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A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 4, Scene 1

Ignatius and Angela reemerged onto the street, leaving behind the sickly fog of Madame LeRoux’s shop. The sky was barely turning light gray. Another overcast day was in the offing. Ignatius strode along the street muttering under his breath and wriggling his fingers in the air.

“Are you all right, Ignatius?” asked Angela.

“Hmm? I suppose I am. I mean, I guess. I do not know. That woman back there is really too much. Am I to seriously believe that a bad spirit is causing Fredrich to wander around his backyard, tearing out people’s throats?”

“It does seem that is what Madame LeRoux believes. How she came to it I don’t know. We didn’t even tell her about Fredrich.”

“Since we did not tell her, she must have other knowledge, first hand perhaps, of Fredrich. Is the clubfoot man even real or is he just a decoy to throw us off the trail? Is what she sold us so much snake-oil?”

“Ignatius, I know you feel that you must have hard facts and proof, empirical scientific evidence. However, I can stand here and testify to powers beyond our ability to comprehend. I think we can believe Madame LeRoux for the time being. If we do that, what is our next move?”

Ignatius considered the possibilities. There were not many.

“Our best option is to go talk with Bey-Feng. Since he is Fredrich’s business partner, he would gain the most from the land deal and demise of Fredrich.”

“Are you up to such a visit?” asked Angela. Her voice held a note of concern, which Ignatius found touching.

“I think so, with you by my side Angela, what can prevent us from succeeding?”

Angela laughed, “Oh about a dozen different things.”

“I will need to retrieve my little clockwork. It should be over there,” he said pointing at the corner “waiting for us.” Ignatius headed in the direction he indicated.

“So,” Angela said with a sly look in her eyes, “what did you think of Madame LeRoux?”

“Do you mean besides the fact that I think she is a charlatan?”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice she was naked.”

“I did. All the better to distract the rubes. That is all that her business is, distraction and misdirection. I could not help but notice that you were on the receiving end of several looks. How did you feel about that?”

“I’ve had better offers.”

Ignatius stumbled over the next step. “What? Do you mean to say that other women have solicited you for romantic entanglements?”

Angela threw her head back and laughed. It was her rich warm laugh that she used when something struck her as truly funny.

“Ignatius, are you jealous? I can’t imagine that.”

“Well circumstance separated us for several years.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” she pointed out.

Ignatius reached the corner and started hunting through the weedy grasses that grew next to the side of the street. A few seconds later, he held up the round little clockwork triumphantly. Thin limbs sprouted from the disc, creating basic arms, legs, hands and feet.

“Here it is, Angela.”

He pressed a recessed button on the edge of the device and it retracted spindly little arms and legs inside the case. Humming with satisfaction, he slipped the disc into a coat pocket.

“I never said these solicitations were during that time. Why, women may have been throwing themselves at me long before you entered my life.”

“Let us refocus our discussion back to the case at hand,” said Ignatius, his manner becoming suddenly brusque. “I think we will most likely find Bey-Feng at the Drunken Crane.”

He set off back the way they arrived. In a couple of minutes, they reached Market Street. On the horizon, the sun threatened to make an appearance. The clouds had other ideas though. Market Street at this end was not paved with cobblestones yet. The street was at this time a miserable swamp of mud, dung and nasty puddles that would ruin the shine on a good pair of shoes.

Ignatius knew the mood of Allison Hill quite well. The evening’s revelry reached its inevitable conclusion recently with the majority of participants either passing out, dead or merely unconscious. Ignatius and Angela moved onto the wooden sidewalk, avoiding the worst part of the debauchery.

Soon after his injury in the park, he sought solace from the pain and unavoidable contemplation of a life without functioning limbs. The Drunken Crane was a frequent stop on his sojourns into depravity. The gray oblivion of opium was as familiar to him as his own laboratory. Eventually he found a solution to using the opium or laudanum. He designed his own chemical cocktail to take the pain away. A side effect was blackouts with subconscious flashes of genius, both in design and fabrication.

That path eventually brought him to the park near the Susquehanna and to his downfall. On the opposite side of the street, the Drunken Crane leered at him. Ignatius leaned up against a roof support and surveyed the scene before him. The street was empty, no one moved on the sidewalks and a pair of Chinese thugs lounged near the entrance. Angela put her arm around his shoulders and examined the opium den as well.

“Are we going to go in the front?” she asked.

“Have to. The only other way in or out that I know of is around back, but it is an emergency exit slightly less accessible than Fort Couch. Thoughts on entering?”

“It’ll be easier to talk or buy our way in. Force isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

“Indubitably. Follow my lead?”

“Do I have much choice?”

“Well, you could stay out here and keep an eye on the entrance,” said Ignatius.

“Where you go, I go. Especially if it’s into a den of thieves, cutthroats and opium users.”

Ignatius strode off the sidewalk and made his way across the muddy street. Part of him wanted to smile in delight and satisfaction. Another part frowned with worry. The two men watching the front door perked up as Ignatius approached. As the inventor’s foot hit the wooden porch, the two Chinamen closed up ranks and formed a wall in front of the door. They were not smiling. Ignatius radiated charm with a warm grin on his face and pleasantries shining in his eyes.

“A very good morning to you, gentlemen,” he said, tipping his hat in their direction.

The pair remained unconvinced that it might be a very good morning, not wanting to form an opinion of their own on the matter.

“What do you want? You banned from this place,” snarled the one on the right. A scar pulled his left cheek down and made his eye seem to be on the verge of popping out of its socket. He spoke with thickly accented English, but Ignatius could understand it perfectly well. All of his time spent in dream pagodas such as this one left him with several minor though useful talents.

“I wish to see Bey-Feng, about an offer he once made me,” replied Ignatius.

“He busy has no time for little man like you.”

The other man, with a long droopy mustache and round shining face eyed Angela warily.

“Listen, my good man. Bey-Feng said that if ever I should want to see him, that I should just ask. Well now I am asking.”

“He no wants to see you, he busy,” said the scarfaced man again.

“No doubt counting the take from last night. How about this? You send someone to ask Bey-Feng and see what he thinks. If he wants to let me in, fine and dandy. If not, well we will cross that bridge once we get to it.”

The scarred man titled his head to his companion and said something softly in Mandarin. Ignatius smiled politely at them, then at Angela, “it will be just a minute as they confer.” Angela smiled back and nodded her head.

“You leave here, now,” said the scar-faced doorman gesturing sharply with his hand.

“Remember dear, no fighting,” Angela said in a singsong voice.

Ignatius considered the two men before him.

“See reason, gentlemen. I wish to talk to Bey-Feng about a mutually beneficial project of his regarding land acquisition to the north of Harrisburg. Can you not see your way clear and just pass the message on to him?”

“For the last time, no.”

Ignatius shrugged and jabbed his cane into the scarred man’s chest, pushing him into his companion. At that moment when the two men touched, Ignatius triggered the electrical discharge from his cane. A bright blue and white light surrounded the two, and they collapsed onto the wood planks of the porch.

“Come along, Angela. We should not keep Bey-Feng waiting,” said Ignatius, stepping past the inert bodies and pushing the main door open.

The main hall of the Drunken Crane was a wide-open room filled with many tables and chairs. A long bar ran the length of the back wall. Overhead several enormous paper lanterns provided the lighting. A frail man swept the floor with a hand-made reed broom while several other employees lounged around the bar talking in Chinese, slurping noodles and smoking cigarettes.

Exposed wood timbers made up the walls and sawdust coated the floor. The Drunken Crane’s taproom was serviceable in both appearance and use. In one corner was a triple paneled silk screen, showing cranes in flight.

The others did not immediately notice Ignatius and Angela. In fact, the pair managed to cross the hall and were about to go behind the screen and through a door in the back corner when the old man sweeping spotted them.

“It is all right, I am expected,” called Ignatius sweeping past their protests and throwing open the plain door.

A hallway extended further back from the barroom. Three doors on each side lined the hall. The middle door on the left opened and disgorged a woman. Ignatius recognized her from the train where he and Angela reunited after their years apart.

It was May-Li, the lithe emerald clad assistant to Bey-Feng. She was a viper by reputation, deadliest at close range and as cold-hearted as the snake she resembled. She flicked her long black hair back over her shoulder with her left hand, while spreading out a painted paper fan in her right. Ignatius could see the glint of metal points along the wide semi-circular edge of the fan.

He held up his hand and said, “I am not here seeking conflict, I only wish to speak with Bey-Feng.”

“You say such pretty things, yet your actions show us the truth,” May-Li said in her lilting English.

A gun’s hammer cocked behind Ignatius, “Senorita, this is one long-ass night that I want to end. I’m tired, hungry, have fallen into a grave, gotten more exposure to Haitian culture than I care for and could use a bath. I’d suggest getting the Hell out of our way so Ignatius can speak to Bey-Feng and we can leave,” snarled Angela.

May-Li’s mouth curved into a wide smile, “You are mistaken. I am not here to stop you. You come with me. I take you to Bey-Feng. Right now, let’s go.”

Ignatius gave Angela a glance. She thumbed the hammer and released it back down carefully. She titled her head toward May-Li as if to say: What’s the deal with this? Ignatius just raised an eyebrow and turned, following May-Li through the middle door. Instead of the expected room, Ignatius found himself in another hall.

This one was opulent. There were paintings from China depicting mountains and rivers, wildlife and emperors. Ankle high pedestals supported curving vases of white porcelain, painted with blue glaze. Gold leaf and jade decorated every wooden surface. Smaller paper lanterns hung at regular intervals down the corridor.

Shuffling along at a rapid pace, May-Li led the way. Another right hand turn brought them to a short hall that ended in a large circular portal. Before the entranceway, a pair of life sized Shishi lions carved from large blocks of jade colored metal stood guard. As May-Li approached, the male lion stood up out of its crouched and leaned forward. The hiss of hidden hydraulics belied its smooth movements as anything but natural. May-Li bowed before the lion and spoke to it in rapid Chinese.

Apparently satisfied with May-Li’s response the male resumed his watchful pose with his right paw on a carved representation of the world. The she-lion pivoted and in turn examined May-Li before returning to her original position.

“You may enter the Dragon’s Chamber, but be cautious and mindful as you do,” said May-Li standing next to the male lion.

Ignatius walked slowly up to May-Li, keeping an eye on both of the Fu Dogs. He edged past the trio and Angela joined him after a few seconds. May-Li gave a cold and hollow laugh before approaching the portal and rapped on the wood frame four times. Somewhere ahead a gong rang once and the dense wooden doorway rolled out of the way, revealing the sanctum of Bey-Feng.

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