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Authors: Alan Evans

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BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
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They drove for barely fifty yards and then stopped. Sarah said, “I can get Bradley out to you, getting you in to him would be risky.” They were outside a shop, its window crammed with farm tools and beyond them Smith could see the counter with a man behind it facing a customer and to one side a stairway. Sarah said, “He has a room upstairs …”

Smith saw her pass through the shop and climb the stair. He leaned closer to the window of the cab so he could see the windows above the shop and waited, watched. After a minute he saw a curtain pulled aside. He could not see the face beyond it but he lifted his hand and took off his hat, stared up at the window.

The curtain fell back. He waited.

The
Maria
was getting away from him with every passing second. He might well lose her altogether.

If he was wrong, if the cruisers were five thousand miles away in another ocean, or lying at anchor again in the Jade with the rest of the High Seas Fleet, then it would have been as well if he had lost both
Gerda
and
Maria
.

*

Bradley had been up and about for almost an hour. He had been involved in a long game with some miners and landowners from upcountry that had lasted all night. At the end of it he had counted his winnings, eaten a huge breakfast and then slept. Now he had brewed himself coffee on the pot-bellied stove, heated water and shaved and washed. He was still naked to the waist, drying his face and smoothing the full moustache, when Sarah entered.

He gaped at her then surprise gave way to pleasure. “You’re just in time. Come on in.” He tossed aside the towel and held out his arms to her.

She fended him off. “Not now or any other time. Get dressed. I want you to meet somebody.”


Who
?”

“Commander Smith.”


Who
?”

“The Captain of H.M.S.
Thunder
.”

“The Captain —
Thunder
?” Bradley snapped his long fingers, remembering. “Hold on. While I was eating breakfast there was a lot of hoo-haw going on among the local boys about a British ship and a British captain. They were raising hell over him but I gather he raised it first. They reckoned he raided into Guaya and blew a neutral ship to bits.”

“Rubbish!” Then Sarah admitted grudgingly, “He sank a collier that
claimed
to be neutral.”

Bradley whistled softly. “That’ll do. Boy! The Navy can only shoot you once and that’ll do! Where is this lunatic?”

“He’s not a — He’s outside. In a cab.”

Bradley crossed to the window. “I’d better take a look at this character while he’s still around for viewing! If they catch him ashore they’ll lynch him!” He twitched back the curtain, stared down and saw the face at the window of the cab that returned his stare. It was a thin face, young but drawn. He said, “That’s him? Young feller, sort of —” He stopped, not knowing how to put it into words. “He’s not what I expected.”

Sarah’s lips twitched. “What did you expect? Somebody with a beard and a cutlass between his teeth? There’s only one man in the cab. Smith.”

Bradley stared down and the eyes below held his. He said, “On second thoughts, maybe …” He let the curtain fall and shrugged his broad shoulders so the muscles slid under the brown skin. Sarah watched him. He asked, “What does he want with me?”

“I don’t know. But he needs all the help he can get.”

“I’ll go along with you on that.” Bradley reached for his shirt and pulled it on. “Well. Let’s go see the little Admiral. Can’t do any harm.” He would remember the words with bitterness before long.

*

Smith saw Sarah returning with a tall man who, hat in hand, opened the shop door for her and handed her into the cab after speaking to the driver. The cab moved off.

Bradley sat beside Sarah, facing Smith. He eyed Smith with obvious interest and grinned broadly when he saw that interest returned. “From what I hear you’re in trouble up to your neck, Admiral, and sticking that neck out at this very moment.”

Smith saw he was bronzed with strong white teeth. Not handsome, but it was a good face with a reckless cut to it. Smith suspected this man would live up to first impressions, and hoped so. He said, “A man called Medina has a seaplane, or the Germans have one, I think it comes to the same thing. I also think you may know something about it.”

Bradley replied blandly, “No more than anybody else around here with a tongue in his head.” Then he added, “Provided they knew what they were talking about and listening to, Admiral.”

“And what did
you
see and hear?”

Bradley shrugged. “It’s a Curtiss twin-seater seaplane. Observer sits up front and the pilot behind him. Maximum speed around ninety knots.”

“The pilot told you this?”

“Richter? The hell he did! I’ve
seen
it and that’s enough. Richter told me he was a real flyer with combat experience, not a feller who found the money better or easier on the ground.” It was said easily and the half-grin was still there, but fixed.

Smith asked, “Where is it?”

“Just outside of town in a little inlet, really a wide creek. They’ve fixed up a hangar there.”

“Guarded?”

Bradley chuckled. “Who could steal a seaplane around here?”

Smith chuckled in his turn. Then he said. “You.”

Bradley straightened in his seat. “Me! Why should I —”

“To take me up. You can fly it?”

“How should I know?” Bradley glanced, amused, at Sarah, a glance easily interpreted: Mad or drunk! I’ll humour him.

Smith said, “I haven’t much time, Mr. Bradley. I think you can fly it, I think you
know
you can fly it. I think you are still in the service of the United States Government. I think that if you really wanted Richter’s job at any time then he would have a nasty fall or get caught up in some brawl so that the position would become vacant.”

Bradley laughed then looked serious. “You’re not thinking at all, Admiral. Plenty of people are saying you’re off your nut and I’m starting to agree with them.”

Sarah said quietly, harshly, “Jim!”

Bradley gripped her hand. “It happens, girl. Loneliness of command and all that.”

Smith said, “Take me up. You’re here to find out why that seaplane is here. Take me up and I’ll tell you.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

Bradley stared at him.

Sarah said, “You could do it, Jim. You said no one was there.”

He snapped at her, “That makes no difference. As soon as she takes off everybody in town will see her, and before that they’ll
hear
her. And you know one reason why nobody will be out there now? Because nobody in his right mind would take off in this weather.” And he thought that wasn’t half of it and Smith did not know the rest.

Smith said, “You mean Richter wouldn’t.”

Bradley replied grudgingly, “He would if he had to. Give the devil his due.”

“So it could be done.”

Sarah put in impatiently, “You’re not scared of a little bad weather!”

Smith swore under his breath. That was a dirty blow and if Bradley reacted and ditched them —

Bradley did not. He stared down at his hands that were clasped between his knees, fingers tight. “It’s not just a ‘little bad weather’. Maybe that’s what it is for the Admiral in his ship but
that
isn’t made out of plywood and canvas.” He paused, staring at Smith.

Smith asked again, “Take me up.”

Bradley muttered, “I’ll say one thing for you, Admiral: you never give up.” He was being driven into a corner and he was proud that he was so cool about it but he wondered how long he could keep that up. He backed further into the corner: “You were going to tell me why.”

Smith nodded. “Two German armoured cruisers have slipped the blockade in the North Sea and are heading for this coast. The seaplane is to scout for them.”

Bradley sat still. He said softly, “Jesus.” And then: “But why ship it out here? Why couldn’t these cruisers carry their own seaplanes?”

“There are numerous hazards in flying off and recovering seaplanes at sea. Whereas with a land-based aircraft?” He put it as a question and left it to Bradley to answer for himself. He finished with another: “And has Medina set up other bases as part of this proposed mail contract,
like
dumps of fuel and mooring facilities?”

Bradley nodded slowly. “That he has. Plenty.”

Smith went on, “There was a collier at Guaya that called herself neutral but was a tender for the cruisers.”

Bradley put in wryly: “I heard about her.”

“Another collier, the
Maria
, sailed from this port a little over nine hours ago. She’s gone to a rendezvous with the cruisers. She may have sailed south or west and I need to know which before I start to chase her. I need to know. Badly.” He did not say that he had offered Bradley a bargain and Bradley had taken his share. Bradley had not accepted the bargain, he was not even bound by his word. There was only an unspoken understanding between them.

A ghost of the grin returned to Bradley. “That Richter. Oh, boy!” He leaned out of the window of the cab, and Smith realised that all the time he had been noting with a part of his mind that the cab had walked steadily around the same four streets, around and around the block. But now as Bradley yelled up at the driver the whip cracked and the cab rocked as the horse broke into a trot. Bradley hung there for a moment, head and shoulders out of the window, feeling the wind on his face and not having to smile. He thought he had taken a step forward. Toward the edge of the plank.

*

Five minutes later the cab halted and they climbed down. Bradley paid the driver and told him to wait. They stood on a dirt road lined with trees but Bradley led them on a path into the trees and they followed its windings. In less than a minute they came to the little inlet. A large shed stood at the water’s edge. The sea broke gently in this inlet and washed in little ripples around their boots as they walked around to the front of the shed. The big doors were locked with two massive padlocks but Bradley fished a bunch of keys from his pocket, selected two and opened each lock and tossed it aside. He said solemnly, “Fitted myself up with the keys a coupla weeks back. Good idea to check up on your competitors’ stock once in a while.”

Smith replied equally seriously, “It does no harm. I believe the farm tool trade is very competitive.”

Bradley guffawed.

They pushed back the doors that concertinaed on themselves.

Bradley said, “And there she is. Single-engined biplane made of fabric an’ wood. Curtiss engine of one hundred and fifty horses, maximum speed ninety knots — but I told you that.” He rattled on but as he talked he swung up on a staging beside the engine, looking it over then checking the fuel. He dropped down and pushed the staging aside, hesitated a moment then said, “As I thought. She’s all ready to go.” One more step.

He glanced around, moved to one wall where two long, leather Flying coats hung from nails with leather flying helmets and goggles. He tossed one set at Smith who stood peering up at the flimsy aircraft where it stood on its bogey. They both dressed, took off their boots and pulled on the waders that lay by the wall, dropped the boots in the cockpits of the seaplane. Bradley said, “It’ll be cold up there.” And he shivered despite the coat and the closeness of the air in the shed. Smith noticed but said nothing.

The seaplane stood on a wide-wheeled bogey. As they shoved the bogey forward out of the shed and across the narrow strip of sand, a line attached to the float-struts snaked out behind them. Its other end was anchored in the shed. The bogey disappeared under the ripples that washed the beach. They pushed it another foot and the seaplane floated, lifted clear of the bogey and rose and fell gently to the wash of the waves under the floats and, under the wind’s urging tugged impatiently at the mooring line.

Bradley beckoned Sarah Benson and showed her the loop in the line where it was made fast to the float-strut. “When I lift my hand you pull that loop, the line comes free and she goes. Right?”

She nodded, eyes watching his face and worried now.

He turned away from that look and waded out to climb on to a float. Smith waded out after him. Bradley felt the wind thrusting at the seaplane and thrumming through the fabric. Little waves chased across the inlet. Beyond its mouth he could see the bay and the ships anchored there, a tramp and a liner and far out the ugly shape of a warship. The cloud ceiling was low and dark and clouds ran in on the wind. There was rain in the wind that touched cold on his face. He wondered if Smith really had any idea —?

Smith asked, “I have to swing the propeller?”

“That’s right.”

“I can do that.”

“Yeah?” Bradley reached up and clamped his hands on the side of the cockpit, staring at the fuselage inches before his face. Smith saw sweat standing on his face but Smith himself was sweating in the leather coat. Bradley said thickly, “I think in fairness I should tell you I flew one of these things into the sea a while back and I couldn’t face flying after that. So they sent me down on this job, where all I had to do was talk about it and know about it.” He licked his lips and went on: “I got as far as this because I thought I should fight it, give it another try; and because you’re in one hell of a mess. And because Sarah asked me.” He paused, then said, “I can’t do it.”

BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
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