Rory Clements: Prince

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Rory Clements Prince
  • Название:
    Prince
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  • Жанр:
    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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Rory Clements


Prince

Chapter 1

Four men stared down at the body of Christopher Marlowe. A last trickle of bright gore oozed from the deep wound over his right eye. His face and hair and upper torso were all thick with blood. One of the four men, Ingram Frizer, held the dripping dagger in his hand.

Frizer looked across at Robert Poley and grinned foolishly. ‘He came at me.’

‘Boar’s balls, Mr Frizer, give me the dagger,’ Poley said angrily.

Frizer held out the dagger. All the living eyes in the room followed the tentative movement of the blood-red blade. A sliver of brain hung like a grey-pink rat’s tail from its tip. Poley took the weapon and wiped it on the dead poet’s white hose. Suddenly, he struck out with the hilt and caught Frizer a hard blow on the side of his head. Frizer lurched backwards. Poley pushed him to the floor and jumped on him, knees on chest, hitting his head again, harder, pounding him until Nick Skeres tried to pull him away.

Poley stood back, shook off Skeres’s hands and brushed down his doublet with sharp irritation. He was not a tall man, but he was strongly built and the veins in his muscled forearms and temples bulged out and pulsed. He kicked Frizer in the ribs. ‘You were only supposed to gag him and apply the fingerscrew, you dung-witted dawcock. Not kill him.’

The afternoon sunlight of late May slanted in through the single, west-facing window. The presence of the men and the body made the room feel smaller than it really was. It was cleanly furnished; a well-turned settle made of fine-grained elm, a day bed where the body now lay, a table of polished walnut with benches either side and half-drunk jugs of ale atop it. The dusty floorboards were scuffed by the men’s shoes; there was, too, a lot of blood and a few splashes of ale on the wood between the table and the day bed.

‘And you…’ Poley turned to Skeres. ‘You were supposed to hold him. He was out of his mind with drink and you couldn’t keep a grip.’

Ingram Frizer pulled himself painfully to his feet. He was doubled over, clutching his side where Poley’s boot had connected.

Poley handed him the dagger. ‘Here, take it. And listen well: it was his dagger — Marlowe’s dagger. He came at you, pummelled your head with it. You fought back. In the struggle, the blade pierced his eye. You were defending yourself — it was an accident.’

Frizer took the dagger. He was slender with a lopsided face, the left eye half an inch higher than the right. The skin had been cut from the side of his head by Poley’s beating. There was a livid gash, almost to the bone. His head and ribs throbbed, but he understood Poley’s plan well enough. ‘I liked this dagger,’ he said, turning the weapon over in his hands and examining the ornate hilt and narrow, sharp-pointed blade. ‘Cost me half a mark.’ He tried to laugh.

‘Well, it’ll be Crown property now. Marlowe was always fighting. He was going to kill you. It’s a simple story; remember it.’ Poley turned to the third man, Skeres. ‘And you, Mr Skeres.’

Skeres nodded. His bulbous face was sweating heavily. He mopped a kerchief across his brow. His gaze kept flicking towards the body, and then across to the fourth man, who stood close by the door. So far he had said nothing.

‘No, let’s change that,’ Poley said, shaking his head slowly. ‘Someone might recall that dagger. Say it was yours, Mr Frizer, but Marlowe snatched it off you, then you wrenched it away from him as he battered you. You struck backwards wildly, didn’t know what you had done. Got that? And the knife didn’t cost you half a mark, it cost you a shilling. The rest of the story holds.’ Poley suddenly slammed his fist down on the table. ‘Where’s the screw?’

Ingram Frizer pointed to the floor beneath the window, to where a five-inch by four-inch vice of iron lay. It was designed to crush the fingers of a hand, slowly and painfully.

‘Do I have to think for both of you? Pick it up!’

Frizer scurried across the room and brought the device back to Poley, who thrust it inside his doublet.

At last the fourth man spoke. He was heavy-set with a wispy beard. ‘I’m going now. Wait two hours, drink some ale, then call the constable and the coroner. None of this comes back to me or my master. I was never here.’

‘No,’ Poley agreed. He understood well enough. There must only ever have been four men in this room, not five.

The man took one last look around the room and met the eyes of Poley, Skeres and Frizer. ‘Not one word.’ He lifted the latch and silently left the room.

The other three watched him go. A seagull landed on the sill of the open window, defecated, then flew off. ‘There’s a problem,’ Skeres said, shaking the sweat out of his eyes.

‘The only problem,’ Poley said, ‘is you. You’re a flaccid prick of a man, Skeres.’

‘We’ve got to say what they were fighting about, haven’t we?’

‘It was the bill, of course. The reckoning. Frizer said Marlowe had drunk more so should pay more. Mr Marlowe wanted to quarter the bill evenly.’

‘The coroner will never believe it.’

Poley laughed. ‘Pour the ale, Mr Skeres, then light me a pipe. How has a coney like you ever lived this long? Hear that, Mr Frizer? Mr Skeres says the coroner will never believe it.’ Poley laughed again, louder this time, and Frizer and Skeres laughed nervously with him.

Chapter 2

John Shakespeare spoke briefly to the constable standing guard, before entering the room. He was a tall man, about six foot, and had to stoop to get through the door. He glanced around, taking in the furnishings, the window, the body. It was a fair-kept room. He stepped closer to the bloody remains of Christopher Marlowe and stared intently into his eyes. One was open and opaque, the other a black-brown scab of dried gore and brain. He remembered those clever eyes as they had been in the old days when he had performed certain secret tasks for Mr Secretary Walsingham. Marlowe had been clever and dangerous. Well, he’d met someone more dangerous.

The other three men in the room stood quietly by the table. Shakespeare caught Poley’s gaze. They knew each other well. There had been times when they worked together, back in the mid eighties. It had never been a comfortable experience for Shakespeare. Now he lifted his chin in acknowledgement, if not exactly in greeting.

‘Who did this, Poley? Who killed him?’

‘Mr Frizer here. Ingram Frizer. It was self-defence. You know what Kit Marlowe was like.’

Indeed he did. Marlowe had been a fighter, a drinker, a poet, a character in the drama of his own life. He was Tamburlaine, Dr Faustus and any other number of Bedlam loons and Shoreditch roarers, all rolled into one. He had been trouble; uncontrollable. Yes, self-defence seemed likely enough, knowing what Marlowe was like, with or without strong ale in his belly. The nagging doubt was the presence of Rob Poley. Very little was accidental when he was in the vicinity. Shakespeare turned to the others. ‘Which one of you is Frizer?’

Frizer took two steps forward. He held the cleaned dagger in front of him, laid across both palms. Shakespeare did not take it from him; instead he gestured with his head to the table. ‘Put it down over there.’

From outside, the bellman called nine of the clock. The room was still light. ‘When did this happen?’ Shakespeare demanded.

‘Six,’ Poley said. ‘He was cup-shotten from a surfeit of ale. Wouldn’t pay his portion of the bill. Attacked Mr Frizer here — and Mr Frizer defended himself.’

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