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, The Lock Smith’s Secret. This is from the steampunk thread, the story within the story, which is turning into a murder mystery.
Nell opened the door and stepped into the cafe. Beth followed her into the dim interior, and they stood scanning the room for Richard. They spotted him at one of the tables at the far end. Gregory, a friend he’d known since school sat beside him. They chuckled together over some shared tit bit.
‘He’s very handsome, you know,’ Beth said as they walked across the café. ‘Richard, that is.’
‘And you look gorgeous; the perfect lady,’ Nell replied, glancing at Beth’s pink waist corset over a sweet cream dress with tiny roses embroidered on it. It looked like several months’ worth of wages. Her friend had exchanged her work books for elegant little brown button-ups and her hair hid beneath a brown bowler hat.
‘He likes you, you know that, don’t you?’ Beth continued.
Nell said nothing. Beth often hinted that she should be more open to Richard, but Nell didn’t want to become one of those women tied to a home by children. She quickened her pace before her friend could take the conversation further down that route.
Richard and Gregory looked up when Nell and Beth drew near and stood at the same time.
‘Ah, well come. We’re delighted to see you both,’ Richard said.
‘Likewise,’ Gregory added.
Richard introduced Beth to Gregory, and they exchanged the usual pleasantries. ‘Gregory is a forensic scientist. We went to school together,’ Richard explained. ‘He examined the murder victims’ bodies and is bursting to tell me something, but we’ve kept the juicy conversation until you got here.’
‘Juicy?’ Beth asked.
Gregory looked at his friend. His straight black hair flopped over his face and he flicked it back with a jerk of his head. ‘Perhaps the details you desire may be a little upsetting for our friend Beth.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Beth replied.
Richard pulled out a chair for Nell and she sat. Gregory rushed around the table to do the same for Beth.
‘I’m perfectly capable of handling whatever you have to tell us.’
‘She’s a lot stronger than she looks,’ Nell said.
‘I’ve seen juicy. I helped deliver my sister’s baby.’
‘Oh. Right then.’
‘Would you like tea first?’ Richard asked.
The two girls glanced at each other, then back at Richard. ‘Earl Grey with lemon,’ they said in unison. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ll order,’ Gregory said. ‘You can fill them in.’ He rose and walked to the counter.
Nell followed his progress across the room. Had he waited, the waitress would have come to them. ‘What are you both so excited about?’
‘I don’t know any more than you, except that he’s found something very interesting and doesn’t think the detective running the case sees its importance.’
Nell leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. ‘He wants us to publish this detail?’
Richard shook his head. ‘He wants someone to look into it with him. That’s all.’
Gregory returned and looked from one to the other in expectation.
‘Please, go ahead,’ Nell said.
He scrabbled in his tweed jacket pocket, drew out a folded piece of paper, opened it and spread it on the table.
‘I’ve seen a copy of that already. Richard showed me.’
‘I haven’t seen it.’ Beth took her round framed spectacles from her purse and placed them on her nose, then slid the paper towards her. ‘So this is the symbol made by the knife wounds that you wrote about, Richard.’
‘Why did the police ask you not to reveal the design publicly?’ she asked. ‘Someone must recognise it. Surely that would assist them.’
‘Inspector Carter likes to keep things tight,’ Gregory replied. ‘He says too much information can be dangerous and can compromise their enquiries. He’ll reveal it later if they can’t work it out on their own.’
Nell frowned. Where had she seen that design before?
‘Have you seen it before?’ Richard asked Beth.
She shook her head. ‘Perhaps it belongs to some secret society.’
Gregory nodded. ‘That’s what concerns the inspector.’
A waitress in a short black skirt and leather corset walked towards the table carrying a tray filled with tea things. Gregory’s grey eyes roamed from her black boots up her shapely legs to her ample cleavage. ‘That’s what I like about this place. Ow!’
Nell giggled, and Richard gave his friend a glare. Apparently, he’d kicked him beneath he table.
The waitress laid out the tea things, then, watched closely by Gregory, retrieved a pencil and small pad of paper from a pocket on her belt. ‘Ready to order food?’
‘Fish and chips will be lovely,’ Nell said.
Beth nodded vigorously. ‘Me too.’
‘And both of us.’ Richard indicated himself and his friend.
‘So tell us,’ Nell said when the waitress had left. ‘Strong stomachs aside, I think it better we hear your news before we eat.’
Gregory nodded and leaned forward with a conspiratorial look. The others drew closer. ‘You mustn’t share this. It could frighten people, and if it’s what I think it is, it is indeed a worrying thing.’ He spoke barely over a whisper and looked around the group waiting for each of them to nod their assent before continuing. ‘The symbol was exactly the same each time.’
‘The same symbol, yes, we knew that,’ Nell said.
‘Not just the same symbol, exactly the same symbol.’ He paused for emphasis as if waiting for the true meaning to sink in.
Richard frowned. ‘Exactly. You mean exactly exactly?’
Gregory leaned back and nodded. ‘Same measurements—both length and width. And … the same degree of force for each cut.’ He waited while his words sunk in, then added. ‘What kind of man or woman can do that three times, three weeks apart? And in each case the wounds were the same distance from the ground. So on the shorter victim, the wounds were higher. The perpetrator even had his or her arms at exactly the same height each time.’
‘Her?’ Beth asked. ‘Could it have been a woman?’
Gregory nodded. ‘A strong woman. The cuts had some force behind them, but there was no evidence of a struggle. Either the victims knew their murderer, or they didn’t find their visage threatening.’ He leaned back in his chair and flicked his hair off his pale face with his hand.
Beth and Nell looked at each other with wide eyes. ‘Is it possible?’ Nell asked.
Beth shrugged. ‘Something tall enough to reach a person’s chest would require a spring so strong that I doubt anyone could wind it up.’
‘Not clockwork then?’
Richard raised his eyebrows. ‘You’re thinking a machine?’
‘It has to be a machine,’ Gregory said as if his friend were a dolt for not realising it immediately. ‘What else could be that precise?’
Beth shook her head; a thoughtful frown settled over her delicate features. ‘The compressed air canister required to drive it would be large and heavy. You know how inefficient air powered bicycles are; this would be the same and for the same reason. The weight of the canister means that more energy must be used just to offset the weight. And its master would have to be right beside it to control it. Or if smaller canisters were used—which would solved the weight problem—they’d have to be changed often.’
‘Perhaps the sight would be curious enough for the victims to allow it to approach,’ Richard suggested.
Nell imagined such a thing and nodded. ‘Indeed, it would.’
‘It’s highly impractical, but whatever it was must be movable since I assume the police did not find such a thing in the vicinity,’ Beth said.
Gregory nodded. ‘That’s correct. I’m afraid I don’t have any ideas, but when I suggested to the inspector that a machine may have done it, he scoffed and said it was a fanciful idea. He thinks it’s someone well trained with knives, and he may be correct. I just find the measurements too exact for human hands.’
‘It could be as simple as something the murderer rests on the ground,’ Richard pointed out.
Nell grimaced. ‘A killing machine.’ Who would make such a thing?
‘Indeed. Simple, but curious enough not to arouse fear until it was too late.’
Gregory turned to Beth. ‘I believe you’re the expert on such things, my dear. Is such a thing possible?’
‘With some kind of recoil start, I expect so, but why not simply do the job oneself. It would be easier than making such a machine.’
‘Perhaps whoever it was didn’t want to get his hands dirty?’ Nell suggested.
‘An aristocrat.’ Gregory smiled with satisfaction. He seemed to like the idea. Nell expected that was due to him not being one himself, but something told her this was more complex than some lord not wanting a mess on his hands.
‘Excuse me for a moment, please.’ Beth stood suddenly. ‘I need to visit the ladies.’ She shot a follow-me look at Nell and set off across the room.
Nell rose and followed her.
‘Can’t they ever go alone,’ she heard Gregory say behind her, then both men laughed.
‘What is it?’ she whispered to her friend when she caught her up outside the bathroom.
‘Someone may have done it,’ she replied.
‘On something so large? But you said it couldn’t be done.’
‘I said I doubted it. I thought it would kill a person to do so, but someone with the intent to kill wouldn’t baulk at sacrificing a life to create such a thing.’ Beth glanced down the hall. It remained empty. ‘If this is the case, then something very sinister is afoot.’
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