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The Phlogiston Precariousness: Chapter 4, Scene 1

James Lee Kranston sat at a long, stained and scarred table in the dining room. Light streamed in from the set of four French doors that looked out onto the back veranda and lawn. The dawn broke sunny and pleasant for the end of September. James Lee glanced at the pocket watch in his hand. The time was just approaching eight o’clock.

From the northern hallway, a metallic shuffling sound echoed into the dining room. It was a dragging but rhythmic noise like something dragged for a few feet then halting for a moment before continuing. The doorway opened wide to allow Ignatius entrance. James Lee sat bolt upright at the sight. On his own two legs, albeit with the assistance of a walking cane, Ignatius walked into the room. His gait was stiff and mechanical, like the automata that were in use at the Mayor’s office. Ignatius smirked at the younger man’s reaction.

“Good morning Mr. Kranston. I trust you slept well,” said Ignatius.

William sidled around the door and pulled the head chair out for Ignatius. Once seated Kevin came in through the southern kitchen entrance wheeling a trolley cart which held a variety of breakfast items. White ceramic carafes of coffee and tea, trays of fresh fruit, a rasher of bacon, toast and country eggs were all set out on the table. Ignatius took a cup of coffee adding milk and sugar to it.

“Eat something lad. We will be out and about today investigating the collapsed factory. I think walking or perhaps even some climbing over rumble is in the offing.”

“Thank you. May I have the tea please?” said James Lee.

Kevin plucked the proper vessel off the table and went to pour a measure out. James Lee held up his hand.

“Would you mind terribly of putting that over ice with some sugar for me? Thanks.”

Kevin shrugged and took the carafe with him into the kitchen returning a moment later with a glass of beverage.

“I find it intriguing that you are walking this morning. A significant change from last night,” said James Lee.

“Yes. One of the few inventions the authorities were good enough to leave me. I suspect they were thorough in their efforts to strip my workshop of anything that could be construed as dangerous.”

William entered the room bearing a small silver tray with a notecard laying on it. He proffered the card to Ignatius.

“And what is this, Billy?” he asked.

“A message, sir. It has just arrived for you. It was delivered by a policeman,” said William.

Ignatius took the note and turned it around to read the back. He grunted then tossed the card back onto the tray.

“Come Mr. Kranston, we have been urged onward by the good constabulary of this fair city. Billy, have a carriage brought around to the front and bring my tool case if you please.”

Ignatius clanked out of the room. Hurrying, James Lee drank down the remnants of his tea and shoved a few more morsels of food into his mouth. As he exited the dining room into the foyer, William met him in the middle. The butler carried James Lee’s jacket and hat, which he presented.

James Lee was pulling on his jacket while holding onto his hat. Ignatius emerged from another room on the north side of the foyer. Under his arm were several large books on metallurgy. Together they proceeded out onto the front porch. Four massive horses stood in the traces of the coach. All of the horses stood 20 hands tall at the shoulder and was jet black, well-muscled and had a glossy coat. Ignatius grinned from ear to ear looking at the animals.

“Magnificent animals! Come along Jimmy, there is work to be done,” he called staggering down the stairs. His cane tapped against the stones as he descended.

The driver swung down off the bench and flipped the handle to open the door.

“Good morning sir,” he said cheerfully. “Where to today?”

“Over to the industrial section between the canal and the railway. There’s a collapsed factory about midway. It should not be hard to spot. Thank you Myron,” said Ignatius.

Myron offered his arm to Ignatius and assisted him into the coach.

“Thank you. Make all haste Myron, I would like very much to examine this site as soon as possible.”

“Right you are sir,” answered the coachman.

James Lee clambered in and sat opposite Ignatius. With a slight jerk the horses set off down and around the drive. The sun shone bright as the carriage turned left onto the street and headed for Harrisburg. James Lee peered at the cane Ignatius held loosely in one hand.

“Very fine craftsmanship,” James Lee said.

“Yes, I picked this up when I was abroad one time.” Ignatius said.

A minute’s worth of silence drifted past while the carriage drew closer to its destination. James Lee coughed into his hand while Ignatius twirled his cane on its tip. Soon the carriage bounced and jostled over the tracks of the railway.

“Do you mind if I have a look at your cane?” said James Lee.

“Not at all,” replied Ignatius handing it to James Lee.

James Lee held the stick in both hands and looked down the shaft. He rolled its length with his fingertips. Then he tugged on the top of the cane and then twisted his hands around the shaft. Finally, he banged it against the dark wood of the carriage’s side. Satisfied he passed it back to Ignatius.

“You see, Jimmy. I do not mind complying with your directives”

“All part of doing my job sir,” James Lee replied.

Ignatius reached out with his cane and tapped James Lee under his right arm. A metallic clack came from beneath the tailored jacket. Ignatius raised an eyebrow. James Lee shrugged.

“In my line of work, you cannot be too careful,” he said.

“And your line of work is exactly?” Ignatius asked.

“Insurance claims. I represent the company that insures the majority of businesses in Harrisburg. My employers are greatly concerned about paying large sums of money out.”

“You managed to arrive just in the nick of time it would seem,” said Ignatius.

“Coincidence that is all nothing more. My branch office is in Pittsburgh. An express train got me here in short order,” said James Lee.

“May I ask what would happen if more buildings collapse?” asked Ignatius.

“My company would have to pay out the claims and then in turn increase the amount charged for the insurance premium. In turn that cost goes back to the insured. Then the company might conceivably charge more for its products.”

“It sounds to me like the factory owner loses out in the end. Perhaps the consumers, but not the city or your company.” said Ignatius.

“My company would be out hundreds of thousands of dollars for each claim. Our investors would see significant losses imperiling their own fortunes. The city would most likely see a reduction in taxes as fewer goods are sold. There are many far-reaching implications. Subtle nuances could change the fortunes of many, even that of the city.”

“Ah I see. Thank you for putting everything in better perspective then,” said Ignatius.

He glanced out of the window checking on the surroundings, as they swung left onto the newly cobbled Cameron Street. The horses’ hooves rang out when their steel shoes hit the stone. The noise was tremendous making conversation fruitless. Ignatius gingerly reclined against the seat cushion and watched the first couple of factories glide past. A few more moments passed before the coach came to a halt. Ignatius braced himself as the carriage swayed on its springs.

 The driver scrambled down from his seat in order to fetch a step stool from the rear compartment to place at the door. When the driver opened the doorway, his face was ashen. Ignatius rose to shuffle over to the opening. From the threshold, he took in the reason for the driver’s pallor.

The smoldering ruins of a once mighty foundry lay stretched out behind the man like the bleached ribs of a whale. Bricks lay strewn about carelessly wherever they had fallen. The roof was crumpled and gaps in it were jagged maws of blackness. The main support beams curved out of place when the roof gave way. A team of workers crawled over the rubble shifting bits of it and searching for anything worth salvaging. A small cluster of men stood with a large copy of the building’s plans. Ignatius started toward them with James Lee trailing behind.

“Excuse me sir! This area is off limits,” called a gruff voice.

Ignatius turned in the direction of caller having no difficulty spotting him. A police officer with a shock of red hair, untamed mustache and chest like a beer barrel made his away over the broken remnants of the factory to intercept Ignatius.

“It is all right officer, I am here on behalf of the Mayor’s office,” said Ignatius.

The policeman stopped dead and blinked his eyes. “Saints preserve me, Mr. St. Eligius?”

“The one and only, Officer Goodman.” Ignatius paused and drew a deep breath, “it is good to see you again Winifred.”

He took the final steps forward and clasped Mr. St. Eligius’s hand firmly. His smile flashed up for a moment before being quickly replaced with a concerned frown.

“What are you doing here? Did you escape from the hospital?”

“No I did not,” said Ignatius. “I am a little hurt that the question was even asked. The Mayor has called upon me to help uncover the cause of these building collapses.”

“I apologize Mr. St. Eligius, but you understand the situation when I last saw you was not an favorable one.”

“No, I suppose the back of a paddy wagon is not a fitting place for two men to gather for a social conversation. You and your lovely wife will have to come visit me at Wyndfast very soon,” Ignatius said with enthusiasm.

“Well I don’t know about that, such a fine place, not for the likes of us…Not appropriate given our history.”

“Pish tosh, I will not hear any such negativity. You will come out and soon. What can you tell me,” began Ignatius when James Lee cleared his throat.

“Sorry, what can you tell us, about the situation here? James Lee Kranston, meet Officer Goodman, one of the few exemplary officers in Harrisburg.”

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance sir,” said James Lee.

“Likewise.” said Office Goodman. “If you want to start an investigation, you’ll need to talk to the factory owner, he’s over there,” Officer Goodman said pointing to a fussy, portly, bowler wearing man.

“Excellent,” said Ignatius preparing to set off again.

“Wait a moment sir, I’ll call him over,” Officer Goodman said.

  1. Excellent, can’t wait to

    • I thank you for reading. Things are only going to keep picking up from this point in the story.

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