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.
Today, as Joan returns home, having obtained the mysterious Mr. Sherringford’s services, she runs into more trouble at home, including an effort to marry her off.
The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, Part 5
After promising to be in touch as quickly as possible, Sherringford escorted Joan from his office to a cab already waiting in the street.
“How is it that you have a cab ready for me?” she asked. “Some kind of magic?”
“How not?” He took her elbow, saw her safely aboard the horse-drawn hansom cab and departed.
Off-balance from his cryptic answer, she settled back into the passenger seat. Lady Grey had been murdered, somehow, by something Joan herself had made. She possessed magic. More, her grandmother had given her a magical “focus”.
Any one of those revelations would have roiled her brain. All together…she could barely think. She must clear her head, somehow, to make sense of it all. Perhaps that pile of clothing awaiting mending next to her sewing machine would work.
In the meantime, she stared at the world around her. It seemed less—or perhaps more—real now.
It had been years since Joan had ridden in a hansom cab. In the upper-class sections of London, the cabs were all steam powered. Her nose wrinkled at the unfamiliar animal smell but she had to admit the clip-clop sound of hooves on cobblestones was nicely soothing. A pattern to concentrate on so she could think of little else. London had grown so quiet with the advent of the steam vehicles. As if responding to the lower noise level, Joan had found people had lowered their voices on the street as well.
The din had diminished, leading to a much more eerie feeling on the days where the fog shrouded London in grey. Today, at least, the sun shone. People smiled at each other on the street. It was good to have winter over.
When they were a block from Krieger & Sims, Joan asked to be let out. As the driver helped her down from the cab, she could not resist indulging her curiosity. “How is it you knew to be waiting outside Mr. Sherringford’s home for a fare?”
“Milord keeps us on retainer, miss,” the driver said. “We take shifts and keep watch on the light set in the second floor of his building. When it goes on, we know he needs us.” He smiled. “But usually it’s him himself demanding to go somewhere fast. This was a pleasant change of pace and passenger, miss.”
“Thank you.” Milord, the cabby had said. Odd, given Sherringford had not even wanted to be called sir. “Why did you name Mr. Sherringford ‘Lord’?”
“’Cause he is one, no matter how much he says we need to call him ‘mister’, he’s a lord, for certain,” the driver said. “Younger son of a duke, I hear. My boy who takes the night shift knows which one but I get all t’names mixed up. But my boy drove milord to his family’s estate one time.”
How interesting. What was the younger son of a duke of the realm doing playing detective and scientist in such a backward spot and denying his rank? Now she even doubted whether he was using his real name. She thought back to Sherringford’s manner during their meeting. Imperious, yes, but serious. No, he was not playing at all. He must have his reasons, though she could not fathom yet what might drive such a man. She wondered if it had anything to do with his possible Indian heritage.
“Lord Sherringford is trustworthy, then?” she asked.
“Completely,” the driver answered. “He got my boy out of a spot of trouble last year. He might be odd and all, and there’s some that call him foreign, but I’d trust him with m’life.”
“Thank you,” she said and set off down the street. Sherringford certainly knew how to engender trust.
She kept her head down to avoid being recognized and slipped over to a side street that led to the back delivery entrance of her family shop. Their current lack of business helped her, as no one was in sight. Once, the street would have teemed with deliverymen bearing cloth and other materials. Now, no more deliveries would come unless the funds to purchase the goods came first.
Her key opened the back entrance.
She flew up the steps to her second-floor room at the top of the stairwell, rushed inside and locked the door behind her.
She looked down at her hands. They were shaking. She had been able to stay calm all morning but now that she was safely home, her nerves could no longer be stilled.
She had done it! She crossed her arms over her chest to still their tremors and thought about Sherringford’s caress of her hands. It was well he did not take advantage of her. Only just now did she realize the enormity of the risk. He could have easily overpowered and taken her.
If he wanted.
But no, he had believed her. He’d told her she had a mage gift. He had taken her case.
And if she had wanted him to take her?
She shook her head, rueful. That kind of misbehavior would only make her situation worse.
She took off the pendant and stared at it. Sherringford claimed she was a mage, potentially a powerful one. Yet he had also said training her was illegal. Hah. He didn’t seem to be a man who played by rules. As soon as this was over, she would insist that he train her. Or find someone who would.
Someone knocked at her door.
She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
“It is Mr. Roylott, miss.”
Despite his professional status with Krieger & Sims, it was most unseemly of him to seek her out in her room. “You overstep your bounds, Mr. Roylott.”
“I know, Miss Krieger, but your mother was looking for the new gloves for Lady Eleanor Glass,” he said. “I thought you might know where they are.”
“Oh, those gloves.” Joan looked down at her bare hands. “I spotted some uneven stitching on the seams yesterday and brought them up here to fix.” Drat the man for asking for the one thing she did not have. At least she could give a reasonable explanation. She was the best hand in the house, and everyone knew it. If only her life depended on her sewing, rather than her marriage, she would not be in this fix.
“You should have let us know you had the gloves, miss.” Roylott’s voice was muffled by the wood of the door.
Go away, she thought. “Why? Delivery is a week away.” She unbuttoned her dress, pulled it off and laid it over the table next to her sewing machine. “What is the rush?”
She slipped her everyday dress over her underclothing and tucked her grandmother’s heart-shaped pendant under her dress. From now on, she would not take it off. Her grandmother had insisted that she have it. Had she recognized another mage, or at least someone with the underlying gift?
But if none outside of the noble class were trained as mages, it begged the question of how her grandmother had known enough to gift her with the pendant.
“Our customer came looking for the gloves today, miss,” Roylott said. “I think she was seeking a chance to back out of the deal due to, well, our current circumstances. Your mother tried to reassure her.”
“Is the customer still here?” Disaster. She’d have to say she’d ruined the gloves.
“No, thankfully, the client accepted your mother’s explanation that her gloves were receiving your personal attention. And Emily helped. The two of them were able to placate the lady.”
Her mother had a fine touch with clients. Add in Emily, whom everyone loved, and they could melt stone. She frowned. First, it was her mother’s place to tell her this. Second, their client had left at least semisatisfied. Yet Roylott pestered her.
Joan pinned back her hair and opened the door to Roylott. The man stumbled back, as if he’d had an ear pressed to the door. Spying, she thought. He might suspect she’d gone out alone. “How was I to know that the client would want her gloves so soon?”
“I simply wanted to tell you to finish tonight. She may be back tomorrow.”
Joan closed the door behind her and stepped into the hallway. “This could have waited a few hours. Yet you intruded on me. Why?”
“I worried about you, after what happened yesterday.”
Ah, yes. Her father’s assault. “What happened yesterday with my father has happened before and you have never stood as my champion. Why now?”
“If I could help you, I would,” Roylott said, his voice near a whisper. He glanced at the door to her parents’ room at the end of the hallway. “I’m very sorry about your situation, miss.”
“This is the first I am aware of that.” Roylott was precise and logical, not empathetic. He also never stood up to her father. She had been the one to take the blow yesterday in lieu of her mother. Roylott had done nothing, as usual.
Sherringford’s sympathy about her bruises had made her realize that she despised Roylott for his inaction. She cared not if it was because he was afraid of being fired by her father when he recovered his wits or if Roylott felt it was not his place. The proper sort of man would not have allowed the mistreatment.
“My well-being is no concern of yours, as you have always made clear.” She swept past him, going back down the stairs that she had rushed up only moments ago. He followed at her heels, not taking the hint to leave her alone.
Roylott turned to her as they reached the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. His round face was caught in a long frown. He rubbed his thinning hair away from his eyes. Joan had always thought, with his small stature, that he resembled an oversize dwarf. Their clients loved his careful attention to detail, which was why her father held him in such high esteem. No word of the real nature of her father’s illness had leaked out from him. But for the first time, she wondered what had led to her father hiring him.
“What is it now, Mr. Roylott?” she asked, cautious.
“Will you agree to marry Sir August Milverton?”
“Is that what you really wanted to discuss after all?”
“I know it’s not my place. I will have my say despite that.”
Roylott lowered his voice. “’Tis not right, what your father does. Milverton seems overly fixated on you.”
“He would have to be, to seek a wife so far out of his class.”
“Too much attention can turn into obsession. I would rather the family find another solution to the monetary difficulties.”
“Are you offering to help me halt the marriage?” She could have misjudged him. She’d thought he was just standing by. He might help, after all.
He blinked. “I would if I could. Pardon my familiarity, but I’ve come to think of you as a favorite niece. It nearly makes me ill to think of you unhappy.”
Careful. Roylott could be sincere, and she could not afford to turn away any help. “Are you saying you can change my father’s mind on my marriage or that you know of another way to solve our financial difficulties?”
“No, miss. But I wish that I could,” he said fervently.
“I don’t understand. Are you suggesting I defy my father?”
“Yes. There are some who do not deserve your loyalty. He’s one of them.”
There was so much hostility behind the words that Joan took a step back. His vehemence smacked of a deeper anger inside him than she’d ever sensed. Anger that gave her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, much as Milverton’s presence did. “What aid would you offer me?”
He stared down at the wood floor. “That’s not my place, miss.”
“You urge me to disobey but have no help for me.” Bah.
“That is, my help is limited, but if you would trust me with whatever your errand was this morning, I might be able to do something,” he said.
Aha. There was the catch. He knew she had been gone. Trust your instincts, Sherringford had said, and tell no one. She would follow both pieces of advice. “I wasn’t out earlier today, Mr. Roylott.” One word from him to her father and she would be locked in her room until her marriage. “I have been in my room all day.”
Roylott cleared his throat. “Of course. But do not forget to finish the gloves.”
She held his gaze, as she had Sherringford’s stare earlier. If she could stand up to the commanding detective, she could stand up to this. “I appreciate the concern over my marriage arrangements, but this is something I’ll face by myself.”
“You shouldn’t be alone,” he snapped.
“I’m not alone,” she said, then bit her tongue.
“Do you have a young man, then? Someone to stand for you?” he pried. “Is that where you went?”
I can stand for myself. “You are implying that I’m a disobedient daughter with no sense of family loyalty?”
Roylott sighed. “I only wish to point out, if you have someone, this would be the time for him to act.”
“That sounds very romantic, but such a bold young man is not in my life at present, and likely will never be.” Somehow, she couldn’t picture Sherringford as a besotted lover, breaking down her door to save her from a fate worse than death.
She could imagine him coldly confronting Sir August Milverton about his interest in her, however.
“Excuse me, I must check on the seamstresses and then go to the office to look over some sales records. Have a good day, sir.”
“You as well,” he said stiffly and walked away.
She took a moment after he left to settle her mind. Add Roylott telling her parents she had been out to her list of worries. That pile of torn clothes awaiting mending next to her sewing machine seemed even more attractive. Mending them would accomplish something. She had a business to run, for whatever little time was left.
Down the hall, she heard the familiar sounds of needles pushing through cloth and the chugs and hisses of steam from the boiler and steam engine that now powered the sewing machines.
The seamstresses were hard at work.
She went inside the sewing room. The women were bent over their steam-powered sewing machines, feeding cloth through to the needles. Their machines were neatly arranged in rows of four desks wide and four desks deep. Despite the open window in the back, the room was stifling. Steam seeped from the boiler at the back of the room. The air, heated by the overflow from the same boiler, was thick and full of moisture. Even though it was early, some of the women’s headscarves were drenched with sweat.
Each seamstress worked a twelve-hour shift, seven a.m. to seven p.m. Her mother said it was best to keep all the girls in one place so their work could be overseen rather than letting them work at home, and besides, the equipment was superior here. Joan suspected her mother worried that some of the girls would leave with valuable fabric and never come back.
Yet the heat and stifling air in the room was a serious problem. Joan had tried to solve that by keeping the windows open at all times, even in the winter. She had insisted on having a sink installed, with cups stacked nearby for fresh water.
She had also instituted a thirty-minute break for lunch and a short evening break in which the seamstresses had leave to walk around. Joan rubbed her bruised wrists. Before the argument over her impending marriage, her last physical confrontation with her father had been over the lunch breaks. Her father thought five minutes was long enough and did not want to pay the women for time they did not work. He had worked as hard in his youth, he claimed. So should they.
It had cost her in bruises but she had eventually won the argument.
She poured a cup of water, eyeing the clothing being sewn and wondering how long Krieger & Sims could continue to employ everyone. They would run out of work in about three weeks.
“Any word on what killed Lady Grey, miss?”
Darcy, the eldest of the seamstresses, asked the question without even looking up from her machine. Her question was natural, given how the shop had been abuzz with the potential of Lady Grey’s patronage.
“An accidental death,” Joan said. “Bad for us, but worse for Lady Grey.”
“So tragic,” Darcy said.
“Yes.” Joan resisted the urge to rub her own neck.
Darcy cleared her throat. “Will there be new orders to keep us busy, Miss Krieger?”
Well, Darcy came to her point far quicker than Roylott had come to his. Darcy wanted to know if she should start looking for other employment. “Not at this time but there is a solution on the horizon, Darcy. I promise.” She smiled.
“If you say so, Miss Krieger, I believe you.” Around her, the rest of the seamstresses bobbed their heads to add weight to Darcy’s words. They trusted her to save them. My God, Joan thought, what have I just done? She had no authority to make such a vow and certainly little hope of keeping it. She drew out her grandmother’s pendant and cupped her hand around it. She would have hope until the bitter end.
“I’ll do my best,” she said to Darcy, pitching her voice so everyone could hear it.
“Your best is all anyone can do.” Darcy bent back to her work.
Joan left the room and walked down the hallway to the offices. Her father called her name with some urgency and she picked up her pace, lifting her skirts to keep them out of the way. She smoothed down her bustle before stepping inside his office.
Her father and Sir August Milverton were present.
Milverton looked much as she remembered. An older man, perhaps fifty, but with an upright carriage and the physique of someone used to being active. Wrinkles lined his face but his teeth were straight and clean. He might have been quite handsome in his youth, and there were still vestiges of that in his strong cheekbones and alert eyes.
He might be older but she could not complain of his looks.
Her father and Milverton beamed at her with wide smiles on their faces.
This could not be good.
“It is decided,” her father said. “You and Sir August shall be married on the morrow.”