, as Commons and Lords rarely had much to say to each other, a few high-ranking government officials had taken it over. Desks were placed at irregular intervals along its length, while around its edges were chests full of documents, writs and books.
The Painted Chamber was empty now, of course, because it was eight o’clock on Christmas night, and the clerks had gone home early, eager to gorge themselves on rich seasonal foods, sing carols and enjoy visits from friends and family. Cromwell’s Puritans had done their best to curb the revelries associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas, but December was a dark, cold, dreary month, and people needed something to cheer them up – the Puritans’ efforts had never had gained much support, and the Restoration had seen the festival revived in all its pagan glory. Christmas was more popular now than it had ever been.
The killer nodded to himself when he opened the Painted Chamber’s door and saw a lamp gleaming at the far end. Well, most clerks had gone home early: James Chetwynd was still at his desk, chin resting on his left hand while he wrote with his right. The killer did not blame him – Chetwynd’s kin were quite open about the fact that they cared nothing for him, and that they hoped he would die so they could inherit his money; he would have to be insane to want to spend Christmas with them. The killer took a deep breath, and supposed they were going to be rich sooner than they had anticipated, because tonight was going to be Chetwynd’s last on Earth.
He advanced stealthily. Chetwynd was engrossed in his papers, so certain he was safe inside the great hall that he did not once look up. The killer wondered if the clerk preferred the stillness of evening to the commotion of daylight hours – if he was able to think more clearly when there were no distractions. Regardless, the killer was glad he was there, because what better place for a murder than a deserted room in a palace that had been all-but abandoned for the night? It afforded both privacy and space, allowing him to take his time and ensure he left no clues behind him. His smug musings meant he did not concentrate on where he was going, and he stumbled over a loose floorboard, a sound that made Chetwynd’s head jerk up in surprise.
‘Is anyone there?’ the clerk called, peering into the darkness beyond the halo of light around his desk. ‘Show yourself!’
There was no fear in his voice – he assumed anyone entering the Painted Chamber would be a friend, and did not for a moment imagine he might be in danger. The killer did not reply. He waited until Chetwynd’s attention drifted back to his documents, and then he made his move.