Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee Hieber is the 2nd book in the Eterna Files gaslamp fantasy series (Available August 9, 2016).
In New York City, fearing the dangers of the Eterna Compound—supposedly the key to immortality—Clara Templeton buries information vital to its creation. The ghost of her clandestine lover is desperate to tell her she is wrong, but though she is a clairvoyant, she cannot hear him.
In London, Harold Spire plans to send his team of assassins, magicians, mediums, and other rogue talents to New York City, in an attempt to obtain Eterna for Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria. He stays behind to help Scotland Yard track down a network of body snatchers and occultists, but he'll miss his second-in-command, Rose Everhart, whose gentle exterior masks a steel spine.
Rose's skepticism about the supernatural has been shattered since she joined Spire's Omega Branch. Meeting Clara is like looking into a strange mirror: both women are orphans, each is concealing a paranormal ability, and each has a powerful and attractive guardian who has secrets of his own.
The hidden occult power that menaces both England and America continues to grow. Far from being dangerous, Eterna may hold the key to humanity's salvation.
Harold Spire stared at paperwork. He despised paperwork.
Director of the Omega department of the secret new Special Branches of government, Spire was looking at shipping manifests that were innocuous at first glance. He and his coworker, Rose Everhart, pored over them in silence, looking for a specific listing. This was tedious cleric’s work, and they were doing it in a book-filled, file-laden closet.
This tiny space, literally tucked away inside the walls of Parliament, was Everhart’s hidden office, which she still maintained even though Omega had its own facilities elsewhere in London. There were times when the raucous nature of other members of Omega made both Spire and Everhart yearn for quiet, and this was one of them.
They should, Spire thought, be investigating the blood-drenched compatriots of the late aristocrat, Mr. Francis Tourney, who had committed ritualistic murders. But as Spire was no longer a member of the Metropolitan Police and could not prove a connection between Tourney’s infamy and the unnatural matters with which Omega was tasked, he and Miss Everhart had been consistently denied access to the case.
There had been nothing in the papers, either. That was for the best, Spire thought, as ridiculous, sensationalistic journalism would do nothing to help the police with their inquiries. Later in the day, Spire would meet with his old friend and partner, Captain Stuart Grange, to find out more.
He had to know. The horrors that Spire, Everhart, and Grange had seen in Tourney’s basement: children’s bodies, carved and marked, drained of blood and attached to strange wires; a woman’s corpse hung in hideous mockery of faith and humanity … Tourney had not acted alone, that much was clear.
That Tourney was said to have been found reduced to pulp in his prison cell, the stone walls turned entirely crimson with his blood, was a great comfort to Spire, though it presented the police with no confession and little evidence to flush out the greater ring of insidious terror that Tourney represented.
There was real devilry in the world.
Why had the queen and Spire’s direct supervisor, Lord Black, set him on this quest to find out when a handful of British corpses had been shipped to America? Why look for the dead when murderers sought the living?
Still, he preferred examining ledgers to the other task of the day: investigating a histrionic report of a headless horsemen outside London. The tedious tales of America’s Washington Irving were not considered high art, far from it, more a childish, insecure need to overdramatically attribute an empire’s worth of history to a sprawling, provincial, and unorganized country. It was an insult that an American legend had wormed its silly way into some old hag’s mind out in Hampstead, where she should’ve been more worried about the ghosts of old highwaymen. If there were such things as ghosts.
Spire was grateful to be well clear of such nonsense. Mostly clear, rather.
For the dead men—British men of science—had been searching for immortality when they met an unknown end.
Harold Spire had been hired by Her Majesty herself to oversee the safety and administration of a select group of theorists, doctors, and scientists charged with investigating the cure for death on behalf of the Crown and before the Americans. All of which, Spire thought, was as probable as ghosts and headless horsemen.
He missed his job as a rising officer of note in the ranks of the city’s Metropolitan Police.
Dressed in a simple gray wool riding habit best suited for work, Rose Everhart slid a ledger toward him across the small wooden desk. She was a bloodhound with papers, ciphers, and patterns. A quiet, deep respect had grown between them in the weeks they’d worked together. She was the one reasonable, amenable thing in his damnable job.
“I inquired about the general height and build of the five scientists,” Rose said quietly. “To general calculation, their weight would, roughly, collectively match the kilos and grams of these five rectangular cargo bins, which were accounted and stowed under the heading of “dry goods.” Miss Everhart pointed out the entry, then handed Spire a separate paper where she had noted the approximate measures.
“Well done indeed, Miss Everhart. Now the question remains…”
“Who put the bodies of the scientists on that ship when no one from any of our departments knew a thing about where they’d gone?”
“This is our task for the day.” Spire squinted at the ledger. “Ax. That’s who stowed the bodies, that’s the company monogram to ascertain.”
“Should I check in at the Omega offices?” Everhart offered.
“They ought to be doing what I told them to,” Spire countered, “preparing for New York City. Let them be. We’re going to the dockyards.”
Miss Everhart closed the ledger, placed the files of interest into a panel in the wall, stood, smoothed her skirts, and inclined her head, ready.
Spire marveled that he had been granted such a sure and capable colleague. In his years being partnered with various styles and personalities, all of them had been, of course, male. He tried not to differentiate her from his other teammates. That Rose was a woman couldn’t be held against her any more than this modern age liked to remind the fairer sex that they were inferior under the law. Though on this point, women increasingly pushed against their various prisons in bold and subtle ways.
Spire was a man of equity, of meritocracy. Those who were worthy of what they could with their talents earn and acquire, then they should receive it, no matter gender or color or lineage. Many of the men making the rules of the world had nothing but blood and divine right to commend them, and in Spire’s opinion, they were often the least worthy of the riches and powers lavished upon them. But not a word of that to his “betters,” a word he would ground out through his teeth only if he absolutely had to.
Lord Black and the prime minister cherished Everhart, the relationships between them mysterious. That was the difficulty with her being a woman; in Spire’s estimation, they only complicated matters. But it wasn’t Miss Everhart’s fault if powerful men were compelled by her. She was neither ugly nor beautiful; she was merely a person one wanted to have around, useful and intelligent—Spire’s favorite qualities. She awaited him by the door, clearly unruffled by the prospect of visiting a part of London that respectable ladies would determinedly avoid: a cargo dock downriver.
Spire appreciated the companionable silences between him and Miss Everhart. The two members of Omega division each took in, in his or her own way, the peculiar and otherworldly jostling, sooty, steamy madness that was the London underground, still somewhat novel and incredible. The sights, sounds, and sensations of the journey were their own conversation.
They emerged from the tunnels and trekked a few streets to a set of piers nestled where the river curved ever so gently. Spire was a fast walker. Everhart kept pace with him.
As they approached the small brick enclosure marked OFFICE at the head of the bustling pier, Everhart suddenly unbuttoned the smart collar of her riding habit, showcasing an elegant collarbone. From beneath the narrow rim of her hat, which was carefully pinned to a braided coiffure, she pulled loose a curl, letting it fall over her face more gamesomely than was her general attitude. Spire tried not to raise an eyebrow in surprise but was unsure of his success, as such a reaction had become a reflex since his assignment to Omega. Everhart’s expression revealed nothing; she gestured that he lead on.
When Spire entered the office, a bell clanged at the door. A bespectacled clerk looked up from a well-worn desk where various nautical implements kept company amid ledger books and blotters.
“Sir, Madame?” He bobbed his head toward the two of them.
Spire flashed his Metropolitan badge. To most of London and its government, he appeared to have maintained an association to the force. Only three individuals in higher branches knew him to have any other rank, title, or duties.
“I’m here to inquire about a listing from a company abbreviated as Ax on a recent vessel,” Spire said. “It was a direct journey to America.”
The gaunt clerk whose dark hair was thinning kept an unreadable expression. “Might I ask what you are investigating? Merely a formality, sir, as I am sure you understand, and then I’ll be happy to help you.” The man readied a pen to take notes, which seemed odd to Spire. Usually it was he who took notes.
Spire noted that the manager’s voice and face remained entirely calm. However, at the mention of Ax, a man standing at the back of the room stared straight at Spire in abject fear. His clothes were those of the working poor, a sharp contrast to the neatly suited man at the desk; Spire guessed he was a deckhand. Their entrance had interrupted him in the act of pouring tea into a dirty cup. Now he shook his head, as if in warning, and wrung his hands a moment before setting down his teacup and shuffling out the rear door, looking woefully over his shoulder at Spire and Everhart as he went.
“Tom,” Everhart whined suddenly, in a higher-pitched voice than usual, “you promised me a trip on a boat, not police work about a boat, you’re such a spoilsport. I’m waiting outside, but you’d better be done soon, otherwise I’m not entertaining you further.” She flounced out of the room.
Spire furrowed his brow. “Go on, then, good riddance,” he called after her and rolled his eyes toward the clerk. “Women.”
“Can’t take them anywhere a day’s work needs be done,” the clerk said with a chuckle. Spire was quite sure, however, she was up to something useful indeed. “Now then,” the man continued, “I am sorry that I can’t offer you much information. Ax stands for the Apex Corporation. But I don’t know their manifests offhand.”
“How long has the Apex Corporation been working with your company?”
The man shrugged. “Several years.”
“Always dry goods?”
The man thought a moment. “Sometimes liquids, basic things. Apex is, I’m told, in manufacturing.” He leaned closer, genuinely interested. “Do you think there’s something questionable at work?”
Spire shook his head. “My offices are trying to track some precious stones.”
The man smiled suddenly. There was a distinctive sparkle that greed took when lighting up a man’s eye. “Do tell. What kind?”
Bribable, Spire mused. It was his turn to shrug. “I can’t disclose that any more than you can about the company that’s done your dock a great favor.” Spire gestured behind him. “Yours looks better than any other along the piers.”
His smile remained. “We take pride in that, Mr.…?”
Spire bowed his head curtly. “Good day, sir. If there’s anything that comes to light about stolen … gems, please do let the Metropolitan Police know.”
“And to whose attention, then, sir?”
“Tom Hamilton, Westminster.”
He’d have to let Grange know of his new alias. He rotated several, and it was time for a change, especially in these new matters. He took Everhart’s “Tom” and ran with it. Not that this clerk would follow up. He’d go scurrying off to report this “intrusion” and there would likely be further obfuscation.
Now what had Miss Everhart gotten up to?
He found her outside, alone, around the corner where a ship’s prow jutted out and blocked anyone from view, awaiting him. Her blouse and collar were buttoned back up, errant curl no longer waving in the wind. When she spoke, her voice was again her own.
“My dramatic exit was an attempt to corral the deckhand.” She gestured before her. “Across that battered masthead of a sea-weary nymph there, the deckhand stared at me wide-eyed, as if willing me to understand something he didn’t dare speak. I pressed. The man trembled, saying if we were smart we wouldn’t ask questions of that corporation. But I did get some information out of him.”
“Very good work,” Spire said earnestly. Miss Everhart didn’t rest on the pride of his praise, for a dark shadow fell over her face.
“If the poor man stays alive,” she said ruefully. “It would seem secrecy is Apex’s cardinal need, and anyone who questions this is summarily dismissed … Accidents are all too common around the docks.”
“Our friend, who refused to give a name,” Everhart began, “lost his brother, who had gotten too curious, and then two more of his colleagues. He does not know exactly what happened save that the river took his brother after a dramatic fall and that his body has yet to be recovered.”
“What dry goods or liquids could be so suspect?”
Everhart shuddered. “Dry goods as bodies, and liquids as embalming fluid, that’s what. The brother wrote a harried note saying he’d seen frightful things in boxes, and the next day he was dead. The man says they’re forbidden to open any of the boxes, only load them. But some, inevitably, fell, contents spilling.
“He said there were wild rumors of corpses alongside elaborate funereal supplies and enough chemical and electrical equipment to make Dr. Frankenstein weep, but nothing could be corroborated among the crew. The life expectancy of the deckhands staffing Apex ships appears perilously short, all of them plucked off streets, from workhouses or prisons with promise of pay and a hot meal.”
“Easy to keep ‘expendable’ persons quiet,” Spire muttered. “This sounds like the stuff of Tourney’s ring. Is it fair to assume Apex is part of that? Does anyone from Apex ever deal directly with these docks? The one believable thing the clerk said is that he’s never seen anyone in person. If he was frightened, he was good at acting the part of assuming it a legitimate company, shipping aboveboard goods.”
They were walking away from the docks, Everhart lacing and unlacing her fingers in thought as she kept pace with Spire’s bold stride.
“We must see if we can tie Tourney or any of the men on our mutual list to Apex. Since the bodies of our scientists are involved, that makes it a matter for Omega, not the Metropolitan, and we shall have fuller leverage,” Everhart stated before her tone turned conciliatory. “Now I’m afraid we’ll have to return to the offices, Mr. Spire. Our operatives require specificity in New York lest they … attract too much attention.”
Spire sighed heavily. “Covert operations as envisioned by P. T. Barnum.”
“Oh, don’t encourage them.” Everhart chuckled. “They’ll go seek him out when they’re in Manhattan.”
“Maybe he’ll trap them in his museum,” Spire muttered.
“Oh, no, that burned down,” Everhart replied. “Terrible affair. Whales and all.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised. Now, at the offices, Lord Black mentioned something about establishing his … war room?”
“Ah.” Everhart chuckled and said no more. Spire wasn’t sure what he was in for.
Why Spire, who considered himself a straightforward man, had been given the most flamboyant, odd company with which to conduct covert affairs, he’d never know.
“Underground again?” Spire asked.
“Don’t suppose you’d care to walk? Too many people, too close, for my taste,” Everhart replied.
“Couldn’t agree more.”
They spoke as they moved at a purposeful clip toward the Westminster precinct, Spire privately thrilled by a woman who could keep up with him in more ways than one. “So. Tourney,” he stated. “It’s all the unresolved gruesome details that gnaw at me. The sobering contrast to the absurdity of the Omega department. It isn’t that I’ve any pity for Tourney, he deserved worse than being entirely torn to shreds.”
“It’s fitting, justice, really, but I hope vital secrets weren’t dissolved along with his form,” Everhart added. “I can’t help but wonder if others might be targeted in the same way.”
“The first one to interview, if he’s not already dead, is that guilty chemist Stevens over in Whitechapel.”
“I’ve asked for notes on Stevens, including the chemical compounds, from an associate of Lord Black, a solicitor named Knowles, a Spiritualist of standing in the community. Knowles reportedly has information on unseemly matters that affected Black’s colleagues, such as Lord Denbury, whose troubles preceded these affairs. Do you think Apex could be transporting some of those chemist’s compounds as dry goods?”
“Very possibly. From even the vaguest hints the clerk offered, Apex predates the Tourney murders. So it is likely a holding of the Master’s Society, of which Tourney was surely a member.”
“Or his murders were inspired by theirs. The dastardly hand of Beauregard Moriel lives on after his death,” Everhart muttered. “The Society had been overtly instructed to take over key industrial and political holdings. We thought that must have ended with Moriel’s execution and subsequent arrests and deaths of his followers.”
“Tourney must represent the next generation, the new crop of believers.”
“The heirs to hell itself.”
They walked in chilled silence until the Gothic spires of Parliament appeared in the distance.
“I will meet you at the offices later,” Spire said. “I’ve a meeting.”
“As you wish.” She turned away, then reconsidered and turned back. “Mr. Spire.”
“I wish to remain in England and not be sent to New York. I’d best remain on task here, not participate in a flamboyant chase to the Empire State.” An expression of unease flickered over her face, perhaps reflecting something she wasn’t saying.
“It is good to have you here,” Spire agreed. And it was. Her presence was of consistent benefit. From his days on the Metropolitan force, a partner was familiar comfort, and she was the closest thing he could envision in the role. He desired that in such strange currents. He found himself staring at her a bit too long before adding, “Let the rest of the team attend to demands overseas.”
She seemed pleased at this and took her leave with a bob of her brown-haired head, leaving Spire to catch a glimpse of his former life.
* * *
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Leanna Renee Hieber's first novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, is a foundation work of gaslamp fantasy and the winner of two Prism Awards. Hieber has been a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award. Rarely seen out of Victorian garb, Hieber often appears at conventions, bookstores, and library events.