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Veil of Lies
A Medieval Noir
By Jeri Westerson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Jeri Westerson
All rights reserved.
The rain didn't bother him, even though London's rain fell thicker and harsher than country rain. Full of the city's stench, the drizzle descended in matted wires, pricking the skin. Crispin's leather hood took the brunt of it. The beaded water ran off his head in long rivulets and pooled at his feet. The cloak did not fare as well, and clung in heavy, wet drapery to his shivering shoulders.
Even this didn't bother him.
What bothered him was standing in this unholy rain while a mere servant boldly appraised him as if he were a stable boy or a tradesman; looked Crispin up and down from his shabby knee-length cotehardie to his patched stockings.
The manservant's face, square and strong, spoke of country stock rather than those hard faces etched by city living. "What do you want?" the servant asked after his prolonged assessment.
Crispin leaned forward. "What I want," he said in a clipped tone that made the servant stiffen, "is for you to announce me to your master, the man who summoned me in the first place. The name," he said, advancing to take possession of the threshold, "is Crispin Guest. Do not keep your master waiting."
The servant hesitated before bowing derisively with a "right this way, my lord" that had nothing of respect in it.
They entered a wide hall. Murals of hardworking dyers and weavers decorated both the plaster walls and rich tapestries. The friendly aroma of dried lavender and rosemary censed the cold rooms. The scent reminded Crispin of his long-lost manor in Sheen. Much the same finery adorned those halls and passageways. But that had been some eight long years ago, when he was still a knight.
They came to a door and the servant took a key from his belt. Once they passed through the archway, he stopped, locked the door behind him, and proceeded on.
Crispin watched and frowned. He wanted to ask but doubted he would get an answer. Instead, he simply observed the strange ritual repeated until they climbed a staircase and reached the warm solar. Why would the interview be conducted in the solar? Business discussions usually took place in the parlor. The intimate setting of the solar suited a family's more private society. Crispin shrugged it off as another eccentricity of his wealthy host.
The servant opened the solar's door. White plaster walls were swathed about the room with arcs of rich, blue drapery hanging mid-height by pegs. A large, carved buffet stood against one wall, reaching almost to dark ceiling beams marching in a row toward a large window, under which sat a heavy, carved table with parchments and leather-bound accounting ledgers spread across it.
The servant bowed perfunctorily. "My master will be in anon." He turned sharply and then stopped, leaning in toward Crispin. "Don't touch anything." He grinned at Crispin's narrowed eyes and left without locking the door behind him.
Crispin tugged at his tailored coat and sneered in the direction of the receding footsteps. He glanced at the lock and traced his finger around the black iron lock plate. New. And this one only bolted from the inside. Surely the solar was important enough to lock from the outside as well.
He strolled to the fire, luxuriating in its glowing warmth. The hearth, large, almost too big for the room, stood as tall as Crispin. The mantel boasted arms of the mercer's guild chiseled into the stone. "Merchant in cloth," Crispin snorted. He glanced again around the fine room of silver candlesticks and expensive furnishings, and nodded shrewdly. "I am in the wrong profession." He stared at the flagon across the room and licked his lips.
Last night he wondered at such a summons and felt a little trill in his belly. If all went well, this would surely be the richest client of his four-year career, and he needed that fee. The rent was overdue again and he owed Gilbert and Eleanor Langton a lengthy tavern bill as well. Where did the money go? Funny how it had never occurred to him how hard it was to make a living until he had to do it himself.
The door burst open and Crispin instinctively came to attention and faced his wealthy host. The man strode in, his shoulders almost as wide as the doorway. He took command of the space as a general takes command of the field, locking his eyes on Crispin before sweeping his gaze warily around the room. Crispin smiled in spite of himself. There was little doubt in Crispin's mind that such a man was used to barking orders and having them immediately obeyed. It was something Crispin appreciated. Something he had enjoyed himself in years gone by. But this man, this prosperous merchant, was not destined to take his place on any battlefield. His arena was commerce and his soldiers his bolts of cloth.
Crispin looked him over as well, trying to assess the man beneath the confident exterior. On second examination, the man did not appear to have the muscled heft of a mason or smith, but instead the corpulence of a man of leisure. His nut brown fleshy face crinkled at the eyes and met a tidy beard touched by gray. His deep green houppelande made of rich velvet and trimmed with miniver reached to just below his knees. The foliated sleeves touched the floor, and the stiff collar stood up straight and neatly covered the back of a beefy neck. He wore two gold chains across his wide breast as well as a dagger with a gem-encrusted hilt and a decorated scabbard.
Behind him, the same manservant who met Crispin at the main door followed his master into the room and stood by the door, awaiting instructions.
The wealthy man rested his gaze on Crispin once more and left it there. "Crispin Guest?" he asked.
"At your service, my lord," said Crispin and bowed.
The man nodded briskly before turning to his manservant. "Adam, you are dismissed. We will serve ourselves."
The servant, Adam, threw a suspicious glare at Crispin. He hesitated a moment. But there didn't seem to be any naysaying of this master, and the servant forced a bow before he trudged out, pulling the door shut behind him. The wealthy host strode to the closed door, grabbed the iron bolt, and locked them in.
Crispin glanced at the bolt but said nothing.
The man turned back to Crispin and hastily smiled. "I do like my privacy."
Crispin remained silent.
"Please" — the man gestured toward a cushioned chair — "sit. Will you have wine?"
The merchant poured and handed Crispin a bowl. Crispin sat and savored the feel of the silver bowl in his hand and almost closed his eyes at the aroma of the sweet berry flavors of good Gascon wine. The man sat opposite in a larger chair. Crispin took only one sip and reluctantly set the bowl aside.
"I have heard of your discretion, Master Guest," said the man at last. "And discretion is utmost in this instance."
"Yes, Master. That is true in most instances."
"Your reputation as an investigator — is it well deserved?"
"For four years I have been known as the 'Tracker.' I have heard no complaints about my service. My clients are well satisfied."
"I see." The merchant smiled with a contented nod, but then his face tightened and he fell into an agitated silence. They measured each other for a long span before the man sprang unexpectedly to his feet and nervously warmed his hands at the hearth.
"Perhaps," Crispin suggested after another long silence, "you should start at the beginning, and then we can discover what it is you would have me do."
The man sighed heavily and glanced once at the closed door. "My name is Nicholas Walcote."
Crispin nodded. This he knew. The richest mercer in London, possibly in all England. Reclusive. Eccentric. It was said Walcote hadn't been seen by his own guild since his boyhood, but his renowned trade in cloth kept his reputation intact. The man seemed always ahead of the trends, always importing just the right merchandise at the right time, cloth that the market seemed enraptured with. The man had a head for business like few others. Crispin mentally shook his head — the cloth trade was a complete mystery to him. There had once been a time when he followed fashions, but he did not have to heed courtly finery today, even if he could afford it.
The thought soured his belly as thoughts of King Richard's court often did. His history made Walcote his better and left Crispin in rags. But not for long. Crispin measured each man these days by the amount of gold they were willing to part with. And by the looks of things, Nicholas Walcote could afford to part with a great deal.
Canting toward the edge of his seat, Crispin schooled his features and pulled the hem of his coat down over his thigh to cover a hole in his left stocking. "What might these discreet matters be, Master Walcote?"
When Walcote met Crispin's gaze his face hardened. "It is my wife. I fear ... I fear she is unfaithful to me." His eyes filled with tears. Abruptly, he dropped his head into his hands and wept.
Crispin sat back and examined his nails, waiting for Walcote's tears to subside. He waited a long time.
At last Walcote raised his head and wiped his face with large, square hands. "Forgive me." He sniffed and rubbed his nose. "These are disturbing matters. Of course I am not certain. That is why I called for you."
Crispin reckoned where this was heading and didn't like it. "What is it you wish me to do?"
"Surely you have experience in these matters."
He narrowed his eyes. "You wish me to spy on your wife?"
Walcote crossed the room and stood above his untouched wine. The frost-edged window panes added a gray wash of faint light onto the polished wooden floor. The rest of the room lay steeped in shadows or the manicured halos of candle sconces.
"It is driving me mad!" he hissed. "I must know! The business, my estates. I must know that any issue from her is mine. We have been married so briefly and I travel much on business."
Love and jealousy were one thing, but the business of inheritance quite another. "Just so. What are your intentions if you discover an unpleasant truth?"
Walcote's ruddy countenance deepened to red. "That, Master Guest, is my business alone."
"I think you are mistaken. I do not care to be the cause of violence, no matter how justified."
Walcote glared at him, and suddenly the merchant's curled fists opened. He smiled apologetically. "Such personal matters. It is difficult to be rational. There would be words, certainly, and perhaps punitive action. But violence? No. You see, despite it all, I love my wife."
Crispin rose, crossed to the hearth, and warmed his back against the fire. His wet mantle dripped on the floor. "I have no stomach for such business, Master Walcote. I recover lost jewelry, stolen papers, and such like. Adultery? I leave that to clerics." He shook his head and moved to the door, but Walcote scrambled to maneuver in front of him and even spread his arms to cover the entrance.
Walcote weighed a good sixteen stone, but it was all easy living and heavy food. Trim and fit, Crispin did not doubt that if he wished to leave, Walcote could not impede him.
"Please, Master Guest. You know I am a wealthy man. I will pay any price. I cannot tell this story again to another. I beg of you!"
"This is unpleasant and personal business, Master Walcote." Crispin eyed his abandoned wine bowl. "In my opinion, you should talk to your wife." He placed his hand on Walcote's arm and squeezed, moving it easily aside. He reached for the bolt but Walcote grabbed his wrist.
"But how can I believe her answer?"
Crispin offered a smile. "She just might tell you the truth. Stranger things have happened."
"You do not know my wife," Walcote muttered. "I have tried, but the truth with her is different from others."
Walcote tightened his grip on Crispin's wrist. Crispin looked down at it. "Surely there is a servant you can send," he told his host.
"And be the laughingstock of the servant's hall?" He shook his head and released Crispin's wrist. "Have you never been betrayed? Would you not have wanted someone to intervene for you? To warn you?"
Crispin gnawed on words close to his heart. Betrayed? He had been betrayed twice in his life in the worst possible ways. Once by a man he trusted with his life, and the other by the woman he intended to marry. If he had only been warned. If someone had but said —
He lowered his hand from the bolt and stared at the floor, ticking off the advantages both for and against. He stood that way for a while, until a long breath escaped his lips and he pivoted to face Walcote. The man was desperate. No doubt of that. His ruddy face reddened and sweat shined on his nose and forehead. All his wealth was no surety of happiness. Crispin almost snorted at the irony.
Instead, he sighed his frustration, feeling the hollowness of the purse at his own belt. "Very well. What is it you wish me to do?"
Walcote's words spilled out. "Watch the house. See where she goes or who appears when I am out. Report to me what you find. I shall take care of the rest." He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. "What is your fee for such a commission?"
"Sixpence a day, plus expenses."
"I will pay that and more. Here is a good-faith payment." He reached into the purse at his belt and withdrew three coins. "Half a day's wages now. More for however long it takes."
Crispin looked at the coins in Walcote's moist palm. Three silver disks. To refuse them meant starvation. Nothing new. He had starved before. If he accepted them, it meant creeping in shadows, little better than a voyeur. But it also might lead to better appointments, better opportunities. Perhaps even through the Walcote household itself, and a rich household it was.
With a bitter heart, his fingers scooped up the coins and dropped them into his purse.
"How shall I know your wife?" asked Crispin. "May I see her?"
"Oh no! That will never do." Walcote went to the sideboard and opened the doors. He took a small object from a back shelf and cupped it in his hand, gazing at it. Reluctantly he handed it to Crispin. "This is a portrait of Philippa. It is the best likeness."
Crispin examined the miniature. A young brown-eyed woman in her early twenties looked out at him. Her hair was a brassy gold and parted in the middle. Two ring braids draped over her ears. A fetching lass. And younger than Walcote, who appeared to be in his late forties. Little wonder he worries.
Crispin handed the portrait back, but the merchant shook his head. "Keep that for now. I would have you be certain."
Crispin shrugged and stuffed the small portrait through the opening of his coat.
"I want you to begin tonight," said Walcote distractedly. "And tell me whatever you discover as soon as possible."
"Let us hope your worries are for nought."
"Yes." He wrung his hands and turned his back on Crispin to face the fire. "Adam will let you out."
Leaving the Walcote courtyard, Crispin could not help but look back over his shoulder at the grand stone structure.
He passed through the gatehouse and acknowledged the porter inside with only a curt nod. Pulling his leather hood up, he gathered his cloak about him. The autumn sky hung gray and sullen. He felt grateful the rain had stopped but his breath still fogged his face.
If Walcote wanted him to start tonight then now seemed as good a time as any. He walked across the street to warm himself over a shopkeeper's brazier and nodded to a man already standing there. The man gestured toward the house. "Been looking for a job?" A thick-as-fog Southwark accent, but his manner rubbed a little too feminine for Crispin's tastes.
Crispin gave a brief smile. "Yes. Do you know them?"
"Aye. Me cousin used to work for them."
"Aye. He says they're a curious lot. I just girded me courage to ask for work there m'self, even though me cousin Harry warned me not to. A man can't be too particular when he needs to earn a living." He was a thin man with a hollowed face, pale hair, a hawk nose, and watery blue eyes. The man pulled his hood down to his brows with long fingers, and stiffly clutched the material closed below his chin.
"And the outcome?"
"I talked to the mistress of the house. She's a stern one, she is. I don't know what she thought. I'm to return on the morrow."
Crispin said nothing. He glanced back at the house. Its proud exterior slowly disappeared behind an encroaching mist, leaving only a hazy gray rectangle with darker rectangles for windows.
Excerpted from Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson. Copyright © 2008 Jeri Westerson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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