STEAMPUNK SHORT STORY
A MATTER OF TIMING
Jules headed down the shadowy lanes of “The Rocks.” On entering Harrington Street, every sense prickled and she was already moving when the knife brushed her arm and missed. A violent curse followed. She escaped, using a group of drunken sailors as cover as she sped on; dodged the women who were looking to take gold – watch, rings - from teeth.
Being dressed as a male wasn’t always an advantage. She pulled her frock coat closer and paused at a corner. Two thugs ahead, were “interviewing” a woman in front of the East side Brothel. Face bloody, she was crying then fell, hitting her head.
That was enough for Jules. She moved in, watch spinning, voice deep as she intoned, “She’s useless. There’s better fun inside.”
She repeated it again and again until the men turned away. She opened the brothel door and the men stepped inside. Onlookers hovered, suspicious and wary. She ignored them and scooped the girl up. She was a dead weight but Jules was tall for a woman and whip cord strong.
Within a block, she came to a better kind of brothel. Mary the owner took her in, but warned. “This one stays. The gang’s getting antsy and I need the money.”
“I’ll give you a week then I’m coming back. Until then look after her,” and tossed her a bag of coins. Mary caught it face still sour. Jules ignored her and left, satisfied.
She’d already left a paper figurine in the girl’s dress pocket with a strong suggestion to keep it near. It would activate if she were distressed or it got bloodied. She made a habit of never trusting anyone.
Crossing from The Rocks into cleaner, better lit streets she reached Sydney Town”s oldest Hospital. She entered and made for the critical ward and nearly bumped into Dr. Jenson coming out. He looked terrible. “You all right?”
“No. A young man’s dying. Bashed last night and left near the War of Fortune Hotel.”
“That’s odd,” she said sharply. She frequented the place. “Any witnesses?”
“None. He was found in the wee hours.”
“Excuse me,” a women said from behind them and they swung around.
“He’s failing?” Jensen asked immediately.
“I don’t know, sorry. I …are you the clerk?”
“Yes, I’m Jules McCleod.”
“Laurence mentioned you. Could we talk somewhere…” and looked around.
“Take my office,” Jenson said exchanging a quick look with Jules. He’d want a report later.
Jules led the way and closed door. The woman sat and clasped her hands. “I’m Jessica Manning and Laurence told me about you and the mesmerism. “
She flushed but carried on. “I’m worried about what happened to Mr. Banks. He’s a client of my father’s and I’ve seen some rough men hanging around.”
“You think they attacked Banks.”
“I don’t know, but if you could -?”
“We’re not in England and I’m no bow street runner.”
“But Laurence said you go into The Rocks – do things.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Good. Don’t,” and opened the door.
“I’ll speak to Laurence then we’ll see.”
She left with some reluctance. Jules stayed put a moment, thinking. If gang members were infiltrating the better part of town, it was a big problem. She’d check out Jessica’s story but tomorrow. Her priority now was the children’s ward where she’d lull the worst off to sleep.
Dusk had fallen when she finally exited the hospital. The glow of recently installed gas lamps reflected off a carriage as it rumbled past. She waited until the dust settled then crossed and continued on to Montgomery House where she entered the servant”s quarters.
Cassandra, the lady of the house was in the kitchen with Narelle, housekeeper. Jules sketched a magnificent bow and Cass laughed. “You should set up your own club.”
“And you’d be my patron?”
“Jules,” Narelle admonished and she reddened. “Sorry been at the Rocks.”
“And mesmerism still protects you from that awful Gang?” Cass asked.
“Don’t ever doubt it,” shaking her head. “ I managed to rescue another girl today and took her to Mary’s.”
“That woman should be in goal,” Cass muttered.
“She’s not all bad, and I need contacts. Something’s brewing. ‘”m going to have to get in deeper.”
Cass and Narelle exchanged a look. “I’ll be careful.” They looked skeptical. She quickly changed the subject. “You still heading over to the Homestead tomorrow?”
“Yes and taking Annie,” Cass said.
“That’s good to hear.” And it was. Annie was her miracle.
Jules had come upon her taking a savage beating. She’d swung her watch and hummed in desperation hoping she wasn’t too late when something incredible and terrifying had happened.
The scene had blurred then cleared. A ghostly image of herself had arrived at an earlier time before the last of the worst blows. Her other self, deflected blows then managed to drag Annie away, leaving nothing behind but a thin white trail.
A second later the scene shifted. The two actions were replayed then with a pop of energy the gang members were left standing - alone.
Jules hadn’t waited to see the outcome. Hurrying around the corner, she caught sight of that thin white trial floating ahead. She followed it and ended up at the Hospital where Annie was attended to by Dr. Jenson. Later, she’d returned with Laurence and brought Annie back to Cassandra’s place.
Reaction had set in then. Somehow she’d spun back time. It left her feeling odd; changed. The purified water inside her flask also had changed, turned blood red - hers or Annie’s?
It didn’t really matter. If she had to she knew she’d try to do it again - but could she?
“…send a message via telegraph,” Cass was saying and Jules refocused. “It’s been completed?”
“Yes and a great a thing. Darcy will have notice of our imminent arrival.”
“Pity the railroad doesn’t reach that far. It’d be something to ride all that way in the latest Steam Loco.”
Cass snorted. “And get covered in black soot? Not me.”
“One day I’”ll even cross the Blue Mountains.”
“In your dreams.”
Even Narelle was skeptical, but Jules was going to invest in the railway. It was the way of the future..
After a companionable dinner, she headed to Laurence’s room and leant against the doorpost. “You see much of Jessica’s father?”
“No. He’s a bastard.”
“As a father or -?”
“All moneylender’s are. Is there anything else?”
“He lives this side of “the Rocks,” if that’s what you mean, and I’m a servant,” stopped and swallowed. “Jess and me, it’s not looking good. We have to meet secretly these days. I-”
“But she’s worth it.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“…At the hospital today, and Laurence – keep an eye on the situation.”
“She’s in danger?”
“Only by association, there’s …something odd happening around her father.”
Laurence straightened, “Then I’ll make plans. I’m seeing her tonight.”
“Good and one more thing…don’t mention what I do to anyone else.”
“Sorry, it slipped out,” and eyed her carefully. “You need any help?”
When he looked set to argue, she said “You have your hands full.”
“All right, but there is one, thing. I don’t much like Manning’s secretary Richard Brown,” and described him – average height, straw coloured hair but with odd eyes, one green and one brown. “He’s got his eye on Jess.”
“I’ll check him out.”
Jules set out for Manning’s place next morning. His secretary, Richard was leaving and heading east. She followed him into the lanes where most respectable people never stepped. Richard was approached by two thugs. They spoke to him and Richard nodded and continued on - into the Rocks.
Jules guessed at his ultimate destination and took a more circuitous route toward it. And deep within the mess of dark, close and rundown warehouses she saw Richard arrive and enter one.
She reached the side of the building and slipped into the dark recess between it and the next. Creeping along until she came to the back and a door, she eased herself in behind a stack of pallets.
On a high backed chair, the Gang leader known as Salt, sat hunched. Stick thin in a bundle of tattered rags his eyes were dark dots as he surveyed the room. Jules felt his gaze pass her then come back to stay. Her heart skipped a beat. He was using mesmerism. She instinctively set hers going and for a moment she thought he’d see her, react then finally looked away.
Richard walked forward. Several of the gang sneered behind his back as he presented Salt with a sheet of paper. It looked suspiciously like notary paper. Salt read it and laughed then handed it back held Richard’s eyes, lips moving ever so minutely then stopped. Richard bowed, then turned and marched stiffly out. Two of the gang followed.
That was Jules” cue. She left quickly and quietly and once outside, did a loop and came upon Richard retracing his steps. The thugs were nowhere to be seen. Later she found them stationed outside Manning’s place, hidden and watching.
She watched them and thought about Salt. He’d used mesmerism and that had introduced a new and disturbing element. She’d not felt it before, so why now?
How and when had he learned? And what had he instructed Richard to do?
She needed to see that note and determined to check it out that night.
The house was quiet without Cass and Narelle. Knew she’d been lucky to land in such a good situation. As a woman mesmerist, she had no real chance of making a living from it. In in England, too many men were already practicing and she’d been battling to get clients. She’d ended up on the streets and survived an attack which could easily have put her, in a brothel.
Submerging pride, she’d finally taken up Narelle’s offer of sponsorship and taken ship to Australia. On board she’d decided to become Jules. The idea had shocked Narelle at first then she’d let her be.
Once Cass had seen through the disguise, both of them had wanted to rescue the women as much as she did.
When Laurence came back from the stables, she filled him in. Fortunately that night, was the one Manning went to his club. Jess spent the evening with one of her friends so presented a perfect opportunity.
That evening, Jules staked out the place. Manning’s office was situated right alongside his house. After Manning and Jess left, a light stilled burned in them.
She’d waited down the street for another hour before Richard Brown emerged. When she was sure he’d gone and no carriages rumbled past, she moved.
Going to the side door, she picked the lock. Once she’d adjusted to the dark inside, she pulled out her watch and set it spinning. The energy generated formed a golden glow. She moved past the counter to another door and into the inner office.
Filing cabinets covered two walls. They were marked in alphabetical order and soon found Bank’s folder. The amount he owed was a thousand pounds. A lot and whistled through her teeth. Just before she put it back, she noticed a watermark and near invisible number. She checked it with the top one and they were different. Was there another file, and where would it be found?
She thought about it for a while then moved to the S section. Nestled toward the back she fund the corresponding number under the name of Straun. This note was for considerably less – 300 pounds. Running a finger over the signature she felt a slight rise - a piece cleverly pasted over or carefully reworked? Might it be Bank’s original note of debt.
She needed better light. Tucking it into her pocket, she closed the draw and retraced her steps and had just slipped into the alley alongside when her neck prickled. She spun about just as three figures rushed her. Ducking under the first, she elbowed the second in the stomach then was grappling the third when a blow to the back of her head knocked her out.
She came to and blinked in the light, head pounding.
“Finally awake I see,” and she looked up into Brown’s face. “Thought you were clever didn’t you,” and hit her, fist crashing into her cheek. Her head jerked back and blood spilled from split skin.
It hurt like a bastard and Jules fought the pain and a nausea, gasped, when a bucket of water splashed over her.
“I want answers,” Brown continued. “Who are you working with?”
“No-one,” she croaked head flopping forward onto… skin.
Her shirt had been pulled back and the stiff leather vest underneath cut to reveal the swell of her breasts.
“Why don’t you let the gang have her,” a leering voice said. “We’ll get the truth out of her.”
“Patience Salt,” and stepped closer. His eyes were fixed on hers and she felt mesmerism at work. It hadn’t been Salt but Brown. In his hand he held two paper angels and in derision wiped them over her face smearing them with blood. It was a mistake. The angels ignited and blew up in his face.
Howling, he staggered back. Within her a vibration shivered through her body then outward and again, time spun:
She was being dragged into the warehouse by two thugs. Her other self, stepped up behind them and felled them. She wasn’t sure how, but they didn’t move. Then water again woke her, but this time with a soothing wipe of cloth.
Though groggy, she managed to stand and gaped at the energy swirling around her - figures came and went in a steady, ghostly stream as the past moved forward. It was a wonder but she couldn’t afford to dally.
She was near the door out when Brown entered. He didn’t see or detect her and an idea popped into her head. She acted on it, humming and whispering in his ear before she left.
When she’d made it back through the worst of The Rocks, Laurence suddenly appeared and took her weight. “Christ Jules, I’d thought I’d lost you. How badly are you injured?”
“Just my head,” she said and looked about. Her other self, had gone again but she smiled. She’d have liked to see Brown’s face when he found her gone.
“What are you smiling about you idiot. Let’s get you back home.”
Safe back at Montgomery house, she refused Laurence’s generous offer to help her undress but did fill him in on what transpired.
“I knew that Brown was trouble but this – what can we do about it?”
Jules had told him of Brown’s complicity but not about the mesmerism. “Nothing for tonight, I’ll sleep on it.”
And she was tired – to the bone. Didn’t tell him that she knew Brown’s credibility would be shattered soon.
And so it proved. Rumours surfaced day by day - of the rage and confusion in The Rocks as the gang members returned to their Den with a whole pile of junk – nothing but junk.