The bullet missed my heart but punctured my lung, which explains why my breathing is wheezier than usual. I’m leaving a blood trail my murderer is surely following through the White Hart Inn. Worse yet, I’m bleeding all over the most priceless manuscript in all the world: a long-lost play by William Shakespeare, a sheaf of brittle paper so authentic the pages quiver with the Bard’s own jittery handwriting—scratch-outs, ink blots, drips and all . . .
. . . including that crippled signature:
(Graphic of Shakespeare's signature goes in here)
I hear the distant creak of my office door easing open and shamble my wobbly legs faster. In my bloody bumblings through the Inn, I am writing the final act of my life the police forensic boys will have no trouble reading. As I reach the taproom I’m dizzy and going saggy at the knees. I stop to lean against the wall to catch my wind and notice the Scotch I poured waiting for me atop the bar. I snatch it up and take the briefest sip only to cough explosively, spattering droplets of blood and single malt across the white lath and plaster wall. How long can a podgy, middle-aged bastard like me last with such a chest wound? Will I faint before I reach the secret passage? I tripped the silent alarm so I know the police are on their way, but as usual the Rozzers will likely arrive too late to affect the outcome of this little drama.
A crash as something topples to the floor in my office. From the sound I know exactly what it is: the strong box with the day’s take. My murderer has pry-barred it open looking for the manuscript. He’ll be lucky to find a pitiful fifty quid in bills and coins. Still, it lets me know my assailant is close.
Too flaming close.
I push away from the wall, smearing a bloody handprint, and totter toward the kitchens.
The narrow hallway that leads from the bar to the kitchens is pitch-friggin’-black—the bulb blew a week ago and I never got around to changing it. I’ve been effing and jeffing every time I flipped the switch and nothing happened, but now I am grateful, because the gloom conceals me. I grope along the wall until I reach the stairs down to the cellar and stumble rubber-legged down the break-neck steps and crash into the cellar door.
The murderer would have to be deaf not to have heard that.
I fumble the rough iron latch and the cellar door groans open onto darkness. I stagger through and bump the door shut behind me, leaning with my back against it, sucking in a breath of chill, subterranean air all yeasty from the beer barrels. For a moment it’s reviving, but then weakness surges through me in a hot flash. My knees quiver and threaten to buckle.
Outside, footsteps scuffle along the passageway—the quiet steps of someone trying to be stealthy, a hunter pursuing his quarry. The footsteps grow distant, but then stop and double back. I strain to listen, but catch only faint, indecipherable scraping noises. Is that someone creeping down the cellar steps?
I stiffen as a footfall crunches on the other side of the door. How could my murderer track my blood trail in the dark hallway? I rummage in the pocket of my cardigan and draw out the pistol. The gun is still warm and exudes the sharp, bitter smell of cordite. I have five shots left.
Suddenly, the door barges open behind me, pitching me forward. I don’t even have time to get my hands up before my nose ploughs into the stone flags and air chuffs out of me in a pained grunt. I keep hold of the manuscript, but the gun flies from my hand and skitters away into the shadows. The cellar door flings wide, spilling just enough light to sketch a human silhouette I do not recognise.
I am surprised. My guess was wrong.
My murderer is not who I expected.