Crossing the courtyard I waved to a couple of the carpenters who were working outside the hall. At one end of the great hall was the private theatre the Bishop maintained. I let myself in through the wicket in the double doors leading backstage. A barred window at the far end of the space showed the clutter of backstage, the backs of the new scenery I had designed, a stack of saw horses and a toolbox. Ropes dangled from the ceiling. It smelt of old church and fresh paint, cut wood, warm glue and coffee.
The stagehands were sitting in a half circle on packing cases and prop chests around the stove. Someone had fetched a pie from the kitchens and all of them were eating. The apprentice, skinny, jug-eared and acned, his mouth full of pie, grunted, pointing at the remains with his knife, then at the coffee pot on top of the stove.
‘No thanks Will, just a flying visit.’ He shrugged, gulped and reached to help himself to some more.
‘Never stops eating. Must have worms,’ Oliver, the foreman, beat the ever hungry Will to the last slice of pie as he waved a greeting. He eased his bulk on the prop box like a throne. His chins wobbled as he worked on the pie.
‘How’s it going Ollie?’
‘Fine,’ he swallowed hard, ‘we’ve got the second backdrop painted this morning. Think it’s OK, best take a look. Abel’s got the trap doors working again, so the Devil will be able to get to and from Hell alright.’ He grinned suddenly, showing crumbs of pie caught in his teeth, ‘Don’t think our Devil is too pleased about that, he doesn’t like the dark under the stage, or the mice. Don’t think the mice like him.’
I sighed. Most of the actors got on well with the stage crew. Some didn’t. Our resident Mephistopheles didn’t. Crispin Sergeant might be a name, but we all had a name for him and it wasn’t polite. ‘Is he still going on about his costume?’
‘Constantly!’ They all laughed, and broke out in a litany of complaint.
‘Horns are too big.’
‘The goat legs stink and they’re too hot.’
‘Waistcoat’s too tight.’
‘He shouldn’t eat so much,’ I observed. Dealing with the pompous arsehole had made this production a chore.
‘I like the outfit you did for Lucia.’ Wills buck front teeth flashed, ‘Very artistic.’
I liked the outfit I had done for Lucia Verrens. What there was of it matched her big blue eyes and her role as a member of the Caliph’s harem. ‘That’s Miss Verrens to you Will.’
I waited for them to finish their tea break before we went to view the set. Olly led the way up the steps to the stage at a brisk waddle. Out front, sunlight poured onto the stage from the long rows of tall windows under the eaves. I hopped down to the floor of the theatre and stepped back to get a better view. The new backdrop, still shiny with patches of wet paint, was of the inside of the Caliph’s palace. Perspective threw a line of Moorish arches toward the audience. Painted windows gave a glimpse of the water gardens of Old Baghdad. Squiggles and dots made do as Arabic inscriptions. I nodded my approval.
‘Good. The third act landscape backdrop was done last week. Is the ship for the first act finished?’
Will and Abel wheeled into place two sections of the bows of a prop ship, key to the action in act one. A quick heave on some ropes and a mast was raised, a yard with a furled sail followed. They had done well, painting nail heads on the planking and a fearsome dragon prow, with curling snakes pouring down the neck.
‘Excellent work both of you. Buns in the morning.’ Progress and performance measured in cakes suited everyone very well. A bag of lardy cakes for their tea break might help them put up with El Diablo.
I surveyed the theatre. The curtains were down, to protect them from wet paint and falling scenery. A modest stage and compact floor space with seating for maybe a hundred people. Above, on a carved balcony, stalls contained seating for the Bishop and his guests. It was an important part of the favours and entertaining that he used in his diplomacy. New plays appeared here first. An invitation, even to the floor, was prized. A stalls seat a sign of real favour.
Dust sheets covered the plush and comfortably upholstered benches, pushed back against the walls for now to make way for the actors to work. Chalk lines on the floor marked out the details for the stage. Packing boxes did duty as the ship. The cast had been rehearsing this morning.
A side door from the courtyard crashed open and in strode the director. Big, balding, and bounding with energy, Johnny Ellis never moved anywhere slowly. He buzzed with a mad idea a minute. He had been one of the youngest and most unorthodox majors in the army in the last lot. He had shed all signs of his military past, spreading in the middle, affecting loud checked trousers and a half buttoned waistcoat in purple velvet. ‘Ben!’ He held out a beefy hand and crushed my fingers, ‘Good job with the set. Outfits are terrific too and don’t let Cris tell you otherwise.’
‘Things are shaping up? Full dress rehearsal in a couple of days?’
‘Absolutely. On schedule, no late changes. The script is a bit rough but should play well with the Normans. “The Battle of Hattin”, the story of brave Christian suffering and Muslim evil,’ he declaimed. ‘I doubt the Bishop will appreciate the dialogue much but the show will be splendid and I have themed snacks for each act to keep him cheery.’ I laughed, typical Johnny. ‘You had better scram before Cris gets back or he’ll waste half your day whining about his ruddy horns.’
We shook hands again. I waved to the crew on the stage, busy letting down the ship again, and headed out of the theatre, under the balcony, past the back entrance to the great hall and into the inner court. The courtyard was busy with messengers and officials. Church, diplomatic and state business all centred here. I made my way along the side of the hall and through the inner gatehouse under the gaze of a porter and crossed the outer court. The double gates to the street were open. Through the huge bay windows on the courtyard side of the gatehouse I could see the Porter and officers at work. On the street side miniature bastions either side of the gate protected the entrance and threatened anyone attempting to storm the building. The apparently decorative jutting out of the top three floors, with their large regularly spaced windows, hid the fact of the machicolations guarding the walls.
I walked slowly back to my house through the thinning afternoon crowd bathed in warm autumn sunlight. Mine was a narrow end of terrace at the far edge of the artisan quarter, furthest from the goldsmiths. My neighbours were both painters. Closer to the citadel, a group of potters had their workshops and a shared shop. All sorts of corners were used by engravers, printers, carvers and furniture makers. It was a busy place with street level windows displaying the latest work.
We all watched each other like hawks, trying to spot a new fashion, a new palette, a new trend in decoration. Mostly people lived over the shops and studios. My studio is a big wooden building at the end of my garden, skylights for a good north light and plenty of space for sitters or models. It always pleased me coming home. I had worked very hard to afford the deposit on my home; it was my biggest luxury and represented five years of trudging across the frontier surveying and designing observation towers and defensive bridges. It was the military engineering of course that had brought me into contact with the Bishop in the first place. A sketch portrait of one of his mistresses had led to commissions from his friends and a growing list of patrons. As an engineer I was still at work on a plan for a group of tidal water mills and a new series of watch towers for the northern border.
I had altered the inside of the house to suit my needs. The ground floor front window opened on to a small room that I had divided off to show my work. It was all painted, a miniature set, appearing to be lined with panelling and books. A narrow table covered with expensive fabric sat below the window, covered with cheaper sketches. Centre stage went to a large portrait hanging on the back wall. It had to be changed soon. It had been there for six months and now, looking at it, it was not a kind picture, perhaps not the best advertisement for my work. The technique was good, but I had caught the hardness in the eyes, the steel in the soul of the sitter.
Behind this theatre, I had knocked the front living room and the kitchen into one long space with narrow pantries and work tops off to one side, a huge range sat in the middle of the floor at one end and a long table with benches either side that could seat twelve. Tall windows looked out on to a veranda at the back and down the sunny slope of the garden to the studio at the bottom.
I kicked off my boots and padded over the creaky and uneven wooden floor to the pantry, opened a bottle of beer and sprawled full length on one of the battered leather sofas that filled the corner of the room by the hat stand. I stared out of the little side window, at the wall of the house next door across the lane. Someone walked down the alley, visible for a moment, then just receding footsteps, boots crunching on the cobbles. What to do? I had a list of names and places. Some of the places I knew of, but the only two names I knew were dead. Enquiries might alert the people I had to find. I could not ask questions as myself without attracting the same kind of attention that killed Vernon. So far no one knew I was investigating anything. Quiet questions and a minimum of activity around the trail my predecessor had followed might keep it that way. If my interest became known I had nowhere to hide, my business is public and where I live well known.
Vernon’s body, and the gangsters, had been found in and around the Old City. Visiting there required a certain amount of caution at the best of times. Fortunately wearing masks, particularly for night time assignations, was common in all areas of the city, New and Old. Such a small place, rife with gossip, had made them as fashionable and sometimes as opulent, as those of ancient Venice.
The most obvious starting points were the two dead gangsters and the investigator’s flat, not just the one he had rented but his own house, had he left any other clues there? Having been discovered he may have gone back to his own place. He might also have gone to one of the hotels or pubs that had rooms. He might have stayed with friends, though I doubted he would have risked that. He might even have picked up a prostitute with somewhere to stay as a temporary solution. His base had been found, he had seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth and his body had appeared in the river with its throat cut ten days later. There was no sign of torture on the body, or of binding, suggesting that they had killed him as soon as they had found him. But where and why?
The hotel angle would be simple for the police to investigate; they could do so even at the worst establishments without causing undue alarm. His body had, after all, been found and some sort of inquiry would be made. If he had found himself more unusual accommodation it would be harder to trace. Enquiries by the police would not be so effective in the Old City and no one was going to voluntarily connect themselves with a murder. I had better visit both of the houses I knew about as soon as possible. The little flat at the edge of the Harbour would surely have been searched by his killers; they had had plenty of time while they waited for him. They had found him again, so maybe they had searched wherever he had stayed just before he died. If they hadn’t discovered his real name they might not have found his own home.
The flat was in a transient area, near the Docks, the sort of place where rooms are let by the week and left in a hurry in the small hours. I had nothing to worry about from the neighbours if I searched by night, but a light in a window that might still be watched could attract attention. Better to approach that in daylight, in the crowds. His own place was in a pleasant village, not far outside the city walls. A daylight visit here would make spotting any watchers easier. I would do the house first thing in the morning, the flat later on.
The gangsters posed a few more problems. I knew a few petty criminals, Diego’s friends and business associates were more various. He might know someone who knew more about them. The official biographies that Jimmy had provided were limited. A copy of their records, in both cases adolescent convictions, followed by a lot of unproven violence and suspicion. A brief list of their known haunts, associates and property. Hardly likely to be complete. Were they connected? Vernon had been killed quickly and secretly, the mobsters had been mutilated and left on display.
According to the report in the file the first, Robbie Garson, had been found three months earlier in the middle of his own parish, in the square beside the church in St Kilda’s. His naked and badly beaten body had been hung by the feet over the fountain and his throat cut, draining the blood into the pool at the bottom. No apparent witnesses. The police make two very cautious and well-heralded patrols through St Kilda’s each night, mainly to recover drunks and the injured. They had seen nothing on both passes and the body had officially been found by stall holders at about six in the morning. Which meant it had been there for at most two hours. No one was saying anything that could place it any closer than that. Several known associates had last seen him alive in a bar he owned a couple of streets away at around midnight.
Equally bizarre was the demise of Sambor Antczak. I had met him once, very briefly, at a club he owned in the New Town. He was huge, apparently hospitable, even garrulous. He had talked loudly of having his portrait done, dressed in armour like a Caesar. His train of lieutenants and molls had liked that. Fortunately I had heard no more of it. His humour was rumoured to turn like lightning and his reputation for brutality was well founded. He had had control of a large part of the dock area and the west side of the Old City in addition to branching out in to more legitimate activities in the New Town. He had been found at the end of a pier in the docks, naked, chained into a kneeling position, arms outstretched, forehead touching the concrete. He had been covered in some kind of fuel and burned. That was a fortnight ago.
Neither killing was in the way of regular gang violence, which tended to long knives in dark places or professional beatings. These were showy and particularly macabre. They were making a point. Was it a sign that someone new was in town? If so who? With nothing practical to do until the morning I decided to try and find Diego and see what he had heard about the end of Messrs Garson and Antczak.
The evening was getting chilly, the moon was beginning to show in a clear sky. I strolled along the Lanes toward his studio, the lights in the windows of the workshops becoming brighter with every step. Wood smoke hung in the air. When I got to his place there was a card in his window, “Gone fishing”, which might mean anything from out for the evening to away for weeks. He hadn’t mentioned a long trip yesterday.
On the off chance I tried his local. The bar area of the Lord Nelson was already lit. Several customers were propped up at the counter. A stove glowed in the corner. The landlord wasn’t behind the bar so I went through to check in the more private rooms at the back. I found Diego in the snug, deep in conversation with two other men. They all looked up quickly as I entered. The two strangers sank into their fur collars a little and didn’t say anything. Diego looked me up and down.
‘Diego. Been looking for you. You’ve had dinner?’
‘No, just finishing a little business with these gentlemen,’ he turned to them, standing. They all shook hands, ‘I think we have all the terms agreed?’’ They both nodded, tight wordless smiles were exchanged and they left. I waited until the bell on the bar door rang them out.
‘Excellent thank you,’ Diego smiled expansively.
‘What this time, a nice little Rodin?’
‘Malliol actually, broadening my range, greater rarity value too.’
I sighed with exasperation, ‘You’re good enough without this; you are going to get caught.’
‘I am not committing a crime.’
‘Really? Last time I asked forgery was a crime, punishable with a term of penal servitude.’
‘Ahhh, well, but I don’t forge. Can’t do the signatures. I sell the things to interested parties. What they make them out to be is not my problem.’’
‘Nothing of the sort. I am not committing any crime here. My receipts always say ‘after the style of’, the items are sold to dealers abroad and I pay taxes on the deal.’
I shook my head slowly.
‘Besides, I am far from the only one at it. Good market for altarpieces in the antique Flemish style in France at the moment. The Normans are lapping them up. You should give it a go.’
‘I have enough on without that kind of trouble.’
‘Yes? Well you generally have other trouble. I notice that you haven’t replaced Patience’s picture yet.’
He sat back and looked at the flames in the stove for a moment. ‘I bumped into your Grandpa at the cattle market the other day.’
‘What were you doing there? Cows normally only interest you between bread.’
‘Needed some sketches of a bull for a project. One of mine,’ he went on hurriedly with a raised palm, ‘We chewed the fat, he was in good form. He doesn’t like Patience. Neither do I. You’re well off out of that.’
‘Gramps always had sense.’
‘Least you did in the end.’
‘I suppose. He told me that there was nothing he could say at the time. Turns out the whole family hated her. Maria refers to her as “that two-faced little bitch”.’
‘’Bout right. Good girl Maria, sees through people.’
‘Yet she still puts up with you at her table?’
‘Only because you and Aaron are some of my oldest and dearest friends,’ he assumed a pose, hand on heart, head bowed, ‘And I make toys for the kids. You still need a new picture for the window. Find yourself some totty and cheer up.’
‘Chance would be a good thing.’
He grinned a bit lopsidedly, ‘So long as the next portrait isn’t Liz.’
‘No chance of that. That is most definitely over.’
He raised an eyebrow.
‘Really. She is far too pragmatic.’
‘You mean she loves his wallet. Can’t blame her. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve thought it,’ his grin widened cynically, ‘I wonder if Bob is able to maximise his investment? I bet it’s worth the effort.’
‘You have a mind down in the sewer.’
‘So Patience was better?’
I couldn’t help a grin as I turned him to my reason for my visit to his place of business, ‘I came here for your sordid gossip, not to be grilled about mine.’
‘Did I hear food mentioned to fuel Uncle Diego’s wisdom? Pie and a pint?’ I nodded. Diego reached up and pulled an old hunting horn off the wall, put it to his lips and gave a short, sharp, tuneless blast. The landlord appeared. Not amused. ‘Ah kind host,’ Diego bowed a deep and theatrical bow. ‘Two of your finest mutton pies with all the trimmings and two pints of the Best.’
Mine host took the horn off him and replaced it on the wall. ‘I should nail that horn to the wall,’ he muttered as he left.
Diego turned back to me with a wink, ‘I’ve already thought of that. A bit of rubber tubing is waiting in my studio for when he gets around to it.’ The ales appeared on the table. Diego sniffed appreciatively and took a long swallow. ‘Now. If it wasn’t my wit you wanted it must have been my wisdom. What do you want?’
‘Bishop’s business, dangerous, potentially lethal. I need you to keep it quiet.’
He nodded, suddenly still in his chair, leaning forward, a half eye on the door.
‘You heard about Robbie Garson?’
He nodded more slowly now, looking grave.
‘What have you heard? Anything at all?’
‘There was plenty of chatter after Garson was found. A few people thought Antczak had done it, but it wasn’t his style. Brutal sure, but too sophisticated.’
‘Bleeding him like a slaughtered pig is subtle?’
‘If rumour is to be believed a berserk attack with an axe was more Antczak’s style. From the extremities inwards.’
‘Quite. Odd thing was that there hadn’t been any trouble between them for a long time. They each had their patches settled, nothing to gain. Antczak was moving up town.’
‘What about one of Garson’s crew taking revenge?’
‘Why bother? More likely to fight among themselves to take over. There were a couple of incidents I heard about in the week or so after, bit of handbags really, but then nothing so I assumed they had worked it out.’
‘Anything after Antczak?’
‘Nothing that I heard about. But I get it second hand, my friends aren’t that heavy. They all toe the line with the big boys, pay their protection money and chalk it up as a business cost.’
‘So quiet, seems odd?’
‘It is rather. I’ll keep an ear open.’
‘Could it be new boys taking over?’
‘Whoever they are they’re hard cases to take out those two. Well organised too, to snatch them without the bodyguards making it awkward.’
The pies arrived and we settled into them. Diego drowned his mash in gravy and thoughtfully speared a boiled beetroot. We pushed around the questions a little more and then I remembered some of the other names on the list, The Saracen he recognised as a dockside pub. Neither elephants nor seraphs meant anything to him. Our evening moved on to another pint and some skittles in the alley at the end of the pub. An early night for me and a busy day tomorrow.
Chapter 3 – Home Bittersweet Home
The street was quiet when I got home. Dried leaves caught by the wind rattled down the alley. Wood smoke hung heavy on the chilly breeze. The jangle of my keys and creak of the front door sounded loud as I entered. Inside, the kitchen was warm, the range fire still in. I lit a lamp and added a couple of logs to the embers, heard a soft whump as they caught and turned the damper down for the night. I put the kettle on the hob to boil.
The antique station clock ticked loudly on the stairs. Suddenly the dim lamp light seemed oppressive rather than welcoming and intimate. Silence enveloped me, reminding me that my busy life was an empty one. My much fought for little house just that, not a home, unlike my brother Aaron with Maria with their three noisy children. His house was untidy, loud and bursting at the seams. I stood by the range and stared out at the darkness of the garden.
Suddenly irritated by the mess in the kitchen I spent a furious half hour scrubbing dishes and sweeping the floor, making a noise, to stop from dwelling on the emptiness. When I had done I made a hot chocolate and sat on the sofa. I tried prayer. Loneliness and self-pity overwhelmed my concentration. I went upstairs to bed.
My bedroom window looked out over the garden. Moonlight made it monstrous, the neat patches of vegetables and herbs morphed into trolls and goblins by the shadows of the fruit trees. Out there, across the valley, the outlying villages sat darkly, a few scattered lights in windows peered through the trees. An owl drifted past the window caught for a moment in the moonlight. He settled in a tree, his call the only sound.
I looked at the picture of my parents on the wall, framed by the bright moonlight. Shame at my misery, my ingratitude to them for being unhappy made my eyes prickle. I pressed my forehead to the icy glass of the window, tried to remember their voices. I left the curtains open and went to bed. Finally I drifted off with the moon making patterns on the wall.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.