Authors: Kenneth Oppel
The shadowy figure ran, grabbed hold of the forward landing wheel, and gave a strong shove. The ship was lighter than air and moved easily, swinging in a swift, wide arc, held only by her stern line.
“Steady her!” Ginger Beard shouted to his men from the hatchway.
The ship came straight for us, propellers whirling. We all threw ourselves to the gravel roof. The airship roared overhead, buffeting me with its engine wash. With a start, I realized I was free.
“Come here!” one of the pirates barked, lunging at me on all fours.
I kicked him in the chin, scrambled up, and started running.
Someone touched my arm, and I looked to see the gypsy girl keeping pace with me. Her headscarf was gone and her long black hair was tucked inside the collar of her overcoat.
“This way,” she said, veering towards the roof’s edge. “Can you jump?”
“Oh, I can jump!”
She sped ahead and leapt without even hesitating. Her leather coat flared out behind her like wings, and I thought, I’d like a coat like that. She touched down on the next building,
arms wide for balance. My strides lengthened and I took flight, my body thrilling as it soared over the lane far below. I hit the gravel running and caught up with the girl. Blinking away the rain, I turned to look back at the Ritz. A couple of pirates stood at the roof’s edge, silhouetted briefly by their airship’s spotlight as it soared over them, heading for us.
“There!” I puffed, racing towards an access door jutting from the roof. The ship’s drone deepened. I rattled the door but it would not budge, rickety as it was.
There was the crack of a pistol, and we cowered as the airship shot overhead and began to turn. We had to get off the roof, but I could see no other exit.
“We’ve got to jump again,” said the girl, and launched herself into a run. We only had a few precious seconds before the airship was upon us. There was only one other building close enough; it was not so very far, but it was lower than the Ritz and would be quite a drop. We had only a moment to pick a likely spot, then sped up and soared across—and down, landing hard among chimney stacks and wooden water tanks.
Cloaked in shadow, we ran across the long stretch of rooftops, leaping alleys when needed. The airship hounded us, its spotlight fixing us time and time again. They’d dropped a couple of men down onto the roof, and we could hear them behind us, trying to hem us in.
“Aim for the legs!” I heard Rath shout at them from the airship above, “I want them alive!”
This was not an encouraging thing to hear. Up ahead, I
could see the roof ending, and beyond that a great canyon between us and the next building.
“It’s big,” the gypsy girl panted.
“Too big,” I said.
To our left and right were high brick walls, no ladders or likely footholds to be seen. We were cut off. Before us, the roof angled down sharply, a slate toboggan ride, ridged with garret windows.
“You’ve no fear of heights,” puffed the girl.
“None,” I said.
“I’ve heard that about you.”
The airship skidded overhead, and gunfire pockmarked the shingle. The ship’s wake nearly toppled me over. The gypsy skipped over the roof’s edge and skidded crazily down the slate. She grabbed a weather vane, twirled around it, and swung herself in through the open window of a garret. I heard a shriek of surprise from inside.
I could only follow. Down I went, surfing on slate and hoping I would not overshoot the weather vane. I clutched at it and felt it bend far out, nearly spilling me off the roof altogether. My feet scrabbled against the shingles. Before me, the airship was turning, and I saw Rath leaning out of the hatch, pistol cocked. I heaved myself through the open window.
It was not a graceful landing. Some bit of furniture shattered beneath me and there was the sound of broken glass, and I was sprawled on the floor in a most undignified manner. I scrambled to my feet and found myself in a bedroom. An
attractive young woman in her corset and petticoats stood screaming at the gypsy girl in French.
“Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle,” I said. “Just running for our lives.”
We hastily found the door of the apartment and clattered down the corridor and into the stairwell. The sound of our wild breathing reverberated off the walls. I was barely aware of my feet touching the steps. Everything was a blur. Suddenly we were outside in the dark and drizzle, and we hurled ourselves down a narrow cobbled street, and then another, intent only on escaping the sound of propellers.
E RAN FOR A GOOD LONG TIME
, and it was only a stitch in my side that made me stop. I stood with my hands on my hips, breathing hard. I had no idea where I was. I listened and could not hear propellers.
“I think we’re okay now,” the girl said, her voice hoarse from exertion.
“Thank you,” I said, “for helping me up there.”
“Will you talk to me now?”
“Who are you?”
“My name’s Nadira. We can go in there and have a hot drink,” she suggested, pointing up the cobbled street to the bright window of a café.
I hesitated. True, she’d helped save me from John Rath and his men, but who was to say this was not just another trap. My knees felt wobbly and I wanted to sit. It was probably a good idea to get inside, in case anyone came looking for us.
Inside the noisy café, Nadira led the way to a table near the back and asked the waiter for two coffees. She tried to gather her damp, wild hair into a braid. Long tendrils escaped and floated along her temple and cheek. I knew very few young women, and certainly none who wore leather overcoats. I shouldn’t have agreed to this. She was a gypsy. Everyone had warned me.
The coffee arrived. I’d always liked the smell better than the taste, but I was chilled and shaken enough to appreciate the hot jolt of it down my throat.
“I could’ve warned you about them,” she said. “If only you’d listened.”
“So you know them?” I asked suspiciously.
“I know who they are.”
“That’s being evasive.”
“I don’t work for them,” she said, “if that’s what you mean.”
“Who do you work for, then?” I asked.
“No one. Myself.”
She was very pretty, and it made me uncomfortable. Was that why I was still sitting here? Or was I genuinely, dangerously, curious? I found the way she looked at me unnerving. Her gaze had a locksmith’s insistence. I didn’t know if her dark eyes held curiosity, wariness, or even hatred for me.
“I thought you’d be bigger,” she commented. “All those stories about you in the newspaper.”
“Well, they tend to exaggerate, don’t they?”
“They certainly do.”
I hoped she didn’t think me a paltry specimen. “How did you find me?”
She took another sip of her coffee. “I’ve got a business proposition for you.”
“You want us to team up and salvage the
?” I suggested.
“That’s right,” Nadira said. “There’s a fortune on board, and I want it. You’ve got the coordinates, don’t you?”
There was no risk of our being overhead in the din of the café. We had to lean across the table even to hear each other. Mingled with the damp odour of her leather overcoat was a warm, faintly spicy smell. Cumin, maybe. Working around Chef Vlad’s kitchen for years, there were few spices I wasn’t acquainted with.
“I don’t think I’m interested,” I told her.
“Is it because I’m a gypsy?”
I did not answer.
“You don’t know anything about the Roma, do you?” she demanded. “I mean, aside from the fact that we’re all pickpockets and brigands?”
“No, not really,” I replied.
“You shouldn’t believe every nasty rumour you hear.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” I felt ashamed.
“So, what do you think? Can we work together?”
“I don’t even know you,” I said.
“No, but you need me.”
Nadira reached a hand down through her collar and lifted out a thin leather case that hung around her neck. With her long fingers she snapped open the clasp and drew out a tarnished brass key. An ingenious-looking thing it was, and obviously quite old, with all sorts of prongs that folded out from the central shaft and revolved around it. It was as much a puzzle as a key. I’d never seen anything so intricate.
“It looks like it could unlock the gates of heaven,” I said.
“Almost.” She deftly folded it up and slid it back into the
leather pouch. I tried not to look at the smooth, dusky skin of her throat. “It unlocks the cargo holds aboard the
“How do you know?”
“I have it on very good authority,” she said.
“Where’d you get the key?”
She did not even blink. “That’s my business.”
“Did you steal it from John Rath?”
“No. He found out I had it and came looking for me. I did a little spying and overheard them talking about you. They said you had the coordinates. So I got passage to Paris as fast as I could. I wanted to warn you.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
I’d suspected as much from her accent. She’d come all the way from Angleterre to find me. Had she travelled alone—practically unheard of for a girl in proper society? And who had paid her way? Or maybe she had her own means. I imagined she must be entangled in some dangerous criminal underworld. How else would such a valuable key have come into her possession? She dressed like a man. She spied. She could leap across rooftops and dodge bullets. Altogether she was a mystery.
“You have the coordinates,” she said, “I’ve got the key. We need each other.”
I shrugged. “Locks can be broken.”
“Not these ones.”
“You seem to know an awful lot,” I said, “but you’re not telling me much. Why should I trust you?”
“Look,” Nadira said, leaning even closer to me. Her teeth were very white against her skin. “Grunel knew there were air pirates about, and he didn’t want to take any chances. The cargo holds are all ferro-titanium cages, and they’re booby-trapped. If anyone tries to get into them without unlocking the doors, they blow up. Grunel only had one key made, by some fancy locksmith in Switzerland. But the locksmith was so proud of his special key he couldn’t shut up about it, and word got out to a group of pirates. They paid the locksmith a visit and found he’d kept his designs. They held him at gunpoint until he made them their very own copy. Then they shot him.”
“And somehow,” I said, “you’ve got that copy.”
“It was a gift.”
“Quite a gift.”
“The pirates never did find the
. That’s what I was told. It just disappeared. Everyone assumed it had crashed into the sea. The key lost all its value. It was just a curiosity. Over the years it passed from person to person. My father won it in a card game and gave it to me when I was eight.”
“Your father’s not interested in this venture?”
Suddenly I felt very tired. “You can’t know if that key’s the real thing.”
“It’s the real thing,” she said, quiet but fierce.
“We should be talking to the Sky Guard,” I said, “or the Airborne Police.”
“What on earth for?”
“John Rath and his men were shooting at us!” I exclaimed. “They’re dangerous.”
“We’ll avoid them. If we go to the Sky Guard they’re going to want your coordinates, and my key. There’s no way I’m handing it over.”
“I really don’t want to get involved with this,” I said.
“You’re already involved,” she told me. “You’re the only person on the planet with the ship’s coordinates.”
“I’ll go to the newspapers then. They can publish the information for the whole world to see, and then I’m through with it.”
She looked at me silently for a moment, then gave a nod. “You’re not interested? Fair enough. Just give me the coordinates. I’ll have a go.”
I made no reply.
“See!” she said. “You are interested!”
“Honestly, I don’t know.”
“You can’t pass this up,” she insisted. “We need this, you and I.”
“What do you mean?” I felt like she’d tossed a rope around us both and cinched it tight.
“I think you know,” she said. “You’re not from money. The newspapers said you have no father, but you’ve got a mother and sisters back home to take care of. All you had was a cabin boy’s salary, and that’s gone now that you’re at the Academy. It’s going to be a struggle.”
She seemed to know a lot about me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed.
“You’re trying to make a go of it on your own,” Nadira said. “And so am I. We need big breaks.” There was such urgency in her face. “This would be the biggest break of all.”
I sighed. “I think I should be going.”
“The Academy,” I told her.
“You might have company waiting for you.”
Goosebumps erupted across my belly and neck. She was right. Rath and his men knew exactly where to find me.
“I’ll have to tell the dean,” I said. “He was fooled by—”
“Who says he was fooled? Maybe they offered him a cut.”
“No,” I said, “he’s not in on it. He got tricked. Rath said so himself.”
“Go then,” she said miserably. “No one’s stopping you.”
I put some money on the table for the coffee and got up.
“Don’t you even want to know where to find me?” she asked.
“199 rue Zeppelin,” she said. “It’s near the aeroport.”
“I know where it is.”
She held my gaze. “Remember, you can’t do this without me.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Well, you can’t.”
“Goodbye,” I said. “And thank you.”
I was grateful to be back on the street, in the night’s cool drizzle. After walking for half an hour, it all began to seem like a dream: John Rath at the Ritz, the rooftop chase, the
gypsy girl who came to my rescue. I looked about me. The buildings were so solid, the flagstone hard beneath my feet. My eyes grazed the faces of the men I passed, but all I saw were ordinary people going about their normal lives. The air smelled like stone and cold trees and the river.
I wasn’t far from the Academy now. Down the boulevard I beheld its impressive façade, warm and welcoming in the glow from the streetlamps. I was exhausted—I wanted sleep. At the bottom of the steps I hesitated, then told myself I was being silly. In the morning I would talk to the dean, and then I would go to the Sky Guard and tell them everything. I walked through the entrance archway.
I couldn’t see Douglas in the porter’s lodge. A mug of tea was steaming on his desk beside the late edition of La Presse. I walked on to the quadrangle. Usually it was bathed in the light from the surrounding dormitory windows, but now it was murky. I looked up at Dornier House and picked out my window. Behind the glass something shifted.
Electricity jolted through my body, and I actually let out a gasp. I spun around and ran back to the porter’s lodge.
There was no reply from the back room. Perhaps he was doing his rounds, or had been summoned away on some urgent business. I stood, frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do. The great clock in the hallway ticked. Far away I heard a door creak. A few footsteps, then silence.
I fled. Perhaps I was unwise, and cowardly, but I wanted to get out of the building. I dashed out the main doors and
back onto the street. I stood for a moment, comforted by the passing carriages and the moving constellation of airship lights overhead. A gendarme strolled past on the other side of the street. I wondered if I really had seen someone behind the window. One thing I knew for certain. I could not sleep in my own room tonight.
Kate’s house was on the Ile St-Louis, a little island floating in the shadow of Notre Dame. I took the footbridge behind the cathedral to the island’s tip, and headed down the Quai de Baudelaire. The street was an unbroken wall of baroque mansions, rising like a glorious fortress over the river and the city’s Left Bank. Just looking at all those grand houses made me feel poor. Kate’s was number twenty-six.
Deirdre, one of her maids, opened the door to me. I knew she was from the same country as my parents, but when once I’d tried using my few words of Gaelic, she had pretended she didn’t understand me and refused to reply. Now that she was a maid in a fancy Parisian mansion, I supposed she was embarrassed by her birthplace. It had made me feel sad and vaguely humiliated.
“Monsieur?” she said with a disapproving air.
For the first time, I realized I must look a sight, my uniform all crumpled, my overcoat dirty and grease stained, and torn where a pocket had been ripped out during the chase. No doubt my face was gritty with soot and sweat.
“I am very dirty,” I said in my poor French.
“Yes, you are very dirty, monsieur, it is true,” she replied, without any hint of amusement.
“I am calling for Miss Kate de Vries.”
“At this hour, monsieur? It is late.”
“It is not so truly late.”
“Was she expecting you?”
“Yes. I mean, no.”
Deirdre hesitated, as if wondering whether I even deserved to be admitted. Eventually she held the door open a bit wider, and I squeezed inside. The ceiling soared overhead. “A cozy little place in Paris,” was the way Kate had described it to me. “It’s not an entire house, only the first two floors,” she’d pointed out when I first visited. “Just somewhere I can rest my head while I study at the Sorbonne.” Many people could rest their heads here. About forty-nine, I reckoned.
“If monsieur would care to wait here, I will see if Mademoiselle de Vries is receiving visitors tonight.”
“You are very kind,” I said, or it might have been, “You are a knee.” I wasn’t sure. French was a vexing language. I never knew which letters to pronounce and which to ignore. I decided I should talk faster, slew everything together, and see how I got by. It was lucky for me all my lectures at the Academy were in English, the international language of aviation.
Deirdre was just starting upstairs when another maid burst out from a doorway and started hissing at Deirdre so rapidly I had not a clue what she was saying. Clearly there was some unpleasantness going on in the kitchen.
“Please wait,” Deirdre told me, and disappeared.
I waited a minute, and then a minute more, and wondered if I’d been forgotten. I could go into the kitchen and remind Deirdre I was still here, but why bother? I knew where Kate would be this time of night. Upstairs in her beloved library.
The great walnut staircase curved gracefully up to the second floor. My footfalls were muted by the oriental runner. Halfway up I realized that this was probably a very foolish move on my part. If Miss Simpkins were to come across me, she would accuse me of slinking around the house unescorted. But it was too late now, and I could see the library door, just slightly ajar, spilling light into the hallway.