A Prisoner in Malta: New Excerpt

A Prisoner in Malta by Phillip DePoy follows Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy who is tasked with uncovering the truth of a possible plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I (Available January 26, 2016).

In 1583, the nineteen-year-old Christopher Marlowe—with a reputation as a brawler, a womanizer, a genius, and a social upstart at Cambridge University—is visited by a man representing Marlowe's benefactors. There are rumors of a growing plot against her majesty Queen Elizabeth I, and the Queen's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, has charged young Marlowe with tracking down the truth. The path to that truth seems to run through an enigmatic prisoner held in complete seclusion in a heavily guarded dungeon in Malta. Marlowe must use every bit of his wits, his skills, and his daring to unravel one of the greatest mysteries in history and help uncover and unravel scheme of assassination and invasion, one involving the government of Spain, high ranking English nobles, and even Pope himself.



Christopher Marlowe stared at the newly mown lawn, and the tower of St. Benet’s Church reaching sweetly toward God in morning’s light. In the old graveyard, roses were blooming, even though March was cold. The tower was the oldest building in Cambridge, and Marlowe did his best to appreciate the ethos of grandeur and nobility. But the beauty of the day overtook him, and all his thoughts were light. He was nineteen, standing in Cambridge, about to go to class. He could scarcely believe his good fortune. A boot-maker’s son was a rarity at any college.

Everywhere students rushed; professors glided in stately manner. The grass, greener than a linnet’s wing, collected sunlight against the advent of late frost: “nature’s rarest alchemy, the golden bell of heaven’s fire.”

All in black, Marlowe was nearly invisible in the shade, though his smile was brighter than sunlight. He wore his hair deliberately shorter than the fashion; it was a great source of aggravation for his tutors. Most of that ire was obviated by the fact that Marlowe’s mind was the best in his class. His bright demeanor had endeared him to most of his fellow students as well; his eyes existed only to beguile.

Suddenly those eyes were distracted by the flair of a familiar crimson cloak.

“Doctor,” Marlowe called out, stepping into the light to greet his old friend.

But just at that moment a voice behind him shouted, “Whoreson!” It was followed by the sound of running footsteps.

Marlowe spun around, and there was Walter Pygott, dagger in hand, face red with ignorant rage. Marlowe had been expecting this encounter for weeks. Pygott had battered or threatened nearly everyone else in the new class at Cambridge, and was widely regarded as a grotesque waste of skin. Worst of all, he behaved with impunity because his father had donated money to restore a window in St. Benet’s Church. This had been done not by a doting parent, but by a man who sought to rid himself of his son’s revolting company.

Unable to achieve any other sort of notoriety, Pygott quickly turned to picking fights and insulting his fellows. Easily seventeen stone, the bully used his weight more than his wits in every skirmish. He was a ridiculous figure in his ill-fitting green tunic and bright red codpiece, hair slicked down with butter.

“Christopher Marlowe,” Pygott sneered, “I’ve been looking for you, you contemptuous base-born callet!”

“Callet?” Marlowe turned only slightly toward the cur.

Pygott planted his feet. “You heard me.”

Marlowe smiled.

“The Scots use the word callet to mean a prostitute,” Marlowe explained. “I will tell you plainly: that is not true of me. I never accept money for my favors—though I often deserve it. If, on the other hand, you meant the original French definition—that I am a frivolous person—I will assure you that I am among the more serious persons you will ever meet. Keep your dagger pointed at me and find that out. Or you could ask my friend, the man in the red cape just to your right. Am I correct in saying that I am a serious person, Dr. Lopez?”

“Hello, Chris.” Lopez shoved back his cape and smiled.

Lopez had come from the street beyond the library. Black hair, dressed in red, he did not look old enough to be a royal physician, though he was nearly twice Chris’s age.

“Dr. Lopez?” Pygott jeered, recognizing the famous name. “The Portuguese Jew bastard what made poisons for Robert Dudley?”

“You’ve read a pamphlet on the subject,” Marlowe said disdainfully. “Surprising. Wouldn’t have taken you for a reader.”

“That pamphlet?” Lopez added. “Pure libel, I assure you. I was entirely exonerated of any wrongdoing.”

Without warning Pygott jumped, crashing into Marlowe with the dull force of a falling boulder. It took Marlowe by surprise, and both men tumbled to the ground. Rolling, Marlowe kicked, but Pygott came out on top, and put his dagger in Marlowe’s face.

The point of Pygott’s blade was so close that it nicked Marlowe’s eyelid when he blinked. Still, Marlowe was smiling.

“What have you got to smile about, cobbler-son? I’m about to stick this knife in your eye!”

Marlowe flicked his own dagger and Pygott flinched, feeling a sharp pain under his codpiece.

“That’s why I’m smiling,” Marlowe explained amiably.

The full measure of his predicament settled slowly over Pygott’s face as he realized exactly where Marlowe’s blade was resting. Pygott tried very hard not to move.

“I could live quite cheerfully with an eye patch,” Marlowe went on, still smiling. “It would make me dashing. But what’s your life going to be without this?”

To emphasize his point, Marlowe pressed his blade slightly forward and drew a single drop of blood from the larger man’s flesh.

Pygott tossed his dagger away instantly, eyes wide, lower lip trembling. His pale green tunic began to show signs of sweat.

“Now apologize,” Marlowe insisted.

Pygott swallowed and began in a weak vapor of a voice, “I am heartily sorry, Mr. Marlowe, for calling you a contemptuous base-born callet and a—”

“Not to me, you idiot,” Marlowe said. “Get off me and apologize to my friend before I lose all my patience.”

Pygott lumbered to one side, careful not to lose his balance and fall onto Marlowe’s knife. He managed to stumble to a standing posture.

Marlowe leapt up. His blade stood out in the slant of late-afternoon sunlight. Pygott stared at it and began his speech.

“I—I am heartily sorry, Dr. Lopez,” he stammered, “for calling you a Jew bastard, and for insulting your island and the entire Portuguese race.”

Marlowe looked at Lopez.

“There’s a Cambridge education for you,” he said, shaking his head, “an equal ignorance of everything. You’ll go far, Pygott. You’re headed for Parliament; anyone can see that.”

“Parliament?” Pygott gaped, not moving.

“Codpieces are going out of fashion, by the way,” Marlowe continued. “They’re ridiculous.”

“Let him go, Marlowe,” Dr. Lopez said softly.

“The college is pretty this time of day,” Marlowe said absently. “Especially when the weather’s soft like this.”

Pygott stayed, uncertain what to do. His lip began to tremble more violently, and blood was beginning to spot the unfashionable bit of haberdashery.

“Please, young man,” Dr. Lopez encouraged Pygott, “take your leave.”

“Yes,” Marlowe concurred. “Be gone. But avoid the church. There is no sin but ignorance and you, I fear, will surely burn there.”

Without a word, Pygott wandered off, slightly dazed, in the direction of the church.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Lopez chided.

“He insulted you,” Marlowe disagreed, “and he jumped on me. It was quite necessary.”

“You draw too much attention to yourself,” Lopez went on. “That dagger you wear, its filigreed hilt is too elaborate.”

“It was a gift from my father,” Marlowe protested, “and it serves a purpose.”

“It attracts too many eyes! You’ve only been at Cambridge since January and everyone on the campus knows your name.”

“I do it on purpose,” Marlowe said, grinning. “It’s my theatrical nature.”

“The last thing a man in this world wants to be is unusual,” Lopez said. “And you, my friend, are unique.”

“I’m late for my last session,” Marlowe said. “Will you walk with me?”

Lopez pulled his red cloak around his neck. His long black hair seemed to be cut from midnight, out of place in the daytime.

“You give your thoughts too much tongue,” Lopez began as they walked in the direction of Old Court. “You give every man your voice when you should lend your ear.”

“You came here to tell me that I talk too much?” Marlowe threw his arm around Lopez.

“You’ve drawn too much attention to yourself,” Lopez said in a very confidential voice. “The way you dress, for example.”

“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” Marlowe asked, not quite aware of his old friend’s strange behavior.

“All black. It’s too somber for a young man,” Lopez insisted.

“This from a man in a flame-red cape.” Marlowe shook his head.

“You lend your money too freely,” Lopez went on, “and you quarrel entirely too much.”

“But I always win,” Marlowe answered impatiently. “And I’m always good-natured about it. Rodrigo, what are you doing here?”

Marlowe stopped walking. They were nearly to the Parker Library. All of the students were gone; classes had started. The relative silence made it easier to hear noise from the street, beyond the church, where some minor commotion arose.

“You haven’t yet become your true self,” Lopez explained. “A man’s only genuine occupation in this life is to discover who and what he truly is, and then do his best to become that. Most never manage it.”

“This is quite a lot of advice,” he said, “from a Portuguese Jew who’s pretending to be a Protestant in England.”

“Chris,” Lopez said quietly. “I am to become Her Majesty’s physician-in-chief.”

Marlowe took Lopez by both arms.

“What? At last! My God!” Marlowe’s voice boomed. “That’s why you’ve come to Cambridge, I understand now: to tell me this wonderful news.”

“Please lower your voice,” Lopez said. “That is not the reason for my visit.”

“Look, honestly,” Marlowe suggested, ignoring the older man’s comment, “just wait here until my session in poetics is concluded, and then you and I will go to the best pub in Cambridge.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Lopez looked around as if to make certain no one was looking at them. “You’re not going to your class.”

Marlowe blinked. “What?”

“You’re coming with me to London. Now.”

Lopez flicked his cloak and a coach appeared out of nowhere at the other end of the yard, headed toward them slowly. It was an ornate closed cab with a spring suspension, four wheels, and two muscled horses. It had been the source of the commotion out in the street. Marlowe recognized it as a very new Boonen construction—the kind built exclusively for the Queen.

Marlowe eyed the conveyance with suspicion.

“I’m not getting into that thing,” he said.

“You have to,” Lopez said simply.

“I might ride a horse to London,” Marlowe ventured.

“Get in the carriage, please.” Lopez held out his hand politely.

“That thing? No. It’ll rattle my brains out.”

“But it will keep us from being seen as we travel,” Lopez whispered. “And, I insist. You are riding at the request of the Privy Council, and we are expected before midnight.”

“The Privy Council.” Marlowe’s mood sobered. “Well. I’ve had the strangest notion that something odd was going to happen. Just as I concluded it was my encounter with Pygott, here comes a very expensive coach.”

The coach pulled up beside them. Lopez opened the door. Marlowe peered inside.

“Do I really have to?” he asked.

But he knew the answer. The Privy Council had summoned. Not a living soul in England could deny such an order.

“Go on,” Lopez insisted.

As soon as they were inside, the driver took off. Lopez closed the shutters. Light leaked in through the spy holes, but the cab was still very dark. The seats were covered in black leather, worn and softened. The wooden doors were scratched a bit, as was the floor. This was not a ceremonial vehicle, it was a workhorse.

“We’re headed west,” Marlowe said cautiously. “London is south.”

“We’re bound for the River Cam,” Lopez explained. “We’ll turn there and follow the water awhile.”

Marlowe grasped the idea immediately. “If we’re being followed, we’ll see it when we turn south at the river.”


“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me why I’ve been summoned?”


They rode in silence for a distance.

*   *   *

In Cambridge, Walter Pygott was peeing on roses in the graveyard near the great tower of St. Benet’s when he heard a noise behind him. Thinking it was one of the priests come to scold him, he tied his codpiece loosely and spun around.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” he began.

But he froze; fell silent when he saw the knife so close to his heart.

“You’re a bastard idiot,” the whispered voice told him, “with pudding for a dick and maggots in your brain.”

“I—I—do I know you?” Pygott stammered. “I expect you’re one of the little weasels I put to the ground here lately, thinking to get revenge while I’m indisposed. Look. Let’s have an understanding. The rules of this place is: I’m on top.”

“Not today. Not anymore. Not ever again.”

“All right,” Pygott said, smiling.

With that he drew out his rapier and thrust it forward, directly at his attacker’s heart. It missed because the attacker moved to one side and slashed Pygott’s sword arm. The cut was deep and Pygott howled.

Turning in a circle, a dance move, the attacker was suddenly behind Pygott, and slashed the back of the idiot boy’s thigh—slashed it to the bone. Pygott went to his knees.

“Wait!” he cried. “Wait! You’re not doing this right!”

The attacker turned again, a blur, a gray shadow, and kicked Pygott in the head with the hard heel of a boot.

Pygott grunted and fell flat on his back. Blood soiled his buttered hair.

“No,” Pygott managed to say, but his voice was a dream, a distant memory. “You’re not a student here.”

Pygott reached up and grabbed his assailant’s coat, but his hand was met with the blade, and blood dribbled down Pygott’s arm.

The assailant stooped then, hovering over Pygott like a carnivorous animal.

“Your useless life is over now,” came the whispered taunt. “Despised by everyone, a traitor to your country, who will mourn your passing?”

With that the dagger plunged into Pygott’s heart. Blood gushed from the wound. Pygott’s killer stood, rolled the body over with the heel of a boot, and was gone.

*   *   *

The Queen’s coach was out of town and into the countryside before Marlowe spoke again.

“Can you tell me, at least, if I’m in some sort of trouble?” Marlowe leaned forward. “Should I try to leap out of this carriage before we get too far?”

“Don’t jump, you’d only hurt yourself,” Lopez said, “and I’d recapture you.”

Marlowe looked into his friend’s eyes.

“Have you captured me now, Rodrigo?” Marlowe’s voice could barely be heard.

“I am required to bring you to London,” Lopez answered without blinking, “whether you will or no.”

Marlowe nodded amiably, but surreptitiously reached for his dagger.

Without warning, Marlowe found a rapier point tickling him just underneath his jaw. Lopez wore a cold mask of indifference, and held his rapier with a casual disdain. He seemed calm, but there was menace in the way his chin jutted forward.

“This is unexpected,” Marlowe drawled easily.

“I have survived the destruction of my home,” Lopez whispered violently, “the brutalization of my family, and the torture of the Inquisition. You think you always win, Chris, but you would not prevail against me. Let’s be clear.”

“You saved my father’s life,” Marlowe said, not moving, “and for that I am in your debt. Have I been mistaken in our friendship?”

Lopez sighed and closed his eyes.

“You have not,” he said. “I have not slept in several days, and the urgency that compels me to fetch you so unceremoniously to London is … not inconsequential.”

“You’re not yourself,” Marlowe went on. “I can see that, but would you mind very much taking your rapier from my throat? It’s making me uncomfortable.”

Lopez stared at his weapon as if he’d forgotten it was there, then put it away immediately.

“Now let me ask again,” Marlowe continued. “Am I in danger?”

“No.” Lopez closed his eyes. “You are in no danger from the council. In fact, the opposite is probably true.”

“What? The council is in danger from me?”

“Likely, but that is not what I meant either. I—there was a great deal of persuasion brought to bear on this enterprise. I tried, in fact, to save you from it altogether. But now, it’s my family, you see. They always threaten my family.”

Marlowe sat back, his hand well away from his blade.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, “but I can see that you’re in great distress. And I think I speak for both of us when I say that no good would come from testing each other. One of us would lose a friend, and the other, a life. I’d rather not do either. Today.”

“Agreed.” Lopez sighed, and appeared to relax a bit. “And I’m sorry. Sorry that my wits are raw, and that I dare not tell you what the council has in mind. I can say that they require our assistance—yours and mine—and that they mean you no harm. Other than that, I am sworn to silence.”

“Secrecy,” Marlowe snorted. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it’s a secret.”

“Spoken,” Lopez offered wearily, “like a very young man.”

Marlowe was about to object when Lopez suddenly raised a finger to his lips. A second later Marlowe realized that the coach was slowing down. Ear to the window, he could make out the sound of several voices whispering low: men on horseback.

Lopez silently drew out his rapier again, and turned to Marlowe, who produced his dagger. Lopez slid quietly to the floor, preparing to leap from the coach. He motioned for Marlowe to do the same.

But before Marlowe could move, the coach came to a complete stop, an arrow shattered the shutter, and the shaft plunged into the leather seat, narrowly missing Lopez’s head. Outside the coach driver screamed; the horses complained loudly.

Marlowe reached out and snatched the arrow from where it had lodged. He jabbed it through the black fabric of his doublet and fell back onto the seat, concealing his blade.

A moment later the coach door opened.

Lopez sprang out, snarling and cursing in Portuguese. He scattered the men outside, taking them on all at once.

Marlowe lay stone-still, waiting for his opportunity. He knew that Lopez wouldn’t need help.

A rude shadow appeared in the open doorway of the coach. Marlowe could see the man through half-closed eyes.

“You two take care of that Portuguese grease spot, boys,” he growled. “I think this one in the cab is already dead.”

The man leaned in, and Marlowe’s senses were assaulted by the smell of sweat and garlic.

“Here he is,” the odiferous voice said tauntingly. “Dead before he’s old enough to whisker.”

Without a word, Marlowe plunged his blade into the man’s belly.

“Christ!” the man howled.

Marlowe kicked with both feet and the man flew backward out of the coach. Marlowe leapt after him.

Lopez was acquitting himself perfectly against two men near the horses. The man that Marlowe had stabbed was lying on his back, groaning. Marlowe charged. The man made an attempt to roll up, but was unable to do anything except bleed profusely.

“I’m cut dead,” he wailed.

Marlowe bent over the man.

“You’re not doing well,” he agreed, “but you’re not dying either. Excuse me.”

Marlowe stood up straight and turned toward Lopez.

Lopez was still handling the matter at hand, but Marlowe spied a fourth man on horseback, mostly hidden by a nearby gathering of apple trees. That man had a pistol. The pistol was aimed at Lopez’s back.

“Damn,” Marlowe whispered.

He sipped a breath and began to run. Cocking his arm and steadying his eye, he used the forward motion of his body to give force to his knife. The blade flew through the air and caught the man on horseback in the forearm. The pistol jerked wildly and went off. The man fell from his horse and the horse shivered. It ran away squealing in an eerie high pitch.

The noise momentarily distracted the men attacking Lopez, who used the distraction to his advantage, stabbing one of the men in the chest, his rapier plunging deep into the man’s rib cage.

The other man, shortest of the lot, suddenly realizing that he was alone, surveyed the scene, smiled, turned, and began to run as fast as he could in the same direction as the squealing horse.

Only then did Marlowe look around, get his bearings, and take in the landscape.

The coach had stopped in a deserted field close to a grove of crabapple trees heavy with early fruit. In the distance the River Cam could be seen, with its lush fringe of ferns. There were wheeling clouds in the sky, high and white as milk. The day was ending, but the sun was gold, still an hour before setting.

“It’s a lovely spot for an ambush,” Marlowe observed, nearly to himself.

“Were you playing dead in the coach?” Lopez asked, trying to catch his breath.


“Why?” Lopez put away his rapier.

“I’m not sure,” Marlowe answered. “Maybe I hesitated because I felt badly about how I treated Pygott. Or maybe it was just a game. I don’t know. Where’s the coachman?”

“Dead, over there, other side,” Lopez said, breathing hard. “Come here for a moment, would you?”

Marlowe strode toward Lopez, but stopped a few feet short.

“That man,” Marlowe gasped, staring at the one Lopez had stabbed in the chest. “I know that man!”

“Yes,” said Lopez, his rapier still out.

“He came to see me earlier this very week.” Marlowe stared down at the unmoving figure. “He wanted me to work for the Catholic Church.”

“I know.” Lopez finally put away his weapon. “These are the Pope’s men. They wanted you to spy for the Vatican.”

“No,” Marlowe said, “it was clerical, they only wanted me to—that man, he works for my father, in Canterbury. Or so he said; I’d never met him. He only wanted me to find something of importance to my father and then…”

But Marlowe’s voice trailed off as he realized that he had been duped.

“Yes, it was a test,” Lopez said. “That would have been the beginning of your—our Papal espionage.”

“But I turned them down,” Marlowe said uncertainly.

“Yes, well, the Pope is the sort of person who never accepts anything but agreement with his dicta. Which is why he sent these men after our coach.”

“What did they want?”

Lopez stared at them. “They wanted the money that the Pope would pay them to stop our coach.”

“No, I mean what was their object in stopping us?”

“Oh, to kill us,” Lopez answered quickly.

“Kill us? Why? Just because I said no?”

“Perhaps because the Pope has an inkling—or information—concerning the importance of—concerning why you have been summoned by the Privy Council. And why we are riding in Her Majesty’s second-best coach.”

Marlowe glared at the bleeding ruffians. “But, these men—they’re idiots. I mean to say: they don’t seem like spies or agents or—Christ, Lopez, look at them! This is the best the Pope can do?”

“These are hired roisters, men happy to make a farthing to kill a cat. They are only the first wave. There will be more, many more—and better—before we’re done.”


Copyright © 2016 Phillip DePoy.

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Phillip DePoy is an Edgar Award winner, a playwright, and a scholar. He is the author of a dozen novels, including several featuring Fever Devilin. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.