A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 5, Scene 2
Fredrich lurched out of the gloom and discarded pews, grasping at Angela. Yellow and black, chipped fingernails raked across her raised arm. She could smell the Count’s fetid breath in a warm gust over her face. Angela cycled her pistol several times staggering the Zombu back to give her a change to jump over the makeshift fire pit to Ignatius’s side.
“Pour the potion, man!” she yelled, firing two more shots.
Ignatius knelt beside the stunned Vodou man, uncorked the little brown and green glass bottle and tipped the contents into the man’s mouth. Ignatius pinched the unconscious man’s nose and tilted his head back, forcing a swallow reflex. He paused waiting… Nothing happened.
Fredrich moved stiffly around the fire toward the trio. A curious sensation entered Ignatius’s awareness. It was a tickling behind his navel. Almost like a kitten’s whiskers across his face, but somehow more nuanced.
A ripple, an inexplicable bubble of air expanded out from the Vodouist, sweeping through the church and touching everything as it grew. The shimmering wall passed over Fredrich making him glow a brilliant blue for a brief moment. Once the bubble went by, the Count pitched forward face first onto the ground.
“Oh, that can’t be good,” whispered Angela.
“Go check on the Count, while I see to this one,” said Ignatius.
Angela stepped away and with great caution walked over to the still form of Count Fredrich Dubois. A number of gunshots, some of which had gone through his body, perforated the Count’s shirt. One horizontal slit also marred the cloth, from Ignatius’s blade no doubt. Angela nudged the Count with her boot. The man did not stir. Holstering one pistol, she used her free hand to roll the body over. Blood stained the front of the Count and the wood floor.
“Ignatius, we may have a problem over here,” Angela said.
“What is the matter?” he replied.
“I think Fredrich is dead,” said Angela.
“Regretful, I am not sure that this outcome was entirely avoidable. They were about to bury him, remember.”
“His sister is going to be less than understanding I think, compounded with your first impression she might just explode.”
“I should hope not, this is one of my favorite suits. I would hate to get Countess on it,” said Ignatius drily. “Enough of this gallows humor let us focus on the living. Specifically, let us consider this man who lies before us.”
Angela returned to where Ignatius was inspecting the Vodou man. She slid her second pistol home and sat near the fire.
“Could you at least cover him?” she asked.
“Feeling a bit prudish?”
“Not in the least, it is a simple question of dignity. Regardless of what this man has done. There is no good reason to leave him exposed to the elements.”
Ignatius grunted something akin to agreement but made no move to find a covering for their captive. Instead, he was peering closely to the tattoos etched in the man’s flesh.
“I get a sense that perhaps this man is more than he appears. His tattoos make little sense. This one looks like some of the symbols on ingredients Madame LeRoux’s shop. Yet over here on his thigh, this looks like Wappinger Indian and yet over here is something Chinese or perhaps Japanese. If we roll him onto his side, you can then see on his back Hindi, Muslim and more Vodou symbols. What manner of heathen is this tattooed man?” pondered Ignatius. “His face and form is Caucasian and judging from his hair style I think it is safe to say he is from these United States.”
“How is any of this relevant? We need to figure out what we are going to do next.”
“I suppose we could turn him over to Bey-Feng as I agreed to do.”
Angela gave him a hard, flat stare. “Really, that’s what you think we should do? Turn him over to the criminal. You know that will probably mean torture for the man until he dies.”
“Yes, well, I did not say it was a good plan.”
“Are you trying to curry favor with Bey-Feng?”
“What? No, of course I am not. Do not even joke about such a thing,” snapped Ignatius.
He laid his hat on the floor and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. Angela was correct taking the man back to Bey-Feng would be tantamount to just shooting him here and now. However, shooting would be more merciful than leaving him to the opium lord’s ministrations.
“I can only think of one alternative to Bey-Feng,” said Ignatius.
“Really? I can think of at least three.”
Ignatius raised an eyebrow, “Three? Please inform me of the options available.”
“One: We can release him. Two: Turn him over to the police. Three: Colonel Witmore,” Angela said, ticking off each on her fingers.
“All right, here are my responses. We cannot do that. He is a potential danger to us, others and maybe even himself. Next, think what this ‘Justice’ system would do to him. The Mayor would wet himself in delight at the prospect of the political gain of arresting and prosecuting this man, not to mention the private pleasure of having access to a new lab rat. That is what ‘Baron’ Hirsch, our esteemed Mayor does. Publically he punishes but privately uses those with unique skills to further his power-hungry aspirations.”
“Like you?” Angela asked. Her face was deadly serious.
“Why else do you think I wound up in the insane asylum instead of the gallows? Why do you think I am free, to a certain extent, now? It is because it is politically convenient for Mayor Hirsch at this time.”
“And my last option?” said Angela.
“The Colonel? He is likely the best option in this situation. Though I confess, I am not fond of the notion of turning yet another problem over to him. Of course if we can tie this man to the mysterious land purchaser or any of the other recent plots…” Ignatius trailed off lost in thought.
Angela watched him carefully, taking out one of her pistols and breaking the cylinder out and ejecting the spent shells. One by one, she placed a new bullet in each chamber, holstered the gun and repeated the process on the second pistol. Ignatius stood up in the meantime and paced the floor. He took a thin branch from the fire pit and lit a cigar.
“Angela, wake him up, let us find out what he knows. That may help us choose a course of action,” said Ignatius. He flicked a sliver of ash to the ground.
Angela shrugged and knelt over the man. Only the whites of his eyes were visible as his eyes rolled back so far the pupils vanished. His chest rose in a shallow motion and sank the same scarce amount. Angela pinched his nose, slapped his cheeks and jostled the man’s shoulder. After a couple of seconds, his eyelids fluttered and a groan emerged from between his lips.
“Take it easy old-timer. You’ve just had quite a shock,” said Angela.
Ignatius snorted a little behind his cheroot cigar, but the second Angela fixed him with her brown eyes he quit.
“Where am I?” the old man asked. His voice was gravelly, a voice seared raw by hard booze of a home-brewed variety.
“You are in the remains of a church, in Harrisburg. Do you remember?” she asked.
“Dear God. Am I?” he asked, sounding amazed.
“You are, do you know how you came to be here?” Ignatius said.
The man lay still for a moment, staring up at the rotted ceiling with gray eyes. “I can’t rightly say. Last place I remember bein’ at wuz a desert. At least someplace with a lotta sand.”
“Who are you?” asked Angela.
“Muh name’s Wheaton, James Wheaton. Though I reckon most people jus’ call me Jim.”
“Well, ‘Jim’, we are in the middle of an abandoned church where my partner and I just freed a man from under a Vodou spell you had him under. Does that ring any bells?” asked Ignatius.
“Oh,” said Jim sounding crestfallen. “Is that the case?”
“It is,” confirmed Ignatius.
“Well, you see son it’s like this: I take fits from time teh time and I lose whole days, weeks. Hell, one time I lost four months. Jus’ gone.”
“You remember nothing when this happens?” said Angela.
“No, miss, I don’t. Take these tattoos if’n yeh will. No idea how I came by them or what they mean. From the looks of ’em, someone put them on me permanent like.”
“Someone or you, perhaps,” suggested Ignatius. “These are rather mystic symbols of great power, if you believe in that sort of thing. Yet you claim no knowledge of how you came by them, is that correct?”
“It is. I’m sorry if’n you can’t cotton to my answers, but it is all I have to give yeh.”
“Do you know Count Fredrich Dubois,” asked Angela.
The older man frowned and nodded his head, “That name’s more’n passin’ familiar. Why do you ask?”
“Well, considering that you are lying no more than six feet from his corpse, I thought it might be germaine to our conversation,” said Ignatius through tight lips.
“What? How did he die?” Jim said with panic in his voice.
“There was variety of causes such as lead, steel, electricity. Who are you working for?”
“I don’t know!”
“Then tell me how this works, this Zombu spell, or whatever it is.”
“I don’t know, honest mister. If I’d know I’d tell ya.”
Ignatius’s face twisted in frustration and anger, he flung the stub of his cigar away and seized the old man’s bare shoulders, slamming him against the floor.
“Tell me something, before I decide to turn you over to the Chinese drug lord with more needles and coals than you could ever conceive.”
“Ignatius,” snapped Angela pulling the inventor off Jim. “Take control of yourself. Now!”
Jim sank back against the hard wood of the floor. “It has always been like this. Ever since I kin remember. Things happen aroun’ me. Weird things, that no one can explain. Least of all me. Have you ever heard of a town called New Hope, Kansas?”
“No,” snarled Ignatius, shaking off Angela.
She put a restraining hand against his chest and looked back at Jim, “I have. At least I’ve heard stories about it. Wasn’t it decimated by storms? Leveled the entire place. Buildings blown over, crops uprooted, all of the townspeople vanished.”
“I woke up in the middle of the town, alone and naked. No recollection of how I got there.”
“So you are saying that you black out, and a major catastrophe ensues? Is that what I am supposed to believe?” asked Ignatius.
“Believe it or not, it makes no difference to me,” said Jim. “I’m jus’ tellin’ yeh what I knows. Other times I hear stories about the walkin’ dead or some kinda folkstory creatures. I never remember the hows or whys though.”
“Ignatius, a word with you over here,” said Angela pointing toward the collapsed altar.
After they walked apart from the scarred Vodouist Angela said to Ignatius,”I have heard about New Hope. Now that he’s said some more, other stories I heard during my travels through the southwest make a bit more sense. The Indians out there have stories about the Spirits unleashing all sorts of creatures against man for various transgressions.”
“I am disinclined to fall for this poppy-cock. Am I truly supposed to believe that this man willed a series of tornados to reduce a town to dust?”
“Remember Ignatius, there are more things between Heaven and Earth that either of us have seen. Who is to say that there isn’t some margin of possibility to Jim’s story?”
“Because science does not support these sorts of claims,” sniffed Ignatius.
What about everything you’ve just experienced? Fredrich? The dragon at Bey-Feng’s? You can’t tell me that it was an Automaton. I simply won’t buy it. Science can only carry you so far. What of Faith and Belief? Surely you trust your own eyes?”
“My eyes can be deceived, the absolute laws of science cannot.”
“Will you at least consider the chance that this man’s story is true, if pushing the boundaries of credulity?”
“I suppose I can allow that. Just because a solution does not immediately present itself, does not mean there is not one out there.”
“Exactly. Let’s take Jim to the Colonel. That way Mr. Wheaton will be secured, and we can put an end to this investigation.”
“Except that doing so will more than likely incur the wrath of a certain Chinese criminal.”
“Are you really scared of Bey-Feng?”
“Hardly. I am leery of his reach and the immeasurable depth of his depraved mind.”
“You could inform the police and set a trap for him, with yourself as the bait,” suggested Angela smiling faintly, the gold flecks in her eyes twinkling.
“You are trouble,” Ignatius said with a fond jab at Angela’s shoulder. “Bey-Feng would never rise to such an obvious trap. More likely, he would send some mercenaries keeping his hands out of it. That is not relevant now. Are we agreed that Colonel Witmore is the best option in the situation? After all, this is your investigation; I am merely a consultant at this time.”
“I’ll be consulting you on a number of items later. For now, let’s get Mr. Wheaton someplace safe.”
Ignatius turned back to Jim, who remained supine by the fire.
“Mr. Wheaton we have come to an agreement. We mean to take you to the safe care of federal soldiers. Of course, procuring some manner of cover may be in order first,” said Ignatius jerking his eyes away from Jim and gazing about the sanctuary. “Ms. Boas, mayhap you could find something in the choir loft or other such place?”
Angela nodded and strode off in the direction of the front of the building. Ignatius squatted down next to Jim, the wires and joints of his braces complaining. “Jim, we will take you to safety because there is something unusual about you and I feel that while it can be eventually explained, it is more important to get you out of here. Your employer will not be entirely pleased since only part of the job is done. Do you have any relatives to whom we can send word?”
“Jus’ my boy and his wife, they are down in Virginia. How concerned they’ll be I can’t rightly say. It’s been no small time since I last spoke with them.”
“That is fine. Once we have clothes for you we can make our way to the fort.”
“We are out of luck in here, Ignatius. There is not a scrap of cloth big enough to cover Mr. Wheaton,” Angela reported as she returned.
“Well, we will just have to get a little creative is all,” said Ignatius, as he eyed up some curtains dangling from their rods.