[I have always loved and admired the great mystery writing team called Ellery Queen – both the intricately-plotted novels and the brief stories, nearly all of which had an interesting solution. Every so often I find a need to try to emulate the master. – RJ]
For Edward Pearse
The zeppelin was ready to leave, its great engines turning lazily while the ship remained moored. All of the preparations for the lengthy journey were done, and the captain awaited permission from the control tower to proceed. In the meanwhile, he fumed.
Permission had thus far been denied, and the reasons for this stood in the captain’s quarters. Kathy Jameson and I were with Reg Howell, a major in the Caledonian secret service. We were aboard the Ada, at the New Babbage air dock, with the permission of Clockwinder Tenk, but Tenk had been very clear that he would countenance no more than an hour’s delay, measured (no doubt) to the second. Half that time had already elapsed, and the clock was ticking – quite literally, as the Ada’s captain had a clock in a handsome burled walnut case on his desk – on the remaining time.
“You’re certain the man you saw leaving the Guvnah’s mansion boarded this airship?” Major Howell asked for possibly the tenth time.
Kathy sighed. “We’ve covered this ground before, Mr. Howell. I saw a man of below-average height, with short brown hair and a long mustache, wearing a long black cloak and top hat, leaving the mansion about eight p.m., just as it was getting dark. He had a satchel under one arm. I was coming out of Pearse’d and Cut, where I had been admiring Lord Primbroke’s latest Navigational Maps, and heading toward the mansion, when I saw him. As I neared him, he stopped a hansom cab. I could hear him tell the driver to head for the Loch Avie air park as quickly as possible, for he had to be on the Ada before its nine o’clock departure.” The great airship plied the Steamlands, picking up passengers along the way, before making the crossing to a distant land that had only recently become a trading partner – Americus, such a long-distance journey that only the Ada could make the trip without refueling. Americus was a wild, untamed land, and anyone who made it that far would be free from Caledonian justice forever.
Shortly after her encounter with the mysterious man with the satchel, Kathy had related the story to me over a glass of brandy. I listened with interest, for I had had another piece of information earlier that evening: my old friend from the Caledon Police, Captain Armstrong, told me that the Guvnah was missing a number of papers that detailed plans for the Caledonian navy, including detailed designs for several next-generation vessels, both wooden dreadnoughts and ironclad submersibles, and their latest armaments. Having those plans fall into the wrong hands could have disastrous consequences for the nation. I related Captain Armstrong’s tale to Kathy.
“And those papers would…”
“…fit nicely into a satchel,” I finished for her. “Yes, they would.” I sent an urgent telegram to Government House, the not-so-secret headquarters of the secret service, with the information from both the Captain and from Kathy. It was nearly ten p.m., so the Ada had long gone, but it was possible that the police in New Babbage could help us by detaining the airship.
Within the hour, Major Howell appeared at my door, in plain clothes, along with a young man in the uniform of the RCAF. I could hear the second-floor patio groaning under an unusual weight. “Miss Jameson?”
“Yes,” we replied simultaneously.
“Miss Kathy Jameson?” Kathy nodded. “Would you recognize the man again if you saw him?”
She considered for a moment. “Perhaps, but I doubt it. I recall broad aspects of his appearance, but I would have trouble distinguishing him from others of a similar build.”
“Hmm. Disappointing, but I can’t say I’m surprised. And it may have to do. Come with me.”
“Why, to Babbage, of course!”
“I cannot simply drop everything and go to Babbage at a moment’s notice!”
“Woman, it’s a matter of national security. If you will not go voluntarily, I’m empowered to…”
I interrupted. “No need for that, Major. Kathy and I will both go with you to New Babbage, so she can do her best to identify the man.”
He thought for a moment – clearly, a second passenger was not in his plans – but quickly decided that if taking me would help his cause then he would do so. We packed a light travel bag and set off.
The weight on my patio turned out to be a vertical take-off craft that fit four people fairly snugly. This is what allowed Major Howell to arrive at the Downs so quickly, and this is what took us to Loch Avie, where Ilsa Munro, Duchess of Avie, had graciously made available her fastest airship. Major Howell explained en route: “The Ada departed on schedule, so we couldn’t stop her before she left Caledon. However, using this newfangled radio technology, we were able to contact Babbage. Guvnah Shang talked to this Clockwinder fellow directly, saying we had a wanted man aboard the Ada – no details, of course – and the Guvnah would consider it a personal favor if the Clockwinder could delay the Ada in Babbage and allow the Guvnah’s representatives to board her to arrest the man. Tenk agreed to hold the ship until eleven a.m. tomorrow morning – said the ship had a schedule to keep and he had a reputation to maintain. That barely gives us time to get there and identify and arrest the man.”