by Derrick Perkins
A heavy knock at the door startled a half-slumbering mechanic’s apprentice Joe Miller nearly out of bed.
Sitting upright, his heart thumping, he grabbed the alarm clock on the stand next to him and squinted. It read 1:33 a.m. He had nearly another four hours of sleep before his shift on The Renegade’s engineering deck began. Miller had hoped to enjoy every minute of it.
The knocking continued as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stumbled in the dark toward the cabin hatch. With a groan, he swung the door open. Shading his eyes from the red light illuminating the corridors of the pirate zeppelin at night, he made out a blurry, but decidedly feminine form.
“O’Leary,” he blurted, recognizing the wiry woman as his eyes quickly adjusted to the longer wavelength light. Considering that the last time he received an unsolicited visitor at his cabin it had led to a near fatal duel, death-defying high dive, and a hijacking, this was a welcome surprise.
The sergeant, with a hand on her hip, reviewed him coolly.
“Do you greet all of your guests so casually?” she asked.
Miller glanced down, realizing suddenly he was naked save for a pair of underpants.
“It’s … uh … “
She slapped a thin manila envelope on his chest.
“Duty calls. The good colonel said he would have done it in person if time allowed,” she said. “Somebody went missing. Someone important. We leave in two hours.”
Miller took the envelope. It was thinner than normal, containing no more than a few pages.
“What do I pack?”
“Read the dossier,” O’Leary said, turning to walk away. “More than what you’ve got on, though. Warm, definitely warm.”
The mechanic’s apprentice swore and began ripping open the package. He suddenly felt wide awake. A cup of coffee couldn’t touch the flood of adrenaline surging through his system.
O’Leary stopped a few feet away. She turned to glance over her shoulder.
“Yes,” he replied, looking up from the scant handful of double-spaced pages in front of him.
“You don’t look half bad in a pair of skivvies.”
She laughed gently, like wind blowing through chimes, and resumed walking. Miller glanced down at himself. Well, there were worse ways to start off the morning, he supposed.
Two hours later he was attempting to board a nondescript Cessna 172, trying and failing to keep the North Atlantic wind from clawing at his skin. At this hour of the morning, the only people on The Renegade’s forward deck were the peacoat-clad crew members pulling watch; they floated eerily in the cloud bank the airship currently called home. Off in the distance, a line of blinking lights served as the sole evidence that the zeppelin’s flight control center existed.
Miller felt very much alone. He took one last look at his home and hurried up the stairwell into the belly of the light aircraft. The door thudded shut behind him as he beelined to the remaining open seat. Already, the engine was throttling up.
Glancing around, Miller saw that O’Leary, an erstwhile member of the ship’s public affairs office, sat beside him. Like him, she was dressed in heavy winter gear, her face shielded by a balaclava and a pair of heavy goggles. The hood of her jacket was up, covering what remained of her head. Across from him, Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux sat similarly attired, though he managed to make the thick clothing rakish-looking, as if he had sprung from the pages of a Victorian-era lithograph of a mountain climber.
The colonel motioned toward a headset laying on the seat beside Miller. The mechanic’s apprentice picked it up and slipped it over his ears in time to hear the pilot confirm permission to take off from the control center. Judging from the stilted accent, the errant medical student-turned-assassin-then-flyer Gustav Hanover was behind the yoke.
“Good to see you could make it, Mr. Miller,” came de Curieux’s voice, loud and clear despite the noise as the plane inched forward.
“I never miss an adventure,” Miller replied, nervously looking out one of the windows. Despite the cloud bank, he could see the flight deck hurtling past. He had read the literature on how air carriers worked and understood physics well enough to know the Cessna likely would launch from the massive zeppelin without fail. He still preferred getting on and off The Renegade when she was docked at ground level.
The sudden sensation of falling filled his gut, and Miller instinctively gripped the underside of his seat. He breathed heavily as he felt the plane straighten out and then bank westward. Somewhere below them the unseen Atlantic stretched out, cold and barren.
“An airship mechanic who doesn’t like flying,” O’Leary’s voice crackled through the headset. “There’s a joke in there somewhere.”
Miller forced a laugh.
Across the way, de Curieux motioned to get their attention.
“I would very much enjoy the banter if this was not so dire a situation,” he said. “Unfortunately, I have not been given nearly the time I would like to prepare for an outing, which explains why my dossiers made for such light reading.”
He produced his copy and flipped through the pages, selecting one with a small photograph clipped to it. He held it up so that they could see the image: a pretty young, bespectacled woman grinning, hands folded on her lap as she sat in front of The Renegade’s standard.
“I am sorry I could not name our target ahead of time,” de Curieux said. “Naturally, I trust you two intimately, but old habits die hard and I would hate for rumors to spread. Do you recognize her?”
O’Leary shook her head while Miller gasped.
“That’s Isabella Hull, chief of engineering,” he said. “She’s a legend. She took everything The Renegade had going for it and improved upon it. Half of the electrical systems technically operate at 150 percent because of the workarounds she designed.”
“Correct, which makes her disappearance while on liberty cause for significant concern,” de Curieux said.
“I dunno,” O’Leary said. “Lots of people come and go on The Renegade. They meet a nice guy or gal, decide to retire from air piracy, get a corner job somewhere with benefits. She wouldn’t be the first to jump ship at a port of call.”
“That might be the case if it weren’t for distress signal an imaginative radio operator picked up last week. A sequential burst of high and low waves on a frequency The Renegade regularly uses for mundane communications. The operator, curious and following a hunch, converted it to old Morse code. It was an SOS broadcast. With her initials included.”
“Who the hell would kidnap an engineer?” O’Leary asked. “Especially one who works for The Renegade. That idiot’s asking for trouble.”
“Exactly,” de Curieux replied. “But just consider for a moment the trouble you could make with the help of someone like Hull.”
“She knows the ship better than anyone,” Miller said. “If I wanted to learn her weak spots, the chief engineer is the one person I’d ask.”
“That’s certainly one possibility, and perhaps the most immediately concerning,” de Curieux said. “Her rescue is a priority. Thankfully, the signal was traced. We are due in northern Vermont in the next few hours.”
“A ski trip?” O’Leary asked.
De Curieux offered a faint smile.
“I am glad to have your sense of optimism with us,” he said. “If there is time, I suppose. I have a nasty feeling that we will be spread quite thin, though. Any other questions?”
“Why send only us? I’d think Captain XO wouldn’t be pulling his punches on something like this, or at least I’d hope not,” Miller asked.
“The Renegade has an … understanding with the government of the United States,” de Curieux said. “Subtlety is key when dealing with the provincials. A few favors have been called in already to allow the passage of an unmarked, unaccounted for aircraft into U.S. airspace.”
“I’ve got one,” O’Leary said. “The hun is up in the cockpit and you’ve got me and the mechanic here. What are we, extra sets of eyes? It sounds like you want muscle and the big guy is nowhere to be seen.”
It had not occurred to Miller that Logan Winters, the New Zealander with a penchant for weaponry, was not with them. He felt suddenly even more alone than before. Terse and fearless, maybe even half mad, Winters was a good friend if you were in a bad way.
“Duty called,” de Curieux said, spreading his hands apologetically. “It seems the Bold Air Hussars had need of him.”
“Damn,” O’Leary said. “I feel like we’re going in with one hand tied behind our back. At least Miller won’t have to work too hard to make up for the loss in conversation.”
“My hope is that this is a matter a few choice words and the possibility of war zeppelin’s sudden appearance will clear up,” de Curieux said.
They sat in silence for a moment, the hum of the engine not loud enough to cover their imaginations at work.
“Do you really believe that?” Miller asked.
De Curieux shrugged.
Turners Falls, Vermont
Miller pulled the binoculars and let out a deep breath, sending a funnel of fog up into the overcast sky. From his vantage point on the deck of a small cabin sitting on the beginning slopes of Mount Chenoo, he could make out most of what constituted the town below him. Though situated not far from a popular New England ski resort, Turners Falls never seemed to have cashed in on the nearby success. He counted a pair of motels, three bars of varying allure and a handful of churches outside of the usual cluster of small shops befitting any remote village. You knew you were up in the north country when the local population could support a full-time butcher but not a Dunkin’ Donuts, he thought.
“Quaint,” said Hanover in his peculiar accent. Miller, who had not heard him come up from behind, jumped.
“How do you do that?” he spat.
“Practice,” the pilot said.
Before Miller could think of a good retort, they were joined by de Curieux and O’Leary. The colonel looked tired--they all were after the bumpy flight--but there was more than jet lag in his eyes.
“Beautiful country,” de Curieux said, nodding to the mountains hemming in Turners Falls. He smiled in a wistful manner that left Miller thinking he, too, would rather have been preparing for a day slopeside.
“Right,” de Curieux continued after a short pause to enjoy the scenery. “As soon as the source of the transmission was determined, Captain XO sent an associate here in the States to lay the groundwork. He will be expecting me shortly for a cup of coffee at the local diner. We are to be old friends, getting reacquainted. Hopefully, he will have running start.”
“How will you know him?” O’Leary asked.
“Tried and true espionage tactics,” de Curieux said. “He has been going to the diner for breakfast every morning since his arrival wearing the same pin. When I spot it, I will have found him.”
“And us, how may we assist?” Hanover asked.
“You shall stay. In the event of unpleasantness, we will need a survivor to contact The Renegade,” de Curieux said. “Sergeant, you and Mr. Miller will enter the diner before me. You will not know me. You will instead be a young couple taking a break from skiing. In fact, Mr. Miller, you injured your ankle yesterday and are recouping. There is a pair of crutches in the closet. Feel free to elaborate with anything you find in the medical kit.
“Stay until my meeting concludes and keep an eye on both us. And I would very much appreciate it, sergeant, if you kept a sidearm tucked away.”
Hanover, Prussian as always, snapped a salute and took the pair of binoculars from Miller. For his part, the mechanic just nodded. A cup of coffee and hearty meal sounded good. O’Leary, though, gave de Curieux an appraising glance.
“You don’t trust him?”
“If you dabble in air piracy long enough, you will make many friends,” said de Curieux. “Too long, and they will force you to remember why they were pirates in the first place.”
He turned and began walking down the steps to one of two rugged four-by-four pickups they had procured with the rented cabin.
“You’ve known him the longest,” O’Leary said as the engine fired up and the truck pulled out of the driveway headed the mile or two into town. “Ever seen him this upbeat?”
“No,” Miller said. “It makes me nervous.”
“Well, that’s not saying much, at least.”
Miller made no small attempt at chivalry, trying to open the door to the diner for O’Leary while resting the bulk of his weight on unfamiliar crutches. He nearly fell flat on his face for the effort.
“Easy, killer,” O’Leary whispered, steadying him. “Don’t really hurt yourself.”
He flushed, but accepted her help, and together they made it inside. The Mountain Side Grill was about what he expected from the outside. Two banks of booths with faded and torn benches led up to a counter. A couple of tired, but cheerful waitresses dressed in matching uniforms patrolled the interior, balancing platters of warm food on their shoulders. For such a small town, the place was practically bustling with customers. Miller recognized the types instantly: There were no suits here, just a lot of work boots, reflective vests and leather gloves. Nearly everyone was wearing a wool-knit cap despite being inside.
He eased into a seat and gave the room a hopefully subtle search. There were a few loners sipping on coffee or eating eggs, but none that particularly stuck out to Miller. O’Leary did the same before grabbing a pair of menus from amongst the stack of condiments. She handed one to Miller.
“There you go darling,” she said and chuckled.
“Thank you dear,” he replied. “You’re too kind.”
They sat quietly until the waitress approached, weathering the painful tick of the clock. When she asked for their orders, O’Leary leaned forward.
“I’ll have the eggs benedict and my wounded hero here will have as big of a heaping of biscuits and gravy as he can get. I want him to be all healed up as soon as possible.”
“Sure, honey,” the waitress replied. “Get into a little trouble on the mountain yesterday?”
“I love that he still tries to impress me,” O’Leary gushed. “But hitting the moguls was a bad idea.”
The waitress smirked a little.
“Better recover quick. There’s a big storm rolling in and tomorrow should be a powder day,” she said, and took the menus.
“You’re enjoying this, huh,” Miller said after the waitress departed.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been out on a date. Let me have my moment,” O’Leary said. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I’m not really sure. I was planning on just keeping an eye out. Like we’re supposed to be doing,” he replied.
“Oh lame,” she said, waving a hand. “De Curieux wants us to play the role. And nothing looks less conspicuous than a couple not talking over food. Have you ever been in a restaurant where a date is going badly? It’s like watching a train wreck. You can’t look away.”
He leaned back in the booth.
“Well, what do you want to talk about?”
“What should we name our dog?”
“If we’re going to be a couple, we need to have a pet. I’m thinking a big German shepherd that looks all tough but is really a sweetheart.,” she said.
The bell atop the door tinkled and Miller turned to see de Curieux enter. Like a chameleon, the military attaché had swapped out his usually dashing attire for more innocuous dress. There were no hint of noblesse, no flashes of chivalric flare. Instead, de Curieux wore a simple winter coat, driving gloves, scarf and flat cap. He had swapped James Bond for George Smiley.
“Trouble,” Miller said.
“Already?” said O’Leary, her face suddenly impassive.
“That’s what we name the dog. Trouble,” Miller said.
He leaned back, trying to ignore the temptation to fixate on de Curieux. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the colonel head down a row of booths before frictionlessly sliding into one. He plopped his gloves onto the table and leaned over to pass hushed words with the equally nondescript man across from him. In seconds, the two were deep in quiet conversation.
“It’s rude to stare,” O’Leary said, forcing Miller to turn his attention back to her. “What kind of house do we live in? Actually, where are we from?”
“No house. An apartment in Jamaica Plain. I’m on the tenure track and you’re trying to launch an Internet startup based around selling things using pretty photographs on Instagram,” Miller replied as the waitress returned to fill their mugs with coffee.
“Ooh, what do you teach?” O’Leary asked.
“Applied engineering,” he said.
“Boring. Way too boring for my social media maven,” she said, sipping at the coffee. “My man is teaching classics. I love it when you sweetly whisper Seneca quotes to me.”
“The Roman statesman. What did you learn in college, anyway?”
“How to fix things, mostly, and not kill myself in the process,” Miller replied. “Some theoretical stuff, too.”
He glanced back at the other booth. If anything, the military attache’s normally tan face was even more pale and drawn.
“See anything good over there?” O’Leary asked.
“Just two joes talking over a cup of coffee,” he said, glancing away.
Their food arrived and, despite the tension, Miller found he was hungry. He eagerly dug into the food.
“At least he still has a healthy appetite,” the waitress said, smiling at O’Leary.
“Don’t I know it,” she replied, patting one of Miller’s hands lovingly. “He’s a tough soldier.”
Miller ignored the attempt to get a rise out of him and continued eating. With de Curieux, there was no way of knowing when they would have another chance at a meal, let alone a good one in a restaurant.
He was so busy engorging, he did not see the colonel’s acquaintance get up to leave until O’Leary rapt his knuckles with her knife.
“You better finish up fast,” she said, fishing around her parka for the wad of American dollars that constituted their expense budget.
De Curieux lingered a while longer alone, waiting for the waitress to saddle over with the bill. After she moved on, he dropped a bill and stood, patiently reapplying his cold weather gear. Then he, too, departed, never once looking over at the obviously curious couple enjoying a late breakfast on a weekend ski trip.
“How much time do we give him?” Miller asked, putting his utensils down.
“Ten minutes or so, would be my--”
She sprung up as a gunshot cracked outside. Then another. The massive window pane facing the street shattered, raining glass down on the interior.
Miller instinctively threw his hands up over his face. Screams of terror rose all around him. O’Leary already was out of her seat, handgun drawn from its hidden home. She sprinted toward the front of the restaurant as the gunshots continued.
Bringing his hands away from his face, Miller quickly checked to make sure he was unharmed. Seeing no blood, he stumbled into motion, following his companion out onto the quiet street.
He expected absolute chaos, but instead the scene was eerily subdued even as a burst of automatic gunfire sprung up. A few motorists swerved and floored their engines in an attempt to get out of the way. There were no pedestrians to run and duck for cover, only snow falling gently from the sky.
Where was de Curieux? Miller wondered before the rattle of gunfire from down the street convinced him to seek cover behind a parked car. He threw himself flat against the station wagon.
“Miller, I need your help,” O’Leary shouted from across the street.
He raised himself up just high enough to look over the hood before another hail of bullets ripped into the car’s side panels, sending him back to the ground. All he had managed to see was the body of de Curieux’s contact, lying prone in a pool of blood and brain matter in the center of the road.
“Miller, now,” O’Leary hollered.
The urgency in her voice sent him to his feet. Heart pounding in his head, he dashed blindly around the front of Volkswagen. Following the sound of her voice, Miller hurtled the last few yards, throwing himself down and rolling between a construction Dumpster and a neatly stacked pile of lumber. He sat up and looked around. He was still all alone.
“In the truck, idiot,” O’Leary screamed.
Finally, he saw them. A gap of a dozen or so yards separated Miller from the four-by-four, passenger side door ajar. He still had no idea where the bullets were coming from, but if he had to guess it was either the rooftops or the second story windows above the main street’s shops.
That quick assessment did little to soothe his nerves. To make it to the truck, he would again be out in the open. Though the shooters were not particularly accurate, all it took was a lucky burst.
Seeing no other option, Miller got to his knees and leapt forward before his muscles went weak from fear. In a flash, he was out from between the construction supplies and hurtling toward the door. He expected to fall, stunned from the crushing force of a bullet ripping through his thin skin, at any moment. Instead, he made it to the door without hearing a single gunshot.
He tossed himself in, finding O’Leary in the driver’s seat with de Curieux hunched over in the middle seat. He was clutching his shoulder, blood squeezing out in rivulets between his fingers.
The trio were reunited for only a few seconds when the gunfire began again, this time concentrated on the truck. Miller realized only as the rear glass pane shattered why he had been spared in his mad dash from the Dumpster: Bunched together, they made an excellent target.
“Keep your head down, sir” O’Leary shouted, shoving de Curieux further down in the seat. He sank without protest.
She dropped the truck into reverse, the tires screaming as they built up traction on the snowy ground. Without a seatbelt to secure him, Miller flailed around the cabin, trying--and finally succeeding--to get the door closed behind him. O’Leary jammed the gear selector back into drive. The tires roared in protest a second time as she stomped on the pedal.
One hand on the wheel, eyes fixed on the road ahead of them, O’Leary stuck her sidearm in Miller’s face. He stared at it.
“Take it,” she hollered, and he snatched it from her fingers. The weapon felt heavy and clumsy in his hands as he groped for a proper grip on it.
“What do I do with it?” he shouted over the gunfire and the engine.
“Shoot. Back,” she growled as the truck lurched forward.
Miller tried to aim, but as they picked up speed, he gave up. Instead, he fired blindly out the shattered rear window, knowing he was breaking about half a dozen of the gun safety rules he had been taught in his time as a member of The Renegade’s crew. The thunderous blast of each pull of the trigger reverberated in his bones.
He stopped as a gut-wrenching left turn sent him sliding against the passenger side door. O’Leary had shot through the town’s seemingly only set of traffic lights, ignoring the red light, and cranked the wheel.
“Hang on,” she cried belatedly, and the truck picked up speed again.
It was all he could do to follow her instructions as O’Leary performed a series of evasive maneuvers taking them back halfway across the small town before circling back and heading for the mountain. It seemed a lifetime would pass before Miller’s heart would resume beating normally.
Finally, she lowered the speed of the truck closer to the town’s posted limits. Miller checked the gun, it was empty. He wondered if he had hit anything.
“How we doing, Colonel?” O’Leary asked, eyes on the road.
“In the words of my favorite comedy troupe, it’s merely a flesh wound,” he said, but Miller detected a hint of pain.
“However, I may still require medical attention from our German companion,” he conceded. “Promptly, if possible.”
He nodded down; the length of his sleeve had taken on a crimson hue.
“Miller, fix a tourniquet and then call ahead. I want Hanover ready to go,” O’Leary said, her voice a notch too loud either from the partial deafness brought on by close action or adrenaline. “Tell him to let The Renegade know we’re coming home.”
“Belay that last part,” de Curieux said, sitting a little taller in his seat. “The situation here is far too dire.”
As Miller fumbled for his phone, O’Leary gave de Curieux a questioning glance.
“There is only one way we could have been made so quickly,” de Curieux said. “Only a few knew of the chief engineer’s disappearance. Only Captain XO, myself, and our contact in town knew we were coming.”
He winced as they hit a frost heave.
“We have been betrayed.”
In the wooded mountainside, only the cracking of great white pines and soft pitter-patter of snow covered the whoosh of four sets of cross-country skis cutting through the white wilderness. Miller took up the rearguard in the single-file line, doing his best to stay in the track cut by the other members of the team. Growing up skiing, he had thought this expedition might be one he was, for once, uniquely prepared for, but the heavy rucksack on his back and AP4 LR-308 hunting rifle made each slide of the ski awkward and uncomfortable.
Looking up at the unfriendly, clouded sky, Miller mused over his own mortality yet again. The promised storm had arrived, and visibility fell as they ascended in elevation looking for the pass de Curieux had found on the map. Though the rate of snowfall varied, Miller figured the region had picked up a foot and a half since the early morning, judging by the depth of the powder covering his skis. Sunset was only a few hours off and all of them were exhausted.
But de Curieux had insisted, as Hanover bandaged him back at the cabin, that traversing Mount Chenoo was the only option.
“The situation is dire, indeed,” he had said, holding a glass of scotch as Hanover hurriedly cleaned the wound. “The information I received at the diner was not at all reassuring.”
“It’s probably all lies,” Miller said, trying not to look at the gushing blood. “The guy double-timed us.”
“I can detect a lie quite well,” de Curieux said. “He was telling the truth. Considering the trap laid for us, there would be no reason to lie. The gentleman behind all of this expected us--well, me--to be dead soon after. Unnecessary fabrications might have alerted me to our danger earlier. Given that our erstwhile friend lost his head in the ensuing exchange, the man orchestrating our destruction likely was quite assured of our fate.”
“Fine,” O’Leary said. “I believe you. But why do we have to do this? You’re hurt, our cover is blown and the authorities have to be crawling over this town by now. Let’s call The Renegade and ask for an exfil.”
Hanover, a thread and odd-looking needle in hand, nodded. Then he got to work. De Curieux grimaced as he shook his head. The bullet apparently passed through his shoulder, leaving behind a terrible-looking flesh wound.
“I will be fine. I just need a tonic,” he said. “And the snow, which has been falling heavily since this morning, hopefully will leave this mountain town cut off from the local officials for a bit. Long enough for our purposes.
“Because we survived that encounter, we hold a chance of catching our opponent off-guard. Yes, he will know we are coming, and he will prepare for our arrival. Regardless, as long as I have the opportunity to finish this in one go, I will take it.”
Miller sank back into his chair. The old wood creaked behind him as it gave against his weight. He had misgivings. O’Leary had made hers clear and Hanover looked about as enthused as ever.
“We don’t even know who or what we’re going up against, though,” he said.
“Fortunately--or unfortunately--I believe I do,” de Curieux said. “Before arrival, I perused local news accounts and public records. A massive swathe of land owned by a now-defunct paper company changed hands six months ago. The entire backside of this mountain was bought by a limited liability corporation by the name of “Ad Sepientiam Enterprises.
“A local environmental organization seeking to purchase the land and put it into a conservation trust was not pleased with its sale to a secretive third-party. They agitated enough that one of the area newspapers began investigating. While not quite the Times of London, they did an admirable job tracing the ownership to a former professor of physics in Massachusetts. His name is Blackwood, Degory Blackwood. Based on what our informant related, he is up to his old tricks.”
De Curieux paused as Hanover finished his bloody work.
“You got a history with this guy?” O’Leary asked.
“A bit,” de Curieux said. “We knew one another at Miskatonic University. We only collaborated a few times and often disagreed with what represented the fruits of our j