On Track for Murder by Stephen Childs is a 19th Century mystery about an Englishwoman in Australia forced to sleuth her way through a murder that hits close to home (available September 2015).
Traveling from England to Australia in the late nineteenth century, Abigail Sergeant and her brother, Bertrand, are looking forward to their new life. Leaving behind the prejudices that would likely have seen Bertrand committed to an institution before he reached adulthood, Abigail hopes their new life will offer freedom and security. But what awaits them on the shores of the Swan River dashes any prospects of a blissful life. A murder is committed and Abigail's family is thrown into turmoil. The evidence is damning. Only the guilty would be found standing over the body clutching the bloodied murder weapon. But something is not right. Police are convinced they have their killer. Abigail is certain they are wrong. As their one potential witness is missing, Abigail persuades the detective to allow time for a search. But that time is limited. Chasing across Western Australia with a reluctant Constable Dunning as her chaperone, Abigail is determined to uncover the truth. If only she had an inkling of what that may be. Through deception, kidnap, sabotage, and arson, Abigail finds a resolve she didn't know she possessed. Her understanding of mechanical principles surprises everyone, as does her tenacity. She turns out to be a capable young woman. But is that enough to save an innocent from injustice?
Darkness blanketed the town. Dimly glowing gas lamps spotted the railway platform with pools of warm light. Abigail glanced up. The lamplight, there to provide security, would soon betray their presence to the approaching thug. She slid off the seat and, as quietly as she could, slunk down beside the building. Keeping her gaze fixed firmly on the shadowy figure, who had now reached the shed with the broken sign, she began a slow retreat back down the platform. Sleath dutifully followed, stifling a groan as pain shot through his broken body. Abigail flinched as her foot struck an empty luggage trolley. The resultant metallic clink seemed to echo around the platform. It went unheard by the approaching menace.
A possum scurried across one of the shed roofs, creating a racket that broke the stillness like a peal of thunder. The shadowy figure jerked his head upwards. His inattention gave Abigail the time she needed to break from the building’s side and roll in behind a stack of waiting crates. Moments later Sleath slid in beside her, shaking wildly. They had good cover; that was something. But if Larkin came looking, the cover would not last long.
“Sleath … Sleath … where are you, you little bugger.” The yell thundered across the station buildings. “Sleath. I know you’re around here somewhere. You can’t escape me.” The crunch of gravel moved closer. He was searching. “Sleath. Where are you?” The crunching footsteps moved in a circle. “Sleath. I am not going to waste time looking for you. I have a proposition for you.”
Abigail held her breath. She could feel Sleath shaking, even through the thick layers of her skirts. All they could do was hope not to be found.
“Sleath.” The gravelly footsteps moved to the edge of the platform. “I know you are here somewhere. I have a job for you, Sleath. Your little girlfriend, Abigail Sergeant, is in town. I saw her having dinner.”
Abigail jammed her entire fist to her mouth. Her heart beat so loudly she felt it may well betray her presence.
“Sleath. I’m going to snatch that little wench away before morning. You allowed the step-mother to get away yesterday. I’m not going to let this one get away.”
Abigail glared at Sleath, her brow furrowed. He shook his head rapidly.
Another comment cut the night’s stillness. “I need you to take a message back to her father. He owes me and I’m going to get my money.” Footsteps began to climb the incline to the station. “Come out now, Sleath, and I will cut you in.”
Abigail stared at Sleath. His eyes grew wider as he mouthed ‘no’, shaking his head wildly. She glanced out into the night. Would giving him up help her cause? She would, most likely, still become a hostage, held for an impossible ransom. What would that achieve?
“Sleath. I’m going now. There’s a shed a hundred yards back down the track. Be there in an hour … Sleath, do you hear me? If you’re not there, Sleath, you’re a dead man.” Larkin had reached the waiting train and banged loudly on the side of the guard’s van. “You in there, Sleath?” The door was flung open. A snorted growl exposed his disappointment in the empty wagon. The footsteps continued to the carriages. Abigail noticed the shadow moving along the side of the train. It stopped. A scuffed turn preceded the shadow moving away, back down the platform.
“Sleath. Be there in an hour. I’ll have the girl and you can watch her squirm. That should be motivation enough. I will get what I want, Sleath.” The footsteps returned to the gravel before clomping away towards the town’s main street.
The pair lay in silence behind the crates. Abigail needed time to stifle the welling tears. Prentice Sleath didn’t seem sure of his situation at all. He whimpered like a wounded dog.
“Has he gone?” Abigail steeled herself to take action. “I think so. I heard him head back into town.” Abigail stood up. “We don’t have long. I’ll go and fetch Constable Dunning.”
“No. No, you can’t go into town.” Sleath remained on the ground, his injuries holding him back. “He’ll be there. He will catch you. Don’t you see? He wants to hold you for ransom. He wants to hurt you.”
“So, how do I get a message to Dunning?”
“You don’t. I can see no way of you moving about town without being captured.”
“What if we wait here until sunrise?”
“He will be back. Mark my words, as soon as he finds you are not at the inn he will scour the town until he finds us. He will not let up. I thought I could escape yesterday, when he wanted me to lure Frances to him. It didn’t work and he beat me for not trying hard enough.” Sleath rose to his knees.
“So what do we do?”
“What, take the train?”
Sleath managed to struggle to his feet. “Not the train. Just the engine. We can do it. You’ve driven one before.”
Abigail turned to stare at the locomotive. “Yes, with Father supervising. I only know two of the controls. No, I will get to Dunning somehow.” Abigail looked at Sleath. His eyes glistened with the threat of tears.
Sleath mumbled as he hung his head, clasping his forehead in his hand. “I’m a dead man. It’s all over.”
“It’s not all over,” said Abigail turning back to face him. “I won’t let this happen.” She stood, banging the top of the crate with her fist. “I’ll leave a note for Dunning. Tell him what has happened.”
“So?” Sleath arched his back and winced. “You’re going to help me?”
“If you tell me what to do, I’ll help. It seems I have little choice.” Abigail set her mouth in a rigid line. “Would there be any spare clothing onboard?”
Sleath grinned. “Check the guard’s van. If there is anything available it will be in there.”
Abigail moved out onto the platform, eyes darting rapidly from side to side. Larkin had left the guard’s van door open, allowing easy access. It was dark inside but the platform lamps let in sufficient light to ascertain what was what. Heat radiated from a small pot belly stove, a faint red glow visible inside. Moving further in, Abigail tripped over a thick leather bag. It held heavy spanners and an iron mallet which she quickly tipped out. The bag may be of use. Further searching uncovered a short built-in seat with a stiff drawer below. It took several attempts to budge, but the effort paid off. Inside were a pair of heavy trousers and a leather over-jacket. Complementing this, a pair of well-worn leather gloves had been jammed into the back of the drawer. Gathering up her finds, she closed the van door. By the light of the dying stove embers, she changed.
Abigail caught sight of her reflection in a carriage window as she passed. She looked ridiculous. The too-long trousers were folded up at the ends and the heavy jacket reached below her knees. The ends of the oversized gloves flopped oddly from the tips of her fingers. The greatest success had been containing her flowing hair in a worker’s cap she had discovered; the oversized hat proved perfect for the task.
“Where can I put this?” she called, holding out the leather bag.
“In the cab,” called Sleath, over the growing hiss of the boiler. “Here, I’ll grab it.”
She hefted the thick leather bag up into his waiting grasp. Free of the heavy tools, it now brimmed with her discarded skirts, bodice, corset and hat.
“We’re nearly ready,” Sleath said, placing the bag behind the seat. “Do you remember what to do?”
Abigail climbed aboard and stepped up to the controls. “I remember how to go forward and back, how to speed up and slow down and about purging the cylinders.”
“We’re in good shape, then.” Sleath hefted a final shovel full of coal into the boiler and shut the door. “I think we should go now. If Larkin returns we will not get away.” He pulled open the purge valve increasing the hissing dramatically. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Abigail repeated the routine she had learned from Father. His voice rang clear in her mind as she manipulated each lever in turn. Forward, then power. “It’s coming back to me,” she called, over the hissing of steam from the cylinders.
“Stop!” called Sleath. He reached up and slammed the regulator fully closed while twisting the brake lever.
“What’s the matter?” Abigail began to panic, imagining a potential boiler explosion.
“The carriages. We must disconnect the carriages.” “Why? Does it matter if they come along too?” Sleath strode to the steps. “Weight,” he called, as he made his way down. “We will make much better time if we have less weight.” He began to yell as he undid the coupling. “Also, the penalty for stealing a locomotive is far less than making off with everyone’s possessions.”
Abigail hadn’t even considered the consequences of this move. She paused, thoughts of leaving immediately and turning herself in racing through her mind. The engine hissed loudly.
“Damn. Damnation,” Sleath cursed, as he leapt back up into the cab.
“What’s the matter?” Abigail stood motionless, her final decision still pending.
“Larkin. He’s coming.”
Abigail swung around to stare out past the engine’s tender. In front of the sheds, the stocky figure of Stanley Larkin could easily be identified. His fists were shaking in the air and he appeared to be yelling something at the train. The speed of his running took Abigail by surprise. This was bad.
“Let’s go. Quickly.” Sleath pulled off the brake and yanked open the regulator. Steam rushed from the front of the engine.
Desperately recalling her father’s actions, Abigail reached up, pulling shut the purge valve. The engine lurched forward, its wheels spinning on the track. With her heart pounding she turned to look behind. Larkin had made it to the stationary carriages and was moving quickly. If they didn’t speed up, he would be upon them in seconds. She leapt across and yanked the regulator, finding another few inches of movement made quite a difference. They accelerated. Larkin was now close enough for his cursing to be heard over the noise of the engine. All they could do was hold on and hope.
Running out of paved platform slowed Larkin. The gravel he now had to negotiate cost him dearly. They were winning the race, yet Larkin was not about to give up. Abigail gazed skyward. The odds were against them. Sleath had never driven on his own, and she was a complete novice. One lesson from Father was not enough to prevent any manner of problems halting their escape. Distance was precious. They had to keep the engine going.
Gradually the void between them grew. Larkin continued to run at full pace behind the engine. Abigail pulled harder on the regulator lever. Sleath shoveled madly.
As they rounded the first bend in the track, Larkin’s image was finally removed from sight. Abigail felt her tense muscles relax as she shuffled to get comfortable on the steel seat. Nonetheless, she maintained a firm grip on the lever. She wasn’t going to be responsible for stopping them now.
Sleath stood up, panting, sweat pouring from his forehead. “Pull back a bit on the reversing lever, could you. It’ll allow us to use less steam. We can then ease her up to a steady speed.” Abigail remembered Father’s comments on this and dutifully complied. It seemed to settle the fleeing engine to a regular rhythm that took on a pleasing, safe feel.
“It’s very dark ahead,” Abigail commented as she strained to see anything at all in front of them.
“Damn, damn, and double damn.” Sleath wasn’t holding back. “I forgot to light the lamp.” He reached over and pulled out a short rod with some material wrapped around the end. “Watch the speed while I go forward and sort this out, would you.”
Abigail spun around. “Go forward? That’s madness.”
“I’ve done it before. There are handrails. Keep her at this speed. Use the regulator if we need to slow down. Do you understand?”
“Of course I understand. I have done this before, you know.” She turned back to the controls. “What worries me is you crawling around the front of an engine in the middle of the night.”
“I’ll be fine.” He kicked open the firebox and lit the end of the rod. Clutching the flaming shaft tightly, he swung around the handrail and disappeared.
Only the glow of the barely moving brand gave any indication as to his progress. It was slow. Abigail considered that he may have done this before, but he was definitely not expert at it. She hoped he wasn’t just putting on a show for her benefit.
When the lamp finally came to life, Abigail wondered why they had bothered. It made little difference to the view ahead, merely lighting trees and bushes moments before they flew past. Still, it was something. Eventually Prentice made it back to the cab, a little darker for soot but relieved to be back.
“How will we know we are there?” Abigail’s concerns hadn’t stopped with Larkin. “I would hate to simply run off the end.”
Sleath leaned back against the tender. “I’ve done this run a few times. I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize the stations we pass. Besides, we have to stop twice for water before we worry about getting to the end. That’ll be a challenge. We don’t want to get caught.”
“Stop for water? What does that entail?”
“We just pull up to a big water tower and pour it in. It’s not hard but we do have to stop.”
Abigail looked out into the blackness. “How long will it take to get to Albany?”
“We’re going a bit slower because it’s night. Probably take about six to seven hours.”
“So it should still be dark when we arrive?” Abigail took her attention to the steam pressure gauge. “What will we do when we get there?” She tapped the gauge as Father had done. She had no idea why.
“We’ll take the engine as close as we can, then just leave it in a siding. We should be able to get very close to the docks. There’s a siding that is used to take grain trucks out to a storage area. We’ll stop there.”
“I’ll be glad when this is over.” Abigail remained tightly affixed to the regulator lever with one hand and the brake lever with the other. Her look fixed firmly on the gauges. Gazing into the looming darkness would be of little use if anything were to get in their way. The regular flicking of the gauges was hypnotic. It wouldn’t help them arrive any quicker but there was little else to do.
Time ceased to possess meaning as they thundered on. In the dim lamplight the gauges bounced rhythmically. Whenever the firebox was opened, the water in the sight glass glinted orange. Sleath’s shoveling, though, had slowed considerably. Abigail noticed that his bandages had turned a solid crimson color. A quick check confirmed the worst. He was still bleeding from the gash in his leg.
“How did this happen?” She grabbed an underskirt from the leather bag and ripped a section from the hem.
Sleath slumped down with his back against the side of the cab. “He stabbed me. It was only a small blade but it really hurt. That’s what he cut my face with, too.”
Abigail used some water from a tap on the tender to rinse the wound before binding it up again with the skirt material. “I’ve read that keeping it clean helps. It’s a pity we have no carbolic acid.” She glanced around the sparse cab and shook her head. “Let me know if you feel faint. I just hope we can prevent the rot starting. We don’t want you to lose it.”
“I could lose my leg?”
“Don’t think about it.” Abigail forced a smile. “I’m sure it will not amount to that.” She was grateful for the dim light.
The moon hung half-way down the western sky. Abigail had taken great pains to regularly check on its progress, hoping to glean some idea of the passing hours. With no clocks on board, the night sky provided the only evidence of time’s advance. It was hopelessly inaccurate, but better than nothing.
The first water stop went without a hitch. Sleath remembered where the tower was and stopped short to enable a check of the area before filling. A couple of hours later, the second effort ran nowhere near as smoothly. Sleath had felt the location was close, but cursed loudly as the tower went flying past. Stopping several hundred yards down the track, they both crept back along the line, scanning the surroundings as they went. All was calm, a distant house remaining totally dark.
The water tower stood some way past the small station, hidden by three large wattles, planted years ago to improve the tower’s appearance. Abigail managed to reverse the giant engine gently back, stopping perfectly under the tower. She clapped herself as the hiss from the brakes confirmed they were still.
“See,” she said. “I can drive as well as any man.”
“You are not a normal woman,” Sleath replied, leaning against the cab side, breathing heavily. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me you have invented a way of making the engine run with less water.”
“Well, actually.” Abigail swung around on her seat, grinning. “I have been thinking about that. There is a lot of waste going out that funnel. If we could reclaim some of that steam and condense it back to water, like on ships, we could run for longer. Also, there is a deal of heat in that steam. I’m sure that could be used as well.”
Prentice stood with his mouth wide. “I’m amazed you understand all that stuff,” he said, as he disappeared down the steps.
The fill complete, Sleath slowly pulled himself back into the cab. He leaned back against the tender, panting.
Abigail smiled at him as she pushed forward the reverser lever. “How do you feel?”
He stood up straight. “Tired but I’m still in fighting form.” He reached for the shovel. “That evening, at dinner, you seemed to understand everything Albert said. Are you really interested in all that?”
“Shall we get underway? We can discuss it as we go.”
“Very well.” He opened the firebox door and shoveled like a madman.
Abigail felt he was trying to buy himself time to listen to more of her story. She worked the controls with ease, her confidence growing.
As the rhythm of the engine calmed once more, Sleath set down the shovel and gazed at Abigail. “So? What is it that makes a girl like you so interested in engineering?”
Abigail left the controls and swung to face him. “Mother tried to encourage reading at an early age, so bought me quite a lot of books. I loved reading.”
Sleath slowly sunk to a seated position on the cab floor. “I don’t read. Never had the time.”
She continued, nervously gazing at Sleath’s wounds. “Before Mother died I had a lot of time. I used to read to Bertrand every day.”
“So, how do you come to know so much about the theory of engines?”
“When Mother died I was sent off to boarding school in London. Bertrand was sent away, too. He went to a special institution. He was quite difficult back then.”
“Has he always been a bit simple minded?”
Abigail sighed. “From birth he has been slow, yes. So anyway, I was stuck away from home in boarding school. Father knew I loved science, so sent me as much reading material as he could. Fortunately for me, most of it was about engineering. It was his area of expertise, you see.”
“So you sort of studied engineering in your spare time?”
“You could say that. Father also furnished me with a number of fictional works. Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe were my favorites, but I was inspired by Mary Shelley’s work. A woman succeeding in a man’s world. Now that is something.”
Sleath wiped his brow with a sooty sleeve. “I don’t know any of them.”
“I’m sure that is not your fault. You just haven’t been given the chance to read them.”
“I’m not good at reading. I can do signs and work rosters but I would struggle with a whole novel.”
“You poor thing. We will have to do something about that.” Abigail smiled at him. He seemed more vulnerable in the dim light. His hard exterior, the superior male facade, now exhibited deep cracks. Abigail squinted. He didn’t look well. In fact, he looked positively unwell, his face turning whiter as Abigail stared.
“More coal?” He gathered an obviously forced strength and began hauling in shovel-loads of fuel. After just four loads he halted, dropping the shovel and leaning back against the tender.
Abigail slipped down from her seat. “You’re exhausted. Just rest a while. We have enough pressure and I can put more coal in if needed.” Abigail wasn’t sure whether she could shovel coal or not. She had never shoveled anything except sand for a seaside castle. Time would tell.
She knelt down beside him. “So, Prentice Sleath, you know about me. Tell me a little about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?” His voice was softening, becoming difficult to hear over the engine noise.
“Tell me about your parents.”
“My father died when I was five. My mother brought me up in a backstreet London slum. She worked for a group of nuns, washing clothes from dawn until well into the night. We shared one bed but we ate well.”
“Oh, you poor thing. I didn’t know.” Abigail thought she saw a glisten in his eye as he spoke. It was hard to see much. She may have been mistaken.
He continued, “Mother died when I was sixteen. There was nothing for me there with the nuns, so I took a job as a hand on a sailing ship.” He slowly shook his head. “I hated it. Never got my sea legs so I left the ship in Africa. I didn’t have the right approvals, though, so the authorities forced me to leave. I ended up on a steam ship bound for Albany. They put me to work stoking the boilers and hauling coal.”
“So, that’s how you came to be a fireman.”
“It served me well when later I sought work in Fremantle. I wasn’t getting back on another ship. Hated it.” Abigail’s ears pricked up at this. Something had been playing on her mind. She had debated whether to bring it up or not. She sat up on her knees. “Tell me something if you would. That night … after dinner at our house. I saw you climb into Frances’ buggy as she was leaving.”
“What were you doing? I thought you may have been planning to follow her to New Zealand.”
“Well … she had confided in me that she was leaving home. She said she needed help. I offered.”
“But why hide in the bushes?”
“Frances said it would not look good if she was seen running off with another man.”
“She was correct with that statement.”
“So I helped her to an inn and left. All I had to do was return the buggy and that was it.”
“Return the buggy? So you returned the buggy?”
He hesitated. “Yes. The next day as she requested. I replaced it about lunchtime.”
Abigail’s mind reeled. “So … you were at the house … around lunchtime?”
“Yes. Is that … is that when he was killed?”
Abigail stood and moved back to her seat. “Then what happened?” She leaned forward. “How did you come to be in Beverley?”
“What is this?” He turned away and stared at the firebox. “Am I now under suspicion? Will you accuse me of the murder next?”
“It’s …” What to say now? “It’s just that you may have seen something. The murderer walking away? Or anything?”
“I saw nothing.” His voice began to slow and his eyes glazed before rolling back in his head. He collapsed across the cab floor, his head hitting the metal grid with quite a thump.
Abigail slid quickly off her seat and knelt down beside him. He was breathing. This was not a good situation to be in. They would be approaching Albany within the hour and she had no idea what to do. Drive slowly until something gets in the way? Maybe. She pulled out the rest of her torn underskirt and balled it up under his head. There was little else she could do for him. She took her attention back to the controls.
She would now have to maintain the locomotive’s power alone. If Sleath was to get help in time, she had to ensure they made it all the way to Albany. He had lost a lot of blood. Outside help was crucial.
Copyright © 2015 Stephen Childs.
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Stephen Childs was born in London, England in 1961. He is the eldest of four siblings. Stephen travelled to New Zealand with his parents in the early 1970s.
Completing his education in New Zealand, Stephen took up work as an audio engineer in the film and television business.