With a name like Thorogood Kipsey, you might be inclined to think that I got into a lot of fights as a boy.
You’d be right.
Dustin’ my knuckles across the pimply face of some plump schoolboy was commonplace for a scrawny lad like me growing up. The fact that I lived in close proximity to one of the portal shafts to The Under didn’t help matters much either.
Through it all, I got pretty good at holding my own against the endless procession of schoolyard bullies and their ilk. In time, those lessons would be as valuable as anything I read scratched across a classroom chalkboard, skills that continue to serve me well in my current line of work.
If it’s a fair fight, I usually win.
However, since the fight I was engaged in at the moment was four against one, it was anything but fair. The pummeling that I had taken from their fists would heal; but the big oaf twirling the wooden truncheon, he may do some damage that I couldn’t come back from. He moved to where I lay on the floor and playfully tapped my head with the shiny black thwack of wood. The noxious smell of cheap gin preceded every syllable. “My brother asked you where the photographs are, detective.” He said detective as if spitting out a mouthful of scorpions.
From my vantage point on the ground, I could see the bottom two thirds of the other three men ruffling through my office. Discarded files and papers fell haphazardly to the wooden floor kicking up plumes of dust. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth and every inch of my body called out in pain.
Deciding that I couldn’t take much more abuse from these thugs I answered. “Cabinet. . . there’s an envelope on the top of the cabinet.”
It didn’t matter, I had the negatives. I could make as many prints as needed. These buffoons obviously were unaware of the photographic process.
I was rewarded for my helpfulness with a swift kick to the ribs by the man with the club. “You mother-lovin’ scrape!”
Fighting back the urge to vomit, I crawled to my desk. If I could make it to the bottom drawer that held my revolver, I may be able to turn this around with unbroken ribs. I sensed the man preparing to kick again; better another kick than being struck with the wooden club.
In that moment I decided if I made it out of this alive, I’d find a new line of work—no job was worth this.
“Found it!” shouted one of the thugs from across the room. The distraction granted me a brief reprieve from the kicking, for which I was grateful.
Still determined to inflict a little hospitality from my revolver, I continued scooting to the drawer. The four men must’ve had an idea of my plan because they clustered in a semicircle around me.
“You should learn to mind your own business, Mr. Kipsey,” said a man who sounded as if he were nearly out of breath. His wet boot pressed against my head halting my advance to the desk drawer.
It’s peculiar what one notices under duress; for me at that moment I took note of how cold the wood floor was as my cheek pressed against it. The pressure of his heel digging into my face made speaking clearly difficult. I made the attempt anyway, “Samuel Densmore, I presume?”
There was a pause as he spit. “Yeah, that’s right.” He mashed my face with his boot for emphasis.
Now there’s something you should know about me right up front: when confronted with an extraordinary level of stupidity, I tend to react with an equally high degree of disdain.
It’s always been a shortfall of mine, though I’ve never made any real effort to curtail this tendency. Barefaced stupidity ignites my contemptuousness faster than a lit match on gunpowder. My office was currently occupied with four of the thickest sludgeheads that I’d encountered outside of a tavern in a long time.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that I responded, “None of my business? Your fianceé’s family, they made it my business when they hired me.”
Densmore’s voice teetered on madness, “Virgil, a change of plans: Do me a kindness and finish off this son of a scrape. We got what we came for.”
The oafish man’s boots made a heavy shuffling sound as he moved in. The eagerness in his voice was unsettling, “Gladly, Sammy.”
Samuel repositioned himself grappling my flailing legs. It only took a second for me to understand this was to give his brother a clean swing at my skull.
The other two men moved to secure my arms behind my back. Trapped with no way of escape, I closed my eyes. I awaited the blow from the large man’s wooden club, the strike that would usher me out of this world into whatever was next.
The swing didn’t come.
Instead, I heard the sounds of a struggle. Looking upward, I could see the club in the grip of a gleaming massive clockwork fist. Something had overtaken Big Virgil and kept him from delivering my deathblow.
There was a sharp crack, and then the club exploded into a shower of large splinters hitting the floor near my face.
“Happy New Year’s, gents. Happy 1901,” boomed a deep cheerful voice. “Now, I’d very much appreciate it if you’d let Mr. Kipsey there go.”
There was a hesitation, the men no doubt, struggling with the same confusion that had overtaken me.
The newcomer belted, “Now!”
The men holding my arms reluctantly pulled away, but Densmore tightened his hold on my legs. I tried and failed to wrangle free.
To my astonishment, Big Virgil began floating a foot or so above the ground. The brute with the clockwork hand had lifted him off the floor by the scruff of his coat. Since Virgil topped twenty-four stone, this was no small feat.
I think one of the brothers rushed the stranger. There was a pained grunt, and the brother fell to the floor. Through it all, Big Virgil remained suspended in the air. The newcomer had made his point: he was in charge. The fake friendly tone returned to his voice. “Oh you boys are such a tough troop of rowdies. I’d love to crack each of your soft skulls to find out if there’s anything inside, but I’m on the clock, you see, so I must be prompt.”
I tried again to shake loose of Densmore.
The stranger’s baritone filled the room with bravado. “The name’s Hennemann, and the good Mr. Kipsey is in Mr. Montague’s employ, therefore he belongs to me.”
Though it was a false statement, I didn’t refute it. Alton Montague was one of the few names in Addleton Heights that still got respect.
Densmore released me and stood up, pleading, “Mr. Hennemann, we didn’t know any of that, but this man aims to mess up a good thing for me.”
I scooted out of range and leaned against the bottom of the desk. Hennemann effortlessly returned Virgil to the ground. I got my first good look at the stranger in the pale blue-yellow flicker of the room’s gaslight. He was a big man, his frame topping seven feet. He wore a bowler and coat with bow tie.
After his enormous size, there were two distinctive features of the man: first was the red-tinted night scope strapped over his right eye like the kind the Charon wear. Second was the mechanical arm that dominated the left side of his body from shoulder to fist. The jacket sleeve had been removed to accommodate it.
Living in Addleton Heights since I was a boy, I’d seen my share of mech grafts, but never a full arm, it must have cost a fortune. The arm was a show-stopper, and it had just done exactly that.
Samuel helped up the unnamed brother who had taken a punch. Virgil sheepishly slunk away, taking his place along the wall near the other three men. Hennemann leaned over to hand me his handkerchief. “Take this fogle and clean yourself up.” The points of his teeth shown as he grinned. “Don’t worry, it’s clean. Mostly.” His face was a mixture of wrinkles and scars that couldn’t be hidden by his thick peppery grey whiskers. I placed his age as mid-sixties, but couldn’t be certain in the dim light. I reluctantly dabbed at my busted lip, which had already swollen to clown-like proportions.
Densmore nervously said, “Uh, Mr. Hennemann, sir?”
The men to the left and right cautiously moved away from Densmore, as if moving beyond Hennemann’s
After a respectful pause, Densmore sheepishly continued, “Mr. Hennemann, we have a bit of unfinished business with the detective, sir.”
“Is that so?” Hennemann daintily folded the silk handkerchief and placed it into the pocket of his waistcoat. “What unfinished business might that be?”
I swear that I heard Densmore gulp from across the room. “Uh . . . well sir, you see . . .Mr. Kipsey sorta found me in a . . . compromising situation earlier in the week . . . and well, you see, I need to . . . well it’s like—”
I couldn’t take any more of his stammering. I blurted out, “Madame Perdue’s. His future brother-in-law thought he saw him coming out of Madame Perdue’s in the Huewson sector.”
I stood, despite the aches in my chest and head. “He stands to gain quite a dowry, provided the wedding goes through in a couple of weeks.”
Hennemann chuckled and shook his head. “The crosshatch girls in Perdue’s brothel on Stamford Avenue? I would have figured that old bat would have closed down that wasp’s nest long ago on the count of all of her patrons pissin’ pins and needles by now.”
“No, she still turns a fair amount of coin.” I dusted myself off.
“What’s in the big envelope?” Hennemann asked the man to the far right of Densmore.
The man immediately presented the crumpled folder. “Pictures. Pictures of Sammy with a . . . one of the—”
Hennemann held up his right hand, his flesh hand, to silence the man. He thumbed through the file with a lecherous grin that was unsettling. “Ah yes, I can see how your fiancé might find these photographs unsettling. This one…” Hennemann waved one of the pictures, “This one here . . . really captures your best side.”
Densmore’s head slumped. “Sir, I implore you.”
Hennemann slid the photo back into the file. As he folded the folder in half and tucked it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he asked in a less friendly tone, “Can the four of you toughies write, or are you like those scrapes in the Under that can only make an X?”
Virgil was quick to respond. “Uh no, sir, we’re all writing, reading folk.”
I leaned against my desk, abandoning the idea of getting the derringer from the bottom drawer. This stranger, Hennemann, had things under control.
He pulled a small burgundy booklet and a stubby pencil from his waistcoat pocket. “So you boys are going to scrawl your names and sectors down one by one here in my little book. And don’t try and play wise, because if I find out that you’ve lied to my little book, I’ll be very disappointed.”
He put it down on the desk next to where I sat and addressed Densmore, “You first, loverboy.” He reluctantly stepped forward.
Hennemann shoved the man forward with his clockwork hand. Densmore nearly hit the desk face first.
My tongue ran over my busted lip.
Violence begets violence. I lost no pity on him.
As the other men followed suit, Hennemann announced with bravado, “So here’s how it’s going to play: Mr. Kipsey will report back to your fiancée’s family that his findings were inconclusive.”
He looked over at me with my two-handed camera in his mechanical hand. The device made a horrible screeching sound as he crushed it into an unrecognizable heap.
Before I could stop him, his right hand pressed against my chest where I’d been kicked. It hurt like hell. But what really stopped me was what I saw in his one-eyed stare, the truth behind the jovial mask that he had presented to us. I recognized the look. I had seen it a dozen or so times before, especially on the faces of confederate soldiers near the end of the war before they’d whipped the north. It was the look of hatred.
Not expecting to see that here, I pulled back in shock.
This man was dangerous.
The carnival barker smile reclaimed his face. “I’ll make you a deal: you scrogs get out of
the people bashin’ business, and Mr. Kipsey here will get out of the photography business.”
He let my camera fall to the ground with a crash. I knew instantly that what the giant
hadn’t crushed in his fist had been shattered by the fall.
With his smile bigger than ever, he informed me, “Don’t worry, after tonight you won’t
need it anymore.”
He checked the burgundy book. Apparently satisfied with their entries, he said, “Now
the four of you get out of here unless the idea of forking coal in the Under for the rest of your
puny lives seems like a brilliant career change.”
Densmore and his brothers scattered like roaches.
You can find Addleton Heights at the following locations: