The Noble Sport

a Steampunk Short Story by Chris Herron

The Noble Sport

By Chris Herron

 

Name, sir?”

Reg glanced the older man up and down. He was graying around the edges, but his eyes were alert, sharp as tacks. While his accent spoke of a lack of education, his uniform was freshly laundered and starched so heavily it resembled thin sheets of wood rather than cloth. He held a clipboard in one hand, and obsessively checked a pocket watch with the other. The kind of man obsessed with rules.

Reg squared his shoulders, straightened his waistcoat, and waved jovially at the gentleman with a gloved hand. “Yes, my good chap. I assume your managers informed you I would be by. I am Reginald Billinghurst, assigned by the top brass himself to inspect the area for potential lapses in security.” The establishment was a members only club, and members were exclusively by referral. The building was housed above an underground boxing ring. Not underground as in illegal, those only existed in the poorer neighborhood. This was literally underground, a venue for what the wealthy called ‘The Noble Sport’.

The man quirked a skeptical brow. “I ain’t heard nothing ’bout that.” He squinted at his clipboard. “Reginald… Reginald… Nope. Ain’t on the list I’m afraid.”

Reg furrowed his brow, faking an expression of confusion. “I was assured one of the managers would be by to alert you. Typical. No matter, just let me pass and I will sort this out when I deliver my report.”

The man shook his head. “My instructions is if you’re not on the clipboard, you’re not gettin’ in.”

Reg stepped up next to the man, almost conspiratorially. “Look, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but the gentleman in charge of relaying the invitation was a fellow by the name of. . . oh what was it. . . Oscar? Anthony? Elias?”

“Emmett?” offered the older gentleman.

“Ah! Yes, Emmett, of course. I assume, then, that he failed to inform you of my impending visit?”

The man snatched the hat off his own head in frustration, “I swear, them uppers got more empty space between them ears than a swiss cheese bucket. Standard protocol means nothin’ to these people! They call ’em rules for a reason.”

Reg gave a knowing nod of agreement. “Hence the purpose of my visit. Security is of the utmost importance, and from the sound of it, not even the most basic of guidelines are being enforced. If not for men like you, any Tom, Dick or Harry might stroll on in and rob the place blind! I shall make a note of your exemplary conduct here today.” Reg leaned in closer. “And between you and I, I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett finds himself replaced by a certain doorman in the near future.”

The gentleman grinned wide, pulling a lever by his side. “Right you are sir! Enjoy your visit.” There was a hissing noise, and the pair of ornate brass plated doors slid sideways into the red brick walls of the building.

Reg returned the smile. Uptown was so much fancier than the slums. Back home you were hard pressed to find a gear driven door, let alone hydrolic. And the guards were far less suspicious on this side of the river. He patted the mans shoulder as he walked past, lifting the gentleman’s pocket watch in the process. It may have been a petty act, but why worry? It had been years since he’d possessed the finger dexterity to steal with such subtlety, and his chances of leaving the establishment in one piece were slim anyway. These type of folk wouldn’t exactly hand out a fine for murder in broad daylight.

As he entered the structure and secured the watch chain to his own coat, he reminisced about the last time he had visited this side of the city. It was not a pleasant memory. His gloved hands were a testament to the experience.

The immediate interior of the building was designed as a gentleman’s club. Women in provocative outfits wandered between tables in the smokey room distributing cigars and brandy. A complex piano played by itself, while an automaton, a mechanical woman in a red cocktail dress, sang and moved in slow, suggestive motions on the stage.

Deep, self satisfied chuckles echoed from the tables. Snippets of conversation floated on the air, eluding to business deals, commentary on the state of affairs, and base gossip about who had just lost their family fortune to bad investments. Every man seemed more wealthy, arrogant, and fat headed then the last. These were bankers, inventors, titans of industry. Men of ‘worth’.

Taking in the scene, Reg noticed that his clothes were fine, but nowhere near as fine as what these gentleman wore. The individual Reg had ‘acquired’ his attire from was the butler of a town councilman, not the councilman himself. As he moved through the room, he rectified this inequality. He would stop at a table, say something sarcastic about the ineptitude of certain politicians, join in a snobbish laugh, and walk away with a new top hat, a coat, or even, in one case, a monogrammed billfold with an obscene amount of pocket money. He reveled in the experience, he had missed this!

Theft was a serious crime in the city, especially when the victim ‘mattered’. Reg had grown up down by the docks, and like most orphans he had been trained as a cut-purse the moment he could move about on two legs. In those parts of town, a thief who was caught was given a good smack, a few threats, and life went on. But on his twentieth birthday, Reg had decided to celebrate by lifting a purse that would afford an amazing night of drink and women that would last in his memory for years to come.

The problem with stealing from the wealthy, is they have eyes in the backs of their heads by proxy of their endless train of servants. Sir Roderick Pennington the III, heir to the Pennington fortune, had demanded Reg’s hands as recompense so that he may never steal again. Every bone below his wrists had been shattered, one by one.

By the time Reg had crossed the smoky room, he looked every bit the posh bastard. Before him was a door, guarded by two men that had the general stature and bearing of two silver back gorillas in well tailored suits. He tried walking past them, knowing full well what would happen. The man who shoved him back had more muscle in his jawline than Reg had in his entire body. Any sane man would have cowered at the look Reg was receiving.

“How DARE you!” Reg raised his fists and slurred his words just enough to make it seem as though he were slightly drunk, but only enough to become reckless, not enough to forget any ‘transgressions against his honor’ that might transpire. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

An almost imperceptible line of worry crept onto the mans face. He couldn’t be sure if Reg was just a drunk idiot, or a drunk idiot with connections that could land him in prison. It didn’t matter if Reg started the fight or not, some people were untouchable. “Sir. I humbly ask you to return to your seat. This area is off limits.”

Reg Straightened up, swaying slightly. “I know that, you nincompoop! I’m Reginald Cogwright, heir to more land money than a blaggard like you could aquire in a thousand lifetimes! Now let me pass.” Reg began to walk forward again, and as expected, was once again barred. Though this time the man didn’t push him away, so much as halt his progress. Reg smiled inwardly, and threw a drunken punch at the mans face, missing by about three feet and stumbling back in the process. “That was a blatant attack! I will not stand for this!”

Jawline looked to his cohort for help. The second man was starring intently at the ceiling, avoiding the altercation at all costs. The bouncer looked back to Reg, “Sir, this door is for staff members only.”

Reg waggled a finger at the man, “It’s the entrance for the underground fighters, that’s what it is!” Reg pulled out his pocket watch, making a show of trying to read it through a drunken haze. He gave up and attempted to put it away, but couldn’t seem to find his pocket, so he simply held onto it, brandishing it at the wall of muscle. “And my watch here says I am due in the ring in three minutes!”

The man looked him up and down. “You’re a fighter?” Reg was definitely not what one would consider to be in peak physical condition. He was wiry, with gaunt features and poor posture.

Reg glared, “That’s right, a last minute replacement!” He balled his hands and took on a fisticuffs stance. The pocket watch, still clutched in his palm, crumpled like a used tissue.

The display, though seemingly unintentional, was not lost on the man. “I, uh, of course. I apologize.” He stepped aside and knocked on the door. “Good luck in your fight.”

Reg gave the man a lopsided smile, and pulled out the pilfered billfold. “Very kind of you. Here, something to take home to the missus.” Reg tucked several bills of large denominations into the mans vest. It wasn’t his fault, and besides, Reg still felt a little bad for the old man outside. If he survived this, he would have to buy the poor bastard a new watch.

Behind the door was another automaton, a male version dressed in a rather swanky suit. His features were nowhere as lifelike as the woman on stage, but rather fashioned to artistically accentuate his mechanical nature. “Good evening sir. Right this way, if you please.” It lifted an arm directing him to an elevator at the end of the short hallway. As Reg stepped inside, the automaton joined him and the carriage began to descend.

The trip took longer than Reg had anticipated, going down what he estimated to be a hundred feet or so. Why they would put a boxing ring this deep bellow ground was a mystery to him. Perhaps is was to ensure the sounds of screaming spectators did not reach the streets above, or simply to show that they had the money to do so.

Brawling had been outlawed in certain parts of the city for decades in an attempt to quell any thoughts of violence from the lower class. Keep the peasants from learning how to fight, and you never have to worry about them fighting back. Asinine, but effective for giving the coppers a plausible excuse to lock up the rabble. Now it was only legal to exchange blows in sanctioned establishments, which of course only existed in places like this.

Sir Roderick Pennington the III was a known champion of the ring. An undefeated prodigy. His family had made their fortune at the forefront of mechanized warfare, creating tanks, missiles, and flying machines. If it moved and dealt death to your enemies, the Penningtons held the patent. Their eldest heir carried on the taste for violence, but in times of peace had turned to more civilized means of expressing it. Namely, beating others to a bloody pulp.

The elevator opened into the backstage area of the arena. Fighters milled about, awaiting their respective matches while cheers and shouts filtered in from outside the room. Others, having already had their bouts, lay to one side on cots and stretchers as medical staff saw to their wounds. Reg raised an eyebrow, the noble sport seemed far more brutal than the occasional barroom brawl he had witnessed.

Leaning against the wall nearest a set of large double doors, looking positively bored, was Roderick. He seemed a older than Reg had remembered him, more regal. It had only been five years, but the young baron now cut an imposing figure, his favorite pastime helping him develop the lean, muscular physique of a soldier with the well groomed features and expensive clothing of a nobleman.

Reg took a steadying breath, forcing down the rage and bile that was rising in his throat. He turned away and located the master board, laying out the procession of who was to fight and when. It seemed every name on the list had at least one honorific and a minimum of ten syllables. Roderick’s next match was against a man by the name of Sir Leonard Shellhorn Theobald the eighth. Removing a grease pencil from an inside pocket, Reg scratched out the name and replaced it with his own.

After a few inquiries, he located the would-be fighter. The man was squat, stocky, and barrel chested with not a hair on his head, save for an impressive handlebar mustache. “Excuse me, are you Sir Leonard Shellhorn Theobald?”

The man eyed Reg with a bit of a sneer. “The eighth. Yes, what do you want?”

Reg smiled genially. “I’m afraid I have a message from your wife. You are needed at home immediately.”

Leonard scoffed. “Like hell. I’m set to fight the reigning champion! Whatever it is, she can bloody well wait.”

“I do believe she indicated it had something to do with tax collectors conveying some rather hefty claims of fraud.”

And like that, Sir Leanord Shellhorn Theobald the eighth was out of the running, steaming wide-eyed towards the elevator yelling expletives at the top of his lungs. Now it was just a waiting game.

After his hands had been maimed, Reg had spent years struggling just to survive. Charity did not exist in the slums, and a pickpocket that couldn’t even bend his fingers was no more than a beggar. Eventually, he had caught a young girl attempting to steal the meager hunk of bread Reg had salvaged from a refuse pile. And thus, the cycle of apprenticeship started again, Reg teaching the child as he himself had been taught. They split that loaf of bread, and everything else from that point on.

Natalia was brilliant, Nat for short. Her innocent charms melting the hearts of even the hardest sailors as she robbed them blind. As the years passed, with his tutelage and her knack for the craft, they began to live in relative comfort. They had food in their bellies, a roof over their heads, and something akin to a family.

One day, she spotted a nobleman exiting one of the many passenger ships that came through their harbor. Roderick. It was only later than Reg had heard the what happened. Apparently, Roderick had thought her a bit too charming, and Nat pulled a knife when he made an unwanted advance. A knife is no match for a saber. He left her to bleed out in the middle of the street and strolled away without a care in the world.

Reg sold everything he owned and used the coin the replace his misshapen hands with ones of gears and pistons. Ones delicate enough to steal a watch, or lift a billfold yet powerful enough to crush bones, break bodies, and tear a man to pieces.

On the streets, Reg would never be able to get close enough to a man like Roderick. There were guards, servants and coppers everywhere. But in a ring, there was no one to get in the way. And as the announcer called their names, ushering them into the underground stadium, into the sound of a hundred cheering spectators, Reg swore he would make this man of worth feel what it was like to die scared, alone, and bleeding out in the middle of a crowd.

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