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, Joan uncovers exactly how Lady Grey was killed and unlocks her powerful mage gift.
Joan was so shocked by the use of her matrilineal name that she said nothing until Sherringford had ferried her out onto the street. After she had changed into working clothes, of course. It would never do to leave the house in a nightshirt and robe.
Cohen, he had named her. She felt the pendant heavy against her bare chest. She had tucked it beneath her underclothes, conscious more than ever of its history. Gregor had seen the pendant. He must have researched it and found the family connection sometime earlier today. He was a detective, after all.
She felt no sense of dread from the pendant, despite her worry. That was a good sign.
They walked down the street cloaked in Sherringford’s unique darkness. She noticed that it was less dark than the void that he’d created while they’d been trapped under her father’s desk. His power must have several levels, like the difference between a simple stitch and a seam stitch.
After turning onto the third cross street, Joan saw the light of a hansom cab at the corner. Her sight cleared as Sherringford dropped his unique subterfuge and called to the cabbie.
The same man who had dropped her off yesterday answered the detective. The cabbie tipped his hat to her as Sherringford helped her aboard. By then, she had recovered enough of her wits to question him about using Cohen. He demurred, saying speaking before they were warded was a very bad idea.
“Ward? A protection of some sort?”
“A protection of the highest sort. How many hours do you have before you are missed?”
“I usually rise at dawn but today they might expect me to sleep later, especially with the upcoming marriage. My routine is terribly off schedule.”
No one would look for her unless Sir August sent a message or, even worse, came himself. Even her father never came into her room. Her mother or Emily might. But Joan no longer cared as much about discovery or its consequences as she had even a day ago. Too much had happened. She did not feel like the same person. She looked down at her hand and flexed it. It seemed to be suffering no ill effects from the magical attack.
“Will Sir August still have me if my absence is noted?”
“Do you care?”
The question annoyed her, especially since she had asked hoping to hear that this night departure made her an unsuitable bride. Or perhaps she had hoped he would be glad her marriage was now impossible. “Sir August seems to be entwined with my life just now. I cannot ignore him. And my family’s financial future rests on him, unless another solution is found.”
“Ah, I see.” He frowned. Joan wondered why he disliked her answer. It was an obvious one, under the circumstances.
“Sir August Milverton is a determined man, and he is desperate to add mages to his family. Reason forces me to conclude that he will have you still, scandal or no.”
“Drat. And he will not accuse me of an indiscretion with you?” That might be a sure way to get out of the marriage.
“Since he would know on your wedding night that you are a virgin, he would overlook your indiscretion with me.”
“Lovely,” she snapped, and didn’t know why Sherringford’s statement that her virtue was not at stake tonight made her so testy. Yes, she did. Had he been so unaware of what had passed between them? Their hearts had literally beat as one.
“Peace.” He laughed. “This is the most tangled and intriguing case I have had in at least a year.”
“I’m so pleased someone’s happy about the ruin of my family,” she muttered.
“View it as my being pleased that I can untangle that ruin.”
“You would be happy about working on such a complicated case, regardless of my family’s plight.”
“Entirely possible. But you will still gain from my expertise, either way.” He paused. “And I’m glad to be able to help you.”
“If you ever provide the answers. You haven’t even given me a good explanation for needing to borrow my gloves.”
“That is because I lack a definitive explanation as yet.”
She thought she caught a smirk in the soft glow thrown by the carriage’s lantern and decided not to challenge him any longer. It was too exhausting. Her head lolled forward until she corrected the motion. With effort, she kept her eyes open and studied him in the pale light.
Her first impression of Gregor Sherringford had been right. He was interested in her and the mystery surrounding Lady Grey’s murder as a puzzle to be solved. He lived in his head, not his heart. What she had felt under the desk had been only her overactive imagination. She sensed some underlying respect, hence the bow in her rooms, but that was it, she guessed. He respected competence and she was useful. And she had been unpredictable and he liked that.
A romance with him—how ridiculous that seemed now.
A short time later, the carriage let them off at Sherringford’s office. No life stirred on the street, though the smells that had wrinkled her nose on the first visit were the same. He led her through his entrance illusion and then into his furnished study. Once inside, she near collapsed on the couch. It was hard to be brave and resolute when one felt exhausted to one’s bones.
Her host poured a drink for himself and offered one to her.
“I don’t drink,” she said flatly. And tonight did not seem like the time to start. Her wits were scattered enough already.
Sherringford drank down his whiskey and supplied her with a glass of water. She finished it in several large gulps.
He sat down in the same chair he’d used at their first meeting. His chair, she thought, the center of his home. He put up his feet on a little footstool, closed his eyes and sighed. He was as tired as she was. Or else he was gathering his wits on how to teach her about mage gifts.
“Give me a moment to collect my thoughts.”
Yet he was silent for a long period. Just when she started to be lulled into sleep by the quiet, he spoke.
“Before I can show you what to do, you’ll need some background. What do you know of magic?”
“Very little.” She related what she knew of mage coal and what she’d read in her great-grandmother’s diaries. “Are soul stealers possible?”
“Many things are possible, some more likely than others, but I’d not care to dismiss any possibilities offhand. As your ancestor wrote and your pendant proves, there has been magic in the world since the beginning. Only recently did man learn to harness it, and that was somewhat by accident. The late Prince Albert had the talent and a knack for practicality. And, most important, he could teach others how to harness their mage energy.”
“Explain again what my pendant does. I’m not certain I understand it yet.”
“The pendant’s maker had great skills. What it does is focus mage ability and magnifies it. It also senses when magic is around and the intention of those wielding that magic. Your family knew enough about mage gifts to pass the pendant down to those who could sense its power.”
“My grandmother gave it directly to me, not my mother.”
“Likely because of your strong mage gift. What have you sensed previously when wearing it?”
She shook her head. “It is a fine piece, so I wore it only on rare occasions.”
“Ah. But you wore it at Sir August Milverton’s house today. What did it tell you?”
“Not to trust Milverton.”
“Then it is working quite well. He has let some personal tragedies turn him bitter.”
“Oh.” And now she was curious about that tragedy. “But my great-grandmother wore it most of her life. You are saying she was right to heed the dread she felt and flee Germany, yes?”
“And a spell murdered her husband, Kurt, just as one murdered Lady Grey?”
“I cannot speak for her Kurt. But, yes, magic murdered Lady Grey. Spell, however, is a primitive word for what was done to turn your scarf into a weapon. Magic is also just a word, a convenient one for a gift we do not quite understand.”
“What would you call spells or magic, then?”
“A scientific unknown that can be uncovered and studied.” His lips quirked. “My family disagrees, especially my mother. They do not recognize there are gifts other than traditional magic.”
“But you do have magic, sir.”
“Not the kind they recognize.” He waved away the subject. “But, essentially, magic is a way people can use energy. Just as plants can absorb sunlight and turn it into food, those who possess the mage gift can use sunlight to produce a type of energy. The most basic type of this energy is what some call a mage light, which illuminates but doesn’t burn.”
“You used a mechanical device as light,” she said. “Why was that?”
“Because I don’t have that basic form of magic. In many ways, what I possess is anti-magic. With focus, I can block light and energy. Not a terribly useful talent, save for subterfuge.”
“It might be useful in blocking the power of a mage.”
“Indeed.” He frowned. “You, however, possess the basic gift for absorbing the sunlight and converting it to mage energy. Without training or a focus, your energy dissipates harmlessly into your surroundings. For example, when you create clothing, a small amount of your gift ends up in the material because you are so focused on the task. I suspect that is why your family’s business has thrived. Your clothing has that extra touch, especially since it seems the gift runs in the family. It might explain why Sims grew in prominence so quickly.”
“I have been putting a spell on the clothing I create?” She frowned. Sewing felt right, even when it was frustrating, but many people could master the task. It was design that required talent.
“Nothing so careful as a spell. Just that extra touch of artistic inspiration that puts your clothes a cut above. It is attractive even to those without the gift, though they couldn’t say why. I only see it because I know you have the gift and because you wore the pendant when you first came to me.”
“So, if I were trained, I could do something truly magical to the clothes, and not just these echoes you speak of?” She slumped back on the couch. Her grandmother must have known this.
“Your magic is already in the clothes, under the surface. All a trained mage would need is a spell to make use of what’s already there.” He cleared his throat. “Which is why your scarf was used to kill Lady Grey. It was simple to lay a spell over the magic sewn into it.”
“Someone dusted a chemical commonly called brimstone over the scarf and used that to hold the spell.”
Joan felt the color completely drain from her face. “Oh no.”
“The same chemical was on your gloves.”
She put her head in her hands, tasting the bile coming up her throat. “The gloves had a spell too?”
“Not yet. Just the brimstone. Your bringing them to me ensured they would not be used as part of a spell.”
She nearly doubled over at the nausea in her stomach. “But I helped kill Lady Grey?”
Once, she had worked so long at the sewing machine that when she finished, she had nearly fainted from not eating for a day. Her head had gone all fuzzy and blurred around the edges. She felt exactly like that now. She was a part of a murder.
Sherringford refilled her glass. She drained the water in one swallow.
“No need for hysterics at this late date. You’ve already shown yourself to be made of sterner stuff. Magic is a tool, like any other. Being the owner of a gun does not make you responsible for someone who steals the gun and uses it for murder.” He knelt in front of her. “You’re not responsible, Joan. In fact, you’ve probably just saved the life of the woman who will wear the gloves.”
“Her life was endangered because of me. And if I hadn’t come into Lady Grey’s life, she would be alive.”
“We all affect each other in this life, for good or ill.” He smiled. “My mother would term what happens in those interactions karma. You bring good karma, not bad, Joan Cohen.”
“Karma.” She drank more water. He was trying to distract her with an unfamiliar term. It was working. “Is that an Indian term?”
“It’s a simple English word for a complicated religious concept, but it will do for our purposes.”
Apparently many words were shorthand for complex concepts, at least in Sherringford’s world. “Your mother is Indian, then?”
He nodded. “As you guessed. My skin is not as dark as my mother’s, so I can pass tolerably well. That is, if I wish to pass, which I do not, save when I need to do so when working on a case.”
“Did your father marry your mother for her magic? As Sir August wants to marry me for mine?”
He scowled and stood, drawing back from her. “I hardly think that’s your business.”
“So you can know my full history and yet keep yours hidden?”
“Yes.” He adjusted the cuffs of his shirt. “In general, as I said, the lords of the realm are eager to add mage gifts to their bloodlines and those like Milverton are increasingly unconcerned how this is done. No doubt part of my mother’s charm for my father was her mage gift. That’s all past the point.” He chopped the air with his hand. “I was teaching you about magic, not the politics of the lords of the realm.”
Touchy, she thought, and with good reason. She’d been worried about what being married to Sir August would do to her life. She had thought her children would at least have a good life. Yet Sherringford was the product of such a mismatched union and he seemed to think it held serious difficulties. He belonged in neither of his parents’ worlds.
She wondered how much he was isolated emotionally from them. So sad to be all alone with parents who didn’t understand. She well knew that pain.
“Aye, sir, let us continue with the point, then. Magic. It’s a tool, like a gun.”
“Or a sewing needle.”
She nodded. “So where does mage coal enter into this?”
He smiled. “Would you believe mage coal is the waste product of using the mage ability to channel energy? It’s a magical byproduct that releases its great energy slowly as it’s burned, making it a very efficient heating product.”
“You’re saying mage coal, which has transformed our world, is nothing more than scraps left behind by a mage’s power?”
“Ironic, is it not? The lords make its creation sound so complex but it’s as simple as that. It’s quite an excellent fuel source, as you could tell from Milverton’s home and my own lodgings. Releasing blunt energy from the body is relatively simple for a mage but few are strong enough to produce more than a trace of the coal on a consistent basis. Hence its high price.”
“Could I make mage coal?”
“You don’t have to think about making it. Once you use magic, it happens by itself. If you are powerful enough and if you have a focus, such as the pendant. It remains to be seen how powerful you are. We can do that now.” He cocked his head. “You are feeling charitable toward me right this moment? I should not like to get singed.”
Singed? “How could I do that?” She shook her head. She couldn’t envision anything that she could do that would jar that impassive front of his, never mind cause him harm. “I’ve never hurt anyone.” Except Lady Grey. Her magic had enabled the killer to act.
“Good to know.” Sherringford stood. “Shall we begin?”
“Will you tell me first why this is so dangerous?”
He snorted. “Because untrained mages often cannot control the release of their sunlight-absorbed energy and thus it can be quite explosive. However, it is warded here and any mess will be contained.”
“The stronger the gift, the larger the possibility of, er, an incident. You know of the barren patch of land in the park?”
“That was a duel between powerful, trained mages. The duel should have been contained by wards, but one of the participants set them badly and the power spilled out to nearby spectators and the land itself. Untrained, raw power, such as yours, can be just as lethal.” He knelt in front of her again. “Give me your hands.”
“I am most definitely not lethal.” Once more, she did as he asked. He cradled her palms between his fingers. She took a deep breath. Silly girl, she was about to learn how to be a mage, and now her stomach fluttered just because this arrogant man held her hands.
It was not romantic at all, she told herself. It was nerves. And it was not like he cared for her in that way. He had had a chance to show her that he did and had passed it over.
“The pendant makes it far easier for you to begin this, Joan. Many mages spend years making and attuning their focus. Happily for you, yours is already attuned.”
“Thank the Cohens.” She meant that to be funny but her voice cracked.
“Indeed. They were a remarkable family, if my research is to be believed.” He squeezed her hands. “Put all your mental energy, all your thoughts on the pendant. Relax, and let it flow through that.”
“To what end? Do I try to create light?”
“No. That might cause a fire. Try to push my chair away. That should be enough of a test.”
She closed her eyes, remembering what she had done to help them stay hidden while trapped under the desk. She had cleared her mind and concentrated on just one thing.
She pictured his chair, the black velvet cushions, the darkened wood armrest, the stubby feet. Then she pushed. Or told her brain to push. She opened her eyes and stared at the chair until she had memorized every line of the seams of the cushions and noted the wear on the arms from overuse.
She imagined slamming the chair into the door via magic.
The chair remained in the same place.
Sherringford scowled at her and stood.
“I did my best,” she muttered.
“Your best?” He paced, sharp, quick movements in front of his ornate fireplace. “Your best? That was a pathetic effort. You are not the person I thought you were. I thought you were brave and strong. Instead, you’re weak, as a woman usually is. Bah. Leave. You’ve wasted my time. The Cohens would be appalled at what you lack.”
She gasped, his words slapping at her like cold water in the morning. Angry, tired and sick to her stomach, she stood, glared at his chair, straightened her arms, gritted her teeth and…pushed.
The anger rolled out of her. The chair tipped over and its cushion caught fire.
She blinked and grasped the armrest of the couch. Drained, she could only stare as Sherringford smothered the flames with a blanket. She hugged herself because her body was beginning to shake uncontrollably. She closed her eyes, thought of the pendant, pictured it in her mind and told herself to calm down.
I started a fire. I am a mage. I started a fire!
Sherringford grasped her by the shoulders. She ignored him as the trembling spread throughout her body. He shook her, and reality came rushing back. Unbalanced, she collapsed on the couch. He sat next to her.
“The second attempt was a definite improvement,” he said. “But you lied. You said you were not explosive.”
She glared. “You insulted me on purpose! You wanted me to become angry!”
“You seem to function better when you let your frustration loose. Interesting, as most noble ladies find serenity a better way to channel the energy.”
“I’m no noble lady,” she snapped.
“You have more innate nobility of purpose than many who can claim the title at birth.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. That’s not the problem. No, I suspect this explosive release is a result of having suppressed the gift for so long.”
Her shaking ebbed, as much a result of his compliment as his explanation. “Now what?”
“Now I know you can defend yourself, if absolutely necessary. Even the best mage will have trouble standing up to that, especially since he will not be expecting it, considering the source.”
“I will be dismissed or underestimated, you mean.”
“Yes. That means I can investigate on my own, knowing you are safe. And there is another bonus to all this.” He held out his hand, palm flat.
His palm held a finger-length piece of black stone. She grasped it and brought it close to her face. It looked like ordinary black stone.
“Mage coal?” she asked in a whisper.
He nodded. She closed her hand around it and started to laugh. Like before, she felt something well up inside her, but this time instead of anger, it was giddiness. She doubled over, unable to stop.
Sherringford’s arms went around her shoulders. “Easy, Joan,” he whispered in her ear. “Are you undone?”
She turned her head and her gaze was met by Sherringford. Their faces were less than an inch apart. She studied the fine lines of his face, his intense dark eyes and his lips, now curled into a smile. Such a gorgeous man. He’d touched her face when they were under the desk. She wanted to touch his.
She laid her palm on his check. He closed the distance between them.
Clearly, she was undone.