The second story in the Beyond the Rails series
| Kestrel had been far up country, delivering medical supplies to the little Lutheran mission in Buna on the Lak Bor River. It was a grueling near-five hundred mile journey mostly over trackless savannah, which meant it was a full day’s flight under the ideal conditions that never seemed to occur. Hobbs couldn’t be expected to remain at the helm for the whole day, and Monroe and Smith took it in turns to relieve her. Hobbs didn’t like that. Clinton Monroe might be the owner and captain, but Kestrel was her baby, and she didn’t care for babysitters.
It was late afternoon, the sun low on the horizon, streaming in over the starboard rail. Monroe had the wheel, steering a compass course of one hundred eighty degrees, which would bring them to the coast close enough to Mombasa for Hobbs to figure out the details. Smith sat in front of the pilot house, leaning back against the wood, playing a Stephen Foster tune on his harmonica as he kept a casual eye on the gullies and razorbacks they were currently passing over.
It was not a popular run among the territory’s few aerialists. A lot could go wrong in five hundred miles, and it was a damned long walk to safety if it did, but the little village near the border with Ethiopia was considered a vital outpost on the frontier. That was why the Crown paid a stipend that made the run profitable, and if a crew could pick up something else on the side for the trip, so much the better.
There had been a small contract for a case of spices for the trader who served the few Europeans who lived around the village, but that had only added a single sovereign to their take. Monroe had collected the coin for the spices from Evans, the trader, and swapped the medicine for a voucher from the Pastor who ran the little hospital. They had failed to find a cargo to bring back, and so were cruising light at about four hundred feet above the badlands with nothing but a piece of paper, albeit one that would turn into five pounds sterling when they got it back to Mombasa.
That was still a good six hours off, and Hobbs had invoked the agreement with their new crew member, Dr. Ellsworth, to get him to make a pot of tea and warm a tray of scones; close enough to tea-time in any case. Having finished that late-afternoon treat, she had just shucked off her boots and stretched out on her bunk to relax when there was a knock at her cabin door.
“Patience,” came Smith’s harsh American accent, “Cap’n wants you on deck.”
“All right, David,” she responded, shaking her head. The man was exactly what she would have expected from America, as unrefined and colorful as the wide open country itself. Pulling her boots back on, she stopped before her mirror to take a couple of swipes through her hair with a brush, pulled it into a ponytail which she secured with a simple leather thong, and headed forward to climb the ladder to the main deck. She was surprised to see Smith as she came out into the corridor, just going up the ladder to the main deck with the fowler, their one-pound cannon that could be mounted to the rail, over his shoulder.
Fully alerted by the sight, she came up behind him, directly in front of the pilot house, took a look around, and turned back to look at Captain Monroe at the wheel. He pointed off the starboard bow.
Turning to look out over the wrinkled brown landscape below, she didn’t pick out the object of everyone’s interest until Smith stepped over and pointed it out to her. There, sagging into the gullied terrain and blending beautifully into the deepening shadows, was a neutral gray sheet of fabric, the collapsed gas bag of a downed airship. Fixing the few reference points in her memory, she moved back to the pilot house door.
“What have you found now, Captain?”
“A bit of a mystery, I believe.”
“Indeed. A downed ship, obviously. The mystery is who it is, and what he was doing in this area at all.”
Hobbs stepped in, checked the compass, the throttle, the angle of the drive unit, then slid sideways in front of Monroe, effectively taking over control.
“The only established route in the area is the run to Buna,” he continued, giving her an exasperated look. “We have the contract for this run, and we could barely find anything else to carry, so he wasn’t making a profit up here. The only other thing that immediately comes to mind is that he was up to some sort of skullduggery.”
“A Prussian, maybe?”
“Or an Italian. Mustn’t forget that diabolical spore that struck Stephenson's crops.”
“The Stephenson place is a long way from here.”
“Indeed, and maybe this fellow crashed during his getaway. Ease her down as we approach. I want to take a quick look around before we go aboard.”
“There isn’t much light left.”
“Better hurry, then. If there are survivors, they’ll rather spend the night with us, I’m thinking. If not, could be salvage.”
“Ah, indeed there could.” She pulled the attitude control back, tipping the propellers down, driving the tail slightly up, then straightened them to drive Kestrel on a slight downward angle toward the unremarkable spot that was now locked into her internal map of their surroundings. “Better arm up, Captain. You’re as good as on the ground.”
* * *
Dusk was rapidly approaching as Smith swung onto the rope ladder. A lantern hung on its lanyard just below his feet, and he was armed with a Colt Peacemaker in an American holster, and a Winchester model ’73 slung on a rawhide thong. Monroe followed closely, Le Mat pistol and Martini-Henry rifle ready to hand, and Dr. Ellsworth came over the rail last, his Webley strapped to his hip, and another lantern dangling below, fussing mightily about the lack of necessity for his presence, and flirting with disaster every step of the way.
“There might be survivors,” Monroe had told him, “so bring your herbs.”
Smith reached the ground and looked around the area. Seeing no movement in the darkness, he picked up his lantern and took a few steps toward the gondola of the crashed vessel. Monroe landed quickly, and moved up behind him, rifle in hand.
“Somebody survived, all right,” Smith said. “See how they cut their way through the canvas? Somebody wanted off of there awful bad to cut through that vulcanized fabric.”
“They thought this ground would be an improvement?”
“Inexperienced, probably. Or, maybe they thought there was gonna be a fire.”
“There’s no sign of one.”
“Doesn’t mean they didn’t think there was gonna be one.”
“Son of a bitch!” Ellsworth arrived on the hard-packed dirt by way of a huge pratfall, his “doctor bag” landing on his face just as his rump landed on the dangling lantern. “This had better be worthwhile, that’s all I can say!”
“Let us hope so, Doctor,” Monroe cautioned him.
“We don’t know what’s down here. It might be prudent to keep your voice down.”
“Oh. Right... Of course.”
Smith started toward the wreck as Ellsworth collected himself.
“Somebody was bad injured,” he said, reaching the bow that had broken on impact. “Judging by the blood on this railing, they ain’t long for this world, either.”
“All the more reason to stay with the ship. Can you tell which way they went after they got down?”
“Hah! A blind monkey could follow this trail. Or a hungry leopard.” Everyone’s senses suddenly focused more acutely on their surroundings. “Weren't many of ’em, either. Clear as their trail is, it’s tiny.”
“Lead on, Mr. Smith. Come along, Doctor. There’s suddenly a bit of urgency to this.”
Ellsworth collected his gear and trotted to catch up. Monroe had his rifle at the ready, following closely behind Smith, who held his pistol in one hand and his lantern in the other, bent over, examining the ground ahead.
“All too easy to take a spill on these loose pebbles,” Smith observed. “They took the path of least resistance. Don’t know where they thought they was going. Nearest village by my lights is Garissa, an’ that’s back the other way.”
“Indeed. They don’t seem like the kind of people who should have been making this particular trip.”
Anything else he might have been considering saying was curtailed by a weak moan coming from just ahead. Smith turned toward the sound, slid down a steep gully wall, and dropped to his knees beside a man's limp form huddled in an undercut at the bottom of the slope.
“Who’s got some water?” he asked.
“I do,” Ellsworth replied, kneeling beside him. “Hold the light. Sir, can you hear me? We’re going to take care of you.”
He lifted the man's head and held his water bottle to his bearded lips. The man took a small swallow, then broke into a coughing fit.
“Sabotage!” he said through another moan. “Blew me up!”
He grabbed the front of Ellsworth’s shirt.
“Blew me up, the bastards! Make ’em pay! Make ’em pay...” His voice trailed off as he expended all his energy in that outburst.
“Who are you?” Ellsworth asked him. “Who blew you up? Come on, man, who are you?”
“I don’t think he’s gonna be answerin’, Doc,” Smith said, watching as the luster faded from his eyes. “Surprised he lasted this long, from the size of that bleed on his chest.”
Ellsworth laid the man's head down and opened his bloody shirt, exposing a deep, ragged puncture.
“Good Lord!” he said. “What do you suppose? Bullet wound?”
“Exit wound, maybe,” Monroe said. “Turn him over and look at his back. There should be a nice clean hole there if a bullet went in.”
Smith and Ellsworth did just that.
“Clean as a whistle,” Smith announced.
“Well, maybe a piece of wood,” Monroe speculated. “He did say somebody blew him up.”
“So, why did he leave his ship, injured this badly?” Ellsworth asked.
“Who knows? Sometimes an injury like that fuddles the brain. You do really stupid things, all the while thinking that they make perfect sense.”
“Do you think he was alone?” Ellsworth asked.
Smith held up the lantern and examined the ground.
“Nobody else came this way, that’s for sure.”
“Perhaps someone left him aboard and went for help,” Ellsworth said. “Then he comes around, thinks he’s been deserted, and tries to save himself.”
All eyes turned back toward Garissa.
“Never mind,” Monroe said. “We’re not going to stumble around in the dark, looking for somebody who might be miles away by now. Let’s search the gondola. Maybe he kept a logbook.”
“Or valuable salvage,” Smith added.
“Or valuable salvage,” Monroe agreed.
“You people are ghouls,” Ellsworth decided.
“Nonsense, boy,” Smith said. “We ain’t gonna eat ’im!”
* * *
There was indeed a logbook. It was written in an older Germanic script, raising the crew’s suspicions that it might have been the log of a Prussian spy. Brown, who could read the language easily enough, had to attend to the engineering plant during the hazardous night journey over hundreds more miles of featureless veldt, and so was unable to unlock its secrets. A quick examination revealed that the aerialist's name was Ingel Braun, he was indeed traveling alone, and that his last flight had originated in Abundi, a location of an unspecified nature far to the northwest.
He had been lost indeed if he had come this way on purpose.
* * *
It was well after midnight when Kestrel made her approach to the aerodrome in Mombasa. Night approaches were considered unusual and dangerous operations, though with Hobbs at the wheel, Monroe wasn’t particularly worried. The chief problems with night landings were that the aerodromes were often unmanned after dark, and that the trails from the smoke pots, indicating wind direction, were difficult to see, even if the pots were lit. Of course, the prevailing winds over Mombasa, and most of Kenya for that matter, were generally steady, the direction varying with the season, and Hobbs employed what was quickly coming to be known as the “Hobbs Maneuver,” approaching from the downwind direction, and allowing the ship to weathercock to refine the final heading. Once that was done, all that was left was to motor over the stalls, drop a line, and put Smith down on the cargo hoist to make it fast to a bollard.
This was accordingly done, a tail rope set to control any swing, and the tired crewmen headed for a quick wash-up and a night in their bunks. Hobbs finished switching off everything but batteries for the cabin lights, and stepped out of the pilot house to find Monroe walking the perimeter of the deck, making his customary final check of his ship’s condition and status.
“An interesting journey,” she offered.
“Indeed,” Monroe agreed. “That fellow was a fool, trying to navigate over strange territory alone.”
“Maybe it wasn’t strange to him. Just because we’ve never seen him doesn't mean he’s never been here before.”
“Oh, do you remember seeing that ship around the region? I surely don’t.”
“No, I don’t either, but there’s nothing to say he hadn’t traveled the area as a passenger on someone else’s ship. He knew how to fly alone, he must have had enough experience to scout a region like this before he attempted a solo flight.”
“Says who? What with the rubies being found here, the territory’s being overrun with idiots who don’t know the first thing about how to keep safe in a place like this. Don't pretend you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” she said, with an involuntary glance toward the stern, where Ellsworth was in the Kestrel’s refrigeration locker making one last check on the body before turning in. “Still, you can’t just assume that everyone you meet is an idiot, and set your course accordingly.”
“I suppose not.” He heaved a deep sigh. “You saw that log book. He went to pains to write it in an obscure script. His last words were, ‘They blew me up.’ You know there isn’t one of us who hasn’t given serious thought to the idea that he was a spy. Now we’re going to be cut out of it without another word.”
“We’ve recovered a body, Patience. The law requires it be reported immediately upon mooring. I have to go do that before I turn in, and the moment I do, the first thing they’re going to ask is whether we recovered his log book. I can’t very well say no, and then produce it later, can I? Once I tell them I have it, they’ll be round to collect it before Gunther even wakes up tomorrow, and that will be that, end of our involvement.”
“Maybe not. If they need a ship...”
“They won’t. We’ve brought everything back that matters.”
“True enough, I suppose. Well, as long as we have the mission’s voucher, five pounds sterling will buy a lot of curiosity.”
“I suppose. Well, I’d better go file our report. Sleep well. You’ve earned it.”
* * *
Monroe went below to his cabin and strapped on his Le Mat revolver, checking that the 16-gauge centerline barrel was loaded, and swung down the ladder for the mile-long walk in the dark to the Government House near the waterfront. As dangerous as that walk could be in the small hours, he was not molested, whether by dint of his reputation or his large pistol, and a short time later, he stepped into the Mombasa Rangers' duty office to find his friend, Abasi, behind the raised desk.
“Jambo, Abasi,” he greeted him.
“Jambo, Captain Clinton,” the big African replied. “You are out late.”
“As required by law, my friend. We just tied up, and I am required to tell you that we found a wrecked airship coming in, and brought in a body.”
“A body? Is it anyone we know?”
“I don’t think so. Prussian, by the look of things. Some fellow named Braun.”
“Braun, you say?”
“That’s right. Ingle, Angle, something like that.”
“That is a most unusual coincidence, my friend. If you just arrived, you probably didn't see the new ship in the harbor.”
“Arrived early yesterday. It is a seagoing yacht, the property of one Baron Dietrich von Redesky.”
“None other. He says he has spent the last six months documenting a hitherto unknown tribe deep in the jungle. Rather than hand-pack all his research material out of the jungle, he sent it out with his balloonist, who was to meet him on the coast along here. He has been stopping at each port to inquire about the man, and it sounds from the name that you have found him.”
“Well, I’m damned!”
“Most certainly not. There could well be a reward. Tell me, did you find any of the journals, any sort of scientific materials that could be what the Baron is looking for?”
“That is too bad, my friend. Where is the body?”
“Aboard my ship. We have it in cold storage.”
“I see. Did you find his log book?”
Monroe hesitated just briefly, weighing the pros and cons one last time before answering.
“Well, then, I’ll tell you what. You go back to your ship and get some rest. I will come tomorrow with some men to take the body and the book off your hands. The Baron will want to speak with you, I am certain. Do you have the mission voucher?”
“I will bring your payment, as well. And, Clinton...”
“Do not mention the logbook unless the Baron asks you for it. Simply hand it over to me, as the law requires.”
“What the devil?”
“He is, shall we say, somewhat presumptuous. Do not ask too many questions yet, Clinton. The less you know, the less you can tell.”
* * *
As good as his word, Abasi arrived with four rangers, natty in their khaki shirts and shorts, the famous Prussian explorer, and five pounds sterling an hour after sunrise. Ellsworth was up, sitting on the mess room roof aft of the pilot house with a cup of tea when they arrived, watching the city come to life from his altitude of twenty-some feet.
“On the Kestrel,” came the call from the ground. Remembering that very cry from his own introduction to the vessel, he moved over to the rail to see the group of policemen with the well-heeled civilian waiting below.
“Good morning,” he called down. “What can we do for you?”
“Good morning, good sir,” one of the African policemen replied. “Is Captain Monroe available?”
“I believe so,” Ellsworth replied. “I’ll just get him.”
He went below to find Monroe awake in his cabin, having just shaved, and alerted him to their visitors. By the time he got back on deck, the civilian was standing on their deck, with one of the constables, the one who had hailed him, just coming over the rail.
“Und vere is der kapitan?” the civilian, a bronzed, fit outdoorsman with handlebars, monocle, and cigarette holder demanded.
“I apologize for the Baron,” the African said, steadying himself on deck. “Customs are different where he is from.”
“You do not apologize for me, boy!” the man bellowed, rounding on the man. “I asked to address ze kapitan, und instead I am given to der messenger boy. It is he who needs to apologize!”
“I say, who the devil is this,” Ellsworth asked the constable, “and by what right does he board a private vessel without an invitation? I want him arrested forthwith.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Monroe’s voice came from the main hatch, “yet. I presume this to be Baron von Redesky?”
Monroe walked aft to join them, his shirt studiously unbuttoned, offering nothing in the way of respect or hospitality. Ellsworth was glad to see that he was not amused by the Prussian’s high-handed actions.
“Ja, I am ze Baron Dietrich von Redesky, ze premier anthropologist in all of Africa. I am given to belief zat you are ze kapitan who found my employee?”
“If your employee was Ingel Braun, that’s correct.”
“Und vere is he?”
“His body is in our refrigeration locker.”
“Vat? Vhy have you put him in ze cold storage?”
“Because if we didn't, he’d be stinking up the place, and attracting vultures.”
“Bah, you English mit your eternal jokings! Vell,” he ordered Abasi, “bring your boys up und collect him.”
Monroe nodded to Abasi, who turned to summon his men.
“Doctor Ellsworth will show you,” he said. “Baron, we found your man in a very remote area, not really on the regular routes at all.”
“Zen vat vere you doing zere?”
“Delivering supplies to an out of the way village. The question is, what was Mr. Braun doing there?”
The Baron glared at Monroe, outraged that this backwater freight hauler should have the audacity to question him about anything.
“Baron,” Abasi said quietly, “these questions are going to be asked, and if you do not care to answer them when we ask, then it is almost certain that officers of the Royal Army garrison are going to ask them instead. Given the political situation in Europe, that process might not be so informal as this.”
“Vell, you English really have some nerve! I lose a valuable employee, und you are now going to interrogate me like I am some common criminal? Very vell, ask your – oh, vell, who is dis?”
Monroe looked back to see Hobbs’ blonde head coming up the ladder to take in the morning sun.
“My pilot,” Monroe said. “Patience, come meet our guest.”
“Good morning, Abasi,” she said, coming over to them, looking the Baron up and down as she approached.
“Missy Hobbs,” the African said, touching his forehead in an abbreviated salute.
“Baron, this is my pilot, Miss Patience Hobbs,” Monroe said. “Patience, meet Baron Dietrich von Redesky.”
“The Baron von Redesky? I’ve heard great things about you.”
He took her extended hand and raised it to his forehead as he bowed deeply.
“All true, I assure you! Zis is true, you pilot zis vessel?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I am need of a pilot just now. How vould you like to triple your earnings?”
“She’s not available,” Monroe said.
“Nor am I property,” she countered with a mischievous smile. “What’s your proposition?”
“He doesn’t have time to talk right now,” Monroe said. “He’s about to tell us what his aerialist was doing out where we found him.”
“Vell, I am sure zat even you are not so far back in ze voods zat you have not heard of my contributions to science. I have been far up to ze north of Lake Victoria, living among ze watu wa misitu.”
“Ze watu wa misitu. I am not surprised you have not heard of zem. I und my few assistants are ze only vite men who have ever seen zem. Zat vill change ven I publish my book about zere lives. Zat is vat my pilot vas doing over your territory.”
“These people are here?”
“Do not be obtuse, kapitan. I already said zese people are north of Lake Victoria. During ze studies, I accumulated reams of notes, drawings of everything zey do, even some photographs. Zese sings are very heavy und unvieldy, und zere is only a rough track to our base camp on Lake Tanganyika. So, I entrusted zis equipment to Mr. Braun, und told him to fly it to ze coast und vait for me at vichever sea-port he arrived at, und I vould meet him vis my yacht. Zere is nosing more sinister in his presence zan zat. So, you have my research materials?”
“I’m afraid we weren’t looking for books, Baron. There was very little of value around the wreckage.”
“Oh, it vasn’t burned?”
“No. Why would you think it was?”
“A great bag of hydrogen. It just seemed likely. Zen you must have found crates of documents.”
“Not a one. Maybe he jettisoned them trying to hold his altitude.”
“He vould have sooner jettisoned himself!”
“Well, there was nothing beyond a few personal effects. We tried to save him, but he expired.”
“You spoke vis him? Vat did he say?”
“Nothing,” Monroe said. “He never regained consciousness.”
The Baron relaxed visibly.
“Zat is too bad. I vill collect his effects, zen, und take my leave.”
“Patience, get Mr. Braun’s effects, will you?”
“Und remember my offer. Ve shall speak again.”
Hobbs favored him with a noncommittal smile, then went below, leaving Monroe, Abasi, and the Baron to stand in uncomfortable silence at the quarterdeck, moving apart when the police carried Braun’s board-stiff body from the cold locker in the stern. She returned a few moments later with a package of items wrapped in a leather thong.
“This is what he had on his person,” she said. “His wallet with all his cash, a medallion he was wearing, a key ring, and a small journal.”
“Und his log?”
“Turned over to the authorities, as our law requires,” Monroe said as Abasi nodded out of von Redesky's view.
“Mmm. Vat about ze sings in his cabin?”
“The ship was wrecked too badly to be worth salvaging,” Monroe said. “There was no cabin, per se. Wreckage was scattered for acres. It probably fell apart as it came down.”
“Und yet Braun lived. I sink I understand. Very vell, zen, I vill leave you now. Do not let it come to my ears zat you have lied about any of zis.”
“Or what?” Monroe asked sternly.
“I think we are finished here, gentlemen,” Abasi said, crowding von Redesky toward the ladder with his tall frame. “We will be in contact should we need anything, Captain. Will you be in town all day?”
“Until we find a cargo.”
“Very well. Perhaps I will see you later.”
Monroe took the small logbook from his hip pocket and handed it to him as von Redesky started down the ladder.
* * *
The sun was past the zenith when Monroe, Hobbs, and Ellsworth walked into the open-air bar of the Queen’s Royal Hotel. The luncheon trade had largely returned to work, but the usual hangers-on were still present, nursing flat drinks or colding meals, hoping the odd job would turn up, or perhaps a ride to somewhere that they could find work. Scattered among the tables were a few men they hadn’t seen before, but that was hardly cause for suspicion in the busiest seaport on the East African coast.
“Cold beers, Faraji,” Monroe called to the African barman as they took seats around a vacant table.
“So, what are we doing, Captain?” Hobbs asked, pushing her bush hat back to hang down her back on its chin-straps.
“Having a beer.”
“Quite amusing, Captain. We've been in port all day, and you haven’t so much as expressed a passing interest in a job. So, what are we doing?”
“Abasi said we’d talk, so I’m making myself available.”
“And if he doesn’t make contact? We have a living to make, you know.”
“I do. You worry too much. There’s always something going out beyond the rails.”
“Many somethings,” Faraji said, bringing their beers himself, “far more somethings than there are ships to carry them. Welcome back to my humble establishment, young doctor. I see you have found some friends. Have they taught you any manners yet?”
“That is good. You wish a meal?”
“Not yet,” Monroe answered. “What do you know about this von Redesky character?”
“Oh, the great baron! Very busy. He is going to tell the world about the primitive African bush men. Those two men work for him.” He smiled and nodded toward two sullen-looking men in the corner. “Or they know him, anyway. He leaves them here this morning. They sit and watch all day, eat almost nothing, drink only water.”
“That’s interesting. I wonder what they're watching for?”
“You, apparently,” Faraji replied with an amused smile, nodding again toward the table, where one of the men got up and walked out.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Monroe said. “Maybe we will have that meal after all.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, as they sat over plates of fish, beef, and antelope steak, the man returned, Baron von Redesky at his side.
“Uh oh,” Ellsworth said, sitting up straight in alarm.
“Well,” Monroe said, “that didn’t take long.”
Von Redesky marched up to their table, and without preamble said to Monroe, “Kapitan, I have a proposition for you.”
“I vould like to hire your airship.”
“For what? You already seem to think it’s your property.”
“I apologize for zat little misunderstanding, Kapitan. I have been far from civilization, und accustomed to getting my own vay for a good long time now.” He pulled a chair over from the next table and sat down, as the man who had brought him in went back to the table with his friend. “I vould very much like to charter your ship to take me back to vere you fount my pilot’s wreckage.”
“Well, that could be problematic, Baron. There’s an awful lot of unmarked territory out there. It could be like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. Do you think you could even find it again, Patty?”
“Oh, with luck, and enough money.”
“Hah,” von Redesky exclaimed, “such cheek! Ve are going to make an unbeatable team ven you come to vork for me!”
“I told you, she’s otherwise engaged.”
“Ja, you told me. She has not told me. Anyvay, zat is for another time. Now, today, I vish to purchase a ride. Vould twenty sterling be to your liking?”
“Hell, yes, it would,” Monroe said in surprise. “We’ll need a little in advance to lay in supplies and the like.”
“My good kapitan, you may have it all in advance if you can guarantee me ve vill leave at first light tomorrow.”
“This must be very important to you.”
“Years of vork vent down vith zat ship,” von Redesky replied, taking out his billfold to start counting out twenty one-pound notes. “I must recover anything zat can be found.”
He laid the money on the table.
“We'll have the Kestrel ready, Baron. Come aboard tonight if you wish, and you can get settled into your quarters. I’m afraid they’re rather Spartan.”
“My dear kapitan, for ze past six months, I have been living on ze dirt floor of a mud hut in a jungle clearing. I hardly sink you are going to offer me anything I might consider Spartan.”
“Ah, perhaps you’re right, Baron.”
“Please, if ve are now to be partners, I insist you call me Dietrich.”
“All right, then, Dietrich,” Monroe said, rising with von Redesky to shake his hand. “Congratulations on hiring the finest ship this side of Europe.”
The baron took his leave, summoned his two men from the corner table, and walked out of the bar into the bustling waterfront of Mombasa.
* * *
Von Redesky led his two men down the block and around a corner, where he stopped. He looked around the corner to see that they hadn’t been followed, then addressed his men in Prussian.
“Now, listen carefully. I want you to return to the ship. Eric, you come back here with Gudrun. Both of you dress demurely. She is a secretary for this trip, and you are my valet. Hans, take the yacht as rapidly as you can to Zanzibar. Ready our airship, and fly with all haste to Arusha. From there, locate a village in northern Kenya called Buna. Lay in a course twenty degrees to the right of the line to Buna, and head in that direction. Somewhere over the veldt, you will find at anchor their miserable little Kestrel. You will blow it out of the sky, and kill their crewmen, four or five in number. Be sure you bring enough men to manage it.”
“Javol, mein Baron! They cannot help but see us coming from miles away. What if they are faster than us?”
“I assure you, Hans, with Eric and Gudrun aboard, they will not be.”
* * *
Monroe smiled approvingly as he pocketed twenty pounds in crisp notes guaranteed by the Bank of England, and signaled Faraji to come settle the bill. The man came over, asked for two shillings. Monroe produced three as he pocketed the bank notes. Bowing his thanks, Faraji turned to go, but was stopped by Hobbs.
“What do you know about a people called the watu wa misitu?”
“The watu wa misitu.”
“Mmmm. Nothing, Missy. That only means people of the forest. Of course... No, you said people.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. It is just that watu misia is the ancient name of some forest devils. They are, what do you say, a myth, an adults’ joke used to frighten unruly children, like what you English call the bogeyman.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s not what he meant,” Monroe said. “Thanks, Faraji. Let’s get to work, folks. We have a lot to do before morning.”
“What should I do, Captain?” Ellsworth asked.
“Just tag along with Patience for now. I’m sure she’ll find something to occupy your time.”
* * *
Kestrel cruised steadily above the veldt northeast of Mombasa, the early morning sun coming over the starboard bow, still gradually gaining altitude. Hobbs stood behind the wheel, the bill of her flat patrol cap pulled down over the huge smoked-glass uni-lens goggles that covered two-thirds of her face. She was going to take them high today, in order to have a wide view of the plain. She knew approximately where the wrecked airship lay, but they wouldn’t have a hope of actually finding it until someone spotted the deflated gas bag lying among the gullies.
The Prussians had come aboard last night, von Redesky with his valet, Eric, and his secretary, Gudrun.
Secretary, my ass, Hobbs thought, as the tall Nordic woman came up the ladder, the first of their passengers on deck. She knew the others were up; no one slept through the gut-wrenching near-vertical takeoff of an airship, and the smaller the ship was, the more pronounced the sensation that things were not progressing well. The blonde Amazon looked over the rail, stretched, and turned to see Hobbs at the wheel. There was no sign of alarm at finding herself some four hundred feet above the plains, and still rising, and Hobbs noted the fact as the woman walked back to the pilot house door; her long skirt and loose-cut Bavarian blouse did nothing to hide the athletic grace of her walk.
“Guten morgen,” she said, as she stepped over the threshold.
Hobbs only nodded, pretending to be far busier than she was.
“It is unusual to find a voman in command of an airship.”
“Oh. I’m not in command,” Hobbs replied. “I’m just the driver.”
“Ah, a skill not easily learned, I presume.”
“Not really. You just point and go.”
“Nonetheless, I am impressed.”
“Well, thank you, then. You’re the Baron’s secretary, are you?”
“Zat is correct.”
“It must be very glamorous, traveling the world with a great man of science.”
“Oh, yes. I have seen much of China und Australia, und now ve are performing studies in Africa. It is quite fascinating.”
“You must be pressed to find the time to exercise.”
Gudrun cocked her head and gave Hobbs an inquisitive look; then it was gone.
“It only makes sense to keep myself fit. In ze places ve go, it is not predictable ven ve might have to run for our lives.”
“Excuse me,” Gunther Brown said, angling to squeeze past Gudrun.
“Very nice,” the woman said, looking him up and down as he slid into the cabin to stand between Hobbs and her throttle and lift controls.
“Ze engineering plant has been checked out. Everysing is vorking normally.”
“Thank you, Gunther.”
“Gunther, is it?” Gudrun purred. "You are ze engineer, ja?”
“Sind sie verheiratet?”
“Hast du eine freundin?” she asked, with a meaningful glance at Hobbs.
With a last appraisal, she slithered out the door and headed aft.
“What was all that about?” Hobbs asked.
“She asked if I vas married.”
“She asked if you are my girlfriend.”
“Ja, zat is vat she said.”
* * *
The sun was low on the horizon when Kestrel finally anchored over the limp bag of Braun’s wrecked ship. The baron went down to the surface with his valet, Eric, saying that he couldn’t bear to wait for sunrise. Monroe sent Smith down with them, then nagged by some sixth sense, armed himself with rifle and pistol, and went down to join them.
The two Prussians were going through the contents of a steamer trunk they had pulled out of the wreckage while Smith stood guard with his Winchester rifle.
“What do they think they’re going find with nothing but hand lanterns down here? They act as though the sun weren’t coming up tomorrow.”
“Ain’t my job to figure ’em out, just watch ’em, and I’m startin’ to wonder about that.”
“As am I,” Monroe agreed. “Dietrich!”
Von Redesky looked up at the call, and moved to physically block Monroe’s view of the trunk’s interior as he approached.
“It’s going to be fully dark within a matter of minutes. It isn’t safe here.”
“It is rarely safe anywhere.”
“Nonetheless, I think we should get back to the Kestrel. We can get a fresh start in the morning.”
“Ja, Kapitan, I suppose you are right. Zis is not being productive anyvay. I vonder vere ze cargo could have gone?”
“We’ll work it out tomorrow, Baron, when we have all day to work on it. Now, we really must get back while we can still find the ladder.”
“Ja, ja. Close zis up, Eric. Tomorrow ve answer all questions.”
* * *
Kestrel swung around her anchor above the badlands, blown around by the gentle breeze until her bow pointed to the northeast, her ceaseless motion so gentle as to be virtually unnoticeable. Von Redesky had taken everyone down to the surface to work on the mystery of the missing notebooks, leaving only Hobbs and Brown aboard. He had insisted that they come down as well, but Monroe had vetoed that demand, saying the ship was never left unattended; think of where they’d be if the anchor cable parted! So they had eaten the sort of cold lunch they had been accustomed to prior to Ellsworth’s arrival, and settled down to relax and keep a somewhat lax watch. They were, after all, a hundred miles from nowhere, and the nearest scheduled traffic would be farther away than that. Gudrun, the secretary, had come back aboard to eat, and had not returned to the surface. She claimed fatigue, but Hobbs believed there might be an ulterior motive.
It was, then, with some surprise that Hobbs, reclining against the pilot house on a thin cot pad, looked up from her “dime novel,” a taste she had acquired from her American colleague, to see a dark smudge of greasy smoke staining the horizon to the west. She stood, trying without success to estimate the distance, then stepped into the pilot house to retrieve the captain’s binoculars. These showed her the situation much more clearly. A thick, bulbous gas-bag, made for heavy lifting, with a wide, flat gondola slung below, was headed their way. Hobbs, well-versed in local airship knowledge, didn’t recognize it.
She stomped her boot heel three times, hard, on the deck above the staterooms.
“Gunther,” she shouted toward the ladder, “I need you topside!”
She stepped out to lean on the port rail and studied the approaching vessel long enough to confirm that she had never seen it before, and it was headed toward them. These things alone were not alarming. Larger ships like this occasionally transited the colony, and it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for one aerialist to inquire of another about local conditions and recommended routes. Still, Hobbs wasn't one for making assumptions.
“Captain,” she shouted toward the ground, “there’s a ship coming up.”
“Anyone we know?” Monroe’s voice came back from the deep gully.
“No. It’s quite large though, and it’s headed straight for us.”
“Do you have steam raised?”
“All right. Give us a shout if you need to be cut loose, there’s a good lass.”
Good lass, indeed! Still, Hobbs recognized the captain’s seeming indifference as confidence in her ability; one of her great fears was that she might fail to live up to that confidence some day. Brown came up the ladder from below with the baron’s secretary following him like a puppy.
“Vat is it?”
“There’s a ship coming our way. Make sure everything’s ship-shape and ready to answer the helm, would you?”
“Of course.” He headed aft toward the motor room.
Gudrun came over to stand beside her.
“Is zere a problem?”
“Not yet,” Hobbs replied. “It’s quite a coincidence that another ship should appear right here, right now. Still, these things happen.”
“Und he is headed for us? Does he mean us harm?”
“Most likely not. It isn’t unusual for passing ships to exchange news.”
“I see. Can I do anything to help?”
“Not yet. Just be ready. If we need anything, we’ll tell you, don't worry.”
“Ja, good. I just go tell Gunther zat I am available.”
Hobbs just nodded, thinking, I’ll wager you’ve already done that! She propped one foot on the bottom rail, watching the stranger approach, and wondered what it was that was making the hair on her neck bristle. There were no obvious markings on the craft, nothing unusual about the gondola that she could see, even with the binoculars. She lowered them, studied the ship without magnification, groping for an overall impression, and suddenly it came to her. It was the volume and thickness of the smoke. Whoever he was, he was taxing his boilers like he was in a race for his life. She began a slow backward walk to the pilot house door. Why, why, why? her mind shouted, why is he doing that?
Her conundrum was answered with a profound impact when a white puff of smoke appeared at the stranger’s rail, and a second later a whistling sound flashed by close on the starboard side. The unmistakable crack of a large firearm being discharged in her direction punched her in the chest even as the projectile crashed into the landscape a half mile beyond.
“Jesus Lord!” She dashed to the bow. “Captain, he’s firing at us! Cut me loose!”
“Right away!” came Monroe’s reply.
She trotted back to the pilot house, manned the controls, and pushed the throttles hard forward, secure in the knowledge that the anchor was attached to the cable with a pelican hook, and would easily release, even if there was tension on the line. As she hoped, Monroe had caught her urgency, and the line trailed free as Kestrel gathered way. One hand spinning the wheel, she shouted into the speaking tube to the motor room.
“Gunther, they’re shooting at us! You need to rig the fowler!”
“On my vay!”
* * *
Brown ladled another scoop of coal into the firebox of the Cheadle and Gatley closed-system generator, estimating it would give him about twenty minutes before the steam in the boiler went cold. Gudrun had come down the ladder to offer her aid, and it suddenly appeared that he could use it.
“Come vis me,” he told her. “We have a light gun ve can rig.”
He had started up the ladder when she called him back.
“Gunther, should zis be leaking zis much?”
He came back down.
“Here vere zis shaft goes into ze generator.” She pointed to an area on the deck beside the little bridge of steps that led over the spinning shaft and back to the refrigeration locker.
“I don’t see any leak.”
He leaned in beside the steps to get a better look, there was a sharp pain at the back of his head, and then he didn't see anything else.
* * *
Hobbs was coming to a course more or less east, setting up for flight from their mysterious attacker. Kestrel was no racing vessel, to be sure, but if she couldn’t outrun and outmaneuver that big barge, she’d be pleased to eat her hat; of course, if she couldn’t, Hobbs would never have to pay off that particular wager.
Already, the range had stopped closing, and Hobbs continually put in small course changes to give the enemy gunner the hardest possible solution. It was obviously working, as they had fired two more shots, and both had missed badly. Still, she couldn’t just run forever. Gunther needed to get their own weapon rigged, and begin to sting them back.
Hobbs had just put in a two degree change to starboard, when a hand clapped down on her left shoulder, and she felt the point of a knife touch the right side of her ribs. The hand held her down as she jumped.
“Very impressive, Miss Hobbs. Now you vill come to a halt, und prepare to be boarded.”
“So, a damnable filthy spy, are you?”
“Ja, und very vell trained. Your tedious insults are not about to provoke me into precipitous actions, so kindly just stop your engines.”
Hobbs dropped her right hand from the wheel, commencing the ordered action, but instead of reaching for the throttle, she slid her arm back, forcing the knife blade to her rear, spun to her right, and drove the heel of her left hand into the big woman's nose. The look of surprise was priceless as Gudrun's hand came up to cover her already bleeding nose, but then she backhanded Hobbs across the face with the power of a London prizefighter. As Hobbs staggered back, Gudrun sought to use her greater weight and strength to overpower the smaller woman, and rushed in to tackle her. Hobbs was able to grab her, barely, and redirect her momentum just slightly so that the power of her charge spun them both around to crash into the wall opposite the door. Hobbs didn’t see the knife, and assumed the woman would have stabbed her if she still had it, but that was a question she would have to answer quickly.
Back to the wall, the Prussian jabbed Hobbs with a short punch, opening up enough distance to get her powerful leg up and shove her low in the belly, sending her stumbling backward to trip over the door coaming and land on her back outside. Before she could begin to gather her wits, the woman flew out the door, pouncing onto her like a big jungle cat. Hobbs got her own leg up and deflected her flight, causing her to roll to her side and crash on the deck beside her. Rolling away, Hobbs scrambled to her feet and assessed her situation. The woman had either collected her knife, or had never lost it to begin with, and she came up slashing with a six-inch blade, advancing in a balanced fighting stance. Hobbs somersaulted away and darted around the front of the pilot house, snatching a fid, a foot-long hardwood rope-working tool, from the rack there. Bringing Gudrun’s charge to a halt with her own weapon, she shouted for Gunther to assist her.
“I am afraid Gunther vill be of no help to you. He is taking ze nap, you see.”
“What did you do to him?”
“Zat hardly matters, since none of you vil be surviving anyway.”
“You’ve not beaten me yet.”
“Nein? Look around you. You left ze ship making a turn. Soon ze grapnels vill be coming over. You cannot fight vis me und steer ze ship too, ja?”
Realizing the truth of the woman’s statement, Hobbs began to back down the port side.
“Shall ve do an experiment? You strike me vis your club, und I vill stab you vis my knife, und ve’ll see who feels like continuing zis dance.”
With a triumphant smile, Gudrun threw herself at the smaller woman, slashing as she came. Hobbs didn’t try to strike her with the fid, but used it to block a swing that surely would have opened her chest. She allowed the Amazon’s size and momentum to bowl her over, setting her foot against the woman’s hipbone and pushing it high into the air. Aided by the shove, her own momentum launched her over Hobbs, and well down the deck to crash in a disjointed heap, wrenching her shoulder and knocking some of the wind out of her. Hobbs was up first, but not quickly enough to take advantage, as the big woman climbed to her feet, smiling once again. She rotated her shoulder, causing a loud pop, and rubbed the back of her hand across her bleeding nose.
“Cute. I have enjoyed our little game, Englander. Now prepare to die!”
* * *
Brown drifted back into consciousness, aware at once of the blistering pain in his head. He had no idea what might have happened, and pushed himself to his hands and knees.
“Gudrun!” he called.
No answer. He put his hand to the spot that hurt, and pulled it back covered with blood. He pressed his chin to his chest, stretching the back of his neck, then pulled himself up on the steps. He saw at once that he was alone. Realization set in that Gudrun had either gone to get Hobbs to help him, or she had done this. He staggered to the ladder, took a deep breath to settle himself, and started the climb up. It was nauseatingly difficult, but he could brook no delay. There was no guessing what might be happening.
The first thing he saw as his head came up through the hatch was Gudrun’s back up forward beside the pilot house. He couldn’t tell what she was doing at first, but then she began to swing her arm back and forth, and he caught the flash of a knife. More importantly, he saw Hobbs standing in front of her, dodging and trying to block the slashes of the big woman.
Pulling himself up onto the deck, he began to walk unsteadily toward the fighting women. He fought down his nausea and had to support himself on the rail, but he finally reached a point directly behind the woman, and focused as she was on Hobbs, she didn’t notice him until he clamped his powerful arms over hers in a crushing bear hug. Hobbs charged in to take advantage, and the woman lifted both legs and kicked her in the chest, sending her reeling away to crash on the deck.
With a roar, he threw her sideways toward the rail. She hit it with her back, bounced off, and still full of fight, came at him, thrusting with her knife. He batted her hand aside with his left, and with his right, punched her in the face with all his weight and immense power behind the blow. She spun away, hit the rail with the front of her body, and this time bent forward at the waist and carried right on over, screaming until her impact with the packed ground silenced her voice with finality.
“Gunther!” Hobbs shouted, getting to her feet and coming toward him.
“Gunther,” she said more quietly, seeing the savage look on his face as he looked below to the spot where she had disappeared.
“Filthy assassin!” he spat. “Zat vas better zan she deserved! Are you all right?”
“Am I all right?” she asked with a nervous laugh. “Gunther, you’re bleeding like a butchered hog! Come to the pilot house and I’ll dress that wound, but first we have to lose our friends there.”
Their big pursuer punctuated her statement by taking another shot at them.
* * *
Monroe had no sooner released the pelican hook on the anchor than the baron’s commanding voice rang out, amplified by the confined space between the gully walls.
“Turn around very slowly, Kapitan, und keep your hand avay from your veapon. Eric?:
“Under control, Herr Baron.”
Monroe turned slowly and took in the scene, von Redesky holding a stubby plasma pistol aimed very steadily at his midsection, and Eric, the “valet,” holding Smith at the business end of a double barreled sawed-off shotgun. Ellsworth was nowhere to be seen.
“Looking for your botanist, Kapitan? I assure you, before he is prepared to make a move, my ship vil have returned vis a dozen soldiers.”
“Prussian soldiers? You’re ready to risk open war with the Crown, then?”
“I assure you, Kapitan, no vun vill ever know ve vere here. Ven ze animals are srough, zere vill be no bodies to discover. Now, unbuckle your belt vis your left hand, und let ze veapon drop.”
“There never were any notebooks, were there?” Monroe asked, complying with the baron’s order and unbuckling his belt. “Were you ever a real anthropologist?”
“Indeet I vas, Kapitan, und still am. It makes a vonderful cover for traveling as I vish sroughout ze colonies. It is amazing vat you can see visout even trying.”
“But there never were any watu wa misitu, were there?”
“No, Kapitan, zere vere not. Und yet it vas sufficient to get you simple-minded Englishmen all ze vay out here visout even asking ze qvestions. Zat is vhy ve are going to rule ze vorld, beginning vis ze colonies zat you are not fit to possess. Now, if you vould be so kind as to sit over zere by your crewman, you vill make splendid bait to bring in your botanist before ve dispose of you.”
“I don’t know what you’re hoping will happen here, but you don’t have anyone on your payroll who can outfly Patience. She’ll bring the authorities back here in a swarm.”
“Wrong on bose counts, Kapitan. First, you have been hearing zose booms, ja? Your esteemed Miss Hobbs is in ze process of being shot out of ze sky as ve speak. Second, it doesn’t matter how vell she can fly, because my so-called secretary vent up to ze balloon for lunch, do you remember? She is much more ruthless zen Eric.”
“She’s outnumbered, two to one.”
“Und you are sinking she vill fail? So vat if she does? Your Miss Hobbs is not about to leave you stranded here vis us. She vill attempt her own rescue. No vun needs to catch her. She vill come to us.”
Monroe took a seat beside Smith, heart racing, because he knew beyond any doubt that the Baron was right.
* * *
It had been harder for Hobbs to staunch the flow of Gunther’s blood than it had to lose the lumbering airship set to pursue them. Opening up the distance, she had dived over a ridge in a gut-wrenching near free fall, slipped into a narrow space between the trees that lined an uncharted stream, and chugged along at half throttle to the northwest as their pursuer moved off to beat the bushes to the west briefly before heading back the way they came.
Now darkness was falling as Hobbs held her steady in the stream bed, cursing the loss of the anchor, as she had to manually keep the ship from drifting. She and Gunther had devised a plan, and she waited now for the brilliant engineer to finish his modifications to a standard number six grappling hook. It was after ten o’clock when he came to the pilot house to report his readiness.
Hobbs lifted the Kestrel out of the shadows and set out on a long, curving course back to the crash site.
* * *
She came up behind the big ship, cruising silently at a speed that kept her twin electric motors quiet as a whisper. She had gone up to two thousand feet, a height where the Kestrel would be nothing more than a shadow on the moon had anyone managed to spot her, and a height where the view upward from the enemy airship would be obstructed by their own gas bag. Now she drifted down, virtually on top of them, a leaf falling through still air.
Brown stood at the bow behind the fowler, which was pointed almost straight down, motioning Hobbs to take them lower. Achieving the situation he wanted, he held up his hand toward the pilot house, and waved it back and forth. Making the sign of the cross over his chest, he steadied the piece, and pulled the lanyard. There was a thunderous report, and the hundred feet of light cable sang out under the rail.
“Ve have zem!” he shouted as the grappling hook he had so carefully sharpened penetrated the gas bag below. “Go, go!”
Hobbs pulled the throttles all the way back, letting the motors hum as the hook tore a gaping hole in the envelope of the enemy ship. Brown was frantically reloading their tiny cannon, this time with bits of coal carefully selected for its powdery nature, and he took aim and fired again.
A shotgun blast of flaming bits of carbon erupted into the escaping hydrogen, and quickly raced through the bag as the screaming began. He cut loose the cable holding them to the other ship, and Kestrel quickly backed out of the danger zone. As Hobbs spun the wheel and pushed the throttles to the stops, sending Kestrel into a sharply descending spiral, Brown kicked the rope he had prepared over the side, slung his bolt action Krag-Jorgensen over his shoulder, and waited for her to find a sheltered clearing for the next part of their plan. That was the work of a moment, and once she came steady, he slipped over the railing and slid down into the darkness.
Hobbs held it steady for a count of twenty to give him all the time he needed to clear the rope, then moved away to wait.
* * *
Brown slid down the rope with the practiced ease of the athlete he was, touching down lightly and waiting for Hobbs to move the ship away, hopefully attracting any unwanted attention upward. Of course, there didn’t seem to be any attention focused anywhere but on the burning wreckage and flaming soldiers raining down from the sky.
It was the work of a moment to locate the baron’s fire, banked high as it was to keep the nighttime predators at bay. There in the light were Smith and Monroe, tied side by side to a length of timber where it would be easy for the sentries to watch them. No sentries were watching now, with a vision of the apocalypse falling into and around the camp, and Brown, though no soldier, found it relatively easy to work his way around behind them.
There only seemed to be two or three sentries on the ground, plus Eric and the baron, and all were running in aimless panic, watching the carnage unfolding all around them. Biding his time, Brown crept up behind the two captives, carefully staying in their shadow. When no one seemed to be watching, he cut Monroe’s ropes, and as soon as he had gotten his hands free of the ropes, handed him his pistol. He bent to cut Smith’s bindings, and as he was sawing at them, being careful to avoid the man’s bare skin, he heard Monroe shout, “Hold it!”
He looked up to see the flash as Monroe’s pistol went off, bowling over one of the sentries who was drawing a bead on them. Two others turned, firing wildly, and cocking for their next shots. Brown got his rifle up and fired in unison with Monroe. Both hit the same man, leaving the other unscathed and ready to fire. With a triumphant smile, he aimed at the center of Monroe’s chest. A shot rang out, and the man jerked forward with a startled look, and pitched over onto his face. There at the far side of the camp stood Ellsworth, his .455 Webley smoking as he lowered his arm.
At the third point of a triangle, von Redesky drew his plasma pistol and raised it to aim. Brown and Monroe both drew down on him, Monroe shouting, “Don’t do it, Baron!”
Von Redesky hesitated, then relaxed, laid his pistol on the ground, and stepped back from it.
“Very impressive,” he said sarcastically, slowly clapping his hands. “If I hadn’t seen it vis my own eyes, I vould never have believed it.”
“Never mind ze compliments, Baron. Get on your knees, und raise your hands.”
“I might have known it vould take a traitor to overcome a force of Prussians.”
“I have never been a traitor, Baron. My father vas an Englishman, und I have never had any doubt about my loyalties. If I have to say get down again, I am going to fire.”
Von Redesky knelt down and raised his hands.
“Vere is Eric?”
“You’re ze genius. You find him.”
“The Baron sent him to the wreck to look for something,” Monroe said, finally cutting Smith loose.
“Doctor,” Brown called to Ellsworth, “tie up ze baron, und be careful.”
He stepped to the side to keep a line of fire toward the wreckage open.
“Eric! Sie verloren haben. Kommen mit erhobenen handen hoch!”
“Zur Holle fahren!” came the shout from the darkness, followed by two shots.
Von Redesky tried to use the surprise to escape, only to be pistol whipped by Ellsworth, an act that finally took the defiance out of the man.
“What did he say?” Monroe asked.
“Go to hell.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Zat is vat he said,” Brown said with a shrug.
* * *
The eastern sky was lightening as the last bit of equipment was loaded aboard the Kestrel. Von Redesky sat, bound, with his back against the pilot house. They had saved one badly wounded soldier, and one from the airship who was deep in shock with burns. They doubted either one would survive to reach Mombasa, but they weren’t the sort of people who would leave them helpless in the wilderness. They had seen no further sign of Eric.
Von Redesky had recovered from his blow, and was more argumentative, but considerably more subdued than he had been now that he was secured aboard his enemies’ vessel.
“So, what was the point of all this, Baron?”
“I told you, I vas having a look around.”
“Zat is for you to figure out.”
“If he was where he says he was,” Smith pointed out, “there’s an unguarded border up there with a growing Italian presence.”
“Yes,” Ellsworth added, “and a substantial number of hostile natives to be stirred up, from all I’ve been told.”
“Yes. Could be a useful auxiliary in the event of open conflict.”
“Or a valuable distraction even in peacetime,” said Ellsworth.
“Don’t forget the mountain of rubies beside the lake we share with the Prussians,” Hobbs added from the pilot house.
“Yes, but why did he try to kill us?” Ellsworth asked.
“He couldn't risk the possibility that Braun had told us something,” Smith said, “and a piece of crap like this thinks nothing of killing half a dozen people.”
“You schweine are ignorant,” von Redesky sneered. “If you insist upon treating me like a var criminal, even zough zere is no var, I demand to be confined in ze appropriate fashion.”
“Fair enough,” Monroe replied. “David, rig a shackle over a bed in one of the staterooms for our guest.”
“With pleasure,” Smith said, heading toward the ladder.
“Come on, up you get,” Monroe said, taking von Redesky under one arm to lift him to his feet.
As he came up, he suddenly whipped his hands out in front, having worked his bindings loose, punching Monroe in the face, and shoving Ellsworth as the doctor turned to see what had happened. He made a bee-line for the side, sliding under the bottom rail, and snagged a rope that had not yet been pulled up. As Ellsworth and Monroe looked on from above, he slid down the rope and into the deep shadows of the heavily eroded terrain.
“Come back, Baron,” Monroe shouted.
“You can’t survive alone down there,” Smith added.
“The damnable fool!” Monroe said. “Unarmed, alone, in the middle of the savannah. The first thing that sees him out there will kill him.”
“And eat him.”
And though they continued to shout to him for another twenty minutes, he never answered, and was not seen again.
“His choice,” Monroe said at last. “The savannah will judge him more harshly than any magistrate.”
* * *
It was midday, and Kestrel was halfway back to Mombasa. Hobbs pointed out the landmarks for Smith to steer by, and went below for the noon meal.
“Yummy,” she pronounced, sniffing the pot of stew simmering on the burner, and ladled some into a bowl. She took it back to the mess room and sat down at the table. Within a few minutes, Ellsworth came in and sat down across from her. His hands were shaking, and he held a cup of strong coffee, but not strong enough to cover the smell of the spirits he had laced it with.
“You look terrible, Doctor,” she greeted him.
“Not as terrible as I feel, I’m certain. The captain told me that you couldn't be pried off the wheel when the ship was underway.”
“Usually. It’s been a hell of a night, Doctor.”
“For all of us,” he agreed. He tried to lift his coffee to his mouth, his hand shaking so badly he had to steady it with the other.
“Any chance that Prussian was the first man you’ve ever killed?”
“Yes,” he said after a moment. “I’m a scholar. I study plants. I didn’t come out here to kill anyone.”
“Most people don’t.”
She reached across the table and put her hand on his. He looked at her hand, then up at her, an almost comical look of surprise written on his features.
“It will be all right,” she said. “At the bottom of the balance sheet, we’re here, and they aren’t. Sometimes that’s enough.”
“I suppose it is. There’s one thing I’m dying to know, though.”
“How in God’s name were you able to defeat Brunhilda?”
“It was Gunther who knocked her over the side.”
“I heard his story. He was knocked out. She had all the time she needed to have her way with you.”
“A thing easier said than done.”
“So I am learning. But how?”
“Are you familiar with Collins and Mason?”
“Who isn’t? They must be one of the leading industrial firms in Europe.”
“Number three,” she confirmed. “I’m a very distant cousin of the Masons. I suppose I never would have gotten a whiff of the main family, but when my father was killed in the mines, uncle Jeffrey took us in, my mum and me. It was his mine. He reckoned it was something he owed us. I grew up the only girl among six male cousins on the estate in East Anglia. Uncle Jeffrey had a Japanese groundsman named Hayashi. He spent a number of years teaching me a Japanese wrestling art called ju-jitsu. It doesn’t rely upon strength at all, but rather balance, momentum, and leverage. Basically, it uses your own strength against you, so the bigger and stronger you are, the harder you go down. Gudrun was the strongest woman I’ve ever met. You see?” she finished with her mischievous smile.
“Patience Hobbs, you are the most intriguing woman I’ve ever met in my life!” He put his other hand on top of hers.
“Give yourself some time, Doctor,” she said, pulling her hand back. “You’ve not been out here very long.”
“Women don’t become intriguing by walling themselves up in London and waiting on their husbands. If you want to be free, the first step is to breathe free air. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Doctor, I have an airship to pilot.”
She left her utensils for him to clean, and headed for the pilot house with that provocative, self-assured stride of hers.