The Alchemy of Murder

The Alchemy of Murder

by Carol McCleary

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The world's most famous reporter, the intrepid Nellie Bly, teams up with science fiction genius Jules Verne, the notorious wit and outrageous rogue Oscar Wilde, and the greatest microbe-hunter in history, Louis Pasteur. Together, they must solve the crime of the century.

They are all in Paris—the capital of Europe and center of world culture—for the 1889 World's Fair. A spectacular extravaganza dedicated to new industries, scientific discoveries, and global exploration, its gateway is the soaring Eiffel Tower. But an enigmatic killer stalks the streets and a virulent plague is striking down Parisians by the thousands. Convinced that the killings are connected to the pandemic, Nellie is determined to stop them both... no matter what the risks.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429991766
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: Nellie Bly , #1
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 479,952
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

CAROL MCCLEARY was born in Seoul, Korea and lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines. She now lives on Cape Cod in an antique house that is haunted by ghosts. Alchemy of a Murder is her first novel. She is currently working on her next Nellie Bly novel.

CAROL MCCLEARY was born in Seoul, South Korea, and lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines. She now lives on Cape Cod in an antique house that is haunted by ghosts. McCleary is the author of  Nellie Bly Mystery series.

Read an Excerpt

The Alchemy Of Murder

By Carol McCleary

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2009 Carol McCleary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9176-6


Paris, October 27, 1889

I have never feared any man as much as I fear the man in black. His is an evil that seeks blood in the darkest places of gaslit streets and forgotten alleys. The Alchemist, is how I've come to think of him — like a medieval chemist trying to turn lead into gold or seeking the elixir of life, he has a passion for the dark side of knowledge, mixing murder and madness with science. What purpose he has for the broth he's brewing I've yet to discover, but in an age where many young doctors are following the footsteps of Dr. Pasteur in searching for benefits to mankind in their laboratories, a man who uses his microscope to concoct evil ... well, I fear his ambitions are of the most preternatural sort.

My name is Nellie Bly, though it isn't my birth name. I had to adopt a pen name because the common wisdom is that newspaper reporting is no job for a lady. As an investigative reporter for Mr. Pulitzer's New York World, I've chased many strange tales and written of things that seared my soul, but on this night I'm questioning my own sanity as I set out to track a killer at Montmartre, a notorious hillside overlooking Paris.

Through intuition, a little information, and perhaps a great deal of imprudence, I've followed his gruesome deeds from New York to London and now Montmartre — the hillside Parisians call "La Butte," noted for artists and poets and its Jezebel streets, where men buy empty shouts of pleasure and women lose the shine on their souls.

As a carriage carries me down dark cobblestone streets on my hunt for a madman, I can't help but worry about the task I've set out for myself. No matter how hard I try to find good sense in my plan, nothing comes to mind. Thinking about what I may face this gloomy night gives me the shivers. "A goose walked over your grave," my mother always said whenever I got cold chills. Not a pleasant thought on this dreary night.

Streets wet from an earlier drizzle glisten where sallow glow from gaslights reach. Now the night air tastes damp as a fine gray mist falls.

Had Mr. Dickens wrote about Paris today, he would no doubt find that this is not the best, but the worst of times. The City of Light is racked with attacks by anarchists out to destroy civilized government while a deadly pestilence sweeps in from the East, striking down people like the Grim Reaper wielding his bloody scythe.

With the city besieged by a plague of violence and sickness, no one will listen to my warning that another evil stalks the city. I am left with no other choice but to go out alone to bring the beast to bay.

The German doctor. That's what we called him at the madhouse on Blackwell's Island because of his accent and clothes, although we knew nothing about his background or nationality. What I do know is that he's evil, a depraved monster lusting for the blood of women.

Since his preference for victims are prostitutes, I've dressed the part.

I boldly bought from a Montmartre streetwalker a jaded black dress that plunges immodestly at the neck, with the hemline a scandalous six inches above my naked ankles. Despite a vigorous washing, it still bears a scent of cheap rose water. A wool shawl, trashy red lipstick, and a vulgar swish that would erupt fire and brimstone in a Baptist minister complete my costume. Having donned many disguises — from ballet dancer to elephant trainer, servant girl and thief — I pride myself on authenticity.

I've learned a great deal about the Alchemist since my first encounter with him in New York. For a time I thought he was simply a rabid beast who murdered women for satanic pleasures, but now I believe his acts of madness cloak a diabolical plan and the test tubes and microscopes in his laboratory play a sinister role.

My carriage pulls to a curb at the destination I gave the driver. The time has come to test my plan — along with my courage and resolve.

The cabby has a lumpish face devoid of sensibility. He leers at me and does a vulgar half whistle-click sound with his lips and teeth as he takes my money. "Good hunting, Mademoiselle."

He thinks I'm a streetwalker. Good. I've passed the first test and this gives me a bit more confidence, but as I step down from the carriage I find myself praying for my nerves to hold.

I'm in an area I've gauged the man in black will be hunting for his prey. Normally it would be filled with people, but because of a fall carnival at Place Blanche, I'm walking up a deserted street. The damp chill closes in on me and I pull my shawl snugger.

Paris is an ancient, urbane city with graceful, curving streets and wide boulevards, but its bastard child Montmartre is a cranky old woman with bulges and lumps; streets are narrow and crowded with small shops, sidewalk cafés, and the cheap hovels of artists and writers. Roads accommodating carriages stop halfway up the hillside, then blend into a maze of narrow alleys and stairwells shaded with moss-covered weeping willows and clusters of creeping vines.

Nothing about the Montmartre is considered respectable by decent society; the immorality and depravities of its bohemian inhabitants is a scandal known throughout the world. Its reputation is further tarnished by the crimes and social ills of the marquis, an area of dank shacks in which the phrase "unwashed masses" is not a literary allegory but a description of the inhabitants.

Paris is spread out below. Mr. Edison's newfangled electric street-lights line the main boulevards, while the pale yellow glow of gas lamps are on lesser streets. The heart of the city is ablaze with the sparkle from the magnificent World's Fair celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. The marvels of nature and technology from around the world are on display, including an entire North African village, an amazing horseless carriage that operates on gasoline, and an electric submarine like Jules Verne's Nautilus, which can plunge hundreds of feet beneath the sea. Buffalo Bill is even there to thrill visitors with his Wild West show.

The most stunning and controversial monument of the fair — Mr. Eiffel's thousand-foot, gangling steel tower — is the tallest manmade structure on Earth, twice as tall as the Great Pyramid at Giza. The nation's art community fought bitterly to stop building of the tower, calling the crossbars of steel a betrayal of French art and history, scornfully dubbing it the Tower of Babel. Construction was approved only because the tower would stand for a limited time and then be dismantled.

I wish I was at the fair right now, safely ensconced in the gay crowds rather than trudging down a dark and lonely street in an area that carries more social taint than even San Francisco's infamous Barbary Coast.

I'm told that Montmartre received its name because some sixteen centuries ago St. Denis got his head chopped off at the foot of the hill. The saintly Denis picked his head up off the ground and carried it to the top of the hill, inspiring the name Mons Martyrum, Mount of Martyrs. For centuries the district was a rustic village with windmills that ground flour for the bread of Paris. But Paris finally grew out to the Butte and the hill became part of the city.

As the old windmills stopped grinding flour and awoke to find lewd jokes in their staid cabarets and dance halls, scandalous cancan girls, artists and poets, bohemians — with their long hair, rebellious minds, and shameless attitudes about sex — abandoned the Latin Quarter for this little village with its grand views and low rent.

My ruminations about the Butte and my feet come to an abrupt halt when a man wearing black steps out of a doorway twenty paces in front of me and stops beneath the glow of a street lamp. I pretend to be interested in a store window display in which the storekeeper has left an oil lamp burning to advertise his stock of lamps. I brought a Chinese fan to hide my features and use it now to cover most of my face.

My body goes cold to the bone as I observe the man out of the corner of my eye. "My God," I whisper. It isn't possible that the very man I'm hunting would suddenly appear in front of me.

Too scared to run back down the dark street I'd come up, I freeze in place as he lights a cigarette. I can make out shaggy, dark hair sticking out below an unfashionable box hat, baggy trousers, and a long, cheaply tailored frock coat.

Even though the clothing isn't exactly the same as the man I tangled with in New York, it all adds up to the same impression: a poor Eastern European immigrant fresh off the boat onto Ellis Island.

He turns to look directly at me, revealing a beard and heavy, round, gold-framed eyeglasses.

I reach into my pocket and palm a rubber bladder of acid. Besides my police whistle, I've armed myself with an unusual weapon I learned about from prostitutes in the slums of Mexico City. They have a small, palm-size rubber bladder filled with hot pepper and their urine to spray into the eyes of men who get too rough. Modesty forbids me from using my bodily fluid and instead I filled the flask with plumber's acid obtained from a maid at my hotel.

The man in black turns and walks in the opposite direction.

Beyond him I can see the lights of Place Blanche. Keeping my panic in check, I follow slowly, thankful that he's heading for the celebration at the square.

Thoughts whirl in my head like ghosts in an attic. Could I have actually found him? It seems impossible that I traveled thousands of miles, spent a week in Paris trying to track him down, only to have him suddenly appear in front of me.

As I near Place Blanche, the night glows with bright lights and gay people. Time has rolled back the curtain of centuries, ancient cemeteries have yielded up their dead, and living ghosts pack all the bright cafés as costumed revelers crowd the square.

The recently opened Moulin Rouge is ablaze with crimson lanterns on windmill blades that turn in imitation of the old flour mills. Cafés and cabarets lining the square are dizzy with merrymakers. Happy shouts, sparkling laughter, and a bewildering kaleidoscope of people in strange costumes greet me.

As I follow the man in black, a Roman senator wearing a bedsheet for a robe and a crown of laurel, crosses my path. Queen Victoria strolls by, in white lace and black wool. Not only is the queen taller and broader than her pictures, but "she" has the beard and impish grin of a bohemian poet. Charlemagne has escaped his statue in front of Notre-Dame and strolls along with a golden crown and breastplate and an enormous goblet of wine in hand. He's surrounded by prancing cocottes — those particularly French tarts, dressed as forest nymphs — or undressed, I should say, since they have less on than off. All this intensified to electrifying cancan music and the cheers of the men surrounding women showing their lace as they kick up their heels.

The nation's president told the city that merrymaking is most important this year because of the doom and gloom created by terrorist bombs and the deadly influenza. His personal awareness of the city's plight was highlighted by an attempt to assassinate him on the eve of the grand opening of the World's Fair.

I try to get a better look at the man in black as I follow him through the maze of merrymakers. His gold-framed glasses have a red tint. I don't recall a tint to the German doctor's lenses. And his bushy hair and beard are longer and more unkempt than I remember.

Still, I think it's him ... or am I fooling myself into seeing what I want to see? After all, the preference of men everywhere is for beards or mustaches. One significant difference in appearance is obvious: he wears a red scarf, the mark of a radical and revolutionary.

The scarf begs a question: if he's trying to hide his identity, why bring attention to himself by wearing a red scarf that identifies him as a radical? The answer, of course, is that this is the Montmartre, not New York. Wearing the color of a radical is no more a fashion statement on the Butte than wearing a watch on a gold chain is on Wall Street.

He stops and turns around, appearing to look for someone. Avoiding eye contact, I pretend to be interested in a ragged young woman holding a black cat while she sings a sad song about life on the streets.

At night I stroll along the Seine
In the moonlight,
I take men under the bridge
And sell my love for a few sous.
When there's not enough to eat,
I bite my lip and keep on walking,
down the lonely street.

I've been given the opportunity to be his proposed victim, but my courage wavers. I have to remind myself I didn't come all this way to be a coward. That said, I muster my courage and turn to give him my harlot's smile, but he's already moved away. The girl singing the song of sorrow speaks to me as I start to follow.

"Here." She takes money out of the bonnet that holds the alms she has collected. "Take this and don't sell your body tonight."

I smile my thanks as I rush away, warmed by her charity. I have found that people who have endured hardship seem so much more willing to share their worldly goods than those who have spent their lives in well-padded nests.

Dodging around musketeers in gay red uniforms and plumed hats, I keep my eye on the man in black. What a strange place to be shadowing a killer — surrounded by the profane and the grotesque: Socrates with his mug of hemlock, a headless Marie Antoinette arm-in-arm with a black-masked executioner carrying her head, Héloïse and Abelard holding hands, two round balls hanging from a string around the latter's neck, my own good breeding refusing to speculate on the symbolism of the balls.

A drunk dressed as an Elizabethan nobleman gropes me and I roughly knock away his offending hands. I'm not a big woman but as a small-town girl with six brothers, I learned early to put up my dukes to a masher.

"Slut!" His voice is British.

I quickly move away from the fool, using my Chinese fan to hide a smile of pleasure. In my hometown if a man used that kind of language on a lady, he would be horse whipped. But on this night in Paris the insult pleases me, for it confirms my disguise is working.

Shouting breaks out off to my right and a champagne bottle flies at a wagon that's being drawn into the square by a team of horses. Men and women on the flatbed of the wagon yell:

Give us bread!
Give us freedom!
Death to those who deny bread and freedom to the people!

They wear the red scarves of radicals. From the words and the curses hollered back from the crowd, it's obvious they're anarchists urging violence to gain a better life.

The words strike home with me. My days as a factory girl were marked by strikes, injuries to workers, and layoffs. I don't like to think about what happens to families when factories close and workers are turned out into the streets. Losing one's job ultimately has one consequence: desperation. Often times, starvation sets in.

In these bad times, the ranks of the anarchists have swollen. Their aim is to destroy organized government by terrorizing the public with bombs and eliminating their leaders with assassination, believing that if organized governments are abolished, the people will rule themselves in a utopian society.

While my heart goes out to the workers, I don't condone violence. And I can see that these anarchists are deliberately appealing to the wrong crowd. The merrymakers are not unemployed factory workers who retch at the sight of their hungry children, but bourgeoisie who enjoy meat and a bottle of wine at every meal. The radicals are obviously here not to enlighten, but to stir up trouble.

Stepping back to avoid a collision with a very tall thin man walking on stilts, I bump into a fat Indian maharaja and my fan is knocked out of my hand.

As I bend over to pick it up something pokes me in the derriere.


I freeze in place, stunned. The intruding object is removed as I straighten up to the sound of laughing behind me.

With the fan hiding my features, I turn around.

The man with a British accent who called me a slut grins as he holds the offending cane. His three companions, all dressed in Elizabethan costumes, find his insult to me amusing. With their generous paunches, the foursome look rather like caricatures of Shakespearean actors.

Rage explodes in me and I shake like Mount Vesuvius ready to erupt. Had I a dagger I would have plunged it into his heart.

"She should roger us all!" one of my assailant's friends bellows.

Roger us all! The swine is proposing I conduct coitus with them.

My assailant's short jacket falls to the waistline of his tights. His private parts rudely bulge. I stare at the swelling as I struggle to keep my anger from exploding.

A woman steps between us and grabs the arm of my assailant.

"Mi'lord! Choose me, Mi'lord." She is a real prostitute — sadly one who has said good-bye to innocence long before. She speaks the words in English, the limits of that language known by most of the street girls. "Mi'lord" is a street name for any man from across La Manche.


Excerpted from The Alchemy Of Murder by Carol McCleary. Copyright © 2009 Carol McCleary. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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