The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 1, Scene 1.
Snow drifted across the gently rolling lawn of Wyndfast. A gust carried many tiny flakes from the north end of the lawn south. Ignatius stood transfixed by the sight at the great window in his dining room. At his feet the great black body of Baron Von Woofy lay sprawled with all four paws up in the air. The cat’s position exposed the tips of gleaming white fangs that belied the otherwise fluffy nature of the animal.
The calendar sat somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, though to be fair Ignatius was not interested in the date. The missing woman, Mary Kendall consumed his thoughts. Kevin and William were off in the foyer decorating it with Christmas baubles, pine garlands and a large wreath for the front door. The merriment did not suit Ignatius but he allowed it for the others. A knock sounded at the door, Ignatius cocked his head to try to hear what was going on without turning. He heard the familiar footsteps of William enter the dining room.
“Colonel Witmore is here to see you, sir. He is here with a rather unusual request. He would like to meet outside, if you please.”
“Thank you, Billy. Fetch my coat, hat and cane if you would,” Ignatius responded. He pivoted on his heel and stepped around the slumbering cat. “No need to rouse yourself, Baron. I will talk to the Colonel on my own.”
Ignatius moved to the foyer, the braces connected to his legs creaking with each movement. William awaited his employer, proffering a long heavy coat first.
“Billy, send for Wellsie after we are done here. I have several questions I would like to ask him.”
“Of course, sir. I will dispatch a missive over the wire at once.”
William opened the great door, which allowed a gust of wind to blow in from the outside. Ignatius placed his top hat firmly upon his head and donned a pair of leather gloves that he found in his coat pockets. William promptly closed the door behind Ignatius with a firm ‘Click’. Colonel Sanderson Witmore stood at the bottom of the stairs in his deep blue wool coat. Ignatius descended the stairs and greeted the Colonel.
“To what do I owe this visit, Colonel?” he asked.
“A tricky business is at hand. I need to have a few words with you in private.”
“Private means out of doors in a howling wind?”
“It does this time, c’mon,” said Colonel Witmore gruffly leading Ignatius around to the north side of the house and into the yard.
Snow lay like a blanket over the grass several inches deep. Ignatius knew his shoes would be soaked through by the time this was done. The Colonel led them down toward the river just past a small dip so that they were standing below the house and nearly level with the Susquehanna. Colonel Witmore opened his mouth to speak, closed it with a snap and squinted into the wind.
“Who in the blazes is that?” he demanded.
Ignatius peered in the direction that Colonel Witmore pointed. A black woman knelt by the water’s edge several hundred yards away. Clear as day Ignatius could see that she was without clothing.
“Ah, that would be Madame LeRoux. We have an arrangement,” said Ignatius, promptly dropping the matter.
The Colonel shrugged, “I’m still not sure about her or your report on that affair from last month, but Mr. Wheaton is proving immeasurably fascinating.”
“So glad we could provide a bit of intrigue for you, sir.” Ignatius said, his sarcasm went wide of its intended mark.
“I think we’re far enough away from anyone. I’ll be frank, Ignatius. We have a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” Ignatius asked tentatively. “And who is this ‘we’ you speak of?”
“There are reports of Air Pirates operating north of Harrisburg. This isn’t anything unusual. However, recent reports from survivors indicate that there is something different about this current group. They are said to have an amazing new weapon that fires lightning.” The Colonel paused to allow Ignatius to digest the information.
“Lightning?” Ignatius raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Is this an elaborate jest?”
“Do I look like I am fooling around?” asked the Colonel. His face was hard; there was no mirth in his eyes.
A loud splash broke the tableau that sprang up between the two men.
“Tell me about this supposed ‘lightning’ weapon then, Colonel,” said Ignatius.
“A couple of days ago several people came out of the woods near Clark’s Ferry. Their story began with a pirate attack on their train in Juniata County. Something as brilliant as the sun cut the engine almost in half. A couple of the lead cars derailed when they hit the coal tender. A landing party deployed to the ground and started picking over the stopped wreckage of the train. One of the witnesses said that the air ship came down low, almost parallel with the engine. The energy beam didn’t follow a straight path; instead it leapt and jumped in different directions before finally homing in on the engine.”
“That is a remarkable tale. Do you have any idea which of the pirate bands is responsible?”
“They said the dirigible was flying the tri-colors of France. You know who flies the tri-color of France, don’t you?” asked Colonel Witmore.
“The Mad Frenchman? I did not think he engaged in acts of piracy against soft civilian targets like a passenger train.”
“Who said that this was an ordinary passenger train?”
“What do you mean? There was something on that train the pirates wanted, other than money or valuables?”
“There was a recent scientific discovery onboard and let’s leave it at that.”
Ignatius frowned and squinted as a nasty bit of wind blew stinging snow into his eyes. “I should very much like to know what it is that the Army has lost.”
“I’m not at liberty to say. This is from the highest levels. All you have to do is locate the pirates responsible and then analyze the device they used to pull off the attack. The Army will handle the rest.”
“Do you know where these pirates are operating?”
“Our scouts have witnesses tracking their activities all across the Juniata River valley to the Susquehanna River. It’s a fair stretch of area,” admitted the Colonel.
“Sounds like a needle in a haystack,” said Ignatius.
“I plan on dispatching you with the support of a flotilla of airships. Three scouts, The Maudlin Rose and a Behemoth class named The Ulysses. You’ll be stationed on the Maudlin Rose because you know the captain and crew.”
“Those are some mighty declarative statements you are making. Are you sure about all of them?”
“Are you questioning the order of a superior office?”
“Perish the thought,” murmured Ignatius.
“Do you have any questions of relevance?” asked Colonel Witmore.
“Will we be required to prosecute other pirate bands that we locate in our search?”
“That is up to your discretion, well, yours and Commandant Lestrange. Have you heard of him?”
“Lestrange? No, that name does not seem familiar to me.”
“He can be a bit pompous, but he gets results. You may not see eye to eye on some issues, but I’ll remind you that only the mission is important. You’ll set aside any personal likes or dislikes, understood?”
Ignatius flipped the Colonel a mock salute, “Yes, sir! Jolly good, sir.”
“Ignatius, I cannot impress upon you just how dire this situation is. You know I have a sense of a larger plot?” To this, Ignatius nodded. “Well, I get the sense that it is culminating and with the loss of the cargo from that train the country sits on the precipice of catastrophe. You need to do what you do, only faster and better this time.”
“Trust me Colonel, when I say that I will give this issue my utmost attention. Speaking of which, how goes the search for Mary Kendall?”
“No word still. I’m sorry Ignatius. It is as though the earth has swallowed her up.”
“How is Johnathan taking it?” asked Ignatius, inquiring about Johnathan Fawkes, genius inventor and recuperating from a traumatic surgery performed by Mary, which saved his life.
“Ah, yes, Johnathan. I don’t really mention it to him.”
“His lover is missing for months now, and you fail to mention it to him?” said Ignatius with incredulity in his voice.
“That is to say, I generally keep Mr. Fawkes sedated most of the time. He is still having issues dealing with his transformation,” said Sanderson bluntly.
“The automatons do not mind?”
“The situation is well in hand.”
“Well, I doubt that very much. I hesitate to even ask this; how is James Wheaton?”
“He is proving very insightful. His abilities are opening up fascinating branches of research. Good Lord! What is she doing?” sputtered Colonel Witmore
Ignatius looked back to the river. Madame LeRoux was kneeling in the water vigorously scrubbing herself with soap and a brush.
“Bathing, sir. I would like it noted that I am displeased with the manner in which you are handling Mr. Fawkes and Mr. Wheaton’s cases. However,” said Ignatius plunging ahead past the beginning protestations of the Colonel, “since I am not in charge or really involved I will put it aside and hope for the best. Please enlighten me as to what steps you would like me to take next.”
“The flotilla is forming up tomorrow morning at eight. You should be packed and ready for an extended excursion and at the airfield no later than seven-thirty. There will be a briefing at quarter-to-eight from Commandant Lestrange.”
“Am I allowed to bring anyone any assistants?”
“I am not opposed to it. The Captain may have issues if you exceed his maximum lifting capacity though.”
“Well there is a danger of that. I thought of inviting Wellsie along. His expertise in weapons and manufacturing may prove useful when examining the train’s wreckage.”
“Very well, I will pass that along to Captain Howard,” said Colonel Witmore referring to the skipper of the Maudlin Rose. “Is there anything else?”
“No, Colonel. I think that is all.”
“Good. Then remember your mission is to find the air pirates responsible for raiding the train, bring them into custody and confiscate their weapon. The rest of the flotilla will take charge of the stolen property and secure the area. I will see you tomorrow morning at 07:30 sharp.”
“I would not even dream of missing it, Colonel,” said Ignatius.
“See that you don’t,” growled Witmore, turning and trudging away.
The snow and wind swept across the lawn of Wyndfast in a hoary sheet. Tree branches rattled, the river kicked up into whitecaps and Colonel Witmore retreated to the relative comfort of his carriage. Ignatius strode back around to the front of the mansion and up the stairs to the front doors. William opened them immediately, allowing a blast of warm air to wash over Ignatius. Gratefully, he entered the house and stood shivering in the foyer.
“Sir, you look positively chilled to the bone,” fussed William.
“It is cold out, Billy,” Ignatius said simply. “Take my hat and coat and hang them near a fire, and then meet me in the office, please,” said Ignatius.
Flinging the last vestiges of snow from his hands, Ignatius crossed the foyer to his right where several doors waited. Ignatius opened the one closest to the front of the house, revealing his formal office. In it, dark oak panels and thick green carpet decorated the walls and floor. A fireplace took up the middle of the left hand wall and the right bore a large bay window overlooking the front lawn and drive. Several globe lamps lit the interior space. Ignatius sat down at the massive desk facing the doorway.
Arranged on the blotter were several boxes with wires running out of them. Near them were a number of labeled trays with papers stacked in them. William entered the office bearing a carafe of hot coffee and an ashtray. The coffee he set on a sideboard and poured a cup of Ignatius’s favorite beverage: A dark roast coffee with cinnamon in the grounds to give it an extra flavor during the brewing. The ashtray went onto the desk to Ignatius’s immediate right. Ignatius struck a match and lit one of his favored cigars, a cheap hand rolled cheroots from New Oreleans. He exhaled a gust of blue smoke and then sipped at his coffee. The bittersweet beverage ran down his throat, warming him.
“All right, Billy. Let us get started. First, you will need to organize the household for my absence. I do not know how long I will be away. This means of course that I will need you to pack my bags. Lots of warm clothing, I imagine an airship is not the warmest place to be this time of year. I am also going to need my case of tools. You can just set it out for me. I will pack it later this evening. Will you arrange for a messenger to, please? I must inform my business manager that he is to run everything as always, with a Christmas bonus for the week prior to the 25th. Please let me know when you have the messenger, that will be all for now, Billy.”
“Very good sir, you may rely on me,” intoned the butler.
William nodded and set off with his empty tray. Ignatius opened the long flat drawer in the middle of his desk. Contained within was a curious arrangement of keys with letters on them and several switches. He flipped the switches to a pre-configured arrangement and started pressing keys. He paused, thought for a moment and then resumed typing away. When he finished typing, Ignatius pressed a larger key marked: Send. One of the devices on his desk lit up with an internal light and emitted a series of clicks. Within a minute, a smaller box sprang to life with a series of chattering sounds, emitting a short stream of paper. On the paper were the words ‘On My Way.’