George Mann has helped revitalize steampunk fiction with his detective novels featuring the duo of Newbury and Hobbes — and now, his new story collection, The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes, takes the detectives to weirder places than ever. Check out an exclusive excerpt right here.
Mann's Casebook is being published by Titan Books, and it features Newbury and Hobbes dealing with "revenants, murderous peers, mechanical beasts, tentacled leviathans, reanimated pygmies, and an encounter with Sherlock Holmes." You can check out a super-upbeat review here.
Check out an exclusive excerpt below:
The Lady Killer
Ringing, deafening explosions. Bright lights. Chaos. Screaming.
Then silence. Utter, absolute silence.
Sir Maurice Newbury came to with a start.
There was a hand on his cheek, soft and cool. Veronica? He opened his eyes, feeling groggy. The world was spinning.
The hand belonged to a woman. She was pretty, in her late twenties, with tousled auburn hair, full, pink lips and a concerned expression on her face. Not Veronica, then.
Newbury opened his mouth to speak but his tongue felt thick and dry, and all that escaped was a rough croak.
The woman smiled. “Good. You’re coming round.” She glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, the world looked as if it had been turned upside down. Newbury couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. He tried to focus on the woman’s face instead. She was watching him again. “There’s been an accident,” she said. “My name’s Clarissa.”
Newbury nodded. An accident? He tried to recall what had happened, where he was. He couldn’t think, couldn’t seem to focus. Everything felt sluggish, as if he were underwater. How long had he been unconscious? He studied the woman’s face. “Clarissa?”
She still had her hand on his cheek. “Yes. That’s right.” Her voice was soft and steady. Calm. “Do you remember what happened?”
Newbury shook his head, and then winced, as the motion seemed to set off another explosion in his head. Explosion? A memory bubbled to the surface. There had been an explosion. He shifted, pulling himself into a sitting position. His legs were trapped beneath something hard and immovable.
Clarissa withdrew her hand and sat back on her haunches, still watching him intently. For the first time since waking he became aware of other people in the small space, huddled in little groups, their voices audible only as a low, undulating murmur. Someone was crying.
Newbury blinked. Was it some sort of prison cell? No. That didn’t make any sense. The explosion. An accident.
Newbury swallowed, wishing he had a drink of water. He was hot and uncomfortable. The air inside the small space was stifling. He felt behind him and found there was something solid he could lean against. He blinked, trying to clear the fogginess. Clarissa looked concerned. “What happened?” he managed to ask, eventually. He was still groggy and his voice sounded slurred.
“I’m not sure. The ground train must have hit something. There was an explosion, and then the carriage overturned. I think I must have blacked out for a minute. When I came round, you were unconscious beside me.”
The ground train. Yes, that was right. He’d been on a ground train.
He strained to see over her shoulder again. They were still in the carriage. It was lying on its side.
The vehicle had clearly overturned. How long had they been there? Minutes? Hours? He had no way of knowing. His head was thumping and the world was making no sense. What had he been doing on a ground train?
He rubbed a hand over his face, tried to take in his situation. His legs were trapped beneath the seat in front and his body was twisted at an awkward angle, so that the floor of the carriage was actually supporting his back. He didn’t seem to have broken any limbs, but he wasn’t quite sure if he was capable of extracting himself without help. He looked up at Clarissa, who was still regarding him with a steady gaze. “Are you a nurse?”
She didn’t even attempt to repress her laughter, which was warm and heartfelt and made Newbury smile. “No. I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I’m a typist. Just a typist.”
Newbury shook his head. “No. I’m sure you’re much more than that.”
She gave a wry smile, as if he’d touched a nerve. “Are you hurt?”
“What? No. At least, I don’t think so.”
“It’s just you asked if I was a nurse.”
Newbury closed his eyes, sucking ragged breath into his lungs. He must have bashed his head in the aftermath of the explosion. Nothing else could explain the fuzziness he was feeling, his inability to think straight. “I was wondering why you were helping me. If you’d come with the rescue crew.”
Clarissa shifted from her crouching position onto her knees. She rubbed her arms. “They’re not here yet. I don’t think they can get to us. The explosion…” She looked over her shoulder, tossed her hair with a nervous gesture that suggested she was more concerned about their situation than she was trying to let on.
“They’ll come. I’m sure of it. It’s just a matter of time.”
Clarissa shrugged. “I hope you’re right. It’s just I—” She pitched forward suddenly, grabbing for Newbury as the carriage gave a violent shudder. There was a bang like a thunderclap. Newbury felt himself thrown backwards, and then Clarissa was on top of him, clutching at him, trying to prevent herself from sliding away, across the juddering vehicle. He wrapped his arms around her, desperately holding on. Somewhere else in the confined space a woman started screaming: a long, terrified wail, like that of a keening animal.
Newbury gasped for breath. The engine must have gone up. They were lucky they weren’t already dead.
The carriage slid across the cobbled road with the grating whine of rending metal, windows shattering as the frames buckled, showering Newbury and Clarissa with glittering diamonds of glass. Newbury’s face stung with scores of tiny wounds. He squeezed his eyes shut and clung to the slight figure of the woman until, a few moments later, the world finally stopped spinning and the carriage came to rest.
For a moment, Clarissa didn’t move. He could feel her breath fluttering in her chest, the rapid beating of her heart. Her hands were grasping the front of his jacket, hanging on as if he were the only still point in the universe. Her face was close to his. She smelled of lavender. She raised her head, and he saw the terrified expression on her face.
“Are you alright?” No answer. “Clarissa? Are you alright?”
She seemed suddenly to see him; the vacant look passed out of her eyes. “Yes. Yes, I’m alright.” Her voice wavered, as if she didn’t really believe her own words. She still hadn’t moved. She looked down at him, saw the lapels of his jacket bunched in her fists, realised she was crushing him against another seat. “I’m sorry… I…”
Newbury shook his head. “No need.”
She released her grip and eased herself free. As she pulled herself up into a sitting position, she glanced momentarily at her hands, a confused expression clouding her face. Then realisation dawned. She turned her palms out towards Newbury, brandishing them before her, eyes wide. “Blood…” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Oh God, you’re bleeding!”
Newbury stared at her bloodied hands, unable to associate what he was seeing with the words she was saying. He didn’t know how to react, what to do next; since waking, everything had taken on a dream-like quality, as if he were watching scenes from someone else’s life unfold around him rather than his own. He stared blankly at Clarissa, waiting to see what she would do next.
She didn’t hesitate. Pawing at his jacket, she leaned over him, searching for any signs of a wound. There was blood everywhere. “Where does it hurt?” And then: “You said you weren’t injured!”
Newbury pinched the bridge of his nose, tried to concentrate. “I didn’t think I was. I—”
“Stay still! You don’t want to make matters worse!” She’d finished fiddling with the buttons on the front of his jacket and she yanked it open, exposing the clean white cotton of the shirt beneath. They both looked at it for a moment, dumbfounded.
“If it’s not your blood, who’s is it?” Clarissa glanced down at herself in surprise, her hands automatically going to her midriff. There was blood there, a dark Mandelbrot of it on her pale blouse, but it was only the impression she had picked up from Newbury’s jacket while she’d been laying on top of him.
Newbury reached up and grasped the back of a nearby seat, using it for leverage as he extracted his legs from where they were entangled beneath the seat in front. He called out in pain – a broken metal spar had gouged a long scratch in his calf as he dragged it free. He righted himself, still groggy, then turned to face Clarissa. “Someone is obviously injured. We have to help them.”
Clarissa looked at him, incredulous. “You’re in no fit state… Look, I don’t even know your name.”
“Newbury. Sir Maurice Newbury.”
She smiled. “Well, you might have a knighthood but it doesn’t mean you’re impervious to injury.”
“I’m quite well. A little groggy, perhaps. But I’ll be fine. I can’t say the same about whoever has lost so much blood.” Tentatively, he pulled himself to his feet, wobbling a little as he attempted to orientate himself in the overturned carriage. His head was swimming and he still felt dreadfully woozy, but he had no choice. He had to press on. “We need to find them and see if they’re still alive.”
Clarissa laughed. “You’re a stubborn fool, Sir Maurice Newbury.”
Newbury beamed. “Come on. Let’s check on the other passengers.”
Clarissa offered him a supporting arm, and together they stumbled the length of the overturned carriage, clambering over the ruins of broken seats and baggage that had exploded in a mess of brightly coloured cardigans and coats.
The roof of the carriage had crumpled during the second explosion, shattering any remaining windows and comprehensively trapping them inside. The openings where the windows had been were now nothing but small, ragged-edged holes, too small for even a child to fit through. They were going to have to wait for assistance.
“Ow!” Clarissa winced as she vaulted over a broken table.
“What is it?” asked Newbury. “Are you alright?”
“It’s nothing,” she replied, dismissively. “It’s just… I bashed my leg in the explosion, is all. I’m fine. There are people here who are really hurt. We should focus on them.”
Newbury nodded, climbing unsteadily over the obstruction behind her.
Their fellow passengers had formed into little clusters, huddling around the wounded and trying to calm those who would otherwise have given in to their rising panic. Newbury and Clarissa moved between them, ensuring none of them were seriously hurt. There appeared to be a raft of minor injuries – even a number of broken limbs – but nothing that could have conceivably resulted in so much blood. Not until, that was, they found the passenger at the back of the carriage.
It was Clarissa who spotted her first. “Oh God,” she murmured, putting her hand to her mouth. “She’s dead.” She grabbed Newbury’s arm, pointing to the rear of the carriage.
The woman was still slumped in her seat, her lilac hat pulled down over her brow. Her shoulders were hunched forward, and she was unmoving. There was a dark, crimson stain down the front of her white blouse, and as they drew closer, they could see that the bloodstain had spread to her lap, soaking into her grey woollen skirt. Her arms were flopped uselessly by her sides.
The sight of her caused a cascade of memories to bubble up into Newbury’s still-sluggish mind. “Oh, no,” he said, trailing off as he staggered towards her. He recognised her immediately, from the hat, the clothes. This was the woman he’d been following when he boarded the ground train. He remembered it now. She was the mysterious agent for whom he’d been searching.
The dead woman was Lady Arkwell.
The Queen, Newbury reflected, was looking even more decrepit than usual.
Her flesh had taken on a pale, sickly pallor, and the bellows of her breathing apparatus sounded strained, as if even they had begun to protest under the labour of keeping the woman alive. Her now useless legs were bound around the ankles and calves, and as she rolled forward in her life-preserving wheelchair, he saw that even more chemical drips had been added to the metal rack above her head: little, bulging bags of coloured fluid, feeding her body with nutrients, stimulants and preservatives.
She came to rest before him, folding her arms beneath the bundle of fat tubes that coiled out of her chest and away into the darkness. In the near-silence, he mused he could almost hear the ticking of her empty, clockwork heart.
He stood over her, both of them caught in a globe of orange lantern light in the gloomy emptiness of the audience chamber. She looked up at him from her chair, a wicked smile on her lips. “You do enjoying testing our patience, Newbury.”
He nodded, but didn’t reply. Following the events at the Grayling Institute, during which he’d uncovered the truth about her patronage of Dr Fabian and his diabolical experiments on Veronica’s sister, Amelia, he’d taken to ignoring her summons – preferring, instead, to lose himself to the vagaries of London’s many opium dens. It was only out of protest and a sense of duty to the Empire – not the monarch – that he was here now.
Victoria laughed at his uncomfortable silence. “Know that we are watching you, Newbury. We tolerate your insolence only because you remain useful to us. Do not forget that.”
Newbury swallowed. “You wished to speak with me, Your Majesty?” he prompted, attempting to change the subject. He’d long ago grown tired of the woman’s threats, although he understood all too well that they were far from hollow.
“There is a woman, Newbury,” said Victoria, her tone suddenly shifting from one of amused scorn to one of stately authority, “who is proving to be something of a thorn in our side.” She emitted a wet, spluttering cough, and Newbury saw a trickle of blood ooze from the corner of her mouth. She dabbed it away. Her bellows sighed noisily as they laboured to inflate her diseased lungs.
So, she had a job for him. “A foreign agent?” he prompted, intrigued.
“Perhaps,” murmured the Queen. “Perhaps not. She operates under the alias ‘Lady Arkwell’. It is imperative that you locate her and bring her to us.”
“What has she done?” enquired Newbury.
“Ignored our invitation,” replied Victoria, darkly. She grinned. Newbury nodded slowly and waited for her to continue.
“She is a slippery one, this woman. A trickster, a mistress of sleight of hand. A thief. She has many aliases and she always works alone. She has been linked to a number of incidents throughout the Empire, from thefts to sabotage to political assassinations. Her motives are obscure. Some believe she sells her services as a mercenary, working for the highest bidder, others that she is a foreign agent, working for the Russians or Americans. Perhaps she works alone. We, as yet, are undecided.”
Newbury shifted slightly, drawing his hand thoughtfully across his stubble-encrusted chin. He’d never come across the name before. “Do we have any notion of her actual nationality?”
Victoria shook her head. “Unclear. Her various guises have at times suggested Russian, Italian and, indeed, English.” She gave a wheezing sigh. “It may be, Newbury, that we are dealing with a traitor.” She spat the last word as if it stuck in her throat.
Newbury had dealt with ‘traitors’ before – people like William Ashford, the agent Victoria had mechanically rebuilt after his near-death, a man who was declared rogue because he’d come out of cover in Russia to seek revenge on the man who had tried to kill him. Newbury wondered if he was being handed something similar here. It wasn’t only Lady Arkwell’s motives that were obscure.
“Her age?” he asked, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The Queen wasn’t giving him much to go on.
Newbury tried not to sound exasperated. “But we have reason to believe she is active in London? Do we know what she is planning?”
Victoria laughed, detecting his frustration. “We have heard reports that she is operating in the capital, yes. We do not yet know why. You are charged, Newbury, with uncovering her motives and bringing her in. Preferably alive.”
Newbury sighed inwardly. Where to even start with such an endeavour? “With respect, Your Majesty, you’re describing a needle in a proverbial haystack. Amongst all the teeming multitudes in this city…” He trailed off, his point made.
Victoria watched him for a moment, a curious expression on her face. When she spoke, her voice had a hard edge. “You are resourceful, Newbury. You will find her.” Newbury was in no doubt: this was an order. Victoria’s will would be done.
She reached for the wooden wheel rims that would allow her to roll her chair back into the darkness, drawing Newbury’s audience to a close. Then, pausing, she looked up, catching his eye. “Be warned, Newbury. She is utterly ruthless. Do not be fooled. Do not let your guard down for a moment. And what is more,” she drew a sharp intake of breath, reaching for her wheels, “do not fail us.”
Newbury watched the seated monarch as she was slowly enveloped by the gloom, until, a moment later, she was swallowed utterly, and he was left standing alone in a sea of black. The only sounds in the enormous audience chamber were the creak of the turning wheels against the marble floor and the incessant wheeze of the Queen’s breathing apparatus.
“Oh God. This wasn’t an accident, was it?”
Clarissa was standing aghast over the corpse of the dead passenger, her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide with shock. Newbury wanted to put his arm around her; she looked so young and vulnerable. Propriety, however, dictated he did not.
“No. Someone has very purposefully slit her throat,” he replied, keeping his voice low to avoid any of the other passengers overhearing. He released his hold on the corpse and the head lolled forward again, the body slumping to one side. He straightened the hat on the dead woman’s head, arranging it carefully to cover her blood-smeared face in shadow. He straightened his back.
“Oh God,” Clarissa repeated. She remained staring at the body for a moment longer, before tearing her eyes away to look at Newbury. “Whoever did this… do you think they caused the accident?”
Newbury blinked, still trying to shake the grogginess. He must have struck his head badly to be so concussed. It was strange there was no pain. “No,” he said, “I don’t think so. I imagine it was more opportunistic than that. Whoever did this must have remained conscious during the explosion and the ensuing chaos, and acted swiftly while the rest of us were still blacked out.”
Clarissa looked wide-eyed at the dark bloodstains on the front of his jacket. “Why is her blood all over you? You were sitting up there at the front of the carriage near me. How do I know it wasn’t you who killed her while I was unconscious?” She looked startled and terrified, and she was backing away from him.
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I didn’t do it!” Newbury didn’t know what else to say.
“So you can explain the blood?”
“Well, not exactly,” he said, with a shrug, “there’s nothing to say whoever did it didn’t move the body afterwards. I don’t know. But I didn’t do it. You need to believe me.” He reached out a hand and leaned heavily on the back of a nearby seat. His legs felt like jelly. “And remember, my legs were trapped beneath that seat. How could I have done it?”
Something about the conviction in his voice must have reassured Clarissa, as she gave a weak smile and stepped forward again. Nevertheless, he could see that she was still wary. Perhaps she could sense that he was holding something back, keeping from her the fact that he knew who this dead woman actually was.
“Alright. Assuming I believe you, that means there’s a murderer somewhere on this carriage.” Her voice was a whisper. “No one could have got out. We’re trapped in here until the firemen arrive to cut us free. So whoever did it is still here.” She glanced around as if sizing up the other passengers, looking for a likely suspect.
Newbury could see the sense in her words. The killer still had to be on board the train.
“And why would they do it? This poor, innocent woman? What could have possibly inspired them to cut her throat?” She shuddered as she spoke, as if considering how different things might have been – how it could have been her, slumped there in the seat with her throat opened up.
Newbury knew the answer to that but chose not to elaborate. It wouldn’t do to go involving this girl in the affairs of the Crown, and if he did tell her why, it would only give support to her fears that he was somehow involved in the woman’s death. Aside from all that, he didn’t want her raising the alarm. The other passengers were scared enough as it was, wondering when – and if – they were going to be free from the buckled remains of the carriage, or whether they were only moments away from another explosion. The last thing these people needed to know was that there was also a murderer on board.
Besides, from everything he knew of her, ‘Lady Arkwell’ was far from innocent. Rumour had it that she was involved in everything from political assassinations to high-profile thefts. No doubt she had scores of enemies, with as many different motives for ending her life.
That suggested the killer had to be another agent. But which nation or organisation they were representing was another question entirely. It wouldn’t surprise him to discover the Queen had organised a back up, a second agent on the trail of Lady Arkwell, just in case Newbury failed. Or perhaps the intention had been for Newbury to lead an assassin to their target all along. Whatever the case, this wasn’t a motiveless murder. The killer knew what they were doing, and whom they were targeting.
That in itself begged another question: did the killer also know who he was? Was he also at risk? In his current state, with his head still spinning, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle himself in a scuffle. He had to be on guard.
“What are we going to do?” asked Clarissa, tugging insistently on his sleeve. He looked down at her pretty, upturned face, framed by her shock of red hair, and realised that he hadn’t answered her questions.
“I don’t know,” he replied, shaking his head. “You’re right. The killer must still be onboard. But we have no way of telling who he might be. I suggest we tread very cautiously, and stick together. We should cover up the body and try not to panic anyone. When they finally cut us free, the killer is going to try to slip away. We need to be alert, watching for anything that might give him away. That way we can alert the authorities when the time is right.”
“That’s it?” she said, with a frown. “That’s all we’re going to do?”
“I’m not sure we have any other choice,” said Newbury, in a placatory fashion. “If we alert the killer that we’re on to him, things could turn very bad, very quickly. We’re trapped in an overturned train carriage with no exits. A killer loose in a confined space, desperate and wielding a weapon…” He trailed off, his point made.
Clarissa gave a short, conciliatory nod. “Very well.” She stooped and collected up a handful of discarded items of clothing – a man’s tweed jacket, a woman’s shawl, a tartan blanket – and proceeded to set about covering the dead woman.
Newbury leaned against the wall – which had once been the floor – his head drooping. His memories of the events leading up to the accident were hazy at best, but they were slowly returning. It was surely just a matter of time before he could piece together what had occurred. Yet everything felt like such an effort. All he wanted to do was go to sleep. He lifted his hands to rub at his eyes, but realised they were smeared with the dead woman’s blood. Grimacing, he put his right hand into his jacket pocket to search out his handkerchief.
His fingers encountered something cold and hard. Frowning, he peered down as he gingerly closed his hand around the object and slid it out of his pocket. His eyes widened in shock, and he quickly stuffed the thing back, glancing around to make sure no one else had seen.
Clarissa was still busying herself covering the corpse.
Newbury took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. What the Hell was going on? His heart was racing, his head pounding, and he couldn’t remember what had happened, what he might have done.
He wasn’t a killer. He had killed, yes, but he’d been a soldier out in India, and latterly an agent of the Crown. He’d killed in self-defence, in the course of duty, but never in cold blood.
So why, then, was the object in his pocket a sticky, bloodied knife?