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, Joan confronts life as a prisoner at the hands of Colonel Moran, who suspects her of murder.
(For those checking, yes, Moran is a character in the original Holmes stories. And Milverton was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Milverton as well.)
Joan looked at the seamstresses as Davis led her past them. She focused on Emily, her eyes sending a wordless plea. Of her mother, she saw nothing. Perhaps she had been too afraid to confront Moran. Her mother was running true to form. No confrontation.
Gregor. She needed Gregor. He had the connections and, somehow, she knew he would find the authority to trump Moran. But he knew not of her plight, and she had no way to tell him.
Davis led Joan out the side door. Darcy the seamstress said something to her, but Joan could not make out the words. It was all happening as if from far away, as if she were observing herself.
She was being arrested. For illegal magical use. Krieger & Sims was shut down. Her father was suspected to be a murderous mage. She saw a black carriage with an enclosed cage pulling away from the curb. Someone pounded against the walls, like an animal trying to break free. Her father.
She opened her eyes wider, yet the world around her remained exactly the same. The cold air outside hit her like a slap, waking her up. Her father behaved as an animal. She would not. She might not be a lady of the realm, but she was a Cohen, a Krieger and a Sims. She would have dignity for however long she could.
Davis took her to another steam carriage and pushed her into the backseat. Once inside, she saw she was locked in. There were no handles on the doors, or windows to see out onto the street. She assumed Davis was driving, but since she could not see the driver’s seat, she did not know that for certain.
What would happen when Moran discovered Gregor’s case containing the pendant under her clothes? Nothing good, she thought.
The journey was uneventful, save for her swirling, chaotic thoughts. She wrapped her arms around herself to still her panic. When the vehicle stopped and the door opened, she set her jaw and stiffened.
Davis offered her a hand. “This way, miss.”
She wanted to ignore his hand, but her nerves overcame her will and she stumbled as she stepped down from the vehicle. She gripped Davis’s arm for balance. He steadied her as her feet settled on the cobblestones.
The building before her was new, a boxy structure with a number of steam pipes extruding from the roof, like needles thrust through a tight cloth. Grey and unwelcoming. She hugged herself tight again, wondering if this was how her great-grandmother had felt before she fled Germany. But Joan could not flee. She had to face the unknown menace.
Davis led her into the unremarkable building that appeared as without windows as the carriage in which she had ridden. It was all one dull, square mass of walls and ceilings.
“You’ll not give me trouble, miss? I would hate to use restraints on you.”
She took a deep breath. “And where would I run to, sir?”
“’Tis Inspector, not sir,” he said. “And you would be surprised at the strength that panic lends to some.”
“I think not,” she said. “If my father couldn’t best you in a fight, what hope do I have?”
Davis colored. “Perhaps none, Miss Krieger.” He knocked on the entrance. Someone opened the door, which was grey like everything else, but once they stepped inside the brightly lit corridor, she saw no one.
Davis stayed at her elbow. “Straight, miss.”
She raised her chin and walked to her doom. Gregor’s necklace clinked as they walked, reminding her that she was not without resources. If she could set his chair on fire, what else could she do? She studied the walls, counting the steps as they walked, as she had counted stitches so many times while sewing. She would know where she was in case she had an opportunity to escape.
After two hundred paces, doors began appearing, to the right and to the left. Joan began counting them. Four on the left, five to the right. They stopped at the sixth on the right.
“Do you have much cause to imprison people accused of what I am accused of, Inspector?”
“More’n I’d like.” He opened the door with a brass key. “Inside, lass.”
She stepped inside. Another threshold crossed, she thought.
The interior was as dull and lifeless as the corridor. There was a bed with a dingy blanket, and that was it.
“Lass, this is a bad business,” Davis said. “If it were up ta me, I would have simply taken your father, since Moran says the magic stink around him is so clear and we do have two murder victims. But the commissioner is convinced we need people like Moran to sniff out any magic misuse. And Moran makes the decisions on it. He says take you, and I do it.”
“I thought only lords could use magic. Is Moran a lord?”
“No, but appointed by one. And I thought the same as you, that no one but a lord could use magic, before I was assigned to Moran as an assistant.” Davis sighed. “Answer his questions and all should be well. You did nothing, so you have nothing to fear. I’ll check on you after Moran is finished.”
“Why, Inspector, I believe you care about my fate.”
He scuffed his feet and stared at the floor. “Ya stood up for your father. And t’seamstresses who work for you.” He cleared his throat. “My wife does work as a seamstress, to earn us a bit of extra money. The little ones seem to need more’n I ever thought.”
Joan nodded. She noticed that Davis tried to speak proper English, but his working-class roots came through in his words at times. “Your wife does good, honest work.”
Davis flushed. “So is my work, lass. Try not to be afraid. Just do not cross Moran. I have seen him lose his temper when crossed.”
“I’m quite familiar already with men who lose their tempers,” she snapped.
Davis backed out of the cell. “Your father, you mean? Good. Use that, eh?”
The door closed shut behind him. Joan sat on the bed, uncertain her legs would hold her any longer. She held her hand out in front of her face. It was shaking. Even if she had material to sew, she doubted she could hold a needle right now. She felt the same as when she had seen Lady Grey perish, as if her head were too heavy and her thoughts too complicated to make any sense.
When would Moran come, and what would she do to quiet her nerves while waiting? She had nothing to read, nothing to occupy her brain, save worry. She had not committed murder, but she did possess magic and had no way to prove she had not misused it.
She curled into a tight ball on the bed. God knew she was tired of feeling angry and scared and confused. Just a few days ago, she had been confident, almost cocky. Life had ground her down that quickly, to the point where she had nothing.
No, not true. She still had her imagination and her talent. She could brood in terror or she could distract herself. She could not change her surroundings. She could change her mindset.
She could create.
She closed her eyes and pictured a mannequin in her mind’s eye.
Lady Grey’s driving attire had only been the start of what Joan hoped to accomplish. What she truly wanted to do was make clothing as practical and movable for women as for men. Tradesmen wore what allowed freedom of movement, but the nobles wore clothing that restricted their movement as much as any custom or tradition.
Change the clothing, and barriers would break down. It would be a whole new world. Lady Grey had understood that, though she had been thinking of the barriers between men and women of the same class as herself, not of breaking down barriers between the classes.
Ideas were powerful, from whatever quarter. Radical, Lady Grey had called her. People did not always react well to radicals. Sometimes, they were hanged.
Dash it all, this line of thinking was not calming her nerves.
She went back to the mannequin in her imagination, dressing it in a dark silk blouse with loose sleeves, allowing freedom of movement. Careful, not too much cloth. One didn’t want it to snag. Hmm…under that, no corset. Only simple white cotton with a bit of shape to provide some lift to the breasts. Some underwire might be required for those with ample bosoms, but nothing so restrictive as one of those blasted corsets. At least propriety did not require her to wear one while at work. Sewing in them could be quite impossible.
Next, the jacket. Ah, the jacket, of the finest, most supple leather. Extra padding at the neck, darker patches at the elbow to prevent damage from wear. Let it expand out at the waist to keep a womanly shape. We do not want to dress like men, we want women to dress to their own shape.
The skirt was of more concern. Too tight to the body and it would restrict movement. Too loose and there would be too much material that could easily soil or tear. There was also the problem of showing ankle or leg. Hmm…would a woman wear trousers? They would have to be wider in the backside and narrower at the waist, but that would certainly cover the legs. Or reveal them—
The door creaked open. Joan snapped to her feet, the vision of the women’s trousers vanishing back to the daydreams from whence it had come.
Moran closed the door behind him. He had his hands clasped behind his back. He was holding something but she couldn’t see what it was.
“How is my father?” she blurted.
“A curious thing about your father. About halfway to Scotland Yard, he collapsed again. We haven’t been able to rouse him.”
She exhaled, only just realizing she had held her breath. “That happens now and again. He usually rouses after sleeping for a time.”
“You’re aware of how unnatural that is?”
“I’m aware that he suffers from brain dysfunction. That is unnatural, is it not?”
“Oh, he isn’t suffering from a malady of the brain, girl. Well, he is, but the cause is not physical. Your father is quite full of magic, Miss Krieger, and it is killing him.”
She put her hand to her mouth. A squeak escaped through her fingers.
“Since he is silent, I must have answers from you.” Moran advanced on her.
“I know nothing about this. I never knew he had magic.” She backed up until her calves slapped the edge of the bed.
“It is unfortunate for you that you must answer for your father’s magic. Especially if you are responsible for his condition.”
“I know nothing about my father’s illness. Less than nothing!” Her voice rose. “All I knew for years is that he was prone to violent fits. Now you come in here and say it is magic and accuse me of causing it. Well, sir, I know naught.”
“You know something and it’s my job to discover exactly what.”
“I know naught of your job, either.” Gregor had said most mages accessed their power through serenity, but hers, perhaps because it had been repressed, was driven by anger. She wondered how angry she had to be to fight this man. A magical duel? Bah. She had no idea how that even worked. What would she do, sew him to death?
“My job is to work with Scotland Yard to find those who misuse magic, both among the lords of the realm and otherwise,” Moran said.
“Until you stated so in my place of business, I thought only lords of the realm had magic.”
“Ah, now that is your first actual lie.”
She glared. He brought his arm out from behind his back, revealing what he held in his hand.
It was her great-grandmother’s journal.
“We found this locked in your trunk,” Moran said.
“My mother only just gave it to me last night, sir! She said I needed to know my heritage, because of my coming marriage, and I had only started to read the volume…” Her breaths were shallow and her words seemed to come out in frightened squeaks. Gregor would be impassive under the onslaught. Gregor was a lord of the realm. She was an unprotected Jewish woman who had just lost her only means to support herself. Moran could do what he wanted to her, and no one would care.
“I don’t believe you, especially given I found a slice of mage coal next to it.” Moran tossed the journal onto the bed. “Now what is that necklace you’re trying so hard to conceal under your dress? Give it over. “
“Never.” She curled a fist around it.
“Fighting me is only a further admission of guilt.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue at her. “I know you possess magic, Miss Krieger, else Sir August Milverton would not be your fiancé. Really, for what other reason could a man as rich as that want you? Or did you put a spell on him as you did your father?”
She could only shake her head and clutch Gregor’s lotus case so tight that the clasp dug into her palm. If she accessed her magic by anger, then now would be the time to let it come forth. Save that she was terrified. Concentrate. Deep breaths. Let it flow.
Moran scowled. “You’re outnumbered, girl. We’ll rip that necklace and everything else off you to see what you are hiding. Do you know what they did to witches in the past? They were burned because the pain of the heat prevented them from accessing their abilities. We may have to repeat that for you.”
Joan could barely hear him. Her vision had narrowed to his face, her thoughts only to what she’d done to burn Gregor’s chair. She could do that. She could unleash magic and escape this place of terror. Vile Moran would be the one to burn.
Instead of advancing on her, Moran rapped at the door, calling for help in holding her down.
The door swung open. Moran, clearly expecting his men, did not even turn around to see who entered. He kept his eyes fixed on her.
She, however, saw the new arrival clearly. The shock broke her concentration.
“Bloody hell, Moran, by what right do you take away my affianced?”
Sir August Milverton, her fiancé, stood in the doorway.