King Charles II brings the English parliament to Oxford, amid sectarian hysteria over a so-called ‘Popish Plot’ against the throne.
William Harbord, an MP and leader of an extremist Protestant group, the Green Ribbon Club, is found stabbed to death. Luke Sandys, Chief Officer of Bailiffs, must investigate, with his trusty deputy, Robshaw.
Luke is an Oxford Classics graduate and a devotee of scientific methods. He missed out on an academic career to marry Elizabeth, who was carrying his child – instead following his father into the trade of fine joinery. He is secretly in love with Cate, daughter of a Catholic couple who run a local inn where the vaults are used for illegal Romish sacraments.
Agitators blame Harbord’s death on ‘Papists’ and use it to stir the mob. There is a riot in which Luke is slightly injured. He realises he is in a race against time – to solve the murder before the wave of prejudice and fury can engulf the local Catholic population, including Cate. “I’m not having people picked on!”, he declares. “Not just because they happen to praise God in a different way. ‘Tis wrong!”
To identify the killer, he has to rely as much on Robshaw’s stout yeoman common sense, and his own scholarly background, as on evidence and logic.
Meanwhile, the Green Ribbons plan a ‘spectacular’ – a gruesome ritual, supposedly to show the market day crowds how ‘Papists’ should be dealt with. Luke scrambles to find an angle he can use to foil their conspiracy.
As lines of inquiry converge, Luke’s heart pulls him one way, while duty pulls in the opposite direction. Which will he choose to follow? Will he crack the case in time? And will he declare his love?
Elizabeth had not long gone up to bed, declaring that she had “aboused and bolled enough for one night” – more than enough, Luke thought – when there came a thunderous knock at the door.
“Sorry to disturb, sirs”. A great dark overcoat made Robshaw’s outline in the candlelight even more bearlike than usual.
“What is it, Robshaw?”
“A body, sir. Night Watch found it, a short while ago, on the doorstep of that there new tavern, where we was earlier”.
“Have you seen it?”
“Not yet – one of the proctors knocked me up and I came straight here. ‘Tis said he’s been stabbed”. Luke felt twist of dread: the political atmosphere already contained enough tension, as their supper conversation had affirmed. An act of violence, as MPs and their hangers-on converged on the city, smelt of trouble.
“You did right. Very well, let’s go”.
The grey of the once-distinguished temples seemed to have drained through the face, washing out the vitality, as Luke peered down at the still, beaky face and splayed figure of the man who had introduced himself to them earlier as William Harbord, MP. Steady luminescence from the clear night sky mingled with the guttering light of Robshaw’s lantern as he held it above the body.
“There’s the wound”, the deputy pointed out unnecessarily, as the two light sources refracted in the congealed surface of a pool of blood emanating from Harbord’s abdomen.
“Where’s the weapon?” One of the University proctors, who had stood guard over the scene, piped up in reply.
“Can’t be found, sir”.
“Well, hasn’t been found, anyway”, Luke corrected him. “We’ll have to take a proper look in daylight”.
“I’ll need to clean up this here step, sirs”. Unsworth had pulled on coat and boots over his vest and canions, against the chill, and was now shifting agitatedly from foot to foot, a grimace of dismay etched on his features. The innkeeper had been held back from the murder scene by the watchmen, who looked a question in Luke’s direction. He nodded.
“May as well move it now, we can’t learn anything else here for the moment. Robshaw, put the body in my parlour”. The ‘parlour’ was in fact a wide stone landing at the head of a staircase down to a small cellar, behind Sandys’ office at the back of the Guildhall, a little further up Fish Street. Robshaw jingled his bunch of keys at the men to fetch the low cart they used to scoop up the dead and the dead-drunk alike from the city streets.
Turning to the innkeeper, Luke asked curtly: “So he was lodging, as well as drinking, in your unlicensed premises?” Unsworth’s voice and manner assumed their default attitude of obsequious wheedling.
“That he was, Master Sandys sir, though he was ever such a proper gentleman, sir”.
“That’s beside the point, Unsworth, as well you know. You told the Night Watch that you heard and saw nothing of this… incident? No altercation, no raised voices?” Unsworth made as if to say something, then glumly shook his head. “Very well. I shall want to talk to you further tomorrow. Make sure you’re here, or if you must go out, don’t go far”.
“Yessir”, he nodded, relieved.
Luke held open the door at the back of the Guildhall, off the stable yard. Harbord’s corpse was manhandled in, and through to the chamber at the back of his office, lain on a trestle table and covered with a length of muslin. Then he bade his deputy goodnight, locked up, and walked slowly back along Fish Street, towards the river. Unsworth was, sure enough, swabbing the threshold of The Unicorn and Jacob’s Well, too preoccupied to notice him passing by on the other side. The imposing limestone of Christ Church formed an apparently impenetrable barrier. Surely the King would be safe here? Though, on second thoughts, men still talked of the nine-pound shell fired by the New Model Army, during the siege of Oxford in the time of His Majesty’s father, Charles I, which had thudded against the wall of the college dining hall.
It looks like Jake Lynch has not made any updates yet. Check back soon!
These people are helping to fund Blood On The Stone.