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.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:43 a.m.  
Blogger Cibo said...

Heh, I like Duke. :] There was a bit of a goodcop/badcop thing going on there, but Kate seems like a smart wicket, reading their interactions was really cool. XD

1:10 a.m.  
Blogger btg said...

I had a lot of fun writing those three together, especially after Jasper joined... usually I'm terrible at writing more than two characters interacting together; I can't keep track of them all. But these guys I can keep straight for some reason XD.

3:54 p.m.  

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