The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 6, Scene 1.
Dirt and pebbles continued to fall from the sky for nearly a minute after the explosion ripped the snow-frosted hillside apart. Ignatius groaned and rolled over to his side, spitting snow, dirt and blood from his mouth and nose. The last thing he saw before the explosion was Angela’s silhouette in the morning light. His chest tightened as ice water rushed through his veins. Each one of his limbs felt leaden and it took no real effort to curl up in as small of ball as possible. He witnessed the fiery eruption of the hill claim her. She was there and then gone. Without a final word, smile or touch the Devil laid his claim upon her, delivered by Ignatius’s own hand.
Wellsie lay half dozen feet from him, but Ignatius did not care if the blacksmith was alive or dead. A thrumming sound registered on some lower function of his brain causing him to look to the sky. The hulking form of the Ulysses drifted into view. Several of the smaller scouts bobbed around the periphery of the massive airship, like sparrows harrying a raven. Ignatius felt himself rise from the ground. For a moment, he believed that he was ascending unassisted into the heavens, where the Ulysses might as well use him for target practice. A rough hand crossed his face sharp and a quick. A stinging impression on Ignatius’s right cheek brought him a bit closer to aware of his surroundings. Blinking owlishly, Ignatius looked around and discovered that Wellsie had hoisted him off the ground.
“Ignatius? Can you hear me?” he asked. There was an annoying note of urgency in his voice. “Lestrange is overhead. Come on, man. We have to get to the pirate’s airship. Otherwise we’ll be sittin’ in these woods explainin’ every’ting.”
When Ignatius refused to respond the blacksmith considered his options for a moment. Wellsie hefted the dead weight of the inventor over his shoulder and took off toward the southwest. He skirted the smoking remains of the hillside. With Ignatius bouncing on his shoulder Wellsie navigated the forest. How glad he would be to return to his forge and work on simple problems. Mucking about in the woods did not sit well with Wellsie. Beating a piece of red-hot and malleable metal was infinitely more satisfying than listening to the likes of Lestrange or trying to work out the hidden agendas of rogue lunatics.
After several minutes of scrambling along through the woods, Wellsie reached a point where the forest floor dropped away in a steep incline. The hill went down to the stagecoach road. It was an open expanse with no concealment for many yards on either side of the rutted lane. The drone of propellers cutting the air reverberated from hillside to hillside. Several of the scout airships from the flotilla were cruising along the stretch of road leading out of Thompsontown. Wellsie took a half step backwards into the denser brush.
Sweeping across the morning sky the pair of dirigibles methodically flew overhead checking the road for any signs of recent travel. Wellsie took Ignatius off his shoulder and leaned the slack inventor against a tree. Wellsie could determine two issues. He needed to snap Ignatius back to the present and he had to find the air pirates and get them away from the flotilla.
The morning sun began to fade as large gray clouds stormed into the area, threatening to unleash more snow at any moment. Ignatius rocked himself back and forth against the papery bark of a Birch tree. One hand hovered in the air, its fingers twitching and jerking rapidly. Wellsie peered at Ignatius’s face and saw only a vacant gaze.
“To Hell with this,” muttered Wellsie. He drew back his arm and gave Ignatius a vigorous slap across the face. The sound of it echoed along the ridge for a moment and the inventor’s head lolled over to one side. Wellsie raised his hand to deliver a second strike, when his wrist was seized in an iron grip. Ignatius looked up at him with clear, piercing green eyes and said, “Everyone is entitled to one. You got two, do not overreach.”
“Right you are Iggy,” said Wellsie using his pet name for the slender man. He offered his hand to Ignatius and hoisted him from the ground. “What’s the matter, Ignatius?” he asked.
Ignatius gave the blacksmith an hooded look. “You do not know what just happened?” his voice was soft, mournful even.
“I did as you asked; I blew up the cavern using the natural gas line. We lost Broussard to the bastard hybrid, how did you stop him?”
“It is not Broussard that concerns me, Wellsie. I…” Ignatius trailed off. He could not say the words. For doing so would make it true. He could not face the truth right at this moment. The mission remained in front of him, firmly there, something to cling to desparately. “Where are we?” he asked the giant next to him.
“That’s the main road below us. There are scouts out sniffing around the area. I haven’t figured out how we are going to hail Broussard’s airship.”
Ignatius patted his coat down, feeling inside each of the pockets. With guilty relief, he found the small vial of blue liquid still safely ensconced. Apart from that, he came away with some small hand tools, a bit of wire, his goggles and his pistol. The loss of his cane was especially painful. It was one of his favorite contrivances. Now it lay on the forest floor, shattered like its creator.
Sucking in a ragged breath Ignatius scanned the woods along the river. A tendril of white smoke rose up from a chimney. Ignatius pointed it out to Wellsie, “There is probably a farmer or somebody like that residing inside. We can go over and see if they will allow us a few moments of respite. We can work out a solution without drawing any scrutiny from the military and make good our departure.”
“Why’s a farmer going to let us in?”
“Farmers are notoriously generous with their hospitality. I wish we had something to reach the airship with in a discrete manner. Something subtle.”
A whirring rush of metallic sounds interrupted Ignatius’s musing. On a branch near his head, the brass and metal clockwork woodpecker landed with a squeak of springs. It bobbed and hopped clicking its metal bill in a life-like way.
“It’s as though it want’s your attention, Ignatius,” said Wellsie with an amused expression.
“A-ha! Mary has provided us with the means to escape this area. We shall utilize the woodpecker to deliver our message to the pirates.”
“Are you sure that’ll work?”
“Pretty sure. Look we do not have a lot of choices out here. We need to do something, and we need to do it now. The time for delay is over, that is why I did not hang around waiting for Commandant Lestrange to show up.”
“Agreed. What are you gonna do?”
“I will modify the woodpecker to locate the airship and lead it back here. Come along, Wellsie. Let us cross the road while there are no airships lurking about.” Ignatius glanced around on the ground, trying find something.
His eyes widened slightly as he spotted a likely looking fallen branch. Picking it up he examined its shaft and found it to be straight enough to help him keep his balance. With a deft hand, Ignatius plucked the woodpecker from the branch. The small device fluttered ineffectively against his palm and settled itself within a minute. He carefully tucked it into his pocket for safekeeping. Gesturing to Wellsie, Ignatius started the descent from the ridge toward the road. Plump snowflakes drifted out of the heavens beginning to frost everything fresh and white. Ignatius did not mind the weather since it provided an excellent amount of coverage from watchful eyes in the sky.
“What about our footprints?” Wellsie asked halfway down the hillside.
“No time to worry about it. The snow will obliterate the majority of them. I think the Army is busy floating around up there, scratching their heads and trying to figure out exactly what happened.”
The pair slunk across the road, like foxes stalking a henhouse, gaining the far side in a matter of moments. The land dipped down, angling its way to the river, creating a series of rolling steps. A small thicket of pine trees stood as silent sentinels over a graveyard. A loose stonewall lay unfinished at the south end of the property. A single cart lane branched off the main road and connected it to a farmhouse.
The funny thing about the house was how it sat lower than the road. A split fence created the border for the farmhouse and here Ignatius stopped. In the drifting snowflakes, he pried a panel carefully off the woodpecker and probed its internals with a delicate tool. Wellsie hovered nearby, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He looked at the house several times before returning his gaze to the skies above the road.
“Are you almost done, Ignatius?”
“Nearly. Just need to set a few more switches in here.”
“Someone’s watchin’ us.”
“I am not surprised. Very little goes unnoticed by folk out here. My theory is that so little actually goes on here that anything is unusual. This in turn draws their attention. That should do,” Ignatius muttered to himself. With a gentle flick of his wrist, Ignatius launched the woodpecker into the air and watched as it winged its way up towards the slate colored clouds.
“Shall we go up and meet our interested party?” he asked Wellsie.
Ignatius walked between the gaps in the fence and strode with purpose to the front door. The house had a slate roof that capped a white washed clapboard frame. A pair of brass lanterns stood sentry on either side of the door, which was black as pitch. He rapped on it briskly and then straightened his collar before removing his hat. Wellsie doffed his cap, clutching it in his massive hands. A frail voice called from inside the house, “Come in dearies. The door is always open.”
Ignatius turned the knob and pushed the door open. A long hallway led toward the back of the house. A threadbare carpet was the only decoration in the foyer. Stairs on the left went to the second floor. To his right Ignatius heard the soft pneumatic hiss of air being pushed through a tube followed by the creak of wooden runners. Ignatius wiped his feet on the faded carpet and entered the room to his right. A small fireplace occupied the wall in front of him, crackling and popping logs glowed red, yellow and orange.
A severely faded English sofa of red velvet and walnut sat along the left-hand wall. The stone floor was a patchwork of different color rocks and cracked mortar. Seated near the window in a creaking rocking chair was an elderly woman draped in a black wool blanket. Ignatius noted the ramrod armature connected to the base of the chair, slowly rocking it to a mysterious rhythm. The woman looked up at Ignatius; her careworn face bore deep lines.
“He said you’d come. He did, indeed,” she said with a little cackle. A silver needle flashed in the light as it moved through a counted cross-stitch pattern. “Said you’d be aggrieved too. Well? Are you, boy?” she snarled without warning.
“My feelings are of no concern to you,” Ignatius answered. “Who told you I would be dropping by?”
“My son.” There was a note of pride now. “The one who’s outsmarted you, time and time again. The one with a grand vision. The one you cannot stop.”
“Dear lady, I know there is such a thing as ‘A Mother’s Pride’, but I have every confidence of stopping your son.”
“Don’t even know his name. You are either lucky or unlucky, I haven’t decided which yet… Susie said no one would know.”
Ignatius cocked his head, “Susie?”
“Would you care for a cup of tea, dears?” the woman asked smiling with a warm radiance. “Tch, my manners, we haven’t been properly introduced. I am Myrna Varner,” she trailed off, looking between Ignatius and Wellsie expectantly.
“Ignatius St. Eligius, at your service, ma’am. This is my associate: Wellsie.”
“Erm, John, ma’am. My proper name is John.”
“You’ll have to make the tea, dears. I can’t get up at the moment. My son says it’s only temporary. He’s so clever. He figured out a way to help me stay alive, him and that nice young woman… I want to die. She was very kind. She made a good cup of tea, too.”
“I’ll go see what I can do,” Wellsie said, turning to leave. Ignatius caught Wellsie’s eye and cocked an eyebrow. The blacksmith flared his nostrils and padded out of the room.
“What did you say your son’s name was?”
“I didn’t. Bore my husband eight children, most of them stayed near. None of ’em made anythin’ of themselves. Though one of them, my best one, he went south. Promised me he’d clean out all the niggers and Indians and immigrants and the Jews.”
“A rare individual to be sure. Any notion where I might find him?”
“Where the wild hemlock grows, where the silent night is shattered by the loss unfathomable.”
“Damnation, woman. A city is in jeopardy and your son the architect of its peril. Answer me, where is he?” Ignatius shouted.
Myrna smirked up at Ignatius and waggled a gnarled finger at him, “Temper, temper deary. You don’t want to make me mad. My husband made me mad. Late one night, my boys took care of him. Hogs don’t care what’s in their trough.” Myrna patted the wool blanket covering her torso and legs. “Where’s that tea I wonder.” She hummed tunelessly while looking up at the ceiling.
Ignatius followed her gaze and saw that the ceiling was punched tin.
“Do you care that your son is going to harm people?”
“What have any of them done for me?” Myrna retorted. “Filthy heathens, all of ’em. I bet you’re one of those dilettantes who likes other men. Why are you even standing here? You should be out back getting whipped.” Her last sentence trailed off in a dreamy fashion.
Ignatius breathed a sigh of relief as Wellsie returned bearing a tray with something that in no way resembled tea.
“What is that?” Ignatius said, aghast.
“I couldn’t find any tea in the kitchen. There’s nothing out there at all,” Wellsie added in a whisper.
Wellsie moved to Myrna’s right hand side and placed her cup and saucer on a round table next to her chair. Ignatius looked closer at Myrna; she made no move to reach for her cup. She smiled through Wellsie to the wall behind him. Ignatius narrowed his eyes at the woman, darted forward, and ripped the blanket away from her.
She swiveled her head to regard Ignatius, “Why did you have to do that? We were all getting along so well.”
The woman wore only the top half of a dress. From below her sagging breasts, a familiar pattern of metal fused with flesh took over. A hose ran out of her sternum and down into the wooden seat of the rocking chair. As the chair rose and fell, the tube wiggled with something moving through it. It reminded Ignatius of the poor state that Johnathan Fawkes was in before Mary Kendall saved him. Her legs were only thin metal rods ending in a fiendish mimicry of a bird’s foot.
“A son’s love of his mother knows no real bounds,” she said, a sad little smile touched her lips. From outside came the droning sound of an airship, coming to rest low, near the ground. Wellsie peered out the window, “It’s Broussard’s ‘ship. I’ll go out to them, tell them you’ll be a minute,” he said gruffly.
“Goodbye, John. A good English name, John is.” The woman held Ignatius’s eyes with hers. “And what of you, second fiddle? Will you suffer more losses or perhaps you’ll retreat from the field altogether.”
Ignatius leaned forward, catching the scent of rotting flesh and preservative chemicals.
“I will not fail. I will go and prevent him from carrying out his plans, I will stand over his broken corpse and I will laugh.”
“Love’s loss will make a man do cruel things, desperate things. What desperate thing is on your mind, I wonder.”
Ignatius brushed the top of his hat with his hand and made to place it on his head. Myrna reached out to Ignatius, clutching his coat sleeve, “End my misery.”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“Listen to me, now while I have a moment of clarity. This is not my choosing,” she said gesturing down at her twisted form. “Take this bottle and go below, to the cellar. Pour it in the tank that feeds me. You’re like all the rest, Susie, a whore, who has lain with drunkards and worse. My baby boy is all grown up now. He’ll protect me. You’ll never be in time to save anything.”
Myrna’s voice rose in crescendo until the last words came out as more of a screech than anything intelligible did. Ignatius plucked the brown bottle from her stiffened hand and opened it, sniffing the contents. He recognized the smell of hemlock.
“I will do as you ask, only because I hold out the hope that it will affect your son in some measure,” he said. He turned again to leave the room, as he passed through the doorway Myrna called out, “Silas, my son’s name is Silas…”
Ignatius nodded curtly went in search of the cellar.