To Best the Boys(11)

“The remaining biscuits came out at four.” I stroll back over. “I finished delivering them by ten, but during the course of it I overheard two constables saying a northerner died outside town Tuesday morning. I slipped into the sexton’s to get a bit of the corpse for testing before this heat wave reduced it to liquid.”

Da nods. “Good thinking. Who was he?”

“The tree oil salesman who came through with that caravan two weeks ago. They all moved on today, except for him.”

Da’s brow lifts. “The one who swore the oil cured him from a disease?”

I pull the vial of blood from my coat. “Same man.” I set it into the metal-looped tray on the equipment table, then turn to slide off my wet jacket and sling it over a hook near the tiny hearth that barely gives off enough heat to warm this room. “There’s a bit of abdomen tissue in there as well.” I grab a lone log and set it inside the tiny iron stove.

Upon first hearing the man’s claim last week, Da and I had tested a bit of the oil right away but found it nothing more than cheap castor cut with floral essence. But the testimony of others from the caravan who’d said that the salesman had indeed come back from certain “life-crippling illness” was something I couldn’t overlook.

“Very good thinking, Rhen.” He lifts a thin silver needle and gently inserts it just beneath the skin on Lady’s side. The rat squeaks but calms as soon as Da pulls biscuit crumbs from his pocket and sets them in front of her. She goes about nibbling, none the worse for wear, and he peers up. “So? What’d you find?”

I stand over the stove and let the faint heat warm my cheeks before I answer. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of tea right now, except food and drink are forbidden in the lab due to contamination. “I have no idea.”

He lifts a brow.

I nod. Exactly. People may die a lot around here, but there’s only a handful of causes—and I’ve learned enough from Da to recognize most all of them.

I walk over to the sterilizing bucket. “I would’ve done a deeper investigation if I’d had time, but I had Beryll with me. The dead man smelled like liquor and looked twenty-five. His bones were all intact and his skin color was as expected since bloating had already set in. The mouth showed signs of asphyxiation—but from something internal, not man-made. Otherwise, there were no indicators of regular heart failure or choking.” I tip a splash of alcohol into my palm and then scrub my hands together quickly as I recall something. “Oh, except there was a bit of clotted blood around his mouth.”

He frowns and stops his work on Lady. “A blood clot? Like he’d coughed it up?”

I dab my hands dry and eye him. “Maybe it was a virus?”

“Without assessing the body, I can’t say, but . . .” Da’s frown deepens. “Did you wear gloves while inspecting him?”

“Of course.”

He sighs. “Good. Then be sure to sanitize them. And, here, pass me my light.” He holds out a hand while clasping the rat with the other and waits for me to find the lantern he’s referring to—his favorite one that’s on the shelves that span floor to ceiling along the two farthest walls. The wooden ledges are covered with crumbling books and half-empty bottles and pieces of skeletal remains—both human and animal. By the age of four I could name the parts of every single one of them and draw each in exact detail.

I reach past a juvenile basilisk’s skull we pulled from a wetland last year and grab the lamp behind it. The cruel beast’s empty eye sockets stare back at me as I turn up the wick before I stride over to light it with a candle and set it in Da’s fingers. I beckon to Lady. “How’s she doing?”

A cautious smile materializes. “This is the fourth dose of your trial creation I’ve given her, and her muscles have gotten stronger. Look—” He puts more crumbs on the table—farther in front of the rat this time—at which she squeaks and straightens, then walks to them, barely hobbling as she goes. Da’s grin grows wider.

I glance up to meet his gaze, and a flutter of hope erupts in my chest. Not just erupts—explodes. I can’t stop the grin that follows it, nor the desperate hunger to hear him say we may have actually done it. That this could be the one. This could be the cure for Mum. Because it’s definitely the most promising sign we’ve seen in any of the subjects.

“I guess we’ll wait and see, eh? Speaking of which, have you seen your mum?”

A flare of guilt bubbles up. “I came straight down. Why—is she all right?”

“She’s fine. Just more sore today. She ate early so she could lie back down, and I’m headed out in a bit to visit the Strowes. I just know she’d like to see you before the party.” He drops his voice to a perceptive tone. “It would lift her spirits, Rhen. And spending time together is good for both of you.”

I bite my lip. I used to love coming home after a day with Da and his patients. Mum and I would sit out on the front walk, watch the neighbors go by, and make up stories about their lives. Like the time we decided old Mrs. Mench was actually a dragon stuck inside a cat biddy’s body, which would explain her temper and obsession with jewelry. And Mr. Camden, her fated savior—which is why he always carries a cane when he has to go near her.

I pick up the glass dish beneath the microscope Da must’ve been using. The blood droplets on it are dry and brown. I set it aside and keep my voice steady as I fetch a clean one to carefully swab with a bit of the new blood I just brought in, then place it under the scope. “I’ll stop in before I go. How’s the Strowe girl?”

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