* * *
Patience steadied the young Doctor by grasping his elbow for the umpteenth time as they made their way out of the well-lit waterfront district, toward the aerodrome on the eastern fringe of town. He wasn’t falling-down drunk, but he was well past being merely in his cups. More consistent support would have helped him, but she wasn’t about to give anyone the impression of being with this snobbish fop by actually taking his arm.
At least, not until he unexpectedly leaned away from her, took a few looping steps to the right, and caught himself by knocking over a pile of crates outside a goods house. She went to him then, steadied him on his feet, and did then take his arm, leading him down the street in fairly good order. This was as much for her own benefit as his; the patrols thinned out considerably in the dimmer districts beyond the never-sleeping waterfront, and a drunken man in fancy clothes was likely as not to attract alley pirates looking for an easy haul.
“I should give you a word of advice, Doctor,” she said as they walked. “Here in the tropics, what with the heat and humidity, alcohol has a much more profound effect on a body than you’re accustomed to in London town.”
“My name is Nicholas, you know. Most of the ladies call me Nick.”
“I’m sure they do, Doctor. Are you listening to me?”
“Of course. Have to watch the alcohol. Are you listening to me?”
“What’d I say, then?” he asked, stopping to look her in the face.
“Your name is Nicholas.”
“I heard you, Doctor. Now, we need to move along. There can be some rough trade around here.”
That seemed to bring him to focus, and she quickly got him moving again, keeping a reaction distance between them and the closed shop fronts that lined the road. It seemed to suffice, for despite her worries, she managed to get him to the final corner without incident, and they rounded the end of the warehouse to provide his first view of the aerodrome, and the two craft tethered there. He stopped so suddenly that she almost lost her balance.
Floodlights on towers lighted the two airships. The first was a two-envelope vessel whose gondola was barely more than a cargo platform with large propellers fore and aft, a stubby wing and vertical fins trailing behind. Nyumbu, read a hand-lettered board on the side rail. A crew wrestled crates off a cargo sling onto the deck, amid much cursing and blasphemy.
She led him past this bare-bones freight hauler to the second ship, moored to bollards away from the dock, a perfectly formed boat hull slung below a fat yet somehow gracefully tapered envelope, twin motors with two-bladed propellers on an obviously articulated frame hanging low at the rear. Kestrel, she proclaimed her name to be in faded black letters across the stern. Besides the mooring hawsers, the only means of access was a spindly rope ladder hanging from the rail.
“On the Kestrel!” Patience called up. Shortly, a ruddy face appeared at the railing.
“Hoy, Patty!” its owner called back. “I thought the Injuns got you!”
“Injuns don’t want me, David. Meat’s too chewy. I’ve gotten us a fare. Is the captain aboard?”
“Nah. He’s been buttin’ heads with that wholesaler all afternoon. Went out to get a drink.”
“Was he victorious?”
“Well, he didn’t kill the guy, so I’m guessin’ we’re square. Who’s this fare you got?”
“Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth. Say hello to David Smith, our deck crewman.”
“Mr. Smith,” Ellsworth said with a tip of his new hat. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I say, a bit rough around the edges, isn’t he?”
“David’s an American, straight from the frontier. Dodge City, Wild Bill Hickok, cowboys and Indians, and all that. Rough as they come. We think he had to flee. No one believes for a moment that David Smith is his real name.”
“Why did you hire him, then?”
“He can do the work. People with airship skills don’t grow on trees, you know. Well, up you get.”
“Up the ladder.”
“Not at all. Go ahead.”
Ellsworth took hold of the side ropes, put his foot on the first wooden rung, lifted his weight, and promptly fell backward onto his rump. Patience stifled a snicker, and helped him up.
“Honestly, Doctor, you should have said you have no experience with rope ladders. Here, I’ll show you.”
She stepped to the side of it, took one rope in both hands, and with her legs on either side of it, scampered up like a forest monkey. Ellsworth watched in amazement until she reached the top, and Smith helped her over the rail. Her curly blonde head immediately reappeared, a mischievous smile on her pretty face.
“Take your time, Doctor. It can be tricky until you get the hang of it.”
He did indeed take his time, swinging precariously even though the ship was tethered less than twenty feet off the ground. He miraculously failed to fall, but was thoroughly exhausted by the time Smith and Hobbs manhandled him aboard.
“A commendable first effort, Doctor,” Patience said as he collected himself, straightening his tie and waistcoat, and garnering his first impressions of the ship.
He stood at the side of a clear cargo deck, obstructed only by a few pieces of what he assumed to be essential equipment. A raised pilot house was situated well forward, and various pipes and hoses ran fore and aft, up to the gas bag, and a couple over the side. He nodded to David, a wiry fellow of around forty, with a face like sun-cured leather, who nodded back without comment, and turned away to lean on the rail. Clanking noises drew his eye aft, where a strapping fellow, blonde like Patience, with a build like a circus strongman, held a wrench in position inside a gearbox, and banged the shank with a hammer.
“Gunther,” Patience called to him, leading Ellsworth that way, “meet our new passenger. This is Doctor Ellsworth.”
The big fellow looked up with a pleasant enough expression, and said, “It vill be good to haff a doctor aboard, even if only briefly. Gunther Brown, ship’s engineer.”
“I say,” Ellsworth blurted out, “isn’t that a Prussian accent?”
“Und vell it should be, Doctor. I vas born in Berlin.”
“And your captain allows this?” he queried Patience. “England and Prussia are about two insults from open warfare.”
“Ve are a long vay from Europe here, Doctor,” Gunther answered. “Berlin und London haff zere issues, und ve haff ours.”
“Gunther’s father was a clerk in the Berlin embassy,” Patience informed him. “He obtained a special dispensation from the Crown to marry a German girl. Gunther’s politics are his own affair. It is his mechanical genius that is our primary interest.”
“I see. Well, good to meet you, then, Mr. Brown.”
“Ja,” Gunther said with a nod. “Und you.”
“Well, then,” Ellsworth asked, “what do we do until the captain returns?”
“I suppose I can I show you where your quarters will be if you take passage with us.”
“Better giff him vun by ze keel. He’s going to be katzenjammers tomorrow.”
He and Patience both chuckled at that.
“What does katzenyum- katzenyan-“
“Katzenjammers,” Patience repeated.
“Exactly. What does that mean?”
“Hung over,” she replied, and took his arm to lead him forward toward the pilot house.