Start Reading The Secrets of Life and Death

“In Rebecca Alexander’s engrossing debut, The Secrets of Life and Death, Alexander offers up the most successful blending of mystery, historical intrigue and occult fantasy since Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Inspired by an authenticated encounter between the family of Elizabeth Báthory and the occult superstars of the Elizabethan Era, John Dee and his protégé Edward Kelley, the story moves seamlessly between the contemporary tale of heroine Jackdaw Hammond, a woman living on borrowed time, and Kelley, a morally conflicted scholar who believes himself possessed by angels. Defying pigeonholing into any single genre, Alexander’s brilliant and multilayered reimagining of the vampire mythos balances contemporary fantasy with erudite, yet accessible, historical fiction.” -J.D. Horn, author of the Witching Savannah series

Chapter 1

Another crime scene, a dead body and possible evidence of sorcery. Felix stood in the car park, and watched the activity in the railway station in Exeter. His gut squirmed at the thought of what he would see. He assumed the police became accustomed to seeing bodies, but he never had, despite spending time in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, where human life had become disposable. He pulled his collar up against the rain.

The station was lit by temporary lights on stands, illuminating one of the carriages of a static train. Felix paused at the entrance. The last crime scene he had attended involved an elderly woman stabbed to death, and her yawning wounds had haunted him for weeks. The police had consulted him on some “black magic” graffiti, which had turned out to be the logo of a death metal band. He took a deep breath, blew it out. Hopefully, his involvement in this case would be unnecessary as well.

A movement caught his attention as he walked across the car park. There was a woman standing in the rain a dozen yards from the ticket office, looking through the railings toward the train. She appeared to be watching the police as they worked, but her posture was odd and she didn’t look like a chance spectator observing a tragedy. The rain poured off a hat, the brim sheltering her face, which was whitened by flashes from the scene. She wore a long coat, with water streaming down it, and what looked like boots. She was definitely female; her features looked delicate in a long face, framed by short fair hair that was haloed against the arc lights. She was young, he thought, younger than him, anyway. Her attention to the scene was intense.

He turned away and approached the officer at the gate.

“Sorry sir, the station is closed. There’s a bus to take passengers to the next station.” The policeman had water running from the edge of a cap, dropping in silver lines down the wide shoulders of his coat.

“I was asked to attend. I’m supposed to ask for Detective Inspector Soames.”

“I see. Can I have your name, sir?”

“Felix Guichard. Professor Guichard, from the university.”

The man nodded to another officer, a woman who stared straight through Felix, then looked away.

Felix’s eyes began to adjust to the glare. Through the gate, he could see cast-iron columns supporting the roof of the station, the grandeur somewhat marred by billboards and modern wooden benches. A police barrier obscured the view of the window of one of the carriages. A number of people were walking about in white suits. Flashes lit up one carriage, greening the scene with afterimages.

A bleached figure beckoned to him. “Professor? Professor Gwitchard? Is that how you pronounce it?”

“Well, it’s Gwee-shar. It’s a French name.” A gap appeared in the ranks and he walked through to the white-suited officer.

“DI Dan Soames.” The man’s hand was warm and solid in the drafty, wet station. “We were hoping you could have a look at this scene for us. You’re a professor of what, exactly?”

“My subject is the culture of belief systems, religions and superstitions. I’ve worked with your chief constable before, on a case of a witchcraft killing in London.” Inside he was shivering. Soames was maybe five foot eight or nine, inches shorter than Felix, but had a restrained energy that made him seem like a larger man.

“Well, these markings have us stumped. Any ideas why someone would draw all over a dead kid are welcome. You’ll have to suit up.”

Felix followed him into a tented area where a young man helped him into a one-piece coverall and booties.

“Tuck your hair in, sir,” the young officer said. “We’re still looking for DNA and trace evidence.”

Felix pushed his curly fringe back. A single flash from a camera illuminated an image, which glowed for a moment in his brain.

It was the face of a girl, just a teenager, blond hair stuck to damp glass, over pearl-colored skin. She must have slid down the window, her eyebrow dragged into a curve, and her open eye stared, it seemed, straight at Felix.

Soames’s voice scratched into Felix’s awareness.

“Professor of superstitions and religions?”

“My subject is social anthropology, but I specialize in esoteric belief systems.”

“Esoteric what?”

Felix tore his attention away from the fading image of the girl. “Beliefs outside of a culture’s mainstream. My PhD was in West African beliefs. Witchcraft, sorcery, magic.”

Soames shrugged his shoulders and tucked the hood of his coverall closer around his face. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several young girls from the town.”

“Oh, I see. Is this one of them?”

“Possibly. The thing is, there are symbols—come and have a look. We were told you’ve done this sort of consulting before and attended crime scenes.”

Felix followed him along the platform and into the doorway of the carriage. “A few times. Do you know what happened? How she died?”

“We’re not sure. It looks like an overdose, but it’s too early to tell.”

He led the way toward the end of the carriage where a scrum of white figures was strobed with camera flashes.

“Can we have a look at the body, Jim?” At Soames’s approach, people fell back a little, some to the other side of the aisle, some to the corridor between the two carriages. The faint sour odor of the toilet was signposted with a glowing “Vacant” sign.

Felix squeezed between two officers to look down on the body.

At first, tiny details hit him. Her hand, lying on its back, her fingers curved like a dead crab on the beach. Her lips were distorted by the glass into a half smile, their lavender skin parted to show a few gleaming teeth. The space in front of her was covered with litter left for the train cleaner at the end of the journey. Felix wondered how many people had discarded used paper cups and newspapers on her table, walking past the slumped girl without realising she was dead.
 
Excerpted from The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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