The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 132

   

I leaned across to take the lint from his hand, inadvertently putting a hand on the corpse’s side. The body emitted a low groan and Jamie leaped back with a startled exclamation, the light swinging wildly.

I had jumped, myself, but quickly recovered.

“It’s all right,” I said, though my heart was racing and the sweat on my face had gone suddenly cold. “It’s only trapped gas. Dead bodies often make odd noises.”

“Aye.” Jamie swallowed and nodded, steadying the lantern. “Aye, I’ve seen it often. Takes ye a bit by surprise, though, doesn’t it?” He smiled at me, lopsided, though a pale sheen of sweat gleamed on his forehead.

“It does that.” It occurred to me that he had doubtless dealt with a good many dead bodies, all unembalmed, and was likely at least as familiar with the phenomena of death as I was. I set a cautious hand in the same place, but no further noises resulted, and I resumed my examination.

Another difference between this impromptu autopsy and the modern form was the lack of gloves. My hands were bloody to the wrist, and the organs and membranes had a faint but unpleasant feel of sliminess; cold though it was in the shed, the inexorable process of decomposition had started. I got a hand under the heart and lifted it toward the light, checking for gross discolorations of the surface, or visible ruptures of the great vessels.

“They move, too, now and then,” Jamie said, after a minute. There was an odd tone to his voice, and I glanced up at him, surprised. His eyes were fixed on Betty’s face, but with a remote look that made it plain he was seeing something else.

“Who moves?”

“Corpses.”

Gooseflesh rippled up my forearms. He was right, though I thought he might have kept that particular observation to himself for the moment.

“Yes,” I said, as casually as possible, looking back at my work. “Common postmortem phenomena. Usually just the movement of gases.”

“I saw a dead man sit up once,” he said, his tone as casual as my own.

“What, at a wake? He wasn’t really dead?”

“No, in a fire. And he was dead enough.”

I glanced up sharply. His voice was flat and matter-of-fact, but his face bore an inward look of deep abstraction; whatever he’d seen, he was seeing it again.

“After Culloden, the English burned the Highland dead on the field. We smelled the fires, but I didna see one, save when they took me out and put me in the wagon, to send me home.”

He had lain hidden under a layer of hay, nose pressed to a crack in the boards in order to breathe. The wagon driver had taken a circuitous route off the field, to avoid any questions from troops near the farmhouse, and at one point, had stopped for a moment to wait for a group of soldiers to move away.

“There was a fresh pyre burning, perhaps ten yards away; they’d set it alight no more than a short time before, for the clothes had only just begun to char. I saw Graham Gillespie lyin’ on the heap near me, and he was surely dead, for there was the mark of a pistol shot on his temple.”

The wagon had waited for what seemed a long time, though it was hard to tell, through the haze of pain and fever. But as he watched, he had seen Gillespie suddenly sit up amid the flames, and turn his head.

“He was lookin’ straight at me,” he said. “Had I been in my right mind, I expect I would ha’ let out a rare skelloch. As it was, it only seemed . . . friendly of Graham.” There was a hint of uneasy amusement in his voice. “I thought he was perhaps tellin’ me it wasna so bad, being dead. That, or welcoming me to hell, maybe.”

“Postmortem contracture,” I said, absorbed in the excavation of the digestive system. “Fire makes the muscles contract, and the limbs often twist into very lifelike positions. Can you bring the light closer?”

I had the esophagus pulled free, and carefully slit the length of it, turning back the flabby tissue. There was some irritation toward the lower end, and there was blood in it, but no sign of rupture or hemorrhage. I bent, squinting up into the pharyngeal cavity, but it was too dark to see much there. I was in no way equipped for detailed exploration, so instead returned my examinations to the other end, slipping a hand under the stomach and lifting it up.

I felt a sharpening of the sense of wrongness that I had had through this whole affair. If there was something amiss, this was the most likely place to find evidence of it. Logic as well as sixth sense said as much.

There was no food in the stomach; after such vomiting that was hardly surprising. When I cut through the heavy muscular wall, though, the sharp scent of ipecac cut through the reek of the body.

“What?” Jamie leaned forward at my exclamation, frowning at the body.

“Ipecac. That quack dosed her with ipecac—and recently! Can you smell it?”

He grimaced with distaste, but took a cautious sniff, and nodded.

“Would that not be a proper thing to do, when you’ve a person wi’ a curdled wame? Ye gave wee Beckie MacLeod ipecacuanha yourself, when she’d drunk your blue stuff.”

“True enough.” Five-year-old Beckie had drunk half a bottle of the arsenic decoction I made to poison rats, attracted by the pale blue color, and evidently not at all put off by the taste. Well, the rats liked it, too. “But I did that right away. There’s no point in giving it hours afterward, when the poison or irritant has already passed out of the stomach.”

Given Fentiman’s state of medical knowledge, though, would he have known that? He might simply have administered ipecac again because he could think of nothing else to do. I frowned, turning back the heavy wall of the stomach. Yes, this was the source of the hemorrhage; the inner wall was raw-looking, dark red as ground meat. There was a small amount of liquid in the stomach; clear lymph that had begun to separate from the clotted blood left in the body.

“So you’re thinking that it was maybe the ipecac that killed her?”

“I was . . . but now I’m not so sure,” I murmured, probing carefully. It had occurred to me that if Fentiman had given Betty a heavy dose of ipecac, the violent vomiting provoked by it might have caused an internal rupture and hemorrhage—but I wasn’t finding any evidence of that. I used the scalpel to slit the stomach further open, pulling back the edges, and opening the duodenum.

“Can you hand me one of the small empty jars? And the wash bottle, please?”

Jamie hung the lantern on the nail and obligingly knelt to rummage through the bag, while I rummaged further through the stomach. There was some granular material forming a pale sludge in the furrows of the rugae. I scraped gingerly at it, finding that it came free easily, a thick, gritty paste between my fingertips. I wasn’t sure what it was, but a suspicion was growing unpleasantly in the back of my mind. I meant to flush the stomach, collect the residue, and take it back to the house, where I could examine it in a decent light, come morning. If it was what I thought—

Without warning, the door of the shed swung open. A whoosh of cold air made the flame of the lantern burn suddenly high and bright—bright enough to show me Phillip Wylie’s face, pale and shocked in the frame of the doorway.

He stared at me, his mouth hanging slightly open, then closed it and swallowed; I heard the sound of it clearly. His eyes traveled slowly over the scene, then returned to my face, wide pools of horror.

I was shocked, too. My heart had leapt into my throat, and my hands had frozen, but my brain was racing.

What would happen if he caused an outcry? It would be the most dreadful scandal, whether I was able to explain what I was doing, or not. If not—fear rippled over me in a chilly wave. I had come close to being burned for witchcraft once before; and that was one time too often.

I felt a slight movement of the air near my feet, and realized that Jamie was crouched in the deep shadow below the table. The light of the lantern was bright, but limited; I stood in a pool of darkness that reached to my waist. Wylie hadn’t seen him. I reached out a toe and nudged him, as a signal to stay put.

I forced myself to smile at Phillip Wylie, though my heart was stuck firmly in my throat, and beating wildly. I swallowed hard and said the first thing that came into my mind, which happened to be “Good evening.”

He licked his lips. He was wearing neither patch nor powder at the moment, but was quite as pale as the muslin sheet.

“Mrs. . . . Fraser,” he said, and swallowed again. “I—er—what are you doing?”

I should have thought that was reasonably obvious; presumably his question had to do with the reasons why I was doing it—and I had no intention of going into those.

“Never you mind that,” I said crisply, recovering a bit of nerve. “What are you doing, skulking round the place at dead of night?”

Evidently that was a good question; his face shifted at once from open horror to wariness. His head twitched, as though to turn and look over his shoulder. He stopped the motion before it was completed, but my eyes followed the direction of it. There was a man standing in the darkness behind him; a tall man who now stepped forward, his face glimmering pale in the glow of the lantern, sardonic eyes the green of gooseberries. Stephen Bonnet.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said.

A number of things happened at that point: Jamie came out from under the table with a rush like a striking cobra, Phillip Wylie leaped back from the door with a startled cry, and the lantern crashed from its nail to the floor. There was a strong smell of splattered oil and brandy, a soft whoosh like a furnace lighting, and the crumpled shroud was burning at my feet.

Jamie was gone; there were shouts from the darkness outside, and the sound of running feet on brick. I kicked at the burning fabric, meaning to stamp it out.

Then I thought better, and instead lunged against the table, knocking it over and dumping its contents. I seized the blazing shroud with one hand and dragged it over corpse and upturned table. The floor of the shed was thick with sawdust, already burning in spots. I kicked the shattered lantern hard, knocking it into the dry boards of the wall, and spilling out the rest of its oil, which ignited at once.

There were shouts from the kitchen garden, voices calling in alarm; I had to get out. I seized my bag and fled, red-handed, into the night, my fist still clenched tight about the evidence. It was the one point of certainty in the prevailing chaos. I had no notion what was going on, or what might happen next, but at least I knew for sure that I was right. Betty had indeed been murdered.

THERE WERE A PAIR of agitated servants in the kitchen garden, apparently wakened by the disturbance. They were casting round in a haphazard manner, calling out to each other, but with no light but that of the fading moon, it was an easy matter to keep to the shadows and slip past them.

No one had come out of the main house yet, but the shouts and flames were going to attract attention soon. I crouched against the wall, in the shadows of a huge raspberry cane, as the gate flung open and two more slaves came rushing through from the stable, half-dressed and incoherent, shouting something about the horses. The smell of burning was strong in the air; no doubt they thought the stable was on fire, or about to be.

My heart was pounding so hard against the inside of my chest that I could feel it, like a fist. I had an unpleasant vision of the flaccid heart I had just held in my hand, and of what my own must look like now—a dark red knob of slick muscle, pulsing and thumping, battering mindlessly away in its neatly socketed cave between the lungs.

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