Today I’m participating in a blog tour for fellow author, Jordan Elizabeth. 🙂
A figure ducked behind the work shed where the glow of the back porch gas lamp didn’t reach. Jonathan shielded his eyes so he could see more clearly through the bedroom window, but the backyard lay still. The white sheets the maid had hung fluttered in the evening breeze.
His uncle would have a ghost story to tell about those.
Another dark shape bolted across the yard; this one crouched in his mother’s flower garden. It might have been one of the boys from school come to throw pebbles at the pale blue siding until Jonathan sneaked out, but they seemed too tall for eleven-year-olds. The one in the flowers crept closer to the house.
Movement in the woods drew Jonathan’s attention farther across the yard, where two more shapes lurked. They had to be grown men. He gulped as he crawled away from the window to the hallway where the light from the living room glowed up the stairs.
“Found you.” The maid grinned from his parents’ bedroom, a stack of table linens in her arms. “When we play hide-and-seek, you ain’t supposed to come out till I call for you. We gotta practice the rules again? I was gonna come looking soon as I put these cloths away.”
He grabbed the railing. “There’s people out in the yard.”
Her eyes widened before she clicked her tongue. “Ain’t nobody out in this cold. I’m dreading my own walk home. Bless your father if he gives me a ride.”
“I saw them. There had to be ten, at least!” Jonathan took the stairs down two at a time.
His uncle sat in front of the living room hearth, the fire crackling to stave off the autumn chill, with Jonathan’s sister nestled in his lap. “The old king rose up tall as that old oak out by the water pump, and he waved his scepter as if he was a wizard.”
“Uncle Henry,” Jonathan interrupted. “There are people out back.”
“What’s that? You get to bed already?”
“What?” His uncle never made them sleep as early as his mother did; they usually got to stay up until their parents came home from the opera house.
“You must have had a nightmare.” Uncle Henry chuckled, and the little girl giggled from his lap.
“No, I saw them. They were slinking through the yard.” Jonathan pointed toward the rear of the house. His uncle would appreciate “slinking,” as if the word had fallen from one of those mystery novels he read them.
Uncle Henry glanced at the clock on the mantle. “Your parents shouldn’t be much longer. It must’ve been them you saw.”
“There were a bunch of people. Lots of them. Fifteen at least!” Jonathan’s heartbeat increased. Some of the natives – those Bromi warriors – from out west might have crept across the country. Pirates might have invaded from the sea. His parents whispered about those when they read the newspapers.
“Fifteen, huh? Well, you keep an eye on them for me. If they come too close, we’ll build a fort around the house.” Uncle Henry adjusted the pink afghan wrapped around the toddler.
The doors were locked, but the enemy might break through the windows. Jonathan’s father kept the guns sealed in a case, but he did have an emergency pistol in a box under his bed. They’d be proud if he protected his family.
As Jonathan reached the top of the stairs, someone knocked on the front door. He froze, one sock-clad foot on the landing and the other on the top step. Pirates and natives didn’t knock. They invaded; they were evil.
The maid swept past him, lifting her ankle-length brown skirt. “I hope that’s my dear papa come with the pony cart. He won’t let his little girl walk home in the frost.” She winked at Jonathan, but he gulped. She wouldn’t know to be afraid. Even though she played games with him, she was sixteen, old enough to think the world was perfect. Only he knew enough to find danger in shadows.
“If that’s your father, invite him in for some coffee,” Uncle Henry called.
“Will do, sir.”
Jonathan crouched beside the railing and clutched the rungs. If he bent his head enough, he could see the front door. The maid wiped her hands on her apron before she opened it.
“Oh, hello. Can I help you?” Her final word fell away in a scream as a man shoved her inside. His black coat buttoned to his chin and a black knit cap covered his head.
Jonathan’s own scream strangled in his throat.
“This the Montgomery residence?” the man barked. Three more men shoved into the foyer, all of them dressed in full black. The tallest of the bunch seized the maid by the shoulders and slammed her into the wall.
“Y-yes, sir,” she stammered.
“What’s going on here?” Uncle Henry burst in from the living room while two more assailants stepped inside. Jonathan’s sister started to wail.
One of the men drew a handgun from his belt and aimed it at Uncle Henry’s chest. “Where’s the laboratory?”
“Get out of this house,” Uncle Henry said. Jonathan had never heard him speak with such calm finesse, the laughter gone from his voice.
Jonathan’s hands trembled where he gripped the polished wood. His uncle would handle everything. Take that, bad guys.
“Well now,” the attacker drawled, “that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”
“How about you, girl?” the man yelled at the maid. “Take us to the lab.”
As soon as the man released her, she sank to the floor, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
The man crouched in front of her to grip her chin. “What’s your name, girl?”
“You the scientist’s daughter?”
Jonathan stiffened. Uncle Henry would protect them, and if Jonathan needed to, he could leap over the railing onto the man’s back.
“N-no, sir. I’m just the maid. It’s a common name here. Rose. We have that rose festival and all. We have the famous rainbow-colored rose.”
He slapped her across the face and jerked her to her feet. “Shut up, bitch. Get us to the lab or you won’t be making no more noise.”
“You’ll release her now.” Uncle Henry lunged forward, and a crack split the air. He staggered, rasping, and dropped to his knees. Blood appeared on his chest, the circle growing, morphing into something that dripped and twisted without pattern.
“Mack, what was that? You shot him.” One of the men chuckled.
“No,” the maid shrieked.
Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut. Perhaps he had fallen asleep waiting for Rose to find him. It had to be a dream. Uncle Henry is fine. We’re all fine.
When he opened them, his uncle lay on the hardwood floor in a pool of red paint. Red paint. No, not paint. Blood.
The men stomped through the house toward his father’s laboratory off the kitchen, and the maid’s sobs mingled with his sister’s cries. He had to protect his sister. He’d get the pistol, grab her, and he’d run for the neighbor’s farm.
Jonathan ran for their bedroom, the door still open from when the maid folded away the tablecloths. With only the light from downstairs, he crawled to the bed and lay on his stomach to reach the box. Nothing should have invaded his perfect house, with its two chimneys and dark blue shutters, with the flower garden and those ghost sheets flapping on the line.
He pulled out the box and flipped the hook on the lid to remove the pistol. He’d seen his father polish it, but he’d never known it could be so heavy. How do I hold it?
A door slammed below him. He would have to point the gun and pull the trigger, like what the villain had done to his uncle. The bullet would save him and his sister. It would save the maid. If he found her, she could use it better.
He crept back downstairs, but the commotion came from the laboratory. Glass smashed and heavier things crashed. Another gunshot seared through the house.
Jonathan ran for the armchair where his uncle had left the toddler. “Rosamund, be quiet.” Her pale hair stood out against the seat’s green velveteen. “Please, Rosamund.”
“Well now, who’re you?”
Jonathan twisted around and did his best to aim the silver weapon at the man lounging in the doorway. He couldn’t be much older than the maid; how could someone so young do such evil? Jonathan couldn’t picture the boys at his school shooting anyone with anything more than a slingshot.
“Get out.” Jonathan’s voice squeaked.
The young man chuckled. “I reckon you’re the man of the house now. Good luck with that.”
“Get out!” Jonathan pulled the trigger.
The pistol clicked, but no bullet ripped through the villain. Jonathan cocked it again, his heartbeat echoing in his ears.
The man laughed harder. “That thing’s out of bullets, kid, but don’t worry, we’re leaving. Runners don’t mess with kids.”
Jonathan pulled the trigger again, but only that click answered him. Tears burned his eyes as he threw it down.
Runners. Next time he met one of them, he’d have a pistol full of bullets.
Jonathan rested his elbows on his knees and sighed. The sun shouldn’t be so bright and the few leaves that had begun to change to gold shouldn’t glow so much. At least the crimson leaves fit his mood.
He gazed at Rosamund as she sat beside the few marigolds that hadn’t given up on summer, petting her kitten’s gray head. She looked so happy, with her hair in two short braids. They’d let him dress her in white – black made him shudder now.
The Runners wore black.
“What do you suppose will happen to the house?” Mrs. Rogers’s voice danced through the open kitchen window. Airing out the rooms wouldn’t help banish that lingering stench of blood.
“I don’t know,” Miss Lea answered. He’d always loved his teacher, but she hadn’t said much more than a few sentences, as if she didn’t know how to console.
“I don’t suppose anyone will want a house where two murders took place. Shame, since this place is so pretty. Biggest home in all of Rosedale.”
Jonathan scrunched his eyes shut. How could they stand next to the laboratory where the maid had been shot? How could they even bear to be inside?
“All for that invention,” Mrs. Rogers continued. “You really think a motor for a ship is worth all the trouble they went to?”
Trouble. As if murdering his parents in their steamcoach on the way back from the opera house counted as trouble. Trouble meant forgetting to study for a spelling test.
“Who knows what those Runners think.”
“Blasted Runners. Don’t they care about the suffering families? Couldn’t they have spared all those folks?”
Jonathan clenched his hands into fists. He’d hunt them down. They couldn’t take his family away and laugh about it.
Miss Lea mumbled something he couldn’t hear.
“Are you going to keep the two mites?” Dishes rattled. Jonathan’s mother had never trusted Mrs. Rogers; he had a feeling he would never see those porcelain plates again.
Who cared what happened to the belongings?
“The neighbors will take him now that their daughter’s so far away. The Ashers are good folk.”
Jonathan jerked his head up. The neighbors, that old man and woman who never smiled much? Why would they want the Montgomery orphans, as Mrs. Rogers had dubbed them? He expected they’d live with Miss Lea since they didn’t have anyone else.
Miss Lea is nice enough; she’ll take care of Rosamund.
“It might do that old Rider a favor having some sprites around,” Mrs. Rogers said. “Come help me wrap up these teacups. Wouldn’t they look darling in my china cabinet?”
Jonathan plodded to the water pump to see if he could spot the neighbors’ barn through the trees. Riders hunted down the Runner gangs that plagued the east coast. If he got to live with a Rider, he might learn some tricks.
Runner beware, for the mark of the Rider will shine.
Jordan Elizabeth became obsessed with steampunk while working at a Victorian Fair. Since then, she’s read plenty of books and even organized a few steampunk outfits that she wears on a regular basis (unless that’s weird, in which case she only wears them within the sanctuary of her own home – not!). Jordan’s young adult novels include ESCAPE FROM WITCHWOOD HOLLOW, COGLING, TREASURE DARKLY, BORN OF TREASURE, GOAT CHILDREN, and VICTORIAN. RUNNERS & RIDERS is her fifth novel with Curiosity Quills Press. Check out her website for bonus scenes and contests.
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