‘Sir, royal clerks have never brought me or mine good fortune.’
‘Mistress, I am sorry to hear that. What do you mean?’
‘Evesham.’ She spat the word out. ‘Master Miles has never been the same since he visited our home.’
‘When was this?’
Mistress Fleschner swallowed hard, dabbing her eyes. ‘Years ago, when Evesham’s villainy was green and fresh. He visited us often. No, sir, I don’t know why. Master Miles never said. I tried to discover but he remained tight-lipped, so why should I worry? Soon afterwards he resigned his office as coroner. I was pleased; no more sitting over corpses dragged from the river or horribly murdered. He could spend more time with me. He was happy to be parish clerk at St Botulph’s. I thought that was where he was last night. I know he was with Parson John. He must have comforted and looked after him. I thought he would come straight home afterwards or send me a message, but oh no, and now . . .’ She burst into tears and crept back amongst the other women.
Corbett bowed and walked over to where the bailiff, now joined by his companions, was organising the removal of the corpse. He stared at the pitiful remains of Miles Fleschner being bundled on to a makeshift stretcher and covered with a piece of rough sacking. The chatter amongst the bailiffs was that Fleschner had been murdered by footpads who’d decided to mock their victim by hanging him from the iron bracket. Corbett knew different, but why? What had Fleschner to do with the other deaths? He glanced back to where Mistress Fleschner was still being fussed by the other women. They would accompany her husband’s remains to the corpse house of the nearest church. He glanced beyond them at the mist boiling over the river. Queenshithe was coming to life. Figures trailed here and there, the odd shout, the rattle of a wheelbarrow, the clatter of a cart.The city would soon be wakening. He heard a sob and glanced pitifully at Mistress Fleschner as she knelt and placed her hands on the covered corpse of her husband. He recalled her words. Had Fleschner been killed not because of any connection with St Botulph’s but because he was once coroner in Cripplegate? Was that the reason? Had the assassin made a mistake at last?
Corbett studied the bailiffs and chose the youngest, a bright lad. He drew him away from the rest and handed over a seal cast and a coin, then gripped the young man by his shoulder.
‘John, sir, John-atte-Somerhill.’
‘Well, John-atte-Somerhill,’ Corbett smiled, ‘I want you to memorise this.’ He pressed the bailiff’s hand. ‘Take a wherry to Westminster. Show this seal to any guard or bailiff who tries to stop you. Ask for Ranulf-atte-Newgate, Clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax.’ He made the bailiff repeat the name and title. ‘You’ll find him busy already. Show him the seal and ask him to go to the archives at the Guildhall. He is to ask for all the coroner rolls from when Master Miles Fleschner was coroner in Cripplegate. Do you understand that?’ He made the young man repeat it, and once he was satisfied, let him go.
Corbett made his farewells of the rest and walked back up the lane towards Cheapside. The previous evening Ranulf had scoured the chancery records and discovered that the widow of the merchant arrested with Boniface in Southwark still lived in a splendid mansion in Milk Street off Cheapside. She must know something. Although hungry and unshaven, Corbett felt almost elated. Fleschner’s murder, he reasoned, was another move forward across this murderous chessboard, for it opened the door to other paths. Corbett was determined to follow these.
He glanced around. The city was stirring. Whores and pimps, topers and cunning men, all the creatures of the night were scuttling back into the dark. Doors were being opened, lanterns doused, buckets emptied into the sewer channels running down the centre of the streets. Apprentices and slatterns, faces heavy with sleep, were busy fetching water, buying milk from the carriers or hurrying through the murky lanes to the bakers and cookshops where the ovens and spits had been fired. A multitude of odours seeped through the misty morning air. Bells rang. Carts and barrows were on the move. Horses and donkeys brayed. People called out greetings. Sheriff’s men were roughly organising the night-walkers, drunks and whores caught breaking the curfew, herding them up to the stocks. The bells of St Paul’s boomed out their summons to the Jesus Mass. Corbett decided to attend. He went through the great gates, past the noisy Sanctuary, where wolfsheads were scrambling across the high wall one step ahead of the greedy clutches of bailiffs and bounty-hunters. At the Great Cross in the centre of the cemetery, a city herald was proclaiming how a certain corner in Lothbury, where a Scottish traitor had been executed on a movable gallows, was not a holy site, a martyr’s shrine. The gibbet, the herald bellowed, had been burnt, whilst gong carts would deposit a load of filth on the spot. Any citizen who insisted on regarding that place as sacred would be viewed as outside the protection of both the Crown and Holy Mother Church.
Corbett went in through the ‘Si Quis’ door, where lawyers and scribes were beginning to gather, for the nave of St Paul’s was truly a place of business rather than a house of prayer. The church was gloomy, lit fitfully by dancing torch and candle flame. Corbett moved up under the carved rood screen with its stark depiction of the crucified Christ. The sanctuary mass was about to begin. He knelt by a pillar and watched the old priest unfold the dramatic enactment of Christ’s passion and death. The Book of Gospels was passed around to be kissed before the Eucharist. Corbett tried to concentrate on the liturgy, but memories, images, scraps of conversations milled around in his tired brain, sharpening his impatience with the task in hand. As soon as Mass was finished, he left and broke his fast at a cookshop on a pastry filled with fresh spiced mince and a cup of wine to warm his belly, then made his way leisurely through the colourful bustle towards Milk Street.
: corruption of a public official
The hour was still early. The market horn had yet to sound, and traders were busy setting up stalls. Corbett, slipping and slithering on the icy trackway, decided that the merchant’s widow, the Lady Idola, would perhaps not be ready to receive him, so he continued up into Cripplegate, through the narrow runnels and under the lychgate of St Botulph’s. The bleak church tower brooded over the ghostly mist-hung cemetery, where the branches of ancient yew trees curled and twisted, stretching out over the countless tombs and graves, their crumbling headstones and crosses an eloquent testimony to the forgotten dead. The great front door of the church was barred and shuttered, the steps leading up to it blackened and stained by the furious battle recently fought there. Corbett followed the line of the building along the north side, up through an open wicket gate to the two-storey priest house. Its front door, ancient and tar-stained, hung slightly open on its thick leather hinges.
‘Parson John?’ Corbett called. There was no answer. He entered the flagstoned kitchen and scullery, a neat, tidy place with its scrubbed table, simple benches and aumbries, cooking pots stacked on the shelves above the mantle. It was bitterly cold; the brazier and small hearth both brimmed with grey ash.
‘Parson John?’ Corbett moved into what must be the solar, a sparse room, its whitewashed walls decorated with a crucifix and a few coloured cloths. A chancery table and chair stood in the far corner; above these ranged shelves filled with calfskin-covered books. A lectern, a high chest and some small coffers and caskets were the only other furnishings. He called the priest’s name again, then went up the stairs built into the corner and pushed open the door at the top.
Parson John sat on the edge of his bed, fully clothed, head in his hands. He glanced up bleary-eyed as Corbett entered. The chamber stank of stale sweat and wine. Corbett noticed the flagon on the small table beside the bed. The light was poor, the window still shuttered. He went across and opened it, then picked up the lantern horn from a carved chest beneath the sill and stood over the priest. Parson John just stared back. He looked pitiful, dirty and unshaven, his lips stained with wine.
‘I know, clerk,’ he slurred. ‘A bailiff came here, a raucous fellow muttering about how poor Fleschner is dead, hung like a rat down at Queenshithe.’ He clambered to his feet, breath heavy with wine. ‘I cannot stay here, I’ll never come back.’ He rubbed his eyes and stared at Corbett. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked.
‘As you said, poor Fleschner. What happened yesterday?’
‘Very little,’ mumbled the priest. ‘We left Westminster. Fleschner brought me here. He put me to bed. He added an opiate to the wine and I fell into a deep sleep. I woke in the middle of the night, so cold! I fetched more wine, drank it and slept again until the bailiff came.’
‘What will you do now?’
‘Sir Hugh, I am going to go out and fill my belly with good food. Afterwards I will seek out some barber in a warm, comfortable spot. He’ll shave my face and cut my hair. I’ll come back here to pack my bundles and books then go to seek shelter at Syon Abbey as my late, but not lamented, father did.’
‘Listen,’ Corbett said. ‘Fleschner found the heads of your stepmother and her steward in the baptismal bowl at the back of your church. Why do you think they were left there of all places?’
‘I don’t know,’ muttered the priest. ‘I truly don’t.’
‘And why should the assassin murder Fleschner and leave his demonic insult? What had Fleschner to do with events some twenty years ago?’
‘Sir Hugh, Sir Hugh.’ Parson John wailed like a child. ‘Let me go to Syon. Let me rest, let me think, then I . . .’ He paused, mouth gaping at a sound from below.
Corbett pressed a finger against the priest’s lips, then undid the clasps of his own cloak and drew both sword and dagger. Through the half-open door he glimpsed a shadow shift at the bottom of the stairs. He hurled himself out, crashing down the stairs. The intruder fled, but stumbled over the step leading back into the kitchen, sprawling and twisting, hand going for his own dagger. Corbett went and stood over him, the tip of his sword pressed against the man’s chest. Leaning down, he pushed back the cowl, undoing the muffler across the man’s mouth.
‘Ah, Lapwing, you steal like a thief into Parson John’s house.’ He gestured with his sword for the intruder to get up. Lapwing did so, scrambling to his feet, eyes and face no longer merry.
‘Like a thief!’ Corbett repeated, aware of Parson John coming down the stairs behind him.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I heard the herald’s proclamation in Cheapside about Master Fleschner being found hanged down at Queenshithe. I thought I should visit Parson John to see if there was anything I could do.’
‘Is there, Parson John?’ asked Corbett over his shoulder. The priest came up beside him and smiled at the intruder. Corbett wondered if there was a friendship between these two. ‘Parson John?’ he snapped.
‘He could help me pack. As I said, Sir Hugh, I must fill my belly, wash, shave and leave for Syon Abbey. There’s no crime in entering a priest’s house to help a friend.’
‘Is Parson John your friend?’
‘After the Newgate riot,’ Lapwing gestured with his head towards the church, ‘when I was falsely arrested, I came here. Parson John was kind. I have a debt to repay.’
‘In which case, sirs, I leave you to it. However,’ Corbett tapped the clerk’s shoulder with his sword, ‘do not leave your lodgings in this city. If I send for you, or visit you, you must be there.’
Lapwing, his composure regained, shrugged nonchalantly, and Corbett left St Botulph’s, making his way once more towards Milk Street. Tinkers were selling ribbons and other geegaws, and one of these showed him to Lady Idola’s house. Corbett knocked on the door, and a maid answered. Corbett showed her the seals and demanded entrance. The slattern was about to protest, but he leaned closer and touched her under the chin.
‘Don’t worry my pretty,’ he whispered. ‘I’m on king’s business. I need to see Lady Idola now, so I do not want to be told she is otherwise engaged or shopping. The morning is cold. I am sure she is in her chamber.’
A short while later, he was shown up the stairs into a beautiful, elegant room. The bottom half of its walls were covered in gleaming wainscoting; above this hung heraldic devices, embroidered cloths, triptychs and paintings. It was furnished with gleaming settles, chairs and stools, and smelled fragrantly of the herbs and spices sprinkled over the great log fire spluttering in the mantled hearth. Lady Idola, an imperious old woman, was sitting on a throne-like chair swathed in robes, her sandalled feet on a rest before a fire. She was supping from a goblet of mulled wine, in her lap a silver tray of sweetmeats. She looked Corbett up and down, received his introductions and waved him to the smaller chair beside her.
‘Well, Sir Hugh, I’ve heard of you. What are you here for?’ Her bright button-black eyes studied his face. ‘You look cold and pinched. Have you eaten?’
Corbett smiled and nodded.
‘Would you like some wine?’
He shook his head.
‘Well, clerk, what is your business? Oh, by the way . . .’ She popped another delicacy into her mouth and slurped noisily from the goblet. ‘I am expecting other visitors.’
‘Lady Idola, I will not keep you long. You were married to the merchant Adam Chauntoys; I think you know his history.’
‘Let me tell you, clerk,’ she settled herself more comfortably, ‘I sit here nursing my memories. Oh yes, I know all about my late husband’s . . . how can I put it . . . dealings with the King.’
‘Master Chauntoys was first married to Lady Alice, daughter of Sir Walter Plumpton. Lady Alice was born of a wealthy family; she was well educated but had the morals of an alley cat. She brought my late husband a large and generous dowry. He thought that the ceremony at the church door, the binding of hands and the swearing of eternal love, meant that Lady Alice would change her ways, but she did not. There wasn’t a young man in Cheapside who, if he caught her eye, didn’t share her bed. My husband put up with such strumpet behaviour for at least five years of their marriage. She gave him no son. He suspected she took medicine or potions to prevent herself conceiving. He did consider seeking an annulment from the Church. Of course Lady Alice’s family were powerful, and would fight such a slight to their honour, whilst Master Chauntoys was advised by canon lawyers that no grounds existed for annulment. The years passed. What should have been love turned into a deep, languishing hatred between them. My husband decided to go to Southampton on business. While he was absent, his wife was attacked by street brawlers and killed.’