Jack Cowles, alias Black Jack the Highwayman, guided his mare with a skilled hand through the tangle of shrubs and trees that formed the heart of Cheshunt Forest. He knew this woodland like the inside of his pocket and he realized at once something was out of place.
“Something happened…” he said aloud, while looking around him.
Deep in his bones, he felt that evil was committed here – and by that he did not mean the kind of trouble he inflicted on guileless travelers. After all, how bad could it be to relieve a bugger from some of the riches he had accumulated by robbing the poor? No, he meant the kind of evil that cowardly murdered innocent men and women. He considered the murder of the previous Marquis of Haversham as a foul deed and wished he knew who was to blame for it.
A few moments later he heard the snorting of a horse. Not long afterwards he saw the animal, obviously belonging to a team. It grazed peacefully and did not shy away when he jumped off Bess.
“Ho, horse, ho,” he said while patting it on the shoulder. He secured it to a tree alongside Bess. Then he looked for the coach the horse had pulled. What he faced a couple of minutes later shocked even the man who had seen many horrible sights.
A fine coach lay on one side along the road. Two wheels slowly turned, set in motion by the light breeze that shuffled through the trees. Between the beams a dead horse lay stretched out, mouth open and the lips drawn up in pain. There was no sign of the other two horses belonging to the team. The body of the coachman was found a few steps away, his neck broken.
Jack lowered himself into the coach. There were bodies. The first was that of an older woman whose attire suggested she was some sort of personal maid. Then there was a younger girl, also in servant’s dress. What was intriguing though was that both women had not died from injuries caused by a road accident. They were killed by a single bullet through the heart.
While his stomach somersaulted, he reached for the third body. A woman too, richly dressed in velvets and fur. He recognized her at once.
“Heavens, it’s Lady Haversham!”
In a tender gesture he wiped away the long strands of hair and the smears of blood that caked on the otherwise lovely face of the marchioness, the widow of the murdered marquis and now the wife of Lord George Templeton.
“Bloody hell,” he whispered between his teeth. “What’s going on here?”
He looked around once more and a sparkle caught his eye. He took away the ruby ring from the lady’s finger and was about to climb out of the coach when a faint sound held him back. Cautiously, he sat down beside the body of the marchioness and carefully shifted it a little.
Huddled against her stomach and covered by her arms, he discovered an infant, bloodied over. As soon as he lifted it out of the protective embrace of the dead mother, he realized it was still alive.