Every week in Friday Free Web Fiction I post a first draft scene from my work in progress (WIP), or a short story, or an excerpt from one of my books. Today’s offering is from my Prunella Smith WIP, Past Worlds, The Lock Smith’s Secret.
Last week I introduced you to Nell, this week I have the second edition in her story. Enjoy this free steampunk story
Nell twisted the knob, rolled the paper into her typewriter and stared at the blank white sheet. A string of expletives that would’ve made her mother blush rolled through her mind. She blamed the stable hand—if not for him she’d never have known such words existed. But that wasn’t what Bert wanted her to write, was it? Anyone could swear—except her mother. She’d have to take a more sophisticated approach if she were to show Lord Burnett he was wrong about her.
She lifted her hands above the keyboard, poised to type, then dropped them. What was the point of messing up that lovely piece of white paper with ill-formed words; she’d only have write it all again or cross words out with her pencil and squeeze in new ones. Then Bert would complain that the boys in the typesetting room would be up every few minutes trying to work out what she’s actually written. She needed to think this through.
But she couldn’t think. She pulled a small cloth from the top drawer of her desk and lovingly polished the brass keys on her typewriter—a gift from her dear father. She wished her brain shone with brilliance like the brass did in the sunshine. Often it did, but not right now. Now, her mind was as blank as the paper, and she knew why; she didn’t want to engage Burnett. A rebuttal of the kind she thought Bert wanted would just bring her a powerful enemy. Nell didn’t want enemies. A realisation struck and she grimaced; he already was an enemy. He’d called her plenty of names—upstart, talentless, spoilt, ignorant, naïve, and that wasn’t all. He’d insinuated that she was like some fly in an outhouse, buzzing around annoyingly and trapped by the smell of the shit around her. No wonder tongues were wagging. She hadn’t been the only one shocked by his words. The only way to prove her point was to do better than his cheap rhetoric.
Nell screwed up her mouth and twisted it from side to side. An analogy. She should come up with an analogy. That would be clever. But nothing popped into her mind. She sighed. At least she’d thought of an approach. The man looked like a weasel—or so she’d heard—she could use that. Maybe.
Someone knocked on the door. Nell looked up. Richard peered through the glass divide with an urgent look on his face. He wore his white shirt sleeves rolled up his tanned forearm and his top button undone, his tie hanging loose at the neck—delightfully rakish. She smiled and waved him in. He gave her a grin, strode in and shut the door firmly behind him.
‘He’s at it again,’ Richard said, fixing his bright blue eyes on Nell.
Nell’s heart warmed. ‘Good morning, Richard.’
‘Oh, yes, of course. Sorry.’ He brushed his hand through his thick brown hair. ‘Good morning to you too. You look lovely today; as always.’
‘If you’re talking about Burnett,’ she said, ‘I‘ve seen it.’
‘What? No, not that. Everyone’s seen that by now.’
Richard leaned on her desk and drew close. His manly scent tickled more than Nell’s nose. She crossed her legs and stared at the woven pattern on his braces. ‘There’s been another murder.’ He almost whispered it, and his eyes grew large and round.
Her eyes matched his in an instant. ‘Oh dear. Same kind of thing?’ She screwed her face up in disgust.
‘I’m afraid so.’ He straightened up and began pacing. ‘Same kind of knife wounds, same place. All done to cause maximum blood loss before death. The poor woman must have been in agony before he finally slit her throat.’
Nell’s mouth flew open. ‘A woman,’ she squeaked. ‘How awful!’
He nodded. ‘The inspector is rightfully concerned about people’s reaction when the paper goes live. Three means there is undeniably a serial killer on the loose.’
‘And now a female victim.’
‘Indeed.’ He stopped pacing and faced her, fixing her with his intense gaze. ‘We have to find out who’s doing this.’
She shrugged. ‘That’s the police’s job.’
‘But they’re not looking in the right place.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘The cuts …’ He mimed slashing himself in the pattern of cuts found on the victims’ bodies. ‘It’s ritualistic, for sure, but when I mentioned that to the inspector, he just smiled his condescending smile and said that I was being overly dramatic. But you said you’d seen that pattern before somewhere, you have to remember where.’
Nell shook her head and stood. ‘I can’t remember. But I’ll keep at it. It might pop into my brain eventually.’ She turned and stared out the window at the bustling streets of Sydney town nestled on the harbour. ‘How long since the last one?’
‘Again … three weeks and three cuts.’
‘It’s not a coincidence.’ He joined her at the window.
‘Who was she?’ The sun sparkled off the water. How could such a terrible thing happen under such a brilliant blue sky?
‘A free settler’s daughter. Not a whore. Not a convict.’
She turned to him. ‘You mean, not one the public can dismiss as unimportant.’
He grimaced. ‘Yeah, basically.’
She turned back to the window and sighed. She might think that everyone mattered, but most of society didn’t. ‘Married?’
‘Single. Educated. And a feminist.’
‘Is that important?’
‘Everything’s important … and yes; she wouldn’t have been out alone at night if she weren’t.’
A shiver raced down Nell’s spine.
‘Pretty too. I saw the police photo. She looked like you.’
She swung towards him. ‘Like me?’
‘Long reddish-brown hair, in a messy half-up, half-down style, big eyes, full lips and modern clothes.’
Nell swallowed. Her throat felt suddenly dry.
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