I am rather a bad procrastinator. Or, rather, I’m good at it. <g> I meant to contact Karina Cooper and tell her how excited I was for the release of Gilded, the 2nd book in her St. Croix Chronicles. I kept thinking I would get to it and I never did. Sooo, last week I sent her a quick little email and because she is completely awesomesauce she sent me an excerpt to post today on her book birthday. 😀
I am giving the first book in this series away. Rafflecopter at the bottom of the post.
The Queen of Tarts
© Karina Cooper 2012
“Now, Zylla, answer me a riddle.”
“Oh, grand.” I ignored the sarcasm of the reply as she perched at the foot of my bed.
“A man has been murdered.”
“A man?” Her eyebrow climbed, an elegant slash of black in her dark tea skin. “Not a West End whore?”
“Them, too,” I allowed, but waved it away with a single swipe of my hand. “For now, let us focus on the man.”
She nodded. “Fine. Who is he?”
“We don’t know,” I replied, twitching through three of the six papers. They crinkled noisily. “He is neither a tradesman nor a laborer. Nor is he a lord,” I added after a moment’s thought. Gossip ran too quick in London to assume all of Society would not know of such a tragedy.
“How was he killed?”
“That is the mystery,” I told her, and pulled one set of papers from the rest. “Look through here for any notice of murder. We seek men only, so leave out the Ripper’s endeavors.”
“Why?” She took it, but over the paper’s edge, her eyes met mine in quizzical bemusement. “What is this for?”
I grinned, my lips stretching, pushing as if the skin of my cheeks were too stiff for an easy smile. But I forced it, because I needed to smile. To share my excitement. “A challenge, Zylla.”
“No time to waste,” I said over her question, and quickly retrieved my own paper from the lot. It didn’t matter which. I did not sit, instead resuming my pacing as I leafed through page after page of Jack the Ripper headlines, notice of impending strikes, editorials written by gentleman I had no interest in unless they were my murderer or his victims.
Behind me, occasionally in front of me as I walked the length of the room like a manic housecat, Zylphia calmly read through her half.
I enjoyed having a literate assistant. I hadn’t been certain when I’d first met Zylphia, painted up like the Whore of Babylon all those seasons past, but—
I dug my fingers into my eyes. Where had that unkind thought come from?
Exhaustion, perhaps. I was feeling out of sorts. That episode, of course that’s all it was.
That and my acute awareness of the near-empty jar of laudanum on my bedside table.
I had control of myself. I would simply keep myself busy.
There were always murders aplenty in London below the drift. If the Bakers weren’t executing someone in an alley for a cause, footpads were relieving Abram men of their day’s earnings, or some wife living in a hovel decided she’d rather be charged and alone than shackled to the now dead man with a knife in whatever extremely unfortunate organ earned the stabbing.
In this case, I found no dead men, but plenty of women. The Ripper’s doxies, of course. One woman whose throat had been slashed by her lover, who’d confessed. Another who drowned in the river, mysterious circumstances.
I dropped each paper as I skimmed it, leaving a trail of them from bed to vanity to closet to door.
“Nothing,” I muttered, nearly a growl in my frustration. “Nothing, still nothing. Bloody hell and bells, Zylla, what’s a lady ought to do to find a dead man about?”
She snorted a laugh, but rustled her gossip rag at me. “Look harder, I’d imagine, or murder her own.”
I couldn’t imagine myself doing so. I’d never killed a man. Not even for the sometimes ludicrous amount of coin offered to do so on the collection boards.
Unlike my rival, who appeared to prefer assassinations to all other bounties posted.
Which gave me pause. “Do you suppose the murdered victim could be victim of a collection?”
Zylphia sighed. “Cherie, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Nothing, no,” I mused, more to myself as I glanced down at the last sheaf in my hands. “I suppose that’d be too—” I stopped. murder on university grounds.
It really wouldn’t be so simple, would it?
“Ah?” My maid glanced at me, but I didn’t look away from the small, nearly invisible article buried in the London Journal.
“Ah,” I repeated, mostly for the reason that my mind was already three steps ahead of my mouth and I knew Zylphia awaited an answer. And then, once I’d read the extremely short article in its entirety, I added, “And here we are. One professor murdered.”
“A professor is neither a tradesman nor a laborer.”
“Nor a lord.” I handed the paper to my maid, picked through the leftover periodicals upon my bed while she read it. “The University College is below, just near the Philosopher’s Square.”
“Will you be going there tonight?”
Oh, how she knew me. I smiled. “Yes, of course. But first?” I smacked the paper lightly. “I want to see if there was a bounty for this professor.”
A fair question. I didn’t have much recourse. Collection notices were pulled by the collectors who took the work—or removed entirely once complete. Obviously, this one had been complete, were it actually to exist.
Zylphia slid off the bed. “The sweets might know.”
A fair point. The midnight sweets, as I’d already considered, heard a lot about life above and below the drift. Maybe they’d hear about death, too.
I stared at my ink-smudged hand for a long moment, considering my options.
I didn’t have many.
“We leave after supper, then.”