The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 4, Scene 2.
The jumble of rocks and snow made the trek from the train station longer and more arduous than it ought to be. Ignatius’s feet were already wet from running up the mountain and his boots had begun to chafe. The lack of sensation made it difficult to judge exactly how damaged they might be. His breath came in steaming clouds, puffing out of his mouth like a steam engine as the three men walked the incline that led from the eastern side of the Juniata River up to Thompsontown’s square.
Farms bordered the road on both sides. Each one of them ended with a line of trees and a stone fence. They crested the hill and marched to the town square where the lights of a public house broke the beginning twilight. A few other clapboard buildings lined the main road that lead back to Harrisburg. Ignatius led the others to the right following the main street south out of town.
“General Evans is a decorated war hero. In most circles his integrity is impeachable. He is beloved by those in power for his accomplishments on the battlefield; having said that… he is a notorious cheat at cards, brash womanizer and thorough scoundrel. The trick is that he manages to keep all of his vices out of the public view. Unlike dear Commandant Lestrange, Evans is no coward, so attempting to cow him into something will not work. One final thing, General Evans is a dyed in the wool Union supporter. I cannot conceive of a reality where he willingly helps a Southerner into anything other than into an early grave.”
“Do you think he knows anythin’?” asked Wellsie.
“Oui, I have never heard of him involving himself with zee pirates.”
“General Evans was in charge of the 13th Pennsylvania Guard. They ran border skirmishes, long deep probes and harassing actions in enemy territory. Knowledge of the surroundings and people in them were paramount to this man’s success. He knows what is going on in his own county.”
“Is he crooked?” asked Wellsie.
“Louis Evans is open to financially motivated suggestions as to how he runs things. It was that way when he was a commissioner for Juniata County.” Ignatius paused to ford a small creek. “We need to follow this creek upstream. General Evans’s place is about a half mile away. There is if memory serves a lane going past the house.”
“At least we will not be walking through open fields,” Mousier Broussard said.
The snow was abating slowly allowing the men to see further ahead. The chill remained in the air frosting the melting snow to their clothes. Wellsie gave Ignatius a hand to navigate over some of the deeper ruts in the dirt road. Ahead of them on either side of the track hills closed in on them. The landscape made Ignatius feel pinched between immovable objects.
He felt buoyed by the sight though, because on the other side of the gap in the hills was General Evans’s home. A few early stars appeared in the sky above them, as the clouds started moving apart.
“Are we there yet?” grumbled Wellsie.
“Very nearly,” answered Ignatius smiling to himself at the child-like nature of the question.
The stillness between the hills was near absolute. The moon broke through the cloud coverage casting its light down on the countryside. The land transformed into a glowing collage of black and white, silver and gray. The sound of their footsteps in the wet snow seemed loud, almost heretical in the natural setting of such a peaceful landscape. Following the road and creek, the little party came around a bend where they came upon General’s house.
The house was a three-story building of fieldstone and wood. A covered porch wrapped its way around the front and left side of the house. Several chimneys poked up from the roof releasing thin tendrils of wood smoke into the night sky. The hardware decorations were brass and glinted in the lamplight thrown from hurricane lamps set every ten feet on the walls. From the road, a small path led to stairs hewn from stone blocks and decorated with miller’s wheels for grinding flour.
Rich oak doors adorned with large metal doorknockers and stained glass windows beckoned the travelers from the road. Behind the house, a stone and timber barn stood coated with the day’s effort of snow. A cut path led off into the embrace of the foothills on the opposite side of the lane.
“That’s some place,” Wellsie said, whistling in appreciation.
“Mon dieu, it is magnifique.” Mousier Broussard breathed. “I have seen zis from zee air. Standing near it is remarkable.”
Ignatius brought them up onto the porch to the front door. He used the doorknocker and rapped it sharply three times.
From behind the solid wood obstruction a tentative voice called, “Hello?”
“I say, open up,” Ignatius called.
“I’m sorry but I cannot do that,” the unseen voice replied.
“Why not?” demanded Ignatius, frowning.
“I am under my master’s orders not to open the door to anyone.”
“It is he that I wish to speak to, summon him so that I may talk with him,” said Ignatius.
“Regrettably he is not available. Perhaps if you were to call back at another time some kind of arrangement could be made.”
“See here my good man; it is imperative that I speak with the General!”
“I shan’t say this again, the General is not available at the present moment. Kindly move on or I shall release the dogs.”
Ignatius stepped back from the entranceway and gathered his companions close.
“Right, do either of you think he really has dogs in there?”
“Prol’y, what are yeh gonna do?”
“What I usually do, change tactics,” Ignatius said. From his pocket he pulled one of his windup clockworks “Scout mission, find entry into house,” he whispered to it, pressing the button on the side of the disc, placing it on the ground and descending from the porch to the stone stairs that led down a small rise to the road.
Regrouping on the street Ignatius said, “We will see if there is an alternative way into the house. I feel strongly that something is amiss here. This is quite the contrary is my understanding. General Evans is not known for being absent from his home. “
“What do we do if zee General is not at home?” asked Jean Jaques.
“I am not leaving without seeing Louis Evans,” said Ignatius with grim determination.
Wellsie dipped his massive hand into a pocket and extracted a rather heavy and dull set of brass knuckles slipping them over his thick fingers. Ignatius raised an eyebrow at his friend.
Wellsie smiled sheepishly. “I don’ leave home wit’out ’em.”
“Of course not. Jean Jaques, are you armed at all?”
“I have my leetle boom-boom,” said the Air Pirate, drawing a Derringer out of his waistcoat with a flourish. Pinky extended.
“Okay, that is not in the least bit comforting.” Ignatius sighed and released the spring loaded handle in his cane. With a few quick squeezes, he stored an electrical charge in the hidden capacitors.
“Mousier, are you serious? Are we going to storm zee house?”
“If we have to, we will. We need answers.”
They waited in the dark by the road for a few minutes until the little clockwork tottered up to Ignatius and spat out a small strip of paper at him. Ignatius held it up to his face and grumbled, unable to make out the tiny symbols.
“Does anyone have a light?” he asked.
When no one did, Ignatius edged closer to a pool of light coming from one of the lamps on the house. Grunting in satisfaction, Ignatius crumpled the paper and dropped it on the ground. He scooped up his clockwork and tucked it back into his coat.
“The back door is our best point of entry. It appears to be unlocked and not monitored well at all. Come along, gents.”
Moving quietly the group snuck around the glowing lights until the barn stood between them and the back of the house. They stood on a slope, which would normally be a grassy field for a flock of sheep to graze in. Properly obscured by the barn, Ignatius lead the way to one side and in the shadow of the barn studied the back door. There was perhaps a dozen yards between where they crouched in the snow and the simple wood and glass door. The moon passed behind a cloud plunging the land into darkness. Taking the chance, Ignatius hustled across the small yard to the entrance.
He jerked his head at Wellsie, who seized the handle and attempted to turn it. The knob rotated smoothly and the door opened on well-oiled hinges. Moving as silently as he could, Ignatius entered the kitchen. A large central island broke up the room’s floor. To Ignatius’s left a massive oven sat at rest. On the opposite side was the sink and larder.
They moved from the kitchen into the Butler’s pantry, where glass cases held the china and silverware. On a rough plank table the remnants of a rib roast lay, decaying at a stately pace on the serving platter. Ignatius pulled out the second clockwork and activated it after whispering instructions to it. He cracked the door that would lead into the dining room allowing the tiny device to scuttle out.
Down the hall echoed a sharp cry. Ignatius and the others froze, listening intently. They heard the wet slap of a fist against bloodied skin. Ignatius eased out of the pantry and crossed the sumptuous dining room. The far end revealed a hallway running perpendicular to the room. A louder cry came from the left. Ignatius moved in that direction. He tried to control his breathing and maintain control of his nerves. The hallway was without lights. Ignatius did not know if they were not by oversight or design.
Either way, the light from the outside barely made an impact on the interior space. They reached a room with a closed door. Ignatius put his eye to the keyhole and sucked in a breath at what he saw. The butler, beaten raw was in the clutches of a burly man, almost as big as the blacksmith. There was a glint of metal and an odd shape to the figure.
A hiss of escaping steam came from within the confines of the hallway.
Ignatius jerked away from the door and spun to face down the hall, just as a nightmare sprang out of the darkness at him. Reacting with bare instincts Ignatius thrust his cane forward and triggered the release of its electrical charge. Miniature lightning sprang from the tip of the cane along a grotesque caricature of an arm, snapping and spitting as the electricity wrapped around the body. A flare of light from the cane revealed that a skinny slave outfitted with a metal claw akin to that a lobster might have
The appendage twitched and convulsed as the hybrid opened its mouth to scream without any sound coming out. Spinning part of the way around the shape of the firebox strained against the leather shirt. The charge from Ignatius’s cane flickered and went out, spent. The hybrid fell back against the wall crashing into a sideboard table. Footsteps from within the library got closer to the door.
The first creature through the door received a massive blow from Wellsie across its jaw. Dead eyes leapt from Ignatius to Wellsie to Jean Jaques and a pallid hand shot out to grip Wellsie’s wrist. Ignatius whipped the cover off his cane’s hidden sword blade and lunged thrusting the tip into the side of the new hybrid. Blood and some other viscous fluid spurted out of the wound.
“Take the other one, I’ve got this bastard,” Wellsie yelled, leaping on top of the stabbed one.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ignatius saw Jean Jaques raise his pistol at the hybrid still inside the library. Ignatius opened his mouth to scream at the pirate NO! The derringer’s hammers fell forward and the little gun spat a pair of metal slugs at the burly hybrid. As misfortune would have it, both rounds pierced the back of the hybrid, with a loud whoosh, some kind of gas escaped and when it reached the fireplace, it ignited.
The creature fell over to one side cocooned in flames. Ignatius refocused just in time as the monster from the hall rose up in front of him again. Ignatius slashed it across the throat, opening a terrible wound. He could smell the scent of oil in the spray that blasted across him. The hybrid fell back for a moment and Ignatius pressed his advantage.
As quick as a flash of light, Ignatius struck three more times disabling the hybrid. A hose spewed a noxious smelling gas into the hall and another leaked the strange fluid that coated Ignatius.
“No guns No guns,” Ignatius yelled at Wellsie and Jean Jaques. “They are running off a flammable gas.”
A grunt from the floor signaled Wellsie’s acknowledgement. The butler screamed in a panic unaware of what was truly happening. Fire licked across the shelves of dry books, jumping from one to the next. The smell of burning paper and flesh co-mingled as Ignatius spun to assist Wellsie.
“Jean Jaques, get the butler out of there,” the inventor called over his shoulder.
He thrust again with his sword pinning a shoulder to the ground while Wellsie tore some exposed hosing away from the body of the hybrid. The twisted form went slack a moment later. Smoke billowed out of the library, flooding the hallway. Heavy fumes and heat blasted along the ceiling. Jean Jaques half lead, half carried the butler from the engulfed room.
Ignatius wiped smoke from his eyes lending Wellsie his free hand. Together they staggered back into the dining room where the air was not as laden with fumes. Wellsie spat in a corner to clear his mouth and throat, Jean Jaques continued on his way out of the back door. Ignatius pressed his silver matchbox to recall the clockwork, waving at Wellsie to send the blacksmith on his way out. Wellsie shook his head in defiance, “This sorta shit is my daily bread and butter. You can’t work the forge without inhaling something nasty.”
Ignatius leaned over and yelled over the roar of the flames, “We need to get out of here before the fire consumes this room too.”
“What are you waitin’ fer then?” Wellsie retorted.
“My clockwork, I do not wish to leave it.”
“Leave it, you can make more. The fire is moving too fast.”
Ignatius hesitated weighing the blacksmith’s words against his desire to see his device safely returned to him. Cursing a bit, Ignatius turned and stomped out of the dining room, through the pantry and into the kitchen. Hastily, Ignatius pulled open a larder and took some cheese and bread from it, along with a large pitcher of water. Giving another forlorn glance over his shoulder, Ignatius marched himself out of the burning house and into the frosty air. He thrust the bread at Wellsie, “See about warming this would you.”
He went over to Jean Jaques and the butler. The elderly man sported several lesions on his face and one eye was already swelling shut. Ignatius squatted down next to the man, “I know you are in a great deal of discomfort, but I must know where the General is. I think you understand why,” he added glancing back at the house.
The butler nodded and beckoned Ignatius to lean closer, “They took him, down into the hollow across the lane back in September. I haven’t seen him since.” The one eye not closed by contusions watered. Ignatius thought it was safe to presume that it was not from the smoke.
“All right, old timer. We will go and sort this out. We can stash you in the barn, where you will be dry and warm in the hayloft, instead of laying out here in the snow.”
Ignatius stood back up and motioned for Wellsie to move the butler into the barn. Mousier Broussard came to stand next to Ignatius. “Well, we will have to go into zee woods zhen.”
Ignatius nodded, quiet, without comment. What comment could he make, when facing the prospect of one of his deepest fears ahead of them in the woods.