When Falcons Fall
Tuesday, 3 August 1813
It was the fly that got to him.
In the misty light of early morning, the dead woman looked as if she might be sleeping, her dusky lashes resting against cheeks of pale eggshell, her lips faintly parted. She lay at the edge of a clover-strewn meadow near the river, the back of her head nestled against a mossy log, her slim hands folded at the high waist of her fashionable, dove gray mourning gown.
Then that fly came crawling out of her mouth.
Archie barely made it behind the nearest furze bush before losing the bread and cheese he'd grabbed for breakfast.
"There, there, now, lad," said Constable Webster Nash, the beefy, middle-aged man who also served as the village's sexton and bell ringer. "No need to be feeling queasy. Ain't like there's a mess o' blood."
"I'm all right." Archie's guts heaved again and his thin body shuddered, but he swallowed hard and forced himself to straighten. "I'm all right." Not that it made any difference, of course; he could say it a hundred times, and word would still be all around the village by noon, about how the young Squire had cast up his accounts at the mere sight of the dead woman.
Archie swiped the back of one trembling hand across his lips. Archibald Rawlins had been Squire of Ayleswick for just five months. It was an honor accorded his father, and his father before him, on back through the ages to that battle-hardened esquire who'd built the Grange near the banks of the River Teme and successfully defended it against all comers. One of the acknowledged duties of the squire was to serve as his village's justice of the peace or magistrate, which was how Archie came to be standing in the river meadow on that misty morning and staring at the dead body of a beautiful young widow who had arrived in the village less than a week before.
"'Tis a sinful thing," said Nash, tsking through the gap left by a missing incisor. "Sinful, for a woman to take her own life like this. The Good Book says, 'If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.' And I reckon that's as true for a woman as for any man."
Archie cleared his throat. "I don't think we can say that yet—that she took her own life, I mean."
Constable Nash let out a sound somewhere between a grunt and a derisive laugh as he bent to pick up the brown glass bottle that nestled in the grass at her side. "Laudanum," he said, turning the bottle so that the POISON label faced Archie. "Emptied it, she did."
"Yes; I noticed it."
Archie stared down at the woman's neatly folded spencer. It lay to one side with her broad-brimmed, velvet-trimmed straw hat, as if she had taken them off and carefully set them aside before stretching out to—what? Drink a massive dose of an opium tincture that in small measures could ease pain but in excess brought death?
It was the obvious conclusion. And yet . . .
Archie let his gaze drift around the clearing. The meadow was eerily hushed and still, as if the mist drifting up from the river had deadened all sound. The young lad who had stumbled upon the dead woman's body at dawn and led them here was now gone; the creatures of forest and field had all fled or hidden themselves. Even the unseen birds in the tree canopy above seemed loath to break the silence with their usual chorus of cheerful morning song. Archie felt a chill dance up his spine, as if he could somehow sense a lingering malevolence in this place, an evil, a disturbance in the way things ought to be that was no less real for being inexplicable.
But he had no intention of uttering such fanciful sentiments to the gruff, no-nonsense constable beside him. So he simply said, "I think you should put the bottle back where it was, Nash."
"What?" The constable's jaw sagged, his full, ruddy cheeks darkening.
Archie tried hard to infuse his voice with a note of authority. "Put it back exactly as you found it, Constable. Until we know for certain otherwise, I think we should consider this a murder."
Constable Nash's face crimped. His small, dark eyes had a way of disappearing into the flesh of his face when he was amused or angry, and they disappeared now. But he didn't say anything.
"There's a viscount staying in the village," said Archie. "Arrived just yesterday evening. I've heard of him; his name is Devlin, and he works with Bow Street sometimes, solving murders. I'm going to ask for his advice in this."
"Ain't no need to go troublin' no grand London lord. I tell ye, she killed herself."
"Perhaps. But I'd like to be certain."
Archie readjusted the tilt of his hat and smoothed the front of his simple brown corduroy coat. Standing up to the village's loud, bullying constable was one thing; Archie had only to call upon some six hundred years of Rawlins tradition and heritage.
But approaching the son and heir of the mighty Earl of Hendon and asking him to help a simple village squire investigate the death of a stranger was considerably more daunting.
© C.S. Harris
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