Mid-morning came and went with the sun perched high above the clouds and a smog that drifted south from the iron gristle of factories and woolen mills. The smog filtered quietly through the tree-lined greenery of the Queen Street Gardens and then south across High Street – the main road that bisected the smoke-covered, bricked heart of Edinburgh itself. Talkative firehawks, having eaten and performed their usual morning ritual in defending their territory from nearby seagulls, drifted lazily through the air overhead. In the filtered sunlight their typical orange, white and red plumage almost glittered like actual flame.
Along High Street, crowds moved between the few merchant shops, churches and government buildings. At regular intervals, the consistent cobblestone road was broken up by narrow closes that separated one block of tall, spindly buildings from another.
Upon leaving Captain Hunter at Dundee Street, Moira had made her way back south. She had been tasked to find any and all information about the parts Allison sold, and Moira could think of one place in Edinburgh that might easily allow her to find out. A few minutes’ walk later, Moira quickly crossed High Street ahead of a black-hued carriage, then turned right at the dark chestnut front of Digby’s Pub. She paused for a moment to get her bearings. Ahead of her, High Street began its modest rise towards Edinburgh Castle. To her right sat the four story, gray stone Edinburgh city hall. She looked past the crowd and smiled when she saw a small brass sign next to a stone archway. It read ‘Tinkers Close’ with a welcoming arrow that pointed down the yawning mouth of the stone tunnel next to it.
Down the close, Moira nodded a polite greeting to two men dressed in grease-stained coveralls. One carried a partially assembled clockwork messenger owl. The other held what appeared to be a repaired opti-telegraphic for a longskiff. She winced, remembering she had yet to get the spare parts to repair the one she had taken apart several months ago in an emergency. Despite that, she felt confident this was the right place to look for the information they hoped to find about Allison Newt.
The short, dark tunnel emptied out into a modest courtyard surrounded on all sides by the familiar tall, narrow Edinburgh buildings that comprised Edinburgh’s ‘Old Town’. Almost flat and only partially paved with cobblestones, the courtyard was lined with booths where parts merchants and tinkers peddled their wares. On the ground floor of at least two of the buildings, the small apartment that opened only to the courtyard had been converted into a tiny shop. In the windows hung a macabre display of small clockwork body parts, all sized for the more popular types of automata servitors, such as a small clockwork drake, monkey or house cat.
Moira smiled. Most all major ports had a Tinkers Close, and while in most major ports she did her best to find it – if she did not already know where it was. Unlike those times, however, this visit was not for relaxation. Between the small mob of patrons, flying servitors shaped like young, miniature drakes, and the ping and grind of gears that seemed to bounce chaotically off the surrounding walls, she mentally inspected those merchants she could see . When she was done, she picked one of the closest, pulled the gear Hunter had given her from her vest pocket, and went to work.
After a half-hour of walking, talking, and asking questions, Moira found herself frustrated and standing on the far side of the courtyard behind a tall wagon that sold a wide assortment of mainsprings, turn-cranks and refurbished parts for crow-foot batteries. She leaned back against the wall of one of the few buildings in the clockwork menagerie and let out a heavy sigh. Her search had turned up only two things: either the merchant had never met anyone that looked like Allison Newt, or they did know her but had not seen her for nigh onto a week. In fact the latter had assumed she had moved on to another marketplace or even city. Either way, it was not helpful.
“Are you quite certain you’ve not a Collins Turnscrew Rewinder? Allison’s been keen on finding one.” A young man said aloud a few feet to Moira’s right.
Moira looked over and around a rather large collection of copper coils in search of the speaker. What she saw was a tall, thin young man, dressed in a faded tan long coat, sensible weathered work shoes, cotton trousers and an oil-stained white shirt. His sandy hair seemed perpetually askew, and his glasses were precariously perched at the end of his nose.
The merchant he faced was a tall, thin man with a long face, brown hair and a kindly, almost jovial smile. He shook his head slightly and replied in a modest Scottish accent. “Don’ be havin’ one, Rodney. Gonna have ta tell Allison ye both will be waitin’ till next week.”
“Thank you, Eli, I’ll do that.” Rodney said with a slow sigh. “Whenever I see her again.”
Eli frowned. “What? An here ye both were gettin’ along so well.”
Rodney shrugged. “We were … are … well, we’ve been busy of late.”
Eli gave Rodney a reassuring smile. “Don’t ye worry ’bout it none. That turnscrew’ll be in afore ye know it.”
In excitement, Moira nearly ran out of hiding to snatch away the young man and question him thoroughly about Allison. Instead, she took two slow, deep breaths, then walked casually, but still with an air of concern about her, around the cart towards the merchant, Eli. When she stepped up beside Rodney and in front of Eli’s booth, a dimpled smile flashed brightly across her face.
“My name’s Moira. I sure hope ya can help me.” Moira said by way of a hurried introduction. “I been all over the ‘Close and I’m just comin’ up dry.”
Eli wiped some grease from his hands on a nearby towel that seemed meant for such purpose, then placed his hands on his hips. “Sure and for certain, Miss Moira. How can Ah be helpin’? Got a wide variety o’ parts here, an if’n ye need it, Ah’m na against helping with repair if ye have the device along.”
“I’m hopin’ so.” Moira said cheerfully. “A nice lady I met named Allison Newt was tryin’ ta find some parts for a model J-12 Opti-telegraphic. I’d not seen her and it’d been awhile since she and I spoke. I went lookin’. Some suggested I stop by here, so I did.” She looked from Eli to Rodney and back. “Have either of ya kind gentlemen seen her any? I’m really needin’ that part. My Cap’n’s gonna be right angry if I don’t get it fixed.”
Next to Moira, Rodney fidgeted, as if uncomfortable in his lanky frame. He pushed his glasses up from the tip of his nose. “Uhm, hello. I know Allison, I … I might could help. The J-12 is outdated, but quite the workhorse, Miss.”
Moira turned and beamed at Rodney. “I’d love nothin’ better than some help! I had ta pull apart the power couplings. I needed them for … something else I was working on at the time. Anyway, ya said that ya know Allison though.” She gave Rodney a skeptical look. “Is she runnin’ about here today? I’d love ta be payin’ her for her trouble of tryin’ ta find the parts. It’d only be fair.”
Rodney shook his head, then crossed his arms. “No, Miss. Eli and I were just talkin’ about that. Allison’s been out and about. I saw her two days ago, but not since.” He glanced between Eli and Moira. “Which that’s quite odd you know. She’s often punctual.”
“Punctual? Ya be meetin’ regularly? Like for tea?” Moira asked curiously.
Rodney smiled, “Why yes, something like that. We’ve a project we’re collaborating on. It was her idea really, I’m just helping expand on it. Quite brilliant you know, the idea that is. Not that Allison isn’t, mind you. Her mind is remarkable!” He paused and blushed, then pushed on quickly. “It’s all very fascinating, really. We’re working on a new kind of opti-telegraphic.” While he explained, an excited glimmer shone in his eyes. “You see, if one can use an opti to send their voice, why not a captured image? The signal is merely encoded electromagnetic pulses sent along to a receiver. Naturally, this receiver would be a bit different, what with it being images and all. It really should be much the same principal … once we conquer the power requirements.”
The young man shrugged with a sigh. “But that’s where we are on it. Allison was looking for the right materials for the miniature turbine blades. Most today break all too easily under pressure, you know. In any case, I hoped Allison had found the material she needed. She sent me a note stating she needed to meet.”
While she listened, Moira browsed the available parts Eli had to offer. Occasionally she would lift a potential part for an opti-telegraphic and present it to Rodney. While he talked, he would frown in scrutiny and either nod or shake his head no as to whether the part would be of any use as a power connector. “Meet ya here?” She prompted.
“Yes, here. Though at first, I must confess, she had quite the scare right before we last met. My first thought was she needed help over that, whatever all that was about, but then I remembered her search for the turbine blade materials.”
Captured by the details of the conversation, Eli leaned forward on his booth with interest. “What put a fright inta her?”
“She was very dodgy about the whole thing, really.” Rodney explained with a his face screwed into a frown from concentration. “She mentioned it was late in the evening one night last week. She was pushing her cart along King’s Stables, not far from where it ends at the Grassmarket proper, when she spied two figures in the dark carrying a large bundle. They did not want to be seen, she said. How she knew, I’ve no idea.”
Moira looked confused. “Just a pair of blokes trudgin’ along with somethin’? What bothered her about it? Kinda odd they’d be out at night doin’ that, but still.”
The young man shrugged with his own confusion. “I don’t right know myself, Miss. She wouldn’t speak of it after that one time. Other to say she’d be peddling closer to Candlemaker’s Row in the Grassmarket for awhile.” Rodney paused then, that same stern mask of concentration on his face. “There was something else she mentioned. Now just what was that?”
While he thought, Moira returned to looking over Eli’s wares. Among the neatly organized bins, she selected a power connector that would do for the repairs she needed. With a bright smile she showed it to Eli.
“That’ll be four pence.” The shopkeeper explained.
Moira dug out the money and paid the man, then turned back towards Rodney, who was still lost in his thoughts. She smiled and touched his arm lightly. “I’ve nowhere ta run off at, why don’t we get a cuppa and ya can sort out yer thoughts?”
Rodney nodded absently, only partially aware of Moira’s offer. Before she could take his arm and guide the young man through the crowd, she heard a familiar voice two booths away.
“But ye be of a mind that the wee gears could be strong enough ta grind or cut a poor bugger up. If’n they not careful, that is?” Constable Martin sounded terse while he toyed with a gear – one of the ones Hunter had found in the shed – in his hands. The shopkeeper, a man with graying hair and a grandfatherly face, put his hands on his hips and gave the constable a stern look.
“Now, Silas, what a question be that? Ya been workin’ a might too long if anyone be askin’ me. Not that they are, mind ya, but I’m just sayin’. Why would ye wonder such ghoulish things?” The shopkeeper gently scolded Constable Martin.
Surprised, Moira slowly stepped to one side, placing Rodney between her and the constable’s eyesight. Just as a precaution in case Constable Martin turned towards her direction, since Captain Hunter did suggest they were to be subtle in their inquiries. Moira lifted the part she had bought to closely examine it while Rodney struggled to remember what it was Allison had told him. At his booth, Eli had already turned to address another customer.
Constable Martin stammered, then slipped the gear back into the pocket of his navy blue long coat. “Just for a case, ye understand. It stays on ye mind. Ah’ll take two windin’ keys and one mainspring.”
The merchant bagged the items while Constable Martin handed over the money. In exchange, the older merchant handed the parts to the policeman.
“Thanks ta ye. An thank ye fer the information.” The constable said with a tip of his helmet.
The shopkeeper waved. “Na mention it. Anytime Silas, take care o’ yeself and ye missus.”
With a wave and a smile, the constable walked a short distance away. Fortunately it was still just within Moira’s hearing range. Constable Martin stopped next to a merchant selling spools of cotton covered cables. Waiting there was Detective MacTaggart! Moira glanced around in surprise and wondered if other constables were nearby. How she had missed seeing the detective worried her. She was trying to be careful.
“Well, constable, anything useful?” Detective MacTaggart asked.
“Just a bit o’ confirmation that the gears could’a been used ta kill. If someone be inventive enough about it.” Constable Martin replied in a matter of fact tone.
“So, it be likely he coulda been the one.” The detective said more than asked, as if he was trying to confirm a thought. “Cleanin’ the gears though, that still puts a wrinkle in the cloth.”
“It would still be likely.” The constable said. “Depends all on when he might’a done the deed. The bugger does her in, cleans the gears, and once we be done searchin’, puts the wagon and such in the shed. After that, he gets two o’ his crew ta be nearby when he locates it all.”
Moira’s eyes went wide when the realization dawned on her. They suspected Captain Hunter! Her mind raced in a half-dozen different directions. How could they? He found the wagon and the evidence for them. But, they think that was too easy, cause they had already searched everywhere. She looked at Rodney just as the young man was about to speak.
“I just remembered, I’m supposed ta be meetin’ a shipmate o’ mine. He’s not been here, and well, he’d get lost in his own bunk.” She flashed another bright grin at Rodney. “We could meet tomorrow, if’n ya not busy?”
Rodney blushed when Moira grinned at him. He began to fidget again. “Ah, well, I suppose. I’d have to check my calendar … though I don’t remember having one … but …”
“Then it be all set.” Moira blurted out in a rush. “Tomorrow then? I’ve got myself a room at the White Hart Tavern just down along Grassmarket. If I’m not there, ya might can check aboard the Brass Griffin down at the docks. She’s my ship. At least the one I’m workin’ on. Say, two in the afternoon?”
Rodney pushed his glasses up from the end of his nose again. “Oh, a ship? Ah, well, certainly. At two? Well, I’m … uhm … sure I’m free then. I’ll meet you then.”
Moira gave Rodney’s arm a gentle squeeze. “All settled then. See you tomorrow!”
With a short wave, Moira hurried off into the crowd. She heard Eli say something in a teasing way to Rodney, who replied with a flustered answer, however, Moira was already just out of earshot to make sense of it. She was of little mind to try at the moment, as she had to find the captain, before the constables did!