I’m coming late to the Steampunk world and one of my favorite authors in the genre has quickly become Karina Cooper. Her The St. Croix Chronicles follows Cherry St. Croix as she forges her own future in Victorian England. Karina has graciously shared with us an excerpt of the latest adventures of Cherry in the book Gilded.
The second victim, this time uninterrupted by the likes of me, was found half of an hour later, throat cut. Body terribly mutilated.
I shivered upon reading the details. With a few grotesque descriptions, I was no longer seated in my elegantly furnished parlor, no longer warm and dry.
Instead, shuddering, it was as if I could smell the pungent damp, feel the choking fog as it slipped through my nose and mouth. I heard the bubbling noise of what I now knew to be a throat cut in the dark.
That was his first stroke; the point where the nub of his disturbed conscience began his signature. The mutilations, the ghastly acts performed upon each body, became his flourish.
Each act an art, each stroke a laugh.
No. There was a difference between this man and the collector I chased. The latter truly fancied himself an artist; perhaps he even was, and his canvas was the world as he saw it. Brilliant or simply mad; the two so often came hand in hand.
This murderer was nothing so elegant.
Elegant? I shook myself free of the fanciful turn my thoughts had gone, inhaling gratefully the fragrance of the wood in the fire and the aromatic, dark tea Booth continued to bring me.
Whatever this creature was, he was a man, and he would bleed like one.
As he boasted like one.
A rustle of fabric behind me warned me of company. Too harsh a sound for Fanny’s silk and velvet day dress, and accompanied by neither the clatter of a tray nor Mrs. Booth’s near-constant murmur.
Zylphia, then. “He sent out a letter,” I said aloud, glancing up. Clad in a demure day dress, gray relieved by a stark white apron and her head covered by a white cap, Zylphia looked nothing like the sweet she’d once exclusively been.
Or like the assistant she had become.
Her head tilted, cleaning cloths in hand. “The sweet tooth?” Her name for the collector, given he’d been offing sweets at the time.
I shook my head. “Leather Apron. Tend your duties, I’ll read it to you.”
She wasn’t as efficient as her predecessor had been, but even in severe gray and white, she retained a certain grace impossible to ignore.
The Karakash Veil—the mouthpiece, anyway, by which I’d received my orders—had suggested she came not just from mixed stock, but from a useful heritage. I didn’t know what it meant.
I wondered, sometimes, if the Veil had only upsold her value to ensure my agreement. He needn’t have bothered.
“Dear Boss,” I read, returning my attention to the paper, “I keep on hearing the police have caught me, but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits.”
“Charming bloke, isn’t he?”
“I’d say he knows his letters, but there’s errors,” I said slowly, scanning the rest of the text. Grisly, to be sure. “A dictation, perhaps?”
“Or some minor schooling.” Zylphia bent to her task, polishing the grate in front of the fire. “There’s some what say this murderer’s a lord in disguise.”
I smiled briefly, suddenly amused by the dichotomy we presented. Each with a second life, one in Society, one below.
But it faded. “Doubtful. If ’tis true, then he writes very poorly.”
“Unless it’s a trick.”
A fair point. “He goes on. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with, but it went thick like glue and I can’t use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope. He considers himself charming, anyway.” He’d written ha, ha after the joke, but I wasn’t laughing.
The collector, may his soul rot once I caught up to him, had used blood when he’d written me a note. The same letter that warned me he’d kidnapped Betsy Phillips, my last maid and as dear a friend as I’d ever had.
Eager for attention, the collector had sneered. So it seemed. Of them both.
“So who wrote it?” Zylphia demanded, her hands busy polishing but no less intent on me than she was on the chores that kept her busy by day.
I studied the transcribed text, my eyebrows rising. I’d never mastered the art of lifting just one. “Jack,” I read.
“What?” My maid scoffed loudly, snapping her polishing cloth into the air in easy dismissal. “Spring-Heeled Jack’s nothing more than a legend.”
I lowered the paper, mouth twisting into a grim slant. “Not Spring-Heeled Jack,” I said softly. “Nothing so fanciful.”
“Jack the Ripper.”
My maid fell silent.
The name—false, though it may be—rang like a death knell in my parlor. It was a name that would grip London with fear, I was sure of it.
Jack the Ripper.
Perhaps I’d two murderers to hunt this time.
Suddenly filled with a sense of urgency, I set aside the papers I’d perused and rose to my feet. “I’m off to change,” I declared, and left her to tidy behind me.
All I wanted at that very moment was to travel below and begin to retrace the steps I’d taken through Dutfield’s Yard. To ask questions of the witnesses, to visit the Menagerie and make inquiries among the sweets.
Unfortunate though they may be, the sweets knew things that most would never let on. Clients talked. I needed to know if they’d heard any word of this Ripper.
If Hawke would even allow me the chance.
In the gleaming heights of Victorian London, a world of deception awaits an unconventional Society lady whose taste for adventure makes her a most formidable adversary . . .
Though Society demands that I make a good marriage, I, Cherry St. Croix, have neither the time nor the interest. I am on the trail of a murder with no victim, a mystery with no motive, and the key to an alchemical formula that could be my family’s legacy.
Yet the world is not so kind as to let me pursue simple murder and uncomplicated bounties. Above the foggy drift, an earl insists on my attention, while my friends watch my increasingly desperate attempts to remain my own woman. From the silken demands of the Midnight Menagerie—to whose dangerously seductive ringmaster I owe a debt—to the rigorous pressures of the peerage, all are conspiring to place before me a choice that will forever change my life.