The Phlogiston Precariousness: Chapter 5, Scene 2.
Dusk settled over the city of Harrisburg like a soft inky cape. Ignatius gritted his teeth while he bounced up and down on the carriage’s seat. The springs absorbed much of the rough patches but they could not halt every shuddering impact. James Lee grinned perhaps a little too wryly for Ignatius’s liking.
“Did you receive the list of supplies from Billy?” he asked.
James Lee nodded, “Yes. I should have them for you tomorrow, late morning perhaps.”
“Good. I am eager to get started. The work is a welcome challenge.”
They rode on in silence while the carriage clattered on its way north through the city. Once past the shops and businesses of mid-town they entered the quieter streets of the affluent section. Large brownstone houses spilled their lights out into the street making the trees cast long shadows into the darkness.
Raucous singing and music playing echoed out onto the street from a number of houses. Streetlights placed every fourth home created a remarkable amount of light for the people walking on the sidewalks and all manner of street traffic. Moments later, they pulled up in front of Lucius Stanneroy’s townhouse. At the front door stood a footman wearing a tall powdered wig and gold filigree embossed coat. Knickers, white hose and silver buckle shoes rounded out the man’s costume. James Lee preceded Ignatius out of the coach and strode up to the door attendant.
“Are you expected, sir?” he asked James in a high-pitched voice.
“Yes, Mr. Ignatius St. Eligius and guest.”
A powdered eyebrow rose skeptically. “Mr. St. Eligius is on my list. There is no mention however of a guest.”
Ignatius hobbled up to the man and smiled politely. “Mr. Kranston is my assistant,” he said as he removed his hat and outer coat, handing them to the servant.
“Mmm, I’ve heard that story before. He can wait with the rest of the servants in the kitchen. ‘Round the back and mind you, keep your hands away from the silver.”
Ignatius pulled James Lee aside conspiratorially, “Ah well, very unfortunate, Jimmy. Nip around to the kitchen and embed yourself with the working class. See if there are any rumors swirling concerning rivalries, upset employee out for revenge or someone interested in making sure his competitors fail.”
“You aren’t supposed to be left alone,” James Lee grumbled.
“It cannot be helped. We must keep up appearances lest we scare off our prey. I will of course be diligently mindful of everything we have discussed concerning my behavior.”
The door swung open to reveal Lucius, resplendent in a purple velveteen suit with a skinny cigarillo dangling from between his lips.
“My dear Ignatius thanks heavens you are here! I was afraid you were not going to come.”
“Perish the thought my dear Lucius. It sounds like your party is in full swing.” Ignatius said as loud fiddle music followed Lucius onto the stoop.
“There is a fiddle player in there that is extremely handy with his fiddle,” said Lucius winking sidelong at James Lee. “You have to meet my…partner: Benji.”
Lucius put his arm around Ignatius and guided him inside the townhouse leaving James Lee fuming on the sidewalk.
“Your man did not look well pleased,” Lucius said.
Leaning on his cane Ignatius flashed a smile, “He did seem rather put out did he not?”
Then he chuckled. Lucius led the way along his entrance hallway. Gray and white accents set off deep purple wallpaper in the hall. Ladies in their best eveningwear sat on exquisitely crafted furniture sipping wine from crystal glasses. In the dining room, the floor was clear of any obstruction like a table or carpet. Men and women danced to the music from a quartet of musicians in one corner. Surveying the room Ignatius noted several prominent business owners. All of whom had holdings along the factory row of Cameron Street in attendance. A gentleman in a broad striped suit made his way over to Lucius.
“Luci! Who is this magnificent person?” he asked.
“Benji, I have the pleasure of introducing Mr. Ignatius St. Eligius. Ignatius, this is Benjamin Stewart. He runs my textiles operations, which are considerable much like him. Ignatius is newly released from,” Lucius’s voice dropped to a stage whisper, “Incarceration.”
Benji smiled and nodded. “I’ve heard the tales. It is so lovely to have you here tonight Mr. St. Eligius.”
“Thank you,” said Ignatius, “I believe I will just mingle with the other guests for a now if that is fine by you, Lucius?”
“Certainly, enjoy yourself and have a good time,” replied Lucius.
Ignatius made his way over to the buffet line. Each dish was simple perfection. A house servant gestured toward the food while holding up a plate. Ignatius shook his head and moved to the bar where drinks were flowing over the counter rapidly. A pair of men sipping noisily at silver tankards were having an animated conversation but broke off immediately when Ignatius approached.
Looking scandalized the two men retreated several steps, paling behind their beer foam mustaches. Ignatius raised his hand in a placating fashion.
“Gentlemen, I am not here to besmirch your reputations or to fleece you out of property or money. None other than the Mayor himself has dispatched me from my incarceration into the streets. I am investigating the collapse of Mr. Stanneroy’s factory. Does either of you perchance have any notion what the cause of that catastrophe might be?” he asked.
Instead of answering, the two men retreated further away from Ignatius. He shrugged and made his way to the bar.
“Coffee please, brewed with cinnamon,” he said.
The barman nodded and signaled a servant over, repeated the order and dispatched the man to the kitchens. Ignatius took in the room. He spotted several competitors of his own iron works and smiled benignly in their direction. In response, they exchanged a flurry of whispered words moving to other owners. Ignatius watched as word of his presence slowly moved around the room like an encroaching storm.
His coffee arrived in short order. Steam rose from the bone china cup carrying with it the scents of the beans and spice to his nose. A man appeared at Ignatius’s elbow without warning. The man wore a plain brown suit more appropriate for a country church service than an evening dinner party. His grin was rather lopsided and a milky white eye fixated on Ignatius.
“The likes of them won’t talk to you,” the man wheezed. “They’s proper socialites. An’ you ain’t, least not anymore.”
“True I suppose. May I ask who you are?” said Ignatius.
“Me? Jacob M. Stotes, folk’s jus’ call me Rabbity Stotes. I knows that yer lookin’ into them buildings that fell down. I can even guess that yer here lookin’ fer a suspect.”
“I am. I know competition in Harrisburg can be stiff. Add to that the new expansion westward and businesses trying to return to normalcy after the war. People will do unscrupulous things to get ahead.”
“Feh, tha’s nuffin but piss in th’ ocean. If’n you don’t have how it’s done, you don’t have anything.”
“You think there is something to the method of destruction that might inform who did it and why?”
“Think boyo. Would anyone in this crowd be so indirect? I’d think street gangs interrupting each others work day would be more likely.”
“Well Mr. Stotes, I must say that is a valid point, which I have considered.” said Ignatius.
“‘Course yeh have. Yer no dummy. Why are yeh here then?”
“May I be blunt?” asked Ignatius.
Rabbity Stotes nodded.
“After being incarcerated for so long, I crave interaction with others of a similar like-mindedness. Is that wrong? Seeking out the company of others rather than executing my duties.”
“Naw, most people want that sort of connection. Yer a differen’ case though. Most folks here won’ get past yer crimes.”
“I see. Thank you for your directness. One last question, how are you so well informed?”
Rabbity let out an explosive gufafaw, which startled several nearby drinkers.
“Simple, I’m the largest single manufacturer of anything in this city, incluin’ yourself. I got spies in every factory, office and taproom. Bug don’ fart ’round here wit’out me knowin’.”
Ignatius found himself smiling. “Rabbity, you are in fact one of the most interesting people I have met tonight.”
“Hell son, I’m the only person you’ve met. You have a good night now,” Rabbity said with a wink.
The elderly man drifted into the crowd of party goers with ease, vanishing. Ignatius reflected on man’s words. There was much to consider. He made his way over to Lucius to bid his host goodnight. His interest in being around other people melted away.
“It has been a pleasure Lucius. Next time you will have to come to Wyndfast,” he said.
“I will make it my life’s work if necessary,” said Lucius.
Ignatius went back to the entrance where he collected his hat and coat. The door attendant trotted out to the street, blew his whistle, and waved a glowing stick in a complex pattern. In a few seconds, Ignatius’s carriage emerged from the inky recesses of the street. With rapid efficiency the door was opened and the steps in place for Ignatius.
“Will Mr. Kranston be rejoining you, sir?” asked Myron.
His whiskers and hair made him look particularly badger-like this evening thought Ignatius.
“No, Myron. Jimmy will be seeking alternative means of returning to Wyndfast tonight. Home if you please, and take Front Street if you will.”
“Very good, Mr. St. Eligius.” answered Myron shutting the door behind his employer. In seconds, the coach rattled on its way down the street turning right onto Boas Street. Ignatius had a flash of an idea. He rapped on the side of the coach, calling up to Myron: “Stop at number 18 if you would.”
The rig rolled to a halt in front of another non-descript townhouse. The door was black with brass numbers affixed in the center. A large window, half covered by curtains looked out into the street. The hour was late. The nearby houses were dark silent hulks, quite unlike Lucius’s block. Without waiting for Myron Ignatius struggled out of the compartment and onto the street.
“Keep a weather eye out,” Ignarius said in a soft voice to Myron.
He clanked up onto the sidewalk and twisted the doorknob. The door refused to move. Looking around to ensure no one was watching, Ignatius twisted the second ring on his cane. The action brought several lock picks spiraling out of the shaft. Working with dexterous fingers Ingatius probed the latch until a dreadfully loud lick announced that it had surrendered. Trying the handle the door leaped open allowing him to slide inside the house.