Heart of Brass
A Novel of the Clockwork Agents
Arden is an undercover agent for one of the most powerful organizations of this steam powered world—the Wardens of the Realm—a group with extraordinary abilities, dedicated to protecting England against evil.
Arden Grey enjoys a life most women in 1898 London can’t even dream of: She has the social status, wealth, and independence of a countess. She also has the ability to witness the final moments of a murder victim’s life. But ever since the disappearance of her husband, Lucas, none of this means anything to her. Until one night, when Arden spies a man watching her—a man she recognizes as her missing husband.
He’s been ordered to assassinate Arden as retribution for her part in the killing of a Company agent. Luke remembers nothing of his life before the Company, a corrupt agency that has erased his memory. Even so, he can't seem to complete his assignment. There is something familiar about his lovely target, something that attracts him, and fills him with dread. For he knows that if he doesn’t kill her, someone else will—and kill him as well.
London, the Age of Steam
“You shouldn’t go in there, ma’am. ’Tis no place for a lady.”
Arden Grey, known in polite circles as Lady Huntley, and in less polite as “that poor woman,” carried a small carpetbag in her gloved hand as she approached the factory door, pewter-colored skirts swishing around her matching pumps. Overhead the lights of a police dirigible swept across the scene, illuminating the night in a wash of glaring silver.
The veil attached to her tiny black top hat did nothing to shield her eyes, and Arden squinted against the intrusive brightness. “You will soon learn, sir, that I am not the usual sort of lady.” She’d been born and bred to be one, even married an earl to maintain the illusion, but during her unusual life she’d seen and heard—and done—too many dark things to own such a gentle, ignorant title.
The Scotland Yard man tugged the brim of his hat at her in reply, and stepped back so she might pass. It was obvious from the tight set of his lips that he opposed her presence most vehemently, but knew his place well enough not to voice his disapproval again. In this thoroughly modern world there were still those who believed a woman ought to keep to home, rather than engage in any manner of business.
Tell that to Queen Victoria.
Sagging floorboards creaked under her boots as she entered B. E. Hammond & Sons, the varnish long since worn off this particular section of wood. The foyer was well lit and unassuming, and smelled vaguely of oil and metal. It was quiet now, but during the day this entire building would hum and vibrate with the sounds of working machines. The air would be humid and thick, tasting of steam and the sharp tang of industry.
She fancied she could smell blood, but it was most likely copper. When people used to oppose her father’s support of the Automatization Movement, he would reply that it could not be a coincidence that the very life in a man’s veins smelled like the same metal used to construct early automatons. He died in the middle of building what would have been his finest work, a piece that now sat hunched, gears gummed up, in the corner of his W.O.R. laboratory. Four years it had sat there, and despite all the brilliant minds the Wardens of the Realm—the elusive government agency to which Arden herself belonged—set to work in that room, the project had yet to be completed. Arden had even provided them with the schematics of the machine, but to no avail. The automaton remained elusive, an example of her father’s genius that would never come to fruition, though the Wardens would continue to try.
Then again, she was a fine one to throw stones, she who clung to a hopeless dream.
Another Scotland Yard man came through a set of double doors and paused there, holding one of them open. “This way, Lady Huntley—if you please.”
No, she didn’t please, but she walked past the man and through the doorway all the same. She’d rather be at home with a glass—or several—of fine Scotch whiskey, but she’d been summoned here instead. Granted, it had been a welcome rescue from insipid conversation and weak sherry with a group of females who would inevitably take her aside one by one and ask her if she might construct one of her “special devices” for them.
Few people knew the extent of her talents. To most of the world she was simply Lady Huntley, a woman who refused to accept that her husband was most likely dead. She wasn’t the mechanical genius that her father was, but she had made a bit of a reputation amongst her sex for an invention she stumbled upon quite by accident. A device very similar—but far superior—to one sold by B. E. Hammond & Sons. It could have been quite scandalous, but since one of the Princesses Royal privately declared it a “miracle of modern medical science” in the field of feminine health, scandal became discreet acclaim. A treatment for “hysteria” that did not require the indiscretion of a trip to a sanitorium, but could be used in the privacy of a lady’s boudoir.
The delicate silver chains that hung from the piercing on the side of Arden’s nose across her cheek to her right ear quivered under the ceiling fans as she entered the large open room of the factory’s assembly department. Recently she’d increased the number of chains from six to seven. One for every year her husband had been missing.
Missing. Not dead.
Two more Scotland Yard men—peelers as they were often called—stood with another man she assumed to be the senior Mr. Hammond, based on the distressed look on his face.
The policemen removed their hats when they spotted her. One of them was Inspector Grant, with whom she’d worked on several prior cases. Mr. Hammond held his fine, but worn, beaver top hat in his shaking hands. His graying hair stuck up in tufts around his head, as though he’d had his hands tugging at it. He had the countenance of a man who had seen—or done—something he should dearly like to forget.
As she approached, Arden withdrew what looked like a small lady’s compact from her bag. She pointed the device in the direction of the factory owner and watched the tiny hand beneath the glass swing around like the needle of a compass, finally coming to land on the word REMORSE. The sentimentometer was one of her favorites of all her father’s work, even though he’d developed it when she was but a child to determine whether or not she had done something naughty.
She snapped the lid shut and slipped the brass mechanism back into her bag. “Gentlemen.”
“Lady Huntley.” Inspector Grant greeted her with a curt nod—his only deference to her station. “Thank you for leaving your evening’s entertainments to aid us in this grim affair.”
“No thanks required, Inspector,” Arden replied in her usual crisp tones that often sounded far too severe for her liking. Lucas used to tell her she had the voice of a governess. “What has happened?”
The inspector pointed his pencil at the pale gentleman to his left. “Mr. Hammond was working late this evening in his office above stairs. When he came down to check everything was as it should be for the night, he found the body of a young woman.” He gestured for her to follow him and she did. The factory owner stayed behind, working the brim of his hat until it threatened to lose all shape.
“Did you take a reading of Hammond?” Grant asked quietly as they maneuvered through the jammed workspace of wooden tables littered with tools, automaton parts and gears. “Says he was listening to phonographic discs as he worked and didn’t hear a peep from down here.”
She shook her head, gaze wandering distractedly over the tabletops. “I detected no guilt or malevolence from him. But he does feel remorse. Could be a guilty conscious, or perhaps he is simply mortified that a crime was committed on his property with him being none the wiser.” She stopped and picked up a rubber tube that was shaped like . . . a penis. She held it up with her forefinger and thumb, dangling it in all its flaccid splendor in front of the inspector’s face. “I didn’t know that the Hammonds had begun to incorporate rubber in their designs.”
Grant flushed a deep red—the color of a cooked beet. He couldn’t quite meet her gaze. “Er . . . yes. You may be aware that Hammond started this factory to make medical instruments to aid in the treatment of hysteria. He was one of the first manufacturers of automatons in England.” He cleared his throat, as though he wanted to say more but didn’t quite know how to word it, or how to justify it.
He didn’t have to. Arden knew all about Hammond and his inventions. A contemporary of her father’s, some of his earlier designs were rather ingenious, but it was his work in the field of mechanized human “marital enhancements” that had made him one of the wealthiest businessmen in the kingdom. Any man who dedicated his life’s work to the carnal pleasure and emotional well-being of women couldn’t be all that bad, could he?
But a murder certainly wouldn’t be good for business.
A few steps on she spied a female automaton lying on one of the tables, its realistic limbs splayed, revealing a degree of anatomical correctness that would have made a bawd blush. Arden’s lips tucked to one side in a caustic smile. Mr. Hammond obviously had decided to tackle the treatment of gentlemanly vigor as well.
Inspector Grant threw a tarp over the machine, but whether he did so to protect Arden’s delicate sensibilities or his own was a mystery that she hadn’t the inclination to pursue. Though it did not take even an ounce of emotional sensitivity to ascertain that the inspector was deeply mortified.
When they neared the end of the aisle, Arden detected a familiar, unpleasant odor, one she associated with murder: a mix of what she could only describe as fear, blood, and chamber pot.
Two more peelers and Inspector Grant stood between her and the source of that smell. Well, most of it.
The leg in the torn stocking and expensive silk pump looked like that of a burlesque automaton at first, so white and still was it. Were it not for the blood staining that stocking she might have been able to tell herself that it was merely a machine.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Huntley,” Grant said in that faint northern accent of his. “But this isn’t a pretty sight. You may turn back if you like.”
She gave him what she hoped was a grateful smile and not a grim twisting of her lips. She’d often been told her smile could sometimes look a little . . . demented. “Your concern does you credit, Inspector. I assure you I shall endure whatever it is you wish me to see.” She could do without seeing a dead body, particularly a bloody one, but if these men could look at it dispassionately then damn it, so could she. It wasn’t as though it was her first corpse.
Inspector Grant’s face was a resigned shade of pale beneath his muttonchops and heavy mustache. He nodded in acquiescence. “Pull back the sheet please, Mr. Fence.”
An ashen-faced youth swallowed hard and bent down to do as he was instructed. Arden’s confidence in being able to escape the viewing with the contents of her stomach intact diminished slightly.
The sheet—stained and wet with so much blood it was almost black in spots—pulled back with the resistance of the rind of an orange reluctant to leave the flesh beneath, to reveal the head of a pretty young woman wearing pearl earrings. Her neck was long, decorated with a matching pearl necklace, but beyond that . . . a pile of raw meat. Arden stared for a moment, her eyes not quite able to make her brain see reality. Finally, after a few moments—and a rather inspired bout of gagging from young Mr. Fence—she saw the scene for what it was.
Someone, or something, had torn this precious little girl apart. Her pale blue eyes were wide open, as was her Cupid’s bow mouth. Her flawless skin, the pale robin’s-egg waxy color of death, was dotted with freckles of blood. She was not a factory worker—a pair of fine silk gloves lay not far from her body. Nor was she a member of the demimonde, for she was far too fresh and sweet looking, and not nearly as fashionable. Her demure, ruined gown cost more than what the retching Mr. Fence probably made in a month.
She was a member of the upper classes, quite possibly of noble birth.
Mindful of her skirts, she lifted them as she moved around the clotted puddle to stand at the girl’s head. She squatted down, tugging off her right glove so her fingers could touch the porcelain coolness of a stiff, delicate wrist. The girl had been dead for several hours—long enough for her body to lose all warmth and become fairly rigid.
A thin bruise spread like a stain beneath Arden’s fingers. She glanced up at Inspector Grant. The older man was the only one of the three who didn’t look ill. He was too experienced, too little shocked by humanity’s capacity for violence to be sickened by it anymore. Instead, he looked resigned. And worried. A murdered debutante meant trouble on so many levels for a man in his position.
“She was bound?” she inquired, swallowing against the rolling of her own stomach.
Grant nodded, his shrewd gaze resting on the ravaged girl. “Most likely the bugger—pardon my French, my lady—brought the poor gel here by force.”
It was possible, she supposed, but this bruise was purple and slightly yellow, not the usual raw red that one would expect if she had been recently restrained. This bruising was older and could have many causes.
The inspector jerked his head toward the entrance. “Fence, Brown, make use of yourself elsewhere.” He watched as the two relieved young men walked away before navigating around the corpse to squat beside her. “Do you think you might . . . be able to use your apparatus on her?”
That was often why she was brought to such scenes. And dear Grant was always so considerate to never take her compliance as a certainty. It was her father who had come up with the general principals of the mechanism prior to his death, and Arden who completed the device. If he hadn’t left so many unfinished projects, who knew what might have become of her? Mourning him and missing Huntley, she might have done something rash, especially without her mother to turn to, but instead she turned to cogs and gears and the reassuring hum of steam engines. Loss had given her more purpose than she’d ever wanted before.
“I will try,” she told him, as she had every other time he asked. She rested the bottom of her carpetbag on her bent knees and pulled the mouth of it wide open. She didn’t have to rummage through a muddle of automata and tools as her father always had, because she had outfitted the case with internal straps and pockets to hold each and every item. She barely had to look in at all to find what she wanted—two pairs of specially augmented goggles, connected by coils of wires.
“Inspector, if you would be so kind?”
Grant’s gaze jerked up from the mechanism. “Of course.” He took the bag from her lap and placed it to his left, as far from the carnage as his reach allowed. “Explain to me again how these Aetheric Reminiscent Oscillation Goggles work.”
Despite the smell and horrific visage before her, Arden smiled slightly as she placed the more ornate pair of goggles over the girl’s open eyes. She had begun using the device two years ago and the inspector had yet to refer to it by the correct name. “Aetheric Remnant Oscillatory Transmutative Spectacles,” she corrected. “You could use the acronym A.R.O.T.S if you prefer.”
He shook his head. “I’d rather not use the term ‘rot’ in any capacity given the circumstances, my lady—with all due respect.”
Arden glanced at the girl’s decimated torso and the decay that had already begun, as she carefully placed the small metal prongs of the headgear on the appropriate spots on the poor thing’s skull. “Indeed. You are familiar, of course, with Aether?”
“Of course,” he sounded vaguely affronted that she had to ask. “It’s the Breath of God.”
As a woman whose religion was more science than spirituality, it took considerable restraint for Arden not to argue with the inspector. However, she was not one to besmirch another’s beliefs, no matter how ill-informed she believed them to be. “The energy of every living creature, yes,” she said. “Some believe it to be the soul, while science argues that it is the result of an electrochemical process in living tissue that lingers even after we shuck our mortal coil.”
Grant sniffed. “Sounds a bit far-fetched to me.”
But the “Breath of God” did not? A god who took her husband away from her? Who killed her father and made her mother . . . what she was? If it was the breath of such a creature that gave the engine of her heart fire then she would rather suffocate on a cold hearth. For every religious zealot there was another who decreed the Aether as the playground of the Devil himself.
“Regardless,” she continued through a clenched jaw, “there is no dispute that sometimes this energy lingers—around a body, or in a place where the person met their end. These goggles allow me to see the last things this young lady saw by utilizing that very energy.” The dark lenses over the sightless eyes of the girl would prevent any light or new images from penetrating once the prongs stimulated the appropriate areas of her brain, essentially restoring them to life for a short period. Once engaged, the optical response would parlay those images to Arden’s own goggles, where she would view the experience as though it were her own.
“Bloody amazing,” Grant allowed. Then, with fresh pink suffusing his cheeks, “Beg your pardon, my lady.”
Arden waved his concern away with a flick of her wrist. Then, something caught her eye. She frowned. “Inspector, did Hammond or your men rearrange her clothing?”
“No, ma’am. She’s exactly as she was found.”
Frowning, she leaned closer, and using the ear wire of the goggles in her hand, lifted the edge of torn gown. A small, bare breast, smeared with crimson, lay beneath. Elsewhere the fabric molded to the gore-soaked area, but not here.
“He took care to cover her,” she murmured.
The inspector nodded, seemingly unimpressed by her keen detection. “I reckon the monster knew her.”
Arden settled back on her heels. Her knees were beginning to ache from squatting so long. “Let’s see if she knew him as well, shall we?” She wiped the ear wire with her handkerchief before placing the second pair of goggles on her own face. With them on she was practically blind, and would remain so until the image transfer began.
Then she would see things she would later regret seeing.
She wound the key protruding from the side of the small control box attached by even more wires to both sets of eye gear. The simple engine inside, attuned as it was to Aetheric energy—a vast resource Arden believed could rival steam and even the new wonder of electricity—whirred to life, sending a charge to the dead girl’s mind.
Fuzzy images began to swirl before her eyes, dim and out of focus. She adjusted dials on either side of her goggles, making the images a little clearer. Sometimes, depending on how long the subject had been dead, she had to use all the lenses and settings she had to work with, and even then sometimes she only got a grainy, half-formed image.
She was not to be so fortunate that evening. She had barely slipped the secondary lenses into place when everything came together in razor-sharp clarity.
The girl was running through the aisles of this very factory, the world jostled around her as a man in evening clothes chased her. She saw only his shoulder and part of his side, not his face, but she didn’t appear to be running for her life, but with the lazy gait of a girl wishing to be caught. And catch her he did, turning her in his arms. A man’s torso came into view—neither too broad nor too thin. His cravat was perfectly tied, decorated with an onyx pin in the shape of a horseshoe.
Arden’s heart quickened, as it often did in these macabre situations. Everything was so keen, and sharp. If she could find a way to determine the emotional state and auditory memory as well, it truly would be an immersive experience.
The girl’s arms reached for the man, whose face remained maddeningly out of sight. Slowly, her gaze lifted, past the cravat pin, to the throat and jaw of the man wearing it, then the mouth.
“Just a little further,” Arden whispered as her heart pounded hard against her ribs. “Come on, dearest. Just a little more.”
The world seemed to jump in front of her eyes. Her gaze dropped from the man to the space between their bodies.
Arden cried out.
Her chest was ripped open.
“Lady Huntley!” It was Grant. She could feel his warm hand on her arm. “My lady, are you all right?”
She shook her head, afraid that she would indeed vomit if she opened her mouth. Her hands clutched at the spectacles, and she wanted nothing more than to rip them off her face, but she held on until the images before her faded to blackness, signaling the girl’s death. Only when she was certain there was nothing more to see did she remove the apparatus from her own head.
“My dear lady,” Grant began, staring at her with wide eyes. “You look . . .”
“Like hell,” Arden supplied, smiling at his surprise. Just as quickly her mirth vanished. “He ripped her open while she was alive. She felt it. Saw it.”
The inspector turned his gaze toward the dead girl just as Arden did. He reached out and stroked the girl’s hair, as a father might. “Poor thing.”
“Indeed,” Arden muttered, attempting to pull herself together. She raised the back of her hand to her nose and took a deep, calming breath. The bergamot she’d dabbed on her glove lessened the scent of death, reminded her of happier things.
“I didn’t see his face, unfortunately. All I can tell you is that he wore expensive clothes and had an onyx cravat pin in the shape of a horseshoe.” She sighed. “She knew him. They were lovers. If those marks on her wrists were made by him, they were done so with her consent, and before this rendezvous.”
Inspector Grant went pale beneath the dark of his whiskers. “Knew him, you say?”
Arden met his gaze evenly, her typical tight rein over her emotions returning. “Yes. You are not wrong to be alarmed, Inspector. I’m fairly certain your madman is an aristocrat as well.”
The inspector swore beneath his breath, and this time he did not apologize for his language. Arden didn’t blame him. She’d curse as well, for the inspector’s chances of catching this monster just dropped considerably, never mind the odds of actually bringing him to justice.
“If she’d only looked at him I might be able to identify him,” she mused ruefully.
Grant shook his head and patted her shoulder one last time before he remembered his station and removed his hand. “Do not fault yourself, my lady. You have been of enormous assistance already.”
As Arden removed the spectacles from the girl and used her palm to close her eyes, she didn’t feel as though she’d been of much use at all. She quickly ran through the images in her mind once more. “He was older. Not elderly, but not a boy—perhaps in his late twenties or thirties.”
The inspector wrote this down in his little leather-bound notebook.
“And, Inspector Grant?” When he looked up from his writing she said softly, “You should request Dr. Stone examine the body.”
A soft flush flooded the lawman’s face. The poor thing really had no idea how to handle such situations. He had more modesty than a fourteen-year-old girl. “I see.”
Dr. Evelyn Stone was generally employed by Scotland Yard when a female victim had been molested in some way, but her talents were more extensively employed by the Wardens. The brilliant young woman had machines and formulas for making identifications and finding insights into crimes that baffled and impressed the agency to no end.
“She may find something that will aid in our investigation.”
Inspector Grant’s head snapped up. “Our investigation, my lady?”
Arden’s lips twisted into a grim smile. “You’re going to require my ongoing assistance with this one, sir. I travel in the same circles as our killer, and can therefore go where you cannot.”
“Lady Huntley, I cannot allow you to put yourself in harm’s way.” He was clearly flustered. “To include you so thoroughly in a Yard investigation would be grossly unfair, not to mention ungentlemanly of me.”
Not to mention it was terribly gauche of her—a lady—to engage in such horrid pursuits. No doubt that had much to do with her desire to do it.
“You, my dear friend, cannot prevent it,” she informed him with a touch of warmth to her determined tone. She rose easily to her feet. “Now, do be a good boy and accept that you are powerless in this instance, and escort me back to my carriage.”
Being the considerate gentleman he was, Inspector Grant could not refuse a lady’s request—especially not the request of such a high-ranking lady as a countess. He also stood and offered her his arm, which she took with a faint smile on her lips.
Arden was all too happy to leave the awful vision of that poor girl behind, but she knew the memory of the sight, as well as what the girl had seen, would linger for at least a fortnight until she managed to put them away with all the other awful things she’d ever seen and buried. Or drowned.
Each peeler she passed tipped his hat and bid her a good evening. The transport team was there to collect the body, and the “cleaners” had arrived to ensure all evidence was collected and every trace of the crime erased. It was standard protocol when the details of a crime were to be kept undisclosed, and since the young woman obviously was of good birth, they had been brought in to save the family from being dragged through more unpleasant scandal than necessary.
Such precautions also kept the jackals of the press from plastering the tragedy all over the pages of the papers and sending the country into a paranoid tizzy that another Jack the Ripper was on the loose. They’d learned their lesson with that particular nasty piece of work.
“You have my gratitude for coming here tonight, my lady,” Inspector Grant spoke, as he opened the door of her carriage. Two metal steps flipped down.
Arden turned to him, one foot on the bottom step. “That’s very lovely of you to say, Inspector, thank you.” It wasn’t as though she had a choice—it was her duty. Even though she did not answer to Scotland Yard, she reported to the Wardens—an organization higher up the clandestine ladder—and they would expect her to do all she could to aid in the apprehension of this monster.
Grant nodded, and closed the door once she was inside the vehicle. The driver started up the steam engine, and within moments the carriage jerked into motion, the comforting chug filling the interior.
Arden leaned back against the cushioned seat, a wave of weariness washing over her. She was just about to close her eyes when the dirigible made another pass overhead, illuminating the factory yard. Something—someone—on the roof of the factory made her sit bolt upright.
The factory was only two floors, so the distance to the roof wasn’t that far, but when she looked up she swore her eyes were wrong, that they were deceiving her.
The man on the roof was dressed in black, so she couldn’t tell if he had blood on him or not, and he dove out of sight when the bright light washed over him. However his clothing wasn’t what caught her attention, but his face. A face she knew as well as her own. A face she had once traced every inch of with her fingers, kissed with her lips.
It was the face of her husband.
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