Elizabeth Hunter-Payne is convalescing after her brutal takedown of a ruthless killer. Troubled by nightmares and a nagging ghost of a memory, she is approached by Horatio Cumberland. He and his wife Fleur, the greatest scientist couple in the empire, hold radical ideas of sexual freedom. They report a stolen automaton, a highly sophisticated sex machine.
Miss Clayton, the cool, prickly and experienced agent of the Queen, joins the Investigation Bureau and takes on the case. Her investigation takes her to the shadowy London docks, the music halls and pubs of Whitechapel, as well as a luxurious four-poster bed.
Is the theft just a routine crime, or is something more afoot? Can Elizabeth, working in the background, solve the puzzle and defy her injuries to save Miss Clayton’s life? Another thrilling steampunk adventure with brilliant, sexy scientists, automatons, ruthless spies, submarines, and razor-sharp swordsticks.
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A Very Vengeful Christmas (Elizabeth Hunter-Payne Steampunk Adventures 5)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2020 Mikala Ash
The Times was, as Marianne predicted, brimful with horrid news. The sabre rattling in Europe continued unabated. Our enemies seemed numerous, our friends few. Russia despised us for our crippling them during the Crimean War in which my beautiful Jonathan gave his life. The French, our erstwhile allies in that conflict, were still our traditional enemies, and they plotted against us with enthusiasm. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, having global ambitions of their own, hated us with a passion.
The movements of armies overseas were complemented by suspected conspiracies at home, principally regarding the cause of the odious fog that had plagued London these last few months. The Great Stink, blamed on the lack of adequate control of the city’s sewage, had spurred the greatest building and construction works London had ever seen, adding to the confusion already caused by the laying of railway tracks both above and below ground. More malign conspiracies were suggested in letters to the editor, boldly stating our European antagonists were behind the thick roiling atmospheric soup and were seeking to choke the life out of our country by polluting our air.
My destruction of the grotesque killer, the Collector, still garnered a half column of ink, but his removal had not erased the fears that each gruesome murder since proved beyond doubt the existence of a trade in body parts, again a plot instigated by our foreign foes.
A Russian military airship was reported lost over the North Sea, the crew of thirty-five missing. I wondered what effect our new invention, steam-powered aircraft, would have on the aerial navies of the world. They did not rely on gas-filled envelopes for lift and were apparently far more manoeuvrable. Regarding new and frightening technology, I read another short report about a Russian undersea boat, a submarine, sighted in the Dardanelles.
Of local concern was a French steamship, the Chrysalide, being held in quarantine in the London docks after a sailor was found dead a week or so before, possibly of typhoid. Outbreaks of this dread disease were sadly common in the city, occurring almost yearly. Its cause and mode of transmission was hotly debated in the article. Did it pass from one person to another due to physical contact, or was the result of breathing bad air? Poor personal hygiene and unsanitary conditions were also blamed. All conditions could be imagined to be present in the close confines of a steamship. Demands to have the vessel leave England were resisted by the desperate captain who pleaded to stay. According to the editor, he argued most plaintively over the ship’s railing, asking where could he go? A second reported death resulted in growing pressure from a mob of angry protestors who had picketed the quayside, and the captain had finally relented, and agreed to depart the day after tomorrow. The poor crew, I thought, condemned to a terrible fate, alone upon the uncaring sea.
I was quite glad when a knock on the door disturbed my reading.
“Madam,” Marianne said. “Archie has brought a caller. He begs your pardon, but it seems urgent.”
“Thank God,” I said throwing The Times aside. “Something to do. Quick, the blue house dress will suit, we’ll just pop it over my nightdress. No one will know.”
“Oh, all right. Whatever you think best.”
“Archie should have telegraphed,” she complained as she went to the wardrobe. “Given us fair warning, that way you would have time to…”
“I beg to differ,” I replied. “If he had sent such a telegram, you would have intercepted it, and sent one back telling him I was asleep, and not to be disturbed.”
Her face went red, and she busied herself in the wardrobe. She eventually pulled out two light housedresses for me to consider, one green, the other a cornflower blue.
“I don’t see what difference it makes what I wear. I’ll have that blessed blanket over my knees anyway.”
She shot me one of her looks, and I rolled my eyes in return, but surrendered to her nonetheless. My bandages made my leg quite stiff and we struggled to get me into the blue silk. While she fussed over my slippers I gave my face a wash. It took much longer to put my hair into some order. In the mirror I clicked my tongue in despair. I was a sight! My face was swollen with multicoloured bruises, and the white bandage over my nose made me quite ridiculous.
The general, my friend and my late husband’s mentor, and most importantly the head of the Queen’s security service, had insisted two footmen should be employed after my injury, to ensure the security of the house. They carried me down the stairs to my waiting wheeled chair, my arms around their shoulders, their hands locked together beneath me to make a cradle. One footman was named Bisby, the other Oxley, but I had forgotten which was which. They were tall and muscular fellows with thick brows and square jaws. Both were taciturn, with their faces always set in an expression of calm authority. For simplicity’s sake, and to avoid the embarrassment of asking again, I decided the slightly fairer of the two would hereafter be Bisby.
Coming from the library at the same moment was Miss Clayton. In her dark unfashionably narrow skirts she reminded me of a panther I had seen at the London Zoo: dangerously lithe and alert. She also held the Queen’s Commission and had taken up casual residence in my home. She too had been ill. A consequence of her bravely diving into the putrid waters of the Thames to vainly attempt a rescue. She had swallowed a mouthful of the river which is the daily recipient of the sewage of our city’s several hundred thousand denizens. Seeing my approach, she opened the door to the drawing room, and with an officious nod to the footman, took over the chair pushing duty. Archie, who had been Jonathan’s batman in the war, gave me an apologetic smile, and closed the door behind us.
At my entrance, a tall, well-dressed man of five and thirty turned from examining my late husband’s portrait. I was immediately aware of his pleasing form within the expensively cut frockcoat, dark trousers, and a jauntily striped neckcloth. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculinity -- broad shoulders, a deep chest, muscular arms, slim waist, and nicely shaped thighs. Clearly surprised at my appearing in a wheeled chair he quickly controlled the expression which had swept across his handsome face and gave me a deep bow. “Mrs. Hunter-Payne,” he said uneasily. “I apologise for this intrusion. I didn’t know you were infirm.”