A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 3, Scene 1
Below the airship, the lights of Pittsburgh twinkled at the edge of dusk. The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers flowed together from the northwest and northeast, joining to make the Ohio River. Captain Howard steered the Maudlin Rose in a tight arc over the city as Franco released some ballast. The airship gently descended down to the airfield, gliding smoothly forward along the narrow strip of land. Franco reversed the rotation of the propellers slowing them down. A ground crew ran forward to grab a hold of the bowline. Within three minutes, the Maudlin Rose rode securely fastened to a docking berth and a gangplank connected.
Christian turned around in his chair and announced “We have arrived at ze Pittsburgh. Please watch your step as you exit.”
He chuckled and stroked his pencil thin mustache. Ignatius stood and gathered his possessions.
He nodded at Franco, “Thank you for the smooth flight,” he said.
Franco merely snorted. Hines came over to Ignatius and took the larger bag.
“No worries, Mr. St. Eligius. I’l help you down,” the gunner said.
“Thank you Smitty, I appreciate it.”
Ignatius shook the Captain’s hand, “I appreciate the ride Captain. Our little stop off in Somerset will definitely help my investigation along.”
“It was no trouble, Mr. St. Eligius,” said Captain Howard.
Ignatius strode down the gangplank. He spotted Smitty standing next to a handsome cab talking with the driver. Using his cane to assist him, Ignatius crossed the open space to the cab. A powerful black horse waited in the traces.
“Mr. St. Eligius, this is Meryl. He’s currently for hire. He assured me that his rates are the best in the city,” said Smitty.
“Excellent. Nice to meet you Meryl.”
“A pleasure Mr. Ignatius,” said the cab driver.
“Smitty, thanks for all of you help today,” said Ignatius.
“No problem. I loaded your gear, and Meryl will take you direct to the train station.”
Hines gave Ignatius a boost up into the cab and flashed his gleaming white teeth in a huge grin. Meryl clicked his tongue and set his horse on its way. Ignatius gave Hines a wave as the cab pulled away from the airfield. They drove along the confluence of the three rivers headed north on Liberty Avenue.
“This’ll take us right to the train station, sir,” Meryl said.
“Very good. How are things in you city?”
“They’s ok. Are you looking for somethin’ specific?”
“Would you have any information on the criminal population?”
“Sir, what a terrible thing to suggest. Lawd, have mercy! I’m a God fearin’ sort of man,” exclaimed Meryl.
“Ah, forgive me I did not mean to give offense.”
“That’s all right, sir. What you wants to do is ask the Pullman Porter on your train. They’s in the know.”
Ignatius smiled to himself, “I will be sure to do that. Thank you Meryl.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble. We should be there in plenty of time, so you jus sit back an’ relax.”
The city streets rolled past at a reasonable clip. Men and women were out strolling along the avenue. Sleek women in hoop skirts of green, navy blue, deep crimson and gray walked along peering in shop windows and chatting animatedly about the news of the day. Drifting along with them were their husbands or escorts, men of business and industry. Reduced to carry brighty wrapped packages and parasols.
Every now and again, a veteran of the war shuffled by, easily spotted by the patchwork uniform still worn. Less obvious still were the street urchins, pickpockets and muggers. They hovered, lurking, near the mouths of alleys, singly and in small packs of three to five. They lent an air desperation to the evening’s festivities, which somehow went overlooked by the others.
Ignatius contemplated his journey so far and his findings. The punch cards were drying out nicely. Perhaps after dinner he would be able to take a proper look at them. For now, he needed to push thoughts of them away and focus on the impending train ride. The plans he sought were not going to rest with a newborn babe. He would need to be ready to try to outwit whoever may be aboard.
The station came into view, a large wood structure with a green roof over the entranceway. Several porters lounged next to carts that held luggage. Meryl pulled alongside the nearest wagon and scrambled down from his seat. In short order he had Ignatius’s cases on one wagon and assisting Ignatius down the steps of the cab. Ignatius paid Meryl well and motioned for a porter to lead him.
“I have a ticket for the night train to Harrisburg,” he said to the porter.
“Sho’ ’nuff. Right this way, sir,” said the porter.
Ignatius followed the man through the entrance and cavernous waiting room. The waiting area had row upon row of benches, a telegraph station and potbellied stove in one corner for heat. A couple sat waiting, huddled together with their heads pressed together whispering conspiratorially to each other, in the way that newlyweds do. A Vaquero slouched in the corner next to the stove. Their broad brimmed hat pulled low so they could rest without the lights or noise disturbing them. Saddlebags and a rifle in a fitted leather case lay next to the Vaquero’s boots. A drab Jorongo made a cozy blanket.
Ignatius swept through the room and out to the platform where the night-train waited. The train consisted of a dozen cars coupled to the coal tender and engine. At the end was a Pullman Parlor car. Sleeper cars and regular passenger cars filled the space between the Pullman car and a mail car some boxcars and the engine. Steam hissed in a steady flow from the pistons. The massive machine bore the Pennsylvania Railroad’s logo in maroon and gold on its cab.
It seemed to vibrate in anticipation of the journey. Ignatius marveled at the engine. Distracted, he ignored the porter and wandered down the length of the train to stand next to the cab. He put a hand out to the great wheels and felt the warm iron. Closing his eyes, he smiled softly at the sensation. A voice drew him out of his semi-trance.
“Excuse me sir, if you are on this train, it’s time to board.”
Opening his eyes, Ignatius found himself looking at a Pullman Porter. The man was huge, standing at no less than six feet and three inches tall. Some scars ran across his baldhead and up under his cap. A neatly trimmed beard covered his lower face and dark eyes peered at Ignatius.
“Are you all right, sir?” he asked.
Ignatius nodded, shaking himself a little to throw off the beginning traces of fatigue.
“I apologize. I get mesmerized by the engines at times. To stand next to something so powerful…”
“Very good, sir. If you will follow me please, I will show you to the parlor car. A light dinner is being prepared for service immediately after departure.”
“That would be most welcome. Lead on.”
“This way,” the porter said. He walked down to the passenger cars and climbed up the first one. Ignatius gamely struggled up the steep and narrow steps to the platform.
“I apologize, sir. Had I known, I would have assisted you.”
“Do not worry. I am used to these braces by now,” Ignatius replied. He gave the Pullman a wry grin. “Sometimes they feel like they have a mind of their own. Tell me, how did you know I had a ticket for the Pullman car?”
“Mostly by the way you are dressed. Several pegs above most of the coach passengers,” the porter said waving his hand at one of the occupants of the coach car.
Ignatius looked and saw the passenger was the Vaquero from the waiting room. Still dozing, Ignatius noted. He automatically scanned the rest of the car, but did not spot the other couple from inside. They crossed the remaining cars until they reached the entrance to the parlor car. The porter held the door open allowing Ignatius to proceed first. The Parlor car was luxury of the highest caliber. It made the velvet-covered cushions of the coach car appear dreadfully threadbare. Dark walnut wood paneling lined the car from one end to the other. A sumptuous carpet absorbed the sounds of feet striding along the car’s length.
A bar occupied the one end of the car while a grand window looked over the back of the car. In daylight, it would offer a magnificent view of the landscape. Along the sides were chairs, small tables and miniature couches. From the ceilings three chandeliers hung, dripping with crystals and casting their glow over the room. The porter next to Ignatius cleared his throat politely.
“Sir, my name is Elijah, if I can be of any assistance please let me know. Your effects were brought on board and await your pleasure over there,” he said indicating a discrete rack with bags from a variety of the passengers.
“I will take my bag now and perhaps a cup of coffee?”
“Of course, would you like anything in your coffee?”
“Yes, a touch of cinnamon and some milk and sugar, if you please.”
In several minutes, Ignatius was seated and sipping his coffee in a fine china cup. He used the time to study the various other passengers in the car. There was an Indian, but Ignatius could not tell from which tribe. Judging from accents alone, they were a German, an Englishman and a Mexican. Several Americans sat apart from the others.
They sat aside, drinking amber colored liquor and swapping stories of industrial conquest. Ignatius knew them by reputation only. One was a purveyor of buckboard wagons and the parts, the other manufactured small steam engines for various applications. By the doors to the platform a circular table with green felt sat. The observation doors swung open to admit another passenger.
Ignatius sputtered and half gagged on his coffee. Striding into the car was Bey-Feng, flanked by two women and his cousin Szeching. The Opium Lord spied Ignatius and walked right over.
“Mr. St. Eligius. It is so pleasant to make your acquaintance, again. I am Chau, Mao-Tze Chau. I import silks into the United States.” He offered a slender hand with emerald fingernails. A long draping Fu Manchu mustache and wispy goatee adorned Bey-Feng’s normally smooth face. Ignatius ignored the hand.
“What are you doing here, Bey-Feng?” he demanded.
“Ah, so very sorry, I am Mao-Tze Chau, not this Bey-Feng you refer to. I understand, to your uneducated American eyes we Chinese probably all look similar. I had the same trouble when I first came to this country.”
“Are you following me?”
“Good Heavens no, I am pursuing business opportunities aboard insignificant American train. My associate informed me that he ran into you earlier. Gave you sample of our work. Perhaps you need assistance in using it. May-Li can be most helpful,” Chau said.
One of the women to his right, wearing a shimmering green dress that clung to her figure smiled seductively at Ignatius, pursing full red-painted lips at him. She placed the tip of a glimmering silver needle on her bottom lip. The needle connected to a cuff that slid over her fingers, giving her the look of a Chinese dragon with its talons.
“What are you doing here Bey-Feng,” snapped Ignatius.
“As I said before, I am here on simple business. It is nothing to concern you.”
The room lurched rocking Bey-Feng/Chau and his party backwards a half step. The women scrambled into seats nearby, Chau smiled in a snake-like way and sat opposite of Ignatius on another couch. Szeching wore a look of open hatred and sat opposite Ignatius, glaring the whole time. It was perhaps some relief that Elijah returned to the center of the car and announcing that dinner was about to be served.