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 firmly takes her destiny in her own hands, rejecting Milverton’s offers, and deciding to trust no one to find the truth but herself. That puts us on the last arc of the character journey. (And, incidentally, I had to research a ton to find a decent map of London in this time period to make the scene work. Alas, very little of that research ended up on the page.)
After a time, Joan had no more tears—useless things!—but neither could she sleep. She washed up in the water closet off the guest room. There was hot running water, unlike the cold baths available in her home, a luxury she had never experienced before. All this luxury, plus the rescue. Yet another debt, another obligation, owed to Sir August.
Sitting on the soft bed in the dark, in the guest room with the beautiful carpeting, with servants available at the quick ringing of a bell, Joan had never felt more out of place.
Too many questions without answers danced in her brain. Someone had murdered Lady Grey. Her father was ensorcelled. She did not believe he was the one responsible for the murders, not with his condition. He was violent, but without that kind of careful planning. So it must be someone else. Besides, someone had put a spell on him, according to Moran, who accused her of doing it, and Sir August had confirmed it, though he knew she wasn’t responsible.
Gregor had promised to help her find answers, but he was nowhere to be seen. She had thought their kiss meant something. She had thought he would solve her mystery. She had thought, for a quick instant, that Gregor was her rescuer.
False hope again. There would be no white knight to save the day.
Gregor had been convinced all the answers were in the magically locked section of the cabinet in her father’s office. For all she knew, whatever was inside would sit and rot now.
She lit a lamp and opened her great-grandmother’s diary. The woman had lived with a mystery unsolved for the second half of her life. However had she done that?
Joan found what she was searching for in an entry halfway through the volume.
I am being courted by an older gentleman, a respected member of our community. I should be enthralled. He is a good, kind man. Yet I fear I must break his heart.
It is wrong to be with this man. My heart still lies fallow with Kurt in the forest. I should have gone with him that day. He worried for my safety. But at least I would have died knowing what happened and we would be together. That morning, Kurt said that he must defeat the creature before it destroyed us all. Creature. I once thought he meant it as an insult applied to a man, but now that there is proven magic in the world, who knows what it was. It could have been a creature, a monster out of legend. I do not know. That haunts me in the dark of night.
I should have gone. I would have likely died.
But I would know.
Joan slammed the journal shut.
She must know.
She took a shawl from the wardrobe but kept her own dress on, wanting as little of Sir August’s gifts as possible. She surveyed the room for a way to escape. How could she get out without being seen?
The memory of Gregor’s talent triggered an idea. He was an anti-mage. He could use his talent to hide. He had used it to bespell the lotus case to hide her mage gift.
Maybe she could hide herself.
The door was locked, and, besides, she suspected watchers on that side. She drew aside the drapes. The windows were latched but not locked. She tried to see down to the street but the darkness revealed nothing. But if she remembered correctly, she must be at least one floor above the ground, a drop of at least seven feet.
She pushed open the window and swung one leg over the ledge, praying the cloth wouldn’t catch on the window frame. Once she was free and clear, she swung the other leg. She sat motionless on the ledge, leg out, balanced precariously between a planned future and the unknown night.
A known, safe fate versus the menacing darkness.
Let it not be said she had given up.
She slid one leg off the edge, then the other. She hung there, her hands curled tight around the window ledge, her feet dangling above the dark alley.
Nothing to do now but let go.
The ground came faster than she had anticipated. She landed sideways and her ankle twisted. A lance of pain spread from her foot up to her knee. She stifled a gasp and straightened, using the wall to help herself stand. Her fingers dug into the brick, scraping off skin. The ankle throbbed. She tested her weight on it. It held up to the strain, though the throbbing did not ebb.
A shutter banged above her head. She froze, listening for any sign that someone had heard her leave. Silence. Someone must have closed a window in another part of the house.
She used her hand on the wall as a guide to the street and what she guessed was the front of the Milverton residence.
When the wall ended, her hand flailed in the empty air. Her fingers caught in the spokes of a wrought-iron fence.
She was on the outside of the fence that enclosed the front yard of the home. Freedom. She stepped from the alley into the street. The outside sounds, muffled by the alley, grew more audible. A steam vehicle puttered past. As she blinked, she saw the gas lamppost at the end of the street shedding light on the corner. Her eyes began to adjust to the murk. The lingering fog, combined with the flicker from the gaslight, did little to dispel her fear.
Now, all she had to do was traverse the distance between here and Krieger & Sims. In the middle of the night and in the dark. For if she walked in the lantern’s light, she risked being spotted and stopped, or worse.
She clutched the shawl tight around her and began walking, staying on the outside edge of the light.
Gregor’s case slapped against her dress, a terribly loud sound in the quiet night. She closed her hand around it to still the sound. Gregor had chanted under his breath to access his power when they had hidden under the desk. Perhaps if she simply concentrated on no one seeing her, a bit of his ability to remain in shadow would result.
It gave her something to do besides give in to panic and exhaustion.
For exhausted she was. Her legs grew heavier with each step. The injured ankle ached. Autumn wind swirled around her, heavy with moisture and the promise of rain. She stopped at each cross street to orient herself and hoped she had not taken a wrong turn. The great empty, dark space that was the park was welcome, as it confirmed she was going in the right direction.
She hustled across the street so as to walk under the dark canopy created by the trees that lined the outside edges of the park. It would hide her well.
But the blackness also meant what was in the park was hidden from her. She heard the sound of distant voices, or thought she did. She shivered, thinking of how two men had died here and how Sir August had witnessed his brother’s painful death. He had been burned alive, as the grass and trees had been. It was no wonder that Sir August’s anger still burned as well.
But she didn’t wish to be a part of it.
Nearly running, she left the park and its whispers and ghosts behind. Her footsteps echoed over the cobblestones as she crossed the street. She felt safer once on the other side.
This was the boundary between the classes. The noble section ended and the merchants’ area of London began. Her world.
Distant voices floated on the air, far more real than the ones she’d imagined hearing in the park. Laughter spilled out of a building across the street. The three-story home had looked so innocuous during the day, but now every window bled light and she heard the tinkling of a piano.
There was much about London she did not know. No, much that she had not been allowed to know. As difficult as she found her current situation, she knew that most of her life she had been sheltered and protected from the worst of the world. Until venturing out to hire Gregor, she had not traveled alone, save for visits to familiar homes in the Jewish neighborhood.
She had congratulated herself for having the courage to hire Gregor. That seemed such a small transgression now. Truly, maybe the rabbis were right. One bad step inevitably led to another.
“Hey, girl!” Someone shouted from the doorway of the house full of light.
Joan gathered up her skirts and ran as fast as she could, her mind looping over and over on the thought that she was not there, that she was simply a shadow. The edges of the lotus case dug into her palm.
Behind her, someone yelled again but she kept going, despite the stab of pain in her side and the ache in her ankle from the fall. Her skirts rustled against the dirty cobblestones. The hem was surely ruined.
She slowed at the next street and nearly doubled over to catch her breath. No footsteps pursued her. She stumbled to the nearest lamppost, directly under the light for the first time tonight. She did not care. It seemed safer this way now.
She looked across the street and grinned. She was almost there, only one block from Krieger & Sims. With her destination in sight, she gained a second wind. She slipped into the side street that led to the back delivery entrance of her home.
It was pitch-dark in the side alley. She walked using her hands on the wall to provide direction. Above her, two male voices floated from an open window. Something small and furry scurried in front of her. She flinched but kept going. Perhaps it was a cat. More likely, a rat. A big, dangerous, furry rat with nasty teeth.
She shivered. Her foot splashed in a puddle. Water sloshed into her shoes through the laces. Her skinned fingers ached.
When her hand stumbled over the side door to Krieger & Sims, she collapsed against it.
I made it.
She dug into her front pocket for the keys that had been hidden there all day and wondered why Moran had not thought to demand them. Perhaps he had taken her mother’s or her father’s keys. She turned the knob, expecting to find resistance.
The door opened into the side hallway. It was unlocked.
Strange, passing strange. There must be a logical explanation, such as the police forgetting to lock up.
She swallowed hard as she shut the door behind her, hoping the small click wouldn’t attract notice. For good measure, she concentrated on being hidden again.
Everything seemed quiet, but all the imagined dangers outside paled in comparison to the real danger she knew awaited her in her father’s office.
She heard no footsteps or any movement from the top floor. She doubted her mother was up there. Sir August had said she was with extended family. At least she was safe.
Her father definitely was not safe. Collapsed, Moran had said, though he could be lying. For that matter, so could Sir August. Once the door opened to distrust, one could never truly close it.
Another reason to rely on herself alone.
Joan tiptoed down the corridor, the key to her father’s office in her hand. She did not care if she was interrupted this time. If she was, she would know who created the safe. She would have answers, whatever followed. If she failed, nothing would matter.
The office was locked, unlike the side door. Joan used her key and winced silently at the loud click as the lock mechanism turned. It seems her control of Gregor’s type of magic was not close to perfect, if it was even working at all.
She closed the door behind her, and the lock made the same noise. That did it. If someone was watching the office, she had given herself away.
She blinked, hoping to adjust to the complete absence of light. The hallway had been easy. She had walked that so many times in the early morning darkness that she had no fear of becoming lost. The office was far less familiar. Guessing, she walked straight ahead, holding her hands in front of her. It smacked into something hard. Pain rapped against her knuckles.
The desk. She damned Gregor, wishing she had his mechanical torch. Feeling around the desk, she found the other edge. Then the chair. Now, she knew where she stood. The cabinet was there, a few steps to the left and toward the corner of the office, where the dark seemed more solid.
The metal of the cabinet was cool to her touch. She felt around the exposed side, her palm flat on the cabinet, until she hit a spot that set her nerves on edge.
The door to the safe.
Gods be damned. She’d forgotten blood was needed to trigger the spell that opened the safe. She had no needles with her tonight. She dug behind her back, in her bustle, for a pin, any pin. If only she had worn a hat. Then she’d have a nice big pin.
Argh. A sharp prick sliced the tip of her thumb. She’d found a pin in her bustle, all right, though not the way she had anticipated. She drew her hand up to her face and felt liquid trickle down her thumb. Plenty of blood now. She pressed her thumb against the side of the cabinet.
Evil exploded at her.
The black claws that had grabbed at her the first time dug into her wrist, sending spikes of pain up her arm. She cried out, truly trapped. What had Gregor done to stop this? He had chanted. A spell. Or concentration. Or a focus. Whatever one called it, she needed it. Gritting her teeth, ignoring the feel of the black wisps creeping up her arm, she released the pendant from the case with her free hand, kissed the ancient woman’s image with trembling lips and began to pray.
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
“Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever,
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
“And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.”
The familiar phrases blocked out the pain and ice spreading up to her shoulder. She clenched her jaw and repeated the opening of the prayer again. “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one…”
How many times she chanted, or whether she chanted out loud or only in her mind, she did not know. Images flashed across her vision. Lady Grey’s neck snapping…her father’s attack that had bruised her wrists…Milverton’s hand on her knee…Moran looming over her, screaming at her for lying…and Gregor, imperious, arrogant, repressed Gregor, telling her she wasn’t worth teaching…until he kissed her.
No, I kissed him.
Heat burst from inside her, from her chest, and spread to her limbs. Her warmth licked at the black claws now threatening her throat. Ice and fire, dark and light, locked in conflict. She closed her eyes and let her anger free. At Milverton, at her useless father, at her missing mother and at Gregor, who had promised to help and had done nothing.
A bright light flared in the room, illuminating all corners. The blackness that curled around her neck, shoulder and arm cracked and split into nothingness.
She blinked. The light was gone. So was the clawing black and numbing pain. Yet the cabinet remained solid. The safe had not opened.
She waved her hand at the cabinet. Open, damn you!
A hiss of darkness, a spit of malice forced her back a step and then the door opened with a pop.
She stumbled, almost smacking her head on the metal of the cabinet. She blinked but the spots in her vision remained. Whether her own light had blinded her or whether it was too dark to see again, she didn’t know. All she had now to explore with was touch. She felt around inside the safe. Her fingers found a large, rolled paper, almost like a scroll.
Nothing else seemed to be in there.
She pulled the scroll out of the safe and nearly dropped it. Simply holding it gave her a foul taste, as if there were ashes in her mouth. It was evil, the same foul wrongness that Lady Grey’s scarf had exuded, but far stronger. Yet she could not let it go. It held answers. She clutched it against her chest and slid down the cabinet to the floor, no longer able to stand.
She put her head between her legs. Her body swayed. Oh God, she was going to pass out. Fatigue washed through her. She could barely lift her arms. Breathing took effort.
She heard footsteps coming from the hallway. No, not when she was so close. Her feet scuffed against the floor, urging her legs to action.
But she could not rise. Her legs wouldn’t obey.
As her vision narrowed into darkness, she slipped the scroll underneath her clothing, between her breasts.