The second installment of my winning entry for The Sandy writing contest. Find part 1 here.
Without so much as consideration for what price she might get for it, she scooped it back into its bag and shoved it in her pocket. She grabbed her cloak before throwing open the door and bolting out of her quarters. As she raced down the gangplank, Iris called to her, but Rachel had no time to waste. The ring had to go. She would simply return it to Mrs. Tweed and forget the whole thing had happened. Rachel hated magical items. She would not allow it to remain in her possession. Iris would be livid when she learned of this, but Rachel’s tolerance of Iris’s obsession with Aether Manipulation did not extend to this degree. As the Captain, it was her right to say what would and would not be on board her ship. The argument about the legality of transporting such things was hardly the issue. Nowhere in the twelve years she’d been Captain had she run across such an item. No, she would not allow it this time.
After nearly running over a porter on the dock, she decided to slow her pace to a reasonable but brisk one. It wouldn’t do to cause any accidents that would delay her in ridding herself of the ring as quickly as possible. She retraced her steps through the loading docks and public houses until she was at the market again. A block before the place she had come across Mrs. Tweed, Rachel caught a glimpse of something suspicious. A group of four men dressed in black suits and bowler hats stood in a semi-circle around the old woman’s blanket. With a building at her back, Mrs. Tweed had no escape route. Rachel wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but from the terrified look on Mrs. Tweed’s face, whatever was happening was not a routine business transaction.
Rachel crept closer, concealing herself behind a parked hansom cab a short distance from them in order to overhear what transpired. It was obvious they belonged the same group, maybe a gang of some sort, but they bore no insignia she could detect. As she leaned around the edge of the cab she heard a snippet of the exchange.
“I’m telling you the truth.” Mrs. Tweed’s chin jutted out. “I don’t have this thing you’re looking for. Search me all you like, but you won’t find anything like that.”
“Oh, that isn’t necessary, my good woman.” The ringleader was pale and oily looking, with a handlebar mustache that twitched when he spoke. “I fully believe you do not have the item in question. What I wish to know is which of your patrons might be in possession of it now.”
Mrs. Tweed chuckled. “You think an old biddy like me’d remember who bought some little trinket I don’t even remember owning? Really, gentlemen, you overestimate my memory.”
From her vantage point, Rachel saw Mr. Mustache’s fingers twitching near a bulge under his coat. It appeared to be a blunt instrument of sorts. This did not bode well for Mrs. Tweed. These men were determined to cause violence. Rachel regretted her decision to come alone.
“I shall ask you one more time.” His tone grew threatening, and Rachel had to strain to hear his words. “Where is the ring?”
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard this. There was no doubt in her mind which ring Mr. Mustache wanted. Mrs. Tweed would not have had anything else like it. She had a very good idea of why they wanted it. This was not good. This was very much not good at all.
Rachel’s stomach clenched with dread. Should she step from concealment in defense of Mrs. Tweed, she would instantly mark herself as a target. Regardless of her prowess with blade or bullet, four-to-one odds were odds she didn’t like. Even if she managed to take out one or two, Mrs. Tweed would still likely be hurt by the remaining men. And there was no guarantee there wasn’t a man lurking somewhere she hadn’t spotted yet. Were she to be defeated, they would undoubtedly search her and find the ring. Despite her dislike of the object, she recoiled at the thought of handing it over to them.
But she couldn’t stand back and do nothing. Not where Mrs. Tweed was concerned.
With a start, she realized one of the men had pulled a knife from the inside of his coat. Before she could react, the blade left his hand and pinned Mrs. Tweed’s sleeve to the wall of the building behind her.
The situation deteriorated quickly after that.
Mr. Mustache produced a brass Billy club from inside his coat and snapped it down, extending it to its full length. Rachel slipped from her hiding place and dashed toward the scene as he raised the club. The other three men followed his lead.
Breaking into a full run, Rachel knew without a doubt that she would be too late to stop several of the sickening blows from striking the elderly woman. Rage fueled her. With a flick of her wrist, the pistol strapped to the inside of her right arm was in her hand. She fired a shot directly through the neck of the man on the far left. He crumpled into a gurgling heap, the blood spurting between his fingers where he clawed at his throat. Her second shot landed in the back of the knife thrower, but the third missed its target when the last goon rolled to the pavement. With a click of her heel, her boot knife shot out, and she kicked fiercely. He swept a leg out toward her and met with sharpened steel. He screamed in pain and grabbed his knee. Even before the wound was certain, Rachel trained her gaze on Mr. Mustache. He watched her with stunned surprise, his club held mid-air. A drop of blood slipped off the weapon to splatter on the cobblestones below. She aimed her pistol between his beady black eyes.
Somewhere between the knife-throwing and the gunshots, the thoroughfare had cleared of all people, and now only the bodies and the two opponents remained.
“You shot my men in the back,” Mr. Mustache said with a sigh. His tone indicated this was merely an inconvenience.
“After you beat an old woman. Do you intend to lecture me on cowardice and courtesy?”
He sneered at her. “Not at all, but I would like to know the name of the woman who intends to kill me.”
She kept the gun trained on him. “I’m quite sure you would, but I have no desire to kill you. Unlike you and your men, I do not find pleasure in the pain of others.” His gaze flickered to his fallen men. “But I will kill you if I must.”
A smile played across his lips. “Then by all means, you have the upper hand. May I ask what it is you’d have me do?”
“You can start by dropping the weapon.” The club fell to the street with a clatter. “And now, you can clear out.”
His movements were slow, but he backed away. She didn’t risk lowering her gun until Mr. Mustache was out of sight. Her time was short. Someone in the crowd would have alerted the coppers by now. She had to move quickly.
He was a block away before he broke into a run. Obviously unaccustomed to the activity, his lanky form looked very odd swaying down the street. The man with the destroyed knee had managed to drag himself away as well, leaving her with two dead men and a barely breathing Mrs. Tweed. When she was sure it was clear, Rachel knelt to assess the damage to the old woman.
Mrs. Tweed’s jaw had been smashed with a fierce strike, and dark pink foam oozed from the side of her mouth onto the disheveled blanket. Rachel grasped the knife that pinned the woman’s sleeve to the wall and yanked it free, the limp arm dropping to Mrs. Tweed’s side. After sliding the knife into the top of her boot, Rachel brushed the hair from the dying woman’s face and tried to comfort her a little. There was nothing anyone could do now. Had she moved a little faster, been a little closer, acted more decisively… Regret washed over her as she met the woman’s glassy-eyed stare.
“You shouldn’t… have let… him live…” The words sounded bubbly with the forced air from her blood-filled lungs.
“Hush. You mustn’t speak,” Rachel said, reaching to brush away another hair.
“No!” She grabbed Rachel’s hand and squeezed. “Listen… to me. That ring… keep it safe. It’s power… it’s beyond anything you can imagine. They must… not get it.”
Rachel held her hand tightly. “Please don’t speak. You’ll be fine, but you must be silent. Help is on the way.”
A rasping chuckle escaped her lips. “Must have been… fate… that you came to me… today. That ring… was… your mother’s… dear one.”
Rachel would not have been more stunned if Mrs. Tweed stood up and slapped her. “My– my mother’s ring? But how?”
“Keep…” Her breath was even more labored now. “Keep… safe.”
“Did she give it to you? Why? Did my father know about it?” Mrs. Tweed’s eyes glazed over, and panic gripped Rachel. “Mrs. Tweed! Please! I have to know!”
“Safe…” was the last thing the old woman managed to say as her final breath rattled free from her chest.
Rachel’s eyes welled with tears of frustration and sadness. Mrs. Tweed was dead. Not only could she not get answers to her questions, but she didn’t even know where the woman lived. She would be unable to pass condolences to her family or beg forgiveness for her own failure to save this woman.
The shrill screech of a police whistle ripped her from mourning. Her time was up. Rachel scanned the street. Constables ran toward her from the south end of the market. It would look suspicious if she bolted, but that was the likely outcome even if she stayed. It mattered little that she had been defending a helpless old woman being beaten to death. She had killed two other people in the process and wounded another, and who knew what sort of political ties they had. Organized thugs always did.
So, she ran.
It wasn’t her first time having to dodge police. She caused as much chaos in her wake as she could, dumping barrels in the street and slapping the occasional horse on the rear end to spur it suddenly forward. One animal was so badly startled that it overturned a cart in the middle of the road. Fruits and vegetables spilled onto the cobblestones and were trampled beneath hooves and shoes, creating a slippery mess. She glanced back as one of her pursuers crashed to the ground. Another tripped over the first, creating a tangle that halted the constabulary’s progress entirely.
She wound her way from the market back to the docks. Rachel was confident she had a good lead, but it would all be for naught if the Antigone’s Wrath were not ready to leave immediately.
When she saw the ship, steam billowing from the exhaust port of the center mast, the knot in her stomach loosened. Iris and Danton had done their jobs well, as she had known they would.
She took the steps of the gangplank by two, all the time barking orders. “First Mate, get us out of here now!” Rachel burst through the door to the pilothouse and answered the puzzled look on her friend’s face. “Iris, don’t ask. Just go!”
Rachel grimaced. Emergency departures weren’t unheard of, but weren’t altogether common. There was a protocol, however, and Iris followed each step with practiced precision. They would set off on the water, taking to the air as soon as it was feasible to do so. This plan was a little tricky, as it would mean getting underway, then immediately inflating the six sails and leaving the water. On usual outings, they would sail for half a day before everything was prepared for flight. She hated putting her beloved ship through this sort of rough treatment, but she was confident the vessel could handle it.
“Departure protocol omega initiated,” Iris called into the communication tubing that ran throughout the ship. A few grumbles of disapproval came back, but the crew complied. The gas pressure gauges rose. On a leisurely cruise, the sails would fill over the course of several hours. For a fast take-off, the heat of the gas in the pipes would build until near to bursting in order to fill the sails in a matter of minutes. While this method worked in a pinch, too many uses of the technique could result in exploding pipes, or worse. Rachel gripped the back of the pilot’s chair tight to keep steady and glanced down the pier. Her pursuers had cleared the far end of the docks.
A gruff voice called through the tubing, giving the “all go” for engineering. More confirmations followed. The crew on the topside would give her visual indications of readiness. When the final call came in, Iris waited. “Captain?”
Rachel gave a terse nod and took her place at the wheel. The First Mate released the brake and pushed the engines to ahead one-eighth. “Give her a bit more, Iris,” she called over her shoulder.
“Aye aye, Captain.” Iris clucked her tongue at the reckless pace.
Pulling away from the dock was not the time to experiment with piloting accuracy, even if she was a master helmsman. There was little chance another ship would be ready or even notified in time to intercept them, regardless of their speed. Rachel knew Iris wanted to say something, but a single look told her that now was not the time for helpful suggestions. Iris set her jaw and went back to monitoring dials and flipping switches.
“Stop fuming.” Rachel sighed. “I’ll explain it all later. I’ve a good one for you this time.” It was sadness, and not amusement that colored her words. In times past, the need to be away quickly was always accompanied by a jovial laugh and a bawdy story. She only wished it were so now.
Rachel took a rough turn to avoid the path of a barge and cursed under her breath. “How are the gauges looking, Iris? We need to get airborne!” She yanked down the periscope with one hand and adjusted it to the rear view. “I won’t relax until they are a good fifty leagues behind us.”
Iris cocked an eyebrow at this. “They? Who are they?”
Rachel cringed and let the periscope go. “I don’t know, Iris. I honestly don’t. I told you we’d discuss it later, and I won’t discuss it until it is later. The gauges?”
“We’re nearly to the mark. Another minute, and she’ll be there.”
She corrected course to avoid a cargo ship. Beyond it, she was very glad to see the remaining path before them was clear.
“Make ready for air travel,” Iris said into the communication tube.
The gears ground as the deck crew loosened the rigging and wound it into the spools attached to the masts. Rachel watched them lock the reels in place to secure the cable. “Fill the sails!” she said.
Bracing her foot against the wall, Iris grabbed a lever with two hands and heaved. A muffled bang indicated the gas was on its way. The six flat sails grew to resemble giant, withered fruit hanging on either side of the three masts. They fully inflated in minutes. The crew, by now, would have attached their safety lines to their belts. The ship lurched, fighting gravity, but the superheated gases in the balloons insisted on taking them into the skies. Iris crossed the pilothouse to the panel that controlled the engines and switched them over to flight mode to adjust the ship for air travel.
When they’d reached cruising altitude, Rachel flopped back in her chair and released a relieved breath. After sounding the “all clear”, Iris approached her with arms crossed, awaiting explanation.
Rachel’s head lolled to the side to look at her in exhaustion. “All right, all right, but not here. Fetch Danton and meet me in my quarters.”
END PART TWO… TO BE CONTINUED!