Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective
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
The Tarnished Chalice
To Kill or Cure
The Devil’s Disciples
A Vein of Deceit
The Killer of Pilgrims
Mystery in the Minster
Murder by the Book
The Thomas Chaloner Series
A Conspiracy of Violence
Blood on the Strand
The Butcher of Smithfield
The Westminster Poisoner
A Murder on London Bridge
The Body in the Thames
The Piccadilly Plot
Published by Hachette Digital
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 © 2013 Susanna Gregory
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.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
In loving memory of Angelyn Riffenburgh
Dorset, Summer 1657
John Fry was a man
with controversial opinions. He had shocked the House of Commons with his unorthodox theology, he had written pamphlets that had been burned for their profanity, and he sincerely believed that beheading King Charles had been a very good idea. Naturally, his schismatic views had earned him enemies, and he suspected half of England would be delighted to learn he was laid low with the flux.
Through the sickroom window he could see the gently rolling hills and corn-rich fields that surrounded his house. He could see the river, too, glints of silver between a line of noble oaks, which made him recall the many hours he had spent there as a youth, reading, filling his mind with philosophy and political theory. He sighed, bitter in the knowledge that all his learning and dedication had been for nothing. He had fought bravely in the civil wars, but his dream of a republic had turned to ashes – Cromwell had transpired to be a worse tyrant than the King, and his regime every bit as oppressive. Fry had been told, quite
categorically, that if he penned another contentious tract, he would be sent to prison without the courtesy of a trial.
His thoughts stirred him from his sickly languor, giving him the strength to sit up against the pillows. No! He would not be silenced by Cromwell or his bullying Puritan henchmen. It was his moral duty to point out the flaws in the current government, so that was what he was going to do. Filled with sudden vigour, he called for his wife to bring him pen and paper. She regarded him uneasily, but did as he asked. As soon as they arrived, he began to write, and he did not stop until a veritable mountain of letters lay on the bed beside him.
‘Find a fleet-footed servant to run to the post office, Anna,’ he instructed, as he signed the last one. ‘The London mail leaves within the hour, and I want these missives to be in the hands of their recipients by the end of the week.’
Gingerly, Anna picked up a few and read the names. Major Smith of Hounslow, Henry Wood of London, Major Wildman in Amsterdam. She looked into her husband’s bloodshot eyes. ‘But these are all notorious malcontents who want Cromwell deposed.’ She spread the letters in one hand like a fan.
‘Yes.’ Fry gripped Anna’s wrist. ‘And they are right – it
time to be rid of him. I had such high hopes when we won the war, but Cromwell’s rule has degenerated into a military dictatorship, and we cannot accept it any longer. It is time for another rebellion.’
Anna regarded him in alarm. ‘But if he is ousted, who will take his place? Do you want the monarchy restored?’
‘No!’ Fry was shocked by that notion. ‘These last fifteen years have convinced me more than ever that the only sensible form of government
is a republic. We cannot have yet another petty despot dispensing unfair laws – I want democratically elected representatives.’
Anna pulled away from him and gathered all the letters. Her husband was a passionate and determined man. If anyone could set the country alight, it was him, and perhaps this wave of determination meant that he was not as ill as she had feared. She felt tears prick as she stared at the missives in her hands; what they contained could bring misery and hardship to countless thousands again – yet more harsh years of violence, hatred and anguish. She was tired of uncertainty and conflict, and while Cromwell was far from ideal, he did bring a measure of stability to a war-weary nation.
‘Hurry, good wife,’ said Fry softly. There was compassion and understanding in his eyes: he knew why she hesitated. ‘Or you will miss the post. And then help me dress. There is much to be done if we are to succeed.’
But within two weeks John Fry was dead. Speculation was rife. Had he left his sickbed too soon? Had he been assassinated, because the letters he had written had caused such a stir? Or was he not dead at all, but had gone into hiding, so that he could mastermind his plan without interference? Tongues wagged, and there were more theories than could be counted, but only a select handful of people knew the truth. And they were not telling.
St James’s Park, London, December 1664
When Andrew Leak had first been handed the bottle of poison, he had regarded it in disbelief. There was barely a dribble, and he was sure there would not be enough for what he had been charged to do. However, the fellow who had hired him – Leak believed he was
an apothecary – soon put him right: it was one of the most deadly substances ever created, and a single drop was more than enough to kill.
Leak had been extremely careful with it after that. Worryingly, the apothecary had worn gloves when he had handed it over, although whether to protect himself from spillages, or to ensure that no part of him was visible when he dealt with his minions was impossible to say.
‘Who is he?’ Leak asked, as he followed his friend Smartfoot over the wall and into St James’s Park. It was a dark night, with thick clouds blocking out the moonlight, and they stumbled constantly, unfamiliar with the place and its terrain. ‘He even takes care to whisper when he meets us, to make sure we cannot identify his voice. Yet I am sure I should know him if I saw his face.’
‘Do not think about it,’ advised Smartfoot. ‘It might transpire to be dangerous.’
‘The whole business worries me,’ Leak went on unhappily. ‘Oh, the money is good, but this is peculiar work. I do not understand why he wants us to kill the royal waterfowl.’
‘No questions,’ said Smartfoot warningly. ‘That was the agreement.’
Both men stopped walking when a gale of laughter and music wafted from the nearby Palace of White Hall. The King was holding another of his soirées, where he and his debauched friends would carouse until dawn. Leak frowned disapprovingly as the revellers launched into a bawdy tavern song. It was one thing to hear such ditties in a Seven Dials alehouse, but another altogether for His Majesty to bawl them. Leak expected better of him and was disturbed by his
coarseness. He said nothing, though, and after a moment, he and Smartfoot resumed their journey.
‘Here is the Canal,’ whispered Leak eventually, lighting a lamp so they could see what they were doing. ‘You grab a swan, while I pour the toxin down its throat.’
However, they soon discovered that ‘grabbing a swan’ was easier said than done, because the royal birds were kept in peak condition and were powerful creatures. Neither man had any idea of how to lay hold of one, and after several furious encounters that the birds won handily, Leak and Smartfoot decided to opt for something smaller and less feisty.
Unfortunately, the ducks had been disturbed by the fracas, and had scattered into the darkness. Only one remained, its filmy eyes and dull feathers suggesting it was ill. Thoroughly rattled by the whole business, Leak grabbed it with one hand and groped in his pocket for the phial with the other. He forced open the bird’s beak, and without thinking pulled out the stopper with his teeth.
As soon as he tasted the searing bitterness on his tongue, he knew he had done something very stupid. His stomach clenched in horror, and he spat frantically, so it was left to Smartfoot to drip the poison down the bird’s throat. Once released, the hapless fowl flapped a short distance and then was still.
‘Not exactly a swan,’ said Smartfoot dispassionately. ‘But it will have to do. And we had better be on our way, because we cannot afford to be caught. It is probably treason to damage the King’s property.’
Leak could not reply, because his tongue was on fire, and the pain grew worse as he followed Smartfoot towards the wall. Then his
throat began to hurt as well; he could feel it swelling, cutting off his breath. He staggered, hands to his neck, then pitched forward and began to convulse, eyes wide in his terrified face. Smartfoot hurried back to help, but then thought better of it, afraid to touch him lest he should be poisoned, too.
Leak’s desperate struggle for life went on for a very long time, while Smartfoot paced in agitation, longing to run away, but kept rooted to the spot by fear of the apothecary. It was over eventually, and Smartfoot struggled to pull himself together. Now what? He could not leave Leak where he was lest he was identified – and the apothecary would not approve of that. Yet he could not carry him away on his own. He looked around quickly. Nearby was a part of the park that had been left to grow wild. It was not an ideal place to hide a body, but it would have to do.
He donned gloves, grabbed Leak’s feet and began to haul. He found a slight dip in the ground, rolled the body into it, and covered it with handfuls of dead leaves and twigs. It did not take long, and he was soon racing towards the wall again.
He was shocked: the apothecary had not been exaggerating when he had bragged about the potency of his poison. Smartfoot’s stomach churned, and he had a bad feeling that he knew what would happen the next time he was summoned: the victim would not be a bird, it would be a person.
London, Tuesday 10 January 1665
Post House Yard was a pretty square, located just off the busy thoroughfare named Dowgate Hill. It was dominated by the General Letter Office, the
place where the country’s mail was received and dispatched. This was a handsome building taxed on thirty-three hearths, although there was a wing at the back that was disused and was said to be falling into disrepair. It boasted an imposing stone façade, and five marble steps led up to its grand front door.
The other buildings in Post House Yard were equally attractive – a row of neat, brightly painted cottages on the right, and the elegant mansion owned by the eccentric Sir Henry Wood on the left. The square was cobbled with pale pink stones, and someone had planted two long borders with a variety of shrubs and trees.
The two conspirators stood in one of these gardens. It was a clear night, and they could not afford to be seen, so they were grateful for the shadows cast by a spreading yew.
‘I am not sure about this,’ the first muttered unhappily. ‘Gunpowder is so indiscriminate. We might harm a lot of innocent bystanders.’
There was a crackle as the second man fingered a letter. ‘It says here that we should not allow that possibility to discourage us – that there will be casualties in any struggle for justice.’
‘I suppose that is true. When do they want this explosion to take place?’
‘At noon on Thursday.’
The first man gaped his disbelief. ‘But that is when the domestic mails are collected! The square will be teeming with people – we might kill dozens of them.’