A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 4, Scene 1
Ignatius stormed into the vestibule of the train car just past the bar. The night air blasted him in the face. Heinrich’s fascination with the destructive power of the battlewagon threw him off balance. The normal reaction ought to have been revulsion at such an atrocity. Ignatius’s face burned red and he heaved a great sigh. He rolled his shoulders several times and blew out a cleansing breath. Ignatius placed his bag on the platform and opened it up. From it, he took the three discs. A small key from his pocket went into a delicate hole in two of them to wind the internal gears and springs. Placing the discs next to the bag Ignatius watched attentively.
From four concealed sockets limbs emerged. In a few seconds, they were both standing in front of Ignatius on spidery legs of thin metal and joints. Matching arms with tiny curving fingers twitched almost as though the devices were eager to begin. Each disc regarded him evenly with matching button-sized eyes of magnifying glass. Ignatius addressed both, “DIRECTIVE: Stealth. LOCATE: Documents pertaining to airships, lightning. IDENTIFY: Owner. ACTION: Report Only.”
The two devices stood still for almost ten seconds. Then a small light on the lower left side of their outer edge, just above the hip joint blinked twice. Ignatius rose and brushed down his vest and pants. The remaining disc went into his pocket. He collected his bag and went back into the Pullman car. The card table was now set for a poker game. Stacks of arranged chips sat by a dealer and the other passengers moved towards the chairs. Sitting on the dealer’s left was the Englishman. Moving in a clockwise circle was Joss White Eagle, Bey-Feng, Heinrich, the Americans from Harrisburg and one open chair. Ignatius clanked over to it and sat down, leaning his cane against the edge of the table.
“Good evening, sir,” said the dealer. “My name is Joseph. I’ll be running tonight’s game. The buy in is five hundred dollars.”
“That will be fine, thank you,” said Ignatius.
He exchanged a sheaf of money for the requisite chips and smiled at the group around the table. May-Li sat directly behind Bey-Feng in Ignatius’s line of sight, watchful, composed like a Siamese cat. The German looked over at Ignatius and nodded toward the top of his cane.
“I see we share tastes in walking canes, mein Herr.”
“Indeed, they are similar. Though perhaps with a few minor differences,” replied Ignatius.
As the game play progress, Ignatius examined each person at the table. If Colonel Witmore’s intelligence were right, one of them would be the buyer and the other the seller. The Americans were unlikely. Ignatius knew them to be somewhat unscrupulous, but at the end of the day, neither was criminally inclined.
Bey-Feng had the labor to commit the crime and the contacts in the criminal underworld to put out feelers for any interested parties. Money was not his motive though. The drug trade was lucrative. China did have an interest in advancing its industrial power, but it needed capital to do so. With the plans, they could build a component for airships that everyone would want, and pay handsomely for. Perhaps Bey-Feng was the buyer.
Ignatius pondered whom Bey-Feng spoke with during the trip. Ignatius could not recall seeing the drug lord converse with anyone other than his cousin and May-Li. That did not mean anything. Messages exchanged hands without notice and little difficulty all of the time. He worried that he may have overlooked one such exchange.
Rodger Guilgood crowed loudly as he won a large pot and raked the chips across the velvet. The Englishman’s singular drive to find new technology made him a likely buyer as well. Being a foreigner did not exclude him from being the seller, but it certainly reduced the chances of that. His Queen would surely want the advantage a lightning protection system might offer. Ignatius considered the possibility of Bey-Feng selling to Rodger.
“Sir? The bet is to you,” Joseph said.
Ignatius looked around the table. The other players were watching him with anticipation. Ignatius grinned and threw a large number of chips into the pot.
“Forgive me, my attention wandered for a moment.”
“Ja, I have moments like that too,” Heinrich commented.
Ignatius flicked his eyes towards the German and then around the table. Players studiously kept their faces blank, hoping not to give their cards away to a rival. Rodger tapped his chips idly. Joss sucked on his teeth, Bey-Feng rolled a pair of Baoding balls in his hand. The incessant chiming drew several dark looks from the Americans.
The poker game dragged on for several hours. Then the elimination of players started to begin. One of the Americans went first. He sulked off to the bar and nursed his bruised ego with a drink. Bey-Feng’s cousin lost his chips next earning a disapproving look from both Bey-Feng and May-Li. Hanging his head, Szeching left the table. Bey-Feng snarled something in Mandrin using a tone that left it clear that Szeching’s performance was inexcusable.
Ignatius began to wonder where his little windup clockwork automatons were. They could only run for so long on a winding, once the springs unwound they would stop moving.
“May I get you a drink, sir?” Elijah asked.
Ignatius tilted his head to the side and nodded, “The same as before.”
“You don’ want a brandy or something?” pressed the porter.
“No, just coffee with cinnamon.”
“Very well, sir.”
As Elijah walked away, Ignatius felt a gentle tug at the cuff of his pants. Glancing down at his feet one of the miniature automatons stood waiting. Ignatius faked a sneeze to cover his leaning down to scoop up the little device. He slid the disc into his pocket and smoothly returned his attention to the card game. The next hand saw the departure of the other American from the table in a rather cutthroat play by Joss White Eagle. One of the Chinese women shuffled over to May-Li and whispered behind a fan. This in turn prompted May-Li to sidle over to Bey-Feng for another hushed conversation in their native language. Bey-Feng nodded several times, turning at one point to face his escort.
Everyone focused on the pair giving Ignatius the opportunity to retrieve a small ribbon of paper from his automaton. Glancing at the words printed on it in clear print Ignatius snorted to himself. The faithful little device identified half of the problem for Ignatius. All that remained was finding the other half. Heinrich lost his stake next followed shortly thereafter by Rodger Guilgood. Ignatius had a fair amount of chips left, however Bey-Feng had the most while Joss teetered on the brink. Three hands later, Joss stood up and left the table. Bey-Feng smiled at Ignatius. He steepled his fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the investigator.
“Shall we conclude this game?” asked Bey-Feng.
Ignatius nodded and slid the rest of his chips to the center. Bey-Feng instead of doing likewise, tossed a round disc on top of the pile. Ignatius saw to his dismay that it was the second clockwork automata. Dents marred the casing, indicating that something struck it repeatedly.
“Are you a card cheat as well as an addict?” Bey-Feng inquired.
Ignatius wrapped his left hand around his walking stick, pulling it into his lap. He waited for Bey-Feng’s next move.
“The use of automated devices during a friendly poker game is in very poor taste, Mr. St. Eligius. Desperation can make a person do things, they often regret later.”
Ignatius grinned suddenly. It made sense now. Bey-Feng would push this situation until someone took action. Then, the Chinaman would be free to conclude the deal for the stolen plans. Bey-Feng did not know that Ignatius knew who seller was.
“Terribly sorry, Bey-Feng, wrong conclusion,” said Ignatius.
He whipped his cane from his lap and jabbed it against Heinrich, triggering a jolt of electricity from the tip to leap into the Germany arms dealer. The heavy man collapsed into a small dining table, smashing it to pieces. With a deft maneuver, Ignatius whipped out the hidden sword and leveled the tip at Bey-Feng. The drug lord sat unblinking. The smile on his face broadened.
“It seems I am not the only one laboring under a false conclusion,” said Bey-Feng. He rose out of his seat as May-Li and Szeching moved forward.
“What are you doing on this train then?” demanded Ignatius.
“Since we are amongst friends here, you may as well know. I am simply conducting business. Like anyone else. I seek to expand my territory.”
“You are not buying any kind of invention or blueprint?” asked Ignatius.
“Gracious, no. I am a simple man. I can see that perhaps you are in the middle of making a large mistake though. Addicts often make poor judgments.”
Bey-Feng uttered the last sentence with a snakelike smile. Ignatius backed his chair from the table, standing up.
“I am no long addicted to anything you provide,” he said. “Destroying the automata was not a wise choice.”
Bey-Feng shrugged. Elijah entered the car bearing Ignatius’s coffee.
“What’s going on here,” he said.
“That man assaulted the German,” Bey-Feng said quickly. The dealer nodded confirmation to Elijah.
“He is a criminal,” said Ignatius pointing at Bey-Feng with the tip of his sword.
“Hell man, who isn’t?” Rodger said.
“Not me,” said one of the American’s.
“Bloody pansy,” said Rodger.
“Everyone jus’ be cool now,” drawled Elijah. “Now then, Mr. St. Eligius, you put that sword of yours away, ‘less you wanna get messed up.”
Ignatius glanced over at Elijah. The porter held a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. The two round ends gaped at Ignatius. With great deliberation, Ignatius slid his sword back into its sheath. The dealer rose up with a Colt .45 pistol in each hand.
“All right, Cracker back up,” Joseph ordered.
“Since you’re closest, Mr. St. Eligius, you get the envelope out of Mr. Schmessinger’s jacket, and then toss it over to me,” Elijah said.
He moved around to the end of the car where Joseph waited, covering the passengers.
“I don’ know what sort of shite is goin’ on here, an I don’ care. I want that packet. Now,” insisted Elijah.
Ignatius knelt down on one knee and flipped open Heinrich’s jacket. After a few seconds, he located the envelope. The brown paper did not appear to be anything special, but Elijah’s eyes lit up when he saw it.
“Toss it onto the table, hoss.”
Ignatius sent the plans skimming along the felt of the card table. They came to a rest just in front of the dealer.
“Put a hole in anyone who moves, Joseph,” said Elijah.
He put the shotgun on the table and whipped open a knife to slice the envelope open. A thick, often folded packet of papers slid out into his hand. Hurrying, Elijah opened the papers and laid them on the felt in front of him.
“mmm, that’s pretty,” he breathed.
After reviewing the plans for a minute, Elijah put everything back in the brown envelope.
“Ladies and gents, it has been hugely demeaning serving you all tonight. So why don’ you jus’ go ‘head and put all your money in this here sack. Tha’ way Joseph an myself can feel somewhat compensated and won’t have to resort to killin’ nobody. Exceptin’ you, Mr. St. Eligius. I gots special permission for you.”
“How delightful,” Ignatius said.
He watched silently as the other passengers handed over their wallets, jewelry and other possessions. His bag sat more than five feet away and his cane had no charges left. Unless the other passengers took to the offensive, he might have a problem.
“Mr. Ignatius, since you’re standin’ so close to Mr. Schmessinger, why don’ you relive him of his wallet and pass it and your own over.”
Resigned, Ignatius rooted through Heinrich’s jacket and came up with the wallet. He tossed both his own and Heinrich’s across the poker table. Elijah grinned flashing pristine white teeth and brandished his shotgun.
“Now don’ none of you panic when this here gun goes off. I jus’ want Mr. Ignatius dead, the rest of ya’ll don’ matter.”
Ignatius clenched his teeth as the double barrels swung down level with his head.