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Guardians Of The Key

Lucca, City State for hundreds of years, keeper of secrets and relics, possessor of the Holy Face of Christ, has Napoleon’s army at its gates, the emperor having declared himself King of All Italy. A continent away in Bexleyheath, Mabel Flinchurst gazes down from her window upon the Advent Fair. She doesn’t see the pilgrim walk into the church of St Anthony’s across the square, and slit his own throat. But Lucca and this suicide are strands from the same rope, a rope that is being wound unseen about Mabel, ready to rip her from her cosy world. When Mabel’s friend Toby is kidnapped she enlists the help of compulsive list-maker and missing-persons finder, Whilbert Stroop. Together they are drawn into a mystery that began many centuries ago, and soon find themselves losing a race against time and treachery, as an unknown enemy, and murder, begin to snap at their heels.

"Gray has skilfully crafted a tale…The killings are violent and cold-blooded, and the suspense is maintained right until the end…Gray has an exceptional eye for detail, and her characterisation is superb..."

Historical Novels Review


Read extract....

Up on the spire the jugglers were throwing fruit in the air and dropping sugared nuts to the crowd of children down below. The tiles were mossed and dashed with pigeon droppings, muffling the thud of acrobats missing their beat and tumbling from a hold. The wire slung between St Anthony’s and The Hall of the Innocent Martyrs swung and hummed in the wind, stung by the rain which intermittently fell. The drums got louder and louder as the crowd watched a dwarf being strapped to a crossbar mounted on a wheel. With a terrifying scream he was pitched from one end of the wire to the other, his arms scrabbling at the air, and people gasped and stepped aside every time he screeched overhead, expecting him to plummet the twenty five feet below him to to his death and be smashed to smithereens on the cobbles at their feet.

Two boys, Thomas and Toby took advantage and slipped sardine-like amongst the stalls, pocketing a few eggs or apples, a handful of beans, a bag of meat-scraps, chicken necks, a broken biscuit or pie discarded beneath the rag-bag of carts and trolleys, amongst a maze of legs. If the earth were flat and the air were clear, Thomas knew he could have seen the Mountains of Tibet, but today it was just boots and stockinged calves and trousers pinched at the knee, taffeta shining in the sun and flouncing over mud and spilt cockles, squashed pasties, horse-dung steaming in between the showers. The boys skipped across the alley, round back of the church, choking on a bag of lemon drops they’d found dissolving in a puddle and half a tub of sherbet fizzing up their noses courtesy of the sherbet-seller into whom they’d accidentally run. It was dark in the shadows, distant, though they were only a few yards from the crowd. The noise dropped away when you moved from the square, the stones of St Anthony’s holding back the noise like a harbour holds its arms against the sea. Over on the green, the geese had gone to sleep behind their wattle and the sheep had settled into eating neeps, nudging noses, scraping dirty wool against the rough wooden fences, scratching, somnolent, unalarmed.

Thomas rolled up a cigarette but it fell to bits as soon as the spittle hit the sog-line of the newspaper. Toby grabbed the doings from him with a superior sniff, packed it into perfect shape. The boys sat and puffed in turn, because one apiece was too much even for eight-year old smoke-hands like them.

One day, dreamed Toby, I’ll have a room and all I’ll do in it is smoke cigars from India and eat lemon sherbet and pickled crab.

It was Thomas’s turn, and all he saw was a road, grey in the rain and muddy, it was all he ever saw and it seemed to go on forever.

Inside St Anthony’s, Stanley Izod ignored the Advent festivities and hammered home the last wooden peg holding the repaired stanchion into place. It was England 1805 and Stanley believed such medieval pageants should have long ago been abandoned to the past where it belonged. For a moment, the coloured glass of the window shivered rainbows across the flagged-floor before settling back into its frame. He huffed and slapped the dust from his thighs, began to collect up the scatter of chisels and hammers he had been using to shape the pegs just so. A chicken pecked its way up the aisle, finding oat husk in the flagstone cracks, barleycorn in the corners of the pews. The bottom of the heck-door must have blown open again. He’d have a word with Father Ignatius, see if he wouldn’t let him fix it the morrow before it got ripped clean off by the gales he could feel in his bones were coming. The oil lamps wavered as a breeze lifted the wall-hanging of St Dunstan pulling the devil by his nose, and rustled the corn doilies still hooked to the wall from this year’s Harvest Festival. In the eaves there was a flurry of flapping wings as a pigeon detached itself from its perch and headed into the outside afternoon. Glancing up, Stanley missed his bag, the chisel striking the stone with a clang which died in echoes and sent the hen, pluffed and indignant, cock-o-laying back up the aisle. It reached the door just as the top half was pulled open and it had to duck through the pair of boots which had appeared on the threshold. A man, his tunic so ripped and dirty he might have been playing Pig-in-the-Punch, took a slow step in, blocking the light for a moment. He was lame in one leg and wore the badge of a pilgrim.

Taking the north aisle, the man walked down the nave and into the chantry chapel where he took one of the crossed daggers of Gerald de Montrey, who had fought in the Crusades, off the wall above the small altar. He spat on the flat of the blade, gave it a quick sharpen with the soapstone he had taken from his pocket, then without a word he raised his head to the sky, closed his mouth to tighten the skin, gripped hard on the knife and slit his throat. He stood for a few seconds gazing at the blue gesso and stars of the chantry ceiling, the knife-point still on his skin, then his arm dropped and the blood began to bubble over his collar, down his shirt. He sank to his knees, his head dropped. He swayed onto his side, the knife clattering across the flagging. Izod heard the crack of the man’s head hitting the floor, a gentle gurgle of life leaving, spring-like, tumbling through a lazy day of leaves and moss and small, sun-warmed pools. He smelt the spilling blood, a slight steam rising. When he reached the chantry, the crash and clatter of his tools behind him where he had kicked over his bag as he rose, he leant hard against the outer pillar, turned his head, retched up his dinner of pickles and cheese, retched again as he watched in disbelief the warm blood gathering momentum through the paving-cracks, touching his boots, staining the wisps of straw being gently breathed on by the breeze which seemed of a sudden as cold as ice.

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