Book excerpt

Shadow of the Alchemist

A Medieval Noir

The Crispin Guest Novels

Jeri Westerson

St. Martin's Press

London, 1387
THE MAN RODE UP to the entrance of the dark building under a deeply shadowed archway and pulled on the reins. His horse complained in a husky rumble, shaking its head with a jangle of the bridle, before the man dismounted and tossed the lead around a post. The beast immediately ducked its head, bristly muzzle rooting into the snow for morsels of grass or hay. The man puffed a cloud of breath, gathered his cloak around him, keeping it close under his chin, and stared down one side of the empty street and then up the other. A gray mist obscured the lane and muffled any street sounds down the curve of the road. He was pleased to see there were no prying eyes either from a lone passerby or from the tightly shuttered windows above him.
He turned at last to the door, hesitated, and then, without knocking, opened it and ducked under the low lintel.
The place smelled unwholesome, of strange odors of unknown substances. He wanted to cover his mouth but felt it might appear as a sign of weakness. Instead, he threw back his cloak over one shoulder, displaying the finery of his cotehardie and bejeweled necklace.
He saw no one yet, though the glow of a fire flitted over the wall through an archway. Moving carefully through the dimly lit parlor, he made his way around shadowy chairs and tables with strange beakers and jars sitting on their surfaces. He passed under the archway and finally reached the hearth. Moving to stand before it, he tucked down the kid leather gloves between the joints of his fingers as casually as he could. It served to calm him, calm the ravaging thoughts galloping through his mind.
He was momentarily startled when he noticed the other man waiting for him off in the shadows outside the fire’s glow. Perhaps he had been standing there all along, watching him enter, studying him. He had not liked the pale man the moment he had met him weeks ago, but there was little he could do about it now. His sources had told him that the man could do the job and he hadn’t time to search anymore.
The pale man in the shadows hadn’t moved. One side of his face was barely lit by the flickering light, while the other side fell to blackness. His inky hair flowed over the black gown hanging from his shoulders. The gown’s smooth lines and fur trim seemed to be more shadow than cloth.
It annoyed the visiting man to be so startled. He didn’t like to be taken unaware. “I am here,” he snapped in French.
The pale man’s lip curled in a shadow of a smirk before he bowed and still said nothing. His white hands were crossed one over the other and the first man couldn’t help but think of a corpse, wrapped in a shroud, hands carefully crossed over the breast.
He glowered and turned to the flames, watching them lick over the wood. He wondered if the pale man knew that he would soon become a loose end, and loose ends needed to be discarded. Preferably in the Thames, where they couldn’t be found again.
He opened and closed his fist, kid leather squeaking over his fingers. This was an ill-conceived meeting. He should never have agreed to it. “I don’t care how you do it,” he continued. “Just get it done.”
“What you ask,” the pale man said suddenly. His voice had a hint of amusement to it. As if he were laughing at the other. “It will not be easy.”
“I’m not paying for easy.” He glared at him squarely. “If you couldn’t do it, you should have said so in your letters. I’ve gone to great expense to bring you here. You came highly recommended.”
“I am aware of that, my lord. Never fear. It shall be as you wish.”
“It had better be. Can you … can you find your way…”
“I spent many years in London as a lad, my lord. I know my way around quite well.”
“I see. Good.”
“As soon as possible. There is no time to waste.”
A sound in the next room drew his attention away from the pale man. He looked to his left, where the door was ajar. In the dim light, he could just make out a figure, seated. The person was squirming. He could not tell if it was a man or a woman before the figure gave another muffled whimper, as if its mouth were covered by a gag. He narrowed his eyes, peering. Was the figure tied to the chair?
He turned away. Not his business.
He reached into his scrip and pulled out the money pouch. After walking to the rectangular table sitting in the center of the room, he dropped the considerable pouch there. The coins clinked together and the leather pouch pooled.
“Don’t contact me again,” he said. He did not look about the room, did not look back at the pale man or the struggling person through the doorway. He merely adjusted his cloak and strode out the door into the mist.

Copyright © 2013 by Jeri Westerson

JERI WESTERSON is the author of five previous books featuring Crispin Guest—Veil of Lies, Serpent in the Thorns, The Demon's Parchment, Troubled Bones, and Blood Lance.  She lives in Menifee, California.