Book Tour – The Duke and the Imposter by Michael Stolle

Book Tour – The Duke and the Imposter by Michael Stolle

I’m delighted to be taking part in the Book Tour for the next instalment o the French Orphans series from Michel Stolle, and we have been granted a Sneak Peek!

A Meeting…

A man with the large hat heaved a discreet sigh of relief as soon as he recognized the sign of the inn at the bottom of a muddy lane. Its thatched roof was slightly askew and was in dire need of repair – like the rest of the old timber building. Two large smoky torches tried their best to throw some light on the solid entrance door. A weather-beaten sign above the door swung on rusty chains in the wind, moving in the same rhythm as the flickering flames that spluttered and spat grime at each gust of wind.

The inn’s signboard depicted a goose in the deadly embrace of a gleeful fox. The artist’s credentials had obviously never been asked for before he had been commissioned and, as a result, his masterpiece was slightly comical. The goose squinted and the fox looked as if he’d had too much booze, the original garish colours had since long faded and the wooden board was cracked. In its present state it was a perfect fit for the inn.

The man reckoned that that the River Thames must be very close – he could hear a gurgling sound. He inhaled the smell of stale water combined with the stink of sewage so intense that it seemed to glue itself to his nostrils to cling there forever. He was used to the grime and stink of London, but down here it was almost unbearable.

From time to time a sickly moon would spill rays of pale light into the darkness of the night, but those few rays were soaked up by layers of raven-black clouds that piled above him. Rain, or, even worse, thunder and lightning, were in the air – not a pleasant thought.

The man’s guide hadn’t been bothered by the lack of light. A taciturn young giant with bulging muscles under his shabby smock, he knew his way through the winding dirty lanes of the port like the back of his hand.

The man with the hat had been wary about trusting his guide who had been sent to, not to say imposed on him. Wasn’t it total madness to follow a stranger into London’s most dangerous quarters? But this meeting was a chance to change the course of his life, and he couldn’t possibly ignore it. Still fretting about his decision, he had agreed to leave the safer parts of the city and descend into those quarters close to the river port that could only be described as an outpost of hell on earth. Nobody could ever truly certify if heavenly paradise, so vividly described every Sunday during church services, really existed. But here, close to the river, the existence of hell was a fact, a certainty beyond doubt. It was the daily reality of thousands of poor souls condemned to live, suffer and die in misery, close to the stinking port that was once the pride of London.

The guide knocked several times before the door of the inn opened – it must have been a secret code to gain entrance. The stench and the heat of the taproom almost overpowered the man with the hat, and suddenly the smell of the river sewage appeared sweet and alluring. The taproom reeked of a mix of unwashed bodies, rancid sweat, spilt gin, stale ale, vomit, piss and cheap food, disguised only partially by the acrid smell of fuming tallow candles and the sweeter smell of tobacco pipes – a fashion imported not long ago from the heathens in the new colonies.

It was incredibly noisy. People were talking, laughing and singing while two tipsy sailors hammered with their wooden spoons on their greasy tin plates, accompanying the rhythm of the lewd song their mates were singing. A bunch of whores was screaming in delight as the drunken sailors chased them for a kiss; there would be good business tonight.

The young guide didn’t bother looking at the whores and led the visitor straight to one of the tables in a corner where a man was waiting for them. He wore a large musketeer hat with a long feather, French style, covering most of his face. Thankfully he was smoking a pipe, masking the stench that had made the visitor’s stomach churn.

‘You’re on time,’ stated the man with satisfaction in his voice. He had a thick Levantine accent.

‘You sent me an excellent guide. He found the way although it’s dark as hell outside.’

‘A fitting comparison. I guess you realize by now that you’ve landed in hell. Here it doesn’t matter if it’s night or day. Maybe night is better – the crude light of the day tends to make everything look even worse, like the whores over there. You don’t even want to look at them in daylight.’ The man laughed; he found this funny. ‘My man is more than a guide,’ he continued. ‘Without him you’d already have been set upon. You should have known better than to dress like a peacock. Am I right, Jim?’

The young giant only grinned, baring an incomplete row of blackened teeth.

‘I’m not dressed like a peacock – and it’s “my lord”. Don’t forget. And, of course, I have a sword and a pistol. I can look after myself.’

The other man shrugged. ‘You’d have no chance …’ he paused before adding ‘… my lord.’ He made it sound almost like an insult. ‘They didn’t dare to touch you because Jim and his family have a sort of reputation here. They never forgive, they never forget …’

A middle-aged barmaid with blue-veined wobbly breasts almost bursting out of her tight red bodice interrupted their conversation. She dumped a tin tankard in front of the visitor, but she only had eyes for Jim, whispering something into his ear before vanishing back towards the kitchen and melting into the thick cloud of smoke.

The visitor eyed the tankard with suspicion. ‘What’s that?’

‘Ale with a dash of gin. I ordered it for you. It’s the only drink here that people of your class can drink and have a chance of survival. They brew the ale here with water from the river. I leave the rest to your imagination. Better add a dash of gin …’

The visitor shuddered, but the long walk and the heat in the room had taken their toll and he took a sip. ‘I’ve drunk worse things in my life.’ He took another sip. The coarse gin lingered in his throat and nose and made him cough.

‘You’ve got the money?’ The other man changed the subject abruptly.

‘A deal is a deal. You did succeed, I understand?’

‘Of course. It was dead easy. We struck from behind. The duke never realized what happened. Now he’s dead and his wife and son are on their way north. Exactly as you requested. My lord …’

The visitor took another sip of the strange concoction and coughed again. ‘You’re sure?’

‘Of course. You’re dealing with a man of honour.’ Another pause. ‘My lord.’

The visitor took a leather bag out of his breeches.

‘Not here!’ hissed the other man. ‘The fellows in here would kill us for a fraction of what you owe me. Let’s go upstairs. Janet has arranged a room. Come, my lord, follow me.’

The visitor became aware of the other people around them. In the meantime a brawl had broken out close to the exit. Two drunken sailors were fighting with daggers in their hands while a group of even more drunken gawkers had formed a ring around them, cheering and encouraging the fighters. Everybody seemed to love a good brawl and the first bets were being placed on who’d be the winner.

The visitor looked at the scene and made a face. ‘Looks like a peaceful and particularly elegant establishment. I guess the losers usually ended belly up in the Thames. I’ll certainly recommend this house to my friends – I’m sure it has all the qualities required to become very popular. You’re right, it’s better we go upstairs.’

They followed the barmaid up several staircases until they reached the attic room that Janet had apparently reserved. She lingered, throwing doleful eyes on Jim, but the man with the musketeer hat barked at her. ‘Sod off, you wretched whore. Jim has no time for you tonight.

Janet made an obscene gesture  and left the room – but not without having a quick go at Jim’s crotch, whispering, ‘Don’t forget Janet, sweetie. I’ll wait for you.’

Jim caressed her fat buttocks, grinned and nodded before he closed the door.

‘Now it’s safe to give me the money … My Lord.’ The man with the Levantine accent sat down on the stained bed. The wooden frame squeaked as soon as he sat down and wobbledlightly. ‘One can hear and see that it’s in use frequently.’ He smirked.

‘No doubt about that,’ answered the visitor. He looked at the greasy sheets and shuddered. ‘Back to our transaction. The agreement was to pay when all was done. I’ve brought half of the sum. The rest will be paid when the duchess and her son are delivered into my hands. Let me be clear – I need the child alive. I care less about the duchess. Now, can you prove to me beyond doubt that the duke is dead?’

‘I told you – they’re on the way north. You should trust me,’ protested the man sitting on the bed.

‘I’m not an idiot. I want your guide to bring me home safely. You can tell me any lies. Now, where’s the proof that the duke is dead?’

The man opposite made a face but apparently had anticipated this question. Silently he dug his hand into his pocket.

The visitor stood frozen. Is this the end? he thought. Two against one – he knew he stood no chance. But the hand that reappeared didn’t carry a knife or a gun. An ancient gold ring was placed on the dirty bed sheets.

‘The ducal ring of Hertford. Is this proof enough?’

The visitor took the ring and examined the precious stone in awe. The moment he moved it in his hand, the ruby woke up and glinted in the light of the tallow candle. It looked strangely out of place in these squalid surroundings.

The visitor’s eyes glittered with greed as he pocketed the precious jewel. ‘The signet ring of the Dukes of Hertford,’ he exclaimed; his pulse was racing. ‘Now I believe you. Here’s your gold, French Louis d’or, as we agreed. The rest will follow – a bargain is a bargain. I’m a man of honour.’

‘I’ve met too many men of honour in my life. You had better respect your word, my lord. Unless you wish to join your relative in heaven soon,’ the man with the thick accent stated matter-of-factly. ‘Jim would see to that. He may not look it, but he’s got vast experience. The duchess and her son will be handed over to you in a matter of days, trust me. Then I expect the rest of the gold. How will you pay me?’

‘Your Jim knows the way to my home now. Send him to me to collect it as soon as the young duke is my hands.’

‘No dirty tricks!’ ‘I meant what I said. Both of us are men of honour. No dirty tricks, of course.’

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