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, things fall apart, including Joan’s father, and her own freedom is imperiled.
Joan expected to be wide awake after Gregor helped her slip back into her rooms at Krieger & Sims. Instead, she fell asleep as soon as she climbed into bed.
When she woke, she was ravenous. It was full morning. Even though the heavy curtains, light seeped in. In her palm, her fingers still clutched the piece of mage coal. She rose, Gregor’s case heavy against her breast, unlocked the chest where she kept the most valuable fabrics for her sewing and placed the mage coal on top of the pile. She relocked it. There. Now it would be safe.
As she turned, she spotted a folded paper that had been slipped under her door. The note was from her mother.
Sleep as long as you need, dear. I assume you were up late reading the diary. Come down to the shop when you’re refreshed.
Her mother was likely still trying to make up for siding with her father about the marriage to Sir August. Joan shook her head at the note and hid the case beneath her underclothes, a comforting weight against her bare skin.
Emotionally fortified, Joan dressed and headed to the downstairs kitchen in search of physical sustenance. She found the kitchen deserted, occupied only by the faint smell of cinnamon buns. Emily often cooked when she was frustrated or off-kilter. Joan found the remains of the buns in the oven, still slightly warm. She ate them all and washed off her hands in the sink.
She smoothed out her clothes, checked the front for crumbs and went into the shop.
Her mother was already present, helping an older Jewish woman pick out something for her eldest grandson’s bar mitzvah. Mornings were informally devoted to local Jewish customers and other merchants and their families. The lords of the realm—or their servants—sent for a fitter from Krieger & Sims when they wanted something, as Lady Grey had. That way, the two classes never had to mix. Or, sometimes the ladies booked private appointments.
If she married Sir August, Joan would only see this place as a customer would. It would not be proper otherwise. She imagined herself walking in through the glass doors to be greeted by an attentive employee. She would be shown samples of materials on the mannequins they kept along the sides of the walls. More samples of the various silks, cottons and wools would be displayed in the large glass case in the middle of the floor.
Joan fingered the book resting on the display case. All their various designs, drawn in color, were contained in this volume. She had sketched the designs herself and even was responsible for a few of the more popular sellers, at least among her own people. Yet the book didn’t contain the “radical” design for Lady Grey. Her mother must have removed it. Joan supposed that was wise.
She had grown up on this sales floor, from a toddler hanging on her mother’s skirts to a gawky girl helping out and, finally, to feeling as if the shop was as much hers as her mother’s. If she married Sir August, Krieger & Sims could rebound, especially with her new husband’s patronage. It would survive because of her. But not with her.
How much did she owe her family?
Everything. They were family.
Joan closed the design book with care. Letting Krieger & Sims fail would be awful but would have predictable results. So would marrying Milverton. But becoming involved with Gregor? That future was so unknown.
Even if she let herself dream of a relationship with Gregor, marriage would hardly be an option with the son of a duke—if that was what he was—even if he was estranged and half-Indian.
And she didn’t know if she wanted to marry anyone, even Gregor. He was rude, secretive and arrogant. Oh, and he showed her how to use her mage gift and he was a most excellent kisser. She felt her face grow hot from the memory. Horridly infuriating, the way he ran hot and cold. He would be terrible to live with. At least during the day.
Sorting through what Gregor Sherringford wanted felt as tangled a mystery as the murder of Lady Grey.
Joan pulled out the appointment books, looking for possible deliveries to keep her busy. So engrossed was she in looking over the scheduling that it took her mother’s gasp to draw her attention to the door.
Two men had walked in. But men weren’t allowed in this shop.
Joan recognized one of them as the Scotland Yard official at the scene of Lady Grey’s murder, the one wearing the coarse wool coat. Inspector Davis, she remembered.
Sir August’s warning, seconded by Gregor, about becoming a suspect in a murder echoed through Joan’s mind. Her throat grew dry. No, she must not worry. She must appear calm. Her magic was safe and hidden, thanks to Gregor.
She looked down at the books, hoping to secretly study Davis before he approached her. She’d spent only a short time with him the morning of Lady Grey’s murder, and, honestly, she had not been paying close attention. He was short for a man, only a couple of inches taller than she was, but he certainly carried far more weight. He held a bowler-style hat clutched in his hands. Long whiskers and sideburns decorated his face. Like his hair, they were a dull brown. He would be altogether unremarkable except for his intent gaze.
As he spoke to her mother, his eyes narrowed. With a pencil, he wrote something down in a small notebook.
When her mother looked over to her, Joan knew it would shortly be her turn to be questioned. She closed the delivery books and straightened as the man walked to her. The other man, a uniformed bobby, stayed with her mother.
“Afternoon, Miss Krieger.” Davis inclined his head in respect.
“Afternoon, sir.” She inclined her head as he had.
“I am Inspector Davis. I’m here about Lady Grey’s murder.”
He stared at her during his pronouncement, as if watching for her response.
“I remember you, sir. But I do not understand. Murder? Is that possible?”
She knew it was murder. She was curious how Davis had also decided that it was.
Davis wrote something in his notebook. “My mage specialist says it was murder, and I believe him. Besides that, I have a number of witnesses that say the scarf that you brought to Lady Grey killed her by moving of its own volition.”
“I thought I saw something like that, but with all that happened, I did not trust my eyes.” As she said the words, Joan realized it was much easier when she told the absolute truth. “It seemed impossible.”
“Be that as it may, you made the scarf?”
Joan clasped her hands together under the counter, out of Davis’s view. Her nails started to dig into her palms. “Yes, I made it.”
She had no practice being a suspect in a murder. But Gregor had been adamant about keeping the full story to herself.
Emily rushed into the room, her skirts sweeping around her legs. She grabbed her mother’s elbow. “You cannot let them do this, Rachel. Stop them!”
“Stop them from what? Emily, you’re not making sense!” Mother pushed aside the officer blocking her from the entrance to the shop’s offices.
“They are closing down the seamstresses. Scotland Yard, I mean!”
What? Joan pushed past Inspector Davis and rushed down the way Emily had come. In the sewing room, two bobbies were ordering all the girls out, and a third was shutting down the steam boiler.
Shaking with rage, Joan squeezed in between two of the women being ordered out of the room and turned her fury on the man shutting down the boiler. This was intolerable. “You have no right. Stop now.” She took a deep breath and felt a surge of magical ability, similar to the power gathered within her just before she’d burned Gregor’s chair.
“They’re carrying out my orders.” Davis strolled into the now-empty room. Joan could hear the seamstresses crowded into the hallway, speaking in hushed tones.
“I don’t care about your orders,” Joan said flatly. “You cannot just come into our business and disrupt it. These women have to make a living and we have a business to run.”
“A business that is responsible for murder.” Davis gave up any pretense of pleasantry and anger filled his voice. “More than one, possibly. I will shut it down and see it dismantled before I let illegal and murderous magic exist here.”
Joan clenched her hands into fists. “The women who work here have done nothing. You have just turned innocent people out of jobs they need.”
The inspector slapped his hat against his leg. “Well, we do not know if they are innocent, do we? You’re all suspects.”
Her father stomped into the room. Joan’s attention immediately shifted to him. She had been at the edge of losing her temper. Her father had gone over that cliff. His madness was in full force.
Dear God, no.
“You damned blackguard!” He rushed Davis, fist raised.
Davis sidestepped, grabbed his assailant’s wrist and used the leverage to push him into the wall. Joan blinked. Davis had been far more nimble than she expected. She wanted to stay angry at the man, but all she could think was that she wanted to learn how to do that. It would have saved her many bruises in the past.
“Now, we all need to calm down and sort this out,” Davis said as he kept her father pressed against the wall.
A tall man with a stocky build appeared in the doorway. He carried a stovepipe hat in his hand. Joan shrank back. The new person felt like he was made up of darkness, far deeper and more intense than Sir August’s wrongness.
“You may have narrowed down our search considerably, Davis,” the man said. “Your prisoner reeks of magic. Illegal magic, no doubt.”
Joan clutched the lotus case around her neck. Magic? Her father?
“Let him go, Davis. He won’t harm me,” said the newcomer. As he spoke, she recognized him. He was Moran, the one who had interrupted Davis while he had been questioning her the morning of Lady Grey’s murder.
Davis let his captive go. Her father swore and shook with rage, yet made no move toward Moran. He was still in the thrall of a fit, but she had no way to stop it.
She could not block Inspector Davis from shutting down the business, she could not stop her father’s fit and she had no idea how to counter Moran, whose very presence filled her with dread.
Her father stared at Moran. Moran crossed his arms over his chest. “You are a puzzle, are you not, my boy?”
Joan shivered. Moran’s voice was low and controlled, close to a hiss. He reminded her of nothing so much as a feral cat lurking in a corner for scraps.
“You are one of them!” Her father put his hand to his throat, as if something was caught in it. “Thieves. Murderers. Soul stealers.”
“Hmm…I do not think so. At least, not in your case.”
“Moran, stop playing with the man,” Inspector Davis said. “He’s the one we want, yes? Our murderer.”
“You’re all evil,” her father proclaimed. “In league with soul stealers!”
“Mr. Krieger, I’m not the one reeking of the darker aspects of magic, as you are. The same signs of that magic are present elsewhere in this establishment.” He looked at the inspector. “Davis, yes, we have your killer.”
Joan wanted to scream that she was the one who had magic, not her father. But what if she wasn’t the only one in her family with the mage gift? Her unhinged father was certainly capable of violence. Why not this?
She must have inherited a strong mage gift from somewhere. She had thought it was the Cohen/Sims side, but why not the Kriegers?
Her father dropped to his knees, never moving his gaze from Moran. “Devil!” He pointed at Moran, still clutching at his throat.
Joan rushed to her father’s side. “Stop! What are you doing to him?”
“Nothing,” Moran said. “He’s doing it to himself.”
“I sincerely doubt that, sir!”
Joan loosened her father’s collar. His face was chalk-white, his breathing shallow.
Two bobbies entered the room, pushed Joan aside and took hold of her father. Already off-balance, Joan took a wrong step and fell. Her father screamed her name, elbowed one of his captors in the gut and made a leap for Moran.
The two of them tumbled to the floor together, knocking over one of the sewing machines with a horrible crash. Moran swore, but Joan couldn’t hear what he said because her father unleashed a disjointed string of words.
“Villain. Evil. Must protect. Must kill…bad…my fault…Joan…protect… Rabbi would never forgive. Not forgive!”
More bobbies rushed in, one getting a flailing elbow in the teeth for his trouble. Moran finally rolled to the side and raised his hands. Joan covered her eyes at the burst of energy from Moran’s hands. Her father went flying through the air. His flailing feet knocked over another sewing machine, and he hit the wall with a thud.
He slid to the floor, motionless.
Oh God, is he dead?
Joan rushed to her father’s side. His eyes were closed but he still breathed. She blinked tears from her eyes and turned to look at his attacker. Moran had a look of feline satisfaction on his face. “He is a sick old man!” she yelled at him. “Look what you’ve done.”
“Sick, yes. But dangerous.” Moran took several steps toward them. Anger built in her with each of his steps. She thought about how she had destroyed Gregor’s chair. This was wrong, Moran was wrong, he should pay. She could make him pay. Her hand shook. The lotus case under her clothing seemed to burn her skin.
She must not. She could not.
She did not act. But she condemned herself as a coward.
The bobbies dragged her father upright. Still fighting for control over her rage, Joan let them. Her father’s eyes flipped open and focused on her. “Joan! Save yourself! Soul stealers.” He said something else but it was garbled and sounded like gulp. That made no sense.
She used the wall to brace herself and faced Moran squarely. “Where are you taking my father?”
Mistake. Moran focused on her now, only her. “We’re taking him for evaluation.” He frowned. “Now, you are most interesting, miss.”
“I’m not interesting. I’m enraged. You’ve overrun my business, terrorized my employees and injured my father, all without explanation, and I don’t even know who or what you are.”
“My name is Sebastian Moran. I help the police from time to time with those using illegal magical abilities. Are you one of those people?”
“I’m simply a seamstress whose business you just destroyed.”
Joan wanted to rage or hit him or let loose her newly discovered magic. She did none of those things. It felt too much as if she was trapped. By what, she knew not.
“Where did you take my father?” she asked again.
“To a cell where he can be more easily questioned. Answer my question. Are you using magic illegally? Did you kill Lady Grey?”
“You are mad, sir. Of course not.”
What were the penalties for illegal magical use? Sir August knew, but she had not asked him to be specific. Yet he had been terrified at the consequences of her being accused. That could not be good. She should have asked him or Gregor. Did Gregor know this Moran, as Sir August had?
“Unlike your father, Miss Krieger, I do not sense magic on you, but something is very wrong with you. I don’t like you.”
“The feeling is utterly mutual,” she said with clenched fists, as anger warred with relief. The lotus case must be hiding her magic, as designed.
“Take her too, Davis. There’s a mystery about her,” Moran said, pointing to her.
“Now, Mr. Moran, we cannot take someone in without evidence of a crime,” Davis said. “Sure, the girl is upset about her father. It doesn’t make her a suspect.”
“Davis, you know I have a free hand here. Take her in.”
If Joan could have flattened herself into the wall, she would have. “I have done nothing,” she whispered. Anger slipped away. Fear caught her throat and squeezed it dry.
Davis grabbed her elbow. “Come along, lass. He just wants you somewhere quiet to talk to you.”
Alone in a room with Moran? The most terrifying thought yet. She tried to pull away from Davis. He held fast. “I have done nothing!”
“That remains to be seen,” Moran said. “Like her father, escort her to one of the special cells, Davis.”
“Sorry, miss, Moran is in charge. Come along now. No one will hurt you.”
Sir August had been surrounded by subtle darkness. Moran reeked of a far more dangerous kind.
Yet she had no choice. Reveal her magic and be condemned, or be led away. For now, she closed her eyes and prayed for patience.
Gregor would find a way.