woodcut man murder01

By the dispatch of Willoughby to France, she (Elizabeth) definitely committed herself to the policy of supporting him (King Henry IV of France) and from that policy she did not waver, though she laboured as always to reduce her support to the absolute minimum.

Mr. Secretary Walsingham

Conyers Read


The door thumped solidly closed. Denby’s bravo made sure it was latched solidly. The minute that happened, Helmsley couldn’t wait any longer and spun to confront Nick. “The packet you took from Broussard. Give it to me now, you piece of shit!”

The fat man hesitated for a moment. Helmsley could clearly see the calculation on his face, but then, just as Jean made the slightest motion forward, he slumped in acquiescence. Moving slowly, making sure that his hands were in plain sight at all times, he shrugged off his cloak and bent to tear at a seam with his teeth. Shortly, he pulled the small packet of thin folded papers free and handed them to Helmsley.

He couldn’t help himself. He snatched the papers from Nick and triumphantly brandished the packet in front of Nick’s face. “Start saying your prayers, heretic. For God is your only chance of succor now.”

Nick merely shrugged. He seemed tired, deflated like a bladder at the end of a fun fair. “I don’t see how any prayers will get me out of this.” Then, the merest flash of anger. “Besides, my prayers ain’t yours. Isn’t that what this is all about? What prayers a person says? If I was to pray now, you’d gut me for a heretic as well as a spy.” And then the anger guttered out, a candle returned to a mere smoking wick.

To no surprise of Helmsley, Denby proved himself unable to resist such words. “You say correct, heretic! You could kneel now and howl up your prayers but God would not hear them!” Nick did nothing but blink against the spray of spittle as Denby ranted in his face. “And why should God listen to the prayers of such as you when he chooses to bless the righteous?”

“That would be you, would it?”

“Don’t you fucking mock! How dare you fucking mock!” With a visible effort, Denby gathered himself. “You, your cause, your bitch queen, all are cast low and defeated by us. How can you deny that we are those with the cause righteous when we have triumphed over you? What other signs do you need to see that God favors us?”

Helmsley let the noise of Denby’s ranting drift from his mind. He closely scrutinized the pages that Nick had handed him. It was two sheets of very thin paper, filled on each side with closely written symbols and letters. He could see where Nick had attempted to unravel the cipher, words inked, then scratched out. Helmsley felt an additional sense of relief. Nick had clearly been unsuccessful, and so couldn’t have spread any harmful information. With Nick caught, there was no chance of a leak on the English side of this intelligence operation.

Something occurred to him and he turned to Denby, interrupting him in mid-spate, still going on about how it must be clear to the most ignorant peasant that Elizabeth was an unnatural abomination, cursed by both God and Pope. “I cry your pardon, but I just wish to make certain. These pages are your latest intelligence to Brussels?”

“Give them here and I will tell you.” Denby took the pages from Helmsley and looked them over, front and back. “Yes. This is my hand and I remember writing it. See this bit here? I write how Burghley is confounded in his efforts to get more money to support the English troops in France and so the troops will be recalled forthwith.”

“Balls of Christ, a blind leper walled up in a lazar house would be able to tell you that.” Nick had decided to pay back Denby for all the religious ranting. “Tell me true, Dick, is this crackbrained piece of idiocy the best of your agents in England? Seems to me, all he’s doing is passing along overheard snippets of second hand gossip.”

Denby colored bright scarlet and spun about to face Nick, but Helmsley broke in before Denby could give voice to his outrage. “I hesitate to point out the obvious, Nick, but he did catch you, here on your home ground. That either points to his ability or your ineptitude. Which will it be? And since I chased you all the way across Flanders and the Channel with no result, I know which one I believe to be true.”

Nick merely grimaced sourly and fell back into his sullen silence, the last embers of his defiance gone cold and grey.

Helmsley saw no reason to stop feeding Denby’s self-regard. He took Denby by the arm and stared direct into his face. “Pray, give this piece of filth no belief. I spoke true. You were able to do, quickly, without hesitation, that which I was not. And as I’ve said, Master Owen in Brussels has nothing but praise for the intelligence that you provide.”

Denby preened, a look of almost fatuous self regard on his face. “I cannot take all the credit, as God’s blessings have brought me this far. But, I must admit, that I do look forward to the day when those bloated toads on the Privy Council are cast down along with their bitch Queen. The look on their faces will be glorious when they realize who was the architect of their destruction.” He actually chortled and rubbed his hands together; Helmsley could scarce believe his eyes.

Helmsley laid a hand on Denby’s arm to forestall what appeared to be the beginning of an orgy of self congratulation. “Perhaps it might be wise to make doubly sure that the boat you hired to take us down past the Bridge to the waiting ship is in place?”

Denby considered then gave a sharp nod. “I agree. I’ll send my man.” He glanced at Nick. “Do you think that we’ll be safe with just your man to watch over the spy?”

“I well doubt that there is any in England that is Jean’s equal in the arts of violence. Send your man, we’re safe with him at our side.” Helmsley watched while Denby went over to the door and had some words with his man. The feel of paper in his hand re-ignited his happiness. It had been a long, hard road, but finally it was all done and he was successful. Once back in Brussels, he’d be returned to the high regard of Hugh Owen. That had been a shock, to fail so completely and become the object of Owen’s anger and disappointment. But now, in this small close stinking room in this city of heretics and whores, all that was behind him. He had done his job and he was going home. He sighed and relaxed.

Something was wrong. His sense of triumph soured abruptly. He’d overlooked something. All his instincts were screaming at him. But what? Nick was captured. The whore was huddled in the corner, trying to escape notice, her hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. The sight of her made him realize what had been troubling him. Her behavior had had just a touch of the theatrical to it, the slightest false note. And hadn’t there been something odd in the way that the pustuled toad had behaved towards her? It was probably nothing, but now, so close to finally triumphing, after so many set backs, he couldn’t afford to be careless at the last moment.

He snapped his fingers at her. “You. Woman. Cease your sniveling and come here. I have questions for you.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nick become even more still.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *