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LIMBS by Nils Nisse Visser

A short story which was awarded second place in a recent Steampunk Readers and Writers writing competition. 

August 13, 2018

Brighton, 1871- The carriage rolled to a halt on the narrow street. A Police Constable, wearing one of the recently introduced Bobby helmets, got off the box to open the carriage door. Ernest Willoughby, the Chief Constable of Brighton, emerged. The sixty-one-year old was tall and remarkably rotund. He had short white hair, and great, silver sideburns which partially concealed his jowls. He wore no outward badge of rank, other than his cheaply produced blue woollen police frock coat, with four ranks of dull tin buttons, some dangling dangerously loose from their threads.


Willoughby’s girth had earned him the derogatory nickname ‘Chief Forty-Guts’, but he carried the name with pride. Fashion dictated slim and streamlined, but fashion be damned. He had learned the hard way to enjoy life when he could. More importantly, obesity was associated with a weak mind and latent mental derangement. In his line of work it was often useful to be assumed a slow and dull thinker. Being underestimated was something Willoughby enjoyed a great deal, as many had found to their misfortune.


“Here we are, Sir!” The Police Constable said. Tim Cuffins was an impossibly young looking third-rate with an open gullible face, and an unfortunate habit of stating the obvious. “The Alfriston!”


Willoughby nodded and studied the building. The Alfriston was a hodgepodge of smaller timbered buildings amalgamated into a single one. It was tucked away amidst the winding twittens and hidden courtyards of the old town. In days past, the building had been a pub, run by a Free Trade gang which rivalled The Old Ship Inn and The Druid’s Head in volume of illicit trade.


Willoughby grinned. Back in 1821, when the whole town had been celebrating the Coronation of George IV, the Free Traders had exploited the empty streets to move stock about in broad daylight, as bold as could be. Willoughby had been a ten-year-old slum urchin then, and earned himself a whole shilling clearing casks of Rhenish from The Old Ship Inn’s cellars. There had been another shilling shortly after, the King’s Shilling, for he had enlisted with the 35th Regiment of Foot. Drummer boy at ten, a Sergeant when he retired from the army thirty years later. Not a scratch on him either, which was more than could be said for most of his old comrades.


He turned his focus back on The Alfriston. The building supposedly had twenty-three rooms, six staircases, thirty-eight doors, seven cellars, and untold passageways. Precisely the sort of bespoke confusion favoured by Free Traders, and Willoughby didn’t doubt that some of the cellars concealed entrances to hidden tunnels.


“I shall go in alone,” Willoughby declared.


PC Cuffins made a noise that sounded like a mouse’s squeak. He had been the one who had made the gruesome discovery that had brought them here.


“Sir,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better to send in…there could be a mass-murderer…”


“No.” Willoughby shook his head. Sending in a gaggle of excitable young policemen generally resulted in the thorough destruction of a crime scene, as well as far too many innocent bystanders being knocked about the head with truncheons, before some bright first rater decided that maybe they ought to temper their enthusiasm and ask a few questions.

He glanced at the sign over the main entrance.


Institute for Mechanickal Aggrandizement & Physickal Recouperation


There wasn’t a great deal that couldn’t be solved by an amiable chat, even in ghastly cases such as this one appeared to be, to judge by the grisly account provided by PC Cuffins. It had even unsettled Willoughby, who was not easily troubled. The carnage of untold battlefields in the everlasting wars with France had seen to that. It made most domestic murders seem tranquil affairs of little consequence.


Ignoring the anchor-shaped iron door knocker, Willoughby tried the handle. Upon finding the door unlocked, he swung it open and entered.


He found himself in a small hallway, with doors to either side, and a cloak room in front of him. The broadcloth frock coats neatly arrayed behind the mahogany counter were somber blacks and dark greys of fine quality. Some variety was provided by a few tweed country coats, and a single scarlet army coat with gold piping and epaulettes, an officer of the 35th, Willoughby’s old regiment.


“Here be gentlemen,” Willoughby muttered unhappily.


“Now there b’aint naun reason for ye to be spying and eying these here bettermost coats.” A cloak room attendant emerged from a dark nook. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with brown sideburns, and small, mean eyes. “Go cut yer stick and be gone…Oh!”


“My stick?” Willoughby let his coat fall open, to reveal the stout truncheon suspended from the belt around his elephantine waist.


“Begging yer pardon, Sir.” The man spoke with wary respect. “Do ye got an appointment?”


He gestured at one of the doors, which was all that Willougby required of him.


“None of your bloody business,” he growled at the man, and then opened the indicated door to enter a parlour suggestive of a gentlemen’s club. A few gents occupied some of the gilded velvet chairs, all reading newspapers or staring intently at gold-lettered brochures. Their colourful silk waistcoats were festooned with cog & gear broches and pins made of silver and gold. 


Incongruously, they were wearing their top hats indoors. All of the hats sported fanciful arrangements of feathers and gleaming brass goggles with darkened lenses.


“Hell’s bells,” Willoughby muttered. As an infantryman he had a healthy disdain of both cavalry and airmen. It was well known that the former let their horses do the thinking, and the latter their nether-regions. The Chief Constable disapproved strongly of the contemporary fashion of the better classes. If appearances were to be believed, more than half of England’s gentry were intrepid aerial adventurers these days.


“I thought this was supposed to be a quality establishment,” one of the gentlemen said softly, but loud enough for Willoughby to hear.


The Chief Constable ignored him. He picked up one of the brochures, letting his eyes roam over the cream paper, pausing only briefly at formulations such as “commutation of appurtenances” and “addendum of augmented extremities.”


Things were beginning to make sense. Willoughby recalled PC Cuffins’s distraught report, of the barrels spotted over a courtyard wall, their macabre contents drawing a great buzz of flies, and only a net spread over the courtyard keeping shrieking seagulls at bay.


An orderly, dressed entirely in white, entered the room, his eyes gliding over the gentlemen to assess any possible needs. He frowned concern when he spotted Willoughby.


“May I be of assistance…?”


“I’d like to speak to the manager of this establishment,” Willoughby answered.


“Dr Dryden?!” The orderly raised his eyebrows. “I am afraid the doctor is far too busy…perhaps you could make an appointment…”


Willoughby shrugged. He had tried to be nice, now he would employ more traditional police methods. He slid his truncheon out of its leather scabbard, and casually swept it around in half a circle, knocking a Chinese vase off its wooden stand. The fancy vase broke into smithereens on the fine Turkish carpet. Some of the gentlemen looked in his direction, before turning their eyes back to their reading material.


“Oops-a-daisy.” The apology in Willoughby’s tone was contrasted by the steel glare in his eyes.


“I will make your presence known to Dr Dryden at once,” the orderly said, and rushed out of the waiting room.


“Boorish lout.” One of the gents muttered his disapproval.


“Forty-Guts,” one whispered to a comrade, the speaker a young man with the bold – but foolish – audacity of youth.


Willoughby still had his truncheon in his hand, and tapped it meaningfully on the sidetable by the young man’s chair. The man paled.


Chief Forty-Guts to you,” Willoughby growled, and then made for the door through which the orderly had exited. He had no intention of waiting patiently.


Wandering through the Alfriston was as confusing as he had feared, it really was a maze. He stumbled upon a ward. The beds were occupied by pale patients, all were missing limbs, their arm or leg stumps carefully bandaged.


“Tarnation,” Willoughby uttered softly. Even though there were no signs of blood or battle stains, it was as if he had walked in on a poignant scene from his past. Visits to crude field hospitals to speak words of encouragement to stricken comrades, trying to smile and jest, and not think too much of their severed limbs piled up outside the surgery tents, nor acknowledge the foul smell of gangrene.


He withdrew from the door opening, feeling empathy for the patients, and then continued his tour. The case was as good as solved, but there were still a few loose ends. He found another ward, but the patients here looked snug and smug, most of them wearing those damned decorated top hats, all invested with excited energy as they marvelled at themselves.


Willoughby stared. He had seen a few of the contraptions on the streets, but always mere glimpses in passing. Arms, legs…replaced by steel frames, small pistons, whirring gears, brass encasings, leather tendons.


“Damn my eyes!” Willoughby shook his head in disbelief.


“Upon my soul! Sergeant Willoughby!” One of the patients with a mechanical contraption replacing an arm called out.


Old habits die hard. Willoughby snapped to attention and saluted. “Captain Harding, Sir!”


“At ease, Sergeant. It’s Major Harding now,” the man said, modest pride on his friendly face. He moved his mechanical arm. It hissed, blowing out a few miniature plumes of smoke, but the movement was clumsy and awkward.


“Well,” Harding demanded. “What do you think of it? I still have to get used to it, but I shall have full control before too long.”


“Were you wounded Sir?” Willoughby followed news from his old regiment, but hadn’t been aware of any recent fighting.


“Wounded?! Good Lord! No, not at all.” Major Harding raised his artificial upper arm and stared at it with delight. “I shall be the envy of the Officer’s Mess, don’t you think so?”


“The envy…?” Willoughby was appalled.


“One couldn’t be more fashionable if one tried,” Harding confirmed. “Although perhaps I shouldn’t expect a man of your station to…”


“Yes Sir,” Willoughby said. “No Sir.”


He kept his face impassive, but thought of old comrades from the 35th. Wearing their faded and frayed red coats, thrusting out their battlefield stumps on the streets, in the hope of eliciting enough pity to merit a charitable ha’penny.


A new voice spoke. “Alas! This is most unfortunate!”


Willoughby turned around to see a young man, in his thirties, black-haired with a square jaw and an impeccable moustache, entering the ward. He was wearing a white coat. A stethoscope dangled from his neck.


“Doctor Justin Dryden,” the man introduced himself, but didn’t extend a hand. Instead, he frowned. “It is of the utmost importance that my patients are left undisturbed, Inspector.”


“Chief Constable.” Willoughby corrected him.


The doctor shrugged indifferently. “I can assure you, that we run a legitimate operation. There is no unnatural enhancement.”


“Unnatural enhancement?”


“Forbidden by law.” The doctor’s renewed frown suggested that Willoughby should have known this. He pointed at Major Harding’s mechanical arm. “These contraptions, Sir, are perfect imitations of human limbs, mirroring strength and dexterity, but no more than that Sir, nothing to give the patient any physical advantage…”


Then what on earth are they good for? Willoughby wondered, but he already had an answer to that. Fashion…he scowled.


“I’ve come about a matter of public health, Doctor.”


“I can assure you…”


“No you can’t.” Willoughby abandoned the ward, striding down a corridor, hoping he was guessing the building’s interior layout correctly.


“Wait! You cannot…” Dr Dryden scurried after him.


Willoughby threw open a door and marched through an operating room, past a steel surgery table, and an array of tourniquets, scalpels, knives, capital saws, and artery forceps waiting on metal trays. He opened a door at the far end of the room, letting in a cascade of daylight, as well as a putrid stench.


The Chief Constable stood in the doorway, staring at the sight which had caused PC Cuffins to suspect the presence of a mass murderer in The Alfriston. A scene evoking painful memories…the rasp of steel sawing through bones, spine-chilling screams, eyes haunted by pain, eyes sightless in death…


The doctor caught up with him.


“This ain’t seemly,” Willoughby indicated the open barrels from which protruded blood-spattered, amputated human limbs, in various stages of decay.


“It’s standard procedure…”


Willoughby gathered two fistfuls of white coat, and pulled Dr Dryden close enough to smell the man’s breath. “This ain’t seemly. It scares folks and can’t be healthy. You’ll see to the proper disposal of these…things. Or would you like me to develop a keen interest in the specifics of unnatural enhancement?”


He saw worry flash in the doctor’s eyes.


“We’ll dispose of them,” Dr Dryden agreed quickly enough.


“Good.” Willoughby let go of the man, turned, and walked away. He was disgusted, haunted by vivid memories, and eager to get back to the sanity of burglaries, robberies and the occasional domestic murder. Fashion be damned.


THE END