A Ticking of Gears – a flash steampunk story

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Talia was careful not to look too smug as she stepped over the broken door and into the gaslit room. The city watch only asked for her help when they were desperate. If she made them feel bad then they might not come to her at all, and she couldn’t afford to lose a repeat client.

The owner of the room, Lady Kabirand, sat naked and dead at her writing desk. On the desk were an inkwell, a pen, some stained papers, and a small jewellery box. Her dress hung from a hook on the wall behind her. The room was filled with the ticking of the clockwork machines that lined the walls – miniature examples of Lady Kabirand’s inventions, from the clockwork butler to the steam carriage. The constant noise battered at Talia’s sensitive ears.

“Room was locked from the inside when we arrived,” Captain Rollar said. “Something in here killed her.”

Talia walked over to the desk and inspected the body. She’d heard rumours of Kabirand’s eccentric lifestyle, the high turnover of servants due to the shock of walking in on their mistress working nude. But it took more than bare flesh to shock a private detective, so she set to inspecting the body.

It was hard to concentrate. The ticking seemed to come from everywhere – the walls, the floor, even the desk. She kept having to force her attention back to the task.

“No marks,” she said at last.

“I know,” Rollar said. “But I knew you’d want to check.”

“Probably a poison, then,” Talia said. “No entry wound means it was breathed or ingested. No sign of food or drink, so probably the latter.”

She started considering the types of toxic gas. There were dozens of likely options, but every time she tried to run through them the ticking derailed her train of thought and she lost track of which ones she had already discounted.

She glared at the nearest device, an intricate clockwork calendar.

“Can’t we get rid of these?” she asked.

“What if they’re part of the crime?” Rollar replied.

She hated it when he was right. At least he had the good manners not to look smug.

It might not matter which gas had been used if she could work out where it came in. There were no windows, so that was out. A quick glance up the fireplace revealed that it was currently blocked. Reluctantly, she approached the machines one by one, enduring the noise of mechanisms right by her ear as she looked behind each object in turn. By the time she got around the room, her ears were ringing and she’d found no sign of a pipe or hole.

She stomped over to the desk, trying to get away from the noise and get her head straight. But even here, it seemed as if a quiet ticking was constantly coming from just in front of her.

She peered under the desk, hoping to find some sort of cannister or dispersal system. Nothing. She opened the drawers one by one, looking for incriminating messages or suspicious contraptions. There were just trays of gears and a couple more pens. She lifted the stained sheets of paper with the tip of her pocket knife, realising how futile that was even as she did it, but unwilling to let the constant noise keep her from doing her job.

As she lowered her head to peer at the underside of the papers, it seemed as if the ticking were right by her ear. It was worming into her head, consuming her brain so she could never escape.

Unless the ticking really was right by her ear.

She lowered the papers and turned her attention to the jewellery box. The more she listened, the more certain she was that some small part of the maelstrom of sound, hidden beneath the rest of the racket, was coming from there. A clockwork device whose action would be camouflaged by the noise of the room.

With the tip of her knife, she lifted the lid of the box. There was a click of shifting mechanisms and a puff of air from a small hole at the back. Talia jerked away, alarmed that she might have become another victim. When nothing went numb or tingly, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“The poison was in here,” she said, tapping the lid. “A clockwork mechanism was triggered when Lady Kabirand opened the lid to deposit her jewellery. It dispersed the gas into the air. Find out who put this box here and you’ll find your killer.”

“Could you help with-” Rollar began

But Talia was through the door and striding away down the corridor.

“Thank you!” he shouted after her.

Rollar turned to take a closer look at the jewellery box. It amazed him how she found these things.

Amid the quiet, soothing noise of the miniature machines, he pulled out his notebook and started work on his report.

* * *


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