For those interested I thought you might like to read Chapter 1 of the forthcoming Book 6 in the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries. This is a first draft only, so might change a little in the finished book.
Thomas Berrington stared at a wooden pallet, its surface stained by years of misuse.
“Tell me, how exactly did you manage to lose a body?” He wiped at blood-stained hands with a damp cloth but it did little good. Only a long bath might do that.
“I did not lose it,” said Lubna, her face set. “I delivered the woman to this pallet before noon and informed the mortuary officer of her location.”
“Perhaps the family collected it, then. Did you check?” He made little attempt to hide his impatience. He had been sent for as he was trying to save an unborn child, the mother beyond any need of his skills. She had been brought in by her husband after falling from the city wall. Thomas was in a bad temper after the man had refused to accept the infant he had saved because it was a girl.
“Of course I checked. Would I send for you if it was that simple? Nobody has come to claim her.”
“You are sure she was dead?”
Lubna cast him a glance that said more than words, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere between them any more by speaking, and Thomas realised he was being too harsh on her. He had lost bodies in the past under similar circumstances. The infirmary in Malaka was both large and busy. He sometimes wondered how any body made its way to its family after it had stopped breathing. Thomas touched Lubna’s shoulder but she pulled away. Not forgiven yet, then.
He wondered if she was distracted by thoughts of the child she carried. Over six months now, beyond the time she had lost their first when they had visited Ixbilya for Thomas to attend the Queen. It had been on his mind of late, hers too, he was sure. He knew he may have been too attentive, too cosseting. Lubna was not a woman to be cosseted, even less so this last year. They had come to Malaka so she could attend the Infirmary, the place Thomas had learned his skills. That had been many years before, half a lifetime, and much had changed in the years since. Except Malaka was still where people came to learn the skills of a physician, ever since Persia fell to Mongol hordes.
It had not been easy for Lubna. As a woman she had not been made welcome, only accepted in the end because she was Thomas Berrington’s wife and everyone knew of his reputation. A reputation that brought respect but little fondness. The lack of the latter did not concern him and never had. Ability and an open mind meant more, and Lubna possessed both.
“What did she die of?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“I am curious.”
“In that case, I don’t know. There was nothing physically wrong that I could find. It was as if she no longer wanted to live.”
Thomas frowned. “Such a thing is possible, but rare.”
“Which is why I wanted you to see her, why I came for you. I have learned much this last year but not enough to explain what happened to this woman.”
“We’ll go to the Clerk of records,” Thomas said. “The body might have been mistaken for someone else and given to the wrong family. I have seen it happen before.”
Lubna fell into step beside him. “How often?”
“Not often, but four or five times over the years. It is surprising how many people do not wish to look at the face of a loved one once life has departed.”
The administration offices lay outside the Infirmary, requiring the crossing of a busy road and ascent of marble steps beneath the onslaught of a fierce sun. It was as they climbed the steps that a commotion broke out behind them, a man shouting at a group of musicians.
Thomas stopped and looked back.
“Leave it for someone else,” said Lubna. “You cannot heal the entire world.”
He glanced at her. She was right, the thought clear in his mind even as his body carried him back the way they had come. It was none of his business, but sometimes that made a thing more interesting rather than less. Besides, the missing body would still be missing an hour from now. Or would have been found.
As he approached the gathering Thomas heard laughter and jeering, and saw it was not only the musicians who were being accosted but a well-dressed man he recognised as Ali Durdush, grand master of the Malaka Guilds and almost certainly the richest man in the city, if not all of al-Andalus.
“What is going on?” he asked of an onlooker.
“It’s that idiot preacher, al-Antiqamun. Everyone is his enemy today. He has already torn Durdush’s cloak and now it’s the women he has it in for.”
Thomas watched as the ragged-robed man, tangled hair falling almost to his waist, berated two female dancers. Four others tried to continue their dance but the musicians were faltering. A few laid down their instruments and approached the altercation.
The rotund figure of Ali Durdush bustled away. He glanced in Thomas’s direction and offered a nod of recognition before moving on.
When Thomas looked back at the preacher he had grasped the arm of one of the women and was trying to force her to her knees. All the others had stopped dancing and gathered around. Voices were raised. And then a knife appeared, flashing sharp light from its blade, and al-Antiqamun staggered backward and fell to one knee.
Thomas pushed through the crowd. They had stopped laughing, but one or two now called threats. He reached the preacher and tried to find a wound, but before he could one of the musicians pushed him away.
“Let me finish it,” he said. “This crazy man has been following us for a week now and I will have it no more.”
Thomas watched a blade hang loose in the musician’s hand, the drip of blood from its tip. The man was short, slim, with corded muscle showing in his arms. His accent placed him from the north coast of Africa.
“Leave him be,” Thomas said, and something in his eyes gave the musician pause. Thomas turned back to the preacher and lifted sections of robe until he found the wound. A slash to the arm. Nothing serious, but it would need binding and a salve applied to prevent infection. He saw older scars and knew this was not the first attack on the man. Al-Antiqamun had no-one to blame but himself.
“I need to treat you,” Thomas said, steadying the preacher as he rose. He was tall, with a wild beard that matched his hair. His face was surprisingly intelligent, the eyes calm. Or empty.
“I need no heathen to mend me. Allah sees to his own.” He looked beyond Thomas and scowled at the musicians who were packing their instruments, about to move on.
“You must leave them in peace. They do no harm.”
“Allah forbids it. Music. Dancing. Women in clothing designed to reveal their bodies. It is against what is written.” He looked around. “And where did the fat fool get to, I’ve not finished with him yet.” His gaze returned to Thomas. “I know you.”
“Many do. And I know you, but not your true name.”
“I am al-Antiqamun.”
“I know that too, but it is not your given name, is it?”
“I am al-Antiqamun,” he said again, and Thomas knew it was all the answer he would get, perhaps all the answer the man knew. The child he had once been was long lost in his visions of heaven and hell. Or vengeance. For that was what his adopted name meant in Arabic. Vengeance.
“You are the stranger,” al-Antiqamun said, his voice as calm as his eyes now the dancers had moved away. “The butcher, they call you, do they not?” He smiled. “When Allah’s fire cleanses this land of unbelievers it will scorch the flesh from your bones, gassab.” His head turned, seeking new victims and finding Lubna waiting on the steps for Thomas. “But your wife is devout, I hear. She will live.” As if such was in his gift to offer or take away.
Thomas turned away. The man could bleed to death for all he cared. Those already dead were waiting for him.