Max awoke to a loud knocking. Bonnie was not next to him, but he heard activity in the bathroom. Max got to his feet, stumbled across the room and groggily opened the door.
“Miss Clairmont will not be pleased you are hung over,” Elsworth complained.
“This is how you look in the morning sober?”
“I’m afraid so. Is the airplane ready for us?”
“You won’t be using one of those.”
“Are we going overland?
“What are you going to do then, shoot me from a cannon?”
“Pleasant thought. I’ll present the suggestion to Miss Clairmont. There are fresh clothes in the closet. Wear them. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Be ready.”
Bonnie emerged from the bathroom already dressed in fresh denim. She saw Max examining his assigned wardrobe: rough leather boots, khaki safari jacket, and pith helmet.
“Going with Tarzan to the elephants’ graveyard?” she asked.
“Looks like it.”
He was clean and dressed when Elsworth knocked again. Elsworth didn’t comment.
“Let’s go,” Max said. He held the door for Bonnie.
“Umgawa,” said Bonnie.
When he stepped out of the elevator, Max attracted a few amused sidelong glances in the lobby from hotel staff and patrons. Outside the hotel an SUV waited at the curb. The driver was the same one who had driven Max from the jail in the old Volvo.
Clarissa exited Le Concorde. Her attire was similar to Max’s, but sported a scarf around the helmet. The scarf was dyed the purple and white colors of Clairmont Industries. Somehow the outfit looked less silly on her.
“Miss Danbury, your presence is not required.”
“Miss Clairmont…” Bonnie began to object.
“Bonnie… May I call you Bonnie?”
“You are here on my sufferance, but we’ll get along just fine if you understand I’m in charge and I do everything for a reason. Max will not be gone long and I have another job for you. Do you understand?”
Max could see Bonnie was biting back a harsh response, but in the end she merely said, “Yes, Miss Clairmont.”
“Good. As long as you are here I suppose you can come to the airport and see him off. Elsworth, you are excused.”
The driver opened the rear door. Clarissa Stepped in.
“Come along Max. Bonnie can sit next to the driver.”
Max marveled at the driver’s bold navigation around, through, and over the debris piles and potholes masquerading as roads. Beyond the city, trees crowded into the roadway. Branches struck the windshield and brushed the sides of the vehicle as they bounced along.
They arrived at an expanse of cracked concrete which was losing a battle to invading weeds. The car pulled up to a large hanger in reasonably good repair. Two men in purple leaned against the building. People with recorders and cameras milled around chairs and a podium set a hundred meters from the hanger.
“Reporters?” Max asked.
A door of human dimensions was hinged into one of the massive sliding hanger doors. One of the purple workers held it open for Clarissa, Max, and Bonnie.
“Aren’t you going to talk to the press?” Max asked.
“They’ll wait. I want to show you something first.”
Max followed the women into the hanger. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darker interior, but when they did he closed them. Opening them again, he still saw what he did the first time. The bulbous nose of an airship loomed above him.
“I thought these all were retired except for a couple in the Falklands,” he said awed.
“This ship is brand new.”
“It’s beautiful,” Bonnie said.
“My company is starting production again. You’ll demonstrate it.”
“Demonstrate it? I know nothing about these things.”
“You don’t have to. You’ll be a passenger. We’ve already flight-tested the craft. We were responsible for some of Viastellarum’s recent UFO sightings. Today will be the first real mission. If there are any bugs left, I’d rather find out about them now before you start your global trek.”
“Is ‘global’ a casual hyperbole?”
“No, I expect you to cross 24 time zones.”
“Are you serious?”
Bonnie spoke up excitedly, “Miss Clairmont…”
“Relax,” said Clarissa to Bonnie. “You’ll be on the global flight. Just not on this one. I told you I have a job for you.”
“Why such a long trip?” Max asked. “There are only a few places it makes any sense to look for Selena. If she isn’t in one of the handful of civilized places left, the search is hopeless. The world is too big.”
“This is about more than Selena. It is about sales. This company and this product are important to our stockholders, our employees, and our country. There is nothing wrong with mixing business and public service. I want to catch Selena, but why not use the hunt to commercial advantage?”
“Is the blimp safe?”
“That is what we want to prove, but she’s not a blimp.”
Max looked again. “A zep? I don’t see any framework.”
“It is a zeppelin. There is an interior frame of triangles held by cables in tension. It was a design explored by the Germans shortly before the Heat. Look at the cowled propellers. They swivel vertically over 180 degrees and horizontally 37 degrees. They allow the ship to hover and land without help. Old airships used to drop lines to ground crews who manhandled them down. You may not find that sort of local co-operation where you are going. Up top are flexible photovoltaic cells built into the outer fabric. In an emergency you can run the props with them. Admittedly, the power output is low, but at the very least you can maneuver a little even if you are out of fuel.”
“What is the fuel?” Max asked.
“The motors are electric, but the generator is a multi-fuel turbine.”
“So it can run on anything?” Bonnie asked.
“Almost flammable liquid. Notice the gondola hull is boat-shaped so you can float on the surface if you need to. There is a floor hatch, but it is watertight when clamped shut”
“Is it filled with helium?” Max asked.
“The airship is designed for it. We’ve brought some oil wells back into production. They release helium as a byproduct.”
“But are you using it?”
“No, Mr. Gunther. Our helium infrastructure isn’t up and running quite yet. You’ll be using hydrogen. Don’t look so worried. Properly handled it is safe enough. The old Graf Zeppelin back in the 1920s and 1930s flew around the world. She gave fifteen years of solid transatlantic service.
“We all know a craft with a less stellar record.”
“Try not to let that happen. This craft is a big investment for me.”
A man with a short gray beard approached.
“Ah, this is Captain Asquith. He’ll be piloting the ship.”
“You can call me John,” he said. “Captain is a rank conferred on me only by the generosity of Clairmont Industries.”
“Please refer to him as Captain in public,” admonished Clarissa. “And Captain, I asked you to wear your uniform.”
“I feel silly in it. I look like the doorman at your hotel.”
“There are photographers waiting outside.”
He sighed. “As you wish.”
“Can we look inside?” asked Bonnie.
Max noticed the name written in cursive on the gondola door.”
“Don’t like it?” asked Clarissa.
“Didn’t we lose that battle?”
“It was a daring expedition all the same.”
“Wouldn’t a less daring victory have made a better name.”
“Nonsense. Go inside.”
Bonnie bounded up the short ladder into the gondola. Max followed more gingerly. The entire craft shifted noticeably under his weight. The floor of the gondola bent under his feet.
“Am I standing on fiberglass?” he asked.
“You won’t fall through,” Clarissa assured him from behind. “Weight is critical, so almost everything is fiberglass, plastic, aluminum, or carbon.”
The interior space of the gondola was modest but not cramped. The floor area formed a horseshoe around a core consisting of the main engine. Bonnie had her nose in the power plant and was looking over the winch and other machinery.
“I didn’t know you were a motorhead,” Max said.
“Yeah, I was quite the tomboy before my life got away from me. I might have ended up a grease monkey if things had been different. Hey look at this,” Bonnie said as she lifted an aluminum hood.
Max saw a water tank, electrodes and piping.
“What am I looking at?” he asked.
“Electrolysis equipment,” said Clarissa. “You may need to manufacture hydrogen on the fly. Even when we convert to helium, we’ll keep the equipment on board for back-up if a ballonet springs a leak.”
“There is not just one big gasbag over your head. There are multiple bags called ballonets. They allow you to trim the ship and adjust lift.”
At the back of the gondola Max opened a door. Inside was a tiny room containing a seat with a hole in it. Max peered into the seat. He saw the floor of the hanger.
“Low tech, but practical,” Clarissa remarked. “Please be careful where you use it.”
“Yes, I can see the potential for annoying folks on the ground.”
The airship shifted. Max looked back and saw Captain Asquith had boarded. He was in uniform. The jacket was purple with white buttons and epaulettes. The pants, boots, and hat were white. He carried a large gunny sack.
“Much better, Captain.”
“If you say so.” He set down the sack.
“Come on. There are people waiting to take your picture. Bonnie, I’d rather you stayed in the background for now.”
“Fine by me. May I look around some more?”
“Yes, but get off before we roll the airship out.”
Clarissa shooed the two men back down the ladder and out to the news conference. At the podium, she positioned them on each side of her. The audience assembled.
“I want to thank all of you for being here today,” Clarissa began. You will be relieved to hear that I don’t have a long speech for you.”
This produced an obligatory chuckle.
“The event will speak for itself. Today we unveil the prototype of Clairmont Industries’ latest aviation success. Ladies and gentlemen, Dieppe.”
The two workmen in purple jumpsuits pulled open the huge doors of the hanger. The white nose of the airship gleamed as the morning sun caught it.
One of the workmen retreated around the far side of the hanger. He re-emerged leading a donkey with a harness. He attached a cable leading to the Dieppe. After more than a little prompting, the donkey tugged. The airship moved. Slowly it emerged from the hanger. There seemed to Max to be dangerously little clearance, but the Dieppe exited unscathed. Photoelectric cells along the top were a matt black. The company logo on the flanks of the airship stood out against a brilliant white background.
“Today Dieppe’s shakedown voyage will carry mail and gifts to our brave troops serving in Dakota,” Clarissa said. “A new era in air travel has begun. This is Captain Asquith, commander of the vessel.”
Asquith bowed shallowly.
Clarissa turned to Max.
“Max Gunther, congratulations on being the first passenger of the airship Dieppe.
“Thank you. It’s uh… a great honor.”
It was the best he could manage on short notice.
“Have a safe journey.”
“We’re leaving right now?” asked Max, a little too loudly. The reporters took the remark for a joke and laughed.
Clarissa walked away from the podium with Max and John toward the Dieppe.
“Are you coming with us?” Max asked.
“To Dakota? Certainly not,” she said.
“I just though your clothes…”
“They are for the photographers. It may seem silly to you, but publicity is serious business.”
“I’m sure you’ve arranged for unbiased coverage.”
“I wouldn’t want favorable reporting any other way.”
Asquith and Max climbed aboard. Max looked back at the hanger. Bonnie stood by the doors waving at him. He waved back.
Captain Asquith positioned himself behind the wheel. Max looked for a place to sit. Except for the pilot’s seat the airship lacked chairs or benches. He added pillows to the list of supplies he would request for the longer trip.
Asquith pushed a button. A barely audible whistle emanated from the engine compartment. He pushed a lever to release ballast. Water splashed the ground.
Max gripped the rail of the open window. He peered out and watched the ground recede. Asquith engaged the propellers. The craft accelerated forward. Then the nose angled up at an angle so steep as to make Max tumble backward.
“Don’t lose your balance,” Asquith warned too late.
“John, may I ask how much experience you have had with this thing?”
“How long has it been since we left the ground?” Asquith let Max grope for words for a few moments before saying, “Just joking. I flew the test flights for it. I’ve flown other airships too.”
“What other airships?”
“In the military. Even though I’m not French, I’m from Quebec. I served there before the Reunion.”
“Were you in the attack on Dakota?”
“We thought of it as self-defense, not an attack, but yes.”
“What can you tell me about it?”
“I’d rather not talk about it. Bad memories.”
“It may help with my investigation.”
John sighed. “I don’t see how.”
“As you wish. I was a kid,” said Asquith, “which is to say I was a romantic idiot. Quebec’s new airship fleet intrigued me. Blue skies. Adventure. All that. I signed up in the air corps at 17. Before I had the barest minimum of training, they pulled me out of school and assigned me as navigator to an airship called the Charlotte. It was named I think for one of the Le Pens who built the ship, though maybe it was after Corday. I don’t know. The airships were new, so there weren’t any experienced people to operate them. All seven airships of the fleet were assembled with crews as green as me. Obviously something big was going on.
“Charlotte’s pilot suddenly took ill. It was appendicitis I heard later. Suddenly I was the new pilot. Eight marines then boarded in full battle gear. The lieutenant in command of the squad handed me a sealed packet. He said to open the packet after we were in the air. I was baffled, but I tried to act in front of the marines as though I did this sort of cloak-and-dagger thing all the time.
“The ground crew released our mooring cables. I started the engines and hoped for the best. We rose slowly with all the weight. The whole fleet rose into the sky alongside me like some pod of lazy whales. I opened the packet.
“The orders read, ‘Proceed at once to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Follow lead of Jacques. If Jacques is disabled, assume command of flight.’ No one had changed the orders when I replaced the first pilot, so I second in the chain of command even though I had no clue what the mission was about. Against my instincts I decided to ask the marines whom I assumed had some briefing.
“‘We’re going to remove weapons of mass destruction from the hands of terrorists,’ the lieutenant answered after a pause. ‘Just get us there.’
“The flight west went smoothly enough. We hit no bad weather. We flew over ruins of Chicago. The place was spooky. Well, you’ll see.
“My adrenalin started to flow when those four stone faces first came into view lit up by the morning sun. If you’ve ever been to war, you know the dirty secret: it is exhilarating in the beginning. It doesn’t take long, though, to become just plain scary.
“Everything went horribly wrong. Missiles went streaking up from the northeastern desert before we put a single marine on the ground. The marines went berserk. The lieutenant was shrieking at me to get his men on the ground.
“I maneuvered us over a flat spot. It looked like an old parking lot covered by sand. I expected our hydrogen to explode from ground fire, but there was no hostile action against us at all. The only people we saw were gardeners. A couple of them waved.
“I held the craft to the ground by the full force of the directional props as the marines piled out. The moment they were clear I spun the engines back to horizontal. Without the marines the ship popped into the sky. I moved out of the area.
“One of the untold stories of the war is the way our troops acted in Dakota. You can hardly blame them. They took revenge in a big way. I think that is why the war crime trials were truncated. The military judges consistently disallowed discussion of our troop conduct as irrelevant.
“I had the luxury of being up in the air, but who knows what I would have done? We all have a streak of barbarism in us. It was all over quickly. Resistance was minimal and none of it was organized. A green signal flare went up, so I circled back and landed. My squad of marines was waiting. The lieutenant, all dusty but unwounded, held a 9mm to the head of a terrified young woman he held by the hair.
“‘She knows the way to the missiles.’ He told me as they climbed aboard.
“The woman directed us to the control room. It turned out the Dakotans had only one control room for one missile squadron operational. They were enough. The marines disembarked and took it without a fight. The door wasn’t even locked. They took the four people inside alive. They were tied up and brought aboard the airship. I think you met them.
“When the four prisoners started complaining, the lieutenant tossed the woman who had guided us over the side. The prisoners quieted down. I know how bad this sounds. Normally our boys aren’t like that. You’d be surprised what people can do in extreme situations.
“Not so surprised,” Max said.
“Only two marines were wounded during the whole invasion. Some woman with a stick beat the hell out of them and took their guns. It was kind of embarrassing. She got away through a side tunnel.
“That was pretty much all there was to it. There was a mop-up in the various caves, but it didn’t involve any fighting. There was no resistance anywhere.”
** ** ** **
Max found airship flight far less harrowing than airplane flight. The temperature at their altitude was refreshingly cool. After nightfall, a three quarter moon in the clear sky lit up the landscape below. John was right about the ruins of Chicago. Max felt the urge to explore them, but he could think of no excuse to demand it. Max settled down for a nap.
Max felt a foot nudge him in the side. He had slept soundly. It was daylight. Asquith pointed to the four stone faces in the distance among the otherwise barren and unimpressive hills. The faces had been bleached by the blazing sun, but Max still could see traces of paint from the Dakota commune artists.
The entrance to Beautiful Rushmore cave came into view.
“Does it feel strange to be here again?” Max asked.
“‘Sickening’ was the word that came to mind.”
The craft approached an improvised airstrip. Two airplanes obviously pieced together with salvaged parts sat in the sun. Wing, door, and fuselage colors were mismatched weirdly. A soldier in desert camouflage emerged from shadows near the cave. He waved at the airship. Asquith maneuvered Dieppe over the airstrip and slowly descended.
“Drop the rope,” Asquith ordered.
“The one on the winch. Drop it through the floor”
The winch was mounted on the engine. For the first time Max realized a small square in the floor in front of the engine was a trap door. He opened it and pulled on the winch rope. He slipped the rope through the door and continued to unwind until the soldier on the ground could reach it. The soldier tied the rope to a ring set in concrete. He then turned around and walked leisurely back toward the cave. John flicked a switch and the winch pulled the Dieppe down to earth.
“I thought the directional props eliminated the need for any of this,” Max said.
“They do, but this is more secure.”
“Are those planes the only logistical connection to home for the men here?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“How many soldiers are stationed here?”
“I don’t know that either. It’s probably a national security secret.”
“Meaning there are fewer than the government wants anyone to know.”
“Keep your analysis to yourself when we get back.”
Dieppe bumped the ground. John deflated the ballonets slightly.
“How are we going to take off again if we discharge gas?” Max asked.
“We’ll use the electrolysis equipment to generate new hydrogen. It’s all part of the plan for our shakedown cruise.”
“Won’t that take time?” Max asked.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“I guess not. I’m going to take a look around.”
“Wait. You’ll need this.”
Asquith retrieved a canteen from his canvass sack.
“Wait. There is more.”
Asquith bent down and spun the combination of a lockbox built into the control panel. He opened the door and pulled out a handgun in a leather holster.
“You are supposed to carry this.”
“I don’t want it,” Max said.
“You are supposed to carry it while you are here. Not Clarissa’s orders either. Army regs for official visitors.”
“You must be. No other kind of visitor is allowed here.”
“John, any villain I might meet is likely to take the gun from me. How will that help base security?”
“Try not to let that happen. Take the gun.”
Max, sighed, took the belt, and strapped it on.
“This is more risk to my own foot than to a bushwhacker.”
Max opened the gondola door and looked out. A windmill generator spun on the hillside. Drip irrigation from some subterranean water source served a well tended garden. Several camels stood or lay about. They did not look out of place.
Not bothering to roll out the rope ladder, Max swung himself out the door and dropped to the ground. He approached a soldier sitting in the shade of a rock.
The soldier kept his eyes shut, but flicked a forefinger in lieu of a wave.
Max pointed at the garden. “Who’s the gardener?”
The man wearily opened his eyes. “We are. We eat better if we provide for ourselves.”
“Some. Not much to hunt except rattlesnakes and such.”
The sun made Max envy the soldier’s shady seat. He walked up to the cave entrance. The cooler air inside the cave was an immediate relief. This was not the cave’s natural opening; it was a tunnel excavated for tourists during the site’s days as a national park. An electric cable was mounted on the wall running from the windmill. Tiny light bulbs were tied into the line.
Max reached the so-called Big Room of the cave. It was smaller than he expected. The detritus of the old Dakotan commune littered the space. In the weak light, he found a side passageway to what was once Selena’s private quarters. The room was still furnished. The bed was unmade. Max presumed one of the soldiers used the room for his own. He explored more of the cave randomly before returning to the entrance. The soldier was in the same shadow as before.
“No one else lives in this cave besides your unit?”
“I suppose so. Where are the other soldiers?”
“Some Dakotans still live in the area, don’t they?”
“The hills have caves everywhere. There aren’t many Dakotans left. Drunks and old hippies mostly.”
“You ever meet one named Jennifer?”
“Yeah, a couple times. Traded with us for some tools.”
“Where can I find her?”
“Who would know?”
“Maybe this girl I see.”
“There aren’t any other kind here.”
“Where can I find her?”
The soldier pulled out a pocket knife and opened it. He sketched a map in the dust with the knife.
“Go around the hill over there this way. You’ll find her here.” He stabbed the map with the knife.
“Yeah, if you wear a hat.”
“Burn your scalp off if you want. Not my problem.”
Max retrieved his pith helmet from the airship before setting off. The destination was at the upper limit of the term “walking distance” in Max’s book. He could feel the blisters developing on his overheated feet as he trudged.
At last he came upon a steel barbecue next to a portable solar furnace. An umbrella shaded a flat rock which looked like a coffee table. A cave entrance into the hillside was blocked by a stone wall in which was set a basement-style window and a six panel door with a brass knocker.
Max used the knocker. After a few moments, a heavily tanned and modestly attractive woman opened the door. Max guessed the lines in her face were attributable to sun damage rather than age. Nevertheless she was at least a decade older than her soldier boyfriend.
“Hello. You’re new,” she said.
“I don’t feel new,” Max answered.
“Tell me about it.”
“I was sent here by… uh…” Max stalled as he realized he hadn’t asked the soldier his name.
“Yes, of course you were. Come in.”
On the floor of the cave, an 8-year-old girl played with a Raggedy Ann as raggedy as any Max ever had seen. Two single-width beds and several storage chests comprised the furniture. The woman sat down on one bed and beckoned him to sit on the other.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t told your name,” said Max.
“You mean you didn’t think to ask. Becky.”
“Hi, Becky. I’m Max.”
“Go outside, hon,” she addressed her daughter. “Don’t wander off. Stay in the shade.”
The girl gave out an exaggerated huff of exasperation, but she got to her feet. Dragging the doll by the hair she left and closed the door behind her.
“OK, Max. Before we get started, what did you bring me?”
“We settle payment first.”
“You want money?”
“What am I supposed to do with money? Did you see a supermarket anywhere around here?”
“Is that a 9mm you’re wearing?”
“I suppose so, but I can’t give it to you.”
“Just give me the clip if it’s full. I’m only doing this because you’re new. You’ll have to do better next time.”
Max pulled out the gun and slipped out the clip. He handed it to her. She took it and shoved it under the mattress. Then Becky pulled off her tee shirt. Finally Max grasped the situation.
“Whoa! You have the wrong idea.”
“What idea do you have?” she responded suspiciously.
“No, nothing like that. I just want to talk to you.”
“What do you want to talk to me about?”
Her hand slipped under the mattress and pulled out an automatic identical to the one Max carried.
“Get out! Now! If you come within a hundred yards of my daughter I’ll put your own bullets in you!”
“Wait! You keep misunderstanding me. Is your daughter named Jennifer? I didn’t know. I mean a full grown woman. Please, I don’t mean any harm. If you talk to me, I’ll make it worth your while. I promise. I just want to know where to find Jennifer – the adult one. I want to ask her some questions. That’s all. Is your daughter named after her by any chance?”
“Stop discussing my daughter.”
Becky paused for what seemed to Max to be a very long time. At last she tilted up the muzzle of her gun so it no longer pointed at his chest.
“I’ll write you directions.”
She put the gun in her lap and reached down to open a storage chest. She retrieved a scrap of paper and a box of crayons. She slipped out a Royal Blue crayon from the box and jotted directions. She picked her gun back up with her right hand and held out the paper with her left. Max took it gingerly.
“The door is that way.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Becky followed him to the door, weapon still in hand. Sunlight flooded in as he opened it.
“Jen!” she called from behind Max, “Come in! And you,” Max felt the gun touch his back, “stay away from her.”
Max retraced his steps back to Rushmore Cave base.
Outside Rushmore cave, the soldier in the shade had been joined by a sergeant. The two were playing cards.
“You’re back quick. Get what you wanted?” asked the soldier.
“Maybe. Either of you know where this is?”
He held out the crayon directions. The sergeant grabbed the paper and looked at them.
“‘North toward the he leaning rocks…’ Way over that way.” He pointed through solid rock.
“You’ll never make it on foot.”
“I’ll have to fly?”
The sergeant put down his cards and wearily got to his feet. His playing partner looked at the face down cards with an expression that betrayed unsportsmanlike thoughts.
“I’ll tack one of the camels for you. Give me ten minutes.”
The sergeant walked to a blue tarp and pulled back a heavily weighted corner. Underneath was leather tack. Both camels watched him suspiciously.
Max used his ten minutes to return to the airship. He found John sitting in the open door of the gondola drinking a canteen of water.
“How is the hydrogen recharge coming along?” Max asked.
“Oh, I hoped it was ready to fly. They’re getting a camel ready for me.”
Max heard a groan from one of the animals as the sergeant tightened the cinch.
“You ever ride one before?” John asked.
“When would I ever have ridden one before?”
“Ever ride a horse?”
“Won’t help. Completely different.”
“I’m glad you’re amused. Are you saying you’ve ridden one?”
“Oddly enough, yes.”
“Say ‘hut’ to make her get up, ‘hoosh’ to make her lie down. Be gentle but firm on the reins. She won’t neck rein like a horse. And don’t cluck at her. She won’t understand. ‘Step up’ is the phrase to get her moving.”
“OK. Is there a reason for the pronoun ‘she?’”
“Yes. The stories you’ve heard about camels biting and spitting are mostly about the males.”
Max looked back at where the sergeant was almost finished.
“Is that one a male or female?”
“I trust you can figure it out on your own.”
“Here. You’ll need this.”
Asquith reached in back of him. He produced a second canteen.
“I’ve got one.”
“If you are going far enough to need a camel, you’ll need a second canteen. And let me top up the first one.”
Canteens full, Max walked to his mount.
“Are we all set?”
“Yes, we are,” the sergeant answered.
The sergeant prodded the animal on the foreleg. The camel kneeled and looked up at Max. The split lip gave the face a permanent smile which Max found reassuring. Max examined the tack.
“The reins are attached to rings in the nose?” Max asked.
“Yes.” the sergeant answered. “He doesn’t mind. Would you rather have a simple ring in your nose or a steel bar in your mouth?”
“Can’t say I’ve ever considered the choice.”
Max climbed on, took the reins and grabbed a bar at the front of the saddle.
“Uh… hut.” Nothing happened.
“Let him know who is boss,” the sergeant prompted.
Max refrained from the classic Lou Costello response. He repeated, “Hut!”
The camel looked back at Max and decided to humor him. Max barely kept his balance as the creature rose. Max found the height scary.
“Oh, what’s her name?”
“His name is Buford.”
“Keep this hillside on your left. When you’ve gone about a mile you’ll see an old rusted radio tower snapped in two. The hill to the left of it is the first landmark on your directions. The leaning rocks are just past there.”
Max nudged Buford with his heels. There was no response. Then he remembered.
“Step up. Step up!”
Buford obliged. The legs on each side strode in unison, rather than moving in the diagonal gait of most four legged animals. They produced a rocking sensation. Max clung to the saddle. The two soldiers started to laugh well before Max was out of auditory range.
Somehow aware he was carrying a novice, Buford paused and wandered off the route as the fancy struck him. Max considered it a victory when the most general direction of motion was the correct one. He found the tower. He was less certain about Becky’s other landmarks, most of which were large rocks. To Max, who was no geologist, one large rock looked very much like another.
Max felt a headache coming on. He pulled out his primary canteen and swigged. Sooner than he had expected, the canteen was empty. He was glad Asquith made him take a second one. It occurred to Max that he might not survive if the camel threw him and ran away.
Max had all but made up his mind to forget the whole interview with Jennifer when he spotted two rocks nearly three meters tall leaning against each other at sharp angles. He urged Buford to ascend a low hill to the north of the feature.
Beyond the rocks was a defile barely wide enough for the camel. Buford balked at entering, but, with much cursing and cajoling, Max badgered him into it. The defile turned a sharp corner and opened into a natural courtyard formed by rock walls. In sand at the far end was a row of flagstones leading to a cave entrance.
The camel ignored the order. He stood placidly. Max swung himself over the side of the saddle and dropped heavily to the ground. Buford reached back and bit his thigh.
The animal answered with a gob of spit. The mucous struck Max’s shoulder. The camel then sat down.
Max saw nothing to which to tie the camel. He dropped the reins and hoped he would stay put. Max warily approached the cave entrance. A mailbox was wedged in a crevice by the opening. On it was painted “RFD Box 1.” He knocked on the mailbox. It let out a hollow clang.
“Hello!” he shouted.
There was no answer. He entered the cave. As his eyes adjusted slowly to the dark, he groped forward with his hands.
“Hello? Anyone home?”
Max yelped from the sharp pain at the back of his knees. As Max buckled, a foot connected with his back. His face hit the dirt. The end of a blunt pole jabbed into his back while a hand removed his gun from its holster.
“Jennifer?” Max managed to croak.
“Who wants to know?”
“Max Gunther. Please, I just want to talk to you.”
“Why? Are you some kind of Fed?”
“Get a lot of business around here?”
“No. I’m working for Clarissa Clairmont.”
The pole pressed harder into his back. Max had no doubt she had the strength to drive it through his rib cage.
“Has she put a bounty on my head? Your witch-hunting boss is not getting her hands on me.”
“I’m not here to arrest you.”
“How reassuring. By the way, it is idiotic to carry an unloaded gun. It makes you a legitimate target while leaving you defenseless.”
“I didn’t want to carry it at all.”
“That is almost as stupid in these hills. So what do you want, Mr. Max Gunther, if not to arrest me?”
“What I said. Talk.”
“Talk about what?”
“Whom. Selena. I’ve been hired to find her.”
“That’s the most asinine thing you’ve said yet. She’s not here. End of investigation. You can go home now.”
Despite her invitation to leave, the pole remained in position.
“I didn’t think Selena was here. I thought you could help me find her though.”
“You thought wrong.”
“Maybe. Wouldn’t be a first.”
The pole lifted from his back.
“Okay, PI. Join me for lunch. Talk. Yes, I’m Jennifer.”
Max struggled to his feet. Dirt stuck to his tongue and teeth. He hoped there wasn’t much bat guano in the soil. Jennifer’s hand gripped the back of his shirt collar.
“This way. Duck.”
She directed Max into a side tunnel with a low ceiling. She steered him through twists and turns in the dark.
“You can stand up straight now.”
He cautiously straightened up. Her hand remained in place. After two more turns the passage brightened. Max emerged into the open air on a ledge. The ledge extended some twelve feet to a precipitous drop. Only an experienced rock climber would have a chance of accessing the location from below. In the middle of the ledge was a picnic table with benches. A fire was burning just beyond it. Something was roasting on a spit over the fire.
“Sit down,” Jennifer invited.
Max sat. He got his first good look at his hostess as she examined the fire. Jennifer was tall, lean, well-tanned and muscular. Her hair was ash blonde with some strands of gray. She wore a loose cotton top and cut-off jeans that were bleached white. A knife hung from a leather belt. Max’s gun was stuffed behind the belt too. Despite the weathering, Max could see she once was truly stunning.
She leaned her pole against the rock wall and reached for a pail tucked into a wall cavity. Jennifer extracted a clay mug from it. She walked over and banged the mug hard on the table. Water splashed out of it.
“Uh, thank you.”
“I like your home,” Max offered
“Thanks. Decorated it myself.”
Max assumed this was irony but chose not to smile in case it wasn’t.
“It keeps the rain off,” she added.
“When does it rain?”
Jennifer picked up a spit from its perch above the fire and brought it to the table. The spit held two gutted lizards, still sizzling. She scraped a lizard off onto the table in front of Max with her knife.
“You cooked for two. Were you expecting me?”
“No. I’m a big girl.”
“I don’t want to deprive you of half your meal.”
“There are more where these came from.”
His masculine pride already dented by the beating he had taken, Max was not willing to appear squeamish. He picked off bits of meat and nibbled. It wasn’t bad, rather like tough veal. Jennifer scraped off a lizard for herself and sat down opposite him.
“So, PI, why did Clarissa Clairmont hire you to find Selena? Are you a world famous dick?”
“I have some notoriety, but not from detecting I’m afraid.”
“From what then?”
“I was convicted of manslaughter.”
“This is a qualification for the job?”
“Miss Clairmont seemed to think so.”
“Did your victim deserve it?”
“I see. What do you want from me exactly?”
“I want some of your insight about how Selena thinks or where she might go.”
“What makes you think I have any?”
“You knew her pretty well. You were mentioned by name in the trial testimony of Aeneas Custer.”
“Do you want me to beat you with the pole again?”
“No, thank you.”
“Then don’t speak the name of the Custer brat.”
“May I ask why?”
“He ruined my life. Everyone else’s too. Aeneas was a disloyal, ungrateful, self-centered little jerk. He caused the war, you know.”
“Not intentionally, from what I could gather,” said Max.
“He did it all the same.”
“Well, Aeneas was executed.”
“So they say. Why should I believe anything your government says?”
“It was the Republic of Alaska, not Canada.”
“Why should I believe them?”
“Well, he is really beside the point. Let’s get back to Selena. She is the one who actually ordered the missile strike against Quebec, isn’t she?”
“Selena was a kid. She didn’t always know what was best.”
“Your analysis is gentle. I’ve seen her handiwork.”
“We were under attack. We fired back.”
“You think the destruction of Quebec was justified?”
“I think that everyone screwed up. I’m really to blame, you know.”
“I failed to run my spear through Aeneas when I first realized he betrayed us. If I had killed him the war never would have happened,” she said.
“The string of consequences was unforeseeable. Remember, I didn’t mention his name again.”
“I think I’ll beat you with the pole anyway and then throw you over the cliff.”
“It won’t make you feel better.”
“I’ll never know if I don’t try.”
“I have a better idea. You can’t undo the past, just as I can’t, but Selena needs to be brought to justice. It’s important, and it beats sitting around feeling guilty about what we did or didn’t do.”
“Important to whom?”
“To the survivors. To me. Maybe to you too.”
“It sounds as though you want a scapegoat.”
“Do you know a more deserving one?” Max removed a photograph from his pocket. It was a picture of the woman outside the courthouse. “This was taken in downtown Quebec, by the way.”
Max laid the photo on the table and tapped his finger on the fuzzy image of the dark haired woman.
“Damn. Well, she never lacked brass,” Jennifer commented.
Max smiled and put away the picture. Jennifer had confirmed the woman was Selena.
“Would you be able to recognize her today?” he asked.
“Well, she was pretty young the last time I saw her, but yes, I think so.”
“What really happened on the day of the war?”
“Pandemonium. As soon as we spotted the airships coming at us, Selena tried to talk to the Minuteman missile crew.”
“I thought there was no radio voice communication, just some buzzer.”
“There was a radio. The buzzer signal was multi-frequency and pretty well jam-proof though, so if the voice radio didn’t work, that would.”
“Did she talk to the missile crew?”
“No. The radio was jammed. She tried to talk to the airships too to negotiate surrender. They wouldn’t answer.”
“She tried to surrender? Are you sure?”
“I was there. Maybe the enemy didn’t hear her because of their own jamming. I don’t know. Troops landed all around. We were outnumbered and outgunned. I helped Selena escape.”
“I want to get back to the escape, but you actually saw Selena press the button, if there was an actual button, which set off the buzzer at the missile site?
“There was a button. It was red too. No, I didn’t see her do it, but who else would have done it?”
“Tell me about the escape.”
“We had tunnels dug between caves and out the back in case of some emergency like this. The mountain has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. When Selena stopped playing with the radio we high-tailed it for one of the holes. Two soldiers came after us. They must have seen us. We stayed ahead of them until we reached the other side of the mountain where we had a one-person ultra-light airplane stored under an overhang.”
“Where did you get one of those?”
“One of our salvage teams found it and put it back together. They were always scouring the old ghost towns and finding things. Selena taught herself to fly it. She nearly killed herself but she learned. Anyway, the damn thing wouldn’t start right away, so while Selena fiddled with the engine, I doubled back to face the soldiers.
“Were you armed?”
“I had a pole.”
“I’m familiar with your expertise with a pole.”
“No. You’re really not. I got them.”
“I hit them as hard and they went down. They would have killed us, you know.”
“I’m not being judgmental. I’m just clarifying. What then?”
“I clarified them some more until Selena finally had the engine sputtering. I grabbed the tail of the machine and pushed it forward. There was a downward slope just beyond the overhang. The airplane worked up some speed and then it was airborne. I never saw Selena again.”
“Jennifer, I need you.”
“You’re not my type.”
“You know what I mean. Even if I can’t convince you it is the right thing, help me for practical reasons. I can make your life better.”
“You know what I mean. Even if I can’t convince you it is the right thing, help me for practical reasons. I can make your life better.”
“I have everything I need.”
“But everything you want? You must get bored and lonely here in the desert.”
“I have friends.”
“I know. I met a young lady named after you.”
“You met Becky and little Jen? Poor Becky.”
“I merely imposed on her for your address.”
Jennifer looked thoughtful. Max let her think in silence. At last she said, “Tell you what. Set up Becky and little Jen in Canada. Someplace nice. Give them enough money so Becky doesn’t have to work at… at what she does.”
Max didn’t know if he could talk Clarissa into this, but it seemed a minor cost compared to the whole venture.
“I need to clear it with Miss Clairmont,” he added.
“Do it. If the answer is yes, I’ll come with you.”
“You’ve barely touched your lizard.”
“I’m too excited to eat,” Max answered.
She picked up his lizard and tossed it near the cave entrance. Something spotted jumped out and carried it back into the dark.
“What was that?”
“You have a pet jaguar?”
“Don’t be silly. Jaguars are dangerous. It is an ocelot. Probably doesn’t weigh more than 30 pounds.”
“You’re not thinking of taking kitty with us.”
“This desert is his home. He’ll be fine.”
“Good. I already have a cat, and I think your Kitty would eat him.”
“Did you come in the airship I saw overhead this morning?”
“Yes. It’s at Rushmore.”
“I never thought I’d see one of those again. I’ll meet you at Rushmore Cave at sunset. You know the way out.”
“Oh for goodness sake… Follow me.”
They re-entered the cave. They did not encounter Kitty, but Max heard a sound like a well-tuned V6.
“A purr. Yes.”
They re-emerged into Jennifer’s front courtyard. Buford was still there.
“See you at sunset then.”
Jennifer watched as Max straddled the camel and encouraged the beast to rise. Buford waited long enough to dispute Max’s authority, and then lurched up. Buford plodded off as Jennifer shook her head.
** ** ** **
Max eased out of the saddle. Once again the camel had refused to lower himself. Max rubbed his chafed calves. His back hurt. The sergeant approached. He stopped and looked at the bruises developing on Max’s face.
“Found Jennifer, I see,” he said.
“Yes. She’ll be here later.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll de-tack your mount. Buford can get nasty if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Max returned to Dieppe. John was napping in the cabin. Max unintentionally wakened him as he climbed aboard.
“Oh. You’re back.”
“Yes. How’s the hydrogen recharge coming?”
“Nearly there. We can leave tonight if you’re ready.”
“I’ll be ready. I’m bringing a Dakotan back with us.”
“Miss Clairmont did not authorize another passenger.”
“Clarissa didn’t forbid one either.”
“It’s on your head. Don’t get into the habit of calling her Clarissa.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’m going to try to grab some nap time too. I’ve had a rough day.”
“Where is your gun?”
“Let’s not go there.”
Max tried to get comfortable. He didn’t succeed but fell asleep anyway. He was awoke when John kicked his legs.
“You said a passenger. There are three including a kid.”
“We made a deal,” said Jennifer from outside the gondola door. Becky and her daughter stood next to her.
Jennifer lifted little Jen into the gondola. Becky climbed aboard after her. Neither brought anything else besides Jen’s Raggedy Ann doll. Adult Jennifer’s luggage was in a scarf tied at the corners.
“Here is your gun back by the way,” she said to Max. “You left it.”
“I’ll take it,” said Asquith. He took the 9mm and put it in the lockbox.
“Something wrong?” Max asked.
“Bad memories.” She as she pulled herself aboard.
“During the raid, did Selena radio you?” Max asked John.
“I never heard her, but one of the ships was jamming frequencies except for our own.”
“You flew for Quebec?” asked Jennifer.
Asquith nodded. Becky’s eyes turned murderous. Only by a cautionary tap from Jennifer deterred an outburst.
“Were you ever aboard the Dakotan airship Nearer?” John asked Jennifer.
“Yes. I had some training on it and helped paint it paisley. The little scumbag Aeneas named it Nearer, by the way. Its real name was Kismet.”
“I like Nearer. I’m not a fatalist.”
“Fate doesn’t care much if you are or not.”
“Do you remember enough to help me with this ship?”
“I think so. Are we ready to leave?”
“Yes. Could you release the ground line?”
Jennifer quickly spotted the line and the trap door. She reached through the door and freed the slipknot.
The Dieppe rose as the sun set.
The flight north was smooth and quiet. The moon and stars shone brightly. Little Jen enjoyed the flight except for her visit to the lavatory. She said the seat, with its direct view of the ground, scared her. Max knew how she felt.
** ** ** **
“We’ll be landing soon,” Asquith announced.
Max looked out at the skyline of the city in the distance.
“This isn’t Quebec,” Max observed. “Where are we?”
The craft descended to an old airfield in a state of disrepair worse than the one in Quebec. At one hundred feet above the ground Dieppe encountered blustery winds. Asquith struggled with the controls.
Jennifer dropped a line to the tarmac to encourage some help from the ground, but no one took the hint. The airship wafted sideways toward a line of trees. Asquith turned the nose into the wind and lowered the Dieppe toward the tarmac. A sudden downdraft grounded the ship hard. John directed the prop thrust upward, throttled the engine, and released hydrogen from the ballonets.
After he and Jennifer secured the ship, Asquith led the passengers to a dilapidated hanger a short walk from the landing site. Inside was a man named Bill. He sat on the hood of a Land Rover.
“That was the worst landing I ever saw,” he said.
“Thanks for the help,” said Jennifer.
“I’m not hired to help. I’m hired to drive. There are supposed to be two of you.”
“Well, there are five,” Max answered.
“No one told me.”
“Nevertheless, there are five.”
The man sighed. “OK. Get in.”
Max, Jennifer and Becky climbed in back with young Jen on Becky’s lap. Asquith rode up front with the driver.
The route to town was over land as overgrown and abandoned as most of the formerly civilized world. Within Ottawa city limits were neatly kept structures intermingled with ruins. The Land Rover turned onto a residential block on which all the homes were well kept for the full length of the block. Max noticed there were bars on the windows. The driver pulled up to an especially well maintained but unimposing brick-front house. As soon as his passengers were on the sidewalk, the driver sped away.
“Miss Clairmont’s?” Max asked.
“I was expecting something larger.”
“She has other homes. This one is close to Parliament.”
Elsworth opened the front door before anyone knocked. He looked the group over.
“Who are these people Captain Asquith?”
“Guests of Mr. Gunther.”
“Wait one moment.”
Elsworth disappeared back inside, closing the door behind him. Max saw a curtain flutter on a first floor window. Elsworth re-opened the door.
“Miss Clairmont very much wishes to talk to you, Mister Gunther about your ‘guests,’ who will please follow Boris. Captain, she wants to speak to you too.”
Boris appeared behind Elsworth. He was one of the large guards Max had met on the stairway at the Black River Inn. He again wore seersucker with a bulge under the breast pocket.
“Well, come in all of you,” Elsworth said.
The home was nicely trimmed and decorated. Marble entry tiles gave way to parquet at arched openings rooms on each side.
“The three Misses will follow this gentleman,” said Elsworth indicating Boris. “Captain and Mister Gunther, come with me.”
Max and John followed Elsworth past the stairway to a small library where Clarissa sipped tea at her mahogany. The room had a pleasant aroma of tea and old books.
“Leave us, Elsworth.”
He nodded and retreated.
“Have you two lost your minds?” Clarissa asked sharply. “Who are these people? Why are they in my home?”
“I didn’t know we were coming directly to your home, ma’am. I thought we could make more formal arrangements for them. We still can.”
“Can we now? Who are they?”
“The tall blonde is Jennifer, Selena’s erstwhile guard. She can identify Selena so I need her with us. Her price for helping us was to bring the other woman and her daughter to Canada.”
“You brought a Dakotan war criminal upstairs into my house? What if she means to kill us?” asked Clarissa.
“She doesn’t. She wants a future for Becky and Jen – the kid and the mom.”
“I pick my own charities, Mr. Gunther.”
“Jennifer has airship experience too. She even spent some time on Nearer. She would be a real asset to us.”
“What else did you offer the troglodytes?”
“A decent place for the girl to live and go to school.”
“What about fully funded retirement accounts for the two of them?”
“I didn’t promise those.”
“How frugal of you.”
Clarissa tapped the table, keeping a hard expression even as she relented. “Well, she said, “perhaps I can find some job for the mother where she can’t do too much damage. I insist she earn her own keep.”
“More than fair.”
“Much, much more. Max, do not ever spend my money again without my permission.”
“You smell like warmed over road kill. Clean up.”
“Yeas, ma’am. Is Bonnie here?”
“No. She is training for a job. Find Elsworth, Max. He will show you to your room. De-flea your guests after you clean up yourself.”
“They’re not sheepdogs.”
“Too bad. I like dogs.”
Max found Elsworth by the stairs and delivered Clarissa’s instructions. He first settled the unexpected guests and then came back for Max.
“How are you doing it?” Elsworth asked.
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I mean you make one outrageous demand after another, and Miss Clairmont lets you get away with all of them. Anyone else who tried the same thing would be at the bottom of a landfill by now.”
“Maybe it’s my native charm.”
“I’m sure it isn’t that.”
Om the second floor Elsworth pointed into a modestly sized but well furnished room. Alarmingly, a tuxedo lay on top of the bed. He turned to ask about it, but Elsworth already was halfway down the hall. Max entered the room and looked in a dresser mirror. The reflection wasn’t pretty. Max opened another door and found a private bathroom equipped with a shower and a whirlpool tub.
Max showered and shaved. He checked out the closet where he found a pair of blue jeans and a tee shirt. He put them on. The jeans were a trifle long, but otherwise they fit. He wondered if Bonnie or Elsworth had guessed his size. He avoided looking at the formal clothes on the bed.
There was a knock on his door.
A bathrobed Jennifer pushed the door open. “There’s frippery on my bed!” she announced accusingly. “It appeared when I was in the shower.”
“Well, I didn’t put it there.”
“You don’t expect me to wear it, do you?”
“I don’t have any expectations whatsoever in the matter. However, let’s take a look.”
Max followed Jennifer to her room. Boris stood in the hallway and glowered at them as they passed. On Jennifer’s bed was a gold lame’ evening dress. Jewelry lay alongside. The stones looked real. Four pairs of matching shoes in various sizes were on the floor by the bed.
“Why all the shoes?” she asked.
“My guess would be Elsworth estimated your dress size with some confidence but wasn’t sure about your feet. How he came up with them so fast is a mystery. There must be a storeroom with formal clothes in different sizes for guests.”
“You wear it.”
“Now there is an ugly mental image. Obviously Miss Clairmont wants us to be seen somewhere.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I’m the only friend you’ve got with any influence on Miss Clairmont and I’m asking you to.”
“Friends, are we? If I try it on – and I’m saying if -- you owe me. I’m supposed to be able to walk in those shoes?”
Elsworth’s voice came from the doorway, “You have until six to practice whatever you need to practice. Both of you be downstairs and dressed then.”
He evidently had been eavesdropping.
“Where is there a pole for me to beat him with?” Jennifer asked.
“I’ll find one, but later when he is not expecting it.”
In his room, Max donned the tux which smelled of mothballs. Max was sure his struggle with the bowtie was the equal of any combat Jennifer faced with her shoes. At six o’clock Elsworth knocked on the door.
“You’re late,” he complained.
“Coming.” Max opened the door.
“I suppose I should have brought you a clip-on,” Elsworth said. “Go get Boudicca and bring her to the parlor.”
“We’ll be right there.”
Elsworth shook his head and withdrew.
Max walked into the hall. Boris was no longer there. Jennifer emerged from her room, walking tentatively in her heels. She managed to look beautiful and awkward at the same time. She wore no make-up and her hair was tied back in a simple tail.
“How do I look?” she asked.
“Would you be brave enough to tell me if I didn’t?”
“Lead the way.”
Jennifer navigated the stairs only by grabbing the rail and going down sideways. Max stayed only a few steps ahead of her to break any fall.
Elsworth, watching from below mumbled, “I hope there are no stairs where we’re going.”
“Not half so much as I do,” Jennifer said.
The limo pulled in front of the Ontario Manor, a single story brick structure with pseudo-classical white pillars made of fiberglass.
“No, don’t open the car door,” admonished Clarissa to Jennifer. “Wait for George to do it.”
George, the driver, did it.
Jennifer held on to Max’s arm. Max was sure this was just to keep her balance. Max never had been comfortable in formal settings, but Jennifer looked like a snake about to shed its skin. They followed Clarissa and Elsworth into the building. Captain Asquith, unescorted, brought up the rear.
The cavernous interior had an uneasy blend of postmodern and Victorian décor. Fake antique chairs and circular tables sat atop a vast carpet with geometric designs. Despite a high ceiling, huge gaudy chandeliers hung too low. The room was almost empty of people, save for the wait staff and a few guests milling about the bar along the left wall. Max noticed pamphlets on the tables. He picked up a pamphlet.
A central podium flanked by tables set in a straight line occupied the far end of the room. Clarissa directed John, Jennifer and Max to takes seats to the right of the podium. Clarissa and Elsworth took seats on the left. There was one empty seat on Max’s side.
More guests arrived. The room slowly filled over the next half hour. They included politicians, movie actors, bankers, reporters, and gossip columnists. A waiter handed Jennifer a note.
“What’s the note?” Max asked.
“Apparently, I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
“Really? I think they are over there off the back hall.”
Max examined the pamphlet he had picked up earlier. It was titled The Justice Project. Inside was a brief description of the airship Dieppe, its mission, and its crew. Max was described as “a hard drinking detective reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe” seeking to amend for his criminal past. Captain Asquith was a competent and grizzled “old salt.” Jennifer was a “barbarian” from the desert. Bonnie was a “reporter” to be embedded with the crew. The ink on the pamphlet was still wet enough to smear.
Jennifer returned to her seat.
“What was that all about?”
“Nothing really. You see one bathroom, you’ve seen them all.”
“How many have you seen?”
Jennifer kicked him in the ankle. Jennifer was startled by the sudden appearance of a water pitcher over her shoulder, and she barely checked her instinct to elbow aimed the waiter in the gut. Salad plates arrived next. Jennifer tapped Max’s ankle gently this time. With a wagging finger, she indicated bewilderment at the array of utensils by her plate.
“I usually bring my own knife,” she commented softly.
“Basic rule: start at the outside and work inward toward the plate with each course.”
Clarissa stood up, collected some notes, and took her place at the podium. The murmuring in the hall quieted. Several cameras flashed. As Max watched Clarissa, a waiter’s hand placed a bowl in front of Jennifer. Confident of her ability to eat soup properly, Jennifer picked up the largest spoon from her setting and sipped from the bowl. She sipped again.
“Are you really going to eat all of the salad dressing, Jennifer?” asked Clarissa into the microphone.
There was laughter around the room. With as much dignity as she could muster, Jennifer stone-facedly pushed the bowl away. Under the table she punched Max in the leg for having allowed the faux pas.
“Thank you all for being here tonight. I’ll be brief so you can enjoy your dinner. I have reason to believe the salad dressing is exceptional.
“As was announced earlier today, Dieppe, the revolutionary airship designed and built by Clairmont Industries, is about to embark on an important mission funded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Justice Foundation.”
Clarrissa’s speech was neither brief nor nonpartisan. She recounted the horrendous crimes of Selena and the need to bring her to justice. She rebuked the administration in Ottawa for its inaction. She extolled the design of the new airship. She described the scientific, diplomatic, and commercial rewards of the proposed flight.
“Let me now introduce the crew,” she said. “My intrepid airship pilot and Veteran of the Dakotan War, Captain John Asquith…”
Asquith stood and sat down to polite applause. Max was relieved no impromptu speech seemed to be required this time. It was likely Clarissa didn’t trust what he or Jennifer might say.
“… the noted, some might say notorious, sleuth, Max Gunther…”
Max copied Asquith’s performance.
“… and our Dakotan warrior Jennifer, who makes up with personal knowledge of our quarry what she lacks in table etiquette.”
Jennifer didn’t stand. Some boos were mixed with perfunctory applause.
“Now, now. She’s on our side,” Clarissa chided her audience gently.
A few more people applauded.
“In addition, and in order to protect the people’s right to know, we will embed a journalist with the crew, a young woman chosen for her experience in surviving frontier and uncivilized regions. Let me introduce Bonnie Danbury.”
Bonnie emerged from a back room and walked to the podium next to Clarissa. More cameras flashed. She wore a white low-cut cocktail dress well chosen to adorn a tabloid cover.
“I want to thank Miss Clairmont for opportunity to join this expedition,” Bonnie said. “I promise to provide honest coverage and I look forward to a professional relationship with the crew.”
“What profession?” muttered Jennifer.
Max nudged her ankle. She kicked back hard enough. Bonnie took her place in the empty seat next to Max. She patted Max’s knee. Jennifer pointedly ignored her.
“Oh, I almost forgot the most important crewmember…”
Elsworth reached under the table and pulled out an animal carrier.
“…Mr. Gunther’s beloved six-toed cat Casper. Mr. Gunther agreed to come along only on condition he could bring his companion.”
The cat received more applause than any of the other crew. Jennifer looked at Max. He whispered in her ear, “My sentimentality is courtesy of Miss Clairmont.”
“Please enjoy your meal,” said Clarissa. “Afterward, representatives of the Justice League will gladly answer questions.”
The escargot arrived. Max kept an eye on Jennifer. She was unfazed by the appetizer. He supposed she ate odder things than snails back in Dakota. Avoiding a repeat of the salad incident, Jennifer followed the lead of Max in the use of the calipers and fork.
“Tell me fingers and a stick wouldn’t work as well,” Jennifer said.
“I suppose they would. Easy on the wine. That’s your third.”
“I’m not nearly drunk enough. You haven’t touched yours.”
“I’m on the wagon.”
“Then you won’t need this.” Jennifer took his full wine glass and exchanged it with her empty one.
The portions of each course were too large for Max to finish, but Jennifer ate everything including the chocolate mousse dessert. Photographers clicked away at them from every angle. Not too soon for Max, the meal came to an end. Wishing to cut short any postprandial mingling with the guests, he leaned over to Bonnie.
“Think we can escape?” he asked her.
“You have to check with the boss.”
Max got up and approached Clarissa.
“Miss Clairmont, I think it would be best if I got Jennifer and Bonnie out of here,” he suggested quietly.
“Bonnie stays. You may be right about the barbarian though. Shake a few hands and exit out the back with her. Try not to make your departure too obvious.”
“How do we get back to the townhouse?”
“Take the car. The driver is at your disposal. I’ll get another ride. Be back at the townhouse by midnight.”
“Or we turn into pumpkins?” Max asked.
“I can make it happen.”
Max returned to Jennifer.
“Want to get out of here?” he said. Jennifer nodded d assent. Max turned to Bonnie. “Miss Clairmont says she wants you to stay.”
“I thought she might.”
“I don’t want to leave you here alone. I’ll stay too.”
“I’m not alone. I’ll be OK. Take your lady friend home. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“She’s not a lady friend.”
“She’s not a lady or she’s not a friend?”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “Go”
Bonnie kissed him on the cheek.
Max and Jennifer stood.
“You two have fun,” said Bonnie.
“I wish you could come with us.”
“I’ll see you later tonight. Nice to meet you, Jennifer.”
“Yeah, it’s been swell.”
As Max and Jennifer headed for the door, Jennifer told him, “She’s too young for you.”
“Where to?” asked George the driver.
“No,” said Jennifer.
“I said no. I’ve never been in a city before. I want to go someplace. I want someplace with alcohol.”
“Haven’t you had enough?”
“I know a place,” said George.
“Look, you can go home if you want, but I’m going out.”
“I’d better stay with you then,” Max answered.
The limousine bounced and rumbled through town in the general direction of Clarissa’s townhouse. On a largely abandoned block Jennifer heard strains of a raucous rock-and-roll band.
“Sounds promising,” she said.
The vehicle halted across the street from a seedy club. The sign outside was in the shape of a fire hydrant and bore the name Plug. Two young women and one young man stood on the sidewalk drinking beer. They talked loudly and laughed while a second man crawled on his hands and knees and retched into the gutter. All were shabbily attired.
“You don’t want to go in there,” Max protested.
“We’re a little overdressed.”
“We’re also outside the demographic.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
Jennifer jumped out of the car.
“Please don’t go away,” he said to the driver.
“She is a handful, isn’t she?” the driver said.
“My hands are too small.”
Max caught up with Jennifer. The drunks on the sidewalk went silent as they breezed past to the door.
The interior of Plug reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap liquor despite a city smoking ban. Bad heavy metal blasted from a juke box. Max could understand none the lyrics beyond a few scatological Anglo-Saxon expletives. Jennifer wended through pool tables to the bar. The butt of a pool cue poked Max in the back as he followed her. A tattooed hand grappled his collar.
“You made me miss my shot!” The voice came from a whiskered face a head higher than Max.
“What were you aiming at? My spine?”
“I’m going to break your spine!”
Jennifer grabbed Max’s arm and pulled him away. “Break it later. I need him to pay my bar tab.”
The sound of the pump action of a bouncer’s shotgun removed any further temptation the player may have had to pursue a fight.
“Finish your game, or leave,” the bouncer instructed.
“Assholes. Nothing but assholes,” he grumbled but he turned to the pool table.
Jennifer called to the bartender.
“Hey! What do you recommend?”
The bartender wordlessly poured a shot of whiskey from an unmarked bottle.
“Can you spare it?”
The bartender poured it into a larger glass and added a second shot. Max looked wistfully at the glass. He ceased to hear, see, or smell anything but the drink. Max realized the bartender was speaking to him.
“I said, ‘What’ll it be for you, buddy?’”
“Uh. Nothing. On the wagon. I think Jennifer can drink for both of us.”
“I think so too. Three bucks.”
Max laid out the bills and a dollar tip.
Jennifer downed her drink and tapped her glass again. The bartender refilled it. She turned to take in the scene in the club. Several young people collided with each other on the dance floor, apparently on purpose.
“Looks like fun.”
“Fun wasn’t quite the word that leapt to my mind.”
“Fine. We’re out of here.”
“No! I mean let’s go on the dance floor.”
“You need to loosen up.”
Jennifer swallowed her second drink. She left Max at the bar for the dance floor. She became part of the melee.
“Your wife is pretty cool,” the bartender said as he poured Max a club soda in a dirty glass. “On the house.”
“Thanks, but she is not my wife.”
Jennifer collided hard with a young man with a shaved head and six rings in one ear. He lost his balance and fell. He got up and deliberately kicked the legs from under Jennifer. She toppled but launched herself at the man from the floor. In a moment she was sitting on his back with one hand pushing his head to the oak. The other hand clenched his earrings. He shrieked. Jennifer tossed the earrings away. The other dancers applauded, but two bouncers were less amused. Taking one arm apiece, they picked Jennifer up and dragged her toward the door.
“Excuse me,” Max told the bartender. “I believe the lady is leaving.”
“I believe you’re right.”
Max reached the door as the bouncers flung Jennifer out onto the sidewalk. They grabbed Max.
“Hey! I’ll go out on my own!”
Max was airborne. The flight didn’t last long.
“Congratulations,” he said to Jennifer from the sidewalk. “It was no easy matter to get us thrown out of there for rowdiness. Can we go home now?”
“You suck as a date.”
“I didn’t know we were dating.”
“You’re not,” said a voice from behind. “I am.”
Max looked up and saw the pool player who had grabbed him earlier.
Before Max could reply, Jennifer was on her feet waving a blade. Max figured the knife must have been strapped to her leg.
“I don’t think so.”
The player backed warily to the door and went back inside.
“Now can we go home?” Max asked.
“Oh, alright,” Jennifer answered.
Max walked with her across the street to the car.
“Miss, I’ll take the knife,” said a police officer who walk out of the shadows.
“Does everyone just jump out of nowhere in this town?” Max asked. “Give him the knife, Jen.”
Reluctantly, Jennifer complied.
“You owe me a replacement,” she said to Max.
“You are now under arrest.”
“Wait! Why are we under arrest?” asked Max.
“You’re not. She is. Assault with a deadly weapon.”
“She was defending herself!”
“She could have run away. The man wasn’t armed.”
“It is so nice to be in a civilized country,” commented Jennifer. She allowed herself to be handcuffed only, Max suspected, to emphasize her sarcasm.
“Take us to headquarters,” the policeman said to the driver. “I’m on foot and it is a long of a walk.”
The driver nodded.
The policeman and Jennifer got into the back. Max sat next to the driver. The car lurched forward.
“Have a cell phone?” Max asked the driver.
“Yes. It works within the city most places.”
“Can you call Clarissa and tell her what is going on?”
“No. But I can call Elsworth.”
“That will do.”
“Wait until the vehicle is stopped before you place a call,” advised the policeman from the back seat.
Max sat next to Jennifer at a desk as the officer typed an arrest form. A sergeant approached.
“It’s OK. We’re not pressing charges.”
“Why?” the officer asked.
“One of our leading citizens has convinced me it is not in the public interest. You both can go, but I want no more trouble out of her tonight. I’ll hold you responsible,” he said to Max.
“Right. Thank you Sergeant.”
“Get out of here. Go directly home. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.”
“Keep her out of trouble.”
As they walked down the front steps of the station to the waiting car, Jennifer said to Max, “I wonder how much the sergeant’s public interest cost.”
“I suggest we not question it.”
They climbed into the back of the car.
“George, please take us back to the townhouse, and use a route other than the one past Plug.”
The driver complied. The new route took them past other bars at which Jennifer looked longingly.
“Does everyone in this town drink?” Max asked.
“Except you,” she said.
“Please take us home,” Max begged the driver.
At the townhouse, a stern but silent Elsworth let them in the front door. He stood with arms folded as they climbed the stairs.
Max entered his room. There was no sign of Bonnie. He went back downstairs and sought out Elsworth.
“Is Bonnie coming here tonight?”
“Miss Danbury is no doubt in bed, where you should be and where I am going. She is in the last room on the left at the end of the hall,” Elsworth said.
“Oh. Separate rooms. What about Becky and the girl?”
“They no longer are your concern. They are accommodated elsewhere. This is not a hotel.”
Max debated whether it was better form to wake up Bonnie or let her sleep. He decided to let her sleep. He went upstairs to his own bed.