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Authors: P. F. Chisholm

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A Murder of Crows: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery

BOOK: A Murder of Crows: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery
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A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

 

P.F. Chisholm

 

www.patricia-finney.co.uk/

 

Poisoned Pen Press

 

 

Copyright © 2010 Patricia Finney (P. F. Chisholm)

First U.S. Edition 2010

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2009942201

ISBN: 9781590586570 Hardcover

ISBN: 9781615950225 Epub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Poisoned Pen Press

6962 E. First Ave. Ste 103

Scottsdale, AZ 85251

www.poisonedpenpress.com

[email protected]

 

Dedication

 

To Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald,
who got Carey and Dodd back in the saddle again.

Prologue

 

A hunchback and a poet met in the glorious gardens belonging to the hunchback’s father. The poet was dusty and tired, having ridden up from London to report to his new employer on the sensational events in and around the Fleet Prison the previous Sunday.

The hunchback preferred to sit in the shade, dressed in his customary black damask and white falling band, his lean handsome face tilted slightly sideways to listen more carefully. Beside him, since he liked to make notes, was pen, ink and the very best, most expensive paper, smoothed with pumice so that his pen nib never caught nor spattered. The poet stared at the sheets hungrily, knowing they cost as much as tuppence each and wishing he could afford such a pile. The bench was carved to look as if it had grown from the ground and faced across a labyrinth made of low clipped box-trees, filled in with scented flowers, some of which were making a valiant last flowering in the autumn light. The Queen had often walked in these very gardens and still occasionally did. When the hunchback’s father chose to inspect his plantings, he would normally travel around the carefully raked and weeded paths on the back of a small donkey since he was now crippled by gout.

The hunchback generally walked the paths when he was thinking, at a fast pace and with hardly a limp despite the bandy legs of a childhood trampled by rickets.

The poet prided himself on his memory and never wasted precious paper on mere notes. He had been a player and hoped to be one again, used to being presented with a part the night before its first afternoon performance with only one rehearsal in the morning. He could read pages twice and know them by heart. His memory was just as good for what he heard: once he had written out in full a sermon that had lasted three hours for the benefit of his then employer who suspected the preacher of subversive puritanism.

Naturally the hunchback had chosen a bench where the trees behind it would give him shade but the sun would shine direct on the poet’s face. He was glad he had done that. The poet’s tale was very nearly incredible. Yet there had been reports from Carlisle which were almost as insane but which came from different and unimpeachible sources.

“Are you telling me that Mr. Vice Chamberlain Heneage organised a plot to implicate one of Lord Chamberlain Baron Hunsdon’s sons…”

“Edmund Carey,” put in the poet quietly.

“Yes, whichever one, in the forging of gold angels by alchemical means?” The poet nodded. “That when he saw the trap closing, Edmund Carey then took cover, as it were, under the nose of the cat and that his brother Sir Robert, whilst disguised as a north country man, later caused a riot there, and ended by breaking Mr. Heneage’s nose because Mr. Heneage had taken and beaten a man of his from Carlisle?”

“Yes, your honour,” said the poet promptly. “He also…”

The hunchback put up a long pale hand, leaning back as far as he could. “Mr. Heneage was trying to oust my lord Baron Hunsdon from his place as Lord Chamberlain?”

“Yes, your honour.”

The hunchback smiled, making his face immediately charming and attractive, never mind the weakness of his body. “Good Lord!” he said. “Who would have thought it?”

The poet considered answering this question, but decided it was rhetorical.

The hunchback sprang to his feet and began pacing. “Sir Robert’s antics are not so surprising,” he said, more to himself than to the poet, who stood patiently with his hands tucked behind his back. “God knows, he was dangerously bored the last time I saw him at Court and was as badly in debt as he was a couple of years ago when he walked to Newcastle in ten days.”

The poet blinked a little at this. The hunchback smiled ruefully. “I lost several hundred pounds on that bet, blast him, and so did a lot of his friends. He made about £3000. It didn’t do him any good at all, of course. Once a spendthrift, always a spendthrift.”

The poet looked down discreetly.

“That’s why I recommended to Her Majesty that she appoint him Deputy Warden of the West March instead of that corrupt fool, Lowther, and also for…good and sufficient reasons.”

The poet narrowed his eyes but was far too sensible to ask what they were.

“It’s Heneage’s behaviour that I find extraordinary,” said the hunchback, sitting restlessly back down on the bench and leaning forward now in a confiding way. “What do you think of his proceedings?”

“Ah…” The poet thought very carefully, since he had been working for Heneage at the time. “I felt…unhappy.” Unhappy didn’t really cover the poet’s incandescent rage when he understood just how dangerously he had been set up by the Vice Chamberlain, a man he had trusted. Having played the part of the alchemist, he realised he would have been perfect meat for the hangman if the scheme had worked the way it was supposed to. It still made his innards quake to think about it.

“How about that rival of yours, Marlowe?”

“I wouldn’t describe him as a rival,” murmured the poet. “I would describe him as a friend and…and teacher.”

“Really?”

“For all his faults, Kit Marlowe is a wonderful poet.”

The hunchback shrugged. “Nevertheless he’s still working for Heneage, as far as anyone can make out.”

The poet struggled with his conscience for a moment, and then lost. “I had heard…I believe that he may be trying to use Sir Robert as a means of entering the Earl of Essex’s service.”

There was a considering silence while the hunchback thought about this. The poet wondered if he had done right telling him.

“Interesting,” was all the hunchback said. “So he’s unhappy with Heneage too?”

“I imagine so.”

“As unhappy as you were when you realised that the delightful Mistress Emilia Bassano was not only Baron Hunsdon’s official mistress but was also having an affair with his son?” The hunchback was watching intently for the reaction to this prod.

The poet’s ears went pink which was unfortunate because he didn’t have much hair to hide it.

“I understand the lady is now in bed with the Earl of Southampton,” he said smoothly. “Clearly love blinded me to her unchastity.”

“Quite over it?”

The poet bowed. “Of course.”

“Good. And what’s your opinion of this Carlisle henchman of Carey’s?”

The poet paused. “Sergeant Dodd?”

“That’s his name. He seems to be…ah…the wild card in the game.”

“He appears to be no more than a typical Borderer, very proud of being headman of his little patch of country and holding a tower there…”

“Gilsland in fact controls one of the routes from Scotland into northern England,” said the hunchback, who had been reading ancient reports and squinting at maps prepared by his father’s agents in 1583.

The poet bowed a little. “…as well as serving in the Carlisle Castle guard under Carey. He looks and behaves like a mere stupid soldier, useful on horseback, and with any weapons but especially with a sword and his fists…”

“But?”

“I think there’s more to him than that,” said the poet. “Sir Robert certainly thinks so. And I like him.”

The hunchback’s smile was sunny. “Excellent,” he said. “His lawsuit against Mr. Heneage?”

The poet shrugged. “He wants compensation, of course.”

“And if he doesn’t get it?”

“I think he’ll look for another kind of compensation.”

With one of his typically sudden movements, the hunchback threw a small full leather purse and the poet just caught it. The hunchback’s face was impossible to read for sure but it seemed that somewhere in what he had said, the poet had told him something of value. He bowed again.

The hunchback rose and held out his hand to shake friendliwise. The poet took it and found his fingers were gripped with surprising strength.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Shakespeare,” said the hunchback. “It seems we will do well together.”

“I hope so, sir,” said the poet.

“Keep me informed.” The hunchback stood. “I will be back in London by tomorrow.” He turned his bent shoulders and walked quickly towards the rows of hazel trees that shielded a raised lawn full of sculptures of minotaurs and fauns and mermaids and other fantastical creatures. The bees browsed on frantically in the late flowers and Shakespeare headed back to the stables and London town.

A Murder of Crows

 

Monday 11th September 1592, morning

 

“Nothing like an execution, eh Sergeant?” Sir Robert Carey was lounging elegantly against the fence that kept the groundlings in their places, one kid-gloved hand tipped on the pommel of his sword, the other playing with the beginnings of a new Court goatee.

Dodd looked at him gravely for a moment and then turned his attention back to the bloody mess on the Tyburn scaffold. On the other side of the scaffold he noticed a man with a badly pock-marked face who was staring transfixed at the priest. Suddenly, the man turned aside and vomited on the ground. The goings-on didn’t upset Dodd’s stomach as much—for all the smell of roast meat—since there had been no screaming. They had actually burnt the priest’s balls in front of him, a detail Dodd had not expected, though at least they’d done it after cutting them off and before they slit the priest’s belly to pull out his guts.

The priest hadn’t been screaming because the hangman had given him a good drop off the ladder and had let him hang until his face was purple, eyes set and popping and his tongue cramming his gag in the ludicrous mask of a judicial death. Evidently a kind or well-paid hangman. In fact, the man had been unconscious on the hurdle as he was dragged along the Oxford Road, grey-faced and hollow-eyed. He had seemed only half aware of what was happening when the hangman had put the noose over his neck, though there had been something like a smile around the corners of his exhausted eyes. Impossible to tell with the gag forcing his lips into a grimace, but he had looked confidently up at the sky before stepping off the ladder. The hangman hadn’t needed to push him.

Now they were quartering him efficiently with cleavers, working like the butchers at the Shambles. Quartering a man was not so very different from butchering a pig and Dodd had killed and colloped his own pig every November since he’d been a married man and knew something about it.

No sausage-making here, though. Nobody had caught the blood in buckets to make black pudding nor pulled out and washed the bladder to be a bouncy toy for children.

That thought did make his stomach turn so he was glad that Carey was speaking again.

“Eh?” said Dodd.

“I said, he’d been one of Heneage’s guests at Chelsea,” Carey nodded at the man’s wrist which was flopping from the nearly severed arm not far from them. It had a thick swollen bracelet of flesh around it and the fingers were tight-skinned and swollen as well.

Dodd saw that Carey was rubbing his gloved left hand where two of his fingers were still slightly bent. The rings for those fingers were still at the jeweller’s to be resized since they no longer fit, and Carey was wearing kid gloves all the time not only because it was fashionable and they were extremely fine embroidered ones, but also to hide his very ugly bare nailbeds while he waited for the fingernails to regrow. All in all he had recovered well from the mysterious damage that had been done to him at the Scottish court. As to body, at least. As to mind and spirit…Only time would tell. He was being irritatingly breezy now.

“Priest was he not?” Dodd squinted slightly as one of the men working on the scaffold held up the peaceful head.

“So perish all traitors to Her Majesty!” shouted the hangman.

“Allegedly,” murmured Carey. “Hoorah!” he added at a bellow, and clapped. The crowd cheered and clapped as well, with some wit about the priest’s equipment.

“Ay,” Dodd had tired of fencing games. “So why did ye bring me here, sir? Ah’ve seen men hang afore now. Hanged a couple mesen under Lowther’s orders while he was Deputy Warden…”

Carey’s eyebrows went up and he made a little courtier-like shrug with his shoulders. “Thought you might be interested to see a real hanging, drawing, and quartering, they don’t happen so often.”

“Ay. Nae ither reason?”

Dodd knew his face was dark with suspicion and ill-humour and didn’t care. Why shouldn’t he be miserable? He was still stuck in this hellhole of London, still wearing uncomfortable hot tight clothes loaned him by Carey so he could look the part of his natural station in life. He knew what and who he was and he didn’t care whether the bloody southerners knew or not so long as they left him alone, so he didn’t see the point of the play.

Today, for the first time in his life, he had been to a London barber and had had his hair trimmed, washed, oiled, combed, and his beard trimmed back to a neat pawky thing on the end of his chin. One of the things that was making him bad-tempered was the fact that he had caught himself enjoying it. If he wasn’t careful he’d go back to Janet and his tower in Gilsland as soft and wet as any southerner and Janet’s geese would eat him alive, never mind Janet herself.

Dodd glanced again at the scaffold where they were sweeping sawdust into clumps and bringing up mops and buckets. The bits of human meat were slung into a cart to be taken to the gates of London for display and the head to London Bridge to join the priest’s colleagues.

Carey was already heading off through the crowd and Dodd followed him until he found a little house with red lattices and reasonably clean tables on the Oxford Road near to Tyburn. By some magic known only to him, Carey immediately snared a potboy to take his order and quickly settled down to a quart of double beer and a small cup of brandy. Dodd took mild ale, mindful of what the Portuguese physician had advised about his bruised kidneys.

“Obviously I want you to know what manner of man you’re dealing with,” Carey said in a random way, blinking into his cup of brandy before swallowing all of it.

“Thank ye, sir,” said Dodd in a careful tone of voice. “But Ah ken verra fine what manner o’man he is, seeing he laid about mah tripes wi’ a cosh and me wi’ ma hands chained and ye had at him yersen, sir, an hour later and he never drew blade nor struck ye back nor sent his man to arrange a time and a place.”

Dodd would never forget what had happened on that Sunday, particularly Carey finding him still curled up and half-conscious on the floor of Heneage’s thrice-bedamned foreign coach after a thorough beating from Heneage and his henchmen. Those lumps had been intended only as a preliminary to further interrogation and one of the henchmen had just come back with thumbscrews to help. Dodd had not personally seen but had heard from several witnesses that Carey had then gone straight for Heneage with his bare fists, being without his sword at the time, until unfortunately restrained by his father. It hadn’t been very gentlemanly of Sir Robert, but it had given Dodd some pleasure to see Heneage with a swollen nose, two black eyes, and a doublet and gown ruined by blood a little later.

And Heneage hadn’t even called Carey out over it, which just showed what a strilpit wee nyaff he was. Well, lawsuits to be sure would be multiplying like rats, but that was a different matter. Dodd had never heard of a gentleman hitting another gentlemen right in the nose with his fist and not having to at least talk about a duel afterwards. For form’s sake. Dodd himself didn’t plan to take Heneage’s demeaning beating of him as if he was some poor peasant with no surname to back him. He planned revenge.

As well as lawsuits.

Carey coughed. “I want you to remember how powerful and ruthless he is. If you take him on, there’s no going back nor crying quarter.”

Dodd squinted in puzzlement at Carey. “Ah dinnae understand ye, sir,” he said. “Are ye suggesting Ah should beg his honour’s pardon for damaging his cosh wi’ ma kidneys?”

Carey grinned. “No, Sergeant, it’s just he’s not some Border reiver like Wee Colin Elliot or Richie Graham of Brackenhill. He’s the Queen’s Vice Chamberlain, he came this close…” Carey held up his gloved forefinger and thumb an inch apart, “…to outplotting and removing my father, he’s wealthy, he’s clever and he likes hurting people. He has many of Walsingham’s old pursuivants working for him, though none of them like him, and he has taken over Walsingham’s old network of spies and informers, although unfortunately not his shrewdness. He’s highly dangerous and…well…my father says he’ll back you but…”

Dodd breathed hard through his nose: a few months ago he might have been offended enough to call Carey out on it, but now he was prepared to give the Courtier benefit of doubt although it came hard to him. After all, Heneage’s nosebleed had been very messy.

“Ay sir,” he said. “Ay, Ah ken what he is.” For a moment, Dodd considered explaining to Carey some of the things he’d done in the course of his family’s bloodfeud with the Elliots, then thought better of it. Wouldn’t do to shock the Courtier, now would it? The corners of Dodd’s mouth twitched briefly at the thought.

“But?” asked Carey, waving for more beer.

“Ah dinna think Heneage kens what I am.”

There was a pause.

“You won’t take his offer?”

It had been paltry, offered the previous Wednesday by a defensively written letter carried by a servant. A mere apology and ten pounds. Where was the satisfaction in that? Dodd hadn’t bothered to answer it.

“Nay sir. I’ve talked tae yer dad about it and he says he’ll gie me whatever lawyers I want, all the paper in London for ma powder and shot…”

“Yes, father’s very irritated at what happened to Edmund,” said Carey with his usual breezy understatement.

“Ay sir,” said Dodd, “And I’m verra irritated at what happened tae me.” Dodd was trying to match Carey with understatement. “Irritated” didn’t really describe the dull thunderous rage settled permanently in Dodd’s bowels.

Carey nodded, looked away, opened his mouth, shut it, rubbed his fingers again, coughed, took a gulp of his new cup of brandy, coughed again.

“I feel I owe you an apology over that, Sergeant,” said the Courtier, finally getting to the point of what had been making him so annoying for the last couple of days. He wasn’t looking at Dodd now, he was staring at the sawdust scattered floorboards of the boozing ken.

“Ah dinna recall ye ever striking me,” Dodd said slowly.

“You know what I mean. I used you as a decoy which is why you ended up in the Fleet instead of me and why Heneage got his paws on you in the first place.”

Dodd nodded. “Ay, Ah ken that. So?”

“So it’s my fault you got involved…”

While a penitent Carey was both an amusing and a rare sight, Dodd thought he was talking nonsense. Besides which it was done now and Dodd had a feud with one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. It wasn’t a bloodfeud yet but it probably would be by the end. Which reminded him, he needed some information about the size of Heneage’s surname. But first he had to clear away Carey’s daft scruples.

“So it would ha’ bin better if thon teuchter had taken ye instead? Got what he wanted right off, eh?”

Carey frowned. “Well, no…”

“Listen, Sir Robert,” said Dodd, leaning forward and setting his tankard down very firmly, “I’ve done ma time as surety in Jedburgh jail for nae better reason than I wis Janet’s husband and the Armstrong headman could spare me for it.” And Janet had been very angry with him at the time, of course, a detail he left out. “It wisnae exactly fun but it was fair enough. Same here. Ye used what ye had and what ye had wis me—there’s nae offence in that, ye follow? Ah might take offence if ye go on greetin’ about what a fearful fellow Heneage is and all, but at the moment Ah’m lettin ye off since ye dinna really ken me either or ma kin.”

Carey frowned. “You’re not accepting my apology?”

Dodd reached for patience. “Nay sir, I’ll accept it. It’s just I dinna see a reason for it in the first place.”

Carey smiled sunnily at him and stripped off the glove on his right hand. Dodd had to squash his automatic wince at the thought of touching the nasty-looking nailbeds so he could shake hands with good grace.

“Now, sir,” he added, “since ye’ve not had the advantage of partakin’ in a feud before, will ye be guided by me?”

Dodd was trying hard to talk like a Courtier, his best ever impersonation of Carey’s drawl, and Carey sniggered at the mangled vowels.

“Good God, Ah niver sound like that, do I?” he asked in his Berwick voice, which almost had Dodd smiling back since it sounded so utterly out of place coming from the creature in the elaborately slashed cramoisie velvet doublet and black damask trunk hose.

“Ay, ye do, sir. But nae matter. It’s nae yer fault, is it?”

Carey made the harumph noise he had got from his father, thumped his tankard down and stood up.

***

 

Lawyers being the scum they were, most of them tended to clog together in the shambolic clusters of houses and crumbling monastery buildings around the old Templar Church. Nearby were the Inns of Court, new a-building out of the ruins of the Whitefriars abbey. In the long time the Dominicans had been gone, bribed, evicted, or burned at the stake in the Forties, the reign of the much-married Henry VIII, something like what happens to a treetrunk had happened to the old abbey. Small creatures taking up residence, large ones raising broods there, huts and houses like fungus erupting in elaborate ramparts that ate the old walls to build themselves. There was a long area of weedy waste ground stretching down to the river and inevitably filling with the huts, vegetable gardens, chickens, pigs, goats and dirty children of the endless thousands of peasants flooding into London to make their fortune. They were not impressed by the lawyers’ writs of eviction. However the writing they didn’t know how to read was very clearly on the wall for them in the shape of scaffolding, sawdust, wagons full of blocks of stone, and builders finishing the two magnificent halls for the rich lawyers to take their Commons.

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