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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Five by Five

Kate absently stirred her slice of lemon through her iced tea, making her ice cubes bob and dance. She lifted it to her lips and bit it in half. As she chewed thoughtfully her eyes didn’t have a chance to swell with tears at the sharp citric retort bursting on her tongue. They were much too busy studying the two pilots that were grappling with their outfits on the other side of the restaurant.

She had been closely watching the two pilots for the last ten minutes. They were most certainly a pair of local characters, she humorously decided. They swore colourfully and unabashedly as they wrestled into their ridiculous costumes, knocking over menus and pepper shakers and swiping through omelettes with the tips of their sabres as they did so. Amazingly, no one was knifed in the ear.

The other pilots seated about the small eatery were also watching them with amused interest, even those who had to lift up their plates to avoid getting their eggs stabbed. When the smaller of the pair barked at a waitress to fetch him a silver coffee pot she stumped off to do so without argument, then stood behind the counter and watched him with a sour look on her face as he peered at his reflection in the bottom of the pot and dashed his swarthy black hair back and forth across his forehead.

“What do you think, Franny?” he said with a scowl. “Right eye or left eye, Franny?”

“I don’t care,” grumbled his giant companion as he untangled the four bandoleers snarled across his chest. “Just pick one and let’s go.”

“This is important! I’ve gotta look authentic. If I choose the wrong eye our whole cover could be blown. These things are all part of the code, you know. The code!”

“It’s left,” called out one pilot. “Left means you’re dangerous, you’ve killed five men or more.”

“It’s not left, it’s right,” argued another. “Left means you’re just a sailor, a seaman. Don’t slap it on the left side or they’ll figure you out at once. It’s the right side you should stick it.”

“I imagine they wear it on whatever side they’re missing the eye at,” said an old grey pilot in a dry voice.

Without turning from the counter he flapped up his newspaper and felt around for his toast. “And you probably shouldn’t be wearing it at all if you’re going to be flying.”

Kate nearly laughed aloud as she chomped on her lemon. That was exactly what she had been thinking.

The swarthy man wheeled around and gave the back of the newspaper a thin look. The black eye patch was pushed up onto his forehead, as if it were guarding a third eye.

“Hey, I’m not the one who'll be flying,” he said. He pointed to his companion with his thumb. “That’s women’s work.”

The giant rounded on him. Kate was surprised to see that the person she had assumed was a large man was, in fact, a very large woman. She had broad shoulders that stretched her leather vest until it was taut and creaking and bare bronze arms and a mass of bushy red hair, which she was crowning off with a dirty bandana.

“Excuse me?” she rumbled. A savage jerk of her hands knotted the bandana tight. “Excuse me? I’m flying? When did we decide this?”

“Last year actually, when we had this exact same argument. This is all your plan, Franny. I’m just the extra eyes.”

“Extra eye,” the waitress corrected him.

The giant woman frowned but didn’t seem inclined to quarrel over the matter any further. Instead she picked a great pistol up off the counter. It was the length of Kate’s forearm and limned in bronze and eggs, but she carefully shook it off and reached around to thrust it into her belt, so that it was fixed snugly at the small of her back.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll fly- but we’re taking your plane.”

“Fine,” said the man. “Wait, hang on-”

“Yours will squeeze in three people,” she pointed out.

“Yes, but it’s out of fuel!”

“Then it’s a good thing you own your own pumps, isn’t it?”

The man glared at her but grumbled from the side of his mouth, “Angie, go run out to the gas shack and tell them to get Fran’s tab ready.”

“And for the record,” said the woman as she reared back to address the rest of the restaurant with her flight bag slung over her shoulder. “It’s not eye patches you’re thinking of- that’s earrings.”

All of the pilots exhaled in a satisfied sort of way.

“Earrings.”

“I knew it was them.”

“Don’t wait up for us,” warned the man. “With any luck we'll be back after midnight. Light a candle, ladies, say a prayer, fill up all the salt shakers before you leave.”

There was a general mumbling of good wishes. Kate gave the assorted pilots seated around the cafe a curious glance. They were a shabby crew dressed in fleece and leather and lean brown skin. Every one of them was an airman and as worn as teak, and yet they were watching the pair with the fascination of orphans at a nickel matinee while their coffee lost its steam and their breakfasts cooled into a lumpy mush on their plates.

Five by Five had been recommended to Kate by a gyro pilot she had met in Kristoff. Upon his good word of the grilled sausage sandwich she had decided to make a stop while she was en route to the islands. It was a small eatery worn down into a state of good natured scruffiness, but it was clean and brightly lit. Sunlight streamed in through the bay windows, which gave a wide view of the aero docks and the ocean. There were tables for customers that wished to sit and eat at their leisure, and a sleek bamboo counter with old leather stools to sit on. Frosty glass cabinets held a few peach and lemon pies with fresh slices already carved away. A coffee maker with three full pots sat next to a line of soda taps; dirty dishes were piled haphazardly in the sink. Everything seemed to be trimmed in either palm fronds or grass fringe.

Paintings of airplanes and old black and white newspaper photographs of famous, and infamous, aviators hung on the walls. Kate was rather relieved not to spot her own smiling face tacked up amidst them. It was still a little too soon for her reputation to have caught up with her from across the ocean. Or so she hoped.

Meanwhile, the two pilots were already stomping out the front door and into the morning sunshine, chains jangling, beads rattling, belts bristling with exotic weaponry and their flight bags clanking like a burglar’s pocket. A little moment of silence followed them out and then conversation resumed at a lazy pace, mingled with the whisk of knives and forks and the pop and sizzle of the grill.

Kate tilted back on her stool and looked out the windows. She waited until the pilots had trooped to the far end of the docks. Then she grabbed her glass and her flight bag, slid down a few stools and leaned in intimately towards her new neighbour, the salt and pepper looking old pilot with the newspaper.

“Pardon me,” she said. "Excuse me- sir?"

The old pilot bent down his paper and peered around at the sound of her soft accent. She smiled charmingly when his eyes met her face.

“Awful sorry to interrupt, but I’m rather curious," she said. "Who were the two people that just left?”

“Them, miss?” he said. “That was just Duke and Fran.”

“Duke and Fran?”

He nodded.

Kate looked after them. “Do they live here, on the island?”

“Duke’s the owner of this place.”

“Oh my,” murmured Kate. “He owns the aero docks and the inn too?”

“The docks and the gas office, yes,” said the pilot. “The inn, no. That belongs to Madame Maxine.”

Kate endeavoured to look impressed. “Madame Maxine, from Fierro?” In reality she had no idea who the woman was, but she had learned long ago it never hurt to sound vaguely familiar with local landmarks when you were visiting the islands. Maxine was a good Fierro name. And a woman that merited the title of ‘Madame’ sounded like a noteworthy sight indeed.

“That’s probably the same one. She used to own a number of bed and bars around Largo, but they’ve since, er, switched hands.”

“I see,” said Kate. “And that woman with Duke, that was…?”

“Fran, yeah. You know Franny?”

“I’ve heard of her. I had no idea she was that- large in person.”

The old pilot only shrugged one shoulder and tried to turn back to his newspaper. “That’s just Fran,” he said.

“So tell me,” urged Kate, laying a thin hand on his sleeve. “What was all the excitement about?”

“What, with the two of them?”

“Oh yes. I mean, weren’t they dressed as…?”

She trailed off suggestively. Both of his eyebrows shot up at the playful ripost she made at his chest.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “But that was just costumes, not the real thing.”

“Then they’re not-?

“No.”

“They looked very authentic.”

“You aren’t the first one to have thought that.”

“I must say, they certainly caught my attention when I first stepped inside,” said Kate. “For a moment I thought we were under invasion, ah ha.”

To her surprise the old pilot looked amazed enough by her poor attempt at humour to lay his newspaper down flat on top of his plate, squashing his eggs.

“Don’t you know what day it is?” he said.

She drew back her hand uncertainly. “It’s the thirteenth, isn’t it?”

“Yes, of what month?”

A fierce crumb of light glittered deep in his eye. Kate was taken aback by the sight of it and wracked her brain for a reason that might have fanned that blazing spark alight.

“Of Mardi, of course,” she said. “But I don’t see-“

“How much of the island history do you know, miss?”

Kate’s strove to look artfully confused. Inwardly she winced. In the seven years that had passed she had come to greatly dislike moments like these, tricky bits of time where she was caught between the truth and prudence.

The old pilot was studying her with reedy cant to his gaze. It was an expression that Kate had become very familiar with. She could glumly imagine that he was remembering a photograph he may have once seen in the newspaper. Her jacket was different and phoney emblems were stitched on the sleeves, but her face never changed in any of the pictures it was captured in, and in print and in real life it tended to draw much attention. She quickly assumed a brilliant smile to ward off his stare before his eyes had a chance to wander up to her hair, where she was certain the boot black glistened with an unnatural sheen.

It would be very easy to brush him off with charm and lies, she thought. But from the corner of her eye she could see that more and more of the pilots sitting nearby were discreetly leaning into the edge of the conversation. Despite all of the casual slurping and mashing of pancakes into syrup that was taking place she suspected that it would take very little prompting for them to forget all about food and tune themselves into the story she was about to hear. With so many experts of the local lore hanging about her elbows it seemed unwise to make any attempt at greasing her way through it herself.

An expression of embarrassment was easy to feign, at least.

“Very little, I’m sorry to say,” she said meekly.

Well! Didn’t she hear it!



By the time Kate had dashed down to the end of the aero dock the two pilots were gone. Their seaplane had already lifted off the water and was fast becoming a glittering dot high above the ocean. It had left nothing behind it but an arrowhead wake that was already being swept away by the wind and waves, and a lingering odour of petrol.

Slightly chagrined, Kate stood on the dock and silently watched the seaplane disappear, her flight bag crooked over her shoulder and her hand angled over her eyes to fend off the sun’s full glare. The sound of its engine was a dim roar in the distance, made even more large and faint by the wide blue sky and nearly drowned out by the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead.

A sea breeze ruffled her curly hair and teased the end of her scarf. Waves rolled lazily into the dock, making it bob beneath her feet. The seaplanes tied nearby also rode up and down on the surface of the water. They rocked their wings and jerked their ropes taut whenever they reared high on the crest of a wave. Surf crashed against the beach. Kate heard a lonely bell chime somewhere on the other side of the air harbour.

Something old and mechanical belched into life behind her. Kate glanced aside in time to see the fuel pumps on the next dock erupt with activity. Grimy men had fired the primer and now spun out mooring cables from small irons spools bolted to the woodwork, or else lined themselves on the side of the dock with boathooks raised in their hands. It didn’t take her long to see what the hullabaloo was all about; a big twin engined Bluenose seaplane had just splashed down inside the lagoon and was taxiing gently towards the pumps with its radial engines idling. The gas men were waving and yelling at it to shut down. Kate could see the pilot inside the cockpit yelling and waving at them to clear out of his way.

Kate watched the Bluenose as it drifted in towards the dock. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. If its tanks were even half-empty, a big plane like that could be docked at the pumps gulping down fuel for a good fifteen minutes. By the time its pilot had checked the fuel level and caps and climbed down from the wings to pay for his purchase in the little shanty next to the pumps nearly ten more minutes would have been wasted…

She gazed back out over the ocean. The departing seaplane stood out against a few early clouds, but she could see that in less than a minute it would be lost from sight, swallowed eagerly by the sky.

Her mind raced furiously. At four to six thousand feet, at a cruise setting, running lean, Red Rum would burn its fuel at a rate of six gallons an hour… and she had already flown for two hours since her last stop at a ground speed of roughly one hundred and forty knots…

After a minute of rapid calculations Kate smiled. She strolled back down the dock, whistling cheerfully.

When another seaplane added its nine hundred horsepower greeting to the morning din barely any of the gas men paid it any mind, being far too preoccupied with swearing and wielding their boathooks to fend off the Bluenose twin that had just lumbered into their dock and now butchered the air over their heads with its giant whirling props.

But after the Bluenose pilot had shut down his engines he instinctively turned towards the sound himself with a shiver of unease and amazement. He pulled his headset down around his neck and leaned forward with his hands on the dash and watched a blazing red floatplane taxi away from the furthest dock. Its engine snarled against the throttle and its prop pawed the water beneath it into foaming shreds.

But when it had cleared the docks and weathercocked into the wind it endured a brief runup and then thundered across the lagoon towards the ocean, a long sleek shape roaring with fuel and fire, a red shark unwisely given wings. It rose onto the step, peeled one float out of the waves and muscled up into the sky, spitting back a fine spray of water in its wake.

With his jaw hanging ajar the Bluenose pilot watched it heel sharply to the northwest, flashing its underbelly at the docks. Its nose slanted upwards and it climbed steeply in a race for altitude. He didn’t need to read the name written on its tail. He had recognised the fearsome scarlet livery almost immediately. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He couldn’t believe who he was seeing.

The Bluenose pilot was incensed. Angry blood pounded in his ears. He ripped off his headset and threw it onto the right seat, then untangled his feet from its cord and kicked open his door.

“How long has Duke been in the habit of feeding and gassing up killers?” he hollered down at the gas men clambering onto his floats, having nearly just decapitated a few of them.

Their response was to seize him by his ankle and drag him, kicking and yelling, all the way down to the dock.

2 Comments:

Blogger Cibo said...

With so many experts of the local lore hanging about her elbows it seemed unwise to make any attempt at greasing her way through it herself.

“Very little, I’m sorry to say,” she said meekly.

Well! Didn’t she hear it!


XD I find it's sometimes risky to drop whimsical language like that into narrative that's not dialogue, since it seems to set the mood and colour for the rest of the writing; and in a way it budges out any potential seeeriousness that might occur afterwards... but well, Kate's character totally colours the entire snippet (that involves her POV), so it works beautiful, guv. XD It's a cute bit, I hadda point it out. :D

6:07 PM  
Blogger btg said...

Hehehehe, I totally agree with you about the whimsical language thing - sometimes you write it out and sit back and go, wow, that just fell flat on its face. It's like watching putting on those Groucho glasses - dumb, not funny XD. It's probably a good thing this story isn't at all serious or thoughtful or I'd never get away with silly stuff like that XD.

4:13 PM  

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