Read Skybreaker Online

Authors: Kenneth Oppel

Skybreaker (6 page)

BOOK: Skybreaker

She took a step closer. I watched her hands.

“I just want to talk to you.”

I stepped back. “No, I really must go.” I’d heard the pretty ones sometimes distracted you while two or three of their burly men came up behind and thumped you on the head.

“You can’t be afraid of me,” she said, half-amused.

“I don’t know you.”

“Are you Matt Cruse?”

“How did you know?” I asked foolishly.

“Monsieur, is this woman troubling you?”

I turned to see a gendarme approaching with a lantern and a billy club.

“No, officer. But I must go. I’m late.”

The gendarme turned to the girl. “You heard the gentleman now, he doesn’t wish to speak with you any longer. Are you living here in Paris, or just passing through?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It’s precisely my business when dealing with your sort.”

“And what sort is that?”

“Gypsies, mademoiselle.”

“I’m a Roma.”

“Call it what you will—”

I walked away, feeling guilty at leaving the girl in the clutches of the gendarme. But I was truly unsettled now. Was she the one lurking in the doorway of the Academy? Had she followed me all the way? Perhaps Dean Pruss was right, and there were many people hungry for information about the
, people who might wish me harm.

I quickened my pace and within minutes I was in the Place Vendôme, encircled by sparkling restaurants and bars and boutiques. The Ritz, with its blazing windows and honeyed stone, radiated luxury and safety. An enormous doorman, clad in a brass-buttoned coat that looked like it could sink a battleship, stood before the hotel’s entrance.

“Can I help you, monsieur?” he inquired.

I pulled Grunel’s card from my pocket and held it out to the doorman. He glanced at it, and then pushed the door wide.

The Ritz had no lobby. I’d heard they didn’t want to give room to undesirables who might come hoping for a peek or a photograph of the rich and famous. I stepped quickly towards the elevators.

“Which floor, sir?” The elevator boy couldn’t have been more than ten. He looked tired, the poor lad. I hoped they didn’t work him too hard here. Paris was filled with young working boys, and girls too, their eyes ringed with soot and exhaustion.

“The Trafalgar Suite, please.”

As he was closing the mesh screen I saw the gypsy girl rush into the hotel, nimbly pulling free from the doorman’s grip. Her eyes swept the hall and locked with mine.

“Matt Cruse, wait!” she called out, hurrying towards me, but the elevator was already starting to rise. “Just a moment of your time, please!” she shouted as we lifted out of sight. The last thing I saw was the doorman striding angrily towards her, telling her in no uncertain terms to clear off.

“Pestering you, is she, sir?” asked the elevator boy.

“I don’t know her,” I muttered. And yet she had known my name. My heart was pounding. She was just a girl—not some hooded thug—but the blazing urgency in her face and eyes shocked me. I wondered who on earth she was.

“Old Serge will have her out in no time,” said the elevator boy. “Now then, the Trafalgar Suite is just down the hall to your left, sir.”

“Thank you.”

I gave him all the spare change in my pocket and made my way to the door. It was a vast expanse of darkly lustrous, coffered wood, with a single button in the middle. I pressed it.

The man who opened the door was dressed in a velvet dinner jacket. He was a big fellow, and might have appeared a brute except for his trim ginger beard, which lent him an air of distinction. He smoked a long brown cigarette.

“I’m Matt Cruse,” I told him.

“Matthias Grunel.” He held out his free hand and we shook. His grip was powerful. “Please come in.”

He led me through a small foyer into a large sitting room, sumptuously decorated with enough brass and gilt and leather to put the king of Bohemia to shame. The walls were panelled, with an elaborate crown moulding at the base of the ceiling; the fireplace was marble, no doubt Italian. Enormous sprays of fresh flowers were arranged on the various sideboards and bureaus and tables and armoires.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Grunel said. “Would you like to sit down?”

I lowered myself into an armchair so deep I nearly fell backwards. I perched on the edge, suddenly not knowing where to put my legs and hands. I wished Kate were here with me. She’d know what to do among fancy people.

The curtains were still parted, giving a wide view of the Place Vendôme. Drizzle glittered in the spotlight beams aimed at the great bronze column in the square’s centre. Hieroglyphs swirled around it, all the way to the top, where a statue of Napoleon stood, looking quite smug.

“Cigarette, Mr. Cruse?”

“No, thank you.”

“A whisky? Or something else perhaps? Port, brandy?” He gestured to the array of crystal bottles on the drinks table.

“Thank you, no.”

“Too young for such bad old habits.” He poured himself a tumbler of some amber liquid and sat down opposite me on a sofa. “It really is awfully good of you to come. Mr. Pruss has explained why we’re here, I imagine.”

“He has, yes.”

“I’m sure you can understand how we, my family, would like to reclaim our grandfather’s belongings.”

“Of course.”

“Mr. Pruss said you were one of his top students.”

“If he did, he was being very kind,” I replied.

“You were working as a navigator aboard the Flotsam, yes?”

“Assistant to Mr. Domville.”

“I understand it was a pretty rough ride.”

“It was indeed.”

“But it must have been something to see the

“It really was very strange, sir.”

His sleeves were just a little too short. I might not have noticed it, except that he had astonishingly hairy wrists and forearms, and whenever he lifted his cigarette to his mouth or reached for his tumbler on the side table, his sleeves would shoot up and reveal his hairiness. Matthias Grunel was wealthy as sin, so why on earth would he be wearing an expensive jacket that was too small for him? I’d worked three years aboard a luxury airship liner, and one thing I’d noticed about the rich: their clothes always fit. I wondered if Matthias Grunel had already squandered his family’s fortune, and was now down and out, just trying to put on a good show.

“You’re a resourceful young fellow by all accounts,” said Grunel. “Your dean wasn’t sure how much you might remember, but obviously we’d be extremely grateful for any information you could give us. And my family feels very strongly that, if we do recover the
, you should receive a full five percent of its value.”

“That’s really too generous, sir.”

The newspaper had calculated the airship’s contents at fifty million europas. Whether this was a reasonable guess or complete invention, I had no way of knowing. But that would mean two and a half million just for me. It was too mind-boggling a sum to even contemplate. It was enough for five lifetimes.

“We would insist,” said Grunel with a smile. “After all, without your coordinates how else could we hope to find the ship? It’s been a source of great sorrow to me that my grandfather was never able to fulfill his final wishes. My grandfather was a very loving man, Mr. Cruse.”

Matthias Grunel faltered for a moment, perhaps overcome with emotion. He stood and turned his back to me, staring out the window.

“He would have been so distressed to think that his beloved son and most cherished daughter—and all their offspring—had never benefited from the fruits of his great fame and industry. If we can recover the
—and my grandfather’s body—I feel his soul will at last be able to rest in peace.”

He turned towards me, and exhaled a long rapier blade of cigarette smoke. I swallowed, feeling queasy.

This man was not Matthias Grunel.

I’d suspected it the moment I’d seen his sleeves ride up. And now I knew it with sickening certainty. It was the mention of Grunel’s cherished daughter. Hadn’t Kate told me Theodore Grunel had had a falling-out with his only daughter? Cut her off without a penny? Kate would not get a detail like that wrong; she was a voracious and attentive reader. I trusted her completely. Ginger Beard here was an imposter.

From the drinks table he picked up a notepad and pencil, and brought them over to me.

“If you were working the charts, you probably have a pretty good idea of the
’s coordinates.”

I took the pencil and started writing some numbers, then scribbled them out and put on a show of chewing my lip and frowning.

“What was it now?” I muttered. “You see, sir, we’d just gone through the Devil’s Fist and were mightily off course….”

I was not going to offer up the coordinates to this imposter, whoever he was. My only thoughts now were of getting away.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what the dean told you, but my memory’s never been my strong point—and the air was so thin up there. We were at twenty thousand feet, you know. I don’t think my brain was working its best.”

“Ahh …” said Ginger Beard. “Of course. But you can probably remember the rough coordinates, no? The charts would have been before you the whole time, surely.”

“I know, sir, it’s just …” I screwed my eyes shut, tapping my pencil against the pad, trying to look a proper imbecile. “It’s very embarrassing, sir. Please don’t tell the dean.”

He was smiling hard at me, but it was not a kindly smile.

“Just think of the reward that could await you. Think hard now.”

I took a deep breath, wrote down a set of coordinates that were off by several hundred miles, and handed them over.

“There! I think that’s it!” I said, standing up. “I really should get back now, if you don’t mind. Exams are coming up and—”

“Strange though,” said Ginger Beard, and I felt myself start to sweat beneath my arms. “I thought the Flotsam was bound
for Alexandria over the Indian Ocean. These coordinates are well over the subcontinent.”

Only a mariner of the sea or sky could glance at raw longitude and latitude and fix them instantly on a map.

“Oh,” I said, downcast. “I’ve bungled it then. I’m sorry I’m not more use to you.” Heart pounding, I turned and stepped towards the door.

“Lads!” Ginger Beard shouted. “I think our boy needs some help remembering!”

The room was suddenly full of men, striding in from various doorways. Unlike Ginger Beard, they wore no velvet smoking jackets. Clad in dark trousers, coarse shirts rolled back to the elbows, boots, and caps, they emanated the unmistakable whiff of oil, Aruba fuel, and hydrium that marked them as airshipmen. Two of them seized me by the shoulders and pushed me back into the centre of the room, face to face with Ginger Beard.

“Don’t lie to me, boy,” he said. “You’re no simpleton.”

“I really don’t know,” I insisted, seeing the exact coordinates swirl before my mind’s eye. Part of me wondered if I shouldn’t just tell and be done with it. But if I were to tell them, they might just as easily bundle me out the window to keep me eternally quiet.

“Shall I give him some stars to see?” said one of the men, pulling back his fist.

“No,” Ginger Beard said sharply. “Show some respect, Bingham. This is Mr. Matt Cruse, pirate slayer. We know
all about you, Cruse. Read about how you bested our late lamented colleague, Mr. Szpirglas.”

With a sickening jolt I wondered if these scoundrels were the last dregs of Szpirglas’s crew, come to wreak their revenge.

“Don’t worry,” said Ginger Beard with a wink, “there was no love lost between me and Szpirglas. He and I parted ways years ago! I’m no pirate. That’s nasty, coarse work. My name’s John Rath. My colleagues and I, we’re employed by some of the finest people in London and Paris. You’d be surprised. Think of us as private investigators.”

I said nothing.

“I’m here to make you a proposition, Cruse. I like what I’ve heard of you. You’re a smart lad. Not nearly as gullible as that dean of yours. He went for my Matthias Grunel story hook, line, and sinker!”

One of Rath’s men gave a snort of derision.

Rath nodded appraisingly at me. “And anyone who can send Vikram Szpirglas to a watery grave is worth ten of these great hulks behind you—no offence, lads,” he said to his henchmen. “I think you and I can do business together, Mr. Cruse. What say you? There’s money in it. Plenty. You like money, don’t you?”

I said nothing, but I thought of the elevator boy. I thought of my secondhand uniform. I thought of my mother, her finger joints swollen and shiny with rheumatism, wincing as she sewed.

“It’s very tempting,” I said. Maybe if I played along, I would find a chance to break free.

“Good then. What say we take you for a little ride and talk some more? Convince you,” said Rath. “And if not, dangling over the river from a thousand feet can often be very persuasive. Come along, gents. We’re checking out!”

Two of them grabbed my arms and started marching me out of the room. John Rath downed his drink and grabbed a full bottle of whisky.

“I’ve quite enjoyed putting on the Ritz,” he said. “But only a fool would pay for it.”

Out we went. An elderly couple was walking down the corridor towards us, but shrank back in terror as the men shouted at them to clear off. I considered bellowing for help, but doubted it would do me much good. We reached the stairwell. Rath kicked the door open, and up we went. At the top of the stairs, they flung another door wide, and I was dragged out onto the roof of the Ritz. Drizzle wet my face.

The glow from a large skylight illuminated the underbelly of a small airship, hovering silently a few feet off the roof. It was tied up with only bow and stern lines. As we moved towards her, twin propellers gave a cough and began to turn.

“Get him on board,” said Ginger Beard.

I gave a mighty jerk and twist and was free, but it was no good. One of the men kicked me onto my knees, and they had me again, tighter than before. From the airship, a gangway sprang down, revealing a rectangle of pale light. Ginger Beard led the way.

A smudge of movement caught my eye. A shadowy figure slipped from the darkness of the roof and crouched before the ship’s bow line. With a quick tug it was loose. There was shouting from the Control Car, and a spotlight flared from its underside.

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