Excerpt of The Deepest Grave

London, 1392

A hand tapped Crispin’s shoulder from behind as he was finishing his business against an alley wall. ‘Can’t a man take a piss without being harassed?’ he growled.

‘You’re Crispin Guest,’ said the male voice.

Crispin finished, set his cote-hardie to rights, and turned. ‘What the hell do you want?’ But then he shut his mouth when he recognized that the young man was a priest in a dark gown.

‘I had no wish to disturb you, but I could not find you. I looked on the Shambles—’

‘I am situated the same place where I have been for these last four years, my lord. On the Shambles, in an old poulterer’s shop. I used to be above a tinker’s, but it burned down . . .’

‘So I have been told.’ Crispin set off in that direction, hoping to make it before the streets got too dark. But of course, the sun lingered longer in these warmer months at the beginning of summer. It wasn’t likely to grow dark until near Compline. The priest scuttled behind him, catching up to walk beside him. A client. He needed them. But clerics gave him the shivers. There had once been a day when he could trust most of them . . . but that day seemed to have disappeared along with his knighthood.

He glanced at the man sidelong. ‘And why do you seek me, Father?’

‘I scarcely know how to begin.’

‘At the beginning is generally the best.’

‘But I do not know when it began. Only that it had. And I fear the answer when it comes.’

Crispin stopped and slowly turned to the man. ‘You speak in riddles.’

‘Do I? It was not my intention, Master Guest. Only that . . . I can barely explain it myself.’

Crispin rubbed his clean-shaven chin. ‘I think a drink is in order. Come.’ He led the way just up to the Shambles, but turned sharply and headed up Gutter Lane to the Boar’s Tusk. He caught Gilbert’s eye as he entered, and the tavern keeper quickly deposited drink for them. He did not stay to talk with Crispin as he usually did, but curiously noted his clerical companion.

The priest settled in and took up the cup, drinking thirstily. Crispin sipped his. As usual, he sat with his back to the wall and a view of the smoky room, with its sagging rafters and dingy walls. ‘Now then. What is it that concerns you and needs my help, my lord?’

The priest poured more and drank another dose before he finally set the cup down. Close and in the light, Crispin could study his dark gown, threadbare in some spots, patched in others. The priest had a square jaw, darkened by beard stubble. His eyes were small but glowed with an intensity of fear. His hair could only be described as luxurious, black, in thick waves, unlike Crispin’s own dark hair that hung lankly nearly to his shoulders. The priest’s facial features were pleasant and slightly patrician. Crispin wondered vaguely which noble family he might have come from. He thought the man would be just as at home in mail as in his clerical garb.

‘It is horrific, Master Guest,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I can scarce speak of it.’ He leaned into the table and spoke confidentially, his heavy brows clutched together over his eyes like fists. ‘They walk. At night.’

Crispin leaned in. ‘Who does?’ ‘Them. The . . . c-corpses.’

Crispin slowly sat back and measured the man. ‘You jest.’

‘I assure you, I do not. Come. See for yourself. After the sun sets.’ He took another hasty gulp. ‘You’ll see them.’

Crispin eyed the man’s unsteady hand on his cup and wondered if strong drink were not more to the point. He leaned in again. ‘Has anyone else seen these . . . these apparitions?’

‘You think I’m mad. I thought so, too. Until the gravedigger saw them as well. I was telling him about it, exhorting him to get inside, to stop tending to the grass so late after dark. He was as skeptical as you are. I warned him to go inside. And it wasn’t more than a quarter hour later that he was pounding on my door, begging to be let in. White as bone, his face was. Eyes as wide as mazers. “Yes,” he said, he’d seen them. Dragging their coffins over their shoulders, treading through the churchyard into the mist. He called out at first, and then one of them turned to face him. Oh, he gave such a description that would curdle your blood, Master Guest. The same I knew in my own heart when I looked upon those poor devils. And not only them, Master Guest, but my own brother, too, not long from All Hallows Barking, remarked that he had seen similar strange doings. He will not come to my church. I have scarce seen him since. My own brother!’

Crispin raised an admonishing finger. ‘Now hold. You all saw these supposed walking corpses?’

‘There is nothing “supposed” about it. We saw them.’

‘And . . . did they cause . . . er, mischief?’

‘As soon as I spied them, I fled into the rectory. The next morning, I went about the churchyard, sprinkling holy water. I found . . .’ He licked his lips. ‘Disturbed graves. Some were opened, clods of earth cast aside, and those that had coffins, I found the lids ajar. When I inspected further – with fervent prayers and the large crucifix from the altar, mind you – what I saw . . . Oh, Master Guest! I do not know what mischief they might have got up to, but when I moved the lids, I saw blood upon the linens covering their faces. Blood . . . on their mouths. They had become bloodsuckers!’ The man seemed genuinely alarmed, and Crispin had no doubt that something had awakened such dread in him, but he could not reconcile it to this fantastic tale.

‘Something has disturbed you greatly, Father . . . Father—?’

‘Bulthius Braydon. Of St Modwen’s Church.’

‘Father Bulthius. Something is amiss. I shall . . . I shall investigate it for you tonight, if you wish. My fee is sixpence a day.’

‘I will pay it. Anything is better than going on with this demon’s march night after night.’ He struggled at his belt, and dug deep into his pouch, pulling out more than sixpence. ‘Here, Master Guest. Sixpence, and more. For I cannot imagine it shall all be resolved in one night.’

‘You might be surprised, my lord. Depending on what I find.’

‘You will find demons. And if you do, then I will gird myself and help you dispatch them.’ He rose. ‘Meet me at my churchyard. The vicarage is near All Hallows Barking.’

‘In the shadow of the tower. I am aware of it.’

‘Tonight, Master Guest. And then you will see. God save us.’