Excerpt from Book 1 of the Bess Ellyott Mysteries: Searcher of the Dead
London, Michaelmas 1592
“Tell me his name.”
The crone had eyes as pale as chips of ice. So pale and clear that the irises nearly faded into the whites. Bess found she could not return the woman’s gaze but instead searched for aught else to stare at. The rush mats upon the tiles of the hall floor. The orange depths of the hearth fire. The herbs Bess had strung to dry, her mortar and pestle at the ready upon the oak table yet forgotten in her distress. The tapestry of a hunting scene, the fleeing stag that always seemed to move when candlelight flickered across the surface. The steps adjacent to the hearth that led to the upstairs chambers, where silence hung as heavy as her thoughts.
However, she looked but briefly at the body stretched upon the settle where he had taken his final repose. A cushion had tumbled to the floor, and his arm dangled as if to reach for it. The cushion embroidered with birds he had so favored. Because you stitched it, Bess, with those fine long fingers of yours . . .
“Martin,” she said, her voice breaking. But the crone would assume the break came of grief, which it did most certain, and not also of fear. “Martin Ellyott. My husband.”
The woman scratched his name—when had someone of her impoverished circumstance learned the art of writing?—upon a scrap of paper. She had no penknife with her, and the nib of her quill was dull, leaving the markings blunt and large. Her knotted fingers struggled to hold the writing instrument, and as Bess had yet to light a lamp, she squinted in the dimness to see what she wrote. Their surname was misspelled; Bess did not correct her.
With a groan, the old woman rose from the stool Bess’s servant had brought for her and went to the settle. Bess looked away as she examined him. Heard coals settle on the grate. She wanted to cry, but her eyes had ceased shedding tears and burned from dryness. More tears, she knew, would come later.
“No pustules upon him,” the woman muttered.
“It was not plague,” Bess replied. “He had pains in his stomach and nausea. Troubles of the bowels with great purging. Fever,” she added, a hasty afterthought in her attempt to be convincing. “No pustules.”
The crone nodded, and the edges of the kerchief she’d wrapped around her head slid across her furrowed cheeks. “The bloody flux, then.”
Bess’s pulse skipped. “Yes.”
The old woman returned to her paper. Next to Martin’s name she inscribed “bloody flux.” Thus it would be recorded on the bill of mortality forever and ever. Leaving Bess alone to suspect the true cause of his death. Leaving her to escape from the one who had brought death to her house and dread to her heart.
God help me.
Excerpt from No Pity for the Dead:
San Francisco, June 1867
I’m in for it for sure. Dan and his buried treasure. Dang it all.
Owen Cassidy glanced over at Dan, the lantern dancing the man’s shadow over the cellar wall. He didn’t know how long they’d been digging, but they were both down to their sweat-soaked shirtsleeves, and Dan had been cursing under his breath for at least the past quarter hour.
Dan Matthews swore again as another hole revealed only sand and rocks and bits of broken construction rubble that had been used to level the building lot. “Anything there yet, Cassidy?”
“Nope,” Owen said.
Soon. Dan would give up soon, and they could stop and pretend they’d never been looking for gold. It had to be soon. Owen was tired of breathing in the dust they’d stirred up, most of it from the coal heaped in the corner, and his left palm had an ugly blister that was sure to burst. Plus, he was scared Mr. Martin would discover that two of the workers he’d hired to refurbish his offices had been down in the cellar poking around. They’d lose their jobs for sure.
Worse still, if Mrs. Davies found out what he was doing, she’d scold the skin plumb off him. And Owen never wanted her mad at him. She was the closest thing to a parent that he had, since his real ones had gone and vanished.
“You sure Mr. Martin would bury gold down here?” Owen asked. “I mean, beneath his offices and all?”
“Where better? His house where some nosy maid might find it?” Dan replied. “Who’d ever come looking down here? And why do you think he’s in an all-fired hurry to have this cellar bricked over when it’s been fine as it is for so long, huh? ’Cuz he wants his money covered over for safekeeping and none the wiser, that’s why.”
Dan sealed his commentary with a nod. It did make sense. Sorta.
And then it happened. If only Owen hadn’t shifted to his right and begun a new hole.
The sound his shovel made was suddenly very different from the clang of metal on stone. “Dan?”
Dan almost fell in his haste to reach Owen’s side. “You’ve found it!” he crowed. “It’s old Jasper Martin’s bag of gold!”
He dropped to his hands and knees and started clawing at the ground, forgetting about his own shovel in his haste to reach the wealth he was certain they’d found.
“What the . . .” Dan drew back, his face going as white as a lady’s fine handkerchief. “Shit!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “Why won’t he leave me be?”
“Who, Dan? What?” Owen asked, trying to get a look past the man’s broad shoulders. He couldn’t believe what he saw peeking around the peeled-back edge of a length of oilcloth.
Owen felt his stomach churn, and he clapped a hand to his mouth. Because what he saw sure did look like part of a blackened, rotting arm.