The fourth story in the Beyond the Rails series
| “Now, Doctor,” Monroe said as the crew sat around their lunch table at the Queen’s Royal Hotel in Mombasa, “there comes the matter of finding you something productive to do.”
“Excuse me?” the young botanist said around the bite of tilapia he had just placed in his mouth.
“I refer to your function, Nicholas. When I agreed to take you on, I thought it was understood that you have to contribute something to justify your weight.”
“I thought I was contributing something.”
“A cook is a luxury. Something nice to have aboard, but not really essential to flight, you know.”
“Well, perhaps I could learn piloting, navigation. I’m sure Miss Hobbs could use a helping hand.”
“Ah, but you see, David and I can both pilot, so she has her helping hands already. The only time we need another deck hand is for mooring, and I handle that duty. But Gunther has no relief, nor assistant of any sort, so I think I’m going to allow you to study applied mechanics under our esteemed engineer. Perhaps you can sort out that accent of his, while you’re at it.”
“Engineering?” Doctor Ellsworth sputtered. “But, well, I don’t know anything about mechanics!”
“Nor did I, at some point,” Brown told him cheerfully. “Is good. You vill have no bad habits to overcome.”
“But, see here! You can’t just relegate a man of science to the bowels of a motor room—”
“Patience?” came a woman’s surprised voice from the open wall that fronted on the street. “Patience Hobbs?”
All eyes turned to identify the source of this intrusion, and Ellsworth was amazed. There in the archway stood the negative of Patty Hobbs’ daguerreotype. With similar youthful features oozing the “cuteness” that would surely become smoldering beauty with age, this young woman’s skin was frosted marble to Patty’s rich tan, her hair shimmering black against Patty’s golden locks. She was dressed in a lady’s traveling suit, complete with formal jacket and feathered hat tipped rakishly forward.
“Cynthia?” Patience greeted the newcomer. “For God’s sake, what are you doing here?”
“Thank the Lord I’ve found you!” she said, approaching their table hesitantly, eyes taking in the rather rough looking men seated with her. She was followed by a tall, slender man whose white hair and walrus mustache gave away his age. His traveling suit, while neatly groomed, gave away its age at the cuffs and lapels.
“Don’t be nervous. These are my friends. This is Captain Clinton Monroe.”
“Ma’am,” Monroe said, standing, as they all did, and offering a slight bow.
“That’s Gunther Brown, David Smith, and this fine specimen is Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth. We’ve not quite knocked all the varnish off of him yet. Sit down, join us.”
“Thank you,” she said as Smith pulled two chairs away from a vacant table. “This is Jacob Braxton, my uncle.”
“Gentlemen,” Hobbs said as they took their seats, “may I present Lady Cynthia Blackwell.”
Ellsworth did a double-take as Monroe blurted out, “Forgive me, Milady. You’re Lady Blackwell?”
“You are thinking of my mother, Captain, though I may hold that title sooner than I might wish.”
“Ah, I see. Still . . .”
“Now you must forgive me, Captain, but how have you men come to be friends of Patience?”
“We are an airship crew, Lady. Patience is our pilot.”
“I see,” she said thoughtfully. “Is your ship available for hire, Captain?”
“That is how we earn our livelihood, Milady.”
“I should dearly like to retain your services, then, Captain. I need a friend as well as a guide down here. I can make it quite worth your while.”
“That would be a refreshing change from the usual work we get. Pray, continue, Milady.”
“Very well. I’m searching for my parents. They’ve gone missing, and I need, need, do you understand, reliable transportation, and someone I can trust who knows the local culture and customs. I was treated like a purse to be emptied at the last place I stopped. If I have Patience behind me here, I know I can expect better.”
“Lord and Lady Blackwell, missing?” Hobbs said. “Whatever has happened to them?”
“That’s what I’ve come to find out. My parents set out on a world cruise to see all the wonders of the Empire. They’ve sent me posts from the Pillars of Hercules, the mouth of the Congo River, and the beaches and diamond mills of South Africa. They arrived in Mombasa near on to Christmas of last year. Their letter from here, on the stationery of this hotel, said they were going to see big game on the savannah and visit the source of the Nile, and that three to four weeks hence, they would send a post from Alexandria before heading on to Bombay. No post from Alexandria ever came. I waited an additional four weeks, twice the time specified, before trying to organize a search. No one in England was willing to help, but the family’s solicitor said that I should find some way to determine their fate, because of the titles and inheritance involved. If their fates cannot be determined, there are apparently many vultures waiting to profit at the family’s expense. I consulted Lady Czigany, who directed me to look for disaster in the dark lands to the south. Well, as that could only mean Africa, I have come. Uncle Jacob was gracious enough to accompany me as a protector when no one else would, but he knows the land down here no better than I myself. I implore you, dear Patience, will you and your formidable friends not aid my cause?”
“Who is Lady Czigany?” Hobbs asked by way of reply.
“She is a gypsy, Romanian, I believe, and a gifted medium. She held a séance in my behalf.”
“A séance, is it?”
“Lady Blackwell,” Monroe said, “you must be aware of the condition of the more far-flung elements of the Royal Post. You may be down here risking your life for nothing while your letter is sitting in a rural postal office in Newfoundland waiting to be forwarded to your estate.”
“Is that seriously what you think, Captain, that a mislaid post had led to this expedition? Setting aside the testimony of Lady Czigany, I received a letter from Mombasa, posted late last December. The letter I did not receive should have come from Alexandria, so that is where I went first. No one in Alexandria has seen them, not an innkeeper, not a restaurateur, not a government clerk. Ergo, Captain, they have either been here in Kenya for three months, flitting about the countryside with nary a thought of posting an updating letter, or they are lost, and possibly dead, somewhere between here and Alexandria. So I ask you directly, Patience, as someone who was once a dear friend, will you help me or not?”
“Of course I will help you in any way I can,” Hobbs replied, “but Captain Monroe decides what jobs we take on.”
“Well then, Captain, I throw myself on your mercy. I can assure you, price is the least of my concerns.”
“Cynthia,” Hobbs said, “do you have an image of your parents?”
“Take it out, please.” She turned back toward the bar. “Faraji, could you come over here for a moment?”
“Faraji, this is Lady Cynthia, a friend of mine from England. This is Faraji. His family owns this hotel, and he manages the bar and restaurant. Show him your picture.”
She passed it to him, a grey-toned image of an unremarkable middle-aged couple in front of a drawing room backdrop.
“Did these people stay here, Faraji? It would have been three months ago, give or take a bit.”
“Oh, yes. I could not forget them. Arrogant and demanding they were, like your young doctor.”
“These are Lady Cynthia’s parents,” Hobbs said.
“Ah. I meant to say they were confident, and very sure about what they wanted.”
“It’s all right, Mr. Faraji, I know my own parents. Did they say where they were going from here?”
“I heard them speak of seeing animals, and the big lake, but of course, they did not discuss their plans with me, nor did they ask me to arrange transportation. I believe they took the train to Nairobi, though I do not remember why I thought that at the time.”
“Thank you, Faraji, that's very helpful.”
“I live to serve, Missy. A pleasure to meet you, Miss Cynthia.”
“Likewise,” she replied, waiting until he moved away before adding, “He’s a well-mannered brute.”
“He’s also a dear friend. Cynthia, you wanted a friend who could guide you. Let me offer some guidance now. Nothing, but nothing, is what it seems down here, and your drawing room sensibilities are as out of place down here as the Maasai ritual of drinking blood from a live cow would be in a London parlor. These people aren’t failed attempts to be like us. This culture was old when our ancestors painted their naked bodies and went off to fight the Romans.”
“I sense the sincerity behind your words,” Cynthia said. “I shall endeavor to keep them in mind.”
“A good policy,” Monroe interjected. “Now, Patty, if we’re going up-country, we’ll need a full stock of provisions. David, if you could help her with that?”
“Gunther, I’ll need you to make sure the engineering plant is ship-shape, and get me a list of whatever you need before we depart. You may as well start training Nicholas, as well.”
“I will negotiate payment with the client, and be along shortly. Doctor, on your way back, why don’t you check the board, and see if we can pick up a cargo. Our first stop is obviously Nairobi.”
“Yes, Captain,” Ellsworth said, obviously dejected over his new duties, and got slowly to his feet.
“Your crew seems a colorful group,” Lady Cynthia said as he dropped a shilling on the table to cover his share of the meal.
“You have no idea,” Monroe replied, as the doctor started toward the street.
* * *
The aerodrome was dirty, as aerodromes were wont to be. Cargos were wrestled, rolled, and dragged, often by draft animals, propellers stirred up dust, and no one seemed to have the time or inclination to clean any spot they weren’t going to have to lie down in. Despite this, Cynthia Blackwell found it all picturesque and exciting, almost certainly a result of her youthful curiosity. She felt the same about her stateroom, the optimistically named cubicle she had been assigned off the central passageway. While Uncle Jacob had gone off to express his dissatisfaction with the cramped quarters and lack of amenities, she awoke feeling absolutely adventurous. She had drifted off to sleep watching the gentle sway of the stars through the porthole above her bed, and now presented herself at the pilot house door dressed in a soft cotton shirt, polished leather boots, and a pair of culottes showing a titillating inch of calf between kneecap and boot top. Her white pith helmet, secured by a colorful scarf, was the crowning touch.
“Good morning, Patience,” she said to the pilot, who was bending over the plot table sliding a pair of parallel rulers across a chart. Hobbs’ headgear consisted of a khaki patrol cap set on the back of her head, riding upon rather than containing her loose blonde curls.
“Good morning, Cynthia,” Hobbs said, turning. “Welcome to my place of business. Did you sleep well?”
“Like a baby. I love the motion of this vessel. Like being rocked in a cradle.”
“Yes, bear that thought in mind. We’ll be in flight soon. Have you ever flown in an airship before?”
“Well, the first time up is an experience you’ll never forget, I promise. Are you going to ride with me for the takeoff?”
“Is that allowed?”
“Allowed?” Hobbs repeated dismissively. “We aren’t a military vessel, where everyone tries to boss one another about like a pack of great swaggering bullies. Besides, you’re paying for this flight. If you want to ride on top of the bag, or dangle from the anchor, I don't imagine anyone’s going to say you can’t.”
“Then I accept your invitation. We’ve played with dolls, we took our forms together, we swooned over boys and attended finishing school like proper ladies. That sort of training costs a substantial fortune, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with it!”
“Patty,” Smith said, stepping one foot inside the door, “Cap’n’s back. Wind at Nairobi's from zero-nine-seven gusting to twenty. He says raise steam, and be ready to make turns. We’re off as soon as I get these crates secured.”
“All right, David. Tell Gunther for me, will you?”
“Right.” He touched the brim of his hat without actually tipping it, and with a nod toward Cynthia, went about his business.
“How dare he?” Cynthia huffed.
“How dare he what?”
“Call you by a nickname. Why, he’s a common laborer. I could excuse the use of your given name from the Captain, and perhaps the young doctor, but you wouldn't think ‘milady’ would be too great a mouthful for these commoners to manage. And Patty? That's what these people make of your beautiful name?”
“I’ve been called Patty since I was a small child. You know that.”
“Yes, as I was once called Cindy, but we aren’t six anymore, are we? There is such a thing as respect.”
“Let me try to explain our situation to you, Cynthia. There are different forms of respect. When death comes calling in Africa, it rarely sends notice ahead. These men watch over me like I’m their kid sister, and I take care of them like a mother hen, so yes, they call me Patty. If that’s disrespectful, then it must be measured against the way they treat me.”
“I apologize, Patience. I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. Just remember that this isn’t the grand hall at Everwood, and things aren’t always what they seem.”
“I shall endeavor to do so.”
“Come, let’s test the motors. The current’s up nicely,” she added, pointing at a gauge.
“Not especially. Just watch.” She leaned out the door. “Clear the screws!” she shouted aft to Smith.
Smith stepped to the rail and leaned out to look under the stern.
“Screws clear!” he shouted back.
Hobbs turned back into the pilot house to see Cynthia covering a smirk with gloved fingers.
“Nothing, it’s just . . . Well, you can be such a boy!”
Shaking her head, Hobbs pushed one of the control handles forward, and from back aft came the ruffling sound of a spinning propeller. She quickly shut it down and ran the other, with the same result. Blackwell watched, fascinated, as she ran through the checks of the steering frame and lifting gas generator.
“Ready to answer orders, Captain,” she said to Monroe, who stood on the foredeck just outside the open windows.
“Thank you, Patty,” he replied, and there was nothing disrespectful in his use of the diminutive nickname. “David, let’s go earn a living. Cast off!”
“Cast off!” the order began to echo up and down the dock, and ropes were slacked off, released from bollards, and began to be drawn across the growing space between Kestrel and the raised ramp.
“You have the conn,” Monroe said to Hobbs through the window.
“Aye, Captain. Hold on,” she added to Lady Cynthia, and powering up the motors, frame tilted to point the nose up, she spun the wheel toward the dock, naturally driving the stern away from it, causing the rising gondola to swing above the dock and begin to climb steeply out of the aerodrome.
“Ohhhhhhh!” Lady Cynthia breathed, grabbing for handholds on the console, her pretty face a mask of surprise and terror.
“It’s all right,” Hobbs said, reaching to take Cynthia’s right hand, even as her other hand spun the wheel to straighten their course. “This is a normal lift-out.”
Cynthia’s response consisted of rapid, shallow breathing with eyes tightly closed.
“Cynthia, everything is fine. I’d tell you if it wasn’t. You should see this view.”
Cynthia’s eyes slowly opened on the vista of Mombasa’s rooftops falling below and sliding astern. Though her heart continued to race, ready for fight or flight, she began to take in the rich, swirling colors of a street market, a smoking, steam-powered lorry, the steamship Empire Guardian a child’s toy in the bathtub of Mombasa Harbor. As their altitude increased, she saw a camel caravan making its way into the outskirts of the city from the northeast. Her breathing returned to normal as Patience turned the wheel back to the left, reversing their turn and coming toward the alignment that would bring them into Nairobi late this afternoon, and though her grip on Patty’s hand remained painful in its tightness, wonder began to replace terror on her face as she took in views normally reserved for birds.
Patience brought the vessel onto the standard course for Nairobi, three-two-zero, and steadied the helm. Cynthia had released her hand by then, though she maintained a tight grip on the console, and had begun to really appreciate the vistas opening before her. Guestimating their height to be close to the four hundred feet where they normally cruised, she leveled off and hopped onto the engineering console behind her, locking her ankles around a spoke of the ship’s wheel.
“Patience, it’s magnificent!” Cynthia said in awe.
“It’s just a day at work for me, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, but, this is just wonderful!”
“It is, you know. Would you like to drive?”
“Me? I- I don’t know, Patience. It looks dangerous.”
“It’s as easy as fishing in a stream,” Hobbs said, hopping off the console. “Stand right here.”
Cynthia walked over to stand behind the big wooden wheel.
“Put your hands on the wheel. Go ahead, she won’t bite.”
Lady Blackwell did so.
“Now, look at the compass.” Hobbs pointed to the big brass instrument tilted slightly in its gimbals. “The course to Nairobi is three-two-zero. She’ll try to swing her nose into the wind, which is coming from the right, so every time the compass moves up to three-two-two or so, you turn the wheel three spokes left, wait for her to swing back on course, and straighten her up again. Your course is three-two-zero, ground speed approximately thirty miles per hour, altitude approximately four hundred feet, and you have complete control. How does it feel, Lady Blackwell?”
“Like God in His chariot! Oh, Patience, I can hear the beating of my heart, the blood rushing through my veins! This is unbelievable! I never understood my parents’ love of travel until this moment. I feel completely alive like I never have before.”
“It is unique.”
The nose began to swing a little, and Cynthia followed Patty’s directions, bringing Kestrel back to the desired course, thrilled as a child with her mastery of this simple skill.
“Oh, Patience, what a fascinating life you lead!”
* * *
If Lady Blackwell found her friend’s flying skills impressive on the ride to Nairobi, she found them doubly so when they arrived at the bustling rail camp. It was late afternoon, and the rapidly cooling air in the highlands was in the process of trading places with the still-warm air down on the savannah, creating unpredictable gusts and swirls over the aerodrome. Kestrel yawed and crabbed, fighting every effort to tie her up. Through it all, there was only one missed approach, and that was caused by a novice line handler who almost got pulled off the dock, a fall that wouldn’t likely have killed him, though it may well have increased the camp’s beggar population by one. Hobbs saved him from that fate with some frantic maneuvering supported by a litany of judiciously colorful language, and by dusk, they were safely alongside the dock, snuggled in for the night.
“Patience, that was magnificent!” Cynthia gushed as Hobbs switched off the drive systems.
“Just a day at the office,” Hobbs replied, rotating her neck and stretching her shoulders. “People come here thinking they’re going to get rich working on the railroad. Trouble is, the railroad crews are full, and they wind up doing work they know nothing about. Hopefully, that boy learned enough that he won’t get killed in the next landing.”
“Well, it was certainly no day at the office to me! I thought the captain might have been talking up your skills for some ulterior motive, but he didn’t begin to do them justice.”
“It is impossible to exaggerate where Lady Hobbs’ flying skills are concerned,” Monroe said from the door.
“So I have observed, Captain. Actually, in the unlikely event that neither Patience nor any of her male cousins marry, her title will become Lady Mason.”
“My apologies, Lady Blackwell. I must confess to a certain ignorance in these matters. If you would be so good as to produce the photograph of your parents, I’ll introduce you to the dockmaster. If they engaged an airship here, they will have done so in his office, and he may remember them.”
“I’ll have no opportunity to make myself presentable, then? The wind's effect on my hair alone . . .” She trailed off, patting the loose raven streamers beside her face.
“I assure Milady, polishing the brass for M’wenye is the last thing she need concern herself with.”
“I’ll take you at your word, Captain, but you’d best not be setting me up for embarrassment! One moment.”
Cynthia went to her cabin, collected the picture from her bag, and couldn’t resist taking a brush to her hair, letting it fall around her shoulders in a shining cascade of ebony. Back home, no one would see her thus, save for her chambermaid, and her husband once she acquired one, but if Patience’s appearance was any indication, this was the norm here. Feeling nearly nude in this state of informality, she tugged the worst wrinkles from her once-white blouse, smoothed out her culottes, and started to put on her hat, a piece designed to be worn at a sharp angle to show off its cloth flowers and feathers. It practically covered her eyes without her hair piled up beneath it, and with a shrug, she tossed it on the bed, and returned to the deck.
She climbed through the hatch at the top of the ladder to find Monroe and Hobbs standing with a huge African, in both height and girth, clad in bib overalls with no shirt beneath, heavy work boots, and an Arabian fez on his head. The odor of his perspiration was overpowered by the cloud of smoke from the stubby cigar in his mouth.
“Oh, Clinton,” he gushed as she stepped into view, “such flowers you bring me! Is this one for sale? I would give you many cattle!”
“This one,” Monroe replied, “is Lady Cynthia Blackwell, a noblewoman from the home country who could likely buy this town with her clothing allowance. Lady Blackwell, may I present M’wenye, the dockmaster here at Nairobi.”
“Charmed,” Cynthia said, extending her hand while trying to wipe the look of horror from her face.
“It is I who am charmed,” the big man said, pumping her hand in a vigorous shake that surely would have removed her hat, had she worn it.
“Lady Blackwell is attempting to trace her parents, who have gone missing. She was told in Mombasa that they came here by rail, and if they left by air, you may remember them. Show him the picture, Milady.”
She extended the photograph to the big man, who took it and studied it thoroughly, looking up often to study her just as thoroughly.
“There is much resemblance between you and your mother, but your father? Are you sure of this?”
“Will you stop fooling around, M'wenye?” Monroe asked as Cynthia felt the blood rushing to her face. “This is serious!”
“My apologies. You bring a woman of such beauty, and expect a man not to flirt? You are not reasonable. Yes, they came here many weeks ago. They wanted to see the big lake, the ‘source of the Nile,’ they called it. Of course, I sent them on to Kisumu.”
“By air, of course?”
“Of course. You do not consign people like this to a goods wagon.”
“No. I don’t suppose you remember which ship?”
“One of the small ones. Ruling out yours, that leaves the Empire Transit or the Floating Cloud. I am sorry. Had I known it would be important, I would have paid more attention.”
“You don’t keep records here, Mr. M’wenye?” Lady Cynthia asked, still smarting from his remark.
“Missy, here in Africa, no one cares what has been done in the past, only what can be done in the future.”
“It’s helpful to know where they went.” Monroe said before Cynthia could speak again. “Do you have a cargo we might take up?”
“I have a survey party. Six men and their gear. They offer ten pounds, twelve if they get there in time to do any meaningful work tomorrow.
“Tell them I’ll take them. We leave at eight tomorrow morning, and should land at Kisumu between one-thirty and two. Send over a hundredweight of coal, would you? My engineer will handle that transaction. Milady, would you care to see the sights?”
“Do you recommend it, Captain?”
“Well, then,” the noblewoman said with just a hint of a smile, “you didn’t lie about not embarrassing me. I’ll take you at your word in this situation, as well.”
* * *
The brisk tailwind brought Kestrel into the Kisumu aerodrome well ahead of schedule, the clock not yet having struck one as the mooring lines went over. Monroe collected twelve pounds from the surveyors, and escorted the two English ladies down the ramp to introduce Lady Blackwell to Chief Musa of the Colonial Police.
“He usually takes the noon meal in his office,” Monroe told Cynthia, “so there’s a good chance we’ll find him in.”
Chief Musa was indeed in his office, having just finished his simple lunch, letting it settle before heading out to walk the streets of his jurisdiction. The duty sergeant, familiar with Monroe and his crew, summoned the Chief without asking any questions. Musa came downstairs, uniform crisply starched as always, to find that the notorious Patty Hobbs had acquired a dark-haired sister since her last visit.
“What is this?” he greeted them in his rich, booming voice. “Could it be that our dear Patty is no longer the fairest flower in Kenya?”
“Chief,” Monroe replied as Hobbs stuck out her tongue at him, “I would like to present Lady Cynthia Blackwell, late of London. This is Musa, the Colonial Policeman I told you about. Musa is the law in this rather boisterous boom town.”
“A job that often feels beyond my abilities,” Musa said, clicking his heels and offering a shallow, but precise bow. Welcome to Kisumu, the ruby capital of Africa.”
“Charmed, Mr. Musa,” Blackwell, ever condescendingly class-conscious, replied with a nod.
“Miss Blackwell has come out from England in search of her parents, who have gone missing. She has followed their trail to here, and we’re hoping you can direct us to the next leg of the journey. Show him the photograph, Milady.”
Cynthia produced the daguerreotype from her hard-sided handbag, and handed it to Musa. He studied it intently, screwing up his features.
“Is this a recent photograph?” he asked finally.
“It’s about six months old.”
“Then they would still look much like this. When do you think they were here?”
“Between two and three months ago.”
“Mmm. I do not recall them. Still, there is nothing to draw from that. They would only have come to my notice if they had needed my services. Or run afoul of them, of course, as unlikely as that may be.”
“So you can tell me nothing?”
“Alas, I cannot,” he said, returning her photo, “but if they were here, they will have had conversations with any number of people, and I’m sure a few questions around town will put you back on their track. Captain Monroe and fair lady Patience are known and respected throughout the town.”
“I thank you for your time, Chief,” Cynthia told him. “Captain, are you available to make introductions on my behalf?”
“Milady is our employer,” Monroe replied. “Your slightest whim becomes our command.”
“I thank you for that, Captain. Shall we get started, then?”
* * *
Monroe led the way to the old part of town along the lake where the fishermen lived and traded. Walking down a dock to a group of men tending nets, he addressed one by name.
“Jambo, Nahodha,” the fisherman replied amiably.
“This is Missy Blackwell.”
“Very pretty, Nahodha. You make trade?”
“Very funny, Joshi. Missy Blackwell’s parents are lost. She thinks they were here. You see?”
Cynthia held out the daguerreotype for his inspection. He started to take it from her, but as he saw the faces in the picture, he snatched his hand back as if it were on fire.
“No, Nahodha, we don’t see anybody like that!”
“You obviously did,” Cynthia huffed. “It’s apparent on your face!”
“What Lady Blackwell means,” Monroe said quickly, “is that anyone this striking should have been noticed. No one here saw them?”
“You were told, none of us saw her. We are very busy, Nahodha. Perhaps we will see you on your next visit.”
He turned his back on them and picked up his corner of the net.
“Why, of all the cheek!” Cynthia began, only to be cut off by Monroe's raised index finger. He turned her by her elbow and got her walking back up the dock.
“What are you doing, Captain? That man is obviously lying!”
“A bit less volume, if Milady pleases. I agree with you, he is lying, and since that fact is at odds with his normal jovial nature, our next task is to find out why.”
“Oh,” she said, stopping as they walked off the dock, “you think there’s skullduggery afoot!”
“I don't know what might be afoot, Milady, but something has those men spooked, and the nature of this simple search has just changed dramatically. If Milady would be amenable to posting a reward, we may be able to lubricate a tongue or two.”
“It’s as simple as money, Captain? Would a hundred pounds be sufficient?”
“Milady, that is more than most of these fishermen will see in their lifetimes. Why don't we start with ten, and work up from there?”
“I trust your judgment, Captain, but I assure you, my parents are worth more to me than ten pounds.”
“Of course, Milady, but all we are buying is information. A point on a compass, or with luck, a spot on a map. Come.”
He led the way along the shore, bypassing several groups of fishermen, until he found one alone, an older man, smoothing a patch on an overturned boat that was drawn up on the beach.
“Hishimiwa mu’ungwana,” Monroe greeted him with a small bow. “Would you care to earn a pound?”
“How?” the man asked without looking up.
“This young lady's parents are lost, and she is trying to locate them. Look at their likeness, and if you can tell us where they may have gone, the pound is yours.”
Cynthia stepped forward and extended her photograph. The man took it, wrinkled his nose, and passed it back.
“I have seen no one like this,” he said.
“Well, put the word about, will you? A pound sterling for information about the white couple, no questions asked.”
The man gave his best imitation of a nod, and returned to his work.
This continued through most of the afternoon, as Monroe approached one native after another, fishermen, shopkeepers, beggars, and builders, always seeking men by themselves, and always gleaning the same answer; none. The sun was dipping toward the lake, and they were on their way back to the Kestrel when the break they sought came.
“Ssssst! Nahodha,” came the whisper from one of the outbuildings ringing the aerodrome.
Captain Monroe and Lady Blackwell stopped, looking for the source of the hail. It proved to be coming from the impenetrable darkness of a corrugated tin storage shed right beside them.
“Who is that?” Monroe asked, one hand on his LeMat as he approached the unglazed window.
“That is close enough,” came a quiet voice with a rich African accent. “You do not know me, and you are not going to know me. I have never been here, and we have never met. Do you have the reward?”
“Yes, I have it.”
An ebony arm extended from the window, palm up. Cynthia opened her purse and took out the coin pouch she had prepared with twenty shillings, but as she reached to place it in the man’s hand, Monroe took it. Taking out a single coin, he handed it to the mysterious man.
“What do you know?” he asked.
“The rest of the money first.”
“The rest of the money after. What do you know?”
“I am a fisherman. The white travelers came to the lake and offered to pay one of us a great sum to take them across the lake, and down the great river.”
“And did you do this?”
“I was told not to. We all were.”
“So, where did they go?”
“That I do not know. If someone took them up, I have not heard about it.”
Monroe handed him another shilling.
“Who told you not to carry them?”
“White devils from the north with funny talk. If they tell you to do something, or not do something, and you disobey them, you are fortunate indeed if you are merely murdered.”
Monroe handed him the purse.
“Thank you, my friend. You’ve been most helpful.”
There was no answer, as by the time Monroe finished speaking, the man was out the other side of the shed and disappearing into the town.
“Who are these white devils he speaks of?" Cynthia asked.
"Anyone’s guess, Milady. Whoever they are, they sure have these people spooked. But it sounds as though they’ve taken an interest in your parents, and I can’t imagine anything good coming of that.” He stroked his beard, thinking for a moment. “There’s nothing else to be done tonight. Let’s get back aboard. We’ll talk with Musa again in the morning.”
* * *
True to his word, Monroe escorted Lady Blackwell and Jacob Braxton to Chief Musa’s office before the start of business the next morning. When Musa arrived a short time later, an expression of irritability flickered across his features when he saw them waiting. Then it was gone.
“Good morning, Captain, Lady Blackwell. Forgive me, sir, I have not had the honor . . .”
“This is my uncle, Jacob Braxton,” Cynthia said by way of introduction.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Musa said, offering his hand. “Well, the presence of all you before me can only mean you have learned something of Lady Blackwell’s parents. How may I assist you?”
“We have learned that Cynthia’s parents attempted to retain a boat to take them across the lake, but were unable to do so because the word had been put about the waterfront that no one was to take them,” Monroe said.
“Some white devils from the north, we were told,” Monroe replied, “and that only after offering a twenty-shilling bribe.”
“Well, there you are,” Musa said. “Twenty shillings is a month's wages to some of these men. Offer them that, and they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear.”
“My point exactly,” Monroe countered. “Why didn’t the first man we talked to jump at the money? It took us all day to find one taker. Something has the waterfront community terrified, and our contact described men from the north with strange accents.”
“The Maasai are men from the north with strange accents.”
“White men, Musa.”
“Clinton, my friend, I am the Chief of the Police in this town. Do you imagine that if a foreign criminal society was active in my jurisdiction, that I would not know about it?”
“It is possible. For all of that, it is possible they’ve gotten to you as well.”
“Listen, my friend,” Musa said, any hint of friendliness gone from his expression, “perhaps your current employment renders you too close to the situation to speak — is it subjectively?”
“It’s objectively, and with all respect, the hell it does! I’m going to take a risk here, and suggest that there is a criminal syndicate of some sort that has its tentacles deep into this town, and its ruby mines, and maybe its colonial police. There’s enough wealth here to attract all manner of criminals.”
“European criminals, perhaps.”
“Gentleman, please!” Cynthia interrupted the exchange that was fast turning ugly. “The issue is my parents.”
“Indeed, Lady,” Musa said. “What do you think happened to them?”
“They couldn’t get across the lake, and they didn’t continue their journey, so it becomes obvious then. They’re hostages of these mysterious criminals”
“Really? Have you received a ransom demand, Lady Blackwell?”
“Well . . . No, I haven’t, but—”
“And you won’t. You say it has been three months. Your own policemen who trained us here taught us that hostage-takers do not like to wait so long before turning their hostages into cash. Every day they hold them is another day for something to go wrong.”
“Then where are they? They didn’t arrive in Egypt. They weren’t waiting for us here. What do you suggest happened to them?”
“I suggest nothing. Perhaps they changed their plans.”
“You don't know my parents. They would never have left me in this state of anxiety for three months. Something has happened to them.”
“Well, I feel safe in saying that it didn’t happen here. Your friends can tell you what sort of town this is. You can’t pick your nose in a back alley without the word being all up and down Main Street an hour later. If anything had befallen a wealthy white couple here, believe me, the residents would be talking of nothing else.”
“But, I have traced them around the continent of Africa to this town. It is here that they arrived, maybe at the same dock we are tied up to at this moment, and it is after they arrive that they are never seen again.”
“My Lady,” Musa said, “I wish I had something to offer you. I understand the anguish of losing even one parent, but there has been nothing here, do you understand, in three months, not the hint of a crime. Feel free to ask anyone you meet. Use my name if you think it will help, but I cannot bring my limited resources to bear on the matter unless you can produce some evidence of a crime.”
“Quite so, Chief,” Braxton agreed. “If no one is talking about an event of this import three months after the fact, one can only assume that it didn’t happen.”
Monroe looked daggers at him, as Cynthia stood stunned to silence by the Police Chief's indifference.
“I have a suggestion,” Monroe said. “We’ll take the Kestrel over to the north side of the lake, and see if there’s any sign of them. Perhaps they found another way to cross. If there isn’t, then we’ll fly down to Nairobi and see what Major Cole makes of the idea that a European criminal syndicate is operating in his jurisdiction. Perhaps he can be persuaded to help.”
“I’m sure there’s no need to bother the good major with this purely local matter,” Musa said as Monroe turned toward the door.
“Oh, it’s no bother,” Monroe replied. “Cole has plenty of resources. Perhaps a crew of redcoats with fixed bayonets can loosen some tongues. Let’s go, people. We’re losing daylight.”
* * *
Tracking west-northwest from Kisumu’s aerodrome, it was a hundred air miles to the Victoria Nile’s outlet from the great lake, and with the gentle quartering wind, Kestrel made a pleasant morning’s cruise out of what would have otherwise been a four-day slog on foot.
“Take her high, and head down the river,” Monroe ordered as they approached the broad outlet where the great lake emptied. “Let’s see what we can see.”
“What about the shore?”
“We’ll check the river while we have good weather and plenty of coal. If we don't find anything there, we'll check the shore on the way back.”
And so Kestrel pressed on. Barely a mile down the Victoria Nile, the sound of falling water could be heard ahead. Going even higher, she soon found the source, a waterfall two miles down the river. Though neither the highest nor most spectacular to be found, it was certainly more than enough to smash any fishing boat that went over into kindling, and marked the finite end of any search for live people.
“Keep her high, Patty,’ Monroe said. “We’ll go down another ten miles and look for wreckage, but let’s hope we don’t find any.”
Below the falls, Kestrel soared a good five hundred feet above the banks. A pack of African wild dogs was seen scavenging on the bank, animals Monroe described to Cynthia as “the most implacable hunters in Africa,” and a Maasai hunting party was seen further down on the opposite side, but not a plank or a piece of rope that might have come from a boat.
“Take us back, Patty. No wreckage would have come this far down.”
“It’s good we didn’t find anything, Milady,” he said to Cynthia.
“Naturally. Anyone we found below the falls would certainly be dead. Now we have a great deal more area to search, and still hope of finding them.”
“Do we, Captain? They wouldn’t lay about on this lake for three months, knowing their only daughter would be frantic with worry when their letters stopped coming. I’ve all but given up hope. Their ship arrived in Alexandria without them on it. Something happened to them here, and I’m sorely pressed to think of anything good that would cause them to go incommunicado for months on end. I fear I am on a mission to recover remains that I may never find.”
“I’m sorry, Milady,” Monroe said, patting her hand where it lay on the rail. “Try to keep hope alive. If there’s anything up here to find, Patty will sniff it out for you.”
“You seem to place a great deal of trust in her abilities, Captain.”
They stood together at the port bow, Smith and Ellsworth next to them quartering the banks with binoculars and long glass; her Uncle Jacob hovered watchfully back near the pilot house. Cynthia turned and strolled down the deck toward the cargo platform aft. Monroe followed, and as they passed the pilot house, Hobbs looked up from her chart.
“Captain, I thought I saw a tributary just above the falls. Should we take the time to investigate it?”
“But of course. It wouldn’t do to come all the way up here and then overlook something.”
Lady Blackwell had continued aft, stopping on the cargo deck, and waited for Monroe to follow her. As he joined her, she looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him, and he didn’t get the feeling she was worried about his crewmen. Her expression relaxed as no one seemed to be.
“You asked whether you should trust Patience,” she said.
“And I asked whether you thought I shouldn’t.”
“How much do you know about her, Captain?”
“That she can fly like a bird, and she never lets us down. I’m not sure there’s anything else I need to know in my situation.”
“Possibly you are correct. Do you know anything of her childhood?”
“Only that her working class father died, and she and her mother were taken in by a wealthy cousin.”
“That’s the gist of it. She was very young, and her father, whom she idolized, died in an accident while working in a mine owned by the wealthy cousin. Do you imagine there might be any conflicted feelings lurking in that pretty little head?”
“That doesn’t concern me. I just have the good fortune to employ the best pilot in Africa.”
“Doesn't it? That pretty little head, with all its contents, pilots your ship. You aren’t the least bit curious where she might have acquired an aptitude like that, or even how you came to find a woman like Patience in Africa in the first place?”
“I suppose. Why are we having this conversation, Lady Blackwell? Is it your purpose to gossip about your friend with the man who employs her?”
“Oh, good Lord, no!” Cynthia said, stifling a giggle. “You all just seem so fond of her, so protective, and you rely on her for so much, I just thought you might like to know something of the road that brought her here.”
“All right. As long as you don't try to turn me against her.”
“I’d not dream of it, Captain. Patience was my very best friend growing up, and I’ve missed her terribly. She was the daughter of a coal miner and a washer woman. She was eight, I think, when her father died. She was already helping her mother to fold the clean clothes to return to the customers, and that likely would have been her life. But her mother, and thus of course, she herself, were distant cousins of Lord Jeffrey Mason, the industrialist, and third-wealthiest man in England. This relationship was disclosed during the investigation following the accident, and Lord Jeffrey, having six sons and no daughters, took them in, no doubt feeling that Patience would be a fine project for his wife to finish. You were an officer of the Crown, Captain. You know what life is like for noblewomen back home.”
“Not in any great detail, I’m afraid.”
“Ah. Well, families, and especially the men at the head of them, are wealthy and powerful. Their women are ornaments, possessions, no different in concept than their prized hunting dogs, and those are the fortunate ones. The others are breeding vessels whose only true purpose is to continue the lines of their men. The few women who come to wield influence do so through either manipulating or gaining the willing cooperation of a man through whom to do so. I was born into this, and conditioned to act a certain way probably from the moment of my birth. Patience was a street-smart commoner who was thrown into this situation after her personality was well on its way toward producing the free spirit who pilots your ship.”
“My good fortune, then.”
“Indeed. At some point in this, she realized that her Uncle Jeffrey owned the mine that had killed her father, and who can say whether her child’s mind could separate his ownership of the mine from being the actual cause of his death, you see? Anyway, try as Lady Mason might to turn this rambunctious child into a lady, she found it much more enjoyable to socialize with the grounds staff, and ride horses bareback, not to mention join her male cousins in their activities.”
The deck tipped and tilted as Kestrel began a sweeping left turn to follow the tributary that Patience had pointed out. Cynthia gave a gasp and grabbed Monroe’s arm.
“Don’t worry, Milady, she won’t heel any further than this. You were saying?”
“I’m sorry, Captain,” she replied, releasing his arm but taking a firm grasp on the rail. “I knew of Patience from the time she joined Lord Jeffrey’s household and we were occasionally left to play together, but I was really thrown into close proximity with her when we were both sent off to Miss Rachel’s Boarding School for young ladies in Southend. As we already knew each other, we naturally banded together to cope with the new situation, but it didn’t take long to discover that it was going to take a greater force than Miss Rachel to turn that one into a prim and proper lady. She found the classes in the art of being a noblewoman exceedingly boring, and she had a positive eye for mischief. I soon learned that when she said, ‘I’ve just had the most wonderfully brilliant idea,’ it wouldn’t be long before I would be standing before Miss Rachel explaining my choice in friends and leisure activities.”
“That sounds like the Patience we know.”
“Then she hasn’t changed that much. My point, the thing you should know, is that she didn’t come here out of a love for what’s here. She came to escape from what’s there. You know, I love Patience like a sister. Her flamboyance and innovation got me through some very trying times, and there’s nothing that my selfish side would rather have than her living in the neighboring manor house.”
“But the me that loves her wouldn’t do that to her. She would be like a beautiful free bird caged in someone’s garden, seeing the sky but forever forbidden to fly. She is where she belongs, Captain, and the life of a London noblewoman would smother her until she died from it.”
“Lady Blackwell, you are truly an amazing woman,” Monroe said in wonder.
“Hold her steady, Patty!” came Smith’s call from up forward. “I think I see something!”
* * *
It had taken a combination of scouting the bank and jockeying the ship in the wind shadow of the trees, but Patience had eventually found a clear space where the cargo hoist could be lowered, and Monroe put Smith, Braxton, and Ellsworth on the ground to investigate a good sized fishing boat lying awkwardly half out of the water.
“Here, Captain,” Ellsworth had protested, “they don’t need me down there.”
“Why Nicholas,” was Monroe’s reply, “you’re always grousing because you’ve no opportunity to collect specimens. I’d have expected you to leap at the opportunity. Mind, you take a long gun and pay attention down there. We’re looking to find corpses, not leave them.”
“May I go down with them, Captain,” Lady Blackwell had asked.
“Absolutely not. We’re losing the light. There’s only time for a quick look round. If there’s anything to investigate, we’ll do that tomorrow.”
“But, Captain, we’re talking about my parents!”
“Milady, that wreck isn’t going anywhere. If there’s anything there for you to see, it will still be there in the morning.”
And so the three scouts had descended to the soft mud of the bank where Smith immediately took charge.
“Right, Doc, get whatever samples you can. We ain’t stayin’ long. And mind the crocs. No tellin’ what's lurkin’ around here. Mr. Braxton, you take the boat. See if you can find anything that might have belonged to her parents, any sign that they were here, you know?”
“Indeed, sir. What will you be doing?”
“I’ll look around the area, see if I can piece out what happened here. I’m sure this weren’t their planned method of dockin’.”
In fact, the boat was partially drawn up onto the bank, and rolled sharply to port. It was near the limit of what this feeder stream could accommodate, having several cabins, a pilot house, and a small engine. A wide swath of planks on the starboard side even with the engine room had been stove in by a hard blow from an immovable object, most likely rocks, and once the engine, and the pumps it drove, had been flooded out, her fate was sealed.
Smith quickly found a sun-rotted piece of canvas stretched to form a makeshift shelter beneath the trees. A campsite had been set up, and there was a fire pit with the remains of a collapsed frame, a cooking pot still attached.
Not smart, Smith thought; staying with the boat would have provided some protection. Looking around, he soon spotted a light patch among the leaf litter, and walked over to it. Kneeling, it took him only a few swipes with his hand to uncover a human skull.
“Braxton!” he shouted toward the wreck.
Braxton’s head appeared above the railing.
“Found what we’re lookin’ for. Let’s get back.”
“I’ve not begun to search properly,” the uncle protested.
“It’ll keep til morning. It’ll be dark in another fifteen minutes. Doc, let’s go!”
“I say, David, that was barely any time at all,” Ellsworth said, coming around the bow of the boat.
“Yeah, well don’t get incensed. We’re likely gonna be here all day tomorrow. Captain,” he called up to the rail, “ye want to drop the anchor, I'll make us fast to somethin’. There’s bodies an’ a campsite down here. We’re probably gonna be here for a while.”
* * *
At first light, as the forest noises began to change as the animals of the day shift took over the watch, Ellsworth had put together a creditable breakfast in his rudimentary galley. As they ate, Monroe announced his intention to take Smith, Braxton, and Ellsworth with him to the wreck site, and search it and the surroundings more thoroughly. Cynthia, of course, was adamant that she should accompany the ground party.
“They’re my parents, after all!”
“That is exactly my point,” Monroe told her. “We don’t know what we’re going to find down there, and it will be hard enough for you if we confirm that your parents are dead, let alone should we discover that they suffered some gruesome fate before they died.”
The young aristocrat was far from happy with his decision, but acquiesced in the end. Thus did Monroe find himself leaning against the prow of the wreck, the Martini-Henri rifle tucked into the crook of his elbow, tamping rum-soaked tobacco into his pipe as he kept watch over his people. Smith, skilled tracker from the American frontier, was scouring a small campsite pitched under a rotting canvas forward of the wreck, following tracks, building a narrative of every tiny thing he found. Braxton was inside the wreck examining personal effects, looking for anything he might be able to identify as belonging to Lord and Lady Blackwell. Most of Monroe’s attention was on Ellsworth. Finally far beyond the rails, he was examining leaves and seeds, and sealing samples in amber apothecary bottles to the exclusion of even watching where he was going. Monroe couldn't forget that only yesterday, they had seen a Maasai hunting party not ten miles from this spot. Despite his relaxed appearance, he was as alert as a mouse in a cat kennel.
“I say, Monroe,” Braxton’s voice boomed from right above his head, “I think I’ve found the proof we’re looking for.”
He dangled a pendant on a fairly heavy chain to be a woman’s, yet a woman’s it clearly was. White enamel adorned the face, with a spray of green stalks, topped by reddish-orange flowers. The back was pure untarnished gold.
“My niece’s mother had this made for the trip. The fact that it’s here proves that she was here as well, and the fact that it was in a locked box in the captain’s cabin speaks to me of foul play.”
“It isn't possible that there is more than one piece like this, then?”
“It’s a locket, Captain. Open it.”
Monroe took it from him and snapped the cover open. There, nestled lovingly inside the base, was a perfect photograph of Cynthia Blackwell, every hair in place, the piled-high style surmounted by a twenty-guinea hat. Under the lid was a lock of that gleaming raven hair.
“Well, I suppose that settles it, then. What will we tell Cynthia?”
“Not much to tell her, unless your man has unearthed something.”
“I suppose. Any personal effects in there, things she might want to keep?”
“Clothes mostly. A few trinkets. It’s obvious that a man and woman shared a cabin here, and given that locket, I don’t think there can be much doubt about who it was.”
“I suppose not. Well, I’m going to go tell her. Unless you want to, of course.”
“I expect she’d take it better from a professional, Captain.”
“Perhaps,” Monroe said. “Well, then, you see what you can sort out among their belongings. I suppose it all belongs to her now.”
“Ellsworth!” Monroe shouted.
“Aye, Captain,” came the response from just within the tree line.
“I have to go aboard. You’re on your own out there.”
Monroe walked to the cargo hoist, called up to the ship, and was taken aboard. He expected to find her with Hobbs, but she sat at the bow on a folding chair, looking out into the distance in contemplation.
“Lady Blackwell,” he said as he approached.
She stood and turned to face him, instantly seeing the truth in the set of his face.
“It’s bad news, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
He held the locket out to her, and she took it with trembling fingers, rubbing the surface without opening it.
“I’ve only ever seen this round my mother’s neck,” she said, chin quivering, and to Monroe’s infinite relief, Hobbs appeared to place an arm around her shoulders and guide her back to the chair. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for months, and now that it’s here, I find I’m not prepared at all. What am I going to do?”
“You’re going to grieve until it’s all out of you, and then you’re going to take your rightful place as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the Empire. You have our deepest condolences, Lady Blackwell.”
“Thank you, Captain. There’s no need to call me that, you know. I came to you as Cynthia, and Cynthia I shall remain.” She took a deep breath and composed herself. “I’m going down now, Captain.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“I didn't travel halfway round the world to hide on your ship when we’ve found their final resting place. If you won’t lower me with your conveyance, I shall simply have to jump.”
“Of course we’ll lower you,” Monroe said. “It's just that their deaths may not have occurred under the most pleasant of circumstances, and—”
“I don’t imagine any death is pleasant, Captain. I will see where they fell.”
“Of course. As soon as you’re ready, then.”
“I’m ready now.”
“All right, then. Come along.”
“Captain, let me go down with her,” Hobbs said.
“Are you sure?”
“Certainly. I’m just extending a map, nothing I can’t do down there. It might be best for her to have a friend at her side right now.”
“Of course.” He passed the rifle to his young pilot. “Be very careful down there. We can’t have anything befalling the new Lady Blackwell.”
“Stop worrying, Captain. You’ll grow up to be an old woman.”
* * *
The new Lady Blackwell approached the makeshift shelter where Smith had found the skull. He had unearthed a few more gnawed bones, and seeing her coming, Patience at her side, he had stepped in front of the tiny pile in a futile attempt to hide them.
“Ma’am,” he greeted her, touching the flat brim of his western hat. “Patty.”
Hobbs nodded in return.
“Are those my parents’ remains?” Cynthia asked, directing her gaze toward the bones.
“Couldn't rightly say, Ma’am. They’re just some bones. Aside from the skull, they may not even be human.”
“But it’s likely, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Ma’am, it’s certainly possible.”
“Are you going to let me see them, then?”
“Oh,” he said as if surprised by her request, moving quickly to the side. “Of course. I just thought you might find it upsetting, well, you know . . .”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Smith, but I came to Africa to follow the trail to its end, and it appears to end right here.” She stepped forward to stand over the few random bones under the rotting canvas awning. “How do you think they died?”
“Couldn’t rightly say, Ma’am. Obviously, the scavengers been at ‘em, but that would have been after— You know.”
“I couldn't say what they might have been doin’ in a backwater like this, but once their boat got stove in, they were facin’ a hell of trek back around the lake. Crocs along the shore, every kind of animal comin’ down to drink, an’ it don't look like they was carryin’ much firepower, either. Guess that’s what you’d expect from a fishin’ boat. Outlook sure weren't good, though.”
“I see. I have no wish to further impose, but is there any way we could give these remains a Christian burial? Whoever they might be.”
“I’ll look for a spot, Ma’am. The ground can’t be too hard along the bank.”
“Thank you. Where is my uncle?”
“I think he’s on the boat, Ma’am.”
She walked around to the far side of the grounded fishing boat, Patience in tow, to find that someone had propped a wooden ladder against the side.
“Uncle Jacob,” she called, “are you there?”
“Yes, child,” came his voice from inside. “Come on up.”
She climbed the ladder to the deck while Patience stood guard at the bottom.
“In here,” Braxton greeted her from the open back of the small pilot house.
She moved to follow him, and he led her down a dark, narrow companionway to a tiny closet of a cabin on the port side where he had a lantern set up, and was in the process of reading a stack of papers.
“This seems to be the captain’s home. He actually lived in this cubbyhole. Sit down.”
Cynthia took a seat on the edge of the narrow shelf that served as both bed and couch.
“These papers seem to indicate that the good captain was in the employ of some sort of crime syndicate. Do you recall being told in Kisumu that the fishermen were told that they’d better not take your parents out on the lake?”
“Well, the reason seems to be that they wanted them on their own boat. This one. The plan was apparently to hold your parents at a secluded location deep in the jungle while a letter demanding a huge ransom was delivered to you. He had your mother’s locket in his cash box there, and he may have been going to send it as proof that he had them. You’re welcome to read all this dreck, and confirm it for yourself. Running his boat onto the rocks changed the plan a bit, though.”
“Indeed. How do you wish to proceed, then?”
“Gosh. I suppose we should bring back the papers that prove the crime. If my parents had any belongings aboard, I should like to bring those as well. Mr. Smith is kindly burying the few remains he found. After I say my final goodbyes at the grave site, I suppose there’s nothing else to hold us here.”
“No, Lady Blackwell, nothing indeed.”
* * *
Cynthia Blackwell knelt before the wooden cross on a blanket she had taken from the boat, hands folded before her in prayer. A few intermittent tears drew their tracks down her cheeks; the wracking sobs would come later. Patience leaned against a tree at a respectful distance, watching over her friend, Monroe's big Martini-Henry cradled in the crook of her elbow.
“Miss Hobbs,” Braxton greeted her, coming up silently through the damp grass.
“You never intend to call me Jacob, do you?”
“Respect for my elders. It’s a flaw in my character.”
“Harrumph! The others are getting the ship ready to leave.”
“Well, there’s no reason to dally about, is there?”
“None at all. So I was just thinking, seeing that I have no duties as a crewmember, if there are things you need to be doing, I can watch over my niece while you do them.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Braxton,” she said, passing the rifle to him. It will be getting dark before we reach Kisumu as it is, and the sooner we take our leave of this place, the more landmarks I can see before I have to go to the compass.”
“Well, then, you get right to your duties, my dear. It certainly wouldn’t do to get lost out here.”
“Quite. Keep alert, Mr. Braxton. This area’s completely uncharted, and dangerous things have been known to lurk off the edges of the map.”
* * *
The final words of the Lord’s Prayer crossed her lips at a barely audible whisper, and Her Ladyship Cynthia Blackwell, for it was certain now, bowed her head over her folded hands. She jumped sharply a moment later when a hand fell on her shoulder. Looking up, heart pounding as uncomfortable warmth suffused her body, she saw only her Uncle Jacob looking at her with a sympathetic expression.
“Uncle, you startled me.”
“I’m sorry, child. I meant only to comfort. It’s a shame you had to find them like this. It’s a shame you had to find them at all, really.”
She accepted his offered hand and came to her feet, knees burning from her long session of prayer.
“I’ll manage, Uncle. Far better to have learned their fate than to spend the rest of our lives wondering.”
He stepped to the edge of the stream on the side of the boat opposite the Kestrel.
“It’s a beautiful country, this, so pure and unsoiled, like a modern-day Eden, left untouched by the flood. There are worse places to serve as a final resting site.”
“And yet, for all this beauty,” she said, coming to his side, “this land killed them.”
“Not true, child,” he said, beginning to slowly walk along the bank, moving farther from the Kestrel and the others with each step. “These men killed them, and had they been left for dead in an Oriental rice paddy or a back alley of London, the scavengers would have come to do their work. You can’t blame the animals.”
“I suppose not, Uncle Jacob. Still, it seems so unconscionable to leave them out here to be... eaten,” she finished with a sob.
“There, child,” he said, putting a familial arm about her slumped shoulders. “Do you know what the Chinese say about death?”
“They say, ‘Who mourns the cocoon when the butterfly has flown?’ It places the things done to these cast-off shells into a much more palatable perspective.”
She glanced up at him with a very faint smile.
“I suspect it will with time, Uncle. Thank you for that.”
“Well, it’s nothing you'll need to worry your pretty little head about, in any case.”
And he suddenly backhanded her in the face, spinning her around and dropping her to one knee. As she rose, dazed, and turned back toward her older relative, he punched her hard below the jaw, lifting her off her feet to fall in a crumpled heap in the mud.
“Uncle?” she said weakly, brushing her nose, then staring in disbelief at the blood on her hand. “Why?”
“Why does anyone do anything, girl?” he replied, grabbing her upper arm and pulling her to her feet. “You Blackwells have been hoarding that fortune for far too long. It’s time for another branch of the family to get some use out of it!”
He began to drag her up the stream, farther yet from Kestrel and safety.
“You— You’re going to kill me?”
“I’m afraid so, girl. Don’t take it too hard, though. You’ll be with your parents soon.”
“Right in front of this crew? And Patience?” She was beginning to pull back, digging in her heels. “You’ll never get away with it!”
“Quit your struggling! Of course I’ll get away with it. You’re distraught. You insisted on a walk along the stream. In your bereavement, you weren't watching the ground. You slipped and hit your head on a rock in the water. By the time I fire this gun to summon help, you’ll have already drowned. Tragic. Now, come on!”
He cuffed her again, and began to drag her along.
* * *
Ellsworth had been run out of the motor room by Brown with the admonition that preparing for extended flight was complex and demanded his attention, and a promise to teach him at a less critical juncture. Smith and Monroe were turning a large turnbuckle to adjust the tension on a main shroud, and barely acknowledged his offer to assist with a non-committal grunt. So he stepped into the pilot house, where Hobbs leaned over the small chart table walking dividers across the blank expanse that represented Lake Victoria.
“Can I help you with anything, Patience? Seems I’m a third thumb here.”
“Bless you, Nicholas, you’re a Godsend,” she replied without looking up. “I left my map case down by the wreck. Grab that for me, and anything else we may have left down there. And tell those two to move it along. I’d like to be over familiar ground by nightfall.”
“Consider it done.”
“Oh, and Nicholas?”
“Be tactful, won’t you? She just buried her parents.”
“Patience, I’m surprised at you.”
* * *
Once on the ground, Ellsworth noted Hobbs’ leather bag in which she kept her handmade charts leaning against a box from the wreck waiting to be hoisted aboard. He walked around the bow of the wreck to call Cynthia and her uncle to board.
The wooden cross came into view first, the grave having been dug well back from the water, but there was no one in attendance. He walked around the front of the stricken boat so that he could see the entire length of the bank on the far side, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Damned odd, that.
“Lady Blackwell,” he called, setting off an increase in the din of bird noises, but no other response. He took a couple of steps up the ladder that had been rigged to the boat.
“Mr. Braxton, are you there?”
Ellsworth turned on the ladder, looking up the river from his slightly elevated position, but saw nothing that might point him toward the pair’s whereabouts. He was considering returning to the Kestrel to turn out a search party when he heard a sudden and isolated splash from the trees up the stream.
With no other clues to follow, he crept slowly toward those trees, painfully aware of his unarmed state; he hadn’t come down here to shoot anything, just pick up some gear and deliver a message. So when he peeked around a trunk to see Braxton facing away from him, sitting with his full weight on Cynthia’s waist as her legs writhed weakly behind him, he had nothing more threatening than his voice to use. He used it.
“Braxton, what in God’s name are you doing?”
Braxton rolled to the side, and came up on his knees holding Monroe’s big rifle aimed squarely at the center of his torso.
“Damn you, boy! What are you doing here?”
“I was sent to collect you. What are you doing?”
“What do you think? That I married her shrew of an aunt for her sweet disposition? Ah-ah! No sudden movements, boy. I just need a minute to think.”
“Yes, well, I’m going to see to Cynthia,” Ellsworth said, beginning to move slowly to his left, thinking to stall until someone from the ship came looking for him. “You know, if you fire that gun, they’re going to come running to see what the matter is.”
“A Good point.”
Braxton laid the rifle on the carpet of leaves, drew a foot-long hunting knife, and lunged at him.
Ellsworth barely jumped back in time to avoid having his chest slashed from armpit to armpit. He backpedalled frantically as Braxton charged, slashing madly, trying to score that first deep cut that would take the fight out of the young scholar.
Not that Ellsworth was much of a fighter in any case. Terrified of the older man suddenly bent on killing him, the only thing that kept him from turning and running like a rabbit was his chivalrous concern for the helpless girl lying dazed with her head in a filthy, shallow pool.
“Captain!” he called, his voice weakened by his exertions. “David!”
“They’re starting their machinery, boy. They’re not likely to hear you from under these trees.”
He lunged again, catching Ellsworth off guard. The boy still had the agility of youth on his side, and he caught Braxton’s knife hand in both of his, and twisted furiously, trying to make him drop it. Braxton’s left fist, forgotten in Ellsworth’s focus on the knife, threw a solid punch into his lower ribs, driving the breath from him, and dropping him to one knee. He kept his hold on the knife hand, and got punched in the face for his efforts, knocking him to his back.
Stunned by the blows, Ellsworth retained enough coherent thought to know that he had to avoid the knife, and he began to roll to the side as fast as he could, Braxton pursuing, trying to deliver a kick to his torso. Each missed kick slowed Braxton down, and Ellsworth was able to open enough space to scramble to his feet. As he came up, his hand closed on a fallen branch, little more than a stick, really, but he brought it up with him. As Braxton closed, swinging the knife, Ellsworth swung the stick, and cracked the flats of the older man’s fingers with it, causing the knife to fly backward and Braxton to grab his knuckles.
Neither experienced nor ruthless enough to follow up his advantage, Ellsworth stood staring until Braxton suddenly backhanded him across the face. Leaping in, he seized both of Ellsworth’s wrists.
“God damn it, boy, you’re a stubborn little piss ant!” Braxton head-butted him on the bridge of his nose, dropping him to his knees, and knocking all the fight out of him. “If it’s any consolation to you, you can die knowing you fought a good fight. Nothing personal, lad.”
His right hand came up and clamped itself on Ellsworth’s throat, squeezing the young doctor's windpipe and carotid arteries shut, and causing spots to dance before his eyes. He knew he was losing consciousness, but all he could do was hold weakly onto the wrist of the hand that was choking the life out of him.
He was beginning the last slide into darkness when Braxton’s iron grip suddenly loosened. Ellsworth fought to refocus his eyes, to see Braxton’s face, inches from his own, eyes bugging out above his wide open mouth. He began to fall forward, grasping at Ellsworth’s shirt for support. Ellsworth pushed him to the side, allowing him to fall on his face in the leaf litter.
Pressed against the back of his shirt was the handle of his hunting knife, the entire foot-long blade buried inside his chest cavity. Beyond him, blouse torn, hair disheveled, pond scum smeared on the grim set of her lovely features, stood his savior, Lady Cynthia Blackwell. She stepped up before him, and dropped to her knees, taking in the twin streams of blood running from his nose and the developing bruise on his cheek.
“Oh, Nicholas,” she said, resting her forearms on his shoulders, and studying his face as her expression softened before his eyes. “I hope you won’t think me terribly forward, but do you think you might hold me for just a moment?”
* * *
The men had buried Braxton in an unmarked grave well away from the place of honor, as much as it could be, where what they only hoped were the bones of Lord and Lady Blackwell had been interred. Filing their report in Kisumu, they had continued on in the early morning hours. By noontime they had Nairobi in sight, but dark clouds heralding the first storm of the Long Rain were building in. It was another nine hours to Mombasa, which would put them there well after dark, but if the storm trapped them in Nairobi, there was no shelter for the Kestrel’s fragile bulk there, and only rudimentary repair facilities should they incur damage. With complete confidence in their young pilot, it was unanimously agreed that they should press on.
The wind was from the starboard quarter, pushing them along, and sunset found them following the rails well under an hour from Mombasa. The rain had yet to start, and the wind, though brisk, was steady. Patience had them high, over five hundred feet, to allow room to recover from any downdrafts they might encounter on the way down the hills from Nairobi. From their altitude, they could see the brighter gas and oil lights of Mombasa, and the faint glow of the big gas-fired lighthouse at Malinde, the old Arab port, over the horizon to port.
“It’s a beautiful country, Captain. I can think of worse places to make a life. Or to die.”
Lady Cynthia stood at the port bow with Monroe, the freshening breeze keeping the tears from forming tracks on her cheeks.
“It does Milady no good to dwell on what cannot be undone. Your parents abide in Eden now. You must prepare yourself to take your rightful place as an influential Peer of the Realm.”
“That is what I am now, isn’t it?”
“It is, Milady.”
“And yet, I’m still a child in so many ways. I’ve led a sheltered life of privilege, been schooled at the finest academies, everything was being prepared for a normal, structured progression years in the future. Instead, I’ve been a fortnight in Africa on an impossible search. In the last thirty-six hours, I’ve buried my parents and killed my uncle. In self-defense, mind! I’m afraid nothing I learned at Miss Rachel’s Boarding Academy has prepared me for the last two days.”
“At least you’ve the insight to recognize it. I know it’s hard now, but imagine the perspective you’ll have when you return home to all those other ladies whose most complicated decision has ever been which fork to eat the salad— I say, did you see that?”
That had been a sudden flicker of light off in the direction of Malinde, as sudden and brief as a flash of lightning, but no lightning bolt had ever lit up the sky as this flash did. It had seemed for a split second as if the sun were rising in Malinde Bay.
“Exactly. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“No, Captain, never.”
“Patience,” he called back to the darkened pilot house, “have you any idea what to make of it?”
“Something distressing must have occurred in Malinde. You’ve combat experience. Coal bunker, powder magazine?”
“I doubt it. Those can be pretty violent, but they have fireballs with them that hang in the air and start fires around them. That was just, click, like the spark when you throw a—“
He was cut off mid-sentence by a thunderous report that threw him and Lady Cynthia away from the rail to land painfully in a heap among the ropes, clamps, and pulleys that were laid out for mooring. The pilot house windows imploded in a shower of jagged shrapnel, and there was a twang! followed by much thumping and clattering as at least one of the main shrouds came down. Birds and monkeys began to scream as if Judgment Day had come in the canopy beneath. Kestrel pitched like a toy boat in a swirling stream, and yawed hard to port as the blast wave caught her fins.
“Are you all right, Lady?” Monroe asked, fighting his way to his knees.
“I think so. What was that?”
“The sound of that explosion, I assume. Stay here, I’ll be with you in a moment. Patience!” he called, rising and staggering to the pilot house windows when he received no response. “Patty!”
He reached the door to see Hobbs’ slender form in the dim instrument lights, her back against the wall beside him.
“Patty, are you all right?”
She slowly looked up at him, and he could see the glint of a shard of glass protruding from the eyebrow above her left eye, a dark stain flowing down her face and onto her blouse. He instantly crouched before her, tilting her head to look more closely.
“No,” she said weakly, trying to fend him off with trembling hands. “Get us down. We don’t know what all might be damaged, and this is a long way to fall.”
“You’re right, of course,” he said, crunching through a carpet of glass shards as he moved to the controls. “Lady Blackwell, are you all right?”
“I think so, Captain. No major harm, at least.”
“Well, could you help me here? Patience is hurt.”
She appeared at the door in an instant, face a mask of concern. Monroe pointed toward his pilot.
“Oh, Patience!” Cynthia gasped as she took in all the blood. “What on earth?”
“There’s a lamp above the chart table,” Monroe told her. “There should be matches in a cup over there.”
“Cap’n, what the almighty hell?” Smith asked from the door, having been asleep in his cabin when the blast hit them.
“Some sort of catastrophe at Malinde,” Monroe answered.
“Malinde? That’s, what, a good . . .”
“Too damned far for this to be possible. I need you to check out the structure and see what’s about to fall apart.”
Cynthia darted across between them, and knelt in front of Patience.
“Do you need help with her?” Smith asked, noticing her for the first time.
“She’s alright,” Monroe barked. “We could fall apart at any moment. I need a report on our condition, and I need it now, so get moving!”
As he moved away, he was replaced in the door by Brown.
“Ze engine room is sound, Kapitan. Ze doctor is zere to keep ze boiler stoked. I am going to check ze deck gear. Are ve going to investigate?”
“No. We don’t know what shape we’re in. We have to fix ourselves first. I’m going to set us down in Mombasa as quickly as I can.”
“As you say, Kapitan.”
His departure was punctuated by a sharp squeak from Hobbs as Lady Blackwell, her hand well-wrapped in a discarded rag, yanked the six inch shard from its lodgment in the bone of her skull.
“Yes, quickly, Captain. She very much needs a doctor.”
To be continued in Story Five, The Crater