In an alternate 1851, Edgar Allan Poe has survived a near-lethal attack and overcome his demons. Now married to his childhood sweetheart Elmira and enjoying a successful writing career, the Master of the Macabre has been invited to tour England with his popular lecture series. But Poe’s notoriously bad luck returns during a stop in Oxford, leaving him implicated in the murder of a chambermaid.
Desperate for help, Poe recruits shy young undergraduate Charles Dodgson (soon to be known as Lewis Carroll) to act as Watson to his Holmes. In a race against time, this unlikely pair of detectives must navigate the darker depths of Oxford society and track down the real killer before Poe hangs for a crime he didn’t commit.
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It was a most excellent knife.
Granted, it was old, older than he was, the wooden handle polished smooth with animal fat and other, more unmentionable fluids over the years. But the blade was made of good Sheffield steel and held an edge that could slice through the toughest fibers and gristle. And the handle fit his hand like he imagined a lover’s would.
He lifted it into the candlelight and remembered past uses. Blood flowing over the blade, splattering the handle, staining his hands. The salty, metallic smell hanging in the air, and the tingling sense of power when he felt that last spark depart, turning what had been a squirming, frightened life into a bundle of meat ready for the chopping block.
Or disposal in the nearby woods.
Really, he was fortunate that his stepfather had often been too drunk to operate the family’s butcher shop alone. His enforced apprenticeship was hideous, true, but it gave him a training ground for his skills, as well as an acceptable outlet for his desires. If the shop and the small flat over it hadn’t burned down years ago, why, he might still be there now, cutting up calves’ livers and chops during the day and amusing himself with the small animals he captured in the fields at night.
But the shop had burned down, and after his parents’ funeral the letter with the crest in red sealing wax had arrived. It said that his room, board and education would be paid for by a certain gentleman “in appreciation of earlier services rendered.”
A familiar bitterness rose in him at the thought of such services. He knew who his benefactor was, of course. His mother, the dark-haired succubus of his nightmares, had told him the truth years ago. He could still remember the nights when she would kneel at his bedside, eyes blackened from the fists of her drunken husband, and tell him rambling stories about his father—his real father—and what exactly the man owed both of them.
Yes, owed. But Mother was gone, and he would never be given what was owed him. His benefactor might have raised him up from butcher’s boy to his current position, but that would be all. There would be no family name or title for him, no recognition of his heritage.
All that would go to another. And a most unworthy other at that.
He put the blade to his tongue, playing with the cool metal, the sharp edge. There was a thin zing of pain, and the taste of iron filled his mouth. He swallowed and smiled; his own smile, not the polite, bland expression he used with other people. Blood was truth, after all. Bloodlines, family ties, affairs hidden behind pain and lies.
His benefactor had expected him to accept his place with obedience and gratitude. And he had, even as his mind boiled with rage at the unfairness of it all. But there was no point in rebelling; such behavior would only snatch what few scraps he’d gained from his grasp.
No, much better to remain quiet and pretend to accept the way things must be, all the while looking for ways to turn the situation to his advantage. He had already spent years as a pawn in his parents’ war, observing the players and their machinations. It made his compliance quite believable.
And then the final insult came. The infuriating news that his benefactor’s heir was not only to receive the title that should have been his, but would also marry a beautiful, wealthy young noblewoman. How his benefactor had gloated over that, already counting the money that the poor girl’s dowry would add to the family coffers.
He hadn’t expected it to feel like a door slammed in his face. But it was the ultimate cut direct. He would be forced to stand by and watch as everything that he could have had, should have had, would go to someone far more undeserving.
Really, he couldn’t be blamed for what was about to happen. You should have acknowledged me while you had the chance, Father.
But it was too late. Now, he would take control of the game. And if he could not win, then he would make quite sure that no one else did either.
He licked the knife again, tongue playing over the sharp tip. Opening move, then. Beat me if you can…
Steam billowed from the 12:06 train as it chuffed to a stop at Oxford’s new railway station serving the London and North Western line. Carriage doors clattered open along the platform, and the passengers—university dons, city residents, visitors, and a black-coated array of servants—chatted with one another or called out instructions as they exited. As it was a weekday, undergraduates were not allowed to use the railway by previous arrangement of the university. This resulted in certain figures slinking out of the second-class carriages, keeping their heads down and praying that a tutor wouldn’t look their way.
No one noticed the short, dark-haired man exiting one of the first-class carriages, even with his clumsy juggling of a banded leather valise and Malacca walking stick. He hesitated in the carriage doorway, fingers tightening on the stick as unpleasant memories of another train station boiled up in his mind.
Someone behind him gave an impatient harrumph. He flinched and hurried onto the platform, sidestepping a man in a plain black suit who waited with two cases. Stop acting like a fool, Eddy. You’re perfectly safe here.
The harrumpher, a grey-haired aristocrat in an expensive overcoat, was next to emerge from the carriage, giving the black-suited man who was clearly his servant a brusque nod. A porter bustled up to them, tipping his cap. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Do you require the services of a hansom?”
The older man didn’t acknowledge the offer, striding towards the exit. “No,” the valet said in a curt tone, picking up the luggage and following his employer.
Shrugging, the porter turned. “What about you, sir?”
“Er, yes, I do need a hansom,” Eddy said, aware of the difference between the drawled vowels of his native Virginia and the porter’s crisper British intonation. “To the Mitre Inn?”
“Of course, sir.” The porter took the valise. “Any other luggage, sir?”
There he is. Grab him. He repressed a shudder at the imagined voices of his brothers-in-law. “I have a trunk in the luggage car.”
“Very good, sir.” After obtaining his name and fetching the brass-cornered trunk that had traveled with him from Richmond, the porter waved him towards the exit. “If you’ll follow me?”
Falling in with his uniformed guide, Eddy took the opportunity to observe his fellow travelers. Older men were mostly dressed in sedate frock coats, while the younger crowd tended towards lighter colors and distinctive waistcoats. The few ladies exiting the railway station wore gowns in muted plaids or floral fabric, with their female servants in sturdy black broadcloth.
He had noticed the occasional odd look at his military greatcoat, but he’d been loath to leave the treasured old garment behind. Everything else he wore was fashionable enough; he had Elmira to thank for that, bless her. His second wife had used a combination of her habitual sweetness and ironclad will to get him to the tailor for some new clothes. Even his hat, pulled down over what a female admirer had once called “an ivory temple of poetry,” was now in the latest style, the better to woo and win the readers of Great Britain.
Ahead, the porter stopped next to a hansom cab, hoisting the valise and trunk onto the luggage rack. “The Mitre, Joss,” he said to the driver, then opened the cab’s folding wooden doors and waited meaningfully.
Eddy touched his coat pocket, aware of the dwindling amount of money there. His next stipend would be delivered at the hotel, assuming there was no delay and his publisher’s man could find him. But what if it isn’t? What if you must survive with the money you have on your person?
Elmira would have nudged him at that point, whispering for him to tip the man. But she wasn’t here—she was in Bath, yet another thing for him to worry about. It’s not as if the man works for free. He’ll be paid his daily wage even if you don’t add to that amount.
“Thank you,” he said, climbing into the hansom and staring resolutely at the road. The porter stepped back with a nod, but the disdainful look on his face said much about colonials who were too impecunious to tip.
With a jerk, the hansom moved forward on the cobblestoned street. Eddy’s embarrassment faded as he studied the handsome Gothic buildings of muted limestone and rose-hued brick rolling past, so different from the sprawling wooden structures of Richmond. When he spotted one of the city’s famous “dreaming spires” in the distance, he felt a flutter of excitement. His childhood had been spent in English boarding schools, and there had even been talk of his attending one or another of Oxford’s famed colleges when he was of age. But his foster father had fallen into financial difficulties and moved the family back to Richmond. After that, the University of Virginia had become his academic destination.
Not that his tenure lasted for long. His excitement turned into the familiar buzz of bitterness, and on its heels was the even more familiar yearning for a mouthful of rye whisky. He ignored it, as he ignored any suggestion that arose from his ‘imp of the perverse.’ You’re perfectly fine. And things are going well enough, even with Elmira’s absence. It was the sea voyage that had made her ill, nothing else. She wasn’t like Sissy, with her weak lungs and constant coughing. Elmira would be returned to her normal health after a week of taking the waters, he was sure of it. Stop looking for trouble and enjoy your success.
The hansom turned onto a busy thoroughfare, passing more clustered shops before stopping in front of an elegant building with THE MITRE INN spelled out in gold lettering over the entrance. Two sets of bow windows stretched to the building’s second floor, and the entrance boasted gas lanterns that he imagined would be lit for weary travelers at night.
“That’ll be a shilling and eightpence, sir,” the driver said through the hatch.
Forewarned about the common driver’s trick of claiming not to have change, Eddy climbed out and handed over a shilling and two groats, ignoring the driver’s scowl as he collected his luggage and hauled it into the hotel. Beyond the front doors was an immaculate lobby with a coal fireplace that helped to eradicate the damp chill of the October air.
A clerk behind a polished wooden counter nodded at his approach. “Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?”
“Yes, I have a reservation for one night’s stay?” Eddy said, hoping this was true. “It should be under the name of Ponsonby.”
The clerk paged through the ledger, then nodded. “Here it is. Always a pleasure to have a man of letters at the Mitre, sir. I’m Mr. Venables, the hotel keeper. If you need anything while you’re here, please let me know and I’ll have it brought to you.” He turned the ledger around into signing position and slid a quill pen and ink pot next to it. “If you’d be so good as to sign and date the page?”
Eddy took the pen, dipping it into the ink before inscribing his name in the first empty slot and adding October 11, 1851, next to it.
Venables turned the ledger around again, peering at the signature. “Very good. Welcome to Oxford, Mister—”
“Poe,” Eddy said, with a slight lift of his chin. “Edgar Allan Poe.”