Another crime scene, a dead body and possible evi- dence of sorcery. Felix stood in the car park, and watched the activity in the railway station in Exeter. His gut squirmed at the thought of what he would see. He assumed the police became accustomed to seeing bodies, but he never had, despite spending time in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, where human life had become disposable. He pulled his collar up against the rain.
The station was lit by temporary lights on stands, illuminating one of the carriages of a static train. Felix paused at the entrance. The last crime scene he had attended involved an elderly woman stabbed to death, and her yawning wounds had haunted him for weeks. The police had consulted him on some “black magic” graffiti, which had turned out to be the logo of a death metal band. He took a deep breath, blew it out. Hopefully, his involvement in this case would be unnecessary as well.
A movement caught his attention as he walked across the car park. There was a woman standing in the rain a dozen yards from the ticket office, looking through the railings toward the train. She appeared to be watching the police as they worked, but her posture was odd and she didn’t look like a chance spectator observing a tragedy. The rain poured off a hat, the brim sheltering her face, which was whitened by flashes from the scene. She wore a long coat, with water streaming down it, and what looked like boots. She was definitely female; her features looked delicate in a long face, framed by short fair hair that was haloed against the arc lights. She was young, he thought, younger than him, anyway. Her attention to the scene was intense.
He turned away and approached the officer at the gate.
“Sorry sir, the station is closed. There’s a bus to take passengers to the next station.” The policeman had water running from the edge of a cap, dropping in silver lines down the wide shoulders of his coat.
“I was asked to attend. I’m supposed to ask for Detective Inspector Soames.”
“I see. Can I have your name, sir?”
“Felix Guichard. Professor Guichard, from the university.”
The man nodded to another officer, a woman who stared straight through Felix, then looked away.
Felix’s eyes began to adjust to the glare. Through the gate, he could see cast-iron columns supporting the roof of the station, the grandeur somewhat marred by billboards and modern wooden benches. A police barrier obscured the view of the window of one of the carriages. A number of people were walking about in white suits. Flashes lit up one carriage, greening the scene with afterimages.
A bleached figure beckoned to him. “Professor? Professor Gwitchard? Is that how you pronounce it?”
“Well, it’s Gwee-shar. It’s a French name.” A gap appeared in the ranks and he walked through to the white-suited officer.
“DI Dan Soames.” The man’s hand was warm and solid in the drafty, wet station. “We were hoping you could have a look at this scene for us. You’re a professor of what, exactly?”
“My subject is the culture of belief systems, religions and superstitions. I’ve worked with your chief constable before, on a case of a witchcraft killing in London.” Inside he was shivering. Soames was maybe five foot eight or nine, inches shorter than Felix, but had a restrained energy that made him seem like a larger man.
“Well, these markings have us stumped. Any ideas why someone would draw all over a dead kid are welcome. You’ll have to suit up.”
Felix followed him into a tented area where a young man helped him into a one-piece coverall and booties.
“Tuck your hair in, sir,” the young officer said. “We’re still looking for DNA and trace evidence.”
Felix pushed his curly fringe back. A single flash from a camera illuminated an image, which glowed for a moment in his brain.
It was the face of a girl, just a teenager, blond hair stuck to damp glass, over pearl-colored skin. She must have slid down the window, her eyebrow dragged into a curve, and her open eye stared, it seemed, straight at Felix.
Soames’s voice scratched into Felix’s awareness.
“Professor of superstitions and religions?”
“My subject is social anthropology, but I specialize in esoteric belief systems.”
Felix tore his attention away from the fading image of the girl. “Beliefs outside of a culture’s mainstream. My PhD was in West African beliefs. Witchcraft, sorcery, magic.”
Soames shrugged his shoulders and tucked the hood of his coverall closer around his face. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several young girls from the town.”
“Oh, I see. Is this one of them?”
“Possibly. The thing is, there are symbols—come and have a look. We were told you’ve done this sort of consulting before and attended crime scenes.”
Felix followed him along the platform and into the doorway of the carriage. “A few times. Do you know what happened? How she died?”
“We’re not sure. It looks like an overdose, but it’s too early to tell.”
He led the way toward the end of the carriage where a scrum of white figures was strobed with camera flashes.
“Can we have a look at the body, Jim?” At Soames’s approach, people fell back a little, some to the other side of the aisle, some to the corridor between the two carriages. The faint sour odor of the toilet was signposted with a glowing “Vacant” sign.
Felix squeezed between two officers to look down on the body.
At first, tiny details hit him. Her hand, lying on its back, her fingers curved like a dead crab on the beach. Her lips were distorted by the glass into a half smile, their lavender skin parted to show a few gleaming teeth. The space in front of her was covered with litter left for the train cleaner at the end of the journey. Felix wondered how many people had discarded used paper cups and newspapers on her table, walking past the slumped girl without realising she was dead.
Soames gripped his shoulder. “You OK, Professor?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes. You said there were symbols?”
Soames nodded to the man sitting beside the body, and he lifted the bottom of her T-shirt with gloved hands.
Felix flinched as her pale skin was revealed. Red marks criss-crossed her body, and for a moment he thought they were injuries. Then he realized she had been marked with red pen.
“That’s an Enochian symbol.” As the shirt was lifted higher and the slack skin on her belly was revealed, more symbols appeared in two concentric curves. “And that one, too. I don’t recognize all of them. Two circles of what look like sigils.” He bent forward, to get a better look, and caught the flowery scent of clean laundry and the acrid smell of voided urine from the body. Sadness rolled over him, and he looked at her face for a moment. So young. The surface of her eye was just touching the glass, starting to lose its gloss as it dried.
“We’ll photograph them at the postmortem.” Soames stepped back into the aisle, away from the actual scene. “So, what are these drawings?”
“Enochian symbols. They’re supposed to be an alphabet given to John Dee, an Elizabethan scholar. He got them through a man called Edward Kelley, who channeled angels for him.”
“Like a psychic speaking for the dead.” Felix’s mind was flying through memories. The arrangement of the characters in a circle seemed familiar.
“You believe all this?” Soames was staring at him.
“Of course not, but some people do. These symbols are used in ritual magic.”
“Like black magic, Satanism?”
“Colloquially, yes, I suppose so.” Felix leaned in for a closer look. “But black magic wouldn’t necessarily use Enochian sigils, and I can’t see any pseudo-Christian shapes. I think you can rule out Satanism.”
“Designs that are supposed to construct magical intent. Magic talismans and lucky charms sometimes have them.” Felix stepped back, his legs shaky, whether with tiredness or adrenaline he couldn’t tell. “I’ve never heard of them being used in this way.”
“After we photograph them at the postmortem, we’ll let you have a better look. The pathologist says there appear to be more on her back.”
Felix took a deep breath, and stepped out of the circle of genderless suits gathered around the girl. She glowed in the light of arc lamps, propped over the backs of surrounding seats. Soames followed him.
“You OK?” Soames brushed the hood back from his face.
“Yes, fine. It just seems sad—she’s so young.”
“I’ll wait for the photographs and then do a bit of research. Inspector, are the symbols in complete circles?”
Soames nodded. “We think so; we’ll know more at the post- mortem. It looks like two concentric rings of maybe a dozen or so shapes in each, drawn in some kind of pen. Why do you ask?”
“I’m not sure . . . I think I’ve seen something like it before, that’s all.”
Soames ushered him off the train and started stripping off the white suit. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you to keep this confidential, Professor.”
“No, of course.”
Soames smiled. “We don’t want a big ‘black-magic sacrifice’ headline in the local press.”
“I understand. But there is no evidence, in the UK anyway, of Satanist sacrifices of any kind.”
Soames’s smile faded. “What about that boy, hacked up in London? I hear you were consulted on that one.”
“That was a different kind of case altogether. A Muti killing, taking body parts to make magical charms. Terrible, but from a different belief system completely.” Felix dropped the suit and booties into a bin. “Anyway, you said this case is probably an overdose?”
“Maybe. She was a known drug user and prostitute. But we have three other young women who have gone missing over the last few months. Normally, we trace them to London or they’ve run off with boyfriends, but we haven’t had even a whisper about these girls. No texts, e-mails, no social networking, nothing. Then one turns up dead.”
“Well, get the pictures to me and I’ll do the research. I noticed someone in the car park. A woman, she looked distressed, like she might have known the girl . . .”
“What did she look like?” Soames scanned the station.
“I suppose, medium height, slim, attractive, shortish hair . . . blond. Striking. Thirties, maybe, it was hard to tell.” He looked across the tarmac, the rain drifting through cones of light onto parked vehicles.
The woman had vanished.
“t is said that the wolves of the Klaj, or the royal hunting forest of Niepolomice, are the largest in the world, fed as they are upon the great aurochs and bison that dwell there. Also the bodies of peasants, thrown out by cruel masters onto the frozen ground when graves cannot be dug, which has given them a taste for human flesh.
—Edward Kelley Journal entry, 11 November 1585 The Royal Road from Krakow
The darkness was filling the spaces between the trees when the first howl rang out. My horse flinched and tossed her head, I had to cling to the high-pommeled Magyar saddle. The mare stumbled behind the main party, flinching at the echo of the strange sound, neither hound nor man. I looked about me, the cry hung around the black trunks lining the forest road. The horse flared her nostrils, huffing in the cold air, rolling her eyes back at me. Whatever she scented put a judder in her trot. Veils of mist dropped through the canopy. Dew beaded on my cloak and ran off the brim of my hat. I turned in the saddle to look behind me, but the silent trees seemed empty.
Doctor John Dee, my master, sat tall atop a great horse. He was draped about in the cloak given to him by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth herself, at Greenwich palace after Dee had demonstrated necromancy. Another howl, this one more of a shriek, was cut short by a deep rumbling. I jumped, and the nag’s ears flattened onto its sweaty neck.
“God preserve us,” I prayed, clutching the pommel. I resisted the urge to cross myself, clinging instead to the greasy leather. Our rented house in Krakow, my mentor’s wife cooking, the sound of Dee’s children playing, all felt very far away. I longed for Richmond and the library at Mortlake.
Once out of the city, this country closed in on all travelers. No one dawdled on these roads, nor ventured off the track into miles of dense forest. I had long since lost all sense of where we were. Dee was the navigator, keen to add to his collection of maps and charts. We met few people on the road, and they treated us with equal suspicion. The Hungarian Magyars galloped everywhere on shaggy ponies, often with swords in their hands. The Poles traveled in armed caravans, guarding themselves against the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the gypsies and, most of all, the forest. I caught a drop of the mist on my tongue. Winter came early in the mountains of Poland; the rain had the taste of melted snow.
A flicker of movement in the edge of my vision made me lean back in the saddle. In the scrub that separated the forest from the road, blackened brambles shivered and cast silver droplets to the ground. The lead escort shouted to his countrymen with urgency in his tone. They kicked their horses into a canter, Dee’s horse swept along with them as the party rode away from me. I shouted at my steed in good English, then in poor German, but all the rangy mare could manage was a jaw-jarring trot. Then I saw it, a gray pelt sliding between decaying brackens. The wolf—for it was certainly no dog—threw back a long snout over the leaves, and howled with an eerie, halting voice.
The sound echoed between the trees. I could see, in the fading light, Dee’s horse being dragged by one of the bearskinned escorts toward a bend in the track. Dee was looking back, his face and long beard pale against his scarlet cloak, as the wolf loped onto the road. My mount stopped abruptly and only the saddlebow stopped me sliding over its neck. The horse squealed, backing, hooves catching on the road. I saw other shadow shapes oiling out of the undergrowth, hesitant at first, then bolder. They were thin, their bellies arched like siege mongrels, open mouths bloodred in the grays of dusk. I kicked the horse with renewed energy and it was startled into a canter past the wolf before us. Another leapt at the horse’s throat but a cut from my whip made it cringe away. It was then that I felt my seat slide loose on the horse’s back, the girth slack. Perhaps when she had stopped, it had loosened or snapped. The saddle, with both packs tied to it and I perched between them, fell into the road. I managed to land on one foot and to stagger into the crowding creatures, waving the whip. One of the beasts had stopped the mare again, who was now screaming in panic, backing step by step toward me and my protection. She lurched into me, so I lost my footing for a moment. The stumble to one knee brought the gleam of white teeth all around me as they closed in. I lashed out with the whip, and shouted at them in English. A few wolves scattered but then re-formed into a loose circle of gleaming fangs and scarlet tongues.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.