Continuing our serial of GeekMom Corrina Lawson’s steampunk adventure/mystery novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
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.
In this chapter, family secrets start to come out, revealing many dangers close to home.
When Joan pleaded exhaustion and asked to leave shortly after the contractor had departed, Sir August sent her home in a sedate steam-powered carriage driven by one of his servants. He also sent her home with his mother’s wedding dress for alterations.
He was not a subtle man.
She closed her eyes in the backseat of the enclosed carriage, ignoring the box that contained the dress, and shut out the sights of the city. But the barren park area haunted her. Magic had caused the destruction. Someone in her home might be capable of doing something like that…as much she wanted to deny the possibility.
She fingered the gloves in her sleeve and opened her eyes to inspect them. They were still in perfect condition and provided no clue as to why Sherringford had wanted them.
Sir August had answered some questions but evaded others. Her father had attacked her for questioning him. And Sherringford, whom she had brought into this mess, avoided explanations.
I have had enough of this.
The driver helped her out after they parked in front of Krieger & Sims. She thanked him and he tipped his cap to her before she walked inside.
She nodded to her mother and Emily at the front of the shop but did not speak to them. Neither did they approach her. She trudged back up to her rooms and set to work on the pile of clothes that needed mending. She placed the box containing the wedding dress under her bed.
She did not look inside.
Joan waited in her rooms for the promised visit until the shop had closed for the night, the seamstresses had gone home, and she finally heard someone coming up the stairs.
Not Sherringford. It was her mother’s assistant, Emily. Joan sighed and opened the door.
“Your mother wishes to speak with you tonight.” Emily flexed her hands as she spoke, as she often did. So many years of seamstress work had taken their toll on her fingers.
“I had thought to rest.”
“She’s worried about you, lass, especially the way you shut yourself up in here after returning from Sir August Milverton’s home.” Emily sighed. “Go and reassure her, Joan. She only wants to make certain that you are well.”
Joan smiled. “I’m fine. It’s simply been a trying few days.”
“Then go reassure your mum. She’ll sleep better for it. Maybe you both will.”
Emily clearly would not take a refusal. “I will see to her, Emily. Thank you.”
Emily patted her arm. “Good. Now I can sleep tonight.”
She heard the older woman head down the steps to the side exit. Each of Emily’s steps was slow, deliberate, and now and then Emily’s muffled moans echoed up the staircase. A generation older than her mother, Emily needed to retire, especially with those stiff knees. Joan doubted Emily could afford to stop working, however, any more than her family could afford to lose Krieger & Sims.
Taking a deep breath, Joan traversed the hallway to her parents’ door.
She knocked and her mother urged her to come inside. Joan obeyed. Her mother was seated on the couch, engrossed in a needlepoint project. Joan pointed toward the bedroom on the left, silently asking if her father was awake. Her mother shook her head. “No, thank God, he is fast asleep.”
“Emily said you were worried about me.”
“Very much so.”
Joan settled on the couch next to her mother and peered at the needlepoint. Her mother had started in the center with a new floral design. The image had begun with a bright red, had moved to a more muted pink and had now begun to resemble petals. A rose, Joan guessed. As the needle cut through the perforated paper underneath that held the unfinished work together, it made a distinctive crinkle, so unlike the sound of a sewing machine. Quieter and more soothing, Joan decided.
Needlepoint was the hobby her mother used to relax, much as Joan had used the mending earlier to calm her nerves. To Joan’s mind, though, the needlepoint was far more exacting and less forgiving of errors.
“After the way you shut yourself in your room, I worried Sir August Milverton had been unkind to you,” her mother said. “Please tell me I’m in error.”
“He was not indecent to me.” Joan answered the question her mother hadn’t been able to voice.
“Will he make you a good husband?”
“He certainly thinks so.”
“And you do not?”
Joan let the silence build as she tried to answer. She wanted to confide in her mother, but Sherringford had urged caution, and her mother often didn’t understand her.
“I think Sir August’s ideas of a good husband and mine may diverge.”
“That happens often.”
“Did it happen to you?”
Her mother stopped her project and looked across the room. “It is hard to remember the good when the bad has occupied so much of my recent life.”
“That’s not an answer, Mother.”
“It’s the only one I have, Joan.”
“I know life has been difficult.”
“And you are afraid it would be difficult with Sir August? Not in the same way, I hope.”
“No, his mind is sharp and he has some honor.” Else he would have forced the marriage while she had been under his roof. “But I don’t trust him, not fully.”
If Sir August knew, it should be safe to tell her mother. “Sir August said I had a mage gift and that’s why he chose me to be the mother of his children. Can you imagine? Me, a mage?”
Her mother’s needle went through paper, and the sharp sound of a rip made Joan wince. Her mother closed her eyes, sighed and put the needlepoint aside.
There was a long silence that grew uncomfortable. Had she shocked her mother into insensibility?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” I wanted your help.
“No apologies needed. I should’ve known better than to do needlepoint tonight when my wits are so scattered.” Her mother set her hands in her lap. “A mage gift. Really, Joan.”
Joan knew that tone. The I-think-you-are-stretching-the-truth tone.
“Sir August is certain that I have an untrained mage gift.” Joan drew out her grandmother’s pendant. “He said someone in the family must have known for this piece of jewelry to be passed down to me.”
Her mother’s eyes widened. “My mother’s pendant!” She reached for it, then stopped halfway and let her hand fall to her lap. “I wish you had told me you have it, Joan. It was always a favorite of mine. I thought it was lost.”
“Nana gave it to me before she died. It is so fine and clearly ancient, so I decided to save it rather than wear it.” Joan cleared her throat. “I thought Nana had told you. She wasn’t clear in her mind before she died. Perhaps she meant to give it to you?”
Her mother leaned back against the cushions. “I doubt that. I well know you were my mother’s favorite.”
Joan had always felt guilty about that. But there hadn’t been anything she could do when her grandmother was alive and less she could do about it now.
“She loved you. You were her daughter.”
“As I love you, even if we seem to always be at cross-purposes.” Her mother leaned over and peered at the necklace. “Well, it is as pretty as I remember. And Milverton said it proves you have a mage gift? How?”
“He called it a focus. He said the pendant was likely used to protect the wearer from harm.”
“Imagine that.” Mother sat back, shaking her head. “I had no idea.”
“It does explain why Sir August insisted that I should be his bride, even given our obvious differences. He covets the mage gift for his children.”
“Well. At least that shows his intentions toward you are honorable.”
“In his way.” Joan nodded. “What do you know of the pendant, Mother?”
“I know it is silver plate, not true silver, but it has been in the Cohen side of the family for many generations. I was drawn to it whenever my mother wore it, but she was quite possessive with it. She wore it at her mother’s—my grandmother’s—funeral. My grandmother said the pendant could prevent disaster. A legend, she said, but she also said it was not good to dismiss stories.” Mother sighed. “But if it offers you protection due to some odd mage gift in the Cohen blood, well, good. It’s too bad that its protection does not cover Krieger & Sims.”
“Do you remember anything else about it?”
“No.” Her mother stood and walked over to the fireplace mantel. “And you’ve distracted me with the pendant, Joan. What about this mage gift? What does that mean? What can you do with it?”
“Nothing, apparently, save that Sir August said my intuition would be better than most.” Sherringford had said that, but Joan was determined to keep him a secret. Even if he had failed to show tonight.
For a long moment, her mother was silent. “Will you marry Sir August, then, now that you know why he wants you?”
“I seem to have little choice,” Joan said, “despite the fact that it will sever me from our heritage.”
Her mother set her jaw. “My parents fought hard to come to London from Germany. They poured their life’s blood into creating Sims. They would not like to see their granddaughter abandon it. I certainly hate the idea.” Her mother began pacing. “We are at your father’s whim and pleasure because he is the head of the household, despite his instability. If disaster does overtake us, I lay all the blame on him”
“I know how you hate his illness,” Joan said quietly. “Was it ever good for you, Mother? Was he your bashert?”
Her mother faced away from her. “Bashert. Soul mate. I’m not sure I know what that means. Our parents were in favor of the match. Alexander had a good head for the business. Our union should have worked.”
Joan knew that was as much of an answer as she would get. She stood. “As my marriage to Sir August should work? Can you stop it, Mother?”
“If I had months, perhaps I could have the rabbi or the elders of our community talk to your father, but…there is no time.”
“I bought a week’s delay,” Joan said.
“Not enough.” Her mother’s voice caught. “And I may never see you afterward.”
“Surely Sir August would let me see my parents.”
“Whatever promises he makes, Sir August can do anything he wishes concerning you once you are his wife. Men are the legal head of the family. In our law as well, though at least I was allowed to keep running Sims.”
Bitterness laced the words. Joan could not blame her. Her mother had to work and live under impossible conditions. If her father had been dead, it might have been easier to run the business, instead of spending time handling him. Joan did not wish her father dead. It occurred to her for the first time that her mother might indeed wish for that.
It seemed an impending marriage, even a dreaded one, brought out many revelations.
Her mother hugged her. Joan returned the embrace, but she was heartsick. It appeared neither parent would stand up for her.
“I’m sorry.” Her mother held her tight.
Tears came to Joan’s eyes. Apologies did not change her fate.
Joan closed her hand around the pendant. “No matter what happens, I will always remember my family.” Milverton could never take her memories. She sighed and cleared her throat. “Is there anything written in our records about the pendant or even a tradition of a mage gift? At least I will know that much of our history to pass on to my children, whoever their father might be.”
Her mother wiped tears from her eyes. “If my mother gave you the pendant, it is past time for you to read the diaries and records from her and my grandmother. I keep meaning to give them to you but it seems there’s always something to be done and I would say, ‘Well, tomorrow is time enough.’ Then another day would pass.”
She walked over to a locked cabinet in a dark corner of the room, pulled out several yellowed, leather-bound volumes and brushed dust off the top book.
“The others are dull and boring matters of how the store was run in the beginning. But you can have this one. Not since my mother died have I read it. Too close to me, no doubt. Keep it safe, Joan.”
Joan accepted the volume with a lump in her throat. Her mother excused herself to head to bed, and Joan went back to her room.
Hands shaking, she lit her gas lantern, which cast shadows around her room. Her sewing machine reflected the light and threw a particularly vicious shadow on the window, as it always did. Joan liked to think it scared off anyone who thought to break in.
There was no sign of Sherringford, not that she really wanted him skulking around in her bedroom. But his absence meant she was on her own. And far from wanting sleep.
She set the volume on the bed, cleaned up in her washroom and stripped down to her nightshirt. She left on the pendant and settled into bed with her newfound treasure. Joan shook her head, darkly amused that the dead might prove more enlightening than any of the living souls she had spoken to today.
The beginning of the volume was disappointing and dead boring. A detailed family tree was nice but it was just names, with no descriptions. There was also a listing of various properties in Germany that her ancestors had held over the years. It was impressive that the records had been kept for three hundred years, but hardly interesting for her purposes.
Joan flipped through over twenty pages, sneezing as the dust entered her nose, before she stumbled across some narrative passages in a distinctive, bold handwriting.
The language was Hebrew, not German, which surprised her. Hebrew was an educated man’s language and her great-grandmother had come from a rural area of Germany where education was not prized.
1835—Being the History of the Schroeder (now Sims) Family
Now that the proper family ancestry and properties have been written down for posterity, I can tell the story behind those dull years and property values. I write this after my daughter’s marriage to the former Hans Schroeder, who changed his name to Hans Sims. He is determined to be a success in London, even at the cost of his true name. But my daughter will remember the true names in these books, and pass them on to her daughter and so on to her daughter. Our councils give women little voice, but it cannot be denied that it is only through women that the true heritage is kept. I am Ruth, as my grandmother was, and Cohen is our true family name, passed down from previous generations to me, though publicly the name has become Katz.
London seems to me a foul city after the beauty of the German forests, but there were times in those forests when the belly pinched and wanted from hunger. That is not the case here. Hans is a good provider and sent for me after my husband’s accident. He is a suitable son-in-law. He and my daughter intend to have children. I will like seeing them grow. And I will ensure that even under these London fogs, the past will be preserved.
Many will say these tales are full of superstitious nonsense, but oral history is history, nonetheless. Strange things are real and among us, and it will be only a matter of time before the world discovers the truth of it all. I know, as my mother did before me, that soul stealers are real and that true faith is the only way to stop them, else why would my mother have passed to me her heart-shaped pendant, as her mother and all the mothers before she passed it down?
It is valid protection, not only from those outside but from any of those inside corrupted by the black desires that can rule men.
Joan blinked her eyes. She wished she had read this many years ago.
The family story is that the pendant was created in the far past, back to the days of the Eastern Roman Empire, when it was said men who could control the movements of others stalked those with no power or those who would not be missed. But our traditions are as ancient and powerful as theirs, and so my long-ago ancestor created the heart-shaped pendant for his wife. The pendant warned them of an impending plot against the Jews of that time, and so the Cohens fled out of imperial reach, to what has become Germany.
I cannot know how much is true and how much is legend. That our family came from there is claimed by tradition, that much is clear. The rest? Who knows? It makes quite a romantic story, and those are always more appealing and memorable than unvarnished truth. Look at how the legend of the golem persists, though it is obviously false and meant only to be a parable.
Yet, I have felt something from the pendant, a sense of well-being or, sometimes, a sense of dread when bad things are about to happen. It is why I came to be with my daughter and her husband. Something very wrong was gathering around the home I had loved for years. The morning my Kurt died, I was full of dread, despite the clear skies and the beautiful weather and the promise of a new season.
We are all safe now so perhaps the dread was simply missing my daughter, and my husband’s death was only misadventure. Perhaps not. But it is never good to simply dismiss something that you do not understand. And there are still many days where I wish I had stayed in my home to find whatever killed him. I valued survival over answers. Likely my husband would have had it so. Still, it is a grief I carry.
Joan shook her head, her eyes misting unexpectedly at the careful words of devotion for her long-dead great-grandfather. She dabbed the moisture from her eyes as she went back over the text.
She smiled, amused that in one breath her great-grandmother dismissed as nonsense the legend of the golem. The golem was a monster created to avenge the deaths of those dear to his master. Instead, the golem broke from those controlling it and became a soulless thing of dread and destruction.
Yet, in the next paragraph, her great-grandmother clearly seemed to believe there was something different and wonderful about the pendant. And she gave credence to a legend of why the pendant had been created. Not exactly consistent.
Still, Great-Grandmother Ruth had been ahead of her time. Magic was indeed in the world. It was too bad that this entry didn’t separate fact from legend.
Until Sherringford’s brief words, Joan had only a vague idea of how magic worked, which was that a mage would release energy and create mage coal. That mage coal powered what the newspapers termed “the steam revolution”. She well remembered the day they had set up the sewing room boiler and steam pipes. Suddenly, they went from being able to produce ten petticoats per day to one hundred, if needed.
But other mage powers? Obviously, they could cause great destruction. Witness the brown scar in the park. Sir August wanted to marry her to protect her from any accusations of using illegal magic.
Perhaps if Sherringford trained her, instead of Joan fearing for her own safety, those who threatened her would fear for theirs.
Which begged the question: if the pendant was a magical totem, why had her grandmother given it to her instead of her mother?
Obviously, Great-Grandmother Ruth had given it to her daughter. Yet Joan’s grandmother had skipped a generation and given it directly to her granddaughter. That could be because Joan had the mage gift and her mother did not. That seemed the simplest explanation. But as Joan was finding out, very few things in her life were simple.
Joan frowned, trying to remember Nana ever talking about magic. It is meant to be yours, Nana had said when giving her the pendant. But that could mean so many things. Joan flipped ahead in the journal to find out how Great-Grandmother Ruth had passed on the pendant. Many pages dealt with daily family life. She could find nothing of interest in a quick perusal. There was a short note in a shaky hand at the end.
It seems only yesterday that I wrote the beginning of this and now I write the end, or, more accurately, the end of my own story. So it is done. I spent the day putting my affairs, such as they are, in order. I feel I can go peacefully as Hans has made good on his boasts and Sims is thriving as he and my daughter Rebecca work in concert. I worry about the far future, as they have only had one child, and I fear that child is a bit spoiled.
Joan stifled a giggle as she realized that it was her mother—nearly a full adult at the time of the writing—being referred to as a spoiled child.
But I have done my duty. The history of the Cohens is here. And I was right about some legends being real as well, because the news carries hints of people called mages who have discovered a new type of stone that burns so much better than coal. I hear the whispers that this will change the world, that it will bring a better life. I am uncertain, as unless people change, the tools they use to hurt each other will be the only difference in this brave new world.
As for me, I have already changed my life twice, once when my husband died, once when I moved to this city. It is well this new change will happen after I am gone. I am done with change. I wish the next generation well. I hope Rebecca keeps the pendant close to her. I can sense that it might be needed in the coming years. With these rumors of mages, perhaps the legends surrounding our family heirloom may have some truth to them after all. It is a most comforting thought. And a most frightening thought.
Ah, Kurt, my love, I miss you still. If this is a just existence, I will see you soon. Either way, the end is inescapable, and at least my words will live on for Rebecca and her daughter and the generation after that. I hope there will be more daughters. That would please me.
With a lump in her throat, Joan closed the book. She had found only more questions but felt oddly comforted nonetheless. She wished the full history that Ruth referred to had been in this volume. It must be in the others. Tomorrow, she would ask her mother about looking through the rest.
She extinguished the gaslight in her room and settled down to sleep, her hand curled around the pendant. As she was falling into slumber, she heard a noise, just a whisper of sound. It was so slight that she would never have paid any attention if she had not been listening so intently.
There was someone in her room.