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The Crow's Calling Card

Chronicles of an Industrial Pioneer

By Brin J.Published 8 months ago Updated 7 months ago 21 min read
Top Story - August 2023
24
*Imagine AI: steampunk*

I stood alone in the cemetery of my failures, a graveyard of dead dreams buried under a thick layer of dust. My life's work of devices and contraptions lay scattered about the room like the carcasses of unused toys. Weathered paper tags served as their tombstones, identifying them for their intended purpose.

The spark of hope that had led me to New York was now withered and gone, abandoning me to a wasteland of self-doubt and disappointment.

A brief thought crossed my mind, wondering if this was how Pa felt when I left Virginia in pursuit of this life of innovation. My mind's eye pictured him sitting on the front porch of our family home, gazing out into the horizon with his pipe clenched between his teeth and smoke curling into the air- the same way he had many times when I was growin' up. He always had this look of content, even in his old age. But that last time, his face was set in grave offense, conveying his disappointment in his eldest son's choices. 'A waste of my legacy,' he had muttered to himself. I could still hear the bitter regret in his voice.

Spite made my fingers twitch, and I picked up the pieces of my shattered dreams and went back to work. Grudges were a funny thing. Poisonous, but a very effective driving force. Not that I needed one.

It wasn't that I was a bad inventor. Angling as a businessman just wasn’t a skill I possessed. I couldn’t give a pitch to save my life. Words had a way of getting tangled up in my head, leaving me stranded with nothin' to say or stringing together difficult terms no one could understand.

Technology, though. Now that was a language I could speak.

A soft chuckle ran through me as I recalled a childhood memory. As a boy, I'd always been fascinated with machinery. I was thirteen when I made my first contraption. A bell that'd alert us whenever a fox tried to get into our chicken coop. The mechanism wasn't all that hard. I just had to take weight into account when making it. Otherwise, the bell would ring every time a hen stepped on the platform, and that'd have driven all of us mad.

My thoughts returned to Pa, and a deep sigh escaped me. As his first-born son, I was expected to take over the farm, tend to his lands, and get a wife so his name could live on. I walked away from that responsibility, of my family, and home, leaving it all to my younger brother, Eric, because I believed that my inventions would lead me to greatness.

I'd been wrong.

A decade later, and not a single one of my inventions was a success. Not even this latest one, a simple device that could tell the difference between a real and a fake gem. Took three months to perfect it, and when I presented it to the diamond trade, they laughed me out of the room.

I clenched the screwdriver in a white-knuckle grip as their mocking words flooded my mind. 'You're a fool, boy. A fool! We don't need a device to see through fake gems. We're the best in the business. Our eyes can spot a fake a mile away!'

I'd been tempted to find their wives- or mistresses- and inspect their jewelry to see for myself if they were, as they claimed, real. I still was. But I knew not to make an enemy of them. Even if the negative attention meant people wouldn't underestimate my creations, it wasn't worth it.

With an irritable grunt, I dropped the screwdriver and leaned away from my work table to admire the prototype of my latest creation. I came to my workshop to construct it right after they shooed me out of their offices. That'd been days ago. But resentment built up like a volcano inside me, threatening to erupt. Inventing was my release.

This model wasn't for sale. I'd constructed it to prove a point, if just to myself. The small machine could detect even the slightest hint of electricity in the air, and the meter on the front would show the strength of the energy... if it worked.

The valve on its side vented steam from any radiation the front vacuum picked up, making the environment less hazardous. It wasn't a permanent fixture, just a temporary solution. There were a lot of reports of radiation exposure from the influx of unsafe and untested technology. Those creators' carelessness was an insult to my trade.

I picked up the shoe-sized box and went over to the lamp in the corner. Here goes nothin'. I flipped the switch and watched the meter spin round and round like a speeding clock. The internal fan whirred to life, creating a soft humming sound that signaled its functionality. I didn't realize I was holding my breath until the needle stopped, and I exhaled in a rush.

I didn't doubt my ability to make fruitful mechanisms, but every time I made something new, it was rewarding to watch them come to life. As though I was watching my child grow.

A child I'd soon lay to rest with all the others in this cemetery of my own making.

I swallowed, pushing the thought from my head, and stared down at the meter, my eyes glued to the needle. The meter's scale measured up to eight hundred kilowatts. It gauged the current of electricity in the lamp at a hundred and ten- a low voltage. Unsurprisingly. I'd made the lamp myself, after all.

A swell of pride unfurled in my chest. It was successful, though there were still things to consider, variables such as the age of the bulb and the distance from the lamp to the machine. Still, it was a good start as this was just a prototype.

A commotion broke somewhere outside my workshop, and I angled my head to catch a few screams followed by someone barking orders. A quick glance at the window told me it was well past dawn. I’d spent the entire night slaving away. Again.

Curious, I turned off my electro-reader- I'd work on the name later- and marched to the door. As I shut it behind me, I noticed some people running past with looks of terror on their faces. I glanced in the direction they'd come, spotting a crowd assembled outside an alleyway just a few yards from me.

Despite knowing I might not like what I found, there was no talking my knuckle brain out of heading toward the mob and seeing for myself what the fuss was about.

I pushed through the gasping spectators, trying to move to the front, where I noticed an officer shouting at everyone to stand back. I had an inkling of what had occurred, and when I passed those blocking my view, it was confirmed. Laying a few feet away was a man's body in a puddle of blood.

"Everyone, back! This is an active crime scene!" The officer in front of me barked, his arms spread wide to barricade us from passing or even looking.

I was a tall man, so it was easy for me to see over his shoulder and watch as two men conducted their evaluations. They were crouched over the body; one was an officer dressed in the standard blues, and the other was dressed in a well-tailored black suit and top hat. I deduced right away that he was a detective tackling the case, as it unmistakably seemed to be a homicide.

This made four in the last month.

I squinted to get a good look at the deceased man, and a chill ran down my spine with recognition. He was one of the diamond trade men I'd met with a few days ago. The one who'd called me a fool and laughed me out of the room. I didn't want to believe it, but it was him. I was sure of it. Dead, in the alleyway, not too far from my workshop. What were the odds?

I took a deep breath, not because I felt any guilt over his demise, but because I needed to keep my wits about me. I'd never seen a dead body before, and the sight of his lifeless face was making me lightheaded. Nevertheless, I forced my mental gears to get moving, navigating the facts of his death as if this were another one of my trickier inventions- for no other reason than because I had an encounter with him, and therefore, I had to know.

The detective was speaking to the officer, yet I couldn't hear due to the ringing in my ears. I scanned the body, looking for evidence of what might've happened. He wasn't as polished as he was the last time I saw him. His pants were rumpled, his hair wild. There was a dark substance in random areas that didn't belong on his person. I noted the way it clung to his clothes, his skin, and even his scalp.

“...his shoes are polished. I'd wager he's another dead rich man,” the man in blues said, pulling me out of my thoughts. His voice was quiet, but the brick alleyway served as an amplifier, and I could make out his whispers.

"Astounding observation, Officer Matthews.”

Officer Matthews didn’t catch the sarcasm in the detective’s tone and went on, "There’s powder here. Near the heart.” He pointed at the man’s chest, next to a giant blood stain.

“I can see that.” The detective portrayed patience, but his clipped responses revealed his annoyance. He seemed resigned to it. Like he had long stopped expecting any form of intelligence from the officer. Wasn't a reassuring thought.

"Looks like he'd been robbed blind. Stripped of everything but his clothing."

The detective hummed in affirmation.

"Poor bloke never saw it comin'. Murdered like a rat in the sewers."

Exasperation swept over the detective's face. Even I was starting to get frustrated hearing Officer Mathews ramble.

“Ye reckon it was a gun wound?"

"Not gunpower, soot from the factory."

Both the detective and officer's heads shot up to look at me. Ah, fook. I hadn't intended to draw their attention, but his ignorance nettled me.

"Come again, boy?" Officer Matthews demanded. I grit my teeth. I detested being called boy. It was a blow to a grown man's ego.

"I said it ain't gunpowder," I repeated.

"Really?" The detective asked, his gaze assessing and sizing me up as if I were now a suspect in his mental line-up. If he discovered my recent encounter with the man, I likely would be. For fook's sake. "And how would you know?"

"I'm an inventor," I answered tentatively. There was no use lying. The people gathered around knew me. "I'd recognize any powder."

He seemed intrigued by that. "Where's your workshop?"

Fook. I pointed back the way I came. "Just four doors down. You can see it from here."

A nod was all he gave me. His eyes met with the officer acting as a barrier. "Let him through, Henry."

Henry did as ordered, and lowered his arm, but glared at me when I strode past him.

The detective regarded me thoughtfully as I neared. "Alright. Tell me what makes you think they aren't gunshot wounds."

My eyes fell on the body of the man I'd spent the past five days imagining ruining. The sorrow still hadn't sunk in. But that didn't mean I was glad to see him dead either. The ambivalence left me feeling off-kilter.

"See here?" I walked over and pointed to his collar. "There's a thin coating of soot there, and there on his cuffs. Had it been gunpowder, it wouldn't be clumped in random places like this. I wager if you were to cut into him, you'd find no bullet either."

His observant gaze followed my finger, seeming to be considering my words. After a few seconds, he nodded. "So then what was the murder weapon? Explain the holes in his chest."

I glanced at him, admiring his well-groomed mustache for half a second before returning to the man. There were four clean puncture wounds, indicating he'd been impaled by something slender and round, and multiple times at that. "I'd reckon it was a screwdriver, or a thin metal pipe, perhaps even a woman's knitting tool?"

Officer Matthew snorted a laugh at that, and I arched a brow at him. "A woman's knitting tool? Are ye daft?"

"Screwdriver you say?" The detective asked and ran his hand along his freshly shaved chin. "And as an inventor, I suppose you'd be the one to know. May I see your toolbox?"

I drew back in shock. "You think I'm the killer?" Had I been giving off a guilty energy?

He shrugged and rose to his full height. He was almost as tall as me. "You seem to have an interest in this man's death. Not to mention his corpse isn't all that far from your workshop."

I huffed in disbelief, reminding myself I was innocent. "Coincidence," I snapped. "Besides, if I were the killer, I'd be smarter than to commit a crime so close to my laboratory."

He grinned, his eyes twinkling. "Then it'll be no hassle to have a look around and confirm your innocence."

My jaw rolled. I detested people invading my territory. But to refuse would make me seem even more suspicious. Why'd I have to go and get involved?

"Fine," I bit out and turned. Henry made the crowd part for us, and murmurs erupted as everyone watched as the detective followed me to my workshop.

I threw open the wooden door, not caring when it banged against the wall supporting the old building, and took up a spot at the edge of a table as he removed his hat and began to glance around. He sniffed the air, though showed no judgment to the powerful stench of oil and metal... and maybe a hint of body odor.

I grew self-conscious, forgetting when the last time I'd cleaned the place was. He paused his perusal for a split second, staring down at my dust-coated hefting machine, and I wondered if he saw the remains as junk or a skeleton of its former self as I did.

He moved on, quiet as he examined my tools, and looked immensely curious as his gaze slid over more of my contraptions. "Any of these dangerous?"

A disbelieving laugh escaped me. "Dangerous? I'm sorry sir, if you were hoping to find some secret villainous lab, then I hate to disappoint you, but all my inventions are meant for helping people."

He raised his eyebrows in surprise and held the expression for a few moments. "Have they?"

"Have they what, sir?"

"Helped people."

It was as if he'd plunged a knife into my gut. I nearly couldn't get the words out. Admitting it was like admitting my father was right that I'd never amount to anything in this industry. My throat congealed. "No, sir. They'd never gotten a chance to be used."

"Hm. Pity."

Tragic was what it was.

"And please, call me Lawson."

I blinked, unsure if I'd heard him correctly. "Lawson? As in the famous detective Andrew Lawson?"

"The one and only."

I swallowed hard. His track record was nothing short of legendary. A force to be reckoned with. I'd read about him in papers and heard about him through gossiping gals at the market. He'd sent many criminals behind bars, and now here he was, questioning me.

I was doomed.

If he's as good as his reputation proceeds him, then he'll find you innocent, and leave you be. The thought did nothing to soothe my nerves.

"Normally, when a person introduces themselves, it's customary to return the gesture."

I glowered at him, but obliged. "Name's Ace Daniels, but I go by Spade."

"Spade?" He asked half interested as he picked up the screwdriver I had been using earlier. My muscles tensed.

"A childhood nickname my younger brother made up as a joke; Ace of Spades," I said, unsure why he cared.

He cracked a grin, but didn't comment, and placed the screwdriver back where he found it, then slowly made his way deeper into the room.

I glanced at the clock above my head, wondering how long this was going to take. My workshop wasn't large, yet he explored it as though he were in a giant museum, pausing to admire a few of my devices, and asking about them. I kept my answers short, to my own astonishment, without stumbling over my words or using convoluted vocabulary.

He paused when he reached my depressing cot. "You sleep here?"

I gave a curt nod.

"Often?"

"Aye, detective, it's not completely unheard of for an inventor to hole themselves up in their lab for days on end," I said to him, feeling defensive.

His lips quirked as if I'd just confirmed something he already knew. "In that case, given the state of your unrest and how quick you were to arrive at the crime scene, I'd reckon it's safe to assume you were here all night."

I went completely still. My blood chilled as I realized how easily the detective could read me. Lying would be a waste of effort. You have nothing to hide, I told myself. If that were true, then why'd I feel like a criminal?

Lawson was still watching me. It hadn't been a question, yet he seemed to expect an answer. "Aye, I was."

"Did you happen to hear anything? Maybe a shout, or sounds of a struggle?"

My forehead creased as I combed through the events of my night. "Nothing of that sort."

He tilted his head, catching my choice of words. Nothing escaped his notice. "But something?"

I rubbed my neck, trying to release some of the tension in my shoulders. I couldn't pin if the strain was from being hunched over all night, or because of the gnawing fear he'd convict me of murder. "I suppose there was one thing that seemed odd."

"Yes?" He prompted, his stare penetrating.

I expelled a heavy breath. He was going to think me crazy. "A laugh." Gooseflesh dotted my skin as I recalled the insidious sound.

"A laugh?" He repeated, his intonation urging me to elucidate.

My face pulled into a grimace, unsure of how to explain. "I dunno how to describe it. Not normal, but maniacal. Sharp precisions. Definitely not something you'd forget."

He stood quiet for a long time, seeming to mull over whatever that bit of detail might've yielded him. At first, I got the impression he didn't believe me. Then he asked, "By chance, did it remind you of a crow's cackle, but deeper?"

I blinked with a slight recoil, having not expected that. "Aye. That's exactly how it sounded."

He ran his thumb along his lower lip, emitting a grunt as he resumed his inspection of my workplace. "Have you heard about the recent killings that'd been happening around the city, Spade?"

I gave a grim nod. "I heard of 'em. Do you think this was related?"

He ignored my question. "What have you heard?"

I rubbed my brow, a cold sweat breaking out on my skin. "Just that rich men are dying. I don't think they're related," I lied, having already seen a pattern, though I wasn't about to admit that. I was suspect enough as it was. "Wealthy men are murdered often by scorned lovers, envious rivals, wronged business partners, and if in the dangerous parts of town, robbers, who'd pick the bodies clean like vultures." I gestured with a nod in the direction of where the latest corpse lay. "There's no rhyme or reason to it. Nothing linking these deaths."

Lawson laughed, and for a moment I'd wondered if he saw right through me. "Oh, there's been something linking the deaths, alright."

I perked with interest at that. I was undeniably intrigued by what connections the lawmen had found. Hopefully, that meant none of them led to me, and I'd be cleared of suspicion.

Before I could ask him what he meant, he reached into his suit pocket and retrieved something. My faith withered when I saw what it was.

"A crow feather," I observed flatly.

"Not a feather, a calling card." He twirled the blackened plume between his fingers, staring down at it as though it held all the mysteries of the world.

I stared at him as though he were mad. "You do know how common those birds are and that they shed their quills often?" Why was I bothering to point that out? It exonerated me, so I needed to shut up.

He grinned, as though anticipating my response. "Ah, but at every crime scene?" I opened my mouth to tell him that the correlation wasn't proof enough when he continued. "And neatly tucked inside their front pockets?"

I was at a loss for words, disgusted by the idea of such a thing, but something inside me sighed in relief. Saved by a feather. What a ridiculous notion.

The fact that I hadn't made any sort of counterargument seemed to bring him amusement. "Spade, you seem like a sharp man. Do you know what a flock of crows are called?"

I didn't take his inference as a compliment. Any bloody fool knew what they were called. I ran my tongue over my teeth and sourly answered, "A murder."

He tossed me a pointed look. I was growing tired of his patronizing attitude. I pushed off the table where I'd been leaning. "If you're done here, I have work to do."

"Oh, I'm not done."

Dread hit me in full force. "Am I being accused of the crimes then?"

His eyes grew wide, a knowing glint in them. "Why would you think that?"

Fook it. I had enough of his games. "Arrest me or leave. I'm done answering your questions."

He took a step towards me, his demeanor one of intimidation. "I know you have some kind of relationship with the victim. I saw it the moment you approached the scene and recognized who'd been murdered." Air seized in my lungs. I staggered back into the table and objects clattered together. "You chose to withhold that information, even though you've had many chances to come clean, leaving me to only assume you had a hand in his death. Therefore, I'm within my legal boundaries to detain you."

Icy claws of dread held me in a vice-like grip.

No. No, I wasn't a killer. I might be a blight to society, but I couldn't murder someone, even if I considered them an enemy. Sure, I'd omitted my involvement with the victim, and I confess that it was ignorant. But not because I'd committed the crime. Though what did it matter now?

Now, I'd pay the price.

"But I won't arrest you." Yet, his eyes said. "Instead, I'll give you choices. Either you rot in prison until evidence clears you, or you can clear your own name by working with me to help solve this case."

My brows shot to my hairline, skeptical of his offer.

He must've read it in my gaze, because he chuckled. "I know what you're thinking; why would I request a suspect in a murder investigation to assist in finding the killer? Simple. It benefits me. I could tell you're nothing short of a genius, and you want to help people, you even said so yourself. Well, here's your opportunity to do that, with the added motivation of proving your innocence."

I wanted to sneer at him, yell that it wasn't my job to hunt down criminals, but that left me with his other option of rotting in prison. I'd done nothing to that man. I might've imagined ruining his life, but they weren't violent thoughts. I didn't want him dead. As for helping people...

My conscience nagged me like an unwelcome guest, urging me to consider the families grieving those who were now in an early grave.

Grave.

I took a look at my workshop, feeling sickened by the way I had resembled it as a graveyard of my unfulfilled aspirations. Not just an hour ago I'd been mourning my unmet dreams. How selfish of me to compare my situation to the people out there burying their loved ones? It wasn't the same, and while I was moping around feeling sorry for myself, a man had been stabbed to death around the corner.

Guilt and enmity warred inside me, battling for dominance. They were superseded by an intrusive sense of responsibility to solve his death. I resigned to it, feeling like I owed him that much, even if he was a pompous bastard who saw me as a joke.

I thrust my chin upwards, my jaw rigidly matching Lawson's steadfast look. "Alright. I'll help."

The corners of his mouth turned up in a grin, and he held out his hand as if welcoming a new hire to the job. I reluctantly shook it, his grip strong. "A wise decision," he said, and released me.

Not like I had much of a choice, but I kept that acerbic remark to myself. "Now what?" I asked him, folding my arms across my chest. I agreed to help, but that didn't mean I was happy about it.

Putting his hat back on, he gave me an exhilarated look. "Now, you'll use your brilliance to help me piece together this case, starting with the factory."

Imagine AI

Imagine AI

MysteryCONTENT WARNINGAdventure
24

About the Creator

Brin J.

I never believed the sky is the limit, therefore my passions are expansive. My interest in writing stemmed from poetry but my heart lead me to Sci-Fi Fantasy. Consequently, my stories are plot-driven with splashes of evocative elements.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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Comments (16)

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  • Heather Hubler4 months ago

    I LOVED THIS!! What a fantastic story, Brin. The characters kept me engaged, the little twists and turns kept the pace going just right. As others have said, this begs to be continued. I'd definitely read it!!

  • Cathy holmes4 months ago

    This is fabulous. Would be a great entry to the new Vocal challenge as well.

  • Celia in Underland4 months ago

    I really enjoyed this, your characterisation is fantastic! Would love to read what happens next! 🤍

  • I loved this... I do enjoy suspense... a good old murder mystery. Hope you write more on it sometime!

  • Donna Fox (HKB)4 months ago

    Brin, this feels like an origin story for a bigger story and the meeting of two soon to be legendary characters. Like Watson and Sherlock!! This was engaging and captivating, a tense and thrilling read! Nicely done!!

  • Teresa Renton6 months ago

    I’d love to hear more about this crime investigation! Well done for TS 🥳

  • Yusuf Alam7 months ago

    👌 Loved it! 😍 Super informative and well-written! 📝

  • L.C. Schäfer7 months ago

    Enjoying the steampunky vibe 😁 I think you have a word missing in this sentence: "Why was bothering to point that out?"

  • Great story and love the images that you wove into your creation

  • Novel Allen8 months ago

    For a moment I thought it was Sherlock Holmes deducing a crime. This was brilliantly done Brin. Congrats On you Top Story.

  • Dana Stewart8 months ago

    Great read, Brin! A steampunk caper, strong likable character that Ace. I was hooked from the get-go. Love this and Congrats on Top Story!

  • Alexander McEvoy8 months ago

    This was amazing! I was hooked from the vest first line! Please tell me you're going to publish more of this!? Everything from the description of the lab to the question about a murder of crows was brilliant! Coincidentally, if three plus crows are a murder, doesn't that make a couple of crows an attempted murder?

  • Ian Read8 months ago

    A steampunk/industrial cop drama? Yes, please! This one had me on the edge of my seat.

  • ThatWriterWoman8 months ago

    Outstanding work Brin! Are you continuing this?

  • Brilliant! Technology, Invention & Industry Evolution; Family Intrigue & Whodunnit... Congratulations! ✍️👏✍️

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