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Sigmund Shaw: A Steampunk Adventure

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Chapter 1

London was alive that warm summer day in July. The carriage ride – horse drawn, not one of those smoke belching, coal vehicles that infused your clothes with smells – was as pleasant as Sigmund could remember. He glanced at the dark coat that lay on the seat next to him, wishing he had not brought it. Shaking his head, he would be surprised if he had it with him at the end of the day and had not forgotten it somewhere along his travels.

Moving through the London streets at a leisurely pace, passing people walking about, smiling, couples arm in arm, kids running around their parents, made him feel especially content. Sigmund didn’t even mind the chug-chug sounds produced by the steam powered carriages as they mixed in with the preferable clop-clop of the horse drawn ones.

Looking into the skies as he headed northward, he counted no less than six dirigibles and three hot air balloons wafting through the air. Some were of the large variety used for commercial travelling, but most were of the yacht variety, rich men playing with their flying machines. The vivid colors that most of those airships bore showed splendidly in the bright London sun.

Going to see his sister, Alexis, and his niece, Sarah, was always a highlight of his week, and the weather and attitude displayed by his fellow Brits that beautiful day only served to improve his mood. As the cabbie slowed at an intersection, Sigmund caught the eye of a young lady, parasol in hand – opened against the sun. Her brown curls bounced as she turned her head away in proper – although Sigmund believed mock – modesty. They stole one last glance at each other as the carriage moved on.

Crossing Westminster bridge to the northwest side of the Thames, Sigmund looked out of his window like an eager little kid, taking in all of the activity on the river below. People were along the shores enjoying the cool water, while boats were gliding along its reflective surface. He absently wondered what life on the river, on a merchant or cargo boat, would be like. Making a living moving up and down the Thames in his own little ship, a captain whose hours were his own. Like most things, it was probably not as good as his mind made it seem.

Continuing north, they passed Piccadilly Circus, one of the busiest intersections in all of London. The mood there was generally hectic, but today it was more of a crowded calm. There were many people walking and riding, talking, laughing, making purchases from street vendors, but no one in the usual hurried pace. It was one of those rare days where the weather dictated attitude.

The ride proceeded to the north of London, up Gloucester Place, and slowed to a stop a little south of The Regents Park. Outside of the carriage was a three storied, red brick building with white framed windows. Sigmund once again wished that his sister lived closer, or at least on the same side of the Thames. They both lived in London but nearly on opposite sides of the city. As pleasant of a ride as it was that day, there were just as many, and probably more, that were not so pleasant. Still, he made sure to see her at least once a week. He and his sister had forged a close bond while young and continually fortified that bond through the challenges they had faced over the years.

Sigmund exited the carriage, careful to step around a mother and son walking hand in hand – going to the park, no doubt – and offered a generous one pound to the cab driver.

With a dismissive wave the driver said, “Sigmund, you know your money is no good with me.”

“You are too kind, Thomas. I owe you a pint.” Replied Sigmund.

Thomas snapped the reigns, started to pull away, and said over his shoulder, “Now you’re speaking my language.” A moment later Thomas was back amidst the traffic of the street, another moving object in the heart of England.

Sigmund pulled a pocket watch out of his vest and checked the time; a few minutes to spare. Sigmund tried hard to always be punctual, a lesson taught by his father, a watch maker. As a watch maker, time was quite literally his father’s life, a life that Sigmund enjoyed immensely as a child – watching his father work, repairing clocks, time pieces, and various mechanical objects in his shop. His favorite, however, was observing, and sometimes helping, as his father created clockwork gadgets and toys. The intricate details that created the elaborate movements of dancing figures or walking animals gave Sigmund a love of creativity and the satisfaction of working with one’s hands. Being on time was one way he tried to honor the memory of his late father.

The watch in his hand had belonged to his father and Sigmund was almost never without it. Silver, as opposed to the more popular gold, the outside cover was an engraving of a hawk in flight, with an ‘S’ overlaying it. “Shaw”, his father told him, “meant hawk-like” – no doubt a testament to a founding family member with a sharp nose. The symbol was a bit basic for a family crest, but meaningful to Sigmund, nonetheless. That watch was one of the few things he had left to remember his father by. Of course, seeing his sister’s smile – their father’s smile – also helped to keep the memories alive.

He lightly climbed the few steps to the front door of the building, ignoring the iron railings as he did so, and tucking a small package, a present for his niece under his arm, he opened the door that led to the foyer of the building. Sigmund continued down the main floor to his sister’s door. With the slightest of hesitations, Sigmund knocked. He hoped Alexis answered, as her husband, Jamison, somehow intimidated him. It was always easier to see his sister first, receive a warm welcome, and to get the confidence that her hug provided, before facing his brother-in-law.

Jamison was not a bad man. In fact, quite the opposite, Sigmund was impressed with how good he was, how well he treated his sister and niece. The two years since they had been married were the happiest that Sigmund could ever recall his sister having. Maybe he was intimidated because Jamison took as good care of his sister and niece as he ever did. Perhaps even better.

Raising his fist to knock a second time, he halted as he heard rapidly approaching footsteps. When the door opened, his sister nearly flew out of it to give him a hug. “Sigmund! Right on time, as always,” she exclaimed

“Well, you know what father always said…”

Together they recited, for an uncountable time, “‘Time is precious.’”

Alexis gave him another quick hug before guiding him into her living room. On the wall opposite the door was a fireplace, unused on that nice summer day, and the mantle holding a vase with bright yellow flowers, along with two picture frames. There was a brown couch, a matching brown wing chair, and two wooden chairs with floral upholstery, one of them occupied by Alexis’ husband. Jamison’s ears stuck out prominently on his narrow face, but he had an overall intelligent look. He was similar in age to Sigmund but had the concentration lines of one who thought deeply on matters, a person who had a job that was more analytical than driving a cab.

As Sigmund entered, Jamison smiled, stood up, and said, “Sigmund, welcome!”

Sigmund took stepped across the dark wood floor and shook hands with Jamison. “Always a pleasure to be here Jamison. You look well.”

“As do you.” Gesturing to a chair, Jamison continued, “Please, have a seat. How was the ride today?”

“The ride was quite lovely. The warm weather has permeated even the coldest hearts and has won the citizens over to happiness. But I will have to decline your offer to sit for now, as you know I can’t delay another moment without visiting Sarah.” Sigmund gave a mock look of great concern. “Can’t have her be angry with me. Plus, I have a gift to deliver.”

Alexis put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Oh Sigmund, you are too kind. You will find her in the kitchen. She has been quite the helper today.” Looking at the package he held, she asked, “What did you bring her this time?”

“It’s a surprise; you’ll see soon enough.” He smiled, turned towards the kitchen and said over his shoulder, “If you would excuse me for a moment, my niece awaits.”

The kitchen was warm and smelled of some kind of chicken dish. Pot pie? Sigmund thought – his favorite. Sitting at the table was Sarah, his twelve-year-old niece. She had long blonde hair, a heart shaped face like her mother, and a huge smile at seeing her uncle – what Sigmund considered The Impossible Smile.

“Uncle Sigmund!” she cried with delight but did not get up to hug him – she never got up to hug him, not for lack of desire, but for lack of ability. Since birth, her legs did not work. That condition made her constant joy, her happy smile seem impossible.

There were not many things that Sigmund truly hated, but he hated that his niece was in such a condition. The unfairness of it all frustrated him beyond words. But her ability to not let the ailment dominate her was nothing short of amazing. The Impossible Smile, the smile of his niece despite all her hardships. Sigmund didn’t talk of it with her, not wanting to draw attention to her condition, but he felt it deeply. Despite the sadness he felt, he was proud of her and humbled by her attitude.

Sigmund walked over and kneeled next to her at the table so they could hug. Every embrace nearly brought tears to Sigmund’s eyes. That beautiful girl, so smart, so funny, so full of life, but limited with that physical ailment. What he wouldn’t give to help her. How many doctors had she visited; medicines tried – all to no avail. He loved her dearly, and long ago concluded that he would do anything to make her happy.

“I brought you something. But,” Sigmund continued teasingly, “I’m not sure you are old enough for it…”

“Uncle! I’m nearly thirteen years old. I’m old enough to know that you are going to give me the gift and that you are just teasing me.” She gave him a satisfied look, knowing that she had bested him.

Sigmund laughed, “My dear Sarah, you are correct. I will have to make a better case next time. You know, it’s not fun teasing you if I can’t make you believe my lies.” Sigmund took the package from under his arm and placed it on the table in front of her.

With delicate fingers she lifted the wrapped present and turned it around to examine its papered exterior closely with her large brown eyes. Sigmund loved her inquisitive mind, a trait that Jamison no doubt fostered. With the outside fully examined, she then hefted the package to get a feel for the weight. She finally declared, “Clearly a book of some sort.”

Sigmund nodded. She continued, “But the size and weight are on the small side. That eliminates Dickens, thank goodness.” She smiled and Sigmund laughed. She thought Dickens’ stories were brilliant, but his writing style was not one that she enjoyed.

Sarah furrowed her brow for a moment and finally said, “There are too many possibilities, I give up.” She started to unwrap the present. Despite her previously analytical approach, she tore through the wrapping paper voraciously, tossing pieces of paper all around her. Once unwrapped, she held the book in hand and read the title out loud, “The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle! Oh Uncle! I love it!”

Sigmund knew she would. Her mother had refused to allow her to read the story as it was released in the Strand throughout the previous year, but now it had been novelized and she was a year older. Sigmund didn’t check with Alexis first – counting on her forgiving nature to overcome any indiscretion he might have caused.

With Sarah’s days generally limited to her bed or a chair, she found various ways to keep occupied – playing music, crocheting, and what she loved most of all, reading. She had read and reread most all of the great writers, but she truly loved the adventures and inventions of some of the more modern authors. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were her favorite, their stories taking her far away from her condition.

Sigmund leaned close and they hugged again. “So, I was only partly teasing about you not being old enough. I have read this story and it has some scary moments. I don’t want you to have nightmares.”

“Uncle, I have read about bloody revolutions, undersea monsters, dinosaur attacks –”

“Sarah!” her mother cried from the doorway where she had been watching the gift opening. “Let’s remember that you are a young lady. I know what is in your books, and I have allowed it, but let’s keep those things in the books and not in conversation.”

“Yes, mother.”

Sigmund winked at her and Sarah gave a knowing smile which turned into the two of them laughing. After a moment, Alexis was laughing too. How Sigmund loved his family.

Jamison walked into the kitchen with a questioning, though lighthearted, look on his face. “What’s so funny?”

Sigmund answered, “The usual; bloody revolutions and dinosaurs.”

Jamison considered the response and replied, “Well, carry on then. But don’t let it disturb our dinner, it smells absolutely wonderful.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” said Alexis, “It still has some twenty minutes, plus cooling time.”

“Uncle!” cried Sarah, “we have time for a walk! Can we please? I have reread Mysterious Island and have some thoughts on the pirate attack.”

A ‘walk’ consisted of Sarah sitting in a wheeled chair while being pushed by someone, usually through the nearby Regents Park. She loved being outside and the park was her favorite place. “Of course,” responded Sigmund brightly, as if it was the greatest idea ever – which in his mind, it practically was.

Jamison carried the wheeled chair outside while Sigmund carried Sarah. He placed her gently in the chair, took up position behind it, and began their walk. As they toured the park, Sarah animatedly discussed how Cyrus Harding and his men could have been better prepared to repel the pirates when they invaded Lincoln Island. She talked of battle strategies that they could have employed and defenses that she would have set up had she been stuck on that island with them.

Although not a conversation that you would hear from too many young women, Sigmund couldn’t be happier to be able to discuss such topics with her. Mysterious Island was a particular favorite of Sigmund’s, so he had much to contribute to the conversation. After about thirty minutes of walking and discussing, they returned home, just in time for dinner to be served.

It was chicken pot pie and Sigmund gushed about how delicious it was – cooking for himself left much to be desired. After the early dinner they enjoyed a pleasant evening talking and laughing.

Despite the wonderful day, and the best company Sigmund could wish for, something felt wrong. His sister and her husband seemed nervous or on edge somehow – not congruent with the weather, and certainly not the norm. As the sun set, the strangeness was soon revealed.

Sigmund carried his niece to bed and tucked her in. “Goodnight Sarah,” he said, “I will see you soon. I want to hear all about how you enjoy the new book.”

“Of course, Uncle. Thank you very much for the gift. I love you, goodnight, goodnight, I love you.”

“Goodnight, I love you, I love you, goodnight.” Their little nighttime routine.

Sigmund closed her door as she closed her eyes. When he went back to the living room, Alexis and Jamison were standing hand in hand waiting for him with a concerning look on their faces. Sigmund paused, then asked, “What is wrong? I’ve had a strange feeling all day. Are you two alright?”

Jamison stepped forward, struggled to talk for a moment, then finally, “Sigmund, your sister and I have thought a lot about this, and we need to ask something from you.”

Sigmund nodded and waited for Jamison to continue.

“We need you steal something.”

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