The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 1, Scene 2.
Ignatius sat in his plump leather chair situated in the den, next door to his office. On the side table was a cup of coffee and the ashy remains of a cigar. He stared into the flames of a crackling fire, pondering the scope of his latest assignment for Colonel Witmore. Something about this mission made him feel uneasy. The change in focus could be coincidence, but Ignatius felt that he was being kept at arm’s length from the search for Mary Kendall.
It might be something legitimate, such as a new threat presented by this pirate band. The trouble was he could not make any determinations with the amount of information the Colonel provided. The search for Mary had to continue. She was too important to allow her to fall to the wayside. Mary was a brilliant inventor, responsible for developing the intelligence and programming that powered Johnathan Fawkes’s latest version of Automaton. Several months ago, under Ignatius’s nose, a gang working for a mysterious figure had kidnapped her.
Johnathan and Ignatius were largely unharmed, though Johnathan had his own crisis to worry about in addition to Mary’s kidnapping. He barely survived an airship crash after lightning hit it. His automatons changed somehow in the accident and responded by saving his life, bringing him to Harrisburg where Mary was. A radical daylong surgery, where Mary replaced portions of Johnathan with donated clockwork parts from the automatons kept him alive and put him on a path to recovery.
An incredibly brilliant inventor missing and another one turned into a hybrid man-automata, yet the Colonel appeared unconcerned enough to allow the search for Mary to die out. What if, supposed Ignatius, the impending threat that Colonel Witmore was so keen to prevent and Mary’s disappearance were part of the same plot. Coercion could force Mary into constructing a weapon or improve some half-baked idea.
A log popped and hissed releasing a tiny geyser of steam as the flames reached inside the wood. Ignatius’s new cat, Baron Von Woofy padded into the room and curled on a fluffy blanket next to the fireplace. Since arriving with Angela Boas in November, the cat had taken to life at Wyndfast quite well. He spent time hunting mice in the workshop, sprang out from under the dining room table to grab passing ankles and seemed to know Ignatius’s mood.
Already the animal prevented Ignatius from relapsing into a drug-induced fugue. The desire was there, fueled by gnawing self-doubt. He could not figure out the next move of his shadowy opponent nor the Colonel’s rationale for taking the actions he did. Still the part of Ignatius that joined the Union Army as an idealistic field scout, and then spy, knew that he would execute the Colonel’s directives. Idly, Ignatius wondered if he should reach out to his various contacts.
Mousier Broussard also known as the ‘Mad Frenchman’, the Colonel’s key suspect, associated with many of the airship pirates. He might have an insight as to who was causing the trouble up north and where they hid after a raid. It was a risky notion though. There were criminal elements waiting to catch Ignatius out of bounds in the city of Harrisburg. Personal inquiries were out of the question; however, he could engage agents for hire. Doing so would require more time and effort of which there was little to spare.
A sharp rap on the doorframe drew Ignatius’s attention from the fire to his visitor. A shadow like that of a bear crossed the threshold and entered the pool of light from a solo gas lamp. Wellsie, the head blacksmith from Mechanicsburg towered at nearly seven feet tall. As if the bear he resembled thick hair covered him from head to foot, though to his credit, Wellsie kept it neatly trimmed in order to avoid accidents around the forge. His eyes, two lumps of coal, swept the room alighting on Ignatius. A wide grin broke over Wellsie’s face.
“Ah, it’s good ta see you again,” rumbled Wellsie, moving over to where Ignatius sat.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice. I fear I may have been too brief in my summons,” replied Ignatius extending his hand and shaking Wellsie’s.
“It’s all right, nothing to it. I just put the boy on the forge and ran up here. What’s going on?”
“I am going up north, to Juniata County. I know, you can scarcely contain yourself with the mere notion of going there. However, I am investigating a band of airship pirates. They raided a train in recent days and used something rather curious. So much so, that Colonel Witmore is dispatching me along with a flotilla to find them and identify the weapon used.”
“Sounds interesting, I do like new toys,” said Wellsie with a broad grin.
“Well, this is your chance then. Personally, I feel that the Colonel is wasting resources on this mission. Mary Kendall still needs to be found and delivered from her captors.”
Ignatius gestured to a chair next to his own, “Please sit. I feel like a mountain is looming over me every time you stand so near.”
Wellsie chuckled and lowered himself into a plush armchair. William arrived a minute later and enquired after the needs of Ignatius and his guest.
“Coffee for me, Billy. Stout for you?” he asked Wellsie.
“Yeh, that’ll be good.”
“Billy, are we too late for supper?” asked Ignatius.
“No sir. I have only now just given up hope that you will be eating at the dining room table.”
“Fine, have Kevin bring us a couple of plates of whatever.”
“Very good, sir,” said William making his exit.
“There is more to the mission,” Ignatius mused. “It was something that the Colonel did not share with me. Something was on the train, but he does not know if it was taken by the pirates.”
“What d’you suppose it could be?” pondered Wellsie.
“Whatever it is, it did not sound like a machine or device or weapon. I got the sense that it might be something alive. It might be a person or an animal. Sanderson told me that it was in strictest confidence and that only the powers above him knew exactly what it is.”
“Interesting, I guess,” said Wellsie shrugging without concern. “Does it bother you not to know?” he asked.
“A bit,” admitted Ignatius. “Knowing might alleviate some of my concerns.”
“I can check with some of my friends at the train depot. They might know something we don’t.”
“Do you intend on checking this out tonight? We have to be at the airfield by seven-thirty tomorrow morning.”
“Sure, it’s no big deal. I’ll hit up Pug and Westy for some information, and then meet you at the airship in the morning.”
“We fly out on the Maudlin Rose. There is supposed to be a Behemoth class ship in the flotilla too.”
Wellsie whistled appreciatively, “I’ve never seen one up close. Should be a right treat, don’t you think?”
“Possibly. The commandant is a total ass. I know of him from his reputation during the war. I put a bit of a smokescreen up for Witmore about knowing him. Lestrange is a bit dodgy, but usually acted for the greater good. Yet he cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of anyone but himself.”
“Ah’right then. We’ll jus’ keep him at arm’s length. We’ve done it before.”
“True enough, Wellsie,” replied Ignatius.
William rejoined them, bearing a tray with their drinks and several plates heaped with steaming food.
“Where is Kevin? I asked you to have him deliver the food,” said Ignatius.
“My apologies, sir. Kevin is unavailable for the moment. Did you require him for something?”
Ignatius hesitated before replying. “Yes, Billy. I do want to see him when he becomes available. That will be all for now, thank you.”
“Of course, sir.” Wiliam left the two men again.
“Everything all right, Ignatius?” asked Wellsie. “You jus’ about froze William out there.”
“It is nothing. I just needed to talk with Kevin. It is a simple matter that I did not wish to bother Billy with.”
“Right, well let’s eat and discuss. Then I’ll go have a word with my contacts.”
The two men tucked into their plates. Roast beef lay tantalizingly under a splash of steaming gravy with potatoes and some root vegetables. Ignatius chewed thoughtfully on each piece, his gaze unfocused. Wellsie made short work of his dinner and soon tossed a napkin aside with a content sigh. “Do you want me to pick anything up while I’m about town?”
“Information is all I need. See if there is anything new about me in the wind, especially from the Chinese quarter. I upset Bey-Feng last month, nothing life altering for him, but you know how he likes to carry a grudge. I have not set foot outside the grounds out of concern for my own well-being.”
“‘Kay, I’ll see what the scuttlebutt is,” said Wellsie with a jovial smile on his face. “Honestly, you run afoul of Bey-Feng the way I change my socks.”
“Come, I will show you to the door,” said Ignatius rising out of his chair. The two men walked to the front door where William patiently waited, holding Wellsie’s mackinaw and Ignatius’s coat.
“I took the liberty, sir.”
“Thanks, William. ‘Preciate it.” Wellsie shrugged into his coat and opened the door. The wind had fallen off and stars dotted the night sky. “I’ll be at the Harbor Master’s by seven-fifteen, Ignatius. Don’ leave without me.”
“Of course not, be careful out there tonight.”
Wellsie nodded and pulled a knit hat down over his head and bustled out to the porch. A hansom cab awaited him and groaned on its springs when he climbed inside of it. Ignatius drew his own coat on and stepped outside, closing the door behind him.
“Bon coi, Mousier,” a soft voice called to Ignatius.
Turning to his left, Ignatius barely spotted Madame LeRoux standing at the corner of his house. A long thin cigar dangled from the corner of her full-lipped mouth. She did not seem to mind the wind or the snow, if it chilled her naked skin there was no indication of it.
“Good evening, Madame LeRoux. This is a strange time to be bathing in the river.”
“Non, mousier. It is the winter solstice tomorrow, it is the righ’ time, except por vous.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ignatius with suspicion in his voice.
“I mean there are things coming ahead that will tear your to the core. An’ I can do nothing but watch you go. Destiny, she is a cruel mistress at times.”
“Fortunately, I do not place much stock in such mumbo-jumbo,” answered Ignatius. “Speak plainly or depart. I have no time for guessing at your riddles.”
“One from the past will haunt you again, much pain does he bring. One who loves you will abandon you. Too many uncertainties surround you. It makes things hard to ascertain.”
“That is the honest truth. There are too many uncertain elements. I think it is time I started cleaning up the missing pieces. “
“Beware, lest they clean you. There are Fates moving around, driven by very bad spirits. They will oppress you, for your earlier interventions.” She took a long drag on her cigar and exhaled a billowing cloud of smoke. In her other hand she clutched a clear bottle of a dark brown rum. Madame LeRoux hoisted it to her lips and drank a generous portion. Ignatius marched down the steps and waded through the fresh powder of snow to stand next to Madame LeRoux.
“Listen to me, you Vodou witch, there is nothing beyond my control. Your spirits and dire warnings are meaningless to me.”
“Meaningless now perhaps, but then you will lose everything, including her that means so much. You will come to understand. You are both marked, as I told you in the past. Even though I move in a realm outside of your experience, does not make it any less valid than your own. I see what I see. There can be no mistaking that. Something truly wicked is breathing down your neck O Man of Justice. Your world of absolutes and rules will be shattered like glass against a stone floor.”
Madame LeRoux placed the cigar between her lips then corked the rum bottle. She sashayed out along the drive treading barefoot through the snow, her naked, ebony skin glistening with melted snowflakes.
Ignatius watched her go, rubbing his chin pondering her words. Like everything surrounding his role in unfolding events, they were confusing and disassociated with everything else. Turning back to the house Ignatius pushed Madame LeRoux’s warning to the back of his mind, planning what tools he wished to take with him on the journey ahead.