The Girl and the Clockwork Cat – Chapter One
by Nikki McCormack
The windowsill ground into Maeko’s ribs. Grabbing hold with both hands, she pushed her toes against Chaff’s palms and lifted high enough to place the frame in that squishy area between her ribs and pelvis. Awkward. Painful. Discomfort, fear of discovery, and the potential payoff of success kept her moving. She rolled onto her right side. A soft whimper escaped as the narrow sill pressed deep into her flesh. The sound was lost amidst the ticking of so many clocks within the shop.
Bracing her hands against the top and bottom edges, she began to draw her knees up so she could squeeze her legs through and land on her feet inside the shop. Even with her slender build, it was going to be a tight fit.
One of many holes in her pants caught on something. She tugged a few times, moved the leg out and back in a little. No luck. The pain of her position was creating a fog around her thoughts.
“Chaff,” she hissed.
She could hear laughter in his voice. “It’s not funny.”
“It is a bit.” There was tugging on her pants that shifted her weight and brought a fresh spike of pain to her side. “Blood and ashes,” he cursed under his breath. “I can’t get it from here.”
She gritted her teeth. Pain translated to a burst of anger and she jerked the leg. The sound of tearing fabric followed by freedom. She curled up in the window, maneuvering her legs and feet through, then twisted her body around to catch herself with a death grip on the sill. Her toes bumped the door.
She braced for the scream of the alarm. Nothing.
“You all right?”
A quick glance down to determine her proximity to the device. Close, but it appeared undisturbed.
“Splendid,” she said. Which, in this context, was code for proceeding as planned.
“Brilliant. You’re a cracking burglar for a bird.”
“Better than any of your boys,” she boasted and let go, dropping to the floor.
The landing was hard enough to draw a few bright sassy notes from a music box on the display table nearest the side entry. It was a fanciful and somewhat scandalous piece with a clock in the base and a woman on top wearing only a corset and underskirts, a tool belt hanging askew at her waist and a parasol in one hand. Disdained pirate regalia made palatable for the gentry in art.
The locked cabinet next to that held an elaborate brass bracer with an embedded clock. Several mechanized articulated arms folded in against it ending in various items including a pen, a pair of tweezers, and a magnifying glass. A black and gold plaque beneath it declared it The Proper Professor’s Companion from Clockwork Enterprises.
There were many such innovative items in locked cabinets around the shop. Items that were worth enough to pay off her mother’s debt, but no fence would touch those pieces. They were much too easy to trace, therefore risky and hard to sell. Still, a satchel full of pocket watches and other trinkets would let her stash a good sum toward her goal.
Further in, on the opposite side of the shop, was the long flat case that held the less exclusive selection of items they were targeting.
First, secure the goods. That way, if she set off the unfamiliar alarm system, they could make a run for it before Literati officers arrived and still have a good payout. She padded over and made quick work of the lock on the case with the pick set she kept stored in one tattered shoe. She swept the entire cabinet, moving everything into the satchel one item at a time to avoid damaging the goods. Minutes clicked by on the numerous clocks, ticking their way into her nerves. By the time she had the satchel loaded, her fingers twitched in time with every agonizing tick tock.
No more clock shops…ever.
She started back toward the door, pausing for another longing glance at the Professor’s Companion. Such a device had to be worth a tidy sum. She eyed the cabinet lock. Maybe…
A rap on the side door caught her attention. She could see Chaff’s hand through the long narrow window beside the door. He was pointing at the handle. She abandoned the cabinet and went over to crouch by the door, examining the connection wire between the piece on the inside of the door and the alarm itself, not surprised to see a Clockwork Enterprises logo on the device. A small switch appeared to release the tension on the wire that connected the two pieces. Easy.
Except the switch was already flipped. The wire was slack. There had been no blaring of alarms. Perhaps the shop owner had failed to finish arming it when he locked up. She disconnected it. No alarms went off. She grinned and unlocked the door.
“There! Get him!”
Her heart seized.
There shouldn’t have been a patrol here this early. They’d watched for weeks to get the schedule down.
He met her eyes through the glass, distress gleaming in his. He mouthed “hide,” then spun and bolted, rapid footfalls retreating down the side street.
Hide? Not likely. Not so long as he was in danger.
“The street’s clear! Shoot him in the leg, you bloody oaf!”
An officer stopped in front of the door and raised his gun.
Bloody Literati officers and their guns. The Bobbies had carried clubs, so you only needed to worry about outrunning them. What if the Lits nicked Chaff or, worse yet, if they shot him? She hated putting him in danger; without him, she wouldn’t ever pull together enough to get her mom out of servitude. She needed his help.
She needed him.
Maeko threw the door open, hitting the officer in the shoulder and sending his shot wild. Two more officers were behind the first. She darted between them, catching a glimpse of Chaff disappearing around the corner. She ran the opposite direction. An officer caught hold of the satchel slung over her shoulder, jerking her back. There was a sinking in her gut. She twisted free, letting the satchel and their plunder go, and ran.
“After her, Wells! Jameson, guard the shop!”
“What about the other one?”
“He’s good as gone, but this little rat’s ours.”
No, she isn’t.
Maeko sprinted past three Literati steamcycles parked in the street, good reason to head for tight back alleys with lots of obstacles. She picked a route and ran, counting on the time it would take them to get the steamcycles going to give her enough of a lead to find a hiding spot. The alleys in the outskirts of Cheapside were home turf for her. There were a million places to hide.
A million places and somehow most of them involved crawling in muck.
Maeko wriggled back into the narrow space behind a big metal ashbin, shoving between the wall and the rusted metal with hands and feet. Her fingers dug runnels in generations of slick grime that coated the surfaces, fighting for purchase while she gagged on the sickly stench of rotting waste.
Steamcycles rumbled past the alley entrance only to stop and turn back seconds later. Sharp exhales from the steamcycles warned that the Literati officers had pulled into the alley. She froze, her heart pounding in time with the rhythm thrumming through the back wall of the pub. The dark mixed beats of a band of pirate musicians.
Crushed like an ant between the Lits and the pirates. I’ll be nothing but a smear in the dirt.
No one would care. No one would mourn another unwanted street rat lost in the dark dirty streets of London.
Rhythmic new music pulsed through her and a shaky smile danced across her lips.
Not crushed, protected. The heavy beats were her sanctuary, drowning out the sound of her labored breathing.
The music also masked the officer’s approach so that she startled when he lifted the ashbin lid. When it crashed back down, she jumped again, her heart slamming into her throat and pounding in her ears so loud that she barely heard the music now. Myriad cockroaches, dislodged from their rusty abode, ran over one hand and up her arm. Her muscles tensed as she resisted the desperate urge to sweep them away, staying motionless while they explored her shoulders, neck, and face at their leisure. The tiniest whimper squeezed free when one bloated bug poked about in her left ear, but the sound drowned beneath driving drumbeats.
“Find anything?” A clear, young male voice edged with a rasp of exhaustion, but lacking the sharp hatred she often heard. He must be new to the job.
“Cockroaches about the size of a small dog.” This came from a veteran of the streets, a man whose gruff voice held no warmth, like the chilly dark depths of the Thames in winter. “If the rat’s back here, he can stay.”
She shuddered and moved one hand behind her back to support herself, sinking it down into something slick and warm. Her stomach turned. She clenched her teeth and waited.
“Afraid of bugs,” the younger man teased.
“I don’t see you back here digging around the bloody ashbin in the dark!”
“I’m not daft.”
“Bloody rats!” The veteran kicked the ashbin, sending another batch of cockroaches scurrying down by her feet and she closed her eyes.
Be calm. Be quiet. Basic rules every thief learned to follow.
A cockroach scuttled up her trouser leg and she ground her teeth, the urge to scream becoming a desperate tickle in the back of her throat.
“They’re kids, Tagmet, not rats. Rats are large rodents with hairless tails. They’re often found in alleys, reveling in the waste of mankind with the cockroaches. You’re like to find one if you keep poking around back there.”
Something in the younger man’s voice tugged at Maeko, a whisper of lighthearted humor and warmth behind his sarcasm. But they were officers of the Literati. No circumstances would ever make them her friends.
“Don’t try to be cute. Most of these kids are old enough to be making an honest living.” The veteran, Tagmet, growled a few crude insults at his partner under his breath before adding, “Besides, it’s hard to tell the difference between the kids and the rodents half the time. They smell the same.”
The song stopped and she held her breath. Someone moved near the corner of the ashbin, a shifting in the shadows so close to her hiding place. She heard the whispering whir and click of clockwork gears in the dark behind her where nothing but rodents and cockroaches should be. Her muscles trembled with fear, exhaustion, and hunger. Another heavy drum rhythm rolled out into the night. A cockroach crawled across her pursed lips. Something coarse and moist brushed one of her fingers where they remained pushed into the warm muck behind her. She sucked back to hold in the scream lodged in her throat.
The steamcycles rumbled to life and she heard them pulling out of the alley. With fierce will, she managed to remain motionless until the sound of the engines faded in the distance. Then she scrambled like a startled rabbit, throwing disgruntled cockroaches in all directions in her desperate charge for the open air beyond the edge of the ashbin. One bony elbow smacked into the brick wall and she bit down on her lip to stifle a cry.
Sound is the killer. Silence carries one through the night alive.
Ripping free of the tight space, she spun and peered back into the darkness. Searching out a bit of fabric between holes in the tattered boy’s trousers she wore, she wiped the worst of the grime from her hands. Something moved in the dark reaches of the narrow space.
Ashbins such as this one existed throughout the city. Despite regular visits from the big steam-powered collectors, the metal degraded quickly in London’s soggy weather. On the up side, Literati officers rarely wanted to soil themselves by getting too intimate with the decaying bins, especially one as poorly maintained and richly pungent as this one. Therefore, they made for prime hiding places if one was small enough to fit behind or beneath them and a steam-powered ash collector didn’t happen by at the time.
She couldn’t loiter there. No telling when another patrol might happen by. They had been doing an aggressive sweep all through the last few weeks to gather in strays. It was a bad time to be wandering the nighttime streets. She didn’t dare go back to one of the usual lurks tonight, though, not without knowing if Chaff had gone back there. Most of the boys accepted her for her skills. Those who didn’t left her alone because they respected Chaff, but they were far less pleasant when he was away. It stung to admit how much she still relied on Chaff. He was the closest thing she had to family on the streets, but what good was family if sooner or later everyone disappeared?
Glancing nervously at the alley exit, she took a few steps in that direction, but curiosity held her back.
With a grimace, she braced her feet against the wall and shoved the ashbin, hoping to shift it a few inches. It perched on little rusted wheels that refused to roll. A second push sent it collapsing forward as the corroded metal around the front wheels crumpled. The resulting crash, spilling a rank sludge into the alley, sent fear burning through her in a dizzying rush. She froze, a storm of panic welling inside. Still, her gaze went to the now open space behind the bin.
Dim moonlight pierced through the haze of soot into the alley, revealing layers of decomposed refuse she’d been sitting in and the freshly disemboweled corpse of a rat lying on a rusty grate, which explained the slick warmth she had sunk her hand into. Her stomach turned again. The one benefit of going hungry; she had nothing to heave up.
Panic continued to prick at her with needle-sharp fingers, warning her to move on before someone investigated the ruckus.
The grate under the dead rat had once covered a large venting in the back wall of the pub. From that shadowed space, she could see a pair of bright yellow eyes peering out at her. She moved in slowly and crouched near the opening, poised to run if the eyes belonged to something less than friendly. The music lulled. In the brief quiet, she heard another sound, a soft, insistent purring. The faint forlorn lament of a violin lifted into the night, resonating with her loneliness.
Reaching into the shadows, she found the cat’s head and scratched behind its ears. The animal crept forward in pursuit of precious affection, its head emerging into the poor light. Too much dirt caked its fur for her to discern a color, a condition with which she could sympathize, but yellow eyes scrutinized her, full of vibrant curiosity. She crouch-walked back a few inches. The cat looked past her, scoping out the surroundings and checking for signs of danger.
Smart. “C’mon. You can’t stay back there eating rat guts.”
The cat glanced down at the grisly remains of its meal, then cautiously stepped one paw forward.
“That’s right. C’mon.” She held her hand out, wiggling fingers to entice the cat forward, and scuffed her feet back a little more.
After looking around again, the cat met her eyes and meowed, a soft querying sound. When she held her ground, refusing to give, it finally came to her hand, and she sucked in a sharp breath, staring in astonishment at the animal. An engraved, articulated metal armor fully encased its left back leg and shoulder, complete with little brass claws at the end of each toe. The cat rubbed its head on her hand and she absently scratched it, contemplating the mysterious appendage.
The leg, so perfectly made she wouldn’t have been surprised to see the claws retract, gleamed through smears of grime. The sound of gears spinning smoothly when the cat moved further attested to the craftsmanship of the piece. She might not have a proper education, but any thief worth their salt would recognize the value of such an intricate device.
Worth enough to pay Mum’s debt?
The cat walked over to sniff at the rat corpse, its tail high with pleasure at having friendly company, showing off its male parts to the world.
She averted her eyes and giggled. “Boy, huh?”
When she spoke, he turned and trotted back to her, rubbing into her offered hand, placing his trust in her. Desperate for companionship.
A lot like me.
What would happen to the cat if she sold him for his leg?
There was a sinking in her chest.
Nothing good. Nothing good at all. It was one thing to nick from people with more than they needed, but this cat wouldn’t survive long without its leg.
He licked her fingers, then walked past her toward the alley entrance.
“Where’re you off to? You’ll be nicked in a heartbeat out there.”
The cat stopped a few strides away, looked at her, at the alley entrance, then at her again and meowed.
She grinned. “Oh? Brilliant plan. A half-Japanese street rat and a cat with a mechanical leg traveling together. That won’t draw unwanted attention.”
A metal door halfway down the alley shrieked open. Maeko grabbed the cat, tucking him against her chest and wrapping her arms around him to hide the anomalous leg. The cat made a small squeak of surprise but didn’t struggle when she cradled his warm body against hers. She pressed back into the shadowed corner and waited to see who would come out.
This is the first chapter of The Girl and the Clockwork Cat by Nikki McCormack. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
Author Website: Nikki McCormack website