OUTSIDE, BARAK TOLD ME brusquely to wait while he fetched the horses. I stood on the steps of the Domus, looking out across Chancery Lane. For a second time Cromwell had casually dropped me into an affair with dangerous ramifications. But there was nothing I could do; even if I had dared defy him, there remained Elizabeth.
Barak reappeared, riding his black mare and leading Chancery. I mounted and we rode to the gate. His expression was closed, serious. Barak, I thought, what sort of a name was that? It wasn't English, though he seemed English enough.
We had to pause in the gateway as a long procession of sulky looking apprentices wearing the blue and red badges of the Leathersellers' Company marched past. Longbows were slung over their shoulders, and a few carried long matchlock guns. Because of the invasion threat, all young men now had to undertake compulsory military practice. They passed up towards Holborn Fields.
We rode downhill to the City. 'So you were at the scene of this demonstration of Greek Fire, Barak?' I said, adopting a deliberately haughty tone; I had decided I was not going to be intimidated by this rude young fellow.
'Keep your voice down.' He gave me a frowning look. 'We don't want that name bandied abroad. Yes, I was there. And it was as the earl said. I would not have believed it had I not seen it.'
'Many wonderful tricks may be performed with gunpowder. At the last mayor's procession there was a dragon that spat balls of exploding fire-'
'D'you think I don't know a gunpowder trick when I see one? What happened at Deptford was different. It wasn't gunpowder: it was like nothing that's been seen before, in England, anyway.' He turned away, steering his horse through the crowds going through the Ludgate.
We rode along Thames Street, our progress slow through the lunchtime crowds. It was the hottest time of the day and Chancery was sweating and uncomfortable. I felt sunburn prickling on my cheeks and coughed as a swirl of dust went into my mouth.
'Not far now,' Barak said. 'We turn down to the river soon.'
I voiced a thought which had occurred to me. 'I wonder why Gristwood did not approach Lord Cromwell through Sir Richard Rich. He's Chancellor of Augmentations.'
'He wouldn't trust Rich. Everyone knows what a rogue he is. Rich would have kept the formula and bargained with it himself, and probably dismissed Gristwood into the bargain.'
I nodded. Sir Richard was a brilliant lawyer and administrator, but he was said to be the most cruel and unscrupulous man in England.
We entered the maze of narrow streets leading down to the Thames. I glimpsed the river, its brown waters alive with wherries and white-sailed tilt boats, but the breeze that came from it was tainted; the tide was still out, the filth-strewn mud stewing in the sun.
Wolf's Lane was a long narrow street full of old houses, decayed-looking cheap shops and lodging places. Outside one of the larger houses I saw a brightly painted sign which showed Adam and Eve standing on either side of the philosopher's egg, the legendary sealed vase in which base metal could be turned to gold, an alchemist's sign. The place was in dire need of repair, plaster was peeling from the walls and the overhanging roof lacked several tiles. Like many houses built on Thames mud, it had a pronounced tilt to one side.
The front door was open, and I saw to my surprise that a woman in a plain servant's dress was hanging onto the jamb with both hands, as though afraid of falling.
'What's this?' Barak asked. 'Drunk at one in the afternoon?'
'I don't think it's that.' I had a sudden feeling of dread. Then, seeing us, the woman let out a screeching wail.
'Help! For Jesu's sake, help me! Murder!'
Barak jumped down and ran towards her. I threw the horses' reins quickly over a rail, and ran over. Barak had the woman by the arms; she was staring wildly at him, sobbing loudly.
'Come on, girl,' he said with surprising gentleness. 'What ails you?'
She made an effort to calm herself. She was young and plump-cheeked, a country girl by the look of her.
'The master,' she said. 'Oh, God, the master-'
I saw that the wood of the doorframe was splintered and broken. The door, which hung from one hinge, had been battered in. I looked past her and down a long dim corridor hung with a faded tapestry showing the three kings bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. Then I gripped Barak's arm. The rushes on the wooden floor were criss-crossed with footprints. They were dark red.
'What has happened here?' I whispered.
Barak shook the girl gently. 'We're here to help. Come on now, what's your name?'
Whoever smashed their way in could still be here. I gripped the dagger at my waist.
'I'm Susan, sir, the servant,' the girl said tremulously. 'I'd been shopping in Cheapside with my mistress, we – we came back and found the door like this. And upstairs my master and his brother-' She gulped and looked within. 'Oh, God, sir-'
'Where is your mistress?'
'In the kitchen.' She took a deep, whooping breath. 'She went stiff as a board when she saw them, she couldn't move. I sat her down and said I'd go for help, but when I got to the door I felt faint, I couldn't go another step.' She clung to Barak.
'You're a brave girl, Susan,' he said. 'Now, can you take us to your mistress?'
The girl let go of the door. She shuddered at the sight of the bloody footsteps inside, then swallowed and, clutching Barak's hand tightly, led the way down the corridor.
'Two people, by the look of those prints,' I said. 'A big man and a smaller one.'
'I think we're in the shit here.' Barak murmured.
We followed Susan into a large kitchen with a view onto a stone-flagged yard. The room was dingy, the fireplace black with dirt and stains of rats' piss on the whitewashed ceiling. It struck me that Gristwood's schemings had brought him little profit. A woman sat at a big table worn with years of use. She was small and thin, older than I would had expected, wearing a white apron over a cheap dress. Straggles of grey hair were visible under her white coif. She sat rigidly, her hands clutching the table edge, her head trembling.
'She's shocked out of her wits, poor soul,' I whispered.
The servant crossed to her. 'Madam,' she said hesitantly. 'Some men have come. To help us.'
The woman jerked and stared at us wildly. I raised a soothing hand. 'Goodwife Gristwood?'
'Who are you?' she asked. Something sharp and watchful came into her face.
'We came on some business with your husband and his brother. Susan said you came home and found the place broken into-'
'They're upstairs,' Goodwife Gristwood whispered. 'Upstairs.' She clutched her bony hands together so hard the knuckles whitened.
I took a deep breath. 'May we see?'
She closed her eyes. 'If you can bear it.'
'Susan, stay here and look after your mistress. Barak?'
He nodded. If he was feeling the same shock and fear as I, he gave no sign. As we turned to the door, Susan sat down and hesitantly took her mistress's hand.
We passed the tapestry, which I saw from the style was very ancient, and mounted a narrow wooden staircase to the first floor. The house's lopsidedness was noticeable here, some of the stairs were warped and a large crack ran down the wall. There were more bloody footsteps, wet and glinting – this blood had been shed very recently.
At the top of the stairs a number of doors gave off the hallway. They were closed except for the one straight ahead of us. Like the front door it hung off one hinge, the lock smashed in. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The chamber was large and well lit, running the whole length of the house. There was an odd, sulphurous smell in the air. I saw the ceiling's large beams were painted with Latin texts. 'Aureo hamo piscari,' I read. To fish with a golden hook.
No one would fish here again. A man in a stained alchemist's robe lay sprawled on his back over an upturned bench amid a chaos of broken glass pipes and retorts. His face had been completely smashed in; one blue eyeball glared at me from the hideous pulpy mess. I felt my stomach heave and turned quickly to study the rest of the room.
The whole workshop was in chaos, more overturned benches, broken glass everywhere. Next to a large fireplace lay the remains of a large iron-bound chest. It was little more than a heap of broken spars now, the metal bands smashed right through. Whoever had wielded the axe here – and everything pointed to an axe – must have had unusual strength.
Beside the chest Michael Gristwood lay on his back, his body half-covered by a blood-soaked chart of the astral planes that had fallen from the wall. His head was almost severed from his neck; a great spray of arterial blood had stained the floor and even the walls. I blenched again.
'That the lawyer?' Barak asked.
'Ay.' Michael's eyes and mouth were wide open in a last scream of astonished terror.
'Well, he won't be needing Lord Cromwell's bag of gold,' Barak said. I frowned. He shrugged. 'Well, he won't, will he? Come on, let's go back downstairs.'
With a last glance at the butchered remains, I followed him down to the kitchen. Susan seemed to have recovered herself somewhat and was boiling a pan of water on the filthy range. Goodwife Gristwood still sat with her hands clenched.
'Anyone else live here, Susan?' Barak asked.
'Is there anyone that could come and sit with you?' I asked Goodwife Gristwood. 'Any other relatives?' Again a momentary sharpness came into her face, then she answered, 'No.'
'Right,' Barak said bluntly. 'I'm going to the earl. He must say what's to be done here.'
'The constable should be told-'
'Pox on the constable. I'm going to the earl now.' He pointed at the women. 'Stay here with them, make sure they don't leave.'
Susan looked up anxiously. 'Do you mean Lord Cromwell, sir? But, sir – but we've done nothing.' Her voice rose in fear.
'Do not worry, Susan,' I said gently. 'He must be told. He-' I hesitated.
Goodwife Gristwood spoke, her voice cold and hard. 'My husband and Sepultus were working for him, Susan. I know that much, I told them they were fools, that he's dangerous. But Michael would never listen to me.' She fixed us with pale blue eyes that were suddenly full of anger. 'Now see what's become of him and Sepultus. The fools.'
'God's bones, woman,' Barak burst out. 'Your husband's lying slain in his gore upstairs. Is that all you have to say about him?' I looked at him in surprise, then realized that under his bravado he too was shocked by what we had seen. Goodwife Gristwood merely smiled bitterly and turned her head away.
'Stay here,' Barak told me again. 'I'll be back soon.' He turned and left the kitchen. Susan gave me a scared look; Goodwife Gristwood had retreated into herself.
'It's all right, Susan,' I said with an attempt at a smile. 'You're not in any trouble. There may be a few questions for you, that's all.' She still looked frightened: that was the effect Cromwell's name had on most people. I set my teeth. What in God's name had I got involved in? And who was Barak to give me orders?
I crossed to the window and looked out at the yard, surprised to see that both the flagstones and the high walls were stained black. 'Has there been a fire here?' I asked Susan.
'Master Sepultus did experiments out there sometimes, sir. Terrible bangs and hissings there were.' She crossed herself. 'I was glad he wouldn't let me see.'
Goodwife Gristwood spoke again. 'Yes, we were kept out of our own kitchen when he and my husband were at their foolery.'
I looked again at the scorch marks. 'Did they go out there often?'
'Only recently, sir,' Susan said. She turned to her mistress. 'I'll make an infusion, madam, it might ease us. Would you like some, sir? I have some marigolds-'
'No, thank you.'
We sat together in silence for a while. My mind was racing. It struck me that the formula might still be in the workshop, perhaps even with some samples of this Greek Fire. Now was a chance to look before the room was disturbed further, though I shrank from returning there. I bade the women stay in the kitchen and mounted the stairs again.
I stood in the doorway for a moment, steeling myself to look again at those terrible carcasses. Poor Michael had been in his mid-thirties, I recalled, younger than me. The afternoon sun was shining into the room, a sunbeam illuminating his dead face. I remembered that dinner in Lincoln's Inn Hall, how I had thought he had the questing, nosy look of an amiable rodent. I turned away from his look of terror.
There was a terrible casualness about the way the two men had been smashed down. It seemed the killers had simply staved in the doors and then felled the brothers like animals, with an axe blow each. They had probably been watching the house, waiting for the women to leave. I wondered if Michael and Sepultus, hearing the front door broken in, had locked themselves in the workshop in a vain attempt to save themselves.
I noticed Michael was wearing a rough smock over his shirt. Perhaps he had been helping his brother. But with what? I looked around. I had never been in an alchemist's workshop – I gave such people a wide berth, for they were known as great frauds – but I had seen pictures of their laboratories and something was missing. Frowning, I walked over to a wall lined with shelves, my feet crunching on broken glass. One shelf was full of books but the others were empty. From round marks in the dust I guessed jars and bottles had been stored there. That was what I had seen in the pictures, alchemists' chambers full of bottles of liquids and powders. There was nothing like that here. In the pictures there had also been benches with oddly shaped retorts for distillation – that would explain all the broken glass on the floor. 'They took his potions,' I murmured.
I took one of the books from the shelves, Epitome Corpus Hermeticum, and flicked through it. A marked passage read: 'Distillation is the elevation of the essence of a dry thing, by fire, thus by fire we come to the essence of things, even while all else be consumed.' I shook my head and put it down, turning to the remains of the chest. I saw that the fireplace and the wall behind it were fire-blackened like the yard.
The contents of the chest lay scattered all over the floor – letters and documents, one or two with bloody thumb prints on them. So the killers had searched through the contents. There was a document dated three years ago, conveying the house to Sepultus and Michael Gristwood, and a marriage contract between Michael Gristwood and Jane Storey drawn up ten years earlier. Under it Jane's father contracted to leave all his property to his son-in-law on his death, an unusually generous provision.
Something else on the floor caught my eye. I bent down and picked up a gold angel; it had fallen from a leather bag nearby that contained twenty more. The brothers' money had been left behind. Well, I thought, that was not what the killers were after. I rose, pocketing the coin. Another smell was beginning to overlay the sulphurous stink in the room, the sweet, rich smell of decay. I stepped on something that crunched under my heel and, looking down, saw I had broken a delicate set of scales. Sepultus's alchemist's balance. Well, he would not be needing it now. With a last glance at the bloody remains, I left the room.