Chapter OneSo, Madam, can you describe the mechanical?”Henry Stapleton tapped his charcoal stick against a piece of paper, keeping the notebook angled away from the housekeeper. He’d learned, when he first joined the police force, where his uniform might not win him answers, the appearance of writing would.After all, the staff had been trained for generations to bow before nobility, and only the upper class could write.The housekeeper wrung her hands so strongly he feared she’d strip the flesh from her bones. “He’ll blame us, Sir. I swear none of the staff put a hand on the cursed thing. Only brings the attention of Naturals, it does, having those contraptions in the house.”She leaned in close to add, “He thinks it makes ‘im big. Important like. He goes showing it off to everyone. No wonder it’s gone missing.” She glanced around, features pinched as though worried she’d been overheard.Henry swallowed a sigh. He’d joined the police force to help people in need, not track down rich men’s toys. Some family legacy he followed. Though if it took the edge of fear from this woman and the rest of her staff, at least he’d have accomplished something.Their master should be whipped for how he clearly treated those in his employ, but it wouldn’t happen. The laws had yet to catch up to this new world where blacksmiths could put out steam-driven mechanicals and the new industry raised country merchants to the big houses. His father would have rejoiced to see this come about in his lifetime, if he’d lived, without noticing the troubles it brought.“Don’t you worry, Madam. We’ll find your master’s mechanical, and who’s behind this rash of thefts.”“Thank you, Officer Henry. Thank you.” She grabbed his hand and clutched it between her pillow breasts. “I can’t tell you how much safer we feel with you about.”“Just doing my job.” Henry extracted the hand and touched the rim of his top hat in a half salute. “I’d best get back to my team.”He’d gained a reputation as the voice for the small folk despite his bloodline, but hearing her, a soul would think he did so much more than take their word as evidence. His grandfather had hidden political fugitives. His father helped bring about laws to protect the weak. Just listening seemed too little an action to win such approval.He turned away before his frustration caused him to lash out at the one who didn’t deserve it, but she caught hold of his arm and pulled him back.“You said a rash of thefts, Officer Henry. You don’t think…” Her fingers tightened even more as she failed to bring forth the rest of the question.A short laugh escaped before Henry could corral it. “Mum, we haven’t seen a Natural on the loose in over a year, and never down here in these parts. Mechanical contraptions are expensive. Those that have them tend to wave the devices about just asking for them to be lifted. You said so yourself. More like some enterprising fellow is taking them up on the challenge and reselling the mechanicals for a steep profit.”She released him with a laugh of her own, one hand pressed to her bosom. “Oh, Officer Henry, I’m sure you have the right of it. The stories one hears are enough to send terror through the stoutest of hearts, but not yours. No sir, not Officer Henry. I’ll keep you no longer. You’ll find the fellow and bring him to justice for all of us.”“My team and I will have this wrapped up in no time,” he said, squashing the inappropriate hope that this time it would be something more than just a common thief. He strode down the steps to join the other officers where they’d gathered in the street.Catching a Natural would make a difference to more than just the wealthy. Naturals posed a real danger to the people with their wild contraptions running about harming folks. He’d seen them in the asylum—all new officers were required to do a stint there. Pale, wraith-like beings only vaguely showing their human beginnings.That stint was the first time he’d left his grandfather’s pocket watch behind since he inherited it. No metal objects of any kind were allowed within, but one of the attendants had been kind—or cruel—enough to demonstrate the reason behind the rule. Memory of those grasping hands and mewling cries haunted his dreams for weeks afterward.“So, Sergeant, what you think it is this time?” Fitz asked, his words thick with the Irish brogue he’d shown no signs of losing.Henry shrugged. “What else? A bunch of wealthy men showing off their contraptions to any comer.” He glanced from one to the other of his five men, settling at last on Parson, a Scot from upcountry. “Tell me any of you found something more interesting.”They each waved their own notebooks, filled with random marks because none could read or write beyond their names, but those they interviewed never knew the difference.“You know I can no more read those scratches than tea leaves.” Henry said with a laugh. “Ken, what do your instincts tell you?”Nicknamed for his ability to sense the truth behind almost anything, the skinny man looked nothing like a police officer, but Ken had better instincts than any other Henry had seen. Other officers had tried to pull him to their teams, but he’d refused each time, something that brought Henry a measure of relief.Tugging on his forelock as though the night-dark strands held the meaning of the universe, Ken stared at the ground while his mind churned through the possibilities.The others waited patiently despite the chill of late fall. Better patience now than wasting time Ken could have saved them.Henry stamped his feet and wound his scarf tighter around his neck.“Sergeant, it doesn’t make sense. Not so many. What thief is so skilled, and yet so foolish, as to keep coming back to the same place?”Ken’s words brought a tension to every one of the six of them, the implications what an officer longed for—and dreaded.Henry’s heart beat faster. Here he could make a difference on par at least in part with that of his ancestry. Only a matter of time before the Natural started building mechanical monsters to terrorize everyone regardless of social position. The monsters got their name from a natural affinity to all things mechanical while their nature could not have been further from the meaning of that word.LILY SMOOTHED away the wrinkles from where her fingers had clenched on her best skirt.The solicitor continued his list of her father’s debts, unaware of how his words condemned her, and condemned her sister Samantha most of all.Mr. Cooper, Lily’s employer and a friend of the family, shot her a concerned look, but she forced a smile on her face and tried to listen.The solicitor paused to draw in a breath, his sunken eyes blinking at her and Mr. Cooper as though just becoming aware of their presence. “Now it’s not as bad as all that,” he said, rubbing his temple with one hand. “You have a good job and a place to stay thanks to Mr. Cooper here. I know it’s not what you’d hoped, especially with having to sell your family home, but it’s not like you’ll be sent to debtors’ prison.”Lily just sat frozen with her hands once again tangled in the rich fabric she’d never be able to replace, not here nor on the Continent where they’d been planning to go.“Lily, you’re a hard worker, don’t think I haven’t noticed in all these years you’ve been working at my bakery.” Mr. Cooper sent her a kindly smile, a fatherly one when she had no father left. “I should have done this sooner, but there was the age to consider what with you being younger than some, and I didn’t know what you’d planned once your inheritance cleared.”He paused, and the solicitor waved a hand as though to encourage him to go on.They thought they had it all figured out. That the promotion Mr. Cooper had hinted at for a year now, even when her father still breathed, would solve all her problems.“It’s about time I spend less of the day at the bakery anyway, or so my housekeeper, Edna, tells me. I’ll put you in charge of the place, with a reasonable increase in your pay, of course.”The solicitor clasped his hands together and grinned a little too enthusiastically, showing he hadn’t been as immune to the impact of his accounting as she’d thought. “So it’s all settled then. And a pretty girl like you from a respectable background, and with a good job, well, you should soon find a husband to care for you so you’re not out on your own.”Lily rose, yards of cloth falling into place to hide her trembling knees. “Thank you, both of you. I’m sure I’ll do just fine. I’d best get back to the bakery.”She was happy to hear the firm tone she used on the youngest of bakery girls issue from her lips. They meant well, but she could not take their kindness any more, not when they knew nothing of her sister, or rather both thought Sam had died at a young age. It had been the only way to protect her, but Lily never expected to face this alone. Her father had been healthy and strong despite all the troubles life sent his way.Mr. Cooper laughed once. “As you see, she’s already been in charge, and we all know it. I should have promoted you long ago, but never expected…”His face turned the color it did when pulling hot bread from the oven, and his words stopped.Lily put out a hand to brush his arm lightly. “I know you didn’t, Mr. Cooper. None of us did. But you’ve been such a help in these past six months since Father died, even before that truth be told. He couldn’t have chosen a better friend.”She swallowed hard against the threat of tears. She couldn’t afford to give in to her grief, not now, and not ever. All their plans to take Sam to the Continent, to one of the few places she would be safe, destroyed in a single, horrifying moment. If only her father hadn’t gone to Dover on business that morning. If only the carriage had held true. If only he’d been more frugal.None of that could be changed now, so it didn’t matter. She had to be strong for her sister. She had to figure out some way to fix this. They’d been counting on the inheritance, especially once it became clear hiding Sam at her lodgings was too risky. The abandoned stables Lily had found would not be comfortable once the winter’s grip took hold, but now it would have to serve until the passenger ships started running again in the spring.“He was a good man,” Mr. Cooper said, clearly not for the first time. “We shall all miss him.”Lily stifled a bark of laughter, knowing it would take her too close to hysteria and be something she could never explain to these two gentlemen. A good man for sure, and a better father than any others knew. These two would have had him clapped in chains for the choices he’d made, her along with him.“Come, Lily. Let’s not dwell on what we can’t change. There’s baked goods to be tending.” Mr. Cooper tucked her hand around his arm and turned to the door, his determined cheerfulness one of the things she’d always liked about her father’s friend, a bright light in the gloom that threatened to swallow her family whole.“Wait,” the solicitor cried, “there’s more.”Lily shivered, her body unable to mask the upset a moment longer.“No, no.” The solicitor rounded his desk, arms waving as though to wipe her fear away. “Don’t you worry. Nothing bad. The debts are paid.”She focused on that fact with all her might, pushing aside the awareness that besides the single trunk of clothes she’d been allowed to take, everything else was gone. Every memento of her mother, every bit of inheritance from her father, the paintings, carpets, and statuettes that had decorated their home, all sold at auction. Even the toys she and Sam used to play with were gone, vanished just like both parents: one in childbirth and the other to a carriage accident.“It’s just I almost forgot what with all the bad news today. Your father had a single request about his belongings in the unlikely event of his early death. He asked that his journals be saved for you. They have only sentimental value I’m sure, not that I pried into his personal thoughts mind you, but they would have fetched nothing at auction.”He kept on about how little value the journals had, but his words became a blur as she tried to comprehend what he was saying.Not until he placed the seven leather-bound diaries into her hands did she accept what he gave her. Tears sprung unbidden to fall on the top edges as she clutched this tangible piece of her beloved father to her. A sharp image of her father bent over these very books to record his thoughts came to her, a vision she’d seen every night as far back as she could remember. Within these pages, she’d find her father’s voice restored to her and to Sam so they could keep his memory fresh and know him better even than when he still lived.“There now, no need to fall to pieces.”The solicitor, when she raised watery eyes to look upon him, seemed flustered and actually backed away from her.This time Lily did laugh, a small hiccup of sound as her lips spread into the first genuine smile since entering his tidy office. “Thank you for these. It means so much to have something to remember him by.”The man nodded twice, enthusiasm replacing a fearful expression. “Glad I could give you something. Sorry it couldn’t be more, but what with his debts…”Lily waved off further words with just her fingers, unwilling to chance dropping her father’s journals. “No need. I understand better than you know. Thank you again for his words.”She spun for the door once again, but now her steps had more eagerness than weight. For the first time since her father’s death, she felt close to him instead of abandoned.
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