The eighth story in the Beyond the Rails series
| The Chinatown street market in Mombasa was an open-air cornucopia of colors, aromas, and tastes. Chinese laborers had flooded in to work on the railroad, giving the African city a new flavor it had never had before. Seafood, exotic fruits, bolts of brightly embroidered cloth, and every point between was for sale here, and people from every walk, race, and culture flooded in daily to inspect and buy. An enterprising Chinese merchant could make far more in the market than he could from the East African Rail Company.
One particular Chinese gentleman, a nondescript coolie who might have been forty or sixty, carried a basket from stall to stall, gathering ingredients for his pantry. From long habit, he maintained constant awareness of his surroundings, and thus he noticed, a few rows over, a white woman, of moderate height with yellow hair, who stood out like a beacon in the sea of Chinese, Indians, Africans, and Arabs who frequented the market.
As he stared at her, mind racing, two Arabs began shouting at one another in one of their many languages. Knives appeared, and they rushed each other, clinching and rolling on the ground. His eyes snapped to this sudden intrusion of violence, as did every other eye in the market, but this wasn’t of interest to him, and he quickly looked back to where he had seen the European woman. She was gone.
He scanned the area around where he had seen her. It wasn’t possible that she could have run to an exit in the two or three seconds he had looked away. She could have fallen, but why wasn’t she getting up? Why weren’t the people nearby helping her, or at least looking down in curiosity?
He began to move in her direction, looking casual and uninterested in anything other than the wares being offered for sale, and then he saw it. Two other men in Arab clothing were carrying a large sack on their shoulders, and was it possible the sack was squirming? His first thought was to follow them, but as he took a few steps in their direction, he noticed that the seemingly violent fight to the death had broken up, and the two men involved were heading in the direction of the sack carriers.
He realized that the fight had been a sham, a diversion to allow the other two to snatch the woman, and that now their role had become to ensure that no one followed them. Clever, but worthless against this particular coolie; he would simply follow the followers . . .
* * *
“You see, Monroe? This business with Miss Allen is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.”
Clinton Monroe didn’t see at all, and plainly said so.
“Well, it’s quite simple, old boy. I’ve been reading up on some of the reports left by my predecessor. You seem to have quite a nose for problems. In fact, one might say that trouble follows you like a shadow.”
“I don’t see as how my occasional bad luck should single me out for special attention. It happens to everyone, and anyway, I’ve had quite enough special attention from the authorities for one lifetime, thank you.”
“I think you’ve misapprehended my intentions, Monroe,” Brigadier Giles Sanderson, Governor-General of the Crown Colony of Kenya said. “Close the door, and I’ll spell it out for you. Drink?”
“No, thank you. What’s on your mind?”
Monroe took a seat in front of Sanderson’s desk.
“Captain, I’m faced with a situation, and I need your help.”
“You need my help? That will be a first.”
“Oh, come now, Monroe. It’s a well-documented fact that you’ve taken the Crown’s stipend on a number of occasions, most recently yesterday, when you brought that young woman back from Boedekker’s house. I must say, that’s quite a story you brought back with you.”
“I only reported what we saw, Governor.”
“And that is exactly my point. All right, then, I’m going to broach this subject with you for you to put before your crew. Yours is the only crew that's going to hear this, and should it get back to me that one of my men has heard it repeated in a tavern, I'm going to make you all very sorry, and I think you know what I mean. This is most secret, for your ears only. Understood? ”
Sanderson rose from his desk to stand before the map of Kenya on the wall behind him. The coastline, and the route through Nairobi to Kisumu were drawn in great detail, but the rest of the territory was blurred, and the borders just faded into nothing the farther from Mombasa they got.
“Allow me to bore you with a tale of arithmetic.” Sanderson swept his hand in a grand gesture across that map. “Kenya. You probably know better than I how vast it is. A million square miles, give or take, with unsecured borders, most of which aren't even defined yet. We have a major Prussian colony almost within sight of here, Italians across the Lake, Arabs up the coast, and then there are the natives. There has never been a census taken, but we're inclined to think there are rather quite a lot of them, and a good number resent our being here.
“To keep a lid on this disease-ridden mosquito's paradise, the Crown provides approximately sixteen hundred soldiers, of whom one-third are sick or otherwise unfit for duty on any given day. As amazing as it may seem, that number usually suffices for the job at hand, but the Crown, in her infinite wisdom, will not post so much as a single frigate for patrol, transport, surveillance, and any of a dozen other useful functions. Instead, we get a handful of cavalry, and missives telling us to utilize the local resources. Do you know what those local resources consist of, Monroe?”
“I have an idea.”
“Well, let me solidify it for you. There are six ships like yours, rated for light cargo and personnel, and there is one medium lift vessel rated for cargo only. I'm authorized to pay up to a ten pound stipend to any ship that is, quote, placed in danger or loses livelihood, end quote, by such use. So you see, put in its simplest terms, the government in London tasks us with maintaining order here in the Crown Territory, and provides soldiers and a few small gunboats for the job, but they will not provide a single airship for the purpose.”
“Indeed it is. We don't know precisely where the borders lie, let alone what's going on along them. Hell, it's frightening how much we don't know about this place. A few airships would be invaluable, but all I have is a memorandum from the Foreign Minister telling me to utilize local assets. The Crown tells me I can press you into service at need, and that I can pay you for your service. You know this, because you have collected these stipends before. What you may not know is that I can only pay one stipend to a crew per month. If I pay two, I have to submit written justification to the Crown, and believe me, all the "T"s had better be crossed, and all the "I"s dotted. But ten a month, and no questions are asked, which brings me to my proposal.
“I propose to give you five pounds a month, not as a stipend, but as a retainer. In exchange, when I need a ship to do a job for me, you do it, no questions asked.” He leaned back against the map. “What do you think?”
“I think it's a trap,” Monroe said with a poker face.
“We agree to that, and the next thing you know, we'll be running errands all over Kenya for five pounds a month, period. You'll never be off our necks again.”
“Let's say you're right, and I send you off to Lodbar right now. What's to stop you from picking up a cargo on your way out?”
“Well, uh . . . Nothing, I suppose”
“And there you are. The five pounds covers your maintenance and supplies, and whatever you turn up is pure profit. None of my concern, you see.”
“I have a question,” Monroe said.
“By all means, Captain.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said no other crew was going to hear this. Why not?”
“Ah, I see. These other crews are flying stevedores. They hump cargo, and follow the roads from town to town, but you lot are completely different. You, yourself, Monroe. I don't know why the Crown decided to terminate your services, but I do know that you rose to the rank of Commodore, and that's no small feat. You can talk tactics, and deal with the military on their own terms, am I correct?”
“Your surly deck hand is as common as potter's earth. Understands primitives, understands the working classes, can be very useful in certain situations. Your young doctor, educated at Cambridge, can discuss academic matters, science, the language of scholars. And then your pilot—”
“Who is no longer with me.”
“Is that so? Do you expect her to return?”
“No. We had a falling out, and she returned to England.”
“That is unfortunate. I was going to say that she's not only a gifted pilot, but a child of the aristocracy. Knows what to wear on what occasion, which fork to use at the Queen's table, all of that muck. So there’s just the four of you now?”
“Three. My engineer returned home to care for his ailing parents.”
The Governor-General sat down again, leaned back in his chair, and thought a moment.
“That doesn’t change my views,” he said finally. “What I'm saying is that most of these crews are as thick as a sack of coffee, but you lot, you can look at something you've never seen before, and piece out the significance of it. I want that experience out there working for me.”
“That's flattering, Governor, but I’m missing the barb within the bait somewhere. How would the mechanics of it work, and what protects us from becoming your personal reconnaissance force?”
“The mechanics are simple. The first time you land in Nairobi each month, you stop by Major Cole’s office, and he hands you a five pound voucher. If I have work for you, he will give you the assignment, and you incorporate it into your travels. If not, you pocket your money, and be on your way. At any time I give you a job, you can say, 'This is our last job for you.' I stop paying you, and our little agreement is terminated like it had never happened. I don't know how to make it any simpler. You do work, you take money, and when you don't want to work anymore, the arrangement ceases. What do you say?”
“I think we need to discuss this, and get back to you, Governor. How soon do you need an answer?”
“Well, the sooner the better, obviously. Swing by as soon as you can to let me know. I’ll leave instructions with my orderly to pass you through at any time.”
“All right, sir. I’ll raise it with my crew as soon as we’re together. You’ll be hearing from us.”
* * *
“Five pounds is five pounds,” David Smith observed. “Don’t matter where we get it. That’d be just the thing to take some of the pressure off. We could get pickier about jobs, maybe pass by some of the shadier stuff.”
“The question is,” Ellsworth said, “What are we going to be asked to do if we take this deal? I’m reminded of a story we had to read in an Oriental literature class.”
“Here we go,” said Smith.
“Faraji,” Monroe called, “another round.”
“There was a story, a morality fable, really, of a peasant who had run afoul of the local warlord. He needed a large sum of money to pay the man off, or his family would be run off their land and forced into utter destitution. He went to the wealthiest man in his village to plead for the money. The wealthy man could easily afford the sum he named, but he knew the peasant could never pay him back, so this is the deal he made. He gave him the money as a gift, but he also gave him half a coin with the stipulation that if anyone ever came to him with the other half of the coin, he, the peasant, would have to do whatever the bearer of that piece asked, no matter how distasteful, illegal, or dangerous it might be.”
“And your point is?” Smith asked.
“It’s bad business taking on an obligation if you don’t know what you’re obligating yourself to do. Do I even need to add that the story didn’t end well?”
“This isn’t the same,” Monroe said as Faraji brought three more Prussian lagers to their table. “Sanderson has given us examples of what he’ll want us to do. He isn’t going to ask us to assassinate a head of state, or whatever the poor bastard in that story got saddled with.”
It was at this point that a Chinese laborer, or so he appeared, stepped into the cafe from the sidewalk and stood for a moment staring at the trio. Coming to some sort of decision, he walked up to their table, bowed deeply, and greeted the captain.
“Good morning, Captain Monroe.”
“Good morning yourself, old-timer. Do I know you?”
“I should have hoped, after what we went through together, that you would never forget me. I am Chang Wei, and four short months ago you joined my Australian friends in an exploration of a certain crater in Malinde.”
“Chang, forgive me! Sit down, please. How have you been?”
“At loose ends, Captain,” he replied, taking a seat at the table. “After Mr. Harding’s demise, our little group sort of fell apart. Mr. Tucker and Miss Jinx returned to Australia, but for personal reasons, I chose not to. Captain, the reason I approach you now is to ask a question. I see that your pilot is not with you. Do you know where she is?”
“To the best of my knowledge, she is in London. She left when the Long Rain began, and we have not heard from her since.”
“You may be ill-informed, Captain. Not two hours ago, a gang of Arabs or Persians took a girl who could be her twin from the Chinese market.”
“Are you certain it was her?”
“I was some distance away, and cannot be certain, but she was striking, your Miss Hobbs. A difficult woman to forget.”
“She is that,” Monroe agreed. “Do you know where she was taken?”
“Into the warehouse district. I attempted to follow, but they had men trailing those who carried her to discourage pursuit, and I was unable to follow them further than the door that they entered.”
“But you know which building, though?” Smith asked.
“Yes, but that is where I lost sight of them. They could have taken her to a ship. The docks adjoin the warehouses.”
“Well that tears it!” Smith exclaimed, standing up from the table. “Cap’n, we gotta get down there.”
“Down where? Sit down, David. Those warehouses contain the goods of dozens of firms, and we need more information than we have before we start kicking in doors.”
“Well, didn’t you hear him? Somebody’s kidnapped Patty, and they may have taken her to a ship. If they get her out of this port, they could be headed anywhere. They won’t leave a trail once they put to sea.”
“I heard him very clearly,” Monroe said. “He isn’t even sure that it is Patience. We go down there and start rousting the locals, there’s no end to the trouble we could find ourselves in.”
“Can we risk that it isn’t? Are you going to sit here sipping your beer, all the while knowing that Patience may be on her way to, what, slavery? An Arab’s harem? Will you sit by and see her go to that?”
“I didn’t say that, but we need to think before we go off half-cocked. What if we go down there like Dodge City’s marshal only to find there’s nothing to this? Won’t we look the proper fools?”
“Will we? Somebody got kidnapped, an’ with Arabs behind it, I’m guessin’ the motive is slavery. If Patty ain’t there, we satisfy ourselves of that, and if we liberate some other poor women in the process, won’t they be happy?”
“All that aside,” Ellsworth offered, “what does the law have to say about us entering someone’s property, guns blazing, and taking his, well, property.”
“There, at least, there is no ambiguity,” Monroe replied. “Both slavery and kidnapping are illegal in any place on Earth where the laws of England apply.”
“And there you are,” Smith said with finality. “We have just received reliable information that our good friend has been kidnapped by slavers. The only wrong course would be to do nothing. Now who’s with me? For Patty.”
“For Patty,” Ellsworth echoed at once.
“Well, since you put it that way,” Monroe agreed, “for Patty.”
* * *
“Watch it!” Smith hissed, and the four men ducked back into the alley and quickly found dark shadows to engulf them. Seconds later a pair of armed redcoats, Soldiers of the Crown, strolled casually past the opening, looking down the alley, but not venturing in. Smith waited until the muffled crunch of their footsteps faded away, then risked a look around the corner.
“Okay,” he whispered, “come on.”
He stepped out of the alley, keeping to the shadows, followed closely by Monroe, Ellsworth, and Wei. All were armed, the Caucasians with guns strapped on openly, the Chinese with his exotic weapons hidden.
“Is that the place?” Smith asked, indicating a darkened stone warehouse looming out of the night ahead.
“This is where they took the sack,” Wei replied. “I couldn’t get closer because of the trailing sentries, but I saw them enter through the door on the left.”
“All we need to know,” Smith said, and started forward.
“Wait a minute,” Monroe said, grabbing his arm. “If we have to start shooting in there, those soldiers will be all over us within minutes. We can’t very well shoot them too.”
“Your point is?”
“Keep quiet. Sneak in, don’t do any shooting, and don’t cause them to shoot. If we can get Patience out without ever seeing them, that will be ideal.”
“Easy, Cap’n. I can sneak with the best of ‘em.”
Smith slipped across the dark street and up to the door. There were a few muffled metal-on-stone noises followed by a crunch of wood, and the American beckoned them across in a stage whisper. He was tucking a short metal bar back into his hip pocket when the others came into the Stygian entry.
“Christ,” Monroe muttered, “you can’t see your hand in front of your face in here.”
“Give it a minute,” Smith said, closing the door and propping it shut with a paper tray from the desk. “Your eyes will adjust.”
They waited, and as he said, faint shapes of furniture and doorways gradually swam into relief around them.
“We still need a light,” Monroe said. “We’ll be tripping over everything in here if we try to move around like this.”
“All right,” Smith said, “but you might as well paint targets on us.”
Monroe struck a match and put it to the wick of their directional lantern.
“All anyone will see is a light. Could be someone from another office looking for the toilet for all they know.”
“Let us hope. All right, come on.”
Smith opened the door behind the desk to find an executive’s office. Not completely surprising. The side door led them into a portion of the warehouse proper, a three story room filled with rows of racks and shelves, small crates and boxes covering them.
“Any ideas, Chang?” Smith asked. “You’re the only one who’s been here before.”
“Only to the door, venerated sir. We are all equally ignorant inside.”
Smith gave him a quizzical look, than asked, “You’re talking about the building, I take it?”
“Hmm.” Smith looked around. “No women hidden in here. Any suggestions, Cap’n?”
“Contracting spiral,” Monroe said without hesitation.
“Search pattern we used in the frigates. We’re at the edge of an area we want to search. We move around it in tightening circles until we find what we’re looking for.”
“Sounds like it could take a while.”
“It could. Or we could rummage around in the dark and miss them completely.”
“Yeah. How ‘bout splitting up?”
“I don’t like it. We don’t know who might be in here. Do you want to open a door and find a dozen of the kidnappers, and have only the doctor at your side?”
“I was thinking you might take the doctor with you.”
“Never mind. We’ll stay together.”
They did so, and after 45 minutes of searching, listening at the larger crates, and scurrying to cover when one of the patrols shined a torch in through a broken pane, they turned a knob to find themselves in an office with a bare wooden desk and a straight-back chair. Four sleeping pallets were made up on the floor, and one of them was occupied by a young man with Arabian features, breathing softly in a deep sleep.
“Paydirt!” Smith said out loud, and snatched the covers off of the man.
The man, wearing his baggy trousers, but no shirt, struggled awake to find himself staring into the lens of the directional lantern. The only thing he could make out clearly was the barrel of the .45 caliber Colt six inches from his right eye.
“That’s right, boy, take it all in, and decide what you’re gonna do. All we want is information, and you’re going to give it to us. Now, get up.”
The man struggled fully awake, and rose to his feet, swaying slightly with drowsiness. Smith pointed toward the chair and he took a few steps in that direction, then suddenly bolted for the door, guarded only by an old Chinese gentleman. His escape looked assured, then suddenly the old man shifted his weight, seized his arm, and the edge of his index finger struck him hard just below his nose. Before he could think to react, he was inverted in an uncontrolled fall. The back of his head hit the floor, and then he knew nothing.
* * *
He jerked back when the water splashed in his face, coming suddenly to full wakefulness, aware of only the searing pain in his head. He tried to wipe his face only to discover that his hands were bound behind the chair he sat in.
“Good, you’re back,” Monroe greeted him. “Now, we’re going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to provide the answers. If we don’t like your answers, you’re going to be subjected to a great deal of pain, do you understand?”
The man looked around for a friendly face, found none, and whined something that sounded like, “Aldera-muftabin-diseria—”
“Enough!” Smith shouted, making him jump. “I don’t want to hear any of this ‘No speakee the Eenglish” malarkey, get it?”
He took his Bowie knife from the sheath at his left side, and holding up a piece of paper from the desk, cut it down the center leaving as clean a line as if it had been done with scissors.
“I have a simple test to find out whether you speak English or not.” He stepped behind the man and took hold of index finger. “Shall I continue?”
There was a tense pause before the man finally said, “I – I speak a little English.”
“There, Cap’n, that weren’t so hard, was it?”
“Indeed it wasn’t, thank you, David. All right, here’s the simple question. What did you do with the women you brought in here?”
“Women? I know nothing of any women!”
As Monroe drew a deep sigh, Chang stepped up to apply the point of a knuckle to the man’s collar bone. As he started to scream, Smith’s gloved hand covered his mouth, reducing his cry to a muffled, nasal sputtering.
Chang Wei stepped back.
“Doctor, would you care to refresh the gentleman’s memory?” Monroe asked. Immediately, Ellsworth bent down below the level of the desk and began to lift armloads of womens’ clothing, African, Oriental, and European, onto the desk.
“The women who came in here wearing these clothes,” Monroe said. “Where are they?”
“We sell clothing,” the man protested. “This is a consignment.”
“Let me cut on ’im a little, Cap’n,” Smith said. “I know some Apache tricks that’ll have ’im singin’ like a canary.”
“How about it, Mr., uh, what is your name, anyway?”
“I am Umar, an innocent victim of English oppression.”
“Innocent?” Smith sputtered. “Now you listen to me, you son of a—”
“David,” Monroe said quietly, “I’ll handle this. Now, Mr. Umar, we know where these clothes came from. One of your abductions was not as unobserved as you hoped it was, and we’re going to ask you again what happened to those women. If you choose not to answer, I’m going to go back to my hotel, and you may attempt to reason with my hotheaded colleague. Now, the women?”
The man’s eyes darted back and forth, assessing each face for a spark of sympathy. He found none.
“I – I only keep the warehouse for the firm. I am not involved in any way, I assure you!”
“And I assure you, you are,” Monroe told him. “Anyway, we don’t care about what you think you’re involved in. You’re a kidnapper, and this is a British Crown Colony. Kidnapping, abduction, whatever you choose to call it, are all punishable by the most severe penalties here. You’ve made some poor choices, Mr. Umar, and now they’re coming home to haunt you.”
“This is a country of laws,” Umar protested. “You cannot hold me here. I demand to be taken to a policeman.”
“Do you hear that, David? He demands to have the law work in his favor. How many women demanded, begged, offered ransom if you would only let them go? Hundreds? Thousands? Now it’s your turn to beg, and receive no mercy. How do you like it, scum?”
“You think I am a criminal, that is fine. Take me to the police.”
“The native police? Hardly. We’ll take you to Governor-General Sanderson. You know what he’ll do, don’t you? Lock you in a cell and have the key melted down for scrap. You’ll die of old age waiting for your trial.”
“Cap’n.” Smith said, “can I have a word?”
Monroe joined him and they walked to the far corner. Umar could hear the buzz of their voices, but couldn’t make out a word, crane his neck though he might.
“Cap’n, this bird’s the only link we got to Patty. We give him to Sanderson, that’s gone. We could search the whole continent and never find her. We need to take him riding, and loosen his tongue a bit.”
“Why David, are you suggesting something illegal?”
“No more illegal than kidnapping Patty. Cap’n, we let this guy go, or turn him in, we lose any chance we have of finding her, and that’s the short and the tall of it.”
“I agree with you on that much, at least. We have to get this man to talk, and since my way doesn’t seem to be working, I don’t object to trying something else. Get him ready to travel.”
* * *
The sun hadn’t yet climbed above the buildings of Mombasa when Kestrel set out on her morning’s activities. As she carved a low, lazy curve over the city, few would have guessed that a life and death confrontation was brewing on her deck.
Once they cleared the shoreline, Monroe set a course to the southeast, and headed out over the Indian Ocean. An observer might have thought this curious, as the next landfall in that direction was Antarctica, and it would take a fortnight and more of steady flying to reach. But Clinton Monroe knew what he was doing.
“There they are, Cap’n, two points off to starboard,” Smith called from the bow.
“Very well,” Monroe called back from the pilot house. “Let’s show our guest what we have planned for him.”
As Monroe brought the ship to a stop over the empty ocean, Smith came in and untied Umar’s hands from the catch rail at the back of the pilot house. They escorted the man to the bow and had him look over, pointing out to him the sinister school of sharks pat-rolling the water below.
“All right, Mr. Umar,” Monroe said, “now we’ve had ourselves a bit of fun, each trying to intimidate the other, and each trying to show the other through talk alone that we’re the toughest one. But we’re running out of time, and so are you. I hardly need to point out that you are the one who is tied up on the deck of a ship five hundred feet above the ocean. Further, I invite your attention to the school of sharks below us. It almost looks like it’s waiting to be fed, doesn’t it”
Umar looked, and didn’t answer, though the sheen of sweat on his face was due to more than just the tropical heat.
“So here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to tell us where those women have been taken. You can do that before David starts cutting on you, or after. Makes no difference to me. If somehow you prove to be strong enough to hold your tongue through all that, we are going to drop you to the sharks, tied, bleeding, though it will hardly matter from this altitude, I suppose. I don’t suppose you’d like to talk now?”
“Capitan, I have watched you, listened to you, seen how your men treat you. You are a man of honor, probably a soldier. You may kill in a war in the service of your Queen, but you are no murderer, and I will not betray my brothers.”
“I am,” Smith said, stepping into the man’s view from behind Monroe.
“I am a murderer. In my days on the American frontier, I’ve killed more people than Julius Caesar, and I’ve somehow gotten the notion that you’ve kidnapped our little sister. Now, much as I want her back, part of me is hoping that you hold out for a good long time, so that brings us to the last great question. Are you gonna talk, or are you gonna bleed?”
* * *
The nondescript dhow coasted slowly across the calm waters of the western Indian Ocean, making slow but steady progress to the northeast. The crew was unconcerned. The distance to Arabia wasn’t that great, and slow but steady would serve their needs quite well.
Abbas, the deckhand whose name meant “Lion,” but who more closely resembled a wharf rat low in the pecking order, slid back the hatch cover to the forward hold and descended the short ladder. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the single lamp in the middle of the room, then looked around at the cargo, thirteen women, mostly Africans, cuffed to iron rings in the bulkheads around three sides of the hold.
“I brought you water,” he growled in heavily accented English, and tossed a skin at the feet of the first woman on his right.
The women eyed him warily as he made no move to leave.
He let his gaze drift around the hold, taking in this harvest with its two Chinese and one very headstrong white woman. He approached her and squatted before her on the deck boards.
“I will bet, little missy, that you are regretting your decision to come to Africa now, aren’t you?” She didn’t reply. “You thought you would come here and lord it over the Negros, take their land and make them slaves. I will bet you had no idea you would leave here as a slave yourself.”
He leaned forward and reached toward her, her face, her breasts, but before his purpose could be discerned, she drew up her leg and kicked him squarely in the teeth, knocking him onto his back.
“Female dog!” he snarled, wiping blood from his mouth. “So you like to fight. Perhaps you would like to play a more friendly game.”
He gathered himself on his haunches, and lunged forward, looking to cover her body with his own, but her legs snapped up and locked around his neck and one arm, and tightened with a force he could scarcely believe a woman could possess. He reached to her thighs to pull them apart, but found two columns of wiry muscle that refused to budge; he’d have had better luck attempting to bend a railroad tie.
The wench growled and arched her back, and the pressure doubled, pushing his jaw sideways and threatening dislocation. Giving up on moving her legs, he punched her in her side, bringing a pained grunt, and an immediate loosening of the constriction. He punched her again, and then again, extending his knuckles and driving the blows into the thin layer of meat above her ribs. Unable to defend them with her arms shackled above her, she cried out with each blow, until her legs finally fell away.
“Filthy whore,” he grated at her, crawling forward and cupping her chin in one callused hand, “I will show what it means for a slave to strike a free man!”
As he raised his arm to deliver a powerful blow to her face, a second man’s voice rang out.
Xavier, the captain, coming to see what was taking so long.
“What are you doing?”
“This wench sought to fight me. I am teaching her the folly of such a course.”
“Is she still secured?”
“Then leave her alone.”
“But Captain, no attack by a slave must be left unpunished.”
“She is not our slave, Abbas. That one is going to bring top dollar. You had better leave her be, or Khalil will have your head on a pole. And most likely mine, and I am not going to risk that! Now come out of there. You are being foolish.”
Abbas turned back to the woman.
“Your punishment has only been delayed, yellow-hair. You will soon be sold to a man of great wealth and little mercy, and I assure you, he will take great pleasure in breaking you like a stubborn horse. Now get your rest. You will be needing it.”
With a flash of rotten teeth, he turned away and climbed the ladder.
* * *
Kestrel’s propellors buzzed like a swarm of angry bees as Monroe pushed her to make her maximum speed into the headwind. The rigging creaked in protest and a long brownish stream of coal smoke marked her straining passage through the air.
But up ahead, and closing fast, was their quarry, a blue and yellow dhow, her lateen-rigged sail cocked at an awkward angle to beat her way upwind. Her speed couldn’t have been more than a tenth of Kestrel’s, and catching her was imminent.
“You’re certain that’s the boat, then, are you?”
Smith had shackled their prisoner to the railing at the bow, and was now rigging the fowler, their light field piece, to the stanchion immediately to starboard.
“Yes, that is the boat. You are going to be incredibly sorry for this. Allah punishes those who mistreat his children.”
“His children? You mean like those helpless women you’re abducting?”
“I am abducting no one, as you can see! I am your prisoner!”
“Save your breath, scum. You’re in it up to your neck. Just because you didn’t ride the boat with them doesn’t mean you’re innocent.” He placed a percussion cap over the weapon’s nipple, and pulled the hammer to full cock. “Ready, Cap’n!”
“Very well. We’re starting our descent. Don’t fire unless you’re fired upon.”
“You still have time to save yourselves,” Umar told him. “Turn away, go back to Mombasa, and no one will ever know this happened, you have my word.”
“Your word as a kidnapper? Let me explain your situation to you, Achmed.”
“My name is Umar.”
“Your name is shit if I say it is. If anything goes wrong here, you die first, understand? If you’ve led us to the wrong boat, you die. If anything happens to Patty, or any of the other women you’ve abducted, you die slow. If we can’t get them back to Mombasa, you die. Anything. Anything at all goes wrong, you die. Get it?”
“Son of a pig! Xavier will gouge out your eyes and send you to hell blind!”
“As long as you understand that you’ll be waiting at the door to greet me. You don’t need to worry about Satan. I’ll be your biggest nightmare for all eternity.”
“Stand ready, David,” Monroe said, stepping from the pilothouse with a megaphone, “we’re coming into range.”
* * *
“Abbas! You are needed on deck.”
“Dung of a thousand camels,” Xavier’s subordinate groused, dropping the wooden spoon into the bowl of rice he was preparing for the women. “What could he want now?”
“Hold your gutra, I am coming,” he muttered, and climbed the short ladder to thrust his head out through the deck hatch. “What is it? I am about to feed the women.”
“They can wait a few moments. The wind has shifted. I need you to trim the sail.”
“All right.” He climbed onto the deck, looked back toward his captain, and his face shifted to a mask of curiosity. “Xavier, look!”
Abbas pointed up and back, and Xavier snapped his head around to see a dirigible, apparently on full power to judge from the thick brown smoke erupting from its stack, closing quickly and descending toward them.”
“Bring me the rifle, Abbas, quickly!”
Complaints forgotten, the deck hand scrambled down the ladder to the crew’s cabin and fetched their long gun, an old but well cared for Martini-Henry.
“Put it beside me, and ready your pistol. Don’t act hostile. We’ll see what they want.”
They didn’t have long to wait. The airship closed to a hundred yards astern and matched their speed.
“On the dhow,” came a voice, carrying the metallic quality of a man shouting through a megaphone, “lower your sail and prepare to be boarded.”
“We are a free vessel in international waters,” the captain shouted back through cupped hands. “Are you pirates? What are your intentions?”
“We are a British airship. We are searching for a group of kidnapped women, and we intend to search your vessel.”
“Yes? Well you British pigs have no authority on the high seas. You will not be boarding my ship today!”
“Captain,” Abbas said as the airship drifted closer, “that is Umar at the bow.”
“How in all of Jahannam did they find him?”
“Only Allah can say, but it is obvious how they found us.”
“The dog must be punished, of course, but first this ship must be dealt with.”
“The man beside Umar has a mounted gun,” Abbas pointed out. “He must be taken first.”
“You are quite correct,” Xavier said, lifting the rifle. “Let us deal with the infidel now.”
Abbas watched as Xavier raised the rifle to his shoulder, aligning the heavy instrument of death on the enemy crewman behind his own weapon. His captain squeezed the trigger, and even as the sharp report came, a cloud of white smoke erupted from the gun at the front of the airship. The gunner at the rail fell back onto his deck, but at the same time, Xavier flew backward as if he had been struck by a train, bounced over the edge of the cabin roof, and splashed into the sea, taking the rifle with him. Abbas had a fleeting vision of Xavier’s head disintegrating, and something warm and sticky adhered to the side of his face. He didn’t want to think about what it might be.
He drew his revolver as the airship turned to port and began to open the distance between them.
* * *
“Damnation!” Monroe swore as Smith spun away from the fowler and fell to the deck. Their captive stretched in his bonds to kick him in the back as he lay there, and Monroe’s LeMat revolver came up instantly, leveling on a point between the man’s eyes.
“Another move like that, and you’re a dead man,” he said as he cocked the piece.
A wave of understanding passed between them, and Monroe glanced up to align himself with the speaking tube.
“Doctor, come to the pilot house at once!” he shouted.
“Repeat, please,” Came Ellsworth’s voice after a moment.
“Come to the pilot house now.”
“On my way.”
Keeping the pistol pointed menacingly in Umar’s direction, Monroe veered the Kestrel’s course away to port and slowed them to a crawl as Chang Wei dropped to his knees beside Smith and briefly examined his wound.
“It is not serious,” he called back to Monroe as he helped Smith sit up and lean back against the pilot house. “It just grazed him. I will wrap it for now.”
Ellsworth arrived at the pilot house door, and Monroe thrust him at the controls.
“Keep us at a distance until I tell you to close,” were his instructions.
“But, Captain, I—”
But Monroe was out the door, checking quickly on Smith before holstering his pistol and moving to reload the fowler.
“Listen carefully,” he told Umar as he pressed the powder bag into the muzzle, “you move, you shout, you so much as blink, I’m going to beat you with my pistol until no one will be able to tell what you were, do we have an understanding?”
The bound man nodded, eyes wild and desperate.
He backed a streamlined lead slug into the fowler’s barrel, fit the ramrod against the tip, and pushed it down to the seating mark. Removing the rod, he leveled the piece atop the rail.
“All right, Nicholas, get as low as you dare, and bring us in a little.”
Monroe waited as the nose tipped downward and the sea came up to meet them. He watched the boat creep closer, waiting for them to reach a hundred yard’s distance, beyond accurate pistol range, but point-blank for their tiny artillery piece.
“All right, Nicholas, hold this distance.”
As Monroe hunched over the gun, he could almost feel Umar planning to kick out at him to spoil his aim. Then the man gave a strange, womanish cry. Monroe looked up to see Chang Wei pressing his forefinger into the soft spot at the back of the man’s jawbone.
“That would be most ill-considered on your part,” their passenger said quietly to their guest, “but if you enjoy great pain, please, raise your foot again.”
Umar stood panting as if he had run a great distance, trying to twist his head away from Chang Wei’s delicate fingertip. Monroe nodded, and turned back to the gun. The mental calculations were simple at this range; merely point and shoot. He lined up the barrel on the cabin wall in front of the boat’s helm and squeezed the trigger. The hammer fell smoothly onto the percussion cap, the spark raced down the touchhole igniting the powder charge, and with a throaty roar and a cloud of white smoke, the heavy lead projectile leapt away on its mission of destruction.
A split second later it arrived at its destination, smacking into the low deck house just beside the occupant’s head, and removing a piece of wood the size of a saucer, showering him with chips and splinters.
Monroe, began the reloading procedure, this time selecting a score of quarter-inch lead balls as the projectiles.
“Bring us in to fifty yards,” Monroe called back to Ellsworth. If he doesn’t surrender this time, I intend to kill him.”
Kestrel’s bow began to swing ever so gradually to starboard, closing the distance yard by yard as the dhow’s lone crewman popped away ineffectually with his pistol, stopping every five rounds to reload. During one of those stoppages, Monroe took up the megaphone.
“On the dhow!” He called. “I call on you to heave to and submit to boarding. If you refuse, we will continue to fire until you are killed. How say you?”
By way of reply, the crewman started firing again.
“All right, you bastard, you’ve made your choice.”
Monroe aimed his piece at the center of the man’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The little cannon barked its single note, and chips of wood, paint, and glass erupted all around the man as a tiny red flower bloomed on his cheek and he staggered back to fall onto his backside.
Monroe began to load more buckshot.
“You must surrender, my brother,” Umar unexpectedly shouted, twisting himself to face the bow. “They mean to kill you!”
Monroe poured the lead balls into the barrel, put a scrap of wadding over, and rammed it down. Shot seated, he leveled the weapon and sighted along the barrel.
“Abbas, you cannot win!” Umar shouted. “You must do as they say.”
“Last chance,” Monroe added.
Down on the boat, the man, Abbas, stood up and raised his hands.
“Throw your weapon over the side,” Monroe shouted, standing up from the fowler.
The man did so.
“Now lower your sail, and prepare to be boarded.”
Abbas lowered his hands and moved to the base of the mast, began to manipulate some fittings, and the long, curved yardarm began to ease toward the deck.
“Bring us overhead,” Monroe told Ellsworth. Looking at Smith’s arm wound already oozing blood into his bandage, he added, “Looks like I’m going sailing.”
* * *
A rope dropped from the airship hovering not twenty feet above, as Abbas waited to consign whoever might come down to Allah. To his surprise, the man who slid down was Chinese, an older man whose Oriental heritage made his age impossible to guess.
Foolish westerners, he thought, making my plan that much easier!
“You are the captain?” the man asked him as his feet came to rest on the deck.
“The captain is dead. Your man killed him, a crime for which you shall answer in a court of law.”
Abbas fingered the hilt of his janbiya, and waited for the old man to venture within range. He was cautious, though, staying across the deck and watching him warily.
“Life is a very precious thing,” the infidel said in a low monotone. “Before each risk of it, the consequences must be weighed. A foolish waste of that life is nearly always an affront to the eyes of your god. You must always think carefully before you act.”
The old man continued in that vein as Abbas’ ears began to ring, and his vision contracted to a small circle centered on the man’s face.
What is it about his eyes, Abbas wondered as he approached, finally. About time! Now he learns the price of his arrogance!
The old Chinese walked slowly and unsteadily to stand before him, not yet adjusted to the rolling of the dhow. Now was the time! Abbas pulled his fighting knife from below his robes and slashed at the man’s throat!
At least, that was his intention. What actually happened was that Abbas stood rooted to the spot, all his muscles bunched and painfully fighting one another, and producing no motion whatsoever.
“It is good to see you have chosen wisely,” the old man said. “It spares me the onus of killing you. Your knife, please.”
He held out his hand.
To Abbas’ surprise and horror, his arm drew the janbiya that had belonged to six generations of fighters before him, and held it out for the old man to take.
“I understand these are sacred items, handed down through families, and often as revered as a samurai’s sword. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Abbas replied numbly.
“It will be returned to you. Where are the women?”
“In the forward hold.”
Without any idea why, Abbas knew that he would.
* * *
Chang Wei pushed back the sliding hatch atop the forward hold, and took the few steps down the accommodation ladder. A single lantern hung from the ceiling, and as his eyes adjusted to its swaying light, he began to make out the forms of people, women, reclining around the periphery. He approached one of those closest to the hatch and better lit by the sunlight streaming in, and saw that her wrists were shackled in cuffs with a short chain, and that that chain ran through an iron ring bolted into the hull. Prisoners.
“You are all safe now,” he addressed them. “We are here to rescue you.”
A murmuring began throughout the dark room, rising to excited chattering and shouted questions.
“Please, ladies,” Chang said, standing in the light, “all of your questions will be answered in due time. Is anyone hurt or injured?”
Some more conversation took place, and after a moment it was determined that no one was.
“Is Miss Patience Hobbs among you?”
“Yes, I am here.”
Chang moved to the forward wall, furthest from the hatch, and located her in the darkness. He looked at her face, grimy but relieved, and nodded to her.
“It is good to find you. We had worried that our source might have misled us.”
“Where on earth did you come from?”
“From the Kestrel. It is hovering just above us.”
Tears welled up in her pretty eyes then, and spilled over onto her cheeks as she began to sob.
“It is all right. You are all safe now. Where are the keys to these shackles?”
“The captain keeps them on his belt.”
“That is unfortunate. The captain went over the side when we shot him.”
“You shot him?”
“It is a long story.”
“I hardly object. The swine deserved it, though he did keep his crewman from having his way with me. Did you shoot him, too?”
“Only the captain. He surrendered after his captain died.”
“Yes, well, the man surrendered. What could we do?” He stood up, forced to bend over by the low ceiling. “Ladies, I regret that you will have to remain chained until we can get some tools down here. It seems the keys went into the ocean with the captain. While we accomplish that, you will be provided food and water, and then we will set sail for Mombasa and return you all to your homes.”
This news was met with more excited chatter.
“So you need only have a bit more patience, and your ordeal will be over. Now, please, excuse me while I get the process started.”
He climbed the ladder to the deck and called to the crewman, who stood dumbly at the controls.
“You, take the women some water, then fix them a meal.”
He moved toward the forward hatch.
“Say, what is your name, anyway?”
“Very well. Carry on.”
The man disappeared down the hatch.
“Captain,” he called up to Monroe, “I need to cut light chain. The women are all shackled, and it seems the keys went over the side.”
“Nicholas,” Monroe said to the doctor, “find a set of shears and pass them down to Mr. Wei.”
“What’s your plan?” Monroe called down.
“The craft is seaworthy, and the crewman is cooperative. I had planned to sail back to Mombasa and let them all go. Except the crewman, of course.”
“Of course. Well, carry on, Captain Wei. We’ll stand by to provide escort.”
* * *
Monroe and Ellsworth stood at the pier head in the late afternoon sun watching the nameless dhow make its way up the Mombasa ship channel. It had been met at the outer marker by the pilot boat, and a lieutenant of the Governor-General’s staff had gone aboard. With Kestrel’s aviators waited a Royal Army detachment to arrest the other slaver and take statements from the women. Justice would be served this day.
As the boat came alongside the dock and the line was thrown over by the captive slaver, the lieutenant in charge of the detachment moved them off down the pier with a quiet “Right shoulder arms. Forward, hut.” As the soldiers followed their officer down the pier, Ellsworth turned to study Monroe’s face.
“Just be another few minutes, Captain, and she’ll be standing right here.”
“Any idea what you’re going to say?”
“That will depend on her, I suppose.”
They waited, watching, as the Arab was shackled, and four of the five redcoats marched him up the pier. He stopped before Monroe and Ellsworth, and seemed as if he was going to say something before one of his escort, a tall, red-headed sergeant shoved him in the back with a call to “Move along!” Monroe noted that he sported a black eye.
Chang Wei followed them up the pier, and joined the pair.
“What happened?” Monroe asked. “Did he try to renege on your deal?”
“He considered it, Captain. I convinced him to reconsider.”
Down at the boat, the women were being brought on deck.
“Many people see an old Chinaman, and think they can take advantage. Looks can be deceiving.”
“Indeed they can.”
He took his place alongside Monroe as the women were led across the gangplank by the lieutenant, and formed into a group that started up the pier. As they moved to pass the crew, Patience Hobbs, dressed in diaphanous pantaloons that hid nothing, her modesty protected only by a brief diaper-like garment, and a brightly-colored sleeveless top that barely concealed her breasts, stepped from the group and stood facing Monroe. A long, long moment passed in silence, then they both stepped forward as one, and embraced as a father would welcome his wandering daughter back into the household.
She stepped back, finally, as he held her by the shoulders at arm’s length and examined her from head to toe.
“How are you, Patience?” he finally asked.
“I am well. And you?”
“A lot better now, I can assure you. What is the tale behind these clothes?”
She looked down at herself, her cheeks coloring slightly.
“We were to be sold on the dock upon our arrival in Arabia. This is how the sheiks prefer their slaves to dress. Apparently, it precludes the hiding of weapons.”
“Or anything else! I’m so glad you’re all right.”
“Thanks to you. How did you ever find me?”
“Providence. It was Chang, actually. He saw you taken in the market, and came immediately to us. Once we tracked down where you had been taken, well, it’s child’s play to catch a sailing craft from the air.”
“You will have to tell me this whole story at some point. Where is David?”
“At the military dispensary. He was wounded in the firing.”
She drew a short, sudden breath.
“No. A shot grazed his arm is all. He’ll be fine.”
The lieutenant had stopped with her, waiting at a respectful distance, and now he stepped forward.”
“Miss Hobbs, we need to go. Captain Monroe, we need to take statements from all of these women while events are fresh in their minds. You as well, I’m afraid. We’ll need to know everything about your involvement in this affair. Just routine, of course, but your testimony will certainly help us to put the two survivors away for a good long while. Could you possibly accompany us now?”
“Yes, of course. Lead the way.”
Patience stepped up to Ellsworth, put one arm around his neck, and gave him a peck on the cheek, causing him to blush furiously.
“It’s good to see you, Nicholas,” she said.
“And you as well,” he replied, then looking at her clothing, sputtering, “Not that I mean— Well, to see you, I mean, not to see you like, as I mean your—”
“Nicholas, please,” she said, moving to his side and taking his arm. “Could you just relax for a moment, and not look for hidden meanings? Come along.”
With that, she started across the cargo marshaling yard to follow the lieutenant, a breathless Ellsworth in tow.
“Patience,” Monroe asked as they began to walk, “what are your intentions now that you are here?”
“Yes. You departed from us angry, we never heard from you, and then we learned that you returned, but didn’t contact us. Why did you come back? Have you secured other employment?”
“Hardly. I was very upset with you, Clinton. The idea that you didn’t feel you could trust me to follow orders if I knew that Cynthia had been taken was most unsettling. I knew I wouldn’t stay in London, but I wanted to punish you, so I intentionally didn’t write until it was time to return. I put a letter in the post at the last possible moment, and booked passage.”
“We have received no letter.”
“Oh, dear. I suppose that could mean that it arrived on the same ship that I did.”
“Ah, quite. Does that mean you would like your position back?”
“If it’s available.”
“I do have an opening for a pilot. There is one condition, though.”
“And that is?”
“You would have to adopt that ensemble as your everyday uniform. I couldn’t bear the idea of you secreting weapons about your person that I wasn’t aware of.”
She looked at Monroe for a moment in open-mouthed astonishment, then treated her companions to her wonderful melodic laughter for the first time in many months.
* * *
The rest of the day and much of the evening was taken up with statements and evidence, one person at a time, while the rest waited in a sweltering anteroom. The night was well into darkness when the crew left Faraji’s and made their way to the Kestrel to assemble in the little mess room. In the dim glow of a single electric light, Monroe related his tale of intrigue.
“Some of you have heard the beginning of this story, some haven’t, so I’ll tell it complete. First, though, nothing I say is to leave this room. I will have each of your words as a lady or a gentleman before I say anything else. Are you all agreed?”
He looked at each person around the table in turn, and each in turn nodded and swore himself to secrecy.
“All right, then. The Governor-General has offered us a proposal. He wants to pay us a five pound stipend every month for which we go about our business as usual, but if he has a reconnaissance job for us, or a transport, something of that nature, then his job takes priority. If we aren’t unanimous in accepting, then I’ll tell him we’ve decided against it, but whether we take the job or not, not a word of it leaves this room. He has assured me that he will know where it came from, and will make our lives very difficult. Nicholas, do you have anything to say?”
“You know how I feel. This is going to blow back on us at some point, and we’ll find ourselves committed to something that’s either unsavory or positively fatal.”
“Hmm. David, your thoughts?”
“Look what we’ve done today, Cap’n. A whole day lost steaming, supplies burned off, and no payment at the end of it. Not including yourself, Patty. Point is, we always seem to fall ass-backward into some crap anyway, so why shouldn’t we get paid for it?”
“Very colorfully put, as always. Chang?”
“I am a member of your crew now, Captain?”
“After what you did for us? You need only say you wish it, and it will be so.”
“You are kind, but I cannot. I follow another destiny.”
“But you must have an opinion.”
“I would take the governor’s work, but for reasons I am not at liberty to explain. I, too, have my secrets.”
“All right. Patty, any thoughts?”
“Last night, I was loaded, in chains, onto a boat with a dozen other women and spirited off to a life of slavery. There followed a chain of events, from Chang Wei happening to see me being taken, to your raid on the warehouse, your ability to extract vital information from your prisoner, your dogged pursuit of the craft, and your will to win the ensuing battle. If not for all that activity, for which you received not tuppence, a dozen innocent women would be in fitful sleep wondering who might buy us when tomorrow’s sun rose. If you had asked me this before I left for England, I would have said hell no, over my dead body. After what I’ve been through, I have a clear understanding that there is more to life than the frantic pursuit of the next quid. Now I say if we can be put into situations where we might be able to help the helpless, then we should jump at the opportunity.”
“That’s quite a mouthful, Patty.”
“It comes from life experience, the most wise of teachers.”
“Well, yes. Anyone else?”
“Sounds like we’re gonna do this, Cap’n,” Smith said. “I’d just suggest that we tell him we’ll hold ourselves ready for five, but if he has an actual job for us to do, then the price is ten. Put him on the spot for a change.”
“That’s a good idea. Let’s vote, then. David?”
“I won’t ruin it for the others, but you mark my words, we’re going to regret this at some point.”
“Words marked. I’ll tell Governor Sanderson in the morning. Right now I think we should all get some sleep. It’s been a hell of a day. Chang, can we offer you a room for the night?”
“Thank you, Captain, but I have accommodations, and someone to meet there before my day is done. I wish you the best of fortune in your new endeavor. Just remember as you go about your business that the teeth are hard, and fall out. The tongue is soft, and remains.”
He rose, bowed, was embraced by Hobbs, and walked through the forward hatch to climb the ladder to the deck. He didn’t look back.
“Now, what the hell you suppose that meant?” Smith asked.
“I’m sure we’ll find out,” Monroe said. “Now let’s grab some shut-eye, as David would say. We’re back in the traces tomorrow.”