An Electric Empire
10 February 2015
Chapter One ~ A Shudder In The Blood
In London, we’ve got murderers by the dozen. Rampsmen, garroters, wife beaters and baby farmers, poisoners and pie makers and folk who’ll crack you over the noddle with a ha’penny cosh for the sake of your flashy watch chain and leave your meat for the rats. Never mind what you read in them penny dreadfuls: there ain’t no romance in murder.
But every now and again, we gets us an artist.
See here, now. A woman lies dead, in a bleak slum alley just yards from the glittering theaters and smoking purple arc-lights of Haymarket. He’s bunched her petticoats around her thighs, a black mess of blood. And above the knee, smart as a slice o’ bacon, he’s hacked her legs clean off.
Her face is twisted, shock and terror and sweet-baby-Jesus-just-let-me-die. Takes his precious time, this cove. What a charmer.
A ragged crowd has gathered—naught more invigorating than someone else who’s dead when you ain’t—and the coppers have put up a screen of bedsheets to keep ’em back. But no one can see me, not where I’m hiding, and I get meself a real good look. It’s mid-morning—I’ve spent a fitful night in here, let me tell you, trapped in my bleak nightmare of chains—and the watery sun’s already blotted out by the city’s pall of filth. Here in the slums, where the weird lurks, the gutters run with shit and the air chokes me, thick with cholera and black lung and the forbidden stink of spellwork. Rats the size of tomcats snigger glint-eyed in the shadows, coveting that tasty corpse. The rotting alley walls lurch inwards, threatening to crush us all.
And here’s Eliza, examining the dead meat for evidence. Sweet Eliza, so desperately middle class in those drab dove-gray skirts, with her police doctor’s satchel over her shoulder. She’s a picture, ain’t she? Gaffing around with her gadgets and colored alchemy vials, those wire-rimmed spectacles pinched on her nose. Her shiny brass goggles, with their electro-spectrical this and telescopic that and ion-charged the other, perch on the brim of her tiny hat. Her little clockwork pet scuttles beside her, four spindly brass legs splashed with muck.
Here’s Eliza. And here’s me, the canker in her rose. The restless shadow in her heart.
“As I thought!” exclaims Eliza, poking at the dead woman’s severed thighs with a pair of iron tweezers. “A bayonet, Inspector. Or some other blade shaped thus. And a saw for the bones. Our killer came prepared.”
“Wonderful. Another lunatic. Must be something in the water.” The plain-clothes copper with the mustaches—yes, he, the pompous prat—strides over. Detective Inspector Hoity-Toity, in his tall hat and fine black morning coat. What’s the color of a tuppence piece? Copper, copper … Blue-uniformed constables—coppers, crushers, bobbies, peelers, whatever, they’re corrupt scumbags all, and I’d give ’em a sprightly chase, so I would—the crushers mill around, parroting their fool questions, chasing away nosy broadsheet scribblers and kicking at dirty urchins with rats’ tails or cloven feet who try to sneak in.
“Any sign of the missing limbs?” says Eliza.
“None.” The detective strokes his mustaches. “But I don’t imagine they walked away by themselves.”
“Amazing. Your deductive powers are truly uncanny.”
He grins. “One does one’s best.”
I itch to spit in his face. Detectives are London’s new golden demigods, with eyes and ears everywhere, guardians of the shady line between them and us. What with coppers, plus government spies and the god-rotting witch-burners of the Royal Society, it seems these days everyone’s a snout, and we weird-city folk don’t take kindly to being lorded over.
Still, to be fair, they’re dab hands at catching bad men, this copper and my Eliza—more than one bloke gone kicking to the hangman who’d testify to that, not to mention the ones moldering in Bedlam or starving their skinny arses off in electrified dungeons at Coldbath Fields—and I for one won’t shed no tears if the charming cove who sliced up this poor dolly swings on a chilly morning to sate the bloodthirsty Newgate mob.
My blood boils, alive with all the rage Eliza don’t dare to feel. I want to throttle the bastard who did this. I want to grab that copper by his immaculate throat and squeeze until the lights in his eyes wink out.
Eliza’s fist crushes tight … but then she blinks, and shivers, and shoves me away. And like a mad wife locked in the attic, I’m helpless.
God’s poisoned innards. I scream and fight, clawing for her eyes, but she ignores me. Me, Lizzie Hyde. Her own blood. Her own SOUL.
I hate this. I want to get out. To roam where I choose, feel skin under my fingers, harsh winter wind on my face. To put a match to this ugly world and dance while it burns.
But I can’t escape. Not without her help.
If I could, d’you think I’d be pissfarting around here, flapping my gums with the likes of you?
“Eh?” Eliza blinked, dizzy, and the world shimmered back into focus.
Beside her gaped the dark hole of the theater’s stage door. Bills plastered on the walls advertised GISELLE and THE ETHEREAL MISS IRINA PAVLOVA and the IMPERIAL RUSSIAN BALLET! alongside painted slogans that announced THE QUEEN IS DEAD and KILL ALL THE CRUSHERS and BREAD BEFORE PROFIT. Her little clockwork assistant, Hippocrates, twittered self-importantly at her skirt hem, his square brass body gleaming on long hinged legs.
At the alley’s end, on Pall Mall, electric carriages rattled by, their glowing blue coils spitting sparks. Prostitutes prowled, a riot of feathers and colored gowns. Clockwork servants in frock coats clicked and whirred, striding to and fro on brass legs as they ran their errands, their painted plaster faces impassive. The ground rumbled as the Electric Underground hurtled by, and from an iron vent in the street, black smoke and sparks billowed in the stink of hot copper wire.
And the corpse, at Eliza’s feet. Another murdered girl, in a city haunted by murdered girls. Another killer, to be brought to justice with careful detective work and the miracles of science.
But faintness rinsed her thin, a fevered warning. A dark specter shifted inside, a restless shadow yearning to be free …
Unwilled, an image hovered: the elixir in its black glass flask, locked up safe in Eliza’s secret cabinet. Crouching in the dark, a sniggering demon. Whispering to her. Waiting …
Her mouth watered. Rage, ecstasy, sweet oblivion. The dark pleasure of doing whatever she pleased, saying what she felt. Not the impotent mutterings of lawyers and judges, but the keen slice of a blade …
“Are you quite all right?” Harley Griffin steadied Eliza’s elbow. The dark-haired inspector wore plain clothes—smart black coat, tall hat, neatly knotted necktie. Even the dirt of this greasy theater-side alley didn’t seem to rub off on him.
“Perfectly well, thank you. Shall we proceed?” Briskly, Eliza smoothed her skirts and adjusted her heavy brass optical atop her head. Thick metal rims, with a set of glass lenses of differing colors and properties. The latest scientific equipment. She’d designed it herself. Not strictly orthodox, but what useful gadget was?
Griffin flipped the pages of his notebook. “Victim’s name is Irina Pavlova—”
“The ballerina?” Eliza’s fists clenched. Not a poor woman of the street, then, savaged by some evil predator, all too replaceable in the eyes of polite society. The Imperial Russian Ballet’s veteran principal dancer, famed for her beauty and grace. No less an outrage. No more a tragedy. Truly, no woman, celebrated or forgotten, was safe.
“The very same. It was to be her swan-song tour, I’m informed.” Griffin looked mildly pained. “It certainly is now.”
“A ballerina with no legs,” mused Eliza. “Can that be random? Seems … lurid, wouldn’t you say, for a typical recreational murderer?”
“No legs,” muttered Hippocrates, his little electric voice sullen. “Recreation. Does not compute. Re-examine reasoning.”
Griffin shrugged. “Hardly a fit target for radicals, either. Still, these Muscovites are known to be rash and hot-headed. Perhaps a family feud, an act of vengeance. Teaching the enemy a lesson.”
“Evil Russian slayers? You do enjoy your wild-flung theories, Harley. Have you considered a crazed rival ballerina wielding a hatchet?”
Griffin grinned, and made a note in his book. “Rival ballerina, hatchet. You mentioned it first. And my wild-flung theories have paid dividends before, as you well know.”
Oh, aye. That warm, secret murmur tickled her spine. Razor Jack and his glittering steel princess. You can’t forget Jack, Eliza, his fingers in your hair, warm metal whispering against your cheek. Do you even want to?
Eliza shivered, sweating. “Indeed. What I can tell you is that the blood on Miss Pavlova’s dress is still rich. A large quantity has pooled without disturbance on the cobbles, and there’s one bright splash on the wall. Which points to syncope as the mode of death.”
“The Queen’s English would be adequate.”
She rolled her eyes. “Exsanguination, Harley. Miss Pavlova bled to death. Also, the lividity—that’s the post-mortem bruising, as the blood pools in the corpse; you can see there, beneath the petticoats—that indicates she died where she lies. Our man knelt here.” She pointed to a pair of smears in the blood beside the body, the imprints of trouser-clad knees. “And worked undisturbed. For at least four or five minutes, I’d say, to get this done.”
“You’re saying he amputated while this poor woman was still alive? God’s blood.” Griffin stroked his impeccable mustaches. Since the sensational trial of Razor Jack, he was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s darling. Which was why he was permitted to employ a lady legal medicine specialist with dubious antecedents, when his Scotland Yard colleagues regarded her with suspicion and scorn, at worst outright mirth.
“Yes. A professional could do it faster, but it doesn’t take an expert to sever a limb in this fashion. Any able man with these tools could have done it.”
“But why didn’t she struggle, for heaven’s sake? She’s within earshot of the busiest street in Haymarket. No, there must be something more.”
Eliza crouched and sniffed the dead woman’s lips. “Aha!” She dug in her satchel for a swab. Wiped it carefully over the woman’s tongue, and applied solution from a glass bottle. Drip, drop. The golden liquid spread and soaked in, and the swab turned bright green.
“Just as I thought,” she exclaimed happily. “Our victim has been drugged. A narcotic, or …”
She tipped her optical down over her spectacles and flicked a few spectroscopic filters, frowning. How strange. Perhaps an alchemist’s concoction … “Ah, I see,” she covered briskly. “How delightfully mysterious. I shall require further tests—”
“The short version?” Griffin interrupted, with a long-suffering smile.
“For shame,” she scolded, but her skin prickled. If it was alchemy, she’d have to find a way to cover it. To keep the evidence and omit its origins. “Don’t you know one ought to avoid conjecture in the absence of basic facts?”
“Flirt with disaster, then, and give me your best guess.”
“If I must speculate so irresponsibly? A substance that rendered her insensible, unable to complain. Though it might not have deadened the pain.”
“Ether, then,” suggested Griffin. “Or chloroform?”
“Chloroform,” echoed Hippocrates hopefully. His blue glass happy globe flashed atop his head. Even Her Majesty had breathed chloroform while giving birth, to ease the pain. Chloroform was respectable. It didn’t get you burned at the stake.
“No,” said Eliza, taking another swab of the substance and storing it carefully away for analysis. “Those stupefy slowly, over a period of minutes. Our man had a few seconds, at most, to subdue her … that is, I venture no screams were heard?”
Griffin snorted. “How did you guess? Dozens of noble citizens strolling by and no one noticed a thing. Not even a man covered in blood, carrying a woman’s legs. My astonishment knows no bounds … here, get that fellow away at once!”
Crack! A magnesium flashlamp erupted in a puff of white smoke. The constables dived on a skinny man wearing a ruby-red waistcoat and dragged him away, knocking over the camera he’d somehow managed to erect just beyond the linen barrier.
Griffin shrugged. “Damn fool writers. They encourage more crime than they expose. As I was saying: our killer seems to have escaped rather easily.”
“Perhaps the murderer lives or works nearby,” offered Eliza, secretly satisfied. She was acquainted with that particular damn fool writer, and good riddance to him. “Or, he brought a change of clothes. Such an elaborate scenario isn’t enacted on the spur of the moment.”
“Agreed.” He flipped through his notebook again. “Two … no, three different witnesses say they heard an arc-pistol going off, around two o’clock.”
Eliza frowned. “But I see no gunshot wounds. Strange, that the killer should give himself away, after going to such effort to quieten this poor woman. Assuming it was he who fired.”
“So why remove the legs? Is he making a point? A warning?”
“Perhaps. If you still favor your vengeful Russians.”
“Or a souvenir,” suggested Griffin grimly. “A trophy from the hunt. Perhaps we have another collector on our hands. Like the Lincoln’s Inn Toe Merchant …”
“Or the Mad Dentist of Fleet Street. The world is alive with strangeness, Inspector.”
“Most of it in my division, apparently,” he grumbled. “Always with the lunatics. Why don’t we ever get a good honest bludgeoning anymore?”
“Indeed. This decline in boring murders is most distressing. But … hmm.” Eliza flicked on a buzzing electric light, a tiny filament set into a small half-globe of brass, clipped to her waist on a short chain. She slotted the correct filter into her optical. Violet glow blossomed, and she scanned the body swiftly before the filament burned out with a bright metallic flash. The blood glared, a black accusation. But no smears, no creeping gleams.
“As I suspected.” She stood, skirts swishing. “The absence of fluids on her clothing suggests there was probably no intimacy. Miss Pavlova was not assaulted.”
“Absence of evidence …”
“… isn’t evidence of absence, no. But such interesting killers are not often so meticulous, nor so restrained. It does rather tend to rule out a purposeless crime of passion.”
Griffin cleared his throat and fingered his necktie.
Eliza glanced at her gadget, the goggles still boggling her eyes, and grinned. “Oh. Yes. Fascinating, isn’t it? It is called ‘ultra-violet.’ A gift to my father, many years ago, from Mr. Faraday.”
“The Royal Society burned Faraday,” reminded Griffin gruffly. “You should be more careful.”
Eliza tucked the ultra-violet coil back into her belt purse, uneasy. Griffin had a point. In the last twenty years, while bloody revolution had swept the Continent at the behest of sorcerers and charlatans, the Royal Society had become sole arbiters of what was science and what was witchcraft. Anyone found disputing the Philosopher’s Laws—or deliberately defying them by dabbling in classically unexplained phenomena—was mercilessly re-educated … or worse.
“Yes, well,” she commented dryly, “if given free rein, the Royal’s Enforcers would burn everyone who dared study any science published since Newton’s Principia—”
“Do you take argument with the Principia, madam?”
Eliza’s heart somersaulted. At this new voice, the crowd shuffled and muttered, and the constables suddenly grew deeply fascinated with the contents of their notebooks.
“Oops,” muttered Hippocrates, and jigged on jittery feet.
Inwardly, she groaned. Oh,
~ If you
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the book at the following links
Empire series continues in
October 2015 with THE
DEVIOUS DR. JEKYLL.