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.

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.