Some readers of the Beyond the Rails stories had been suggesting for some time that I place those characters into a novel. I was initially resistant on the grounds that they weren’t designed to drive a novel. But they eventually convinced me that quality characters work anywhere, so I spent most of 2016 producing the Beyond the Rails novel. I offer the first two chapters for your consideration here; should it pique your interest, the full work is available at Amazon.com
Mombasa, Thursday morning
The captain was ordinary, patched together, nearly invisible in a group of people. He was a perfect reflection of his ship. Spare parts, better days, every cliché in the book. He signed his name, Clinton Monroe, on the manifest, and nodded to the dock master as the man picked up the papers and slipped them into the canvas bag he wore at his side.
“Pleasant trip, Captain,” he said, returning Monroe’s nod as he turned away to leave the dock.
A pair of line handlers stood ready at the bollards, and Monroe stepped aboard, turning to attach the safety chain across the gangway opening in the starboard rail.
“Are we ready, David?” he asked his deckhand, a weathered man in jeans and a plaid American-style shirt.
“Aye, Cap’n,” the man replied. “Everything’s tied down and tested, ready to fly.”
“Patience,” he called, turning toward the pilot house, “ready for launch?”
A fit young woman, her pretty face surrounded by a mop of unruly blonde hair, stepped out onto the wing platform. She was in her mid-twenties, wearing khaki cargo pants and a sage green shirt with close to a dozen pockets, looking every inch the tomboy that she was.
“Hardly,” she snapped.
There was none of her usual playfulness, no wisecracks, no hint that her challenging banter was about to break through.
“Is something the matter?”
“You can’t feel it, then?”
“The ship, Captain. She’s ill. Afraid.”
“Don’t go getting all mystical on me, Patience. She’s an inanimate object.”
“To you, perhaps.”
“All right, I’ll humor you. What do you feel?”
“We’re logy, Captain. You’ve loaded her up until she’s wallowing like a waterlogged turd. I doubt we have twenty pounds of positive buoyancy, and as far as a safety margin, that’s right over the side. One good downdraft, and we’ll be making our last delivery out along the tracks somewhere, and the bards will be writing songs about the idiots who took an overloaded balloon up into the Highlands. She’s scared, Captain. If she were still a boat, I’d not untie her from the dock.”
“Keep your voice down, Patty, you’ll frighten the children.”
“What children are you talking about?”
“We’ve a rookie engineer aboard, and we don’t need him panicking on us.”
“Never mind him. You need to worry about me panicking.”
“That will be the day!”
“Look at the mooring lines, Captain.”
He did so. The two hawsers hung in slight arcs between ship and dock instead of being stretched straight, keeping an eager airship from taking flight.
“Have you ever seen them do that before?”
“Then you know what it means. We’re at neutral buoyancy right now. When I light the burner, we’ll get a few pounds positive, no more. That will work here over the coastal plain, but when we cross into the highlands, and the ground comes up underneath us, it will be a struggle just to maintain altitude. You know how the wind gets to howling up those canyons. All it’s going to take is one good swirl to hit us on top and start us going down, and we’re going to keep going down for quite a way. Should that downdraft be sustained, we won’t be able to fight it with the motors alone. Do you understand what that means?”
“Oh, I think the motors will handle it.”
“Captain, you commanded frigates. Military vessels built for speed. They have enough power to pull a train. Kestrel’s built for economy. We have enough power to get from A to B, and not a speck more. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how Darweshi’s storm pushed us backward for a hundred-odd miles.”
“Hardly. How much buoyancy would you feel comfortable with, then?”
“The more, the better, of course, but I wouldn’t like an ounce less than five hundred pounds.”
“All right, you’re the wizard pilot. Get us to Nairobi, and we offload that harvester. That’s a good sixteen hundred pounds right there.”
“Sure, and then your good friend the Major will have that weight in bodies wanting to get to Kisumu to work in the mines.”
“You don’t worry about the Major. He’s my problem. You get us to Nairobi, and I’ll get you your five hundred pounds.”
“You’ve not heard a word I’ve said, have you? If we get up there in this condition, and the wind decides to drive us into the mountainside, all the pilots’ tricks in the world aren’t going to create any buoyancy.”
“Patience, all those repairs we had to make after the storm cost money. We’re hundreds in the red, and this is a chance for us to pay off a few creditors. We need this job. Are you saying you can’t do it?”
“Oh, I can do it, Captain. So could a one-eyed Italian who can’t find his butt with a piece of toilet paper, so long as nothing goes wrong. What matters is what happens when it does.”
“Exactly, and that’s why you’re my pilot instead of that one-eyed Italian. You get us to Nairobi, and I’ll lighten her up for you.”
“All right, Captain, but if we all die going on the rocks up there, I don’t want you saying I didn’t warn you.”
“You have my word on it.”
“God, you’re impossible!” she huffed, disappearing back into the pilot house.
“Guess we’re ready, then,” he said flippantly to his deck hand, and started forward to the forward mooring line.
“Burner up,” he said to Patience Hobbs as he passed the pilot house door.
“Burner up,” she repeated.
“Casting off, Nahodha!” one of the line handlers repeated, and the pair began unwinding the figure-eights wrapped around the dock bollards. Lines released, Monroe and David Smith, his deck hand, rapidly began pulling them in.
“She’s free, Patience,” he said through the front window. “You have the conn.”
As Monroe began to retract the mooring line onto the reel at the front of the pilot house, he heard the dry riffling sound as the propellers came up to speed, and absorbed the shift in his weight as the nose came up. The Motor Airship Kestrel began to climb into the morning sky over the port of Mombasa, jewel of the Colony of Kenya.
The prevailing wind in eastern Africa blows from south to north, and every chart so indicates, but that’s just the big picture. Every point on the ground has its complications, Nairobi not least among them. The wind gathers momentum crossing the plains of Mombasa before being thrust into the first roiling swirls by the sharp foothills of the Central Highlands and bounced from the shoulders of various crags and peaks to come blasting up the Thika Valley, as confined and focused as any river of water. The wind on a blustery day can arrive at Nairobi in twin streams from south and east, with vertical components that defy prediction. It was this that had worried even so gifted a pilot as Hobbs, and the Spirits of the Highlands did not disappoint.
“Jesus Christ!” she blasphemed as the bow swung toward the dock, using the motors to drive the stern dangerously close to the ground in order to lift the bow above the scattering longshoremen.
“This one’s botched, Captain! I’m going around again.”
“You’ve been around three times already, Patience!”
“Would you like to drive? This is exactly what I told you would happen. You weren’t worried then, so don’t worry now!”
She already had Kestrel climbing out over the aerodrome, wallowing like a scow, beginning a broad circle back for another run at the dock.
“Do you have any other ideas?” Monroe asked, holding onto the pilot house door frame.
“It isn’t up to us, I’m afraid. The line crew has to get both lines at once. If they hook up one, we’ll weathercock over the dock, and the Stokes Derrick will come right through the side. We’ll all be picking out new careers then!”
“All right, whatever you need to do, then, just get us landed!”
It took three more tries, but eventually Kestrel was safely snuggled up to the dock, spring lines made fast, with an anti-roll line to the ground bollard opposite. When Monroe came into the pilot house, Hobbs was leaning back against the engineering console, rolling her shoulders to work out the tension. Monroe turned her away from him, and started to massage her shoulders.
“Another great job, Patience,” he said.
She shrugged his hands off, and took a step away from him.
“Now, you see,” she said, rounding on him, pointing an ominous finger at his face, “that’s your problem, right there!”
“What problem?” he asked, holding his hands up disarmingly.
“What problem? Are you serious? You constantly put us into situations that by rights ought to kill us, then I spend the whole trip fighting with the helm and making up circus tricks, and when we finally survive by getting luckier than any group of humans has any right to expect, it’s, ‘Great job, Patience!’ Then you turn around and put us into a worse spot! It’s no damned wonder they drummed you out, if this is way you run an airship!”
“Take a deep breath, Patience,” he said evenly. “You’re just feeling the stress.”
“You’re damned right, I’m feeling the stress! My shoulders feel like I’ve been flogged, and I can’t open my hands for squeezing the controls all the way up here!” She held up two shaking claws, then took the recommended deep breath. “Captain, luck runs out, and with God as my witness, I thought this was going to be our time. I can’t do this anymore. I can fly like a bird, but not if you insist on tying an anvil around my neck!”
“You just need to unwind, Patience. How about a nice dinner at Shanee’s? My treat.”
“Is that how you see me now? The woman’s upset, buy her a hat?”
“Patience, no! I— What is it you want from me?”
“Right now, I want enough buoyancy to climb out of a downdraft. We’re taking the harvester off, and that’s nearly a ton. Well and good, but look over there.” She pointed to a spot near one of the storehouses where a group of men in tattered clothing, mostly Africans, stood with kitbags containing everything they owned. “There’s a group of laborers eyeing us right now. They obviously want a ride to somewhere, and I promise you, if you weigh us down again, I’m going to give you a hundred and twenty pounds of buoyancy that you didn’t plan on.”
“Now, don’t be rash.”
“You take me for granted, Captain.”
“I don’t, Patience, honestly. I trust you. I’ve never seen a more intuitive pilot. That’s why I go to great pains to keep you on my crew. You’ve never let me down, and I suppose I’ve gotten into the habit of assuming that there is nothing you can’t handle.”
“Truth. Let me buy you dinner. Your favorite, and it has nothing to do with bribing the little woman with a gift.”
“I’m too sore to enjoy it Captain. Can we do it another time?”
“I’m going to go walk this off. I have a knot between my shoulders that feels like a hot iron is being held there.”
“You be careful, young lady. Nairobi’s gotten to be a dangerous place.”
“Africa’s a dangerous place, Captain. I’ll be fine. I might drop in on young Doctor Ellsworth.”
“Ah, Nicholas. How’s he doing, anyway?”
“Couldn’t say, Captain, I just got here. I’ll be out for a couple of hours. Don’t forget what I said.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it! Give Nicholas our best.”
She went forward to the bow, down the nearly vertical ladder, and along the narrow passage to her quarters amidships on the port side. Her ten-by-twelve all-purpose stateroom was sumptuous by the standards of the passenger cabins, and only the Captain had a larger one, if only by a few inches, just aft of hers. They nominally shared the washroom between, but Monroe, always the gentleman, had given that over to her, and used the smaller one forward along with everyone else aboard.
Pulling a fresh blouse and trousers from her built-in wardrobe, she carried them into the washroom and hung them on a hook. Half the size of her cabin, it was luxury unimagined by most airship and small craft crew members. She glanced at herself in the stained, aged mirror and offered the reflection her cute little smile.
What would Uncle Jeffrey think, she wondered. Owner of the estate where she had grown up an adopted child of the aristocracy, Jeffrey had provided her a bath chamber nearly the size of the Kestrel itself. He had also provided her a life as a privileged prisoner of society’s many rigid constraints, sent her to a finishing school to learn the myriad rules of those restraints, and because of that, she had found her way here.
Life was demanding here, but she could go out alone if she wished, and if she met a man she wanted to talk to, she didn’t have to wait for him to tip his hat with the hand furthest from her before she could speak. She didn’t own a bustle, and had one corset and one formal dress, just in case the need should arise. She removed her short-sleeved canvas shirt, washed the dust from her face at the basin, and slipped into a long-sleeved soft blouse, demure, feminine, and in no way restrictive. Likewise, the trousers. Ladies in England didn’t wear trousers; ladies wearing formal dresses in Kenya were prey. The canvas working trousers came off, replaced by calf-length, comfortable riding trousers, the legs full and open, resembling a long skirt when she stood still. Brushing back her loose blonde curls, she confined them with her soft, flat-topped engineer’s cap, climbed back to the deck, and stepped off onto the loading dock.
“You be careful, Patience,” Monroe admonished her from where he and a dock foreman were examining the heavy harvester. “We aren’t finished with you yet.”
“Don’t worry, Captain, I’m not either!”
And she was off down the dock with her confident, shoulders-back stride.
Patience slowed her pace as her anger subsided. Captain Monroe’s complete faith in her ability to fly any machine under any conditions was a vote of confidence that many men would kill for, and she wasn’t unappreciative. It was simply so exhausting that she sometimes wavered under the burden; that, and the distinct possibility that his overconfidence could get them all killed.
Nairobi was growing by leaps and bounds. Twice the size it was less than a year ago, it was noticeably larger each time they docked. The aerodrome that used to be southeast of town was now in the southern outskirts. The walk to the apothecary that their erstwhile crewmember, Doctor Ellsworth, had established with the young Shaman, Darweshi, was the same mile and a fraction north from the aerodrome, but the walk was stretched to two miles by the intervening buildings that had grown up between, and the resulting streets and alleys that had to be navigated. She skirted a market square, winding down in reddening rays of the setting sun, not consciously aware of her aversion to being trussed up a in burlap sack as had happened to her in a market not so many months before, walked a block between two shops that hadn’t been here when she visited two weeks ago, and there, finally, to her right stood the simple board building with the Natural Healing sign above the door. She skipped up onto the portico and pushed the door open.
Her first impression was that a bomb had gone off. Shelves, racks, and cabinets had been overturned and their contents, mostly small sample bottles and cans, lay scattered everywhere, many open, leaves and roots trampled into the plank floor. Hearing soft movement in the back room, she steeled herself, drew her utility knife, and stepped quietly to the door. The back room had been given similar treatment, file cabinets and their two desks ransacked, the doctor’s small test bench torn apart, all the contents scattered haphazardly about. There on her knees, back to her, crouched Darweshi, a pile of colorful clothes making furtive sounds with listless motions of her hand broom as she attacked the chaos with her hopelessly inadequate tool.
“Darweshi?” Patience asked unnecessarily, sheathing her knife. “What’s happened here?”
The girl started violently, having heard nothing of Patience’s entry, then turned her head and regarded her with huge, sad eyes.
“Miss Patty,” she stated. “Why? Why does someone do this thing?”
She rose, the small, powerful mage reduced to a tiny girl in a colorful dress, terribly out of place among the destruction.
“I would offer you a seat,” she said quietly, “but they have all been broken.”
“Are you all right?”
“I am not injured.” Her chin quivered for a moment, then the tears came.
“Why? Is this what it means to be civilized? I left my people to get away from such things. You told me I was safe with you.”
Patience stepped forward and gathered her into her arms, letting her cry for a few moments while she organized the roiling questions in her mind. Finally, the sobs gave way to labored breathing, and Patience led her to an overturned filing cabinet and sat them down side by side.
“Darweshi,” Patience said, looking into the girl’s eyes, “where is Nicholas?”
“Gone. He is gone.”
Patience’s heart leaped into her throat, but she fought it down and asked the question she could hardly get out.
“Mombasa. The soldiers came and sent him to their hospital.”
“Did he say what happened?”
“He said nothing. I came yesterday in the morning. I found the shop like this. Nicholas was unconscious in this room. He had been beaten. I did what I could, but he would not wake up.”
“But he was breathing?”
Patience knew his injuries must be severe if the gifted healer couldn’t rouse him.
“I went and got the soldiers. Their healer put him on a carry bed and took him to the iron wagons. He said they were taking him to the hospital in Mombasa, and they would get word to me when something happened.”
“So you know nothing?”
“Unfortunate. Will you be all right here?”
“There is much to do, and I must do it. I will be fine.”
“All right. You wait here. I’m going to tell the crew.”
And with a pat on the young girl’s shoulder, she was up and out the door, anger forgotten in her haste to gather the men.
The young woman followed the African bell boy to the third-floor landing, her voluminous skirts rustling against the stairs, and down the hall to the room, #312 of the Queen’s Royal Hotel in Mombasa. She carried a small suitcase while he wrestled her steamer trunk, strapped to a flat luggage cart, to the landing. She was average, average height, average build, attractive without being memorable, her shoulder length brown hair worn in a downward sweep; it didn’t pay to be memorable in her line of work. She had been here before, albeit briefly, less than a year ago, but so far, no one had remembered her. That was good.
The wiry African opened the door to her room, rolled her trunk in, and slid it off the cart, centering it precisely at the foot of the bed.
“Do you require anything further, young miss?” he asked in a rolling baritone.
“No, that will do nicely. You’ve been most helpful,” she replied, and held out a ten-shilling coin in her gloved hand. Her accent was almost English, but not quite, as if another language came more naturally to her.
“Thank you, miss, you’re most kind. Should you need anything further, you need only inquire at the front desk.”
“Thank you. Do you have a restaurant on the premises?”
“Two actually. There is a formal dining room next to the lobby, and we also have an open-air concession off the street that has more of a tavern atmosphere.” He took in her clothing and general appearance. “You may find the restaurant more to your liking.”
“Thank you, I’m sure I will.”
The man handed her the key, took the coin and his leave, and closed the door behind him.
She looked around, nodded approvingly, and stepped to the window, though not directly, and peeked around the edge of the curtain. Mombasa sprawled to the north in the fading light, a city of low buildings and haphazard architecture, that had been more collected by accident than built on purpose. Chaos.
She laid her one-feathered hat and light jacket on the bed, and stepped around to open her trunk. She took out two ornate dresses, hanging them in the wardrobe, where they were soon joined by a pair of riding outfits with their culottes and high-necked blouses, and a particularly mannish outfit, simple trousers and a work shirt. Her corset, undergarments, and wide-brimmed riding hat found a home in the chest of drawers provided.
Trunk emptied of clothes, she lifted the bottom panel and contemplated the contents. A sawed-off Winchester carbine in its holster dominated the display, along with a tiny .25 caliber revolver, and a .41 caliber two-shot derringer. An Indonesian kris, the wavy-bladed fighting knife lay in its compartment next to her black-handled balisong, the Filipino butterfly knife, and a simple small Bowie with a five-inch blade. Boxed bullets for the firearms filled the intervening spaces.
She took out the Derringer, loaded two rounds in its twin chambers, and tucked it into a hidden pocket in the folds of her red satin skirt. Replacing the panel, she put her extra shoes and boots back into the trunk and locked it.
The ride on the packet from Calcutta had been brutal, the small ship rising on the crests of the huge swells, then dropping precipitously into each succeeding trough, the hull booming on impact until everyone aboard was in fear for their lives. Her bones ached, it was late, she hadn’t eaten. She was miserable. Deciding she could do nothing productive this evening, she began to unbutton her blouse preparatory to cleaning up for supper in the restaurant. She could well imagine Lord Weaver’s exasperation, were he here.
A day wasted can never be made up, Miss Jenkins. You need to begin your operation at once!
Too bad. Lord Weaver wasn’t here. Jinx Jenkins was. He had sent her against her wishes. Now he could deal with the consequences.
Nairobi, Friday morning
Short, rotund Major Ulysses Cole, 10th Battalion, 62nd Regiment of Foot, he of the florid red muttonchops, wasn’t fond of the unstructured lives of civilians, and he carried an especial dislike for Captain Clinton Monroe of the Kestrel.
Captain! What a joke!
A man who had disgraced himself in action wasn’t supposed to forge a new life and be a success. No, he corrected himself, he wasn’t able to be successful, because if he was, he wouldn’t have been drummed out in disgrace. He was doing something illegal, of that he was certain, and it vexed him further that he had never been able to ferret out what it was. No matter. He had less than two months left on this posting, and Monroe and his band of pirates would become his replacement’s problem.
One could then imagine his irritation when he rounded the corner to the front of the garrison’s administration building to see that very band of pirates loitering in front of the door. Rolling his eyes as he steeled himself, he approached the group of three, Monroe, his slip of a female pilot, and that uncouth American, who he was sure handled their dirty work.
“Good morning, Major,” Monroe said, striding toward him with purpose. “We were hoping you’d be coming in this morning.”
“I come in every morning,” Cole retorted. “If you need to need to see me about something, do what we civilized people do, and book an appointment.”
“Ah, well, Major, we just saw Sergeant Crowley at the desk, and he told us your calendar is clear until ten. We don’t need much of your time. We just have a quick question.”
Cole weighed his distaste of conducting business in the street like a common peddler against his distaste for the idea of inviting this band of hooligans into his office for what could well turn into a lengthy conversation.
“Very well, what do you need to know?”
“As you may be aware, Major, our young Doctor Ellsworth left our employ recently to open a shop here in Nairobi.”
“I’d heard something of the sort. Smart boy, getting away from you lot.”
“Here!” the pilot Hobbs lodged a mild protest as the American raised an eyebrow at him, the first indication that he’d been listening at all.
“It’s no secret that you’d have corrupted him beyond redemption, Miss Hobbs. Now, what is your question, please. My calendar may be clear, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do.”
“Quite, Major,” Monroe said. “We learned last night that he was severely beaten and his shop ransacked, and that your surgeon accompanied him to the hospital in Mombasa.”
“Yes, our medical officer considered it to be imperative. What of it? Sounds as though we’ve aided him admirably.”
“No doubt of that, Major. We’ve come to ask what progress is being made toward apprehending the criminal. Or criminals.”
“Well, I shouldn’t imagine there’s any.”
“You’re joking!” Hobbs snapped.
“What is it, exactly, you think I should be doing, Miss Hobbs? There were no witnesses, and certainly no one standing by to take photographs. We have no victim’s statement, no description of the attacker, no information whatsoever. If we had those things, we’d be acting on them.”
“So he’s going to walk free?” Hobbs asked. “That’s completely unacceptable!”
“Miss Hobbs,” the major explained patiently, “what do you suggest I do? Unless his assailant left us a note, we have no clue who it might have been. Who would you have me arrest? Who should I even question? What you ask is impossible. Unless and until your friend is prepared to make a statement, we have nothing on which to base an investigation at all, not so much as a starting point. Can you understand that?”
Hobbs drew a deep sigh, and displayed a frustrated pout.
“I understand,” she said, “but I don’t like it.”
“Nor do I,” Cole said. “I don’t like it when this sort of thing happens to subjects of the Crown who are supposed to be under my protection. It looks bad for everyone concerned, and certainly does nothing to spur investment, I’m sure. But this is a case where we have run up against a brick wall. There is nothing further to do about it.”
“Yes,” Monroe said, “yes, there is. There was one person who witnessed this attack from close quarters. You two get back to the ship. Tell Bakari to raise steam and get ready to fly. I’ll be right there.”
“I take it, Captain, you’re going to Mombasa?”
“That is correct.”
“Well, if you could hold off for an hour, I have some surveyors who need a ride. You’d get your regular stipend, of course.”
“All right, Major, but one hour only, and then we’re going. Same orders, Patty, but less urgency. One way or the other, we’re in the air by nine-thirty.”
“I’ll send them straight around,” Cole said, but Monroe and his people were already bustling off down the sidewalk without so much as a fare-thee-well.
Pirates, Cole confirmed to himself. No grace, no manners, no sense of propriety whatsoever. Forty-one more days of this, and I’ll be clear of this hell hole forever!
Zanzibar, 10:00 AM
The man looked up from the papers on his desk at the soft knock at his door. His first action was to adjust the metal mask that covered the lower part of his face, and extended upward to hold a lens over his left eye. Only when he was sure it was in place did he speak.
The door opened, and a woman leaned in, young enough to be attractive, old enough to be experienced, dressed in simple office attire.
“Mr. Mutala is here, Herr Reinhard.”
“Excellent. Show him in.”
His voice carried a guttural central European accent that combined with the grid in the mask to give it an other-worldly quality. As the woman departed to fetch his visitor, he rose and turned to the second story window overlooking a broad harbor dotted with dhows, some tied to the long wharf to the north, and many colorful boats drawn up on the white sand. Fishermen and housewives dickered over prices at the gunwales as the air shimmered with heat. Not even noon, and the mercury had already passed the ninety mark.
Damn this blasted climate! Unfit for man or beast.
He turned back as the door opened to admit Mutala.
A mongrel from the melting pots of the Swahili Coast, a first look at Mutala inspired neither fear nor respect; more like a desire to laugh. He was small, barely five and a half feet, and wiry. He had African features, an Arab complexion, and dressed in a caricature of western style. Cowboy boots, denims, a white Indian shirt with a black cloth vest, and an English bowler hat brought the eye irresistibly to him. Only on second inspection was one likely to notice the huge knife, virtually a sword, hanging down his right leg, handle mostly concealed by the vest, and the holster, angled for a cross-draw, on his left. Wiry African hair puffed out below his hat, and he affected a trim, divided moustache, like a second pair of eyebrows below his nose.
“You sent for me, boss,” the odd little man said, as if reminding the masked man of something he had forgotten.
“Sit down, Mutala. Cigar?”
He indicated an ornate silver box on the desk. Mutala opened it as he sat, pocketed a half dozen cigars, and lit one with one of the matches provided. Reinhard’s one exposed eye glared briefly as if he might express some irritation, but it passed quickly. He sat down across the desk, looking down at the little man even when seated.
“I have a little problem, Mutala, that needs looking into.”
“I assumed as much, boss. What is it?”
“I’m expecting a package, a small bundle of papers, nothing remarkable. It was supposed to be delivered to a Doctor Farnsworth, a dentist in Nairobi who occasionally brokers information for the organization, two days ago. I had arranged for a couple of couriers to pick it up and send it along to me here. The package has not arrived, and now I hear disturbing stories of an English subject, a doctor with a similar name, having been beaten in his own shop, and I can’t help but wonder whether the two things are connected.”
“And you want me to sort it out.”
“Could you? I hate to take you away from your duties here, but this could be of some importance.”
“Not at all. I could stand a trip to Nairobi. It will be a relief to get out of this heat.”
This surprised Reinhard, as he had never seen Mutala with a single drop of sweat on him.
“It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days. I just need you to check on those couriers and explain to them that I do not appreciate their tomfoolery, pick up the package if it’s still there, and get back here. Might as well get the details on that Englishman while you’re there. If it’s related, of course.”
“Of course. I will be back before anyone realizes I have gone.”
“Don’t rush, Mutala. Take the time to resolve all the issues, and take whatever action you deem necessary. There’s no sense making the trip twice.”
“Indeed not. Do not worry, boss. I will keep you advised of whatever I find.”
“Oh, I never worry when you’re on the job, Mutala. Have a safe trip.”
Mombasa, 9:00 PM
Dinner had been excellent. It had been a long day, and Jinx would have liked to relax, but duty called. She finished buttoning her soft flannel blouse, leaving the top throat button undone. She considered her reflection in the hotel room mirror, and satisfied with the result, pulled her straight brown hair back into a ponytail, securing it with a slip-knotted leather thong. Lifting the false bottom of her trunk, she considered her gun belt with its cut-down Winchester carbine, “cut-down” being a relative term, the resultant weapon hanging from waist to knee when worn. She decided against it. It wouldn’t hang right on her flaring, calf-length skirt, and besides, it would attract a bit too much attention for her needs tonight. Not that the very presence of a young woman wouldn’t attract attention, but there was nothing to be done about that.
Propping her left foot on the bed, she slid her kris into the sheath sewn into the lining of her boot. She then took a black velvet choker from her dresser and held it up. At the front, a delicate cameo accentuated the femininity of the wearer. From the rear clasp hung a thin cord, easy to snap, and to the bottom of this she attached her balisong, the Filipino folding knife with which she was dangerously proficient. Letting the knife slip down inside her shirt to hang at the small of her back, she fastened the elegant piece at the nape of her neck. She looked again in the mirror.
Settling her wide-brimmed stockman’s hat with its leopard-print band atop the finished product, she winked at her reflection, locked the door behind her, and headed down the stairs to the lobby.
“Which way to the Wezi Robo?” she asked the desk clerk in her odd, almost-English accent.
“The Wezi Robo?” he repeated, not believing he had heard her correctly. “You cannot possibly go there, young miss!”
“I not only can,” she replied, “I must. Which way, please?”
“Missy, this cannot be,” the man restated. He was old, most likely with an adventurous life behind him, and obviously kind. What he might think of the imperials he kept to himself, but this was one helpless young woman, and his concern for her was genuine. “The Wezi Robo is where the worst criminals of the coast make their homes. The police are afraid to enter there. Even the redcoats, when they must go in, go a hundred strong. I implore you, Missy, do not go there!”
“I appreciate your concern, Nuru, and if I could avoid it, I would, but it is necessary.”
“Then go at least in daylight, Missy. Many of those there will be sleeping.”
“Including, I’m afraid, the one I must do business with. Directions, please?”
The man called Nuru drew a deep sigh, and in that sound resigned himself to sending the nice young woman to her fate.
“You go straight out the door, walk two blocks to the Sleeping Rhino pub, turn left there and walk past where the street lights end. That is Wezi Robo. I would implore you to take a cab, but I know of none that will enter there after dark. Missy, please, what business could be worth your life?”
“I must speak with Shangazi Ramla.”
The man’s eyes and mouth opened into three wide “O”s.
“Then surely, I am the last civilized person who will lay eyes on you! Pray for death, Miss Jenkins, for that is the best fate you can hope for now.”
Mombasa, 9:15 PM
The street lights didn’t actually end where Nuru had told her they would, they had simply been disabled. Whether by tools, vandalism, or gunfire, the gas lamps had been rendered inoperative, and she walked through a sea of darkness lit only by random lamps within dwellings and iniquitous dens. She felt eyes in the darkness following her, appraising her, gauging her likely skills. Yes, for no woman in her right mind would wander these streets in the dark. It only followed that she must have powerful uchawi at her disposal. That mystique would only protect her for so long, of course, and when it ended, it was surprisingly civil.
“Are you lost, m’sichana?”
The question came from a tall young African man who almost appeared, rather than stepped into her path. He had a scar on his face, accentuated by his condescending smirk, and wore European work clothes he had obviously salvaged from trash bins.
“Not at all,” she said, feeling the two blades close to her skin, zeroing in on targets for her reinforced boots.
“You must be. Where are you going on so dark a night, little girl?”
He leered at her, a cat toying with a mouse, his mind on what lay beneath her skirt.
Not what you think, sonny! she thought.
“I go to an appointment with Shangazi Ramla. Is this her street?”
“Shangazi Ramla? You?” His predatory smile faded just a bit. “That cannot be!”
“How else would I know her? Why else would I be here?”
He considered the consequences of interfering with a client of Shangazi Ramla’s. He stepped forward, and turned to face the same direction as she, draping an arm around her shoulders as he did.
“You go up those stairs,” he said, pointing across the street. “Knock at third door. If you are expected, she will answer.”
“Thank you,” she said with a pleasant smile, producing an English shilling from a hidden pocket and handing it to him. Followed by his amused stare, she ascended the stairs.
Third door. His directions matched those she had been given before she left Perth, and she knocked in the two-two pattern she had been instructed. The door opened a crack, and she was examined by a single eye in a black face from a foot above her head.
“You are the Jinx?” a deep male voice asked quietly.
“A Jinx is only a Jinx if the recipient believes it,” she replied.
The door opened wide, and a huge African pulled her in by her shoulder, looking quickly around, then closing the door.
“You were not followed?”
“Not that I observed. Got plenty of attention, though. A woman alone stands out like a forest fire in this quarter.”
“Yes,” the man agreed. “This way.”
He led her down a dark hallway to what had likely been a bedroom before it was converted. He directed her through a bead curtain with a gesture, and she was in the room with a small African woman of advanced age and wizened countenance.
“Sit down, child,” the woman told her in a time-roughened voice. She slid into the chair on the opposite side of the small round table, in the center of which was a lamp consisting of a wick in a pan floating on oil, the only light in the room.
“How was your journey?”
“That is good. Your employer speaks highly of you, at least his messenger does. Tell me, please, your full name.”
“Abigail Rufina Jenkins.”
“And you fit the description. Not to mention that no one, especially a young woman, would come here without a very good reason.”
The woman reached below the table and picked up a battered leather wallet, and laid it on the table within Jinx’s reach.
“That is what you have come for. I hope it proves worth what your employer paid for it.”
Jinx opened the wallet and ran her eyes over the address, and the few scribbled notes on the top paper inside. She closed it and slipped it into her skirt’s front pocket.
“This information is accurate?”
“A man paid for it with his life. Whether it leads you where you hope it will, I have no idea, but it is the item contracted for.”
“It has been purchased by your employer for a most generous amount, as I am sure you are aware.”
“It has been so suggested.”
“Then our business is concluded. Bora ya bahati na wewe, child, the best of good fortune attend you. You can find your way back?”
“Then I must bid you go. The evening is early, and other visitors await.”
Mombasa, 9:30 PM
A block from the woman’s parlor she met her erstwhile benefactor again, leaning against a darkened lamppost, waiting for her.
“Were you able to conclude your business with Shangazi Ramla?” the young man asked.
“Yes. Your directions were most helpful.”
“That is good. Then no one will miss you.”
He looked to the side and gave a nod. Her gaze snapped reflexively in that direction to take in another thug rushing toward her, arms outstretched to wrap her up. Her legs were longer, and he met the heel of her boot driving into the center of his chest. With a whoosh!, his breath left him, and he crumpled to the sidewalk. As she looked back toward the first man, a third she hadn’t seen landed on her back, driving her forward and down. Throwing her legs to the left, she pushed hard, unable to prevent her fall, but rolling them over so that she landed mostly on top. She snapped her head backward, into his face, and as his arms loosened their grip, she got her left leg up, seized her kris, and drove it hard into his thigh. With a scream, he released her, and she rolled to her feet to face the leader, who was rushing to secure her. The look on his face as he found himself facing a dangerous warrior full of fight instead of a terrified victim was worth gold.
She blocked his right forearm, put her other hand on his left shoulder, and head-butted the bridge of his nose. He recoiled with a cry, bending over, then tried to backhand her by surprise with his left. He missed badly, but the balisong, out and unfolded by now, didn’t, slicing into the meat of his left forearm. He continued around with an even louder cry, clutching his arm to his stomach. She looked quickly at the other two, writhing on the sidewalk, fight gone from them, then turned back to the leader.
“Devil!” he spat. “Who in all the hells are you?”
“They call me Jinx,” she said. “Here’s a little something to remember me by.”
She slipped the point of the butterfly knife into his nostril and flicked it outward, slicing his nose to the septum as he cried out again and grabbed his face.
“I don’t expect to see you again,” she said, “but if I do, I won’t be so gentle next time. Better get that seen to.”
She yanked her kris from his partner’s thigh, its wavy blade causing him to scream in renewed agony in its retreat, and disappeared into the night.
Mombasa, 9:35 PM
About the same time Jinx was cleaning her knife, a carriage rolled up in front of the Seaview Hotel, a mid-grade establishment easily visible from the passenger docks on the Mombasa waterfront. As the coachman climbed down and walked around to the rear rack to unload a considerable amount of baggage, the door opened, and a big, stocky man in blue work pants and a plaid shirt stepped down. He reached back up to take a woman by the waist, easily lifting her down to the sidewalk.
She was a shimmering vision in maroon satin, her black hair coifed and curled, hanging down behind a stylish hat tipped rakishly forward. Her hourglass figure was obviously enhanced by bustle and corset, but she was equally beautiful in her own right. She gave her closed parasol an elegant twirl, and brought it down to lean on it as a man would a cane.
“Thank you, Benjamin,” she said.
“My pleasure, Miss Jubal.”
A second man emerged from the carriage and stood taking in the surroundings before stepping down. This man had the sharp features of a hunting raptor with piercing brown eyes and a swarthy complexion. Satisfied, he stepped to the sidewalk. He wore black trousers and traveling jacket, a soft white shirt, and a black hat with a low crown and flat brim. His sole affectation were the simple, blunt spurs on his elegant black western boots. A short ponytail of shiny black hair hung over his collar.
“We still goin’ to Australia, Miss Jubal?” Benjamin asked.
“That’s the plan,” the woman said, revealing just a hint of the American south in her background.
“Why’d we get off the boat, then?” he asked.
The woman allowed herself a small smile at that.
“Because the boat is going back to Capetown, Benjamin. We catch a different boat to Australia three weeks hence. Since we have to wait around here anyway, we may as well see whether anyone here has seen him.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna have seen him around here if he’s in Australia.”
“Christ, Crenshaw,” ponytail said, “you’re about a thick bastard.”
“You ain’t exactly a ravin’ genius yourself, Two-Fives,” Crenshaw snarled.
“I don’t have to be a genius, farm-boy, just smart enough to listen to Miss Jubilee. She’ll find him. All we have to do is take him.”
“Damned ignorant half-breed never says more than three words at a time,” Crenshaw muttered. “How’s anybody s’posed to think he’s got any sense?”
“Now, boys,” the woman admonished, “let’s save all that vitriol for our quarry. He could be here, Benjamin, it’s possible.”
“I thought you said he was in Australia.”
“Probably. We’re just following a trail of clues, and the trail leads through here. Now, he got off that boat just like we did, and he may have looked around here and thought, ‘this is a good place for a man to hide. Who’s going to look on the back side of the world?’ Even if he just stopped here, someone may know where he was headed. We have plenty of time to ask.”
“He’s really dangerous, ain’t he?”
“Charlie Bender is a man, just like you and me,” Two-Fives interjected. “If I can’t get him on the draw, you’ll get him with the rifle. He ain’t no skinwalker or nothin’.”
“You boys don’t think about shooting him anywhere but the legs,” Jubilee warned. “He might be a devil in a showdown, but we didn’t come to Africa to make a paltry thousand dollars. Remember, we know all about him, and he don’t even know we’re looking for him, so I want you two canvassing the local watering holes during our layover.”
“See there?” Two-Fives asked Crenshaw. “Just listen to Miss Jubilee.”
“I’m going to arrange some rooms for us,” she continued. “You boys may as well get started, and you’d best take one of these.”
She removed a folded paper from her handbag and handed it to Two-Fives.
“Don’t be obvious, but if the situation arises, just casually mention that we’d like to talk with him. Don’t let on like on there’s going to be any trouble. If anyone asks, he’s inherited some money, and his solicitor is trying to get in touch with him. And, boys. No trouble. We don’t want to be restricted because the law is watching us.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Jubilee, I know what’s required.”
He opened the paper to reveal a well-drawn lithograph above a banner proclaiming the man depicted to be:
Wanted, $1000 Reward. $25,000 if alive.
A list of details followed in fine print.
“Better get this off of here if we don’t want people to get the right idea.”
He folded the poster above the reward banner, ran his tongue along the crease, and carefully tore the reward notice away from a near-photographic representation of David Smith.