Paul Doherty: The Grail Murders

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Paul Doherty The Grail Murders
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    The Grail Murders
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Paul Doherty

The Grail Murders


Murder has marked us all as Cain's children: Cain who when the earth was young slew his brother with the jawbone of an ass and hid in the forest until God hunted him out, grasped his head and gave him the assassin's mark. We must be his children, mustn't we? If Cain, the son of Adam, is father to us all, then we must all bear his mark.

I see my chaplain sniffing as if he has smelt something foul: his prim lips are pursed, that cherry nose wrinkled. The trouble with him is his nose is too near his codpiece! Never trust short-legged men – the gap between their brain and their buttocks is too close for comfort.

Ah, well, so we are all Cain's children. In fairness, I must confess that's not an original thought. Michael Nostradamus, Catherine de Medici's fortune-teller, once told me that whilst I was hiding in Paris from a group of assassins who wanted to take my head but, as I keep saying, that's another story.

A strange man, Nostradamus! In his secret chamber at the Castle Blois he had a famous mirror. If you looked into it, you could see the future. Catherine de Medici, voluptuous, murderous Catherine – Madame Serpent as I call her – used to spend days staring into it.

Nostradamus also claimed he had dreams which foretold the future: demons who appeared to him at night, their black eyes filled with blood, huge scrolls in their fists, the written records of the sins of men from the first day to the last. Nostradamus said they kept unrolling these scrolls and there was no end to them. No end to the terrible and bloody murders of men.

I agree with him for Murder has haunted my life and still plagues my dreams. Oh no, I am not an assassin myself but I have spent my life tracking them down. Now I, too, have the same dreams as Nostradamus: strange, merciless devils, faces twisted with rage, teeth showing over their lips. They belong to the blackest darkness for they are the lost souls of murderers.

The other night these spirits woke me just after the last snowfall which cloaked the fields in thick white clouds. I sat up in my four-poster bed, pulled back the curtains and gazed through the great oriel window which stares out over the lawns in front of my house. The moon shone ghostly white, the stars gleamed like silver wings in the heavens. On either side of me Phoebe and her sister Margot snored in their soft, warm plumpness. (A marvellous way to keep warm in the depths of winter!) I stared over the lawns, thinking of my past, and saw the black shadow move like some great bat. I knew it was the Lord Satan's precursor.

(My chaplain is laughing. The little sod had better be careful! 'More like wine fumes,' he sniggers. If he is not careful, I'll grab the cushions from beneath his bum. Oh, yes, I will and my homunculus, my little dwarf of a chaplain, shall feel hard wood under his buttocks.)

I did see the shadows come, the nightmare men, ghosts from my past.

The next morning the stranger arrived, travelling through the deep snow bearing letters and warrants allowing him access to Sir Roger Shallot, Privy Councillor, Knight of the Bath, Knight of the Garter, Justice of the Peace, Commissioner of Array, Marshall of the Order of St Michael. (A gentleman who styled himself Tsar of all the Russias, a homicidal bastard if ever there was one, gave me that.)

I met the stranger in my secret chamber behind the arras in the great hall. The captain of my guard stood beside me, his sword drawn, for though I am now well past my ninetieth year, old Shallot still has his enemies. The secret agents of many a crowned head still seek a reward for cutting my throat and letting my life-juice spill out. So you have to be careful when you approach me.

This man was: he stopped at the great gates leading to my estates. If he had entered without permission, my great Irish wolfhounds would have torn him to pieces and, if they hadn't, the jolly boys who serve in my troop of mercenaries would have strung him up from the nearest branch.

Anyway, I met him in my secret chamber, the only light coming from the braziers of glowing charcoal and the pure wax candles whose flames darted long and strong against the darkness. Enough light glowed for me to see him but not enough to reveal the coffers, chests, sealed packets and padlocked boxes full of old Shallot's papers, the legacy of a murderous past, which stand around the walls.

The fellow looked nondescript, old and balding, his skin the colour of darkened leather, but I liked his eyes, clear and bright. They reminded me of my old master, Benjamin Daunbey, nephew to that fat slob Cardinal Wolsey, in whose service we both toiled for many a year. My visitor sat for a while and stared at me. 'You don't remember me?' he said. His English was perfect though tinged with a slight accent. 'Sweet Lord!' I answered. 'Must I remember everybody?'

I looked at the warrants he'd brought, lying on the desk in front of me, bearing the seals of that lovely lass Elizabeth of England. Green-eyed Elizabeth, Boleyn's daughter. (I don't say Henry VIII's. That fat bastard. The Great Killer couldn't create any life. I know who Elizabeth's father really was but I'm not telling you. Well, at least not now. Perhaps some other time.) 'Why should the Queen,' I asked, 'give you these warrants?'

The man shrugged and leaned closer. The captain of my guard put his sword gently on the fellow's shoulder as a warning that he was close enough. 'Who are you?' I demanded.

The man unhitched his cloak, revealing the blood-red gown and white six-pointed cross of the Knights of St John, commonly known as the Hospitallers. I sighed and smiled.

‘As I said,' my guest continued, 'you do not remember me, Sir Roger. I am John de Coligny, knight hospitaller, bailiff in that Order, but I was born on the manor of Templecombe in Somerset.'

Oh, sweet Lord! I just sat and stared at him as the memories came rushing back: overcast skies and the snow-laden trees and meadows of Somerset. Flames roaring round a bed. A maddened horse dragging its rider, pounding him to death. And the icy cold water of that lake as Benjamin and I fought against a most cruel assassin. I let the tears roll down my face.

'Sir Roger.' Coligny paused. 'I did not mean to upset you. Her Majesty the Queen said you would understand the need for secrecy. I am a Catholic and, by all rights, should suffer the supreme penalty for even setting foot in England. I have come to repay a debt, to fulfil a vow.'

He loosened his doublet and brought out a small stained leather pouch tied by a cord round his neck.

Oh, bitter-sweet memories! I knew what was coming but could only stare with tear-filled eyes at the small amethyst ring the fellow pushed across the desk.

'I was a child,' Coligny continued, 'only a babe-in-arms when you gave that to my mother. She always spoke of your kindness and courage.'

Do you know, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Here was someone paying homage to my courage! Me, Roger Shallot, who in his time was the swiftest runner in Christendom – and, believe me, I always proved it. When swords were drawn and blood was spilt, old Shallot, to quote my friend Will Shakespeare, was 'like a greyhound in the slips', ready to charge – always the other way. I picked up the ring and gazed at its brilliant sparkle.

'So long ago,' I murmured. 'So many horrible deaths. Such terrible murders.' I lapsed into a reverie and de Coligny withdrew.

I later feasted him for a day, revelling in his praise and adulation, then I rewarded him well, furnished him with safe conducts to Dover and watched him leave. His coming was a sign. A grim reminder of the past. He could praise my courage but old Shallot knows the truth: the past is a pack of lies. My dreams would taunt me. The nightmare men would come.

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