© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(Rosie Baumgartner and Chauncey Fleetik courtesy of M. Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of Eric O. Costello. Thanks!)
(Keith Lawton and the Chang Brothers courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
The night before the actual Schneider Cup race was marked by a grand celebration held on several beaches on Meeting, South, Casino and Eastern Islands. Dancers disported themselves with flaming torches while bands played and the crowds cheered and clapped. Loud applause and much laughter greeted an orchestra made up of ukuleles and kazoos with log drums as percussion.
Hao and Xiu sat on a blanket a bit apart from their families on the beach, sipping from a pitcher of cold Nootnops Red and occasionally helping themselves from a basket of snacks prepared by the chef at the Great Pagoda. She was having a wonderful time, grateful that the slowly gathering evening hid her blush as Hao translated some of the satirical hulas. She hadn’t been aware that the dances were another language in their own right.
She also noticed something.
She nibbled at her lower lip as she looked at him.
Hao saw her looking at him and noted her pensive expression. He smiled. “Penny for your thoughts.”
“And a dollar to act them out?” she laughed. “I, um, have a question, and I’m trying to think of the right way to say it.”
“So what is it? You’ve been very blunt so far.”
“I guess so. Okay – would you believe me if I said that I thought I was falling in love with you?”
Of all possible reactions, what Hao did surprised her. He got to his feet, eyes wide, and backed away a step before crossing his arms over his chest defensively.
Peng glanced over at her youngest son as he stood. “Hao? What is it?”
He shook his head. “Nothing, Mother.” He leaned close to Xiu and said, “Not here. Care to . . . take a walk with me?”
A few minutes’ walk through the crowds found them in a secluded corner of Luakinikia Park. Motioning her to a bench he said, “I – I’m not sure what to say.”
“Well, something’s bothering you. Come on, tell me.”
There was a pause while he made his mind up. “All right,” he said with a strange catch in his voice. “I had some trouble with the last person who said she loved me – and I made the mistake of loving her.”
He sat down, and they embraced.
And then he told her about Anna.
Including the way he had dealt with her after her betrayal.
When he was finished he was sobbing silently, still in her arms while Xiu digested what she’d been told. She reminded herself that even though he was nineteen, Hao had killed nearly a dozen furs, and had a reputation for being explosively violent despite his outward charm.
His treatment of Anna shocked her, but she understood. Trust was a rare commodity in his line of work, and a betrayal should have naturally carried stern penalties with it.
He’s waiting for you to say something.
She tipped his chin up so that he could see her face. “Hao,” she said quietly as he met her gaze, “I understand. But don’t shut yourself away from love. It’s not right. And I want you to know that I will never knowingly do anything to hurt you.” She smiled at him.
He returned the smile, his paws stroking her headfur gently. He took a breath and sighed as he said, “I – I believe you, Xiu. Thank you, because, well, because I like you – you’re definitely nothing like I expected – and I think I’m falling in love with you as well.”
They had opened their hearts up to each other, the night sky was filled with stars, and the humid air was warm and fragrant with the smell of tropical flowers.
There seemed to be nothing else to do.
A glow illuminated them as they kissed, and they looked up to see fireworks going off.
That made both of them start laughing.
“So, we’re falling in love with each other.”
“Looks that way, yeah.”
“And we’re getting married.”
“A sure bet. Now?”
She thought a moment, then shook her head. “No, not right away. We’re both pretty young, still, so I think we should wait a while.”
“Okay. You reach nineteen in November?”
“Can we wait until then?”
“Don’t see why we can’t.”
“So how about a wedding for a birthday present?”
She grinned, and the two fell into each others’ arms.
It was after midnight when he walked with her to her door and as she opened it said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sure. I wouldn’t miss the races for anything.”
“Great. See you then.” They kissed and parted company.
For quite a few furs gathered on the main grandstand this day was the culmination of years of patient effort and millions of dollars. The ten contestants were now lined up in the lagoon, ready to fly and awaiting the starter’s signal.
The usual entrants were there, their planes painted in familiar colors. In addition to the German and British entries, the red Italian, orange Dutch, and light blue French stood out as splotches of color against the darker blue water. There was a Polish entry this year, in white with black stripes, backed by that nation’s PZL design bureau and easily recognizable by its high gull wing.
In addition there were three private entries. One had been backed by an Indian maharajah and was basically an aftermarket Lavochkin airframe wedded to a massive American engine. Some of the designers shook their heads at this, and small bets were privately laid on when it would crash. It bore a British aircraft roundel and the circular chakra of the Indian Congress Party, something that was sure to provoke comment among the British spectators.
The oddly-named Miss Adventure, black with its left wingtip green and its right wingtip red, was being bankrolled by a ‘private concern,’ and there was a concerted effort in the press to deny that the backer was a certain American millionaire.
A Canadian magnate was backing the third entry, a sleek racer that sported a blue and white roundel with three linked red rings at the center. Some of the nostalgia buffs in the crowd recognized the insignia of the New Haven Flying Corps, and realized that the backer was probably an expatriate from that tiny country.
A cheer arose as the hometown favorite, the KVR Special, was announced. The KV Works’ chief test pilot, a weasel named Running Salmon, waved to the crowd before directing his attention forward.
One of the crash boats moved slowly out to face the ten planes, and heads bowed respectfully as a priestess intoned a blessing and a prayer for protection.
The Schneider Cup entrants were now under starter's orders.
Keith Lawton, the able head of the Spontoon Island Racing Association, had saved the biggest surprise of a week’s worth of surprises for last. It was, after all, one of the Aussie Shepherd's best qualities, always coming up with something new to keep interest in the races at a high pitch.
It had taken some doing, too.
Aboard the five warships moored just outside the harbor, ships' captains kept steady eyes on synchronized watches ready to give the signal to their gunnery officers. Forty eight-inch guns trained out, with their barrels at maximum elevation, and were loaded with double charges of blank powder.
At the appointed time, a radio signal flashed across the water.
Using the warships as a starting gun guaranteed that the sound of the start of the race would be heard easily throughout Spontoon and for miles out at sea. The echoing roar startled many of the spectators.
For the unseen audience, the effect was even more spectacular; the fans following the contest by radio gasped and dropped whatever it was they'd been holding, certain the race had ended in calamity before it had even started.
Which was just how Keith Lawton wanted it. "Lessee yer top that one, Henderson," he growled contentedly to himself, imagining the reaction of his chief rival. The head of America’s racing association would have his work cut out for him.
Coached to listen for the sound, the race pilots started their engines, the snarl of high-performance machinery taking over for the noise of the guns. To an answering roar of cheers from several thousand throats, the planes started to move.
Rain Island’s entry, the KVR Special, cleared the water first, its twelve-cylinder Volstead Victor engine almost yanking the plane up, the rest of the field following close behind. At once, the crowd let out another, even more thunderous cheer.
And yet . . .
And yet, the spectators could not fail to note that just before she cleared water the Special's right float had been all but submerged, held under by that all-encompassing bugaboo of the Schneider-Cup racer – torque effect.
That effect was not going to be helpful in the laps ahead.
The course for the Schneider changed from year to year in an effort to make the event more exciting. This year the course started as a rough four-sided shape, and after the first of twenty laps became triangular.
The planes were expected to climb fast in order to make the first mark, passing north of the peak of Mount Kiribatori on Main Island; the planes then turned to the second mark, the Radio LONO shortwave radio towers on the western end of the island. A fur-raising hairpin turn and the course moved southeast to Mount Tamboabo on South Island, and from there the planes reached the fourth pylon a mile behind the cruiser anchorage.
The object was first to test the strength of the planes by forcing them to climb to altitude swiftly. Then the goal was to make the high-speed and longest leg of the course pass north of Eastern Island and between Meeting and Main Islands. With Meeting, Moon and Casino Islands within the triangle, it was certain to be a crowd pleaser, if all went well.
On the topmost floor of the Great Pagoda several sets of binoculars had followed the racers as they took off and clawed for altitude. When all ten planes cleared the first mark and headed for the LONO towers Xiu turned to Hao and asked, “Have you ever thought of air racing?”
Before he could reply Shin snickered. “Have you seen his two planes?” she asked. “I think one might do three hundred miles an hour – if you tore the wings off it at ten thousand feet.” She winked. “He likes to do it slow.” She turned back to watching the race as Xiu blushed and Hao glared crossly at his sister.
“Never really thought about it,” he told his intended bride. “I think it’s too dangerous.”
“As opposed to what you do now?” she chuckled, and they both laughed.
The maharajah’s entry overshot the tower turn by a mile, while the black ‘private concern’ plane seemed to be wobbling, the red and green patches on its wingtips flashing in the sun. Otherwise, all ten entrants managed to get through the first lap.
It was on the fifth lap that the maharajah’s hybrid plane developed trouble, smoke pouring from under its engine cowling as it rounded Mount Tamboabo.
Then the cowling fell apart, pieces scattering in the plane’s wake like confetti.
The aircraft descended rapidly to the lagoon, landing hard but safely in the water near Eastern Island.
Peng-wum cursed. “There goes my bet.”
“Look on the bright side,” his wife said. “It’s the last thing anyone expected, so a lot of people lost bets.”
“True.” They kissed.
At the tenth lap the radio announced that the ‘private concern’ plane had clipped the east pylon and crashed. Rescue boats were on the way to search for the survivor, or recover his body.
Keith Lawton sighed at the news, grateful that he had arranged with the cruiser captains to have their boats and gigs helping to rescue or recover downed fliers at that end of the course.
Lap Thirteen saw the demise of the Dutch entry, landing in the lagoon off Meeting Island with engine trouble.
Seventeen laps into the race the Rain Island Special, smoke starting to trail from its engine and its pilot obviously having trouble maintaining control of the plane, touched down short of Main Island.
When the radio announced the news, Stavros Kypriakos said nothing but left the grandstand, the goat’s paws jammed into his pockets.
The Canadian plane with the NHFC markings had managed to hold on valiantly against the rest of the field, but finally the strain was too much and it disappointingly dropped out on the nineteenth lap.
Finally the last lap was announced and the cheers grew as the pilots pushed their planes to their limits, going hell-for-leather for the finish mark. A silver streak heralded the German victory, with the British plane a scant tenth of a second behind. The Polish and French planes crossed the mark together, so closely that a photo finish was unable to determine who had beaten the other, and the Italian entry rounded out the field trailing by a second.
The cheering could be heard all the way out past the naval anchorage.
Shin breathed a sigh of relief. She had made some profit on the race. “How’d you do, Fang?”
“Not bad, dear. I bet the British would lose,” and the tiger grinned toothily.
For the victors and the vanquished there were celebrations and toasts, and for the spectators there were parties and fireworks that lasted long into the night.
The cruiser Leipzig reported that the pilot of the black plane had been fished out of the water, alive but badly injured. He would be transported to the hospital on Meeting Island as soon as possible.
And Lawton had already started planning next year’s race.