Air Bridge (4)
February 25, 2015
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Hammond Innes’s 1951 espionage thriller/Robinsonade Air Bridge. Set in England during the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 (during which time the British RAF and other aircrews frustrated the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain practical control of that city), the novel’s protagonist is a mercenary pilot… but is he a traitor? Hammond Innes wrote over 30 adventures, many of them set in hostile natural environments. Enjoy!
He stood there staring at me as though a pit had suddenly opened at his feet “A receipt, please, Mr. Reinbaum,” I repeated.
He came slowly towards me. “How do I know that your check will be honored? I do not give a receipt —”
“You have the law to protect you in a case like that” I said. “Can I see the documents proving that you are the legal possessor of these mortgages?” I was enjoying myself, enjoying the sudden surprised silence that descended on the hangar. Nobody spoke, and Reinbaum stared at me with baffled eyes. For some reason he didn’t want to be paid. I thought of how I had got that money and I was suddenly glad I’d ferried those planes. Somehow this made the racket worth while.
Saeton was the first to come to life. “Just a minute, Fraser. Apart from the fact that I can’t allow you to do this, it won’t help you know. We owe money. Also we’ve got to be carried for two months.”
“I realize that,” I said. “What’s the absolute minimum that will carry you to the flying stage?”
He hesitated. “About another thousand.” His voice suddenly took on new life. “You see, we’ve got the metal and the castings. We’ve got everything. All we need is to cover some of the bills that’ll come in and our living —” His sudden excitement faded and his words stopped. “To carry us and pay the interest on these mortgages you’ve got to have nearly two thousand five hundred.”
I sat down and wrote out Reinbaum’s check. “Who shall I make it out to?” I asked him.
“Weiner, Reinbaum and Company,” he answered sullenly.
As I entered the amount on the check counterfoil Saeton touched my shoulder. “Have you really got two thousand five hundred in your account?” he asked almost unbelievingly.
“Not in my account,” I answered. “But with my life policy I’m good for that much.”
He didn’t say anything, but his hand gripped my shoulder for a moment.
I checked the documents Reinbaum reluctantly produced from his brief-case. Then I gave him the cheque and got his receipt. All this time Saeton had been standing over us and as the little man straightened up, he said, “It was the engines you wanted, wasn’t it, Reinbaum?” There was a dangerous quietness about his voice.
“I do not want anything,” Reinbaum answered him. “Only the moneys.” But I don’t think he expected Saeton to believe him, for he added quickly, “My clients are interested in the charter business.”
“And who exactly are your clients?” Saeton asked in the same quiet voice.
“I am sorry. I cannot tell you that.”
Saeton took him gently by the collar. “It was the engines they wanted, wasn’t it? Somebody tipped them off that you held the mortgages.” He turned to Randall. “Had you borrowed on these mortgages when you were down here last, in October?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Randall answered unwillingly. “Possibly.”
“Did you mention it to anyone — Else, for instance?”
Randall flushed “I may have done. I can’t remember. I —”
“You tell a stray D.P. and you don’t tell me.” Saeton’s face was white with anger. “And you’re a director of my company. My God!” He picked little Reinbaum up by his collar with his two hands and shook him. “Who are these clients of yours?” he shouted, and I thought he’d break the little man apart.
Reinbaum’s spectacles fell to the ground. His plump white hand moved agitatedly with a flash of gold. “Please,” he cried. “I will have the police —”
“Oh, no you won’t.” Saeton laughed through his clenched teeth. “You’ve no friends here. They’ll swear I never laid a finger on you. Now, then. Who are your clients?” He shook the man till he screamed and then he flung him away like a discarded sack. Reinbaum stumbled, caught his foot against a stool and went sprawling on to the dusty concrete. “Well?” Saeton demanded, standing over him.
The man was fumbling blindly for his glasses. Saeton kicked them over to him and then picked up the briefcase, searching through it, strewing the papers he discarded over the floor. He found what he wanted in the end, holding it up, his eyes darkening with anger as he read it. “My God!” he exclaimed. “So that’s it.” He stuffed the letter into the pocket of his jacket and stared down at Reinbaum. “How did they discover I’d got the prototype?” he demanded. “How did they know that?” He turned away as Reinbaum shook his head obstinately. “All right. It doesn’t matter.” He tossed the brief-case and the rest of the papers on to the man’s prostrate body. “Now, get out!”
Reinbaum seized hold of the case, bundled the documents into it and fled.
“Well, that’s that,” Saeton said. He was standing there in the center of the hangar like a bull that has disposed of one matador and is glaring round in search of the next. His gaze fixed on Randall. “Do you realize what you’ve done? You bloody nearly —” His mouth clamped shut and he came steadily down the hangar. “You’re not fit to be a director of a company.” He stopped and Randall muttered inarticulate apologies. “Sit down,” Saeton said, his voice shaking with anger. “Now write me out a letter of resignation.”
“Suppose I refuse to resign?” Randall’s face was pale and though his head was turned towards Saeton his eyes slid away from him.
“Refuse to resign!” There were white patches under Saeton’s eyes. “While we’ve been slaving our guts out up here to build something worth while, what have you been doing? Gambling. Gambling with the future of my compa ny. Well, Carter and I aren’t working twenty-four hours a day to make a fortune for a man who has never done a thing to help us, who —”
“That’s not true,” Randall answered. “Who brought the thing out of Germany in the first place? You’d never have got it back here unless I’d smuggled it out in one of my vehicles. Who’s paid for all the development work? Every time you’ve asked for money —”
“It’s all covered by those mortgages,” Saeton cut in, his voice suddenly quiet. “You’ve never risked a penny, while Carter and I have sunk everything we had without securi ty. The company owes you nothing, except a fee for smuggling the prototype out, and I’ll see you’re paid for that. As for the mortgages, it’s not my fault you’ve bor rowed on them and gambled away the proceeds.” He paused for breath. “You’ve only yourself to blame, Dick,” he added, almost gently. He pulled a pen out of his pocket and pushed it into Randall’s hand. “I suggest ‘pressure of other business.’”
Randall hesitated. But Saeton was standing over him and there was something compelling in the quietness of the man, the whiteness of his face. Randall glanced up once and then the pen was scratching at the paper Carter had thrust in front of him.
As soon as Randall had signed it, Saeton took it from him, glanced at it quickly and then slipped it into his pocket. “And now for God’s sake get Reinbaum off the airfield before I murder the little bastard.”
Randall stood up, hesitating as he faced us. I thought for a moment he was going to say something, but the hostile silence was too much for him. He turned away and we watched him go, heard the door click shut, and then we were alone in the hangar. Saeton pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his face. “Christ!” he said. “I didn’t expect to come out of that with the company still intact.” His gaze came round to me. “About the luckiest thing I ever did was to tell you you could stay on up here.” He rubbed his hands and his voice was suddenly cheerful as he said, “Well, that leaves us short of the necessary three directors, Tubby. I suggest, therefore, as an acknowledgment of our gratitude to him for saving the company in its hours of need, we invite Mr. Fraser to join the board.” Relief had brought a hint of laughter to his voice. “Will you second that, Tubby?”
Carter glanced quickly across at me. I was conscious of a fractional hesitation, and then he said, “Yes. I second that.”
Saeton came over and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re now a director of Saeton Aircraft Ltd., entitled to a yearly salary of £2,500.” He gave a quick laugh. “It’s never been paid yet.” And then he added, “But some day — soon now —” He stopped. His voice had become serious. “Fraser, I can’t thank you enough. God knows why you did it, but” — he gripped my hand — “I can’t tell you —” His voice broke off as though the words he sought were inadequate and he just stood there, wringing my hand. “Why did you do it, eh? Why?” He was suddenly laughing. “I can’t forget little Reinbaum’s face when you asked him for that receipt.” He laughed till the tears ran down his face. Then, with a quick change to brusqueness: “Well, why did you do it?”
“I don’t quite know,” I answered awkwardly. “I wanted to, that’s all.” I turned away, embarrassed by the sudden emotionalism in his voice.
There was a moment’s silence, and then he said abruptly, “Well, let’s get back to work.” The sense of purpose was back in his eyes now and it gave me an odd feeling of closeness to him as I went over to my lathe and picked up the half-completed piston.
But somehow I couldn’t concentrate. Randall’s words came between me and my work. I’d been caught out in a racket once and I didn’t want any more of it. If they were smuggling foreign patents….
I switched off the lathe and went over to Saeton. He was seated on a stool, working on the armature again with the fierce concentration of a man who holds the future in his hands. He looked up at me as I stood over him. “Well, what is it?” he asked impatiently.
“I want all the cards on the table,” I said. “I don’t like working in the dark — not any more.”
He stared at me, his jaw clamped shut, an angry frown creasing his forehead. I watched the thick hand resting on the bench slowly clench into a fist. His eyes had hardened and narrowed with the clenching of his hand. I was looking at the man who had hit me two nights ago in the woods on the edge of the airfield. “Well?”
I hesitated. But I had to know where I stood. The hours I had spent working at that lathe had given me a new sense of confidence in myself. “Come on, man, let’s have it,” he snapped. “What’s on your mind?”
“This air engine of yours” — I nodded to the gleaming bulk standing against the wall on its wooden chocks — “you didn’t design it, did you.”
“So that’s it. You think I’ve filched somebody else’s design, do you?”
“I didn’t say that,” I answered, feeling suddenly uncertain under the cold anger of his gaze. “I simply want to know whether you designed it?”
“Of course I didn’t design it,” he snapped. “You’re not a fool. You know damn well I don’t know enough about engineering to design an air engine.” He had risen slowly to his feet and was standing in what seemed to be a characteristic attitude, legs slightly straddled, head thrust forward. “I suppose, now you’ve bought your way into the thing, you think you’re entitled to throw your weight about.” The violence died out of him and in a milder tone he added, “If you must know, it’s a bit of wartime loot. One day I’ll tell you the whole story. But not now.”
“Who owns the patent?” I asked.
“I do,” he snapped. “The prototype was never completed. For a man in your position, you’ve a devilish sensitive conscience.” He sat down abruptly. “For God’s sake let’s get on. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
I had barely got back to my lathe when there was a knock at the door of the hangar. “See who it is, Fraser,” Saeton said. “If it’s Randall I won’t talk to him.”
But it wasn’t Randall. It was Diana, and with her was a girl in a faded brown smock. I knew her at once. She was the girl who had been talking with Saeton in the hangar that first night I had come to Membury. She had recognized me, too, for she caught her breath and stared at me as though I were something unexpected, and her broad forehead contracted in a frown that gave her pleasant, quiet features a brooding look.
“She wants to see Bill,” Diana said.
I pulled open the door and they came in, the girl hesitating over the sill as though she feared a trap. Then she was walking down the hangar, her head erect, her shoulders squared.
Saeton looked up, saw her and jumped to his feet. “What the devil are you doing here?” His thick eyebrows were dragged down, his body tense.
The girl didn’t flinch. Her eyes roved quickly along the bench. They were wide, intelligent eyes, and they seemed to miss nothing. Finally they came to rest on the completed engine and their expression seemed to change, to soften.
“Did you bring her here, Diana?” Saeton’s voice was harsh.
“Yes. She wanted to see you.”
“I don’t care who she wanted to see,” he stormed. “Get her out of here.” He got control of himself and turned to me. “Take her outside and find out what she wants. I won’t have people walking in and out of this place as though it were a railway station.” But almost immediately he changed his mind. “All right. I’ll talk to her.” He strode down the hangar. The girl hesitated, her eyes lingering a moment on the litter of the work bench, then she turned and followed him.
“That’s a queer girl,” Diana said to her husband. “When Randall was here she hung around the quarters like a cat on hot bricks. After a time she went out on to the airfield, and the next I saw of her she came flying through the woods, her face white and her eyes wet with tears. Had she been in a concentration camp or something?”
“Her father died in one,” Carter answered. “That’s all I know.”
Saeton came back then, his face angry, the muscles at the side of his jaw swollen with the clenching of his teeth.
“What did she want?” Diana asked.
He didn’t appear to hear her question. He strode straight past her and seated himself at the bench again. “Will you bring lunch for the three of us up here at one-thirty,” he said.
Diana hesitated. But his manner didn’t encourage questions. “All right,” she said and left the hanger. I turned back to my lathe, but all the time I was trying to remember the scrap of conversation I’d overheard that night in the hangar.
Twice I glanced at Saeton, but each time his expression stopped me from putting the question that was on the tip of my tongue. At length I said, “Who is that girl?”
His head jerked up. “That was Else,” he said.
“What was her father’s work?”
His fist crashed down on the bench. “You ask too many damned questions,” he shouted.
I felt the shock of his violence as though it was a physical blow and went quickly over to the lathe. But a moment later he was at my side. “I’m sorry, Neil,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry if I lose my temper now and then.” His hand reached out and gripped my arm and he waved his free hand to the litter of parts on the bench. “I feel sometimes as though these were my organs and I was being slowly manufactured and pieced together. If anything happened to prevent the completion of the whole thing —” He didn’t finish and the grip on my arm slowly relaxed. “I’m a bit tired, that’s all. It’ll be like this until we’re in the air.”
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”