Moonlight, Murder & Machinery: “The Puffing Devil Goes Up In Smoke”



“The dead man was named Richard Trevithick,” Shelley said, reading from the City Watch report.
“What do we know about him?” Gordon was sitting opposite Shelley and Rose, with Polidori on one side and Felicia on the other. Felicia, who seemed thrilled at the prospect of being ‘out in the field’, had grasped Gordon’s hand upon entering the carriage and showed no sign of letting go. If she received any sensations or suggestions from holding the Captain’s hand, she did not divulge it to the other officers in the carriage.
“Born 1771 at Tregajorram, in the Republic of Kernow,” Shelley continued. “Moved to London in 1799. He was arrested after an explosion in Greenwich in 1803, that resulted in the deaths of four people; convicted of a number of illegal experiments going back to 1801 and sentenced to five years in prison.” Shelley looked up. “The other inmates called him the ‘Puffing Devil’”.
“He should have been deported,” muttered Polidori darkly. “I don’t like the sound of this.”
“Neither do I.” Gordon shook his head adamantly. “But we have to use all the resources we have, and that means detecting as well as fighting. We have to use our brains.”
“Maybe we should have brought Master Keats after all,” Rose said with an admirably straight face. “He has more than his fair share of those.”
The coach turned in to a residential section of Bermondsey – a single street lined on each side with gleaming stucco facades. Shelley looked out of the window at the City Patrol officers holding back onlookers with long stretches of rope, several more officers gathered outside a large terraced house that had lost all the glass in its windows, and was smeared with dark, soot-like stains. Faint wisps of smoke drifted out into the open. As the carriage came to a halt, dead leaves scuttled away from the wheels like frightened insects. Gordon’s boots hit the ground and he marched up to the open front door, the Watchmen standing aside for him.
Once inside the house, the smell hit them. Everything inside, the furniture, most of the carpet, had been burnt to a crisp. The smell was overpowering – an indefinable mix of smoke and blood and fear, like a charnel house. Dark stains arced across the walls and ceilings.
On the far side of the room lay the corpse, although Shelley did not recognize it for long moments. It was as black as charcoal, and as shriveled as a decayed wooden log. The only things remotely human were the teeth, exposed and gleaming like pearls in the skull now the flesh had burnt away. The hands were black, skeletal claws held up in front of the chest as the muscles had contracted.
“Looks like the Puffing Devil went up in smoke,” muttered Rose.
Polidori stood still and took in a series of quick, investigative sniffs. “Aha!” he declared. “Yes, yes, yes. I haven’t smelled that for a long time.”
“Smelled what, Polly?”
The Medical Examiner turned and fixed Gordon with eyes glittering with curiosity. “Greek Fire, that’s what. A mixture of liquid petroleum, sulfur, and quicklime. It was used by the Byzantine Empire in the Seventh Century as a weapon of war. They used to pump the substance from a container through narrow brass tubes and spray it at the enemy.”
Polidori advanced into the wreckage of the room, picking his way carefully through blackened piles of ash, gesticulating at the scorch marks on the walls. “The pattern of the burning here and here indicates that the source of the fire was a directed, concentrated stream of flammable liquid, just as a hose concentrates water into a narrow jet. Whoever was holding the weapon would have some kind of fuse to ignite the fluid as it shoots out, and – whoosh. Goodbye, poor Mr. Trevithick.”
“Hello, Satanic Mills,” whispered Gordon. “Thank you, Polly.”
He swung round to face the psychometrist. “Miss Brown, what can you tell us?”
“Well, I can see the reason why the perpetrator burned all of the unfortunate man’s possessions. He wished to give us nothing to work on, you see. Everything this man touched has been destroyed.”
“Perhaps there are some of his possessions somewhere else,” suggested Rose.
“Oh yes?” Gordon rounded upon him. “And in the whole of London, where do we look? Do you think any of this man’s acquaintances will want to talk to us? They’ll be as scared as little waifs at midnight.”
“There is nothing here that any psychometrist can do,” protested Felicia.
Gordon smiled so lasciviously that Shelley automatically turned away. “But you are not just any psychometrist, are you, Felicia?”
“Wait!” A shout from Polidori made all of them look up. “Captain, I think I’ve got something.”
The Medical Examiner was squatting next to the smoldering corpse, his long nose with glasses perched upon it almost touching the extended, off-white teeth. “God in heaven,” Shelley muttered, pulling out his muffler and holding it over and nose and mouth. Polidori was intent upon manipulating a long pair of tweezers, which he had extended down the dead man’s throat; and as Gordon came up behind him, he eased something out into plain view, something that gleamed with the luster of gold.
“Aha!” Polidori said triumphantly. “The victim swallowed something just before he was killed. It looks like he pulled off his own wedding ring and put it in his mouth.”
“He wanted to leave something for us to find,” Shelley said, moved by the knowledge of the man’s last, desperate moments.
“Felicia, quick,” Gordon snapped.
“Of course, we should really report this to the Watchmen, before we let …” Shelley’s voice trailed off as Gordon turned his haughty, reddening face towards him. “Nothing, sir,” Shelley added quickly.
“Oh, you were so scared.”
Shelley looked at Felicia worriedly as she convulsed, as soon as she held the wedding ring. Gordon and Shelley helped her to a chair, but she held on to the ring tightly, the words flowing.
“You were so scared, and so alone …you didn’t want to die alone, but you had sent your wife and daughter away …the giant! The giant at the door…the bronze man with fire in his hands …but he will never get into …never get into the room …the room . . .”
Felicia’s eyes snapped open, and with a violent movement, she flung the ring away from her, and it fell with a clink into the mantelpiece opposite. “The room!” she shouted. “He had a secret room, where he kept the devices he worked on!”
Gordon raised his eyebrows and looked at Shelley.
“There!” the psychometrist exclaimed, pointing out into the hallway. “The drawing room!”
The group of five hurried to the drawing room. It showed the same level of destruction as the front room, and once inside, Felica turned to face them. “Behind the tapestry is a door that leads down to a hidden basement. That is where Trevithick kept his tools and performed his experiments, out of the sight of any visiting parole officer.”
“Shelley.” Gordon pointed his chin at the burnt tapestry. “That’s your department.”
Obediently, Shelley crossed the room and gingerly pulled aside the remains of the tapestry. He spread his fingers wide and put his hands on the plaster of the wall.
He felt his shoulders tingle, as if he were being watched. The wall rippled, as if he were looking through distorting waves of heat, and then dissolved. He could see everything. He could see, just to his left, the brass and copper arrangement of lock, hinge and handle, and he could feel it, like his own hand was upon it.
He blinked, and the lock snapped open, and part of the wall swung inwards.
“Good work, m’boy!”
His legs and back feeling rather delicate, and a slight headache behind his eyes, Shelley descended into the gloom behind the others, feeling each step carefully with his boots as he went down. He heard the voice of Master Keats once more, the fascinating ideas of the quiet, frail scientist. “I call my theory that of the Chameleon Warrior, you see. If consciousness is just a ghost in the machine, then, Master Shelley, you could be present in any machine.”
Gordon, in the lead, had found and lit a Fulmer lamp hung on the wall, and the five looked around at the Luddite’s secret workshop. Across a rough stone floor stood a large table with a vice on one end. Tools of all manners and sizes were scattered across the table surface and hung on special hooks bolted to the wall.
The most striking object in the room was a huge wooden crate, as tall and broad as a man. It stood on end next to the table.
“Open that crate, Shelley.”
The young man blinked, confused. “It doesn’t have a mechanical lock.”
“I said open that crate, Shelley.”
He took a crowbar off one of the hooks on the wall and stood in front of the crate. He thrust it between one of the planks, and after some concerted pushing and levering, a section of wood snapped off and fell to the floor. Shelley leant forward and peered inside the crate.
A pair of dark eyes stared back at him.
“Aaaah!” he cried, jumping backwards. “There’s someone in there!”
They gathered around, each trying to look inside, until Gordon yelled furiously for order. Pressing his face to the crate, the Captain peered inside and grunted. “Shelley, you scream like a girl. It’s a dummy of some kind in there.”
Shelley and Rose soon had the front of the crate off, and the manikin stood revealed. It was the life-sized model of a man, dressed in what looked like Turkish robes, and a turban on its wooden head. The face was also painted to resemble that of an Oriental sorcerer, with black beard and slanted eyes.
“What is it?” Felicia asked.
“That, my dear, is the Turk,” Gordon answered. “Well, not the original, of course. It’s a very good copy.”
Shelley nodded, recognition dawning. He remembered the story of the German clock-maker who, perhaps thirty years ago, had built a clockwork chess-playing automaton. It was called the Turk and had been paraded as a novelty around half the Royal courts of Europe.
“What was Trevithick doing with this?” Felicia asked in awe.
“Looks like he had built a new model powered by steam,” said Rose, pointing to the machine parts in the bottom of the crate. “Maybe he had been commissioned to build this by someone on the Continent and he was just about to send it to the port.”
“And he was killed for this?”
“No,” said Shelley. “Those parts over here are different, they are parts of some kind of propulsion engine. I think Trevithick had something to do with the theft of the Remnant.”
“Right,” ordered Gordon. “We can’t let the City Patrol get hold of this. Put all of the tools in envelopes, seal them, and write a description on the front.”
Rose pointed into the crate. “What about the Turk?”
Gordon looked it up and down coolly. “Dismantle it. Put it in the utility chest in the coach.”
“What a colossal waste of money,” Shelley said, partly to himself. Rose heard and looked at him quizzically.
“I mean, they know it’s illegal, they know the penalties for dealing with proscribed technology,” Shelley went on. “Why do they do it?”
Rose shrugged. “It’s human nature. People are always trying to tinker about with things they don’t understand.”
He put his hands on both sides of the wooden head and pulled. It came cleanly off the metal peg that secured it, and Rose stepped back, the disembodied face of the Turk grinning into his.
“Oh, my,” said Rose, shivering. “That is one bad case of déjà vu.”


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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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