The Grim Reaperby Bernard Knight
May 1195, and Sir John de Wolfe is faced with a strange series of serial murders, which begins with the suffocation of a Jewish money-lender and proceeds through that of a London harlot, a dissolute priest and a burgess suspected of abusing young boys. The common factor is that an appropriate Biblical text is left at each murder scene, the mode of which reflects… See more details below
May 1195, and Sir John de Wolfe is faced with a strange series of serial murders, which begins with the suffocation of a Jewish money-lender and proceeds through that of a London harlot, a dissolute priest and a burgess suspected of abusing young boys. The common factor is that an appropriate Biblical text is left at each murder scene, the mode of which reflects the alleged sin of the victim. This means that a literate and Bible-learned killer is involved - which, in an age where only 1% of the population can read or write - can only be a priest. There are at least twenty-five parish churches in Exeter, so the killer could be any one of more than a hundred clerics. Crowner John sets about to discover the identity of the homicidal priest.
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The Grim Reaper
A Crowner John Mystery
By Bernard Knight
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2002 Bernard Knight
All rights reserved.
In which Crowner John visits a moneylender
A thunderous knocking on the street door dimly penetrated Sir John de Wolfe's consciousness and triggered a throbbing headache that told of too much wine the previous evening. He groaned and turned over, pulling the sheepskin coverlet over his ears. Angrily his wife jerked the coverings back over herself.
'See who's making that noise, John!' Though she was half-asleep, Matilda's voice held its usual belligerent rasp.
De Wolfe sighed and levered himself up against the faded tapestry nailed to the wooden wall behind the bed. The movement jarred his brain, which felt as if it was swinging around loose inside his skull. He rubbed his bleary eyes and saw the dawn light peeping through the cracks in the shutters. The knocking stopped and he heard distant voices through the slit that penetrated the wall of their solar into the main hall of the house.
'Mary's answered them,' he grunted, closing his eyes again and running a hand through the long black hair that covered his aching skull. The previous evening, he had been dragged, at Matilda's insistence, to the Spring Feast of the Guild of Cordwainers. It was part of her campaign to get him to associate more with the great and good of the city and county. An enthusiastic social climber, it galled Matilda that, as sister of the sheriff and wife of the coroner, she missed out on many of the upper-class events because her husband did all he could to avoid them. Last night, he had sat glumly at the top table in the Guildhall, doing his best to drown the idle chatter of the burgesses, barons and clergy with a considerable excess of ale, cider and Anjou wine. He had managed to totter the short distance to their house in Martin's Lane, oblivious of the tight-lipped disapproval of his grim-faced wife, but this morning he was paying the price.
'Get up and see who's there, I said,' she snapped, jerking the bedclothes even further, leaving him partly naked in the cold morning air. Gingerly, he climbed out of the low bed – a thick feather mattress set on a plinth on the floor – and stumbled to a wooden chest against the opposite wall. He sat down heavily and pulled on the long black hose he had worn the previous evening. Then he hauled his long, stooping frame up again and searched in the chest for a clean undershirt and a dark grey tunic that came just below his knees, slit at the sides for sitting a horse. He stood up and cautiously opened a shutter, then squinted at the early-morning sky. Though spring was well advanced, it was cool and, as an afterthought, de Wolfe groped in the chest again for a pair of worsted breeches, which he hauled on and tied with a drawstring around his waist.
'Go on, then! See who it is that disturbs God-fearing folk at this hour,' goaded Matilda.
Slipping his feet into a pair of house-shoes, John opened the door and stepped shivering on to the platform outside. The solar was built high on the back of the narrow timber house, like a large box supported on wooden piles. Steep steps went down to the backyard, where several thatched sheds housed the kitchen, wash-house and privy. Mary, their cook and housekeeper, slept on a cot in her kitchen, and Simon, the aged man who tended the fires and the night-soil, lived in the wash-house. Under the stairs to the solar, another cubicle housed Lucille, Matilda's rabbit-toothed French maid.
When de Wolfe reached the muddy yard, he could hear voices through the narrow covered passage alongside the house, which went through to the front vestibule that lay behind a massive oak door to the street. As he bent his head to go through, his old hound Brutus came towards him, tongue lolling and tail wagging in welcome. He stooped to fondle the dog's ears and saw that Mary, a dark-haired, handsome young woman, was coming towards him, followed by a massive figure that almost filled the narrow alley. Backing out, he waited for the maid and his henchman to join him in the yard.
'Gwyn, I might have known it was you, trying to hammer down my front door.'
'We've got a body, Crowner. A strange one, this time.'
Gwyn of Polruan was an untidy Goliath of a man with a mass of ginger hair and a large moustache of the same tint that hung down over his lantern jaw almost to his collar-bones. Bushy eyebrows and a bulbous red nose framed a pair of twinkling blue eyes. He was dressed in a faded brown worsted tunic that came only to mid-thigh, girdled by a wide leather belt that carried a sheathed dagger. His brawny legs were covered with baggy fawn breeches held to his claves by cross-gartering above ankle-length leather boots. Around his shoulders was a frayed leather cape, with a pointed hood that hung down his back. De Wolfe had rarely seen him dressed in anything else, summer or winter. A former Cornish fisherman, Gwyn had been de Wolfe's bodyguard and companion for almost twenty years, in campaigns in Ireland, France and the Holy Land.
The coroner groaned at the news, his head still thumping like a water-hammer in a forge. 'Don't tell me we've got a long ride. I doubt I could sit a horse before noon.' His jurisdiction covered the whole county of Devon and it could take two days' riding to reach the more distant villages.
Gwyn grinned and shook his head, his tangled hair bouncing like a red mop. 'You don't need your horse, Crowner! It's only a few hundred paces away, across the Close.'
Mary stood listening, her hands on her hips. 'Do you want some breakfast before you go gallivanting?' she demanded.
Before the ever-hungry Cornishman could open his mouth, de Wolfe had shaken his head. 'If it's that near, you can get something ready for us when we get back – say an hour.' He jabbed a finger into his disappointed officer's chest. 'Go and rouse that miserable little clerk of ours while I go up and tell Madam where I'm going. She'll give me the length of her tongue if I disappear so early without some good excuse.'
Ten minutes later, John stepped from his house into Martin's Lane, the short, narrow alley that joined the cathedral Close to the city's high street. As he stopped to swing his mottled wolfskin cloak about his shoulders, he looked up at the dwelling he had bought ten years ago with loot from Ireland. Tall and narrow, with a steep roof of wooden shingles, the house-front was blind apart from the door and two shuttered windows at ground level. Alongside it stood an almost identical house – the only other building in the lane, apart from the farrier's stable and the side of an inn opposite – which was empty: the silversmith who owned it had been murdered a few months earlier.
And now de Wolfe was off to see another corpse, though Gwyn had not said what kind of death it was – he had an exasperating habit of spinning out any story to keep the listener in suspense. Now he was striding towards the coroner, his cape blowing in the brisk breeze. 'I hauled Thomas off his pallet, Crowner. The little turd will follow us down when he gets some clothes on.'
The coroner's clerk was Thomas de Peyne, a disgraced priest from Winchester, who had been given the job by de Wolfe as a favour to his friend the Archdeacon, who happened to be Thomas's uncle.
The coroner and his officer set off across the Close, the patch of ground around the cathedral which was an ecclesiastical enclave independent of the city, and outside the jurisdiction of the sheriff and burgesses. Although it was supposed to be policed by the cathedral proctors, it was an eyesore, not only because of the squalor and rubbish but because hawkers, beggars and loutish youths made a nuisance of themselves there in front of the more respectable users of this busy space in the middle of the city.
However, at this early hour, only a couple of optimistic hawkers rattled their trays at the pair as they strode purposefully from the end of Martin's Lane towards one of the several exits from the Close, a beggar sitting on the cathedral steps opened his mouth to whine for alms, but shut it again as a waste of breath when he saw who the two men were. Though Gwyn of Polruan was a huge fellow, his master was barely an inch shorter, but where the Cornishman was massive John de Wolfe was lean and spare. His posture was a little hunched and his head stuck out like that of some predatory bird; his long black hair, jet eyebrows and great hooked nose enhanced his resemblance to a raven. He had no beard or moustache, but the dark stubble on his long face and the fact that he invariably dressed in black or grey had earned him the nickname 'Black John' in campaigns across Europe and the Levant.
'It's just past Beargate,' rumbled Gwyn, beginning grudgingly to leak information, 'in a dwelling around the corner in Southgate Street.'
'Not in the cathedral precinct, is it?' snapped the coroner, mindful of the Church's jealous hold on its property and all that happened in it.
'Well, the back wall comes to the Close, but this is a room rented out by one of the cloth merchants in the Serge Market.'
Beyond Beargate, the Close funnelled into a narrow lane, which opened into Southgate Street. This was one of the four main thoroughfares in Exeter, built over the original Roman plan, in which a quartet of roads radiated from the central crossing at Carfoix to each of the gates in the town walls.
'Down this way, Crowner.' Gwyn turned left and thrust his way through the early-morning traders, who were putting up their booths along the street and lowering the shutters of the shops to act as counters. This was the Serge Market, where the cloth dealers held sway. The road dipped down steeply towards the South Gate, and through the big arch they could see a slow procession of cattle, sheep and pigs being driven up to the Shambles near St George's church, where the upper part of the street acted as a slaughteryard to supply the butcher's stalls. Soon the morning would be rent by the wailing of cows and the scream of pigs, as poleaxes and knives left the cobbles awash with blood.
John followed his officer for a few yards down the street until they came to a knot of people squeezed between two cloth stalls, the traders still struggling to fix up the gaudy striped awnings in the fresh breeze. The small crowd was huddled around a tall, fair-haired man holding a pike, who blocked a doorway into the building behind. He banged the heel of his weapon on the ground in a salute to the King's coroner. 'These here are the people who found the body, Crowner,' he said, in a thick country accent. 'I reckoned I had better keep them here until you came.' The lanky fellow, his cheeks ridden with old cowpox scars, was one of the town constables, a Saxon named Osric, and was employed by the burgesses to try to safeguard the properties of the merchants. As there were only two constables in a city of more than four thousand inhabitants, they were somewhat ineffective, but had some use in keeping order among the scuffles and fights that broke out hourly in the streets. De Wolfe turned to Gwyn. His patience had run thin. 'Now, are you going to tell me what happened?' he snapped.
Gwyn smiled amiably and laid a huge hand on the shoulder of a small man trying to look inconspicuous among the witnesses. 'This fellow here is the First Finder. He came as it was getting light to call upon the man who lived here, but found him dead. He called the constable and Osric sent someone up to the castle.'
'How did you get to know about it so quickly?' demanded de Wolfe. Gwyn lived in St Sidwell's, a village outside the city walls.
Gwyn grinned sheepishly. 'While you were enjoying your feast in the Guildhall last night, I did some gaming and drinking with Sergeant Gabriel and some of his men. I slept in the gatehouse overnight and was there when the constable sent the message up.'
'So who's dead, damn you?' snarled his master.
'Best come inside and look for yourself, Crowner.' Gwyn was determined to spin out the suspense as long as he could.
The skinny constable stood aside and John followed his officer through a doorway into a dark passage with a damp earthen floor. Ahead, it went off somewhere into the gloomy nether regions, but in the left-hand wall of limed wattle there was another doorway, hung with a large sheet of thick leather to keep out draughts, its bottom green and mottled with damp. Gwyn held it aside for the coroner to pass through. There was a strong smell of mould and stale urine, but it was so dark that de Wolfe could see almost nothing. 'Open those damned shutters, man,' he barked.
The pale daylight flooded in and a row of heads appeared over the front sill, until the constable prodded them away with the end of his pike and stood guard there himself. John turned slowly to take in the whole room.
'Who is he, do we know?'
In the centre of the uneven floor, a man was lying flat on his back, deathly still. His head was enveloped in a brown leather bag, the drawstrings pulled tightly around his neck.
'No doubt about it – he's well known in the markets here. It's Aaron of Salisbury, a Jewish moneylender,' said Gwyn.
From outside the window, Osric added some detail: 'He's lived here about half a year, Crowner. Rents this room for his business, and eats and sleeps in the one behind. Keeps to himself and causes no trouble. I did hear his wife and son died in that terrible trouble in York in 'eighty-nine, after which he moved to Salisbury, then came here. I think he has a married daughter somewhere, maybe in Honiton.'
De Wolfe stood and looked slowly around the room. The only furniture was a rickety table, a folding chair with a leather back and a couple of milking stools. The table had been against the back wall, but was now on its side, one of its legs broken. On the floor was a small balance for weighing coins, a scattered heap of silver pennies and a tattered book, consisting of a wad of ragged parchment sheets sewn between two thin wooden boards. In a niche in the timber wall was a seven-branched candlestick, green with verdigris. In the corner was another doorway, with no door or screen in its mouldering frame.
De Wolfe and his henchman crouched on each side of the body, postures in which they had plenty of practice in the last eight months since John had become coroner.
'Call that First Finder in here,' de Wolfe growled at the constable. A moment later the small man came in from the street and stood apprehensively inside the doorway. He was a furtive figure, with a pug nose, dressed in a mouse-coloured tunic and a pointed woollen cap, its tassel flopping over one ear.
'Was he like this when you found him? Did you move him at all?'
'Yessir – no, sir! I ran out of here as if Satan himself was after me.'
'Why were you here at all, so early in the day?'
The man hesitated, not from guilt but shame. 'I wanted a loan, Crowner. Never before have I needed to borrow, but my business as a fletcher has been so bad with the King's army away in France for over a year that I needed money to tide me over.'
'You need a good war to get you back on your feet,' suggested Gwyn to the arrow-maker, not unsympathetically.
De Wolfe gave one of his throaty grunts, which might have meant anything, and turned his attention back to the dead man. 'That drawstring around his neck, Gwyn, is it tight enough to strangle him?'
The Cornishman poked a large forefinger between the neck of the money-bag and the collar of the black woollen tunic that shrouded the money-lender. 'Feels loose enough to me now, though it might have been pulled tight earlier.'
'But it's not knotted to hold it in place,' growled John. 'Let's have it off his head.'
His officer pulled the neck of the bag as wide as it would stretch and slid it up over the face and head of the Jew. A full grey beard was revealed first, then a pale face with closed eyes. Long iron-grey hair, parted in the centre, framed strong features with a peaceful expression.
'Anything in the bag?'
Gwyn peered into the strong leather pouch, which had neat, tight stitching along the seams. He put in a hand and studied his fingertips when he withdrew them. 'Blood – not much, but it's fresh.'
The fletcher was still standing inside the door, gaping at the scene, and the Saxon guard peering in through the window, as de Wolfe put a bony hand under the neck of the cadaver and tried to pull it into a sitting position. The whole body moved, resting on its heels, and the coroner let it drop back. 'Stiff as a bloody board! Must have been dead a good few hours. Pull him over – I want to see the back of his head.'
Excerpted from The Grim Reaper by Bernard Knight. Copyright © 2002 Bernard Knight. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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