I’m excited to announce that my newest novel, The Diamond Device, is now out. It’s a light-hearted steampunk adventure. I hope you’ll be tempted to grab a copy, tell your friends and so on. The buy link is here.
What’s The Diamond Device about?
After diamond power promises to replace steam, an unemployed labourer and a thieving noble unite to foil an international plot and avert a war.
Alf Wilson resents the new technology that cost him his factory job, especially as his clockwork leg bars him from army enrolment. He daren’t confess his unemployment to his overbearing mother. Desperate over the rent, he ends up in a detention cell with a hangover.
Impoverished Lord Richard Hayes maintains his expensive parliamentary seat by a mixture of charm and burglary. During a poorly planned break-in, he inadvertently witnesses a kidnapping. To cap it all, the police arrest him for the crime. At least he’s using a fake identity. The real criminals make off with not just the professor who discovered diamond power, but her plans for a diamond-fuelled bomb.
When Rich encounters Alf in the neighbouring cell, he sees an opportunity to keep his noble reputation intact. He persuades Alf he’s a secret agent who needs an assistant. This chance association will take them to the oddest locations. But law-abiding Alf’s first assignment? Break Rich out of jail.
I’m sharing the first chapter here. The images are my own creation for this site—it’s not an illustrated book!
Alf hunched his shoulders as he limped along the pavement, but rain still trickled off his flat cap and down his neck. He shoved his hands deeper into the misshapen pockets of his workman’s jacket. If only he could afford a pair of gloves.
He scowled at the fancy detached houses he was passing, their cheerful porch lights mocking his mood. They lay on the route from the docks to his home in the labourers’ residential district. Tonight, the area even boasted a patrolling constable, who eyed Alf suspiciously under the glow from the gas street lamp.
So what? It wasn’t a crime to walk along the street, and snooty residents had no right to complain he spoiled their view. He even had an honest job.
At least, he had until today.
Bloody scientists and their inventions. For the last eighteen months, Alf had operated cranes at a factory that made naval supplies. After a recent change in ownership, the boss had brought in new technology. The machines needed little human input, so most of the factory hands had been laid off. The boss claimed it was his patriotic duty, freeing up men to sign up for the armed forces. But he’d be raking in more profits too.
And where did that leave Alf? He was no paper-pusher to be kept on in a desk job, and he wasn’t one of the foreman’s golden boys. His workmates had been quite happy to seek jobs elsewhere as sailors, soldiers or even airship crew. But no, not Alf. His false leg barred him from even applying.
A steam-powered carriage chugged past, wheels rolling through a puddle and sending up spray. With a curse, Alf stepped to the side. His dragging foot caught on an uneven paving stone that sent him stumbling. He clutched a nearby lamp post.
The constable strolled up with a hand on his holstered truncheon. “Everything alright, sir?”
“Uh, yeah.” The copper probably thought he was drunk. Alf released his grasp, then wiped grimy hands on his trousers. “I have a gammy leg.”
The admission stuck in his craw. After the accident at his previous workplace—driving a steam-powered digger—they’d offered him a choice of prosthetic legs. He’d picked the clockwork model, simply because it was worth more than a wooden one. The mechanism needed to be wound each morning, but it let the ankle flex more naturally when climbing stairs. Problem was, the power didn’t last all day. By evening, the leg was a dead weight attached below his aching knee.
“Right you are.” The policeman adjusted his peaked cap and regulation waterproof cape, obviously waiting for Alf to move on.
Fists clenched, Alf progressed up the street. As more street lamps flickered into life, his stomach rumbled. It was nearly suppertime. What was Mum going to say about his lost job? With her arthritis, she couldn’t work long hours. Alf had been the main breadwinner for the eight years since Gwen’s dad passed on. And as for Gwen? With her engineering studies, she wasn’t bringing home any money either.
A door opened just ahead, illuminating a neat garden path flanked by carefully tended flower beds. Silhouetted in the doorway were two figures. One was female, her curves beginning the slow decline towards sagginghood. The other was tall, lean and male. He held a top hat and cane.
“Lovely to see you. Do come again, and soon.” The woman’s voice was plummy, although a touch breathless.
“It’s been a pleasure!” said the man. He leaned over her hand.
Alf stopped to stare. He’d read in the weekly rag that nobs kissed women’s hands, but he hadn’t believed it was true. And in full view of the whole street!
“God’s blood, it’s wet!” Donning his hat, the man bounded down the steps and along the path.
“I’ll send the butler out with an umbrella.”
“No need. I see a cab.” He raised his cane in farewell, and his long stride took him past Alf with barely a glance.
Alf ducked the swinging cane as the scent of ginger cake taunted his nostrils. He glowered at the young man’s smirking profile. Bloke probably didn’t have a care in the world.
A battered cab ground to a halt in a cloud of steam. Before the driver could climb down from his perch, the toff yanked the door open and jumped in, calling, “Parlay Square, and make it speedy.”
Bloody toffs, always acting like the world revolved around them, just because they had money. Meanwhile, hard-working folks like Alf—
A wave of freezing water drenched him as the cab sped off.
◊ ◊ ◊
Tossing his battered top hat on the worn leather seat, Rich leaned back and frowned. His visit hadn’t gone nearly as well as he’d hoped. Certainly, afternoon visits to ladies of a certain age—while their husbands were out—deflected suspicions from what he was really doing. But he’d been so sure that Mrs Sadler’s house would promise rich pickings for a night-time burglary. Instead, he’d found tasteless gaudy ornaments that would be impossible to fence, and well-maintained security automata of the latest design. Turned out that Mr Sadler was a munitions manufacturer, so he was more conscious of household security than most gentlemen.
Rich shrugged. One couldn’t win them all. For his clandestine activities, he tried to pick affluent targets who weren’t in the public eye and who weren’t known to each other. There was still some guesswork involved, but careful preparation paid off. So far, his one burglary per month didn’t stand out from Ironfort’s background crime rate.
Where should he try next? He ran a hand through his thinning hair—an unfortunate trait shared with his father. Mrs Sadler’s fulsome reception suggested no inkling that he was down to his last handful of crowns. He didn’t dare give that impression, which was why he’d called a cab rather than walking home. If word got out that he was nearly broke… With a threadbare silk handkerchief, he mopped his brow. He was at risk of losing the name of Lord Richard Hayes and, more importantly, his seat on the Council of Lords, the governing body within Lesser Grenia.
The vehicle rocked as it hit a pothole. A curse from the driver floated through the hatch in front. Rich suppressed a similar curse as a spring poked his backside. He missed the days when his parents kept a private horse-drawn carriage.
When Mother and Father had set off on a trade mission three years ago, Rich had promised he’d hold the family seat in the Council of Lords. He hadn’t expected to lose all contact with them. Since then, political tensions with neighbouring Calesia had steadily increased, although diplomats on both sides still feigned cordiality. With the Hayes fortunes tied up in ventures abroad, Rich now had no way of accessing foreign funds. Practically speaking, all he controlled was a dairy farm in the country and the Parlay Square townhouse, a mouldering chunk of real estate that would require tens of thousands of crowns to modernise.
Smoke and steam from the carriage’s engine seeped through the window and made him cough. He waved it away, catching a glimpse of an army recruitment poster.
Even worse, Rich’s parents were Calesian, albeit more successful than their fellow immigrants. Their investment acumen had earned his father a noble title. Although Rich had been born here, if he were convicted of any wrongdoing, the weight of the law would fall more heavily on his head. Not to mention being branded as a potential traitor.
“Sir?” came the cabbie’s voice. “Just turning into Parlay Square. That’ll be six pence.”
Reaching into his woefully empty coin pouch, Rich found a florin. When the carriage stopped, he handed it over with a smile. “Keep the change, my good man.”
While the belching carriage moved off, he donned his hat and sauntered along the street towards his house. His precarious living depended on presenting himself as a confident man of means.
◊ ◊ ◊
By the time Alf arrived home, he was soaking, starving and in a filthy mood. He stomped down the uneven stone steps to their rented basement flat. The warped communal door didn’t fully close, and water pooled on the concrete floor. Bloody greedy landlords. Before he could use the latchkey, his apartment door swung open. A blast of warm damp air hit him, scented with cabbage, bacon and onions.
“Wotcher, Alf.” Gwen grinned up at him from a pixie-like face, marred by a yellowing black eye. “Busy day?”
Alf stepped into the main room, and the stresses of the day eased. He tugged Gwen’s honey-blonde fringe, smirking as she batted his hand away. Her hair was several shades lighter than his and a good deal fluffier although they shared Mum’s muddy brown eyes. “Yeah, it always is. Any grub left for me?”
“Naw, we got tired of waiting.” She stuck out her tongue when he scowled.
“Gwen, don’t tease your brother so.” Mum’s querulous voice came from the kitchen at the back, accompanied by the clang of a spoon in the pot. “He’s been hard at work. How was your day, Alf?”
“Oh, fine. Just a normal day. No problems.” He forced a cheerful smile. After taking off his sodden coat and hanging it up, he sat on the couch that doubled as Gwen’s bed, trying not to knock over her stack of books. He clumsily rolled up his left trouser leg. His clothes would take days to dry out properly.
“Let me help.” Gwen knelt and undid the laces on his right shoe and pulled it off, along with his soggy sock.
Alf wiggled his toes against the worn carpet with a frown. Gwen wasn’t usually so attentive. “Did your classes go alright today?”
“Sure, we had lots of fun.” She tossed his sock into the laundry bag. Mum’s laundry job meant they didn’t need to wash by hand.
“No more ‘accidents’?” His frown deepened. That black eye wasn’t the first.
She flinched slightly. “No, I just keep my mouth shut, even when the posh students are talking tripe.”
“I’m sure it’ll sort itself out in the exams.” Alf sighed. He could never think of encouraging things to say. “You’ll show them up when it really matters.”
“Um…” She picked at a loose thread in the carpet. “We had a spot test today.”
That sounded ominous. Sliding a hand down the side of his prosthesis, Alf prodded the switch that released the vacuum. The cuff hissed and then loosened. He slipped it off, then massaged what remained of his leg below the knee. After checking his cane was in its usual place by the wall, he eyed the still-silent Gwen. “And?”
“I tried! It’s not my fault they make things so complicated.”
Great. Even though Mum had stopped Gwen from running errands, she still couldn’t keep up with the lessons. If only she’d stuck with cookery school, or even that carpentry course. Though at least college was now free, unlike when he’d left school fifteen years ago. And her homework was more interesting these days. “Maybe you should think about—”
“I’ll be fine! Just need a bit more time to get my head round things. This is definitely the right choice for me.” Settling herself on a floor cushion, Gwen tapped the prosthesis. “Oh, we took one of these apart today.”
Mum hobbled in with a tray, which she set on Alf’s lap. It bore a steaming plate of hash and a mug of sweet, milky tea. “Let your brother eat in peace. I’m sure he’s been working his fingers to the bone. He doesn’t need you wittering on about all them fancy devices.”
“I don’t mind.” Alf picked up his fork and dug in. If he was occupied with eating, Gwen could chatter away all she wanted, and he wouldn’t be expected to answer awkward questions. Today, he wasn’t in a mood to argue about her schooling. Besides, the hash was dark and crispy round the edges, just how he liked it. “What did you learn about false legs?”
“Control systems. You have a special one, don’t you?”
He nodded and swallowed. The hot food warmed his stomach. “Yes, a new type.”
“So, ordinary false legs have springs and joints in the usual places, but you need to move differently, since they don’t know what you’re doing. They just passively rely on gravity and momentum. Your type has a clockwork-powered”—she frowned in concentration—“sensori-controller system that interprets your, uh, body signals, and moves more… with you, like.”
Alf chuckled. “That’s more or less it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Can it hear what you’re thinking? Sounds a bit creepy, it doing something by itself.”
“Not really by itself. It only listens when it’s attached to me. And I like that it doesn’t look so obvious when I’m walking.” He suppressed his earlier uncomplimentary thoughts about the device, just in case it really could hear him. With it being a recent model, who knew what its creator might have added?
Mum returned with two more mugs and set them on the writing desk that held Gwen’s notes. Alf had bought the desk from a neighbour who was moving out. Although it made the room more cluttered, Gwen assured him it helped her study. It had better not prove a waste.
After easing herself on to the stool, Mum cupped her mug with arthritic hands. The flat was never quite warm enough for comfort, so she slept in the kitchen, leaving Alf the bedroom. “I read in the paper today about all those new machines they’re bringing into the factories. That anything to do with your work?”
Alf stiffened, a denial on his lips. But it would be easier to keep up a small lie than a large one. “Er, yeah, they installed some in my factory. Makes the place more efficient.”
Gwen’s eyes widened. “They taught us about that too. Technology can now do a lot of things that people were doing by hand. That means you need fewer people to do the same work, doesn’t it?”
Alf squirmed inside. “That’s right.”
“Don’t tell me they’re laying people off.” Mum pointed a swollen-knuckled finger at Alf’s plate. “Why’ve you stopped eating? Is my cooking not good? Shall I go and make—”
“No, it’s great!” Alf shovelled food into his mouth and took his time chewing, not even tasting what he was eating. Eventually, he swallowed. “They don’t need so many workers. Some of my mates have signed up for military service. Doing their patriotic duty.” Nice for them, moving straight into well-paid jobs when war was only a distant possibility.
Mum glanced at the wall, where she’d tacked a newspaper picture of King Michael and Queen Sylvia. “Good for them. And what about you?” Her brow crinkled in concern.
“Oh, I’m fine. Someone needs to oversee the machines.” Damn, why had he said that? No way could he keep his unemployment from Mum for long.
“That sounds good for your prospects. And maybe a nice girl—”
Alf coughed as an errant piece of cabbage stuck in his throat.
After he took a gulp of tea, Gwen tapped his arm. “I’m supposed to do a project. All the other students got their parents to sort them out. Can I come to work with you someday?”
“No!” Her sullen face made him blurt, “I wouldn’t want to push my luck, it being a recent promotion and all.” Gah, even worse! What was he saying? Cheeks burning, he tugged at his collar. “I don’t want to get in trouble with the boss. And… and, they have safety regulations about visitors and everything.”
“Oh, poo.” She brightened. “Well, how about increasing my pocket money allowance? And there are some books I’m sure would help…”
“Of course he will,” said Mum. “Since you’re going up in the world, it’s only right to help your family.”
“Uh, sure,” muttered Alf, thinking of his meagre final pay packet.
Mum’s cheeks crinkled with her smile. “That’s my boy.”
I hope that’s whetted your appetite. Expect to hear a lot more from me about Rich and Alf’s adventures over the next several weeks 😀