Introducing Elizabethan cutpurse and adventurer Jack Blackjack in the first of a brand-new historical mystery series
January, 1554. Light-fingered Jack Blackjack knows he’s not going to have a good day when he wakes with a sore head next to a dead body in a tavern’s yard. That would be bad enough – but when he discovers what’s in the dead man’s purse, the one he’d stolen, his day is set to get much worse. The purse explains why the mysterious man with the broad-brimmed hat wants to catch him. But so does the Lord Chancellor, as does the enigmatic Henry. In fact, almost everyone seems to be after Jack Blackjack.
If it weren’t for the rebel army marching on London determined to remove Queen Mary from her throne and install Lady Jane Grey in her place, Jack could leave the city – but with the bridge blocked and every gate manned, there’s no escape.
Instead he must try to work out who killed the man in the yard, and why. But it won’t be easy as the rebel army comes ever closer and the death toll mounts …
About the Author
Michael Jecks gave up a career in the computer industry to concentrate on writing and the study of medieval history, especially that of Devon and Cornwall. He and his wife and daughter now live in northern Dartmoor.
Read an Excerpt
A Jack Blackjack Mystery
By Michael Jecks
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Michael Jecks
All rights reserved.
Sunday 28th January 1554
There was a man lying on the ground in front of me when I came to. He was dressed in travelling clothes, and I stared with a grimace at the stained and torn cloak, the sun-bleached hat and worn boots. His face, I thought, looked familiar, but for the life of me, at that moment, I couldn't work out why. Mind you, I had a serious lump, at least the size of a duck's egg, on the back of my skull, and there was a series of important questions troubling me just then, not least of which were: Why had someone clobbered me over the pate with what must have been a maul or hammer? Why was I sitting on the ground? Exactly where was I? And why was my knife in my hand?
And what was smeared over the blade? That should have been uppermost in my mind, to be honest, but just then the other questions seemed more urgent.
My companion, on the other hand, had no questions or concerns of any sort. Not any more. He was past caring, since someone – possibly me – had caused him to add his blood to the piss and mud of the ground out there. Yes, I was outdoors, in a small yard, and the noise that now came to me reminded me that I had been in a tavern. From the smell, this was the yard that was the unofficial privy out at the back.
I climbed to my feet, the world spinning lazily. It felt as though a giant had bound me to an enormous bobbin and was twirling it enthusiastically. I don't know whether you have experience of such events, but, to me, waking beside a dead body with my knife besmeared with blood was not looking like a good turn-up for the books. Especially when I heard a door crash wide, steps and a sudden grunt of surprise.
There are many men who are experienced with dead bodies. Some are used to finding them; others are used to finding those responsible for them. Me, I'm more used to avoiding them.
Earlier that day
Later, when I had time to think back, life had been so delightfully unremarkable only an hour or so before. It was just an ordinary, everyday Sunday morning.
We had all been sent out at daybreak by Bill, determined to catch the early attendees at church so that we could enjoy a good meal that evening. Yes, it was shameful behaviour to rob the religious on the Sabbath, especially in a church, but we had to live, and pickings had been poor the past week.
Bill? He's our company's fencing cully. There were six of us: Bill, Wat, Gil, Ham, me and Moll – Bill's wench. A man on his own in London nowadays, in the year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and fifty-three – or, if you prefer the new method by which some capricious fools are setting New Year in the week after Christmas, fifty-four – is in danger all the time. There are too many men with knives, clubs, guns and swords, and a fellow on his own is likely to be beaten over the pate and arrested before he's nipped his first bung, but with a man like Bill in charge of the company – a fellow who could fence the goods we found, who could source food and drink, beds and protection – life is a lot safer. I'd been with him for months now. When we stole something, he would find a buyer; when I cut a purse loose, he would take the money and make sure that it was held safe for the good of all of us, with the pelf being split equally. Bill ensured we all got a fair share and none of us would go hungry.
But enough of Bill.
That morning I'd decided to go to the cathedral. I reached the street near St Paul's, down close to Ludgate and the Fleet river, and there I pulled my woollen cap down over my eyes and studied myself as best I could in the limited reflection from a window-pane. Not tall, but not short, mousy hair a little ragged where Piers last cut it because he was drunk. Piers is a pimp and hairdresser working in a brothel, mainly because he lost his wife and house to the ale, but he could still handle a pair of scissors quite well – and better while sober. I suppose, as an apple-squire, he had to know how to keep the doxies looking as well as they could. The wenches there were installed to cater for a better class of client. They never would let me inside, not without seeing the colour of my money first. Actually, if they saw the inside of my purse, they wouldn't let me in anyway.
I suppose it is as well to explain a little about myself. A fellow setting out on a narrative of this kind should naturally inform his readers as much about himself as possible. In that case, since by reading this, my dear friends, you are joining me on the journey of my adventures, I will explain.
First, I go by a number of names. Foremost is Jack Blackjack, since that is the name my father gave me; then there's Jack of Whitstable and Jack Faithful by those who know me well. But I have been known to use other names as I see fit. Peter the Passer, John of Smithfield, Hugh Somerville – all have been used or misused by me. As to the rest of me, I suppose I am well formed, if slender, with a face that inspires trust – which is lucky. It is my face that has earned me my keep these last two or three years: square, with a kind of rugged integrity in my brown eyes and straight nose. True, there is a scar on my left cheek, but that gives me an air of devil-may-care insouciance. I like to tell women how I won it defending the virginity and honour of a maiden – although, in truth, I won it tripping while running from an enraged miller who found me in his daughter's bed. It would have been fine, but when he glared at me and said, 'Who is he?' his daughter turned her limpid blue eyes to me and gave a squeal. 'I don't know! I've never seen him before!' Names hadn't mattered the night before, mind, but I suppose she saw no need to overuse the truth. In any case, when telling a tale like that of my scar, it's best to tell most of the truth – just not quite all. I want to entice a gull to listen to me while I snip the strings of his purse.
So, as I said, I studied myself, checked my appearance and walked into the Black Boar tavern, just another slightly scruffy fellow who had entered for a sup of ale, and hardly anyone cast me a glance. Why should they? They didn't know that within the hour I'd be a wanted man, a notorious murderer.
It was dark inside the tavern when I entered, and I almost brained myself on the low ceiling. Smoke curled from the fires, thick fumes choking at the throat and creating a warm fug. It was hard to see from one side of the room to the other.
Men were seated at settles and benches, and I glanced about me as I entered, hoping for a suitable victim. The barman saw me. He was big and red-faced, and had the cheerful look of a man who knew exactly where the club under his bar sat waiting. He raised a leather tankard in a dumb show of offering, but I shook my head briefly. I was there for a different occupation. Besides, I had no money. I pushed past drinkers and a threepenny upright who was haggling with a man who couldn't take his eyes from her chemise top, to where two men were playing dice on a rough tabletop in a window. One was a great bear of a man, with a beard that was as black as a sinner's soul. The other was fair-haired and had a bright smile and youthful grin. Pushing past me, a fellow with a broad-brimmed hat went to the table and sat, his face hidden, and seemed to stare at the murky glass of the window.
There was no point hanging about hopefully. A quick inspection of all the fellows inside told me that there were no pickings in there, not that I'd be keen to try it. I like the Boar and wouldn't want to be forced to seek a new watering hole because desperation had forced me to steal from a customer in there. I wanted to watch the street, but the men near the window showed less inclination to move than dogs at a three-day corpse. The Bear glowered at me while he continued his game, and I leaned against a wall and peered through the window at the yard outside while they exercised their eyes in my direction. I eyed the game briefly, to see whether they were playing with fullams or some other form of loaded dice, but I am not experienced enough to tell. Dice are a mug's game. The sharpers know how to trap a coney and empty his purse in minutes. The three played on, the hatted man seemingly joining in without speaking.
It was hard to see through the window at first, but I knew that place, and in my mind's eye I could fit the people to the scene, even with the filthy and smeared glass.
The great looming bulk of the cathedral was just down from here. I could make out the steeple against the sky, the roofs of the canons' houses, and even the school for poor boys. And all about them were the people of the city, wandering and bellowing.
There were days when this city drove me to distraction. I come from Whitstable, and the ribald cries of the hucksters and whores demanding attention, the shrieks of the little brats begging for food or coin so they could go and buy drink for idle parents, or to take themselves to oblivion, made me feel sick. The idea of providing a service for money was sneered at, when the lazy brats could win a rich man's coins, but I did not begrudge them that, although I did dislike their habit of picking on a fellow like me. These dregs of society were all too keen on deriding a fellow's dress or sneering at him when he gave them nothing. Still, the wenches selling their pies and apples had busy lives of grim effort, just as I did. They toiled hard, as hard as any scavenger cleaning the streets of refuse. And they were just as necessary, but also dangerous, to a man like me, if they took it into their heads to denounce a fellow trying to nip a bung.
The point was, many new people came every day, expecting to find streets paved with slabs of gold. They arrived from towns and villages all over the kingdom, walking with the drovers bringing their animals to Smithfield, riding on mules, or joining one of the teams of packhorses that made their way from as far away as Exeter or even Durham, attracted by the frenetic lure of sex and money, just like ravens to a corpse.
Inevitably, the newcomers would end up here, in St Paul's on Ludgate Hill. And this is where I'd meet them.
It's where I met him. I really wish I hadn't.CHAPTER 2
I was a professional already, and I could spot them a mile off.
Wide-eyed, confused, they'd wander the streets staring upwards with their daft mouths agape at the magnificent tall buildings, rich stonework and expensive carvings. Most of them had never seen a house with more decoration than an annual covering of limewash; here in the city, often a man set store more by how ostentatious the outside of his house was, rather than have any comfort inside, and these places showed it.
Never pick the older ones. That was my first, my hard and fast rule. Older folks would have more experience, and may be on the lookout for a cutpurse. No, I'd always head towards the youngsters, the lads too overwhelmed and befuddled to chew the straw in their mouths. You could promise them much and make a small fortune from their foolishness before they'd realized they'd been gulled.
But there was a problem with this rule: if you always went for the youngsters, you invariably ended up with purses that were almost weightless. They had so little left after a journey here. All their money was spent on the roads heading to London, and robbing them was as pointless as stealing the flame from a candle. It would not benefit me. And I was hungry.
So today I was waiting to find a new target, one who could help me to find a good meat pie and a quart of beer. I had already failed to steal one purse, taken another that contained only a few bone counters that would be suited to a game of merrills or backgammon, and one clipped coin. Not enough for more than a cup of beer.
'You standing there hoping to play?'
This from the bearded man. He glared at me like a miller seeing a rat in his sack.
'Nay, I am waiting for a friend.'
'You keep looking at us as though you're watching our play.'
'I will turn my back.'
'You'll feel my boot in your arse if you don't piss off!'
The fair man was already laughing uproariously, while the man with the hat remained at the table, but any relief I felt at their lack of attention was quickly dispelled as the big man climbed to his feet, fists ready clenched. I strolled away, but as I heard him approach, I hurried.
I swear I could feel his boot at my buttocks as I hurtled through the door and almost into the fellow who was soon to become the fellow I most feared in the whole world.
I'd seen him walking about the street that morning while I was watching for a target. He was loitering like a man of leisure.
Broad-shouldered, he had a thin beard and sallow complexion. His eyes were a little yellowish, like a man who'd spent too many hours out of the sun, and at first glance I would have marked him as a man who had the pox or malaria. It was a false first impression, though. On a second look, he didn't seem unwell. A good thing, too, for else the dainty wench at his side would have dropped him in an instant. She was dressed in sober but fashionable style, with a most lecherous twinkle in her eye when she looked at her man, but when she glanced in my direction, that twinkle died like a snuffed candle.
He was clearly wealthy. There was no chance that this woman would have been with him for long if his purse was empty, for I knew her. She was Ann Derby, one of the brightest, sweetest, shrewdest little tarts who ever lifted skirts for a coin.
I fixed my best and brightest apologetic smile to my face and bowed and apologized most prettily, if I say so myself, and eventually the fellow grunted that he was unharmed, and took his hand from his sword's hilt. However, he was no easy hob ready for a fleecing. I could see that from the way that he set a hand on his purse as soon as look at me. This was not a newly arrived innocent ready to be saved from excessive spending by my swift fingers, and Ann took his arm to walk between him and me, too obviously keen on the idea of liberating his purse herself. She didn't want to share it with me. I was left muttering a curse under my breath.
Turning and looking about me, I saw another face I recognized. On a low staircase that gave up to a shop front, I saw my comrade Bill. It was rare to see him out like this. The fencing cove was happier to keep to his bench where others would bring their winnings to him, but there he was. Good old Bill. If it weren't for him, I would have nowhere to trade my prizes, nowhere to rest my head. He was peering in my direction, but I don't think he saw me. He was searching for someone else. Fleetingly, I wondered who.
However, I had no time to ponder about him overlong. As Ann and her man passed on, I saw another fellow who was clearly perfect, only a short distance away.
He was a younger man with much more money than sense, and the gaudy, fashionable clothes to prove it. Slashed sleeves and more buttons than could easily be fitted to their holes in an entire morning, he was rolling in a manner guaranteed to attract the attention of any number of fly nips or foists. More, those clothes were worn and stained. He was a recent visitor, or I was a Fleming. With his clothing and his general air of dissolute living, I felt sure I had a target worthy of at least one or two meals. His purse looked overfull, which is always a good sign in my eyes.
I carefully took the battered coin from my purse and allowed it to fall, stepping on it in an instant. A man cannot leave a penny lying in the street for two breaths without some thieving urchin snatching it up. As the gull stumbled past, I raised it with a frown. 'Master? I believe you dropped this,' I said. 'Does your purse have a hole?'
The poor, befuddled fellow turned his blank gaze to me, and I held it aloft. Well, who would deny ownership? His stare moved from me to the coin, to the purse at his belt, and he rattled the purse. It chinked delightfully, indicating to anyone who could be interested that here was a most friendly purse, feeling a little overfull and eager to share a pleasant evening in the company of a fellow with a liking for a life of comfort. I knew that purse and I would get along well.
But before I could open my mouth, a flaxen-haired harpy, with the sharp, furious face of an alewife who finds her customer has been drinking all night and now cannot pay the reckoning, stopped before us and screeched at him.
'So there you are! Two weeks, almost, and you've deigned to return?'
'Mistress, you must not ...'
'Must not, mustn't I? What mustn't I, eh? When my husband goes dipping his wick in another woman's ...'
'Agnes, in the name of God, go home! You are making an unnecessary scene. Trust me!'
'What? Trust you?' she spat. 'Do you think me a fool? Do you think I'm blind?'
'Don't make a scene!' he pleaded, his eyes darting hither and thither as though expecting a captain and his soldiers to appear at any moment.
'I hate you!'
With that, she burst into tears and ran off down the road towards the cathedral.
There are never good moments to intervene between a husband and wife, but this seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for me. The man might not have been a newcomer as I had first thought, but he was clearly in need of companionship.
'Master, you should have a leather worker look at your purse,' I said. 'There are so many men about here who would steal the teeth from your jaw; if one were to see your money falling so easily, they would cut the strings in a trice and be off to the stews to spend it.'
Excerpted from Rebellion's Message by Michael Jecks. Copyright © 2016 Michael Jecks. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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