The sun was bright when Max awoke. Max showered and dressed. The smell of brunch was in the air. Max followed the aroma down the stairs and through the dining room into the kitchen. There, Clarissa sipped coffee and read newspapers at the kitchen table.
“I was about to throw it out and start over.”
“You cooked?” Max asked.
“It’s within my skills. Plates and mugs are in the cupboards, utensils in the drawers.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
She had made French toast, scrambled eggs and bacon. The pans were full. He glanced at her trim figure.
“You eat like this every morning?”
“No, I never touch breakfast.”
“Have you seen Bonnie this morning?”
“She already is out running some errands for me. She was a little annoyed you didn’t visit her last night.”
“I didn’t want to disturb her.”
Clarissa shook her head.
Jennifer appeared in the doorway wearing a bathrobe and showing no signs of a hangover.
“Come in. I’ll fix you a plate,” Max offered.
“Yes, do come in,” said Clarissa. “Don’t worry, you need only one fork and there is no salad dressing.”
Jennifer sat down and examined her host.
Clarissa tossed over the newspaper. A photograph of Jennifer at the banquet was on the front page. Next to it was an account of her night at Plug. Max slid a heaping plate of breakfast in front of Jennifer and read over her shoulder.
“You take off today, by the way,” she said to Max.
“Good. I need a day off,” Max said.
“No, I mean you take off in Dieppe. I can’t risk you two getting arrested again.”
“We haven’t even discussed a route.”
“It is not open to discussion. You are going to Greenland. Greenlanders are keen on privacy. They have tough bank secrecy laws. It seems the kind of place for Selena. What do you think, Jennifer? You are supposed to be our resident expert on the woman.”
Jennifer shrugged as she ate her eggs and bacon.
“Wherever you like so long as it is east. You’ll keep going east until you come back here.”
** ** ** **
There was a brass band to send off Dieppe. It was from the local high school. Max lifted the cat carrier into the gondola. Casper reached through the bars and sunk his claws in Max’s wrist. Max hardly could blame him. Next to him, Bonnie, already aboard, stowed the carrier to one side. She had been reserved toward him all morning. Max climbed aboard.
Max was relieved to note pillow furniture had been added. He picked out a pillow and sat down. With visible hesitation, Bonnie sat down next to him. The captain and Jennifer finished a pre-flight. Dieppe left the ground to a discordant rendition of Oh Canada.
The craft rose to 1000 meters and accelerated to its cruising speed of 80kph. Leisurely by the standards of conventional airplanes, the rate nevertheless allowed the coverage of nearly 2000 kilometers in a single day. As the Dieppe could sustain flight without refueling for several days, the ship could circumnavigate the globe in a few weeks.
“Are you going to be angry with me the whole trip?” asked Max.
“Are you going to ignore me again after partying with another woman?” asked Bonnie.
“I really was trying to be polite.”
“Don’t be polite. Be thoughtful.”
Bonnie picked up an electronic pad and jotted notes for Clarissa’s required news releases.
Max let Casper out of his cage. Casper immediately jumped onto the rail and gazed at the land below. Max was afraid to reach for him lest he cause the cat to fall out of the window. Eventually the animal jumped to the floor and settled himself on a pillow. Max tried to return him to the cage when the ship began its descent to the St. John’s naval outpost, the first and last stop before heading out over open ocean. The cat evaded him by squeezing between the engine casing and the back wall of the gondola.
Except two naval patrol boats, St. John’s was home only to a few families of fishermen. The stop lasted only a few hours. As the airship refueled, Max stretched his legs. Bonnie posed with some of the sailors and transmitted her article back to Miss Clairmont’s publicity team. All too soon, John and Jennifer called them aboard. Casper remained in his hiding place.
The flight resumed. John and Jennifer worked well together. Both tended to ignore Bonnie. Max guessed they regarded her as Clarissa’s spy. Casper had no such concerns. He emerged from behind the engine and jumped on Bonnie’s lap. Max followed his lead and put his arm around Bonnie’s shoulder. She didn’t object.
** ** ** **
“Are we there yet?” Max asked. Neither Asquith nor Jennifer responded. Bonnie stretched lazily.
Greenland was a playground of the rich and famous. It was the home of more celebrities than any other country. A creative and lively movie industry thrived, though it was extremely low budget by pre-disaster standards. Greenlander actors were famous world-wide. The capital city of Nuuk was certain to be a hub of any future commercial airship travel.
Dieppe neared the coast at midnight. At this time of midsummer and at this latitude it was the only hour of darkness. The lights of Nuuk grew brighter. Asquith steered toward the lights.
“They’re shooting at us!” Max shouted.
“I don’t think so,” Asquith answered. “Fireworks.”
The famous Gold Coast stretched out below, illuminated in strobe-like fashion by multi-colored flashes in the sky.
“Is all this for us?” Max asked.
“Do you think we’ll catch Selena by surprise?” asked Jennifer.
“If we tiptoe.”
“Uh, captain… John… Fireworks and hydrogen are a combination that worry me a little,” said Max.
“They seem to be leaving a path for us.”
“Seem to be?”
“Yes. We’ll touch down on the fjord.”
Asquith descended toward the surface. Later than Max expected, there was a splash and the gondola skidded along the surface.
“Can we maneuver on the surface?” Max asked.
“We can if the winds are not too strong. One of us should stay on board at all times after we dock, just as a security measure.”
A motor launch approached the Dieppe. Max knew the visage of man in the bow though he had never met him before. The Governor of Greenland was a playboy bachelor. His photos frequently were in the gossip columns. The boat pulled alongside.
“Captain Asquith, I presume?” the Governor called.
“We’ve made a berth for you. Can you steer yourselves or do you need us to pull you in?”
“I can bring her in.”
“I insist your brave crew be my guests at the executive Mansion,” said the Governor.
“And we decline to decline,” said Max. “Thanks.”
“We wish you the best of luck in catching Selena.”
“If she ever was in Greenland in the first place, something tells me she heard us coming.”
The Governor laughed. His boat withdrew.
Asquith brought Dieppe into position. Bonnie opened the gondola door and she jumped to the dock. Casper leapt from the rail to shore and ran at full speed toward town.
“Relax,” advised Bonnie. He’ll come back if he wants to. If he doesn’t, why make him a prisoner?”
“We’ll find a plank and stretch it to the door to make it easier for him.”
“And for me too.”
Max and Jennifer hopped to the pier. Captain Asquith took the first shift aboard the Dieppe.
Max, Bonnie, and Jennifer attended dinner at the Governor’s Mansion – or perhaps it was breakfast as it was one o’clock in the morning. Schedules were flexible in Greenland at this time of year. Dinner was, unsurprisingly, seafood. Jennifer found it novel. The she looked dubiously at the lobster, but enjoyed it when she tried it.
Bonnie, in reporter persona, interviewed the Governor with fluff questions, allowing him to boast about his country and himself.
“Greenland is thoroughly democratic?” she asked.
“Yes. All citizens have equal access to the ballot box. You seem to be enjoying our cuisine.”
“Yes. I acquired a taste for seafood some time ago.”
“I never saw a fish before,” said Jennifer.
“Really? Remarkable. Fish are our national currency.”
“You must have to spend it quickly,” Jennifer said.
“No. I mean fish stocks back our national currency. We don’t actually carry cod and salmon in our pockets. The government licenses fishing fleets and acts as intermediary for all sales – we accept only Greenland dollars as payment. We print the dollars.”
“So in order to buy the fish, people have to earn the Greenland dollars you print. You bootstrap the value of the currency with fish,” Bonnie concluded.
“Precisely. Most of the large fortunes on the island are invested in the fishing fleets – or in Greenland itself.”
The Governor’s addendum caught Jennifer’s ear. “‘Greenland itself?’” she asked.
“Yes, shares in the country.”
“I don’t understand.”
“As I said, I said everyone has equal access to the ballot. One share, one vote. Anyone can buy shares. This is a free country.”
“It sounds like something Selena would invent.”
The Governor was unfazed. “I assure you she is not among our economic advisors.”
“While we are on the subject,” Max cut in, “have you ever seen this woman?” He showed the Governor the photo of Selena.
“Can’t say. The picture is fuzzy and quite a few women look like this. Besides, I don’t really know everyone in the country personally. We don’t restrict immigration or ask unnecessary questions. If someone stays out of trouble here, we don’t pry into his or her past.”
“So you don’t really care if we catch Selena.”
“I don’t object to your effort to do so. I’m more interested in Dieppe to be truthful. A new airship route would be an economic boon.”
“Where is your wife?” Bonnie asked.
The Governor, who was accustomed to unprepared reporters, was polite. “Mrs. Johannsen passed away.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. But you have a son, don’t you?” Bonnie pulled her pad out of her pocket and checked her notes. “A sportsman?”
“You could call him that, if you wish to be kind. He is a NASBOAT racer – the youngest ever to win the Nationals.
“Of course. The races are shown in Canada. Miss Clairmont wants to arrange a deal for exclusive North American broadcast rights.”
Max smiled at Bonnie’s dual role as company rep and reporter, and at her lack of finesse in balancing them. The Governor did not seem to mind.
“You would have to talk to the Globesport directors about that. They manage the media side of the races. Should I introduce you?” he asked with an odd smile.
“No thank you. I’ll call them myself.”
“Governor, you seem unenthusiastic about your son’s NASBOAT proficiency,” observed Max.
“I received a bill today for Derrick’s new engine.”
“Isn’t the race dangerous?” Max asked. “There some accident last year played as I recall.”
“Yes, tragic. But the racers take on the risk willingly.
“I’d like to meet Derrick.”
“He is out with his friends tonight,” said the governor. “The solstice holiday.”
Before retiring, Max opened the window in his second floor room to allow in a cool breeze. The weather of Greenland was superb. Bonnie lay in bed with her eyes shut, but Max was sure she was awake. Jennifer walked in without knocking.
“You better warn Miss Clairmont this place is ripe for revolution,” she said. “I wouldn’t invest here.”
Bonnie opened her eyes but said nothing.
“Why? Everyone seems rich and content,” said Max.
“Because the only people you noticed have been the rich and content. Who was serving you dinner?”
“I figured they were staff. This is the Governor’s mansion after all.”
“Of course they are staff, and so are the people doing all the work in all the other big houses. Do you think any of them are shareholders in Greenland, Inc.?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps you have a point, but the servant problem isn’t our problem. Our problem is Selena.”
“You can solve that one without leaving this house.”
“What do you mean?” asked Bonnie, opening her eyes.
“If Selena came she would have gone to the Governor first thing. It was her style to go right to the top, and you can bet she came with a better offer than any bounty on her head. So Johannsen either is telling the truth that he never met her, in which case she never came to Greenland, or he is lying, in which case he knows exactly where she is.”
“Interesting analysis,” said Max, “but it means that either way, the Governor won’t help.” Max said. “I’ll do a little old-fashioned research wherever they keep public records here. I’ll check out property transfers, boat registries, shareholder records and so on, and see if anything jumps out at me.”
“Tomorrow,” Bonnie said. She patted the bed.
Jennifer huffed and left the room, closing the door a little harder than was altogether necessary.
** ** ** **
Sifting through ownership records in the Nuuk Courthouse was tedious. Max picked out three property transfers by holding companies which took place shortly after Selena’s last sighting in Quebec. One of the deeds was in the name of Bonnie’s lender for the Black River Inn.
Max left the courthouse and sat down on a bench below the steps. Dieppe looked huge at its berth. Jennifer was aboard, having traded places with Asquith.
Max espied a teenaged girl observing him. She wore jeans and a multi-colored top. After some hesitation, she approached the bench.
“You’re that detective from the airship, aren’t you?” she asked.
“My cover is blown.”
“Not important. I don’t suppose you are Selena?” he said in jest.
“The Dakotan war criminal,” Max prompted. “She is the reason we are here.”
“I don’t know about old historical stuff. I just heard there was a detective on the airship.”
“Old historical stuff? We’re not talking about Hannibal.”
“I never met him either.”
Max couldn’t tell if she was joking. “I see. Well, what can I do for you? Is your cat missing?”
“Good thing. Mine is missing and I can’t find him.”
“No. My boyfriend was murdered.”
“Ah. You’ve told the police I presume.”
“Yes. The police won’t do anything about it. I don’t have any money though.”
“Actually, I work pretty cheap. I’ll make you a deal. I have some addresses. Tell me what you know about them, if anything, and I’ll listen to your story. I’ll buy lunch since you don’t have any money.”
“I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“This is your town. You pick the spot.”
She led Max to the Boardwalk along the rocky shore. It was lined by a tawdry collection of stores and shops. Teenagers and sea gulls made up most of the foot traffic.
“I like this place,” she said, pointing to a fast food restaurant.
“Let me guess. Seafood?” he asked.
At the counter Max ordered the stone crabs. They arrived with admirable speed, but Max could see he faced a great deal of work for little result. Carolyn ordered fish and chips. They took their tray and sat down at a small picnic table outside the restaurant.
“Here are the addresses. Tell me if you know anything about them. And tell me about this murder.”
“My boyfriend was killed in last year’s national drag races.”
“Drag races? Cars?”
“No, NASBOAT. He was in the amateur division which is the fun part because all the boats are homemade. No corporate sponsorship allowed. A lot of ordinary people enter. You know, motorheads who build something out back in the boathouse.”
“Your boyfriend wasn’t the one who had the fatal accident last year, was he?”
“It was no accident.”
“What was his name?”
“Yars. Yars Matthijson. He was a bookworm. But he was handy too. He had an idea for a hydrofoil. He found plans in some old library book.”
“A hydrofoil design wasn’t violating the rules of the race?”
“There aren’t any design rules in the amateur division.”
“If his boat flipped over in the race, how do you figure it was murder?”
“Did someone have a motive to sabotage Yars’ boat?” asked Max.
“The Governor’s son?”
“Do you know him personally?”
“We went to the same high school. We used to go out. I mean he is a good looking guy, he is a racing champion, and… and…”
“… and he is Governor’s son.”
“Yes. I suppose that sounds shallow.”
“Most love stories sound shallow. Don’t let it trouble you. When did Yars enter the picture?”
“He didn’t at first. He was just this geek who had a crush on me and was always trying to impress me.”
“Somehow he succeeded.”
“Well, sort of. He told me about this weird boat he was building.”
“Yeah. And it didn’t have a propeller.”
“What did he use instead? Some kind of water jet?”
“No. another kind of jet. He said it was from an old junked helicopter.”
“Some choppers were powered by jet turbine engines. I suppose he could have adapted one.”
“Whatever. There are junkyards with old machines. A lot of the boys dig around in them.”
“So this jet powered hydrofoil made you want to go out with him?”
“No, not really. I got angry at Derrick for being too much of a player. With other girls, you know?”
“I’ve got the idea. So you went out with Yars. Please don’t take offense at this question, but were you trying to make Derrick jealous? I mean, it seems Derrick had a full calendar.”
“Oh, he was always competitive. Yars wasn’t bad looking, but he was nerdy and way too shy. I mean I actually had to ask him out. Sort of. I asked for help studying.”
“Did the study date have the desired effect on Derrick?”
“Did it ever. But instead of trying to get back together with me, he just played mean tricks on Yars. You know, the seal manure in the locker kind of thing. He started rumors about me too. Yars told him he was going to beat him in the amateur nationals. Derrick laughed but I think he took Yars seriously.”
“Then Yars was killed in the race.”
“Yes. The race meant means a lot to Derrick because people all over the world follow it.”
“I’ll look into it. Now what about these addresses?”
She looked at them briefly.
“I don’t know anything about these two. I mean, their just buildings. But Bette Beale lives in this one.”
“Who is Bette Beale?”
“She started Globesport. Her house is the one called Seascrape. Derrick talked about sometimes, acting like he’d been there at parties. But I don’t think he was. Besides, I heard that she retired or something. ”
“How can I get in touch with you?”
“I’ll give you my cell phone number,” she said, accepting the existence of a functioning telephone system with a casualness Max had lost in his years on the frontier.
Bonnie’s voice sounded over Max’s shoulder. “Aren’t we robbing the cradle, Max?”
Max was relieved to hear amusement rather than irritation in her tone.
“I’m legal,” answered Carolyn.
“And why do you need to mention that?”
“I’m working on a case with her,” Max said.
“A case of what?”
“See? High school never ends,” Max said to Carolyn.
“It ended for Yars.”
“Are you going to ask me to sit down?” said Bonnie.
“I better go,” Carolyn said. “Here is my cell phone number.”
Carolyn handed a note with her number to Max. She hurried off.
“You take them all ages, don’t you, Max? Jennifer, Clarissa, me, and the jail bait who is not legal whatever she says.
“I only have eyes for you.”
** ** ** **
Max guessed Derrick himself would want to keep video of the NASBOAT races. He asked a servant about it back at the Mansion. The fellow immediately showed him to a computer and accessed the race file.
Max fumbled with the machine. A menu appeared with a list of the previous year’s individual races. He clicked on “Amateur National.”
On screen, a motley assortment of boats of all shapes and sizes formed a line in the fjord. He picked out Derrick’s boat by its number, 32. It was a sleek speedboat with a raked aerofoil. It was garishly painted and looked expensive.
Lights flashed sequentially on a signal box and all the boats gunned their engines. Max identified Yars’ boat, Number 26, when it lifted up on its foils. Quickly the race belonged to six drivers. They included Derrick and Yars. These two then edged out in front of the other contenders while remaining in a dead heat with each other. Number 26 began to wobble. The boat did a double flip in the air. Parts of the hydrofoil broke away. The boat splashed into the water upside down. Derrick’s boat was left with an unchallengeable lead over the remaining craft. Derrick crossed the finish line far ahead of the second place racer.
“It won’t be so close this year,” said a voice behind Max. He turned and saw a fit young man with closely cropped blond hair. He was marginally less than average height but showed off his muscular build with a tight tee shirt.
“Would you be Derrick?”
“Yeah. You’re one of the airship people.”
“Right. We’re hunting a war criminal.”
Derrick shrugged his indifference.
“Who is the hot one?”
“I suppose you mean Bonnie. She is negotiating new media rights to the NASBOAT races.” Max watched for a reaction. He got one.
“She should talk to me. I know everyone in Globesport – everyone who matters.”
“What do you think happened last year to the hydrofoil?”
“You’ve been talking to Carolyn.”
Max wondered if Derrick had more brains than appearances suggested. “Why do you say that?”
“I saw you two eating lunch.”
“Oh.” Max decided he didn’t.
“What did she tell you?” Derrick asked.
Max saw no reason to dissimulate at this point.
“She questioned if it was really an accident.”
“And she blamed me, right? Look, Yars’ shitty boat fell apart. That’s all there is to it. What is your interest?”
“Nothing much. I simply promised Carolyn I would look at the race. My job is to find Selena.”
“Someone who has nothing to do with NASBOAT or Carolyn.”
“Good. Where is this Bonnie?”
“She is in the house somewhere.”
Max turned back to the computer and played the race again using the slow motion and freeze frame functions. He pulled Carolyn’s cell phone number out of his pocket and dialed it from a land line by the computer.
“Hello, Carolyn? Max. I’ve been reviewing the race. The hydrofoil detached from the boat. I’d have to see the boat to determine if someone tampered with it. Do you know where it is?”
“No. Can you find it?”
“Maybe, if it still exists.”
Max found Bonnie in their room.
“Did Derrick find you?”
“He’s a self-important spoiled little jerk. He offered to show me the real Greenland.”
“Are you taking him up on it?”
“I don’t baby-sit.”
“What do you know about a Miss Bette Beale?”
Bonnie was surprised by the mention of the name.
“How do you know about her?”
“It seems she lives in a house that was bought in the relevant time period when Selena might have been in Greenland. The house isn’t in Bette’s name though. It is in the name of Greenland Financial. Sound familiar?”
“It’s the company that lent me cash for the inn in Black River. Are you making a point?”
“Before I left Toronto for exile, I asked one of my clients about financing for buying a business in Jersy. I didn’t want to continue the same old trade, you know? He was in financial services. He hooked me up with some rep of Greenland Financial. The company ended up financing the Black River Inn.”
“Who was the rep?”
“Hey, it was a few years ago. Yuran something. It would be on my loan documents I guess.”
“Those are in Black River, I suppose.”
“I’d like to talk to this Bette Beale,” said Max.
“She is not at Globesport anymore. She sold out when it became valuable.”
“How do you know that?”
“Clarissa knew it. She gave me a file about Globesport for the deal she wants. Why are you questioning me about all this?”
“I’m just trying to find out what I can before I meet Beale. Do you want to go with me tomorrow to her house?”
“No. I need to write up my news stories and business report for Clarissa. Take Jennifer.”
** ** ** **
Max met Jennifer at the airship.
“You don’t really think Bette Beale is Selena, do you?” she asked.
“The odds are she is not, but I want to talk to her anyway.”
“If she is Selena, it would be suicidal to just dock at her house.”
“I agree. Look at this map. There is an inlet to the south of the Beale house. If we beach there, it’s a short hike over some rocks and ice. We can approach the house from the rear so we can assess the situation.”
“You mean spy.”
“Yes. We’ll need some gear,” Max said.
“More than you think. Guns too. We have some firepower packed away on the Dieppe. You were so fussy about the subject back in Dakota that John and I decided not to mention it.”
Max had never touched snow before. The novelty wore off quickly. Despite his fur-lined coat, boots, and gloves, he felt chilled. Still uncomfortable with firearms, he checked repeatedly to be sure the Remington’s safety was on.
The peninsula had looked narrow enough on the map. It looked different for real. Jennifer repeatedly scouted ahead to find the best path and then doubled back for Max. He fell several times on the snow and ice. Suddenly ice beneath his feet gave way.
Awakened by pain, Max found himself stuck in a crevasse. His feet dangled over blackness. He had no idea how far down it was to the bottom. He looked up and saw Jennifer’s face about four meters above.
“How badly are you hurt?” she asked
“I can’t tell. I think I’m OK. Toss me a rope.”
“It’s down at the bottom.”
“I guess you were unconscious. I was lowering the rope to you and the edge broke off. I scrambled away, but I dropped the rope. It is below you somewhere.”
“Well that’s just dandy.”
“Toss yours up to me.”
“No good. I don’t have the room to swing my arm.”
“I’ll just have to go get another rope.”
“Beale’s house. Don’t worry, I’ll be discreet. Hang on. Your rifle is up here. Want me to drop it to you?”
“I’ll miss it.”
“OK, OK. I wish you would have taken a pistol with you.”
“Those are for killing people. I was worried about predators.”
“Wrong priorities. I’ll be back,” she promised.
Jennifer’s face vanished. Max heard the back of his coat tear.
“This can’t be good.”
It wasn’t. Max slipped through the constriction. His slide accelerated. He clawed vainly at the ice as he rushed downward. The crevasse opened up but the angle of the slope changed from sheer to 45 degrees. He tumbled in darkness down the slope and finally struck bottom. The floor was dirt.
Max hurt all over, but nothing seemed broken. He attempted to climb back up the slope. It was hopeless. He slid back down time and again.
At least the bottom of the crevasse seemed roomy. A little light filtered down to where he stood, but the space was pitch black only a few feet beyond. He sat down and waited for Jennifer. He remembered the energy bars in his pocket. He pulled off a glove, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a bar. He nibbled slowly, trying to stretch out the experience in order to pass the time.
Max wondered about the rope was Jennifer had dropped. It wasn’t near his landing spot. It may have hung up further up the crevasse. Then again, it could be lying in the darkness only a few feet away from him.
** ** ** **
From behind a rock, Jennifer examined the dockside house through her binoculars. It was a large and homey wood-shingled two story home cradled by large rocks. She noted a balcony extending precariously from the second floor over the water’s edge. Next to the dock was an exceptionally large boathouse with a cabin cruiser tied up outside. She pulled her AK off her shoulder.
Jennifer approached stealthily and slipped into the boathouse. Stacked against the walls were tools and crates. She opened the lid of one crate. Jewels and gold ornaments, unlocked and unguarded, were inside. Though far less valuable than they would have been before the population collapse, the quantity was still impressive. She lifted a tarp next to the crate. Underneath was a disassembled .50 caliber machine gun. A rope hung on the wall. Jennifer left it in place.
Jennifer left the boathouse and worked around to the back of the main house. The back wall of the building was separated by less than four feet the from a sheer rock face. She entered the space and found the back door. It was unlocked. She entered the kitchen. It was empty but smelled of fish and beer. She heard men arguing in the next room. A grizzled heavy-set man walked into the kitchen. Jennifer caught him in the throat with the butt of her rifle. She followed with a strike on the head as he dropped to the floor. He stayed down.
She jumped through the swinging door, and held her AK on two men. One sat in a chair and the other, clad only in boxer shorts, was sprawled out on a couch. They looked more shocked than frightened. A coal burning stove kept the room uncomfortably warm.
“Mind if I crash the party?” Jennifer asked.
“Did you bring you own beer?” the portly fellow in the tattered easy chair asked.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Then you’ll have to leave.”
“Not just yet. Who else is in the house?”
“I know that’s a lie, because I’ve already met one more. Who else is there?” She visibly flicked the lever on the AK to full automatic.
“A lady friend is upstairs. She is just visiting,” said the man in boxer shorts.
“Call her down.”
The man in boxer shorts objected. “You’re putting a hit on my girlfriend? Why?”
“For bad taste in boyfriends. Call her down.”
“Hey! Sweet Cheeks!” the man in boxer shorts shouted at the top of his lungs. “Some one wants to talk to you!”
“So what can’t wait?” asked a young woman with tussled red hair as she descended in her bathrobe. The woman reached the bottom of the stairs before she saw Jennifer. “Hey lady, no one told me he was married,” she protested.
“I’m sure he isn’t. You’re not Bette Beale.”
“No. Is she an agency girl?”
“You’re a little late lady,” said the man in the chair. “Years late. We live here.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. We rent from a company in town. We send our checks there. She rented the place before us. I never even met her. Junk mail still comes here for her though. Miss, why don’t you put down the gun and have a beer?”
“No, but thank you. I’ll be leaving. Mind if I take a rope I saw in the boathouse?”
Jennifer felt bad about the man in the kitchen, but he probably would recover. He had a pretty thick skull.
** ** ** **
Max heard a grunt. Grunts were not good. He stood up and backed as far into the light as he could by the ice slope. He saw a hint of motion. A white face with a black nose was discernible at the edge of darkness. It was a polar bear.
Max was not eager to socialize. He removed the remaining snack bars from his pocket, tore the wrappings, and tossed them gently into the dark. The bear disappeared. A few moments later the face reappeared. The bars hadn’t satisfied. Max tried not to stare lest the bear interpret the look as a challenge. Neither moved for several minutes. Suddenly, the bear charged.
700 pounds of fur, meat, and bones collided with Max. He was slammed down on the slope. Dazed, he felt crushed to by the animal’s weight. He waited for teeth and claws to tear into him. They didn’t.
“Max! Are you alive?”
“I’m not sure.”
Max wiggled out from under the motionless bear. The animal’s skull had been grotesquely shattered. Above Max dangled Jennifer in the crevasse. She wielded the AK with one hand.
“I didn’t even hear the shots,” he said.
“I guess you were distracted. This rope is too short. The nearest secure place to tie it off was too far from the edge. This is as far as I can reach.”
“I don’t mean to rush, but maybe there is another bear down here.”
Jennifer untied the noose around her waist and let herself drop. She hit the ice slope, slid to the floor, and deftly stood up.
“What are you doing? Now we are both stuck!”
“You really are a city boy, aren’t you?” she said. “If need be we can hack some footholds. Then I can stand on your shoulders and reach the rope, but we probably won’t have to.”
“How did the bear get down here? Not through this crack.”
“There is another way out.”
“Brilliant deduction, detective.”
Jennifer pulled from her pocket a box of matches, another useful product Max had neglected to carry. She lit one and stepped past the bear into the ice cave. She bent down and picked up her rope, thereby allaying a nagging suspicion in Max.
“Here is the coil I dropped. Unroll in behind us. If there are multiple channels, we can find our way back.”
“It probably won’t be long enough.”
“Then we’ll find another way to mark the path after it runs out.”
Max followed Jennifer through twists and turns as she lit match after match.
“We’re out of rope,” he said.
“OK. We’ve got four choices here.”
In the dim light of the match, Max could see four tunnels branch off.
“What do we do? Try each one?”
“No. The one on the right.”
“It’s the biggest. Bear. Remember?”
“How many matches do you have?”
Max followed Jennifer closely. Jennifer turned a corner. She blew out her match.
“Why did you do that?”
“Can’t you see?”
“Can’t you see?”
“I can’t see anything.”
“This way,” she said.
Around the next corner Max began to discern shapes. The tunnel made another sharp turn and angled up toward light. The two climbed out to open sky. Their rented boat lay beached less than 100 meters away.
“Good job, Jen. What happened at the house?”
“I met the occupants.”
“No. Pirates and a bimbo. Bette moved away years ago.”
“They had a big gun and a treasure chest. Yeah, I’d say pirates.”
“Did they know where Bette went?”
“No. They didn’t care.”
“Are you sure the bimbo wasn’t Bette?”
“Not a chance.”
“Maybe I should talk to them myself anyway. Now that you’ve met we can just moor to their dock.”
“No, I wouldn’t advise it. Our meeting wasn’t altogether peaceable.”
“Any of them killed?”
“No, I was gentle.”
** ** ** **
Max sat at the wharf, chewing on some salted cod. Carolyn sat down next to him. On the phone she had sounded oddly reluctant to meet with him.
“I located the wreckage of Yar’s boat in a junkyard,” he told her as she sat down. “You might be right about sabotage,”
“No, it was an accident,” she said. “Please stop working on it.”
“I’ve talked it over. I mean I thought it over. I don’t want to go blaming people for what they didn’t do. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
“It wasn’t wasted. Carolyn, be careful.”
She stood up and trotted down the wharf. As Max expected, Derrick emerged from a doorway. Derrick wrapped his arm around Carolyn and the two walked away.
Max shook his head. He was sure Derrick would be governor one day. He had the qualifications.
The amateur nationals of NASBOAT ran two days later. The Derrick boy had stolen a trick from Yars. His boat had a jet powered assist in addition to standard props. He hadn’t copied the hydrofoil, but his boat had a double keel. It was stable as well as fast.
The starter lights flashed green and the boat engines roared. Four boats, including Derrick’s, jumped to an early lead. For a brief stretch the four were nearly even. Then Derrick’s jet fired. Derrick and Carolyn made a photogenic couple as they stood on the winner’s dock and Derrick waved the Greenland Cup over his head for the cameras.
Bonnie appeared at Max’s side. She carried Casper in her arms.
“Unless you have reason to stay in Greenland any longer, let’s go. Globesport wasn’t interested in a deal with Clarissa.”
“You met with the directors?”
“No, I spoke on the phone with the CFO.”
“I see. Where did you find Casper?”
“He found me. Let’s say our goodbyes to the Governor and get out of here.”
** ** ** **
“So, on to Scotland,” said Max.
“No. The Azores,” Bonnie answered.
“I haven’t received any instructions about the Azores,” Asquith objected.
“You have now. I cleared it with Clarissa by short wave,” said Bonnie. “We are going to the Azores.”
“Why?” Max asked.
“Don’t you still want to meet Bette Beale? She went to the Azores when she left Greenland.”
“How do you know that?”
“I asked around while you were playing with teenage girls.”
“Captain,” Max said, “we are going to the Azores.”
“I’ve already set course,” Asquith answered. “You realize it is bound to be hot as blazes there.”
“Yes, but Max will like it,” said Bonnie.
“Why will I like it?”
“Bette moved there with an old gentleman. His daughter by now should be just the age you like them.”
“What old gentleman?” Max asked.
“Edmund Ziller. He’s a physicist in his 80s or 90s, but sharp as a tack. He must be sharp in a lot of ways because his daughter is only 16 or so.”
“I feel you know something I don’t. Why would this Bette Beale be interested in an old physicist?” Max asked.
“As in electric power plants?”
“As in propulsion. As in the Mars rocket. He worked on the project, Sherlock. It had an atomic engine.”
“I’m amazed you discovered all this. Disturbed too,” said Max.
“What disturbs you?”
“I never mentioned the Mars rocket to you. Miss Clairmont swore me to secrecy about it.”
“It is not the big secret Clarissa would like it to be. But when I heard the story, the whole business about the transmission from Jersey makes more sense now, doesn’t it?” said Bonnie.
“It still doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to me there were more convenient places to make the transmission. There must be equipment to do the job in Greenland.”
“Too many people are in Greenland. If she did it there, someone would know.”
“Maybe. So, Bette learned about the Mars rocket from Ziller and then tried to radio Mars from Jersey, which means Bette is Diana and Diana is Selena. You earned your paycheck, Bonnie.”
“I can’t wait to see what that paycheck is.”
Casper crawled on Max’s lap. Max scratched his head. Max saw one ear was bloody.
“Looks like he’s been fighting. I have something for it,” said Bonnie.
Bonnie dug in her duffel bag and pulled out a bottle of peroxide. She dribbled a little on a cotton ball and dabbed the cat’s ear. Casper hissed but allowed the attention.
“That’s a lot of peroxide,” Max said. “Were you expecting a lot of open wounds?”
“I like to be prepared.”
Jennifer laughed. Bonnie shot her a quick reproving glance.
** ** ** **
“Where exactly are we going?” Asquith asked. “The Azores stretch over hundreds of miles.”
“Sao Miguel in the eastern group,” Bonnie said. “There’s a house on a lake in the interior of the island. Get us over the island. We’ll find it.”
As the neared the Azores, the sea below was indeed azure. Huge schools of fish were visible as slowly morphing shapes beneath the surface.
Dieppe drifted over the northern shore of Sao Miguel. A dense rain forest retained enough moisture to form steamy fogs among the trees.
“Turn to the east and drop low, just above the treetops,” instructed Bonnie.
“So we can’t be seen from everywhere on the island.”
“Not really, but why ask for it?”
Asquith descended to a few feet above the trees.
“Pretty landscape,” Max said. “What I can see of it anyway.”
The ship overflew a treeless patch. A geyser shot into the air almost to the height of the gondola. Hot streams and ponds bubbled below.
“There, up ahead. Lake Furnas. The big round lake,” Bonnie said.
“Beautiful spot,” Max said. “It must be sweltering though.”
“See the house overlooking the lake? Pull up to it. Beach there.”
Asquith lowered the airship until it touched down gently in the water. The gondola touch bottom a few meters from shore.
A grey haired man appeared on the lawn outside the house.
“Let me talk to him,” Bonnie said. “I think I’m the least scary.”
“I’ll reserve judgment on that, but go ahead.”
Bonnie splashed into the water up to her knees and sloshed to shore. She hurried up the slope to meet their host. The two spoke for a moment and the old man hugged her.
“What’s that all about?” Max asked.
Bonnie waved to them to come ashore.
“Let’s go find out,” said Jennifer.
Max took off his shoes and rolled up his pants before dropping into the water. The water was warm. He waded to shore. Asquith and Jennifer followed carrying ropes, stakes and a hammer. They pounded the stakes into the ground at the shore line and tied the airship.
Bonnie made introductions all around when all had caught up with her. The fellow was Edmund Ziller.
“Please join me up at the house,” he offered, “and excuse the housekeeping of an old bachelor. I just returned with fresh cozidos.”
“Meats and veggies cooked in one of the thermal springs or steam vents,” Bonnie explained.
“Will Miss Beale be joining us?” Max asked.
Edmund hesitated before answering, “She left this island some years ago.”
“Where did she go?”
“Let’s talk over lunch. Please.”
The house was untidy but not filthy. Walls were lined with books. The house had the distinct odor of unfinished wood. Dr. Ziller kept the windows and doors open. The cross breezes prevented the heat from being unbearable. He directed his guests to a heavy antique table.
“Let me help you,” said Bonnie.
The two laid out serving bowls and tableware. Edmund brought out a pot from the kitchen and placed it in the middle of the table. He ladled out servings.
Perhaps still mindful of the salad dressing incident, Jennifer waited for the others to start, but then attacked her bowl. “Not bad,” she said.
“Thank you. I don’t get many visitors, you know, so I’m pleased you enjoy it.”
“Dr. Ziller, what can you tell us about Miss Beale’s whereabouts?”
“She went to America. She wasn’t the type to laze away the rest of her life here.”
“But you are.”
“What else is there for me now? She gave me happiness for a while. One can’t expect more, really.”
“You don’t happen to have any photographs of her, do you?”
“No, she was camera shy.”
“You haven’t heard any news about us?” asked Max.
“No, of course not. If I wanted to keep up with the news I wouldn’t live here.”
“We work for Clairmont Industries. Miss Beale has information valuable to Miss Clairmont herself. We’d like to find her.”
“Curiouser and curiouser.”
“I realize this was taken some years ago and the picture quality isn’t good, but is this a good likeness?”
Max slid over the photo of Selena from outside the courthouse.
Dr. Ziller looked at the photo and smiled. “I suppose, but people change.”
“Did Miss Beale say why she was leaving for North America?”
“She always had grand plans, and the Mars mission excited her fancy. She figured America was a better place to pursue it.”
“You mean there really was a Mars mission? People live on Mars?” asked Max.
“Maybe, but I doubt it. I left the project as soon as my work on the engine was done. The world fell apart pretty quickly then.”
“But the atomic engine was built. The mission could have been launched.”
“Unlikely. We’re not talking about a single launch, you see. There would have been multiple cargo ships, all of them using conventional chemical rockets except for the one carrying the crew. The cargo ships were to go on ahead. Then the crew could follow. The atomic engine made the trip a matter of days instead of years; it would be impossible to provide for dozens of people for two years in space using conventional propulsion. But unless all those other supplies were there waiting for them already on Mars, there was no point sending people. They’d be dead in a week.”
“Bette called Mars just to be sure.”
“Did she now?” Ziller chuckled. “That’s just like her. Did she get an answer?”
“No. Not from Mars anyway. We’re the answer. A technician overheard her radio message and now Miss Clairmont wants to talk to her. I’d be willing to bet she wants to talk to you too. Would you come back with us?”
“Not interested. This is my home.”
“Not even if you could see Bette again?”
“Stop deceiving the gentleman,” objected Jennifer. “Look, mister, we believe this Bette of yours was actually the war criminal Selena. These people want to find her so they can throw her in the hoosegow.”
“I suspected as much. Well, you won’t find her here.”
“You suspected she was Selena?” Max asked.
“I knew it. She never said so, but people tend to underestimate those of us with gray hair. Even Bette, or Selena if you prefer, often did. It was pretty obvious to me, but I never confronted her with it.”
“Why?” Bonnie asked.
“What for? We all do what we think is best. Sometimes the results aren’t so good.”
“I know where to find her,” said Bonnie.
Max stared at her. “Where?”
“The launch site for the Mars rocket with the atomic engine.”
“Which is where?”
“Jackass Flats, Nevada,” answered Ziller.
“I’m betting Clarissa wants her hands on the atomic engines,” Bonnie added. “Selena would be just a bonus.”
“The engine can’t possibly work after all these years,” Max said.
“You are not the expert. Dr. Ziller, can the Mars rocket fly?”
“Maybe. The main boosters for orbit were solid fuel and the upper stage was a solid hybrid. It was simpler and quicker than designing liquid boosters from scratch, even though they would have been more efficient. The atomic engine wasn’t designed to fire until it was time to leave earth orbit. It might still work, but I wouldn’t want to ride it.”
“Why would Selena care about this? Why would Clarissa?” Max asked.
“In case you haven’t noticed the world is in desperate trouble,” said Bonnie. “It only looks like it is recovering, but the recovery is as false as the first rebound after the ‘29 stock market crash. The uptick suckered investors back into the market and then the market crashed harder than ever. Our whole planet is on the verge of crashing harder than ever. Greenland, Canada, Falklands, Alaska and Tibet have some semblance of civilization, but they all are teetering on the brink of disaster. People aren’t having kids. How many were in Black River? Have you ever even considered parenthood? I haven’t. The birthrate is below replacement level everywhere. Most of the world already has reverted to barbarism. The rest of us are a decade or two behind at most.”
“You make a pretty gloomy assessment,” said Max.
“You share it. You know you do, even if you don’t say so. It’s in the very way you think and act.”
“Again, what has this to do with rockets?” Max asked.
“Everything. Clarissa sees it. I do too. There is a loss of hope. People don’t see any future for themselves or for the world, so they don’t bother to make one. They don’t even have kids. Right now, old science fiction space operas are cruel taunts to anyone who reads them; they depict futures nobody believes we can have. Returning to the conquest of space will change the way people think. It will capture imaginations.”
“You think launching a couple rockets will make a difference to the world.”
“Yes! Not to mention the practical benefits. When the last of the communications satellites winked out we lost the global village. Think what it would mean to put some back up there. Think of weather and navigational satellites.”
“OK, I believe you are overstating your case, but you do have a case. I’m not sure a space program is enough to stop a slide to barbarism, but I do see some potential value.”
“So let’s go to Jackass Flats. Selena will be there. We really could use Dr. Ziller’s expertise. Come with us, Doctor. I’m sure Selena would have asked you to go with her years ago if she had an airship.”
“I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I had a daughter to raise.”
“Where is the young lady?”
Ziller paused before answering. “I’ll go with you, but there is a condition. My daughter Beatrice comes too.”
“What’s one more passenger at this point? Where is the young lady?” asked Max.
“She has been captured by pirates.”
“Yes, pirates. Murdering pirates who raid sea commerce, what little there is of it. They took over Ponta Delgada about a year ago. It’s the town on the south coast.”
“How big a town?”
“It was 50,000 people once, according to the old literature.”
“Forty or fifty pirates and a handful of captives. They do what pirates do: loot and take prisoners. The prisoners they ransom or kill. Some of the women they keep. If you rescue Beatrice, I’ll go with you. I’ll check out the rockets for you. You can talk to the Selena woman.”
“Forty or fifty pirates and a handful of captives. They do what pirates do: loot and take prisoners. The prisoners they ransom or kill. Some of the women they keep. If you rescue Beatrice, I’ll go with you. I’ll check out the rockets for you. You can talk to the Selena woman.”
“I don’t see how we can take on fifty pirates.”
“You won’t have too. I’ve been thinking about it since your ship touched down. You might be able to pluck her out of there without fighting.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’ve reconnoitered on my own. They’re keeping her on the top floor of the Marine Hotel in the easternmost room. There are guards in the lobby and on the upper floor.”
“To guard against what? I thought no one else was on the island.”
“Mostly, I think it is to discourage one of their own from getting ambitious.”
“How many other captives are there?”
“It varies. There are others.”
Max was grateful the turbine engine and electric motors were so quiet. He also was glad the pirates were a rowdy bunch even in the middle of the night. He could hear shouting and music in the building below. He doubted they could hear Dieppe.
The airship touched gently down on the roof of the Marine Hotel. Having received piloting instructions from Asquith during the day, Bonnie took the controls. She had proved to be a quick study. All had armed themselves, even Max. Among other weapons was a policeman’s club which had caught Jennifer’s eye in Ziller’s collection back at the house.
“This is crazy,” Max said as he and Jennifer jumped out of the gondola onto the roof.
“But fun,” Jennifer answered.
Each looped a rope looped around the waist. Max carried a simple harness attached to a third rope. Asquith covered the door to the stairs.
Max and Jennifer slipped off the roof and lowered themselves down one floor. They swung themselves inside the balcony of the target room. They removed the ropes from their waists. The sliding door to the room was open. Max let Jennifer enter first. The air in the room was heavy with the stench of tobacco and alcohol. Loud snores came from the bed. Max could barely make out a shape of a stout bearded man. One the bed next to him was a petite and slender girl. Neither wore clothes or covers.
Jennifer crouched and eased forward. Max bumped the slider door which made a distinct thump. In a single smooth motion, the hairy man slid his hand under his pillow and swung a handgun toward Max. A knife pinned his wrist to the wall. Before he could cry out Jennifer used her club to solid effect.
The bearded man was motionless. Beatrice, however, was not. She was awake and screaming.
“We are the help, you idiot! Shut up!” Jennifer demanded.
Beatrice continued to scream. Jennifer punched her hard. She was dazed by the blow and quieted. Jennifer dragged Beatrice to the balcony.
“Don’t just stand there! Get the harness on her!”
Max awkwardly fitted the harness onto Beatrice. There was pounding on the door.
“Slimeball! You OK in there?” came a voice from the other side. Max gathered Slimeball was a name rather than an insult.
“Get her out! I’ll slow down these guys.”
“I can’t leave you here alone.”
“You’ll just make my job harder if I have to take care of you too! Get her out!”
Max by this time secured the harness and tied his own rope as short as possible. He tugged on the ropes which winched upward.
Beatrice awoke enough to look down at the pavement below. She shrieked again. The airship drifted away from the roof. Max and Beatrice were pulled up to the open gondola door. Bonnie pulled the girl into the gondola. Max pulled himself inside. A shaky Beatrice stuck her head outside and vomited.
“Thanks for not puking in the ship,” Bonnie said.
The girl got to her knees and swung her fist, though she was so shaken there was little strength in the swing. She collapsed to the floor.
“We don’t have time for this,” Bonnie said. “Tie her.”
“Easy on her. She thinks she’s being kidnapped.”
“She is. Is Jennifer still alive?”
“She was when I left her. Where is Asquith?”
“Still on the roof. Tie her!”
Max tied the girl’s wrists and ankles, trying to be gentle.
Bonnie seized the controls and turned the airship back toward the rooftop. The airship touched the roof just as the stairway door burst open. Jennifer and Asquith ran out of it toward Dieppe. The door opened again. Jennifer turned and released a burst of fire.
Asquith and Jennifer leapt into the gondola. The stairway door opened again. Jennifer raked stairway exit with bullets. The door shut again. Bonnie revved the motors and dropped ballast for extra lift. A grenade exploded on the roof.
Dieppe turned east and accelerated.
Asquith took the controls from Bonnie. “Why is our guest tied up?” he asked.
“Barry is going to kick your asses,” Beatrice said.
“Ah, she’s lucid,” said Bonnie. “Who is Barry?”
The Dieppe splashed lightly onto Lake Fornas. Edmund waited on the shore. Bonnie untied Beatrice’s bonds. As soon as she saw where she was, she shouted. “You sons of bitches!”
“You’re welcome,” Bonnie said. “And don’t call me son.”
Beatrice jumped from the gondola, ran up to her father, and punched him in the mouth. The old man fell to the ground. The girl took off toward the woods. Jennifer ran after her. She threw her police club. The stick caught the girl hard in the back of the knee and she fell forward on her face. Jennifer was on top of her and dragged her back.
“Hey, don’t hurt her!” Ziller yelled as he got back to his feet.
“Not if she behaves herself,” Jennifer answered.
“Barry is going to kick your asses!” the girl once again threatened.
“She may have a point about Barry,” Ziller said. “Say, couldn’t you give her clothes?”
“She is old enough to dress herself,” said Jenn.
“I’ll go to the house and get some,” Ziller said. “Put her back aboard. The pirates probably are on their way here already.”
“Give me a hand with her,” Jennifer said to Max. “She is your type anyway.”
“Go ahead,” said Bonnie.
Max and Jennifer wrestled the girl back to the airship.
“He’s going to kill all of you!” shouted the girl.
Ziller returned from the house with clothes cradled in his arms. A distant mechanical growl could be heard in the southwest.
“Motorcycles,” Ziller said. “They’re on their way. We had better be on ours.”
Everyone hurried aboard. Asquith nosed the airship skyward. The headlights of motorcycles approached the lake. Max heard shouting and cursing. Then there were shots.
“What if they hit us?” Max asked.
“Relax, any pressure loss should be minimal,” said Asquith. “We can set down in the ocean later, patch any leak, and be back on our way.”
“What if the hydrogen explodes?”
“Then we don’t have to worry about what to do next.”
After an hour of flight, Asquith determined there was a leak in the aftmost ballonet. The moonlit ocean was calm below. He set the ship down. He and Jennifer crawled up into the framework to find and patch the leak.
Max let Casper out of his cage. He had been uncharacteristically quiet. Beatrice had put on shorts and a tee shirt. Max wasn’t sure if he or Edmund was more relieved.
Beatrice stared at Bonnie curiously.
“Something bothering you?” Bonnie asked.
“Everything is bothering me. I hate you all,” Beatrice said.
Jennifer climbed back down from the framework. She had caught the last remark.
“You can’t tell me you are in love with that smelly pig back on the island,” she said.
“He has a good heart. Besides, what am I supposed to do? Play with my dolls in daddy’s house the way he wants me to? Take me back.”
“Not after what it took to get you out of there. If your friends were even slightly better shots, or at least more sober ones, we’d all be dead. Show a little gratitude.”
“Yes. Look Missy,” said Jennifer, “when we’re done in Nevada this airship will be going back to Canada. I don’t much like civilization, but I bet you’ll love it. There are boys there so rude, foul, and obnoxious, they will make your daddy here wish we left you back in the Azores with the pirates.”
The girl plainly hadn’t considered the possibilities. “Canada?”
“Parties. The big city.”
“When do we get there?”
“Soon enough. So are you going to keep being a pain in the ass?”
“Let me think about it.”
Asquith climbed down to the gondola.
“Are we ready to go?” Bonnie asked.
“Soon. We’re making hydrogen by electrolysis for the ballonets, but we have a fuel problem. We didn’t have a chance to top up in the Azores and we don’t have enough to get to Nevada. If we run out, we can make some hydrogen for fuel but it burns fast and isn’t practical for a long trip. We’d be stopping every 50 miles to make more.”
“What do you suggest?” Max asked.
“We can pick up the trade winds to conserve winds to help get us across the Atlantic. It means swinging south. Maybe we should can someplace to cadge some oil when we reach land.”
“You’re the captain.”
Casper crawled on Beatrice.
“Why do you have a kitty?”
“Mice,” Max said.
“We have mice?”
** ** ** **
The Dieppe progressed leisurely on a course for the Gulf of Mexico. Beatrice napped.
“Clarissa will be upset we didn’t go around the world,” Max commented.
“She still may make us do it,” said Bonnie.
“I think it’s best not to mention to her anything about you, Selena, and Greenland Financial,” said Max.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it sort of makes you her business associate,””
“Does it? Is that what is bothering you? Something seems to have put you in a strange mood.”
“You are too good for me.”
“I could have told you that.”
“I mean it. Why are you with me? And when did you become an expert on the state of the world? You didn’t show any interest back in Black River. How do you know so much about rockets? You are a runaway who became a hooker and got herself exiled to Jersey, aren’t you? It doesn’t fit.”
“You always were a sweet talker. What are you driving at?”
“Bonnie, I want you to understand that come what may, I’m on your side.”
“Don’t be so quick with your commitments. You may regret them.”
“Will you two stop the sentimental crap? I think I’m going to puke,” said Jennifer.
“We have trouble coming up behind,” said Asquith. “A storm has been chasing us for a full day. It’s about to catch up.”
The leading edge of the storm swept past the airship. The Dieppe lurched and shuddered. Rain flew horizontally through the gondola.
“Can’t we get out of this?” Max asked.
“Not really. It is too big. I’m trying keep in front of it heading west. I’m hoping it will swing north in back of us. They always do, but it is hard to say when or where.”
“What if it doesn’t turn north soon?”
“The high winds around the eye will overtake us and tear us to pieces. The good news is with this tail wind we have a true surface speed of 80 knots.”
“How is our fuel?”
The storm buffeted them all the way to the Gulf, but turned to the north up the East Coast of North America. Asquith continued west at full speed to gain some distance and blue skies. He turned north.
** ** ** **
Below, a miasmic swamp stretched to the horizon.
“Whoo! Smells like rotting corpses,” said Jennifer. “Where are we?”
“Anywhere near New Orleans?”
“I’m pretty sure we flew right over it.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Wasn’t much to notice. It is under water.”
The transition from swamp to Savannah happened near the Texas border. Asquith spotted some large tanks in an old industrial park.
“Let’s hope those have something in them,” he said. “We’re running on fumes.”
One of the containers still held several hundred gallons of home heating oil. It was not the turbine’s favorite fuel, but it would run on it.
Dieppe passed beyond savannah to desert. There were no signs of recent human habitation. The crew topped up fuel again in New Mexico and continued west. The Colorado was barely more than a trickle in the Grand Canyon. Lake Meade rose only to half the height of Hoover Dam, finding its balance through evaporation rather than flow.
“Las Vegas is down there,” Asquith noted. “Want to place a bet?”
“No. The house always wins.”
The city was still gaudy despite the desolation. Sand swept through the streets, but sunlight glittered off the damaged buildings. Many of the glass panels of the Luxor pyramid were shattered but the size was still impressive.
“Where exactly is Jackass Flats, Ziller?” asked Asquith.
“Northwest. We should be there in an hour or two.”
Two hours later a geodesic dome loomed out of the desert. A shallower dome was in the distance beyond it next to the shattered remnants of another.
“Where are the rockets?” Max asked.
“The plan was to build them in place on recessed launch pads. It simplified assembly. Could you fly over the wrecked structure, captain?”
“Yes, and call me John.”
Dieppe floated above the blackened wisted steel wreckage sticking out of sand and debris.
“Something was launched. They sent it up,” Ziller said in amazement.
“Would it have gone to Mars? Or fallen back to earth already?” Bonnie asked.
“Not necessarily. If it was the one with the atomic engine, it had ion propulsion units powered by solar batteries for minor corrections in orbit and on the Mars flight. If the computer is still working – and there a very simple dedicated one to do it – it should compensate for any orbital decay. It might still be up there. Take us down.”
“Do it,” said Bonnie. “And let the damn cat out when we land. There are some desert rodents running around. He’ll love them.”
With Dieppe settled on the ground, the Jennifer, Bonnie, Selena, and Ziller debarked to examine the interior of the second dome. Asquith and Beatrice remained on the airship.
“The whole dome opens up like a convertible car top, doesn’t it” said Bonnie.
“That’s right,” said Ziller.
Bonnie opened a door and entered. The dome covered a silo with an intact rocket inside.
“What is this designed to do exactly?” asked Bonnie. “It is too small to lift passengers or significant cargo.”
“It is large enough for two people,” said Ziller. “I’m guessing the whole program was scaled back to send only two passengers, though it is hard to see how that could be a viable number to settle Mars.”
“So this was meant to ferry two people up to the atomic rocket in orbit?” Bonnie asked.
“I think so.”
“But they never went. Will this fly?”
“The solar array might be able to power up the equipment – some of it anyway. But fly? Even if no parts are missing, it’s old. Seals dry out. Lines break. Things decay. I doubt it can get off the ground. If it does, it could break up in the air. The solid fuel produces huge pressures inside the booster. And if it did get to orbital altitude, there is no way of knowing if the capsule could come back down safely.”
“Suppose you had the resources to address your concerns,” said Clarissa.
She and her two bodyguards stood in the doorway to the dome. The bodyguards were armed and holding their weapons.
“Bonnie radioed me by short wave that you were headed here,” Clariss explained to Max. “You do know she is Selena, don’t you Max? I took you up on your biometrics suggestion with the photograph of Selena. They matched those of this woman.”
“So I concluded midway through our flight,” said Max. “The reason I dismissed the idea for so long was that Bonnie Danbury is – or was – a real person with a real documented history. And the photo and fingerprints from her arrest records match Bonnie’s. Selena must have taken over the real Bonnie’s identity before she got arrested. You are also Bette Beale, of course,” he said to Selena/Bonnie/Bette. “Did Beatrice not recognize you or has she stayed quiet about you being Bette for some other reason?”
“You’ll have to ask her,” said Selena. “Maybe she figured she could blackmail me with the info in some way, but more probably she really wasn’t sure. She never did pay much attention to me when she was a kid – and my hair is different now. And yes, you’re right about Bonnie. The real Bonnie Danbury died unnoticed by anyone except me. No, I didn’t kill her. She overdosed. I deliberately got a criminal record in her name to reinforce my identity as her including fingerprints. I didn’t expect to be exiled to Jersey, but I made the best of it.”
“But Miss Clairmont,” said Max, “you knew before we left on the trip and yet you let her fly with us. Why?”
“I wanted to see where she would lead you. I always could arrest her later. You are under arrest now, Selena.”
Casper had entered the dome and had become attracted by the swinging buckle by Clarissa’s leg. He launched himself at it, startling Clarissa and the guards. It was all the distraction Jennifer needed. She dropped with a wrench she thrown at his head. She was on the second in an instant, twisting the gun out of his hand.
“I’ll give you a choice, Miss Clairmont,” said Jennifer. “Give up your chase of Selena or give up everything else you want here.”
“You trust me to keep my word?”
“Yes. Besides, you’ve been chasing the wrong person.”
“What do you mean?”
“Selena didn’t send the launch order to the missiles in Dakota. I did.”
“I was defending my country, so I pushed the button. My primary regret is that I missed you.”
“Is this true Bonnie? I mean Selena?” asked Max.
“You can call me Bonnie. It’s probably better if you did. Jennifer is pretty honest, so I believe her. I never asked her about it.”
“But you knew you didn’t do it.”
“Do you think that makes a difference to anyone? I was in command so I was responsible.”
“Not to sound self-interested, you two, but what are you going to do with me?” Clarissa asked.
“Nothing like what you were going to do to us,” Bonnie answered. You might still get to be PM. I haven’t met anyone better qualified for politics since the Governor’s kid in Greenland.”
“Look, Miss Clairmont,” said Bonnie. “If Doctor Zimmer and a team you provide him can get this launch-worthy, someone can rendezvous with the ship in orbit – a ship with an engine that can take us anywhere in the solar system. More prosaically, the ship can stay in orbit and be a platform communications and earth resources.”
“That was very much what I had in mind,” said Clarissa.
Selena continued, “You even can say your hunt for Selena was successful. She was a Miss Bette Beale of Greenland who met her end in the Azores. The story has the virtue of being true, after a fashion. I’ll write the story. After all, I am your personally selected reporter for this trip. If you still feel the need to send this airship around the world, you always can send Captain Asquith out again. We won’t be going with you this time.”
“What about Jennifer? She has to be punished.”
“Does she? To what purpose? Send her back to Dakota. The rest of us all go to Ottawa and sing your praises. Max and I go back to Black River. You get elected, and if you give us any problems we’ll expose your lies.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I wasn’t asking you to like it.”
“Alright, you have a deal.” Clarissa looked at Casper. “This is all your fault.”
“You insisted we bring him, Miss Clairmont.”
“Don’t remind me.”
** ** ** **
Two years later a sliver of a moon was low over the horizon, barely illuminating the dunes. It was with some caution that Bonnie and Max had accepted the invitation from Clairmont Industries to return to the Jackass Flats for the event, but they did.
“I still say it is just going to go up in one big ball of flame,” said Max. “If it does get off the ground it will blow up on the ascent. If it reaches orbit it never will rendezvous with the Mars rocket.”
“You always were too negative, Max?” said Bonnie. “He’ll make it.”
The desert erupted in a blinding light. Flames from the main booster shot into the sky, exiting from exhaust tubes at a forty-five degree angle to the silo. The rocket emerged from the silo slowly but quickly gathered speed.
“I can’t believe Miss Clairmont let my father fly that thing,” said Beatrice, approaching the couple. “He is so old.”
“That’s why she let him go,” said Bonnie. “He convinced her that he not only was the most qualified but that his days were numbered anyway.”
“All our days are numbered. By the way, Bonnie, there is something I’ve been say to you. Do you know how much you look like my old stepmother Bette Beale? Isn’t that funny, now that we know who she was?”
“I’ll keep that in mind in case I ever want to claim her estate. I understand she had quite a lot of money in Greenland. But I think I’ll keep the identity I have. It’s been working for me pretty well lately.”