The English Agent by Phillip DePoy is the 2nd book in the Christopher Marlowe historical mystery series (available February 21, 2017).
In 1583, young Christopher Marlowe—student, brawler, rakehell, and would-be playwright—has had a dreadful evening. The first performance of his play in the corner of a very disreputable Cambridge bar is a humiliating flop, and then he’s attacked on the streets while in the company of Thomas Kyd. So when Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, sends for him, Marlowe is only too happy to go.
The assignment is go to Holland, where England’s ally, William the Silent, is the target of a Spanish assassination plot—a plot that is only the first step in the latest attempt to usurp the throne of England.
1584, CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND
Christopher Marlowe sat at his usual table near the fireplace in The Pickerel public house. By his side: the most irritating mentor with whom God had ever cursed a poet, or so Marlowe was thinking at that moment. Thomas Kyd, dressed in blue frills, the highest London fashion, was fat, drunken, lewd, and smoking. To make matters worse, the noise of the place was maddening. A makeshift stage in a corner of The Pickerel was colorful but, alas, not the liveliest nor even the loudest spot in the public house. In addition to being a place for students to gather, it was the second best brothel in Cambridge. The clientele were ale sodden, rude, and entirely unencumbered by social restraint—and that on an ordinary day. To make matters even worse, the riverside location assured the presence of sailing men, cutpurses, traveling criminals, and general miscreants in addition to the studious young men on their way from better places to a class at the college.
Still, Marlowe had always found the place comforting. The low ceiling and slanting afternoon sunlight gave a warmth to body and spirit, and the ale was flavored with rosemary. It was a home away from home—on most days. But this day, to everyone’s dismay, there was also a play at hand.
There were actors on a stage, shouting to be heard.
“Did ever men see such a sudden storm?” one of the actors howled. “Or day so suddenly overcast?”
The audience shouted back. Louder. A man at the bar responded directly to the actor’s questions.
“Did ever a man see such a sorry spectacle?” he hollered, “or a day so destroyed by a scabrous play?”
The second actor on stage did his best. “I think some fell Enchantress dwells here, that can dive into black tempests treasury as she means to mask the world with clouds.”
A large man in a green tunic near the stage bellowed a more concise critique. “Shite!”
The general chaos of noise rose higher after that, pelting the actors with insults and laughter.
At his table by the fireplace, Kyd leaned close to Marlowe and whispered, “Generally I like a play that attracts audience attention, but is this quite what you had in mind?”
Marlowe, dressed entirely in black, turned to the older man and spoke very politely. “Find a raw carrot, lower your breeches, and shove it as far up your ass as you possibly can, do you mind?”
“Time enough for fun later, Kit,” Kyd responded. “I thought you wanted me to watch your play.”
“You’re too drunk to watch your thumb,” Marlowe answered. “I wanted Kyd the playwright, not Kyd the lout.”
Kyd sat back. “Oh. Well. You should have told me that before I started drinking, don’t you think?”
“You know I love you,” Marlowe complained, “but I can barely stand to be around you.”
Kyd dismissed that pronouncement with a flourish of his right hand. “All of my friends say that.”
The young boy playing the part of Anna, on stage in an ill-fitting dress and terrible wig, seemed to have forgotten the next line. Prompted three times, he finally gave forth, in a high-pitched squeak, “In all my life I never knew the like, it hailed, it snowed, and lightning all at once!”
The place erupted in catcalls, howling, a general demand for the play to come to an end. Sooner than immediately.
The man who had yelled “shite” was on his feet.
“Come over here, sweetheart,” he said to the boy playing Anna. “Give us a kiss.”
He staggered toward the stage.
The other two actors moved instantly to protect the younger. One suddenly had a knife in his hand.
“Now it’s getting interesting,” Kyd slurred. “I really like it when the audience is a part of the play.”
Marlowe ignored Kyd and bounded toward the stage.
“That’s enough for one afternoon,” he called out. “The play is ended.”
The large drunk in green turned, slowing, in Marlowe’s direction. His beard was alive with ale and saliva.
“That was a play?” he growled. “I thought my great ox had laid a pile of dung in that corner.”
“Ah,” Marlowe said quickly, “well I defer to your superior knowledge of an ox’s ass.”
A few in the room laughed.
“How’s that?” the man asked more slowly.
“I say the play’s over,” Marlowe answered, as if the man were hard of hearing. “You can go back to buggering your ox.”
“Right,” the man bellowed, drawing a long knife of his own.
As he did he caught a nearby patron on the chin with his elbow. The patron objected loudly.
“Christ!” the patron complained.
That complainant drew a dagger of his own. His round, greasy face contorted in a grin.
The man in green turned and punched the complainant twice. The complainant fell backward onto the floor and stayed there, dagger still in hand, grin gone.
Then the man in green turned and lunged at Marlowe.
Without warning, Kyd was there, placing his considerable girth between Marlowe and the marauder.
“You’re a very rude person,” Kyd said to the green man.
Then Kyd, holding a tankard of ale in one hand and his pipe in the other, simply stepped aside, nudging Marlowe out of the way. The man in green went sprawling across the nearest table. The men at that table objected. They were on their feet in seconds, all with weapons in their hands: two knives and a rapier.
Marlowe drew his own rapier and stood next to Kyd, who took a sip of ale and then pulled hard on his pipe.
The man in green was struggling to rise; the other three were not certain who had offended them the most.
“Should we go on?” one of the actors called timidly.
“No,” Marlowe answered before anyone else could. “Wait outside. I’ll bring you your money.”
“But we just started,” the boy playing Anna complained.
“That’s your play?” one of the three men asked.
Marlowe nodded once.
“Good enough for me,” the man said, and charged.
The others followed.
Marlowe found himself attacked on three sides. Kyd stood firmly at Marlowe’s back, tranquil as a summer’s day.
Marlowe took the rapier first. He lunged forward, twirling his blade in small, wild circles. When he was close enough, he caught his opponent’s rapier in the vortex and sent the other man’s weapon flying. With one single, final sidestep, Marlowe stabbed that man in the forearm—his sword arm—and then kicked the man’s knee so hard that everyone heard it crack.
Without stopping to think, Marlowe turned toward one of the knives. Before he could get his balance, the man rushed, snarling, blade forward, teeth bared.
Kyd did not appear to move of a purpose, but a single dance-like stumble thrust his pristine boot forward at the other man’s ankle. As if by some odd spell, that man found himself facedown on the floor in the next instant.
Marlowe turned his attention to the last man.
That one stood, glancing around at the others groaning on the floor and blinking. He lowered his knife.
“So that’s your play then, is it?” he said, only a slight quaver in his voice.
“It is,” Marlowe responded, his rapier aimed directly at the man’s throat.
“Well,” the man said, as if it were a complete philosophy.
Kyd’s voice boomed out generously. “Truer words were never spoken!”
Marlowe glanced at the stage. The actors were gone.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of red, a slight furling of a crimson cloak—and the barrel of a pistol. That was, it seemed, what had actually stopped the brawl. The last man standing had seen the gun.
Marlowe realized that The Pickerel had fallen nearly silent, quieter than it had been in a decade.
Marlowe took a deep breath. “I thank one and all for your indulgence. I will continue to work on the piece.”
“What’s it called?” the last man standing asked quietly.
“Dido,” Marlowe answered. “It’s about a queen of Carthage.”
The man nodded. He clearly had no idea what Marlowe was talking about.
Marlowe sheathed his rapier, took Kyd by the arm, and headed for the door.
“You should try your hand at a Hamlet play,” Kyd said, sucking on his pipe. “Everyone’s doing it.”
Marlowe moved faster, nearly dragging Kyd along. “No,” Marlowe complained, “you’ve done the definitive version of that story. Who would pay attention to any other?”
Kyd finished his ale and set his tankard down on one of the tables as he was being rushed out the door.
“True,” he mused. “Why are you shoving me outside? I need more drink.”
Once in the street, Kyd froze. He saw why Marlowe had rushed him out of the inn. In one of the shadows across the narrow dirt street there was a flair of red cloth, and a pair of familiar eyes.
“Oh.” Kyd would not be moved further. “Dr. Lopez.”
Rodrigo Lopez, Portuguese Jew, remorseless assassin, and Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Surgeon, was also Marlowe’s boyhood tutor.
“What’s he doing here?” Kyd whispered, unable to disguise the fear in his voice.
While most other men lived in terror of the doctor, Marlowe considered Lopez his only genuine friend.
“He’s come to see me,” Marlowe answered apologetically, then he glanced around. “My actors seem to have vanished.”
“That’s a shame,” Kyd lamented absently. “I was hoping to get to know the one who played Anna a little better.”
“Leave that one alone, Kyd,” Marlowe warned. “He’s barely twelve years old. And put out that pipe, it stinks.”
Kyd sniffed, partially regaining his swagger. “How many times have I told you? Only a fool does not like tobacco and young boys. The former is good for the health, and the latter is superior for the spirit.”
But Marlowe was already halfway across the street. Lopez did not move.
“Doctor,” Marlowe said softly as he approached his old friend. “You didn’t need to break up that brawl. Kyd and I would have handled it.”
“Kyd is a brilliant tactician,” Lopez agreed, stepping slightly into the slanting ray of golden light from the west. “I’ve never seen a greater adept at his style of combat.”
Marlowe hesitated. “I can’t tell if your intent is to praise him or to ridicule, but I assure you—”
“I am in earnest,” Lopez interrupted. “I’ve seen Thomas Kyd’s tactics before, in London. His ability to use force and intention against any opponent is unparalleled. I saw him best five men, barely laying a hand on a single one. He had no weapon and never spilled his drink. When his attackers tried to strike, he simply wasn’t there.”
Marlowe smiled. “Yes, he can get out of the way better than any man in England.”
Lopez remained cold. “And: he’s not a bad playwright, as I understand it.”
“That man,” Marlowe nodded, glancing in Kyd’s direction, “despite some very obvious difficulties, is one of the finest poets I know, and the greatest playwright in the world. Our age will be remembered for its female monarch and the plays of Thomas Kyd.”
Kyd had found a convenient barrel outside the inn and was seated filling his pipe. Grinning and singing to himself, he looked very much like the village idiot.
“Your Queen requires you,” Lopez said.
“I know.” Marlowe’s voice betraying a certain wariness. “Why else would you have come unannounced? What has happened?”
“An assassination of worldwide consequence,” Lopez said with a dead voice.
“Who has been murdered?” Marlowe swallowed. He had rarely seen Lopez in so strange a mood.
Lopez leaned close to Marlowe’s ear.
“William the Silent,” he whispered to Marlowe, “is dead.”
Copyright © 2017 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.