A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 6, Scene 2
The carriage ride back to Wyndfast was mind numbing. Ignatius halfheartedly watched the city slide by on his left, while the river lay silent on the right. Passing along Forster Island, its covered bridge and the Airship field made him think of the skies. Riding at her berth, Ignatius saw the Maudlin Rose. A half smile played at his lips. The journey out to Pittsburgh was one of peace and tranquility when not punctuated by pirates and airship crash investigations. He loved riding the air currents like a gliding hawk. Thick snowflakes began to cascade out of the heavens landing all around the carriage.
By the time they passed the southern tip of Forster Island the park’s lawn was a blanket of white, obscured by the rapidly falling, thick flakes. Across the water, Fort Couch’s shape was blurred by the snow. Ignatius was hopeful that Jim Wheaton was secure there. Choosing to ignore the fort and all within it Ignatius swiveled in his seat to watch the brownstone townhouses go past. The distance between those on the river’s edge and those on life’s edge in Allison Hill was less than two miles. Speaking in terms of class and the ability to provide the basics with regularity, the difference was vast.
The horse drew its cab alongside John Harris’s place. The large stone house stood as a bastion against both the weather and the impoverished. Was it fair? He sat in a hansom cab, riding to Wyndfast his mansion on the Susquehanna River. How fair was that. Could he then blame a pack of desperate workers for seeking his wallet? Overhead a pair of dirigibles maneuvered for position to dock at Forster Island. Like great floating trout, they turned upriver shimmying in the air’s currents. How wondrous progress was, thought Ignatius. Yet at the same time, it was capable of horrors and instilling base fears in the population.
Once a thing became misunderstood, it would be a long time coming before some it could be de-vilified. Misinformation or lack of information could lead directly to disaster.
“Driver, pull over here at the park,” called Ignatius.
The park at this point dipped low to pass under one of the train bridges. The walking path passed out of view from the street here. Ignatius opened the door and climbed down. “Wait for me,” he instructed the cabbie.
“Right you are, sir.”
Ignatius strode into the park feeling the chill wind against his face, punctuated by the cold, wet snowflakes. The river rode low at its banks and a dark brown color. Ignatius felt his chest tighten as he followed the path around toward the bridge. There are at the lowest point of the dell, he remembered. There was a sense of desperation that night, that the air was thick with the smells of stale sweat and alcohol, of opiates and faraway spices. The gang had rushed him from behind a bush, which was no longer there. It was the last walk he went on unaided by either wheelchair or his braces.
The six men accosted him at the great rock demanding that he turn over his wallet and other valuables. Full of pride in his abilities, his station in life, Ignatius had made some pithy reply, which he could no longer recall. It incensed the gang and they attacked. Whether he gave a good account of himself that night or not, was no longer relevant.
The events were beyond his control then as they were now. He could not help suffering the trauma and losing the ability to walk, the same way he could not help Mary Kendall’s abduction and the subsequent failure to find her. After receiving his injuries, Ignatius spent a period convalescing, even while the pain gripped at him. It began the lowest point, the darkest point for him. The unending pain alternated between dull, throbbing and maddening or sharp, blinding and stabbing. One would switch with the other on a regular basis.
At a loss, Ignatius finally found solace in a variety of opiates and home-brewed concoctions. He had plunged down the rabbit hole. Frightening visions followed by crushing depression and paranoia. After countless days spent, tinkering with the chemical formula Ignatius managed to strike the right balance with one rather special side effect.
The new drug freed his mind from the normal constraints. The barriers of ethics, morality and right versus wrong simply vanished. What remained was renewed vigor, above genius level thinking and an ability to work endlessly on a project. The time using the drug stretched into a white haze from which Ignatius would awake confused and trying to reconstruct the lost time and shift in location. This chemical mania ultimately drove him to construct a war machine and use it to commit an atrocity against the people and city that he loved so much.
Standing in the falling snow Ignatius contemplated his current situation.
The past few months contained a series of strange events. Upon examination, none of them seemed to relate to one another. Attacks on several factories in the early fall led to the discovery of a secret room and ravings concerning the superiority of machines.
Then came the investigation of the accidental crash of an airship, which just so happened to be carrying Johnathan Fawkes, leading developer of Automatons. It was rumored that Fawkes was developing several newer models as well as some manner of device to mitigate the danger of lightning storms. Ironically, a lightning strike downed the airship.
Angela’s return during that escapade saved his life. What really motivated her return? Was it for him or because the Colonel held some manner of sway over her? The letter she sent him during his imprisonment stated plainly that she would not return if he were unchanged and still corrupted by drugs.
Last month while searching for the reputedly deceased Mary Kendall, he was surprised to learn that she is his vanished maid. Before too long though, persons unknown take her. Of course, there is the matter of her lover and partner in invention. Johnathan Fawkes, found alive and kept alive by his faithful Automatons arrived in Harrisburg where Ignatius and Mary restored him to the best of their abilities.
Finally, this Vodou business concealing what appeared to be legitimate land purchasing. It seems the most minimal of the events Ignatius investigated.
The threads of everything did not connect in any logical way. Colonel Witmore’s insistence that they did only muddied the waters more. His hand clenched the top of his walking stick in frustration. Colonel Witmore warned him that a greater plot was afoot. What sort of plan would connect all of these events? Distracted, Ignatius brushed snow off his shoulders and continued down the path to the bridge. The enormous stone foundation rose up and arched over the park. Pacing beneath the massive structure offered no insight. Everything still felt tangled and jumbled. Evidence here and there suggested that perhaps someone from Ignatius’s past manipulated the strands of this web.
Giving up on making any sort of progress under the bridge, Ignatius emerged with a troll-like shuffle and made his way back to the waiting cab. The cabbie boosted him into the coach and with seconds had the team continuing on their way to Wyndfast. The driver steered his way along the empty street as the snow fell in ever-increasing amounts. All too soon for Ignatius the gates of Wyndfast came into view.
What use was it to be at home, without the means of solving the puzzle before him? Still, Angela was joining him for dinner, which was something worthwhile in and of itself. It also meant that Billy and Kevin would need to get busy preparing something.
Ignatius paid the cabbie and climbed the stairs to the massive front doors. They swept open at his approach, revealing William Ghendurwald, neat as a pin in his formal black suit and the bald dome of his head gleamed in the light.
“Welcome home, sir,” he said as Ignatius crossed the threshold.
“Billy. How are things here today?”
William responded with a chipper, “Quite well. We received word from Ms. Boas that she will be joining us for dinner tonight. Kevin and I have taken the liberty to prepare something exquisite.”
“Thank you, Billy. Please take my hat and coat and hang them somewhere to dry.”
“Of course, I see the snow is coming down quite handily. I do hope Ms. Boas bundles up on the ride over.”
William assisted Ignatius out of his long coat and took the proffered hat walking them to the right of the entrance, to the study where he would hang them near the fireplace. Ignatius moved to the left in the direction of the kitchen. Ignatius entered the dining room where the large table in the was set with elegant china and silver offerings. Halfway past the table something slithered along the wall before darting under the table. Ignatius blinked and cocked his ear to listen, but heard nothing.
He took another step toward the kitchen door when a flash of darkness lunged out from under the table and wrapped itself around his right leg. Startled, Ignatius gave a tiny yelp and danced to one side awkwardly. A large black lump clung to his appendage with wicked claws piercing his trousers. It was the wild half-breed cat, which Angela had left day before. It was doing its best to shred his leg.
Ignatius leaned over and gave it a brisk ‘Whap!’ on the nose. That brought the animal up short. Its great eyes blinked several times and reluctantly it relinquished its grip on his pants. Cautiously, the cat leaned forward, sniffed the cuff of Ignatius’s pants, and rubbed its head against the covered brace, purring loud enough to rattle the crystal.
“It is just a matter of taking a firm hand, is it not?” Ignatius asked the cat.
“Indubitably. Come along, Baron Von Woofy, there are things to accomplish before Angela arrives,” said Ignatius with gusto and he stomped out of the dining room and into the kitchen. Kevin gave a wild squeal and leaped onto the counter as Ignatius and the cat paraded through.
“Welcome back, sir,” Kevin said in a shrill voice. “I see the cat found you.”
“That he did, Kevin. I am going to the workshop for a little while. See that either you or Billy rings me on the callbox an hour before Ms. Boas arrives.”
“Sure thing. Are you taking the cat with you?” Kevin asked.
Ignatius smiled benignly up at Kevin. “Would you rather I left him out here?”
“All right, then he can come with me,” said Ignatius.
He clucked his tongue at the cat and continued through the door that led to the connecting hallway. At the door, Ignatius paused long enough to light a cigar before going out into the cold. He walked the short covered distance to the workshop. The cat frisked along behind him pawing at the snow, then vigorously shaking its paw and letting out a yowl. Ignatius opened the door to his workshop and entered. The interior was a jumble of dark shapes with an orange corona from the forge’s coals. Ignatius lit several gas lamps, adding additional wick to each.
His roll top desk stood in its place by the door, stoic as a saint. How Ignatius wished for that level of endurance. Truth will out he was in fact tired. Not just from his evening with Angela investigating Count Fredrich’s case, but from the entirety of the autumn. Baron Von Woofy apparently pleased with the amount of heat generated at the forge rummaged amid some cast off burlap sacks and nestled in. Stiffly Ignatius walked the length of the workshop between the center workbench and the windows, which looked out over the south side of Wyndfast. There was a point where if one stood in it, that one became invisible to prying eyes.
Ignatius stepped into this location. He stood opposite the forge, obstructed from view by both the bulk of the foundry and the central workbench. From the shaft of his cane, he extracted a slender metal probe with a curious hook design at the tip and inserted it into the base of a piece of chair molding. Twiddling the thin strip of metal between his fingers, a subdued click announced his success. Shifting his weight slightly toward the wall a counter balance changed position and the section of floor that he was standing on sank down.
When the lift halted, he moved to his left, allowing the floor piece to rise back up. A match fired against brick and a series of connected lamps flared to life. All manner of machine and device, laden with dust in the lamp’s glow waited for him here. Along the wall to his left, several prototype limbs sat motionless and a large square box hummed. Bits of miniature clockwork automatons lay on a table, the brass parts dull with age and disuse.
Ahead of him there sat a rough table topped with a cupboard filled with row upon row of vials. Each one filled with a different ingredient than the last. Several large objects loomed ahead and to the right in an alcove just out of the light’s reach. Tarpaulins covered them in order to keep the elements off and to break up their true form.
The middle of the floor contained a large table. Covering it was a blue print with white lines describing a sort of wagon, made of metal with a sort of train cab on it. Enormous wheels took power from the steam engine and in the margin, notes on how to affix a belt fed cannon outlined the notion. On the earthen floor, great tracks pressed deeply. Something no longer in the secret laboratory left them.
Ignatius reached the chemicals and toyed idly with several flasks. It would be so easy to slip back into an old habit. The base of his formula sat here in front of him, begging to be combined. He put his hand out to take up the necessary first flask.
The cool glass was nearly in his hand when white-hot pain flared across it. Cursing under his breath, Ignatius pulled his hand up to examine it. Four red lines as though cut by a razor decorated the back of his hand. A disturbingly loud purr drew his attention to the cat, now sitting politely on the table next to him.
“You think I should leave well enough alone, is that what this is?” asked Ignatius.
The cat merely gave him an unconcerned look with its green eyes. Ignatius put his cigar down on the edge of the table and took out his handkerchief. A few seconds later, he had it bandaged. Regretfully, he cast a sorrowful look around the room. In the corner was a filthy rat’s nest of a feather bed and some blankets. How he remembered laying there with sweat pouring out of him, the drugs clutching his heart, his soul and leaving no doubt in his mind that revenge would equal justice. Turning his back on the chemicals Ignatius walked slowly back to the lift, triggering its return. Stepping onto the square panel, he clucked his tongue again for the cat, which with great aplomb jumped down from the table and pranced across the floor to him.
“That will do cat, that will do,” said Ignatius as he extinguished the lights and rose back up into his current life, leaving the past undisturbed. For the present moment.