Freedom of the Mask

Freedom of the Mask

Illustration By Vincent Chong

Dust jacket and interior illustrations by Vincent Chong.

The year is 1703, and Matthew Corbett, professional “problem solver,” is missing. Last seen by his friends in New York before he departed on a lucrative, seemingly straightforward mission for the Herrald Agency in Charles Town, he’s been too long absent. His comrade-in-arms Hudson Greathouse has an increasing sense the young friend he thinks of as a son must have met with some unexpected peril. Following his hunch, Greathouse retraces Matthew’s steps only to find him first presumed dead, then accused of murdering a young woman and apparently en route to London with a devious Prussian count last encountered on Professor Fell’s Pendulum Island.

Little does he know that Matthews’s circumstances are growing worse by the second. For when Matthew arrives in the bustling squalor of Londontown, he’s come shackled, charged for the murder of Count Anton Mannerheim Dahlgren. No matter the lack of body, presumed lost to the ocean. He soon finds himself locked up in the infamous Newgate prison, and has drawn the interest of a mysterious mask-wearing vigilante accused of several gruesome murders. Greathouse and the woman Matthew loves, Berry Grigsby, travel across the high seas to England to aid their friend, but it is impossible to know whether they will reach him in time to save his life.

Freedom of the Mask is the sixth installment in bestselling author Robert McCammon’s acclaimed series of standalone historical thrillers featuring the exploits of a young hero the USA Character Approved Blog has called “the Early American James Bond.” The most surprising and ambitious volume to date, this is a novel filled with unpredictable twists and a note-perfect depiction of early 1700s London. Fans will not want to miss Matthew Corbett’s most dangerous adventure yet.

The Limited Edition will contain an exclusive bonus novella—over 22,000 words long—featuring Hudson Greathouse’s visit to “The House at the Edge of the World.”

Lettered: 26 signed, deluxe bound copies, housed in a custom traycase
Limited: 474 signed numbered copies, bound in leather, with the bonus story, artwork not in the trade hardcover, and housed in a custom slipcase
Trade: Fully cloth bound hardcover copies
Trade (signed): 1000 copies of the trade edition have been signed by the author.


Freedom of the Mask (exerpt)


It was a worried man who came down the gangplank from the packet schooner Ann Marie and set foot upon the wharf of Charles Town.

Hudson Greathouse stood upon the sun-bleached boards with the expanse of the walled city before him, its stone buildings of white, pale green, lavender, sky blue and assorted Caribbean-inspired hues shimmering in the dusty air of August’s final week. The salty smell of the sea—of which he had inhaled quite enough this last week of travel from New York—blew in from behind him, and before him wafted the oily perfume of the swamp from which the noble town had grown, and which also still held sway as a kingdom of moss and murk for many miles around.

He hoped that same swamp had not claimed the body of Matthew Corbett.

It was one river of thought he’d been beckoned along during the coastal voyage. The Ann Marie’s captain was an affable gent who kept a supply of brandywine aboard and was keen to share it with someone who could spin a good yarn. Hudson’s yarn had been the rope of truth, an account of his nearly-fatal adventure last September at what he called the House At The Edge Of The World. The brandywine had been strong, but it was not strong enough to gull Hudson into doubting that some mishap—perhaps, God forbid, of the violently deadly variety—had befallen his young problem-solving friend. And thus he had arrived with questions that Charles Town would be called to answer.

Under the spell of the morning’s sunshine, the harbor was busy with people who had gathered to greet the Ann Marie’s passengers and, the same as in New York, hawk their wares of trinkets and dance to a fiddler’s tune with their palms turned outward. Fishing boats were gliding out to sea. A little navy of small sloops, square-rigged ketches and larger ocean-going brigs creaked upon the ropes that held them fast, and here and there cargo was being loaded or brought up from the holds. It was quite the industrious scene, but Hudson had not the time to dawdle; he swung the canvas bag of his belongings across a shoulder and strode forward with what might appear to be furious intent, for indeed those who saw him coming gave way to let him pass, and in so doing females of all ages looked upon him with curiosity and appreciation while the menfolk examined the grain of the docktimbers or smoked their pipes with more of a clench to their teeth. Thus it was ever so with the advance of Hudson Greathouse, whose broad-backed physical size combined with the intelligent, handsome features of a swordsman and adventurer compelled some and sent warnings to others. At the moment his face was set upon the west, with purpose to visit the three establishments the Charles Town-bred captain of the Ann Marie had told him took in paying guests.

One of them had to have some knowledge of Matthew, Hudson reasoned. Unless the boy had been cut off at the knees before he’d even reached Charles Town. And by now, if that damned Professor Fell had him, it would be Matthew’s head that had been cut off.

“Stop that!” he snarled at himself, so vigorously that one of the fiddling ragmen immediately obeyed and cowered back if the approaching man’s shadow might itself leap at him like a panther. Then, once again more or less in control of the direction of his thoughts, the man Matthew Corbett referred to as “The Great One” strode by the poor trembling wretch and almost plunked a coin in his tin cup but he wasn’t feeling particularly charitable this day. Or any day, really.

At forty-eight years of age, Hudson had passed his prime but damned if he’d let anyone know it but his own self. His days of tavern brawls, back-alley swordfights and battles against cloaked assassins and hell-tempered ex-wives had worn him down, but far from out. He was, after all, still on this earth. And still a credit to his gender, if praise by the beautiful and vivacious Widow Donovan—who now simply went by the name of Abby, a free spirit who wore her blonde hair down about her shoulders even on the Sabbath—was to be believed. Well, he chose to believe it.

He stood three inches over six feet, which made him tower above most men. He remembered his father calling him a bull and his mother calling him a prince. Rest their souls. He imagined himself a bit of both. His thick iron-gray hair was pulled back in a queue and tied with a black ribbon, and he wore a cream-colored shirt with the sleeves rolled up, dark blue breeches, stockings a near color to his shirt and a pair of unpolished, sensible ebony boots. His jaw was square, his eyes deep-set, brooding and as dark and dangerous as tarpits. A jagged scar sliced through the charcoal-gray field of his left eyebrow. Two things he had recently given up: the beard he’d grown because Abby liked the one Matthew had when the boy returned from Pendulum Island back in April, and the cane that Hudson had been using to steady himself after being nearly stabbed to death by Tyranthus Slaughter last October. The beard had been a brief exercise in making Abby “tingly”, as she put it, but himself itchy, and though in younger years tingly might have won out over itchy this year it was more about the prince than it was about the bull.

The cane had gone because Hudson had realized he was depending on it too much, and such a thing could not be permitted. Yes, he was still sometimes unsteady and needed to grab onto something, but—dear God, man, wake up!—there was always Abby. The worst of that Slaughter episode had been the fact that for the first time in his life he’d been helpless; he’d felt the cold yet soothing hand of Death upon his throat, promising an end to pain and a path to rest. Except for Matthew’s efforts, he might have given into it. For without the boy pulling him upward to the top of that well, Hudson knew he would have sunken down and been done with it.

Boy? Matthew at twenty-four years of age—having celebrated a birthday among friends at the Trot Then Gallop tavern in May—was certainly not a boy, but Hudson still considered him so.

Then why did you let him come to this town alone, you fool? Hudson asked himself as he stalked along the wharf, winding his way between dandies, damsels, hawkers, beggars and everything it seemed but Indian chiefs. At the end of the wharf, when he stepped upon the street of crushed oyster shells, he smelled the merchandise baking under the sun before he spied it: a wagonload of fresh alligator hides and selling them a raggedy man and woman with three teeth between them and three eyes as well. Three hands also; the man had reached for one alligator too many. This pair had joined the throng to welcome the purses of passengers and were erecting a tent over the wagon to shield their hides from what promised to be a brutal sun as the day wore on.

And on any other day the man from New York might have been tempted to hear tales of how these scaly monsters were captured and skinned, but today with his urgent purpose he continued toward the first establishment that had been described to him, an inn owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Carrington, which stood nearest to the waterfront.

“Something has happened to Matthew.”

“What? What are you saying? Hudson, come back to bed.”

“I’m saying,” he had repeated to Abby very quietly on a very quiet morning one week ago, with light rain tapping at the dimpled window-glass and the sun yet shining on the other side of the world, “that something has happened to Matthew, and damned if I didn’t goad him into going to Charles Town. After all else that’s happened to him…I sent him off like a grinning fool. I said it would be good for him to get out of New York. That Pandora Prisskitt thing…it was a makepiece for him…a time-waster, really. We both knew it, and so did Madam Herrald.”

“Hudson…come back to bed…calm yourself.”

“Calm myself? I have awakened now for four nights in a row with this on my mind. I have sat right here in this chair and watched you sleeping and wondered if my friend wasn’t lying dead somewhere. Abby…he should’ve been back by now. Lord knows he wouldn’t stay gone so long, without there being…something.”

“And how long has it been? Really that long?”

“More than two months for a one night task. Consider the travel time there and back, give him a few days to make the rounds of coffee houses and taverns—which he likely would not do—and…you see?”

“I do see, but there is always the possibility.”

“Of what?”

“That—my darling Hudson, whose loss of beard must have shaved off some of your sensibilities—he has met a young lady and been smitten. Or perhaps knocked to his knees by that Pandora Priss person. Come to bed now, I need to curl myself around you.”

Hudson had been determined not to let his wagon be pulled off the road. He’d said, “Matthew Corbett is smitten by only one person: Berry Grigsby. Oh, he doesn’t fool me for a mad hare’s second. He wouldn’t be knocked to his knees by any woman, because he’s already sitting on his ass on the love fence. He just can’t make up his mind which way to jump. But…I’ve been thinking about this these last few nights and not wanting to pursue it. I’ve thought…give it another day. And then another and another, but no more. I’m going to see Berry tomorrow and find out if she’s heard from him. If she hasn’t, I’ll ask at the Trot. And if no one there has heard anything I’m going to Charles Town on the next boat out, and when I find that boy I’ll teach him the value of letter-writing with a boot to the rump. Why didn’t I go with him, Abby? Why?”

“Because,” she’d said in the way she had that was all cool lemonade on a sultry night, “Matthew may be your friend and associate but he is not your son, and if you thought nothing of him being in danger, recall that neither did Madam Herrald. Matthew prides himself on being a professional. You should also give him that honor. Now come back to bed, I insist upon your company at half-a-candle before dawn.”

Her insistence had won him over but it had not settled the matter. At first light Hudson had been up and dressed and, leaving Abby to weather at breakfast the silent storm of the landlady Mary Belovaire’s disapproval with her own sunny disposition and amazing disregard of public opinion, he was out the door of the boarding house and on his way to Queen Street and the home of Marmaduke Grigsby, the town’s printmaster and Miss Berry’s grandfather.

His hard-fisted knock at the door was loud enough to set dogs barking. On the river behind him a light mist held sway, and from it emerged small fishing vessels moving back and forth like old dowager ladies in white veils, searching for suitors.

Moon-faced and google-eyed, the printer of the town’s news sheet—this month called the Earwig, but next month it might be something different at the whim of its master—answered the door in his blue-striped nightshirt, his face with its odd proportions and its prestigious slab of a forehead still wrinkled from sleep. The elderly gentleman was beginning to stoop over so much that it wouldn’t require such an effort for Marmaduke to take a bite from one of Hudson’s kneecaps, and the way his watery eyes appeared to bulge from their sockets under the heavy white eyebrows it seemed he was measuring the distance.

“Lord’s mercy, Greathouse!” came the voice that along with his quill had launched a thousand fits. “What’s all this hammering?” The single tuft of hair that adorned the front of his bald pate stood up like a white plume of smoke from a Mohawk’s war fire.

“I need information. Have you or Berry heard lately from Matthew?”

“From Matthew? Greathouse…no…my Lord, have the roosters stopped their yawning yet?”

“It’s not that early. Now shake the sleep out of your brain. Matthew’s been gone for more than two months. I haven’t heard a word from him, and I want to know if—”

“We have not,” said the young woman who had emerged from the corridor to stand in the room behind her grandfather. “Should we have?” Her voice carried a touch of frost on such a steamy summer morn, and Hudson knew that whatever had transpired between Berry Grigsby and Matthew in the time since they’d both returned from their captivity on Pendulum Island, it wasn’t for the good.

“I suppose not,” Hudson replied after a short pause. “Matthew left here on a very minor errand. It shouldn’t have taken him this long.”

“Hm,” she said, still seemingly distant of concern, yet she did come nearer to the door and the early gray light.

Hudson had no idea how this lovely creature could have sprung from the rather unsightly Grigsby line, if Marmaduke should be one example of the family’s progress. She was tall and proud in her bearing, was fresh-faced and blue-eyed and had a beautiful abundance of curly coppery-red tresses that fell about her shoulders. A scattering of freckles decorated, in the most pleasant sense, her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Hudson believed she had recently turned twenty years of age, and thus she was well into her marriageable years; from what he knew, the town’s eccentric coroner—the king of bones up in that attic workshop of his atop City Hall—Ashton McCaggers was seen with her on many occasions. Any questions Hudson might have posed to Matthew regarding Beryl Grigsby went unanswered, and by Matthew’s grim silence on her account Hudson took it that she had become in the past few months a forbidden subject. No matter that Matthew and Berry had together cheated death several times, it seemed to an observer that they were quits with each other. Which must be an uncomfortable situation, Hudson mused, since Matthew lived in a converted dairyhouse mere steps away from the front door of Grigsby’s domain.

Used to live, Hudson thought. And then: Stop that.

“Is there anything else?” Berry asked, and she reached past her grandfather to put one hand on the door.

Hudson didn’t know why, but whenever he was in the presence of this young woman he thought of the particular season that was beginning to be popularly known as “Indian summer”, a combination of sunny warmth and bracing chill that came and went as the weather bode. Her affinity for eye-startling colors was well-known, as demonstrated by her green sleepgown adorned with red and purple ribbons, much like the first touchings of autumn to the Manhattan island trees. Her eyes reminded him of clear blue skies and—a little sadly—the great promise of youth that he now realized was a fleeting time that youth would ever waste. In her voice and manner now was the chill that did not brace the spirit as much as it promised to break it; she wanted nothing further to do with Matthew, and that was a declaration even a dunce like himself could quickly grasp.

“Nothing else,” Hudson said.

“Good day, then,” she told him. He reasoned that even the hint of concern for Matthew’s welfare from her was beyond the pale.

He nodded and started to turn away, and she was in the process of closing the door when she paused and said, in the same frosty tone, “When you find Mr. Corbett, you may tell him that Ashton and I are discussing marriage.”

“Fine,” Hudson answered, turning again to give her the full view of an expression that looked as if he’d been chewing lemons. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, living up there amid all those—”

The door closed, firmly.

“—skeletons,” Hudson finished.

Surely, he thought as he strode back toward the Trot Then Gallop to wait for its owner, Felix Sudbury, to show up for the morning sweep, that girl would not be happy married to the coroner. Why Matthew had let her get away, he had no clue. Of course, in Matthew’s line of work…there was much danger, particularly with this business of Professor Fell. And there the blade of truth pierced his heart afresh, because he had pushed Matthew into this damned trip. It came to him that Sally Almond’s would be opening sooner with its breakfast offerings, so that might be a place first to ask if anyone had heard from Matthew and also to feed his own appetite; a pity the kitchen couldn’t get anymore of Mrs. Sutch’s spicy sausages, but the only constant in this world was change.

Now, on this August morning in Charles Town, Hudson advanced along Front Street to where the crushed oyster-shells underfoot gave way to a more civilized pattern of white-and-gray stones, indicating a city that intended to improve its position among the colonies. Palm trees and palmetto bushes as well as trimmed hedges stood about, casting welcome shade. Carriages were on the roll, and as yet the horse-droppings on the street were not too bad. Hudson saw that some of the shops were already open, though it was yet early, and well-dressed figures of men and women under their parasols strolled along the sidewalk.

The Carringtons’ inn was a two-storied house, very neatly kept and painted white with a dark green trim. Hudson entered through the front gate and went up three steps into the house, where he found both the man and his wife drinking tea in a parlor while they went over figures in a logbook.

To the question from the bewigged and nattily-dressed Mr. Carrington about how their new arrival could be helped, Hudson said, “I’m looking for a friend of mine. His name is Matthew Corbett. He might have stayed here—”

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Carrington, who turned a few pages back in the hide-bound book and showed Matthew’s familiar signature to Hudson. “He did stay here, in late June. He attended the Sword Of Damocles Ball. You say…he was a friend of yours?”

“Yes.” Hudson did not like the sound of that word was.

“A pity, then,” said Mr. Carrington. “To perish at such a young age.”

“Perish,” Hudson repeated, and suddenly felt very cold on this nearly tropical day. “Trace back a ways,” he said, his voice tight. “What happened to him?”

“He became involved in the murder of Mr. Kincannon’s daughter Sarah,” said the woman. “At the Green Sea plantation. Oh, that was a terrible thing. People so loved Sarah.”

“Matthew is also held in high regard in New York. Please…about Matthew…go on.”

“Oh, yes. Well…sorry to say, the young man lost his life in the swamp up the Solstice River. But justice was done, I can tell you that. Your young friend discovered Sarah’s proper killer and pursued him—I should say, pursued the both of those villains—though he paid for that the ultimate price.”

Somehow, Hudson found himself sitting in an overstuffed chair though he had no recollection of doing so. Through a window he could see the ships in the harbor, and in this unobstructed view he made out a group of hagglers at the dock trying to coax money from the well-to-do with a monkey that was turning flips.

“Would you like half of a griddle cake?” Mrs. Carrington offered. “I fear it’s all we have left this morning. We’ve had a full house these last few days.”

“No,” said Hudson, who felt a weariness crash upon him as if he had been hit by the most vicious wave of the sea. “Thank you,” he added. He thought he might sit here until the next call for breakfast, but the idea of spending a night in the inn that was Matthew’s last residence on this earth…no. Think! he told himself. I’m missing something! Think, for God’s sake! His brain, alas, was a pit of sludge. But then he got his mind and his mouth working together, somewhat, and he asked quietly, “Where is he buried?”

“A thousand pardons, as we’re a Christian town, and also our deepest sympathies,” said the man of the mansion. “Mr. Corbett was not buried, as his body unfortunately was never recovered.”

“Never recovered?” Hudson sat up a little straighter in his chair. “Then how are you sure he’s dead?”

“Well sir, he did not return from the Solstice River swamp. He did not bring his rented horse back to the stable, nor did he settle his bill with us. Those particulars were taken care of by Mr. Magnus Muldoon. It was from him we learned of the young man’s regrettable passing.”

Hudson stood up; he no longer had need for a chair when there was urgent travelling to be done. “This Muldoon fellow. Where can I find him?”

So it was that Hudson’s large, scuffed boots took him nearly the length of Front Street, to a small shop with a front window adorned by the declaration Items Of Interest, Magnus Muldoon, Glassblower. In that window was a display of several cunningly-shaped, multi-colored bottles, along with what appeared to be small glass figures—a horse and rider, an intricate sailing ship, a tree stylized to appear blown by a restless wind. Hudson wasn’t particularly impressed by so-called artistic talent, believing such to be an outlet only for a weak mind. He saw no one in the shop through the window, and he imagined this Muldoon person to be a prancer. He was about to turn the knob of the shop’s door when he heard whisperings behind him and he looked around to see two very lovely young creatures, one in pink and the other in violet, standing under their lacy parasols. Miss Pink was whispering behind her hand to Miss Violet, who was staring with excited eyes in Hudson’s direction.

Even on so terrible a day as this a little of the bawdy cocksman awakened, and though Hudson had no time for these playthings it was a gratitude to know he was still—

But the two young women came nearer, and they peered through the window as if the Great One was himself made of glass yet inconsequential to their attentions, and Miss Violet said to Miss Pink, “Do you see him? Is he there?”

“No,” said Miss Pink, “I don’t see him. I can’t bear to go in, I’d be all nervous shakes. Let’s try later, Fran.” And without giving the visitor from New York a second—or even a first—glance the chattering pair of Charles Town daisies moved on with a wiggle and a giggle and left Hudson thinking how shallow was this new generation of female, and thank God he was long past their like.

Hudson entered the shop, causing a bell to ring over the door. It wasn’t a high-pitched little feminine ring, either; the bell that hung above his head was nearly the size of his head, and let out a coppery clang that he figured told the Carringtons at the other end of the street he’d arrived at his destination.

It wasn’t ten seconds before a pair of curtains behind the counter parted to give way to a man who Hudson realized was certainly larger than himself, not in terms of bulk but in terms of height, shoulder-size, and—damn!—the prancer was a giant. He had a thick but neatly-combed mane of black hair, a sharp nose and a square chin that looked as sturdy as a warship’s prow. Hudson figured him to be twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, surely this side of thirty. He was a handsome specimen, to be sure, and he was dressed simply in a plain white shirt and dark blue breeches.

“Help you?” The deep and rather rough-edged voice was polite but matter-of-fact.


“Yep.” The man’s iron-gray eyes took on a glint of curiosity. “And who be you?”

“My name is Hudson Greathouse. I was…am a friend of Matthew Corbett.” He saw Muldoon’s expression darken, and it appeared the glassblower had flinched just a fraction when that name was mentioned. Hudson braced himself for trouble, already trying to determine where to hit the man to put him down, if need be. Not that chin, unless he craved a broken fist. “I’ve come from New York and I’m not leaving here until I hear every word about what happened…and you’d better make it good.”

Muldoon didn’t answer for a few seconds. He stared into Hudson’s eyes, as if gauging the other man, and then looked at his own hands that gripped the counter’s edge. “Ah,” he said at last, in a quiet tone. “Figured it was a matter of time ’fore somebody came lookin’ for him.” He lifted his gaze to meet Hudson’s. “Who sent you here? The stablemaster or the Carringtons?”

“The Carringtons.”

“Yep, I settled Matthew’s account with ’em. You in the same line of work as he was?”

“What work would that be?”

Muldoon’s mouth crooked just a bit in a smile. “Stickin’ your nose in where it don’t belong. Oh, I ain’t down on that, mister. I know Matthew came to that ball with Pandora Almighty Prisskitt on account of me. But then…he come to see me, to make me—can you bear this?—into a gentleman. Like he was, and indeed he was quite the gentleman. Well, I’ve got a ways to go but he started me off.” Muldoon cast an appreciative eye around the shop with its colorful items of interest. “Makin’ some good money now. My Pap would never have believed such a thing possible, not in this town.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Hudson, “but I figure you’re going to sooner or later get to what happened to Matthew. I’m ready to hear that now.”

The giant nodded. His smile was gone, and his eyes were sad. “All right, then. Pull up a chair.” He motioned toward one on the other side of the counter. “It’ll take me a spell to tell it. How Matthew died, I mean.”

Hudson considered standing, but he realized that he would probably need to sit to hear this tragedy, lest he fall upon the telling of it. He drew the chair over and sat down, and with a heavy heart and an ache somewhere south of his conscience he waited for Muldoon to lay out the wretched tale. If the man was lying for any reason he would soon know it, and giant or not there would be some shattered glass and broken bones in this damned place today.

“It started with a duel at the ball,” Muldoon began, “and it ended in a boat in the Solstice River swamp. ’Twixt those two things…that’s the hell of it.”

Hudson said nothing; he had decided to let the man take his own time in recalling this descent into the underworld…or perhaps, he wished to delay as long as possible the details—which he had to know—about the death of a young man who he would have been proud, in some other time and place, to have called his son.


Vincent Chong
Robert McCammon
528 pages
United States
Out of Print