Read Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series) Online

Authors: Christine D'Abo

Tags: #Fiction / Romance - Erotica, #Fiction / Romance - Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Science Fiction, #Fiction / Science Fiction - Steampunk

Gilded Hearts (The Shadow Guild Series) (2 page)

Samuel waved his men away, and all but Timmons scurried back to the shelter of the clockwerk factory. The weight of their emotions lifted enough to help Samuel focus.

Coiled hate… it was the only description he had for the emotions emanating from Ryerson. The tendrils licked out at Samuel, courting his repressed anger, luring it out to the surface. He’d learned to deal with this years ago, keeping the impact of others’ emotions at bay. And yet here he stood, hands shaking and jaw clenched as Ryerson’s white gaze flicked up and away repeatedly.
Goddammit, no.

Piper eased down to her knees beside the frozen body. She freed herself from the weighted box, setting it on the ground to her left. With a brief look at Ryerson, she set to work straightening the body.

“Set the extractor beside the body close to you and get her in position,” the Guild Master snapped. Piper hesitated, her fingers wrapping around the straps. “Quickly, Miss Smith.”

“Let me help.” Falling to his knees beside her, Samuel stretched out the dead woman’s limbs and pushed aside the tattered remains of her shirt. “You need the chest exposed, yes?”

Piper nodded, a quick grin curling her lips for a moment before disappearing. Her hands shook as she fiddled with the straps of the machine, shifting the box close to the body. “And flat on her back, if possible.”

Samuel bullied the corpse into the requested pose. He leaned against the body’s shoulders, shivering as the cold seeped into his hands. The body protested the change in position, but eventually stayed where he wanted it to.

“Make sure she’s flat. Push the organs back in if you need to, sergeant.” Ryerson couldn’t even bother to keep the disdain from his tone.

Samuel should have moved away then and rejoined his men. Instead, he rubbed his hands along the tops of his thighs and waited. Timmons frowned, but Samuel waved him off. There was no sense in both of them being face to face with the horrors to come. Not that Timmons listened. Stubborn bastard stayed put.

Piper cocked an eyebrow at him before turning her attention to the machine. The lid was locked, the key on a chain around her neck. He knew the metal would be warm when she pulled it from between her breasts. Unable to tear his gaze away, he watched as she did just that and leaned forward to release the lock. The hinges were silent as she carefully pushed the lid back, exposing the guts of the box.

This could have been his life.

Nothing but wires and bodies, stretching on forever and ever. Not that he’d remember any of the encounters. They’d take even the most basic of experiences from him, the sole purpose of being an archivist. Madness or memories—not much of a choice.

Piper pressed one of the leads into a small suction cup, then dipped the cup into a foul-smelling liquid kept in a pot she’d also brought with her. With the cups, she mapped out a path across the victim’s chest, securing each one to the dead flesh. The stomach and chest had been slashed, but enough skin and bone remained where it was needed to make the necessary connections. Samuel watched in morbid fascination as she repeated this action—one to each temple, across the jugular, over the left eye and several spots around the neck and torso where the killer hadn’t sliced. The free ends of the wires were then wrapped around contacts on the box. The moment Piper completed each circuit, a small light engaged on the control board. Soon, red, blue, and amber lights cast sparkling patterns up into the night.

Piper double checked her placements, muttering. “Base, solar plexus, heart, crown…”

“Check the ninth.” Ryerson stepped closer, nodding as she made the adjustment. “That’s good, child.”

Samuel watched as the old man pulled a large glass cathode from his inside coat pocket. It looked like a thin glass vial, but Samuel knew it was more than that. It had to be, considering what they were about to cram into it.

“You know what to do next,” the old man said with pride.

Piper full-out grinned and the sight took Samuel’s breath away even at such an inappropriate moment. She was no longer an impulsive child or even the crying girl he’d left behind. No, she’d matured into a woman of twenty-one years of age, one who possessed the knowledge and confidence to face the darkness of her trade.

She took the cathode with sure fingers. The glass slipped easily into the slot made specifically for the container. Several of the men shuffled behind him, but he was too engaged watching Piper to care if they were trying to get closer or run away.

Piper put on a pair of goggles and pressed the final wire into a small notch in the frame. The lenses were blackened so it would be impossible to see the images that would be shown to her through them. Not that Samuel had any desire to witness such horrors.

“Sergeant, you might wish to move back a bit,” she said in a hushed voice. “I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Please. You’re here, I’m here,” he muttered. This was old ground for them. An argument that had a much different outcome the last time they had it. “Continue, Miss Smith.”

Samuel wasn’t sure if she sighed, or if it was a trick of the wind, but Piper leaned forward and pressed a small button along the top of the circuit board. He counted three heartbeats before the quiet of their surroundings erupted into chaos.

Piper gasped, back arching like a current was going through her. It took every bit of his self-control to stop from reaching out and holding her tight. Instead he watched as the corpse also jumped, mimicking her with a ghoulish gasp.

Then it began to speak.

“HolyGodwhat’shappeningtomepleasedon’tithurts.” The corpse’s voice lacked emotion or syntax. Simply one long mess of words, pulled from memory by the archivists’ bloody machine.

“Workstoomanyhours. Beautifulskinshitwanttofuckyou. PleaseMumcanIgoandplaynow.”

Somewhere along the way, Piper began to say the words half a beat behind the reanimated corpse. Samuel ignored it, watching the lower half of Piper’s face twist with emotions that weren’t hers. What feeling the corpse lacked, she more than made up for.

“IhatethatbastardsomuchIwanttokillhim.”

“I hate that bastard… soooo much I want to kill him.”

Ryerson stood over her shoulder, watching but doing nothing to stop her from twisting and turning, and scratching at her hair. The cathode in the box glowed red. As it filled with the too-bright liquid, the corpse began to lose its voice. Piper continued the litany, speaking words of the dead.

“I don’t like the dark. Why the hell am I here? Mum’s solstice pudding makes me sick, but that’s because she puts too much rum in it. If he’s not careful, they’re going to find out and then everything will go to shit.”

Time ticked on for God only knew how long, as she spewed forth string after string of information in no semblance of order. Finally, she let loose a long shuddering sigh. Her body slumped forward, as if someone had pulled a lever and shut off the steam. He barely had time to react, catching her before she landed across the bloody body.

“Are you all right?” He chanced a quick press of his lips to the shell of her ear, memorizing the smell and taste of her before setting her right.

Piper’s hands shook as she pulled the goggles from her face. “Not exactly what I was expecting.” Tears now streaked her cheeks as she stared at him wide-eyed. They were still brown in color.

Thank God.

And yet…

“Sam, you’re crying.” She reached out to touch him, but stopped herself short as someone cleared his throat.

Sam brushed away the wet trail and pulled back to glance at his damp fingertips. Strange, he hadn’t even realized.

“Did you gather all of the data, Miss Smith?”

Samuel jumped, having forgotten that Ryerson stood over them. “Give her a minute to catch her breath.”

“She knows her duty, even if you do not.” The words were bitten off, sharp and painful.

“I am well aware of my duty. I serve as a bastion of the law.” Samuel spat the words, no longer caring if everyone saw his disdain. “My life to protect and serve the citizens of New London.”

“I have no doubt you’ll betray them too. Run away when they need you most.”

The comment stung. “You never needed me.”

Piper cleared her throat. “Master Ryerson, Sergeant Hawkins, I have captured all of the data—”

“Memories, Piper. They’re her memories.” The cold couldn’t chill him as much as her words. With so little effort the archivists had begun to strip away her humanity.

“I’ve collected her
memories
,” she rephrased, but still not sounding like the girl he remembered. “We will review them.” She smiled at him, far from the professional detached manner that all the archivists used. “I’ll let you know if we learn anything that will help catch her killer, sergeant.”

“So it was premeditated murder?” Given the state of the body, he’d been nearly certain.

“I’m not…” She shook her head and snapped her mouth shut. He didn’t need to be able to sense emotions to know Piper was frustrated. She’d always struggled between doing what she wanted and what she knew others expected. “I’ll require the use of the equipment in the Archives to give you a full report, but I believe so.”

“God rest her soul.”

“There is no such thing. We collect only the shadow of who they were.” The old man’s voice was too loud in the silent evening. “I hadn’t realized you believed in that superstition, sergeant. Are you finished yet, Miss Smith?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Come along then. We must return.” Ryerson turned on his heels and strode back to the carriage.

Not wanting it to end like this, Samuel helped Piper lift the machine, giving her room to pull the heavy strap around her neck. “Thank you,” she muttered.

“You’re welcome.” She started to turn away from him, but he caught her by the arm, stopping her. “It’s been far too long.”

Piper looked up, so close he could see the light dusting of freckles across her nose. “Then you shouldn’t have left.”

Sam, please don’t leave me.

“I had no choice. You know that.”

“I know, but—” She cast a quick glance at Ryerson before leaning in and whispering. “I… there’s…”

“What?” He squeezed her arm.

“I shouldn’t say.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “There is a procedure to follow.”

“Since when did you start worrying about proper procedure?”

“Since I turned sixteen and had no choice but to play the part of an adult.”

He was dancing too close with the past, but if there was something he needed to know about the victim, the sooner he uncovered the truth the better. Bending down, so his face was close to hers, Samuel rubbed his nose against her cheek. “Pip, this is me. Please.”

“Damn you.” He felt her shiver before she stepped back, once more meeting his gaze. “I think this murder is connected to the Archives.”

Crying in the dark.

“Sammy, where are you? I’m scared.”

“What? How—”

“She called the killer a zombie.”

“Come now, Miss Smith!”

Piper turned and waved to Ryerson, before giving Samuel one final small smile. “I miss you still, Sam. Even if I think you were wrong to leave.” She strode away without another look back.

He was forced to watch her disappear inside the carriage until the door closed. The mechanical horse roared back to life with a hissing cloud of steam, the sound drowning out the cries of a nearby child.

A killer from the Archives. Dear God.

“Are we ready to take her now, sergeant?” Timmons’ voice was its normal steady self, reminding Samuel that they still had a duty to perform here.

“Yes, let’s finish this up quickly and get inside where it’s warm.”

“You heard the sergeant, boys. Move your arses! I want to be in bed before morning.”

Samuel didn’t need to supervise his men, so he stepped closer to the road to give them room. The lamplight still burned bright and strong, aiding the men in their work. There were no shadows in the spot where Piper had stood. No way for the light to have fooled him into seeing something that wasn’t there.

No way had he imagined the thin rings of white around the center of Piper’s irises.

Chapter Two
 

The moist heat of the surgery caused the prostitute’s body to decompose faster than Samuel cared for. Morning sunlight had lightened the sky by the time they’d been able to move the body back to the Tower, placing it unceremoniously onto the wood and iron table. The coroner had been pleasantly tucked in his bed and informed them in no uncertain terms that the dead were content to wait until dawn, even if Samuel’s investigation couldn’t. So, he’d been forced to drink weak tea and stare out into the bleak gray morning sky until Doctor Harris arrived.

Samuel had done his best to focus on the case, but memories of Piper and the extraction managed to force their way to the front. She’d looked small but strong as she’d carried the infernal archivist’s machine with her. Piper and her lilting voice, whispering to him to help her.

The corridor was damp, the steady clicking of steam rushing through the pipes echoed around him. It was easy to decipher the sound of Piper’s approaching soft footfall, preceded by the feel of her excitement. Samuel’s skin tingled as she got closer—an odd reaction to the girl.

The last thing Samuel wanted was to be seen as some sort of big brother to the little whelp. The first few weeks after she’d plopped down beside him that first time, he’d thought she was trying to build a replacement family like so many of the new recruits did. But Samuel soon realized that Piper had little family to speak of outside these walls. This wasn’t about replacing what she’d lost, but building something new.

“Here again?” Piper huffed before flopping to the ground beside him. “I’m not going to bother looking anywhere else from now on. You’re so borin’”

“I’m surprised you bothered at all.” He still couldn’t understand why she’d chosen to cling to him since her arrival. Samuel wasn’t a part of the inner circle of acolytes, nor would being with him curry her any favor with the Guild Masters.

“You’re the only one who isn’t a bloody wanker.” Her grin revealed a new gap in her teeth. Shit, she really was only a kid.

“Don’t let Master Ryerson hear you say that.” Samuel’s head still stung from where the Guild Master had hit him earlier. “It’s not behavior becoming of an archivist.”

“I don’t wanna be an archivist.” Her pout rolled her lip down low. “I want my mum.”

He hated feeling her sadness, the desperate loneliness that would eventually wear away the brilliant spark of light inside her. Samuel reached out and pinged her bottom lip.

“Hey!”

“You’re gonna trip on that if it gets any lower.”

Piper giggled and snuggled beside him. “I like you, Sam. That’s why I came to find you.”

Shaking himself, Samuel swallowed another sip of tepid tea as the doctor went about his duties, carving up what remained of the body. The fan above them moved slowly, impotent against the rising stink.

The idea of a killer having originated from the Archives didn’t seem plausible. Everyone in the Archives lived and worked so closely together that it was impossible to keep secrets or fake one’s beliefs. The idea that an archivist had been corrupted by memories of a killer or someone who’d been mentally unstable was also unlikely. Procedure and the wiping of the archivist’s memories after an extraction should have prevented such a thing.

None of this made sense.

Doctor Harris moved around to the top of the prostitute’s bloated head and pulled back the eyelids. “She suffered a single blow to the back of her head. Not enough to kill her, but certainly it would have rendered her unconscious, making it easy to overpower her.” Harris wiped his brow with the back of his arm. “I hate this time of year. They can’t regulate the bloody temperature in here.”

They’d turned down the steam heat three times already, but the body was truly thawed and its pungent odor filled the surgery. Samuel had already excused his men from the room, not only because of the stench, but knowing the junior officers’ curiosity would cause more harm than good at this stage of their investigation. The fewer who knew the details at this point, the less likely that information would find its way to the press.

She thought the murderer was from the Archives.

Timmons was, unsurprisingly, the only holdout. He hugged the far wall, holding an old handkerchief to his mouth and nose with his prosthetic hand. Timmons had seen more death and bloodshed than Samuel could ever imagine with his tenure in the Royal Air Fleet. One decaying corpse wasn’t likely to shock him, and there was no one else Samuel trusted more.

Except perhaps Piper.

Don’t leave me, Sam.

“A single cut across the throat was the killing blow. The other slashes and the evisceration happened postmortem. All of the organs appear to be present, and most of the other damage is surface wounds. See, here and here? The killer was intent on disfiguring the corpse.”

Doctor Harris signaled for Samuel and Timmons to help. They rolled the body onto its side. A fresh wave of that rotten smell had Samuel’s stomach rolling. “A very personal attack. Possibly premeditated, though I wouldn’t rule out a crime of passion. I’m not sure the archivists will be able to tell you anything more at this point. I suspect she was attacked from behind.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Samuel kept his voice even. There was still a chance Piper would pull out a nugget of information from the recesses of the woman’s mind, something they could use to send her killer to the bowels of New Tower prison.

“Now what, sir?” Timmons crowded Samuel as they stripped off the elbow-high black leather gloves and aprons, tossing them into the bin to be laundered. “We don’t have much to go on.”

“No, we don’t.” It wouldn’t be an easy task, tracking down the killer of a whore. There’d be no sympathy from the public, and the underground community would only tighten in on itself.

Samuel’s best chance at narrowing down his suspects would be a trip to the Archives to get the information he needed from the source.

A killer from the Archives.

“Not much at all. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.”

“’Course not, sir.” Timmons glared at a small group of Bow Street runners who had the misfortune to stare at Samuel as they passed by. They scurried off in the opposite direction.

Samuel took in the tired but determined look on his friend’s face. They’d been at this far too long, and Samuel still had much to do. “Go home and rest for now.”

“Sam?” Timmons stiffened.

“I will as well. Be back at the precinct in six hours and we’ll start again.”

Timmons held his gaze, nodding slowly. “Very well, sergeant. Seeing as you’ll take your rest, I will as well.”

He hated lying to Timmons, but he wasn’t going to drag his friend further into this if what Piper said was true. Not until he knew what was happening. Once Samuel grabbed his greatcoat from his office, they walked in silence through the Tower corridor and had nearly made their escape when one of the runners called out to him.

“Sir! Message for you.”

“From?”

“Dunno, sir.”

The thin black tube was cold as the boy pressed it into his hand. “Who received it, then?”

“It came through to the central office. Had your name on it.”

The boy didn’t wait for Samuel to pry the cover off before he scurried away. “You terrify them, Timmons.”

“They’re smart lads. Think it has to do with the case?” Timmons took the cover.

“Who knows?”

The moment Samuel slipped the letter from the tube, the stench of decay struck him. Carefully, he unrolled the paper, noting the poor quality and dirt smudged across the surface.

Timmons leaned in. “Dear God, it’s written in blood.”

Samuel nodded, but his attention was already fixed on the words.

Dear Boss,

I keep hearing that the King’s Sentry is on the case. I laughed but have no doubt you’ll do good. I’ve decided that I love my new job and will keep at it. You’ll soon hear more from me and my funny little games. I know how you like to play. I kept some of the red stuff as I thought it would make a nice ink. A bit sticky though.

Good luck!

 

Yours truly,

Jack the Ripper

 

“What kind of name is Jack the Ripper?” Timmons snatched the note from his hands. “Our killer?”

“Possibly. Or it could be nothing more than a madman looking for attention. Pig’s blood, perhaps. Or rat.”

Retrieving the note from Timmons, Samuel tucked it carefully back into the tube and slipped it into his pocket. “I’ll make note in our case records.”

“Certainly.”

They discussed the possible implications of the note until they reached the intake for the iron walk at the corner of Fleet Street. Crowded with early morning travelers, streetwalkers, and gentlemen still too full of drink to manage their way home unassisted, the single-tracked automated walkway known as the irons could prove dangerous. Pickpockets would think nothing of relieving men or women of their money, disappearing into the crowds, and hopping the line to avoid capture.

Hanging on the gate above the irons intake was the logo of the Hudson’s Bay Company—standing stags against the company crest—worn from years of exposure to the sun’s increased radiation. Samuel couldn’t help but read the motto and snort.
A skin for a skin
. Indeed. They’d strip the very soul of humanity if they could, even from across the ocean and the wilds of Canada.

The moving walkways had appeared along various main roads throughout the city over the years. Samuel hadn’t remembered a time when the rickety tracks hadn’t existed, transporting city residents from one place to the next like cattle for the slaughter. Barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side, once a person entered, you weren’t able to escape the high, barbed fences that lined the walkway. It was the perfect place to trap a person if one was so inclined.

Timmons stepped up and crossed his arms. “I’m not paying for this when you have your gadget.”

Samuel laughed. “Cheap bugger.”

“I have to be. Aiko and David spend every penny I pocket before I realize.”

“Is that why you spend so much time with me? Free passage?”

“A man must press his advantages where he can.”

“Even when it’s a crime?”

“I doubt even the king himself would find fault in keeping money from the Company.”

“True.” Samuel pressed a button on his wrist strap and the gate lifted. “Safe passage.”

“Aren’t you coming?” The large man held up another penny between his metal fingers. “If you feel guilty.”

“I’m fine.” He cast another glance at the crest before thumbing in the direction of the road. “Think I’ll walk toward Newgate and take the irons from there. It will save me some time.”

“It’s not safe on the roads this time of day. I can come with you—”

“I’ll be fine.” Samuel patted the revolver tucked neatly in his holster.

Timmons nodded and stepped through the gate as soon as the bar lifted. “Go home, Sam.”

“I will.” Samuel waved, waiting until Timmons disappeared.

He was a lying bastard who would one day rot in hell. If such a place existed.

The crowds began to swell around him as another wave of workers made their way to the irons. If he didn’t move on soon, the press of their emotions would grow, weighing him down until he’d be forced to retreat to his flat to recover.

Tempting as that idea was, Piper needed him. If their killer was in fact connected to the Archives, then everyone within could be in danger. This meant an immediate visit to the Archives.

The mere thought of going back to the place he’d dreamed of escaping every day as a child, to willingly walk into the room and pretend he knew nothing of the vaults beneath the floor, the stacks upon stacks of boxes containing the memory vials of every person who’d lived and died in New London for the past one hundred and twenty-three years… no.

No.

Don’t leave me, Sam.

Fuck.

Walking down Newgate, Samuel stepped onto the next iron walkway, leading him to the Archives.

Piper stood in Master Ryerson’s office and waited. The walls were high, but the circumference of the room was tight and lined with books. The coal fireplace had been stoked, making the room unbearably warm.

She’d made a mistake—she should never have involved Sam.

Her neck and lower back still ached from the strain of carrying the machine. Piper had been so nervous about her first solo memory extraction that she’d forgotten to stretch. She’d been so consumed with worry about losing her memory that the state of her body seemed of less importance. Typical Piper—so fixated on the obvious, she’d ignored the idea that something else was more likely to cause her grief.

Her whole life had been a preparation for that moment, the final step that would make her a fully fledged archivist and cement her status within the hierarchy of the guild. Instead she’d come face to face with the man who’d stolen her heart at the age of six, then abandoned her to a life of darkness and solitude. Her reunion with Samuel was nothing like the way she’d envisioned it over the years. Instead of giving him the cold shoulder, dismissing him the way Master Ryerson had done, or even yelling at him for walking away from her, Piper had been ready to run into his arms and hug him tight. It had only been Master Ryerson’s hand on her arm that had stopped her from acting on that particular impulse.

Other books

Boy Still Missing by John Searles
A Foreign Affair by Evelyn Richardson
Scarlet Butterfly by Sandra Chastain
G'Day USA by Tony McFadden
First You Try Everything by Jane Mccafferty
006 White Water Terror by Carolyn Keene