A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 4, Scene 2
With as many times as Ignatius had frequented the Drunken Crane, he never once suspected that a room such as this might have existed. All of his prior experiences were in private rooms off the first hallway. No experience in one of the dingy flop-rooms could compare to what lay open before Ignatius.
It was expansive, twice the size of the main taproom. Everywhere more pictures of lions, tigers, cranes and dragons hung in gilded frames. Some of the paintings were new; others showed great age in their faded colors and yellowing parchment.
Carvings and statues carried the animal theme off the walls onto the floors and tables. Jade and wood figurines struck fierce poses. Then there was the embroidery. Fine silk panels hung from the ceiling and covered paper panels.
Two rows of large vases, which stood as high as Ignatius’s chest formed a path from the portal to a throne, for Ignatius did not know what else to call it.
In the exact middle of the room stood a lacquered wood inlaid with jade, gold and pearl. It stood atop a dais. A single golden cushion lay on the seat. Dragons formed the armrests and encircling the base of the chair was the most skillfully carved dragon Ignatius had ever seen.
There were many silk cushions placed throughout the room. Lounging indolently on some of them were Harrisburg’s wealthiest, and seediest citizens. Most toked on pipes or sipped at teas, all containing large amounts of opium. There was a haze in the air, but it shifted and swirled. Looking up, Ignatius saw several fans in the ceiling. They were driving the opium smoke out of the room and doing an admirable job considering how much smoke the guests produced.
The pillars were red, the crown molding black. Lurking behind strategically placed screens numerous bodyguards waited for a signal. Gentle flute and string music drifted out of the right side corner near the throne. It added to the surreal atmosphere. Another gong sounded and without warning Bey-Feng rose up in front of his throne from seemingly nowhere. Ignatius suspected a trapdoor and lift arrangement, like at the theater.
It was all very impressive and designed to cow visitors into a state of more suggestible and manipulative susceptibility. Ignatius tightened his grip on the cane’s head. He walked forward, ignoring the bug-eyed stares from several of the lounging wastrels.
“Mr. St. Eligius, you honor me with your presence. How nice to have you visit my humble retreat,” said Bey-Feng, the opium lord. His tongue darted, serpent-like out of his mouth and swabbed his lower lip.
“I did not come here to cause you any trouble,” said Ignatius.
Bey-Feng smirked and gave a short braying laugh. “I should think that impossible. The odds are not quite in your favor.”
“I like the odds fine. I would simply rather not have an altercation with you. All I want is to ask you some questions.”
“Questions? It sounds like information is what you seek. Information comes at a price. What price would you pay for this information that you desire?”
“Does everyone think I am made out of money?” asked Ignatius. “How much?”
“For you,” said Bey-Feng gesturing at Ignatius with an emerald tipped finger, “I make good bargain. But first, you tell me what this concerns.”
“If I do that, you might raise the price.”
“True, but you would not seek me out unless I was the only one who can answer the questions. Either way, the advantage is presently mine.”
“Fine. I want to talk with you about Count Fredrich Dubois.”
Bey-Feng’s eyes narrowed, “The Count, interesting. Since this is a legitimate venture between two, ah businessmen, I see no reason to answer your questions.”
“Did you know the count is dead?” asked Ignatius.
This time Bey-Feng’s eyes widened, “Is this true?”
Ignatius considered the response. It could be play-acting or it could be actual surprise.
“Yes, he died late last week. Apparently he took his own life.”
“Do you believe that?” Bey-Feng asked. He examined Ignatius with shrewd eyes.
“I am not sure what to believe. I believe that Miss Boas and I met the Count last night and that he attacked us.”
Bey-Feng gave Ingatius another penetrating glance, “Please forgive me, I thought you said he killed hmself. How could he attack you?”
Ignatius mumbled something under his breath.
“Speak up, I cannot hear you,” insisted Bey-Feng. He sat down on the throne and put his feet up on the dragon’s back.
“I said, ‘Magic’,” said Ignatius, rather louder than he intended.
Bey-Fey reclined, stroking his chin with slender fingers. “Magic?” he replied. There was little skepticism in his voice.
Angela came forward, “It’s inexplicable but true. Fredrich took wounds that any normal man would succumb to.”
“Did you sever his head from his body?” asked Bey-Feng in a mild voice.
“No,” said Angela.
“I shocked him with enough electricity that he ought to have exploded. Then for good measure I ran him through with a blade.”
“Perhaps you simply missed.” Bey-Feng hesitated, then pressed his fingertips together, “May I offer you some black tea from my home province? May-Li, bring us tea, now.”
The shuffling sound of May-Li’s feet told Ignatius that she was leaving to go and get the tea.
“I know you and Fredrich wanted to purchase large tracts of land up north, near Thompsontown I think. Why up there?” asked Ignatius.
“The land is rumored to have certain mineral deposits that would return my investment in very short order.”
“Mineral or gas? According to the Countess, Fredrich was after the natural gas reserves there.”
Bey-Feng’s smile faltered for a moment. He tightened his face and pulled it all back together. “Yes, that is what I meant. It is unusual to be talking openly about something. It is not my, heh, normal pattern of behavior.”
“The Countess was unable to shed any more light on the deal. So, I will ask you, who is the seller?” asked Ignatius.
“I could tell you, but I really don’t feel like doing that.”
“What happens to your deal now that Fredrich is dead?” said Angela.
“It is much harder now to move forward, yet not impossible. I simply need another legitimate business partner. Would you know of anyone in need of an investment opportunity, Mr. St. Eligius?”
“Not with you, thanks all the same. So, Fredrich’s death does not help you out?”
“No, our business transaction was designed in such a way that either partner could drop out of it, however Fredrich provided an outstanding service in that he would handle my money for the transaction.”
“Was there any chance that Fredrich was attempting to put on over on you?”
“Mr. St. Eligius, I have a certain reputation. You know this. It precedes me most everywhere I go. Count Fredrich was not foolish enough to think that he could simply take my money, the money of a reputed criminal, and make off with it without dire consequences. As you probably know, this was an attempt to enter into a legitimate business partnership.”
“As long as no one asked to closely where the money was coming from?” Ignatius asked.
“I suppose. However, it is no longer a matter of concern.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Angela.
“We were to have the money turned into the seller and when Fredrich did not turn up at the meeting, the seller sold the land off to another party,” Bey-Feng spread his hands out, palms facing upward. “So there you have my tale of legal enterprise. Not a very uplifting one I am afraid. I must thank you though, for bringing me word of Fredrich’s unhappy accident and puzzling after-life. Now, I know that it was not my fault, I can continue searching for the next opportunity.”
“Who was the other buyer?” asked Ignatius.
“I do not know. I was not in the mood to ask.”
“Come now, surely you wanted to know who bested you.”
“I cannot tell you anything, except perhaps that the buyer employs a rather unusual person to do their bidding.”
“By any chance was it a man with a clubfoot?”
“Very good, Mr. St. Eligius. That is a marvelous parlor trick. How did you know?”
“That is another reason why we came. We were hoping you would have information on that man.”
Bey-Feng clapped his hands together sharply, startling the denizens of the room. “Lovely, why do you want him?”
“To break a Vodou spell that is on Fredrich,” said Ignatius. He realized how it must sound and braced himself for Bey-Feng’s laughter.
It did not come. Bey-Feng sat contemplating Ignatius, as if he wanted to share something, but was hesitant. He shifted in his seat, and then beckoned Ignatius forward. The inventor took several steps toward the throne and met Bey-Feng’s stare.
“You say the Count is caught up in a spell and that you think the clubfooted one is at the heart of it?”
“Yes,” said Ignatius simply.
“We must presume then whoever the clubfoot is working for is responsible for the death of Fredrich and my lack of actual legal businesses. To speed up his downfall, I am willing to provide you with information. But you must finish this for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want the clubfooted one’s master. I wish to make him aware of his transgression just before we peel the skin from his body. Ah, I see tea has arrived. Everyone clear the room.”
At Bey-Feng’s sharp command the bodyguards came out from behind their screens and started pushing, shoving, kicking and dragging the ‘honored guests’ from the chamber several minutes later the room was empty and silent. Ignatius and Angela sat perched on cushions at a table in front of the throne. Bey-Feng sat opposite them and delicately sipped at a cup of steaming black tea.
“Please, try the bean sprout cookies; they are an old family recipe. I assure you, you cannot eat just one.”
Ignatius reached for a square cookie formed from sweetened bean paste. Biting into it was a different sensation. The honey and bean mix was sweet and bland and the resulting texture, unexpected. Bey-Feng nibbled at a cookie on from the bamboo plate in front of him.
“May-Li, go find Lao. Explain to him that I wish to know the location of a certain deformed man. I want this information before lunchtime. I do not care how he goes about getting it.”
The woman bowed before Bey-Feng and glided out of the chamber. “Now we wait. It should not be long before we have a name for this man. Do you know what you will do when you catch up to him?”
“Yes, we will break the spell with a potion the Vodou woman LeRoux gave us.”
“Good, once you have, I want you to bring him to me.”
“Why?” asked Ignatius.
“I wish to learn all he knows.”
“You mean to torture him,” said Angela,”es muy mal.”
“I apologize, I am not up on my Spanish. What did you say?”
“I said ‘it is very bad’, torturing a person for information.”
“Well my dear, I do things in a manner that is most expeditious. We shall wait here, drinking our tea until word arrives. Then you will go and fetch the clubfoot and bring him back here for me. You may break the spell here.” Bey-Feng’s tone did not leave any doubt in Ignatius’s mind that the criminal did not intend to allow the business deal slip by unpunished.
“Very interesting room you have, Bey-Feng,” said Ignatius.
“It is the room of the new emperor.”
“An underground ruler, perhaps,” allowed Ignatius.
“Not to the Chinese people. They view me with the same reverence they would show the Emperor in China. The people rest assured that I watch out for them.”
“Isn’t your sort of watching out kind of harsh?” Angela asked.
“Of course. I am not known as the Western Dragon for no reason.”
“Yes, the room and throne have such nice reliefs,” said Igantius waving his hand around at the different images.
“The one encircling the throne is my personal favorite,” said Bey-Feng.
“I must admit the craftsmanship is startling. The scales and skin make it look as if it were going to jump off the dais.”
“Indeed. It will not jump off unless told to do so,” said Bey-Feng casually.
“What is it? Another clockwork like those Fu Dogs outside?” scoffed Ignatius.
“No, not exactly like the Shishi outside,” replied Bey-Feng, whistling shrilly.
A massive head swung up and around from the back of the throne. The eyelids rolled up to reveal shining red eyes staring back at Ignatius It was neither a footrest nor some mere carving. It was in fact a slender, black Chinese Dragon.
The ribs heaved with an intake of breath, causing the scales to ripple and glisten. Smoke rose from the nostrils, curling around the long mustache and antlers. The beast’s claws opened and closed convulsively. Shaking its great mane loose, the corners of the dragon’s mouth twitched up in a toothy smile. The slender head honed in on Ignatius while bobbing side to side.
Ignatius drank in the sight with horrified wonder. Lazily, the dragon unwound itself from the throne and began pacing the room behind them. Its long claws clicking against the floor like a hammer striking a metal spike. The lanterns cast shimmering waves along its body.
Bey-Feng laughed at Ignatius’s expression.
“You think that you have cornered the realm of invention when in truth you do not even know the half of it. There are many other inventors. Each far more talented than you are, capable of animating anything I can dream of. Why else would we call this room the Dragon’s Chamber?”