The Message of Blood: Chapter 1

How can you expose a killer when he is your best friend?

Spain: 1490. Cordoba, Andalusia
When Thomas Berrington is sent to Cordoba on the orders of a man he hates he welcomes the distraction of a crime, but is shocked when the evidence points to the killer being his closest companion.
When Jorge is imprisoned Thomas has to continue the investigation alone. His task is made harder by the distraction of two beautiful women.
As the truth is uncovered Thomas has to twist and turn through the confusion of Jorge’s past, uncovering a myriad of revelations, each of which throws up a new suspect.
Finally reunited the pair come ever closer to revealing the culprit, only to be confronted with a more powerful adversary than either have ever encountered before.


CHAPTER ONE

“God’s teeth, Thomas, is it really you? After all these years?”
Standing in the doorway to a small inner courtyard Thomas Berrington shrugged. “How many other Moorish Englishmen do you know, my friend?” He examined the face of the man who held the door open. Lawrence looked older but so, Thomas expected, did he.
“Come in, come in.” Lawrence turned and called out toward the house. “Laurita, come and see who is here. And fetch wine. Two jugs. And food. You are hungry, aren’t you? Yes, of course you are—you look thinner than I remember.” Lawrence’s mood changed in an instant and Thomas saw that he knew about Lubna.
A woman appeared in the door of the small house. She showed no expression as she stared at the two men before turning back inside.
“I heard about your wife,” said Lawrence. “We were both sad to hear the news.” He put his hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “How are you bearing up?”
“Better for taking my revenge.”
“I heard about that, too. Mandana and his son, the two of them. They deserved to die.”
“You have no argument from me on that.”
Lawrence patted his shoulder before turning to take a seat at the small metal table that was either unchanged or identical to the one they had sat and talked at five years before. Five years during which Thomas had discovered joy only for it to be torn from him. He tried not to think of either the joy or the pain. It was starting to become a little easier day by day, and he had Jorge to thank for that. The man would not allow him to fester in his own misery. Except Jorge had been scarce of late, which is why Thomas had found his way to this square and this house, unsure if Lawrence would still live here. He waited as Laurita set a platter of bread, hard cheese, fruit and nuts on the table then returned to the house.
“She still doesn’t like me, I see,” Thomas said as he took the seat opposite Lawrence.
“She likes you well enough I think, but Laurita always finds it hard to display her feelings to anyone other than me. Perhaps she thinks I will be jealous.” He smiled. “One look at your ugly face should set her mind at rest.”
“You are right.”
“No, I am wrong. Tell me–” Lawrence broke off as Laurita returned with glass goblets and a jug of wine.
“I will bring another if you manage to finish that one,” she said as she turned away.
Thomas and Lawrence both watched her walk to the doorway.
“She hasn’t changed at all,” Thomas said.
“Kind of you to say so, but we both know she has. Not too much, I admit, and she still has great enthusiasm for the important things in life.” Lawrence poured wine for them before holding his glass up. “To the important things in life, Thomas, yes?”
Thomas nodded and touched his glass against the other. “Yes, to the important things.”
“What brings you to Córdoba?” Lawrence reached out for a chunk of dark bread and cut a slice of cheese. “Are you tupping the Queen yet?” He grinned. “I hear all the gossip from the palace.”
“Does the whole city know?”
Lawrence laughed. “So you are, damn it! I knew it.”
“No, I am not. I was merely curious how many other people believe these falsehoods.”
“Oh, not so many I expect. You are not of as much interest as you might think to the people of Castile. So if not love what brings you here? Other than to see me, of course.”
“Of course.” Thomas looked at the cheese and decided he might have some soon. The air in the small courtyard was warm, scented by the orange tree that offered shade, though something more acrid underlay the scent and he wondered if Laurita had burned their supper. “I am sent on some makework task by the Sultan.”
“I heard about the negotiations,” said Lawrence. “They go well, do they?”
Thomas pushed hair back from his face and turned to catch the warmth of the sun. “You and I both know how this war will end, and it will not be through negotiation. It is a pretence but if I do not turn up at least once a day it is noticed. No doubt someone takes great pleasure in reporting I am not doing my job.”
“Your job? You are no negotiator, Thomas. Jorge I could understand, but not you. Is he with you?”
“He is, somewhere. He has taken to making himself scarce the last few days. And my job is to keep my mouth shut and make sure everyone knows I am there. I believe everyone overestimates my influence with Isabel.”
“Have you seen her?”
“We have been here less than a week and it is not my place to seek her out.”
“But she would like you to, wouldn’t she?” Lawrence glanced around, sniffed at the air.
“I smell it too.” Thomas smiled. “What were you going to have for supper?”
“Laurita has never burned anything to my recall. This is something else.” He stood but the enclosing wall did not allow him to see much beyond it, only that the tower of the church next to the house was not ablaze. Though is seemed something was.
Lawrence went into the square and Thomas followed.
“There,” said Lawrence, pointing to where a dark billow of smoke rose into the air. “It looks to be close to the river.” He went back inside but returned in a moment with two leather buckets. He handed one to Thomas. “Come on, with luck we might be able to offer some help.”
* * *
Thomas knew without Lawrence he would have become totally lost among the maze of alleys they ran through. They emerged onto a long street that dropped down toward the riverbank of the Guadalquivir to find a horde of people had already formed a line and were passing buckets from hand to hand. Lawrence went to join it, Thomas to the head of the line where he took a bucket of water. Even as he threw it into the blaze he knew there was little point. A dozen men stood beside him. Each took a bucket as it arrived, threw the contents into the blaze then tossed it away empty to be run down the street by young boys. The heat was intense but nobody stepped away from it, even if they knew their task was fruitless. In the end they had to let the house burn because there were others to save. They split into two groups, one to either side of the by now almost empty shell. The house to the left-hand side began to smoulder and men were brought to add to the number already there.
Then a man pointed upward to where a gout of flame broke through falling tiles. “Leave it burn,” he shouted, and they all moved on to the next house.
Thomas looked along the street, calculating how many more houses might be lost. At the far end a stout women in a white smock stood with her knuckles pressed into her waist, watching as they worked. No doubt she was wondering the same thing. Wondering if her house would still be standing come nightfall.
Two more houses were lost before the fire eventually came under control. The house where the fire had started was now a smouldering shell which men continued to throw water at, and would keep doing so until they were sure it would not re-ignite. Thomas walked down the slope looking for Lawrence, found him coming up to meet him. They stood side by side, arms and faces dark with soot, and watched as a wall broke apart to fall into the gaping hole inside. A shower of sparks rose and Thomas watched them, but they fell back to the ground without igniting any new flame.
“There is a cellar down there,” said the man standing next to him. They stood as close as they could, so close Thomas feared his robes might begin to smoulder, but still he did not step back.
“It isn’t so surprising, is it?”
The man glanced at Thomas, back to the hole. “I have lived here twenty years and never knew any of the houses in this row had cellars.”
Thomas didn’t think the statement required any response, but the man was warming to his subject.
“Alonso never said he had a cellar, not to any of us.”
“Is that the who lives here?”
“Alonso Cortez,” said the man. “Keeps himself to himself. Doesn’t mix much.”
Which would explain the lack of mention of his cellar. “Where does he work, this Alonso?” Thomas asked.
The man nodded at the ruins of the house. “He works here. He’s a scribe.”
Thomas began to get a bad feeling. Scribes dealt in words and contracts, both of which required ink and, more importantly in this instance, paper and vellum. Both of which burned hot.”
“Has anyone seen him today?”
The man shook his head. “Not me. I don’t know about anyone else.”
Thomas moved away to question those who remained. Some had already returned to their homes to check for damage, others milled around the street as some kind of perverse party atmosphere began to set in. No doubt most were grateful their houses had been spared.
Nobody had seen Alonso Cortez and the feeling of dread settled deeper into Thomas. He looked around, searching for Lawrence, saw him at the end of the street talking with the woman who had watched events as though unconcerned the fire would ever reach her establishment. Thomas walked up the slope to join them. When he arrived the woman handed him a pie, still warm against his palm.
“Do you know Alonso Cortez?” he asked the woman. Now he was closer he saw her white smock was some kind of apron dusted with flour and smears of dried pastry.
“Of course I know him. Where else would he buy his bread? Was that his house that burned down?”
“According to a neighbour.”
“Is he all right?”
“That is why I am asking. Have you seen him today?”
“He came early, as usual, but I have not seen him since.” She peered around Thomas at the smoking ruin. “Do you think he was inside?”
“There is no indication either way. I am asking is all.” He looked at Lawrence. “Is there a Hermandos office nearby?”
Lawrence nodded. “The old one is still open this side of the river. It’s not far. Do you want me to fetch someone?” He glanced at the woman, though she appeared unconcerned. “Just in case?”
“Yes, fetch someone,” Thomas said.
“If they will come.”
As Thomas watched Lawrence stride away he considered the fact that the Hermandos set up by Isabel to police the cities of Castile had clearly not improved since he last had occasion to deal with them. As with all such organisations there was a surfeit of bad men and a paucity of the good. He took a bite of the pie and instantly regretted it.
“I didn’t like Alonso, but I would wish him no ill,” said the woman. “I hope he was off on one of his jaunts.”
“Jaunts? I thought he was a scribe.”
“Oh, he is, but he often travels out of the city. He is always going somewhere or other. Always having people come to him.” She smiled. “He often sends them to me for sweet pastries and fine rolls, so he was not all bad.”
“Did you see anyone else at his house today?” Thomas was unsure why he asked the question. The burning of a house was an unusual, but not a suspicious event. He supposed his mind had grown used to suspicion over the years.
“Not going into his house, but coming away from it.” She gave a grin of pure lechery. “A man I will not forget in a long while.”
“He came out of Cortez’s house?”
“I did not see him do so, only that he came from that direction.”
“Was he running?”
“He did not look the kind of man who would run. He moved like a cat, with such grace I could not take my eyes from him.”
“Really. How was this paragon of a man dressed?” Questions had become a habit to Thomas, but the longer he remained with the woman the longer he was away from the heat of the fire. The day was hot enough without flames adding to it.
“In silk and fine linen. He was as handsome as the devil and looked like he possessed double the mischief.”
“Did he speak?”
“He bought two pastries. I tried to sell him a pie for he looked too thin for my taste, but he refused.”
Sensible man, Thomas thought. An edge of unease had settled through him for no reason he could define.
“Can you describe him? How tall was he? What colour was his hair? Was it long or short? Did he have a beard?”
“Tall, light, neither and no. What are all the questions for? Do you think he harmed Alonso? He did not look like a man who would harm anyone, despite his size.”
“Taller than me?” Thomas asked, and the woman looked him up and down.
“By a few inches, I would say. And as I said, well dressed.” Her meaning was clear.
“You said he spoke to you?”
“He asked for pastries, so of course he spoke to me.”
“In the tongue of Castile?”
“What else would he use in Córdoba? Though now you mention it his accent was different. Softer. I would say be might have come from beyond the borders of Spain.”
“Indeed. Did he offer a name?”
“Unfortunately we did not get to know each other that well.” She glanced at Thomas’s hand. “How do you like the pie?”
“Good. I may have more questions for you.”
“I am always here. And if you see this man, for there can be none other like him in the whole of Christendom, send him to me. He can avail himself of my pastries any time he wants.”
Her coarse laugh accompanied Thomas down the road to where he saw Lawrence had returned.
“Are you not going to eat that pie?” asked Lawrence.
Thomas handed it to him. Lawrence took a bite, spat it out and tossed the pie away.
“What were all the questions about?”
“Only me being me. Did you go to the Hermandos? What did they say?”
“That they would send someone when they could find the time.” Lawrence’s eyes tracked Thomas’s face. “You think there is more to it than a simple fire, don’t you? I can tell. You change when you get a sniff of something suspicious. You suspect Cortez lies dead in his house, don’t you? And this well-dressed man, do you suspect him of killing him?”
“I am trying not to,” Thomas said. “You know as well as I that her description fits only one man in this city, and I am equally sure that Jorge did not commit a murder today.”
Even as he spoke the words Thomas wondered where Jorge had been, and where he had been for the last several days.