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 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.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“Absolutely.”

“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.

2 Comments:

Blogger Cibo said...

CLANDESTINE :| I love this shit. XD

I admire Mr Leedwit. He's not like, some smarmy fucko built and designed to be a cliche evil bastard; he's sharp and intelligent and he's got taste like the dickens. XD I've yet to see more of Mr Gent though, but I think you've got more 'n plenty planned for him atm... :D

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

<3

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

<3 <3

Mr Leedwit’s office was oppressively large and airy.

<3 <3 <3

The description of Leedwit's office puts me in mind of Sher Khan's gig in uh, Talespin. XD

....it's the tiger-stripe chairs. ;_; A nod, perhaps? XD

7:13 PM  
Blogger btg said...

HAHAHA, holy crap, you caught the tiger-striped chairs thing! That is so awesome - yeah, it's totally a little poke at Sher Khan XD.

Leedwit was hard to write, but a lot of fun - I just get tired of those stereotypical wine-sipping, charmfully menacing evil industrialist villains OMGTEHENVIRONMENT that I could puke sometimes. I like businessmen who are just that- in it for the business, and too rich to be in it for just for the money alone :).

Mr Gent is like... the Jackalope. He pops in and out at random, I guess XD.

4:00 PM  

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