"No one can be lonely who has a book for company." ~ Nelle Reagan

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Excerpt From The Man in the Snow by Rory Clements

The Man in the Snow
Rory Clements
December 10, 2013
Witness Impulse
A Harper Collins Publishing Imprint
Electronic book text
$0.99 US / $0.99 Can. / 0,73 € EU
A riveting novella set in Elizabethan England-perfect for fans of C. J. Sansom and The Tudors.

Just a few days before Christmas, a reluctant John Shakespeare-brother of a rising playwright-answers a plea for help from Joshua Peace, Searcher of the Dead, but he has no idea the kind of menace he will face. A naked man has been found in a snowdrift, a wreath of holly crowning his head and a bullet in his back.

As all around him prepare for the festive season, Shakespeare must unravel a complex plot of passion and treachery and confront a cold-blooded murderer who will not hesitate to kill again.

*I thank Harper Collins Publishing, Witness Impulse, for the following excerpt provided for this special posting for The Man in the Snow by Rory Clements.

Even the best riders would not manage the hundred-mile highway to Stratford-upon-Avon in such conditions. A letter would have to suffice and the courier would have to deliver it as and when he could.
Sitting back from the table, he looked at what he had written: news of the girls, Mary and Grace, both thriving in health and their lessons. He was about to move on to his adopted son, Andrew, when there was a knock at the door and Boltfoot Cooper limped into the room, his club- foot scraping across the rush-matted boards.
‘Mr Peace is here to see you, master.’
Peace? A visit from Joshua Peace was a rare event indeed. Rare, but most welcome. ‘Bring him in, Boltfoot, and ask Jane to fetch us brandy, if you would.’
He put down his quill and rubbed the wet ink from his hands on the rag he kept at the side of the table as Boltfoot ushered Peace in.
‘Well met, Joshua. Are you hail?’ Shakespeare took his old friend’s icy hand, then embraced him, struck by how gaunt and ill at ease he appeared.
‘As well as any of God’s creatures in this bleakest of winters, John. I swear the cold would freeze a man’s very soul.’
‘Well, take brandy with me. You will find some warmth there.’
Peace managed a faint smile. ‘Brandy indeed. Yes, that is what a man needs. If not to warm him, then at least to numb the pain in the long, dark nights.’
‘So have you come to cheer me up, to drink and make merry? Are we to go wassailing?’
‘You make jest of me.’ Peace took off his ice-coated felt hat and ran his hand across the smooth peak of his pate. His hair was nothing but a rim around the edges, a pauper’s crown. ‘Forgive me. It is getting to me.’
‘Then I shall have to cheer you. Let us trudge through the snow to the Old Swan and sink into mellow oblivion together.’
‘No, John. I have no temper for the company of strangers. Let them carouse without me. Work and sleep are my lot this season.’
Shakespeare’s maidservant, Jane, appeared with a salver holding a flagon of brandy and two goblets. He poured two large measures of the spirit and handed one to Peace.
‘Then what has brought you here?’
‘I have care of a corpse that I wish you to look at. In truth I am at a loss as to what to do with it.’

‘Is there foul play?’
‘Most certainly. The man has been shot in the back.’ ‘Then it must be a matter for the justice and the sheriff.’ ‘They are not interested.’
‘The justice is not interested in murder? In God’s

name, why not?’
‘The victim is an Ethiop. They presume him to be

either slave or deckhand from some foreign vessel. No one cares enough to inquire into his death. Anyway, they are all too preoccupied with the prospect of feasting.’
Shakespeare wished he were surprised by the reac- tion, but nonetheless murder was murder, whoever the victim. ‘How did he come to be entrusted to you?’
‘The watch brought him to me. They had no idea what to do with the body and said they did not want to bury a heathen in hallowed ground.’
‘A shameful business.’
‘Indeed it is. One of those who brought him to me suggested he was shot escaping, another that he hadn’t paid some quent merchant for use of his whore. Either way, they said, he had got his deserts.’
‘Drink your brandy, Joshua, and we will see.’
The stone walls of the crypt beneath St Paul’s dripped with water. The cacophonous sounds of teeming com- merce above were muted here. This was where Joshua Peace worked alone as Searcher of the Dead.
Shakespeare was a tall man and his long hair hung about his face as he stared down at the mound on the trestle table. It was covered in a stained sheet that had once been white. Peace pulled back the covering to reveal the corpse, which lay face down, showing the wound.
Even in death, the skin had a wonderful, dark sheen, its beauty cruelly marred by a hole in the middle of the back, just beneath the delicate arc of the shoulder blades.
‘Could his death have been an accident?’ Shakespeare asked.
‘Look more closely, John. See the scorch marks around the entry wound. That tells me he was shot at close range. Most likely with a dag. This was murder.’
‘A dag?’ It was not that easy to get hold of a wheel-lock pistol. Such weapons were costly. Shakespeare sniffed the air. ‘How long has he been dead?’
‘You notice the absence of stench.’

‘Which must mean the death is recent.’
‘No, not in this case. The body was found beneath a

drift of snow, somewhere close to Bishopsgate, just outside the city wall. It had frozen solid. The bitter cold has delayed putrefaction. In truth, I cannot give you a time of death, except to say that it occurred some time in the past three weeks, since the snows came.’
Shakespeare reached forward and touched the skin. It was so luminous and bright, he half expected it to be warm, but it was as cold as ice.
‘It still hasn’t thawed through, John. It was brought to me this morning, rigid. The blood is frozen in the veins. Let me turn him over for you and show you his face.’
Peace put his practised arms beneath the slender body and turned it over.
Shakespeare took a step back in shock and then came closer again, to be sure. It was a face he had not seen in almost ten years, but he was certain. ‘His name is Giovanni Jesu. He attends upon the Earl of Oxford. Attended ...’ he trailed off.
‘You know him, John?’
‘I met him once when the earl was engaged as a com- missioner at the trial of the Scottish Queen.’ He had been struck even then by the man’s remarkable beauty.
‘What was he? Servant?’
‘Difficult to say precisely. I know there was a scan- dal. The earl brought him back from his tour of the great Italian cities. Siena or Padua, I believe. No, no, it was Venice. That is where Giovanni came from. He must have been a youth then, barely out of childhood. They arrived in 1577 and he was about twenty-two when I met him, so that would make him thirty-one or thereabouts now. I think the earl was captivated by his exquisite skin and his perfect features. If he saw something beautiful, he collected it. Giovanni was like a diamond or pearl to him. There were others, of course ...’
Joshua Peace nodded. ‘Yes, I have heard of them. But what are we to do about this man?’
‘At least we have a name now.’
‘But that does not tell us why he is dead nor who killed him.’
‘The motive is, perhaps, the least of our problems. We also have troublesome connections.’ Shakespeare grimaced at the thought. The Earl of Oxford was always trouble. Most difficult of all was his link to the Cecils. He had been ward to Lord Burghley, and had married his daughter. The history of the Earl of Oxford and the Cecil family was as strained as a galleon’s sheets in an easterly gale. Yet even more difficult was his history with the Queen. One moment he was her favourite, the next he was banished. Shakespeare began to sift the possible political complications through his mind, and did not like the dangers he perceived.
Peace said nothing but walked through to the adjoining room, returning with a trencher. There was a circle of holly on it.
‘What is that, Joshua?’
‘The watch told me it was around our corpse’s head, like a coronet.’
‘An emblem of martyrdom. Christ’s crown of thorns.’
‘The possibility had occurred to me. Though what it might signify in this case, I have no idea.’
‘What clothes was he wearing?’
‘Nothing else. The body was naked. He had, however, been clothed when he was killed, for I found a fragment of woollen cloth in the wound.’
‘Show me.’
Peace held out the trencher with the holly crown to Shakespeare. A jagged piece of cloth shone at the side of the platter. It was small and dark with dried blood, but there was enough to show that it was of high quality, with a cross-weave of gold thread.
‘Thank you, Joshua. I have no idea what is to be done about this, but I will put my mind to it.’
As Shakespeare hastened through the icy streets towards the river, he thought back to his only meet- ing with Giovanni Jesu. It had been in an anteroom at Fotheringhay back in the year 1586. Shakespeare had been taken off his intelligence work to help Walsingham prepare his case against Mary Queen of Scots. His job was to safeguard and organise the mass of secret docu- ments from the Babington conspiracy that would be used to prove Mary’s guilt and lead to her death. It had been a menial, unpleasant task and Shakespeare had wished himself anywhere else, but he had nonetheless been irritated to be interrupted by a stranger who entered the room without knocking ...
Shakespeare looked up from the endless documents. The man was a blackamoor. ‘I am afraid this room has been taken over as Sir Francis’s private office. Who do you want?’

‘Edward ... the Earl of Oxford.’
‘Well, he is clearly not here.’
‘Do you know how long the commission will last?’
‘It will be finished soon enough.’
‘And so will the Scots Queen, yes?’
Shakespeare had looked at him sternly, hoping he

would go away.
But the man made a comment about the impossibility

of having two queens in one country, then added in his fluent but accented English, ‘In truth, sir, it is like having two wives in one bedchamber or kitchen, a thing that is always likely to lead to death.’
Shakespeare found himself laughing. ‘It would be wise, sir, to refrain from any more jests about the Queen or her cousin, unless you wish to join Mary on the block.’

‘If a jester can’t make jests, then who can?’
‘Are you a jester?’
The young man had shrugged. ‘Jester, bedfellow, curiosity, dog. People have called me all those and more.’ ‘Then what are you?’

‘I am Giovanni Jesu, a man.’
‘And I am exceedingly busy, so I would be grateful if you would please leave me to my work.’

Jesu had grinned, bowed very low and retreated from the room. It had been the only time they met, but Shakespeare had never forgotten the encounter. He thought now of the cruel holly crown and the corpse on Joshua’s slab. How had this vital, witty man come to this? 

Author Rory Clements

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