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Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker (4 page)

BOOK: Skybreaker

must miss you and your food.”

“Yes,” he said. “This is true. Many of the officers wept openly. But to cook in Paris, at such a restaurant as this, has many compensations. And you are studying here, are you not?”

“The Airship Academy.”

“Very good, Mr. Cruse. Very good.”

“Maybe when I have my own ship, I can convince you to come aboard.”

“Ha! Maybe so, Mr. Cruse. With you as captain, I need fear no pirates, no!”

“It’s good to see you, Mr. Vlad,” I told him. “I’ve missed you all.”

A sous-chef in a floppy white hat appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking desperate.

“Monsieur Vlad, le consommé!” he whispered.

“Idiot!” roared Vlad, standing. “Can I entrust you with nothing?” He turned back to me, all smiles. “These Eiffel Tower idiots. They have much to learn. Enjoy your meal, Mr. Cruse.”

“I will. Thank you very much.”

With that, Chef Vlad strode into the kitchen, shouting abuse at his stricken assistants in a variety of languages.

Moments later, my waiter mutely returned with a platter of smoked salmon and capers and all sorts of breads and crackers to eat them with, and an enormous bowl of the
most delicious-looking salad I’d ever seen. The champagne cork shot out with a celebratory pop. My flute sparkled and fizzed as it filled. There’s nothing like a sip of champagne to cheer you up. All those bubbles give you quite a lift.

Kate was forty minutes late now, but I didn’t feel so upset anymore. I fixed myself some smoked salmon and sipped at my champagne, and enjoyed watching the other guests. The Great Farini smiled at me and lifted his glass high. The Yukon gold lady winked at me. I winked back. I was feeling on top of the world. Kate would come in and find me waiting with champagne, and an array of delicious food, and a whipped waiter who would hustle over whenever I looked his way.

The drone of an ornithopter rose above the restaurant’s buzz. I turned and glanced out the north-facing windows to see a small single-seater flying towards the Eiffel Tower, at the same level as the restaurant. At first I watched with interest, then growing alarm, as the ornithopter, feathered wings flapping furiously, did not bear away or dip down to the landing docks below the platform.

The diners nearest the north windows had also noticed and were looking at one another in consternation.

“Look out!” a man bellowed, and dozens of guests scattered, knocking over cutlery and wine glasses and chairs in their panic.

The ornithopter careened ever closer, and just before it came crashing through the glass, it banked more sharply than I thought possible, and veered off around the corner. The restaurant had windows on all sides, and I had an almost
uninterrupted view of the ornithopter as it made a dizzying circuit of the Eiffel Tower.

A cheeky daredevil this pilot must be, for as he came around for the second time he lifted a hand and cheerfully waved at the very diners he’d just sent scattering. I couldn’t get a very good look at his face because he was hidden behind flight goggles and a leather helmet. Then he swung away in a wide 360-degree turn, and made a proper approach to land his ornithopter below the Eiffel Tower’s second platform.

Waiters hurried to restore order. Tables were relaid, chairs righted, complimentary wine and champagne poured to soothe rattled nerves. It took only moments before everyone was chatting and eating again, and the whole incident might never have happened.

Another bottle of champagne and platter of salmon had appeared on my table, even though I hadn’t finished the first ones yet. I was hungrily eyeing the salad when I heard an excited murmur ripple through the restaurant. I looked up to see an ornithopter pilot striding out of the elevator, leather helmet and goggles still on, beaded with dew. Everyone watched, wondering if this could be the same lunatic who’d nearly berthed his ornithopter in the restaurant.

I swallowed, for it seemed he was headed straight for my table.

He pulled off his helmet and a mass of dark auburn hair spilled out. Off came the goggles, and I was looking at the beaming face of Kate de Vries. I could not speak.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“That was you?” I managed to say.

“You’re not the only one who can fly now, Mr. Cruse.”

“When did this happen?”

“I’ve been taking lessons in my spare time.”

“It’s incredible! That was quite a fancy trick at the window.”

“Oh, that. I was completely out of control. I’m amazed I didn’t smash myself to bits. Champagne! What a brilliant idea!”

Her legs were shaking, and she sat down. Her eyes were rimmed red from the goggles. I poured her a glass of champagne, and she drained it in two or three swallows.

“Ah, that’s better.” She looked at the label. “Good heavens, this is awfully fancy.”

“It’s nothing,” I said.

“Well, it’s my treat.”

“It’s on me today.”

“Gosh, certainly not. I invited you!”

“I insist.”

She lowered her voice. “You have seen the prices, haven’t you?”

I shrugged with supreme indifference.

“Well, thank you very much. They might have given us a better view,” she said, frowning at the great elevator wheel at our window.

“I was rather enjoying it,” I said defensively.

“Boys like mechanical things, don’t they.”

“Gears and cables and wheels. That’s all we can cram into our tiny little brains. I can’t believe you’re a pilot now!”

“I prefer the word aviatrix. It has more zing to it.”

“It’s very zingy,” I agreed.

“Anyway, that’s why I picked the Jewels Verne. I was hoping you’d see me as I came in to land. You did see me, didn’t you?”

“Everyone did. You caused quite a stir.”

“Those trapeze landings are very tricky, you know!”

“I can imagine.”

“Are you impressed?” she asked.


Though, truth be told, I didn’t know exactly how I felt. Flying wasn’t just a hobby for me, it was something personal, all wound up in my bones and veins. It was my thing, and I wasn’t at all sure I liked sharing it with Kate. Especially since she was brilliant at so many other things.

“I just thought it might come in handy,” Kate said. “Seeing as I intend to lead a life of dazzling adventure.”

“When did you manage to take lessons?” I asked her.

“Well, I have no classes at the Sorbonne on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, so I thought I’d put the time to good use.”

“Who’s been teaching you?” I demanded, suddenly suspicious.

“A charming young gentleman called Philippe, as it turns out.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. He’s an instructor at a small flight school in the Bois de Boulogne. He had impeccable references, I might add.
And he’s so kind. He’s offered to give me some extra lessons for half his usual price.”

“I’m sure he has.” I didn’t like this at all. This Philippe had probably seen more of her than I had over the past few months.

“I guess Miss Simpkins was there the whole time,” I said hopefully.

“Fortunately, these ornithopters only seat two. Marjorie had to wait in the lounge, which was quite all right by her.” I couldn’t imagine that Kate’s parents approved of her learning to fly, and said so.

Kate gave a Mona Lisa smile.

“Ah,” I said, “of course. They don’t know. But didn’t Miss Simpkins tell them?”

“Marjorie and I have a wonderful arrangement now,” Kate said, unable to hide her delight. “A while back she had a bit of a romance. With a real bounder actually.”

“A bounder?”

“Yes, one who bounds. Away. A rascal, you know. But Marjorie fancied him, and they had a bit of a fling. Anyway, I turned a blind eye to that, and in return she now turns a blind eye to some of my little projects.”

“It sounds like there’s a lot of blindness going around,” I said.

“It’s very convenient. And we get to have lunch just the two of us.” She squeezed some lemon juice on a large piece of smoked salmon. “This is quite a spread, Matt. I’ve never seen a waiter more attentive.”

“Well, it seems they’ve … heard of me.” I shook my head humbly. “You know, my little adventure aboard the
, and all.”

“It was my adventure, too,” she said, rather put out.

“Ah, but you didn’t defeat Vikram Szpirglas in single-handed combat on the ship’s tail fin, did you.”

“You told me he slipped.”

“Well, I gave him a good shove.”

“Hmm.” She narrowed her nostrils for a moment—an old trick of hers when she wanted to put someone in their place—but then she smiled. “I missed you these two weeks. So, how was your training tour? You’re back early.”

“Ah, well, there’s a story to that.”

“Was the ship as horrible as you thought it would be?”

“Much worse.” I smiled. I’d been dying to tell her all about my ill-fated flight aboard the Flotsam.

“Can’t wait,” she said. “And I have some exciting news too!”

“Well, you go first,” I said, practising gentlemanly restraint.

“You sure?”

“Go ahead.”

I didn’t actually think she’d take me up on it, but she did. She reached inside her aviatrix jacket and took out a folded newspaper.

“You haven’t seen today’s Global Tribune, have you?” When I shook my head she opened the newspaper and laid it flat on the table. In amazement and dismay I stared at the headline:


Beneath it, an artist had drawn a rendition of the famous ghost ship.

I’d been scooped.

“Apparently,” Kate said, “some cargo ship spotted it over the Indian Ocean. Isn’t that fabulous?”

I grabbed the paper. Someone aboard the Flotsam must have sold the story to the newspapers for quick money. Captain Tritus would be furious; he’d told his crew to keep it secret, for he intended to salvage the
as soon as his ship was repaired. Given the Flotsam’s condition, that wouldn’t be any time soon.

“I remember my grandfather telling me about the
,” Kate said. “Have you heard of her?”

“I saw her,” I said, still reading.


“I was on that cargo ship.”

Kate snatched the paper away from me.

“The Flotsam,” I told her. “That was my training ship.”


Immediately I felt better, just looking at the astonishment on her face.

“You saw the

I nodded, took a slow sip of my champagne, and put the glass down carefully, savouring the moment. Here I was, dining in the fanciest restaurant in Paris, drinking the finest champagne in the world, and, best of all, seated across from a dazzling young lady, who was hanging on my every word.

“I was going to tell you right away, but you said you had exciting news.”

“You should’ve just told me to put a cork in it.”

“I’ll remember that next time.”

Between us, we’d pretty much finished off the salmon and the salad. The waiter whisked away our plates, and I’d scarcely taken three breaths before new ones were set before us.

“Arctic char,” Kate said in delight.

I looked over her shoulder to see Chef Vlad peeping out through the doorway. He smiled, gave a little wave, and disappeared back into the kitchen.

“Tell me everything,” Kate commanded, and set to her meal.

In between bites of my delicious duck, I told her the whole story, glad that we were seated a ways off from the other diners. I didn’t want anyone else hearing. Every time the waiter came near to see how we were doing, Kate dismissed him with a little imperious wave. She was a very satisfying audience, I must say, her big brown eyes never straying from me as I spoke. Halfway through my story she took my hand under the table, and the unexpected warm touch of her sent a hot rush through the hidden parts of my body. I stumbled over my words.

“Keep going,” she said impatiently.

“Sorry. You just distracted me.”

“Should I let go?” she whispered.

“No, I like it.”

I continued on, and during the most dangerous and exciting bits, I felt her squeeze my hand hard.

“Gosh,” she said when I’d finished. “How terrible about Mr. Domville.”

“When I left Ceylon, he was still in the hospital.”

For a moment she said nothing. “But it’s really up there. The

“Way up there.”

She leaned forward. “Do you know what’s aboard?”

“Gold, they say.”

“Oh, yes, gold,” she said dismissively. “But do you know what else?”

“Lots of very frosty corpses.”

“Possibly. But listen. The
was owned by Theodore Grunel.”

“The inventor, I know.”

“Not just any inventor! He built most of the great bridges in the world. Plus the underground railways of Europe. Oh, and the tunnels beneath the Strait of Gibraltar and the English Channel.”

“The internal combustion engine was his too,” I said.

“I was just getting to that. It made him immensely wealthy. And after that he invented all sorts of other things. He was brilliant, but very, very odd, by all accounts. Lots of strange habits. Didn’t like people much. He had a son and daughter, and didnget along with them at all, especially the girl. She married someone he didn’t approve of, apparently, and they never spoke again. Cut her off completely. Anyway, that’s not important. When he got older he became more and more reclusive. He would take long mysterious journeys. No one
really knew what he was doing anymore. Then one day he disappeared. He left behind a statement announcing he was leaving Edinburgh and moving to America. Just like that. He’d had his own special ship built in secret, to carry all his belongings. He’d handpicked the captain and all the crew. They say that ship was carrying his entire life, everything he owned!”

She looked at me triumphantly.

“So there’s also some very nice furniture aboard,” I said.

“He wasn’t just an inventor. He was also an avid collector. He had one of the most extensive collections of taxidermy in the world.” She paused, and lowered her voice. “He had specimens he never showed to the public.”

My skin crawled. “Like what?”

“No one knows. Some people say he had animals that had been extinct for centuries, or creatures everyone thought were imaginary. And it’s all up there in the
. The entire ship is like a floating zoological museum—a museum that’s never been seen before.”

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