The clock above my workbench struck seven. I rolled up my designs for what can only be described as the most awesome airship ever conceived—not in that vulgar sense uttered by those young people they have nowadays to refer to anything even vaguely of interest. No, this airship was awesome in the truest sense.
I stowed the blueprint in my wall-safe and locked the front door behind me as I stepped into the cold. It was time to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth.
I shovelled coal into my Segway. The machine rumbled to life, steam jets hissing from its exhaust vents. My feet stood firm between its wheels as the vehicle rolled forward.
The sands extended towards the sea’s distant glimmer as the Segway hopped onto the promenade. Seagulls eyed me from their gas lamp perches.
The beautiful Lady Elizabeth would be waiting for me. I had taken it upon myself to court her and prove I was a man of means and keen perception.
Approaching the pier, I spied a commotion around our usual place of meeting. I recognised Detective Jones, as tall and impeccable as ever with his black uniform and airman’s moustache. “Detective,” I called, drawing to a stop.
“Lord Sidebottom.” Lamplight caught the flicker of anguish in his expression.
I followed his gaze and my mouth gaped. An emerald green dress lay draped across twisted limbs. The beautiful Lady Elizabeth stared at nothing with dead eyes. I stepped from my Segway and knelt over her body.
“Do you know this woman?” the detective asked.
“It is the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. We are…we were courting.” I turned to him. “Who could have done this? Who could have snuffed out the life of such a wonderful woman?”
He removed his hat and dipped his head. “I am dreadfully sorry.”
“That is not an answer,” I spat. “Are there no clues?”
The detective licked his lips and gave a slight nod. He handed me a brass plaque, no bigger than my palm and no thicker than the brim of a cheap top hat.
I rose to my feet, tilting it towards a nearby gas lamp. The etched image of Mad Frank winking back at me caught the light. “It is Mad Frank’s calling card—my arch nemesis. Curse that—“
The emerald dress burst open as a dozen or so clockwork crabs launched themselves towards me, nipping and tearing at my flesh and hair and clothing.
I frantically pried them from me, hurling their metal shells to the ground, stamping them down beneath my boots.
The detective lunged forward, swinging at one of the damnable things with his truncheon, screaming out when the creature snapped at his face, lopping off a chunk of his moustache.
We looked around, dazed and breathless as gears and brass shards lay spread across the flagstones.
“Are they gone?” he asked, straightening his hat.
I stared down at my ragged shirt, and wiped my bloodied face with a handkerchief. “What the devil were they?”
“I believe they were Mad Frank’s attack crabs.”
A shuddering breath left me and I knelt next to Lady Elizabeth. Holes in the dress revealed a construction of wood and rubber beneath—nothing more than a container for those mechanical mockeries. I ran my hand towards her face and prodded rubbery flesh. “This is not a murder, detective. This is something else.”
“Then no murder has been committed. It is a closed case.”
“I was supposed to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. If she’s not here, then where is she?”
He met my question with a blank expression.
I tipped my hat and mounted the Segway. Deflated, I returned to my workshop.
I came to a stop outside and rummaged for my keys, my fingers brushing Mad Frank’s calling card. Why had he sent clockwork crabs? Where was the beautiful Lady Elizabeth?
None of it made a lick of sense.
My workshop door flew open and three robot monkeys charged from inside. Steam poured from their ears. Alchemical light glowed behind their eyes.
I jumped to one side as they swung from trees and lampposts.
The first of them leaped towards me. I gripped the creature around the throat, slamming it against my garden wall, its skull shattering on impact.
I sidestepped the second and stood back as it tumbled into a thorn bush. I ran towards it, my boots crashing down on its chest, oil and coal spilling across the cobbles.
I turned swiftly as another mounted my back, its claws tearing at my already ragged shirt. Grabbing its ears, I flipped it over my shoulder and shoved it against the wall. It thrashed for a moment then dropped face-first to the ground.
I examined its head—it was coated in the same rubbery material as Lady Elizabeth’s false visage.
I drew my fists up and shouldered my way into the workshop. Lengths of rubber hose and copper wire lay across the counter. Brass gears and cogs stood in haphazard piles. My gaze shifted towards the wall-safe. Its door hung at an awkward angle. Scorch marks ran along its hinges. I marched over and thrust my head inside. “My designs!”
A glimmer of something caught my eye—an etched sheet of brass, Mad Frank’s calling card.
I snatched it as a low droning hum filled my workshop. I bolted outside, skidding to a halt as Mad Frank’s airship loomed above.
I threw a handful of coal into my Segway and fired up its engine. The airship turned slowly towards me as I raced ahead. A salvo of missiles burst from the airship’s cannon.
Charging headlong towards the first missile, I pushed my Segway beyond its limits, its frame rattling as the wind rushed by my ears. With a swift kick, the Segway rose from the ground and slid along the missile’s edge.
Teeth gritted, I hopped to the next missile, and the next and the next, climbing towards the airship as more of the rockets rained down. I glanced over my shoulder to see my workshop in flames far below. Bouncing from the final missile, the Segway cracked beneath me, its wheels falling to Earth. With a burst of strength, I leaped towards the airship, crashing through a window and clattering onto its deck.
Gasping, I forced myself to stand.
A fiendish masked man stood before me, his black cape rippling against the wind. He twiddled his moustache. “Lord Sidebottom. We meet again.”
“Mad Frank! Gah! What have you done with the beautiful Lady Elizabeth? And what have you done with my designs for the awesome airship?”
He let out a cold laugh. “I do not have time for your games, Lord Sidebottom. You may have destroyed my clockwork crustaceans and mechanical macaques, but you will be no match for my robot-crab-monkeys.”
He clapped his hands, summoning a trio of robot-crab-monkeys. The vile brutes ducked and weaved around me, steel claws snapping, fangs glistening.
I swung at them with kicks and punches, but they moved with swift, unpredictable flourishes.
Overwhelmed, I yielded.
Mad Frank clapped again. “Lock him in the cell.”
The robot-crab-monkeys dragged me along an unlit corridor and threw me into a metal-walled room, locking the door behind me with a thundering clunk. I slumped to the floor, hopeless as darkness pressed around me.
I rifled through my trouser pockets, searching for tools or lock picks. The evening had meant to be a walk along the promenade and a hotpot supper followed by some gin and dress-up, if all went well.
My fingers brushed against the edges of two brass sheets, the etching of Mad Frank bringing a curl to my lips. My sneer turned into a smile as I rammed the calling cards between the door and its frame, shifting them until the lock finally gave way.
Flinging the door open, I grabbed the heads of the two robot-crab-monkeys standing sentry, smashing them against one another with all the force I could muster. Steam gushed from the tops of their craniums, arms flailing wildly.
As the guards fell into a heap around me, a third robot-crab-monkey bounded towards me and pounced. I swivelled, striking the monstrosity with a sharp jab of my elbow. Searing pain tore through my arm as it drove deep into its chest. Hot oil squirted from its frame as it collapsed next to its fallen brethren in a plume of billowing smoke.
Holding my scalded right arm close to me, I crept towards the bridge and kicked open the door.
Mad Frank looked up at me with a start. “Where are my robot-crab-monkeys?”
I shrugged and offered him a broad grin. He charged at me, throttling me with fists.
I nudged him backwards with a shoulder, knocking him into the airship’s control wheel. The craft lurched sharply to the right. We lost our footing and tumbled to the deck. Sliding across the polished oak, I swung at him to no avail. “Gah!”
“You fool!” His wild laughter stopped abruptly when the airship crashed into the sea, a shockwave hurling our bodies to the deck with an almighty thud.
Cold sea water lapped around us, pouring in through the cracks in the ship. I dragged Mad Frank through the nearest window and swam to the shore.
The detective ran over to us as the airship ignited in a tower of flames. I offered him a weak smile and gestured to Mad Frank as we lay coughing and spluttering, sand and seaweed coating our bodies.
Mad Frank pulled something from inside his cape—my designs for the awesome airship. The sodden paper turned to pulp in his hands. “It is ruined! The sea has destroyed your blueprints.”
I rushed to the detective and pointed a finger at Mad Frank. “That man burgled my workshop and attacked me with an assortment of clockwork and steam-powered attack robots. He also blew up my home with missiles, took me prisoner, and, worst of all, he tried to steal the designs for my awesome airship.”
Mad Frank let out a cackling laugh as the detective heaved him to his feet. “You are ruined, Lord Sidebottom. Your awesome airship is no more.”
“What you stole was but a mere copy. I always make duplicates.”
Mad Frank’s eyes widened. “No! All my work was for nought!”
The detective cuffed Mad Frank and led him up the steps towards the promenade. “I’m arresting you in the name of the law.”
“Wait!” I called, chasing after them.
The detective turned to me. “We will interrogate this criminal and then I vow we will find Lady Elizabeth.”
I shook my head and reached up to Mad Frank’s face. I tore off his mask, then pulled away the layer of rubbery flesh. “Oh, Lady Elizabeth. How could you?”