Clockwork Image

So far in Clockwork Image:

Tressa is determined to get to the bottom of who is threatening Westwood. In her frustration she's alienated Jasper and he's left to parts unknown. To compound matters, Tressa was unable to express herself when Brox asked her to stay. Now she has given Brox the wrong impression and alienated him as well. Tressa is alone and for the first time in her life being alone is eating her up.

“Please, Mr. Clark,” Tressa nearly begged. “Are you certain you have not heard from my brother?”

 

It had been over two weeks since Jasper left and no one had heard hide nor hair of him. She’d spoken with art dealers, and old friends. She’d even begun questioning the taverns and inns in town. She asked everyone who might know where Jasper was.

 

Tressa looked up from her conversation with Mr. Clark, noticing Brox as he strode down the hall of Westwood. Without sparing her a glance, he turned into a classroom on the right. Before the door shut behind him, Tressa caught a glimpse of his students, backs straight, sitting in orderly rows. Tressa tucked her hands back into her breeches, feeling invisible in her unshapely shirtsleeves and old boots.

 

She closed her eyes. She hadn’t asked everyone.

 

Tressa had not spoken to Brox since her mulish mishap several days previous.

Oh, how she missed him. They’d only known each other a couple of weeks. But, up until Tressa’s untimely memories ended their friendship, they’d spent at least some time together nearly every day. Now, that was gone.

 

It felt like a hole had opened up, swallowing all the sunlight and color out of life.

 

Worse still, she had no idea how to repair what was broken between them. Machines she could fix, but this? The only possible solution required her telling Brox about her past, which was impossible. Her few months on land had done nothing if not prove she simply could not speak of those events.

 

“I am sorry, Seawoman Wimple.” Mr. Clark spoke rather tersely. “I am rather busy just now and I am certain I haven’t seen Jasper.” He lumbered farther down the hall.

 

So much for questioning those in Westwood. She didn’t think Jasper would have come here anyway, not considering how much he hated the place. But after her search of all the inns in town proved fruitless, she’d wondered if he’d begged a room from the orphanage. As farfetched as the idea seemed, she was running out of options.

 

Soft footfalls sounded on Tressa’s left, but she ignored them. If Jasper wasn’t there, and hadn’t contacted anyone there to look for a room, where else could he be?

 

“Why do you want to see Jasper?”

 

Tressa turned to find Christina glowering at her.

 

The small young woman seemed positively livid, as though Tressa herself had defamed and ruined Jasper. Tressa didn’t have the patience for her accusations or judgements. Then again, the woman had seen Tressa holding Jasper quite firmly by the lapels.

 

“He’s gone off,” Tressa said with a wave of her hand. She didn’t feel like explaining herself to the delicate creature.

 

“I know.”

 

Tressa eyed Christina more carefully. She couldn’t recall a time when she’d heard the woman speak quite so firmly.

 

“How do you know?” Had Brox told her?

 

Christina’s gaze dropped momentarily, then she faced Tressa once more, drawing herself up to her full height, an unintimidating five-foot-naught.

 

“I asked why you want to see your brother,” Christina said.

 

Tressa’s jaw clamped tight. “Is he staying with you?”

 

Christina’s face turned bright pink. “Not with me. Despite what you think, I’m no lightskirt.”

 

Tressa placed her hands on her hips. She was not going to play games with this blonde. “What do you know?” Tressa demanded.

 

Christina stuck her chin out. “More than you.”

 

No one spoke to Tressa like that. “You listen here—”

 

“No, you listen,” Christina spat. Stalking forward, Christina got right in Tressa’s face. “Did you know that I used to idolize you? You don’t even remember me from our days here, but I remember you. I saw the way you walked around this place, like you owned it. I wanted, more than anything, to be just like you.

 

“You even”—Christina’s voice broke, but she carried on—“you even bore the horrors of this place with poise and strength. You were all I ever wanted to be.”

 

Christina rocked back, eyes full of tears, and shook her head. “But not anymore. Because of your strength, you choose to look down on those of us who weren’t as strong. You spend so much time forcing others to acknowledge you, you never stop and acknowledge any of us.”

 

Tressa only stared at her, each accusation like a hammer hitting against her ribs. She’d never thought of it in such a way.

 

Christina wiped a tear off her cheek with a quick swipe and shook her head in frustration. “Being able to fix a stupid boiler isn’t the only thing that matters in this world.” Spinning around, skirts flaring out around her, Christina hurried down the hall and away.

 

Tressa blinked. Since when had she become such a horrid person? First she drove Jasper away, then alienated Brox, and now even Christina was taking her to task. Blast it all, Christina was right. Tressa had been blessed with physical strength, so had Jasper. It was something they shared. It had always been that way. They never got sick and they held up under the more grueling tasks in Westwood better than most.

 

But that didn’t mean that physical strength was all that mattered. Christina had spoken true and Tressa felt terrible. It was time she made things right. With everyone.

 

Tressa hurried down the hall after Christina. “Wait,” she called out.

 

Christina paused but didn’t turn around to face her.

 

“Please,” Tressa said. “I need to see Jasper because I need to tell him I’m sorry. And that he was right. And that I’m done being a fake, non-posed person.”

 

Christina turned around at that. “Done being what?”

 

“Never mind.” Tressa slowed as she neared Christina. “I’m sorry to you, too. It’s true I haven’t been very understanding. Everyone is born with different abilities, and there’s no one set of attributes that are better than another.”

 

Christina eyed her up and down, likely assessing Tressa’s sincerity. “Would you be willing to prove it?”

 

“How so?” She asked the question, but truthfully, Tressa was willing to do anything to see Jasper.

 

“Tell Mr. Broxholme the truth.”

 

“The truth about what?” Oh, gears above, Christina hadn’t found out that he’d asked to kiss Tressa, had she?

 

Christina kept her chin up, but her eyes filled with tears once more. When she spoke, her words were nearly a whisper. “Tell him what Westwood is doing. Tell him about the hallway.”

 

A tingling crawled down her arms. Tressa rubbed her hands against the sides of her breeches. “That’s in the past. People were put away and it’s done now.”

 

Christina shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no, no it’s not. The wrong people were put away, and that didn’t stop anything.”

 

All the blood left Tressa’s face. It was still going on? Children were still being forced to work . . . She rested a hand against the wall next to her and swore.

 

Christina didn’t so much as flinch or pinken at her language.

 

Images of waiting in the hall, dreading the moment the opposite door would open, flooded over Tressa. It was still happening? Children were still forced to labor for hours on end?

 

“But I saw the door.” Tressa’s voice was dry and scratched against her throat. “It’s all boarded up. No one could get past it and into the hall.”

 

“They made a new entry to the hallway, but that’s all that has changed. Children are still marched down there a couple of times a week. You didn’t know?”

 

Tressa shook her head. Of course she hadn’t known. If she had, she never would have come back to Westwood. “And the new board is okay with this?” Tressa’s mind jumped to Brox. Did he know and not care? She would have never thought him capable of being so coldhearted.

 

“Oh, no.” Christina blinked and a couple of tears ran down her plump cheeks. “None of the new members know, and I think all except one or two of the old members believe it’s all closed up, just as you did.”

 

Tressa was reeling. Jasper was right—more right than even he knew. She should never have agreed to hand so much money over to Westwood without being honest about the past and more involved in Westwood’s present.

 

Christina took a half-step closer to Tressa. “Mr. Broxholme needs to know. They all do. It’s the only way this will end.”

 

Tressa only nodded, not sure what else to say.

 

Christina patted her on the shoulder. At the touch, Tressa could feel Christina shaking. “You should tell him.”

 

Tressa stood up straight. “What?”

 

“I’m not like you. I don’t have your courage. You tell him. If anyone is strong enough to face this and make a difference, it’s you.”

 

Tressa wanted to swear again, but the words caught in her throat. She couldn’t tell Brox. But how could she explain to Christina that she couldn’t? It wasn’t that she disagreed. Or that she didn’t want Brox to know. It certainly wasn’t because she didn’t want all the forced labor to end.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t tell Brox. It was that Tressa couldn’t.

 

“This will be a good thing.” Christina’s voice grew stronger as she spoke. “I’ll get Mr. Broxholme and you can tell him. He’s a barrister. He can make sure the right people are held accountable this time.” She nodded, her curls bobbing up and down with enthusiasm. “You’re strong. You’ll make sure this doesn’t happen anymore.”

 

Tressa placed two fingers against the bridge of her nose. “I don’t kno—”

 

Christina brushed past her without listening and pushed the door to the classroom open. “Mr. Broxholme? Sorry to interrupt, but there is a matter of some urgency that needs your attention.”

 

Gads, they were doing this now? Brox said something, but Tressa couldn’t make out the exact words. Tressa turned and pressed her back against the wall. She needed the support. For the first time in her life, Tressa believed she was about to faint.

 

“This way, sir.” Christina’s voice was firm once more. How could Christina, who was so fragile and delicate, still appear so confident?

 

Tressa felt like her insides were crumbling in pieces. And Tressa had to tell Brox? Her mind jumped to all the times she’d had to remember the hallway these past few weeks. Not once had she been able to find words.

 

She just didn’t see this ending well.

 

Brox, a question creasing his brow, walked beside Christina until they reached Tressa.

“Seawoman Wimple.” He gave her a small nod in greeting.

 

Lud, this wasn’t going to be any easier if he was still hurting from last week. She felt horridly guilty over that—and regretful. But she would face that issue later. For now, someone had to stand up and protect the children.

 

“Mr. Broxholme.” Tressa stood up straight. “There is something . . . we need to tell . . .” Her mouth was dry. The words stumbled across her tongue and then vanished. How did one say this? What were the words she needed?

 

Christina placed a hand on her arm. Tressa glanced at the small woman.

 

“Just tell him,” she whispered.

 

Tressa looked over at Brox who watched her quietly, his form stiff with wariness.

 

Tressa opened her mouth. She could do this. She had to tell him to save the children.

Her throat tightened and the words refused to leave her mouth.

 

With a frustrated sigh, Tressa shut her eyes. “Christina, you talked of everyone having different strengths. I’m afraid . . .”

 

She peeked one eye open and looked down at Christina, still standing beside her.

 

Christina’s lips twisted to the side. Then her brow set in determination. She looped her arm through Tressa’s and faced Brox fully.

 

“Mr. Broxholme,” she began, her voice strong and level. “Many years ago, several of Westwood’s board members were charged with mishandling funds and consequently dismissed.”

 

Brox listened without saying anything.

 

“What few people know,” Christina continued, “is that they were not guilty of mismanaging funds, but of exploiting the children. Furthermore, we are here to inform you that it is still going on.”

 

“Miss Brown,” Brox protested. “I can assure—”

 

“It’s true,” Tressa said. Her strength may not include being sure of tongue, but at the very least she could support Christina.

 

Brox’s face grew pale. “Please continue, Miss Brown.”

 

Christina squeezed Tressa’s arm. Tressa wasn’t sure if the young woman was doing it to show gratitude to Tressa for interrupting Brox, or if she was gathering courage for herself.

 

“Children are being forced to work in horrible conditions, for hours on end, and when they fail to perform as expected”—Christina slipped one delicate glove off and turned her palm upward. It was criss-crossed with scars—“they are punished most cruelly.”

 

Brox swore, running hand down his face. “And you mean to tell me, this is a continual practice?”

Christina nodded. “It is, sir. Though if you ask any of the children, they will deny it.”

 

Tressa finally found some words. “If anyone talks about it, they are beaten and food is withheld for two days.” She knew from experience.

 

Christina hugged her arm once more. The blonde woman may be prone to tears, but she was strong, too. Strong in ways different than Tressa.

 

“This ends today,” Brox said. That determined look Tressa loved etched deep into his expression. Christina had been right; Brox was the exact person they needed to tell. Love and longing both welled up inside of Tressa. “If you’ll excuse me, there are some legal forms I need to fill out.” Brox stalked down the hallway.

 

Christina let out a long, slow breath, her relief palpable. Tressa agreed with the sentiment. They’d done it. They’d gotten the ball rolling. Life would be much better for these children now.

Still, Tressa suspected that talking to different board members, even sending them legal documentation ordering they testify before a judge wouldn’t be enough. They’d need proof.

 

Christina unlinked their arms and faced Tressa. “There’s something else I need to tell you.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

Christina squirmed, her fingers twisting around each other in front of her. “Well . . . Jasper said if you were the one to tell Brox about the forced labor then I had to tell you. But, I think . . . I think I’d better still tell you.”

 

The confident woman of moments ago was gone. Christina glanced over her shoulder and fidgeted where she stood. “The person who wrote that bloody message on the serving tray? That was me.”

 

“You?” Tressa yelled.

 

Christina jumped. More tears rolled down her cheeks.

 

This woman was a mystery. One moment she was stronger than Tressa in facing Brox, and now she was back to a blubbering teacake. Some people Tressa would never understand.

 

Christina’s words were so soft, Tressa could barely hear them. “I thought you must know about the child labor and not care. All I could do was hope to scare you away. Or, at the very least, get the authorities involved. It didn’t scare you away, so I set up a meeting with the Constable. I thought if I told him about what has actually been happening in Westwood, he might be able to stop it. Before I could get to Rayden’s, I ran into Jasper and he mentioned you and Mr. Broxholme were going to be there with the Constable. I got so scared, I didn’t dare show up.”

 

The words spilled out of her mouth like steam from an old, hole-riddled engine. “I encouraged him to set up the buckets to take attention away from the fact that I wasn’t going to show. Please, I didn’t know what else to do. I just wanted someone to stand up and tell the truth.”

 

Tressa couldn’t be angry at her. If Tressa had known that Westwood was still exploiting children, she would have never offered them money. She probably would have helped Christina with the bloody platter.

 

“I didn’t know things were still going on,” Tressa said. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to say something earlier.”

 

Christina looked up at Tressa, smiling. “Things will be better now. Mr. Broxholme is a force to reckon with.”

 

“Yes, but I believe he is going to need more than words to end this.” Tressa placed her hands on her hips. They would need evidence of what was happening. They’d have to work quickly.

 

If it was her word against someone of high standing in London society, Tressa was certain she would not win. But how to capture evidence of something that only happened at night, and away from all eyes? “I need to see Jasper. Christina, this is imperative.”

 

The young woman slipped her glove back on, tugging it firmly into place. “I promised Jasper I wouldn’t take you to him. But if you wrote a letter, I’d deliver it for you.”

Option A Won! Thanks for your vote!