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.