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Plague by Julie Anderson | Book 1 in the Cassandra Fortune Series


‘Customer information: due to construction works at this station there is no direct access to South Molton Street. Customers wishing to visit South Molton Street should exit on to Oxford Street and turn right into New Bond Street.’

The announcement sounding in her ears, Cassandra rose with the escalator, gliding into daylight. It was the construction works she was there to see. The glossy tiles and mirrored surfaces of Bond Street Underground station threw her hazy reflection back at her as she headed towards the exit. Now she had to find the building site.

Difficult to miss.

The horizontal jibs of giant cranes swayed sideways against counterweights, their towers looming over tall wooden hoardings. 

Unseen machinery rumbled and bleeped. In a gap in the perimeter stood a bearded man, who wore a hardhat and hi-vis vest. He carried a clipboard.

That must be the way in.

Her name was checked off his list and she was directed to a row of temporary cabins. Bulky men in hardhats strode past, dust rising from their heavy boots. They shouted, purposefully, to each other in different languages, ignoring her presence completely.

In the cabin designated ‘Reception’, a young woman sat behind a cheap desk.

‘Ms Fortune,’ she read the name from another list. ‘Please leave any personal belongings in the final cabin along; it’s quite secure. Here is your hat and your pass. You’ll find shoes, dust masks and safety glasses in the cabin. They’re waiting to go down; you’re the last.’

Cassie winced at the earsplitting rat-a-tat of a jackhammer starting up nearby. In the furthest cabin people were still changing, fellow civil servants whom she greeted wordlessly as she put on hard-toed overshoes and safety equipment. Together they crossed the site to a single storey building destined to become the new rear entrance to the station, where the other members of the Project Board waited.

Outside, a thickset man spoke rapidly into a walkie-talkie. ‘OK, all here now. On our way down.’ He made a show of clicking the ‘off’ button and beckoned them forward into the building. ‘Everyone come please. My name is Bogdan and I am the foreman. I will take you.’

They clomped down a set of stationary escalators and the clanking of machinery grew fainter. Then down another level to the platforms, where the curving walls of the tunnel were completely bare of tiling or decoration and the concrete exposed. Like an older woman caught without her makeup, Cassie thought, unready to be seen by the world.

‘Follow me, please.’ The foreman climbed down a wide ladder into the central trench where the rails would run. ‘Take care where you walk.’

Naked light bulbs drooped from cables hung from the tunnel walls and shadows loomed then shrank as they walked along the trench. A generator hummed nearby and there was a metallic taste to the air. The ground became uneven.

Ahead Cassie could see building workers gathered by a side opening. Bogdan called out a question and one of them replied. Another began to complain. The foreman cut him short by turning to face the visiting party.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘We are now approximately two hundred feet below South Molton Street. We discovered the cave you are about to enter at the end of last week. It is a burial chamber. Please stay near the entrance, so as to respect the graves. The archaeologist is already here and can answer your questions.’

He led them through the opening into a cavern.

About twenty feet wide, its rough floor stretched back forty feet or so. It was about the size of a tennis court. Arc lamps showed shards of broken masonry scattered among large, upright pieces of grey stone. Grave markers, Cassie thought. The white electric light created slender shadows in the shallow inscriptions cut into the stones. These must have belonged to a much older London.

‘Oh!’ The woman beside her caught hold of Cassie’s arm in surprise as a figure rose from behind a gravestone

‘Hello. Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.’

The man grinned.

Sorry? You’re enjoying yourself.

‘My name is Dr Holle Maartens and I’m an archaeologist with the Museum of London. With discoveries of this kind, construction work must cease to allow for archaeological exploration.’ He rested one trail-booted foot atop a pile of stones.

‘How long will the project be delayed?’ someone asked.

‘That depends. The investigation could be over and the site reopened in a week. On the other hand, if we find anything of significance, we’ll have to remove it, which, given the fragile state of some of this, might take much longer.’

Not fragile enough to stop you posing on it.

‘How old are the graves?’ she asked.

‘Anything from three to five hundred years old. London’s population expanded hugely between 1500 and 1650 and existing churchyards couldn’t cope, so overspill burial grounds were created, outside the old city limits. I think this is one of those.’

‘Are they quite common, then?’ someone else asked.

‘Yes, but there’s something of greater interest here. I discovered it late last night.’ The archaeologist chuckled. ‘Let me show you.’

They followed Dr Maartens to the back of the cavern where he connected up a light. Cassie gasped as it clicked on.

Bones. Human bones.

They lay in heaps. Skulls, femurs, ulnas, finger and collar bones, all mixed up with shattered slivers. Some were large and heavy looking, others tiny, children’s bones.

‘It looks like they’ve been dumped, not even given a proper burial,’ a man observed.

‘I think that’s exactly what happened to them,’ Dr Maartens replied. ‘And I think we’ll find more of them below, a whole pit of them, I suspect.’

‘A pit? What kind of pit? Like a plague pit?’ There was a tremor of excitement in the man’s voice.

For a few seconds, Cassie heard only the faraway hum of the generator. Then people began to murmur.

Plague. Ciuma. Pest. Plaga. In any language, a word of power and fear.

This was news to the workmen, she realised. They hadn’t known about the plague pit.

Most of them wouldn’t have been in London when the last plague pit was found, almost thirty years before. With shocked and angry faces, they surrounded the foreman. Others, hearing their protestations, came to join them. Space and oxygen contracted as men jostled at the entrance of the cavern.

Cassie sensed the rising panic. Fear, as contagious as any virus, was spreading invisibly from one to another, infecting them all. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. A few moments longer and they’d be stampeding along the narrow, half-lit passageway.

People were going to get hurt.

She looked over at the archaeologist. Maartens was watching the workmen, open mouthed. Gone was the easy showmanship, replaced by astonishment. Meanwhile the hubbub of fear grew, voices jumbled and the noise level rose.

Do something, say something.

A chunk of sculpted masonry, part of a fallen mausoleum, lay propped against the cavern wall. Stretching to get a handhold, Cassie clambered on top of it, her head almost up against the roof. She shielded her eyes from the glare of the lamps.

‘Wait!’ she shouted. ‘Listen to me!’ Faces turned towards her and she heard the faint fizzing of the arc lamps in the sudden silence. ‘It’s not contagious, or dangerous. The bacillus dies with its host. It’s safe – sigur, bezpieczny, saker... seguro. We know this because we’ve found plague pits before.’ She glared at the archaeologist. ‘Haven’t we.’

‘Er, yes, that’s right,’ he confirmed. ‘That’s why I’m happy to work here. You won’t catch anything here more dangerous than a cold.’

There was a general muttering, though the men seemed to accept what he said, temporarily at least. Cassie noticed one or two civil servants still casting anxious glances at the bones and hopeful ones towards the tunnel.

‘There’s no need to worry at all,’ she reiterated, brooking no denial. ‘There’s no danger.’

As she spoke she felt the stone move beneath her feet and instinctively bent her knees and raised her arms for balance. The structure was shifting. A deep growl of noise began and pieces of rock and clay showered her from above. She lost sight of the people in the chamber as the light dimmed, then was snuffed out.

The cavern wall was collapsing and the roof was falling with it.

‘Lady! Jump!’ she heard the foreman yell.

Against all her instincts, she leapt from her stone perch.

Plague is available in paperback and ebook

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