Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot in the brothel on the Drygate it would also be his last, but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within its artfully painted chambers. The bawdy house, along with the neighboring property, is offered to Gil and his wife Alys by the forceful Dame Isabella. But matters are confused by an outbreak of counterfeit coins in Glasgow, which Gil has been ordered to investigate.
Then Dame Isabella is found dead in strange circumstances, and the more Gil pursues the cause of her death, the more false coins he finds. Rumors circulate that the Devil is abroad in Strathblane. By the time Gil and Alys have untangled matters, some very surprising—and sinister—things have come to light.
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Born and brough up in Lanarkshire, Pat McIntosh lived and worked in Glasgow before settling on Scotland's west coast, where she lives with her husband and three cats.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot
in the whorehouse on the Drygate would also be the last;
but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within
its artful painted chambers.
The first inkling he had of the matter came one day in
late April, in the form of a loud knocking at the door of his
father-in-law’s house as family and servants were eating
their midday meal in the hall. Conversation at the long
board ceased and heads turned towards the sound; Gil and
Alys exchanged a surprised glance, Alys’s aged French
duenna Catherine paused in her absorption of sops-inwine.
The wolfhound Socrates was already on his feet, the
hackles standing up on his narrow back. A stranger, Gil
‘Who calls at the dinner-hour?’ wondered Maistre
Pierre, pushing back his great chair. He rose with caution,
muttering darkly about his knees, but his young journeyman
Luke was before him, opening the big planked door
to reveal a serving-man in unfamiliar blue-grey livery
bowing on the doorstep, felt bonnet in hand.
‘My mistress, Dame Isabella Torrance, seeks Maister Gil
Cunningham,’ he said. ‘Is this where he dwells?’
‘Isabella Torrance?’ Gil repeated in some surprise, going
forward as Luke turned to relay the message. ‘She’s still
‘She’s at the gate, maister,’ said the man.
Gil looked down at his wife as she joined him in the
doorway. ‘Godmother to my sister Tib,’ he explained.
‘Dwells over by Stirling, I think. I wonder if it’s about Tib’s
‘Stirling?’ repeated Alys. ‘Whatever is she doing in
The servant shrugged his shoulders.
‘Likely she’ll tell you hersel,’ he offered. ‘Will I bid her
‘Aye, bid her enter,’ said Maistre Pierre from the head of
the table. ‘We are still at meat, man, ask her if she will
‘She doesny eat in the middle of the day,’ the man said,
shaking his head regretfully.
There was a commotion in the pend which led out to the
street, and a number of people emerged into the courtyard,
headed by a short, stout, loud individual with a stick.
Their guest had not waited to be invited in. Alys exclaimed
briefly and hurried down the steps past Gil to offer a welcome.
Her curtsy was spurned with a brief nod, her arm
was ignored, and the small dark figure ploughed across
the yard to the foot of the steps where it stopped, scowling
up at Gil with eyes like jet rosary beads.
Dame Isabella was probably five feet high and the same
around, though this girth also engrossed a vast furred
brocade gown which hung open over several layers of different,
equally expensive, black fabrics. Beneath a black
silk Flemish hood with extravagantly long foreparts, finely
pleated linen framed her small padded face, heightening
its colour unbecomingly; she had a dab of a nose, separated
by a dark wispy moustache from a mouthful of
very large, improbably white teeth. She seemed to have
brought her entire household visiting; at her back were
four sturdy grooms, including the man who had come to
the door, and two waiting-women.
‘So you’re Gelis Muirhead’s laddie, are you?’ she said in
deep, disparaging tones. ‘Aye, you’ve a look of her, though
you’re more like your faither.’ This was clearly not a compliment.
‘At least you’ve more sense than get yoursel slain
the way he did. And both your brothers, was it?’
‘Dame Isabella,’ Gil said, very politely, and bowed.
‘Welcome to my house. Will you enter, madame?’
offered Maistre Pierre over Gil’s shoulder.
‘Aye, I’ll come in. You’re the good-father I take it. I hope
ye’ve a seat for me. I want a word wi young Gilbert, afore
that gowk Sempill gets involved. Here, you fools, get me
up these steps.’
‘Sempill? John Sempill of Muirend?’ Gil repeated, but
the servants who surrounded Dame Isabella had begun
the considerable task of hoisting her up the fore-stair,
which she endured with much shouting and brandishing
of her stick. In his ear his father-in-law said,
‘What does she want with Sempill? Why should he
‘No idea,’ said Gil, stepping back to allow the nearest
manservant elbowroom. ‘When did we see him last?’ He
counted on his fingers. ‘It must have been August last year.
It’s been the gallowglass – Euan Campbell – who brought
me the money for the boy’s keep at both the quarter-days
since then.’ He met Maistre Pierre’s eye. ‘If it’s about the
boy, it’s likely no good.’
‘So I think,’ agreed the mason. They both turned to look
inside the hall, where Maistre Pierre’s foster-child, small
John McIan, bastard son of John Sempill’s runaway wife
and her lover the harper, was perched on his nurse’s knee
at the long table addressing a large crust of bread.
‘Sempill still needs an heir, surely?’ said Maistre Pierre
doubtfully. ‘That was why he acknowledged John. What is
he about now?’
‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ said Gil.
‘Parcel of fools!’ announced Dame Isabella. Achieving
the topmost step, she paused long enough to adjust her
grasp on her stick and surged forward, shaking off her
gasping servants and ignoring Maistre Pierre’s courtesies
as she had ignored Alys’s. Behind her, Alys slipped up the
fore-stair and into the hall, with a brief touch on Gil’s hand
as she went.
‘You’re at meat, are you?’ continued their guest, staring
at the household arranged round the long board. Small
John waved his crust and shouted something unintelligible.
‘I hope you’ve all had your bowels open at stool the
day. It’s no good to eat on a full bowel.’
‘Will you not join us, madame?’ Alys offered, gesturing
at the head of the table. ‘There is good broth, and fresh oatcakes
‘No.’ The black beads considered her. ‘I suppose you’re
the French wife. Christ aid us, you’ve a nose on you like a
papingo’s. I see he’s no bairned you yet. Has he bedded
you? Is your bowels regular? You’ll no take if your bowel’s
full, it unbalances the humours.’
Alys stared at the old woman, amazement outweighing
her natural courtesy. Gil moved to intervene, but
Catherine had already risen and now forestalled him.
‘Vraiment, madame,’ she said in her elegant French, ‘you
do right to concern yourself with such matters. It is
important to keep the humours of the body balanced, but
I find the young are often careless of their internal
‘And who are you?’ demanded Dame Isabella in the
same language. ‘You speak French uncommonly well,
even if you have not kept your teeth as I have.’
Over the two black-draped heads Alys caught Gil’s eye,
her expression carefully neutral. Catherine closed her
toothless mouth on whatever reply came first, and Gil said
‘This is Madame Catherine Calvin, who keeps my wife
company. Will you sit in by the hearth, madam, while they
clear the board?’
‘Aye, and watch all,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘so I can tell
Gelis Muirhead what kind of household you’re wedded
into. No, I’ll ha no refreshment. It’s no my hour for it.’
‘Lady Cunningham was with us for a week at Yule,’
observed Catherine. ‘She is a most cultured lady, and
speaks excellent French.’
Dame Isabella ignored this shaft, and seated herself
nearest the hearth, staring about her. The household, taking
the hint, began the process of dismantling the long
table, stacking up platters and bowls and sweeping the
cloth into a bundle to be shaken into the courtyard. By the
time board and trestles were in place against the wall,
Dame Isabella’s entourage had been dismissed to the
kitchen, save for a man with a huge leather satchel and one
waiting-woman who studied Maistre Pierre with intent
dark eyes, and the two old ladies were deep in a conversation
involving the humours, the elements, and the
zodiac. Gil, standing awkwardly by, was aware of his
wife conferring with her father, and of the mason’s two
journeymen leaving the house, but his mind was occupied
with possible reasons for this sudden visitation.
He had met Dame Isabella once or twice as a boy, and
felt she had not improved. She had been a member of
Margaret of Denmark’s household alongside his mother,
which was presumably why she had been invited to stand
godmother to his youngest sister. Lady Cunningham had
mentioned her occasionally over the years; he vaguely
recalled that she had been wedded at least twice since the
death of her royal mistress, though to judge by her black
garb and the pleated linen barbe pinned below her chin
she was currently a widow. Small wonder, he thought.
As Tib’s godmother, it would be appropriate for her to
do something for the girl before her approaching marriage,
whether it embraced coin or a gift of land or jewels, and
as Tib’s nearest male relative he could expect to be consulted
in the transaction. But she had mentioned John
Sempill’s involvement. There was no connection between
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