A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 1, Scene 2.
The horse drawn buggy moved across the city of Harrisburg at a stately pace. The bench was covered in soft plum colored velvet and mounted to a set of springs that absorbed much of the roughness from the road. Shopkeepers were starting to close up for the night after a long day of business. Workers, politicians and ordinary residents moved about on Second Street heading home or to dinner rendezvous with colleagues. Ignatius sipped at a cup of coffee while Angela kept the reins.
“Tell me what you know about the situation, please,” said Ignatius.
Angela thought for a moment and holding the reins loosely she said, “My neighbor is Countess Margaret Dubois. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. She came over to America with her brother, Fredrich. They were born in a country called Liechtenstein, which is in Europe. The pair made fortunes in New Orleans, Chattanooga, Chicago and finally here in Harrisburg.”
“Did they favor the Confederates during the war?” asked Ignatius.
“No. All of my information indicates that they took no part, large or small, in the war. The Dubois do not consider themselves Americans or immigrants, rather they act as though they are merely on vacation.”
“What is the truth?”
“They were thrown out of their homeland because of a mix of scandalous rumors, shady business deals and general consensus of disapproval. The Count owned nearly a quarter of the land in Liechtenstein.”
“Do you think the sister may have done her own brother in for the money?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve talked with her a couple of times since this happened and she appears to me, shocked and dismayed. Plus there is little motive for her to kill him, financially or otherwise.”
“How did the Count die, then?”
“Poison. At least that is what the doctor told the Countess. He suspects that Fredrich administered it to himself. I managed to talk my way into getting a sample of the liquid found in his clutches. I figured you would wish to get out your chemistry set and play around with it.”
“Outstanding, I will examine it later. Tell me, given Fredrich’s history of shady deals. Was there anything on his plate that may have resulted in his death?”
“Margaret said that he was acquiring more land north of here. Some little train stop called Thompsontown.”
“Well that is interesting. What sort of land did he buy?”
“I don’t know. That didn’t come up. Do you think it’s important?”
“It could be. Folks get competitive for all sorts of things. Now, I am not discounting the possibility that he did kill himself. I am allowing for all manner of possibility though.”
“The Capitol building looks nice,” Angela said as the buggy crossed the intersection of Second Street and State Street. The domed roof stood at the end of the lane, stately in its white marble.
Ignatius slid his hand under Angela’s free right hand. A tingling thrill shot through his arm, shoulder and spine as it always did when he came into physical contact with her.
“What is the Countess like?” asked Ignatius
“She lives across the street and a few doors down from me. It is a large house for in the city. There is a fair amount of property around it. Countess Margaret is a dowdy old thing. Even before her brother’s death, she wore all black. She feels that other colors are too… boisterous, I suppose.”
“Does Countess Margaret have any specific interests?”
“Social reformation, abstinence, firmly believes that we do not need to advance industry any further than we already have.”
Ignatius snorted derisively. A few fat raindrops fell out of the sky and splattered on the street near the buggy. Ignatius tipped his head up toward the clouds trying to discern the likelihood of more rain. It did not take long for more of the precipitation to descend. Ignatius quickly wrestled the canvas top up over Angela and himself. Angela wriggled in Ignatius’s direction so that their thighs were touching.
“How are you holding up?” she asked in a quiet voice.
“I would be better if we knew anything about Mary’s whereabouts or what S.V. is up to. I am concerned that it is something dreadful. Colonel Whitmore gave me back my gun,” said Ignatius.
Angela’s eyebrows rose up in surprise. “I thought you dropped it in that creek.”
“I did. I am not certain how he managed to find it. The questions on my mind are when did he get it and why. Was he keeping track of me during the war, is it something more recent? I just do not know,” confessed Ignatius.
“Did you tell him you wouldn’t use it?”
“I did, he did not accept that position.”
“Oh,” said Angela. She put a comforting hand on the back of Ignatius’s left hand. The rode on in silence for a few minutes, watching the tree lined streets slide by. The rain started falling faster while the gas lamps popped to life, casting yellow light along the street. Off to their left, over the darkened river, the sound of twin engines chugging heralded the passing of a large airship.
“Tell me of Fredrich. What sort of person is he?’
“To a certain degree he is much like his sister. Count Fredrich is conservative in politics and social conduct. He made a vast fortune speculating in various land markets. Some of his land purchases were in turn sold to the railroad companies, some went to the government and I am told that he has a logging operation that just started up in the Northwest Territories.”
“Was he prone to being maudlin?”
“Fredrich, while conservative in most manners, was by all accounts a pleasant man to be near. He liked a good joke and trading tales of travel.”
“Where did he take his life?”
“In his bedchambers.”
” Do you know of any shady dealings he had?”
“None. Count Fredrich is probably as straight as Office Goodman,” said Angela, mentioning the stolid police officer who’s unswerving dedication to Truth and Justice were legendary.
“As far as we know,” corrected Ignatius. “Still, he sounds rather preoccupied with land acquisition and sales. I wonder what his plans were for the Thompsontown land. There is not much up there. I flew over that region not too long ago. Well, the night on the train, I was coming back to Harrisburg from Pittsburg. I took an airship out.”
“Yes, I remember you telling me that,” said Angela.
“Oh, I suppose I did. My apologies,” Ignatius said. He slowly intertwined his fingers with Angela’s and gave them a gentle squeeze. Angela smiled a warm, rich smile.
“You know, you still owe me a fancy dinner,” she commented.
“I believe you are correct. Interruptions keep cropping up over this or that. It is a strange thing to have my courting disrupted by such broad concerns. As opposed to something small, like your father not approving of me.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Dad would like you, its Mum you need to worry about.”
Laughing together, Angela turned the buggy onto Boas Street with practiced ease and continued in the direction of the river. They passed by Angela’s townhouse, which was neat and tidy. A splash of Chrysanthemums decorated either side of the front door.
“You should drop by and see what progress I have made in the library upstairs,” said Angela. “After cleaning up the mess some hooligans left behind…”
“I would enjoy a tour very much. I am interested in your latest essays concerning your travels in Central and South America.”
Several doors down the street and on the right-hand side sat a large detached house. A moat-like sea of green turning brown in the late fall surrounded it. While the house was large, there was nothing ornate about it. The general design was practical and plain. A wrought iron fence topped a waist high brick wall that encircled the entire property. As the horse and buggy went up the drive, the front door opened and a butler emerged to stand at the top of the wooden stairs.
Angela jumped down out of the driver’s seat, hurrying around to assist Ignatius out of his. In the meantime, the butler remained motionless, watching them like a hawk. When his feet hit the gravel drive, the impact sent a jolt through the still healing incision in his back. Looking at the front of the house, Ignatius thought he saw movement behind the curtains in the western side. It seemed like someone was watching them approach. A person who did not wish to be seen.
Pretending to stumble so that he could clutch Angela’s arm, Ignatius whispered urgently to her, “first floor, there is movement behind the curtains.” He tipped his head in the direction. Angela glanced askance and murmured, “Right. Noted. That was Fredrich’s study. Whoever is there oughtn’t to be.”
“Shall we make a dash for it then?” asked Ignatius. “You run interference with Jeeves there; I will duck into the house and go left.”
Angela took three quick strides and then sprang up onto the porch next to the butler, whom she gave a huge shove. The powerful blow knocked the man backwards, flailing his arms he toppled over off the porch and into a flowerbed. Ignatius moved as quickly as he could, threw open the front door and rocketed into the foyer. He spied a hall on his left and lurched around to face it. Clanking and rattling, Ignatius hurried down the hallway. Reaching an intersection, he turned left, heading in the direction of the office. When he reached the room, the door was ajar. Ignatius slapped it open revealing a room without anyone in it. Footsteps, hastily retreating echoed along the corridor.
Ignatius pursued them along an oriental hall runner. The carpet muffled the sound of running feet. The noise was mushy and blended into ambient noises of the house. Ignatius hurtled around one corner and then another. Ahead of him, a door slammed shut at the end of the hall. Unhesitating, Ignatius plowed full into the door, shoulder first. With a resounding THUD, he ricocheted off the door, tripped over his own feet and fell flat on his face. Stars danced in front of his eyes. A small groan squeezed its way out from between his lips. A moment later, Angela ran up to Ignatius. She took his arm and helped him to his feet.
“Did you forget something, sweetie? Like opening the door first?”
“Ugghh. Less smarty talk, more running, go!”
Angela whipped the door open and sprang inside, followed by Ignatius. Angela had a derringer in her hand scanning the room with care. Ignatius slid inside and went to the left. A large four-post bed with intricately carved animal head decorating each post stood in the middle of the room. Heavy velvet curtains hung down, concealing the sleeping area from view. Several doors lined the opposite wall. Ignatius approached one with his cane at the ready.
He opened the door quickly and found himself staring into a modest closet, filled with clothing of the blackest materials. Half disgusted, half taken aback, Ignatius left the closet. Angela had her hand on the doorknob of the door nearest the bed. She waved Ignatius over. Moving past the bed, barely breathing, Ignatius pressed himself against the wall next to the doorframe. Angela threw open the door and they both leaped inside. They paused, finding themselves inside a bathroom. Everywhere white porcelain gleamed. However, this room was not as empty as the closet.
“VOT ARE YOU DOINGK?” screeched an older woman with an iron gray bun of hair on top of her head. In her hands, she clutched the day’s newspaper and she sat astride the toilet.
Ignatius’s mouth flopped open but no sound came out of it. He was flabbergasted to the point of insensibility. Angela covered her mouth with her free hand, though Ignatius could see her eyes dancing with mirth. She took his arm, pulled him back out of the room, and quickly closed the door behind them.
“Whoops,” she said.
“Who was that?” demanded Ignatius.
“That was the Countess, I’m afraid,” said Angela.
From behind the door cursing in a mixture of German and French rose in pitch and volume. Feeling his face turning red, Ignatius led Angela from the bedchambers and back down the hall. They came to the butler in the entranceway. He was brushing furiously at wet, dead leaves, which clung to his bespoke suit.
“Frightfully sorry about that old boy,” said Ignatius. “Bit of a mad dash, thought there was someone else in the house that should not have been.”
“Yes sir, very good sir. Please follow me to the drawing room, my mistress with be with you shortly,” the butler said in a dry voice. He took Ignatius and Angela to a plainly decorated room and bade them to sit on a hard wooden bench. “The Countess with be with you in a moment,” the butler said again, and left the room trailing more leaves and other bits of garden behind.
Ignatius wiped his brow with a handkerchief and grinned at Angela, “Well, it could have been worse.”
“She could have been in the tub.”