The world of Colonial America comes vibrantly to life in this masterful new historical thriller by Robert McCammon. The latest entry in the popular Matthew Corbett series, which began with Speaks the Nightbird and continued in The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter opens in the emerging metropolis of New York City in 1702, and proceeds to take both Matthew and the reader on an unforgettable journey of horror, violence, and personal discovery.
The journey begins when Matthew, now an apprentice “problem solver” for the London-based Herrald Agency, accepts an unusual and hazardous commission. Together with his colleague, Hudson Greathouse, he agrees to escort the notorious mass murderer Tyranthus Slaughter from an asylum outside Philadelphia to the docks of New York. Along the way, Slaughter makes his captors a surprising—and extremely tempting—offer. Their response to this offer will alter the course of the novel, setting in motion a series of astonishing, ultimately catastrophic events.
Mister Slaughter is at once a classic portrait of an archetypal serial killer and an exquisitely detailed account of a fledgling nation still in the process of inventing itself. Suspenseful, illuminating, never less than compulsively readable, it is, by any measure, an extraordinary achievement, the largest accomplishment to date from one of our most gifted—and necessary—writers.
By Robert McCammon
Listen! said the October wind, as it swirled and swooped through the streets of New York. I have a story to tell!
About change in the weather, and the whethers of men! Whether this one staggering past, the spindly gent, shall right himself against my onslaught before I take him to the wall, or whether that one there, with his prodigious belly, shall be fast enough to catch his tricorn as I throw it from his head! With a shove and a shriek I pass through the town, and what fast horse might ride me down?
None, thought Matthew Corbett in reply.
To be sure! Respect my comings and goings, and know that something unseen may prove a force no man may master.
Of that Matthew was undeniably certain, for he was having one devil of a time holding onto his own tricorn and balancing himself against the blasts.
It was near eight-thirty on a Thursday night, this second week of October. The young man was on a mission. He had been told to be at the corner of Stone and Broad streets at half past eight, and if he valued his hide he would report as ordered. Hudson Greathouse, his associate and senior member of the Herrald Agency, was in no mood these days to brook Matthew any easement concerning who was the boss and who was…well, it was true enough…the slave.
But, as Matthew continued his brisk battle south along Queen Street with other citizens seemingly pushing against invisible walls in one direction or flying like bundles of empty clothes past him in the other, he thought that Greathouse’s harsh attitude of late had more to do with celebrity than slavery.
After all, Matthew was famous.
Your hat’s getting a bit high, don’t you think? Greathouse had often asked since the successful conclusion of the mystery concerning the Queen of Bedlam.
Yes, Matthew had answered, as calmly as possible when faced with a human bull ready to charge any utterance that had the agitation of a red flag. But I do wear it well. Which was not enough to make the bull charge, but enough to make it snort with ominous anticipation of future violence.
The truth being, Matthew really was a celebrity. His exploits to determine the identity of the Masker and his near demise at the Chapel estate in the summer had given the town’s printmaster, Marmaduke Grigsby, enough material for a barrage of Earwigs that made the broadsheet even more popular than the Saturday night dogfights up at Peck’s Wharf. The initial story, written right after the end of the episode in July, had been restrained and factual enough, due to High Constable Gardner Lillehorne’s threats to set fire to the printing press, but after Marmaduke’s granddaughter Berry had detailed her own part in the picture the old newshound had nearly begun baying at the moon outside Matthew’s residence, which was a refurbished dairyhouse just behind Grigsby’s own home and printshop.
Out of decorum and common sense, Matthew had resisted telling the particulars of the tale, but in time his defenses had been weakened and finally crushed. By the third week of September the “Untold Story of our Own Matthew Corbett’s Adventure with Venomous Villains and Threat of A Hideous Death, Part the First” was set in type, and the flames of industry—and the Grigsby imagination—had really started burning.
Whereas one day Matthew was simply a young man of twenty-three who had risen by fate and circumstance from New York orphan to magistrate’s clerk to an associate “problem solver” at the London-based Herrald Agency, he was by the following afternoon being trailed by an ever-swelling mob of people who thrust upon him quills, inkpots and Earwigs so as to sign his name across the premier chapter of this adventure, which he hardly recognized anymore as being his own experience. It was apparent that whatever Marmaduke did not know for sure, he was certain to invent.
By the third and final chapter, published last week, Matthew had been transformed from a simple citizen among the nearly five-thousand other New Yorkers of 1702 into a knight of justice who had not only prevented the collapse of the colony’s economic underpinnings but also saved every maiden of the town from being ravished by Chapel’s minions. Running with Berry for their lives across a dead vineyard with fifty killers and ten trained vultures at their backs? Fighting a trio of blood-crazed Prussian swordsmen? Well, there was a seed of truth at the center of this fiction, but the fruit around it was a fantasy.
Nevertheless, the series had been a boon for Grigsby and the Earwig, and was much discussed not only in the taverns but around the wells and horse troughs. It was said that even Governor Lord Cornbury had been seen strolling the Broad Way one afternoon, wearing a yellow wig, white gloves and his feminine finery in tribute to his cousin, Queen Anne, as he read the most recent broadsheet with rapt, purple-painted eyes.
A gritty gust at the intersection of Queen and Wall streets whirled around Matthew the commingled aromas of fish, tarbuckets, wharf pilings, stockyard animals and their fodder, the contents of chamberpots thrown from house windows onto the cobblestones, and the bittersweet winey smell of the East River at night. If Matthew was not in the heart of New York, he was surely in its nose.
The wind had whipped into many of the lanterns that hung from street-corner posts and put the quit to their flames. Every seventh house was required by law to hang out a lamp, but tonight no man—not the wandering constables nor even their chief Lillehorne, for all his own puffery—might command the wind to spare a wick. This unceasing tumult, which had begun around five o’clock and showed no signs of abatement, had brought Matthew to his philosophical mental discussion with the bellowing bully. He had to hurry now, for even without consulting the silver watch in his waistcoat pocket he knew he was a few minutes late.
Soon enough, with the wind now pushing at his back, Matthew crossed the cobbles of Broad Street and by the tortured candle of a remaining lamp spied his taskmaster waiting for him ahead. Their office was only a little further along Stone Street at Number Seven, up a flight of narrow stairs into a loft said to be haunted by the previous tenants who’d murdered each other over coffee beans. Matthew had heard a few creaks and thumps in the last few weeks, but he was sure those were just the complaints of Dutch building stones settling into English earth.
Before Matthew could fully reach Hudson Greathouse, who wore a woolen monmouth cap and a long dark cloak that flailed about him like raven’s wings, the other man strode forward to meet him and, in passing, said loudly against the blast, “Follow me!”
Matthew did, almost losing his tricorn once more when he turned to retrace his path. Greathouse walked into the wind as if he owned it.
“Where are we going?” Matthew shouted, but either his voice was swept away or Greathouse chose not to answer.
Though bound together in service to the Herrald Agency, the two “problem-solvers” could never be taken for brothers. Matthew was tall and slim, yet with the toughness of a river reed about him. He had a lean long-jawed face and a thatch of fine black hair under his ebony tricorn. His pale candlelit countenance attested to his interest in books and nighttime games of chess at his favorite tavern, the Trot Then Gallop. Due to his recent celebrity, and the fact that he thought himself deserving of such status since he really had almost been killed in defense of justice, he’d taken an interest in dressing as a New York gentleman should. In his new black suit and waistcoat with fine gray stripes, one of two outfits tailored for him by Benjamin Owles, he was every bit the Jack O’Dandy. His new black boots, just delivered on Monday, were polished to a glossy shine. He had an order in for a blackthorn walking-stick, which he’d noted many young gentlemen of importance in the town carrying about, but as this item had to be shipped from London he wouldn’t enjoy its company until springtime. He kept himself clean as a soapdish and shaved to the pink. His cool gray eyes with their hints of twilight blue were clear and on this night untroubled. They cast a direct and steady gaze that some might say—and as Grigsby had said, in the second chapter—“could cause the ruffian to lay down his burden of evil lest it prove as heavy as prison chains.”
That old inkthrower sure knew how to turn a phrase, Matthew thought.
Hudson Greathouse, who had turned to the left and was now striding several lengths ahead north along Broad Street, was in contrast to Matthew a hammer versus a lockpick. At age forty-seven, he was a broad-shouldered strapper who stood three inches over six feet, a height and dimension that upon meeting him caused most other men to look down at the ground to find their courage. When the craggy-faced Greathouse cast his deep-set black eyes around a room, the men in that room quite simply seemed to freeze for fear of catching his attention. The opposite effect was induced upon the women, for Matthew had seen the churchiest of ladies become a twittering flirt within scent of Greathouse’s lime shaving soap. Also in contrast to Matthew, the great one had no use for the whims of current fashion. An expensively-tailored suit was out of the question; the most he’d go was a pale blue ruffled shirt, clean but well-worn, to accompany plain gray knee breeches, simple white stockings, and sturdy, unpolished boots. Under his cap his thick hair was iron-gray, pulled back into a queue and tied with a black ribbon.
If the two had anything in common other than the Herrald Agency, it was the scars they each wore. Matthew’s badge of honor was a crescent that began just above the right eyebrow and curved into the hairline, a lifelong reminder of a battle in the wilderness with a bear three years ago, and lucky he was to still be walking the earth. Greathouse bore a jagged scar that sliced through the left eyebrow, and was—as he had explained in a petulant voice—presented to him by a broken teacup thrown by his third wife. Ex-wife, of course, and Matthew had never asked what had become of her. But, to be fair, Greathouse’s real collection of scars—from an assassin’s dagger, a musket ball, and a rapier swing—was worn beneath his shirt.
They were approaching the three-story edifice of City Hall, built of yellow stone, that stood where Broad Street met Wall. Lantern lights showed in some of the windows, as the business of the town demanded late hours. Scaffolding stood alongside the building; a cupola was being erected on the roof’s highest point, the better to display a Union flag nearer Heaven. Matthew wondered how the town’s coroner, the efficient but eccentric Ashton McCaggers, liked hearing the workmen hammering and sawing up there over his head, since he lived in his strange museum of skeletons and grisly artifacts in City Hall’s attic. Matthew mused also, as Greathouse turned to the right and began walking along Wall Street toward the harbor, that McCaggers’ slave Zed would soon be up in the cupola looking out over the thriving town and seaport, for Matthew knew the giant African enjoyed sitting silently on the roof while the world bargained, sweated, swore, and generally thrashed at itself below.
Not much further, past the Cat’s Paw tavern on the left, and Matthew realized where Greathouse was taking him.
Since the Masker’s reign of terror had ended at midsummer, there’d been no more murders in town. If Matthew were to volunteer to a visitor the most likely place to witness a killing, it would be behind the scabby red door that Greathouse now approached. Above that door was a weatherbeaten red sign proclaiming The Cock’a’tail. The tavern’s front window had been shattered so many times by fighting patrons that it was simply sealed over with rough planks, through which dirty light leaked onto Wall Street. Of the dozen-odd taverns in New York, this was the one Matthew most studiously avoided. The mix of rogues and high-pockets who thought themselves financial wizards were fueled here in their arguments over the value of such commodities as head souse and beaver pelts by the cheapest, nastiest and most potent apple brandy ever to inflame a brain.
Distressingly for Matthew, Greathouse opened the door and turned to motion him in. The yellow lamplight vomited out a fog of pipesmoke that was at once carried off by the wind. Matthew clenched his teeth, and as he approached the evil-looking doorway he saw a streak of lightning dance across the dark and heard the kettledrum of thunder up where God watched over damned fools. “Shut that door!” immediately bawled a voice that both blasted and croaked, like a cannon firing a load of bullfrogs. “You’re lettin’ out the stink!”
“Well,” Greathouse said with a gracious smile, as Matthew stepped into the rancid room. “We can’t have that, can we?” He shut the door, and the skinny gray-bearded gent who was sitting in a chair at the back, having been interrupted in his massacre of a good fiddle, instantly returned to his display of screeching aural violence.
The cannon-voiced bullfrog behind the bar, whose name was Lionel Skelly and whose fiery red beard almost reached the bottom of his stained leather waistcoat, resumed his task of pouring a fresh—to use a word imperfectly—mug of apple destruction for a patron who turned a fishy eye upon the new arrivals.
“What, ho!” said Samuel Baiter, a man known to have bitten off a nose or two. To add to his charms, he was a heavy gambler, a vicious wife-beater, and spent much of his time with the ladies at Polly Blossom’s rose-colored house on Petticoat Lane. He had the flat, cruel face and stubby nose of a brawler, and Matthew realized the man was either too drunk or too stupid to be cowed by Hudson Greathouse. “The young hero and his keeper! Come, have a drink with us!” Baiter grinned and lifted his mug, which slopped oily brown liquid onto the floorboards.
The second man in that declaration of “us” was a new figure in town, having arrived in the middle of September from England. He was almost as big as Greathouse, with huge square shoulders that strained his dark brown suit. He’d removed his tricorn, which was the same shade of Broad Way mud, to display why he was called “Bonehead” Boskins. His scalp was completely bald. His broad forehead protruded over a pair of heavy black eyebrows like, indeed, a wall of bone. Matthew didn’t know much about Boskins, other than he was in his early thirties and unemployed, but had ambitions of getting into the fur trade. The man smoked a clay pipe and looked from Matthew to Greathouse and back again with small, pale blue eyes that, if showing any emotion at all, displayed utter indifference.
“We’re expecting someone,” Greathouse answered, his voice light and easy. “But another time, I’m sure.” Without waiting for a response, he grasped Matthew’s elbow and guided the younger man to a table. “Sit,” Greathouse said under his breath, and Matthew scraped a chair back and eased himself down.
“As you please.” Baiter quaffed from his drink and then lifted it high. He summoned a half-lipped smile. “To the young hero, then. I hear Polly’s quite taken with you these days.”
Greathouse sat down with his back toward the corner, his expression relaxed. Matthew took the measure of the room. Ten or twelve dirty lanterns hung overhead, from the end of chains on hooks in the smoke-greased rafters. Under a floating cloud of pipesmoke there were seven other men and one blowsy lady in attendance, two of the men passed out with their heads in a gray puddle of what might have been clam chowder on their table. No, there was an eighth man too, also passed out and face-down at the table to Matthew’s left, and as Matthew recognized the green-glassed lantern of a town constable Dippen Nack lifted his swollen-eyed face and struggled to focus. Beside an overturned mug was the brutish little constable’s black billyclub.
“You,” Nack rasped, and then his forehead thumped down upon the wood.
“Quite taken,” Baiter went on, obviously more stupid than drunk. “With your adventures, I mean. I’ve heard she’s offered you a…what did she call it?…a `season pass’?”
The invitation, on elegant stationery, had indeed arrived at Matthew’s office soon after the first chapter was published. He had no intention of redeeming it, but he appreciated the gesture.
“You’ve read about Matthew Corbett, haven’t you, Bonehead? If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t walk the streets safe at night, could we? Couldn’t even go out for a drink and a poke. Well, Polly talks about him all the time,” said Baiter, with an edge of harshness creeping in. “About what a gentleman he is. How smart, and how noble. As if the rest of us men were just little creatures to be tolerated. Little useless creatures, but oh how that whore can go on about him!”
“I think the whole damned thing was made up, is what I think!” said the blowsy lady, whose sausage-skin was a gown thirty pounds ago. “Ain’t nobody could live, fightin’ fifty men! Ain’t that what I think, George?” When there was no reply, she kicked the chair of one of the unconscious patrons and he answered with a muffled groan.
“Fifty men!” Dippen Nack lifted his head again. The sweat of effort sparkled on his ruddy, cherub-cheeked face. The constable was, in Matthew’s opinion, though, closer to a devil than a cherub. Anybody who stole the gaol keys and went in at night to pee on the prisoners did not rate high in his book of life. “A damned lie! And me, boppin’ that Evans bastard on the bopper and savin’ Corbett’s life, and not even gettin’ my name in that rag! Takin’ a knife in the arm for my trouble, too! It ain’t fair!” Nack made a strangled sound, as if he were about to start crying.
“Sure he’s a liar, Sam,” said Bonehead, with a small sip from his own mug, “but that’s a fine suit he’s wearin’. Fittin’, for such a smart cock to strut around in. How much that suit cost you?” This was spoken as Bonehead stared into the depths of his drink.
Now Matthew began to suspect why Greathouse had brought him here. Of all places, to the tavern where he knew two men had died in brutal fights right on this floor, which looked to him to be more blood-stained than brandy-splashed. Having clerked for Magistrate Nathaniel Powers, Matthew also knew that Lionel Skelly himself was no stranger to violence; the tavern keeper had cut off a man’s hand with an axe he kept behind the bar. It didn’t pay to try to swipe coins from the cashbox in here.
Greathouse spoke up, to parry the question: “Way too much, in my opinion.”
There was a silence.
Bonehead Boskins slowly put his mug on the bar and aimed his eyes at Greathouse. Now he looked every inch a man who was neither too drunk nor too stupid but perhaps just enough of both to light his wick. In fact, he looked supremely confident in his ability to maim. Indeed, eager. “I was speakin’ to the young hero,” he said. “Not to you, old man.”
Yep, Matthew thought as his heartbeat quickened and his guts went squirmy. Sure as rain. The crazed maniac had brought them here to get into a fight. It wasn’t enough that Matthew had been doing very well in his arduous lessons on swordplay, map-making, preparing and firing a flintlock pistol, horsemanship and other such necessities of the trade. No, he wasn’t progressing fast enough in that “fist combat” nonsense that Greathouse imposed upon him. Remember, Greathouse had said many times, you fight with your mind before you use your muscles.
It seemed that Matthew was about to get a demonstration of the great one’s mind. And Heaven help us, he thought.
Greathouse stood up. He was still smiling, though the smile had thinned.
Matthew again counted the heads. The fiddler had stopped his fiddling. Was he a fighter, or a fixture? George and his unconscious companion were still face-down, but they might come to life at the first smack. Who could say what Dippen Nack would do? The blowsy lady was grinning; her front teeth had already been knocked out. Baiter would probably wait for Bonehead to bash a skull before he started nose-chewing. Skelly’s axe was always near at hand. Of the five others, two looked like rough-edged wharfmen who craved a good bustarole. The remaining three, at a back table, were dressed in nice suits that they might not want to disfigure and were puffing on churchwarden pipes, though certainly they were no reverends. A throw of the dice, Matthew thought, but he really hoped Greathouse was not such a careless gamesman.
Instead of advancing on Bonehead, Greathouse casually removed his cap and cloak and hung them on wallpegs. “We just came in to spend a little time. As I said, we’re expecting someone. Neither Mr. Corbett nor I want any trouble.”
Expecting someone? Matthew had no idea what the man was talking about.
“Who’re you expectin’?” Bonehead leaned against the bar and crossed his thick arms. A seam at the shoulder was threatening to burst. “Your lady friend, Lord Cornhole?” Beside him, Baiter sniggered.
“No,” Greathouse replied, “we’re expecting a man I might hire to join our agency. I thought this would be an interesting place to meet.” At that moment, the door opened, Matthew saw a shadow on the threshold, heard the clump of boots, and Greathouse said, “Here he is now!”
Zed the slave walked in, wearing a black suit, white stockings and a white silk cravat.
As the place went quiet except for an inrush of breath and Matthew’s eyes bulged in their sockets, Matthew looked at Greathouse with an effort that almost broke his neck and managed to say, “Have you gone mad?”
Copyright © 2010 by The McCammon Corporation