In 2015, fantasy author Elizabeth Bear released Karen Memory, a steampunk novel about a sex worker living in an alternate 1878 in the Pacific Northwest who runs into trouble when a serial killer begins stalking women in the area. Bear is now back with a short sequel to that novel, Stone Mad, and we have an excerpt.
The story takes place after the events of Karen Memory, in which Karen and her friend Priya are celebrating their survival and rewards from their last adventure. They’ve purchased a ranch and are working on moving on when a pair of spiritualist sisters accidentally stir up an angry tommy-knocker — a magical creature that generally lives in the deep mines — which raises hell in town and drags Karen and Priya back into trouble. Bear’s book was widely hailed for Karen’s unique narration and its homage to classic pulp novels, and it was a fun, entertaining read.
Stone Mad hits stores on March 20th, 2018. Read the excerpt below.
No roach ain’t never gonna run ’cross a flimflam man’s plate, excepting the grifter in question’s already got himself around the best part of his supper.
I know that. And I have known it since I was twelve years old. So it would have made me suspicious right off when the table to me and Priya’s left started rocking against the floor to the sound of thumps and knocking just as their dessert was being cleared. Would have made me suspicious, that is, excepting I was already suspicious. I’d made my mind up about the two redheaded young ladies inhabiting that table within fifteen minutes of them sitting down next to us, and decided I knew what sort of rookery they was like to play.
You know and I know that deciding you know something when you don’t is about the deadliest thing a person can do. Yet what does everybody under God’s blue sky keep right on to doing?
It takes front to pull off a free-meal swindle, and I’m an admirer of gall. And the ladies at the thumping table had gall, in spades, a royal flush of it. Because it weren’t just a roach from out their sleeve that they was producing, but a whole simulation of a haunting, and right out in the middle of the formal dining room at the Rain City Riverside Hotel, which was aglitter with newfangled electric lights and ringing with crystal, being the finest establishment of its or any kind in Rapid City.
If I, Karen Memery, was taking my best girl out to celebrate the best day of our lives I weren’t not going to take her to cream gravy!
That was one reason I was plumb undecided about what to do about those table thumpers. I didn’t want to ruin our dinner, you see.
And then there was a slim possibility I was wrong about them girls, and the haint was legitimate. It was a good scheme they had going, because of course there’s rumors the Riverside is haunted even though there ain’t never been but the one single massacre in it, and what’s a frontier hotel without a massacre or two? You need at least one to be going on with before you can call yourself a proper elbow-bending joint, closer to three if you’re going to run a gaming parlor.
There was an Unpleasant Incident some years back, before I came to town, where a miner back from Alaska went crazy and killed a whole piano parlor full of people, including himself. Well, he’s supposed to only have blinded the piano player. The Professor, who plays piano at the Hôtel Ma Cherie, told me he knew the blinded man himself and had it straight from his own mouth.
But if I weren’t wrong about ’em, well. I was involved in the hospitality industry, as you might call it, for long enough to know how hard it can be to keep such a business running, even in a gold rush town like Rapid City. Dining halls run on real small margins, even fancy ones, and free dinner specialists can run them out of business right quick.
But then on the other other other hand, you mind when I say “ladies” that those girls was the same kind of ladies as Priya and me. Which is to say West-Coast Ladies, Doves of the Settlement, or, as you like, Seamstresses, which is what the city taxed us as, and what I would have written on my Census form if I’d still been doing it next year coming up, which was fixing to be 1880 unless something unexpected happened: “Karen Memery, Seamstress, Orphan, Age 17.”
Ladies maybe not of the evening, but definitely ladies of the demimondaine, to turn a phrase like my friend Beatrice would.
So I was, as you might call it, conflicted.
Priya and me was out to celebrate spending the reward money we’d earned by being heroes and genuine deputized U.S. Marshals. I was just about over my pneumonia, and my hip only pained me when it rained—which in Rapid City was, to be sure, almost all of the time.
But I was working on gaining back some of the weight I’d lost, and we’d bought us a tidy modest outfit with a barn and some pasturage and a kitchen without even a hand pump indoors, and an old-fashioned Franklin stove—not one of those modern self-cookers like Miss Lizzie is making a killing off building for the rich people’s houses. It was a sweet little place that would be a tinker shop for Priya and a dude ranch and breaking stable for me. I was taking her out to dinner and she was taking me out to a magic show, both at the Rain City Riverside Hotel, where the widow of the famous late illusionist Micajah Horner was meant to be demonstrating a selection of his tricks.
We got our share of stares, two ladies on our own, and Priya in trousers, though I tried not to take it personal. Maybe everybody was just staring because we was the heroes what had saved the town that winter previous with no more to work with than a house full of light-skirts and a Singer sewing machine.
That big Singer that Priya had turned into a suit of battle armor was back in our barn, and it still sewed, in spite of everything. If I couldn’t make a living breaking horses, I could always be a modiste.
Us being temporarily famous might have been the source of the fuss, honest, because after we disembarked from a steam carriage that bore a striking resemblance to a horseless, burnished-steel version of Cinderella’s pumpkin, the maître d’hôtel had welcomed us inside effusively before showing us to the best two-top in the house. His name was Alexandre, and he was a tall, narrow, elegant Negro Frenchman in an evening suit. He was French French, not New Orleans French, and he was the pride and joy of the Rain City Riverside Hotel dining room.
The dining room is French, and everybody in town savvies the only actual Frenchman in Rapid is that Alexandre. The cook’s Chinese. Don’t let on I said, but most French cooks on the West Coast is Chinese. They got a cuisine, too, the Chinese do, so their chefs got the touch, and I guess the only thing real different is all the cream and butter the French put in everything, which Merry Lee tells me gives her and most of her countrymen indigestion.
Our table was tucked into a window nook and half-screened by the heavy red velvet curtains so we would have to try real hard to scare the horses—or the other patrons for that matter—and it overlooked the gorge and the river. The oldest mill in town—the one where they sawed the lumber that built this hotel we’re in, and the lumber for the Hôtel Ma Cherie as well—is downstream from the Riverside, which sits up above the rapids that give the city its moniker. So when Priya and me turned our heads, we looked down at the smoky twilit water fuming and roiling phosphorescent white under electric arc lamps, like it was picked out in radium paint. And beyond that, the mill and its electric lights, flooding up the waterwheel as it turned all slow and majestic down below. It was February, and there was a bit of ice, but it don’t freeze up hard in Rapid City the way it does back in Hay Camp where I grew up before Da died. Still, Priya found the whole thing fascinating. And it was cold enough for her: she came from a place so tropic I can’t even rightly imagine it (I know this because every time she talks about it I find out I’ve been imagining some bit of it wrong) and she couldn’t ever seem to get warm enough.
We was so busy staring at that waterwheel, I’m embarrassed to say, we forgot to even look at the menus before the waiter came around and asked us what we’d like to drink. I hemmed a bit; Priya, who is cool as a long dip in that river down there, said, “A bottle of champagne, please.” She cocked her eyebrows at me, her face all gilded up with candlelight. “It goes with everything.”
I laughed so hard I had to smother it in my water glass to stop from being a scene. It was a deadpan imitation of Miss Bethel, one of the ladies back at the Cherry Hotel, and since Miss Bethel was about the classiest mab who ever worked on her back, it got that biscuit shooter’s attention. He bobbed his head and took off,
I was glad to see Priya perk up a little. She’d been stewing all day about her da’s latest letter, which apparently hadn’t been no picnic, and I was probably glad I couldn’t read Tamil. Not that I could have read it anyway, because Priya had gotten up before sunrise this morning, walked into the kitchen, and burned it. Her da wanted her to come home and get married off, and he weren’t being nice about it, either.
Before the waiter even came back a young Negro boy showed up with a basket of butter and bread so fresh the steam was still rising from it.
Well, maybe not that fresh. It didn’t look cut hot—bread kind of squishes down when you do that, which I learned from somebody I still miss about every time I eat a biscuit—but cooled, cut, and reheated. Hotels, like whores, got all kind of little tricks they don’t tell you too many details on, make you think you’re getting something special.
It sure tasted good, though. It was late enough in the year that the butter was white, because the cows was eating silage, but I was just as glad they hadn’t colored the cream yellow when they churned it. They use carrot juice to do the color, and the butter never tastes right to me after. My ma was Danish—she’s the one named me Karen, before she died—and she was real particular about her butter.
The waiter came back with a bottle. Since Priya was wearing an evening coat and a necktie, he clearly decided that she was the boss. He showed her the bottle—a little dusty, still cool from the depths of the vaulted stone wine cellar that served as a bragging point for the Riverside’s management—and while I was buttering my second piece of bread he untwisted the cage and eased the cork out into a clean white towel. I wonder if he knew why I looked down and smiled. Miss Bethel would have been proud of his professionalism.
When he pulled the towel away, a beautiful curl of pure white vapor rose up from the neck of the bottle as if from the water breaking on the rocks below, and I sighed. Then he gave me a little wink and a smile, produced two shallow glasses like it was legerdemain, and poured first for Priya and then, when she nodded over it, for me. He left the bottle in a bucket of ice beside the table, and by then I’d figured out what I wanted and we ordered—or Priya ordered for me, because that’s how the waiter decided we was doing things.
It was all pretty fine. I don’t mind being treated like a lady. Especially when Priya’s the one doing the treating.
People back east got this idea we’re all barbarians out in the settlement, but I wager they don’t get oysters like ours back in New York. Well, maybe they do; I guess it’s got a harbor.
Anyway, with all that outside to feast our eyes on and all that anticipated good food to whet our appetites after, and the anticipation of going home to our own little house, it took something indeed to direct our attention back inside.
But then those two girls came in and was seated at the table next to us, and they was dressed up like Easter, the both of ’em, with one in emerald watered silk and the other in indigo. They rustled as they moved, and their shady wide-brim hats were cocked at exactly the same angle. The lace was white at their cuffs and fell heavy across the backs of their hands. One was tall and one was short; they both was buxom with a little nipped-in waist and a good curve on ’em under the bustle. They both was fair, and each one had hair hennaed auburn-purple and dressed in curls. The short one was wearing a lace coat over her dress that I’m not ashamed to say I envied a little. The tall one had given her wrap to the maître d’.
They pulled some of the hairier eyeballs off Priya and me, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t grateful. They knew just how to work the attention. When they faced each other across the two-top, those hats framed them so they looked just like a papercut. That’s a practiced skill, like an actor’s stagecraft, and there’s a lot of folk don’t know it. Every eye in the room was on ’em: you don’t see too many unaccompanied ladies out in a frontier town, unless they’re doing the marketing of a morning, or unless they don’t care to be accompanied.
I had to respect that. I had to respect that, and the white kid gloves, and all the work that went into getting their hair to fall just so. Professional respect, though I wasn’t in the trade anymore. Though who knows. Maybe they was respectable ladies and cutting a figure just for the fun of it, and not as good advertising to drum up clientele.
They might have been sisters or they might have been a sister act. Their profiles weren’t too similar—the little one had a good strong nose with a warmblood’s Roman bump in it, and the tall one had a button nose like a Shetland pony—but they was working the angle all right. The tall one had a narrower face, while the little one had lips like couch cushions you just wanted to lay yourself down on. If I hadn’t been sitting next to my own glorious Priya, I might have been thinking of doing just that.
There was one other woman dining alone in the hotel that night, and getting attention from the miners and such—but she was gray haired and soft chinned, with a widowed air of independence and a little pinned hat, and I suspected from the likeness on the bills posted outside that she might actually be the lady performer we were planning on ending the night with. She glanced over at the girls once, arched her brows, and went back to her tea like it was no concern of hers—but a funny expression passed her face for just a second before she smoothed it. I probably wouldn’t have noticed none, except I used to make my living noticing little expressions and tells and you never quite get out of the habit.
In any case, I kept an eye on those girls. The men, for all they want us around when they want us around, sure don’t want us around the minute we turn inconvenient. So we girls look out for one another. There ain’t no such thing as men’s work in a parlor house. And I was still a paid-up dues-current member of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses and would be until the day I died, even if I was a lady rancher and horsebreaker now by profession and didn’t pay no sewing machine tax no more.
So anyway, to bring us back to the present moment, maybe I’m an old jade at seventeen. But I also had an illusionist for a john once upon a time and he told me a few things that rapidly disappointed my early interest in Spiritualism, which I suppose was a natural sort of thing for a young orphan to yearn after.
So when we was getting to the end of our dinner and the table started thumping, I guessed I knowed what was what, and I didn’t pay it no nevermind. Priya, who’s got some damned good reasons to be high-strung, jumped in her seat and looked ready to bolt. I put my hand on her knee under the table and she settled, and seemed to settle more when I picked up my fork unconcernedly and applied it to the edge of my peach tart.
I admit, I was motivated at that point more by dessert than by curiosity. And if those girls were working on getting out of a tab, well, I had money in my pocket and didn’t mind paying, and I wanted to see the show, and furthermore I had hopes of being welcome back in the Rain City Riverside sometime.
Why take a risk when you ain’t got to?