Better Than Gold

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I love to fly more than anything else in life! And sometimes, I like to write too. "Better Than Gold" is a serial-style short story I've been writing for nearly a year now, purely for fun. A new part will be typed and posted here when I can find the time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

PART TWO: Leedwit Aeronautical Industries

... is on its way! I can usually find time to write these days, but less to type.

Stay tuned!

Midnight, Part Three

When the tent flap swung open with a leathery rustle Jasper barely raised his head. After two days of captivity on the beach he knew it was only another Brigade pirate come to get in his kicks before Jasper was murdered. He had fought like a cat the first few hours of his imprisonment, which had only got his arms tied behind the post at his back, and his legs lashed together at the ankles and then, when they had run out of limbs to rope, his face smashed in rather badly. Everything after that was just an angry haze with a bunch of fists and boots in it.

Raucous voices whipped into the tent with the sea wind. Jasper set his teeth together. For the past hour or so he had been doing his best to doze between pirates. It was a fitful sleep, full of fear and pain, but as the night drew on and the Brigade grew drunk on wine and rum their punches turned sloppy, their kicks poorly aimed and glancing. The last brute had boxed at a shadow over Jasper’s head before tripping over his bound legs and keeling onto his lap. Jasper had rolled him off in disgust and the man still lay snoring a short distance away, facedown in the sand.

Briny smoke flooded into the tent. Jasper was careful not to stir as he heard heavy feet thump about in the sand. The Brigade were fast becoming more interested in booze than they were with him. Already all of the kegs had been rolled out of the tent. He hoped that this pirate would peer about with bloodshot eyes and then stagger off in search of something a little more intoxicating than Jasper’s bloody face.

One of his eyes was black and sealed shut, but the other slitted open. Leather boots stood in the trampled sand in front of him. They had a distressingly solid stance and didn’t appear to be shambling anywhere. He gave a quiet little groan deep in his throat. This pirate looked sober. The last few boots had been stumbling.

Another sound made his good eye fly wide open. His chin leapt up from his chest and he stared. The giant pirate standing in front of him met his gaze with a cool, calculating look. Steely things hung from his leather clothing.

For a brief instant hope flared wildly in Jasper’s chest as he took in the size of the man and his great shock of bushy red hair. Then he noticed the broad bladed knife the pirate was holding upright in one hand, and the hacksaw in the other and the happy feeling sank back into his gut, where it was quickly doused in a good deal of bile.

Guttering torchlight slid up and down the edge of the blades. Jasper kicked his heels into the sand while his spine tried to crawl up the wooden post.

“Wait a minute!” he shouted, madly twisting his wrists. “Hang on! They said I had until midnight! They said Black was going to- at midnight they said I- wait, wait!”

The pirate advanced grimly. Jasper swung up his bound feet. Tied together with thick rope, they were the closest thing he had to a club.

But before he could strike out the pirate leapt into action, as quick as a snake. Bare blades flashed like fangs and red hair flew up, and the next thing Jasper knew he was flat on his back in the sand, his arms stretched over his head and his feet clamped firmly beneath the pirate’s armpit in a farrier’s grip.

Shining red, the knife hung in the air, then slashed downwards. Severed coils of rope fell into the sand between the pirate’s feet.

Stunned, his heart thudding in his chest, Jasper stared up as the man dropped his feet and stepped back to admire his handiwork.

“That did the trick,” said the pirate as he returned the hacksaw to a clinking bag on his hip. “Right then, arms next.”

“What- what are you doing?” gasped Jasper.

The pirate stepped over his legs and crouched beside him. When he leaned forward to grasp Jasper’s wrists in one big hand Jasper found himself staring up into a great deal of soft chest.

“Getting you out of here,” said the pirate as she sawed at the rope. “You’re young Jasper Bonneweiss, aren’t you?”

Jasper tried to turn his head to put his nose someplace decent before it was smothered. “Yes, but- who-“

The knife snapped up and he felt the taut rope slacken around his wrists. The pirate gathered it up and threw it aside.

“Never mind that,” she said. “Sit up. Rub your wrists. Get some circulation back into your hands and then let’s get the hell out of here.”

Jasper did so warily. Pain shot through his left hand as broken bones scraped together within the bruised flesh, but he bit his tongue and cradled the hand to his chest and eyed the giant pirate woman when she sank onto her haunches and regarded him with a frown.

“I get the knife,” he said. “But why the hacksaw?”

She shrugged. “They used chains last year. Completely stumped me.”

“Last year? You’ve done this before?”

“Yes. What happened to your hand?”

“A boot,” said Jasper sharply. “It might have been a bottle. I’ve lost track.”

“Sorry to hear it. Can you still walk?”

“I can walk fine.” He lurched up to his feet to prove it and sagged against the post. His good eye didn’t leave the pirate woman once as she rose to her feet as well.

“Good, because I don’t want to carry you,” she said. The knife was slid back into a sheathe on her belt and she stepped over to the drunk pirate still lying sprawled nearby. She nudged him with one boot. “How long has he been out?”

“Half an hour, I guess,” said Jasper. “What do we do now?”

“I’m not sure. This is the first time I’ve made it this far.”

“You’re not with them, are you?”

“I’m not with the Brigade, if that’s what you mean.”

Jasper stared at the mass of dirty red hair as she bent down and slapped the cheek of the drunken pirate. Although he knew it was foolish he couldn’t stop the tiny thrill that ran through him at the sight.

“Are you…” he began. “You’re not…?”

“I’m not with the Red Wings either, if that’s what you’re getting at.” She rolled the pirate over onto his back and wrenched at his oilskin coat.

“But you’re dressed like-“

“I must enjoy prowling about in leather. Here, put this on.”

The pirate flopped back into the sand with a snort as the woman balled up his coat and threw it at Jasper. He stumbled forward to catch it with his good hand before it flapped into his face.

“Put it on,” she repeated. “You’ll need some sort of disguise if you’re going to follow me back.”

“Do you really think I can just stroll out of this tent without being noticed?” he snapped.

The woman stood. Jasper took an instinctive step back as she jerked out her knife again.

“Of course not,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to slip out the back instead.”

Ash and sparks drifted past the tent in swirling, glittering plumes. Torches crackled and spluttered. Smoke lay thick in the air, softly aglow with the ruddy light of hanging storm lanterns. Voices whooped from the direction of the beach, and in the wind the palm trees and floral underbrush swayed together with a quiet sighing sound.

Wooden crates and barrels were piled up behind the tent, along with stacks of crudely chopped firewood. Two Brigade pirates staggered up and argued briefly before one of the barrels was tipped over into the sand and rolled away between the tents. The cast iron pots and pans and tankards strung overhead danced and clanged as they were tossed by the wind.

When the pirates were gone the back of the tent made a tentative bulge. It wiggled back and forth a little, and then a bright thorn of metal poked through the leather. With a sawing motion it pushed forward until the whole blade of the knife was visible, and then it sliced downwards in a firm stroke that cut the leather with a sound like slowly ripped canvas. It withdrew back into the tent when it reached the bottom, and after a moment Fran’s face peered through.

“All clear,” she said and stepped out of the slit. “Come on, this way. Mind you don’t knock over the firewood.”

The oilskin coat shuffled out of the tent behind her. It ran into a barrel, swore and held itself against a crate while it pushed its goggles up onto its flight cap with one sleeve.

“This is stupid,” hissed Jasper. “I look like a fool. The minute I step out there with that lot they’ll all turn to stare and we’ll both get nicked.”

“We’re rather low on other options at the moment, if you please,” said Fran. “Just walk as if you’re a little drunk and they won’t look at you twice. And put those goggles back on. I don’t want anyone getting a good look at that black eye you’ve got.”

Jasper grudgingly did as he was told. “Where do we go now?” he said as he lurched to her side. “Have you got a boat hidden somewhere nearby?”

“Something better than a boat, son. Follow me.”

Together they slipped through the thicket of tents, Fran striding in the lead while Jasper shambled at her heels like a hooded leper. Fran had cinched the laces of her vest tightly over her chest and wrapped her bare throat in a mothy old fox-fur; Jasper had taken her advice to heart and put a drunken roll into his step. True to her prediction they attracted no more than a beery glance as they walked amidst the gathered pirates, who seemed more interested in wedging open the dwindling crates and barrels and dragging out the smoked meat within.

“I would love to know how they flew all of this out here,” murmured Fran at one point as they stood and waited patiently for a group of Granger pirates to wheel a drum of oil across their path. “The Brigade must have added a few big twins to their fleet for hauling cargo.”

Jasper didn’t reply. He was too afraid of being recognised to raise either his face or his voice. When a pair of aeroplanes droned overhead only Fran glanced up at them.

“Shit,” she said. “Speaking of planes, there’s Briar now.”

Jasper mumbled something into his collar.

“Black’s plane, that’s what,” Fran told him. “It must be midnight. I wonder where he’s been all this time.”

There was more mumbling from the oilskin coat.

“Calm down, we’re almost at the beach. My friend should already be there waiting by the- hang on, what’s this?”

Fran came to a halt and stared up into the midnight sky. Jasper ran into her back and swore a moment later but she barely noticed it. Her attention was riveted on the pair of aeroplanes circling over the ocean.

She felt Jasper grip her belt and try to push her aside, in vain. “What is it?” he hissed. “What’s going on, why did you stop?”

Fran’s brow furrowed as the two aeroplanes bored into serpentine manoeuvres, flying low and fast above the water. Their wings banked steeply as they spun away from the cove like a pair of bolas, and disappeared into the night. Only the sound of their engines came echoing back, rising and falling in revving tones, the strained roar of open throttles.

“What the hell is he doing?” she said, half to herself.

“Doing what?” said Jasper.

Quite a number of pirates had stopped what they were doing and were staring across the cove now as well. The yelling and laughter died down, until the crackling of the bonfires was the only sound on the beach. Open mouths dripped grease and rum around the fire pits. Many pirates were beginning to climb to their feet with their hands on their sabres.

Fran noticed this with growing unease. With one hand clapped firmly to Jasper’s shoulder she leant down to his ear and murmured, “Walk slowly down towards the edge of the water- slowly! Stick by me and stare up at the sky like you’re watching those planes overhead. Look distracted, no sudden movements, don’t run, and don’t- mother of god!”

Jasper barely had time for a startled yelp before she hurled him into the sand and threw herself on top of him. Before she covered her head with her arms she caught sight of a brilliant orange flash and heard the chattering blast of machinegun fire. Beneath them the ground thudded with a percussion of blows and at her back there was a great whack of wind that tore at her hair as the sky howled with aeroplane engines. All around them the beach erupted in screams.

A minute later a large hump of sand shifted and trickled. It gave an upwards lurch and burst when Fran pushed herself up onto her arms. Sand matted her hair and streamed off her back as she knelt on her hands and knees and choked.

“That crazy idiot!” she spluttered. “What on earth is she thinking?! Are you all right?”

She gazed down at Jasper with belated concern, who lay curled in the sand beneath her. He was huddled up with his arm clutched to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut and making sick noises.

“My hand,” he moaned. “My hand, you crushed my hand!”

“What, the broken one? Sorry about that.”

Tears stood in Jasper’s eyes as he opened them and said between gritted teeth, “What happened?”

Fran looked around. The beach was raked in fire, the sand torn up and littered with glowing cinders. Several of the tents had been blown into splinters and tatters and were well ablaze. An overcast of black smoke and ash hung over their heads and fiery golden flakes swirled through the hot air. The pots and pans swung on their ropes and sent up a clattering, clanging cacophony, and storm lanterns pattered down spilt oil and broken shards of glass.

“Offhand, I’d say we were just strafed,” she said grimly.

“Strafed? What the hell do you mean, strafed? Black is attacking his own men?!”

“He isn’t. I’ll explain later. Come on, get up. We’ve got to get down to the planes before those two bastards turn back for another pass.”

Fran hauled Jasper to his feet by the scruff of his coat and pushed him ahead of her before he could protest. In the glow of the wildfires his face was a ghastly colour, and his goggles flashed with bright flames. He staggered through the ashy sand with his hand cradled under his armpit.

“What is Black doing?” he gasped. “Why did he shoot up the beach?”

“He’s after my idiot partner,” said Fran as she kicked aside some burnt timbers. “She led him down here and he fired on her tail.”

“’Partner’? How many more of you are out there?!”

“There will only be two of us from here on out, I can tell you that.”

“And you came here to help me?”

“That’s right.”

“A hell of a job you’re doing of it!”

Fran said nothing. Nearly being shot had dimmed a little of the rosy glow of victory she had felt from spiriting him from the tent.

A hand seized Jasper by the upper arm. The smoke whirled and a pirate loomed out of it, his face and clothing streaked in soot.

“Get to the planes!” he shouted in a voice hoarse with ash as he shook Jasper fiercely. “Black’s on the radio and he said the intruder is turning back for another run at the beach, and he wants everyone up in the air before- you’re not-!

Fran had lost her knife in the attack but her fist still swung like a bell. It cracked into the angry pirate’s jaw before he could shove his pistol into Jasper’s face and sent him crashing over backwards into a stack of kindling. Jasper was nearly dragged down as well but she tore him free from the pirate’s grip and pushed him away.

“Keep running!” she shouted as two more startled Brigade pirates appeared between the tents.

“Run where?” said Jasper in bewilderment.

“Straight to the water, where they’ve left all their planes! Look for the blue and white seaplane at the end of the row and tell Duke I’ll be there shortly.”

“But what about-“

“Don’t stand there gawping, you twit!” Fran snapped a black cast iron skillet from its tether and hefted it like a mace. “Get moving! Not you, you dirty bastards,” she growled at the two Brigade pirates, who had sized up the giant woman and turned to bolt for better cover. “You stay where I can see you- run!”

Jasper whirled and broke into a clumsy coat-flapping run at her sharp tone. He had just enough time to catch sight of her bushy red hair and scraggly fox-fur flying behind her as she lunged forward and flattened one pirate with the skillet and wheeled into the other before the black smoke whipped up and drove him back. Eyes streaming, he fled.

More pirates appeared as he ran through the camp, but they either didn’t recognise him or were too busy scrambling to their guns to charge after him. Smoke burned in his throat and eyes and torches left fiery trails across his vision as he dashed back and forth, ducking under ropes and dangling crockery in his frantic search for the beach. The tents seemed to spin around him as he eddied through the burning camp, disoriented and stricken with dread. When he finally burst clear of it he didn’t bother to check his bearings but ran madly for the ocean, conscious only of open space and cool air and the quiet crash of waves in the night.

The surf was busy swiping foam on the shore when he skidding to a halt in the wet sand. The row of seaplanes he remembered from the early days of his imprisonment were still anchored there, and they rocked on the waves and tugged at their moorings as he pushed his way through the crowd of shouting pirates gathered in front of them.

A blue and white seaplane floated alone at the end of the row, just as Fran had said. Jasper leapt at it with a sob of relief. The other partner she mentioned was nowhere in sight when he splashed up to the plane, but its open cockpit was a beckoning haven that called to him more strongly than a friendly face could. He grabbed a strut and swung up onto the float, where he was immediately kicked in the face.

“Go find your own plane, matey!” he heard a voice shout before the ocean crashed over his head. “This one is called for!”

Bubbles streamed through his teeth and hair. Jasper thrashed in the water until his clothes were full of silt and then sat up, coughing out dirty brine. Blood gushed from his nose.

“I’m not a pirate!” he gurgled.

“Like hell! Pull the other one, shorty.”

“I’m not! Your friend sent me here!”

There was a pause. “Oh, damn,” the voice said. “You’re not Ja- ah, that boy, are you?”

“Yes! You’re Duke?”

“Yes! Oh, damn! Fran’s going to have my head. Are you all right?”

Jasper probed the bridge of his nose. “No.”

“Dammit! Sorry about that. Here, grab my hand.”

The pilot inside the plane leaned over the edge of the cockpit and stretched down a hand. His dark face tried to smile.

“Climb on in,” he said. “It’s a bit safer in here than it is out there, I’ll wager. Oh lord, yes, because here comes Katie again- quick, get in!”

Jasper was suddenly aware of the distant wailing of aeroplane engines. Before he could remark anything he felt the pilot grab him by the wrist and then his arm was wrenched as he was dragged bodily into the cockpit.

“In, in, in!” said Duke, and he found himself thrown into the rear seat by the back of his belt.

The canopy banged shut on his heels. Both men ducked down as the seaplane began to quiver. There was a deafening roar outside as a red aeroplane buzzed overhead, flying so low that all of the pirate planes in the row keeled over in its wake. The chatter of gunfire following it cut out abruptly as the second aeroplane tore past, lashing the canopy with a spray of saltwater. They heard its guns start up again once it was safely past the last plane in the row.

Duke crawled up from the floor and peered warily over the edge of the cockpit. He watched the two planes jink off down the beach and disappear back into the night sky, where all that could be see were stars and bright yellow tracers.

“That was close,” he said after a moment. “Her passes have been getting lower and lower since all of this started. Black can’t fire on her when she flies over his planes, so she’s been circling around this side of the beach to hold him off. It’s a good plan for her, but it’s playing merry hell on my nerves.”

He paused again. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

Jasper didn’t reply. His nose was on fire.

Duke leaned over the back of his seat and gave him a scrutinizing look. “You don’t look too good, kid. We’d better get out of here and take you back to the inn. Maxine won’t mind lending you a room if we don’t ask her first. Where’s Fran?”

“On her way,” Jasper ground out.

"Scraping with the pirates, is she? She tells me you were once a young Red Wing yourself.”

“Not anymore!”

“I know, I know, cool down, I sort of figured that. I did a fair bit of fighting against the Red Wings myself back in the day, you know. A tricky lot, you were, but a damn sight better than these Brigade villains. Crowe was a devil’s gentleman. Hullo, here comes Franny now.”

Water splashed against the floats. The seaplane rocked and there was a rap on the side of the canopy. Fran’s face loomed in the glass.

“Knock, knock,” she said as Duke pushed it back. “Ah, Mister Bonneweiss, I see you made it.”

“Are you okay?” said Jasper in alarm. Her forehead was cut and streaked blood, soot smudged her jaw and her fox-fur was singed with burnt holes.

“Never better.” The seaplane lurched as she pulled herself into the cockpit and dropped into the rear seat. “We’d better scram out of here quick, my boys. Hawkins is on the other side of the cove and swinging back around for another pass.”

She did a double-take when she spotted Jasper’s face. “Good lord, what happened to your nose?”

“I’m flying us back, am I?” said Duke hurriedly as he settled back and began to prime the engines.

“Yes, you’re better in the flak than I am. Push over, son, or else sit on my lap.”

“What about Katie?”

“Miss Hawkins is on her own as far as I’m concerned. Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll make a run for the clouds as soon as she sees we’re off.”

“There isn’t room for both of us,” protested Jasper as he was mashed to the side by Fran’s bulk. “Look, I’m an aeronautical engineer, and I can tell you right now that a tandem seat aircraft like this isn’t mean to fly safely with two people in the back and its centre of gravity this far aft-“

“It won’t fly safely with a couple cannon rounds in its engines either, which is my more immediate concern.” Fran pointed to the pirates on the beach, who whirled around in surprise and anger when Duchess’ right propeller roared into life. “Mister Bonneweiss, reach down and pull that pistol out of my belt, won’t you? Duke, I can’t believe a man with your background hasn’t put guns on his aeroplane.”

“My customers these days don’t give me enough grief for that, thanks,” said Duke icily.

"Suit yourself. Squeeze over, Mister Bonneweiss, and get ready to cover your ears."

The seaplane shuddered as the second engine fired. Realising its intention to flee the scene several of the brighter pirates on the beach leapt into the surf and waded out to catch its nose. Duke growled and flicked on the landing lights, dazzling them within a cone of radiance. As they keeled in circles with their eyes shielded by their arms he said, “Run them off so I can turn us around, would you, Francine?”

“My pleasure,” said Fran and pushed back the canopy. Howling wind blasted into the cockpit as she leaned out into the slipstream and fired four brisk shots into the midst of the light. Against the roar of the engines the pistol popped like a toy, but the silhouette of one pirate let out a yell and dropped into the water while the others scrambled back onto the beach, jumping awkwardly over the waves like black monkeys.

“Keep them away from their planes!” shouted Duke as he advanced the right throttle. Duchess began a slow turn to the left, her wing fanning over the water in a stately fashion. Fran used the manoeuvre to her advantage by peppering the row of pirate aircraft with pistol fire as the seaplane swung around to face the ocean.

When the empty pistol snapped in her hand she threw it back into the cockpit, and with her red hair whipping over her head she bent down and shouted, “All right, let’s go, Duke!”

Something whizzed over the right wing, dragging a looping tail of sparks behind it. It exploded over the ocean with a punch of light and air that lit up the waves and tossed the seaplane hard to one side. Fran lost her grip and fell back onto Jasper when another blow slammed into the tail. Duchess rocked onto her nose and threw up a sheet of mist.

“Rockets,” said Fran thickly when she had clawed upright again. “Those are bloody rockets! Get us out of here, Duke!”

Duke said nothing as he fought the controls. His face was wet with seawater and sweat and set in an expression of grim concentration.

Another rocket exploded directly ahead of them with a burst of evil black smoke and shrapnel. Smoke flew back against the windshield and was torn into streamers by the propellers. Shards of metal shrieked off the fuselage. But the bang of the rocket was swallowed by a much louder explosion from the direction of the beach, and suddenly the sky behind them lit up with a lurid red glow.

Only Fran whirled around to face it. Her eyes grew wide. One of the pirate seaplanes had leapt up in geyser of fire and was now falling back into the water as flaming debris. Over the lingering echoes of the blast Fran heard the familiar roar and then Red Rum thundered down from the sky, its nose alight in golden flashes as its guns fed a steady stream of machine gun rounds into the row of pirate aircraft. They twitched and danced under the hail of fire and pillars of smoke gushed up, and then the deadly red aeroplane reared back into the sky, tearing through the smoke with its belly lit in gory firelight.

Stunned, Fran sat back and stared at the macabre scene as ash drifted through air and settled on her shoulders like snow. But when more guns cracked from the beach her wits rushed back and she turned and clapped Duke on the shoulder.

“There goes Hawkins,” she shouted into his ear. “Move it or lose it, Diego.”

“I’m going to kiss that girl if she makes it back,” he said, and pushed forward both throttles. Unfettered by rockets Duchess leapt into the waves, and both Fran and Jasper were thrown to the floor as the seaplane began to speed across the cove with a long arrowhead of spray hissing in its wake.

Several rockets chased after its tail but fell short and hammered into the ocean as the blue and white seaplane staggered out of the water and climbed into the night sky. It left behind it a beach strewn with fire, a pack of bewildered, angry pirates, and two duelling aeroplanes, whose aerial battle had already carried them over the smoke and into the cool tranquility of the kingdom of clouds.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Midnight, Part Two

Two pirates were waiting for them on the beach when Fran cut the engines and let Duchess coast into the surf, and into the line of savage looking seaplanes already moored there. A large bonfire whipped behind the pirates; against the flames they were little more than black figures with long black shadows that danced into the water and onto the wings of the aeroplane. She could see that both of them were carrying rifles.

So could Duke. She heard him growl behind her.

“Here comes the welcoming party,” he said. “You’d better leave the talking to me.”

“I know more about- oh.” A memory struck Fran and she grabbed at her chest with the hand that had been resting over the throttles. “Yeah. Right.”

“I told you you should have disguised yourself as a man.”

“It wouldn’t have worked.” Fran unbuckled her belts and heaved back the canopy. “I’d be recognised faster as a man than as a woman.”

“I can’t say I understand the logic in that.” Duke grunted as he stood up in the plane. “Ahoy!” he shouted. “Stand by for the anchor!”

“Remember, we’re with the Rovers,” muttered Fran as she ducked her head and secured the engines. “We just came back from a raid in Port York, that’s why-“

“- the plane is painted in these colours,” said Duke a few minutes later as they stood side by side on the beach, guarded by the two wary pirates. “The fort fires on anything black that flies into the harbour, eh?”

He grinned like a shark. One of the pirates seemed satisfied by that answer and swung his rifle onto his shoulder by its bandolier.

“We haven’t seen any of Johanus’ lads here yet,” he said. “I think you two might be the only ones.”

Duke shrugged. Bits of his outfit clinked at the motion.

“It’s been a bad year,” he said easily. “We had to pull back to the winter camp. One of the old families was killed off in the Glowston fire, Johanus lost a son to the Dogs- you heard about that, did you?”

“Yeah,” said the pirate. “Rough luck. All right, go on up. There’s food and booze by the big fire. Is your woman going with you.”

“I dunno. Can she?”

They all turned to look at Fran, who had picked that exact moment to stop plucking at the laces strapped across her cleavage in favour of heaving open the fur-lined throat with both hands. The leather vest creaked and groaned as taut corsetry swelled against the strain. She was well aware of the fact that thanks to her height her chest loomed at the eye level of the pirates and, unfortunately, Duke as well, whose expression had turned as composed as a portrait.

“It’s so hot out, Rolfie,” she said, throwing back her head to fan at her bare throat with one hand. “Why do I gotta wear alla this leather?”

“’Cos I said so, that’s why,” barked Duke.

“But it’s so hot, Rolfie! Can’t I just sit in the plane?”

“Don’t be daft! I brought us here to have a good time, and you ain’t gonna ruin it for me by sitting in some plane.”

“But it’s horrid out, Rolfie! I don’t wanna sit around some fire all sweaty like this.”

Duke gave the two pirates a long suffering look that said a lot about women and rolled his eyes. “They’ve probably got rum up there, Katie. Rum and fish and lobsters and everything. Go get something to eat and forget about the heat.”

“But I hate lobsters, hon.”

“Then go up and get some rum and get properly drunk! God, you’re no good sober. What about it? Can she go up?”

“God, yes,” breathed one pirate in awe.

“There are some tents up there too, honey,” said the other, staring greedily. “You go sit in one of those tents and get nice and cool, then come out and visit us by the fire, okay? We got lots of rum by the fire.”

“You hear that, Rolfie? Tents!”

“Yes, tents, let’s all get excited about that,” muttered Duke. Then, in a louder voice he added, “We haven’t missed anything yet, have we?”

The first pirate tore his eyes from Fran’s dishevelled laces and gave him a slightly distracted look.

“Huh?” he said. “Oh, the kid? Nah, you haven’t missed nothing. Black ain’t due to get here for another hour. He’ll be taking the kid with him then, so if you want to get a few kicks in before that you’d better get up there now. Just look for the big tent.”

Duke cracked his fingers. “I think I might do that.”

“You should talk to Black when he gets here too,” said the other pirate. “He’ll have a message for Johanus, sure as rain. It was bad luck about his boy.”

“Yeah, it was,” said Duke. He seized Fran by the upper arm and began to drag her towards the fire. “Come on, Katie. Let’s go see the kid, and then you can have some rum. You brought the brass knuckles, right?”

Fran patted her hip. “Right here, hon!”

“Don’t kill him,” said the first pirate sharply. “Black wants this one alive.”

“I ain’t gonna kill him, just mark him up a bit. Come on, Katie, pick up your feet.”

“Are you gonna pour me some rum, Rolfie? I don’t want no lobster, though.”

“Yes, goddammit, I’ll get you a whole god damned pint! Now move!”

“We’ll see you real soon, Katie,” called out one of the pirates as they lurched up the beach. “You save us a place by the fire, honey.”

Fran tried to turn around to wave at them but was jerked off her feet by a rude jerk from Duke.

“I’ll be in one of the tents,” she said breathlessly. “You come look for me in one of the- ow! Rolfie, stop pulling!”

“God damn, woman, I should have left you back at the camp!”

“But Rolfie…!”

Fran trailed off when she saw that they had shambled well out of earshot. Duke’s loud cursing was soon drowned out by the roar of the waves, the snapping, crackling fires and the clamour of the men carousing further up the beach. When she was certain they were hidden from sight by smoke and sparks she let her hand descend onto the scruff of Duke’s neck, where it clamped down hard.

“Katie?” she hissed into his ear. “Katie?”

Duke cringed. He flicked up his eyepatch and grinned out of the corner of his mouth.

“It was the only name I could think of offhand,” he said. “Nice job getting into those tents.”

“It worked. I guess I can’t complain.”

Duke’s grin widened, but then he sobered rapidly. “What’s going on with the kid, though? I thought you said they were going to kill him at midnight, same as the last one. Now Black is picking him up instead?”

“I don’t get it either. Something funny is going on here.”

“I suppose that’s good news for us. The kid is still alive.”

“Seems that way. I’ll search the tents if you keep the path to the plane clear. When I find him I’ll grab him, and then we can both get the hell out of here.”

Duke grimaced. “Just make sure you back at the beach in time, all right? I really don’t want to get shot by Katie, Katie.”

“Yes, Rolfie.”

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Midnight, Part One

A full moon shone over the miles of open ocean. Where it reflected on the water it glittered in bright shards, like a broken china plate. The sky was fine, clear and cold, deep blue on the horizon and crowned above with black universe. Violet clouds pillowed up here and there, drifting slowly out to sea on the night breeze; they seemed to sail backwards, Kate thought as she gazed out her cockpit and watched them glide past.

Her aeroplane slipped through the night, barely visible save as a dark hole moving against a sky strewn with stars. Its engine rumbled a mellow current, just a texture of sound within a vast rind of thin altitude air.

After a minute or two Kate forced her eyes away from the moonlit view and scanned the sky around her instead. Without any lights turned on an approaching aeroplane could be near well impossible to spot at night, even if the moon were full and the sky flaked with luminous clouds. Even two aeroplanes flying in formation could pass unseen, unless they were polished just right and the moon shone just so to make their glass canopies turn into twinkling stars.

As for any more aeroplanes than that, well, on a night like tonight she really couldn’t give a damn. Tonight, all she needed to find were two aeroplanes in particular, and preferably before their tracers drew a pair of fiery lines back from her tail to the muzzles of their machine guns. Their pilots were, she remembered fondly, exceptionally keen shots.

Far below, the Black Wall slid past her right wingtip. The giant island was as dark as a well, darker even than the ocean, as if it were a long crevasse that sucked water down into its subterranean depths. Only the moonlit surf that rolled up on its beaches and smashed into foam against its cliffs gave it any sort of outline against the ocean, like tinsel washed ashore from the sea. Kate regarded it warily as she edged her aeroplane in its direction, taking care not to draw too close.

Even from six thousand feet she could spot the tiny orange bonfires that sparkled along a small cove on the north-eastern edge of the island. Torches flamed along the beach, smudging the cove with smoke. Judging from the number of fires she could count from that distance, the Brigade appeared to be throwing one hell of a midnight party. She was amazed that the carousing pirates weren’t taking more caution in keeping themselves hidden. Then again, it was true that very few people who weren’t pirates dared to fly near the Black Wall after dark.

She pressed the stick against her left thigh and pushed her foot against the left rudder; Red Rum obediently banked away from the firelit cove and turned back towards the western end of the island, where the rock and water and sky had melded together into an inky darkness. Kate peered through her prop and down into the gloom but could barely make out the edge of the shore in that direction, much less the ashy embers of a dead fire tucked well out of sight on a lonely spit. Duke and Fran were already winging their way to the Brigade camp, she imagined, leaving her to circle at a safe distance and wait for their signal.

Aglow with the lurid red lamp light that backlit the dials on her instrument panel, what little of Kate’s face that was visible between her goggles and her muffled up scarf curled up into a grin. It would be nice to make a big difference while she was here, she thought. And if all of the noise and frenzy she was prepared to unleash were to attract the attention of two pirates in particular, well…!

With one eye on her compass Kate kept the plane's long nose pointed west. The fires burning in the cove behind her tail were ignored for the moment and she stared into the stars instead. Red and green light strobed at the corners of her eyes as she reached forward and flicked the switch for her navigational lights. Christmas-flavoured flashes of her aeroplane blinked on and off against the night sky.

“Come on, boys,” she muttered into her scarf. “I’m lost, I’m alone, I’m not very smart and I’m over here…”

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eleven O'Clock

Inside the Leedwit Cecily Northlane factory it was dark and quiet. Years of relentless production had taken its first pause and the machinery now stood motionless as if on the brink of a wordless sigh of achievement. The giant constructions of kludged-together assembly lines and steel labouring machines were still. Their saws, riveters and torches had buzzed, punched and spluttered out. Along the walls the rows of white bulbs had finally gone dark behind their iron cages. Glassy banks of gauges and dials had twittered down into immobility. Lonely echoes were left to wander up and down the hangers and old concrete halls that were furrowed with shadow.

In one corner of Hanger Two a gauzy yellow light glowed through the grimy windows of the mechanics office, throwing fuzzy panes across the floor. Moths bumbled up and down the glass, dusting the light with dry powder.

Dark shapes moved inside the office.

“Jasper Bonneweiss?” said the mechanic. “Yeah, I guess it would have been two nights ago I last saw him. Why?”

“I need to get in touch with him,” said Mr Gent. “I’m afraid the business is rather urgent.”

The mechanic gazed at him warily. “He’s not in trouble, is he?”

“No, no, it’s not that. It’s a matter of time that I find him, not of punishment.”

“Ha! That's an odd way to put it."

"It's a rather odd situation, I'm afraid."

The mechanic sipped his coffee as he considered Mr Gent's remark. He sprawled on a dodgy looking leather sofa, while the detective perched tensely on a metal chair. An electric lamp on a desk softly illuminated the corner of the room, revealing the magazine articles, photographs, certificates, receipts and delicate carbon blueprints that papered the walls. In the golden light the aged paper seemed to glow like newsreel film.

A third man lingered in the gloom by the door. He regarded both Mr Gent and his wristwatch with an impatient distaste that was as stuffy and starched as his uniform.

Mr Gent had already become accustomed to ignoring the unfriendly stare, however. His attention was intently focused upon the mechanic, his fingers knitted together to brace up his chin as he leaned forward on his elbows. His brow was tightly drawn.

“Two nights?” he pressed. “You’re certain of this?”

The mechanic nodded as he set his coffee on the arm of the sofa. “Yeah, it would have been two nights ago. Like I told Mr Leedwit’s assistant, two nights ago the kid was just been wrapping up the last engine runups for the Mark Nine. The showroom display models have been finished for nearly three weeks,” he added. “Official production has been underway at the Largo plants since, uh… fall last year?”

He leaned against the back of the sofa and twisted around to peer up at a large chart tacked on the wall nearby. “Yeah, I can’t remember the exact date, but it would have been sometime last fall. Anyway, Leedwit and the chief engineer ordered final stage checks for all the components in the showroom models about a week ago. Two nights ago Jasper and Dan and the Intercontinental guy would have just been finishing up the reassembly and getting SR4 ready for the party.”

Mr Gent blinked. “SR4?”

“Sierra Romeo Four,” said the mechanic. “Or just Show Room Four, the factory code for the gyro Leedwit’s got out in the new showroom tonight.”

“I see. Please, go on.”

The mechanic shrugged. “There’s not much else I can say. Like I told you, I last saw the kid in the auto garage when he was heading for home that night, which would have been what, the eleventh?”

“Yes, that’s right.’

“There you go, the eleventh. I asked him how the engine looked, he said fine, and we both took off for the night.”

“What time was this?”

“Just after midnight, I guess.”

“He walked home?”

“Nah, he’s got a little car, nothing fancy.”

“And you saw him drive out of the garage?”

“Nope.” The mechanic shook his head. “I said good night, headed the other way to catch my ride back with one of the floor welders, and that was the last I saw of him. When he didn’t show up the next morning I just figured that Leedwit had finally given him a day off to get some sleep, you know?”

“You’ve been pulling many late night shifts, lately?”

The mechanic gave a colourless laugh and scrubbed his nose between both hands until his eyes stretched down into taut bags. “Late shifts, early shifts, double shifts, overtime shifts- you name it, we’ve done it. That’s nothing new. It always gets like this whenever a new gyro is scheduled to hit the line.”

Mr Gent rubbed his chin. “So, you and young Mister Bonneweiss were not the last ones out of the building?”

“Nah, probably not. I mean, we were some of the last ones there from this hanger, sure enough, but other guys were still finishing up their shifts when we left. And Security is here all night, of course.”

He jerked his chin at the bored looking man in the brown uniform who loitered at the door.

“That’s right,” said Mr Gent. “Still, I spoke with Security earlier this evening, and while they saw Mr Bonneweiss leave the hanger, no one on duty spotted him after that. You appear to have been the last one to do so, Mr Winston.”

“I think you’re making too big a deal outta this,” yawned the mechanic. “Jasper probably just took a few days off. He’s been working a lot of overtime lately, getting more and more stressed out. He’s catching up on his sleep somewhere, maybe at a friend’s place. He’s done it before. Leedwit ain’t gonna skin him alive for that.”

“Perhaps,” murmured Mr Gent. He rolled over his wrist and shook back the cuff of his jacket. His frown grew hard as he looked down at his watch. The night was late. In less than two hours it would be twelve o’clock midnight, and then…

“This may be very important,” he said in a low voice. His eyes were bright beneath the hooded brim of his hat. “Can you think of anything out of the ordinary that happened around Mr Bonneweiss on the night that you last saw him?”

“Naw,” said the mechanic. He slanted his head to one side wearily. “It was a busy day, but we see a lot of those this time of the year. We get new gyros due for the showroom, regular service and maintenance jobs coming in, fifty hour inspections, one hundred hour inspections- oh, hey, there you go.”

Mr Gent sat up sharply as the mechanic slapped his knee.

“Yeah, hang on,” he said. “Here’s something for you- I did hear the kid get into a bit of an argument with a customer earlier that evening.”

“A customer? Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure, yeah. He was here in the office and the door was shut, and I was only walking past at the time, but I could hear him yelling at someone.”

“What time was this?”

“Maybe nine o’clock?”

“Are you certain it was a customer? Might he not have been talking on the phone?”

“Naw, there was definitely someone in here with him. When I first heard him shout I stopped for a moment by the door to hear what he was hollering about, and I definitely heard another voice in there with him.”

“But it wasn’t another engineer or an employee at the factory?”

The mechanic’s grin turned lewd. “We don’t have any women working down here in the hangers, Mister.”

Mr Gent blinked. “A woman? There was a woman in here with him?”

“Definitely. No man has a voice like that!” The mechanic whistled and then laughed.

“There were no female visitors scheduled to meet with anyone in the factory,” droned the security guard. “You must have been mistaken.”

“Women stop by here all the time,” shot back the mechanic. “We can’t ‘schedule’ when some dame is gonna come marching down to the hangers to complain that her Lionelle’s panel lights are all burnt out, or her engine’s running rough because she can’t remember to pull on carb heat!”

The security guard scowled. One hand wrapped around his belt, the other fell upon the butt of his pistol, which was holstered beneath the bulk of his stomach.

“We monitor all visitors to the hanger very carefully,” he said. “We check them in at the gates and check them out again when they leave, even when they’re service customers arriving without a previous appointment. We checked in no female visitors after four-thirty that afternoon.”

“There was a woman,” said the mechanic to Mr Gent in an airy voice of close confidence. “In here, in the office, with Jasper, alone. And she must have been a real harpy for him to be yelling at her like that.”

Mr Gent glanced at the security guard and then back at the mechanic, whose attitude had finally livened up with seedy interest.

“I don’t suppose you overheard what they were arguing about?” he said.

The mechanic hooted. “Hoo, no! I sure as hell wasn’t going to get caught hanging around the door if the kid came stomping out in that kind of a mood. But, like I said, I’d be willing to bet that it was someone coming in to complain to the service department about their gyro. Sometimes they’re too ticked off to talk to the floor mechanics and want to talk to someone higher up instead, in which case Jasper or Danny or one of the supervisors gets called down.”

“I see,” said Mr Gent distantly. “Did anyone see the woman arrive?”

“There was no woman,” growled the security guard. “This is all nonsense. Mr Bonneweiss was on the telephone, or speaking over the intercom, or listening to the radio. No woman was checked into the hangers after-“

“Four-thirty, I heard you,” said the mechanic, rolling his eyes. “No sir, I asked around afterwards and nobody saw her come in.”

“Could a female employee from another department have made a trip down to the factory to speak with Mr Bonneweiss?” said Mr Gent as diplomatically as possible.

“Eh, maybe.” The sly light faded from the mechanic’s eyes as he fell back against the sofa. “There are a couple of ladies over in Interior Maintenance that sometimes wander through around noon for lunch, or if they’ve gotta consult with a mechanic. But most of them work in Leedwit’s offices.”

Mr Gent remembered the blonde secretary with the snake tattoos and nodded, gazing bleakly at the floor. “I see.”

Forty minutes later his eyes were still cast downward as he trudged through the empty auto garage with slow, heavy steps, his hands thrust into his pockets. Beneath the brim of his hat his expression was gloomy. It would be midnight in an hour and he was no closer to knowing where young Jasper Bonneweiss had disappeared to than he was when he had raced out of Errol Leedwit’s tower office with a signed cheque in his breast pocket, time on his watch and a head clanging with unspoken questions.

Dull underground light flooded his vision and made him feel grey and weary. His footsteps rang hollowly along the concrete floor. The sound seemed to echo in his brain. Vague suspicions rambled through it, looking for something tangible to connect with.

Missing people were not unfamiliar to Mr Gent. One would think they would be, seeing as they were missing in the first place, but generally he had always had good luck in finding them. And in most of these cases you had to rely heavily on luck. As a private detective Mr Gent was classically trained in tracking people, but many of his clients were naturally skilled at disappearing- or at quietly making others fade away.

It was a lot easier to hide a person than to find him, he reflected moodily. A fugitive had his entire imagination at his disposal when he needed to discreetly vanish, whereas someone like Mr Gent could only really utilize that suspicious little corner of his rational mind to determine where they had gone. And this time it was racing against an invisible countdown…

Facts argued in the corner. Jasper Bonneweiss had last been seen at the Northlane factory auto garage at midnight two nights ago. He had departed the company of Mr Winston and walked to his car. He had not returned to his small apartment over the Burrow Street barber shop- no one had seen him climb the stairs to his apartment, Mr Gent corrected himself, neither his landlady, Mrs Hill, nor Mr Tilt the downstairs barber.

He had not returned to work the next day. He had not joined Mr Tilt or Mr Arrow, the other tenant, for breakfast the next morning. His newspaper had not been collected from the hall mailbox. His apartment door was locked and inside it was a mess, although Mrs Hill had sourly assured him that this was usually the case, and would he mind locking the door again behind him when he was finished?

Dry sinks and showers, unmade beds, missing shoes. Many signs pointed to someone who was not at home, and had not been home for an afternoon at least. Mr Gent had wandered the cramped apartment alone, nibbled some bread, sipped a little milk from a glass bottle in the fridge and poked through a hamper of dirty clothing. An hour later he had wandered out again, locked the door behind him, and thumped downstairs to return the keys to Mrs Hill.

According to the other mechanics in Hanger Two nothing unusual had happened to young Mr Bonneweiss at the factory. Mr Gent found that there was often no better evidence to be found in the case of a missing person than that given by close colleagues. In general, few people seemed to watch you as closely as your fellow co-workers did. Not many people wanted to work either more or less than the person labouring beside them. They watched one another as a driver might eye his fuel gauge.

That only left the matter of the mysterious argument with the mystery woman. How had she managed to slip past Security without being noticed-


Mr Gent’s brain quickly reworded that question. How had she managed to enter the hangers without being officially checked in on the records?

He thought of the blonde secretary and her green snake tattoos. He thought about Jasper Bonneweiss and the mystery woman, and then as he stepped up to the side of his little beige coupe and the shadow loomed over him-

“Ah, thank you for walking me back to my car,” he said meekly without turning around, his hands buried in his coat pockets as he groped for his keys. “I think I can find my way back to the gate again. I gather they’ll check me out as I drive through the gate, yes?”

The voice of the security guard growled from somewhere above his head. “Yes, Mr Gent. Ordinarily we do not let visitors down to the hangers at this hour, but Mr Leedwit gave notice of your arrival and departure time and they will be expecting you at the south gate promptly at eleven thirty. Please don’t be late.”

Departure time? thought Mr Gent.

“This is common policy?” he said aloud.

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

“The south gate is the only entrance that leads down to the ramp and the hangers, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

Mr Gent’s fingers closed over his car keys. He pushed them aside and they closed over something else in his pocket instead.

He gazed down at his reflection in the driver’s side window of his car. Haloed in light, it was little more than a silhouette.

“Out of curiosity,” he said. “What guards were on duty the night Mr Bonneweiss disappeared?”

There was a brief pause. “There would have been three on duty,” said his escort. “One in the gatehouse, one at the gate and one on the drive leading down to the ramp.”

“All armed?”

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

“I see. I assume that the guard in the gatehouse is the one responsible for keeping record of every car and visitor that passes through the gate?”

“That is correct, Mr Gent.”

“You mentioned earlier that you were one of the guards who were stationed at the south gate the night Jasper Bonneweiss disappeared, didn’t you, Mr, ah… Gages, was it?”

“That is correct, Mr Gent.”

The shadow lurched. Mr Gent wheeled like a bird. His coat whirled out behind him and his hand flew out of his pocket. Brass rings flashed against his knuckles.

Blood slashed across the window of his car.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Mark Nine

The Stellar Bay was black with night and brilliant with thousands of glittering lights. Moonlit surf washed up against the boardwalks, the docks and piers. Luxury yachts and gyroplanes swayed on the waves, jingling their shrouds. Mooring lanterns glowed on their masts and tails, lost amidst the skyline of towering skyscrapers that rose within the city centre and cast a giant chandelier of light onto the water.

Inside the Leedwit Air Harbour the lights shone diamond-bright. Orchid lamps lit a dazzling path along the edge of the private boardwalk. Beacons glittered and landing lights flickered across the water as gyroplanes fluttered in to land and taxiied between the docks. Valets trained their torch beams along the boardwalk as they guided the new arrivals to a building further up the shore. Built entirely out of glass and steel, it was softly illuminated like a sea lantern itself, its entrance haloed in matinee lights.

Inside it was airy, lavish and loud. A congenial din filled the large showroom. Near the gin bar a four-piece band made a little oasis of music beneath a grove of palm trees, surrounded by a sea of voices. Men in suits and women in light dresses and hats drifted across the lobby floor or lounged on the upper balcony. Man of them lingered near the Leedwit gyroplanes on casual display. Polished to glossy perfection, the aircraft reared high above the crowd, as sleek as fish with their long rotors folded back along their tails.

In one corner a Mark Twelve Dragonfly had drawn a little more than just an admiring look. Balanced squarely on the left float, a young man in a navy blue Bird Dog uniform had pushed back its glass canopy and leaned into the cockpit for a critical scan of its interior.

“Constant speed prop,” he called out. “Brand new Classic instruments, auto carb heat, full panel lights- nice leather seats.”

The young woman standing below him calmly ignored the curious stares he was attracting. She shaded her eyes with her hand so that she could look up into the bright showroom lights.

“What about the radio?” she said. “One or two way comm?”

She saw him shift to peer over. “Two!” he shouted a moment later. “Looks like… yes, it’s a full Gesswein stack. Very nice.”

“Very good. Climb down, captain.”

The young man slid back the canopy and leapt down to land beside her, prompting several waiters loitering in the area to give him an annoyed look with their nostrils before they veered smoothly back into the crowd.

“It’s not a bad little aircraft,” he said as he straightened his uniform jacket. “I’ve never liked Crueway props, I find them bad for cracks and stone chips, but you can’t go wrong with these new Intercontinental engines. Top flight cockpit too.”

The young woman nodded attentively. She was small and slim, coltishly draped in a pale blue frock. Her curly blond hair was cut short and tucked neatly beneath her blue felt tulip hat. She carried a small white purse under one arm, tapped the toes of her small white shoes, and absently fingered a string of small white pearls as she gazed up at the Dragonfly.

“What do you think, captain?” she said. “Is it worth the expense, or would I do better to hang onto my poor old Piat for one more year?”

“Honestly, Miss Birdy? I would say, stay with Piat. The Mark Four Dragonfly is a fantastic gyro, everyone I’ve met who owns one loves it, and their Azo engines are rock solid. With good care your Four will last for another thirty more years at least, with fewer operational costs than any new model four-seat Dragonfly.”

Miss Birdy sighed. “And with the cost of petrol rising… Piat is a good aircraft, you’re quite right. I’m happy to keep him.”

“Well, I suppose if you ever wish to carry more than one passenger, then a new Twelve would still be a viable option,” said the captain cheerfully. “It’s got a much wider range as well- two twenty four gallon tanks.”

Miss Birdy laid a hand on his arm.

“That’s all right,” she said, smiling faintly. “I’m afraid there are no great distances outside of the islands I wish to fly, or anyone to share them with. Piat is fine. I’m well used to his quirks.”

The captain laughed. “You should tell that to Mr Leedwit, if we see him. I’m sure he’d be happy to hear his older gyros are still being appreciated.”

Miss Birdy made a face. “I would prefer not to mention it. I’m afraid that Errol and I are still on rather poor terms at the moment. I’d be grateful not to run into him at all tonight, to be perfectly honest.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. This isn’t about the Tota contract, is it?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You know I’ll fly it for you, Miss Birdy,” said the captain earnestly. “And I’m sure that Chatham will volunteer too, and Townsend, if you were to ask-“

“I know you will,” she said, cutting him off. “But not for his price. And if he values the lives of his pilots he will see the reason of our price soon enough. But let’s not talk about it now, captain. Would you like a drink?”

His expression grew dubious. “I really shouldn’t-“

“Oh, tosh.” Miss Birdy waved it off. “I’ll fly us home, captain. I could stand to log a few more night hours anyway. Win, gin? There will be champagne here, if I have any guess. Look, there’s a bar. Let’s find something and then escape this crowd. I can see that Colonel Harding’s wife is starting to eye me again, and I don’t think I could stand to hear any more about their new summer cottage.”

A little time later they lounged on the balcony themselves, leaning over the railing to cast an appraising look at the people and machines gathered below.

“That’s rather nice,” said Miss Birdy with a nod of her chin. “That little Lionelle coupe with the three-bladed rotor.”

“They’re a bit bad for torque according to Role,” said the captain. “But very fast and lovely to fly once you get them up to cruise.”

“The Harvards just bought one, I hear. Look, there’s Vera now, galloping her husband over to have a look. It’s funny how she can afford to buy a brand new gyro but can’t seem to put together the funds to send me a cheque to cover her last bill.”

“Was that the escort to Port Selwick?”

“Yes, that’s the one.”

“Role and Cyrus flew that,” said the captain thoughtfully. “They mentioned the staff pilot did some grumbling, but young Ian Harvard seemed a nice enough boy. Haven’t we seen any payment at all from that account?”

“Not a dollar since the initial deposit. Which was nothing particularly substantial, might I add.”

The captain sipped his rum. “That was a Black Wall route. I think I’ll send up some of the lads from Role’s flight to practice forced landings over the Harvard estate this Tuesday. They still have horses, don’t they?”

“Yes, I believe so. Three hundred acres, lots of lovely big paddocks, all full of horses.”

“Skittish ones, do you think?”

“Oh, probably. They’re mostly racehorses. Rather stupid, flighty things, I’ve always thought. Quite expensive too.”

“Yes, forced landings,” said the captain happily, as if he hadn’t heard her. “You can never get enough practice for that. Low altitude, high RPMs, plenty of open fields around the Harvard place- it’s the perfect spot, I should think.”

Miss Birdy peered down into her glass of sarsaparilla, which was tickled with condensation and dripping onto the toes of her shoes. “You’re going to get me into trouble again.”

“I’m sorry. Would you like us to fling ourselves somewhere else, Miss?”

“Oh no. I just felt obliged to mention it, that’s all. Fling away, captain. I look forward to seeing Vera in my office again. Lord knows I must have missed her the first time.”

The captain laughed at that. Then, without warning he abruptly pitched over sideways and leaned far out over the railing in order to look down into the crowd directly below. Miss Birdy regarded him warily.

“Alan, please don’t do that,” she said. “I feel as if I should make myself ready to grab your ankles at any moment.”

“Sorry, miss. But I just spotted someone else you may not want to hear about.”

“Given this crowd I would say that’s quite likely. Who was it?”

“Mr Leedwit.”

“Oh, damn. What was he doing?”

“Mingling, from the looks of things.”

“Did he see us?”

“Oh, unquestionably. But he ducked behind that big new Strata of his and hustled off as soon as he saw that I’d clapped eyes on him.”

“Good,” said Miss Birdy in satisfaction. “At least I know that someone here still remembers we’re not a free service. Keep an eye out for him, would you, captain? If he wanders back this way, try to do your best to look terribly official. Maybe that will discourage him from expecting leniency on my charges in exchange for charm and courtesy.”

“My pleasure, Miss Birdy.” The captain set his elbow onto the railing and swirled his glass of rum. “What do you think this new Strata will be like?”

Miss Birdy had been frowning at the sky-lit ceiling, as if contemplating her own faraway reflection in the glass; when she heard his voice she hummed absently and looked back down. “I’m sorry?”

“This new Strata he’s unveiling… what do you think of it? All sorts of rumours have been flying about. Marcus said he heard it will be an eight-seater. It looks big enough to be one under that sheet, doesn’t it?”

Miss Birdy glanced down at the showroom floor. In the centre of the dark room the newest gyroplane in the Strata line sat on a display pedestal, crowned in spotlights. It was mysteriously draped in a giant silver sheet and fenced off with velvet ropes. Already a good number of people were finding excuses to chat near it, with more of them wandering into its orbit as the evening drew on.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” she said. “Argus mustn’t be very happy about that. I imaging those big new Stratas are starting to cut into his business.”

“Maybe, Miss Birdy. I don’t think many air taxi businesses can afford to line their fleets with Leedwit gyros, though.”

“Not the small ones, certainly.” Miss Birdy sighed. “But I can see the bigger charter services snatching them up for their clients. Poor Argus. His gyros have always been everywhere. They’re so reliable. Do you know, I’ve always felt bad for choosing a Leedwit gyro over a Seakirk?”


“Oh yes. I couldn’t face him for a week afterwards. And he’s always inviting me to all of his company events… granted, I suspect it’s partly a bid to promote his aircraft, but he’s always so sweet and doleful about it-“

She cut off sharply and frowned at the other end of the balcony. Between a waiter and a potted orange tree a familiar face had appeared and disappeared, drifting through the bright green leaves.

The captain looked at her curiously, his glass lifted halfway to his mouth. “Miss?”

“Alan, could you do me a favour and watch for the new Strata?” she said suddenly, setting her own glass on the railing. “I just spotted someone I wouldn’t mind talking to.”

“Oh! Yes, Miss Birdy, of course. But surely you don’t mean to miss the unveiling?”

Miss Birdy patted his hand.

“What’s to see?” she said. “Four extra seats and a brand new livery. Don’t worry. I should be able to catch sight of it from across the balcony. But I trust your eyes to gauge its worth far better than mine would anyway.”

She quietly slipped away before he had the chance to be flattered, and say as much.

The crowd on the balcony was thickening by the minute as more and more partygoers rose like a tide to find the best view of the showroom floor and the lumpy shape beneath the silver sheet. Wine and champagne flowed past; glasses sparkled beneath strings of white lights. Smoke glided through in the air. Voices swam through the glittering human surf. Someone trod quite heavily on her foot.

By the time Miss Birdy had limped up to the orange tree she was feeling rather breathless. She leaned against the railing on one arm and massaged her foot, feeling grateful that she had chosen a style of shoe without buckles.

The leaves of the orange tree shivered. She glanced up. A small brown sparrow flounced daintily between the branches. There were probably half a dozen of them trapped in the glass building, she thought. It regarded her pertly.

“Piss off,” she told it.

“Well, all right, then.”

Miss Birdy jumped and turned. The man standing next to her pressed a glass into her hand.

“Here,” he said. “I thought you might need this.”

He was a tall man, smartly dressed in a black suit, with tightly curled blond hair. He was smiling in a vague, pleasant manner, but his eyes were alert. She regarded him with some irritation.

“I can’t,” she said. “I’m flying back tonight.”

“Are you?” he said. “I would have thought you’d leave that sort of thing to your officer friend.” He nodded back in the direction she had come from.

“This is his evening off. I invited him for the company.”

“He’s a good looking young fellow, at any rate,” noted the blond man. “Captain Milestone, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.” Miss Birdy set the full glass onto the railing. “Have you been here for very long?”

“I’ve been in and out all evening,” said the man as he gazed coolly into the crowd. “Mostly out. I don’t know how you stand these people.”

“Somehow I manage. You’ve walked around the building, then?”

“Yes, or at least what is accessible with minimal discretion. A bit funny, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking. The design is odd. And it’s brand new. I don’t know if he built it specifically as a showroom to host special events like this one, or…”

She let her voice trail off as she deliberately raised her glass to her lips. The blond man shook out his wrist and glanced at his watch. A waiter wheeled past. With steady eyes the blond man watched him glide back into the crowd.

“Maybe we should step out onto the terrace,” he said in a low voice.

Miss Birdy set her glass back down and shook her head. “Leedwit is about to reveal his new Strata. It would seem far more peculiar if we were seen to leave now.”

The man glanced indifferently over the railing. “I’ll endeavour to look impressed.”

“Have you spoken to Leedwit at all this evening?”

“Only briefly. He and a group of his designer friends were buzzing on about drapes and sofas and taupe or some such nonsense, and I didn’t stay to chat. Why, have you?”

“No, I’ve been avoiding him. When that sheet gets whipped off and the excitement has died down I’ll send the captain down to pump him for details on the Strata.”

Something hidden and sharp gleamed in the back of the blond man’s eyes. “Tell him to ask for a good look at the engine, would you? I suspect we’ll have a few of our questions answered once we’ve seen that aircraft inside and out.”

Miss Birdy nodded slowly. “Then you do think he has something else already under production.”

“I do. You believe it as well?”

“I’m growing more convinced by the day. All of this-“ She waved at the lights and the crowd and the glass building at large. “- is far too grand just to show off one gyroplane, no matter how exceptional. He wants an audience for something, but I don't know what that is.”

“I’ll wager Intercontinental is involved to some degree. Those two have always been tight. Do you mind if I smoke?”

The blond man bowed his head and lit up a cigarette when she shook her head absently, her gaze distant, elsewhere.

“Anyway, I’ll buy one of his damn Nines myself and have it stripped apart back home if I have to,” he said, blowing a jet of smoke through the corner of his teeth as he pocketed his lighter. “If it really is advanced as they say it is, then I want to know what he is preparing this engine and these new systems for, and why. Interpolation, my dear.”

Miss Birdy smiled faintly. “Save your money. I think I’ll be able to find that out for you much more cheaply and in a much less taxing fashion.”

The man laughed. “You’ve plans to pump Leedwit over tea aboard the Liverpool, have you?”

“Good lord, no. But I do-“

Her voice was drowned out by a swell of music, followed shortly by applause. The lights dimmed, save for the spotlights directed at the pedestal. Miss Birdy and the blond man looked down over the railing. Errol Leedwit had taken to the pedestal with a small contingent of his well-dressed associates and was addressing the crowd in his cool, genial fashion. His voice rang over the microphone and his hands were haloed in light as he gestured behind him to the gyroplane sheathed in the silver sheet. Miss Birdy glanced from side to side as more guests began to gather along the edge of the balcony to hear him. Their eyes were lit with stars from the spotlights.

“Here it comes,” murmured the blond man dryly.

With great ceremony the sheet was drawn up by wires. The giant silver gyroplane left naked and gleaming on the pedestal was greeted with a chorus of admiring sighs, and then strobing white flashbulbs.

Miss Birdy inhaled at the sight and lightly joined in the applause. “My word, it’s as big as a Canvasback. Poor Argus.”

“Eight seats after all,” said the blond man. He blew out a hazy ring of smoke with his tongue and gazed down at the gyroplane with heavily lidded eyes. He slowly clapped his hands. “Mr Leedwit must cater to curiously large families.”

“This doesn’t bode well for Seakirk.”

“It’s lovely to look at though, isn’t it. I imagine Leedwit is relieved to finally get it out into the public, officially.”

Without taking her eyes from the silver gyroplane Miss Birdy chuckled quietly. “Maybe he hopes it will draw a good deal of press and attention now, and divert it from the rest of his company.”

She glanced up in annoyance when the blond man reached down and carefully plucked a stray leaf from the band of her tulip hat.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. He held up the leaf to show her before he flicked it back into the canopy of the orange tree. “I’ll keep my eyes open. I’ve invited myself onto one of his Cecily Northlane factory tours next week. I’ll give the building a good look-over while I’m there, and then invite myself back as convenience dictates.”

Miss Birdy turned to face him fully. The corner of her mouth quirked.

“You’ll be attending this tour personally, will you?” she said, amused.

He looked taken aback for a moment by the question, but recovered quickly and laughed. “Ah, no, I’m sorry, you’re quite right. I think it will be Mr Paris who pays a visit.”

“I’m sure Errol will be pleased to see him,” said Miss Birdy as she looked back down at the industrialist, who was now calmly answering a barrage of questions from the reporters and photographers crowded against the base of the pedestal. “I hear he holds Mr Paris in very high regard.”

“The man can be very charming,” said the blond man in a laconic voice. He snubbed out his cigarette on the railing and dropped it into her glass. “Anyway, I think I’ll send Paris down now to get a closer look at this wonderful new flying machine. I’d best be off. Shall we arrange to meet again?”

“I’ll get into contact with you when the time is appropriate,” said Miss Birdy as she held her purse over her stomach and snapped it open. “Please, don’t just send someone around to see me. The men aren’t accustomed to seeing gentlemen callers strolling uninvited about the airfield or the Liverpool. It does tend to make them a little edgy.”

She withdrew something small and flat from her purse. “Here is the card for my private office. If you need to place a call or leave a letter or a message, you can do so there, or- oh, damn.”

She stepped back and turned in place, her face set in exasperation. The blond man had already disappeared back into the crowd, leaving nothing but a curl of smoke melting in the air behind him.

With a quiet sigh Miss Birdy placed the little gilt-edged card with the golden hound stamp back into her purse. She supposed she needn’t have bothered trying to give it to him. In all likelihood her companion already knew the explicit details of every word and number that was printed upon it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Mardi 13th

Kate felt the familiar bump beneath her seat as Red Rum’s floats touched down upon the ocean. The aeroplane shuddered as it sank into the waves. Immediately the cockpit was filled with the hollow sound of water rushing past the floats, and the hiss of the spray they carved from the surf, which flew up behind the aircraft in two white arcs.

Through the mist on the windshield Kate could see a small beach directly ahead of her. The blue and white seaplane she had been following was already pulled up onto the sand. She slowly taxiied across the shallow bay, gazing keenly left and right and up into the empty sky. When she had drawn close enough she cut the engine and let Red Rum gently drift up beside the other plane. There was another soft bump when the floats ran aground, a slithering sound, and then the big seaplane grew still as it nosed up onto the beach.

Kate shut down the rest of the aeroplane and peeled up her goggles. Her chart was stowed back underneath the seat, her belts were unbuckled and her headset unplugged. She reached up and climbed out of the seat and sat on the edge of the cockpit instead. The cool island air felt lovely against her sweaty face.

As she unzipped the throat of her jacket and tugged down her scarf she glanced around the beach. It was little more than a tiny spit of land, harsh and bleak, sheltered from the rest of the giant island by a long ridge of hewn rock. Dead trees with naked black branches straggled along the top of the ridge. Tufts of withered grass fringed the pepper-grey sand. There wasn’t a single living creature in sight, not even a bird. Only crunched up bits of nautili shell littered the beach.

Kate frowned at the other aeroplane. Footprints were tramped all around its nose and props, but there was no sign of either its pilot or its passenger. How odd.

Two thumps rumbled in the cockpit as she tossed her boots inside. After rolling her trousers up to her knees she padded down the wing root and jumped down into the surf. The sand felt strange between her toes, gritty and hard, as if it really were pepper. She splashed around the wing of her plane and waded up onto the beach.

“Hello?” she called out, turning slowly in place. Her feet dabbed a trail of wet prints into the sand. “Hellooo? Anyone here?”

Well, obviously, she thought.

Her voiced echoed off across the rocks. A little eddy of grey dust whirled across the top of the ridge with a whispering sound. Clouds scudded overhead. Nothing.

Moving cautiously, she approached the other seaplane. It was already so weatherworn and drab that it looked perfectly at home on the lonely beach. It was easy to imagine that it might be nothing more than a forlorn wreck, abandoned by its marooned pilot, who was now just a pile of bleached bones crumpled somewhere on the rocks. But the footprints around it were perfectly fresh, and when she stripped off her gloves and put one hand on the engine cowling it was warm to the touch.

“Hello?” she said, stretching up onto her toes to peer into the cockpit. “Anyone home?”

A shadow reared up along the side of the aeroplane. Kate whirled. But before she could turn to face the dark shape behind her a pair of strong hands seized her shoulders. She stumbled in the sand as she was firmly spun about and hoisted aloft by the back of her jacket.

In mid-air she thrashed, then swung both of her bare feet onto the fuselage of the plane and kicked back, hard. It was like shoving against a brick wall.

A fierce shake rattled her teeth and left her seeing stars. With her head tilted sideways she hung from the pair of hands as they carted her away from the old seaplane and up the beach. Her feet didn’t touch the sand once. Her jacket had bunched all the way up to her neck. If she didn’t have a scruff to be carried by before, she certainly did now, she thought dazedly.

The hands abruptly stopped. Kate swung limply. A man was sitting on a rock a short distance ahead of her. She tried to squint at him but a lot of her scarf and collar got in the way.

“Ahoy,” he said.

Kate waved.

“Red Rum, was it?”

“Kate Hawkins, actually,” she gurgled.

The man smiled broadly. “Hi there, Miss Hawkins. I’m Duke. And behind you, that’s Fran. And that big bit over there, that’s also Fran. As you might have already guessed, there’s a whole lot of Fran here.”

“Nice to meet you both,” said Kate. “I don’t suppose you could convince the bit that’s got me to let go?”

“Nope,” said Duke. “You’ll have to forgive us, Miss Hawkins. We’re usually a lot more tolerant than this. You just happened to catch us on a bad day, if you catch my meaning.”

“I suppose I do.” Kate sighed. “Does this mean you’re not interested in hearing a word I have to say?”

“Oh, we'll listen, sure enough. I can’t guarantee we’ll do anything other than that, but since we’re here with a couple hours to kill we’d be happy to hear you out, at least. Isn’t that right, Fran?”

“Happy as a clam,” rumbled the voice over Kate’s head.

“See? There you go. Yak away, Miss Hawkins.”

Kate felt the hands lower her back to the sand. The iron grip didn’t relax an inch of pressure from the back of her jacket however, not even when her legs buckled, but she stood up straight and smoothed down the rumpled leather as best she could.

“Well,” she said briskly as she whipped off her scarf and draped it around her neck. “I’m glad to see that island welcomes are just as courteous as I remember them being.”

“Please and thank you,” said Duke. “This isn’t your first visit then, Miss Hawkins?”

“Believe it or not, I used to live here once, a long time ago.”

“Hear that, Fran? And you’ve been living in Eudonia ever since, have you?”

“I stop there from time to time.”

“Long enough to pick up the accent, at any rate.”

“Some people find it charming,” said Kate sweetly.

Duke laughed. “The same people who would have been even more charmed if you had stayed a natural blonde or redhead, I’ll bet.”

Kate reddened a little at the jibe but resisted the urge to touch her temple to see if the boot black was dribbling. With all of the sun and heat she could imagine that it was quietly melting into black juice beneath her flight cap.

She drew her dignity upright. “Yes, well, I’m sure we can entertain ourselves with my exotic beauty all we want once we get back to your little restaurant," she said. "But I’d much rather discuss business at the moment, and I’d prefer not to have to bat my eyes to do so, if you please.”

“Yes, all right,” chuckled Duke. “Go ahead, Miss Hawkins.”

“Thank you. Now look. You’re here on the Black Wall to hunt pirates, aren’t you?”

“Not exactly, but you’re close enough.”

“Very well.” Kate knuckled her hands onto her hips and took a deep breath. “Then you’re here to rescue a friend who has been captured by them.”

Some of the amusement faded from the swarthy man’s face. She saw him glance up at the woman guarding her back. “What would lead you to believe that, Miss Hawkins?”

Kate scoffed. “Oh, come now, Mr Rosa! I do know what day it is. And I also know of a few Black Sea pirate traditions, thank you.”

Duke rubbed his grey chin. “And you put two and two together, did you? Without any help from, say, a slightly dim bunch of local pilots?”

“Mr Whitfield was rather surprised when I paid for his breakfast,” said Kate. “What a nice old man.”

Duke swore. “I knew it! What did I say, Fran? I’ll feed that old fart to the leeches when we get back.”

“Hang on,” thundered Fran. The hands gave Kate a hard shake. “Let’s back up a minute. ‘Mr Rosa’?”

Kate’s face was wreathed in injured innocence. Inwardly she swore. That had slipped out.

“What’s the matter?” she said. “Did I pronounce it wrong?”

“Don’t be smart. Where did that come from?”

Kate blinked at Duke. “It is your name, isn’t it?”

He winced.

She began to laugh. “Duke, Duchess and Rosa? Oh dear.”

“Out here pilots take their nicknames from their aircraft,” he grumbled. “I don’t know how they do it back in Eudonia, but that’s how it works in the islands.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly think it was a title. Diego, isn't it?”

He sighed. “That’s right.”

“Let me guess,” said Fran. “Mr Whitfield again?”

“His coffee too,” agreed Kate.

Duke fumed and bent his hands at the sky. “Did you hear that? Again! I can’t leave that lot alone for five minutes! Lord almighty, I’m going to start pulling in some tabs when I get back, I can tell you that.”

“Calm down, Duke. It’s signed on all your licences anyway.”

“Yes, well…” He trailed off, muttering.

Kate grinned. She had missed this.

“All right then, Hawkins,” said Fran. “If you know what day it is and you know what the Brigade is up to, then I suppose you have a pretty good idea why we’re here and what we’re planning to do.”

“Yes,” admitted Kate. “Although I can't say I understand why you would bother. Don’t Brigade pirates and Red Wings murder one another on a fairly routine basis already?”

“Up to seven years ago they did,” said Duke. “But these days there are only a small handful of Red Wing pirates left in the Black Sea.”

“So the Brigade has made a bit of a sport out of the whole thing,” said Fran. “They’ve turned it into a tradition. It’s not just rival pirate gangs fighting over territory anymore. Now it’s murder.”

“Like a ritual,” said Duke grimly. “Every single Mardi thirteenth they gear up for it. Nobody likes a pirate out here, Miss Hawkins, but we’re not all that crazy about murder either.”

“Oh, come now,” laughed Kate. “They’re just filthy pirates. If your Bird Dogs catch up to them they’ll all end up hanged anyway, and good riddance.”

Duke grimaced. “That’s just the thing, Miss Hawkins. You’re not going to find many people sorry to see any of the Brigade boys swing, especially the families of the pilots and sailors they’ve attacked and murdered on raids.”

“But people around here can still get a bit funny where the Red Wings are concerned,” said Fran.

“Nobody complained too loudly when they were going after Eudonian ships, for example. No offence.”

“And they left survivors. That was pretty unheard of back then. They sank and stole, but at least they weren’t bloodthirsty about it. Not like Black’s lot are, at any rate.”

“You’ve got Rufus Crowe to thank for that. He was a cut above all of them, that’s for certain. A gentleman pirate, if you can say such a thing.”

“Nobody was happy when he turned up dead after the big fight.”

“Save for Black and the Brigade,” said Duke. “I bet they were pleased to hear it.”

Kate frowned. “I thought they never found his body.”

“They didn’t,” said Fran. “But the wreckage of his plane was spotted days out to sea shortly after. If he was alive when he went down, then he wasn’t for very long after.”

“You hear all sorts of old wives tales about him surviving the battle and swimming to shore with cannon shells up and down his leg, or being picked up by a fishing boat days later, but you’re a pilot yourself, Miss Hawkins," said Duke. " You know those things just don’t happen. Only dead men see no shore from the sea.”

Kate pursed her lips into a grim line. It was an old saying among sea pilots, but it certainly rang with a grave toll of truth.

“I thought most of the Red Wings were killed in the big fight,” she said thoughtfully. “Or else chased down and caught afterwards.”

Duke nodded. “Most of them were. That’s the ugly part. See, that means what’s left over of the old gang isn’t the raiders themselves, but their women and kids, the ones that followed them from camp to camp and went into hiding afterwards.”

“So every year at this time the Brigade digs out a couple and kills them,” said Fran. “They make quite a bash out of it.”

“Partly just to rub salt into old wounds, I should think,” said Duke. “But we also figure Black wouldn’t mind stomping out what’s left of the Red Wings while he’s at it, just to make sure some angry youth doesn’t pop up and stick a knife into him later in life to avenge his pop.”

He nodded to Fran with his chin. “Fran here got word that they’ve caught a kid this year. They went all the way out to Cecily to grab him, if you can believe that.”

“Cecily?” exclaimed Kate with wide eyes. “Good lord, Cecily, Catalina? In broad daylight?”

“I heard night,” said Fran. “Still, the kid must have really turned his life around if he was living in Cecily at the time. And if Black’s lot risked sneaking into the city to nick him, then you can bet that his daddy was a big man in the Red Wings.”

“Or he was someone Black held a personal grudge again. Who knows.”

Kate narrowed her eyes. “What’s his name?”

“The kid? Bonneweiss.”

“Bonneweiss. Bonneweiss, Bonneweiss- what’s his first name?”

“Jasper, I think.”

Kate’s gaze grew distant as she turned the name over and over in her mind in search of a stray memory to connect it to. After a moment she had to shake her head. “No, sorry, I guess it doesn’t ring a bell after all.”

Duke had drawn up his feet and straddled his forearms across his knees. He was watching her quite shrewdly from his perch on the rocks, she noticed, all hunched over like an albatross, with the long leather wings of his sea coat splayed out around his feet.

“I guess that brings us back to one of our original questions,” he said. “If you don’t know the boy, then why did you follow us?”

“I thought you were after pirates.” Kate shrugged one shoulder. “Your chums back at the restaurant suggested as much."

Duke sighed. "They would."

"Frankly, I still don’t see why you’re both so interested in saving this boy," said Kate. "The whole thing sounds like a messy spat that is better off avoided.”

She heard Fran grunt.

“Black’s boys can strip any ship they please and they’ll get no interference from me,” growled the giant woman. “And the more planes they shoot down the more work I get anyway. But killing kids and old ladies just because their men were Red Wings is nasty business.”

“You sound rather keen about all this,” said Kate. A sly glint crept into her eye. “A bit funny for the Red Wings yourself, are you?”

That earned her a heavy cuff to the back of her head. “Don’t be smart.”

“You have to understand, Miss Hawkins,” said Duke, sounding vaguely apologetic. “The police and the Bird Dogs don’t always hear the same rumours that salvagers or cargo or other sea pilots do. And even if they do they rarely bother looking into them. Up to this point all that was left of the Red Wings were a bunch of homeless tramps. Nobody really cares if some air vagrants go missing- they’re rats as far as the authorities are concerned. This Bonneweiss kid is the first to be caught who seems to have actually built a life off the airway circuit. And if Black’s pirates are getting bold enough to steal in and out of Cecily to get to him, then that’s bad news for everybody, not just drifters.”

“And how did you hear about this in the first place?” said Kate, rubbing the back of her head with an ugly look back at her captor.

She felt the big woman shrug. “I’ve got some friends in Cecily.”

“Friends? What kind of friends?”

“Nice ones.”

“Interesting ones too, I’ll bet.”

“So, there you go,” cut in Duke. “We figured we’d see what we could do for this poor kid ourselves, since in less than eight hours he’s going to get his throat slit.”

“You seem quite familiar with a number of unsavoury pirate traditions as well,” Kate noted.

He grinned. “We’re an unsavoury bunch ourselves, Miss Hawkins.”

She snorted. “Of course you are. So essentially what you’re saying is that on this day the two of you take it upon yourselves to charge out to the Black Wall to fight the horde and come to the rescue of an unlucky hobo?”

“Well, we’re a bit sneakier about it than that.”

“And you pull this stunt every year, do you?”

“Nah, just for the last four. We hadn’t gotten wind of Black’s little private execution before that.”

“And have you ever managed to actually save anyone from the big chop yet?”

Duke winced, his grin faltering. “Ah, to date? Not exactly.”

“That’s nice,” said Kate. “So for all of the secrecy and eye patches and stealthy heroics all you’ve really got to show for it are a few dead wenches and red faces.”

“Miss Hawkins, these are pirates we’re dealing with,” said Duke painedly. “Quite frankly, it’s a miracle we even manage to get away with nothing but minor knifings and some bullet holes in the tail of the aeroplane. But at least we’re doing something.”

Kate sighed. “You know, if you really wanted to make a big difference you would just fly to their camp and strafe the hell out of it.”

“Yes, well, some of us don’t load up our aircraft with five millimetre cannons, Miss Hawkins. And while we’re on the subject, what does a nice young lady like you need firepower like that for anyway?”

“Killing people,” admitted Kate.

He regarded her coolly. “So you are a privateer, then.”

“What? Certainly not!”

“I think you misunderstand,” rumbled Fran. “Out here, ‘privateer’ means someone with written permission from the Governor to track and kill pirates. Rather like your Eudonian bounty hunters.”

“Oh.” Kate stopped bristling. “Well, I guess that just about sums it up, then.”

Duke nodded in satisfaction. “And that’s why you came chasing after us, is it? You figured we were off to pick a fight with the Brigade.”

“It had crossed my mind.”

“And are you after one of them in particular, or just in the spirit for general mayhem?”

“Maybe one or two, but it’ll be dark by then, and I’m not fussy.”

“Do Eudonian authorities even honour foreign bounties?”

Kate hooted. “From these islands, they do. You’ve got your charming Mr Crowe to thank for that.”

“Uh huh,” said Duke. “And what do you plan on doing once we’ve nabbed the kid? He was once a Red Wing himself, from the sound of it.”

Kate flipped a hand at his wary tone. “Contrary to popular belief I don’t chop the head off of every pirate I run across, Mr Rosa. Keep him, send him home- do whatever you want. I just thought it might be easier to work together than fly in all at once and tread on each other’s toes.”

Duke grunted and scratched the bridge of his nose. “You’re probably right.”

Fran gave a short laugh. “You’re just saying that because you don’t want your plane getting shot up.”

“Would you? Give me a break, here.”

“So, do we have a deal?” said Kate brightly. “I’m not asking for a cut of the kid’s reward, or whatever it is you’re really going to all of this trouble for. All I want if for you to lead me to their hidden camp so that I can do my thing and give you a bit of friendly cover from the air in the process. It sounds like a bloody good plan to me.”

Duke wasn’t looking at her anymore. Instead he was gazing up at Fran with a sceptical expression.

“What do you think?” he said. “How good of a shot are you, Miss Hawkins?”

“An excellent shot, I assure you.”

“In that case we could probably use a wingman on the way back, Fran. Duchess isn’t going to be holding much speed over any of Black’s planes once we’ve got three people crammed aboard.”

Fran was silent. Kate could feel her fingers kneading into her leather jacket in a pensive fashion.

“All right,” she finally said. “You might as well join us, Miss Hawkins. I really don’t feel like making two trips tonight.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The big woman shrugged. “You’d follow us out even if I just said no, wouldn’t you? In which case I’d have to knock you out now and tie you to your prop, from which I’d have to cut you down later if I wanted to avoid a murder.”

There really wasn’t anything Kate could say in reply to something like that, so she didn’t. When the hands released the back of her jacket she quickly sidestepped away and tugged down the fleece lapels in an injured manner.

“I’ll go get the axe,” chortled Duke as he slid down from the rocks. “For firewood,” he added when Kate shot him a look.

“So, what do we do now?” she said as he trooped down the beach. “You mentioned waiting until nightfall…?”

“That’s right,” said Fran. “We lay low here for now, then take off at sunset. When Duke gets back I’ll fill you in on the plan.”

They walked back to the seaplanes in silence. The big woman didn’t seem inclined to say anything further on the subject until a fire was going, and Kate was much too occupied with her own busy thoughts to rouse the interest in idle chat.

But when she saw Duke leaping back onto the rocks with his sea coat shucked aside and a hatchet stuck into his belt she stopped in her tracks and watched him go. Her mouth bent into a brooding frown.

“So tell me,” she said. “Why doesn’t Mr Rosa use his real name any more?”

“It’s a good name,” said Fran. “He doesn’t like getting it dirty.”

"What exciting lives you must lead," said Kate dryly.

Fran ignored her.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Leedwit Case

From the forty-eighth floor of the Leedwit Aero International Tower, the view over the metropolis of Cecily was nothing short of spectacular. Mr Gent could only imagine the fantastic sights he was missing as he sat with his back to the windows and watched Mr Leedwit’s pale blonde secretary instead.

Along with the rest of the room’s tasteful décor he suspected she had been meticulously hand-picked to install a sense of awe and reverence in a would-be visitor. In this task she magnificently succeeded. That she was artfully and stylishly beautiful was something that Mr Gent had given only brief appreciation. The detective’s keen eye had quickly discerned the many other fine qualities the woman possessed that went much deeper than her skin.

The tattoos were very striking. As was her robust use of the Anglais language.

“Those ill-bred sons of bitches,” she swore in her lovely cocktail voice.

“F-cking hell,” she added a moment later when one of her nails snapped. She dropped the bulky package she had been straining to lift and examined the broken end of her nail irritably. Mr Gent was impressed at how skilfully she had gutted just enough of the obscene word to make it office safe.

He hung back at the elevator door as she tackled the package again. It was strangely lumpy and wrapped in brown paper. He was slightly alarmed at how heavy it looked. A startling amount of wiry muscle was leaping along the secretary’s white arms, making the serpents in their mail of green ink jerk and writhe. The detective briefly wondered if he should quit holding his hat in front of him like a shield and go to her aid.

Eventually she managed to manhandle it back into her arms without his help. Staggering under its weight she levied it behind her desk and dumped it into a corner. Then she straightened, smoothed down her blouse and skirt and turned to give Mr Gent a cool look that was all forehead and eyebrows.

“Yes, may I help you?” she said.

“Ah,” said Mr Gent as he turned his hat between his hands. “Perhaps I have come at a poor time?”

She sat and crossed her legs with only the sparest glance at her ledger.

“You are Mr Miles Gent?” she said. “The private detective?”

“Yes, miss.”

“And your meeting with Mr Leedwit is still at twelve thirty, Mr Gent?”

“Ah, yes.”

“Then you have arrived at exactly the right god damned time.” She pressed a button on her intercom and immediately her voice changed. “Mr Leedwit, your one o’clock appointment has arrived.”

“Very good,” said the intercom. “Send it in after I have spoken with the detective, would you.”

“Yes, Mr Leedwit,” said the secretary. She glanced at Mr Gent, who still loitered by the elevator and was now feeling vaguely insulted. “You may sit and wait for your appointment, if you wish.”

Mr Gent sat. He waited.

A gold clock ticked softly on the corner of the desk. The quiet rustle of paper as the secretary flicked through her magazine seemed even louder than the drone of aeroplanes passing outside the building. Mr Gent kept his hat on his knee and his eyes on the secretary’s wrists. The emerald green snakes tattooed there fascinated him. They coiled her wrists and wound between her fingers like banded rings, beautifully accenting her blouse and the drops of silver jewellery at her ears. They must have hurt like hell, he thought.

He had heard the rumours, of course. The rumours of the fantastic and dangerous people Mr Errol Leedwit hired to work in his stately homes, his towers of business and his aeronautical companies scattered across the islands. They were his cooking and cleaning staff, his accountants, his secretaries, his engineers and factory workers. Mr Leedwit, it was said, was greatly interested in the wildly exciting lives of the outrageous and bold. He liked to surround himself with those he could afford to hire, which was indeed the majority of the criminal population in the archipelago, and make powerful friends of the rare few who combined with and audacity with wealth and influence.

His social circle sparkled with brilliant adventurers, even as his private life glinted with hidden rogues.

If it were true, then it was a very shrewd path for a man in the industry to make, Mr Gent thought. Mr Leedwit catered only to the wildest and wealthiest of clients- or rather those who fancied themselves as such. With most of the real explorers, fortune-hunters and adventurers already collected within his circle of friends the industrial giant could tap at his leisure the exotics stories of their exploits and transform that fierce energy into the sleek and stylish lines of his newest gyroplane, aggressive and alluring sky vehicles tailored for the giddiest crop of socialites and thrill seekers.

Silly toys for even sillier businessmen and heiresses, thought Mr Gent. But Mr Leedwit’s aero machines were clever and beautiful, their luxury masquerading behind glamorous air of danger. You felt as if you were racing down air pirates at two hundred knots just standing next to one in the showroom.

His eyes wandered back to the secretary and her wrists. That reminded him of another rumour he had once heard back in a seedy air harbour on the salvager’s island Largo. It was about Mr Leedwit and the darker side to his peculiar collection, about the small handful of Red Wing pirates and their wives that had been rounded up shortly after the terrible air clash seven years ago and mysteriously disappeared from prison weeks later…

Pardoned and exiled, he had wondered, out of grudging respect for the late Rufus Crowe? Executed? Or quietly moved into different custody…?

He studied the secretary thoughtfully. She still had her magazine out on her desk and was sliding back the glossy pages with the tip of her middle finger, utterly ignoring him. Her posture was aloof, sculpted. The snakes had calmed down. Mr Gent wondered how much it had hurt when the scrimshaw artist had tattooed all of that green ink into the skin sheathing her thin hands, while the delicate framework of bone shifted under the needle.

The doors to Mr Leedwit’s office cracked open with a shuddering boom. Mr Gent looked over. Two pale men carrying leather portfolios stepped out. Neither one looked particularly exotic or even very happy, he thought.

One spoke with the secretary in a low, urgent voice while the other fidgeted by the elevator. They left together on the elevator without sparing so much as a glance in the detective’s direction.

Mr Gent watched them go. Then he shifted his gaze to the row of numbers above the elevator doors. Number twelve was aglow. He frowned. If memory served him correctly, the twelfth floor housed the Aero Interior Design department. How curious. Last minute carpet concerns for the industrialist’s grand unveiling?

His musing was brought to a halt by the cool voice of the office secretary.

“Mr Gent,” she said. “Mr Leedwit will see you now.”

Mr Gent stood and tipped his hat back onto his head. He didn’t like the emphasis she had placed on ‘will’.

Mr Leedwit’s office was oppressively large and airy. Giant cathedral windows dominated the south wall and gave the industrialist an ethereal view of the clouds, the city and the harbour below. Skylights brightened the ceiling and the marble floor. Green stripes edged in gold leaf paint slashed angular shapes along the cream coloured walls. They ended in a pair of stylised wings that fanned above the office door, with the famous golden Leedwit four-point compass star emblazoned in the middle.

A very large, very polished black desk stood in front of the windows. There was a high-back leather chair swivelled behind it, and a pair of tawny tiger-striped chairs grouped in front. As Mr Gent slipped inside the office he saw Mr Leedwit himself standing beside the desk. He was talking quietly on the phone but as soon as he spotted the detective lingering at the entrance he motioned for Mr Gent to seat himself.

It was a long walk from the doors to the desk. By the time Mr Gent had reached it he was grateful to sink into one of the chairs. The suede was so soft he could barely feel it beneath his hand when he ran his fingers along one of the arms. The effect was quite disconcerting. He quickly swept off his hat and uncertainly smoothed back his thin hair instead. He waited.

There was a gold reading lamp on Mr Leedwit’s desk, along with a fine looking pen, a brown leather ledger, a folded newspaper and a beautiful golden ashtray shaped as a sleek Leedwit gyroplane. There was not a single flake of ash in the cockpit, he noticed. He could easily imagine that the industrialist pandered to very few of the filthy habits of his callers and clients, unless those habits were wrapped in a hazy aura of glamour.

Mr Leedwit was still talking on the phone when Mr Gent shifted in his seat to get a better look at the morning headlines on the newspaper. He spoke in clipped Eudonic and with very little accent as far as the detective could tell. With one hand he spun the newspaper around and slid it in front of Mr Gent. ‘One moment,’ he motioned with his finger.

Feeling slightly caught out, the detective picked up the newspaper. He didn’t unfold it but only turned it in his hands to scan the headlines. Save for a few words here and there they were barely legible to him. It was a Eudonia newspaper. Resigned, he laid it back on the edge of the desk and waited a little longer.

A minute later Mr Leedwit set the phone back on its cradle and leaned against the corner of his desk.

“I apologise for the delay,” he said. “Thank you for your patience.”

“Not at all,” said Mr Gent.

Mr Leedwit nodded at the newspaper.

“What do you make of the news, Mr Gent?” he said.

Mr Gent paused. He did not dare admit his ignorance in front of this man. It would do nothing more than diminish his profession and place him on an even lower field. It was very fortunate that the news from Eudonia scarcely changed these days. He only needed a few words to catch it.

“Eudonia has been rumbling with rumours of invasion of nearly four years now,” he said. “I can scarcely see them making serious their threat before this year is over, at least. Not when they are still so vocal about it.”

“I am inclined to agree with you, Mr Gent,” said Mr Leedwit. “And I will go so far as to share a little secret with you.”


“They will not invade for eight months, if at all. Do you know why it is I can make this claim with such confidence?”

The industrialist was smiling lightly. Mr Gent felt a chill run through him. It was a test, he realised, quite abruptly. His skills, his service and his intellect were all under scrutiny. Otherwise the man would not have asked the question. Nor would he have offered the prediction in the first place.

Mr Gent’s mind race furiously. He affected an offhanded air.

“Well, I can’t say that I am very much of an expert on the aeronautical industry,” he said with a shrug. “I am sadly behind the times in that respect. But I should certainly think that a country as keen on it as Eudonia would have many long term contracts established with foreign manufacturers, particularly given the impact their war on Faris has struck upon their metal ore reserves.”

Mr Leedwit rapped his knuckles on the desk.

“Very good, Mr Gent,” he said, heaving himself upright. “Yes, you are exactly correct. It is no secret that many large Eudonian aeronautical dealers such as Arcal and Nordo have traditionally enjoyed a long and satisfying relationship with Leedwit Aeronautical. It would seem that the market there is inclined be to kind to my machines, even given the Eudonian national preference for their own domestic stock.”

Halfway into his chair he paused. “’Inclined to be kind.’ That’s rather fun to say.”

“In regards to stock, I’ve noticed that Aero International is still faring very well,” said Mr Gent gingerly.

“Very good, Mr Gent! Yes, it’s weathering up nicely under all of this chatter of war. Are you perhaps an investor?”

“I have to admit that I’m not. I’ve even less of a head for banks than I do for flying machines, I’m afraid. But I do make it a point to follow the news and all of the significant numbers.”

If Mr Leedwit was pleased by the subtle flattery he gave no indication of it. Instead he laced his hands together over his stomach and leaned back in his chair with the air of a well-fed leopard.

“It’s terrible to see the climb the price of oil has taken recently, isn’t it?” he said. “What was the name of the freighter that sank?”

“The Lindsey.

“Ah, that’s right! Attacked by pirates off the coast of Barbary, I hear.”

“Black’s Brigade again.”

“A filthy lot. All of that crude oil lost, and the Lindsey along with it.”

“And thirty-four hands alongside her,” said Mr Gent.

“A damn shame about that. I remember a time when a ship like the Lindsey could steam comfortably from Kristoff to Largo without fear of navigating around the Black Wall. Now it seems that only an airship carrying a full complement of security fighters aboard can safely make the passage.”

“Good for the security industry, I suppose.”

“Yes, they’ve been making out like bandits lately as well,” said Mr Leedwit sharply.

“Well, I suppose that once the month is over things will calm down and return to normal,” said Mr Gent.

“We can only hope, Mr Gent.” The leather chair growled as the industrialist leaned forward again. “But it would seem we have wandered far from the subject of this appointment, and I hear that you are a busy man.”

Mr Gent straightened a little as well, which his soft chair made no easy task. Mr Leedwit paid him no mind and only tapped the tip of his pen on his ledger as the detective discreetly struggled.

“Yes,” huffed Mr Gent. “Hit a bit of a tight spot recently.”

“As it stands, I’m a close associate of the Bartlett family,” said Mr Leedwit briskly. “Old aeronautical family, fantastically well-travelled. Quite a keen interest in the air racing circuit! But of course you already know of their son.”

He regarded the other man closely. Mr Gent groped for a safe reply.

“Yes,” he said. “A deuce of a pilot. Very intense.”

Mr Leedwit chuckled.

“He is a reckless young devil with a poor temper, and we both know it,” he said. “You may feel free to say it aloud here, Mr Gent. The boy’s aeroplane moves faster than his wits do, and just barely keeps ahead of his allowances. I will be very glad to see him sent away to university abroad, or to a hospital, whichever comes first.”

He sighed. “But his father makes such bloody good compasses.”

Mr Gent said nothing. It seemed a wise thing to do.

Mr Leedwit continued. “At any rate, over brunch one afternoon I mentioned to the Bartletts that I was looking for an independent source to manage some work for me outside of the office. They intimately told me that they had hired a private detective recently, a discreet fellow, to take care of a little family difficulty involving a young woman whose name was becoming very prominent in the local papers. Given the delicate nature of the work and the boy’s reputation it did not require any considerable feat of imagination on my part to guess at the type of scandal they wished to avoid.”

Mr Gent inwardly winced.

“This is familiar to you, Mr Gent?”

It was. No one but he and the young lady knew just how closely scandal had brushed the Bartlett estate, or just how delicate the work had truly been, or just how deeply the family’s honour was indebted not to the detective, but to the grace of the insulted young woman herself, who had, in the end, proven more formidably in control of her own rage than the vulgar Bartlett scion.

But Mr Gent put that memory aside and merely said in a lame voice, “Unfortunately, yes. It was tricky business but it all worked out for the Bartletts in the end.”

“Yes,” said Mr Leedwit. “These things tend to. But they were more than happy to pass on your name and your office telephone number, and when I considered the tasteful discretion in which the entire affair had been conducted I felt confident that I would not be remiss in contacting you myself at the earliest opportunity. And here you are.”

The detective listened attentively. Finally, he thought, things were cutting to the heart of the matter.

“Thank you for considering me,” he said. “It’s quite an honour to be here.”

Mr Leedwit waved it aside. “I am well past the point of consideration, Mr Gent. Barring any conflicts of interest I feel certain you are the very man for the job. But at the same time, I must confess that your invitation here needs also owe itself to a certain urgency on my part. Quite frankly, I have run out of time with which I may manoeuvre for assistance and find myself putting my faith in the closest option available to me. I hope you won’t take offence to this.”

“Not at all,” said Mr Leedwit, mystified.

Mr Leedwit leaned forward onto his desk.

“As you may well be aware, tonight I will be holding a large event to unveil the latest model in my Strata Pacer line of gyros,” he said.

“Yes, I read about it in the newspaper. It sounds like it will be quite a show.”

The industrialist nodded. “The Mark Nine is a lovely new design, and I have little doubt that it will go over very well. Already its new Intercontinental engines are generating no small amount of excitement and speculation, which may be owned in part to the extreme delicacy we have exercised in releasing details of their operation to the media.”

“That seems a fairly standard policy for Leedwit aircraft,” said Mr Gent slowly.

“It is, you are quite correct. But already we have faced greater difficulty in keeping the specifics of this particular model from public release than any other model in the Strata Pacer line before it. In short, during the lifespan of its production I and my company have been plagued with spies, Mr Gent, for lack of a better word, all intent on thieving the schematics of its airframe, its engines, its electrical, suction and fuel systems and leaking them to the media.”

Mr Gent’s eyes widened.

“Good lord,” he said. “You’re serious?”

“I am, Mr Gent.”

“You haven’t had anything actually stolen yet, have you?”

“No, not yet. I assure you that full security was assigned to the prototype and all subsequent production versions following the first evidence of inside larceny. Intercontinental has also supplied its own security detail to protect the engines in all stages of their development as well. But we are baffled, Mr Gent, completely baffled. New line Leedwit gyros have always roused healthy competitive interest and controversy in the past, fierce and noisy at times but generally harmless- this is beyond my experience.”

“Incredible,” murmured Mr Gent. He leaned one elbow onto his knee and stared at the golden ashtray. “Can you think of a reason why this particular model should draw so much unwanted attention?”

Mr Leedwit’s eyes followed his line of sight to the ashtray as well. “Not one, Mr Gent. Oh, it is a beautiful aircraft and boasts impressive increases in performance in certain areas of its operation over its precursor, the Mark Eight. But nothing that should warrant this unwholesome attraction.”

“Have you caught anyone in the act of, er, stealing this information?”

“Yes, and sadly, most of them have been low level employees working here at Leedwit Aero.”

“Not external infiltrators, then?”

“Bribed and hired by such, perhaps, but we’ve been unable to ascertain that for ourselves thus far.”

“And have they already been dealt with accordingly?”

“Yes, Mr Gent. For fear of scandal I’ve had the guilty parties quietly ejected from the company under threat of severe legal action should they speak of it to the media. There is little else I can afford to do without dragging the matter into public light.”

“But you haven’t gone to the police?”

“Not yet. Whether this is merely the ploy of a fanatical enthusiast, a disgruntled employee or a more sinister act of sabotage by a rival in the industry, I would prefer to have a better idea of who is responsible and what their intentions are before I bring my concerns to outside authorities. I can control what happens within my own company, but little of what happens outside of it.”

He inhaled sharply. “At least, that was my original intention.”

Mr Gent sat up. “Something else has happened?”

“Yes. One of my engineers has gone missing.”

“What! When did this happen?”

“We can’t be certain, but he was last seen by a colleague two nights ago.”

“Have you told his family?”

“He is an orphan, Mr Gent, with no relations. You and I are the only ones who suspect the worst.”

“And he worked on the Mark Nine?”

“From the very start.”

“What is his name?”

Without a word Mr Leedwit reached into his suit and withdrew a folded slip of paper from the breast pocket. He handed it across the desk to the detective, who settled back in his chair and thumbed it open with a frown.

“Mr Bonneweiss,” read Mr Gent aloud. “He’s been with your company for long time, Mr Leedwit, given his age.”

“I have high expectations for the lad’s future here,” said the industrialist as he crossed his hands over his knee. “He is an intelligent and hard worker and has a strong affinity for our gyros, all qualities I value highly in an employee.”

“But little education, I see.”

“We provide him with what he needs, Mr Leedwit.”

“I don’t doubt it. I see he has been involved with your Strata Pacer line since the Mark Two.”

“Yes, as well as the Pluto Cruiser and the Lionelle.”

“Very prestigious aircraft…”

“And successful. That is what really matters.”

Mr Gent looked up. “So he would have an in-depth knowledge of the Mark Nine’s airframe, engines and systems, including a full appreciation for the scope of the improvements made over the Mark Eight and these two previous gyro lines?”


“And you suspect foul play may be involved in his disappearance?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And that it can be traced back to his connection with the new Strata Pacer you shall be officially unveiling tonight?”

“Among other reasons,” said Mr Leedwit.

Something in the tone of his voice made the detective in Mr Gent stir uneasily.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“There are a few details regarding Mr Bonneweiss that I saw fit not to include in his personal file,” said Mr Leedwit, very carefully.

“Such as?”

The industrialist gazed at him squarely.

“Are you aware of what day it is, Mr Gent?” he said.

The meaning hit him immediately. Mr Gent paled.

“You want me to find him?” he blurted.

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

“But in less than twelve hours-“

“A certain urgency, Mr Gent. I believe that is what I said.”

There was a small photograph clipped to the edge of the paper. It was worn and creased from corner to corner, as if it spent most of its time squeezed into a well used wallet. Mr Gent stared down at the young, serious face. Quietly moved into different custody, he thought.

“Mr Leedwit,” he said slowly. “I don’t mean to sound as if I’m trying to make excuses for myself this early on, but I do hope you realise just how very unlikely it is that we shall ever see this poor young man alive again.”

The industrialist’s gaze turned flinty.

“Surprise me, Mr Gent,” he said.