Barnstormers

Here’s the next chapter of my new story, about two women and a plane near the dawn of the aviation industry. I read it at the Tamale Hut on May 26, 2018.

Chapter 8 – Cleveland Capture

When we last saw Kiki and Bridget, our intrepid duo were flying toward Cleveland, after the ICPO, the precursor to Interpol who employs them, had a tip that the syndicate run by the mysterious Belgian would be trying to muscle into the nascent commercial airline business there.

– – – – –

The red and yellow bi-plane plummeted towards a large field, picking up speed as it went. The two children in the front cockpit screamed and waved their arms as they saw the ground rapidly approaching. Before the plane reached the ground, the whine of the engine increased and nose of the plane pulled up, and it flew up and over the trees at the end of the field. As it did so, a woman wearing an apron ran out of a large farmhouse which stood at one end of the field. She shook her fist at the plane as it soared overhead.

“Uh-oh,” Kiki said from the rear cockpit. Then she shouted, “It looks like your mom is not happy with me again.”

“We don’t care,” the young boy in the front cockpit yelled. “Do that again!”

“I better not. It’s getting late and we’ve got to get back”

“Please, Kiki,” pleaded the girl who was strapped into the cockpit with the boy. “Just one more pass.”

Kiki shook her head and pointed to the ground. They could see that the woman in front of the house was shouting at them, now shaking both fists.

The girl looked at her little brother next to her, then turned back to Kiki and pointed to the ground. Kiki smiled and steered the plane around to make a perfect landing on the field, cutting the engine so the plane would stop in front of the barn next to the house where she and Bridget had been renting a room. She stood and leaned over the partition between the cockpits to help the children release the buckles on the straps that held them safely in their seat. They scrambled out of the cockpit and ran toward the house, waving at the woman in the apron who was walking toward the plane.

“Kristina Hansen,” the woman said, “what do you mean by taking those children up in that plane of yours? If anything happened to them…”

“But nothing will happen to them, Mrs. Jenkens,” Kiki said as she climbed out of the plane and took off her leather helmet. “It’s not like I was doing any stunts up there.”

“No stunts? Then what do you call that dive just now?”

“I have a job this week spreading fertilizer over Mr. Manfredi’s farm and I needed the practice. It takes some precise flying to get the stuff all the way to the treeline. Without hitting a tree, of course.” She grinned, but Mrs. Jenkens just scowled.

“But why must you take the children?”

“Well for one thing, they like it,” Kiki said, laughing. “And for another, I needed extra weight when I’m practicing, because that fertilizer is heavy.”

Mrs. Jenkens just shook her head. “I’ll never understand why you have to do that,” she said, waving at the plane. “Why can’t you get a normal job like your friend has.”

“To me, this is better than any normal job. There’s a freedom in flying up there with the birds that in indescribable. I’ll take you up sometime, then you’ll get it.”

Mrs. Jenkens took two steps back and made the sign of the cross. “Never. I’ll never do that. Now come into the house. Supper is almost ready, and Bridget should be home soon.” She turned and walked toward the farmhouse with Kiki close behind.

– – – – –

The next morning, Bridget was at her desk at the Langston Aircraft Company, one of a number of airplane manufacturers that started up in the Cleveland area once commercial mail and passenger flight operations had become popular. She had applied to several companies for a job as a mechanic but was told repeatedly that company policy prevented hiring of female mechanics. Some engineers she met while applying at Langston had told her a little about a revolutionary device that they were working on, so she took an office job there, figuring that might be just the thing that would attract the Belgian and his gang.

The previous day’s announcement of the Langston Pressure Carburetor increased interest in the small company. Bridget and her co-workers watched a constant parade of men through the office all day, so much so that by the afternoon, they were playing a little game between themselves to try to identify the person coming through.

“Investor,” Gracie said as a man walked through to the president’s office without looking at any of the secretaries on either side.

“What makes you think so?” asked Helen.

“Did you see that diamond stick-pin? And the way he didn’t even look at us peons?”

“I agree,” Bridget said. Another man passed the secretaries’ desks. “Reporter,” she said. “Newspaper, not trade press.”

“Think so?” asked Helen.

“That’s pretty specific,” said Gracie.

“Sure,” Bridget said. “Cheap suit, reporter’s notebook in his back pocket, and pencil behind his ear where he can get to it quickly. He’s used to needing to hit a deadline.”

“Huh,” said Helen. Another man stepped through the doors. He had a fresh carnation in his lapel. He smiled and said ‘Good Afternoon’ to each of the ladies as he walked by.

“Salesman,” Gracie and Helen said simultaneously, then burst out laughing.

Bridget fed a fresh piece of paper into her typewriter and began to transcribe the dictated letter that she had in her steno book when the door opened and another man walked in. She saw him briefly out of the corner of her eye, then quickly bent down as if to pick up a pencil that rolled off the table onto the floor. She watched through the gap under the desk and saw the man’s black shoes with gray spats as he passed by. She stayed down until she was sure the man entered the door to the president’s office. When she sat up again, Helen and Gracie were staring at her. “What?” she asked.

“Are you alright?” asked Gracie. “The way you dove to the floor, I thought maybe that was somebody you owed money to.”

Helen added, “Or maybe an ex-boyfriend.”

Bridget smiled uncomfortably. Not even her supervisor knew about her position with the International Criminal Police Organization, and she didn’t know how to tell her co-workers that she recognized the man who just crossed the office as a known criminal who tried to kill Bridget and her friend on more than one occasion. “No, it’s just … um … is it okay if I take my break now? Can you cover for me?”

Helen and Gracie looked at each other, then Helen said, “Sure, we can do that. Look, I was just kidding about that boyfriend stuff.”

Bridget closed her desk drawer after removing her purse. “No, that’s fine. I just need to … um …” She glanced at the president’s door. “I have to go.” She scurried past her friends’ desks and out the door.

Once outside the door, Bridget didn’t hesitate. She ran around the side of the building and stopped just under the windows which opened into the president’s office. She looked around to see if anyone was watching her, then stepped close to the wall and cocked an ear to the open window to try to hear the conversation inside.

The first voice she heard she recognized as Herbert Langston, the president of the Langston Aircraft Company. “I’ve already told you that the Langston Pressure Carburetor is not yet for sale. We have more tests to run, then we will be working with our partners to move to manufacturing.”

Bridget then heard another voice. “No, you misunderstand me. I’m not looking to buy one of your carburetors. I’m here to introduce myself as representative of your new partner.” Hearing that voice confirmed to Bridget that the man she saw walk through the office was indeed Bob, the former mechanic who was now working as an agent of the Belgian.

“Partner? I don’t need any partner.”

“You do,” Bob said with a chuckle. “You just don’t know it yet.”

Bridget heard the sound of a chair being pushed back. “Get the hell out of my building,” Langston said.

“Now, now, let’s not be like that. We can do big things with your planes and our connections.”

“I’m calling security.” Bridget heard the sound of a telephone being dialed.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty,” Bob said. “Redden at Aeromarine was reluctant to work with us. As you know, his business has taken a downturn.”

“The fire? That was…”

“An unfortunate accident. We wouldn’t want any of those around here, now would we?”

Bridget heard the phone being dialed again, then she heard, “Security, this is Langston. Send a couple of men to my office immediately. I have an intruder I need removed.”

“Okay, okay, I’m leaving, but just think about what I said. I’ll be in touch.”

Bridget thought for a moment, then left her spot by the window and headed to the commissary building, where a phone booth stood next to the front door. She entered the booth, closing the door behind her and after digging a nickel out of her purse, quickly dialed the number at the farmhouse where she and Kiki have been staying.

After a few relay clicks, she heard a busy signal through the receiver. She hung up, retrieved her nickel from the coin return, and looked around through the glass walls of the booth. All seemed normal, with workers moving equipment back and forth or just walking between buildings.

She turned back to the phone, inserted the coin again in the slot and dialed the number. Again, the line was busy. She said, “C’mon, Keek, hang up the phone.”

Suddenly, the door behind her opened and a voice said, “Good advice. Only why don’t you hang up the phone?” Bridget turned and saw Bob standing in the doorway, holding a small revolver in his hand. “Then let’s go for a ride, huh? I have some friends that’re just dying to meet you.”

– – – – –

“Okay,” Kiki said into the phone. “But if you have any problem with those new guys, or you need something else, keep me in mind.” She hung up the handset and sat down on the chair next to the phone table.

Mrs. Jenkens walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “Trouble?” she asked.

Kiki sighed. “Yeah, I lost the Manfredi farm job. He thinks that some company from Pennsylvania would be more reliable than me.”

“That must be the people who bought the McCarthy place. Remember, I told you that someone was going to turn it into an airport.”

“That’s right,” Kiki said. “Hey, do you think Tommy would mind if I borrowed his bicycle?” Tommy was Mrs. Jenkens’ oldest boy, a tall 15 year-old who aspires to be a pilot, against the wishes of his mother. Kiki frequently used his bicycle when Bridget had the car.

“No, I wouldn’t think so,” Mrs. Jenkens said. “He won’t be home from school for a couple of hours. Why?”

Kiki stood up and reached for her jacket. “I’d like to take a ride over there and see what’s going on. Who knows? They might find they need another pilot.”

– – – – –

Kiki reached the site of the old McCarthy farm and saw that the company was indeed turning the place into a small airport. The house and barn were gone, and in their place was a long building with three large doors, each that would accommodate an airplane. There were two Huff-Daland Duster biplanes parked in front, but from the main road, Kiki didn’t see any people walking around.

“I wonder where everyone is,” Kiki muttered to herself as she pedaled toward the building. She started to worry a little at the desolate scene, and that made her more cautious. She slowed as got closer to the hangar, at one point stopping to tuck the bicycle behind one of the trees. She went the rest of the way on foot.

She approached the side of the building facing her, a flat wall with no doors and only windows near the top, too high for her to see through. She cautiously moved toward the corner when she heard a sound from the direction of the main road. A car had turned onto the dirt trail that Kiki had just passed over. The car was kicking up a lot of dust from the road, so Kiki stepped back and around the corner to the back of the hangar, hoping that the occupants of the car had not seen her yet.

As the car approached, she saw that it was a black sedan, the type that Mrs. Jenkens owned and that Bridget had been using to go back and forth to work. Because of the dust cloud, Kiki couldn’t get a good look at the occupants, but it seemed that there were two people in the car. It turned when it reached the building, and Kiki heard it stop in front of the hangar. She was about to turn the corner to try to see who was in the car when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

– – – – –

Who discovered Kiki snooping around the hangar? Was she right to be suspicious of the new crop dusting company? And what happened to Bridget? We’ll find out the answers to these questions and more in the next exciting chapter, which will premiere at the Tamale Hut on June 23, after which it will be posted here.

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If you don’t want to wait until the next Reading Series night, you might consider joining my e-mail list.  Once a month, I send out an e-mail with information on my writing projects, and any literary events I might be attending, and I include a new chapter of the Barnstormers story (usually with additional content I don’t have time to read at the Tamale Hut) in every e-mail.  Click here to sign up today!

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