A Stain of Breath
“Where’s the body?” Eliza Jekyll skidded to a stop in a swish of gray skirts, clutching her doctor’s bag expectantly. The framer’s shop was cluttered, oil paintings everywhere, rolled up or stretched on wooden struts, ready to take gilded edging. Behind a curtain, stacks of paint pots, tools, and sawn-up bits of wood hunkered out of sight. Old chandeliers flickered, shedding bright golden light, and through the broad windows glared a sullen, fog-bound yellow sun.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Inspector Harley Griffin of the Metropolitan Police, her close friend and the only man on the force who believed in her. Impeccably dressed as always, dark hair neatly combed.
Dismayed, Eliza stared at the wooden array he indicated. “But that’s an empty framing rack, not a corpse. Surely you require no crime scene physician for that.”
Hippocrates, her clockwork pet, jigged on hinged legs, his square brass head bobbing. “Human remains,” he chirped. “Information please.”
“Chief Inspector Reeve insisted, I’m afraid.” A heavy lick of irony on Griffin’s tone.
Eliza poked up her spectacles. “Thinks he’s funny, does he? A dozen murders a night, the city crawling with bloodthirsty anarchists, and he’s got the finest detective in London investigating a petty theft.”
Griffin tugged his mustaches. “To be fair, it’s faintly intriguing. The villain filched several artworks on Saturday night—”
She snorted. “And now it’s Monday. The scene contaminated. An even more irritating waste of my time.”
“—from under the noses of four security guards,” continued Griffin, imperturbable. “Locks intact, no alarm raised.”
“Impressive. What does Reeve want me to do about it? Test for incompetence?”
“Don’t get smart with me, missy.” Chief Inspector Reeve waddled up, chewing on a cigar. His ugly brown suit looked unkempt. “You’re late. Putting your face on?”
“My apologies, sir. Looking this pretty takes such a long time.”
Her sarcasm hit 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 him, Griffin rolled his eyes. But Eliza barely noticed, possessed of an all-too-familiar itch to claw Reeve’s skin off. But it wasn’t her urge. It was Lizzie’s. The shadowy self inside her, thrashing to break free.
I’ll put YOUR face on, you sniggering little prat, whispered Lizzie, her disembodied voice threading craftily through Eliza’s blood like hot wire. Eliza’s skin tightened. That restless throbbing in her veins augured trouble. This wasn’t supposed to happen without her elixir.
Suddenly her plain, inoffensive dress itched like fire ants. Her guts burned as if she’d swallowed poison, Lizzie’s presence contorting her body into unnatural shapes, like an improperly fitted corset . . .
“Eh?” She blinked, and the framer’s shop sprang back into focus. “What did you say?”
Reeve puffed cigar smoke, rocking on his heels. “I said, police work isn’t all murders and mayhem. You’re always complaining no one but Griffin takes you seriously. Well, here’s a case. Want it or not?”
Eliza swallowed a Lizzie-like urge to slam Reeve’s nose back into his brain. She needed this job. When she and Harley caught the gruesome killer labeled the Chopper, she’d imagined her career would take off. But when Harley’s wife passed, newly promoted Chief Inspector Reeve had sidelined him out of pretended sympathy whenever he could. And medicine—especially crime scene medicine—was a man’s world.
Her work at Bethlem Asylum had dried up, too. Understandably, given that the surgeon-in-charge who’d employed her was dead, 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 whom she’d caught and put in Bethlem. He’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? Some louse-ridden scumbucket with his greasy fingers all over Her Majesty’s new portrait, and you don’t care?”
“I see.” Eliza glanced at Griffin, who raised apologetic eyebrows. That explained Reeve’s attendance: ingratiating himself with the Palace. 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.
“The artist brought it in for framing. Not the kind of thing a villain can sell, is it? Ergo, not a simple theft.” Reeve stuck a thumb into scarlet braces. “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 ’ere and I’ll show ’em to you.
“I didn’t mean . . .”
Reeve grinned. “Not so smart as you think you are. Griffin, take off. You’re not needed here. Lads, make way for the good lady doctor.”
Hit him. Lizzie slithered into Eliza’s throat like a serpent, choking her. No one at the Met gives a flying arsepoke about some “lady doctor” and her hysterical fancies. 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 . . .
Eliza spluttered. “But this is Harley’s case—”
“You heard the Chief Inspector,” cut in Griffin loudly, “let Dr. Jekyll through.”
Hippocrates snuffled hopefully at the floor, his little brass head shining. “Remains. Samples. Does not compute.”
Harley was better at swallowing his pride than she. This had to be borne. “Never mind, Hipp. Let’s proceed. Take a recording, please.” She pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves, trying to stay calm. “Wooden frame on trestle legs, about seven feet by three. A set of pegs where the canvas has been removed.”
Behind her, Reeve sniggered. “Congratulations. Never would’ve figured that for myself.”
Eliza shot him a baleful glare. “You called me, Chief Inspector. It wouldn’t be because your reputation rests on solving this quickly, would it? Will you let me work, or shall I return to my embroidery?”
“Embroidery,” chirped Hipp, muffled beneath her skirts. “Irrelevant. Logic failure.”
Shall I return to my embroidery? mocked Lizzie. 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.
The urge to carry out Lizzie’s creative revenge burned all too fresh and real.
Wouldn’t be the nicest pair of trousers we’ve ever shoved our hand down, agreed Lizzie, not that you’re any help in that department.
“Shut up,” hissed Eliza, fiddling with the empty pegs. “I’m trying to work.”
Fine. You work away. I’ll just sit over here and think of creative ways to rip his nuts off.
“If it makes you happy.” Eliza grinned around clenched teeth. “Just leave me alone. You’re embarrassing me!”
Don’t get your petticoats in a twist, grumbled Lizzie. I’m helping, ain’t I? Just you wait.
“Doctor, are you quite well?” Griffin eyed her strangely. He didn’t know about Lizzie, not exactly. But he was a good detective, smart and observant. One day, he’d figure it out.
Eliza flushed. Talking to herself again. Her skin felt stretched too thin, like overstressed rubber. “Of course. It’s nothing. Right, is he gone? Tell me what we’ve got.”
Griffin nodded towards a fat man who slunk anxiously in a corner. “The owner claims he left a pile of rolled-up canvases in that corner, ready to be framed and varnished. Twenty-odd works missing. Commissions from five or six artists, but naturally we care only for the Queen’s. Painted by . . .” Griffin consulted his neatly written notebook. “Some court artist named Wyn Patten.”
“Never heard of him. Any forced entry?”
“No visible damage. And no keys missing. Could be an inside job, of course. These things often are.”
Not if they can’t fence it, put in Lizzie stoutly. What’d be the point o’ that? See, I can be clever, too, you uppity tart.
Eliza forced a polite smile. “But wouldn’t that imply the stolen goods are worth something?”
Griffin nodded. “Reeve’s right about that, at least. All just portraits and landscapes, according to the framer, but given that he’s by appointment to the Palace, he caters to high-profile artists. Too easily identifiable as stolen. What use filching art you can’t sell?”
“Hmm. Any witnesses, or is Reeve just making it look as if he’s investigating?”
“All the staff had gone home on Saturday night, with Sunday off. Just rented watchmen, law-abiding citizens one and all. Nothing unusual occurred, no one left his post, no one saw a thing.”
Eliza adjusted her optical’s leather straps. She’d built it herself, modified from her late father’s designs. The array of lenses and spectrics detected all manner of substances, from stupefying drugs and poisons to bloodstains and more ethereal traces. Such things could get you dragged from your bed in the dead of night, to answer uncivil questions in the Royal’s electrified dungeons at the Tower.
But none of Henry Jekyll’s dabblings had been things one chatted about at tea parties. As a girl, she’d been fascinated by his dusty laboratory, bold young men in shirtsleeves and their illicit experiments, tinkering with light and air and the substance of life itself. Sparking copper coils in vacuum-sealed flasks, dripping galvanic batteries wired to twitching specimens in jars of preserving fluid. Equations on the blackboard, arcane formulae, the forbidden mathematics of magnetism and energy chalked next to Latin abbreviations and lists of intricate symbols. Not to mention outlawed alchemical elixirs and the search for eternity.
She slotted a heavy magnifying lens over her spectacles. “Nothing’s damaged, no oil fragments in the pegs. This art was not snatched. Our man took his time, confident he’d remain undisturbed. And . . . hold on, there’s a handprint on the adjoining wallpaper.”
Griffin coughed. “Pity this isn’t the Paris Sûreté,” he whispered. “I hear they’re collecting copies of convicted felons’ handprints for comparison.”
“Alongside their severed heads? Away with your treasonous Republican sympathies, Inspector.” She peered at the faint smudge. “Coal dust, or iron. Smallish hands, perhaps a youngster. And . . . I say.” She glanced left and right, and swiftly flipped in a new multi-colored lens. “How extraordinary—”
“You’re extraordinary.” The whisper sparkled in her ear.
Startled, she teetered backwards. Strong hands steadied her, into a familiar gunflash scent of steel and thunder. Hippocrates jittered, dancing a clumsy jig.
Inwardly, Eliza groaned. Oh, bother.I lied, whispered Lizzie with a grin. I ain’t leaving this one alone.
Find Viola and her books
The Devious Dr. Jekyll
Electric Empire #2
Dr. Eliza Jekyll, heroine of the electrifying The Diabolical Miss Hyde—an edgy steampunk retelling of the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—investigates a bizarre murder case in an alternate Victorian London while battling her treacherous secret half: Lizzie Hyde.
Solving the infamous Chopper case has helped crime scene physician Dr. Eliza Jekyll establish her fledgling career in the chauvinistic world of Victorian law enforcement. But the scrutiny that comes with her newfound fame is unwelcome for a woman with a diabolical secret. And there is the mercurial Royal Society agent and wolf man Remy Lafayette. Does he want to marry her, eat her, or burn her at the stake? Though Eliza is uncertain about Remy, her dark and jealous shadow self, Lizzie, wants to steal the magnetic and persistent agent, and usurp Eliza’s life.
It’s impossible to push Remy away when he tempts her with the one thing she can’t resist: a bizarre crime. The search for a bloodthirsty ritual torturer dubbed the Pentacle Killer draws them into a terrifying world of spies, art thieves, and evil alchemy, where the price of immortality is madness?or damnation—and only Lizzie’s dark ingenuity can help Eliza survive.
As Eliza and Remy race to thwart a foul conspiracy involving the sorcerous French, they must also overcome a sinister enemy who is all too close: the vengeful Lizzie, determined to dispose of Eliza for good.
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