In shirtsleeves and waistcoats, the two men pored over tattered maps and yellowed books. Little outside their immediate thoughts bothered them. The housemaid thought to open the curtains, letting light in through the ornate, baroque windows, and they noticed only that the words flowed more easily from the page, that their scribbles on the wall-mounted blackboard accumulated more quickly and legibly. The tea she proffered slipped down their throats almost by reflex, and the plates of breakfast were ignored. She stoked the fire, and they merely loosened their collars.
When the stranger entered - a tall woman: pale, dark-haired and dark-eyed - she too went unnoticed. She thanked the housemaid for escorting her in, waiting for the younger woman to leave before removing her bonnet. She watched the two men for a minute or so, observing their frantic work and the way it revolved around the chattering machine in the corner.
And then she reached into the dark overcoat she wore over her loose, high-waisted dress, and retrieved a flintlock pistol, discharging it into the nearest man with a thunderous crack. He spun round, eyes wide, and fell to the floor, dead. The other man stared open-mouthed at the stranger, his train of thought finally derailed.
The stranger drew a second pistol and pulled back the hammer. She glanced suddenly back towards the entrance, expressionless and unreadable. After a split-second's thought, she fired through the door, leaving a neat hole just below the keyhole.
The surviving man lunged for the fireplace, grabbing the poker, but with a flash of metal he had dropped it, and the woman was beside him, the point of a long dagger at his throat.
As she pressed forward, he squeezed back against a wall of books. He spoke quickly, trying to spit out the words before it was too late. “Cracksman sent you, didn't he?”
Still stony-faced, she said, “Of course.”
“There's nothing of value here. Kill me and my debts will never be honoured.”
“Unfortunately for you,” she said, pushing the dagger forward, drawing blood. “I still get paid.”
“I know where to find a massive fortune!” he gasped.
“Shame you couldn't have found it sooner.”
“It only just revealed itself. Let me live, and you can have it. Actually, I can have it too. That's its value.”
She extended a manicured, short-nailed hand and skilfully buttoned up his collar, dagger held steadily all the while. “That noisy machine has something to do with it, doesn't it?”
Perhaps relieved to still be alive, he actually smiled. “Yes, yes it does.”
Her impassive mask cracked, and she smiled back. “Then I don't need you.”
With a jerk of her wrist, blood sprayed over the bookshelves, and the man's body hit the floor.
With a glance at the clattering machine, the stranger strode to the door and opened it. Outside, the housemaid lay gasping on the floor, a hand to her stomach, blood spilling out between her fingers. “I told you to go to into the village and post my letter,” the stranger said. “No good comes of listening at keyholes.”
The girl sobbed with pain. “The letter was blank.”
The stranger sighed. “Of course, the kettle. No good comes of steaming open letters either.” She crouched down beside the girl. “It hurts doesn't it?”
The housemaid nodded, eyes screwed tight.
The stranger slid an arm around her shoulder, drawing her close, kissing her forehead. “Shush. Just bear it a second longer.”
The light from the baroque windows flashed briefly on the blade of her dagger.
As she wandered back into the room of the two learned gentlemen, cleaning her dagger with a handkerchief, a bird began to plaintively sing outside.
She sheathed her blade, and laid out her two empty pistols on a writing table, running her fingers contemptuously through the garbled notes laid out upon it. All the while, the chattering machine vomited out a long strip of paper, punching it through with holes.
Her cold, eagle eyes followed the strip's coiling path, watching for patterns.