The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 6, Scene 2
Storm clouds drifted in over the Susquehanna valley, encasing the city and river with dense fog and trapped moisture. The wet air caressed Ignatius’s face with its velvety touch as the airship Le Grande Broussard dropped lower over the train bridge north of the city. Approaching Forster Island, the barren trees were as outstretched hands waiting to ensnare the bobbing airship. Merchant vessels occupied half of the berths of the airfield. The beret wearing first mate, now captain, spun his wheel expertly steering toward the island as the engineer prepared to release a healthy dose of gas from the balloon.
Ignatius put an arresting hand on the pilot’s shoulder, “Keep going. You can land at Wyndfast and drop me off, then carry Wellsie on to Mechanicsburg.”
“There ees no real place to land, sir. You weel have to jump,” the man shouted at Ignatius. The sour reek of wine and cheese from the mate’s breath tickled Ignatius’s nose.
“Then I suggest you aim somewhere soft,” Ignatius instructed the pilot.
“Oui, Mousier, very good!”
The pilot made a circling motion with his left index finger and in response the engineer sent a large rush of hot air into the balloon. The airship leaped skyward bucking the air currents. Behind him, Ignatius heard Wellsie groan miserably. Reaching Wyndfast with all due speed was the only thing that mattered to Ignatius. There he could squirrel himself away and attempt to sift through the problems that lay before him.
It was only a matter of time before the Army arrived at his door, ready to haul him back to the state hospital. He would never go back there again. That was their mistake, to think that he would. The dirigible careened down the Susquehanna River. In a few moments, a column of black smoke rose up from behind some trees.
An overwhelming leaden feeling crashed into the pit of Ignatius’s stomach.
Rolling plumes of black and gray rose into the air. The smoke was rising from his property; Wyndfast was burning. Wellsie came forward and put his hand on Ignatius’s shoulder.
“My God, man. What do you think’s happened?”
“I suspect that my quarry has launched the first salvo in our forthcoming battle. When you get to Mechanicsburg, send everything you can. I will see this villain laid out before me.” Ignatius lapsed into a grim silence. His green eyes flicking over the blaze at Wyndfast.
“Mousier? We are ready for our approach. We are going to hug zee riverbank. The fire, she complicates any other way.”
“I understand. How low can you get?”
“Low enough that it weel be more hop than jump, I think.”
“Make it happen, Captain.”
“Oui. Let us do zis thing. Ready, Henri?”
The bald, potbellied engineer grunted something unintelligible in response, causing the new Captain to laugh aloud.
“Zat ees a good one! I do not know where a whore would get seven ferrets.”
Ignatius had a brief moment to consider that possibly this crew was nothing better than a ward full of lunatics, and considering that Mousier Broussard like to check into the State Hospital from time to time made the notion a reasonable one.
What followed Ignatius could not recollect, as he did not have a clear memory of the events encompassing his departure from the airship. There was some yelling, mostly in French, a blur of gray, black and brownish green while the landscape, sky, and river all spun around him. Finally, the land rose up and slapped the length of his body, hard. The wind was knocked from his lungs and Ignatius lay on the snowy grass gasping for a breath like a fish tossed onto the riverbank.
Ignatius closed his eyes and forced himself to relax. His breathing became less labored and the panic in his chest dwindled. Rising from the ground, Ignatius gathered his coat around him and plucked his top hat from the earth, flicking snow from the brim. Ahead of him, engulfed in flames was Wyndfast.
The heat managed to reach Ignatius, who was closer to the river than the house. Ignatius started maneuvering up the north side of his property in order to work his way around to the front of the house. The glass windows were either black from the fire and soot or cracked and blown out of the frame. With a great whooshing sound, the second floor collapsed into the first. Sparks exploded up and out of the shell of the former mansion. Ignatius’s mind raced at the destruction in front of him. A second thought crept into his brain; what of William, Kevin and Ignatius’s cat Ralph?
“Billy!” screamed Ignatius, hoping that his voice would carry over the house and grounds against the roar of the fire.
Ignatius stumbled around to the front of the house. Blackened by the inferno, the large porch was holding up well since it was made from stone blocks. The entranceway was gone, collapsing into the foyer. Through the haze of heat and fire, Ignatius could see the grand staircase crumbling away from the walls. He continued moving along the front of the house. The south side connected to his workshop by a long covered walkway. The roof lay on the ground and the workshop was only a shell of what it used to be. What the flames could consume was gone, leaving stones and iron in place or discarded on the floor.
“Kevin!” he called, looking at the door to the kitchen.
Ignatius was beginning to worry that both of his employees may have perished inside the house. A loud yowl attracted his attention. Ignatius swept the building with his eyes, seeking the sound. He spotted the cat on a ledge outside of the second floor’s reading room. It paced the stone walk, lashing its tail and crying. The cat favored its right foreleg as it moved about. Ralph spied Ignatius and let out another pitiful cry.
Ralph edged his front paws over the lip of the stonework and sought a way down to Ignatius. Filled with concern, Ignatius hobbled over to the back porch and eyed the roof. Most of it was still intact. Desperate, he whistled at the cat and patted his thigh. Ralph slunk to a position just over the porch roof.
“Come on, Ralph. Jump down to me,” coaxed Ignatius.
Ralph glanced at the metal roof, gauging the distance, the surface and then leapt. As his front paws touched the surface of the roof, the left leg gave out and he yelped in pain but managed to push off with his rear legs to clear the rest of the structure. Ignatius braced himself as Ralph’s body crashed into his own. They went down in a jumble of limbs and a tail.
With gentle hands, Ignatius turned the cat over and examined him. Ralph’s breathing was shallow and rapid. It slowed some as Ignatius ran his hands along the cat’s body. The left leg appeared mangled and much of Ralph’s glossy black fur was singed from the flames. It seemed that the cat had quite a struggle to get out of the house alive. Taking his coat off, Ignatius covered the animal and rubbed the large head between the ears.
“Not to worry, old boy. I will take care of you,” Ignatius whispered.
A second cry reached Ignatius’s ears. This time it was a human’s voice.
“Hello?” answered Ignatius.
“Mr. St. Eligius? Is that you?” the unseen voice called.
“Kevin? Where are you, boy?”
“Over by the workshop, part of the wall collapsed on me.”
“Never fear, I will there in a moment.” Ignatius gave Ralph a last pat and stood up. The fire was burning in fits along the walkway. It took Ignatius a minute but he found a path through the crackling timbers to the other side. At the far end of the workshop, the wall had fallen over bringing all manner of debris along with it. Kevin’s reddish brown hair, which looked much like some manner of mop, stuck out from between a cluster of scorched timbers. Ignatius hastened to the young man’s aid.
“Are you all right, lad?” he asked arriving next to Kevin’s head.
“I think so, sir. I don’t feel any broken bones at any rate.”
Ignatius started removing bricks with care and heaving them off to one side, away from Kevin. The beams and bricks were uncomfortably hot. Seizing the least damaged wood piece, Ignatius used it to lever off a large portion of wall that had managed to remain intact during its collapse. Coughing and sputtering in the smoke, Ignatius finally extracted Kevin. He examined Kevin with care, ensuring that each limb was unbroken and that there were no punctures.
“Kevin, what happened here?” asked Ignatius after regaining his breath.
“I don’t know, Mr. St. Eligius.”
“In light of our current situation, call me Ignatius,” insisted the inventor.
“I was in the kitchen working on dinner when there was a huge explosion and I was sent flying out of the window into the courtyard. I got up and stumbled over to the workshop and another detonation ripped through that building. I think that’s when the wall fell on me.”
“Where is Billy?”
“He isn’t here, sir. He left Wyndfast no long after you did. I thought perhaps he was running an errand of some sort, but he hasn’t returned yet. It’s a good thing too. He might have gotten trapped inside the house.”
“He disappeared and you have had no word from him since?”
Ignatius eased Kevin into a proper sitting position and pondered the news. William’s role as butler, valet and majordomo of Wyndfast normally kept him close. For William to go missing meant something was wrong. Pehaps it was Silas reaching as deeply as he could into Ignatius’s life, pulling out what he might in order to push Ignatius off-balance. Reflexively, Ignatius felt his pockets for the small vial left for him by Silas. He remembered that it was in his coat that he laid over Ralph.
“Do you think you can stand up, Kevin?” Ignatius asked.
“I can try.”
The young man took Ignatius’s hand and together they rose up off the ground. Small puddles of snowmelt were steaming from the heat of the fire all around them. Ignatius carefully led Kevin back to the other side of the walkway and over to Ralph.
“Listen closely, lad. There is not much time before catastrophe arrives here in Harrisburg. I need you to go to the fort and raise the alarm. You must warn the soldiers under Colonel Witmore’s command at Fort Couch. Any defense they can manage ought to be readied. Tell the Colonel the ‘impending dread’ he has been so fearful of is on its way.”
“What of you, sir? Are you coming with me?”
“No, I am going to stay behind and see if there is anything I can salvage out of the workshop. It looks unlikely, but I have to check. You may also want to track down a Policeman and get word to Winifred Goodman to expect trouble. Go to the stables and take a horse, unless the stable is on fire too.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“All right, off you go then.”
Kevin patted down his clothes brushing loose some soot and dirt but leaving large swathes stubbornly in place. Satisfied that everything was still attached as it should be, Kevin jogged off into the swirl of snowflakes.
While Kevin loped across the lawn in the southern direction of the stables, Ignatius took stock of the situation. Home, destroyed. Pet, severely wounded. The woman he loved, here he went numb. Despair landed on Ignatius’s shoulders and pushed him down. Everything important was stripped away, broken and discarded.
Control of his life, which he thought he had regained after being released by the Mayor Hirsch of Harrisburg, was a phantom. Someone else it seemed pushed and pulled at him for their amusement. Silas Varner. How he loathed that name, that person. For so long Varner danced at the periphery of Ignatius’s existence, tantalizingly out of reach ever since coming across him during the Civil War.
Clenching his hands into fists Ignatius made to rise up from the ground, but was halted by a soft touch on his knee. Looking down he saw Ralph reaching out with his burned, but workable paw, to connect with Ignatius, as though saying, “I have faith in you.”
Ignatius scooped the cat up, coat and all and went to the door of his workshop. The wood was black, cracked and clung to a single hinge. Ignatius put his foot out and kicked the remnants out of his way. Inside the building the tables and desks were thrown against walls, burned and unusable. He staggered with his load across the room wending his way amid the rubble, until he reached the far corner. The air was smoky but not too bad thanks to the forge’s ventilation hood. Ignatius stood in an awkward little dogleg corner and stared at the wall.
Somewhere in Juniata County the key that would cause the floor to drop lay, on the forest floor in Evan’s Hollow.
Laughing at the situation without any real mirth, Ignatius drew back his foot and gave the wall a good kick in a very particular spot. A soft clink came out of the wall and a few seconds later, the floor dropped away carrying Ignatius with it. Stepping off the lift in his hidden laboratory Ignatius breathed deeply the clean air in the room. A discrete filtration system chuffed away in a nook off to one side. With care, Ignatius laid Ralph on the table on top of a pile of schematics and diagrams.
From his coat pocket, he took the vial and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. What manner of surprise did the cool blue liquid hold for him? He was certain that intention was for him to inject it and succumb to some fatal toxin. Dispassionately he dropped the small glass tube onto the floor and stepped on, grinding the glass to powder.
“Some people,” he said addressing the cat, “Are too stupid to remain on this earth. No matter how inventive they may think they are. Mr. Varner obviously thinks that I would hasten my own demise by taking a drug of his devising”
Ignatius went over to a cabinet that held a multitude of vials, jars and packets. Each one held a different chemical and Ignatius moved swiftly plucking up a list of ingredients long since committed to memory. Within a few minutes, he was cooking the components over an oil flame. The smell of berries, synthetic in origin, wafted throughout the lab. Seated at his desk Ignatius toyed with a syringe and tried to discern what the correct thing to do was.
By his own estimation, the army and police would be little match for the mechanized machine that drew closer to the city. Also considering the people in charge, Colonel Witmore, Commandant Lestrange and Mayor ‘Baron’ Hirsch, Ignatius knew that each would ultimately make choices specific to their own goals. The situation was a show down. He saw that now.
Everything he cared about, taken away, piece-by-piece, leaving him without any discernible options. Unfortunately, there are always options. They may be unthinkable, horrific options, but when weighed against the balance of the potential outcome, they become necessary and practical. Ignatius rose from his desk with the needle in his hand.
He walked over to the crucible where the elixir bubbled. With a sure hand, he dipped the tip of the needle in and pulled back on the plunger. The glass tube body went from clear to blue in a steady draw of fluid. Leaving a small gap between the liquid and the back of the syringe, Ignatius swirled it around to cool off the drug. The dosage was more than a typical dose, but Ignatius was confident that it would either kill him outright or sustain a level of genius unknown to man.
He half hoped that it was the former.
A man without hope is a man with fear, he told himself. Putting the needle in his teeth, Ignatius rolled up his left shirtsleeve. Using a bit of twine, he bound his arm at the mid-point of his bicep. Taking the needle Ignatius drew a deep breath and pushed the point into the vein that popped at the surface of his skin. There was the normal white-hot pinch of the needle going through his dermis. That preceded the hot-cold rush of the narcotic sliding into his vein. It seemed to take forever, for the needle to empty itself into his body. Eventually the plunger hit the top of the syringe’s barrel. With care, Ignatius withdrew it. A deep red drop of blood welled up out of the hole and coagulated in place.
Closing his eyes Ignatius said goodbye to everything and let go…