An Electric Empire
18 April 2017
Enter at your own risk!
Chapter One ~ AN ELECTROMAGNETIC DISTURBANCE
“Go away, Lizzie, I’m working.”
Eliza Jekyll prodded the dead inventor’s burned scalp with her scalpel, shivering in the damp chill. The laboratory’s coal fire had long since died, and outside, drizzling rain shrouded the world in grim gray mist.
The inventor was slumped in the desk chair, cheek against an ink-stained ledger, dried blood crusting her mouth. A pen was clutched in her stiff fingers. On the page, in the victim’s blood, her murderer had scrawled the word WHORE.
Lizzie Hyde peered into the dead face, grinning like a ghoul in her lurid red dress. “Ooh-er. Nothing like a juicy dead’un first thing in the morning, eh?”
“Have some respect,” hissed Eliza, shoving Lizzie’s translucent apparition aside with a gray-skirted hip. Around her, uniformed police constables milled, searching crammed bookshelves and rooting through electrical equipment. “This poor woman deserves justice, not a bad circus act.”
“Say again?” Inspector Harley Griffin shot Eliza an odd look as he examined a clockwork centipede that marched across the ledger, its tiny feet clacking. The impeccable detective’s dark hair was neat, suit and necktie immaculate. Not even this filthy weather could ruffle him. But her nerves ratcheted tighter. Lizzie’s specter was imaginary. Harley couldn’t see or hear her. Eliza was safe. No one would find out.
That didn’t make the prospect of going insane at a crime scene any more appealing.
mind,” she muttered. Now Lizzie was poking a gleeful finger into the
corpse’s ear. Exasperated, Eliza held her scalpel alongside the woman’s
blue bodice. Thwock! The blade jumped, attaching itself like a
magnet to the metal corset bones within. “Killed by the action of
electricity. Not a gunflash. A sustained application of a much larger
Griffin consulted his leather-bound notebook. “Miss Antoinette de Percy, twenty-nine, inventor of electrical gadgets and visiting research fellow at the Royal Institution. Last seen alive by the maid at six yesterday evening. A social butterfly, I’m told. Held a kind of salon here. Intellectuals, poets, drawing room radicals. Specialty something called ‘aether-fluid dynamics,’ under a professor named Crane.”
“Pah.” Lizzie tossed ghostly mahogany curls. “All that book-reading never kept her breathing. Brain the size of Bloomsbury and still just some bastard’s whore.”
Eliza eyed the red-smeared message with distaste. Lizzie was right. Such a clever scientist, written off in this hateful fashion. Always a man’s wife, daughter, lover. Never just herself. “Poor girl. Hardly a crime of passion.”
Griffin stroked his luxuriant mustache that was the envy of the Metropolitan force, and likely the City of London police as well. “You don’t think finger-painting whore in her blood indicates a crime of passion?”
“I’d have expected a stabbing, or similar. Not a rearward attack from such impersonal distance.” She sidestepped a brass anteater that snuffled its long nose across the floor, in hot pursuit of a metal mouse. Her own clockwork assistant, Hippocrates, bounced on his long hinged legs, trying to reach a surly mechanical cat that glared down from a high shelf.
“Felis catus,” trumpeted Hipp in his little electric voice. “Playtime. Make greater speed.”
Griffin covered a smile. “Seems unlikely Miss de Percy was struck by lightning.”
A brass caterpillar crawled laboriously along the windowsill. Lizzie poked it. It fell off onto the floor, where it wriggled faster, trying to escape. “Oi! Come ‘ere, you little rotter.”
“How adorable,” exclaimed Eliza hastily. “What amazing engineering! Perhaps one of these creatures did it, in a fit of electric jealousy. Hipp, stop that, she’s twice your size.”
“Clearly Puss is the gang’s mastermind.” An electric blackbird swooped above Griffin’s head, and he ducked to avoid gleaming gunmetal wings. “So, if not a pistol—what?”
“Good question. If one of these malfunctioned badly enough to kill, you’d expect more spectacular wreckage. Let’s see.” Eliza tilted her optical down over her spectacles. An array of lenses and spectrics that detected all manner of substances and invisible forces, the optical wasn’t strictly legal—but orthodox science couldn’t always provide answers.
“Boo!” Lizzie’s dark eye loomed, magnified. Alarmed, Eliza jerked back, and Lizzie guffawed. “Gotcha! Teach you to mess about with Henry Jekyll’s dodgy contraptions. Them Royal Society goons will fry your saucy backside, Captain Lafayette or no.”
Surreptitiously, Eliza glared back. Since her engagement to a Royal Society investigator, the prospect of being summarily arrested for scientific heresy and tossed in a dank electrified cell at the Tower worried her a little less. But only a little.
She slotted in a thick aether-reactive lens. Starry whiteness flared, dazzling. “Ouch!” She tore the optical away. “The aether excitation in here is extraordinary. Energized by these creatures, no doubt.” She rubbed aching temples. “A shame. I’d hoped for a more conclusive pattern.”
Lizzie squinted at the smudged blackboard. “The boy stood on the burning deck with a pocket full of crackers,” she read. “One fell down his trouser leg and blew off all his— Clear off, I’m learning here.” She swiped at the swooping blackbird as it cackled and pecked.
Eliza resisted the urge to wring Lizzie’s neck and convince Harley once and for all that she’d lost her marbles. She sliced off a sliver of the victim’s scorched flesh and slipped it into a glass tube, then took a blood sample.
Eagerly, Lizzie plonked her satin-flounced rear on the desk, leering like a freak show spectator. “About time we got to the gory part,” she announced. “Slice away!”
“Last seen alive at six, you say?” Smiling sweetly, she bumped Lizzie off the desk with a casual sweep of hip—but inwardly, she cringed. Lizzie’s spectral skirts flopped dangerously close to where Griffin stood. What would happen if Lizzie touched him?
She slipped a glass thermometer inside Miss de Percy’s tight collar. “The body has cooled several degrees,” she reported, swatting aside Lizzie’s meddling hand. “Skin bluish, arm stiff. Full rigor takes around twelve hours to set in. Granted, it’s cold in here, but I’d say she died no later than eight last evening.”
Griffin shifted aside a red glass vase and slid the splintered wooden shaft from the corpse’s hand. “Pen’s broken,” he noted. “Was she writing when attacked?”
Thoughtfully, Eliza examined it. “Scribble, scribble, the killer creeps up, and boom! Her fingers convulse, the pen snaps. And she falls forwards, onto whatever she was writing!”
Lizzie cheered, waving her skirts. “Hooray! Better than a circus, this gaff.”
Together, Eliza and Griffin forced the body into a sitting position. Limbs stiff, neck rigid. And beneath where she’d lain . . .
“It’s blank.” Griffin examined the ledger, flipping back one bloodstained page. “Yesterday’s diary entries. ‘One: team meeting,’ it says, at noon. Perhaps with this Professor Crane? But nothing for today.”
“Mmm.” Absorbed, Eliza inspected the corpse’s face. Miss de Percy’s eyelids were half-closed, mouth bruised black, skin mottled—but across her left cheek was the smudged imprint of handwriting.
“A-ha!” Triumphantly, Eliza copied the letters onto a scrap of paper, reversed from left to right.
but then ∇ × H = 1/c (
− ∇2B = 0 in R4! It’s im
what to do. Please h
Lizzie snorted. “What in green hell does that mean?”
“Logical,” bubbled Hippocrates, whirring excited cogs. “Curl of magnetic field equals one over speed of light multiplied by—”
“Very instructive, Hipp,” cut in Eliza, elbowing Lizzie aside, “very instructive.” Her head throbbed with memories of torturous mathematics lessons, her patient tutor demonstrating algebraic matrices and cross products while her adolescent wits boggled. Fluents, gradients, rates of change . . .
“Gradient squared,” muttered Hipp indignantly. “Zero. Implications unclear.”
“You can say that again.” Griffin studied the ledger once more. “But where’s the original? Nothing like it in the book.”
“A separate letter? But why would the killer take it?”
“Perhaps his name was on it.”
“‘Here’s a bunch of equations, and so-and-so just came to kill me’? Not very likely.”
“No,” admitted Griffin. “Our man contrives this mysterious murder weapon just to confound us, scribbles his insults to make it easier for us to catch him, then makes off with a letter full of equations? What’s his motive: wasting police time?”
“Inspector Griffin, sir!” A young female police officer bustled up. Her dark blue uniform frock was spotless, silver buttons polished to mirrors, and she’d combed her thick dark hair into London’s neatest bun. Even her boots were impossibly free from mud. “This is Mr. Locke, sir,” she reported, dragging forth a bedraggled fellow in an ill-fitting gray suit. “He discovered the body when he called this morning.”
Eliza had to wonder why Constable Perkins even wanted to be a police officer. There were few enough female constables, fewer still who lasted more than a month or two. She glanced at her own creased skirts and carelessly pushed-up sleeves, and sighed. Once, she’d been as keen as Perkins. Perhaps she was getting old and jaded. Perhaps they all were.
“Excellent,” said Griffin briskly. “Anyone see anything, or hear a racket last night?”
“Nothing so far, sir.” Perkins cast her lashes down.
“No curious servants? Not a single irate neighbor or nosy passer-by? So many upstanding citizens roaming about, yet no one notices a high-voltage explosion. Extraordinary.”
“No, sir.” Perkins turned pink. “I mean, yes, sir. I’ll keep asking, sir.”
Griffin clapped her shoulder. “Good man. Persistence pays. See to it.”
Bushy-tailed with importance, Perkins bustled away. It was clear that she idolized Harley—clear to everyone, that was, except the eminent detective.
Griffin caught Eliza’s smile. “What?” he said artlessly. “She’s a good officer. She deserves a chance.”
that to our charming Chief Inspector.” Eliza studied the new
arrival—Mr. Locke—with interest, trying to ignore Lizzie, who was
grinning into the fellow’s face from a distance of three inches.
Locke was young, fair-skinned, with damp blond hair that kept
falling in his face. Too long for a proper gentleman’s. More like a
“I’m Dr. Eliza Jekyll,” she said. “Might we ask you a few questions?”
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