The seventh story in the Beyond the Rails series.
| Clinton Monroe took a moment to examine his face as he shaved. For a man of forty-five who had been ill-used by the government he had sworn to serve, he could have looked a lot worse. The clear blue eyes that had so steadfastly faced his accuser were dulled with resignation, the court martial and subsequent years in this backwater having taken their toll. His conviction hadn’t been just, of course, but when your accuser was the scion of one of the great noble families of the realm, justice would find little consideration in that particular courtroom.
His bare chest, still slender after all he had lived through, bore a few minor scars from a life thoroughly lived. Razor in hand, he studied his van Dyke beard. At the start of each season, he considered shaving it off; at the start of each season, he decided against it. This season would be no different.
He rinsed his razor and picked up a towel, wiping the remaining lather from his face. Drying the razor, he stepped from the shared washroom into his own cabin, a palatial cubicle compared to the coffin-sized closets that passed for passenger cabins. Kestrel had once been a river cargoman, and the fact that she had been stripped of her old boilers, lightened, and hung beneath a gasbag in no way changed her dimensions.
“Hey, Cap’n,” a shout came down the center corridor, “you’d do well to come topside. You ain’t rightly gonna believe this.”
He turned to the built-in chest of drawers to select a shirt, not that there was much variety to choose from. He pulled out a soft, faded khaki dress shirt with short sleeves and donned it over his khaki trousers. The only concession to trim was the shine on his brown leather boots. Pulling a brush quickly through his thin white hair, he started out, then turned back and set his dark blue “coffee can” hat squarely on his head. His only memento from a ruined career, the crown and wings of a Royal Aero Service officer gleamed above the visor.
The low, broken clouds moved quickly from the south against a bright blue sky, the sure harbinger of a return to flying weather at the end of the Long Rain, Kenya’s two-month rainy season. Needed repairs had been made, as had visits home by those who so desired. Now it was time to assemble this season’s crew, and get back to the business of making a living. David Smith, his American deck crewman, had never left, assisting with the work during the sodden, muggy misery of May and June, and now he waited at the starboard rail, foot propped casually on a cleat, gaze directed down past the heavily timbered loading ramp to the fringe of out-buildings below.
“Good morning, David,” Monroe greeted his employee as he stepped up beside him. “What’s all the excitement about?”
“Cap’n. Feast your eyes on that.”
Monroe followed the former cowboy’s extended arm to see, coming through the shadows between the outbuildings, a familiar figure, a dapper young man in a white traveling suit worrying two bearers as they wrestled a cart containing several pieces of luggage toward the aerodrome.
“In the flesh. You get the feeling we’ve been here before?”
“I really thought we’d seen the last of him.”
Ellsworth’s bearers wrestled the cart up the loading ramp, where he paid and dismissed them, and turned to face his two companions from last spring’s flying season; technically it was last fall’s flying season, but Ellsworth still thought in terms of England’s widely varied seasons, and at four degrees off the equator, the season was merely a name anyway.
“Captain, Mr. Smith,” he greeted them, “aren’t you going to welcome me back?”
“Welcome back, Nicholas,” Monroe said as Smith just nodded. “I see you haven’t yet mastered the art of traveling light.”
“You may recall that I had to replace my field lab. I’ll be indebted to some of my classmates for years over this. Are Gunther and Patience aboard?”
Monroe and Smith exchanged a look.
“Gunther won’t be returning,” Monroe told him. “His father had a stroke last month, and he’ll be staying in England to see to his parents’ needs for as long as it’s necessary. We haven’t heard from Patience. The conventional wisdom is that I drove her off.”
“Drove her off? Why on earth—”
“Not intentionally, I assure you.”
“But how, then?”
“It’s a long story, Doctor, and before we get to that, I’ve another for you. David and I can both pilot, and we can both work the deck, so the question remaining is whether Gunther was able to teach you enough to serve as our engineer.”
“It’s the position we need filled, Doctor. Can you fill it?”
“I’m not sure. I know how to keep the fire stoked and operate the controls. He taught me the importance of keeping the lines clean, so for day-to-day operations, I can probably manage it, but I know nothing about real engineering.”
“We have all the manuals that the manufacturer provided. Would you like to try to work into it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“There’s always a choice. In this case, it’s whether to fly with us or not. We need an engineer, Doctor. Do you want to try your hand?”
“Well, I very much want to join your crew again, just not at the cost of getting us all killed.”
“If I didn’t think you could manage it, I wouldn’t make the offer.”
“All right, then. Count me in.”
“That’s the spirit, son! All right, stow your gear and get into some work clothes. I’ll round up the manuals and bring them to your cabin.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” Ellsworth replied, giving a poor imitation of a salute.
“And cut that out!”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
He gathered the lighter of his suitcases and headed for the forward hatch. As he wrestled the awkward bags down the near-vertical ladder, Smith shook his head and turned to Monroe.
“You really are mad, aren’t you?”
* * *
“Lager, Faraji,” Monroe called to the tall African behind the bar as he and Smith entered the open café fronting the Queen’s Royal Hotel.
“And you, Mr. David?” the barman asked.
“Same,” Smith grunted as he followed Monroe to a table well out of the late morning sun.
“One of the few advantages to living a stone’s throw from a Prussian colony, eh, David?”
The two men took their seats, both pulling their chairs around to look out on the street.
“Something on your mind?”
“Yeah,” Smith said after a pause, “you could say that.”
“Well give, man.”
“Ain’t really my place.”
“You know better than that.”
“Well, it’s Ellsworth.”
“What about him?”
“Nice kid, don’t get me wrong. I like him.”
“But it’s one thing to let him ride along and do odd jobs for us. I can’t believe you’re going to risk all of our lives by letting him pretend to be an engineer.”
“He’s a smart kid, he’s proven that.”
“He’s smart about plants.”
“He’s trained in book-learning. Gunther showed him how things work, and he’s down in the boiler room right now studying a manual. He’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“Cap’n, allow me to remind you of the geography we face.”
“I’m pretty familiar with the geography.”
“I don’t mean up-country. See, about three thousand miles northwest of here is a little caravan stop named Timbuktu. Its very name means the end of the earth. Another twenty-five hundred miles the other side of that is London. Nobody in London knows nor cares that we’re out here, and if we lose the power plant while we’re floating over Maasai country, that’s where we’re like as not to die.”
“I think between us we can . . . Uh-oh.”
The Governor-General of the colony, Brigadier Giles Sanderson, had entered the café with two of his soldiers. The trio gleamed like the guards at Buckingham Palace; no one had ever looked more out of place. One of the soldiers had a brief conversation with Faraji, who ended it by pointing directly at Monroe. They turned and approached the table, Faraji following with two glass mugs.
“Good morning, Captain,” Sanderson greeted him with a military salute.
“Governor. Won’t you join us?”
“Not necessary. I have a business proposition for you if you’re interested. There’s a five pound stipend, and you’ll probably be finished by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Five pounds for a day’s work? You must have some job in mind.”
“A simple transport is all it amounts to. You know Boedekker’s Ranch?”
“The old Boer? Every aviator knows the ranch. It’s a landmark for navigation in the area.”
“Excellent. Well, to earn the five pounds, you load a cargo of supplies for Boedekker, fly them up to the ranch, you’ll probably need to overnight there, then bring back a party of anthropologists who have been digging on a nearby site.”
“In the rain?”
“I understand it makes the digging easier, or some such thing. Who knows what motivates scientists? Anyway, that’s the job. Do you want it?”
“How many scientists are there?”
“Less than a dozen. What does that matter?”
“Weight, Governor. It’s a strict limitation. I think we can handle a dozen well enough though. David?”
“If they don’t have a steam shovel they want to bring back.”
“All right, Governor, we’ll take it. I assume you’ll give the orders to load the cargo?”
“We’ll begin at once. My thanks to you, Monroe. It may not sound like it, but this is important.”
“Thank you for the five pounds, Governor. We’ll leave as soon as we’re loaded.”
They watched the soldiers depart, Smith with an openly suspicious expression.
“It doesn’t strike you as unusual to have the Governor-General hisself going door-to-door looking for a cargo flight?”
“A simple job. Everyone’s probably busy, he just figured he’d walk down here and do it himself.”
“Everybody’s busy? He could have sent one of them two lobsterbacks he had with him for this. What is this job, anyway? Who are we gonna find up there, Benjamin Disraeli?”
“Relax, David. This is found money. Five pounds for two days work, tops. Simple!”
“Maybe you could refresh my mind as to when one of our simple jobs stayed simple. ‘Cause I can’t seem to recall the last one.”
“Have a bit of faith, won’t you? It’s out, back, and collect our money. Now let’s enjoy our beer, then we can go see whether our new engineer remembers how to start the motors.”
* * *
“The boiler’s fully stoked, then, Doctor?”
“And the gas generator?”
“New coals, hand selected just as Gunther taught me.”
“All right, then, I guess we’re ready. David, up here by the pilot house, and Doctor, if you’d be so good as to man the stern.”
“You don’t want me in the motor room?”
“Oh, I apologize. I forgot you’ve not done this before. Just stand between the after shrouds while I give her some lift to strain against the mooring lines. If you see or hear anything that sounds like, I don’t know, excessive tension, like something might be about to part, anything like that, sing out, and I’ll come have a look at it.”
“Ah, I understand.”
“Sure wish Patience was here,” Monroe muttered as he turned to enter the pilot house.
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“Oh, I was just wishing Patience was with us. The ship was a living thing to her, and if something was amiss, it would tell her. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know it’s true.”
“Ah, yes, I see. That would be convenient,” Ellsworth replied.
He moved aft to take his place between the stern shrouds.
“All right,” Monroe called, “here we go.”
He pulled down the valve handle at the pilot house ceiling, and then began that interminable wait while the acid dripped onto the briquettes inside the generator, releasing the hydrogen bound up in the structure of the coal; everything moved at its own leisurely pace aboard an airship. Finally, she began to rise, listing to starboard as she pulled against the hawsers.
“An awfully great deal of creaking back here,” Ellsworth called forward.
“That’s just the shrouds finding their grooves,” Monroe called back. “If you hear any sharp pops or crunching sounds, that’s what we want to investigate.”
Monroe let his ship tug against her moorings for a good two minutes before he was satisfied. He pulled the chain leading to the bleed-off valve, and let her settle back to neutral buoyancy.
“I think we’re good,” he said. “Let’s cast off and see what we have.”
“All right,” Smith called over to the line handlers, “cast off.”
“Cast off!” the foreman echoed, and seconds later, Smith and Ellsworth were pulling in two-inch hawsers hand-over-hand as Kestrel floated free.
Monroe let her rise above dock level, then engaged the twin airscrews, turning the helm to the right. Ellsworth thought that an odd departure for a ship meaning to head northeast, as it would take her south, across the rooftops and toward the harbor. A moment later, he realized that the Captain was scouting the street, hoping against hope to see a confident woman with curly blonde hair making her way toward the aerodrome.
“She wasn’t aboard,” Ellsworth said.
“Patience. She would have arrived aboard the Empire Guardian with me. She isn’t here.”
“Don’t you have a power plant to attend, Doctor?”
“Quite. I was just going. Say, Captain?” he said before he started aft.
“Have you seen Malinde since we were there?”
“No. Word is, though, that with that rat warren cleaned out, the people are starting to rebuild. I doubt that hole could be filled if you threw Mount Kenya into it, though. It’s going to be an odd-looking town going forward.”
He rotated the wheel many turns to the left, reversing course to head upcountry across the savannah.
* * *
The sun was low on the port quarter as Kestrel aligned her hull with the stream that meandered across the broad valley floor. The roof of Boedekker’s house formed a black square in the distance, and Monroe reckoned it would be dusk when they tied up to one of the trees in the compound’s yard.
“Good to have the wind from the beam, Captain,” Ellsworth said from the pilot house door. “She’s making a lot more smoke than I remember.”
“What? Oh, up for air again?”
“It’s bloody hot down there, Captain. I don’t know how Gunther did it.”
“Gunther was, let us say, disciplined. As for the smoke, the ships stop flying during the Long Rain, but the railroad keeps running. They take advantage of the opportunity to swoop in and buy up all the high-quality coal. Don’t worry, when the new shipments arrive, we’ll be back to the anthracite.”
“That’s good. I know that the Cheadle and Gatley is supposed to be a closed system, but the fumes that leak out between the flanges are simply nauseating.”
Ellsworth looked back into the wake where a long, dark plume trailed along behind Kestrel, marking her path like an accusing finger.
”So, who is this Boedekker we’re delivering to?”
“He’s an old Boer. That’s a Dutch colonist from South Africa. People got pushed into the interior when the Crown moved into Cape Town. They live hard lives down there. Poor growing conditions, the Zulus to contend with, harsh lives indeed. Boedekker moved up here and set up a ranch. You’re going to love this place.”
“He raises goats for the milk and cheese, cattle for the meat, pigs. Why, he even keeps ostriches.”
“Yes. Feathers, you see, for the fashionable ladies of London and Paris.”
“Aye,” added Smith, his head appearing upside-down in the window as he leaned over from his lookout post atop the pilot house, “and a world of sneezing if you’re allergic to bird feathers. Those things can weigh three hundred pounds.”
“Thank you, David,” Monroe said. “I take it you have something to report?”
“That I do, Cap’n. There’s tents along the stream between us an’ the ranch. Probably them scientists, but nothin’s movin’ around ’em.”
“Odd. Where away?”
“About one o’clock. You can’t miss ’em.”
Monroe corrected their course slightly to the right, tipped the nose down to lose altitude, and shortly they found themselves above a half-dozen large expedition tents carefully arranged and tightly pitched, but even from twenty feet above the ground, no sign of life could be seen.
“Bring our weapons, David,” Monroe said. “Something’s amiss here, and anyone still here is likely to need help. Doctor, drop the anchor, then stand by the helm. You can keep a watch from the rail.”
Monroe continued to study the camp as Ellsworth cranked open the door under the bow that exposed the anchor for dropping. Smith emerged from below decks with his Peacemaker and a canteen strapped on, and passed Monroe his Le Mat in its military holster.
“Somebody down there might need it.”
“Ah, quite. What do you think happened? Animals?”
“Neither. Either of those would have left bodies scattered around. No, this is something else.”
“We’d better get down there. Nicholas, come winch us down.”
Young Doctor Ellsworth carried out his orders smartly, and Monroe and Smith were shortly on the ground and approaching the first tent. Eight empty cots were set up with toiletry tables beside, lanterns, footlockers, everything needed to make a long stay as comfortable as possible.
Each tent was in similar condition, its pristine arrangement almost as if it had been set up to display what life on an expedition was like, even a cup of cold tea or a burned down cigar on a few of the tables, but with no people to be seen anywhere.
“This is damned odd,” Monroe said as they came out of a tent where a science lab had been set up and obviously used continuously until the users had simply stopped coming. “Almost like the Mary Celeste.”
“The Mary Celeste. Sailing ship, merchantman. She was found in the Atlantic about ten years ago. Under sail, cargo intact, headed for the Straits of Gibraltar, which is just where she should have been, only there wasn’t a soul aboard. One lifeboat was missing, the ship wasn’t damaged, the crew’s personal effects were in their lockers, it was as if the whole crew had been raptured. None of them ever seen again.”
“Now, that’s just disturbing.”
They entered the last tent, a shelter for the supplies, and here they found some of the crates and boxes turned over, and couple of bottles broken. They could have been ransacked, though it was just as possible that expedition members had been careless in some of their retrievals.
“Stinks in here,” Smith said, curling his nose.
“Preserves dead tissue.”
“Oh. Well, let’s hurry it up. It smells like death in here.”
“Don’t hurry too much,” Monroe cautioned. “That stuff evaporates fast. That has to be a fresh spill.”
As Monroe looked around at the overturned supplies trying to discern what might have been taken, Smith went to stand in the opening, watching the camp for movement. Monroe, coughing against the fumes, stepped further back into the tent and pulled an unfolded tarpaulin off a stack of boxes, eliciting a short but piercing feminine scream as he did so. He jumped back and tripped over a box, falling to his back as Smith spun in a gunfighter’s crouch, the Colt appearing in his hand as if by magic.
Monroe sat up, looking for the source, and located it at once, a slight young woman who appeared as if she might be blonde, pale, and rather pretty once all the grime was scrubbed off of her. He stood up and approached her as she trembled and cowered.
“There now, lass, no one’s going to harm you. Come out, won’t you? We need to get out of these fumes.”
He extended his hand to her. She took it and climbed out of the little nest she had made for herself, still trembling badly.
“What’s your name, my dear?”
“Amy,” she said, barely audible.
Holstering his pistol, Smith came up to her as she cringed back toward Monroe, and extended his canteen.
“Water,” he said. “Take a drink.”
She took it, tipped her head back for a swallow, and spilled as much down the front of her blouse as went down her throat.
“Easy,” he said, taking it back. “Let that soak in. There’s plenty more.”
“What happened here?” Monroe asked, guiding her toward the open air.
“They came in the night,” she said quietly. “They took everyone.”
“Beast men, animals, I don’t know. I had come in here to retrieve a notebook, and when the screaming started, I hid. I only saw shapes against the fire.”
“The camp fire, you mean?”
“She must have been looking right through the opening,” Smith said as they helped her outside.
“When did this happen?” Monroe asked.
“Two days ago. Or three. I don’t remember. I’ve been hiding.”
“All this time? Why didn’t you go to the ranch? It’s just a few miles up the stream.”
“I was afraid to come out.”
“Well, you’re safe now. You can come with us. We have cabins where you can clean up and get some real rest. We have to deliver supplies to the ranch, and then we’re going back to Mombasa. You’re welcome to ride back with us.”
“I’d very much like that.”
“Then it’s settled. Nicholas,” he called up to the ship, “we found someone. Hoist us up, then make something mild for her to eat while I show her to a cabin.”
“Aye, Captain. There are riders coming from the ranch.”
“Not surprising. Probably wonder what we stopped for. We’ll hail them as we pass over. Move smartly, lad. This young lady needs to get off her feet.”
* * *
An African butler, uniformed as if he served in Buckingham Palace, led Monroe, Smith, and Ellsworth to the dining room of Boedekker’s estate. It sprawled completely on the ground floor with only one elevated room at the southwest corner, presumably the master’s private quarters. They were told that Amy Allen, the student they had rescued, was exhausted, and would be dining in her room. Nothing about that sounded unreasonable, and the men arrived at the table to be seated by African servants in white caftans. The old Boer and an attractive woman, a blue-eyed blonde with the glow of a life lived outdoors, were already seated.
“Ah, gentlemen,” Boedekker, a strapping man of late middle age, greeted them, “may I present my daughter, Lina? My sons, Ambrosius and Gregor, are securing the house. You know Captain Monroe, of course. This is his crew, Dr. Ellsworth, and Mr. Smith. That delightful pilot of yours isn’t with you?”
“Returned to England, I fear. Apparently, something here didn’t agree with her.”
“Pity. I was quite fond of that girl. Well, be seated, gentlemen, please.”
Pleasantries exchanged, Monroe’s people took their seats, and were served a hearty meal of wildebeest and local vegetables sautéed in the drippings from the meat. The Boedekkers, having eaten earlier, had coffee and confections as they played host to their guests.
“This is delicious, Mr. Boedekker,” Monroe said, having sampled the wildebeest. “The fare we get on the ship is by necessity somewhat rough-and-ready, and an unexpected treat like this is always welcome.”
“I employ a wonderful cook,” Boedekker replied. “Food, as you might imagine, is one of the few luxuries that I can bring with me out here, and Binty does wonders with the native fare.”
“Indeed he does,” Ellsworth agreed.
“She,” Boedekker corrected.
“Quite,” said Monroe. “You were going to tell me, Mr. Boedekker, why I couldn’t leave a man aboard my ship. We never leave her unmanned, as you can see where we’d be if the mooring line parted.”
“I believe my daughter can explain more fully. Lina?”
“Yes, I’ll try. You are aware, Captain, that we operate a modest hospital on the grounds? It serves both our own workers, and the surrounding natives.”
“I have heard such, yes.”
“Well, we are currently treating an outbreak of a disease that we haven’t encountered before. The symptoms are debilitation, joint degeneration, and a general atmosphere of repulsive odor that simply reeks of approaching death. It behaves like a parasitic infection, yet transfers between people who have had no physical contact, nor even been in the same areas. This has led us to believe that it is carried by insects, or possibly rodents. Since both of those things are most active at night, we have cordoned the doors and windows with fine nets, placed poison for the rodents, and no one is allowed outdoors after dark.”
“You are the doctor here, Miss Boedekker?”
“I am a registered nurse. I work closely with Doctor Kaufman. She’s a brilliant practitioner.”
“Captain,” the elder Boedekker replied, “I’m sure you’re aware of the political climate back in Europe. It is difficult enough for a woman to even get into a medical university, let alone graduate. Then, even if she does, what are the employment opportunities for a woman in that field, even if she was near the top of her class? When I was offered the opportunity to add a top-flight surgeon to my staff, I didn’t question her gender.”
“I see,” Monroe replied. “So basically, we’re prisoners here?”
“You are not my prisoners,” he replied. “You are free to leave at any time. Whatever is spreading this infection may have other ideas, though.”
“Why haven’t you evacuated?” Ellsworth asked.
“We are in agreement that we wish to identify this ailment and stop it, and you don’t accomplish that by running away from it. Plus, what if we ran to Nairobi or Mombasa, and brought it with us? Something like this could lay waste to the entire colony, perhaps gut the life out of European Africa entirely.”
“But if it’s insect-carried, it’s going to spread anyway,” Ellsworth said.
“All the more reason to stop it here,” Lina replied. “We must find an answer before it spreads to the populated areas.”
“When you put it that way it makes perfect sense,” Monroe said. “But I have another question. What about these beast-men that Miss Allen described?”
“I have no idea what she is talking about,” Boedekker said. “It’s possible her camp was raided by gorillas or some species of monkey, but beast-men? A frightened girl’s overactive imagination, I’d warrant.”
“Then you don’t think there’s any chance that a previously unknown predator has come into the picture?”
“Let me answer that with a logic exercise, Captain. This is a ranch on which I raise livestock. Some of the cost of doing business is losses to predators. I lose stock weekly to leopard, lion, hyena, and a few other things. Both the rate of loss, and the physical characteristics of the dead animals have remained consistent over the last . . . Well, I don’t recall that it has ever changed, so my professional opinion would have to be that no new predator has been introduced into the mix.”
“That does seem to make perfect sense, and yet something terrified that girl.”
“A sudden encounter with anything unfamiliar will have that effect, Captain. I shouldn’t put too much stock in it. Now, I fear I must take my leave.” He rose from the table, his daughter following his lead. “It’s been a long day, and I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Of course, sir. It’s been a long day for us, as well. We’ll see you in the morning, then, and get your supplies unloaded.”
“That is quite acceptable, gentlemen,” Boedekker agreed as they all rose. “Sleep well. You remember where to find your quarters?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“A pleasant evening to you, then,” the old Boer said, and turned with his daughter to leave the room.
Ellsworth stood watching her depart until Monroe pulled him by his arm toward the room they had been assigned to.
“There’s just one thing I don’t understand here,” the botanist said as he turned.
“And that is?” Monroe asked, expecting some sexual innuendo concerning Lina.
“They are fighting this disease here, and that isn’t unusual. The tropics are rife with every sort of disease we’ve never seen in the cold air of England, but consider this. These people are involved in a life-and-death struggle with an unknown organism, yet not three miles from here, those students spent the last three months in an unguarded camp, and Miss Allen didn’t say a word to us about disease. Does that make anyone else curious?”
* * *
Despite their assurances that they could find their quarters, they were joined in the hallway by one of the immaculately dressed servants, so deferential, and yet with a hint of something more. They were escorted to their room, and when Monroe moved to knock on the door across the hall, the man moved quickly, yet somehow without it seeming deliberate, to block access to that door with his body.
“Please, gentlemen,” he said, motioning toward their dormitory-style room with one arm, ushering them in, “I will show you the amenities.”
Moving them into the large guest room with three sets of bunk beds, each against a separate wall, a round table with six chairs in the center, and a sideboard on the fourth wall with water pitchers, a boiler, and a coffee maker, he waved gracefully around the room, pointing out the various devices.
“There should be plenty of water for your night’s stay, a boiler with tea and coffee, and that door,” he pointed out the corner, “is where you will find the toilet facilities. I’m afraid we do not have sanitary plumbing here, but the door has an India-rubber gasket, and will contain any unpleasant odors quite effectively. You may open or close the windows as you wish, but please, we must insist that you do not breach the screen. The disease, you know. The rope by the door summons a servant should you need anything during the night. Please, have a good rest, gentlemen. Breakfast will be served at seven, then we will get your ship unloaded, and have you on your way.”
“We’d like to check on Miss Allen,” Monroe said.
“She is sleeping,” the man said, though he would have no obvious way of knowing that. “She was very upset. Dr. Kaufman examined her, and gave her a sedative. She should be rested enough to join us in the morning. Is there anything else?”
“No,” Monroe replied, making no attempt to hide the suspicious tone in his voice, “that will be all.”
“Good night, then, gentlemen. Sleep well.”
The servant turned and left, closing the door behind him. Monroe put his ear to it, waiting to ensure the man walked away before they began to talk, and instead of footsteps, he heard the snap of a key turning in the lock.
“I say!” he blurted. “We’re locked in!”
“That ain’t all,” Smith said from the window where he had drawn back the curtain to reveal not just netting, but a set of heavy iron bars over the opening. “Looks like the old boy was pulling our leg when he said we weren’t prisoners.”
“Damn!” Monroe swore. “And our weapons are on the sideboard out in the dining room.”
“Unless they’ve been taken away entirely,” said Smith.
“Let’s not get ourselves worked up over nothing,” Ellsworth said. “This may be nothing more than what that fellow said it was. Miss Allen was distraught, there could be diseased insects, and he may not want his guests wandering the house at night. Most likely, we’ll offload our cargo in the morning, and give Miss Allen a ride to Mombasa where the Governor-General will conduct any follow-up he feels appropriate.”
“You ever been in jail, Doc? Bars on the windows, locks on the doors, call the guard if you need anything? This ain’t the way a gentleman treats his guests.”
“We aren’t the police, David,” Ellsworth said. “If there’s nothing going on here, we’ll be poor guests indeed, and if there is, well, we’ll just be inviting them to shoot us.”
“You see, David?” Monroe said. “I told you he was a quick study.”
“So what do we do, then, sit here and wait for them to decide we’re in the way?”
“If we don’t act suspiciously,” Monroe began, then stopped. “We’ve a responsibility to at least check on Miss Allen. She trusted us to carry her to safety, and I don’t like abrogating that trust to people I don’t know well.”
“I thought you knew these people,” Ellsworth said.
“By casual contact, not intimately. Those students have been camped not three miles from here for months, yet as you say, the Boedekkers dismiss her concerns as the fantasy of a distraught mind. I don’t care for their attitude.”
“Here,” Smith said, coming over from the sideboard with a fork he had bent and butchered with the help of his jackknife, “this should get the door open, at least.”
He dropped to his knees in front of the door, examined the lock for a moment, then inserted the bent tine.
“Yeah, these warded locks are made to keep an honest man honest,” he said as he pressed up on the handle and tried to rotate it at various angles. “Nothin’ a man with . . . a bit of education can’t . . . ah, there it is!” he finished, as the fork rotated suddenly, and he stood to complete its rotation.
“Someday we’re going to have a long discussion about your background, my friend,” Monroe said.
“Not today, I hope.”
Monroe pressed his ear to the door, and hearing nothing, eased it open. The hall was dark and soundless. He crossed to the door on the other side, listened there for a moment, then knocked softly.
“Miss Allen,” he whispered. “Miss Allen, can you hear me?”
There was no reply. He tried the door, and was surprised to find that it opened easily. The dark room contained only one bed, and there was no occupant, though it had obviously been slept in, and the girl’s sun hat was on the room’s central table.
“Miss Allen, are you here?”
Again, there was no reply, but Smith suddenly hissed, “Somebody’s coming,” and quietly shut the door to the mens’ quarters. Monroe eased his door closed as well, and slipped into the water closet, where he stood silently behind the door.
The door to the room opened, and there was a moment’s silence before one of servants’ deep African voices intoned, “Is anyone here?”
There was a brief wait, then the door closed.
* * *
The man held a pistol, an odd European weapon with three small-caliber barrels that rotated to line up with the firing pin. He thought for a moment about the sound he had heard, and just about convinced himself that he had been hearing things. Just a quick check on the guests . . .
He turned the knob of the men’s room door and pushed, and was surprised and drawn off balance when it opened into the room. He had a brief view of two men standing just inside the door, a flash of knuckles coming at his face, then nothing.
* * *
“Fifteen rounds total,” Smith said, inspecting the leather pouch he had stripped from the guard's belt. They stood in the dark in Amy Allen's room, Monroe listening at the door as Smith readied their only firearm.
“That should be enough to get us to our own weapons in the dining room,” Monroe said.
“If they're still there,” Smith said.
“Indeed. Still, what else are we going to do? We have to find Miss Allen, and it isn't looking like our efforts are going to be welcomed.”
“Gentlemen,” Ellsworth began from the water closet.
“Do we really?” Smith asked. “When did we acquire that obligation? If we see her on the way out, fine, but we ain't the sheriff, as the doc pointed out.”
“And I keep pointing out, we're gentlemen. You're either on the side of right, or you're against it.”
“Gentlemen,” Ellsworth tried again.
“As I say,” Monroe said in agreement.
“Gentlemen, I think I've found her,” Ellsworth finished.
"Damnation, boy, why didn't ye say so?"
“In there?” Monroe asked.
Ellsworth had lit the oil lamp that hung in the wall sconce, and now he turned to show them what the light revealed. In the side wall beside the cabinet that housed the chamber pot, a panel of the wall had been left ajar, and pushing it, Ellsworth had found a stairway down into darkness. The lamp showed, barely, a dirt floor about twenty feet down, and a passage that headed off in the direction of the hospital building.
“Well,” Monroe observed, “if she went down there, she didn't go willingly. What say you, David, shall we leave her to her fate?”
“Oh . . . Hell! Get the lamp.”
As Ellsworth moved to release the lamp from its catches, Smith crept down the stairs, three-barreled pistol at the ready, silent as the American Indian-fighter he had once been. Reaching the bottom, he found the darkness to be Stygian, and waited for the young doctor to catch up with the lamp.
“I say,” Monroe said from just behind him, “if we keep the lamp on, anyone will be able to see us for miles.”
“Aye, but if we don't, we could walk right into a pit. There's nothin' for it. Come on, Doc.”
Ellsworth followed, third in line, the tiny flame of the lamp he held seeming as bright as the sun in the smothering darkness.
The tunnel wasn't professionally cut, with a smooth, flat floor and precisely squared sides, but it was obviously man-made, and ran straight ahead for twenty yards or so, then angled to the right. Coming to the angle, they saw another straight run of some thirty yards, and a light coming through an opening on the right side at the end.
“Well, there you are, Cap'n. Kill the light, Doc.”
As the area around them went black, Smith moved confidently ahead, silent and alert, homing on the light source ahead like a moth on a flame. Nothing disturbed their progress as they drew closer, though they could occasionally hear a metallic clank from up ahead, or the clink of glassware. The room, for room it could only be, was obviously occupied and in use. Smith reached the corner and took a quick glance to see three people in laboratory garb working at various stations around a central table where a nude figure of indeterminate gender lay unconscious.
“Three of 'em,” he whispered, barely audible, holding up three fingers. “Look like scientists. They got somebody on a table. Likely it's the girl, but I can't tell. What do you want to do?”
“We have a gun, and the element of surprise,” Monroe said. “We'll confront them and see whether it's her.”
“And if it ain't?”
“Then I suppose we'll tie them up and keep looking.”
“Oh, that's great!”
“What do you want to do, David, kill them?”
“You've heard my vote. I want to get out of here.”
“All right, we'll try your plan next. First, we'll see what this lot is up to. Nicholas, that will be for you to figure out. Whenever you're ready, David.”
Smith nodded, and stepped into the opening.
“Hands in the air!” he shouted, leveling the pistol at the three white-coated people in the room, one of whom he noted was Lina Boedekker before he was tackled from the side by a compact, powerful body that clamped a viselike grip on his left bicep, and clawed for his gun with the other hand.
As he was bowled back over a rolling cart full of bottles and beakers, he turned to find himself looking into a face with overwhelmingly feline features, including slitted yellow eyes and the long, stabbing fangs of a cat. He realized without conscious thought that though this creature was a head shorter than himself, it had the power of a circus strongman in the grip that held his bicep, and that despite the animalistic face, it was unmistakably female.
Never mind that! The powerful cat-human hybrid was trying to kill him, and that was something that David Smith understood. He head-butted the thing on the bridge of its stubby muzzle, and when it recoiled, shoved the pistol up between them, pressed the barrels against the bottom of its chin, and pulled the trigger.
As the lead ball erupted through the top of the cat-creature's head, he heard another shot, and Ellsworth's cry of pain. Turning the now limp creature to serve as cover between himself and the scientists, he rotated the barrels to line up the next round.
He sat up as the woman fired again, the bullet striking the wall behind him. He fired back, glassware shattering in front of her, forcing her to take cover behind her own table as her assistants rushed for the exit behind them. Lining up his last barrel, he rose to a crouch and waited for her to expose herself.
She did, leaning from the right side of the counter to fire blindly in the companions’ direction, the report of her shot coming simultaneously with Smith’s. He scored an inconsequential hit on her somewhere, bringing a sharp cry from her lips; she missed. As Smith reloaded the clumsy pistol, the woman tossed a glass vial from her hiding place that erupted into a dense cloud of smoke from the liquid that sluiced across the floor. Smith fired in her direction, but they clearly heard the rapid tread of shoes racing for the door behind her.
“She’ll be going for help,” Smith said. “We have to get out of here. Doc, are you hit?”
“No, just a piece of glass.”
“All right, let’s go!”
“Don’t forget what we came for, David,” Monroe admonished, approaching the figure on the table as he held a cloth from the cart over his face against the smoke. As they had suspected, the nude figure on the operating table was indeed Amy Allen. “Come here, Nicholas.”
As Ellsworth stepped to the table, Monroe stood the unconscious woman up, lifted her from behind, and helped Ellsworth get her settled into a fireman’s carry.
“Back through the tunnel,” he barked at Smith, “like our lives depended on it!”
Smith moved to the doorway behind them, glanced furtively around the corner, then snapped, “Clear!” and moved out into the dark passage.
* * *
They crept into Amy’s room through the tunnel, Smith in the lead, pistol up and ready for use. The room remained dark, and no sounds of alarm were yet apparent in the house. The dangerous American led the way to the hall, every sense alert, and looked toward the living room. All was dark and silent.
“What’s your plan?” he asked Monroe.
“To get back to the Kestrel, obviously, and get the devil out of here. Let’s hope our weapons are still on that sideboard.”
“Captain,” Ellsworth said, “the power plant’s stone cold. It will take twenty or thirty minutes to raise steam.”
“Not to worry, Nicholas. You just get the hydrogen flowing. We’ll cut loose and drift out of here. Worry about stoking the boiler after we’re clear of these lunatics.”
“Ah, very good, sir.”
“And we’d better get started,” Smith added. “They ain’t gonna wait forever.”
Putting action to word, he moved quickly down the hall, stopping again at the end to scan the living room before moving to the sideboard where their weapons were indeed where they had left them. Smith and Monroe strapped on their pistols, and Monroe placed Ellsworth’s Webley in his right hand, draping his gun belt over his own shoulder. Smith reached the door to the compound, looked around, then started out toward the dark shape of the Kestrel, hanging placidly in the dim moonlight, her anchor line hooked on a tree behind the barn a hundred feet away.
As he cleared the narrow porch, he was met by a brief fusillade of fire from the direction of the compound’s hospital. He dived back through the door, fired two rounds blindly from his Colt, and glanced around the room.
“Nick,” he snapped, “put that woman down and see if you can find a rifle in here.”
Ellsworth moved to comply, depositing Miss Allen in a wing-backed chair, but as he crossed the opening to the rear hall, he was fired at from the back of the house.
“I know. Cover that hallway.”
Ellsworth took cover behind the corner and fired two rounds into the darkness.
“We have to move now,” Smith said to Monroe.
“The gunners out front will have a field day with us on that exposed ground.”
“Yeah. Well, that crazy woman used smoke to cover her escape. Maybe we can, too. Get the kindling from the fireplace.”
As Monroe stepped to perform that task, Smith took the Bowie knife from his gun belt and sliced open the seat of the overstuffed couch, pulling out the cotton and fluffing it up. Monroe brought wood shavings and discarded papers, pushed them into the cotton, and they both began to light them with matches.
“You’d better hurry that up,” Ellsworth called from the back of the room, firing more shots down the hall, and receiving fire in return. “I’m about to get overrun back here!”
With nods to one another, Smith and Monroe got at one end of the smoldering couch and pushed it out the door. It drew another barrage of fire from the hospital before the gunmen realized there was no one with it.
“Captain Monroe,” a woman’s voice, probably Lina’s, called from the darkness, “this is pointless. You cannot escape. You should come out with your hands raised, and we can sort out this . . . misunderstanding.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” Smith muttered. “You ain’t found that rifle yet, Doc?”
“David!” Ellsworth whined as a bullet struck the corner post just above his head.
“Just joshin’ you, boy,” Smith said, stepping into the hallway opening and fanning five rounds at machine gun speed down the hall. “Time to go. Cap’n, you want to bring the girl?”
“Yes. To the Kestrel, then?”
“Yeah, the direct route. That couch is smokin’ up nicely.”
Monroe gathered up Amy, who was starting to come around, though still barely coherent, while Smith reloaded.
“Doc, once we get out, fire a few more rounds and follow us. We’ll be turning left toward the barn. There’s shooters in the hospital, so stay in the smoke as much as you can, and feel free to shoot at anyone who exposes himself.”
“You can count on it!”
“All right. Ready? Here we go!”
* * *
“Stop them!” Lina Boedekker shouted from the hospital window. “They are in the smoke! Oh, where are my brothers?”
The couch stuffing wasn’t producing a greatly effective veil of smoke, but then the half-moon wasn’t producing a great deal of light, either, and the two factors cancelled one another out as the trio made their dash for the cover of the barn. Through a staccato of gunfire and the whirr and thunk of bullets coming back toward them, the Boedekker daughter was beside herself with rage and frustration.
“Fools!” she shouted. “They are trying to reach their ship. You, you, and you, get back there and cut them off! If they escape, Africa won’t be big enough to hide us.”
The three men she had designated sprinted off toward the opposite side of the barn from where Monroe’s people were headed.
“The rest of you, follow them,” she shouted. “They will be trapped between us. Shoot to kill!”
Five more men, experienced hunters all, started forward to close the trap on Monroe and his men, and for the first time since they had unexpectedly barged into her lab, she allowed herself a smile. She had them in the palm of her hand now.
* * *
The fugitives reached the shelter of the barn, and slowed down as they moved with caution toward the far end. Neither Monroe, with his military experience, nor Smith, the former Indian fighter, doubted for a moment that Lina Boedekker’s men were moving to surround them. Smith reached the end of the barn, took a look around, then turned back to the others.
“Just like we left her,” he said. “Doc, you get up the ladder while we cover you. Be alert and ready to shoot. They may have left somebody up there. As soon as you get up, I’ll cut the mooring line, we’ll get on the platform, and you reel in the cargo hoist. Then get to the pilot house and get the hydrogen started.”
“I say, David,” Monroe said, “are you looking to take over?”
“If you got a better plan, Cap’n, I’m dyin’ to hear it.”
As if to punctuate his statement, a bullet whizzed past them as the group Lina had sent to follow them reached the end of the barn. Smith fired two very accurate shots in return, driving them to cover at the end.
“That sounds a fine plan,” Monroe quickly agreed. “Nicholas, as soon as you can manage it, then.”
He turned, Miss Allen’s nude figure draped over his shoulder, to cover that end while Smith stepped around to cover the other angle with his Colt and the odd little three-barrel.
“The sooner you go, the better, Doc,” Smith said. “Reinforcements are bound to show up soon.”
Ellsworth gave a tight nod, took a couple of deep breaths, and broke into the clear, sprinting for the Jacob’s ladder as Smith fired slow, measured shots at the far corner of the barn, knocking chunks of wood off, letting anyone who might be there know that he exposed himself at the risk of his life.
Reaching the ladder, Ellsworth climbed for his life, incongruously remembering his first climb of this ladder, tipsy, inexperienced, under the critical eye of Patience Hobbs. A most embarrassing experience. He had since learned the skill, and climbed for all he was worth, reaching the deck in what had to be record time. Levering himself under the safety chain, he rolled to his stomach, drew his Webley, and looked forward for any sign of a hostile presence. Seeing none, he rose to a crouch, looked aft, then moved to the hoist control.
“Come on!” he shouted, and turned to fire at the far corner of the barn as Smith had done. In the distance he could clearly hear a shrill female voice urging her men to take them down.
On the ground, Monroe lumbered toward the platform, Amy Allen reaching toward full consciousness, and beginning to struggle as she realized her compromising situation, nude on a stranger’s shoulder. Gunshots sounded as she bounced to the running man’s gait, some of them frightfully close, others more distant. Then she was unceremoniously dumped onto a corrugated metal surface as the man carrying her knelt above her, firing a pistol into the darkness.
Reaching the mooring line, Smith holstered his Colt, drew his knife, and using one end of the crossguard, began to unscrew the shackle holding the anchor to the braided wire rope. A bullet from the corner came perilously close, passing between his face and the hand holding the knife. He thought he would have to stop working the shackle and defend himself, but a shot came from the deck above him, followed instantly by a loud cry of pain as Ellsworth’s fat bullet found a mark. Returning to the bolt, it proved the work of a moment to release the locking pin, and Kestrel was free, beginning to drift back in the direction they had come from, and inadvertently exposing them to fire from the five men in the pursuing group. Smith ran the short distance from the bow line to the slowly drifting cargo platform, hopped up onto it, and fired the three rounds from the servant’s pistol toward the end of the barn.
“What are you doing to me?” Miss Allen whimpered, rolled into a ball to cover her breasts and pubic area.
“Saving your life, my dear,” Monroe replied. “Just stay down. This will be over soon.”
At that point, the cargo platform began to rise. The weight of three people was not inconsiderable, the batteries weren’t designed to operate the heavy gear without the generator on line, and the trip up to deck level was agonizingly slow, but they reached it safely. As Smith stepped aboard he saw Ellsworth emerge from the pilot house.
“Hydrogen’s coming,” the doctor called to him. “Now we wait.”
“Wrong, Doc. Now we shoot!” And putting deed to word, the American turned to the rail and emptied his Peacemaker once more, five measured rounds calculated to keep heads down behind the barn.
“Nicholas,” Monroe directed, “go below and get Miss Allen a blanket, and bring up our rifles as well.”
The men on the ground were trying to follow the airship and keep it under fire, but it was drifting away from cover, and Smith’s accuracy with his pistol made that a risky proposition. When Ellsworth returned and handed him his Winchester 73, it became an impossible task. And then Kestrel began to slowly, slowly rise. They had made it.
* * *
Lina Boedekker was frantic as she watched the Kestrel lift above the trees and slowly float away.
“Fools!” she screamed. “Idiots! All you had to do was shoot them, and look! They have escaped! We are doomed, doomed!”
“It is very bad,” her father agreed from her side. “We will have to destroy every vestige of what we were doing here, and we had better get started at once.”
“Even the specimens, father?”
“Especially the specimens! Do you know what will happen to us if we are not gone before those meddlers return with the authorities? Surely you have not forgotten the events of Ladysmith?”
“Hardly, father.” Events having moved beyond her grasp, her panic was giving way to resignation. “What about the staff?”
“We will bring Binty and the doctor, should they wish to come. The rest, of course, are evidence, and will have to be destroyed with the buildings.”
“Pity. They were trained so well.”
“We will get more. Now come, child, find your brothers and let us begin to organize. That balloon could be back here by tomorrow evening with an advance party, and we must be long gone by then.”
“But where will we go?”
“Somewhere else, child, somewhere safe where we can plan our revenge. Now come, we must be on the road by sunrise. We will decide our destination as we travel.”
* * *
“Miss Allen,” Monroe greeted the young woman as Kestrel motored her smoky way to the southwest, “good morning. I’m surprised to see you awake.”
The woman stepped into the pilot house dressed in the clothes Ellsworth had provided, a shirt and trousers that had belonged to Patience, and balancing a cup of tea. The visual effect of this young blonde dressed in his former pilot’s clothes, jarred Monroe to the quick.
“I’ve already been asleep a good long time today, Captain. I made myself some tea. I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t want to disturb anyone.”
“Of course not. How are you feeling?”
“I ache all over. I’ve quite been through it.”
“Of course you have. Do you have any idea what they were about to do to you?”
“Not with any clarity. I was chloroformed in my room. I remember waking up to a cloth being held over my face, and an ungodly stench, and from that point, I was mostly unconscious. It seems like I faded in and out on occasion and heard some of their conversations, but that can’t be possible. They were talking about regressing some of their subjects, that was the word they used, into subhuman animals.”
“Perhaps you heard correctly. Do you recall what you told us when we found you hiding in your camp? That your friends had been taken by beast-men?”
“I do recall that. And it’s true, they could not be described otherwise.”
“And does it not seem to you that what you heard your captors discussing went some way toward explaining the existence of those beast-men?”
“I have thought of little else since I awoke, and yet it scarcely bears contemplation. That these people out here on the fringe of civilization are engaged in the pursuit of turning human beings into animals? Why? To what purpose?”
“That we may never know, but we cannot doubt the truth of the matter. David was attacked by a woman who was part leopard during your rescue.”
“Oh, my rescue. I will never be able to repay you for what you did for me.”
“We didn’t do it with any thought of reward.”
“But it is customary—”
“Hush, child. All appearances to the contrary, we are men of honor. Some of us may not be readily mistaken for gentlemen, mind you, but we are not ruffians. There was never any consideration of leaving you there to save ourselves.”
Given the favorable outcome of their efforts, there was no reason to burden her with Smith’s repeated suggestions that they do exactly that.
“I owe you my life, and perhaps more. I doubt they were going to simply kill me and have done with it.”
“You are most likely correct. Still, don’t burden yourself with matters of credits and debits. We aren’t accountants, and keep no books on who owes us what. You were lucky, and so were we.”
“Thank you, Captain. What will happen to me now? I lost everything. Even these clothes aren’t mine.”
“We are on our way to Mombasa. We will turn you over to the consul at the Government House. He will find you food and clothing, accommodations, and arrange for you to return to England. You needn’t worry. The Crown doesn’t abandon its own just because we’re in a foreign land.”
“Thank you again, Captain. You and your men will live forever in my gratitude. You know, Captain, if you will excuse me, I think perhaps I will be able to sleep now.”
* * *
The buildings and their contents were roaring bonfires, smoke rolling away to the north where it was certain that no one of any importance would note its passing. The pristine light of pre-dawn aided their efforts as they hitched up the final wagon.
“We shall establish ourselves in Arusha. It’s just across the border, and the Prussians aren’t likely to cooperate with a British request for extradition. Best of all is its proximity to Mombasa. When we are ready to strike, we won’t have a long journey ahead of us before we can settle with those wretched curs.”
“Brilliant, father. Brilliant as always.”