Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General, #Mystery & Detective
Susanna Gregory was a police officer in Leeds before taking up an academic career. She has served as an environmental consultant during seventeen field seasons in the polar regions, and has taught comparative anatomy and biological anthropology.
She is the creator of the Matthew Bartholomew series of mysteries set in medieval Cambridge as well as the Thomas Chaloner books, and now lives in Wales with her husband, who is also a writer.
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 Death in St James’s Park Murder on High Holborn
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 Lost Abbot
Death of a Scholar
Published by Sphere ISBN: 9781405530620
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 2015
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
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.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
London, EC4Y 0DY
In loving memory of Sarah Rippetoe (née Pritchard)
whose devotion to her family, joyous spirit and
generosity was an inspiraration to us all.
It had been a terrible night for Nicholas Colburn. He had been a wealthy man, proud owner of a country estate, founder of a reputable wine business, and fêted as a shining beacon of virtue by his fellow vintners. Now he had nothing, and he doubted that even his most loyal friends would hold him in very high esteem once they learned what he had done.
As he left the illicit gambling den the sun was rising, presaging the start of another crisp, blue winter day. Then he saw the man who had introduced him to his vice, and who had been whispering for weeks that his luck would change. The fellow was smirking. Colburn stared at him. Was that vengeance in his eyes – that he had wanted this to happen? Colburn shook himself irritably. No, he would not blame his ruin on someone else. He had always had a weakness for cards, and the higher the stakes, the more exciting and irresistible he found them. It had been his own choice to continue playing in the face of all reason.
As his fortune had dwindled, he had applied to the goldsmiths for loans – goldsmiths were also bankers, men who stored money for some clients and lent it to others. They had been astonished that such a rich man should need to borrow, but he had invented a tale about expanding his business, and had offered to pay twice the usual rate of interest. Naturally greedy, they had scrambled to accept his terms. However, being gentlemen of discretion, not one had discussed the arrangement with his colleagues. And that was unfortunate, because if they had, they might have prevented what was about to happen.
It was too late now, of course. The previous night had seen Colburn lose the last of the enormous sums he had begged. Unbeknownst to each other, virtually every goldsmith in the city had accommodated him, and many had overreached themselves to do so, flattered that they should receive the patronage of such a prestigious customer. Many of the smaller concerns would not survive when he defaulted. Indeed, even the larger ones would suffer a serious blow.
Bowed down with remorse, Colburn began to trudge home, for once grateful that he had no family – he had never married, so at least the disgrace that was about to come crashing down would not have to be endured by a wife and children. It would be his alone to bear.
He turned into Cheapside. As usual, the road was bright, lively and chaotic. And noisy – the sound of iron-shod wheels on cobbles, and the honks, bleats and brays of animals being driven to market was deafening. It reeked, too; the hot stench of dung mingling with the contents of the drains that ran down either side of the road – slender ribbons of water that were wholly incapable of coping with the volume of rubbish tipped into them.
As he passed the church of St Mary le Bow, a royal herald climbed the steps, resplendent in his fine uniform. Two trumpeters blared a fanfare to attract attention, and Colburn went to listen, although he did not know why – what heralds proclaimed could not matter to him now.
In a penetrating bawl, the man announced that war had been declared on the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Colburn wondered why the King had waited so long to say so – the news was weeks old, and had already been thoroughly discussed in the coffee houses. He experienced a familiar, sharply agonising stab of guilt as the little procession marched away to its next destination. Wars were expensive, so how would His Majesty pay for one? The answer was that he would expect help from the goldsmith–bankers. Except that many of them would not be in a position to oblige, thanks to Colburn and his gambling.
He hid behind a cart when he saw several bankers in the crowd that had gathered to hear the herald. Taylor, Wheler and Backwell headed the most powerful enterprises, while Angier and Hinton were smaller, but still influential. They stood talking in low voices, no doubt discussing how best to fund the looming conflict. Misery engulfed Colburn. What if the Dutch invaded because the King could not afford to defend his realm?
Sick with shame, Colburn stumbled away. How could he live with the knowledge that his fondness for cards had put his country in danger? He could never repay what he owed, and no one would ever spare him a smile or a friendly word again. He would be a pariah, shunned by all until the day he died. Gradually, he began to see what he must do. He waited until a particularly heavy cart was lumbering past, and flung himself beneath it.
There were cries of horror as the wheels crunched across him, and people hurried to stand around his mangled body, shaking their heads in mute incomprehension. Some were the bankers.
‘It is Nicholas Colburn,’ said Backwell, unsteadily. ‘One of my biggest clients.’
‘And mine,’ added Angier. ‘In fact, he owed me a fortune, so I hope his estate can pay, or I shall be ruined.’
Blood drained from faces as others said the same and the awful truth dawned. The sum total of the loans Colburn had taken out were far greater than the value of his assets, and he had offered the same collateral to all. No one would receive more than a fraction of what had been lent.
‘The war,’ gulped Backwell. ‘How shall we finance the war?’
Dick Wheler was the richest goldsmith in London. He was also the most ruthless, and thought nothing of lying, cheating, scheming and even ordering the occasional death to expand his empire. He had lost a substantial sum to the selfishly irresponsible Colburn, but it had not taken him long to recoup his losses. He had simply tightened the thumbscrews on his clients, and was pleased to say that now, just a few weeks later, his coffers were bulging once more. Few of his colleagues could claim the same – most were still reeling from the disaster.
He eyed the man who stood in front of him, a squat, ugly brewer named John Farrow, who quailed in trepidation and wrung the hat he held so hard that it seemed he might rip it in two.
‘You have paid me nothing for four months now,’ Wheler said sternly. ‘Therefore, I have no choice but to take possession of your brewery.’
‘No!’ cried Farrow in dismay. ‘How shall I dig myself out of this trouble without it? Please! Give me a few more days. My wife has been unwell and—’
‘Yes, yes,’ interrupted Wheler. He had heard the excuses a thousand times: business was bad because of the cold weather; the Dutch war meant customers were less willing to spend money; there had been an unprecedented hike in the cost of coal; a loved one was ill and medicines were expensive. ‘You have told me before.’
Farrow opened his mouth to press his case, but Wheler snapped his fingers and two henchmen materialised out of the shadows. The brewer struggled and howled as he was manhandled through the door, but his pleas fell on deaf ears – Wheler was actually rather pleased by what had happened: the brewery occupied a strategic position on Cheapside, and could be turned into a profitable tavern.
The next defaulter was ushered in, and the process began all over again.
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘Widow Porteous. You borrowed money to start a laundry, but you have repaid none of it so far.’
‘Because no one told me that coal prices would rise so high,’ she stammered. ‘But I have to buy fuel to heat up my water, and there—’
‘You left a ring as surety,’ recalled Wheler. He walked to a cabinet and took it out. It was a pretty thing, silver studded with garnets. Perhaps his wife would like it. He brightened. It would distract her for a while, and she might relent in her campaign to be given a role in the running of the business. Joan had a good financial head on her shoulders, it was true, but Wheler did not want to work with her, and wished she would stop pestering him about it.
‘My late husband’s,’ whispered Widow Porteous, a tear rolling down her cheek.
‘It is forfeit,’ declared Wheler briskly. ‘You have a month to make the next repayment; if you fail, you will lose a lot more than this little bauble.’
‘But it is the only thing I have left of him! Please give me another week to—’
given you another week,’ snapped Wheler. ‘Several times. But you do not honour your promises. I, too, have bills to pay – the rugs in here are little more than rags, while my wife is in desperate need of new winter shoes.’
Widow Porteous stole a glance at the office’s opulent decor, which included a portrait of Joan in finery fit for a queen. When her gaze settled on the banker again, there was a good deal of reproach in it. Irked, Wheler barked an order and his henchmen ushered her out. When she had gone, he made a note of the transaction in the ledger that lay open in front of him.
As he wrote, he was wracked by a deep, phlegmy cough that hurt. His physician had diagnosed lung-rot, which would kill him in a few weeks, although that fate held considerably less terror for him than the prospect of catching the plague. There had been three cases near St Giles, and while most Londoners had grown complacent about the possibility of a major outbreak, Wheler had seen what the disease did to its victims. The thought of his pustule-ravaged corpse tossed in a pit with hundreds of others was almost enough to make him turn to religion.
He supposed he should spend the little time he had left with Joan, but that was a dull prospect when compared to the heady delights of high finance. It was no secret that he loved money more than people, and he would far rather pass his last days confiscating the assets of defaulters than sitting at home waiting to die.
He was still coughing when there was a knock on the door. It opened to admit James Baron, his top henchman, a great bull of a fellow with a rakish smile. Baron was resourceful, greedy and cold-blooded – exactly the kind of person Wheler needed to manage the less pleasant side of his operation. It was Baron who would take possession of the brewery, and who would visit those who had missed appointments that day. He was very good at what he did, and Wheler could not have managed without him.
‘Widow Porteous was your last client today,’ Baron reported. He frowned when he saw his employer’s pallor. ‘Do you want me to fetch Dr Coo?’
Wheler shook his head. ‘It will pass, and there is nothing more he can do anyway.’
‘As you wish. Is there anything else, or can I go home?’