“Man of Science” Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he’s framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he’s forced to trust in the superstitions he’s always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger’s execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There’s a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart.
File Under: Fantasy [ Straybound | Royal Magic | A Good Hanging | Secret Sister ]
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About the Author
WENDY TRIMBOLI grew up in England, Germany and the United States, and learned to speak two languages well enough that most people can understand her. Determined to ignore her preference for liberal arts, she attended the US Air Force Academy then worked as an intelligence officer, which was less exciting than it sounds. These days she has a creative writing MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Colorado with her family, border collie, and far too many books.
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Gaslamps bobbed like faerie lights in the foul wind sweeping down from Greyanchor Necropolis. Roger Weathersby adjusted his topcoat to conceal the rope and rolled-up sheet slung over his shoulder. Thrusting his moth-eaten gloves in his pockets, he inventoried his supplies with his fingertips: candles, tinderbox, lockpicks, folding candle hood, and a reassuring – if useless – garlic bulb.
"You're lookin' a mite wet, Roger love," crooned a painted doxy from a lodging house doorway. Her skirt clung to her thighs like rotten leaves. "Still no coin? Discount for that handsome face."
Roger cast her a regretful look and tucked his chin behind his collar. "Try me again tomorrow. You'll hear my pockets jangling all the way in Mouthstreet."
Veering off Goatmonger Street, he headed toward a looming hill, swollen with centuries of bones. He lost his hat in a mad shimmy over the necropolis wall but didn't waste time searching. Enveloped by fog, Roger relied on water-filled wheel ruts left by a hearse to find his way through the forty-acre necropolis. On the previous day, he had trailed a funeral through the gate, and noticed the simplicity of the affair: a single gentleman mourner and an anonymous mute clad in the traditional crape and mourning mask. Such closefisted families never bothered to hire a night watchman.
This corpse would be ripe for the plucking.
Dolorous Avenue, where Caligo's most venerable families were interred, descended trench-like into the ground, a sliver of sky visible through the encroaching flora. The ivy-sheathed family crypts stood in rows like townhouses. Flagstone paths lead to wrought-iron porticoes that shielded crypt doors from the weather. Tiny glowing ghostcandle mushrooms sprouted from chinks between the stones, and the statue of some long-dead queen clawed the air with marble fingers. Decades of rain had streaked sooty tears down her face.
Roger drew the garlic from his pocket. He tore off a clove, peeled it, and popped it in his mouth. Chewing slowly, he knelt before the metal door of the Smith crypt, then tossed another garlic clove at the statue for good measure. A decorative iron curlicue blocked the keyhole, meant to deter amateurs. Roger gave the obstruction a practiced twist and slid it aside.
"May the foul Caligo mists blacken my lungs long afore the were-beasts get me." The sound of his voice banished fear – a little.
He glanced over his shoulder at the marble queen. Had she moved? Roger stood and approached her, watching her stone fingers as if they might conjure sparks, or fountains of ink, or whatever illusory faerie-rubbish the royals waved about as proof of their superiority.
"Poor jammy tartlet." Roger passed a hand over her marble cheek. "Having to witness my transgressions. You won't sell me out, will you, your highness?"
He gave a mock bow and retreated to the crypt door. Lifting a surgeon's charm from beneath his shirt, he kissed the shard of skull embedded in pewter for luck. He selected a tension wrench and, working by feel, torqued the lock's internal cylinder, then manipulated the tumbler pins with a diamond pick.
"May Reason drive out the hags and warlocks who sell their unicorn paste on Mouthstreet to the unschooled masses," he whispered. The internal mechanism clicked. Close. So close. And then ...
Pang. Pang. Pang.
Roger froze. Metal struck metal – three times, then silence.
"I refuse," he whispered as cold sweat dribbled down his forehead, "as a man of science, to acknowledge witchcraft, spirits, vampyres, polterghosts, goblins, fae, volcanic subdragons, saint-sprites, mermaids, miracles –"
Pang. Pang. Pang.
The sound came from Roger's right. Shadows enveloped the portico. Behind him, he could make out the gray, rain-washed cobbles of Dolorous Avenue and the silhouette of the stone queen.
A faint blue light floated in the dark before his eyes. His stomach twisted.
Wary of watchmen, Roger hadn't bothered with a light. Now, arrest by a flesh-and-blood man seemed almost ... welcoming. Roger fumbled in his pocket for a candle. He struck frantically with his flint and iron, struggling to light the damp tinder, then the wick. At last the flame flared up.
With a shaking hand, Roger raised the candle toward the shadows. He nearly fainted at the sight. A child swayed in the far corner, a pale girl-like thing in a puff of white nightdress. Her hands clasped a bouquet of glowing mushrooms – the hovering light. Her white sliver of neck ended in a blob of darkness. No head, no face.
The candle rolled from Roger's fingers. "By the Lady's nethers!" He couldn't rise from his knees, nor unclasp his hands.
Roger pressed his palms to his face. Garlic oil coated his fingertips. He pulled the second bulb from his pocket, lobbed it at where the girl-thing's head should have been, then grabbed the candle. It hadn't gone out.
The being crouched and caught the garlic bulb when it bounced off the wall. A face like a half moon appeared above her neck, as if she'd swung back a mop of dark hair. Her mouth made a thin line. No eyes, just black holes.
She tore at the garlic, defying all that superstitious nonsense of its protective qualities. A clove hit his shoulder. His chin. His eye. He heard a shriek. Her? Or himself?
Roger lurched to his feet. His head smacked a curl of wrought-iron lattice. The holes in the being's face filled his vision. All went dark.
Garlic – strong and fresh – tickled his nose. He felt ill.
"You ain't dead." A voice. A girl's voice, lit with annoyance but otherwise normal. "If your legs work now, then run. Afore I fetch someone bigger."
Roger lay on his back. He struggled to sit up. A girl crouched over him holding the candle. He wiped crushed garlic from his upper lip, blinking. She was a normal-looking girl with a soaked, otherwise normal-looking face.
"See?" she said. "I washed off the flour an' the coal. You ain't being hauled off to hell just yet."
"That were ... you?"
"I like scaring scoundrels, not killing 'em. But breaking locks, grave robbing and such, you near deserve it. Besides, I saw the prison brand on your neck. Get nabbed again, and you'll hang."
Roger Weathersby, man of science, faced with this more-or-less logical explanation for his paranormal experience, laughed. It hurt. His head throbbed. Self-consciously he retied his neckcloth to cover the black, crenellated wall tattoo that marked him as an ex-convict. Warm blood plastered his hair to his forehead. "So what," he said at last. "You the caretaker's lass or some such?"
The girl thrust the candle flame at Roger's nose. "A minute ago you was begging for mercy. I won't let you forget it. Who am I? My mother is a night-walking pixie and Queen of Crumpets. I work in a laundry during the day while she sleeps, and at night she turns into a faerie. She brings me hot cross buns."
She paused. "What's that look for? You think I'm mad?"
"You mean your mother is a street-walking doxy and Queen of Strumpets, right? She lets the dead watch you while her room is busy, eh? Got a cozy nest in a hollowed-out crypt somewhere? Smart lady, your mother." Roger had apprenticed for an undertaker and seen what could befall a nine year-old girl fending for herself on the streets.
"Nasty graverobber. A pox on you."
"Pox ain't no curse you can call down on people for no reason. It's a disease that spreads in certain nasty, preventable ways. And as I'm enlightened, I know how to keep immune." He touched his pewter medal. "Now stand aside, dollymop. There's a gentlewoman behind this door crying out to be released from an eternity of useless rot. And I'll be the one to free her." He set the hood over the candle, so it wouldn't be seen from the avenue.
"There ain't no crying lady," said the girl with a snort. She eyed the iron crypt door. "Is there? Why would anyone send for the likes of you?" Still, she stood aside and handed Roger one of the lockpicks he'd thrown into the grass in his terror.
"How'd she die?" asked the girl while Roger fiddled with the lock. He could hear the pins clicking into place.
"Hot cross buns." Roger removed his coat and set it aside. He took out the long, beaked leather mask and placed it over his head. Disks of red glass set into the mask's circular eyelets turned the candlelight a blood-red hue.
"You look like the vulture at Marlowe's Menagerie," snickered the girl. "What's the use of that thing?"
"In case she smells." So much for instilling respect. He pried back the mask and put another garlic clove in his mouth.
The girl stuck out her tongue. "And that?"
"In case she's not dead. Want one?"
"Also cures ulcers, warts, and helps you see in the dark."
The latch slid back with a clang, and Roger pulled at the crypt door's handle.
"You, little ghost," he said to the girl, his voice muffled behind the mask, "are not to step a foot in that bone box."
"Don't tell me what to do."
"Hysteria ain't healthy for young ladies."
"Who said I'm a lady? The name's Ada, but you can call me Ghostofmary. That's what the boys call me, ever since I danced in the moonlight on the tomb of Sir Bentley Morris and set 'em all screaming –"
"Ada, you stay out here."
"So you go in then," said Ada, folding her arms. "I'll close the door behind you. Maybe I'll lock it."
Roger grimaced. "You're in league with the devil. Hold the candle then. I'll test for traps – sometimes the nicer crypts are rigged with a spring-gun and tripwire. Here, stand back." He cut a long strand of ivy from the wall and flicked it through the entrance like a whip, using the door as cover. "Safe as fishes. No wire, or the ivy would have snagged it. Couldn't afford one, I expect." He held out the battered metal flask he kept in his waistcoat pocket. "Now take a sip of this. It helps ready you for ... the looking part."
Ada took a swig, coughed, and handed it back. "Gin?"
Roger nodded. He tossed back a mouthful and eased the door open.
Most noble family vaults housed a modest row of ornate coffins, but this one held a jumbled two dozen at least. The older ones had been stacked three high, packed so tightly that he couldn't see the back wall. The newest coffin, a cheap varnished pine box, was identifiable by its dustless lid. There were no flowers, nor the usual incense burners left by mourners.
Roger shook out the linen sheet he'd carried under his topcoat. He had Ada spread it on the ground while he pried out the nails fastening the coffin lid.
"You do all this alone?" asked the girl. "I thought body snatchers ran in gangs."
"I'm a vault man. You need more hands for digging up graves. But with a locked vault and a light lady corpse, I'd rather do it myself. Don't need to split the payment, neither. But we must leave the place as we found it. If family comes to visit, they can't guess by looking that we was here – unless they open the coffin itself."
"Must have had a big family once."
"And now they've lost their grand fortune, based on the sorry state of the funeral." Roger loosened the final nail and pried the coffin lid open just a crack.
"I thought it would smell worse." Ada sounded disappointed. To Roger's amusement, she hid her face, peering through the gaps between her fingers. Then darker thoughts distracted him.
What horrors might he find within? After several years as a body snatcher, he still hadn't lost his terror of this moment. A half-rotted ghoul? A writhing nest of rats? Violent mutilation? He took another swig of gin. A long one this time, letting it burn all the way down his gullet.
Roger pulled at the lid and forced his eyes open, then recoiled in shock. He'd never seen anything like this.
Ada shrieked and bolted out of the crypt. Roger heard her sobbing under the portico, but now was no time for emotion. The barrier of his mask gave him a much-needed feeling of separation.
She lay there, a woman so newly dead that sweat still glistened on her forehead. A woman whose face he recognized. But from where? How? He couldn't think. Her wide, lifeless eyes stared up at him, and her mouth formed a silent gaping scream – an expression no worthy undertaker would tolerate. The shredded remains of a bouquet lay scattered over her red taffeta dress. Her black lace veil had ripped. Most unnerving of all were the long vertical rips in the satin lining of the coffin's lid, made by a live woman's fingernails.
This woman had been dead a few hours at most.
A chill crept up his spine. Did he recognize her? Her waxen face bore an inhuman pallor. She looked about thirty. He had a flash of memory: this woman in a white cook's apron and cap. Perhaps he'd seen her in the royal kitchen where he'd been a scullion years ago. No, he must be mistaken. A cook could never marry so grand as to find rest on Dolorous Avenue. The shock must have triggered strange associations in his brain.
Roger wiped his sleeve across his soaked brow. He lifted her hand and pressed a finger into the vein of her wrist. She was dead now, at any rate. Accidental premature burial was not unknown. It was not his fault. Though a resurrectionist in name, he could not actually bring the dead back.
"I'm sorry," he mouthed. "Sorry I were but an hour too late."
If not for his dire need of wages, he'd gladly have shut the vault and gone straight home. Or to the Fox & Weasel for a pint or three. But he had his overdue rent to think of, the odd creditor, and the distant twinkle of a true medical career – though perhaps he'd have to resort to highway robbery first. Pretend she's a statue, he told himself as he tied a handkerchief around her face. A cold marble statue. Or a clay one, as rigor mortis had not yet set in.
It only took a few minutes to lay the corpse on the sheet. He removed her veil, dress, a small gold ring, a programme for The Reluctant Milliner, and a red monogrammed hair ribbon.
Her bare stomach appeared mottled with strange spots of a blue-green sheen that caught his eye in the dark, but the candlelight proved too dim for a deeper inspection of the body's condition. Probably mildew – he'd encountered all colors of corpse-mold before, from powder-blue to luminous orange, but never so soon after death, and especially not in winter.
However, this was no time to ponder the science of decomposition. He lowered her eyelids, and then placed her possessions back into the coffin. A corpse, according to the law, belonged to no one, but stealing even a tattered bit of shroud was punishable by hanging.
His hats would be the death of him, he thought. Swiped from the dead. His only vice, aside from gin.
Roger drew up the knees of the corpse and bundled it – he forbade himself to continue thinking "her" – in the sheet and slung it over his shoulder. Outside, the girl had recovered somewhat. She gathered up Roger's lockpicks, which he tucked away in his pockets with his other supplies.
"I need to make this delivery before dawn." Roger glanced toward the horizon, but it was obscured by fog. "Can I escort you to town?"
Ada shook her head. "I meet Ma at the bottom of the hill after the clock strikes six. But I've got a velvety coffin to sleep in, next-door to Sir Bentley Morris. Mine's empty of course, 'cept for me. My day clothes are there. And Ma always brings me a hot cross bun."
"Keep the candle, then."
As Roger offered Ada the waxy stub, something fell from the folds of his corpse-bundle and lay glinting on the gravel. Some personal effect must have been cleverly hidden, for Roger took care in checking his wares and had never before missed an artifact.
Ada scrambled after it, but Roger kicked it away and snatched it up first.
"Hands off, you sack-'em-up man!" Ada snarled as she tried to pry open his fist.
"That belongs to my stiff, you imp." Roger yanked his hand out of her reach and studied the object, a decorative hatpin with a small pearl centered in a swirl of petals.
Ada clawed at his coat. "Give it back! What does a stiff care about a pretty metal flower?" She tried to climb him like a tree, but he held her firmly by the wrist.
"The constables find that on you, and you'll be the one hanging, or locked up at the very least. I can't return it now. But I'll drop it in the Mudtyne soon as I can. You'll thank me later, little ghost. Now be off with you."
Roger crossed a field of headstones. When he reached the trees, he looked for Ada, but she had disappeared. Loaded down as he was, he cleared the necropolis wall with difficulty. He didn't find his hat. Feeling naked without it, he headed for town.
He trundled his freight up Goatmonger Street in a handcart he kept stashed in a shed at the bottom of Greyanchor Hill. It could have been a coal delivery, or firewood, laundry, any number of things. As he turned onto Mouthstreet, the bell at St Colthorpe's sounded four languid tolls.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Resurrectionist of Caligo"
Copyright © 2019 Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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