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Authors: Paul Doherty

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Murder Most Holy

BOOK: Murder Most Holy
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MURDER MOST HOLY
Being the Third of the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan
Paul Doherty
Table of Contents

 

COPYRIGHT

Copyright © 1992 Paul Doherty

All rights reserved.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

First published in Great Britain in 1992 under the pseudonym of
Paul Harding
.

by Headline Book Publishing, Headline House

79 Great Titchfield Street, London W1P 7FN

eBook edition first published in 2011 by Severn Select an imprint

of Severn House Publishers Limited

This ebook produced by 
Palimpsest Book Production Limited, 
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1448300358 (epub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being 
described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this 
publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons 
is purely coincidental.

PROLOGUE

The Dominican friar crouched at the prie-dieu in the deserted Church of Blackfriars, his gaze torn between the gold-encrusted crucifix and the pinewood coffin containing the murdered corpse of his colleague.

Brother Alcuin stirred restlessly. He chewed his lip and clasped his fingers tightly together. The others might think differently but he knew the truth. Brother Bruno had been brutally murdered. Alcuin was both angry and terrified: angry that such a foul act could be carried out in a Dominican monastery, terrified because he knew the murderer had meant to strike at him.

It had been so simple. Alcuin had received a note, written, of course, anonymously, telling him to come to the crypt just after Vespers. Angry at the farce which had recently been discovered and the pious mockery behind it all, he had gone – to find Bruno lying at the foot of the steep steps leading down to the crypt, his neck twisted, his brains congealing in the pool of blood from his shattered head.

Father Prior had reached the swift conclusion that Bruno had accidentally slipped on the top step and crashed to his death. Alcuin, however, knew different. Somehow the murderer had been waiting and Brother Bruno had either been tripped or pushed down those steep, sharp, stone-edged steps. That had been the previous evening. Tomorrow, after morning mass, Bruno’s Dominican brethren would sing the Requiem and bury their poor colleague’s body here behind the high altar. They would talk softly amongst themselves about Bruno’s qualities and, in time, perhaps sooner rather than later, he would be forgotten, the manner of his death becoming a vague memory whilst his assassin walked triumphantly away.

Alcuin looked up and stared at the crucifix. Surely Christ would not allow this? Murder was one of those sins which cried out to heaven for vengeance. Justice would have to be done. But should he be part of that justice? Who would believe him, a mere sacristan and cellarer? Only he and his friend the ancient librarian Callixtus knew the truth, but they couldn’t discover the proof. The rest of the community would say it was spite. They’d allege Alcuin was possessed of some foul, cunning demon. He might be sent to Rome or Avignon to answer to his superiors or, worse still, handed over to the Inquisitors to be interrogated, questioned and tried. And then what?

Alcuin wiped the beads of sweat from his broad brow. His pallid angular face became more morose as he stared into the gathering darkness. Of course, worse might happen. Like Brother Athelstan, he might be removed from Blackfriars and sent to some dingy parish church to minister to the unwashed and unlettered. Alcuin’s sour face creased into a smile.

‘Athelstan, Athelstan,’ he murmured. ‘Why aren’t you here? I need you now. The Order does. Christ the Seigneur requires your sharp eye and subtle wit.’

The smile faded. Athelstan had not been invited to the meeting of the Inner Chapter of the Dominican Order at their Mother House in Blackfriars. Athelstan was now parish priest of St Erconwald’s in the slums of Southwark, talking to his cat and studying the heavens.

‘Do you know, Alcuin,’ Athelstan had once said to him, ‘I once spoke to a man who had travelled to Persia and spoken to the Magi. They are wise men who study the heavens. He told me a strange story. How once there were no stars, no sun, no moon. Nothing but a dark gloomy mass which, at God’s insistence, exploded into burning rock to form the universe, of which the earth is but a small part.’

Alcuin shook his head. Perhaps it was as well Athelstan wasn’t here when he talked of theories like that. Once again Alcuin recalled his colleague’s dark, sharp face and brooding eyes. Athelstan had been meant for higher things. A brilliant student in the novitiate, he had broken his vows and, with his mind full of romantic stories, run away to the wars, taking his younger brother Francis with him. Athelstan had returned, Francis had not. His parents died from sheer grief and only Father Prior had saved Athelstan from the full rigour of Dominican law. Athelstan had finished his studies, taken his vows as a friar, been ordained a priest and then despatched to work amongst the foul alleyways of London’s slums.

Alcuin heard a sound and lifted his head. He stared round the darkening sanctuary, his gaze passing swiftly over the huge statues of the Apostles standing in their niches. No one could be here. He had wanted to be alone to pray and think during the quiet time between Vespers and Compline. Alcuin rubbed his face between his hands, lifting his head, once more staring up at the crucifix. This gave the assassin, who had slid up behind him, the opportunity he needed to wrap the garrotte string round Alcuin’s thin, scrawny throat. For a few seconds the sacristan struggled violently but the noose tightened and, with the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears Alcuin died before he could cry out, whisper a prayer or whisper the name of his old friend Athelstan.

On the comer of the stinking alleyway opposite St Erconwald’s, another person stood, staring at the sombre, gloomy mass of the church. He too wondered about past sins and God’s imminent vengeance and justice. The watcher kept close to the urine-stained wall. He ignored the beggar whining behind him, shifting his feet now and again as foraging rats slipped out of the crevices in the wall to hunt amongst the reeking piles of offal and muck.

From a window further up the alleyway a young girl began to sing in a clear, sweet voice that seemed out of place in that fetid passageway and most inappropriate to the watcher in the darkness. The man leaned against the wall. The song was bittersweet, evoking past memories and, above all, a secret sin. Yet he had done everything he could: a hundred wax candles lit before the statues in St Paul’s Cathedral, a pilgrimage to lie prostrate before Becket’s tomb at Canterbury, as well as money freely given to the poor. He had even gone to those who dabbled in black arts, creatures of the night with their books of spells and secret airless chambers. He had slipped a coin under the tongue of a hanged man and, following the instructions of the sorcerer, spent two nights beneath the scaffold, chanting a song to the Dark Lord that his secret be kept hidden.

The watcher stared up at the top of St Erconwald’s tower. He caught a sparkle of reflected light which signalled that Father Athelstan was there with his telescope and zodiac charts, consulting the heavens, waiting on this balmy summer’s night for the evening star to appear. The watcher stirred. Truly scripture was right – sin always pursued the sinner. He could feel it close about him as if it was some loathsome creature crawling along the alleyway behind him. He could smell its breath and feel its cold claws on the nape of his neck, and yet what could he do? To confess would be to hang; to stay silent would only put off the evil day. He looked towards the church, the House of God and the gate of heaven. Yet, for the watcher in the darkness, the church reeked of an ancient sin.

CHAPTER 1

Sir John Cranston, the large fat plain-speaking Coroner of the City, leaned against the high-backed chair and sipped appreciatively from a jewel-encrusted cup, brimming with the best the vineyards of Bordeaux could produce. He burped gently and beamed around him. The hall was lit by pure resin torches and great wax candles; pages wearing the livery of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, lined the chamber holding further torches so that, despite the darkness, the room shone and glittered as if it was a summer’s day.

‘Truly wonderful,’ Cranston murmured to himself.

John of Gaunt’s main hall in his Palace of Savoy on the Thames was as opulent and rich as any papal palace at Avignon, or any chamber belonging to the great Italian princes such as the one whom Gaunt was hosting at this splendid banquet. Cloth of gold, thick and embroidered with silver thread, covered every inch of the wall beneath the hammerbeam rafters. The glass in the windows was of various hues and each pane illustrated a story from the bible or classical mythology. A yellow and black turkey carpet made from the purest wool covered the hall from wall to wall. The cloths on the tables were silk and every plate and goblet fashioned out of precious metal. No wonder John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Regent of the realm whilst his nephew Richard II was still a boy, had ordered chosen men-at-arms to stand discreetly around the hall, one to watch every diner, for the duke would allow no thieves in his household. Gaunt had provided this banquet to show his magnificence and to entertain the Lord of Cremona, not to provide easy pickings for the thieves and rascals who hung around every palace.

Cranston burped again and tapped his ponderous girth, a contented man. His Lady Maude had recently been delivered of two fine boys, Francis and Stephen. Cranston had been confirmed in his office of coroner by the Regent, who had invited him to this banquet to sit at his right hand, a significant honour for a Justice of the Peace.

‘I wish the Lady Maude could see me now,’ Cranston murmured to himself. Yet the invitation had not included his good wife. Not that she minded.

‘God forgive me, Sir John,’ she said, ‘but I do not like the Duke of Lancaster. He has the eyes of a snake – dead and cold. His ambition is like Lucifer’s and I fear for the young king.’

Sir John had been surprised. Lady Maude was prudent. She kept her own secret counsel but, when she spoke, her words were like well-aimed arrows shot direct at the heart of the target. Cranston stirred uneasily, placed his cup on the table and turned to his left. Gaunt’s olive-skinned face with its neatly clipped golden beard and moustache looked complacent as he gazed from heavy-lidded eyes at his hall’s magnificence. On Gaunt’s left sat the young king. The boy, thought Cranston, has the looks of an angel with his pale face, clear blue eyes, sensitive features and shoulder-length golden hair. The young king appeared to be schooling himself to listen attentively to the dark-bearded, swarthy-faced Italian lord sitting on his left. Cranston leaned back in his chair and glanced sideways at this Italian lord, renowned for the cunning astuteness which had made him as wealthy as Croesus and turned his small city state into one of the great powers of Italy.

The Lord of Cremona controlled banks, ports, fertile vineyards, fields and manor houses. His ships ranged from the Adriatic to fabled Constantinople and the golden shores of Trebizond. Cranston knew why he was in England. The English exchequer was empty. Parliament was unruly; the peasants seething with such discontent, that tax collectors were fearful of moving into any village without a powerful military escort. Gaunt had invited Cremona to England in order to raise loans and consequently had not stinted in his lavish hospitality. Pageants had greeted him at Southampton; Gaunt and his brothers, dressed in pure cloth of gold, escorting him to London to be greeted by more lavish shows, colourful spectacles, banquets and speeches. These may have impressed Cremona but only increased bad feeling in the city as Londoners saw Gaunt accrue more power to himself than any emperor, pope or king.

BOOK: Murder Most Holy
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