Today, as part of the Blog Tour for The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine I have a very special treat for you all! An extract from the book!
Massive thanks to the author and all at Serpent’s Tail/ Viper Books for not only having me on this tour but also for allowing me to post this extract AND allowing me to have a copy of the novel to read! My full review will go up soon but in the meantime, enjoy Chapter 7!
Blurb (and setting the scene…)
WHO WOULD MURDER THE DYING…
London, 1665. Hidden within the growing pile of corpses in his churchyard, Rector Symon Patrick discovers a victim of the pestilence unlike any he has seen before: a young woman with a shorn head, covered in burns, and with pieces of twine delicately tied around each wrist and ankle.
Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins a society of eccentric medical men who have gathered to find a cure for the plague. Someone is performing terrible experiments upon the dying, hiding their bodies amongst the hundreds that fill the death carts.
Only Penelope – a new and mysterious addition to Symon’s household – may have the skill to find the killer. Far more than what she appears, she is already on the hunt. But the dark presence that enters the houses of the sick will not stop, and has no mercy…
Friday, July 7th
Charnel Ground, St Paul’s, Covent Garden
She rose from the dead. Yes, Penelope liked the sound of that. Unlike this poor girl. She stared at the body on the ground before her. Penelope was in the rector’s churchyard, watching the dead carts as they came in, the ghosts swarming the carts, looking to see if any of their family were to join them.
The body of the girl caught her eye as soon as it came off the cart. The shorn hair, it was unusual. Possibly an attempt to cool a fever, and yet . . . The girl had plague, there was no doubt. The tell-tale buboes were there. Penelope shuddered, reflexively put a hand under her arm and felt the trace of her own disappearing sores; then patted the white cap to make sure her black hair was still lumpy and accounted for underneath it.
It was her instinct, when she first fell ill, that God didn’t want her to die from something as senseless as plague. Why then preserve her for all of these years? She would’ve been much easier to dispose of when she was younger. Her aunt and uncle did try. The scraps of food. Penelope never really got over that period of starvation. She was as thin and scraggly as an old bush from a long habit now of hoarding her food instead of eating it.
Her aunt and uncle had attempted to beat dead her heart; but it had already been broken with the loss of her parents. They did like to tell her she was clever, but they did not mean it as her father did. They hissed it and followed it up with a slap. She hadn’t been there a month when she stumbled upon it, an overheard conversation late one night. She had taken to sneak- ing downstairs after they were in bed, to steal from the larder. That night they were still awake, and she heard her aunt talk of the profit they would have if Penelope were not to live. She didn’t understand why, but the intent was clear. They wished for her demise. So she left. She had been twelve, and told herself she would from that point on consider herself fully formed. Her father had already taught her more than most women – and men! – would ever know. Time to put it to use, she had said to herself, make her father proud. That she could read – English, Latin, French, German, Greek, though she kept the Greek to herself – and do sums made all the difference and she found one small job after another. And left one small job after another because the masters thought they owned her, body and soul. That was putting it mildly, she thought.
She moved her torch over the body before her. This poor girl, she had no blessings at all. The razored hair, the buboes broken and sewn back up, wrists and ankles rubbed raw from tattered ropes. A grid inked over her entire body, some of the squares encasing buboes, others surrounding burn marks of various sizes and depths or symmetric slashes of a knife. Penelope had never seen anything like it. But she had heard of something like it.
Penelope had spent more than a week in a cot near the rector’s office, had overheard things. The rector reading a letter from his brother to Bernard. A younger brother, furious with Symon. He cursed Symon, ordered him to call upon the family of some poor servant who had suffered a horrible death, pay them money.
Penelope later read the letter and pieced the story together from Symon’s conversations with Bernard. A maid named Mary. She had worked for Symon’s brother; but his wife caught him with his hand in her skirts and ordered her dismissed. The brother still had some feeling for the girl and couldn’t throw her out on the street (rather rare of him, Penelope thought) so he sent her to Symon; only Symon didn’t really seem to know much about her, not even if she was a good maid. She had gone missing, then a dead cart brought her in, but she bore the signs of mistreatment, of strange markings. Very much like those on the girl before her now. Penelope had heard Symon and Bernard argue over Mary, the grotesque marks about her. Bernard told him he was a time waster and assigned him a new duty every time the rector brought it up. But now there were two girls, both with shorn hair, too many incisions, too many burns and a grid drawn upon their bodies.
She needed to find Symon and tell him. And thank him. He had saved her; she knew he would. He had some of the other orphan girls look after her; made sure they didn’t skimp. They brought her broth, kept her warm, kept her company. Told her what new street the visitation had reached, which new house, who was dying, who had survived.
Penelope pulled a dark blanket over the girl’s body; a white shroud would be like ringing a bell for Bernard. She dragged the corpse into the alley off the churchyard, just outside the north gate. Since no one recognised the girl, the yard boys had tried to throw her into the paupers’ grave straight away. (Bernard had attempted the same with Penelope, she wouldn’t forget that, dear Bernard!) But she bribed the boys, so that they would leave the body alone until she could get the rector. He hadn’t yet come to the church that evening; she would have to fetch him. Bernard, she realised, was about as hawk-eyed as they came and it wouldn’t be long before he found the corpse.
She let herself into the rector’s house and stopped to listen. Downstairs in the kitchen, she could hear the quiet chatter of the household, cleaning up from the evening meal. She took a step up the landing; heard a series of deep sighs, the sounds of someone struggling with an intractable problem. It was a sound she recognised from her childhood; that of her father working late into the night on a law brief for a particularly difficult client. Usually his brother, her uncle. She climbed the rest of the steps and gave a hearty knock on the door.
‘Hallo, Mr Patrick!’
Symon swivelled in his chair and jumped.
She saw the confusion in his eyes flicker into awareness as he realised who she was. ‘You’re alive! Blessed be! But how?’ He ran over and offered her an arm for support. ‘Should you be up? Why you’re just as black and filthy as the day we met. I told those girls to take good care of you! They could’ve at least wiped you down. But I am glad to see you solid on your legs!’ ‘Is that nice’ – she gave him a ferocious look – ‘telling someone they’re filthy?’
She would not let on how hurtful his remark was; she had been quite proud of herself for changing out of her rags into a good brown dress and fastening her hair under a cap.
‘I do apologise,’ he said with a gentle smile. ‘But you are rather filthy.’ He reached out to touch a loose strand of hair and made a face. ‘And sticky.’ He picked up a cloth from the basin to wipe his hand, turned to settle down again with his papers. ‘I’ll talk to Bernard; he’ll get someone to help you with all that.’
As he went to sit, she pulled the chair out from under him. He hit the floor with a thud. ‘No time for that, you’re to come with me,’ she said.
He looked up at her in shock. She snapped her fingers, held out a hand to pull him up. ‘Come now! Bernard’s orders!’
He hurried to his feet, but took a step away from her, a look of alarm still on his face.
‘You know very well we must do as he says!’ She shook a finger at him, like a nursemaid. ‘Or he’ll eat you for breakfast.’
‘Bernard’ – Penelope tapped on his monstrous shoulder – ‘one of the yard boys started a fire in the church. Shall I put it out?’ ‘That’s master to you, you wicked imp! I’ll beat thee next time you forget,’ he shouted at her as he ran towards the church. ‘Quick, over here.’ She directed Symon towards an alley and gestured to a sorry shape under a blanket.
‘What’s going on?’ Symon grabbed the torch from Penelope. ‘Who put this here?’
‘Exactly, Symon.’ She squatted down and pulled the blan- ket back. ‘The boys were unloading the bodies and I saw her. It’s similar, isn’t it, to what you saw on Mary?’
Symon stood dumbfounded, stared at Penelope. ‘How do you know about Mary?’ They heard an angry oath and a great wallop of wood against stone and looked over towards the church; the sexton was barrelling back their way, brandish- ing his walking stick like a cudgel. ‘Bernard!’ Symon shouted, undeterred. ‘What do you know about this girl?’
Like that?? Want to read more? The Plague Letters is OUT NOW! And can be bought from the following links: