Book excerpt

The Demon's Parchment

A Medieval Noir

The Crispin Guest Novels

Jeri Westerson

St. Martin's Press

1London, 1384
“HE’S STILL OUT THERE.” Jack Tucker leaned his head and shoulders out the window.
“Close the damn shutters,” growled Crispin. “It’s too cold in here as it is.”
“Sorry, Master,” said the boy, doing as bid. His ginger hair was dusted with snow. “It’s just that that man is still out there, looking up at us. Makes me a bit shivery.”
“The cold will do that.” Hunkered by their meager fire, Crispin held one hand toward the flames. The other was curled around a bowl of tart wine.
“He might be a client, sir.”
“He might be.”
“Why don’t you go look?”
Crispin drank the bitter liquid. Winter did not seem to bring him as many clients as the warmer months. Perhaps fewer crimes were committed in the winter and a “private sheriff” was not in the family finances when it came down to it.
The small room offered little comfort. Its few bits of rented furniture—a chair, a stool, a rickety table—stood in the center of unadorned walls. Crispin’s pallet bed was shoved against the wall near the hearth, and on the opposite side of the small fire lay a pile of straw, the place Jack tucked in at night. Four strides would take him to a chest by the door, which held Crispin’s change of stockings and braies and his few writing implements. He was lucky to have two windows, one facing the back garden and the one Jack had been leaning out of facing the Shambles. But “luck” was a relative term. Today, with London chilled like a frozen lake, two windows only offered more opportunities for an icy draft.
“Let me see, then.” Crispin rose with a bone-weary sigh and set the empty bowl aside. He joined Jack by the window, but instead of throwing open the shutter, he peered down through a crack in the wood that he usually kept stuffed with a rag.
Below, in the snow-painted street, stood a man in a long black gown. His dark beard was salted by time as were his bushy brows. His head was covered by a tight-fitting felt cap with flaps that covered his ears. And he was looking up at Crispin’s window expectantly, ignoring the occasional passerby in the street.
“He certainly seems determined about something,” said Crispin.
“Then why don’t he come up?” asked the boy, twisting his cloak across his chest.
“A very good question. Why don’t you go down and find out.”
“Me?” Suddenly the mystery did not need solving so urgently. “He might be a madman. He’s been there a straight hour and he hasn’t moved.”
“All the more reason to see what he wants. Go on now, Jack. If apprentice you wish to be, then you had best obey your master.”
“I knew that would bite me in the arse,” he grumbled. Securing his cloak, he marched toward the door. He took a firm grip of his knife sheath and looked Crispin in the eye. It was moments like these that Jack seemed so very young. Of course it was true. At twelve, his cheeks were still plump from childhood, and though his voice cracked a bit, it hadn’t yet deepened. “If I don’t come back, it’s your fault.”
“Shall I keep watch? Is an old man so much of a threat to you?”
“I’m going!” he replied sullenly, and slipped through the door.
But Crispin did keep watch through the chink, and saw Jack appear cautiously below. The man tore his gaze at last from Crispin’s second-storey window and stared at Jack. The creak of cart and hiss of wind made it impossible for Crispin to hear their quiet exchange, but he could well tell by Jack’s pantomime what he told the man. He appeared to be entreating him upstairs, but the man shook his head. It seemed that he was content to stand in the snow and merely gaze up at the window.
Crispin studied the man anew. “Hmpf. Now I grow curious.”
Footsteps at his door told him Jack had returned. The door opened. “Bless me,” said Jack, shaking the flakes from his cloak and stamping at the threshold. “He does want to talk to you, sir. But he will not come up.”
“Oh? Does he say why?”
“No, sir. He seems most stubborn about it. I told him that the Tracker was not in the habit of meeting strange men in the cold streets instead of his warm lodgings.”
No, indeed. He had no wish to leave the feeble warmth of his room, but the larder was decidedly bare. “It seems I have no choice but to humor this miscreant. Tell me, Jack. How did he seem to you? What was his character?”
He knew the boy liked to show off his growing skills, and on cue, Jack puffed up and hooked his thumbs in his belt. “Well, now. He is a man of middle years, well-spoken, neat and clean.”
“London or foreign?”
“Foreign. French, I think. His speech has got a light touch, if you get my meaning. He seems like a gentleman.”
“Then he’ll have the coin. Very well. I shall meet this mysterious man on the street.” Crispin buttoned his cloak tight, pulled his chaperon hood up over his head, and yanked open the frost-bitten door.
He trotted down the narrow stairwell, mindful of the icy last step, and when he reached the lane, he studied the man with steel-gray eyes. The man turned and measured Crispin but did not approach. Instead, he bowed. “Do I have the pleasure of meeting the great Crispin Guest?” The accent was soft but unmistakably French.
“ ‘Great’ is a matter of perspective. But Crispin Guest I am. And you, sir? You find your occupation by staring at my window. To what end?”
The man took a step closer. Crispin eyed his gown, a dark woolen robe cut in solemn lines and trimmed with black fur. His skin was pale and his beard grew past his chin but was not long enough to graze his chest. There, on the breast of his gown, Crispin observed something unexpected: a round, yellow patch carefully stitched into place.
The man saw Crispin eye it but did not comment. “My name is Jacob of Provençal.” He stepped closer. “I am a physician. From the continent.”
Crispin said nothing, waiting.
The man continued. “I have heard others speak of you, of this ‘Tracker.’ You find things. Lost things.”
“Indeed. It is my bread and butter.” His stomach took that moment to growl. The tips of his ears warmed.
The man smiled. “En effet. I am looking for a most important object. A dangerous one. It must be found before, well, it simply must. I beg that you come to my lodgings and we shall discuss it there.”
Crispin turned an eye to his window, knowing well Jack was spying on them. “And where are your lodgings?”
“At court.”
He hadn’t meant to, but Crispin stiffened. The man watched him with a judicious eye. “I . . . have also heard,” the man said carefully, “that you may not be welcomed there.”
“An understatement. It would be difficult my going to King Richard’s palace. But I know of another place that might suit. Someplace closer. Will you permit me to lead you to an alehouse?”
The man hesitated. He pressed a pale finger to his lip and glanced up at Crispin’s shuttered window before he lowered his head. He muttered something under his breath and lifted his face. “Very well, then. Lead me.”
Crispin tramped through the slushy snow with rag-stuffed boots. He did not wait for the sound of the man’s footfalls behind him, though they came anyway in a faint and reluctant step.
He tried to tread into the already dark hoof marks carved into the snowy streets, but his stride was not as long as the draft horses, and his boots were soaked and cold by the time he made the turn at the corner to Gutter Lane where the Boar’s Tusk cast its weighty shadow across the road. When he came to the door he waited. The man approached and Crispin opened it, gesturing him through. Crispin followed him in and the warmth, which his own humble lodgings lacked, clapped his cold cheeks hard. He felt his bones thaw as he moved into the dim room to find his usual seat near the fire, his back to the wall and facing the door. He gestured for the man to sit opposite him.
Jacob gathered his cloak and gown around him and sat gingerly on the bench.
It wasn’t long before a plump matron came to their table with a sweating jug in one hand and two clay bowls in the other. “Crispin,” she said with a wide smile.
“Eleanor.” Seeing her warm and friendly face touched off a spark of warmth within him. She and her husband, Gilbert, owned the Boar’s Tusk. They were the first to befriend him since he came to the Shambles some seven years ago.
“Will you share wine with me, Master Jacob?” said Crispin to the wary man.
Jacob shook his head and squinted at Eleanor’s expression. “I mean no offense to this good woman here, or to her establishment. But I may not partake of anything . . . here.”
Crispin’s eyes flicked to that yellow rouelle on the man’s breast once more before settling on his lined and drawn face.
Flushed, Eleanor merely poured a bowl for Crispin and left the jug before she scooted away. Crispin surveyed the room of uneven wooden tables with their hard-worn benches and stools, scouting for familiar faces or eavesdroppers. Some tables were lit with candles, their greasy odor lifting and blending with the smells of toasting logs, roasted meats, and sweaty woolens. There were few patrons this afternoon. It was too cold to venture forth other than to earn one’s daily wage. Yet Crispin usually found himself in his favorite tavern each day. Little wonder his funds were low when he insisted on his wine.
He took up the bowl, silently saluted his companion, and drank. The wine was slightly bitter, but it didn’t matter. It warmed him and dulled the ache in his heart when he considered his empty money pouch and the depths he had to plumb to fill it.
Jacob hunkered in his robes and surveyed the other patrons with a wince of disdain. “We are quite alone, Master Jacob,” said Crispin between quaffs. He poured more into the bowl and set both jug and cup on the table, turning the cup slowly with his fingertips. “What is it you wish to tell me?”
Jacob canted closer to the table and placed both arms on its surface. He clasped his long, pale fingers together. “Maître Guest, I have heard many rumors as concerns you.”
“Could any of them possibly be true?” He smirked and drank another dose.
“I come from afar, Maître. But even I have heard of the Tracker . . . a man who was once a traitor.”
Seven years had passed yet still he hated the term. He gripped the bowl. “Traitor I was, sir, though I do not boast in it. I am alive. I do not boast in that either, for that circumstance can surely change with the season.”
The man eased back. His eyes darted about the room, wary.
Crispin’s gaze fell again to the yellow patch on the man’s chest and could not help the welling of mistrust in his breast. “May I ask?”
Jacob sat very still. Robes gathered protectively about him, he seemed more chrysalis than man.
Crispin did not mince words. “Why is a Jewish physician called to England’s court?”
The man smiled cautiously. His gaze rested steadily on Crispin’s. “Why indeed? To a place where Jews are unwelcome? In fact, so unwelcome that your king made it illegal for Jews to reside here generations ago.”
“Yes.” An unnamed discomfort flushed Crispin’s body. The Jews of England were exiled well before his time and he had been spared congress with them. It was said they had lived in Camden, but if they had, there was little trace there now. What remained was the old Domus Conversorum on Chancery Lane, the place where the converted Jews lived under the grace of old King Henry of Winchester, the father of Edward Longshanks, who expelled them at last. Jews were outlawed from entering England and it was a just law, although there was the occasional new inhabitant to the Domus, those traveling Jews who had come to their senses.
Crispin had been to the Holy Land, seen Saracens and Jews, and their ways were too foreign, too disturbing to his Christian sensibilities. To be sitting with a Jew now in his favorite tavern made him itch to leave. Even so, the man’s demeanor was respectful and cautious. He seemed to know well how he stood and was almost amused by it. “And so,” Crispin pursued. “Why are you here? At court, no less?”
“My specialty was desired. If I may be bold,” he said, his white hand pressed to his breast and his head bowed. “My services are well known far from France. Your king has permitted me passage here to serve the queen.”
“Eh? I was not aware that our queen was ill.”
The man merely blinked. His rosy lips pressed closed and would divulge no more.
Crispin poured more wine, took up his bowl, and drank it down. The warm buzz he sought had settled pleasantly into his head. “And so, our King Richard allows a Jew to live in his palace.” And not me was the unspoken thought. He chuckled to himself. “I’ve no doubt that your services are more valuable,” he muttered. He put the bowl aside and squared with Jacob. “Then tell me. What would you hire me to do?”
“Your fee is sixpence a day?”
“Plus expenses, if I must travel.”
“Of course, of course.” Jacob stroked his beard and stared into Crispin’s wine bowl. The light flickered on its ruby surface. “Your discretion—”
“Have done with this,” Crispin growled. “You say you know me and my reputation. Then get on with it.”
The man nodded deferentially, a skill learned, no doubt, from the lessons of subservience. “Very well. Valuable parchments have been stolen from my apartments. They must be returned.”
“Valuable in what way? Deeds?”
“If only they were so mundane. But they are important, nonetheless. Can you help me?”
“Recover lost parchments? For sixpence a day, I will see what I can do. But it might help to know what they are.”
“Oh . . .” He waved his hand and quickly hid it again under the table. “Texts. In Hebrew. You would not find them significant.”
“But clearly someone did. And you called it ‘dangerous,’ if I recall.” Jacob said nothing. He merely blinked, his papery lids folding over hazel eyes. “Some scholar who wished to examine them?” Crispin offered to the silence.
“Perhaps.” Jacob tugged on his beard again before he seemed to realize the habit and lowered his hand to his lap.
Crispin sighed. Lost parchments seemed more trouble than they were worth, especially for a Jew. But coin was coin. “I shall have to see your apartments. And to do that, well, it will be difficult. I must raise my fee and charge one shilling a day for my trouble.”
The man seemed startled. “Why must you see my apartments?”
“To examine the place from which they were stolen. From this I might garner valuable information.” He studied the quiet man and his stooped posture. “Out of curiosity, why have you not gone to either of the sheriffs with this theft? Or complained to the king, since you have his ear?”
“No. I have come to you.”
“That you have. But it does not explain—”
Jacob rose abruptly. “Come to the palace gate, and I will meet you there at nightfall.”
Crispin rose more slowly. The meeting was apparently over. “Very well. There is the warrant of my fee . . .”
Jacob’s eyes widened and he wrestled with his robe for a moment before producing a small leather pouch. He placed it on the table between them. “There is four shillings’ worth of silver there. Till nightfall, Maître Guest.”
Crispin took up the pouch and clenched it in his fist. “Master Jacob,” he said with a curt nod of his head.
He watched the man hurriedly leave and looked again at the small pouch. He pulled out one coin and left it on the table for Eleanor. At least he had been able to pay his way today.
UPON RETURNING TO HIS lodgings, Crispin explained it to Jack, who had been glad to hear that Crispin was hired but was not as pleased to hear that the man was a Jew.
“You’re taking money from a Jew? Ain’t they the ones who crucified our Lord?”
“So says Holy Scriptures.”
“Then they aught not to be in England. The law was made ages ago.”
“You will find, Jack, that laws and kings are rarely to be met within the same sentence.”
“Eh?”
Crispin snorted. “Whatever King Richard desires, he gets. The man is a physician to the queen. I’ve no doubt he is here to discover why she has not gotten with child.”
“Oh.” Jack looked out the window thoughtfully. “But you’re to be at the palace gate at nightfall.”
“Yes. Have you objections to that?”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Why?”
Jack shrugged. “I just don’t. He loses papers he says are not important yet he won’t go to the sheriff. What are those papers about, then?”
“I was wondering that myself. He called them parchments of Hebrew texts. I was trying to think what might be important about that.”
“Scriptures?”
“If so, why did he not say so? Perhaps they are for his physician’s art. Yet he did not admit that either. It makes no matter. I will find them, and I will make a pretty penny from it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You are not required to like it,” he snapped. “I must take employment where it comes!” He didn’t like to bark at Jack but the boy had little concept of his place. Yet when he turned to Jack and studied the boy’s threadbare coat and hood, he suddenly remembered that Jack did know it. Hadn’t the boy spent the best years of his childhood on his own in the streets as a cutpurse? Jack was lucky to have survived at all. JERI WESTERSON is the author of two previous novels featuring Crispin Guest; Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns. She is also a journalist and noted blogger on things mysterious and medieval. She lives in Menifee, California.