Death by Silver — an excerpt

The new edition of Death by Silver will be out this month from Queen of Swords Press, and to celebrate I thought I’d post a brief excerpt. To set the stage: Ned Mathey, a University-trained metaphysician with a brand-new practice, has been hired by the father of a former schoolmate to remove a curse from the family silver. He didn’t find one, but shortly thereafter the client was killed by a blow from one of the family’s silver candlesticks. Inspector Charles Hatton has asked Ned to re-examine the deadly weapon, and Ned has asked his friend and sometime lover, consulting detective Julian Lynes, to join the examination.

Ned cracked his knuckles. “And I suppose that means it’s time I earned my supper,” he said.

They trailed him back through the Commons courtyard, past the Specimen Garden where a pale flower was opening, its leaves rustling with more than wind. Something skittered past the base of the fountain, and Julian hoped it was only a mouse and not one of the more aggressive plants. They passed the statue of Cornelius Agrippa and climbed the stairs to the single narrow room that was Ned’s chambers. His clerk was gone, her desk bare, and Ned wormed his way around it to fling the one window open wide, letting in the evening breeze.  He pulled a bottle of brandy from the cupboard, along with a trio of glasses, and set them on Miss Frost’s desk. Hatton lifted the carpet bag that had sat at his feet all evening, and set it on Ned’s desk. It landed with a distinctly metallic thump, and Ned smiled.

“I do appreciate this, Hatton. I know I didn’t miss anything, but—I’m curious.”

“And I’d like a reliable answer,” Hatton said. He opened the bag, and pulled out a bundle wrapped in coarse silk. Ned nodded approval—the silk would insulate it from any outside influences—and carefully unwound the wrapping. The candlestick was enormous, over a foot tall, and designed to look as though it had come from a medieval cathedral. It wasn’t that old, though, Julian thought, peering over Hatton’s shoulder. The design was one that had been popular ten years ago, the sort of thing that his great-uncle had grumbled about as muddying the waters for true antiquarians, all overdone crosses and a frieze of praying figures around the lower part of the shaft. The square foot was carved in acanthus leaves, and one corner was dulled and dirty. Ned picked it up, still using the silk, and grimaced as he took a closer look.

“It’s certainly heavy enough,” he said.

Hatton nodded. “If you were looking to bludgeon a man to death—well, it’s what I’d pick.”

“Right.” Ned reached into the drawer of his desk, drew out his silver-tipped wand. “Might as well get on with it.”

Julian took a few steps back, perched on the edge of Miss Frost’s desk. Hatton settled into the visitor’s chair, stretching out unexpectedly long legs, and Ned frowned thoughtfully at the candlestick. This was what Ned was really good at, Julian thought, this kind of analytical metaphysics. He himself was good at patterns, at the grammar of enchantment, but Ned had a gift for finding his way into the shape of an enchantment, without harming its structure or causing anything to blow up in his face. His wand moved, tracing sigils—no trails of fire, nothing to show off what he was doing, just solid brilliant work. Julian could guess at a couple of the symbols, the first a test to determine the verb, and then another seeking correspondences, but most moved past too quickly for him to follow. Once the metal chimed, a high sweet note, and once there was a flash like a spark, and finally Ned laid his wand aside and carefully pulled the silk back over the candlestick.

“That’s very interesting,” he said, and Hatton straightened himself.

“Definitely magic, then?”

Ned nodded. “And rather neatly done.”

Julian pushed himself off the desk and came to peer at Ned’s notes.

“The curse compels the candlestick to strike someone—presumably Edgar Nevett—seated below it once the sun is down. I’m guessing this usually stood on a shelf above Nevett’s desk? Or his usual chair?”

“His desk,” Hatton said. “Though it’s off to one side a bit. Not a natural way to fall.”

“How is ‘strike’ signified?” Julian asked.

“‘Go to’ with ‘forcefully,'” Ned answered.

Julian nodded, unsurprised. It was a formulation common to both Universities, but then, it would have been too much to hope for some archaic signifier that would point straight to the murderer.

“And, no, it wouldn’t be a natural trajectory,” Ned went on. “I don’t think it was meant to be, actually. I think it was meant to suggest murder all along.”

“Interesting,” Hatton said.

“I imagine Victor would have demanded some kind of investigation if a candlestick just happened to fall on his father,” Julian said.

“I didn’t know you knew the family, Mr Lynes,” Hatton said.

Julian swallowed a curse, kept his expression open and innocent. “I was at school with the sons.”

“We both were,” Ned said. “It’s how I got the job in the first place. Sorry, Hatton, I thought I’d told you.”

Hatton waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter. You said ‘presumably’ it was meant for Nevett?”

Ned nodded. “The cursework is structured to point at someone, though technically it could function without that closing sign. I’d be willing to bet that there was one, though, and that it pointed to Nevett. But I couldn’t swear to it.”

Hatton raised his eyebrows. “Because—?”

“Most identification is sealed with blood or hair.” Ned  pointed to the stained base. “Unfortunately, there’s too much of both on it now to tell if that was done.”

“Pity,” Hatton said. “So can I assume you’d have seen a spell like this if it had been there when you examined the silver?”

“Oh, yes,” Ned said. “That I will swear to. Nevett had every piece of silver he owned out and on display, this one included. If there’d been this sort of curse on anything, I’d have found it.  I picked up a number of commercial enchantments.  And this—would have been noticeable.”

“That narrows it down considerably, then,” Hatton said. “Whoever did this has to have created the curse between when you left on Tuesday, and Thursday night. That’s useful.”

“I hope so,” Ned said, but he was looking pleased with himself. As well he might, Julian thought. That narrow window should make the police’s job easier.

“Oh, it will be,” Hatton answered, and tucked the silk-wrapped bundle back into his bag. “I appreciate your time, Mathey. And a pleasure meeting you, Mr Lynes.”

Julian murmured a suitable answer, hung back as Ned showed Hatton to the door, resting his hips on Miss Frost’s desk again. The light had faded since they’d arrived, and Ned turned up the gas, blinking a little in the new light.

“That was neatly done,” Julian said. Ned blinked again, this time from surprise, and gave an almost shy smile.

“Thanks. I’m glad Hatton gave me the chance, I’d hate to think I’d missed something.”

“You’d have had to be blind and deaf to miss that,” Julian answered. He didn’t really want to talk about Hatton—he wanted, in fact, to take Ned home with him, and that would be foolish beyond permission—

“Well, yes. I know that now.” He came over to the desk, reaching for the bottle of brandy. Julian shifted slightly, so that he was far too close.

“I have a better bottle at home,” he said.

Ned gave him a wary look, but didn’t step away. Julian put his hand on Ned’s shoulder, feeling the curve of the muscle beneath the light padding. He was making a mistake, he knew, but it was probably better to force this to its natural conclusion, end it before he became too attached again. And right now he wanted it more than he was able to resist.