Read Her Dark Curiosity Online

Authors: Megan Shepherd

Tags: #Young Adult Fiction, #Horror, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Europe, #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Horror & Ghost Stories

Her Dark Curiosity

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Advance Reader’s e-proof

courtesy of
HarperCollins Publishers

This is an advance reader’s e-proof made from digital files of the uncorrected proofs. Readers are reminded that changes may be made prior to publication, including to the type, design, layout, or content, that are not reflected in this e-proof, and that this e-pub may not reflect the final edition. Any material to be quoted or excerpted in a review should be checked against the final published edition. Dates, prices, and manufacturing details are subject to change or cancellation without notice.

UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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DEDICATION

To Peggy and Tim,
for a childhood filled with books & love

CONTENTS

Cover

Disclaimer

Title

Dedication

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Twenty-Four

Twenty-Five

Twenty-Six

Twenty-Seven

Twenty-Eight

Twenty-Nine

Thirty

Thirty-One

Thirty-Two

Thirty-Three

Thirty-Four

Thirty-Five

Thirty-Six

Thirty-Seven

Thirty-Eight

Thirty-Nine

Forty

Forty-One

Forty-Two

Forty-Three

Forty-Four

Forty-Five

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Megan Shepherd

Copyright

About the Publisher

UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

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ONE

T
HE AIR IN MY
crumbling attic chamber smelled of roses and formaldehyde.

Beyond the frosted windowpanes, the rooftops of Shoreditch stretched toward the east in sharp angles still marked with yesterday’s snow, as chimney stacks pumped smoke into an already foggy sky. On nights like these, I never knew what dangers might lurk in the streets. Yesterday morning a flower girl around my age was found frozen on the corner below. I hadn’t known her aside from glimpses in the street, one girl on her own nodding to another, but now her dark, pretty eyes would never again meet mine in the lamplight. The newspapers said nothing of her death—just one of dozens on such a cold night. I’d learned of it in slips and whispers when I made my usual rounds to the market’s flower stalls and butcher stands. They told me she’d tried to stuff flowers between the layers of her meager clothing for warmth. The flowers had frozen too.

I pulled my patchwork quilt tighter around my shoulders. A threadbare scrap of fabric wasn’t much more than crumpled flowers.

Winter in London could be a deadly time.

And yet, as I studied the street below where children trailed a chestnut roaster hoping for fallen nuts, I couldn’t help but feel there was something about the narrow streets that whispered of a certain familiarity, a sense of safety despite the rough neighborhood. The tavern owner across the street came out to hang a sparse holly wreath on her paint-flecked door, getting ready for Christmas. My thoughts drifted backward to memories of mincemeat pies and presents under a fir tree, but my smile soon faded, along with the fond remembrances. What good would presents do me now, when death was just around the corner?

I returned to my worktable. My attic was small, a narrow bed and a cabinet missing a drawer arranged around an ancient woodstove that groaned into the night. My shabby worktable was divided in two; the right-hand side contained half a dozen twisted rosebushes in various states of being grafted. A flower shop in Covent Garden paid me to alter these bushes so that the same plant would produce both red and white flowers. The meager profit I made helped pay for the rent and the medical supplies on the left side of the table: a syringe from my previous day’s treatment, empty glass vials, a package wrapped in butcher paper, and scrawled notes about the healing properties of hibiscus flowers.

I took my seat, letting the patchwork quilt pool onto the floorboards, and reached for one of the glass vials. Father had developed this serum for me when I’d been a baby, and until recently it had kept the worst of my symptoms at bay. Over the past few months, however, all that had begun to change, and I was growing more ill by the day: muscle spasms, followed by a deep-seated ache in my joints, and a vertigo that left my vision dulled. The instant I touched the vial, my hand clenched with a sharp tremor, and the small container slid from my fingers and shattered on the floor.

“Blast!” I said, hugging my quaking hand to my chest, lifting my bare feet so I wouldn’t cut them on the glass. This was how the fits always began.

As flickering shadows from my lamp threw beastlike shapes on the roof, I cleaned the broken glass and then unwrapped the butcher’s package and smoothed down the edges. The smell of meat filled the air, ironlike, only just starting to rot. My head started to spin from the odor. I lifted one of the pancreases. The organ was the size of my fist, a light fleshy color, shriveled into deep wrinkles. The cow must have been killed yesterday, maybe the day before.

I’d been born with a spinal deformity that would have led to a quick death, if my father hadn’t been London’s most gifted surgeon. He’d been able to correct my spine, though the operation resulted in a scar down the length of my back and several missing organs—organs he was able to substitute in his desperation with those of a fawn. My body had never quite accepted the foreign tissue, resulting in the tremors and dizziness and need for daily injections.

As I opened the desk drawer and selected a scalpel, I thought about how it was through using the fawn to save me that Father first understood the possibilities of animal vivisection. In the years since, he’d perfected his vivisection procedures—and later turned to a revolutionary chemical transmutation—to transform animals into humanlike creatures, some with tusks and tails, others so perfect in the human form that not even I knew the difference.

Not until it had been too late.

I wasn’t certain why the serum was failing now. Perhaps I was growing immune, or the raw ingredients had altered, or perhaps now that I was growing from child to woman, my body’s composition was changing, too. I’d outgrown his serum just as I had my childish respect for him. His serum had only ever been temporary anyway, lasting a day or two at most. Now I was determined to create something even better: a permanent cure.

The pancreas’s puckered flesh yielded under the sharpened blade, separating like butter. It required but three simple incisions. One down the length. One to expose the glycogen sac. Another to slice the sac free and extract it.

I slid over the tray clinking with glass vials, along with the crushed herbs I’d already mixed with powders from the chemists’. This work had a way of absorbing me, and I scarcely realized how the afternoon was passing, nor how cold the air seeping through the window was growing. At last I finished this latest batch of serum and waited patiently to see if the various ingredients would hold. In order to be effective, the disparate parts would need to maintain cohesion for at least a full minute. I waited, and waited, and yet after only ten seconds the serum split apart like a bloated eel left too long in the sun.

Blast.

It had failed, just like all the times before.

Frustrated, I pushed my chair back and paced in front of the twisted rosebushes that were witnesses to my failure. How much longer could I go on like this, getting worse, without a cure? A few more months? Weeks? A log cracked in the woodstove, sending hot light licking at the stove’s iron door. The flames flickered like those of another fire long ago, the last night on the island. I had been desperate then, too.

Montgomery stood on the dock, the laboratory where he’d helped Father with his gruesome work blazing behind him. Waves lapped at the dinghy I crouched in, waiting for him to join me. We’d sail to London, put the island behind us, start a new life together. And yet Montgomery remained on the dock, let go of the rope, and pushed me out to sea.

But we belong together,
I had said.

I belong with the island,
he’d replied.

A church bell rang outside, six chimes, and a glance at the window told me night had settled quickly. Blast—late again, reliving memories I’d sooner forget. I grabbed my coat and threw open the door, dashing down four rickety flights of stairs until I was outside with the wind pushing at my face and the cold night open before me.

I stuck to the well-traveled, gaslit thoroughfares. That path wasn’t the fastest route to Highbury, but I didn’t dare take the shortcuts through the alleyways. Men lurked there, men so much larger than a slip of a girl.

I turned north on Chancery Lane, which was busy at all hours with people loitering between pubs, and I hugged my coat tighter, keeping my eyes low and my fur-lined hood pulled high. Even so, I still got plenty of stares. Not many well-dressed young ladies went out alone after dark.

In such chaos, London felt much like Father’s island. The beasts that lurked here just had less fur and walked more upright. The towering buildings seemed taller each day, as though they’d taken root in the oil and muck beneath the street’s surface. The noise and the smoke and the thousand different smells felt suffocating. Too closely packed. Ragged little children reached out like thorny vines. It felt as if eyes were always watching, and they
were
—from upstairs windows, from dark alleys, from beneath the low brims of wool caps hiding all manner of dark thoughts.

As soon as I could, I escaped the crowd onto a street that took me to the north section of Highbury. From there it wasn’t too far to Dumbarton Street, where the lanes were wide and paved with granite blocks, swept clean of all the refuse found in the lesser neighborhoods. The houses grew from stately to palatial as my boots echoed on the sidewalk. Twelve-foot-high Christmas trees studded with tiny candles shone behind tall windows, and heavy fir garlands framed every doorway.

I paused to lift the latch of the low iron gate surrounding the last house on the corner. The townhouse was three stories of limestone facade with a sloping mansard roof that gave it a stately air, as though it had quietly withstood regime changes and plague outbreaks without blinking an eye. It was on the quiet end of Dumbarton, not the grandest house by far, despite the fact that its owner was one of London’s wealthiest academics. I dusted off my coat and ran my fingers through my hair before ringing the doorbell.

The door was opened by an old man dressed in a three-piece black suit who might be stern looking if not for the deep wrinkles around the corners of his eyes, which betrayed his inclination to smile in a charmingly crooked way—a habit he gave into now.

“Juliet,” he said, “I was starting to worry. How was your visit with Lucy?”

I smiled, the only way I knew to hide my guilt, and pulled off my gloves. “You know Lucy, she could chatter away for hours. Sorry I’m a bit late.” I kissed his cheek as if that would make up for the lie, and he kindly helped me out of my coat.

“Welcome home, my dear,” he said.

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TWO

P
ROFESSOR VON
S
TEIN HAD
been a former colleague of my father’s—and the man who turned him in to the police ten years ago for crimes of ethical transgression. The professor’s betrayal of their friendship might have bothered me when I was younger and still had respect for my father, but now I thought he’d done the world—and me—a favor. I owed him even more because, for the last six months, he had been my legal guardian.

When I’d left Father’s island, I’d followed Montgomery’s instructions to find a Polynesian shipping lane and after nearly three scorched weeks in the dinghy, was picked up by traders bound for Cape Town. From there, the expensive trinkets Montgomery had packed bought me passage to Dakar, and on to Lisbon. I’d gotten sick on the last leg of the voyage, and by the time I reached London was little more than a skeleton, raving about monsters and madmen. I must have said my friend Lucy’s name, because one of the nurses had summoned her, and she’d taken care of me. My good fortune, however, ended there. One of the doctors was an old acquaintance from King’s College by the name of Hastings. A year ago he’d tried to have his way with me and I’d slit his wrist. As soon as he learned I’d returned, he’d had me thrown in jail, which was where Professor von Stein had found me.

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