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A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 5, Scene 1

Ignatius rested his chin on the back of his hands, which clasped the top of his cane. The hansom cab rambled across Allison Hill, moving toward the northwest edge of the district. A messenger arrived not long ago to Bey-Feng’s inner sanctum the Dragon Chamber. The man brought news of the clubfooted man who controlled Fredrich through Vodou. On the outskirts of Allison Hill sat a burned out husk of a church. Rumors were swirling of strange goings on there.

People claimed they heard chanting, seen strange lights and at the heart of the scuttlebutt was a shuffling wretch with a maimed foot. Bey-Feng escorted Ignatius and Angela out of the Dragon Chamber and sent them on their way with the admonishment that they were to bring the perpetrator to him. This uneasy, unspoken alliance between Bey-Feng and himself made Ignatius question the true motivations of the shadowy opium dealer.

Losing a business deal, a legitimate one no less, should not trouble Bey-Feng. Perhaps another criminal organization was applying pressure to the drug lord, a power struggle in the shadowy confines of back alleys and disreputable drinking establishments. Bey-Feng was obviously taking precautions against all possible threats.

There was also the dragon to consider. What was it? An ingenious machine built by an engineer far superior to Ignatius or more disturbing, a real creature of flesh and blood. Ignatius felt the beginnings of a headache. He rubbed his temples in an attempt to ease the forthcoming blow. The question remained what to do with the Vodou man? Ignatius supposed a great deal of his decision would depend on what the potion did when administered.

“I do not like this case,” said Ignatius. His face and voice were sour.

“I know. It plays at all of your weaknesses. At least we are making some headway,” Angela said.

“If you can call it that, I have no explanations for Fredrich moving about, no definitive motive…”

“What of the land deal?” Angela reminded him. “The second buyer has to be the person behind Fredrich’s current situation.”

“True enough. With Fredrich out of the way, the deal had to collapse. Land with a reserve of natural gas would be worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Johnathan Fawkes proved how effective gas is with his new Automatons. They run on it instead of coal. The machines are cleaner, last longer and are more efficient. We must ask: is our mysterious buyer interested in selling off the gas, becoming a supplier or does he have his own requirements that need excessive amounts of the stuff?”

“Maybe we’ll find out when we get to the church,” said Angela.

Ignatius felt there were pieces to this puzzle that he was missing. They sat barely out of reach and he was grasping around blindly for them. Perhaps a cigar would settle him a bit. Igantius pulled one from his coat’s inside pocket and jammed it between his teeth. He struck a match off his fingernail and touched it to the end of his cheroot. Puffing away, he soon had it lit. He exhaled a cloud of bluish gray smoke and felt slightly more at ease.

Angela patted his knee, smiling hopefully at him. The cab rolled down the hard packed street, passing tenements, hovels and vacant lots. People went about their routines with the steadfast determination of someone who woke up staring despair square in the face without flinching. A few sets of eyes followed the cab as it clattered past, though nobody paid it any attention.

The bare trees that cropped up intermittently took on the appearance of clutching claw-tipped fingers of Fredrich. Ignatius knew he was approaching the limits of his endurance. Even with the rushing about since his release, he still had yet to build up his constitution significantly enough to be able to last for several days without rest.

Last month he even went as far as concocting a simple elixir to help carry him through a crisis. True it had none of the narcotics or mind liberating additives that he used to make, but it had sufficed to keep he awake and alert through the crisis and prevented Angela from leaving again even though it was a mere technicality. Moreover, he knew that.

The desire for the narcotics plagued him. It was far worse than laudanum or any of the other drugs peddle in filthy back alleys and street corners.

“You get out now,” said the Chinese cabbie.

Ignatius looked out at the vacant lot next to them. “Leaves a lot to the imagination I am afraid,” he said to Angela.

He clambered out of the cab and helped Angela down. The cold air nettled his cheeks and nose. The cab lurched forward and turned at the next intersection, moving at a high rate of speed.

“Do you get the feeling that he doesn’t want to be in this part of town?” Angela asked.

She made a wry face and surveyed the surroundings. Several blocks further up the road, the churches’ blackened steeple rose up at an odd angle. Singe marks stained the shingles and holes in the roof were visible from this far away. Missing bricks gave the structure the look of a young child between baby and adult teeth. Ignatius popped open his carpetbag and took out his discs again. Quickly, he wound them and released them into the grasses in the vacant lot. They tottered on their spindly legs briefly and then scuttled off.

“Let us approach from the west. That will put the sun at our backs, not that there is a lot of sun today,” scoffed Ignatius.

Angela nodded and unsnapped the restraints on her holsters. They walked along the edge of the lot, matching each other stride for stride unconsciously. They turned the corner at the end of the block and both started sweeping the surroundings for any signs of trouble. The air was calm and carried the smell off woodsmoke, cooking food and a few less savory scents. They reached the back of the church’s lot after a few moments.

A low iron fence encircled a small graveyard where head stones leaned in various directions. Ignatius tapped Angela on the shoulder and pointed to a spot halfway along the church’s roof, where smoke rose up in a thin tendril. She nodded accepting the proof of inhabitation. Ignatius pointed to the far corner of the building where the brickwork had collapsed, then at himself. Angela indicated that she would take a place near the rear doorway that was close to where they stood. Ignatius went over the fence stiffly, Angela vaulted with a little more panache.

She shot him a quick wink and stole across the gravesite to the backdoor. Crouching at the top of the three steps up to the door, Angela put her ear against the wood and listened. Muffled from within came the telltale snap and pop of a campfire. Knowing that if she could hear the fire, it must be close to the door Angela laid her hand on the knob checking it for heat. The metal was cold and lifeless. Angela exhaled several quick breaths and tested the doorknob. The handle turned easily and a quick glance at the exposed hinges told her that the door swung outward.

She looked around and could not see Ignatius anymore. A small sound reached her ears. It was a little clickety-clack. One of Ignatius’s windup clockworks toddled over to Angela and printed a ribbon of paper with text on it. Taking it from the little device, Angela attempted to read it. However, all that appeared on the strip was a series of dots, dashes and vertical bars. It did not read like Morse code. Angela smiled weakly. It was in a code that only Ignatius could read. She crumpled the paper and let it fall to the ground.

She could not spend the time trying to guess what it said. As a highly trained scout, she had the ability to enter the building unaided by man or machine. Easing the knob and pulling the door towards her very slowly, Angela gradually made an entrance large enough for her with a minimal amount of noise. Pushing her hat back off her head, Angela slid through the gap. She found herself inside the sanctuary of the church.

The pulpit lay on its side and the first several pews were missing. The odd bits of waste and castoff items were all over the floor mixed in with dirt, leaves and other natural elements. Shuffling from the middle of the room caught Angela’s attention. It did not sound to her like the sort of noise Ignatius would make. Even with his braces, he was not that noisy.

The dragging sound of feet mixed with a low, guttural chanting. Angela tried to sort the varying footsteps in the cavernous, echoing room. A simple rattle also joined in the song. Angela raised herself to peek over the top of the nearest pew. She took two seconds to scan the room. The middle of the sanctuary was empty of furniture. Most of it formed driftwood like barricades of long seats, tumbled together.

The wood floor had been crudely cut away with an axe, exposing bare dirt and rock. The pews stretched from floor toward the ceiling or lay diagonally across others. In the middle of the clearing a lean, filthy man shimmied and danced to an internal rhythm. Greasy strands of white hair fanned out as he spun around. Etched into the flesh by some manner of hellish rite were strange tattoos. The marks were red and angry glaring from his back, arms, thighs and chest. Angela knew that the source of Fredrich’s torment danced in front of her.

Unconsciously she cocked the hammer of her pistol back and held the barrel up, pressing the back of it against her forehead. A gentle tug at her sleeve caused her to look down. The clockwork from outside apparently followed her in and now it wanted her attention. It pointed across the gloomy church. Angela squinted to make out the other side of the sanctuary. A hazy shape crept along the wall opposite of her. She thought it might be Ignatius but really could not be sure.

He seemed to be moving to the center of the church. That would place him directly opposite the man. Could Ignatius be stalking the Vodouist in order to capture him alive? It made the most sense. They had to administer the potion from Madame LeRoux to break the spell and then somehow manage to get the man back to Bey-Feng, if that was Ignatius’s intent. Angela rose into a crouch and then duck-walked her way along several pews. She moved in parallel with the figure she hoped was Ignatius.

Halting again and sinking lower, Angela stopped and listened. The crackle of the fire rose over the chanting. Perhaps it was only the smoke moving through the room but Angela felt as though the lights dimmed in response to the change in the witchdoctor’s song. Angela exhaled half a breath and tensed the muscles in her legs, preparing to spring out into the open. Without warning, a loud concussive pop tore the manic veil of song and smoke. Angela spun around and came face to face with the pallid rot of Fredrich’s visage.

Without hesitation, Angela brought up her pistol and squeezed the trigger. The big Colt roared and jumped in her hand. The bullet flung Fredrich backwards even as she brought the gun back under control. There was a shout from across the church as Ignatius sprang from concealment and lumbered quickly across the gap between him and the clubfooted man.

Angela scrabbled away from Fredrich, slithering over a pew and angled her way in the direction of the fire. Shadows reared up and danced around her, climbing up the walls, into the choir loft and looming over the altar. A terrible groaning came from behind Angela.

Gaining her feet as she cocked the Colt revolver again, Angela leapt over the next pew, turning in mid-air and firing another round into Fredrich. Her momentum carried her over the pew and into the arms and moldy cushions of the next one. Heavily she fell off the seat and onto the floor. A brilliant blue and silver light flashed wildly around the room followed by an inhuman shriek. Angela belly-crawled out to the main aisle of the church and saw Ignatius withdraw from the still form of the Vodou man. Their eyes met and he winked at her.

“Why are all of the recent Vodouists that we have encountered naked?” he asked her.

“We’ll worry about that later,” she grunted rising from the rubble and firing several more shots into Fredrich. “In the meantime, could you do something about this Zombi? I’m running out of bullets.”

Fredrich rose again and continued his advanced toward Angela, claw like fingers reaching out for her.

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