Death at St. Vedast by Mary Lawrence is the 3rd book in the Bianca Goddard Mystery series.
Bianca and her husband John are delighted to share in the glad fortune of their friend, Boisvert, the silversmith, who is to wed Odile, the wealthy widow of a goldsmith. But a pall is cast over the upcoming nuptials when the body of a pregnant woman is found beneath the bell tower of St. Vedast, the very church where the betrothed are to be married.
Tragedy strikes again at the couple’s reception, when Odile suddenly drops dead in the middle of the wedding feast. The constable suspects Boisvert poisoned his new bride for her money, but there’s not a trace of poison in her food or wine. Could the two deaths be connected? To prove their friend’s innocence, Bianca will need to employ her knowledge of alchemy—for if she can determine how the bride was killed, she may find the person responsible for her murder—before another victim is added to the death toll…
London, December 1543
She would touch the moon.
Her bare feet met the hard earth, and the cold shot through her legs and spine. The shock alone would have startled most to their good sense. Yet she seemed oblivious to her feet turning blue against the ground. The linen smock she wore was of thin service against December’s breath—a breath blowing in gusts and catching her hair, twisting it like ribbons. Her neck bent at an unnatural angle and she saw the road slant like milk being poured from a jug. She adapted her steps to this tilted horizon— a toe striking the road, then the flat of her foot, so that she appeared to be dancing to a tune only she could hear.
No one was out at this devilish hour—save for a man burying the corpse of his beloved dog and a drunk cursing the cold as it bit at his face. Most slept huddled beneath layers of wool and fur, their bed curtains pulled tight. Heated stones at the feet of beds grew cold and were irritably kicked to the floor. Tallows guttered in pewter holders, snuffling from a draft through a window.
Though the silence of the night was broken with the occasional lowing wind, only a few heard the loud intrusion of the woman’s discordant singing. Her raucous song was mostly non- sense, neither patter nor sea shanty, but instead was an eerie chorus, ranging higher than the screech of a gull and just as shrill. Thinking her drunk, those restless enough to bother shouted from opened windows.
“Stupid trug! Are ye mad with French pox?” yelled one.
“Stop your mouth! It reeks like a common sewer,” yelled an- other. Playwrights grew imaginative when roused from dreams.
But to these insults she gave not a care.
Indeed, she did not seem to give a care about anything.
She dipped and careened, angled toward a front door and curtsied low before it. The door was closed and remained so. This she found comical, and she burst out laughing.
If only her laugh were as pleasant as her song.
She found amusement in her own hilarity and shrieked loud enough to set dogs baying two streets over. But then she tired, ran out of breath, and resumed her macabre dance down the road—toe to heel. Toe to heel.
Turning the corner, she spied the Queen Moon peering down from above. Such ethereal beauty should not be ignored. A shame that man preferred the company of the sun over her sub- lime charm. Not many chose to keep court with her celestial grace. Think on what they missed!
The woman could not bear to shun her lovely companion. She wished to climb to the heavens and kiss her round face. And why not? Had her mistress moon not kept her company on many a sleepless night?
Her shoulder spasmed, then rose to her ear and stayed there. She continued her dance, and when a dog stepped from the shadows to growl at her, she growled back.
A man, hearing that song, hearing the dogs bark, sought the source of the commotion. He came upon the woman and the dog and stopped. He stood a moment, glanced down at his feet to make sure they had ceased walking, and waited for his body to obey and cease swaying. He knew better than to finish off the dregs of any barrel left behind the Crooked Cork, but it was a cold night and he had no woman to go home to. Indeed, he had no home. His gaze returned to the snarling pair in front of him.
“What is this? A dog on four and one on two? This is not the song of maids,” he said, hoping the young woman might desist her gnarring and notice him.
Alas, she did not, and she thrust her jaw forward, trying to out- menace the slobbering cur. With arms outstretched and fingers curved like claws, she redoubled her efforts, growling ever louder.
The man took a tentative step forward. “For whatever bones the two of you must chew, I beg do not subject me to that grisly sight. It is too late for such sport, and you stand between me and my rest.” He wobbled where he stood, waiting for the maid to reply.
It appeared that the dog possessed better judgment. The animal probably sensed that this woman was a bizarre creature better left alone. Besides, she produced more saliva, and though she lacked long canines, probably the dog knew humans often possessed longer knives. The dog backed away and at a safe distance turned tail.
The poor sot breathed a sigh of relief. He was just about to speak when she turned her back on him and lurched forward. Down the lane she ambled, her unusual gait making him wonder if she might be a hunchback, the way her spine curved like a fisherman’s hook. His curiosity niggled him to follow. He hurried to catch up but trailed a few steps behind in case she decided to suddenly turn and gnarl at him.
Four parish churches abutted Foster Lane, not counting the ones tucked behind yards and chantry chapels. The woman stopped beside St. Vedast and leaned back, running her gaze up its exterior. Near the top, the Queen Moon peeked from behind the steeple.
The woman found the limestone less luminous than her mistress’s face, but it was smooth and cool to her touch. She rested against the building. In so doing, she finally noticed the drunk.
She did not voice a thought or start from surprise. Intrigued by his presence, she simply stared.
“Where is your cloak, m’lady?” he asked. “It is not such a balmy night.”
She did not answer.
He tried again. “Are you lost? I know well these parts, having slept many a night on the cobbles with stone stoops for my pillow. Tell me from whither you be, to yonder you go, and I shall assist you.”
Again he was met with wordless stupefaction. He wasn’t sure if she was drunk or just daft. She offered no proof one way or the other. Her eyes held a vacant stare and a lack of comprehension. He gestured at the church. “Ye take some comfort here, I see.” Perhaps she was possessed—bewitched. Once he’d seen a woman so strange that it took six men to carry her to a church and hold her down while the priest gibbered Latin and shook a crucifix at her. But that sort usually shrank from the sight of a church. That sort wouldn’t lean against its walls, admiring the façade, like this pitiful Bess.
Without prompt, she began moving along its exterior, muttering and caressing the stone. She yammered nonsense, giggling at her jest. He decided she had definitely lost her wit, until she turned and smiled at him—a smile that could melt the ice on the Thames. The wind caught her tangled hair and blew it in front of her face, across her forehead and neck. She fixed him with eyes that beguiled, and she recited a rhyme. The words sounded innocent enough, a verse of childish song and simple meter. It was the first intelligible utterance she had managed.
Unable to stem his interest, he followed when she ducked around the corner of the church and disappeared in its shadows. Normally he would have gone his separate way and left her to her own fate. But he could not resist knowing what she might do next. Even a bracing slap of December wind did not rouse him from her spell.
A beech tree grew beside the church, its branches arching to- ward the eaves of the roof. Before his eyes had adjusted to the dark, he heard the sound of scrambling and the snap of a brittle limb.
“Fair maid, what are you about?”
She giggled, then implored, “You are not so far. Let me stroke your face. Have you no one to love?”
The man, thinking as a man, blushed as a man grown hopeful. “It has been a long time, but if you wish . . .”
He was interrupted by an unnerving laugh. His eyes adjusted to the dark in time to see her step onto the roof. Blinking twice, he watched her scale its incline like a monkey.
“Are you raving mad? What are you about? Quit this folly at once!” he cried, and when her foot slipped and she fell forward, he gasped.
She slid down the roof, her fingers clawing for a handhold. Down she slid, the pads of her fingers rubbed raw, her bare feet seeking purchase. To his relief, she grabbed on to a protruding edge. Pausing a second, she then pulled herself to her knees. Stunned, the man could not wrest his eyes from the sight. She knelt, silhouetted against the moon, tenuously clinging to the roof, her hair and night smock buffeted by the wind.
The slurry of ale in his belly made quick his decision (which was not based on better judgment). He scurried toward the tree. He did not want to be party to her lunacy any more than he wanted to set foot next to her, but he believed he could coax her to safety.
He jumped for a limb, and, as he hung there, he gathered his strength and swung a leg over it. He hauled himself up and straddled the branch. With no small measure of grunting and cursing, he climbed the tree to the height of the roof. The dark obscured the distance between his perch and the ground, and for this he was grateful. He shinnied along the limb, feeling it dip from his weight, until he touched the roof of the church. Wrapping his arm around the branch’s girth, he reached out to the woman.
“M’lady, take my hand.”
She studied his proffered palm as if it were a fascinating de- vice, then shouted her childish rhyme at the top of her lungs. He startled and fought to keep his balance as she serenaded the steeple and the moon behind it. Such a loud, screechy rendition was surprising coming from such a thin-boned maid, but her jubilance spurred her on and she rose to a crouched stand. Fearlessly she scampered up the slope and pranced along the ridgeline.
The man drowned the woman’s singing with pleas to stop. He could barely watch as she danced along the peak of the church, her feet slipping, her body tottering, but neither could he drag his eyes away. She was beyond his help. If she fell, he had no way to break her fall.
She paused to croon at the moon, then galloped toward the steeple. The drunk held his breath until she reached the bell tower. He wondered if she had the sense to cling to the structure while he went for help. If he started shouting, perhaps someone might rouse from his bed. But the wind blew in whistling gusts, and even the woman’s clamorous song got lost in its howl.
To his wonderment, she did cling to the tower. She spread her arms and flattened herself against it. Her head tilted to spy the moon with one eye.
“Stay you,” he cried when the wind calmed. “I shall enlist an army of men to help!”
What would become of her once she was rescued? Would she be tossed in the Clink with other nattering fools? Perhaps a loved one might find her and soothe her wretched soul. If that were true, thought the man, where was her lover now? Perhaps she needed his love and once he had delivered her to safe ground she would shower him with affection. The man grew suddenly warm. A woman would give his life purpose. He would right his wrongs for a woman’s love. Besides, she was not so fearsome in appearance if he ignored those vacuous eyes.
Again he shouted that he would soon return. He inched his bottom down the limb toward the trunk. When he met the bole of the tree, he paused for a last look at her before his final descent.
Ignoring his plea, she climbed the belfry toward the spire. Her rhyme carried to his ears as she pulled herself onto the tower’s ledge. Wrapping her arms around the spire, she began to scale the tapered structure, inching her way to the pinnacle.
The man could not move or shout. Did she wish to touch the moon? At the top, she cooed and spoke to the celestial queen as if she expected a reply. She held tight with one hand, and with the other she reached over her head.
He glanced down, thinking of the dangerous distance be- tween himself and the ground. Where she held reign, it was doubly high. His toes tingled from the fright of it. His false bravado, from guzzled swill, disappeared.
Was she a sylph—a creature of his imagination—a vaporous woman inhabiting the air? He rubbed his eyes to remove the vision. He dug at them as if to pluck them from their sockets. It was a man’s noble duty to save a lady fair. And was she not a woman in distress? He blinked hard, then realized he was just a drunk sitting in a tree watching a gibbering madwoman. What spell had she tried to cast on him? He returned his gaze and saw her pull herself onto the peak, as if she meant to stand on its very top. Whether the woman was real or not, he shouted in panic, “Nay, leave it!”
Did his words give her pause? He blamed himself when her grip missed. She swiped in vain at the spire as her weight carried her away from it. Her arms and legs flailed. She was falling.
She hit the roof of St. Vedast, and the man felt the jolt of impact rip through his own body, as if he, too, had fallen and cracked every bone in his spine. She slid down the incline toward the eave. Nothing would break her fall now. Not even the branches where he sat reached that far.
He would remember her eyes, wide with terror as she screamed and tumbled past. Even as witless as she appeared to be, he knew she sensed the approach of her final moment. Her body met the ground with a sickening thud. A sound he would never forget.
And the Queen Moon watched, as was her pleasure, cold and distant.
Copyright © 2016 Mary Lawrence.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Mary Lawrence lives in Maine and worked in the medical field for more than twenty-five years before publishing her debut mystery, The Alchemist’s Daughter (Kensington, 2015). The book was named by Suspense Magazine a “Best Book of 2015” in the historical mystery category. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including the national news blog The Daily Beast. Book 2 of the Bianca Goddard Mysteries, Death of an Alchemist, released in February 2016. Visit the author at www.marylawrencebooks.com.