Begins October 1663.
In 1663 the summer in London was chill and wet, a bleak contrast to the sun of Portugal and Spain from where Thomas Chaloner has just returned. He finds his lodgings in ill-repair, his clothes spoilt and a letter from a fellow musician, Maylord, urgently seeking Chaloner's advice. But before he can tackle any of these matters he needs money, and he sets out in search of his employer, the Lord Chancellor, and of the pay and expenses that he is owed.
He finds that much has changed during his four month's absence. A tax on printed newsheets has led to a plethora of handwritten pamphlets and the coffee houses are abuzz with the rivalry between the two main producers and with the hypocritical activities of L'Estrange, a man appointed to censor the news, but who also profits by its dissemination.
Then, to his deep sorrow, Chaloner learns that his friend Maylord is dead, reputedly from eating green cucumbers, but he has to put his grief to one side while he tracks down the Lord Chancellor. And when he does run him to earth, he is immediately given a task: to investigate the strange death of one of L'Estrange's lackeys, a solicitor named Newburne who has the reputation of being too close to a violent criminal in Smithfield. A man who has the nickname "Butcher" and in whose company Newburne had been when he died after partaking of some cucumber.
Eminent physicians may claim such food is dangerous, but Chaloner's own experience tells him that two such deaths within days of each other are no coincidence, and he is plunged into the noisome courts and alleys of Smithfield as he tries to learn the identity of the Butcher, and why a sensitive musician and a shady solicitor should have met such similar ends.