Lighter Than Air (Short Story Sunday)

Short story

The small smoking room is crowded with passengers waiting to view the cast off. They lean into the tilted glass to get a glimpse of the black criss-cross of the mooring mast through the thick fog. A few people are seated at the tables, some more nervous than others. One man is reading the newspaper, his face obscured. The woman with whom I’m sharing a cabin is talking to a man at the window. Our eyes meet in the reflection.

Then there’s Mr. Cooper. He’s smoking a cigarette, facing away from the promenade, one arm slung across the back of the chair, and his hat on his lap. He’s watching my every move.

The airlock door closes with a hiss and suck behind me. The reading man folds back a corner of the paper with one finger, scrutinises me, and then goes back to reading. I recognise him as a Service man. I find a seat near Mr. Cooper, and take out my cigarette case. I pick out a Turkish, slip it into the holder, and look around for the bartender to light it.

“Allow me,” says Mr. Cooper, reaching across to hand me his cigarette. “Around here you need to be Prometheus himself to find a flame.”

I thank him. The spark winks back from the dim windows as I borrow his light.

“Careful with that fire,” snaps one of the passengers, a man with a German accent, a pinched, lined face, and fingers clenched around a leather satchel.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Mr. Cooper, taking his cigarette back. “You don’t mind if I sit here.”

The zeppelin begins to drift and turn, and a searchlight slices into the room, moving from pane to pane.

“God, I hate flying,” he says. “Give me a ship any day over one of these flimsy affairs.”

“Why did you choose to take the zeppelin, then?” I ask, although I know the answer.

“You know why,” he says, then under cover of the chatter from the crowd, leans towards me, and continues in an undertone. “Look, the pater put me in charge of your protection. Last minute. He said you might not have got the memo, so I’m telling you straight. Now, I don’t know what makes you special, besides what’s plain to see, I mean, and I don’t want to know, but if I don’t let you out of my sight, I hope you won’t take offence or try to avoid me or go calling the Captain, because let me tell you, I hate this kind of job more than any other, but I ain’t got a say in the matter. So that’s that.”

I take a draw on my cigarette, studying him. The “memo” had said that he was in his late thirties. Dark hair, light eyes. Six foot six. About thirteen stone. A short scar on the right side of his jaw. Unmarried. Next of kin: a sister – Mrs. J. Marshall – in New York.

He should be easy to manage. “I’m sure you will find me most compliant, Mr. Cooper.”

*

At dinner we’re once again seated opposite each other. The windows of the dining room are a perfect mirror for the tables all around us. My berth-mate greets me politely as she walks past. She’s eating with the man from earlier. Mr. Cooper has dressed in a hurry, and it shows. I reach across the table, loosen his bowtie, and retie it.

“Thanks. I didn’t want to let you out of my sight for long, but I guess there was no rush after all.”

“Did I keep you waiting long?”

“Yeah, I can’t see what a dame as beautiful as you has to do to get ready.”

“I’m not a dame, Mr. Cooper. At least, not yet.”

He chuckles. “Ri-ight. There’s someone important in Room 10, though. I saw them getting room service. Don’t suppose you know who it is?”

“No idea. But if they’re eating in their cabin, they must have a larger room than I do.”

“You’re telling me. If I were any taller, my feet’d be sticking through to your side.”

I can still feel the airship rising as we begin dessert. A chanteuse is doing her best to entertain the diners. The piano has been removed due to the weight limit.

“I wonder if we could convince your roommate to a swap,” says Mr. Cooper. “I’d like it better if I could keep an eye on you.”

He knows we wouldn’t be able to share a room, not unless we were married.

“I think you’re close enough, Mr. Cooper.”

“Call me Jim. If you’re in any danger, bang on the wall. I’ll come straight away.”

“What danger could I possibly be in? Are you imagining that my cabin-mate will try to suffocate me in my sleep?”

“She looks like she might,” he says, glancing at the stout, middle-aged woman.

“I think it unlikely. Who would be foolish to kill someone on board a zeppelin?” I ask.

He raises an eyebrow. “I guess you haven’t been reading the papers, lady.”

“Yes, I have. And that is precisely why I find it unlikely. Surely safety measures have been taken to ensure such things don’t happen again.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” he says, waving the waiter down to refill our glasses. “No danger at all.”

*

Mr. Cooper’s standing outside my door the next morning. He takes his job seriously.

“Good morning. Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you. Do you mind if I write a quick letter before breakfast?”

He looks dismayed, but gestures for me to go ahead.

We enter the writing room together. The wrinkled German is there, reading a book. I sit at a table and write out a few words. The code comes naturally. I pretend that my pen is leaking and splatter the page with ink. I crumple up the sheet, throw it away, and start another. I need confirmation that I have the right man. Mr Cooper waits, looking out of the window with his hands in his pockets.

I will have to find a way to stop him following me.

I know the best places to get a man alone, even on such a crowded airship. I can use some gentle persuasion on the watch officer, and he’ll let me pass down the emergency hatch into the keel, and from there I can make my way unseen to the cargo holds. It’s dangerous, walking along the narrow gangway, but there’s something reassuring about the strength of the intricate metal framework, like black lace against the canvas. There are often cars, trunks, mail bags, and crates in the hold, and once I came face to face with a frightened stowaway. There’s also a hidden section for smuggling, made to look like a spare gas cell. I discovered it on my second trip.

The best way to get rid of a body isn’t to hide it in the hold, however; it’s to dump it overboard, either out of the stern, or from the catwalks that lead to the engine cars. There’s the chance of being seen by an engineer, of course, but over the ocean it’s a clean job. No one will ever recover the body. And if one Nazi spy doesn’t come back from the keel, then the officer on watch is happy to forget that he existed. But guns are dangerous near the hydrogen. There’s always the possibility of a spark, or of a puncture. The only advantage is that while the engines are running, no one will hear a gunshot. Cooper’s right. The sea’s a safer route, even with the threat of the U-boats.

A few months ago one fool tried to hide a body in the airship’s ballast tank. The corpse clogged up the conduit and the ship had to circle for hours while the engineers worked to siphon off enough water to land. Plenty of time to discover both the dead man – one of ours – and the murderer – one of them. Shoddy work. I’ve spent months studying the layout of the airship, and I’ve never been caught.

*

Rain patters steadily against the fabric of the dirigible, syncopating the drone of the engines. I can feel that the ship has picked up speed. Now it’s just a waiting game, a succession of breakfast, lunch, and cocktails with my companionable watchdog. I hear someone refer to me as “Mrs. Cooper” and Mr. Cooper – Jim – doesn’t correct her. Neither do I. As we near home on the second evening, the blackout blinds come down.

When I return to my cabin to dress for dinner, the room is empty. There’s a piece of paper tucked under my mattress. I unfold it, read it quickly, and then tear it into tiny fragments. Then I take out a leather stole from my trunk and rip the lining away. Inside is a small pistol. I load it, then hide it in my purse.

*

I wait for my cabin-mate to begin snoring, and then I wait some more. I have a good sense of time, and I can make the rendezvous without a clock, but when I’ve crept out into the corridor I check my watch in the lamplight and I can see that it’s five to three. If I run into anyone, I can pretend that I’m sleepwalking. The ship is silent. I’ve taken the precaution of pulling on my fur coat, but my feet are bare so I can move quieter.

I make my way unhurriedly down the stairs and through the hatch. The metal of the ladder is freezing cold, and so is the gangway. I stand shivering in the belly of the beast, listening to the sound of the canvas flapping, the girders moaning, and the engines chugging at low speed.

I hear footsteps behind me and turn. It’s the serviceman I recognised the previous day. Then he gives the password, and I give mine. He leads the way to a trunk in the hold. He unfastens the straps and opens the lid to reveal a radio with a large battery, a coiled antenna, and a morse key.

“How did you get that on board?”

“Let’s just say, I pulled a few strings.”

“And what are you going to do with it?” I ask. I know exactly what he’s going to do.

“The crew will be radioing false coordinates to throw off the Luftwaffe. Did you know that?” I shake my head. “We’re going to give them the correct landing time and location,” he says. “I’m assuming that’s one thing you do know.”

“Yes.”

“Good, help me carry this to the stern so we can unroll the antenna.”

He hands me the radio box, but I’ve only taken a few steps down the gangway when there’s a scuffle behind me. A crack, and a grunt of pain. I turn to see the agent wrestling with Mr. Cooper. One of them is holding a knife. It glints in a sudden flash of lightning. I place the radio down, and take the pistol out of my coat pocket.

The agent has the upper hand now, and the knife is bearing down. With a growl, Cooper twists out of the way, throwing the agent off balance. He tackles the man from behind, and they crash into a stack of trunks. The agent has the knife and he slashes blindly. Cooper jumps out of the way, holding onto the struts to steady himself. At the same instant they both become aware of the gun I’m holding.

“No!” says the agent. His warning is punctuated by a roll of thunder. “You’ll ruin the entire mission. Don’t shoot!”

So, he doesn’t know everything, after all.

“You’ll ignite the gas,” shouts Cooper. “Don’t do it!”

But I shoot anyway. The look of astonishment on his face is worth all this standing around in the cold. He staggers, then slips in his own blood and falls. Another flash of lightning and the skeleton of the ship lights up like an x-ray.

Cooper swears. He’s panting, but he helps me put the radio back in the trunk, and then we jog back to the hatch, and climb back onto the passenger deck. I head up the stairs to return to my cabin, but Cooper pulls me down the corridor and into the men’s shower rooms. They’re empty at this time in the morning.

“Is it true what he said? Are the Germans going to attack us?”

“It’s quite possible, yes.”

I realise he’s bleeding. There’s a gash across his left arm. I try to peel back the shirt to get a look at the wound, but he pushes my hand away.

“And you were going to help him. Why?”

I hold one of the facecloths under the tap. “Because that’s the plan,” I say.

“What kind of plan is that? You realise he would have killed you if I hadn’t been there.”

I look up from cleaning his wound. “I hadn’t realised.”

“Yeah, well, you’re welcome.”

“Don’t forget I saved your life too.”

“I won’t. But if he didn’t send the intel, then the Germans won’t know when and where we’re landing, right?

I take another facecloth and tie it in a tight bandage around his arm. “He may have sent the information on already. It’s possible this was just a test.”

There’s a sound at the door, and before I can react, Cooper’s pulled me into his arms and is kissing me with unnecessary passion. I ball up the bloody facecloth, and secretly tuck it into my pocket.

A man clears his throat, and we break apart, and then exit apologetically.

*

“You should get some sleep,” Jim says. He’s looking tired, but I can’t let him leave.

“We should be getting close. I’m going to wait it out in the smoking room.”

He sighs. “I really hate this job.”

The smoking room is empty. I draw the blinds to reveal a dim view of clouds. The thunderstorm is already behind us, a brief glimmer in the distance.

I make my way carefully to the bar and open up a couple of bottles and sniff the contents. It’s too dark to see the labels, but I find the gin and manage to pour out a couple of glasses.

I bring him the drink, and he downs it in one gulp.

“Is your arm hurting you?” I ask.

“I’ve had worse.”

I sip mine slowly. We’ve taken every possible action to ensure that the plan pays off, but it’s still possible that this is my last taste of gin.

“Are you thinking about the man you just killed?”

“No. Are you?”

“You know, for a minute there I thought you were going to shoot me.”

“Were you afraid?”

“No, but I was fixing to be disappointed. I mean, every beautiful woman turns traitor, don’t they?”

I find a cigarette and place it between my lips, but Jim plucks it out and tosses it away.

“I wasn’t going to light it.”

“Yeah, but I was.”

Then he leans in and kisses me again.

It’s half an hour, maybe an hour before, far below, the first sparks begin to fly. It’s just possible to make out the shadows of the fighters as they dart over the clouds, but there’s no knowing whether the explosions are British planes or German.

The alarm bells begin to ring, but they’ve all been muffled with rags. After a few minutes I hear footsteps running down the corridor outside, and a dull thudding as the crew bang on doors to wake people up. It would be better to let them sleep.

A plane falls in a spiral of fire, and the black outline of another fighter crosses it. Two more explosions, like the reflection of fireworks in water.

Jim lifts two parachutes from where they hang on the wall. “Put this on.”

I shake my head.

Put it on.”

Suddenly a bright circle appears in the night, like a full moon rising out of the clouds. It’s the airship’s searchlight. It jerks this way and that, and finally settles on a Beau, tracking it across the sky, losing it, finding it again, until the enemy swoops in and destroys it.

Jim swears. We turn and tear out into the corridor, sprinting towards the stern. We run past the crew’s quarters, dodging one or two people who don’t know what’s going on.

“Through here. The electrical room.”

Jim grabs my arm to stop me.

“Stay here. I mean it.”

I nod, then as soon as his back’s turned, I take the pistol out of my pocket and follow him inside.

It’s difficult to see in the cramped room. The light seeping out of the searchlight outlines the metal surfaces of the generator and engine, and the wet floor. There’s a crewman lying face-down, and the black liquid that’s pooled around him must be blood. Jim steps over him, and I follow, holding the gun cocked.

The airship shudders and jolts as the first Messerschmitt gets it in its crosshairs and sends a sprinkling of machine gun fire into the balloon.

The figure manning the light laughs in triumph. Then I see his face.

“Impossible.”

It’s the man I shot. He’s so intent on his task that he doesn’t notice us behind him.

Jim turns when he hears my voice, and sees the gun in my hand.

“What the hell are you doing? This thing must be leaking like a sieve. You’ll blow us all up.”

He’s right about the leak. The airship has started to settle with alarming speed, and the sound of flapping canvas suggests that the balloon has already deflated considerably.

I take aim, but Jim steps in my way.

“Move!” I shout. “The ship’s full of helium, not hydrogen.”

The agent hears me this time. He turns to look at me, and his face becomes suffused with rage. Then the zeppelin tilts, sending Jim and I tumbling hard into an engine. My hands are covered in blood – or is it engine oil? The small pistol slides in my hand so I can’t aim it.

I bring up my other hand to help pull the trigger, and I realise that Jim is slumped against my shoulder, unconscious. I fire shot after shot. The glass of the searchlight explodes into the night. Then the spy slumps forward, lifeless. Then a ball of fire blossoms in the sky, and keeps blossoming, its heat licking us and lifting the ship like a piece of paper dancing over the hearth. I wonder what I do know, after all.

THE END.

RELATED:  The Truant (Short Story Sunday)

Notes

This story was inspired by a dream of two spies on an airship, and a little speculation about how passenger zeppelins might have been used during the Second World War if the Hindenburg disaster hadn’t put an untimely end to their operation. For a start, it seems certain that Germany would have stopped all transatlantic flights, and the LZ-129 would probably have been pressed into service transporting Nazi officers. It had already been used to distribute propaganda pamphlets, much to Eckener’s dismay.

With the rest of Europe falling, Britain would be the only viable location for a landing, and the US would be the only country with the resources to build, maintain, and fuel airships. Perhaps they would even recruit Eckener and his engineers. Considering ships were the main means of civilian transport between the US and Europe, I think a few passenger zeppelins would have been a welcome addition, though no doubt only the wealthy and influential would have been able to find a berth. However, it does seem more likely to me that the US would focus on military dirigibles, and that passenger airships would be just about the worst place to dispose of spies!

Style

For this story, I wanted to focus more on language, and experiment with:

  1. POV – I love quiet narrators who don’t reflect too much on their own emotions, and I tried to use the “femme fatale” role to thwart expectations.
  2. Atmosphere – I tried to use film noir imagery, with stark black and white contrast and themes of “watching”, and “love”.

WORD COUNT: 3105


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Lady Writer

I write about literature, language, love, and living off your pen. Also, fortifying fiction, personal amelioration, and tea.

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