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.
You can find part 1 here.
Joan ran to the crashed carriage, but it was far too late. She had seen her grandmother pass away quietly in bed. She knew what death looked like. Lady Grey’s head lolled sideways at an unnatural angle, unlike Joan’s grandmother’s. But the body held the same absolute stillness. No breath, no life.
Hand over her mouth, wishing she could close her eyes to the horror, Joan stepped back onto the sidewalk as the butler ran past her to his now-dead mistress.
There was chaos among the servants, but the head butler organized them all while sending a footman for the authorities at Scotland Yard.
Joan and her mother were ushered back into the home—through the servants’ door, of course—and were forced to wait in the same room in which they’d encountered the head cook just a few moments earlier. They were witnesses, the butler said. That made sense, and Joan wanted to stay. She wanted to make sense of what happened. Surely, the accident couldn’t have happened the way she thought it had. Her knees trembled, her throat closed up and even the walls around her seemed unreal.
Her mother waited in the same tense silence. Not for the first time, Joan wished her mother was good at comfort, but that was a lost cause. Once, her father had been good at that. Once. No more.
People came and went, teary-eyed and intense. Joan suspected the tears were for the now-uncertain status of their lives and jobs, rather than true grief for Lady Grey, though the shock of her sudden death had something to do with it.
The butler came in and asked for a few members of the household to come talk to an inspector from Scotland Yard. Joan and her mother were left alone with the head cook.
Now that there was room, Joan sat on the bench and put her head in her hands. Her mother patted her shoulders in an awkward attempt to soothe.
“Aw, miss, I’m sorry the day didn’t turn out the way ya wanted,” the head cook said.
“I have ta ask, since I heard the maids whispering about it. Did that scarf really wrap itself around the wheel?”
“Nonsense,” snapped her mother.
“It looked that way.” Joan stared up at her mother.
“Your eyes must have deceived you.”
“It looked that way to the maids and the footman too, Mrs. Krieger. Don’t blame the lass for being as confused as the rest of them.”
Others had seen it too? Joan shook her head. “Yet what we saw makes no sense.”
“True enough. Here, lass.” The head cook pressed a piece of paper into her hand. “You might need this.”
Joan focused on the paper, banishing the image of the dead Lady Grey that had been uppermost in her brain since the accident. “What’s this?”
“Ah, ’tis just a note about what my daughter did when all seemed lost. Simple advice. It may…ahem…guide you. You keep it and read it when the dust from all this settles.”
Joan tucked the note inside the pocket of her gown. “That is very kind, thank you.”
The butler came back and asked for Joan and her mother this time.
“I hope you’re not thinking of taking that cook’s letter seriously,” her mother whispered as they walked down the hallway. “God knows what superstitious nonsense is in it.”
“She was being kind,” Joan answered.
“Kindness doesn’t always equal help.”
“No, I suppose not.” Kindness would not bring Lady Grey back to life. Kindness would not change the fact that the scarf that Joan had made with her own hands had killed their best client.
But a kind word from her mother now, rather than a scolding, would’ve helped Joan feel slightly less horrible.
The butler took them down the outside stairs to the street. A number of blue-suited men were gathered around Lady Grey’s steam carriage. Bobbies. She’d never seen so many in one place.
But it was a man in civilian dress who approached them.
He nodded at them. “Mrs. Krieger, Miss Krieger. My name is Detective Inspector Davis.”
The coarse wool of the detective’s suit coat marked him as a member of the working class, as surely as Joan’s own coat did for her.
“I have a few questions for you about this morning,” he added.
Inspector Davis directed his questions at her mother, as the elder of them. Joan was ignored.
While her mother answered what their business had been with Lady Grey and why their client had decided to take a ride at this very moment, Joan looked around. The smashed carriage had been pried away from the lamppost and relocated to the front of the home. Lady Grey’s body was gone. Joan had no idea where it had been taken. She wondered if anyone would sit shiva for Lady Grey. Surely, there would be enough friends to honor her life.
Ah, but gentiles did not sit shiva. Joan realized she had no idea what form a memorial for Lady Grey would take or whether she would be properly buried at all. For all she knew, the body had been taken to Scotland Yard for an invasive examination. The lurid stories in the magazines talked about how bodies could give clues to crimes.
Save this was not a crime but an accident. Joan tapped the letter in her pocket, wondering how the cook could even imagine words would help with this.
A tall man wearing a stovepipe hat walked over to Inspector Davis just as he was asking her mother about the origin of the scarf. The new arrival doffed his hat respectfully to them and apologized for interrupting.
Someone had done a good job measuring the fit of the top hat, as it perfectly hid the new arrival’s bald spot. Joan opened her mouth to compliment him on the hat, but when he fixed his narrow eyes on her, she felt a chill. He’d done nothing but be polite and yet she left her words unsaid because his look frightened her. More proof her nerves were frayed.
The inspector scowled at the interruption by his colleague but put away his notebook. “We’re about done, ladies. You can go, but leave your card so I can talk to you if any other questions come to mind.”
Her mother handed him a Krieger & Sims card, which the inspector shoved into an inside pocket of his coat. He turned to the man who’d interrupted them. “Yes, Colonel Moran, I’ll take you inside.”
“Good meeting you, ladies, though not under such circumstances.” Moran nodded to them as he followed Davis inside.
I don’t like the man, Joan thought.
It made no sense. One would think she would have disliked Davis, who had asked all the questions. But, no, Moran, who hardly said two sentences to her, made her uneasy.
“Let us be gone from here,” Mother said.
“Most definitely,” Joan agreed.
They hailed a horseless cab at the next street and settled in for the ride home. Across the bridge and away from the nobility they went, to the merchants’ section of London.
“What was wrong with that scarf? It moved so oddly,” Joan mumbled out loud.
Her mother took her rambling as a question.
“Don’t be daft, Joan. Scarves cannot move ‘oddly’. It no doubt shifted due to the wind or, more likely, some sort of breeze thrown up by the steam carriage itself.”
“The maids saw it too.”
“The maids made the same mistake.”
“The steam was coming out the front of the carriage, not the side. I know what I saw,” Joan said.
“You’ve no better idea how a steam carriage works than I do.” Her mother looked at Joan over her glasses. “You are deliberately looking for something odd in a horrible mischance. That’s what your father does, you know.”
Her father, whose mind was rarely lucid. “That’s a horrible thing to say, Mother.”
Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m only trying to say that it is an accident and not your fault, dear. I know you feel guilty. You should not.”
“Thank you for that.” Joan stared out the carriage window. People bustled on the street, in and out of the shops. Joan could not have said what kind of shops or even if the customers were men or women. All she saw was Lady Grey slumped over the steering wheel.
“Why did you bring the scarf today? I told you not to.”
“I didn’t bring it,” her mother snapped. “Likely, you yourself put it in the box and forgot about it. And if you really want something to worry about, think about the future of Krieger & Sims. Lady Grey was killed wearing your ‘radical’ clothing and by a scarf that we designed for driving. Her death could very well destroy us after that mess with the cravat.”
Her mother’s voice broke on the last words.
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
“It’s not your fault, as I said.” She sighed and patted her forehead with a handkerchief. “Lady Grey did love your design. But it’ll do us no good now. This is a disaster.”
Joan closed her eyes to the truth of that statement. The young lord who had hung himself with his custom-made cravat had been unstable. All said so. But now there were two unfortunate deaths associated with Krieger & Sims clothing. Joan was not certain she would want to purchase clothing that brought such ill luck if she were a potential customer. They could expect loyalty from their clients no longer.
The day became worse when they arrived home and had to explain it all to Mr. Samuel Roylott, their business manager.
Unfortunately, today was also one of those days when Alexander Krieger had full control of his faculties and they had to speak to him as well. For once, she would have preferred her father unaware and babbling.
They four of them met in the business office downstairs. The others sat. Joan did not feel like sitting. It felt more submissive. Despite her fatigue, she stood in the far corner of the room, as far away from her father and his impressive desk as she could get.
Coward? Yes. But she wished this to be over as quickly as possible so she could lose herself in a sewing project. She needed to set needle to thread, to get her fingers moving, to clear her brain and create. Nothing less would calm her after today.
Yet from that same machine had come the scarf that had been Lady Grey’s bane. A horrid thought. What had gone wrong? She tapped the letter in her pocket again.
“We cannot recover from this,” her father said, his face pale and drawn. “Joan, you should never have created such…odd…clothing.”
Odd? What her father meant was something far worse. In one of his “fits” last week, he had called the design an abomination and an affront to society.
“Lady Grey liked it,” she said.
“Lady Grey is dead.” Her father slammed the desk with his fist for emphasis. Joan crossed her arms tighter over her chest.
“This isn’t Joan’s fault. As she said, Lady Grey loved the design. This accident was not her doing. Besides, Joan was the one who decided the scarf didn’t belong. It was Lady Grey who insisted on wearing it.”
The stiffness leached out of Joan’s back. If she and her mother ever hugged, this would be a good moment, for such staunch defense.
“Then how did the scarf end up around Lady Grey’s neck?” Roylott asked quietly.
Joan bristled, dropping her arms to her side.
“Mishappenstance,” her mother said before Joan could. “And if we weren’t already suffering under the scandal of the cravat that your client used to hang himself last week, this would be passed off as unfortunate but hardly damaging. We might not have Lady Grey’s patronage, but we’d still have our regular clients.”
“How could I know the fool of a boy would use the cravat to leave this world?” her father asked, jaw clenched.
“You couldn’t, no more than Joan or I could foresee this outcome.” Mother nodded, as though that settled the matter.
“Responsible or not, neither death can be undone,” Roylott said. “We are in dire straits. After the first death, orders were canceled, leaving us with the bills for the materials. And now there will be another round of cancellations. We can cover expenses for a few months but then the reserve will be gone.”
“You suggest we give up?” Joan asked.
“I would consider it more of a strategic retreat,” Mr. Roylott said. “If we put the shop up for sale, we might receive a price good enough to pay our debts and have the reserve to get by on until we obtain other work.”
“Close my family’s business? Never!” Father pounded the desk once again. “It is all well and good for you to say, Roylott, but this business is our legacy.”
“I agree. This is a setback but we can overcome it,” her mother said. “No need to panic. It will just take time.”
“And we cannot put our seamstresses out of work. They depend on us,” Joan said.
“Best to look after yourselves first, before your employees,” Mr. Roylott said.
Her father stood. “Joan, if you truly care what happens to the future of our family business, I have another solution.”
Her father’s statement was made in a quiet voice that seemed ominous to Joan. What had his addled brain focused on now?
“What possible solution could you have?” Her mother’s tone dismissed the idea unheard.
For good reason too. No doubt this was some crazy scheme. Under stress, her father said the strangest things.
Her father took the center of the office and his full six-foot-four frame dominated the room. He glowered and her mother shrank away from him. “I have a suitor for Joan who is willing to pay our debts and provide the patronage we need to build the business back up.”
A suitor? Joan closed her hands over her chest, her throat dry. A possible husband who might intimidate and bully her as her father did her mother?
She cleared her throat. “Who is this paragon and what is the cost of what he provides?” Not all men were sick like her father, she told herself. It was not a solution she desired, but perhaps it was an offer from another Jewish merchant family. A merchant’s son would understand the shop. A partner, perhaps a helpmate. She had remained single at least a year past the time when she would have normally married, mostly because she was needed to care for her father.
“Your hand is requested by no less than Sir August Milverton, who has been one of my steadiest clients for the past five years.” Her father walked over to Joan, ignoring the others. “What say you to that, my daughter?”
Joan was too stunned to respond. A noble wanted her? A Christian noble? Impossible. Her father must be deluded.
“Alexander, that is patently ridiculous. Nobles are not interested in people like us. Sit down until you can think properly again,” her mother said.
Mr. Roylott cleared his throat. “Begging your pardon, Mrs. Krieger, but it’s true. I overheard the offer. It was a princely one too, eschewing any dowry and offering patronage so the business will thrive.”
Her mother snapped to her feet. “I don’t believe it.” She shook her head so vehemently that it dislodged a hairpin. “He’s goy. Why would he want our daughter?”
“He has admired her long from afar, he is getting on in years and needs an heir, and he said he wants no frivolous ladies but someone who can run his household,” her father said. “His family received the knighthood a generation ago by merit, so he knows the value of the working class. It’s not such a strange offer.”
Joan blinked, still sorting out what the words meant. A knight of the realm wanted her. A “princely offer”, as Mr. Roylott had stated. But she would never have thought her father would give her to an outsider. She did not like the idea much either.
“You would have me marry outside our people, Father? What about my children?”
“It’s your children I am considering, Joan. Sir August Milverton can provide for children well. They would have access to the best and would have a guaranteed future.”
“And so Sir August pays off our debts and takes me as wife without a dowry and from a lower class for…what? What does he gain?”
“Men do many strange things for love.” Her father looked over at his wife.
“Lust, rather,” her mother snapped.
“For a man like that, I would expect an offer to be his mistress, not his wife,” Joan said.
“Well, it’s true, Father. And you are the one talking about selling me off outside our faith and cutting off your grandchildren from our people. No money is worth that.”
Her faith might be shaky—what righteous God would make her father so ill?—but her people were her people.
“You think I’m mad, but I am the only one in this room behaving sensibly,” her father said.
Mother signaled behind her husband’s back, a hand gesture that meant “let him run on until we can sort this out”. But her husband turned around and caught her at it.
Her father clenched his fists. From years of dealing with his “difficulties”, Joan knew something bad was about to happen. She rushed to her mother and caught her father’s blow—intended for his wife—across her own shoulder.
The force of it spun Joan sideways but she kept her feet. Her father grabbed her wrists and clamped his large hands hard around them. She cried out from the tightness of his grip. He was far gone now, with no trace of sanity on his face. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, and spittle bubbled at the corner of his mouth. His whole body shook. One of his rages, Joan thought uselessly, and there was no hope for it until he was done.
Her mother grabbed the thumb of one of her husband’s hands and twisted. Her father’s grip lessened. Joan jerked a hand away.
Her mother slapped her father hard across his cheek. He let go of Joan’s other hand.
“Remember who you are, Alexander,” her mother said in a low voice.
Still shaking, her father looked down at his palms. Confusion crossed his face. He was beginning to collapse. It was over. At least it had been quick this time.
“I did not mean…” He raised his head and gave her a quizzical look.
Joan stared back. She would have bruises on her wrists. Again.
“You must marry Milverton,” he whispered. “You must escape.”
Then he crashed to the floor.