Read A Conspiracy of Violence Online

Authors: Susanna Gregory

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective

A Conspiracy of Violence

BOOK: A Conspiracy of Violence
Also by Susanna Gregory

The Matthew Bartholomew Series

A Plague on Both Your Houses

An Unholy Alliance

A Bone of Contention

A Deadly Brew

A Wicked Deed

A Masterly Murder

An Order for Death

A Summer of Discontent

A Killer in Winter

The Hand of Justice

The Mark of a Murderer


Published by Hachette Digital

ISBN: 978-0-748-12452-7

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © Susanna Gregory 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

Hachette Digital

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY



For Hilary Hale –

Editor, mentor and friend,
with great appreciation and affection

Chapter 1

London, December 1662

Sleet pattered wetly on the dung-coated cobbles outside Lincoln’s Inn, and the biting wind had long-since blown out the lamp
that swung above the gate. The night was so dark that it was difficult even to make out the craggy outlines of the chimneys
and turrets that topped the ancient walls, and the sturdy gate was no more than a looming mass of black.

Thomas Chaloner eased farther inside the doorway of the Rolls Chapel, invisible in his black cloak and the blacker shadows.
It was bitterly cold, and his hands and feet were numb from standing still so long, but he was used to that kind of discomfort.
Observing the movements of others while remaining unseen was how he made his living, because Chaloner was a government spy.
Or rather, he
been a government spy. He had been dismissed in March, and his situation was fast becoming desperate – he owed rent to his
landlord, there was no food in the larder and even his best clothes were beginning to look hopelessly tatty. And that was
why he was lurking outside
Lincoln’s Inn on an icy December morning, waiting for dawn and the interview that might be his salvation.

The man he wanted to see was named John Thurloe. Thurloe had been Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State and Spymaster General
during the Commonwealth, and when that regime had collapsed following Cromwell’s death, Thurloe had fallen with it, and had
lost his position of power – although fortunately for Chaloner, he had retained a modicum of influence over his successors.
The restored King Charles II immediately appointed good Royalists to form his new government, but they had scant idea how
to run a country, and Thurloe’s advice and guidance had proved invaluable, although few of the newcomers were prepared to
admit it.

A group of leatherworkers slouched past, heading for the factory on Fleet Street, although none noticed the silent, motionless
figure in the doorway. The factory was owned by a political fanatic called Praisegod Barbon, whose name had been adopted for
one of Cromwell’s more rabid parliaments, and so its goods were unpopular in Royalist London – no one wanted to be accused
of supporting adherents of the old regime. Consequently, Barbon’s men were shabbily dressed and resentful about their change
of fortune. Chaloner sympathised with their plight, and wondered how many others were consigned to poverty because of circumstances
beyond their control. He watched them pass, then turned his attention back to Lincoln’s Inn, wishing dawn would come, so he
could abandon his chilly vigil and go to meet Thurloe in his warm chambers.

Chaloner was not usually given to hovering outside the homes of former employers, but he was uneasy about
the interview, aware that its outcome would effect the rest of his life. While he waited, he recalled how, when the republic
had first started to shake itself to pieces, he had been in Holland, assigned to a diplomat named Sir George Downing. Downing
had hedged his bets – offering his services to the flustered ministers of the old regime, as well as to the exiled King –
until he was sure which side would emerge victorious. He had kept Chaloner on his staff for two years after the Restoration,
because Chaloner’s reports on the Dutch navy were useful to
British government and Downing was more than happy to take credit for them. But in March, Downing had left The Hague and
returned to England, where he and Chaloner had quarrelled violently. In a fury, he had dismissed the spy in a way that had
made it difficult for him to find other work. Now, after months of futile applications, Chaloner saw his only hope was to
ask Thurloe to intervene, and see whether he knew any government officials who might require an experienced pair of ears and

The significance of the meeting meant he had been unable to sleep, and he knew the time would pass more quickly if he was
doing something – even if it were only standing uselessly outside Lincoln’s Inn. Also, he did not want his restlessness to
communicate itself to his woman, who was sure to question him about it if it did – and he did not want Metje to know what
he was doing until he was sure he had some good news. She was becoming irritated with his unsuccessful attempts to find work
in the city, and he did not want to admit yet another failure if his interview with Thurloe failed to bear fruit.

Time ticked past slowly. The bells in St Clement Danes
chimed five o’clock then six, and the city began to stir. Smoke scented the damp air as fires were kindled, and lights started
to gleam along Chancery Lane. Chaloner waited until a smudge of lighter blue appeared in the eastern sky, then crossed the
road to Lincoln’s Inn’s stocky gatehouse. Lincoln’s Inn was one of four foundations with the right to license lawyers, and
had been built in an age when strong doors and high walls were a prerequisite for survival.

A porter answered his knock eventually, rubbing his eyes in a way that indicated he had been asleep. He was not used to visitors
calling so early, and was more interested in his breakfast than in conducting guests to the chambers of residents. He waved
Chaloner inside, then set about laying the fire in his lodge. It was too bitter a morning to be long without some warmth.

‘Where are you going?’ he called when Chaloner set off in the direction of Chamber XIII. ‘I thought you were here to see Mr

‘Does he no longer live in Dial Court?’

The porter smiled fondly. ‘He lives there – he loves those rooms, although they are too dark and gloomy for my taste. But
Mr Thurloe walks in the gardens at dawn every day. Everyone knows that, and you have been here before – I never forget a face.’

Chaloner was impressed. ‘It has been months since my last visit.’

The guard grinned, pleased with himself. ‘I have a good memory, which is just as well, since we have to be careful who we
let in – assassination is always a risk for men like Mr Thurloe. Even though it has been nearly three years since the King
came home, and everyone knows Mr Thurloe means him no harm, there are still
those who want Mr Thurloe dead. But if you want to see him now, it will have to be in the orchard. Go past the chapel, then
turn right at the library.’

Chaloner followed his directions, passing the rectangular chapel with its peculiar open undercroft, and the ornate library
with its diamond-patterned brickwork. The garden, a pleasant tangle of old fruit trees, overgrown bushes and long grass, lay
to their north. The sleet had abated, although the trees still released showers of droplets each time they swayed in the breeze.
The air smelled of wet vegetation, sodden soil and the richer aroma of the compost heaps lined up under the library’s windows.
Chaloner tried not to shiver when the wind cut through his cloak, afraid Thurloe would interpret it as a sign of nervousness.

The man who was often credited with running Cromwell’s government single-handedly could be seen walking along a path still
strewn with old leaves from the previous autumn. He was slightly built, with medium-brown hair that fell to his shoulders.
His blue eyes were often soulful, which led people to imagine him gentle or timid. He was neither, and there was a core of
steel in Thurloe that had shocked more than one would-be traitor. But although he was ruthless and determined, Chaloner had
never known him to be cruel or vindictive – not during his seven years as Secretary of State and Spymaster, or in the unsettled
period since the collapse of the Commonwealth. As Chaloner approached, he coughed softly, to let the ex-Spymaster know he
was coming.

‘Thomas,’ said Thurloe, relaxing the hand that had been reaching for his sword. ‘You are early.’

‘You said dawn, sir,’ replied Chaloner, glancing up at
the sky. The east was definitely lighter than the pitch black of the west.

Thurloe raised his eyebrows. ‘I suppose distant glimmerings might be considered dawn by some, although not by most. You have
been away from England too long, and have adopted foreign notions.’

‘I assumed you would be busy once it was light enough to read.’

Thurloe smiled. ‘Well, let us stroll in the darkness together, then. I do not like these gloomy winter mornings, and your
company will not be unwelcome. What can I do for you?’

‘Do you have a gun, sir?’ asked Chaloner, as they began to walk. He gestured to the walls. ‘It would not be difficult to scale
those, and a sword is no protection against a pistol.’

‘Is that why you came?’ asked Thurloe. He sounded amused. ‘To ask after my personal safety?’

‘No,’ replied Chaloner sheepishly. ‘I came to ask whether you might write me a testimonial, so I can apply for employment
with the new government. As you know, Downing dismissed me in March, and …’ He hesitated, not sure how to describe the
awkwardness of his situation without saying anything rude about Downing. For all he knew, Downing and Thurloe were still friends.

‘And he has never liked you, and declines to recommend you to his successor,’ finished Thurloe baldly. ‘Worse, he has put
it about White Hall that you should never be hired again.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Chaloner uncomfortably.

‘And his malign influence stretches even further than that,’ Thurloe went on. ‘By declining to write you a reference, he is
effectively ensuring you will never work for
any respectable organisation again. Potential employers will want to know what you have been doing all your adult life, and
your choice is either to admit an association with Downing, who will then say unpleasant things about you, or confess to being
a spy, which is likely to see you killed.’

Chaloner nodded unhappily. ‘But although I worked under him, you were my real master – not just for the past five years in
Holland, but in France, Portugal and Denmark before that – and so you are just as qualified to give an account of my skills
as he is. In fact, you are more so, because I shared
of my intelligence with him, but not all – anything particularly important was sent to you without his knowledge.’

‘I would never tell him that, if I were you. He would think you considered him untrustworthy.’

‘I did – and I was right,’ said Chaloner, seeing there was no way to explain his situation without denigrating Downing – and
if he and Thurloe were still friends, then that was unfortunate but unavoidable. ‘He was sending information to the exiled
King while professing loyalty to you, some of which served to weaken the Commonwealth and hasten its demise.’

‘Hush, Thomas! It is not wise to make such comments, not even to me – especially since I happen to know you were no dedicated
Parliamentarian yourself. Your loyalty lies with your country, not with its shifting governments, which is as it should be.
But we should not waste time discussing Downing. What did you—?’ He dropped his hand to his sword a second time when he became
aware of someone moving through the trees.

‘A messenger, sir,’ said Chaloner. The dagger he kept hidden in the sleeve of his tunic had dropped into his
hand several moments earlier, when he had heard a twig snap underfoot. ‘From the General Letter Office. I recognise his livery.’

‘It is young Charles-Stewart,’ said Thurloe in relief, beckoning the boy forward. ‘Named after the King we executed thirteen
years ago – not that I had any hand in
business, I hasten to add. However, you and I worked for the men who did, which makes us both suspect.’

The boy approached Thurloe with a friendly grin that suggested he had delivered letters to Lincoln’s Inn before, and handed
him a satchel. While Thurloe asked after the lad’s ailing mother, Chaloner tactfully withdrew. He was replacing the dagger
in its hiding place when there was a blur of movement and Charles-Stewart dropped to his knees. Thurloe stumbled backwards
with a cry, and Chaloner saw two figures running towards the wall. One carried the satchel. Chaloner was racing towards them
almost before his mind had registered what was happening.

‘Help the boy!’ Thurloe yelled, reaching towards him as he flew past. Chaloner staggered, and almost lost his footing in the
sleet-plastered grass when he tried to avoid colliding with the frantic ex-Spymaster. ‘Do something! Hurry!’

Cursing under his breath, Chaloner skidded to a halt and knelt by the lad’s side, watching the two men scale the wall with
half his attention, while the rest told him there was nothing he could do for Charles-Stewart. The knife had entered the lad’s
chest and death would have been virtually instant.

‘I am sorry,’ he said to the distraught Thurloe. ‘He is dead.’

Thurloe’s face turned from appalled to dangerous as he hauled Chaloner to his feet and shoved him towards the wall. ‘Then
catch those villains,’ he snarled. ‘Catch them – at all costs!’

Chaloner ran as hard as he could, but was nowhere near fast enough to gain the ground he had lost while stopping to tend the
messenger. The two robbers had turned right along the wide avenue called Holborn, and were almost to the bridge, where he
knew they would disappear into the chaotic maze of alleys that crowded the banks of the Fleet River. He forced himself on.
Then the shorter of the pair collided with a cart, and his accomplice screamed abuse at him until he could regain his feet.
Chaloner began to catch up, but was still too far away to capitalise on the mishap. When he saw they would reach the labyrinth
of slums unchecked, the taller of the two turned to give Chaloner a triumphant, jeering salute before ducking down a lane.
Chaloner tore towards the entrance, but when he reached it, feet skating across the treacherous, dung-slick cobbles, he found
it empty.

The alley was not for the faint-hearted. It lay close to the Fleet, which meant it reeked not only of sewage, but of the odorous
fumes released by nearby tanneries, soap-boilers and slaughterhouses. Over the years, tenements had clawed their way upwards
to accommodate the increasing demand for housing, and, with each new floor, they inched closer to the buildings opposite,
so the sky was now no more than a slender grey ribbon high above. At street level the passage was a thin, dark tunnel, too
narrow for carts, and the ground underfoot was soft with old rubbish, squelching and sticky from the night
of rain. More lanes radiated off it – dismal, stinking fissures that never saw sunlight. The cluster of hovels known as the
Fleet Rookery was the domain of beggars, thieves, ruffians and harlots, living half a dozen or more to one chamber, and only
the foolish or unwary ventured into it.

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