The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway (The St. Croix Chronicles)

BOOK: The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway (The St. Croix Chronicles)
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The Mysterious Case of Mr. Strangeway
By Karina Cooper

A
St.
Croix Chronicles novella

Although I have only been part of Society for two years, I am already desperate to escape its confines and eager for adventure. The world my deceased parents have left me is nothing more than a gilded prison, and I will do anything to escape the boredom, even become a collector of bounties.

My name is Cherry St. Croix, and I may be young, but I am old enough to know when I am in over my head. My first collection seemed easy: Mr. Strangeway’s debts have come due, and the purse for his capture is hefty. Yet the wastrel remains one step ahead of me, and my efforts are hampered by another collector after the same coin. What’s more, a simple hunt becomes the forefront of a conspiracy that leads me on a chase through London’s low-class streets.

Not only does my pride demand success, but the well-being of many rests upon the choices I make—failure is not an outcome I can live with.

29,000 words

Dear Reader,

I feel as though every month I start my letter the same, gushing over our month of releases and telling you how amazing and fantastic they are. This month, I’m going to change things up and start by telling you that they’re all quite awful. Okay, not really. Poor authors, I wonder how many of them reading this just had a mini heart attack? Of course you should be excited about this lineup of releases, because it’s another wonderful and diverse month.

In the new-and-unique category, this month we have our first ever decide-your-own-erotic-adventure. Christine d’Abo’s
Choose Your Shot
is an interactive erotic adventure that not only lets the reader choose who the heroine ends up with, but what kinky fun the characters get up to along the way.

We’re thrilled to welcome Karina Cooper to Carina Press. She’s moving her steampunk series, The St. Croix Chronicles, to Carina Press—starting with a prequel novella,
The Mysterious Case of Mr.
Strangeway
, in which a young Cherry St. Croix takes on her first bounty, only to find her efforts challenged by a collector whose motives run deeper than a hefty purse. Look for book three in The St. Croix Chronicles,
Corroded
, releasing in September 2013.

We have a strong lineup of contemporary romances this month. Fiona Lowe returns with her next Wedding Fever book,
Picture Perfect Wedding.
Tamara Morgan brings us
The Derby Girl
, in which a roller-derby girl lives up to her “bad girl” image to woo an unattainable plastic surgeon, only to discover that he’s the one man trained to see past the surface. In the humorous contemporary romance category, Stacy Gail’s
Ugly Ducklings Finish First
will be a hit with fans of high-school reunion romances, and with those who like their romance on the more lighthearted side.

I’m also thrilled to welcome
three
debut authors to Carina Press this month, all with contemporary romances. In Kelsey Browning’s
Personal Assets
, book one of the Texas Nights series, a recovering good girl needs the right man to help her find her inner bad girl—which is easier said than done in a small Texas town. Next, when the bank refuses Emma the loan she needs to save her family home, she must turn to her neighbor Mitch McKenna, a sexy real-estate investor whose reputation she’s spent the past six months pulverizing into sand, in
Unexpectedly You
by Lily Santana. And last, but certainly not least,
Knowing the Score
by Kat Latham features a smokin’ hot rugby player with a scandalous past who gives up his vow of celibacy to help a virgin overcome her fear of intimacy. Three debut authors offer up three terrific contemporary romance novels—make sure to give them each a try!

This month we also have three fantastic male/male romances. Kim Knox kicks off a fun-filled science-fiction historical trilogy. As described by the author,
Agamemnon Frost and the House of Death
is
Sherlock Holmes
meets
The Scarlet Pimpernel.
With aliens. Check out further Agamemnon Frost stories in September and October 2013.

John Tristan joins Carina Press with his male/male fantasy romance,
The Adorned.
A beautiful young man indentures himself to a tattooist and becomes a living canvas for the artist and his inhuman patrons. And for those who like their male/male romance in the contemporary genre, Libby Drew’s
Bending the Iron
is sure to hit the mark as she builds a brand for emotional, wonderful male/male romance.

Following book one of her Magick Trilogy,
Magick by Moonrise
, Laura Navarre takes us back into her historical paranormal world. When the Angel of Death falls in love with life, will a secret Tudor princess pay the ultimate price? Tudor England and the celestial realm collide in
Midsummer Magick.

Last,
Love Letters Volume 4:
Travel to Temptation
continues the collection of
A
to
Z
erotic short-story romances penned by Ginny Glass, Christina Thacher, Emily Cale and Maggie Wells. Volumes 1 through 3 are now available. Look for volumes 5 and 6,
Exposed
and
Cowboy’s Command
, on sale in September and October 2013.

As always, we have a significant backlist of books that I hope you’ll browse and take a look at, in genres from horror to mystery to fantasy to female/female and across the ranges of romance. There’s an adventure waiting for every reader!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to
[email protected]
. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com
www.twitter.com/carinapress
www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

For the estimable Steampunk Boba Fett and
Captain Anthony LaGrange. May your adventures
be wild, your victories plentiful, and your loves well-satisfied. Thank you for humoring a humble fan.

Chapter One

As far as anyone else were to tell the tale, London’s only known female collector enjoyed an extremely high ratio of success. Rumor suggested that she had been born lucky; that once she set her sights upon a collection, it was as good as hers. That she had never failed in her five years collecting and could not be thwarted.

This is not entirely accurate. For that matter, that the rumors are not accurate is not entirely a secret. The truth is known, but of the four souls who know it, there are only two left in London to speak it, and I am one.

I shall share it with you now.

This is an adventure whose greatest experiences came not from the end result but the journey taken to achieve it. The tale begins, as all things I engage in seem to, with a collection notice.

It was no simple scrap of soot-smudged paper, though nothing about its torn edges or coal-smeared grain stood out from the others pinned beside it on crumbling brick facing. Written in a thick, blocky hand, its letters were easy to read in the lamplit dark of the collectors’ station. The notice, like all the others, asked a boon, and promised a reward.

My name is Cherry St. Croix, and it was here in this abandoned station that I became a collector.

I was fifteen years of age, and this was, as I recall, a difficult time for me. Born into the legacy of Mad St. Croix—the genius doctor touched by more than a hint of madness—and his beautiful Society wife, orphaned by a terrible accident, and taken in by overworked institution caretakers, it was no wonder that I suffered an unavoidable drift into the interminably unknown. Who I was, who I ought to have been, all of these things lost in a dollop of Godfrey’s Cordial—a dollop given too often for the safety of the orphans or the innocence of their growing wits. Within a year of my parents’ demise, I was content with treats of opium and treacle, and purchased from jaded caregivers by a tall, thin man with an impossibly curled mustache.

Monsieur Marceaux had no patience for the watering down of rewards. From him, if we worked hard enough and fast enough, we children earned opium direct. I do not recall what age I was when I first learned to smoke the bliss found in a pipe, but surely I’d done so before I ever tasted a drop of brandy or my first cup of Turkish coffee. It is this that shrouds much of my memory in his employ, and makes it difficult to remember more than the occasional detail—as if I dreamed it all.

At thirteen, I was found in Monsieur Marceaux’s Traveling Curiosity Show, and subsequently plucked from the criminal enterprises the good monsieur taught all his carnival children. Mr. Oliver Ashmore—my father’s executor and now my legal guardian—had me committed to a large house in London’s Chelsea district, terrorized me right properly into a semblance of good behavior, then departed for foreign parts unknown.

Though he sent back packages and items found in his journeys—lacquered tables from China, ivory from Africa, and other such treasures—I had not seen the man since, and could not recall what he looked like but for an impression of demonic authority.

So I remained trapped in the Cheyne Walk house with a governess, a maid, a housekeeper and her husband, who was the house’s butler. I was forced to endure day after day of tutelage, of terrors brought by the strain of new environs and the loss of Monsieur Marceaux’s opium concoctions.

After two years of effort and no small amount of patience on the part of my staff, I’d at least come to a kind of understanding with my new station as young heiress to the St. Croix estate. I would not inherit until I turned twenty-one of age, and at fifteen, this seemed a lifetime of binding structure and boring rules.

Do this
,
do not do that.
Smile
,
always smile
,
and be demure.

Don’t fuss at that.

We mustn’t speak of our time committing petty thievery
.

Not least of my concerns, there was only a pittance of a stipend that would not allow me to purchase for myself the things I found interesting.

It was not to any adult’s credit that a dissatisfied girl of fifteen overheard a small knot of gentlemen discussing collector’s business at an autumnal luncheon, and it certainly would not have been to my governess’s credit if Society learned that the girl had decided to see the truth for herself.

On that cold October evening, when Mrs. Fortescue—stern-faced Fanny, who would not allow me any of my simple pleasures—thought me abed like a good child, I crept through the house, avoided the sitting room where I knew she saw to her needlework, and made good my escape.

Through some of my pocket money—to be spent on pretty ribbons and other such frippery nonsense—I was able to secure purchase on a sky ferry, whose aether engines pinged and clanked as if the very bolts would come undone. This was, you must understand, before my regular commission with Captain Abercott of the
Scarlet Philosopher
.

The thrill of my first adventure gave me wings. I dressed as a boy, utilizing clothing I had stolen from Booth. My butler was too tall for my diminutive stature, but I rolled the trousers and tucked in the shirt, hiding my face and deeply red hair between low hat and lifted collar.

My hair only swept my shoulders, much too short for fashion’s demands, and no amount of pins would tame the curly froth it had grown into. Under Monsieur Marceaux’s employ, it had been short as a boy’s and often grimy when I was not forced to bathe for an act. Two years of care had allowed it to spring forth into a frizzy red halo, much to my governess’s dismay. At any given moment, the stubborn curls would shed pins like hounds shed fur.

I thought it hysterical.

Looking back now, I am aware how utterly ridiculous I must have appeared—a too-clean waif in borrowed clothing, on her way to some great adventure in the fog-choked streets of London below the drift.

Yet I was a cunning child, taught to be so by the carnival master of the traveling show, and it was not long before I’d rubbed the dirt from the street on my cheeks and hands. The dark coat concealed much of my shape, easier to do so without the shaping corset I refused to wear. Not unless Betsy, my maid and closest to my age, all but forced the hellish device upon me.

I followed faithfully the directions I’d heard at that endless, boring affair, yet it took me two hours to find the abandoned railway station. The resonant bells of the Westminster clock tolled the time as I trudged through the biting cold and the damp.

That I arrived unscathed to the dark recesses of the station still fills me with a kind of disbelief—a quiet certainty that only the thinnest shred of luck kept my naïve younger self safe. Well, that and the undeniable fact that I looked the part of a boy, albeit one who nicked the clothes he swaggered in.

Whatever landlord kept the railway station, he did not see it in his best interest to decorate. Once lit by lanterns and kept warm by furnace, now it lay abandoned to the vagaries of time and neglect. When the railway moved, so too did the custom that kept the station lit and clean. Now, it was only dimly alight, two lanterns affixed on either side of the long, empty room. The fog dripped through the boarded windows in to the quiet, still space, seeping to the ground like a shroud of scratchy, tangled cotton. It roiled and tumbled about my feet as I strode inside, completely unthinking of the dangers that could wait within.

After all, only collectors would dare brave the wall. I was, in my mind, already one of them.

I cleared my throat harshly, the scratchy remnants of the coal-ridden smoke turning my breathing to something prickly and uncomfortable. This was before I’d developed the rebreather I sported later, so I tended to sound more like an angry bullfrog than aught else.

Fortunately, there was no one to take note of the slight figure in the shadows between the flickering, stretching fingers of the lamplight. The only feature was the collection wall, tucked into the back, its brick facing crumbling even then with time and wear.

Bits of paper fluttered in a draft I couldn’t feel, and the fog clung to my knees and ankles like damp hands searching for a bit of warmth to steal.

After my first visit, I would always have a care to take a lantern, but I hadn’t considered that such a place would not be well-lit or, oh, maintained by a vault-keeper or some such. With no forethought, I hadn’t brought anything more than the clothes on my back.

Mind, I was not going to turn away for lack of clear light. I squinted at the scrawled notes, leaning close to make out the lettering. Most were written in different hands, but some were similar enough in style as to warrant a second look. The purses they offered ranged from the modest to what I considered—in my very worldly experience—to be quite obscene.

The former called for items lost to be found and returned. Or for the whereabouts of items difficult to purchase. The latter seemed to rely heavily on the delivery status of a named individual—usually demanded dead or alive. Those whose requests were made on condition of assassination came with stated bounties the likes of which could make a poor kinchin’s eyes pop, but not mine.

I flinched at the thought of committing murder for coin. Although I was no stranger to the sinister themes of a soul—I had, after all, filched my share of pockets and seen my share of dark dealings between desperate men—I was not so wretched that I needed to consider ending a life for the sake of a purse.

All I wanted was coin. There were things I wanted—needed—to acquire for myself, and I wanted to do so in a way that would earn no questions from my governess, no scrutiny from the hawkish eyes above the drift.

And most certainly without the kind of scarring that comes from killing a man.

Fifteen years of age I might have been, but I had not waded through my formative years blind. I may not remember now all those details that must have conspired to shape me, but I knew enough. Whether framed in memories that can be retold or branded into the soul by lessons learned and never dared forgotten, experience can be an ugly tutor. No child grows up in a traveling troupe who does not learn of cold nights and hungry hours, and I was not a slow learner.

I did not escape Monsieur Marceaux’s auction tables by being simple.

I ignored those notes that called for assassination—few in number they were, and one with a slash down the middle as if hastily pinned and left to flutter. I saw requests to find a book, rare in nature, and another to locate lost kin. Many were the calls for the return of a debt, or the body owing it.

And three seeking the return of missing girls from indentured servitude, twelve to sixteen of age.

I, who had spent too long working hard to avoid being considered “one of them girls,” had no interest in these. If some indentured servant or daughter of the same had escaped, if even a few had found their fortune elsewhere, I wished them nothing but success.

I rifled through a few more—more debts owed, more beatings to administer—and found one whose purse made my eyes round and my mouth shape into a silent “O” of surprise.

The quarry: a Mr. J. F. Strangeway, who made his home in my own Chelsea district, wanted for right of debts transferred to a new holder and called in. That meant someone’s debts garnered at the gaming tables or in business transactions had been traded—for wealth or favor—to another. A Mr. Chattersham, of an address somewhere in Spitalfields, was declared the man with the purse—presumably, the man now holding the debts.

Strangeway would be the man who owed them. And given the notice called for the man turned in dead or alive, the heft of those debts must be enormous.

The name seemed to trigger a memory, but I couldn’t place just where. If he lived above the drift, that made him a toff, and likely would put him in a circle of acquaintances that could recognize me.

On the other hand, Chelsea was not the fashionable abode it had been in my mother’s time. After London proper had been raised upon its hydraulic lifts, the district had enjoyed a period of fashionable adoration. Yet what had once been a select district, the very image of intellectual pursuit and modish company, had now turned to bohemians, artists and wastrels.

That I lived there was testament enough.

It was possible that this Mr. Strangeway fell under the heading of wastrel, artist or worse.

I moved aside a second bounty—this asking the return of one Bewdy for questioning as to the nature of a missing item of value from a semi-respectable pocket—and nodded at the covered text revealed by the scrap.

Avoid the toffs
, warned the continued bounty’s note. Not unsound advice. Those in Society protected their own, until they turned on one as a matter of course.
Strangeway likes the stews.

It was not an annotation referencing a dish of any sort.

Though I had never been there, everyone knew of the stews. Whether seeking a lady for an hour’s toss or a game of cards and coin, the stews was where a wastrel would go for whatever entertainments he might desire.

Ergo, I thought rather cheerfully, our Mr. Strangeway was a wastrel.

What’s more, I could visit the stews myself and locate this man. An exciting prospect. He would be an easy mark for my first collection, and the purse large enough to cement my reputation forever without resorting to assassination.

To say nothing of the items I could purchase with such coin. I’d been meaning to acquire some back issues from
Angelicus Finch’s Gazette
, whose sources I could not locate myself. I’d seen a set of clear glass tubes in the window of a Chelsea shop, though Fanny wouldn’t let me stop inside. And there were books my father’s study did not already own—books written only recently, pamphlets, academic dissertations whose mention was made in the periodicals.

I was a voracious reader, after learning the refinement of letters I’d only marginally grasped as a child, and I was insatiable, to boot.

Of course, there was also the matter of the laudanum I took to sleep at night.

Betsy was to be strictly monitoring how much I drank in the course of a night, yet she often forgot, and I did not always think beyond the fevers and night terrors when they struck.

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