All On Board

“What a piece of junk,” Jessica muttered when she saw the plane. It was old and ugly, a giant yellow and red caricature of a real plane. It floated in the harbor, right-hand wing pontoon on one side of the dock, the bulk of the plane on the other. Faded words along one side read ‘Lady Jaye’, and an even more faded pin-up girl draped herself unceremoniously over the globe behind them.

Jessica could hardly believe that this thing was what had been recommended and then sold to her by that affable fellow back at the air yard. He’d seemed so nice.

A man stood on the nearby pontoon, precariously clinging to the underside of the giant engine hanging above him, hands buried in the machinery. He looked up at her words and scowled. “She’s got it where it counts, lady.”

He was remarkably unattractive, Jessica thought. The eyes were a little too close together, what might have been a strong jaw was covered with a week’s worth of stubble, and in that position the man’s decidedly less-than-trim waistline showed under his untucked shirt. A shirt so loud she almost hadn’t heard him. The odor of his cigar was sufficient to cover the stink of engine grease and fish and… he was smoking _while_ working on the engine?

She tucked a wayward strand of her auburn hair behind an ear and approached. Some of these dockside mechanics, really. “Thank you, but maybe you could find the captain of this… plane? I was told that Mister Balejohn would be here.”

She made a small gesture to urge the man to alacrity, but he dropped arms, hooking one around the pontoon strut, and stared at her. One eyebrow slowly raised. The cigar rolled in his mouth. It lit red for a moment, and then a cloud of pungent smoke rolled out of his nostrils.

“I’m sorry, sir. I positively haven’t got all day,” she said.

“Pardon, ma’am-”

“Miss, please, and thank you.”

“Yes, ma- er… yes, Miss.” He paused again, slowly sizing her up. His gaze angled behind her and his eyes widened slightly. The dock was just beginning to rumble with the porters carrying and pushing her cargo. His eyes returned to hers and he drawled, “Yer lookin’ fer the Cap’n, aye?”

“Yes, sir. Obviously. I’ve only said so twice now. I have a writ here indicating that I’ve purchased passage to-”

The big man hopped off the pontoon onto the dock, simultaneously transferring his cigar to his left hand while stuffing his wrench into his belt on the right. The greasy hand reached out for the envelope holding her voucher. She yanked it away as he loomed.

“Now see here!” The nerve of this man!

“Look, lady-”

“Honestly, sir. I just need to see Captain Balejohn!” Jessica took a step back. This close the odor of the cigar clawed at her sinuses and assaulted her throat. She covered a cough.

The big man shrugged and walked over to the passenger door on the side of the plane’s cabin. “Probably have them load through here, Miss. Come on aboard.”

“The captain is here?” she asked. She didn’t see anyone in anything resembling a pilot’s jacket or a captain’s hat, and despaired of any such individual showing up.

“You could say that,” the mechanic nodded and jumped up into the plane, again moving with far more dexterity than she thought he ought to have. He was a right bear of a man.

She followed his gesture and pointed the porters at the door, waiting for their nods of approval before climbing the short ladder. She cursed the stupid dress that she had on. In the field she would wear actual pants, like she had in her luggage, but in so-called polite society it was simply unaccounted for.

The inside of the plane was hardly any better than the outside. The handholds had been painted more than once, with progressive ages of paint wearing away where people gripped them in passage. The floor plates were dented and scuffed, and likewise nearly multi-colored with wear. The lighting left much to be desired, and Jessica thought there had to be some antiquated component or other stashed in every possible nook and cranny.

The mechanic nimbly stepped up into the pilot’s compartment, following a short corridor and a flight of extremely steep stairs she decided should be called a ladder. Heart sinking, she followed.

In the cockpit the big man plunked down in the bench seat of a table strewn with charts. A thirty-year-old radio sat in a rack next to the table, and a pilot’s hat hung on a hook next to the handset. The big man grabbed the hat and put it on, tugging it over unruly hair that didn’t want to cooperate. He grinned, showing teeth that needed brushing, and crushed the cigar in an ash tray bolted to the table.

“You are Mister Balejohn?”

The grin didn’t fade. “Aye, miss. That’d be me.”

“You could have said something out there.”

“And miss this expression? No thank you ma’am- er… Miss. Sorry.” His smirk was two thirds smug and one third apologetic. “So you’ve got a writ for me?”

“Yes,” she said, handing the envelope over to the… the captain. “I spoke with a Mister Louis Duchamps at-”

“Louie you sonafabitch.” The captain muttered. He took the envelope and flipped it open, pulling out the card inside.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing, Miss…” he drew it out, asking the question.

“Anders,” she supplied.

“Just that Louie thinks he has my best interests at heart, Miss Anders.”

“And he is your owner?”

“Hardly!” Captain Balejohn barked. His head tilted back and he laughed, short and raucous. “No, no. Me and the Lady Jaye are independent contractors. I just have a deal with Louie, and owe the orangutan favor or two.”

Duchamps did indeed have a ponderous brow, and shockingly red hair–and even very long arms–but that was no need for this man to insult the fellow.

She pushed it aside. She had more pressing matters than this man’s lack of manners. “So my contract will stand?”

The mirth faded quickly and Balejohn fixed her with a flat gaze. “I’d love to say that depends, but I’m in this regardless. I owe Louie. This,” he waved the letter, “Is how he collects. Where are we going?”

She looked Balejohn in the eyes. His were a little bloodshot, but seemed clear. She considered the second envelope she had, and her plans, and debated just how much she should tell him. He would not be happy with the first. She needed to know him better before she decided how to handle the second.

“Hub City,” she said. He swore under his breath. “I have dealings with Mister Khan.”

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