The captain grimaced and frowned, and after a moment's hesitation he laid out the truth. "Stolen. The Free Crow was taken by a red-haired crook called Felton Brink-and don't ask me why," he added fast. "If I knew, I'd have an easier time chasing him. I don't suppose you've seen him come through here, have you? You couldn't miss him. He's got a head that looks like a fire pit, and he's piloting my ship-you'd know it on sight, I know you would-but he's calling her Clementine."
"No," Barebones said thoughtfully. "No, I haven't heard a thing about that, or I'd have been less startled to see you on my doorstep. But if you ask around down at the docks, you might hear something more encouraging."
The captain made a small shrug that was not disappointed, exactly, but rather resigned. He said, "I'm not surprised. They filled up outside of Topeka, and can probably run another couple hundred miles. I don't know if Brink knew I had contacts in Kansas City, but I do know he's sticking to the rural roads and airways as much as he can."
"And you don't know where he's going?"
"Haven't the faintest idea," Hainey said. "If I knew, I'd try and sneak underneath him, and head him off. But it was a damned unfair thing, to steal my war bird. It was damned unfair, and damned stupid."
"I hope he's being paid, and paid gloriously," Halliway said through another mouthful of alcohol. "If the poor fool knew who he was stealing from, I mean." He sounded nervous again, and Hainey made a note of it. "Crossing you, that's not a healthy thing for a man to do, now is it?"
"Not at all. But you know that better than anyone, don't you?"
"I've seen it in action," Barebones said. "Yes sir, I surely have. But I've never crossed you before and I won't start now-which doesn't change the fact that I don't have a bird to give you. But then again…" he said, and fiddled with the corner of his glasses.
"Then again?" Hainey prompted him.
He considered whatever he was on the verge of saying, and when he had his thoughts laid out correctly, he said, "Then again, and this is strictly off the books, you hear me, all right?"
The hotelman lowered his voice for the sake of drama, since no one in a position to overhear would've cared. "Refresh my memory, now. Your Free Crow was a war bird you…acquired, shall we say, from the Rebs. That's right, ain't it?"
"Well let's say, for the sake of argument, that I've heard tale of a Union bird getting a gauge fixed over here at the Kansas City docks, and I think she's going to be fixed up sometime in the next day or two. She's on her way back to New York to get a few more tweaks made to her defenses; I think someone's going to give it a top-level ball turret. Your fellow here," he pointed at Lamar, "he boosted a crashed-up bird back into the air?"
"Sure did," Lamar answered.
"Then I reckon he could fix a valve gauge in ten minutes flat. Maybe, and I'm just saying this for the sake of argument, but maybe he could even fix it someplace else, if you and your boys felt like taking it for a little ride."
Croggon Hainey wasn't entirely sure how he felt about the suggestion, but it wasn't a terrible one and he didn't shoot it down outright. He said, "It's not a bad idea," while he pinched at his chin, where there was no stubble for him to thoughtfully stroke. "What's this Union bird's name?"
"As I've heard it, they're calling her Valkyrie."
The passenger docks in Chicago were out past the slaughter yards, and Maria got a good whiff of them as the coach bore her swiftly toward the semi-permanent pipe piers and the tethered dirigibles that waited there. Out the window she watched not quite nervously, not very happily, as the red-brick city sped by-its streets and walkways gray with the soot of a thousand furnaces, and its roads rough with unfixed holes. A particularly pointed jostle threatened to unseat her hat, so she clutched it into place.
She read and reread the information from the envelope. She fingered the ticket, rubbing her thumb against the word TOPEKA, knowing that she'd have to make new arrangements and wondering how she'd go about it.
Maria had never flown in a dirigible before, but she wasn't about to admit it-and she was prepared to figure out the details as she went. She was no stranger to improvisation; it wouldn't have bothered her in the slightest if this weren't her first case, and if she didn't have so many questions.
Perhaps it ought to be considered a point of flattery that Pinkerton was prepared to start her off with something so shady and uncertain. Or perhaps she ought to feel insulted, wondering if he would've given such an assignment to any of his male operatives; and wondering if they would've received the same slim briefing.
Nothing felt right about it.
But she wasn't in a position to be picky, so when the coach deposited her at a gate, she paid the driver, gathered her skirts into a bunch in her fist, and strode purposefully in the direction of a painted sign that said, "Ticketing
." Lifted skirts and all, filthy slush swept itself onto the fabric and squished nastily against her leather boots. She ignored it, waited behind one other man in line, and approached the thin-faced fellow behind a counter with the declaration, "Hello sir, I beg your assistance, please. I have a ticket to Topeka, but I need to exchange it for passage to Jefferson City."
"Do you now?" he asked, not brightening, lightening, or showing any real interest. He pulled a monocle off its sitting place at the edge of his eye socket, and wiped it on his red and white striped vest.
Instinctively, she knew this kind of man. He was one of several kinds that were easy enough to handle with the appropriate tactics. The ticket man was thin-limbed and sour, overly enthused with his tiny shred of authority, and bound to give her hassle-she knew it even before she clarified her difficulties.
"I do. And I understand that the Jefferson City-bound ship leaves rather shortly."
He glanced at a sheet of paper tacked to a board at his left and said, "Six minutes. But you shouldn't have bought a ticket to Topeka if you wanted to go to Jefferson City. Exchanges aren't simple." He spoke slowly, as if he had no intention of accommodating her, and orneriness came naturally because he was essentially weak-and he would not be moved except by threat of force.
She was not yet prepared to resort to a force past feminine wiles, but she could see the necessity looming in the distance.
"I didn't buy the ticket," she told him. "It was purchased for me by my employer, whom you are more than welcome to summon if you take any issue with my request which is, I think we can honestly agree, a reasonable one."
"It would've been more reasonable if he'd gotten you the right ticket in the first place."
She spoke quickly, firmly, and with the kind of emphasis that didn't have time to cajole. The ticket man did not know it because he was a little bit dense, but this was his final warning. "Then indeed, we can agree on something. But the situation changed, and now my ticket needs to be changed, and I'd be forever in your debt if you'd simply accept this ticket and provide me with a substitute."
He leaned in order to look around her, in case there was anyone else at all whom he might address. Seeing no one, he straightened himself and deepened his smug frown. "You're going to have to fill out a form." Maria glanced at the clock on the table, but before she could say anything in protest the ticket man added, "Four minutes, now. You'd better write quickly."
Before he could utter the last syllable, Maria's patience had expired and her hands were on his collar, yanking him forward. She held him firmly, eye to eye, and told him, "Then it sounds like I don't have time to be nice. I'd prefer to be nice, mind you-I've made a career out of it, but if time is of the essence then you're just going to have to forgive me if I resort to something baser."
Flustered, he leaned back to attempt a retreat; but Maria dug her feet into the half-frozen dirt. As the ticket man learned, she was stronger than she looked. "Oh no, you don't. Now put me on the ship to Jefferson City, or I'll summon my employer and let the Pinkerton boys explain how you ought to treat a lady in need."
"That's right. I'm their newest, meanest, and best-dressed operative, and I need to get to Jefferson City, and you, sir, are standing between me and my duty." She released him with a shove that sent him back into his seat, where his bony back connected unpleasantly with the chair. "Am I down to three minutes yet?" she asked.
With a stutter, he said, "No."
"And how long will it take me to find the ship that will take me to Jefferson City?"
"M-maybe a minute or two."
"Then maybe you'd better hurry up and swap my ticket before I get back in my coach, go back to my office, and explain to Mr. Pinkerton why I missed the ship he was so very interested in seeing me catch." She planted both hands on the edge of the counter and glared, waiting.
Without taking his eyes off the irate Southern woman who was absolutely within eye-gouging range, the ticket man took the Topeka slip and, reaching into a drawer, retrieved a scrap of paper that would guarantee passage aboard a ship called Cherokee Rose.
Maria took the ticket, thanked him curtly, spun on her heel, and ran up to the platform where the ships were braced for passenger loading. The ticket said that Cherokee Rose was docked in slot number three. She found slot number three as the uniformed man stationed at its gate was closing the folding barrier, and she held her hand up to her breastbone, pretending to be winded and on the verge of tears.
He was an older gentleman, old enough to be her father if not her grandfather; and his crisply pressed uniform fit neatly over his military posture, without any lint or incorrectly fastened buttons. Maria did not know if dirigibles were flown like trains were conducted, but she was prepared to guess the estimable old gentleman to be the pilot.