An Electric Empire
27 October 2015
Enter at your own risk!
Chapter One ~ a stain of breath
"Where's the body?" Eliza Jekyll skidded eagerly into the frame-maker's shop, clutching her doctor's bag—and rocked back in dismay.
Not a corpse in sight.
The shop had been ransacked. Blue-coated police constables milled about, clambered over scattered oil paintings and frame parts. Arc-lit chandeliers crackled, shedding the stormy scent of aether, and through the windows glared a sullen, fog-bound yellow sun.
Inspector Harley Griffin of the Metropolitan Police—immaculate suit, sharply combed dark hair—waved her over. "What do you make of this, Doctor?"
Eliza pushed up her spectacles, frustrated. "It's a pile of paintings, Harley, not a cadaver. Surely you need no crime scene physician to avail you of that."
"Ah," said Griffin imperturbably, "but it's the art you don't see that we're interested in."
"State-of-the-art police work, I'm sure." Eliza sidestepped a constable, who promptly tripped over a rug in the crush and blundered into the scattered artworks, likely obliterating any trace evidence. "A dozen murders a night, the city bursting with bloodthirsty French spies, and our good Chief Inspector has the finest detective in London investigating a petty theft."
Hippocrates, her clockwork assistant, jigged on hinged brass legs. "Human remains absent," he proclaimed in his tinny little voice. "Does not compute."
Griffin tugged neat mustaches. "To be fair, the scenario does exercise the mind. The villain filched twenty-one artworks on Saturday night—"
She snorted. "And now it's Monday. The evidence venerable as well as trampled. An even more irritating waste of my time."
"—from under the noses of four security guards," continued Griffin with a knowing smile. "Law-abiding citizens all, naturally. No one saw or heard a thing. No alarm raised, locks intact, every key accounted for."
"A locked-room art heist," she muttered, intrigued despite herself. "Impressive. What does Reeve want me to do about it? Test for incompetence?"
"Don't get smart with me, missy." Chief Inspector Reeve—newly appointed to that lofty rank—waddled up in an ugly brown suit, puffing self-importantly on a cigar. "You're late. Getting your hair done?"
"My apologies, sir. Looking so pretty takes such a long time."
Her sarcasm struck Reeve's glaring aura of chauvinist pig and bounced off. "Quite right, too. Put some color in your cheeks. All that unladylike science makes you peaky."
Behind Reeve, Griffin rolled his eyes. Eliza barely noticed, possessed of a creeping, all-too-familiar itch to claw Reeve's skin off . . . but it wasn't her craving. It belonged to Lizzie Hyde, the shadowy second self inside her, thrashing to break free.
I'll make YOU peaky, you sniggering prat. Lizzie's disembodied urgings seared Eliza's flesh. Suddenly her plain gray dress itched like fire ants. Her hair rippled, alive, trying to spring free of its coil, and Lizzie wriggled and swelled beneath her skin, threatening to burst out...
"Eh?" Eliza blinked, heart thudding. Suddenly, all was still. Her vision bounced back into focus. The cramped shop, the fat frame-maker hovering in one corner, the scattered paintings. "What did you say?"
Reeve puffed cigar smoke, rocking on smug heels. "I said, police work isn't all murders and mayhem. You're always complaining no one but young Griffin here takes you seriously. Well, here's a case. Do you want it or not?"
Eliza swallowed Lizzie's compulsion to slam Reeve's nose back into his brain. She needed this job. When she and Harley caught the gruesome killer called the Chopper, she'd imagined her career as a physician would at last take off. But Harley was still her only friend on the force. Police work—especially the newfangled crime scene medicine, and even more so when said crime scene was owned by a thoughtless donkey like Reeve—was still a man's world.
Her employment at Bethlem Asylum had dried up, too. She wasn't exactly popular there. Understandably, given that the surgeon-in-charge who'd employed her was killed, and the Chopper had turned out to be an asylum orderly—and one of her closest friends. Not to mention the trifling matter of Razor Jack, a lunatic killer who'd taken advantage of the mayhem to escape.
In short, she needed all the work she could get. Even petty larcenies, instead of cases that mattered. "I merely remark that my expertise is hardly—"
"Burglary beneath your attention, is it? Couldn't care about some louse-ridden criminal type wiping his greasy fingers all over Her Majesty's new portrait?"
"Oh." Her curiosity piqued. No one had seen the Mad Queen in public for years. People whispered that she'd died of cholera, been starved by her wicked advisers, or bewitched by sorcerous spies for the terrifying new French Republic. "New, did you say?"
Griffin consulted his notebook. "Apparently. Painted by a court artist, name of Wyn Patten."
"Never heard of him." But it explained Reeve's attendance: ingratiating himself with the Palace and the Police Commissioner.
"Not the kind of thing a villain can sell, is it?" Reeve stuck a belligerent thumb into his braces. "Ergo, not a simple theft. Her Majesty could have a crazed admirer. It could be Froggie agents, stirring up trouble! But you've better things to do, have you?"
Aye, whispered Lizzie. Come closer and I'll show you.
"Not at all." Eliza smiled through clenched teeth. "Pleased to assist."
Reeve grinned. "Not so smart as you think you are. Lads, make way for the good lady doctor."
Thwack him. Lizzie slithered up into Eliza's throat like a serpent, making her splutter for air. Tell the woman-hating little bastard to go screw himself. Better still: I'll tell him to go screw himself. Just let me at him . . .
Hippocrates snuffled disconsolately at the floor. "Remains. Samples. Does not compute."
"Hipp, take a recording, please." Eliza yanked on a pair of white cotton gloves. "Wooden frame on trestle legs, about seven feet by three. The Queen's canvas was tensioned here with these pegs—"
Reeve sniggered. "Never would've figured that for myself."
Eliza shot him an oily glare. "So you've solved the case already, then? No? Whatever will the Commissioner say? Do you want my help, or shall I return to my embroidery?"
"Embroidery," chirped Hipp, muffled beneath her skirts. "Irrelevant. Logic failure."
Shall I return to my embroidery? Lizzie mocked. Shall I break your pox-ridden nose with my forehead? Shall I grab your tiny balls and squeeze until your face turns black?
"Carry on, if you must," muttered Reeve. "I've witnesses to examine." And he strutted away.
Eliza's fingers flexed of their own accord, and she shuddered in cold sweat. Her skin felt stretched too thin, like overstressed rubber. The urge—no, the need—to carry out Lizzie's creative revenge burned all too fresh and real.
Panic blinded her momentarily. The metamorphosis wasn't meant to happen on its own, without her elixir to control it. If she changed . . .
Wouldn't be the nicest pair of trousers we've ever shoved our hand down, agreed Lizzie silkily, not that you're any help in that department.
"Shut up," hissed Eliza frantically, fiddling with the empty pegs. "I'm trying to work."
Fine. You work away. I'll just sit over here and think of fun ways to rip his nuts off.
"If it makes you happy. Just do it quietly. You're embarrassing me!"
"Doctor, are you quite well?" Griffin eyed her strangely.
Eliza flushed. Talking to herself again. "It's nothing. Shall we get on?"
She uncased her brass-framed optical and strapped it to her forehead. She'd built the gadget herself, modified from her late father's designs. The array of lenses and spectrics detected all manner of substances, from bloodstains to stupefying drugs and poisons. Not strictly classical optics. Such unorthodox contraptions could get you dragged from your bed in the dead of night to answer uncivil questions in electrified dungeons at the Tower.
But none of Henry Jekyll's dabblings had been suitable subjects for tea party conversation. As a girl, she'd been fascinated by her father's dusty laboratory, the bold young men in shirtsleeves with their illicit experiments on light, air, the substance of life itself. Not to mention outlawed elixirs and the search for eternity.
She slotted a magnifier over her spectacles, and examined the wooden frame. "Nothing's damaged, no oil flakes. This art was not snatched. Our thief took his time, confident he'd remain undisturbed. And . . . hold on, I see a handprint on the adjoining wallpaper."
Griffin coughed. "Pity this isn't the Paris Sûreté," he murmured. "I hear they're collecting copies of convicted felons' handprints for comparison."
"Along with their severed heads? Away with your treasonous Republican sympathies, Inspector." She peered closer. "Coal dust, or iron. Smallish hands, perhaps a youngster. Hmm." Surreptitiously, she flipped in an experimental lens she'd borrowed from her pharmacist. Multi-dimensional resonance, Mr. Finch had claimed. Highly unorthodox, when the Philosopher's doctrine allowed for four dimensions and no more. The stuff of torture and witch burnings.
The smudged handprint glittered in her lens, greenish-yellow. "I say, how extraordinary—"
"You're extraordinary." A whisper, sparkling in her ear.
Startled, she teetered. Big hands caught her waist, a familiar gunflash scent of steel and thunder.
Hippocrates danced a clumsy jig. Griffin winced. Inwardly, Eliza groaned.
I lied, whispered Lizzie with a grin. Ain't leavin' this alone.
Chapter two ~ a face in the
Eliza stepped away, casually slipping that incriminating optical from her forehead. "Good morning, Captain Lafayette. I note your manners haven't improved."
"My manners shall never improve, Dr. Jekyll. You may rest assured." Remy Lafayette made a flashy bow. Gold braid glittered on his scarlet cavalry officer's tailcoat, with arc-pistol, sword and spurs all fighting to outdo each other for shine. A decorative fellow, no mistake. Lush chestnut curls, brilliant electric-blue eyes fit to melt an iceberg—or a lesser woman's heart. Until, of course, one noticed the iron badge on his lapel, engraved with the words NULLIUS IN VERBA.
"Why? Is there a new Royal Society moratorium on gentlemanly behavior? Or heaven forbid, is your incorrigible buffoonery unauthorized?"
"Admit it: it amuses you to scold me." Lafayette bent to pet Hippocrates. "If I failed to outrage, my entertainment value would swiftly degrade to negligible."
"And it has such a long way to go. Hipp, come away."
Harley Griffin nodded amiably. "Lafayette, how we've missed you. Still inflicting yourself where you're not wanted?"
A jaunty tilt of sword. "I'm a Royal Investigator, Griffin old boy. Being unwanted is my job."
"And you perform it peerlessly."
Lafayette laughed, and the fat frame-maker shuffled and averted his gaze. Even Reeve's constables edged away. A dangerous thing, this Royal Investigator's mirth. The all-powerful Royal, under the dubiously enlightened guidance of their immortal Philosopher, made the rules. Science or superstition, orthodoxy or a burning for heresy—who was to know from day to day? And lately, the Royal's efforts to weasel out scientific heretics had escalated from irritating and invasive to over-zealous and violent. No one was safe. Especially not Eliza Jekyll, alchemy addict, dabbler in dubious crime scene science—and afflicted with what her father's notebooks liked to call a transcendental identity.
Inwardly, she shuddered. Remy Lafayette, IRS, hid uncanny secrets of his own, afflicted with a metamorphic monster more terrible than anything Henry Jekyll had envisaged. They'd reached an understanding while they'd worked to solve the Chopper case—hadn't they?
Nullius in verba: "take nobody's word for it." An exhortation to see for yourself, to question blind assumptions. A rule she ought to keep in mind. She barely knew the man, after all. Any moment, he could lose his nerve and betray her to save himself a burning.
Bollocks, whispered Lizzie gaily. Ain't the real reason you've got ants in your knickers, is it?
Lafayette clapped a constable on the shoulder. "Fantastic work, chaps. Keeping the streets safe, all that. I say, Griffin, do you mind if I borrow the good doctor a moment?"
"Oh, dear," she said smoothly, "I'm afraid I'm urgently occupied. Perhaps next week—"
"Be my guest, sir," interrupted Griffin, with a wicked grin. "I'll muddle on without her." And he wandered off, pretending not to see as she crossed exasperated eyes at him.
She swallowed on Lizzie's jubilation. "What can I do for you, Captain?"
Lafayette tucked his hands behind his back, a flip of scarlet coattail. "I'd hoped to ask you the same. I can't help but observe you've been avoiding me."
She sidled around him, skirts squashing against the cluttered shop's wall. "Nonsense. Terribly busy, you know. Must go, can't stand around all morning indulging in chit-chat."
He jumped into her path. "Up to your neck in it, are you?"
She sidestepped a pile of carved frame parts. "Didn't I tell you? I've a new job, at the parish workhouses."
"I'm all admiration—"
"—but enabling society's exploitation of the poor? Hardly up to your enlightened standards." He blocked her way again, brandishing that disarming smile.
In fact, she'd already been dismissed from the job, for accusing parish officials of embezzling church funds. It was true, but that greedy beadle had fired her anyway. Despicable man, stealing food from impoverished mouths. Just the thought of him tickled an indignant itch up her arms. "I take what criminal cases I can, thank you."
Lafayette glanced at the crime scene, faking a shudder. "Villainy in the foulest! The Empire's fate surely rests upon solving this enormity."
Again, she tried to slip by in the cramped space. "Scoff if you will, sir. Police work isn't all murders and mayhem. Now, if you'll excuse me—"
"What if I could get you a real case?"
She halted, pulse thudding.
A knowing smile. "Gruesome, suspicious, the threat of sinister enemies unknown. A perfect chance to test your skills. Did I win you over yet?"
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Empire series concludes with THE DASTARDLY MISS LIZZIE