I wanted to share a free preview of my upcoming novel, From the Darkness Risen: Book II. To set the scene, Eva Grimm has been working for a Confederate agent in St. Louis for a few months behind her husband’s back (Thaddeus) and she’s finally been trusted with a task that could make a real difference in the war effort.
Robert Louden, Rachel Hyatt and the boat burners really existed in St. Louis during the Civil War, causing numerous headaches for the Federal army there. Louden destroyed the steamer Ruth, for example, in the summer of 1863 that carried $2.4 million in pay for Grant’s army. Coal torpedoes were real weapons in the war along the Mississippi as well. At this stage, they were just being tested occasionally before the inventor got backing from the Confederate government later in the summer of 1863 (we’re in the late winter of 1863 at this point in the novel).
I’ll blog more about the real history behind my novel later. For now, here is a free excerpt that will likely be edited and improved before publication next month. Feedback is appreciated. Enjoy!
“Do you have it?” Rachel Hyatt’s heightened, excited tone sounded entirely different than the sober volunteer Eva met at Senator Godfrey’s reception.
“Yes, just here.” Eva patted the basket hung from her arm. “I told my husband I was bringin’ soup and bread to an ill friend. He didn’t even question me. You might as well take the food.”
“No, no,” Miss Hyatt decided, “you shall need these things to conceal your purpose. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, of course. I don’t know what I was thinkin’.”
The swiftness with which she rifled through the basket made Eva tense and jumpy, for the coal torpedo jostled beside the loaf of bread. As it turned out, they hatched a plan to conceal her assignment from her husband with the greatest ease. It appeared that Miss Hyatt lived alone in a few rented rooms above a bustling tavern, yet she wore a wedding ring. Her husband must have been in the army. Eva didn’t ask many questions. It was better for agents to know very little of each other even if Miss Hyatt was little more than a petty thief and lady of the night.
Miss Hyatt studied her for a moment. “You’re anxious. You’ve got to put your mind at ease or you shall surely be caught. Here, sit down.” She grasped Eva by the elbow and propelled her to a nearby chair, old and creaking with years of overuse. “We shall have a drink and then send you on your way.”
As the lady crossed the room, Eva noticed how swiftly and naturally she moved without the cumbersome hoops under her dress. True, hoops freed ladies from the bulk and weight of layers of petticoats that were popular so many years before, but her mind worked ideas about further freedom. She might have to run from the police or the army that night. It was already going to be difficult with her false foot. She knew a large, bell-shaped dress could hinder her escape.
“Do you have another dress I could use?” Eva inquired as Miss Hyatt handed her a small glass of brown liquor. “It’ll help me escape quicker should I be seen.”
A slow smile creased the other woman’s pale pink lips. She disappeared into a second room where Eva could no longer see her. Moments later, she returned clutching a length of wool patterned in claret and brown paisley. The dress was as poor and simple as Miss Hyatt lived but the lack of adornment meant Eva could slip through the night completely unnoticed.
“Put this on. I have a long cloak you may use as well. If you pull the hood over your head, it will make it harder for anyone to get a good look at you.”
Eva flung her head back and downed the drink in one long swallow. Her face twisted in the momentary discomfort, but soon the warmth soothed her nerves. She stripped out of her dress and hoops with very little modesty thanks to the whiskey. Miss Hyatt’s dress felt tight around her waist as it was buttoned up the back but she was not about to tighten her corset and risk losing her breath.
She could handle it.
She could get the job done.
“There. Nearly a perfect fit,” said Miss Hyatt.
“Thank you. I’ve got to go and do this before I lose my nerve.”
“You’re doing what you can for your country. That makes you just as much of a hero as the men fighting in the field.”
It was, as if by design, exactly what she needed to hear. She simply needed to get back into the routine of leading a double life. Sacrifices for the cause had to be made and the men in the field were putting life and limb at risk every day. The least she could do was help them along if she was not allowed to fight by virtue of being born a female.
Indeed, she straightened herself and found her courage.
With the heavy wool cloak fastened across her collarbones and encasing her in the darkness of night, she bade Miss Hyatt goodbye.
“One more thing,” she said from the doorway. “If you’re detained by the provost marshal’s men, you must never offer them your real name. Decide upon another identity and teach yourself to respond to it with the same ease you respond to your true name.”
Eva nodded. She hadn’t thought of that and it only reminded her of how long it had been since she involved herself in such things. She pulled the cloak’s hood over her head and descended the stairwell two flights down to the street.
The late hour meant the streets were more or less deserted, thankfully. She estimated the time to be around midnight. She found the nearest gaslight on the street and studied the map hastily sketched on the linen napkin in her basket. Just in case anyone walked by, she broke off a piece of bread and nibbled, feigning a moment of hunger. Three blocks north and two blocks east, the map read. She hadn’t walked that far on her wooden foot yet and dreaded the test of endurance.
She traversed the path marked on the map without an upward glance, careful not to walk too fast and draw attention. Her thoughts pieced together the persona of a beggar woman and she allowed her posture to hunch just enough to present that image to possible onlookers. The buildings increasingly became taller and wider, suggesting she entered a warehousing section of the city. In the dark, of course, hulking buildings intimidated her. Intermittent gaslights flickered a tawny haze along the length of the street with candlelight occasionally illuminating shopkeepers’ homes above their shops. It was better to assume she was being observed, she decided, and adjusted the cloak to hide as much of her body as possible.
At the corner where the map told her to turn east, she leaned against a gaslight for a moment of rest. Pressure from the wooden limb on her ankle brought a new ache with each step and she suspected it didn’t fit well enough. She lifted her foot off the ground and balanced on her intact foot. The sudden release of pressure brought a flood of new pain. She bit her lip to keep herself from crying out in shock.
The sooner she dropped the coal torpedo in the pile at the docks, the sooner she could go home and climb into bed. She reminded herself of that fact as she pressed herself to continue walking. The damp aroma of the Mississippi arrived before she could see it through the darkness of night. She reached the top of a hill and thought perhaps the giant swath of blackness ahead was the river. There wasn’t much in the way of light along the riverfront – something she hadn’t considered – and she wondered how on earth she could locate the correct steamer.
Once she reached the riverfront, three steamers towered over her like buildings in their own right. Her pulse quickened. The moment was upon her, if she could only decipher one vessel from another. Intense silence filled her as she took stock of the three steamers docked at a diagonal angle with the riverbank. She calmed herself. Panicking would only draw attention.
The steamer docked on the far left appeared considerably smaller than its two counterparts. It couldn’t possibly contain enough supplies or munitions for the Yankee army, she surmised. A passenger vessel, perhaps, but it was nothing of value to her interests. She maneuvered as close as she dared go to the next two steamers, much larger than the first and capable of carrying the cargo she imagined.
Voices reached her ears from the warehouse over her shoulder. Her heart stopped. She sank into the shadows as four men approached the third steamer carrying crates in their arms. They hadn’t seen her but she held her breath and remained perfectly still within the safety of the shadows cast by the first steamer. From her concealed vantage, she managed to calm her drumming heart long enough to hear their voices, although she couldn’t make out any defined words. Tinkling sounds carried to her ears from the crates. Two men laughed at something.
Were they carrying crystal and china?
Men disappeared onboard the third steamer and Eva quickly deduced the possibility of military supplies including crystal and china being next to none. It wasn’t entirely impossible but she hadn’t the time to wait and see. The risk of being wrong wasn’t enough to stop her. She focused her attention on the middle steamer and believed it the one she needed. If only the men would finish their business and leave her to her work. There was no time to wait.
Cautiously, she emerged enough from the shadows to see where the men were on the third steamer. They laughed and made a ruckus together, their silhouettes moving about the top deck with no clue of her presence below. It was now or never, she insisted to herself. She didn’t know how long they were going to be up there.
The coal pile meant to be loaded onboard the middle steamer in the morning stood about fifteen feet back from the dock. She estimated the distance and how long it would take her to cover that distance with her foot. Quickly, she put the basket on the wooden planks where she stood and uncovered the torpedo. She tossed the linen napkin with the ink sketched map behind her into the river should she be caught delivering the explosive. The less evidence on her person, the better. Gloves under the soup jar slipped on her hands quickly while she listened for the men.
She rose to her feet with the explosive gripped tightly in her gloved hand. The focus that overcame her completely calmed her senses. One last glance at the rowdy workmen and she ventured out from the safety of the shadows. She didn’t move straight for the necessary coal pile but instead gave the appearance of casually wandering along the docks. Eventually she reached the coal pile and ducked behind it where she thought she could hide undetected. There, she smashed a real piece of coal on the ground just as Mr. Louden had instructed and she rubbed the coal dust over the torpedo. It resembled a real piece of coal quickly rather than the hollowed out piece of iron in reality. She stowed the torpedo in the coal pile, careful to make certain no one would recognize it as out of place.
Before she reappeared, she leaned over the mound and raised just enough to look upon the three steamers. Thankfully, she saw no one close by and the rowdy men hadn’t noticed her presence either. She darted back to her basket without feeling any pain. Peculiar how carrying out her obligation eliminated any pain in her leg, she absently thought.
Again, she crouched at her basket and looked for anything that might connect her to the scene. The gloves caked in coal dust were thrown into the river along with the linen napkin. She leaned over the dock and washed her hands in the freezing river water. It chilled her hands to the bone but it was better than being caught with coal dust on her person.
Light covered her suddenly and shined on the river.
“What are you doing here?”
Eva spun and shot to her feet. A soldier stood before her with a lantern held to her face. She shied away from the intrusive light.
“Well?” he forced.
“I needed a walk, sir.”
“At this hour?”
“I couldn’t sleep, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth Brown,” she said impulsively.
The soldier didn’t look any older than one of Thaddeus’ students. Light eyes and orange hair under his kepi gave him a ginger appearance. He looked positively ghostly in the lantern light.
“Elizabeth Brown, does your husband allow you out so late by yourself?”
“My husband’s dead, sir.”
“I see,” he replied. “Why were you washing in the river?”
“I fell and my hands were muddy.” The lies came naturally from a place of pure self-preservation. As long as she kept her responses short, she could keep everything straight.
The soldier chortled in a superior air. “That’ll happen when you wander around the city in the middle of the night.” He noticed the basket on the ground and lowered the lantern over it. “What’s that there?”
“My basket, sir.”
“Obviously.” He stooped and put the lantern on the ground. Without any care for her privacy, he emptied the basket of its bread loaf, soup jar and root beer jar as if looking for something suspicious.
Eva bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from expressing her outrage.
“Where’d you get all this?”
“A friend packed supper for me, sir.”
Those Yankee light eyes turned up to her and narrowed. “I thought you said you were just out for a walk because you couldn’t sleep.”
“Yes, I was.” Her stomach began to burn as her thoughts raced. “Before that, I was with a friend for the evening.”
Distrust darkened his features. She knew it when he grabbed everything, put them into the basket, but wouldn’t give it back to her. “You had better come with me for further questioning,” he decided aloud. He seized her by the elbow.
“Honestly, sir, that isn’t necessary,” she protested.
“I shall decide what’s necessary, Mrs. Brown. Keep quiet and do as you’re told,” barked the ginger soldier.