home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
Keith Lawton was a happy canine. And why shouldn’t he be? This year’s Schneider was shaping up to be the best one ever. The hotels were overflowing, every square foot of harbor space was occupied by a cruise ship, (or soon to be) the Casino Island croupiers were raking it in like there was no tomorrow, and every race hangar had been leased for the duration. And what a race field it was going to be; the best since the Schneider had taken up permanent residence in the Spontoons. This year, not only were the regulars, the French, Italians, Brits, Americans, and Germans were all putting forth entries, but there were three new players in the game. (four, if you counted the fact that one of them had planes from both it’s army and navy planes in the race.) For the first time, Japan, The Netherlands, and the Soviet Union were all getting in on the act.
Best of all, not only did the Australian Shepherd dog finally have Katie MacArran entered in the Schneider (AND flying that beautiful new race-plane of hers) but the pinto mare would be going up against the great Ilsa Klentsch, and the German Mystery Plane. In every bar, and on every beach, their coming confrontation was being touted as the ‘Louis-Schmeling Schneider’...a reference to the World Heavyweight Title boxing match of two months earlier, when American champion, Joe Louis had knocked out German champion, Max Schmeling. (Although the general consensus of opinion here was that the Duchess of Strathdern was going to have some much tougher sledding against Fraulein Flugkapitan Klentsch than Louis had against Schmeling.)
Small wonder there was no room at the inn. Accommodations were so hard to come by this year, some folks were renting houses out on the Nimitz Islands, often at absurdly high rates, in the hope of catching at least a glimpse of the race. There was even a rumor floating about that some rich idiot had attempted to find lodgings on Krupmark Island for Speed Week. (And that his wish had been granted, and would continue to be granted until a very large ransom was paid.) Keith had stopped counting at thirty the number of bribes he’d been offered for, ‘a hotel room somewhere.’
And of course, he had refused every single one of them, often with a threat to have the party making the offer expelled from the Spontoons if they persisted. If there was one point of honor with Keith Lawton, it was his stout and unyielding integrity.
In fairness, it was understandable that a first-time visitor to his private office might be tempted to think otherwise. The place was the acme opulence, after all. An enclosure the size of a hangar, Keith’s office featured an intricately designed parquet floor, overlayed with rich, Turkish carpeting, a gilt-etched map of the Spontoon archipelago, covering an entire wall, and no less than ten ceiling fans all connected to a single motor through an intricate system of belts and pulleys. In all four corners of the office were a quartet of huge native totems, each one hewn from a single coconut log, and stretching from floor to ceiling Then there was Keith’s desk, a finely carved, teakwood affair, with a surface so large, you could almost land a plane on it. And, last but not least, the high-back red-leather swivel chair, with gold buttons, which had supposedly once been the property of Kaiser Wilhelm.
But the truth of the matter was that every piece of furnishing in the office, in fact the office itself, had been presented to Keith by the Althing in gratitude for services rendered. The previous occupant, an American mercenary pilot named Bert Hall, had purchased it with funds acquired by swindling the Chinese government out of $100,000.00 to buy non-existent American bombers. Convicted by a US Consular Court in 1933, after trying to run a second con-game in China, Bert Hall had subsequently forfeited all his property in the Spontoons to the Althing. Most of this had been sold, but the office and everything in it had been given over to the use of Keith Lawton, chief organizer of the Schneider Cup Races -- who otherwise lived both modestly and happily with his wife and two pups on the Main Island; one of the few western furs to be accorded that privilege.
The Althing was more than a little bit pleased with the way he had turned the Schneider Cup around.
After the ‘34 debacle, it had become obvious to all that the glory days of the Schneider were rapidly fading. Once again, the winning entry had crossed the finish line unopposed, and in both previous contests, the first plane across the finish line had NOT been awarded the trophy, owing to the Schneider Cup’s horribly complicated scoring system. As if that weren’t enough, fewer and fewer pilots were showing an interest in the Schneider, preferring instead to concentrate their efforts on the Thompson and Bendix Trophies. The reason was simple: The Schneider offered no prize money, while the Thompson and Bendix purses were $6750.00 and $4500,00 respectively. As one famous race-plane designer, Benjamin, ‘Benny’ Howard put it, “A Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine costs $5500,00, just by itself. Who wants to spend that kinda cash just to take home a trophy y’all are prolly gonna have to give up next year?”
The answer was almost nobody...and you could forget about any more official government entries, for the next few years at least With the arrival of the Depression, only Fascist Italy was willing to invest money in a building Schneider-Cup racer. From France, and the United States, the answer had been, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ In Britain meanwhile, it was only due to the herculean efforts of Lady Pamela Fenwick that the British had been able to field entries...and even then, the British public’s interest in the Schneider Cup was declining with every contest. True, with rise of Hitler and Hermann Goering, the Germans were starting to show some interest in the race...but the Nazis had been only been in power since 1933. They might have the will, but the means to enter the Schneider would be lacking for at least the coming year. Small wonder that when Spontoon Islands had become the permanent home of the Schneider Cup, none of the aviation publications had considered it much of a coup.
The Althing had known better. No sooner had the Spontoon Islands secured the race, than the decision had been made to hire an organizer, “to do for the Schneider what Clifford Henderson’s done for the National Air Races in America.” Towards that end, Keith Lawton had been brought on board.
It was a solid choice all around. The Aussie Shepherd was just coming off his post as one of the senior organizers of the MacRobertson England-to-Australia air race, a smashing success by all accounts. Before that, he’d helped put together Sir Alan Cobham’s famous Cobham Flying Circus, which had toured England and South Africa in 1932 and 33. He was no stranger to managing airborne spectacles.
But when the Althing had approached him, the price Keith had quoted was steep, not in terms of financial compensation, but in terms of fursonal power, “I’ll have the complete authority to make whatever decisions I see fit, and to enact whichever changes I deem necessary in re-organizing the Schneider-Cup. And I’ll have an agreement in writing, witnessed and notarized, that there will no official interference in my decisions once I’ve made them. That’s my offer, take it or leave it.”
With some reluctance, the Althing took it...and it had turned out to be one of the best decisions ever to come out of Meeting Island. Within two years, the Schneider had regained it’s status as the world’s premier air-race event....and it was thanks largely to the genius of Keith Lawton.
The canine’s first order of business had been to raise a prize purse capable of attracting the best and the fastest air-race pilots to Spontoon Island. It was a daunting task on the face of it. Who wanted to put up prize money for a race in which fewer and fewer furs were showed an interest every year? But Keith was clever. Instead of seeking out a single sponsor for the purse, as Clifford Henderson had done with the Thompson and the Bendix races, the Aussie Shepherd had instead solicited for relatively small contributions to the Schneider Trophy Purse from a number of corporations. Shrewdly, he had also made it as much of an international effort as possible, eliciting contributions from, amongst others, Sperry Instruments in the United States, British Petroleum, in Britain, the Siemens Electrical combine in Germany, Michelin Rubber in France and Sumitomo Metals in Japan. None of these companies had contributed more than ‘pocket change’ as he called it, to the Schneider Cup prize, but when the total was added up, the Schneider had overnight become the richest of all air-races, offering a prize of $15,000.00 to the winner, and $7000.00 for second place.
It was a masterstroke on the Aussie Shepherd’s part. With that many companies contributing to the prize purse, it meant that if any single one of them pulled out, it would be at most, a minor inconvenience. Furthermore the large number of countries involved insured that there would be no appearance of favoritism...another big point with Keith Lawton.
Now, with the prizes taken care of, Keith moved on to tackle the Schneider Cup rules. In this, he borrowed freely from the rules governing the Thompson Trophy, but with several canny touches of his own.
In the Schneider, the racers took off separately and raced against the clock...but in such a manner that for most of the race, they were flying the course together. In the event that a racer cut a pylon, he was awarded a time penalty...after ALL the planes had landed. Also, the finish point of the Schneider was set on the surface of the water, with the planes required to fly rather than taxi across it, which made it difficult in the extreme to determine exactly when a race-plane passed over it.
In the Thompson, by contrast, the planes took off in what was called a ‘race-horse’ start; lined up in a single row, they started ten seconds apart and raced against each other instead of the clock. Furthermore, instead of being penalized after the fact if he cut a pylon, the pilot was required to circle back around it instead. And instead of being down on the ground, the finish line for the Thompson was a 200' tall checkered pylon that left no doubt as to when each racer crossed it All these, Keith Lawton took for the Schneider Cup, eliminating many of the seaplane competition’s pesky, minor rules the process.
The only problem was that the Schneider, because it WAS a seaplane race, wasn’t particularly conducive to the use of a ‘race-horse’ start...so Keith came up with a variation on the theme. Instead of being lined up in a single row, the racers would start in a ‘grid’ pattern, the same as in the Indianapolis 500, and all take off together. And their position in the grid would be determined by two qualifying runs, in which each plane would race individually, against the clock; one at time, not together. Whichever of the two runs was the completed in the shortest time would be the one that counted; then the fastest qualifier would get the pole position, the second fastest, the second pole position and so on.
These races, Keith declared, would be held the first Friday and Sunday of Speed Week, with the main race event on the second Sunday, the final day of Speed Week.
Everyone loved the idea. The Spontoon Island Racing Association loved it because now there would be no confusion amongst the race officials as to which pilot was the victor and no more arguments from the pilots over their allotted start position. The race-fans loved it because now they would get to see three races for the price of one. The Casino operators loved it because now they would have two extra races on which to book bets. The hoteliers loved it because with the two qualifying runs situated at the beginning of Speed-Week, it meant their rooms would be filled even before the week began.
And the race pilots loved it most of all. As one of them put it, “Now we can concentrate on crossing the finish line instead of on crossing our‘T’s.” They also appreciated the six-day interval between the second qualifying run and the big race itself. This would give them time to deal with any major repairs incurred during the qualifying laps, and also to pull out all the stops in preparation for the main event.
The new arrangement was not without it’s problems. When the new prize purses were announced, it seemed as if every half-baked throttle-jockey from Aalborg to Zanzibar wanted a shot at the Schneider Cup. Without exception these idiots seemed to think that all they had to do to win the Schneider was to get their paws on a race-plane and fit it with pontoons. Keith could have eliminated this headache at a single stroke by barring home-built aircraft from the competition, but remembering Sophia Casadonte Bianco’s surprising performance in the ‘29 Schneider Cup, he was extremely reluctant to take that route.
So instead, he revived some of the original Schneider Cup rules, such as the one requiring the race-planes to sit in the water for six hours to test their seaworthiness, and added some new ones of his own. Now, before any pilot could fly in the Schneider Cup, he or she must have approval, if not the sponsorship of the home government. Otherwise, the entry would not be accepted
It was a cumbersome system...but it worked. No more was heard from the seat-of-the-pants air-race crowd by SIRA
The other potential problem was that six days was a heckuva long time to have the fans wait between races. Keith was ready for that, too. Between the second qualifying race and the Schneider itself, he promised, the fans would be treated to “a non-stop aerial extravaganza, the like of which has never been seen.”
In this, the Australian Shepherd was as good as his word. For the entire length of Speed-Week that year, the fans thrilled to nonstop rounds of skydiving exhibitions, aerial stunts, and demonstrations of precision flying by the famed US Army Air Corps team of ‘Three Furs On a Flying Trapeze’, the Cobham Flying Circus, and many others. Between shows, the fans witnessed exhibition flights by literally dozens of new and wondrous aircraft; a Cierva Autogyro, a Besson MB-411 seaplane, which was launched and recovered by the French submarine Surcouf, and a landing in the lagoon by the worlds largest seaplane, the truly colossal, 12-engine Dornier Do-X. There were musical productions, there were fireworks displays, and there were numerous smaller competitions, leading up to race day, including one that would become almost as much of an institution as the Schneider itself; an aerobatics tournament that took place while the race planes sat on the water for the required six hours..
Not all of Keith’s ideas were successful. The race from Hawaii to the Spontoons between the airships Graf Zeppelin and Republic (which the Graf won) was described by one observer as ‘about as exciting as watching grass grow.” But the following year, when Keith had the two behemoths square off in a mock air battle, the spectacle almost eclipsed the race itself. (The Republic took that one.)
And for 1938, the Australian Shepherd had topped himself. In addition to a new sea-plane race, one in which the competitors would be required to swim to and from their planes before taking off and after landing, he had scheduled a dive-bombing competition for Saturday. Also on tap for Speed Week, was a live radio broadcast of the popular Jack Bunny show, to be aired from the studios of Radio LONO before a live audience. The Soviets were sending their race-pilot to the Spontoons via the longest, nonstop polar flight ever attempted, and on Friday before the race, a World Light-Heavyweight Title fight was set to be held on Casino Island. In fact, Keith had just a few short minutes ago, succeeded in setting up a great undercard match, DeSharell, the R.A.F. middleweight boxing champion against the middleweight champ of the French Armee De l'Air, Lieutenant Michel Ponti.
Someone knocked, quickly on his door.
“Come.” he said, not looking up from the papers he was annotating. The door opened just a whit, and the face of a perky echidna named Tula’a-ti Nuapu, Keith Lawton’s private secretary, peeked around the corner.
“‘Scuse me sir,” she said, “But there’s Mr. Drake Hack’tt’s, just arrived outside.”
The papers went back into their drawer and Keith’s tail began to wag rapidly.
“Splendid, Tula!” he cried, clapping his paws together, “ Splendid! Send ‘im right in.” Drake was actually here much earlier than he’d been scheduled, but Keith was running ahead of schedule at the moment, having wrapped up the undercard fight much more quickly than he’d expected...at least on one side of the negotiations. Every time he dealt with the French it seemed, there was Le Countess Corncrake, sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. This time, however, the squirrel femme’s only comment had been an enthusiastic endorsement of the bout, together with the somewhat obscure promise that, “your rude, British horse shall pay dearly.”
Keith, who was not British, had wisely chosen not to comment on the matter. He had no desire to antagonize Henriette de Vitrines right in the midst of fending off the latest demands of the Italians. Bloody Hell, how many different ways did he have to say ‘no’ before Capitano Murmi finally got the message? Casino owners or no casino owners, he was that close to telling the Italian leopard to go...
The door opened and Drake Hackett strode in. At once, Keith was up and around his desk, and hurrying across the floor to meet him.
“C’mere, mate!” he said, and then the two old friends embraced, warmly, and gave each other a quick inspection.
Keith had changed little since had Drake had last seen him, though he had changed a great deal since the time they’d flown the Outback together as a pair of roving reporters for the Daily Observer. In those days, Keith’s fur was more often than not, matted and unkempt, and he’d been so lean you could have played a xylophone solo on his ribs. Now, the Australian Shepherd dog had a slight paunch, and he looked as if he’d just arrived from a grooming salon. In place of the dirty khakis he’d favored back then, he was attired in a spotless, snow-white polo-shirt and matching shorts, what the Brits called ‘tropical whites.’
But it was still the same old Keith, and he proved it with the very next words he spoke, “How ‘bout a Bundaberg, eh?”
“Don’t mind if I do!” Drake answered, tail wagging faster than ever. A moment later, he was seated before the big desk, while Keith poured each of them a shot. This was followed by the two canines raising their glasses high while intoning solemnly, and in unison, “It’s the finest rum in the world.”
Both shots were downed in a single gulp, and then the glasses banged down together on the desktop.
“Ahhh,” said, Drake, letting himself drop into the chair in front of the desk with a contented grunt, “Now there’s something takes me back to when we was bouncin’ around the Outback together. Them was the days, eh mate?”
The response to this from Keith Lawton was a short, derisive yip.
“Yeah, riiiiight. 120 degrees in the shade, dung burnin’ in the hotels to keep down the mosquitoes, sleepin’ on the floor most nights coz the rooms was all taken, hot beer...IF we was lucky enough to find any, fights goin’ on practically everywhere we landed -- even the Goannas havin’ it out in the street, bulldog ants, funnel-web spiders, and that’s not even mentionin’ all the times that bloody aeroplane of ours...”
“Hold it, sport, hold it.” said Drake, raising his paws in protest, “I only said them was the days, I never said they was the GOOD old days.”
“Damn right they wasn’t.” said the Aussie Shepherd, and then softened his tone, while his eyes took on a slightly liquid quality. “But y’know something, Drake? I wouldn’t take ‘em back for anything.”
“Neither would I, mate.” said the heeler, nodding in reverent agreement, “Neither would I.”
They spent the next few minutes catching up on each other’s doings. “So how’s Lucy an’ the kids?” was one of Drake Hackett’s first questions. Lucy had been the reason for the breakup of their partnership. When she had agreed to marry Keith, the Aussie Shepherd had immediately announced that his days of roving the Outback were over. “That’s no life for a married dog, Drake.” was how he’d put it, “and certainly, it’s no life for her, waiting every day, wi’ no idea where I’m at..” Another canine might have been bitter over the news, but Drake had never held it against Lucy. How could he? Mrs. Lucy Hackett Lawton was also his younger sister.
“Couldn’t be doin’ better.” said Keith, leaning back in his chair with a placid smile, “Lucy loves it here in the Spontoons. We all do. Sandra’s just turned six and she already speaks Spontoonie better’n I do. As for little Georgia, she’s already talkin’ about entering the Schneider herself some day.” He snickered. “Little pup can’t even read yet, but she can name most parts of an aeroplane.”
“When you gonna have a boy, so’s you can name him after me, eh?” Drake teased, unable to resist.
“Hang on mate,” said Keith, grinning as he reached for the bottle again, “We’re workin’ on it. We’re workin’ on it. Lucy’s expectin’ again in early October.”
The Queensland heeler’s ears went up. “Y’ don’t say? Well, congratulations mate. That’s wonderful news.” Drake’s own forays into marriage had been somewhat less than successful than his partner’s. He was currently paying alimony, what the Aussies referred to as cock-tax to not one but two former spouses. “An’ that’s it!” he’d vowed, after his second marriage foundered on the rocks, “Never again.” ( Of course, that was what he’d said after the FIRST one went balls up. )
“Oh, an’ Lucy wants to know if you’re free for dinner tonight.” Keith was saying, “Makin’ her steak an’ mushroom pie.”.
“Wouldn’t miss it for anything.” said Drake, and then, “So, what else yer been up to here? There’s more to life in the Spontoons than just the Schneider, I should hope.”
“Lot’s more, mate.” Keith answered, in a voice that made clear that this was a question he’d been hoping for. “Lot’s more, and you better believe it. By next Christmas, we hope to be launching the Island Syndicate Flying Doctor Service.”
“Cor,” said Drake, humbled by the words. He knew well of Australia’s famed Royal Flying Doctor Service, what Outback fur didn’t? Founded in 1928, the service brought medical help by airplane to the even the furthest corners of Australia. Now, if Drake was surmising correctly, Keith Lawton was planning a similar service, to bring emergency medical aid to the more isolated parts of the Spontoon and Nimitz chains.
“That’s a bloody good thing you’re doing, mate.” the Queensland heeler told his friend, favoring him with thumbs up.
“Well, these islands has been right good to me and mine, sport.” Keith answered, waving a paw at the wall map, “So now I figures it’s time to return the favor.”
“I’ll be sure and mention this to Her Grace when next I see her again.” said Drake, “I know she’d want to help, specially after spending two years herself in a place where doctors ain’t all that easy to find.”
“Well when y’do,” said the Australian Shepherd, “Tell her we don’t need planes, s’much we need pilots. I’ve managed to get hold of a pair of Douglas Dolphin’s for the ISFDS, good machines, both of ‘em. Trouble now is finding somebody to fly the bloody things.”
“I’ll tell her that, then.” said Drake, and then Keith asked him the obvious question.
“So what’ll you be up to when the Schneider’s over, eh?”
Drake was only too happy to tell him.
“George Stafford’s retirin’ as editor of the Observer next January,” he said, “An’ Her Grace says the job’s mine, if I want it.”
“Good on yer, mate.” said Keith, tail wagging again. “That’s a plum, if ever there was one.”
“Well, it won’t be much of a changin’ of the guard when I do.” the heeler cautioned, “Can’t think of very much I’d do different than George has. Might make a minor adjustment here and there, but otherwise, I think things’ll pretty much stay as they are.”
“That’s probably why yer got the offer in the first place, Drake.” his friend observed, “After the fair dinkum job that tiger’s done wi’ the Observer, why would the Duchess Katie WANT to make any changes?”
“My thoughts exactly, Keith.” said Drake Hackett, nodding, “But you haven’t told me, what’s the latest on Speed Week?”
Keith laced his paws behind his neck and leaned back in his chair with a beatific expression, “Y’know what’s the best part about this job, mate? It’s the way things’ll just tumble into yer lap sometimes. S’like...couple of days after their ships docked, a group o’ dive-bomber pilots from the Hiryu caught up wi some blokes from the ‘High Hat’ dive-bomber squadron off the Saratoga, in the Outrigger Bar. They started arguin’ over who was better, an’ pretty soon, it had turned into a brawl. Nothing seriously damaged, mind. They had the decency to take it outside first. But the constables had to be called anyways and they all ended up cooling their heels in the old graybar hotel.”
Keith paused momentarily, to let his friend digest this and then continued.
“Now it so just happens there’s this big seaplane tender, the Cape Perpetual, that the Rain Island Syndicate’s just decommissioned, but hasn’t got round to getting rid of yet. So off I go to Moon Island to ask if I can borrow her, and since the Syndicate blokes owe me a few favors, they says yes right away. Then off I goes off to the jail, where the Captains of the Hiryu an’ Saratoga are trying to get their pilots let go, an’ putting on me most indignant face. ‘Listen,’ I says, ”I’ll not ‘ave your hooligans turning Spontoon Island into little Macao over who’s the better dive-bomb squadron. If they really want to settle that question, well HERE’s how they can do it without wreckin’ the place.”
Drake was grabbing his knee with one paw and clutching his side with the other to keep from laughing. He had known about the dive-bombing competition of course, but this first time he’d heard how his Keith had set it up.
“And bein’ as they was desperate not to offend, especially Captain Tsurogu,” the Aussie Shepherd was saying, “they all but bloody jumped at it.”
Drake immediately stood up and applauded.
“Bravo, mate! Well, done. Ah, but yer haven’t lost yer old touch...”
Before he could go any further, Keith cut him off with a pair of raised paws.
“Just hold the ovation for a moment, sport....coz there’s a bit o’ late breaking news to go wi’ that. No sooner had I arrived for work this mornin’, than here comes the German consul, bargin’ in and demanding to know why his country wasn’t invited to participate.” Here, Keith’s voice took on the kind of atrocious Teutonic accent usually reserved for bit players in bad World War I movies. “How DARE you offer zutch an inZULT to der honor uff der Reich? I inzizt dat der Vatherland also be permitted to enter der dife-bombing competitzion.”
“So what did you say?” asked Drake, sniggering. Knowing Keith, he could guess what the Aussie Shepherd’s response had been.
And sure enough...
“Why, I just put on the old Uriah Heep an’ said, ‘But sir...how could we have thought to invite Germany, when you’ve not got an aircraft carrier?’ ‘Dummkopf!’ he says, drawing himself up all haughty an’ important like, ‘Since ven do you need an aircraft karrier to bomb a ship, hein? I shall haf you know zat der Fliegerkorps X uf der Luftwaffe ist der finest dife-bomber squadron in der vorld. It is unzinkable das you should exclude zem, Herr Lawton...and I varn you das der Reichmarschall Goering is taking this mozt Vursonally.”
“And I take it you aren’t really bothered by the idea of bringing the Luftwaffe into this?” said Drake, somehow suppressing his mirth.
“Are you kidding, sport?” said Keith, who WASN’T holding his laughter in check, “Having Fliegerkorps X in the contest’ll be good for a thousand extra grandstand seats. Those Stukas of theirs are something you’ve got to see and hear to believe.” He winked, “But of course, I wasn’t telling Herr Konzul that.”
Drake Hackett did not wink back and he didn’t laugh. He had already seen and heard a Ju87 in action. In fact...he’d seen a whole squadron of them, in Spain.
(And being as he had been in their crosshairs at the time, he hadn’t found the experience to be a particularly enjoyable one.)
This was not, however, the time or place to bring that up.
“Mind you,” Keith was saying, “I still have to get the okay from the Yanks and the Japanese to bring in the Luftwaffe, but I think they’ll come round in the end.” These last words were punctuated with an old, familiar narrowing of the eyes and a dark, feral smile. Drake leaned forward, with the same expression. Oh yes, it was still the same Keith.
“And just how can you be so certain of that, mate?” he said, lowering his voice out of old habit.
“Well,’y’know Drake,”said his former partner, ducking his head in what someone less familiar might have taken for an expression of canine penitence. “The furs in these Islands do gossip dreadfully...an’ if it’s got anything to do wi’ Speed Week, why of course I’ve got to take an interest, don’t I? Fr’instance, not an hour before Her Grace landed in the lagoon, I had to ring up Charles Crane at the Spontoon Mirror regarding the latest horrible rumour. Had to put a story out on the front page, saying that whoever’s been spreading the story that the Yanks and the Japanese are keeping the Luftwaffe out of their contest coz they’re AFRAID to take ‘em on must cease and desist immediately.”
“Tch, what a shame yer had to get involved like that,” said Drake, shaking his head sympathetically, and barely keeping himself from hysterics, “but...y’can’t just let a rumour like that run it’s own course, now then can yer?”
“Course I can’t.” said Keith, with just a hint of smile, but then his expression became as somber as judge’s, “But that’s also related to the worst part o’ my job, mate; all the yiffin’ prima donnas that show up for Speed Week.”
“Oh, yes.” said Drake, with a knowing nod. He considered for a moment seizing the opportunity to bring up Athena Moorefield, then decided against it. “I’ve heard all about the trouble you’ve been havin’ wi Lord Casterley.”
The response from his friend was surprising; a quick bark and a dismissive wave of the paw.
“Casterley? He’s small beer, mate. I can brush him off any time I like.”
“Who did you mean, then?” asked Drake, half wary, and half intrigued. Who the heck could be a bigger problem than...? He suddenly remembered...and hoped it wasn’t Athena Moorefield.
“How about Countess Henriette de Vitrines?” his friend answered, teeth baring slightly, “just for starters.”
“Ohhhhh, SHE’S here, is she?” said Drake, no longer baffled. Yep...now there was a fur who could out-Casterley Casterley all right. He only hoped that Katie wouldn’t bump into La Comtesse before he’d had a chance to warn her.
“Aye.” said Keith, “An’ she’s the yiffin’ bane of the race-plane hangars. Look here.” He opened a desk drawer and extracted a sheaf of papers as thick a dime novel, “These are just SOME of the complaints I’ve ‘ad about her...and I can’t do yiffing thing about ‘em, coz somehow Countess Henriette’s managed to get herself made an honorary member of the French Schneider team. Until an’ unless they revoke it, I have no authority to ban her from the race-plane hangars, not unless she’s caught breaking one o’ the race rules...an’ so far, that hasn’t happened.”
“Have you tried talking to the French crew chief about her?” asked Drake.
“Yeah, for all the good it did me.” Keith answered, but then added quickly. “Don’t get me wrong, Claude Venzine’s a good bloke, and he doesn’t want her around any more than the rest of ‘em. ‘Were up to moi,’ he’s told me, ‘La Comtesse would not be permitted within twenty kilometers of Eastern Island.’ I know for a fact that he’s threatened to quit at least twice because of her, but it didn’t make a dent back in Paris. She stays, an’ that’s that.”
Drake shook his head, half in disgust, half in sympathy.
“Amazin’, in’ it...how far some Sheilas can get just by spreadin’ their legs.”
“Well, say what yer want about the Countess Henriette de Vitrines.” Keith replied with a wry, bitter smile, “At least she yiffed her OWN way to the top. Guess who else is here for Speed-Week? Signorina Mariella Scarponi.”
“Oh Christ, not HER!” Drake almost howled. Mariella Scarponi was a cross-fox vixen whom Katie MacArran liked to referred to as ‘Mar-Al Capone’. She was also the elder sister of Mussolini’s ‘mistress of the moment’, a teen-aged beauty named Corrina Scarponi. Two years earlier, Mariella had decided to become an actress, a calling for which she had little talent. After being turned down for several parts, she had gone to Corrina, who had gone to the Duce, who had gone to Cinecita, where he had bullied and browbeaten Italy’s most respected producer into casting Corrina as the female lead in his next film, Gaius Marius. As if that weren’t enough, the original script had called for the role of Julia, Marius’ wife, to be relatively minor one. But no sooner was Mariella given the part than at Mussolini’s insistence, it was greatly expanded.
All this might have been no concern at all to Katie MacArran, except for the fact that Gaius Marius just happened to make it’s premier the same week that Sophia Bianco’s film, The Lady in Silk was released in Italy...and it promptly outdrew Marius by a margin of 3-to-1
In a jealous snit, Mariella had gone running to her sister, who had gone running to Il Duce, and the Lady In Silk was immediately yanked from distribution in Italy, with no explanation given. It had been an extremely hurtful episode for Katie’s friend Sophia, who dearly loved her homeland.
And by that time, Katie had developed a deep hatred of Fascism...and so....
Three weeks later, a package arrived from Spain, then in the throes of civil war, at Signorina Scarponi’s new villa near Naples. When the vixen opened it, she screamed and fainted dead away. Inside were two items: a charred, blood-stained, bullet-riddled flight helmet of the type worn by pilots of the Aeronauticca Reggia, spattered with bits of decaying flesh, and a cryptic note, reading simply, “He died for your sins.”
As far as Drake was aware, Mariella Scarponi never did find out who had sent her that thoughtful gift...but he knew. He had fursonally helped Katie wrap it up.
But even that was not as big a bombshell as the next name Keith dropped.
“An’ would yer believe she’s not the worst headache the Eyeties are giving me, sport? Nope, not by a bloody long chalk.. That honour goes to none other than Italy’s Schneider Cup race pilot, Major Enzo Murmi of the Italian Air Force.”
Then fell back in his chair, stunned.
“M-Murmi?” he repeated, barely under his breath, “En...Enzo Murmi is flying for Italy? I thought it was Francesco Agello.”
“Last minute change...Uh, so the Eyeties claim.” said Keith, who couldn’t seem to figure out how he might have misspoken. “Why, mate? You know him?”
Drake shook his head slowly, as if trying to recover from a blow.
“Are you kiddin’ me, Keith? Enzo Murmi’s the pilot who led the poison gas raid on Desula.”
Now, it was Keith’s turn to look shocked..
“No!” he said, then sighed and dropped his shoulders halfway to his knees, “Well that explains why the Italians felt the need sneak Murmi in, anyways’” Noting Drake’s expression, he added. “Oh, yeah...I’ve heard from several folks that Murmi was the first choice to fly for Italy all along. Never could figure out why they went through all that rigamarole with him. Now, wi’ what you’ve just told me, it all makes a lot more sense.” He cocked his head, regarding Drake out of the corner of one eye, “I don’t suppose he’s ever admitted to it publicly?”
“You already know the answer to that one, mate.” said Drake. “If it were like that, you’d not have had to hear it from me, would yer?”
“No...” said the Australian Shepherd, suddenly seeming to find fascination the wood-grain patterns of his desktop. Then he looked up again. “But I’m afraid that makes what I’ve got to tell you next a whole lot worse. Better brace yerself, sport. It’s gonna sting yer.”
There was something in Keith’s tone that said Drake might want to take him literally. He sat up, and grabbed the chair by the arms.
“What is it, mate?” he asked, grimly.
“Well, I’ve told yer that Murmi was giving me headaches, didn’t I?” said his old chum, “And here’s how: On the Thursday before the Schneider, he and his mates wants to put on this little flying demonstration. They plan swoop in over the main lagoon in their Fiat Falcone pursuit planes, flying in precise formation, an’ at the exact same moment, each plane is supposed to release a smoke trail.”
It was a good thing Drake was holding on to his chair.
“You got to be yiffing JOKING, mate!” he cried, “Precision flight demo, my arse! A five-year-old pup can see what Murmi’s really up to. The Italian Air Force ran the same stunt at the Spezia air-show a year ago. Only then they called it what it really is...”
“...a simulated poison-gas attack. I know, I KNOW!” Keith shrugged and waved his paws in exasperation, “I must’ve told Murmi ‘no’ a hundred times...and every time I do, he’s back five minutes later wi’ the same demand. And then yesterday, he shows up with a cable from his old squadron commander in Ethiopia, none other than Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, giving him the authority to act in any way he sees fit regarding his little demonstration...and what he sees fit to do is tell me this: Either I let him run his phony gas attack -- or Italy pulls out of the Schneider.”
“So let them.” said Drake, surprised by his friend’s apparent timidity, “They haven’t won the race in what, how long? Call his bluff Keith, and tell him to take his plane and stick it, if he won’t play by yer rules.”
Keith folded his paws on the desk, speaking slowly, and quietly.
“You don’t understand, mate. Murmi’s not just threatin’ to pull his team out of the Schneider. He’s sayin’ that EVERY Eyetie on the Spontoon’s will be ordered to go home if he doesn’t get his way...includin’ the ones who have residences here.”
Drake’s jaw almost hit the floor.
“He...can’t be serious, can he?”
“If Italo Balbo were still in charge of things, I’d say no.” Keith replied, in that same moderated tone, “but with ‘im out of the picture, now there’s no one left to hold Murmi in check. And that bludger’s just enough of a thug to go through with it. AND with Ciano backin’ him up, he’s got the power make it happen.” He rapped his paw on the desk, and let out a short breath. “God, but I’d love to know why Mussolini banned General Balbo from any further involvement with the Schneider. Say what yer like about that lynx. He may have been a bag of wind, but at least he had a sense of honour.”
“Oh, I can answer that one, sport.” said Drake, eager to oblige in spite of things, “It’s cause Balbo accused the Duce of licking Germany’s boots over Austria – right to ‘is face.”
“Cor!” said Keith, letting out a long, slow whistle, “Oi, that’ll do it, all right.”
“Yeah,” Drake answered, “But that don’t help yer with Murmi, I’m afraid. Any ideas what you’re gonna do, Keith? You can’t just give in to the bastard.”
“Don’t I know it!” said his friend, from the heart. “If I do that, I’ll have Countess de Vitrines and every other stuck-up stickybeat comin’ in here and tryin’ to make some similar threat...and that’s not gonna happen, chum. Not as long as I’m the Schneider’s organizer.”
“Right you are, mate.” said Drake, relieved that the Australian Shepherd’s apparent show of weakness had been only a false alarm.
“But if I don’t give in and the Italians DO pack it up,” Keith was saying, with a frustrated snarl, “I’ll have the Spontoon Island Casino Operators Association all over me arse. Y’see Drake, there’s a big bunch of Fascist fatcats here in the islands for Speed Week, an’ every night they’re over at Casino Island, gamblin’ their bloody arses off. According to what one of the pit bosses told me, Mariella Scarponi by herself is into the red for something on the order of 15 thousand quid...so yer can guess what the grand total is for all of ‘em.” He snarled again, louder this time, “An’ you never met sharks like the Spontoon Island Casino owners, mate. For all they care, Murmi can go drop REAL poison-gas on the harbor, s’ long as his mates keep droppin’ the big Lire at their gaming tables.”
“Mmmm.” said Drake, in a soft, throaty growl, “Yeah, that sounds like one yiffin’ dilemma all right, Keith. Look, whyn’t yer let me an’ Her Grace give it some thought, eh? Maybe we can come up with a way out o’ this.”
“I’d be grateful for any help you can give me, mate.” said his friend, nodding slowly
“And now I think of it,” said Drake, figuring this was a good an opening as he was going to get, “There’s something I could use a bit of help with. Does the name Athena Moorefield mean anything to you?”
If Keith saw through what Drake was doing, he gave no indication.
“Oh, yeah...know all about her.” He said, “Why?”
Drake responded by telling him about the clash between the golden skunk-femme and Katie MacArran at her race hangar.
“...and her Grace is rightly concerned that Miss Moorefield might try to make trouble for her in future coz of what happened.” he concluded.
Keith’s response to this was the last thing Drake would have expected.
He threw back his head and laughed.
“Oh, ho! So THAT’S where she had her plane hidden, eh? Well, tell Her Grace not to bother her head over it, sport. Miss Moorefield’s got too many problem of her own right now to make any more for her. Reason she had that Staggerwing stashed in your hangar in the first place is coz the Spontoon Aviation Authority’s lookin’ to seize it for non-payment of moorage fees an’ hotel bills.” he tilted his head sideways, “I, uh...don’t suppose Her Grace would have any idea where she took that plane?”
“I’ll ask her mate, but I doubt it.” said Drake. Well, that was one load off his mind anyway. But then what Keith did next was even more surprising; he stopped laughing and Drake saw his tail tuck up under his legs.
“Maybe it’d be just as well if you didn’t mate.” he said, softly, “The harbour patrol’s not really in any great hurry to find that Staggerwing. Fact is, no one wants to see Miss Moorefield lose her plane, not even Constance La Carme...and she’s the manager of the Resort Denhaut; the one where Miss M owes that money.”
He looked out the window for second. “Y’see...In spite of how it might look, Athena Moorefield’s not some spoiled spendthrift who thinks she don’t have to pay her bills, she’s just a girl’s had herself a run of bad luck.”
“You mean at the gaming tables?” said Drake, his voice softening not at all. He had neither the time nor the sympathy for degenerate gamblers.
“No, not there,” said Keith quietly, “Not herself, anyway. Look, maybe I’d best tell yer the whole story.”
He did, and when he was finished, Drake caught himself flicking a tear away from his own eye. The poor little thing...and that slimy, yiffing foxhound, his Earlship. Just when you’d thought the bastard couldn’t sink any lower.
“*Grrrr*, Her Grace is NOT going to like this when I tell her ‘bout it, mate.” he said “not at all.”
“I’d not expect she would, Drake.” said Keith, and then added, clearly eager to change the subject, “Anything else I can help y’ with?”
“Yeah,” said Drake, every bit as avid for a shift of topic as his friend, “Anything more y’can tell me about the Mystery Plane?”
“Sure can,” said Keith, smiling brightly, “Flew for Tillamooka in the ‘36 Schneider, and used liquid sodium to....”
That was as far as he got before Drake cut him off.
“*Growr!* Don’t come the smartass wi’ me, mate. That’s not the plane I meant, an’ you know it.” It had always nettled him when Keith did this.
“Oh,” said the Aussie Shepherd, the picture of canine innocence, “You mean the GERMAN Mystery plane. Yeah, there’s a few things I can tell you about ‘er.” He began to count off on his fingers as he spoke, “First of all, along wi’ the Duchess of Strathdern finally competin’, she’s the biggest draw we’ve got. Second, she’s only such a big draw because she IS such a mystery. Which means: Third, I’d have to be off my chum to let slip...”
“All right, all right!” said Drake, throwing up his paws in surrender. “Y’ don’t have to draw me a blueprint in three dimensions, mate. I get the picture.” He looked away, muttering almost to himself, “Crikey, I was only askin’.”
“Sorry, sport.” said his friend, leaning back in his chair with an unsympathetic shrug, “But no one knows better than me how persistent you are unless yer shut down at the gate sometimes.”
There was, unfortunately, no arguing with that.
“But what’s the latest with Her Grace?” Keith was asking. Drake responded by filling him in on the press briefing, leaving out the part about Jacques Lassier’s underpawed action. That was strictly Katie’s business...and his own.
“Oh, and we’ve just sold the film rights to Gold From Hell.” he added, tail wagging merrily, “Can’t say who bought it yet, of course. Not until the deal’s finalized, but it looks like a definite go.”
“Huh! Bout bloody time.” said Keith, folding his arms, “What the Hell took so long anyway?”
“Well, let’s face it sport,” said the Queensland Heeler. “A film about an airship in the New Guinea jungle’s not something y’ gonna do on a low budget and make it look good. As it is, arf the stuff in the book most likely won’t make it onto the screen.”
“Yeah...I can think of one scene that won’t.” Keith responded, sitting up again with a grin, “And it’s something I’ve always wanted to ask yer about. Did Her Grace REALLY work bare-breasted in the jungle sometimes?”
Drake’s mouth drew inward as if he had just bitten into lemon.
“You’ve read the book, mate. Wha’dyer need to ask ME for? Yeah, it’s true.”
Keith looked around for a second, as if there might be a hidden microphone in his office, then he leaned close and lowered his voice. “Yeah, mate...I know but uhhh...well, what’s not in book is...”
Another glance around the office and then the Australian Shepherd’s voice lowered to a whisper, “You ever see ‘em?”
Drake stared at Keith for a moment, then leaned back in his chair with a Sphinx-like expression
“You SURE there’s nothin’ more you can tell me ‘bout that German Mystery Plane, sport?”
*GRARF!* “You bastard!”