New Orleans. I’d heard about it, of course. Exotic. Dangerous. The heart of the undeclared war amongst the European powers with colonies in the Americas. Everybody wants to expand their empires.
We’d tried to buy the colony from the French a hundred or so years ago, but the French weren't selling. They, like us and everyone else, wanted to keep a firm foothold in the New World. The soil was fertile, the country rich in natural resources and there was lots of space, unlike pretty full Europe. Any country willingly stepping away from the Americas was, frankly, nuts.
I hadn't been surprised to find two tickets sitting on my side table when I got home. Simmons had struck again. Mallister had arranged for berths for Richard Ainsworth and myself on the next airship heading to New York. It was leaving tomorrow at noon. I wondered briefly we’d just bumped a couple of people off the flight or if the Crown always had several cabins reserved. On every fight? Just in case? Seemed kind of expensive. But then I suppose it helps to own the company.
We’d arrive in New York in four days then we'd transfer to another airship headed southward toward the French colony of Louisiana, which, when I’d checked the maps, was a hell of a lot bigger than Britain. But then everything in the New World was bigger. Rawer. Less civilized. Less mired in history.
I’d been on Bermuda for my last trip to the New World. It was beautiful there. I sort of wished I was going back there. Nice beaches, sun, fun. I hoped I’d have some time for some fun in New Orleans, since I hadn't had a minute to enjoy Bermuda beyond just wishful thinking. Someone had always been shooting at me. The downside of my job. Things always seem to go downhill quickly.
I telephoned the authorities in New Orleans, luckily the time was much earlier there, and let them know I was coming. I presented myself as just a detective chief inspector coming to check out the death of a British citizen. I can't say if they bought it or not, I couldn’t tell. I’d simply have to hope they did, or that they at least would decide to stay out of my way.
The next day I arrived at the aerodrome in good time. The ship was a newer one and the gondola quite well designed and attractive. Folks were in a good mood despite gloomy and nasty weather. They were going on holiday, I suppose, or at least on an adventure.
I politely as possible shoved my way through the happy crowd and eventually located my surprisingly luxurious stateroom. I unpacked and paused whilst doing so to marvel at Simmons for a few minutes. I could never have packed that well. I briefly worried about how the devil I was going to get it all packed back up again. But I’m not very good at worrying; or at least I didn't bother with it much. I know a lot of folks like to do it but worrying is boring so I let everyone else do the worrying for me.
I also get bored on other things, and confess I abandoned my unpacking only part way through. I told myself I'd do it later, but didn't get out of the stateroom before I had a valet from the airship show up and tell me he’d deal with it. Great! I told him with a grin and headed for the main salon, so I could watch liftoff with an ale in hand.
I wasn't about to take it in from the main deck because it was cold outside and windy. A few intrepid souls were out there though, most with small children who possibly threatened to make life miserable for mum and da if they didn't indulge them.
As it was the alert sirens waring of liftoff sounded before I could reach the main salon, so I paused in the foyer to watch instead. My guess was they were taking advantage of a window in the weather. I checked my pocket watch. Yeah, ten minutes early.
The foyer wasn't too crowded so I could lean on a railing and enjoy the spectacle out the large windows with an unobstructed view. As we rose, leaving dreary looking London below us, rain, cold and angry, hit the windows like sleet. Well, it would be warm and sunny in Louisiana surely.
I tired of watching London recede into the clouds and so turned to climb the wide circular staircase which led to the main salon.
The salon was large and spacious for an airship. I paused in the double doorway and glanced around to get my bearings. As I entered I did my best to look like a casual visitor, rather than a cop. No sense advertising. I’d dressed as the valet had suggested I do. Every other male was also in evening attire, It seemed odd at noon, but who am I to say what’s proper?
Apparently I cleaned up okay because several very nice looking young ladies smiled at me as I walked past and nodded a greeting. I didn't stop though, I was intent on reaching the bar. In an effort to look more at ease in the fancy suit than I felt, I stuck my hands in my pockets and did my best to walk casual.
I wasn’t surprised to find Richard Ainsworth already sitting in the bar, a drink at his elbow. He was staring out the window behind the barman, watching the storm. He looked surprisingly morose until he realized I was there. Then he hid the look behind his usual insouciant mask. I couldn't help but notice nearly all the female eyes in the place swiveling toward him as he smiled. So much for me.
I sank onto the stool beside him. “Ale,” I ordered and settled in. Ainsworth glanced my way, but he still looked preoccupied. I’d have left him to his black thoughts, but I needed his attention so I could get him to spill the personal side of the background I needed for this operation.
“So this dead guy,” I began.
“Dead alchemist,” he corrected me.
“Yeah, that. And a friend of yours?”
He nodded glumly.
“What was he doing in New Orleans? The Crown, so far as I know, frowns on leading scientists setting up shop in foreign climes. Thus Ned Black persuaded to move to Bletchley Park, not to mention you.”
Ainsworth shrugged and finally turned to look at me. His gaze is a bit unsettling. He has a way of seeming to look through you. “You look.. Different,” is what he said. I wondered just what the hell that meant.
“Tell me about your friend,” I prompted, wanting to change the conversation.
“He’s working on .. He WAS working on.. Well, it’s complicated. Suffice to say, we’ve been discovering that there is something special about certain locations around the globe. We aren't sure why just yet. Nor do we know how to locate them all. The reason these places are special could be one specific physical oddity, or a mix of several things. We’ve considered reasons such as a specific mix of heavy elements in the bedrock or soil as well as ley lines, as they do seem to pass through the sites we know of. But then we still know too little to be definitive. The causation could be nearly any complex combination of things we’ve yet no idea about.”
“Ah,” I said, trying to sound like I’d taken all that in. What I had heard was that they just didn't know. That I could get my head around. “Go on.”
“What we do know, as opposed to what we speculate,” Richard replied, “is that there are locations in disparate places around the globe that exhibit a sort of ..of convergence. Powerful natural forces we can actually measure seem to interact in ways we don't quite understand. New Orleans, you see, is one of the places with the strongest measurement of this convergence. That’s why Geoff set up shop there. He was trying to understand ‘convergence’ and identify just what creates the phenomenon. In short, we want to understand just what it is that makes New Orleans so scientifically special.”
“Hmm,” I replied as I sipped my ale. “And these other places which are special?”
Ainsworth shrugged. “Some we know of some we don’t. Yet. Bermuda is one.”
“I was afraid this was going to have something to do with Ned Black’s Assembler,” I muttered.
“Peripherally it does,” Ainsworth agreed. “Ned’s Assembler, and what it could do, got me thinking. I was corresponding with Harry and Geoff Crenshaw and we were bouncing ideas off one another. Geoff’s brother, who is also - er, was also - his colleague, came up with some brilliant experiments to try to determine just what physical traits cause these areas of convergence.”
“And they were making progress,” I concluded. “And Mallister, his boss, and you all think this murder is related to what he was finding out.”
Ainsworth nodded. “It’s the sort of thing any government would want to get its hands on.”
“Of course it is. If only to keep anyone else from having it,” I muttered to myself. Right. “So where’s Geoff’s brother?”
“Harry is currently being watched over by security from the consulate in New Orleans. So far safe. In hospital I’m told, wounded when Geoff was killed. Harry has been in a coma for the last week. I’m told he’s awake now, though.”
“That’s good, we can find out more from him.”
“Upsetting however, that parts of the lab were searched during or after the assault.”
“Oh?” I frowned but I confess I was relieved to hear it hadn't been blown up. I’d had some experience with blown up or otherwise destroyed buildings. Richard Ainsworth and his friends seemed to have destruction magnetism or something.
“Afraid so. I fear any actual device will have been taken; and I’m sure their detailed notes are gone. I’m desperately hoping Harry will be able to reconstruct their findings well enough to get us back on track. And that he’s even the least bit as capable as his elder brother.”
Me too. I paused and then ordered us both second drinks. After they were delivered, I turned to Richard. “And you asked for me when Mallister insisted you have a body guard?”
Ainsworth made a face. On him, even that sort of face was handsome. Then he shrugged. “I know you, Kevyn. You’re.. remarkably competent and you aren't thrown off by ... odd events.”
I almost choked on my ale. Odd events. Oh yeah. I understood and dealt with odd events, all right.
“You’re more Nursery Maid, than Bodyguard I’d guess. More here to keep an eye on me and make sure I’m not tempted toward the dark side. The Crown still doesn't trust me fully. I’m sure your Lord Mallister made all that quite clear to you.”
He hadn't but I wasn't about to tell Ainsworth that, so I just nodded. After a space of silence I added, because in a way I understood his desire to not be judged by who or what he was, “They know you aren't your father.”
“Do they?” he asked sharply.
I let the question slide as I was watching a woman who was watching us. She was stunning. Her dark tresses were pulled up and back. Her lips were full and looked eminently kissable. She was no English beauty, though. She was far more exotic looking. Her skin was a softly glowing bronze, her eyes large and dark and slightly canted.
She met my eyes and then held up a drink, regarding me steadily over the rim of the glass. Her wide dark eyes seemed to be laughing at me.
What had me squirming in my seat and feeling ill at ease not to mention on edge was that she was looking at me, not at Richard Ainsworth. Which I found suspicious, to say the least.
That was the first time I saw Renee LaCroix.
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