The following is an excerpt from my novella, “Crimson Whisper.”
A bullet smashed into a shipping crate inches from Lydia Wainwright’s head. Wooden splinters pelted her neck and shoulders. Imagining the effort it would take to free them of her hair, she raised her pistol and shot the brute that launched the offending projectile.
They were in the cargo hold of the HMS Integrity, en route to England from France. Rows of crates were stacked nearly to the ceiling. The place smelled like a cross between a lumberyard and a fish market–now with traces of gunpowder.
The deck rolled beneath her feet. What should have been a pleasant trip across the Channel, followed by a rather more pleasant few weeks in the Dover countryside, had turned into a gunfight with Heavens knew how many men intent on murder.
Lydia glanced over her shoulder. “Are you sure that contraption will work?”
“I built her, didn’t I?” Keilah Holliday’s voice echoed from within a large, partially dismantled crate. She was head and shoulders into the engine compartment of her newest invention: a steam-powered carriage. “And her name is Beatrice.”
Bullets drilled into the crates surrounding them. Lydia ducked at the sound of breaking glass as the heady scent of wine filled her nose.
“I notice that is not precisely an answer to my question.” Lydia fired, narrowly missing another gunman, sending him scrambling for cover.
A metallic clang sounded. “Blast.” A moment later, Keilah’s voice rose in triumph. “There you are.” She straightened, replacing the panel. Keilah wore a pair of goggles with a lamp perched in the middle of her forehead. The goggles exaggerated her warm, brown eyes, making her look both silly and endearing.
The lamp made her a target.
Bullets zipped past, splintering wood. Lydia crouched, dropping her hand into a rapidly spreading puddle of gritty red wine.
She scowled at her plum-stained palm and, with a murmur of apology to her trousers, scrubbed her hand against her leg.
“It’s not the answer to your question perhaps,” Keilah climbed into the operator’s seat, ducking as a bullet spanged off a wheel housing “but it should more than suffice.” She pressed a button on the control panel, smiling at the hissing steam and mechanism’s powerful rumble beneath her.
The corner of Lydia’s mouth turned upward. “Indeed it should.” She spotted a man with a rifle on top of a stack of crates several rows away. Drawing a slow breath, she aimed and fired.
The bullet ripped through the crate at an ascending angle. The man shuddered and collapsed, his rifle clattering to the floor.
“Climb aboard Lydia,” Keilah said.
Lydia glanced over her shoulder as a bullet slammed into the wood next to her. Scowling, she fired driving the man back under cover.
Breaking from cover, Lydia fired, sending a gunman spinning to the floor.
She climbed into her seat as Keilah put her machine into gear. The mechanism rumbled backward, crushing their makeshift barricade and gaining speed as Keilah guided it through the stacks of crates. Bullets flew all around them, splintering wood and sparking off the deck.
One of the bullets struck their carriage, putting a large dent in the metal. Scowling, Keilah increased their speed.
“Hang on,” she said.
They reached a gap in the crates and Keilah spun the wheel. Beatrice’s wheels screeched against the deck as she turned. Lydia struggled to maintain her seat, nearly losing her pistol in the process.
“Well done.” Keilah patted the wheel. She threw a lever and they lurched forward. She grinned at Lydia. “The chase is on.”
Men swarmed through the crates in pursuit. Lydia fired her pistol and another fell. “I don’t suppose you’ve brought additional weaponry?” Lydia put her empty pistol away and faced forward as Keilah wheeled them around a sharp corner.
“Storage compartment.” Keilah pointed. “I packed your favorites.”
Lydia opened the compartment. Inside she found a brace of pistols along with some singularly vicious-looking knives. She looked up. “I am unworthy of you.”
“Perhaps, Nghariad.” The look in Keilah’s eyes did pleasant things to Lydia’s insides. “But you do try so wonderfully.”
They raced through the hold. Beatrice was more than a match for the men in speed, but their adversaries were more maneuverable.
The side of a crate flashed past, accompanied by a metallic crunch. Behind them, a crumpled piece of metal tumbled in a cloud of broken glass.
“I think we just lost–” Lydia began.
“It was a side-view mirror.” Keilah dodged past the edge of a crate. The mirror on her side disintegrated in a tinkling crash. “And they are blasted difficult to make.”
A bullet whizzed past, gouging a deep furrow in Lydia’s door. She snapped her pistol up and fired, catching a gunman mid-leap from one crate to the next. He hit the harsh wooden edge and vanished.
A blast of thick smoke belched from the rear of the carriage. It quickly filled the spaces between the crates.
“Keilah?” Lydia said.
“Smoke screen,” Keilah said. “Avoid getting it in your eyes. And you probably shouldn’t breathe too much of it either.”
The billowing smoke cut off. Lydia searched for targets but couldn’t penetrate the smog. They were going to have to find a way out soon.
“Captain? Are you there?” Keilah asked.
Lydia turned. Keilah was steering with one hand and had a transmitter of some kind in the other.
“Yes, ma’am,” came the crackly response.
“A hoist, if you would, please? As we discussed?”
“Acknowledged ma’am. Please stand clear of the main hatch.”
Lydia looked up. They’d be under the main hatch in a matter of moments. She pitched backward as Beatrice leapt ahead with renewed speed.
“Aren’t we to stay clear of the hatch?” Lydia asked.
“We’ll be clear in a moment,” Keilah said. “Beatrice is performing brilliantly, don’t you think?”
“Not exactly the field test we’d envisioned,” Lydia said. “But she is making a good show of it.”
Lydia sighted a gunman and pulled the trigger. Her gun clicked empty.
“Blast.” She opened the compartment and removed the final pistol. Before she could pull the trigger, the hatch exploded overhead.
“Bloody hell!” Lydia ducked, nearly falling from her seat as Keilah brought them to a skidding stop. Splinters from the hatch–some as long as her arm–pierced the crates nearby.
Alarms sounded. Through the ringing in her ears, Lydia heard gunfire from above.
A heavy cargo net plummeted through the jagged gap overhead, sprawling open when it hit the deck. Attached to it, a length of thick rope extended up and out of the hold.
“That’s our ride.” Keilah backed them onto the netting and shut off the engine.
Lydia’s eyes followed the line up into the belly of an airship directly overhead. Flashes of fire from the gondola kept the men on deck too busy to concern themselves with the activity in the hold.
“Oh, I do like this,” Lydia said. “That’s the Argent, is it not?”
“The same.” Keilah unstrapped and scrambled free of the vehicle.
Around them, the remainder of the gunmen were recovering. Lydia leapt from her seat, ducking behind the far side of the carriage. More bullets slammed into Beatrice’s metal plating.
Lydia returned fire as Keilah gathered the near corners of the net, draping them up and over Beatrice’s side.
“Cover me?” Keilah asked.
“Always.” Lydia whirled out from cover, firing. Ahead and to the left, a man dropped. Two men up on crates. Lydia released a breath and pulled the trigger once, twice. She kept moving, never staying in place for more than an instant. Something tugged at her sleeve, followed by a flash of pain across her arm.
She wheeled and fired.
She turned. Keilah had Beatrice wrapped in netting and was lifting off the deck.
Lydia ran forward and jumped, catching hold of the net. She clambered up the side and tumbled into her seat with a grunt. Shots rang out from below and Lydia winced at the metallic pings and crashes.
“I’m not sure I like the ‘hanging suspended as a target’ part of the plan,” she said.
“The undercarriage is armored,” Keilah said. “We needn’t worry about fire from below. I–oh dear…”
The jagged edge of the hatch drew near, gaining speed as they approached.
“Hang on,” Lydia said.
They smashed into the shattered edge of the hatch. Lydia pitched into Keilah.
With a metallic screech, they jerked to a halt. Several astonished faces gaped at her from the main deck before they ripped free of the ship, rising into the air, trailed by gunfire.
Keilah glanced over the side. “The net looks like it will hold but look what they’ve done to my poor Beatrice.”
Lydia looked around them. The chill waters of the Channel sparkled in the sun. Ahead lay the port of Dover and farther along the shoreline lay the white cliffs where they had planned on field-testing Beatrice. She felt a pang of loss for the time they would have spent together, almost like being on holiday, but the information they uncovered on that ship warranted a swift return home.
Keilah shivered in the bracing Atlantic air and Lydia leaned in, wrapping an arm around her. Keilah snuggled against her, the wind blowing wisps of her light brown hair to tickle Lydia’s nose.
“I’m sorry about Beatrice,” Lydia said. “When we get back to London, we’ll see the old girl mended properly.”
“Still.” Keilah reached out to stroke the steering wheel. “She did perform admirably well for her first time out.”
“She was brilliant.” Lydia planted a kiss on the top of Keilah’s head. “As is her creator.”
Keilah’s shoulders rose and fell. “It’s too bad we never got to test the forward guns.”
“Next time, dear.”
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