King James re-read Robert Cecil’s final letter with trepidation. The hunchbacked king-maker, who prided himself on his great logistical dexterity, had ended his days with a sadly muddled mind. In spite of this, his letter offered a credible warning about a gentleman named William Shaxper, an actor and shareholder in The Globe, who had once served as secretary to both Lord Oxford and the Earl of Southampton.
That was explosive alchemy. Secretaries were more than just competent note-takers and letter-writers. They were faithful confidantes, sworn to secrecy on a variety of intimate matters and backstage business. That meant Shaxper probably knew all of Oxford’s darkest secrets, including his paternity of the royal heir.
To make matters worse, Southampton had sponsored that treasonous play Richard II. Apparently, William Shaxper had had something to do with it, but he had gone unpunished. In this bit of unfinished business, the late Robert Cecil warned that if Shaxper ever tried to use the playhouses again to raise public sentiment in favor of Southampton’s claim to the throne, the King’s life would be in danger.
Grateful for the dead man’s advice, the King had sent for Robert Poley, one of Cecil’s best operatives. When he was shown into the throne room, he knelt before the King to receive his orders.
“I want you to follow this actor, William Shaxper of Stratford. Find out where he lives and where he stays when he’s in London. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
“Yes, Majesty. And what do you want me to do with him when I find him?”
“Nothing, for now,” the King said, disgusted by the filthy wretch with the long scar. “Just keep an eye on him. Watch out for the kinds of plays he puts on. Make sure none of them are dangerous. You’ll know what to do when the time is right. If he mouths a word of treason, silence him.”
“The way we silenced Marlowe?”
“Yes, I’ve heard about that. Make it look like an accident. We’ll publish our findings at the inquest and acquit you of everything, just as they did for you then.”
“I’ve been watching Shaxper for a while already. He doesn’t drink, so we can’t very well dispose of him in a tavern brawl.”
“I don’t care what you do. Use your imagination, as long as you make it look like an accident.”
“I understand, Majesty. We’ll arrange a little mishap for him in one of his barns, or perhaps in the back of one of the theaters. A few of us, when we used to work for Sir Thomas Knyvet back in the old days, would lie in wait for Lord Oxford and his men to come out of a theater or a brothel or a pub, and then we’d start a brawl and knife as many of ‘em as we could. We nearly killed the old Earl outside of Blackfriars. For a blue-blooded nobleman, his blood was as red as anyone else’s —”
“Enough about Oxford!” The King rose from his chair. “Yes, Majesty,” Poley said. “As you say, Your Majesty.”
“If Cecil were still alive, I’d ask him to arrange things. But as it is, I’m forced to deal with you gutter rats directly.”
“You can pay us directly, too,” Poley said, smiling as he held out his unwashed hand.
King James tossed a purse onto the floor. With great disgust, he hurried from the room.
Poley’s eyes never left him as he stooped to pick it up.
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