For the next seven weeks, I’ll be bringing GeekMom readers a serialized version of The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, a romantic steampunk detective story that I published in 2014 and hit Amazon’s steampunk bestseller list.
Why the serialized story, with three chapters per week?
One, because I thought it might be fun to share some of the other writing that we do outside GeekMom, and, two, given the new popularity of the serialized drama, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if you, our readers, enjoy it.
A short description of the story:
In a Victorian London where magic fuels steam technology…
Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.
When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.
Yes, any resemblance between Gregor Sherringford and Sherlock Holmes is purely intentional. (And if you’re a serious Sherlockian, you’ll notice the Easter egg that is his last name.)
Note: I would rate this as PG-13, for mature themes, such as death, though not for any gory violence. There is sexual tension but that’s it.
If you’re impatient and don’t want to read it in serialized form, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract can be purchased at Amazon or other outlets. There is finally a sequel, A Hanging at Lotus Hall, which is being released today, in case any of you get that far.
And, without further ado, Chapter 1 of The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
Joan Krieger had never liked going in the side door. It was necessary, of course. Certainly no mere seamstress would be greeted at the main entrance and receive the courtesies due a lord or lady.
“Chin up, and be ready to charm the client, dear,” her mother said. “The happier we are about how the clothing looks on her, the happier she will be. You know how much this means to us.”
Her mother did not need to say it out loud. All rested on today’s efforts—both the future of their shop and her dreams of moving beyond their small business to a much higher level.
“Yes, ma’am.” Joan shifted her hands to balance the oversize boxes containing the custom-made clothing. Clothing unlike any seen previously, at least on a woman. Lady Grey had given them carte blanche. Her mother still worried they had gone too far. Joan thought that going too far was the point. Though her mother had not approved, she had not interfered with the idea either, for which Joan was grateful.
The servants’ door to the home opened, and a young woman let them in. The cook’s assistant, Joan remembered, and tried to recall her name. She should—this was their second trip. They had measured Lady Grey on the first. But Joan was far better at remembering what people wore than what name to which they answered.
Luckily, her mother remembered and greeted Sally with just the right tone. Not too familiar, not too cold.
They stepped out of the misty morning air and into the mansion. It was warm in the way that only mage-coal homes were warm—a heat that seeped to all the corners, even the servants’ area.
A heat that Joan only ever experienced in the dwellings of the upper class. Mage coal was costly because those who were born with the mage gift were so rare. So far, the gift had only appeared in the families of the upper classes. The lords claimed it was a sign of divine favor.
Joan’s Jewish ancestors held a far different opinion about the identity of God’s Chosen Ones. While her faith was not fervent, Joan certainly didn’t blindly accept the assertions of the English noble class at face value.
Sally ushered them into an unadorned waiting area occupied only by a crude table and several surrounding chairs. Joan thought about setting the boxes down, but she had a tight grip and it seemed better to hold on to them. She could not risk spilling the contents.
She would stand. The delicious heat already offered more than enough comfort.
Because her view was blocked at first, it took a moment for Joan to see the older woman in the corner reading a letter. The woman was lost in her own world. Her lips mouthed the words of the letter. After a few seconds, she clasped the paper to her chest and let out a deep, satisfied sigh.
It was only then she realized she was not alone and rose to her feet. “Forgive my manners! You are the representatives from Krieger & Sims?”
Her mother nodded politely, as if that should be the end of the conversation, but Joan could not resist an inquiry.
“The letter was good news?”
Her mother shot her a glare but was too polite to voice her protest. Much as she had tried, Joan had never found a way to win her mother’s full approval. At least they did not have to disagree in front of strangers.
The older woman, perhaps the head cook by her wardrobe, smiled with a happiness that seemed complete. “I don’t mind sayin’ that it was very good news. A problem with my daughter’s position in another house has been cleared up nicely.”
Loss of position could mean abject poverty. No wonder the head cook was relieved. “Then your daughter is still employed?”
“Yes! There was a possible scandal with the lady, but now my daughter will retain her position, even when the lady marries next month.”
“A happy ending for all.” Lovely, Joan thought, because such endings were rare, it seemed. Maybe it was a good omen for the day.
Before she could ask more questions, such as what scandal had caused the lady’s problem, one of Lady Grey’s maids arrived to escort them upstairs. They took the narrow back stairs, not the wide staircase that looked over the entranceway of the home. Not for the first time, Joan wondered what it would be like to use the grand staircase as a true lady. Then she banged the corner of one box against the wall and decided she had better pay attention to the here and now.
Lady Grey was not only wealthy and well placed in society but also a widow and thus allowed to be unconventional. The scandal surrounding the specially tailored cravat that had come from their tailor’s store had kept some of their regular clients away. If Lady Grey liked this style, their business would rebound.
More, their shop would be the only place to go to emulate the trendsetting Lady Grey. Clients would line up for their designs. Lady Grey had assured them she was not the only one chafing about the restrictions of the current styles. “Time that clothing moved into our brave new world!” she had declared.
After one more turn of the twisty staircase, they entered an upstairs hallway. The maid ushered them into a large, open room occupied by several sitting couches of rich crushed velvet. Windows ran from the floor all the way to the ceiling along one wall. Another change made possible by heating with mage coal. The room would stay warm despite the heat lost through the glass.
Joan finally set her boxes down just as Lady Grey swept into the room. A trim older woman with a thick shock of white hair that suited her, Lady Grey did what she wanted, when she wanted. Her money and her widowhood were assurances that no one could counter her actions.
Joan rather liked the woman, even though she was not supposed to have a personal opinion of clients. And even though Lady Grey could be terribly demanding, Joan wished she herself could be as free with her own wants.
“Let us see how it looks all put together, shall we? This could be an exciting day, ladies. Joan, I’m been dying to see what you have brought me. You promised it would be unique!”
Joan only hoped it was not too unique.
Joan and her mother carefully opened each box. The first contained a jacket of the creamiest leather, dyed a warm brown. It was cut to open at the waist and buttoned up all the way to the neck. Joan was proudest of the way the sleeves offered enough room for movement without any excess material. She had slaved all night over her own machine to get the fit right.
Lady Grey frowned. “I am going to be able to move in that neck?”
A frown? That was all the reaction to her work? “Yes, of course, milady,” Joan said, making sure none of her disappointment showed in her words. “And wait until you feel the sleeves.”
“I will reserve judgment until I am wearing the thing. Get to it, put the whole thing on.”
The thing. Her confidence shaken, Joan dropped her gaze. Such a quick switch from excitement to annoyance. She had been so, so certain of this driving outfit. Now her cheeks burned with embarrassment. She couldn’t meet her mother’s eyes. She did not want to see, once again, the disapproval.
Along with her maid, they helped Lady Grey undress for the fitting, leaving her only in her chemise, one outer blouse, and a corset and bloomers.
“Is this all I’m to wear under the clothes?”
Her mother nudged Joan in the back, out of Lady Grey’s sight, a warning to behave appropriately. There would be no expression of disappointment over the lady’s reluctance.
Joan nodded. “You wanted freedom of movement, and all those layers are stifling. If you wish to drive and not feel ‘trussed up’, as you said, this is what must be done, Lady Grey. Taking off the corset would help even more.”
“That would truly be a step too far. No, I must keep the corset or I shall sag.” Lady Grey’s mouth settled into a frown. Joan tried to breathe normally. She could barely move.
“Have I let a radical into my house, Joan?”
That was a challenge. Joan straightened and looked her client in the eye. “I think it is common sense to have clothing that does not restrict ordinary activities. This no less than what you asked for, milady.”
“Perhaps so.” Lady Grey nodded slowly, drawing out the gesture. “And I am too deuced old to be restricted like I have been. Well, carry on then. Let us see it all.”
Lady Grey stood quietly as they slipped her into the jacket. “So many buttons,” she muttered.
“Of the finest ivory,” said her mother. “Nothing but the best, milady. I am sure your maid will be able to cope.”
“I should hope so.”
Joan and her mother exchanged glances. Joan did not fear her mother’s fury if this failed. She feared her disappointment.
They left the jacket unbuttoned as they helped Lady Grey into the matching skirt, which fit over her bloomers. The first layer, all cotton, was cut like trousers. It was easy to slip that over the bloomers. The second layer, of the same leather as the jacket, covered the cotton first and thus looked like a full skirt. It had slits on the side to allow for easy walking.
No hoops, no other layers, just leather over cotton over bloomers.
“Hmm…” their client muttered. “I could put these on myself.” She sounded pleased.
“You certainly could, milady,” her mother said.
“Well, that would definitely save on servants’ wages.”
Joan glanced over at the silent maid. The girl looked at the floor. Lady Grey did not seem to notice the effect of her words.
Instead, Lady Grey studied herself in the mirror, her face expressionless. She rotated in a slow circle, her lips pursed. “Let us button the jacket and see how difficult that is.”
Joan motioned for the maid, and the two of them looped the cloth hooks over the ivory buttons. Mother’s hands were too old for such fine work. Joan’s fingers trembled, as her mother’s would have, save that Joan’s shaky fingers were due to nerves.
Lady Grey put her hands on her hips and studied the mirror again. Joan held her breath. She had gone too far with this design. There was no other explanation. To Joan, this made Lady Grey look, well, like someone who was going places. But if she liked it, why did she not say so?
“Joan Krieger, you’re definitely a radical.”
Joan’s face grew red. Her breath caught and she, who was always full of questions, was afraid to voice any to this client.
“I told Joan that there should be more layers in the skirt—”
Lady Grey interrupted her mother with a laugh. “Oh no, this is wonderful. I feel younger than I have in years. All those clothes, all that weight, it’s suffocating to someone of my age and frame.”
“You like it, then?” Joan ventured.
Lady Grey winked. “I think perhaps we are both radicals.”
Joan smiled back. In that moment, all seemed possible. The rays of the morning sun made the room—and the world—seem brighter.
“Why is the skirt slit?” Lady Grey asked.
“To allow you to climb into your carriage on your own, Lady Grey,” Joan said.
“Ah.” She looked down at her bare feet. “What kind of footwear will I need?”
“I should think any shoe ankle length or higher should suit,” Joan said.
“But not a lower shoe. One must not expose the ankle!” Lady Grey shook her head. “As if I need to worry about that at my age.” She turned to her maid. “Fetch the tallest pair I have, girl, and be quick about it.”
Being a seamstress and heiress to a shop might not be as good as being nobility but Joan was now certain it was a better position than a lady’s maid.
As the maid left, Lady Grey touched her neck. “I have one complaint. I do not like this jacket so tight around my throat. Most unsatisfactory.”
“It will keep you from a chill, milady,” Joan said. She had fought with her mother over this. Wind would whip around anyone driving. She hated to admit that Mother might have been right. “I didn’t want you to be so exposed to bad weather. But, of course, we could alter that if you prefer.”
“It feels off, I think. Mrs. Krieger, what is that material in the bottom of the box, buried under the wrappings?”
“Oh, that is not supposed to be there,” her mother answered. “Just a leftover.”
Lady Grey put her hands on her hips. “Nevertheless, if it is a leftover, then I own it, do I not? Let me see it.”
Joan’s mother drew out a scarf made of the same creamy leather as the jacket. Joan would’ve done the same. There was no contradicting that imperious tone.
“Magnificent!” Lady Grey said. “Why did you not show me this before?”
“We thought it detracted from the front of the jacket, milady.” Joan had no idea how that scarf had gotten in the box. She had deliberately tried to leave it behind. She could not explain exactly why—it had just seemed wrong for the rest of the outfit. And she had packed those boxes herself. She glared at her mother. Her mother shook her head a tad, disclaiming responsibility.
“Detracts? Nonsense. This will be lovely with the rest. That’s the first bad decision made. Happily, it is the only one.” Lady Grey strode over and snatched the scarf. She was in such a hurry that she unbuttoned the highest buttons herself and then wrapped the scarf around her neck.
“There,” she said. “That solves the problem. My neck is covered and I can move. Now I just need a pair of that eyewear that protects the face as I drive. I believe they call them face goggles.”
“You look wonderful, milady,” Joan allowed. And she did. To her, Lady Grey looked like a queen.
The maid arrived with the promised boots, which were of a darker brown and set off the lighter color of the driving suit nicely, and put them on her lady.
“I will test how it performs in action right now! Follow me.” Lady Grey swept out of the room, the maid in her wake. Joan and her mother had no choice but to follow as ordered.
Lady Grey went down the front staircase as if she had a new lease on life. Behind her, Joan caught a glimpse of the maid pulling on a bell rope. Joan guessed that was a signal to someone downstairs.
Let Lady Grey rush. Joan halted at the top of the balcony. She now had the view she’d been longing for on their arrival. She slowed, enjoying the carpeted steps of the grand staircase and admiring the wooden banister as she descended.
Someday, perhaps, she could afford this.
The butler who’d let them in rushed to the front door to arrive before his mistress. As she reached the door, he straightened and opened it with a bow before Lady Grey missed a stride. A well-trained man, Joan thought.
The butler raised an eyebrow as Joan and her mother passed him. A small gesture but enough to show he didn’t approve of merchants using the front door.
The cold hit the minute she stepped outside, but the mist had dissipated and the sun was shining overhead. A footman awaited Lady Grey to help her into the carriage. Perhaps he’d been told to arrive by the same silent message with which the maid had alerted the butler. His lady waved him off. Instead, she instructed him to light the boiler and turn the crank to get the steam going.
These steam carriages had originally been designed after the ones pulled by horses, but in over two decades some modifications had been made, such as the steering wheel. This was what was known as a sport carriage, with a small roof overhanging the single bench. This one also had gilded doors and controls. Joan would have settled for one that simply worked.
Lady Grey sat up straight at the wheel. She looked, to Joan’s admiring eyes, absolutely perfect.
Their client’s eyes shone with excitement, her hands gripped the wheel tight and she was grinning. She retied her scarf. Joan frowned. Now why had the trailing edge of the scarf fallen off the side of the bench that way? There was no wind. It should have stayed on the seat.
Not right, Joan thought, and she stepped forward to pick it up.
Just that instant, the car began moving. Joan snatched at the scarf, missed and watched in horror as the thing seemed to take on a life of its own and wrapped itself around the spokes of the back wheel.
Joan heard a sickening crack. Lady Grey jerked and slumped forward, her head turned at an unnatural angle as the carriage rolled into a lamppost.