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 June 23, 2018.

Chapter 10 – The Hostile Takeover

At the end of our last exciting episode, Bridget and Kiki were in their room, discussing the events of the day, including the appearance of the mysterious handsome man at Bridget’s office.  As they spoke, they did not see the two shadowy figures creep across the lawn and approach the plane.

 – – – – –

 The farmhouse stood at the edge of a large field. The sun was down and the moon was not high enough in the sky to shed much light. There was just enough coming from the house to barely illuminate the barn next door and the airplane parked in front.

Two shadows emerged from the trees at the side of the field and worked their way through the darkness toward the plane. They carefully avoided the squares of light that were projected on the lawn from the curtain-less windows. They soon reached the airplane, and one figure boosted the other into the rear cockpit, then stood near the tail, watching the house for any signs that their presence was noticed. A soft glow filled the rear cockpit as the person there went about his work.

Shortly after, a bare bulb on the side of the house blinked on, lighting the area between the house and barn. The form at the rear of the plane hissed softly, and the glow in the cockpit was extinguished. A door opened on the side of the house and a woman walked out, crossed the distance to the barn and entered through the side door. The person at the tail of the plane watched carefully, ducking down to minimize the chance of being seen.

After a few minutes, the woman reappeared from the barn and walked toward the house. Along the way, she glanced at the plane, then after a double-take, she stopped and squinted in the plane’s direction. She shielded her eyes from the harsh light from the bulb for a moment while peering into the darkness, then, shaking her head, walked into the house. The bulb on the house went out, and a few moments later, the glow appeared again in the cockpit. The figure at the back of the plane continued to watch the house.

Minutes later, the light in the cockpit was extinguished and a dark form climbed out. The two shapes moved away from the plane in silence, toward the line of trees at the edge of the field.

– – – – –

The following morning, Kiki was up before the sun. She dressed, ate a light breakfast of cold cereal and a roll, and was out of the house as the first light of dawn appeared over the trees. She did a cursory check of the plane, including the container of fertilizer powder stored in the front cockpit, before setting the throttle and spinning the propeller to start the engine.

With the engine running, Kiki pulled out the wheel chocks and scrambled into the cockpit as the plane started to move. Once seated and buckled in, she advanced the throttle and was soon off the ground and sailing over the treetops toward the Manfredi farm.

Kiki had made arrangements with Mr. Manfredi to have portions of his field marked with small yellow flags to indicate the areas where she was supposed to apply the fertilizer. She saw the flags as the field came into view, and she also saw a squat man in a red, plaid jacket standing at the corner of the field. He wore a handkerchief tied across his face, and waved when he saw the plane.

“Hi, Mr. Manfredi,” Kiki shouted over the roar of the engine, waving exaggeratedly. “Stand back, here I come!” She pulled her own kerchief over her face and banked the plane in a wide loop in order to approach the field from the far end.

Kiki glanced over the side. She dropped the plane so low its wheels were almost brushing the tops of the new plants on the field. As she did, she pulled the lever that Bridget had rigged up, and the hopper on the undercarriage slid open, releasing a cloud of the powdered fertilizer that spread from the propeller backwash and enveloped the plants.

She looked back and forth to make sure she stayed in the lane designated by the flags, all the while keeping an eye on the edge of the field and the line of trees just beyond. Just before she reached the last flag, she pushed the lever to close the hopper and pulled back on the control stick, to make the plane climb quickly and avoid the trees. She thought the handle controlling the hopper felt a little funny, but the plane was otherwise handling well, so she banked over and prepared for her next pass.

Starting her second pass, Kiki pulled the lever to release the fertilizer, but as she did, she felt a snap, and the lever was suddenly wiggling loose in her hand. She peered over the side and saw the powder settling on the plants, but moving the handle did not affect the flow of fertilizer from the underside of the plane. She tried to look below the dashboard to see what the problem might be, but decided that her attention was better used to control the plane and avoid the line of trees she was flying toward.

“Okay, what to do?” she said out loud. “Pull up, and I get fertilizer everywhere. Probably fly through a cloud of the stuff myself.” She looked ahead at the trees. “I can fly over the trees, but Mr. Manfredi was adamant that I avoid that field.”

She released her seat belt and stood up to pound on the tank. “Still lots in there,” she said, sitting down and reconnecting her seat belt. “If I don’t get rid of that, I’ll be leaking fertilizer all the way back home.” She glanced again at the trees, then to her side at the rest of the field yet to be fertilized, then smiled. As the plane neared the edge of the field, she grabbed the stick and banked hard right.

Being careful to keep her left wing clear of the trees, she flew over the carefully spaced yellow flags and headed toward the corner of the field. Before she reached the corner, she banked right again, and followed that edge of the field.

Kiki was soon approaching the point where she started her second pass. She banked right again, well before she reached the flag that marked the start of what would have been her third run. She continued dispersing the fertilizer over the field, banking right at what she hoped was diminishing squares. The first few times she passed Mr. Manfredi, she saw him jumping up and down, shaking his fists, but the last few times he just stood there, watching her.

As she approached the center of the field, Kiki realized there was only one way she could get out of this. She knew that should would probably still have some fertilizer left in the tank, so to avoid leaking the powder all the way back home, she checked with the sun to get her bearings, and after tightening her seat belt with a quick tug, she flipped the plane over, cutting off the flow of the gravity-fed powder, and headed back home upside-down. She had practiced inverted flying for many of the tricks in the flying circus. She just hoped that the distance wasn’t too long to cause trouble with gas and oil feeding the engine, or with the blood rushing to her head.

– – – – –

“Yeah, it was sabotaged,” Bridget said. The plane was parked in front of the barn, and she was standing in the rear cockpit of the plane, holding up the control handle to show Kiki. “See, these wires were cut almost through. And the bolts holding the handle in place were loosened.”

She tossed the handle to Kiki and jumped down from the plane. “And look here,” she said, pointing to the hopper on the underside of the plane. “You can see that someone bent the edges just enough so that the door wouldn’t slide freely. It jammed the second time you opened it, so even if the handle wasn’t damaged, there’s no way you could have stopped the fertilizer from coming out.”

“Yeah, I figured it was something like that,” Kiki said. “I did the best I could to cover the field, but I’m sure I missed some spots, like the corners. Mr. Manfredi wasn’t happy.”

“Sounds like it was some fancy flying. He should appreciate that, at least.”

Kiki frowned. “Yeah, he was sympathetic when I told him that I had mechanical problems, but I don’t know that he’s going to use me again.”

Bridget waved her hand. “Ah, that’s okay. You’re an entertainer, not a gardener. We’ll find something else to put your skills toward, and hopefully make a few dollars as well.”

“It just burns me up that Mr. Manfredi is probably going to go back to those Midwest goons. I’ll bet they’re the ones who did this.”

“You don’t think it was the Belgian’s agents?”

“I don’t think so. They’ve been a little more … lethal when we’ve had dealings with them. This just seems like unscrupulous business practices.”

Bridget laughed. “You’ve got a point.”

“Speaking of business, what’s the word at the Langston plant today? Any more movie star sightings?”

“No, but it was too quiet. Mr. Langston didn’t come in today and no one has seen him since he walked out yesterday afternoon. That’s not like him, apparently. He’s usually the first one in and the last one gone.”

“You think there’s trouble? From that good-looking guy?”

“Not sure. But I did see Mike after lunch today and he said that the prototype of the new carburetor is looking good. He thinks they might want to install it on a plane pretty soon and give it a real test.”

“Tell ‘em if they need a test pilot, I’m available. I’ll even bring my own plane.”

Bridget shook her head. “Not a chance. I don’t want anything to happen to this beauty because of some experimental parts.” She patted the side of the plane. “Unless I designed it myself, of course.”

Kiki laughed. “And here, I thought you’d be worried about me!”

“Naw, I can always get another partner. But a plane like this…” Bridget grinned at Kiki, who punched her firmly in the arm.

“At least I know where I rate,” Kiki said. “C’mon, lets get the plane into the barn. It’s almost time for dinner.”

– – – – –

The following day, Bridget had some car trouble, so she was late getting to work. When she arrived, the office was in a state of chaos. The switchboard was ringing off the hook, and men in coveralls rushed back and forth.

She pulled her chair out from under her desk and put her purse in her desk drawer as Gracie hung up the phone. “Hi, Gracie,” she said as she took the cover off her typewriter. “What’s going on?”

“You picked a fine day to be late,” Gracie said, rolling her chair over to Bridget’s desk. “You won’t believe it. It’s so crazy.”

“What is?”

“Mr. Langston’s out.”

“Out? What do you mean, out?”

“Out of the company. Retired, quit, I don’t know, but he’s not in charge any more.”

“But this is his company. How can he be out?”

Gracie shrugged. “I don’t know, but he is. They told us when we got here this morning. They said that everything was going to be business as usual, but,” she waved her hands, ”this doesn’t look usual to me.”

“So if Mr. Langston’s no longer in charge, who is?”

He is,” Gracie said, pointing to the open door of what was until recently Mr. Langston’s office. As if on cue, a tall man stepped into the doorway and stood there, hands on his hips, looking over the office. After a few moments, he turned back and closed the door. Bridget recognized him as the man who met with Mr. Langston just before the head of the company stormed out of the office.

“Wow,” Bridget said. “Him again?”

“Yeah,” Gracie replied, raising her eyebrows. “Introduced himself as Alexander Pierce. Told us that Mr. Langston was retiring for personal reasons, and that he would be taking control of the company. He immediately called the heads of all departments into the office for a little pow-wow. They weren’t in there long, but none of them looked happy when they left.”

“Hmm,” said Bridget. She was about to start on a report that she was working on the previous day when she heard a buzz from the switchboard a few feet away. The operator put on her headset and inserted a plug into one of the sockets in the board in front of her.

“Yes, Mr. Pierce,” the operator said, and Bridget leaned forward to try to hear more clearly over the din of the office. “Long distance? Yes, I can do that. A California number, mm-hmm. One moment please.” The operator pulled another wire and plugged it in another slot, then started to dial a number.

Standing up, Bridget pulled her purse out of her desk. “I just remembered,” she said. “I left something in the car. I’ll be right back, Gracie.” She rushed out, leaving Gracie with a stunned expression on her face.

Bridget rushed around the side of the building and took up a place under the windows of the president’s office. As she did a few days before, she stepped close to the wall to try to hear the conversation inside.

She first heard the phone ring. She then heard a man’s voice say, “Thank you.” There was a pause, she assumed it was the operator connecting the call, then the connection must have been made because the man started talking.

“Hello … Yes, it’s me, Pierce. … No, there were no problems. The letter from Langston has given me free run of the company.” Bridget thought that the man had a slight German accent, but he spoke well. She had no problem understanding what he said. “Yes, I’ve been told that the prototype is almost complete … no, they say they only have one working assembly … yes, they say that the tests will be completed in a few days. You will have it as soon as test are done … no, I don’t expect Langston to be a problem any longer.”

Bridget heard enough. This Pierce was obviously out to get the prototype of the new carburetor. She decided that he must be working for the Belgian. She made her way back to the office and sat down at her desk, lost in thought.

“Didja get it?” Gracie asked.

“Huh? What?”

Gracie rolled her chair over to Bridget’s desk. “Did you get whatever it was you left in the car?”

“Oh, uh, yeah, I did, thanks.” Bridget picked up a piece of paper and fed it into her typewriter.

Gracie stared at her for a moment, then rolled back to her own desk. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.”

Bridget looked over at Gracie. “What do you mean by that?”

“I just thought it odd that as soon as you saw that dreamboat in the doorway, you ran out of here like you saw a ghost. Is there something going on between you and him? I saw the way he looked at you the last time he was here.”

Bridget looked over at Gracie, and at Helen behind her, who looked like she wanted to get into the conversation. Bridget liked these two women and she didn’t want to lie to them, but she couldn’t tell them that she suspected that their new boss was part of a multi-national syndicate run by an international criminal. She had to come up with something plausible.

She smiled sheepishly and rolled over to Gracie’s desk. “Well, to be honest with you, I ran out to call my pal, Kiki. I told her about this guy Pierce after we saw him the other day, and she made me promise to call her if he shows up again. She really goes for these Hollywood types, and wanted to get a glimpse of him herself.”

Helen laughed and Gracie slapped Bridget on the shoulder. “Is that all?” Gracie said. “I thought it was something important.”

Bridget chuckled and rolled back to her desk. She pulled out her steno pad and started typing up her dictation from the previous day.

– – – – –

Bridget didn’t see much of her new boss for the rest of the day, but she kept careful track of people going in and out of his office. During lunch, she spoke to her engineer friend, Mike, who told her that the testing on the one fully-assembled carburetor prototype was going well. She asked him what the mood in the factory was, and Mike said that the workers were worried. Mr. Langdon was well-liked by his employees, and most were suspicious about what had happened to him.

Near the end of the day, Bridget was working at her desk when Helen walked up to her desk, slammed a thick envelope down, and sat down in disgust.

“What’s the matter?” Bridget asked.

“They want me to deliver some papers after work today,” Helen said. “It’s Friday night and I was supposed to go dancing with my honey. I haven’t seen him in almost a week.”

“I can do it. I don’t have anything doing this evening.”

“Gee, would you? I’d really appreciate it.” Helen grabbed her purse, walked over and handed the envelope to Bridget.

“I’m glad to do it,” Bridget said. “Go have fun.” Helen winked at her and practically skipped out of the office. Bridget looked at the envelope. It was a large manila envelope, and the flap was sealed with tape. The address written on the front was in the West Park neighborhood, which she knew to be one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Cleveland. She checked the clock and saw that it was quitting time. Grabbing her purse and the envelope, she headed out to her car.

Bridget drove into the heart of the city. She stopped at a gas station to get specific directions to the address where she needed to deliver the envelope. The sun was almost down as she pulled her car to a stop on a quiet, tree lined street. The houses in this part of town were large and spaced far apart. She double-checked the address on the envelope with the numbers on the house before shutting off the engine and climbing out.

The house was a large blue Victorian with a front porch that wrapped around the right front of the building. Above the porch was a turret that led to a peaked roof, where a weather vane stood at its apex. Lights shown through some of the many windows, and a gas lamp illuminated the walkway to a small set of wooden stairs. Even in the dim light, Bridget could see that the building was surrounded by a manicured lawn and some tasteful landscaping.

She climbed the stairs and entered a small foyer. She walked through and pulled the knob next to the door, and she heard the doorbell chime inside. She waited patiently for several minutes, but no one came to the door. She pulled the knob again, and was certain that she heard the doorbell. She knocked on the door, and tried to peer into the glass, but she saw no one there.

Shrugging her shoulders, she turned and saw a table in the corner, which looked to contain the days mail. She walked over to place the envelope on the table, but stopped when she saw the envelopes on the table were addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Langston.

Bridget went back and rang the doorbell again, shouting, “Mr. Langston? Mrs. Langston?” and when there was no answer, she walked out and down the stairs. She walked all around the house, trying to see in the windows to see if anyone was home. When she reached the back of the house, she noticed another structure on the corner of the property, away from the main building. It looked to have been a small barn, maybe built as a stable to house carriage horses, but it had been converted into an automobile garage, at least she thought based on the gravel drive that led to the front door.

A sound from the garage attracted Bridget’s attention. It sounded like a motor running, but the door and the windows of the structure were closed. When she got to the front door, Bridget saw smoke seeping out from around the edges of the door. She tried opening the door but it appeared to be locked. She went around the side of the garage and tried to look in the side window. Through the smoke, she could barely make out the shape of a car, and the two people sitting in it!

– – – – –

Who is Alexander Pierce and how did he take control of the Langston Aircraft Company? Who were the people in the car? And can Bridget get them out of the garage in time? We’ll find out the answers to these questions and more in the next exciting chapter.

– – – – –

If you don’t want to wait until the next Reading Series night, you might consider joining my e-mail list.  Once a month (or so,) 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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