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.


Blogger Cibo said...

WHO IS that mysterious blond man?! XD I like the glittery imagery you've got here; it's got all the atmosphere of a 1920's-esque ball, and I love how you've handled the silly, social aspect of these things. Might want to do a wordsearch for "Error", though. /:D;

7:43 p.m.  
Blogger btg said...

Oh my gawd, Cil! Hahaha, I'm sorry, I totally missed all of your comments in here - I haven't stopped by lately XD. Thank you so much!

And GYAHA, oh man, THANK YOU for catching that Error - I didn't even spot it once! I can bet you anything that's a name I'll misspell quite a number of times in the future too XD.

3:51 p.m.  

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