A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 2, Scene 1
The formal drawing room lived up to its name. Stiff, uncomfortable chairs sat arranged in a perfect square around a knee-high table. The wallpaper was a drab sort of brown that did nothing to liven up the atmosphere of the room. The carpets were best unmentioned. Perched like a vulture overseeing a fresh carcass, the Countess Margaret Dubois sipped bitter tea laced with lemon. Her blue eyes fixed Ignatius in their gaze and pinned him back against his seat.
“Are you accustomed to crashing about people’s homes, like a vild boar, Mr. St. Eligius?” she asked. Her accent told Ignatius that she came from Europe proper, though slightly muddied with the twang of Louisianna.
“Not as such, no. Again, I do apologize. Ms. Boas and I were pursuing someone suspicious.”
“In my house? I should think not. There is no one here except Jeffries, Malinda and myself. It is likely you saw the mere twitching of a curtain from a gust of vind. Is this really the quality of man you think capable of finding and returning my dear brother Fredrich to me?” she asked Angela.
“I wouldn’t have brought him if I thought otherwise, ma’am.” Angela replied.
“Lovers you are, unmarried blasphemous fornicators. I can see it in the gleam in his eyes.” Countess Margaret declared stoically.
“Madame, Angela informed me that you believe your brother supposedly rose from the grave and is wandering about the Uptown district of Harrisburg. Shall we discuss that?” Ignatius asked.
“Hrmph. Foolish man, Fredrich. I varned him about going into business with unsavory types. Yellow devils. Sneaky, too!”
“Are you perhaps speaking of persons of Oriental descent?”
“You know vhat I mean. Do not try to glamorize them. Fredrich trusted them. He thought that together they could explore the vilderness up north in order to discover untapped resources. He wanted to find things that the industrial businessmen vould pay handsomely for.”
“Do you mean like coal and timber? Those are in ready supply,” said Ignatius.
“I do not mean coal and timber. My brother is not that kind of idiot. His believes there are untapped reserves of natural gas in that area. He recently became persuaded that natural gas is the next step in revolutionizing the industrial complex.”
“I see. I too have heard that same notion. I recently experienced firsthand the power of natural gas used to drive a machine. Not to be indelicate, but why do you think your brother committed suicide?”
“He vas veak,” said the Countess. “He desired power and wealth, things of the flesh, vhich I did not understand. I presumed the shame caught up to him finally.”
“Are you sure he killed himself? You mentioned that he was partnered with some Chinese men. How was that relationship?”
“I know nothink of that. I vould not call those men ‘businessmen’. They vere nothink more than common criminals.”
“Did Fredrich ever mention any of his partners’ names?” asked Angela.
“Not to me directly, no. However, I am cautious by nature so I looked through his papers one evening.”
“What did you find,” asked Ignatius. He was eager to see if the Countess would confirm his growing concern.
“There are many strange names in the documents. Heathens, one and all, I am sure. There vas one name which kept repeating, Bey-Feng.”
Inwardly, Ignatius groaned. It was what he feared. The opium kingpin of Harrisburg had partnered with Fredrich for the land exploration. Now it seemed the partnership soured and Fredrich paid the price. What might have occurred? Did the Count attempt to double cross Bey-Feng? Maybe Fredrich did not give in to every whim the ruthless criminal made.
Bey-Feng probably saw Fredrich as a potential means to make money in a legitimate fashion. That way he could cover up the illicit money more effectively. Why all the concern now? Bey-Feng usually operated however he wanted, flaunting the law whenever he could. Ignatius decided that any evidence he found implicating Bey-Feng would get handed over to the police, as he saw fit and when it would do the most damage.
“Countess, when did you first see your brother? After his death I mean,” said Ignatius.
“Ve had a funeral the next day and it was later that night I saw him valking in the back garden. Sunday night it vas.”
“Today is Tuesday, have you had any other sightings?”
“Two others. Last night.”
“Were you able to approach him at all?” Angela asked.
“No. Last night, the moment I came near him, vith the holy vater, he fled.”
“Holy water?” asked Ignatius.
“Ya, I go to sproinkle it on him. It vill banish him back to the grave.”
“Would you please try to describe what you saw?”
“Vell, he voss standing a long vays away. Fortunately, the moon was out and it lit the garden. I could see Fredrich moving about, I panicked quite naturally and took a fainting. After I recover, I sent Jeffries to check on the grave in the back corner of the garden. He said it voss empty!” The Countess half sobbed into a delicate handkerchief.
“Did Fredrich look like himself?” Ignatius probed gently.
“Of course not you fool. He vas pale, more than usual. Fredrich vas not the sort to bask in the sun, unlike those terribly swarthy Germans. His hair vas unkempt and I could not be certain, but it looked like his fingers vere longer, pointed even. He chased after Jeffries in a herky-jerky movement. It vas like his limbs did not work properly.”
“We should examine the grounds near the sighting. May we do that?” Ignatius asked.
“Of course. Jeffries will show you to the back of the house.”
“That will be fine, in one moment. Can you tell me more about your brother? I would like a clear picture of the man.”
“Vell, he vas alvays getting up to somethink. Vhen he vas nine, I remember him stealing pies from the neighbor und selling them on the street. Then he’d take the money and leave some of it on the neighbor’s doorstep. It vas his first forary into making money. Vhen we vere in our twenties we decided to come to America. Fredrich took to the business climate here so vell.”
The Countess daubed a misty eye with a hanky, “Quickly he made a fortune in the south on crop speculation and land deals. Ve started coming north, buying and selling land as we came. The foolishness of the var broke out and we arrived here just ahead of the fightings. Fredrich continued to make money in land but he soon discovered industries that had other needs. I grew concerned. He vas straying too far from our upbringing. He made friends vit all sorts of undesirable people.”
“Do you mean actual criminals or just people who aren’t exactly as white as yourself?” Angela asked, arms folded across her chest and eyes narrowing.
“They are inferior and prone to ludicrous notions. Just like vomens such as you. Independence, feh. Judgment vill pour down upon you all.”
“As lovely as that sentiment is,” said Ignatius but Countess Margaret cut him off.
“You have no place to take a sarcastic tone vit me. God’s vork is not for you to meddle vit at your vhim. Those braces of yours, the murder in the park, I do not know vhy you are even sitting in my drawing room.”
“I had begun to wonder about that myself. Certainly you can resolve this little kerfuffle without us,” said Ignatius rising out of his chair.
Angela rose too, looking from Ignatius to the Countess. Her face was hard, eyes set and flinty. He exercised great control over his own face, maintaining some composure, however the corner of his right eye twitched almost imperceptibly. Angela knew he was doing his level best to maintain control of his emotions, though for how much longer she could not guess. A tableau settled over the coffee table as the Countess glared at Ignatius and he glared back. As a bowstring pulled to far, the tension snapped as Countess Margaret slumped in her chair.
“I apologize, I do not really vish to insult you. I am very upset over the events surrounding Fredrich.”
“Madame, I understand. Miss Boas and I will hasten our investigation to find out exactly what is going on. Allow me a few more questions, please.” Ignatius waited for the Countess to nod her head. “Are there any other staff on hand, besides Jeffries?”
“No. I do not keep permanent staff. Cleaners come in veekly to do the housework.”
“When do they come in?”
“Fine. This land deal that Fredrich was working on. Did he mention anything at all about it that may have indicated that it was going illegal?”
“No, he vould not do somethink like that. Fredrich would push at legal boundaries, but never vould he cross them. It might mean missing out on his money,” the Countess said with a bitter tone.
“Was money terribly important to Fredrich?” Angela asked.
“Yes, it vas a sickness I think. We could never have enough. This began before we left our home in Leichtenstein. Vhen ve vere thrown out, a sort of malaise came over Fredrich.”
“Displacement from familiar settings can sometimes lead to overcompensating in order to reestablish a feeling of security,” said Ignatius.
“Vill you then look into Fredirch’s situation?”
“Yes Countess, I will. Angela and I will take a tour of the grounds now before evening falls any farther. We may even want to examine his personal effects and chambers.”
“I vill haf Jeffries show you around. I must needs take my elixir. It is the only way I can feel somevhat normal in this situation.”
The Countess rose from her chair and rang a small crystal bell. Within a minute, Jeffries stood at attention in the doorway that connected the room to the servant’s hallway. After receiving instructions from Countess Margaret, the butler led Ignatius and Angela up a dark wood staircase. The last rays of weak sunlight managed their way into the second floor through the slats of shutters on tall windows at each end of the hall.
“This was Master Fredrich’s room,” Jeffries said indicating a door with a white gloved hand.
Ignatius nodded and pushed the door open. Another four-post bed occupied the majority of the room. A heavy velvet covering lay askew, draping down onto the floor.
“We have not touched anything since the Master’s passing,” Jeffries said.
Ignatius pushed past the butler and started examining the room.
“Can we get some more light in here?” Ignatius asked.
“Certainly, sir,” answered Jeffries.
Ignatius combed the floor surrounding the bed, while Angela examined the windows.
“Ignatius, there’s evidence of forced entry over here,” she said.
“Yes, I found a scuff mark on the rug next to the bed. It looks like dirt, possibly clay.” He bent closer to examine the mark with his magnifying glass. “I think we should visit the garden next. Did you find anything else?”
“Bit of cloth on the windowsill, some pinfeathers. I’m not really sure.”
“Here, put everything in a vial.” Ignatius passed several small-stoppered tubes to Angela. “Right. Shall we go have a peek at the back lawn?”
“Yes, before it gets any darker.”
Ignatius lingered for a minute and rifled through the nightstand’s drawers. He found a pocket watch of common manufacture and a couple of pieces of paper. At first glance, they appeared covered with numbers. Ignatius blinked twice and looked again. This time he could discern patterns and spaces between the numbers. Discretely, he folded the papers and tucked them into his pocket.
The butler showed them to the back entrance near the kitchen next. Ignatius took two pocket torches from the inside of his carpetbag and handed one to Angela. Leaving his bag on the covered porch, they stepped out into the drizzling rain. In the gathering murky darkness, the torches cast a glaring white finger of light ahead. Walking softly the duo proceeded toward the back of the property, where the Countess’s garden of neatly trimmed hedges and pruned roses sat boxy and silent.
“Keep your eyes open for the gardener, he went out some time ago to collect an array of Chrysanthemums,” Jeffries called to them.
Angela waved acknowledgement as she and Ignatius approached a low iron fence. Ignatius opened the miniature gate and headed along a cobbled path. It led into the hedgerows, which framed a small fountain and courtyard. It split in the middle and went around to either side, before rejoining on the other side of the fountain and continuing out through the opposite side of the bushes. The silver tip of Ignatius’s cane made a distinct ‘clack’ as it struck a cobble.
Ignatius halted and cocked his head. Something ahead had moved. It sounded larger than an animal. He presumed the gardener was on the other side of the courtyard, obscured by shrubs. Ignatius opened his mouth to call out, when a blood curdling scream tore through the rain and fog, ending in a wet gagging sound.