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        Sample excerpt

 

 

Death In Dover


Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Death by Dickens, Berkley, 2004

 

 

 

Dover, England, November 1775

I ventured to pull back the flap of the coach window for a glimpse of what lay ahead and was disappointed by the near-unrelieved darkness. The only glimmer of light emanated from the distant gray sea, which stirred restlessly under a wind out of the bitter north. Some of that cruel zephyr cut its sharp way round the stuffy interior of our swaying conveyance, causing a large, red-haired, red-faced woman to make a most indignant remonstrance against my curiosity.

"Faith, Mr. Barrett, if you've pity in your heart, spare us from your gawping lest we all perish of cold. You'll be seeing the town soon enough. It's been there for hundreds of years an' not like to run off now, is it?"

As a gentleman it was my lot to meet harsh speech--at least when it flowed from female lips--with humble apology. I tied the flap back into place. "I do beg your pardon, Miss Pross, and yours as well, Miss Manette."

By this I acknowledged the smaller, younger lady who seemed to be her mistress. Miss Manette had caught the attention of all the gentlemen since she first came aboard with her forceful companion. The coach's confines were such as to kindle interest in any member of the fair sex who happened to be there, but her delicate blond beauty would command attention even in a great throng. In Miss Pross, though, she had so fierce and wild a protector that none had been able to draw her into polite conversation.

The passing of pleasantries was difficult anyway. The most innocuous of exchanges had to be conducted at the top of one's lungs because of the rumbling of our wheels. The violent rocking as we tumbled over broken and muddy roads kept most of us occupied hanging on to leather straps to avoid a degree of intimacy not generally shared by the average English subject with his fellow countrymen.

There were seven of us crammed in rather tight: the two ladies, my good cousin Oliver, myself, and three other gentlemen. The fellow next to Oliver was Sir Algernon. . . something. I'd missed his whole name. He was a tall, handsome specimen, but dolorous of aspect and dressed in the deepest mourning. Traveling with him was his child--a boy of no more than eleven years--also impeccably dressed for sorrow. Because of this outward declaration of a private tragedy we left them to themselves. The man was disinclined to speak, and the boy miraculously slept, leaning against the third gentleman. This was M. Deveau, a Frenchman who was the boy's dancing and sword master, the male equivalent of a governess.

He and the boy, Master Percy, had the misfortune to share the opposite bench with the females. I say misfortune, for the lady next to Percy was the redoubtable Miss Pross, who acted as a bastion of protection for her delicate charge, who was on her other side. Though it was clear by manner and dress that none of us--for we were one and all clearly gentlemen--would presume to make unwelcome overtures to the young lady, Miss Pross seemed to have decided we were rascally adventurers of the worst sort. I was certain she had a pistol, or at least a leaded cudgel, concealed in the large traveling bag she clutched to her person, and was equally certain she would find a use for it if she determined any of us to be the least importune in our behavior.

"Are there no lights in the town at all?" I asked. Even the most squalid parts of London had lamps here and there.

Oliver barked a short laugh, which roused Master Percy from his slumber. "Oh, lots, but they don't get much use. It's a rare lamplighter who makes aught but a poor living in our coastal hamlets on certain evenings. Haven't you something like it on your Long Island?"

"Smugglers, is it?" They preferred a pitch-dark night for landing goods on shore. Any fellow with a lamp would be looked upon unkindly by such free-traders, often to the point of violence. Indeed, it was said that the lamplighters, unable to make a wage, were themselves in on the smuggling. "I'm positive we do, but the family estate is set well inland, so I've not had the opportunity to make a firsthand observation. Of course, one hears tales, and the place has a dark history. It was a haven for Captain Kidd, you know. They say his treasure is buried somewhere along one of the beaches, but none have found it.

As I'd hoped, the mention of that name caught the interest of Miss Manette (and the boy). She peeped shyly at me, her blue eyes bright in the dimness of the coach. "Do you speak of the infamous pirate, Mr. Barrett?"

Had there been space to do so, I would have made her a proper bow of courtesy. A partial one from my seat had to serve, its sincerity marred by the movement of the coach. "Indeed I do, Miss Manette. Long Island, where I am from, was a favorite hiding place for his stolen booty."

"Where is this island?"

"It is part of the colony of New York in the Americas," I replied.

"And you are then an American?"

"A loyal American subject of our good King George, God save him."

A murmur of "amens" went 'round the interior.

Since coming to England to complete my education at Cambridge, I'd learned to answer similar questions with that phrase and thus avoid unpleasant social complications. Things were unsettled enough between Mother England and some few of her wayward children in the New World, and I did what I could to assure my countrymen that I was not one of those troublemakers.

"Why are you come to England, sir?" Miss Manette asked. "And Dover in particular?"

"Hush, my ladybird," admonished her companion. "Vex not the gentleman" --Miss Pross emphasized that word slightly-- "with idle questions. I'm sure he has other things to think about."

Her incivility put the devil in me, so I smiled and bowed as well as I could to her, and in such a way that she couldn't possibly object without looking wholly boorish. "Not at all, dear lady. I am here to read law at Cambridge. My cousin, Mr. Marling, who is to be a doctor, and I are come to Dover to conduct a bit of private business."

Young Percy stifled an unexpected guffaw. I took that to mean he well understood our errand, which made him perceptive beyond his age. The noise of the wheels grinding upon the road served to cover his sudden expression of amusement, so the ladies quite missed his reaction. Not so for M. Deveau, who, from the glint in his eye, also guessed the truth of the matter.

"Will you be proceeding to the Continent?" asked Miss Manette.

"I think not. Is that your destination?"

"I believe so, sir."

Under the hard glare of Miss Pross, I knew an inquiry over why the ladies would hazard the Channel in this unsettled season would be too direct. "Then I wish you a very easy and uneventful journey."

"You are most kind, sir, but 'uneventful'?"

"Indeed, miss. It is a gracious fate who allows us to be free of cares when traveling. I was half bored to death when making my crossing to England, but it was a blessing. All travelers should be afflicted with acute boredom, for that means a safe passage."

I was rewarded with a smile for this and might have pursued the topic further, but for being interrupted by a change in our pace and a shout from the coach driver. Our arrival was at hand. I burned to have another look as we rolled into town, but Miss Pross wore a glower sufficient to discourage a saint from praying, so I forced myself to have patience until we came to a stop.

The head drawer for our hotel--which happened to be the Royal George--pulled open the door, welcoming us to Dover. The ladies gathered themselves and were the first out. Sir Algernon was next, then followed my cousin with me straight behind. The boy had politely indicated I should proceed him, and M. Deveau was last. I think Master Percy wished to avoid a continuation of his proximity to Miss Pross. She was shouting in a most challenging manner for people to make-way-make-way for her "ladybird," though the only ones about were the driver and the drawer, who showed no concern for this display and went about their business of unloading the coach.

The night air was the chill and deadly damp as only England can make and rife with the slimy stink of dead fish. Still, it was better than the stuffy coach. Thunder grumbled angrily in the distance, and I was thankful we'd arrived ahead of what promised to be a wonderfully malicious storm. I stretched my cramped cold body, feeling the strange shakiness that inevitably follows the abrupt cessation of a long, uncomfortable ride. Oliver seemed to be in the same sate of shock from the change.

"I say, Coz," he said, distracting me from looking about. "Let's have something hot to restore the flow of blood, then I'd dearly like to put myself around a joint of beef if they have one."

At this reminder I realized I was quite hollow. As Miss Pross pointed out, Dover would not be running off. It struck me that wandering about after dark in a strange town populated with smugglers would be as unhealthy as the dank air.

Oliver had stayed at the hotel on previous journeys, and after sending up our travel cases, led us to the coffee room, which was quite large, the long, low ceiling stretching far away into shadows. It smelled divinely of that hot, black brew, and we availed ourselves of a curative dish each, well-laced with good French brandy. With it, we threw off the rigors of the road, along with our cloaks and hats, and took up a post before a sizable fireplace. The ladies and their baggage were conducted upstairs to more private quarters for their refreshment. Sir Algernon and Percy took themselves to a dim corner, giving their order to a waiter, content with their own company. M. Deveau was elsewhere, probably securing rooms for his master and young charge. The only other occupant was an orderly-looking man of sixty or so, dressed in drab brown, which made a sharp contrast to his shining, flax-colored wig. Another waiter approached him respectfully.

"Miss Manette has arrived, sir," he said. "She says she would be happy to see the gentleman from Tellson's, if it suits your pleasure and convenience."

"So soon?" asked the man in brown.

The waiter's response escaped my hearing, for I noticed the father and son both looked up at the mention of Tellson's, a name I did not recognize. The brown-clad fellow left, unaware that they marked his departure.

"What's Tellson's?" I asked Oliver, who also noticed the exchange.

"Bankers. Very old and so fearfully respectable even my mother has nothing to say against them."

"They must be truly formidable. Wonder what's afoot to bring one of their people out to meet with the fair Miss Manette?"

"No business of ours or so that Pross creature will inform you. You've not a hope with the young one, dear Coz. Besides, what would the beauteous Miss Jones say if she knew your attention had wandered from her?"

I pretended to unconcerned by that prospect. "Wandered? I was only making conversation to pass the time. You had plenty of chance to have a try, but you didn't, so I stepped in."

"Oh, bother, I never know what to say to proper young ladies, especially when they are so closely chaperoned. It's dangerous, too."

"How so?"

"One stray remark about the weather, a cordial smile, and before you know it you're engaged. I've seen it happen countless times. Those London girls are the most frightful predators you'll find this side of any wilderness. They can't abide the sight of an unmarried man, and from birth are set up and schooled for the sole purpose of getting an otherwise happy fellow under wedlock-and-key."

"What's this? Has your mother found another prospect for you?"

He shuddered. "I shall have to engage myself in some sort of revolting tomfoolery so she won't speak to me for the next few months. By then the wretched girl will have moved on to stalking another victim."

"Take care what you wish for." I thought about the delightful Miss Manette and our too-brief exchange. "I don't think she's English-born, though. Did you not mark her accent? Very slight, but charming."

"French, I'll warrant, considering the name. She's probably off to Calais to meet with relatives, and the banker's here to provide her with a bit of spending money and perhaps protection for it. Though God help any thieves trying to get past the Pross."

"Indeed."

The waiter came to us in our turn, inquiring what we would like in the way of food.

Some short while later, replete with half the contents of the kitchen inside our bellies, we were in a wonderfully lethargic mood. The cafe noir made us wakeful, though. Instead of going up to the room prepared for us, we idled before the fire, content to slowly roast, smoking our pipes.

"When?" I asked Oliver.

He looked at a clock on the mantel. "Not too much longer. Word will be about. We can expect someone at any time."

"And you'll be able to trust him?"

"Certainly not, but that's what makes it so amusing."

 

__________

 

King of Shreds and Patches

 

Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Rotten Relations, DAW, 2004

 

Elsinor Castle, Denmark

Here do I set down for posterity, a true and exact record of the misfortunes that have lately beleaguered the court of Denmark. Whoever finds this, I ask and pray that you hold all knowledge of it from my beloved Queen Gertrude should I predecease her.

-- Claudius Rex --

The death of my brother, King Hamlet, could not have come at a worse time for Denmark.

I was in my chambers, setting to paper a detailed recounting of all that I saw and heard in Norway while acting as his ambassador there when the news of the calamity was brought to me.

Rather than a soft knock from one of Elsinore's countless pages, I was startled from my task by heavy pounding from a hasty fist. It occurred to me that my fears of an invasion from Norway were about to be fulfilled. I threw down my quill and, being alone, unlatched the door myself and pulled it wide, interrupting a second assault. Old Polonius stood without.

"What is amiss, sir?" I demanded, for obviously something of great import was wrong. His face was as white as his beard except for two red spots high on his cheeks from recent exertion. His breath came hoarse and hard. I'd ever known him as a man well able to keep control of his emotions, now he was positively tottering from inner turmoil. I took his trembling hand and led him inside. "Is it war?"

"W-war, your lordship?" He gave me so blank a look that he might have been struck by one of those strange convulsions that takes a man's mind away. "There is no war."

"Then speak, what is amiss?"

His lips quivered and overcome by whatever troubled him, he bowed his head and groaned. I glanced at the open doorway, but none were with him who might inform me of the nature of this trouble. That was odd. He usually had no less than two pages in tow the whole of the day to run his errands. I looked down both ends of the hall, but all was quiet in this part of the castle. From one of my windows I ascertained the courtyard below was also peaceful. It was the end of the hot part of the afternoon, and those who had no duties would take rest while they could.

In a firm tone I charged Polonius to explain himself. That seemed to break through, and he slowly raised his head. His eyes streamed tears, and without knowing the matter, I felt a kindred ill-omened leadening of my heart.

"Speak, sir," I whispered.

"Oh, good lord Claudius, your royal brother is dead."

Let God Himself be my witness, I almost laughed, for it was clear the dear old man had lost his wits and was ranting. "Impossible. I saw him take his walk upon the upper platform this morning as always. He waved greeting to me and I to him."

But Polonius shook his head again, as though to dislodge a stubborn fly. "Would that I were a liar, your lordship, but he is dead and gone and nothing can change that or bring him back to us."

I still could not take it in. "How comes this? Was it a fall?" Elsinore was full of stairs, many very steep.

"A fall? No, he was asleep in his orchard. He lies there still."

"What? Have you sent for a priest?" He blanched even more, and I knew that he had not. If there was the least breath of life remaining, then my brother must give his last confession lest his soul needlessly suffer. Perhaps Polonius was wrong. His sight was dim now with age, and though wise in statecraft, he was often wrong in more mundane matters--not that the death of a king could be considered as such.

"Lord Claudius, King Hamlet is dead. For hours, perhaps."

"And no one sent for help or told me until now?"

"As soon as I saw for myself, I came straight from there to you--wait, sir! There is more!"

But I was striding swiftly away. I loved Polonius like a second father--he had taught me much of the wisdom of his craft that I could better serve my brother and thus Denmark as ambassador--but could not wait upon him. Impatience and fear engulfed me. Grief, too, though I pushed that roughly from my heart. I could not and would not believe it; Hamlet could not, must not be dead.

 

__________

 

 

The Devil's Mark

 

Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Time of the Vampires DAW 1996

 

England, 1646

"She's a witch! Burn her!"

"What if she"s not a witch?"

"Burn her anyway, it's cold!"

"Mr. Bainbridge! If you please!"

Belatedly realizing that his enthusiasm and dark humor were out of place--for the moment--Bainbridge got firm control of himself and presented his audience with a chagrined smile and a respectful bow. "Your pardon, gentle sirs, but when one is doing the Good Work, one may easily be carried away by the nobility of the task."

The audience--that is to say the men who made up the leadership of the town of Little Evesham-on-the-Wash--made forgiving noises. Lucky for him, that. There was a proper way of going about these things, but Bainbridge had allowed his mind to be distracted by his pending reward, and he'd gotten ahead of himself. The time would come for the people to indulge themselves in a good bit of fire and riot, but one had to build them up to it first, get them used to the idea.

Their mayor--or whatever he was in this rustic hellhole--Mr. Percy, cleared his throat. "Indeed, Mr. Bainbridge, but my question still stands: What if the female you have accused is not a witch?

"Why then, she will suffer no harm, but," his gaze swept over the lot of them in such a manner as to indicate he understood his responsibilities perfectly well, "I know that once you are made acquainted with the evidence, you will not hesitate to deliver her to soul-cleansing flames and thus rid your beleaguered village of the Devil's vile influence."

Little Evesham-on-the-Wash was no more beleaguered than any other place had been in the last few years since King Charles and Parliament had gotten down to serious fighting. But each little hamlet Bainbridge had swept through when he began the lucrative work of witch-finding always thought its troubles to be unique to itself. He had but to ask if some oaf suffered mysterious fits or if farms were plagued by sickly livestock to start it all; there was always something wrong somewhere that he could seize upon as evidence of devilish doings. It had been an excellent day for him when he began to emulate the glorious work of the great Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins.

The men conferred briefly, their voices low, but Bainbridge knew what they'd be thinking and discussing. Upon his arrival in town that winter's afternoon he'd made sure to get a few timid souls at the local tavern worked up about the dangers of witchcraft, and as darkness fell they'd carried their worries straight to their leaders.

Forced by the demand for action to hold a council meeting, those learned men in charge of a fearful flock would be afraid themselves. If they forbade Bainbridge's witch-finding, might that be taken to mean they were in fellowship with the Devil as well? If, on the other hand, they hired him to dig out the evil, they'd be short some trifling pounds from the town treasury and no harm done except to the witches, and what were a few old men and women more or less to them?

They reluctantly consented, Bainbridge went to work, and promptly found a witch.

Mr. Percy looked worried, almost morose, at this turn, but some of the others had a gleam of expectation in their eyes. Certainly the news of witch trials taking place in nearby towns had aroused their curiosity. Now it seemed they'd have the chance to see one at first hand.

This was just the start, though. Something entertaining to whet the appetite for the blood-letting to come. Bainbridge had accurately summed up just how much he could pocket from this little village.

Soon would come the real work: the sorting of gossip as hidden jealousies surfaced, as old grievances were recalled, then the searching of houses, discovery, the triumph of good as the flames burned away the evil. Every town in England was bursting with such opportunities, and it was a dull man who could not turn them to his own profit. Bainbridge fully intended to give them their money's worth.

"Very well," said Percy with an air of resignation. "Have the accused brought before us."

Two strong young men standing by the council chamber's door obliged him. They returned almost immediately with their charge; the others, seated judge-like at the long table, leaned forward with interest.

" 'Swounds!" one of them muttered.

The soft exclamation was justified. No aged crone for tonight's event--the sweet-faced young girl that stood before them had the figure of a temptress, with or without the help of stays. For the present she was without, being clad only in a plain chemise of thin and revealing weave. Her cap was gone as well, exposing an abundant crown of dark hair that tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. The flesh of her bared arms and a fair length of leg was a pleasing white and unblemished.

"Why, it's Gweneth Skye," said another man.

Bainbridge knew her name. He knew all about her, or as much as he could pick up from the tavern gossips. The spinster Skye made her way in the world tending sheep like most of the others living here, but she lived alone in her humble croft. Alone, except for a few cats. How Bainbridge loved cats, especially when combined with a solitary female. Usually the women he picked out for accusation were old, but this one's youth and beauty would work in his favor just as well, if not better. There was always a contingent of respectable harpies--goodwives, that is to say--in any town ready to think the worst of any well-favored, unmarried, and therefore threatening female. They'd nag their husbands into lighting the first fire. Once that milestone was reached, the real frolic would begin.

Gweneth rubbed her arms as though cold and glanced at the row of men gaping at her.

"See, but she's a bold and shameless wench," said Bainbridge, planting his favorite and most fruitful seed. "Given is to the chance she'd gladly seduce any one of you goodly souls to the service of her dark master, if she hasn't been doing so already in the town."

Oh, but that always gave them something to think about. Once he'd introduced the idea of her lustfully preying on their weak physical natures, the men would have her tied to the stake quick as spit before their wives could think to suspect them.

"It has yet to be proved that she is in league with the devil, sir," Percy reminded him.

"Then I will delay no longer." Bainbridge turned full upon the girl, thrusting his face at her. "What is your name?" he roared.

She regarded him with calm eyes, showing not the slightest hint of alarm. "Gweneth Skye," she answered in a clear, church-cool voice. "What's yours?"

Bainbridge blinked. She should have at least flinched at such a vocal assault. "I am,--" he announced loudly so any villagers with ears pressed to the chamber door could hear without strain, "the Witch-Pricker Bainbridge."

She favored him with a stony face. "Meaning you run about the countryside pricking witches when the fancy takes you? What do you do with all the brats that come of it?"

__________

 

Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus

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