I almost went through all this month forgetting to post something! Never mind; here’s my latest story. I was asked to write about a person taking a ride in a taxi that takes them where they need to go, rather than where they want to go…
Southeast England, not long before World War One…
Thickening white sea mist blended with smoke from the locomotive, as the morning’s first train from London pulled into Margate station. James Peregrin St John Horden, child of the gentry and one-time midshipman in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, swiftly exited the station and sought out a payphone. He wasted no words once his call was connected.
“O’Dwyer, it’s me. Is the VM-15 ready for take-off, as instructed?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Horden Sir. Fair killed d’crew t’work t’roo d’night, but we made it. I sent a car t’pick ye up too. He should be dere soon. Splendid local lad by d’name o’ Stephen. Don’t be sayin’ I…”
“Yes, yes, O’Dwyer. Good man,” Horden interrupted. “Is there any news of Van Eyck and his machine?”
There was a pregnant silence.
“Dammit man, it’s a simple enough question!” Horden snapped. “What of Van Eyck?”
“Our man in Middelburg cabled us,” O’Dwyer managed. “He says Van Eyck’s plannin’ t’launch at ten, so he is.”
“Ten?” screamed Horden. “I have to get over there now! Be ready for me!”
“Wait, Sir! Dere’s more!”
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Tanner and Mr. Bolton ain’t happy, Mr. Horton. (O’Dwyer referred to Team VM’s chief engineer and meteorologist respectively.) Dey say dat d’mist’s gettin’ worse and dere could be a storm later. D’VM-15 might not hold together out at sea, or lose its way.”
“O’Dwyer, relax,” said Horton. “I’ve survived worse at sea.”
“In a ship, yes, Sir, but dis is different.”
“What’s more, I’m not having a Dutchman being the first man to cross the North Sea in an aeroplane!”
“Now Mr. Horton, Sir, y’may have faced dere descendants in battle ten year ago, but dat doesn’t mean…”
“Or would you rather one of the Kaiser’s men did it?” Horton roared into the speaker. “Or one of those anarchist Panks? I’m launching as soon as I arrive and that’s that!”
He smashed the earpiece down in its cradle and went out of the booth to look for his car. Luckily, he wasn’t long outside before a scarlet Ford taxi drove up in front of the station.
The brown-clad driver squeezed the horn and waved to Horton.
“Mr Perry ‘Orton?”
“None other. And you must be Stephen?”
“Jump in guv’nor. I’ll take ya where ya need to go.”
Horton retrieved his carpet bag, sat in the back seat and sighed with relief as the taxi puttered off into the mist. As the town and beach were left behind, he opened a window and lit his pipe; one last comfort before setting off into the unknown.
Horton said nothing as he contemplated what was to come. VM he had named his aircraft; Victory Machine, a reference to the ship of his childhood hero, Horatio Nelson, as well as what he hoped for. He was wary, of course, but not too frightened. Louis Blériot had done well to cross the Channel at its nearest point, but he’d do one better with his VM-15. It was more powerful and reliable than Blériot’s plane; a worthy investment of his Great Uncle Jocelyn’s legacy. Soon, his name would be in the history books too; another victory for a son of the greatest nation on Earth.
The fog was a real pea-souper by the time Stephen’s taxi juddered to a halt by a gate and a dry stone wall.
“’Ere’s where you need to go, guv’nor.”
Horton stuffed two notes into Stephen’s hand without even bothering to check the little flag by the cab. He told Stephen to keep the change, then ran along the nearby path as the cab disappeared into the fog.
“O’Dwyer! Tanner! Bolton! I’m here!” he called.
There was no reply. A building similar to the VM-15’s hangar came into view.
“Can anyone hear me?” Horton shouted. “OH!”
It wasn’t the hangar. It wasn’t even the airfield. Horton was in fact standing in front of a miserable-looking shack, its door hanging off, many of its windows broken, its thatched roof open to the elements in several places.
“Here, I say!” Horton yelled into the fog. “I’m in the wrong place! This isn’t the right field! Stephen! Stephen, where are you?”
But Stephen and his cab were gone. Thunder rumbled in the distant sky.
Horton threw down his carpet bag and let forth all the foul words he knew. But there was nothing to be done. The promised storm was closing in and he couldn’t see more than 100 yards ahead. He had no choice but to shelter in the sorry-looking house and wait for fog and rain to pass, then set off for the airfield.
O’Dwyer and his colleagues were having lunch and playing cards when a shout made them look up.
“O’Dwyer! There you are, at last!”
Horton ran across the field, red as a beetroot and pumped the humble Irishman’s hand.
“Mr. Horton, Sir, by all d’Saints, y’look terrible!”
“O’Dwyer, terrible news; we’ve been sabotaged. Your man Stephen was a Dutch agent. He dumped me in a field in the fog so I’d lose my way and Van Eyck could win.”
“What d’ye mean, Sir? Stephen says he never picked ye up.”
“So it wasn’t Stephen after all! Come to think of it, he never did confirm his name was Stephen…”
“Never mind, Sir. We’re ready t’go when ye are.”
“Too late, I fear, O’Dwyer. Van Eyck’s launched already. I won’t be first.”
“It’s just as well you weren’t, Perry.” It was Bolton, the meteorologist, who spoke. “I just got word from town. A cruise liner reported seeing the storm bring down an aeroplane forty miles off shore earlier this morning. Hit the water like a brick, according to the Marconi operator.”
“The ship’s doctor says the pilot must have been killed instantly,” announced Tanner, the chief engineer. “His papers confirm his identity as Jacob Van Eyck.”
Horton was stunned into silence. He looked out at the North Sea, now clear, calm and without a wisp of fog. Moments ago, he had felt angry and cheated, like would as soon kill that taxi driver as look at him. Now he seemed to be facing the start of a mystery he might never solve as long as he lived.
“Perry,” Tanner said gingerly, “Do you still wish to fly?”