The Sin Eater Chapter One

As he passed beneath the city gate into Gharnatah Thomas Berrington’s shoulders lost a tension he hadn’t been fully aware of until that moment. Coming home was how it felt, and he knew he had been too long away.

“Aixa will want us to report at once,” said his companion, the eunuch Jorge. He sat on a cart, guiding the mule that drew it through crowds beginning to fill the streets.

Thomas glanced at the familiar buildings, at the palace looming over the city, and nodded. “I have something to do before we see her.”

“She won’t like it.”

“Don’t tell her we’re back until I come to you,” Thomas said.

“Word will spread. As soon as I enter the palace she’ll know.”

Thomas glanced across at his friend. If he hadn’t spent over six months in his company he would barely recognise him as the sleek palace eunuch that had left Gharnatah. Now Jorge’s hair was long, dark in colour, which had come as a surprise. The whiskers on his chin matched.

“She’ll expect you to clean up first,” Thomas said. “That should give me at least an hour.”

Jorge smiled. “At least.”

Thomas swung off his mount, the movement familiar now, and tied the reins to the back of the cart.

“No more than an hour,” said Jorge. “She’ll want to know about Muhammed.”

Thomas nodded. Politics again. It seemed impossible to escape it. Muhammed XII, the Sultan of Gharnatah, remained a guest of the Spanish after a foolish and badly planned raid.

As Thomas walked away he heard Jorge call after him: “Tell Lubna I missed her too!”

Thomas raised a hand and kept walking. The scent and sound of Gharnatah wrapped around him like an old, familiar robe. Even the street urchins were welcome. He tossed small coins at them, immediately regretting his generosity as others slithered from alleyways. He flung a last handful behind and turned into a narrow street that led to the foot of the Albayzin. When a voice hailed him he almost kept going, but he recognised Da’ud al-Baitar and turned.

His old friend approached, head cocked to one side. “I thought you were in Qurtuba.”

Thomas held his arms out: here I am. “I’m on my way to see Lubna.”

“Ah.” Da’ud shuffled his feet. “I was on my way there myself, but seeing as you’re back…” He let some question hang in the air.

“Barely,” Thomas said.

Da’ud continued to stare at him.

“What?” Thomas finally said. The sooner whatever it was had been aired the sooner he could continue his journey.

“I’ve been called to a death, but I could do with a second pair of eyes.”

“Why?”

“The house isn’t far. You’ll see for yourself when you come.”

Thomas glanced at the steps leading upward through the jumbled chaos of the Albayzin. He turned away. “Make it quick, then. I have to be at the palace inside the hour.”


Vincenzo Alvarez lay in the centre of the bed. What showed of his body was paler than it had any right to be. The man was dead, despite any hope expressed by his wife as they had entered the house.

“When did she call you?” Thomas asked Da’ud.

“A little before noon.”

Thomas pressed his fingers into the body’s cold arm, into a thigh. He placed a hand beneath a knee and lifted. The leg bent. He turned to the head, pushing it to one side then the other. His fingers palpated the jaw and neck before he glanced at Da’ud.

“He’s been dead a while, but not so long. Three hours, no more.” Thomas turned his gaze to the man’s wife, who stared at the scene with a distinct lack of emotion. Her skin was almost as pale as that of her husband, but not from shock. She was of northern Spanish descent, by her looks, and may once have been considered handsome. “At what time did you find him, madam?”

“When I came in from work for our midday meal. He’s usually downstairs by then, waiting to eat. When I couldn’t find him I tried here and… and found him this way. I went in search of the physician at once. I thought perhaps he had passed out.” She continued to give no outward show of emotion.

“What time did you leave for work?” Thomas asked.

“A little before dawn.”

Thomas turned back to Da’ud. “See, the rigor is only now beginning to show.” Thomas lifted the man’s eyelids and peered at the whites beneath, brushed back thinning hair to examine the scalp. He looked once more to the wife. “He was this way when you discovered him?”

“Exactly as you see him now.”

Thomas lifted the cotton sheet to reveal the naked body beneath. He leaned closer, lifted the right hand. The end of the smallest finger had been removed. Thomas bent across the body and lifted the other hand. It showed an identical mutilation.

“You can see why I wanted you,” said Da’ud.

“What is your employment?” Thomas asked the wife.

“I work on the hill.” She straightened and her features changed, reflecting an inner pride. “I sew for the ladies of the court.”

The harem, she means, Thomas thought.

“And where was your husband when you left the house?”

“In bed, as usual, complaining of a bad head.”

Thomas glanced at Da’ud, who lifted a shoulder, no doubt considering the same thought as Thomas. A burst vessel in the brain?

“What kind of bad head?”

“The kind that comes from too much wine.”

“He drank too much the night before?”

“And every other night.”

“What time would you normally expect him to rise?”

It was the woman’s turn to shrug. “He is always at the table when I return. For all I know he might dress only minutes before I arrive or have risen moments after I left.”

“What is his profession, Madam Alvarez?”

“He sells wine and ales to the inns of the city.”

Hence the constant drinking. No doubt it had begun as an essential part of his employment, gradually becoming something more. Thomas leaned close and sniffed at his lips. There was a slight taint of the coming putrefaction, but nothing more. No clue as to what might have caused the man’s death. The loss of his fingertips would certainly have been irrelevant—to his demise, at least. As for the cause of it…

“He was good at his job?”

“He is. We enjoy a comfortable life.”

“Where do you come from originally?” Thomas had no idea why he asked. It had nothing to do with the man’s death, and he cursed his own inability to stop picking at things until he understood every part of them.

“Valladolid,” said the woman.

“It’s a long way to travel to al-Andalus. Not a journey most Spaniards would make.”

“I am skilled, and Gharnatah is rich. Or was rich. I’m not so sure these days. But I can find work anywhere, and the wages here are more than in the north. The climate suits us both.”

Thomas glanced around the room. It was large for a bedroom, no doubt reflecting the couple’s status. Dark furniture stood against the walls, set with silver candlesticks. The floor was of heavy oak, stained dark, well laid and flat. A stout chair stood between the bed and the window.

“And this is exactly how you found him?”

The woman nodded. Her hands twisted together in front of her, restless.

“Naked, as he is now?”

Again the nod. “Of course. Why would I undress him?”

“And his clothes—you said you would expect him dressed on your return. Were his clothes nearby?”

This time the response was a shake of the head. “I didn’t think to look. The shock, I expect. He was as you see him now.”

“Would his clothes usually be close to the bed, for when he rose?”

“Yes… on the chair. He would have removed them when he came to bed. He never folded anything.”

“Would you look downstairs for me,” Thomas said. He didn’t think the clothing was significant, but it was an excuse to get the women out of the bedroom. He wanted a chance to examine Don Alvarez more closely.

Donna Alvarez glanced once at the figure in the bed then turned away. Thomas listened as her footsteps descended the staircase, slow and steady, before he turned to Da’ud.

“I can see why you came looking for me.” Thomas lifted the man’s right hand again.

“I don’t think I was wrong to be suspicious.” The old physician came to stand beside Thomas. “I have seen men who bled into their skulls do strange things, but never anything such as this.”

“If it was a bleed it might well have affected his judgement.”

“There is no sign of slackness on the face. And what man would remove his own fingertips?”

“And if he did they should still be here somewhere, and there would be more blood. Why did you come looking for me even though you believed me in Qurtuba?”

“I was going for Lubna,” said Da’ud. “Of course I believed you still in Qurtuba, but who better to ask in your stead than her?”

“You should have gone to the city guard.”

“Since when have they ever taken an interest? And don’t pretend you missed these, I know you better than that.” Da’ud indicated a scattering of crumbs beside the body, more across the floor close to the bed.

“Pieces of bread?” Thomas smiled. “Perhaps he grew hungry waiting for his dinner.”

Thomas turned his attention back to the corpse, nodded to Da’ud, and between them they rolled the body onto its side. “It’s obviously murder. If not for the fingertips it might be mistaken for something else. So it seems strange to me to take those and make is so obvious.” Thomas bent close to examine the man’s back and thighs. He found nothing.

“Was he tortured, do you think,” said Da’ud. “Perhaps for something he knew. That might have caused his heart to give out.”

Thomas grunted. He rolled the man onto his front and ran his fingers across the cold skin, searching for any marks. There were faint scratches on his back and shoulders, but nothing that would kill him.

“He doesn’t seem to have put up a fight,” said Da’ud. “What man would allow someone to cut off his fingers without a struggle.”

“He was already dead when they were taken,” Thomas said, and then, when he saw the frown on Da’ud’s face, “No blood. If we was alive when this was done there would have been blood. Quite a lot of it.”

“Of course. I should have realised.”

“You weren’t looking. Besides, most of our patients are more obvious than this.” Thomas referred to their work together on the battlefield. There was little subtlety in what they undertook there. Thomas straightened and pushed fingers back through his hair, clearing it from his face. “He died of something—unless it was simply his time. Except there are the fingertips. If you wanted to kill a man without trace, why take them?”

“There is no rationality to killing,” said Da’ud.

Thomas glanced at him. “We both know better than that.” He bent to the body again. Alvarez’s thinning hair hung long, parted at the back now as his face pressed into the mattress. Thomas lifted it to expose the base of his neck. Leaned closer.

“See this?”

Da’ud pressed against his shoulder, his eyes older than Thomas’s. “That?” He placed a fingertip against a small mark.

“This is what killed him,” Thomas said.

“Too insignificant,” said Da’ud. “And again, no blood.”

Thomas stretched Alvarez’s skin, opening the tiny wound at the base of his skull. He let his breath out. “Whoever did this is skilled.”

“You really believe that tiny wound killed him?”

“Not the wound, no. The weapon that was used to make it.” Thomas knelt on the edge of the bed, getting closer still. “Look—something narrow, sharp. Inserted here where the skull meets the spine. Rammed hard into the brain. Death would come at once. Come too fast for blood to escape.”

“And then they took his fingers?”

“I doubt anyone else did.”

“Why?”

Thomas smiled. “If we knew why we might know who, so that is what we need to discover.”

“No, that is what you need to discover,” said Da’ud. “All this is beyond my skill. I mend bodies and ease pain, nothing more. You’re the one with the suspicious mind, Thomas.”

“A mind that does not welcome this death.”

“Then walk away from it. I’ll inform the guard of a death and his wife will have him buried or burned or whatever they had planned. You don’t have to take on the troubles of the entire world.”

Thomas picked at the crumbs beside the body. Dried bread. He walked around to the other side of the bed and examined the pillow there. It showed an indentation, but that may simply have been from Donna Alvarez.

“What about his wife?” said Da’ud.

Thomas glanced at him but said nothing, continued to examine the bed with care.

“Everyone knows nine times out of ten it’s the wife or husband who’s guilty,” said Da’ud.

“Is that so.”

“Do you dispute it?”

“No. But in this instance I believe the wife innocent. At least until I see any evidence of guilt. Her husband was a drunkard, but a functioning drunkard, and it was likely his job to be so. She has a good living on the hill. Why put all that in jeopardy?”

“Perhaps she hopes to move into the palace without him holding her back.”

“She’s too intelligent to believe she could get away with killing him, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know her. Perhaps she believes herself too intelligent to get caught.”

“This is doing us no good,” Thomas said.

“So what do we do?”

“Go find a couple of strong men and have him carried to your house. Prepare him for burial. I’ll ask the wife what arrangements she wants. I suspect they are Christian, but you can never tell these days. Send a message to the guard, they’ll need to know of the death.”

“And you?”

“I’ll search the house, then I intend to finish my journey.”

Da’ud stared at him.

“What?” Thomas snapped.

“You might want to go to your house in the Alkazaba first.”

“Why would I do that?”

“To see Helena, of course. I believe she has news for you.”

Thomas suppressed a scowl. Surely Da’ud knew how bad things were between him and the ex-concubine who once shared his bed.

“No news I’m interested in.”

Still Da’ud’s eyes stared into his. “I believe this is news you will want to hear.”

“God’s teeth, man, if there’s something I should know tell me, no more of this mystery. Coyness doesn’t suit you.”

“It’s not my place.” Da’ud turned away. “I’ll go fetch some men. You do what you need to here.”


Thomas found the man’s wife sitting at the table in the single room downstairs. The sight of her dispelled any last suspicion he may have had. She was weeping, shoulders shaking, face wet. Caught in her hands was a man’s nightdress that she pulled at over and over.

She startled at his presence, lifting the nightdress to wipe at her face.

“Have you finished?”

“Da’ud will have your husband taken away, madam. Do you have any preference for the manner of internment?”

“There is…” She pulled a shuddering breath into her lungs, started again. “There is a place outside the city where Christians are buried. He would want to lie there.”

“Speak with Da’ud, but not yet. You might want to wait here until your husband is taken away and then go to his place to make arrangement. Da’ud will prepare him with all respect.”

“It is why I went to him. He has been our physician since we came to the city.”

“When was that?”

“Seven years now.”

“So you know Da’ud well.”

She shook her head. “We had little need to call on his services. Until today we went only for the occasional treatment. I needed herbs when…” Her voice trailed away. “When I reached a certain age.”

Thomas understood and allowed her to keep her dignity.

“I would like you stay here while I finish examining the house. Are there more rooms upstairs?”

“Yes—there is another bedroom. It is empty now. Our children have grown and have houses of their own.”

“How many?”

“Children? Three that live. Two boys and a girl. Men and women now. Married with children of their own.” She spoke without emotion, as though they meant nothing to her. Thomas put it down to the situation she found herself in.

“They live in Gharnatah?” He hoped the question sounded casual. True, he didn’t suspect the wife, but Da’ud had been correct—nine times out of ten it was a family member did the killing. And children could be as deadly as anyone. Particularly if there was money involved, and looking at the house, the woman, the bedroom, Thomas believed they were not poor.

The woman nodded in reply as she stood, still clutching the nightshirt in her hands. “Yes, still in Gharnatah, though for how much longer who can tell.”

As she went to move past him Thomas reached out and gripped the nightshirt. “If I could take this I will cover your husband’s nakedness before anyone comes.”

She looked down as if unaware of what she carried. “Of course.” She released the garment and wandered through to the far end of the room where an open fire burned. Thomas made a mental note to ask Da’ud to mix her some poppy before he left. The shock of events was starting to sink in.

Once alone he lifted the nightshirt and examined it, but found no sign of blood. He sniffed at the fabric, but there was only the scent of a man who had slept in the garment several nights. Thomas climbed the stairs and examined the smaller bedroom, but it was sterile, unloved and empty. He returned to the bed where Alvarez’s body lay and heaved him onto his back, manhandled him until the nightshirt covered him. He was about to turn away, to draw a line under the whole event and pick up his old life when he glimpsed something on the other pillow.

Thomas walked around the bed and examined the pillow. His vision had not misled him. He reached out and picked at what rested in the indentation of the far pillow. It was a hair, long and dark. He held it against the small window to examine it more closely. It told him little other than it was likely from someone younger than thirty, and therefore did not belong to Donna Alvarez. Had her husband been enjoying an illicit liaison? Was this a falling out between lovers? Or a whore taking more than she was due? Without the evidence he had already seen that might be a natural conclusion. A man left alone while his wife climbs the hill to work. Who knew he wouldn’t be disturbed until noon. But the manner of his death hinted at something more. Some men, Thomas knew, were slaves to what hung between their legs. He smiled, thinking of his companion of the last six months. Even Jorge suffered the same weakness, despite lacking some of the equipment.

Thomas heard voices downstairs, then rapid footsteps. He quickly wound the long hair around his hand and pushed it into the pocket of his robe. He didn’t know who it belonged to, but better the wife knew nothing of it yet, not if there was no need. Whoever had been with her husband had been the last to see him alive—might be guilty of his murder.

Before he gave any more thought to where that guilt might lie there was something else he needed to do first. Something he would prefer to avoid even while knowing he could not.

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