Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
There is unease in the chill winter of Cambridge in 1358. A thief is at work in the houses of the wealthy, colleges are vying
with each other for funds and academic recognition, and the shrine of St Simon Stock is attracting both pilgrims and those
who prey on them – charlatans peddling fake relics and dubious pardons.
When the body of one of the town’s richest taverners is found in Michaelhouse it at first seems his death was accidental,
but when Bartholomew views the corpse he knows it is murder. There is no shortage of suspects to investigate, from the tenants
who have publicly argued with the victim to his merrily ‘grieving’ widow, but the trail has been blurred by someone who is
using the discovery of the body to try and discredit the college.
Against a background of rising tension between the colleges and the increasing audacity of the thief, Bartholomew and Brother
Michael hunt desperately for the proof that will unmask the identity of the killer and reveal the motivation of someone determined
to ruin both Michaelhouse and all those connected to it …
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 Thomas Chaloner Series
A CONSPIRACY OF VIOLENCE
BLOOD ON THE STRAND
THE BUTCHER OF SMITHFIELD
THE WESTMINSTER POISONER
A MURDER ON LONDON BRIDGE
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 © Susanna Gregory 2010
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
For Geoff Parks
At last, the Great Pestilence had relinquished its deadly grip. There had not been a new case in three months, and people
were allowing themselves to hope that it had gone for good. It had left behind a terrible mark, though. Whole villages lay
empty, houses were abandoned and derelict, weeds choked the fields, and every churchyard was full to overflowing with the
The previous December, the Archbishop of Canterbury had written to the Bishop of London, suggesting it was time to thank God
for delivering His people from the dreadful scourge. The devout had hastened to comply – it would not do to be ungracious,
and provoke a second wave of the dreadful disease. Some folk, feeling prayers were not enough, had opted to go on pilgrimages,
too, to make sure the Almighty truly appreciated the full extent of their gratitude.
Unfortunately, undertaking such journeys was no easy matter. The devastating sickness meant roads and bridges had been allowed
to fall into disrepair, and nature had taken its toll, too – even the most important routes were now blocked by fallen trees,
encroached upon by brambles, or washed away by rain and floods. In places, they had disappeared completely, leaving the traveller
to wander hopelessly until some helpful local pointed him in the right direction.
Of course, not everyone on the King’s highways was friendly. Bands of brigands roamed, safe in the knowledge that the forces
of law and order had been seriously depleted by death. Because of this, sensible pilgrims travelled in groups, seeking safety
The party that paused at the top of a hill to gaze at Canterbury in the distance had been lucky. The weather had been kind,
the tracks easy to follow, and would-be robbers repelled without too much trouble. They were a disparate crowd, comprising
clerics, soldiers, merchants and paupers, and they had stayed together only because it would have been dangerous to do otherwise.
The sick man had scant respect for any of them, and longed to reach St Thomas Becket’s shrine, so he could dispense with their
tiresome company. He waited impatiently for them to finish their gawping and their self-serving prayers, eager to be on his
Canterbury itself was hectic, noisy and filthy. The sick man supposed its streets were cobbled, but they were so deeply carpeted
in manure, rubbish and discarded scraps of food that it was impossible to tell. The stench was overwhelming, and made his
eyes water so much that he could barely see the cathedral’s soaring towers and delicate pinnacles ahead.
Once he had battled his way through the array of beggars who clustered around the door, the sick man knelt and gave thanks
for his safe arrival. Then he rose and walked slowly through the massive nave. The shrine was at the far end, a cluster of
columns, filigreed arches and precious stones. It, too, was encircled by a heaving mass of humanity, all clamouring pleas
and demands. More candles than he had ever seen in one place were burning – offerings from grateful penitents – and their
collective glow was so bright that it dazzled the eyes.
The cathedral’s priests were moving through the throng, accepting gifts of money, jewellery, food and whatever else had been
brought for the saint’s delectation. No wonder the place was so wealthy, the sick man thought wryly, watching his travelling
companions pay their tributes.
The hubbub around the tomb was far too distracting for meaningful prayer, so he wandered through the cathedral’s echoing aisles,
thinking to wait for a quieter moment before asking for a cure. Little stalls had been set up there, selling food, books,
candles, clothing and anything else that travellers might need. The last booth was peddling pilgrim ‘badges’, its wares laid
out in neat lines on a smart black cloth. There were crude pewter images of St Thomas that could be pinned on hats or cloaks,
to tell all who saw them that their wearers had visited the shrine, and there were expensive ampoules of ‘Becket water’.
‘These little phials each contain a drop of the saint’s blood,’ declared the pardoner who owned the display. ‘That means they
are sacred. Relics in their own right.’
Impressed, the sick man inspected them more closely. Many were works of art, the tiny bottles enmeshed in delicate strands
of gold and silver. The liquid inside was faintly pink – blood mixed with holy water.
‘What are these?’ he asked, pointing to a row of scallop shells.
‘Tokens from the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela,’ replied the pardoner, a handsome man with very white teeth.
He grinned, sensing a sale. ‘And here is a cross from Jerusalem, and a leaden image of the Virgin from Rocamadour in France.’
‘But if I wore those, everyone who saw them would assume I had been to these places,’ said the sick man, bemused. ‘And I have
not. Not yet, at least.’
The pardoner lowered his voice conspiratorially. ‘These
are sacred things, so that even touching them will confer blessings on you. And if you do not need such a boon yourself,
then you can give them to a loved one who does. Or you can sell them, of course.’
‘Sell them?’ The sick man was rather shocked.
The pardoner nodded earnestly. ‘They fetch high prices, especially in this day and age, when no one knows for certain whether
the plague is really gone. People buy my tokens for protection.’
‘I see,’ said the sick man, nodding. Then he frowned. ‘Why do you have so many? Surely, their owners cannot have sold them
to you? If folk have been to Jerusalem, Santiago or Rocamadour, they will want to keep these blessings for themselves.’
A distinctly furtive expression crossed the pardoner’s face. ‘Sometimes they need money to get home again, which I can provide.
And sometimes the tokens just drop off their clothes when they hurl themselves in front of St Thomas’s tomb. I usually look
around at night, when the cathedral is quiet, and I am often lucky.’
The sick man stepped back when his travelling companions descended on the stall, clucking and cooing over the merchandise.
Several made purchases, and he was staggered by the amount of money that exchanged hands. The pardoner was right: his
a lucrative business. And if the badges really were holy, then perhaps they would work miracles, too. For the first time
since the onset of his disease, the sick man felt the stirrings of hope.
Surreptitiously, he looked at the scallop shell he had palmed while the pardoner had been talking. He did not feel as though
he was about to be struck down for stealing it. Indeed, he had the sense that it was better off with him than with a villain
who would hawk it for silver. Could it cure him? It had not eased his symptoms as far as he could
tell, but perhaps it would take more than one badge to combat the disease that was eating him from the inside out. He needed
more – as many as he could get. Smiling to himself, he eased into the shadows and began to make his plans.
January 1358, Cambridge
There was a fringe of ice along the edge of the River Cam, and its brown, swirling waters, swollen with recent rain, looked
cold and dangerous in the grey light of pre-dawn. Frost speckled the rushes in the shallows, and John Jolye wondered whether
it would snow again. He hoped so. The soft white blanket that had enveloped the town the previous week had been tremendous
fun, and he and his friends from the College of Trinity Hall had spent a wonderful afternoon careening down Castle Hill on
planks of wood.
‘Have you finished yet?’ he called softly, stamping his feet in an attempt to warm them. Acting as lookout was not the most
exciting of tasks, and he wished he had been allocated a more active role in the prank. It had been his idea, after all. ‘I
‘Almost.’ The reply was full of suppressed laughter. ‘And if this does not confound the dunces from the hostels, then I do
not know what will. They will never work out how we did it!’
Jolye was not so sure about that – hostel scholars were not stupid. But he did not want to spoil his friends’ sport, so he
held his tongue. Besides, it had been more than a week since members of Essex Hostel had sneaked into Trinity Hall when everyone
was asleep and filled it with scores of roosting chickens, and it was becoming urgent that the challenge was answered. Honour
was at stake, after all – it would not do for a poverty-stricken, lowly hostel to get the better of a fine, wealthy College.
‘Someone will come along soon!’ he hissed, becoming impatient. What was taking them so long? ‘It is already getting light,
and this is a public footpath.’
‘It is far too early for anyone else to be up,’ came the scornful response. ‘There! It is done! Chestre Hostel’s boats are
now standing stern to bow on top of each other, rising in a column that is almost the height of three men. When they try to
dismantle it, the pegs we used to lock the boats together will drop unseen into the water, and they will assume we did it
by balance alone.’
‘They will marvel at our ability to confound the rules of nature!’ crowed another. ‘Well done, Jolye! This plan was a stroke
Jolye felt a surge of pride. At fifteen, he was one of Trinity Hall’s youngest students, and his cronies did not often praise
him. He was about to respond with a suitably nonchalant remark when he heard voices from farther along the path. His classmates
heard them, too, and began trotting towards the lane that would take them home.
Jolye started to follow, but he had not been involved in the warm work of lugging heavy boats around, and his feet were like
lumps of ice. He tried to break into a run when the footsteps drew closer, but could only manage a totter. Suddenly, there
was a hand in the middle of his back, and he was shoved roughly forward. He stumbled, and a second push sent him face-first
into the river.
The shock of the frigid water took his breath away, and for a moment all he could do was lie there. Then his body reacted,
and he found himself turning and flailing back towards the bank. It was not easy, because the current was strong, and threatened
to sweep him away.
‘That was a stupid thing to do!’ he gasped angrily to the three dark figures that stood by the boats. His teeth chattered
almost uncontrollably. ‘Help me out.’
He held out his hand, expecting to be hauled to safety, but none of them moved. He blinked water from his eyes, trying see
their faces. Were they hostel lads? But the hostel–College competition was only a bit of fun, and certainly not serious enough
to warrant shoving rivals in icy rivers. Or were they townsmen, who hated the University and would love to see a scholar get
a soaking? Unfortunately, the light was not good enough for him to tell, and they were just silent silhouettes.
‘Please!’ he croaked. The water was so cold it hurt. ‘You have made your point. Now help me.’
He staggered forward, and had almost reached dry land when an oar touched his shoulder, and he found himself prodded backwards.
He floundered, choking as his head went under. The current tugged him downstream. What were they thinking? Did they
him to drown? He managed to grab a rotten pier as he was washed past, and struggled towards the bank again.
‘No!’ he screamed, as the paddle pushed him back a second time. The river caught him, carrying him some distance before swirling
him into a slack pool near the back of Michaelhouse. Again, he tried to escape the water’s icy clutch, but the silhouettes
were waiting and so was the oar.
‘I am sorry,’ he whispered pitifully. He glanced at the opposite bank, knowing he could escape his tormentors if he managed
to reach it, but he had never learned to swim, and it might as well be a hundred miles away. ‘Whatever I have done to offend
you, I am sorry. Now please—’
The next poke propelled him into the middle of the river, where the current was strongest. Water filled his mouth and nose.
He tried to call for help as he was swept under the Great Bridge, but no one heard. His head dipped under the surface and
did not rise again.