Bookworm took a deep breath and entered the pub. A few heads turned at her entrance, and stayed to take in her wet, disheveled appearance, but most of the patrons were, thankfully, too intent on their own conversations and drinks. She waited at the bar until she caught the eye of the barman, and asked, “Captain Haviland?”
The barman jerked his head to one side. “Over there–third table down.”
Bookworm looked that way, and saw a white-haired man at the indicated table. “Thanks,” she said. As she approached the table, the captain looked her over. “What happened to you?” he asked, amusement coloring his voice.
“It’s a long story, Captain Haviland,” she replied, sighing. She gestured to the seat opposite. “May I?”
“Certainly,” Captain Haviland replied, half-rising as she sat down. “What would you have to drink?”
“Anything hot,” she replied, still shivering, though the warmth from the nearby fireplace was starting to ease that.
“Kaplan!” he called. “Is there any mulled wine left?”
“Aye,” the barman replied. “I’ll bring it ye in a moment.”
“Well, then,” he said to Bookworm. “Who are you, and what brings you to me?”
“My name is Miss Hienrichs. I’m a…protégé, for lack of a better term, of Captain Mariah Lanfier.” She saw surprise and interest on his face, as she reached for the warm mug Kaplan set down next to her. “I’m hoping to prevail upon that relationship to get your assistance.”
“Hmmm,” he mused, looking at her with hooded eyes. Then he suddenly said, “How much sugar does Captain Lanfier put in her green tea?”
“She doesn’t,” Bookworm replied as quickly. “She drinks black tea, no sugar, one slice of lemon. She also kept canaries as pets while captain of her ship, and she still plays the flute badly. Now, is that enough to establish my bona fides, or do you need her dress measurements, too?”
Captain Haviland laughed. “That’s sufficient,” he said. “What do you need?”
“Money to get home.” Bookworm looked down at herself. “And to buy a new dress.”
Captain Haviland looked at her keenly. “Yes…what *did* happen?”
Bookworm sipped at her mug of wine, hiding a grimace. She’d half-hoped she wouldn’t have to say anything, but, considering she was asking for money, she supposed she would have to pay him back now with her tale. So she took a breath, and launched into the story. The story she’d concocted during her last few hours on the ship, so that she wouldn’t have to tell the *real* story.
It was a tale of piracy on the high seas. She’d been on an errand for Captain Lanfier, but the ship she was on was attacked nearly halfway between New Babbage and Caledon. It had been a fierce battle, with the pirates closing and boarding her ship. The crew had managed to beat back the pirates, forcing them to withdraw, but the pirates had grabbed her and taken her with them.
The two ships had limped away from each other–the pirates in the direction of Caledon, the ship she’d been on heading back toward New Babbage. There’d been talk of ransom–and other, less savory, things–so she’d pulled out every scrap of money she had, to see if that would buy her freedom.
It had…but it wasn’t enough to buy the use of one of the pirates’ rowboats. And they were only passing by Caledon on the way to their base. So that was how she found herself clinging to a board, hoping the pirates were right that the current would bring her straight to the harbor of Caledon Southend.
“A rather impish sense of humor those pirates have,” Captain Haviland commented wryly. “So you wish to borrow money from me?”
Bookworm nodded. “I shall repay you by wire as soon as I return to New Babbage.” She smiled. “And if I don’t, you know who to bother.”
Captain Haviland chuckled. “How much do you need?”
Bookworm thought a moment, and named a sum that was well more than what one would presume she needed. Captain Haviland raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, and Bookworm held her peace. Let him think she was going back first class–she had other ideas for that extra money.
“Come this way,” he said, rising and gesturing toward the exit. She followed him outside and down the wharf-side street to a building that evidently contained several apartments. They entered, and Captain Haviland knocked at the door of a ground-floor apartment. After a moment, it was opened by a woman who looked to be a few years older than Bookworm, but of roughtly the same size and shape.
“Sorry to bother you at this hour, Kim,” Captain Haviland said, “but would you have a dress you can spare this woman? She’s had a rough day.”
Kim looked Bookworm over. “Aye, I should have something suitable,” she replied. “Do come in.” Bookworm followed her into a small, but well-appointed, apartment. She stayed in the outer room as Kim ducked into the bedroom, rooting around in a wardrobe. She came out holding a blue dress, one more elegant that Bookworm had expected. “Will this do?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Bookworm replied. At Kim’s gesture, she went into the bedroom for a sketchy wash and to change into the blue dress. Kim had also laid out a few toiletries for her use, so she was able to brush her hair dry and get it pinned up.
When she returned to the living room, she saw Captain Haviland had come back, carrying a wallet and a bag large enough for her still-wet dress. He handed them both to her. “I assume you’re taking an airship back?” he asked.
Bookworm nodded. “The sooner I get back, the better,” she said truthfully.
“Would you like to stay here and rest for a few hours?” Kim asked. “Not much you can do at this time of night, and I’ll make sure you’re awake in plenty of time to catch the airship.”
“Thank you,” Bookworm said gratefully. “And thank you, Captain Haviland. I really do appreciate your help.”
“Drop by again some day,” he said with a wink, “when things are less hectic for you.” Bookworm chuckled as he left.
Bookworm spent a few hours curled up on a small sofa, not waking until Kim shook her shoulder. Kim had also, thankfully, had a spare pair of boots that were only a little big, so Bookworm was able to show a presentable figure to the world when she stepped outside to hail a hansom cab. She took her leave of Kim, pressing some money on her to pay for her clothing, and rode to the airship port. Once there, she bought her ticket for New Babbage. As the ship wouldn’t leave for an hour yet, she wandered to the nearby small shopping district to kill some time.
Back on the ship she had vacated, it had taken nearly an hour before a crewmate noticed the dangling rope. He rewound it around the cleat, tsking, and informed his superior that someone had been careless indeed.
It was several more hours before Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Sawyer, taking a before-breakfast stroll on the deck, overheard three crewmembers talking about it. They glanced at each other with dawning realization, and hurried to the cabin where Bookworm had been locked in–to discover a door that was no longer locked, and a cabin that was no longer occupied.
“Oh, the captain’s not going to like this,” Mrs. Sawyer said, flushing.
“No, she’s not,” Mrs. Pritchard replied. “We’ll have to wire her from Port Caledon.”
“She must have escaped while we were still near Caledon Southend,” Mrs. Sawyer mused. “What would she do then?”
“Buy an airship ticket to New Babbage, if she could somehow get money,” Mrs. Pritchard replied. “I won’t put it past her to have figured that out, somehow.”
“Hmm. We could wire the Southend authorities to look for her, especially at the airship port.”
“Not a bad idea. And once we disembark, we can take a train back to Southend.”
With that plan of action in mind, the two women waited impatiently to arrive at Port Caledon.
Half an hour before an airship to Steeltopia was scheduled to depart, a woman, stooped with age, clad in sober black, with a fairly heavy veil hanging from the brim of her hat, bought a ticket for that airship. As she limped over to the terminal where the Steeltopia airship was moored, she glanced over at the New Babbage airship. Two men in uniforms were posted at the terminal doorway, looking over the passengers as they arrived, concentrating on women traveling alone, especially concentrating on lone women in blue dresses.
The heavy veil hid young eyes that were glinting with amusement. Bookworm slowly made her way to her seat in the third-class berth. ‘This should throw them off the scent,’ she thought. ‘And it should be an easy matter to find an airship going from Steeltopia to New Babbage.’ It was expensive, of course, buying three tickets–one of which she’d never use. But it would be worth it to make it back home.
((To be continued…))