“Come on, Joey. Hand it over.”
Joseph stared steadily at the speaker. Don’t be afraid of him, he told himself. He’s just a kid like you. Even if he does dress like an organ grinder’s monkey. “I told you before, I don’t have it. And it’s Joseph, not Joey.”
Mickey Cooper cracked a feral grin. “What do you think, lads? Does he look like a Joseph to you?” He stuck his thumbs in the pockets of his worn gold brocade waistcoat. His two companions regarded Joseph with open hostility.
“Nah, he looks like a Joey to me,” said the one on his left, a weasel-faced boy with wisps of fuzz on his upper lip. The corner of his mouth lifted as he spoke. “A little runt.”
Joseph snorted. “I’m a lot taller than you, Ned.”
Ned flushed, his eyes narrowing in anger. “Oh yeah? Well maybe you are. But you ain’t taller than our Tom, now are you?”
Joseph glanced at the hulking presence to Mickey’s right. If Tom was taller, it was only by an inch or so. But he was massive, with a barrel chest and bull neck, whereas Joseph was beanpole-slim. Tom’s dull eyes betrayed little emotion.
“All right, stop rabbiting on, you two! I don’t want to hear no more of your pony.” Mickey’s grin had disappeared, and he stared at Joseph with hard eyes. “I want that guinea, Samson, and I want it now!”
Joseph grinned derisively. “There haven’t been guineas since before the Great War, Mickey. It’s 1948. You should try to stay up to date.”
“Oh I’m up to date all right, mate. But I thought I’d better ask you for something you could understand, what with you being a toff and all.”
“I think I would understand you if you asked me for twenty shillings.”
“It’s twenty-one bob to the guinea. I want twenty-one, you hear?”
“I don’t care if you say it’s twenty-one or a hundred and twenty-one. You’re not getting a penny out of me.”
Mickey gave another of his mocking smiles, holding out his hands. “Look, Samson, I don’t make the rules. Since before my time, the new recruits have been givin’ a little something to the head clerk. Now it’s your turn.”
“Who made you the head clerk then? And since when has a little something been twenty shillings?”
Mickey’s face turned murderous. “You don’t know who you’re messing with, Samson!”
“Actually I do,” said Joseph with a sigh. “You want everyone to think you’re some kind of gangster. But you’re not hard. You’re just a kid like the rest of us.”
As suddenly as it had come, the hard look disappeared, and Mickey was grinning again. “Am I really? I don’t think I’m the same as you. I didn’t go to no Harrow School, f’rinstance.” Ned laughed at this, a jeering laugh, and even Tom cracked a slight smile. Seemingly encouraged by this, Mickey turned to look at the rest of the office boys who were crowded in the post room of the bank. A ripple of nervous laughter started to work its way around the observing circle.
Joseph felt his cheeks starting to burn. “Well, I’m not there now, am I?” He hated the defensive tone in his voice. “Had to leave, when my dad died.” He knew, as the words left his mouth, that he had made a mistake. There had been a slight quaver in his voice as he mentioned his father, and he steeled himself for the response.
It wasn’t long in coming. “Oh dear,” said Mickey, an awful parody of a concerned look on his spotty face. “I think we’ve upset young Joey here, lads.” He looked at his companions. “Really, I’m ashamed of you two. Making fun of a boy who’s lost his father.” He turned his gaze back towards Joseph. “Go on then, Joey. Have a little cry.”
The anger that always seemed to be just below the surface suddenly flared white-hot in Joseph, and he lashed out at Mickey. It wasn't a well-planned strike. Part of him seemed to watch his fist fly out in horror, afraid of the consequences. But another part, the part that had suddenly taken control, let out a roar of pure hatred, and drove his fist out blindly.
Mickey dodged it easily, though his eyes grew wide as his head bobbed back. Joseph's hand fastened itself to Mickey's neck, seemingly of its own volition. Mickey struck out with his fists, aiming to connect with Joseph's ribs, but his arms were too short to reach. Joseph stood there, holding the smaller boy off at arm's length as he flailed away.
This only served to make him more angry. Rage twisted his features as he roared dire threats at Joseph. But he was powerless to carry any of them out. Joseph felt his own anger subsiding, leaving him feeling scared and wondering what to do to get himself out of the situation.
But he was saved from having to decide when something hit him hard on the side of his head. He turned to see Tom’s meaty fist withdrawing as the mailroom spun crazily, and its wooden floor suddenly rose up and hit him in the face.
Joseph was thinking how unfair it was for the floor to do that, as the jeers echoed dimly around him like the caws of crows, when all went suddenly silent. He twisted around to see what was going on, and looked up into the narrow face of Janice Honeywell, the office supervisor. She was regarding him with some concern in her eyes, which peered at him through enormous black spectacles.
"Are you all right, Samson?"
He managed to pull himself into a sitting position. His head hurt badly, and he felt dizzy. "I think so, Miss Honeywell."
She frowned at him. "You don't look all right.” He avoided her gaze, looking around the room. Everyone else seemed to have left. Almost everyone, that is. Ned was lurking behind the pigeon holes, weasel face scowling at him.
"What happened, Samson?" Miss Honeywell was insistent.
Joseph gave himself time to think of an answer by hauling himself laboriously to his feet. He steadied himself with a hand on a shelf. "I tripped, ma'am. Hit my head on the corner of the desk."
Miss Honeywell regarded him skeptically. She lowered her voice slightly. "If there's a problem— if you're being bullied— I can help you, you know. You can tell me the truth."
Joseph looked down at her earnest face. Prim and proper, buttoned up, secure in her authority here in the bank. What did that count for, out on the streets of the City or the East End? Would she follow him home tonight? Stop Mickey and his gang from beating him senseless? He looked away.
"I have told the truth, ma'am." He felt less dizzy. He stood up straighter, releasing his grip on the shelf.
Miss Honeywell stared at Joseph a moment or two longer, frown deepening. Then she sighed.
“Look, Joseph, I know it’s not been easy for you. Things are not turning out the way you expected. But you mustn’t give up hope. The world is changing, and there are new opportunities for young men, even if they haven’t gone to university. You could still make something of your life.”
Joseph nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Can I go now?”
Miss Honeywell rolled her eyes slightly. “Very well.” But she was still watching him as he turned to go, and called out after him. “You’d better clean up that graze.”
Joseph made his way unsteadily to the nearest toilet and washed his face in the basin, then examined his forehead in the mirror, brushing his thick black hair away to do so. The impact with Tom’s huge fist had left an ugly red mark on his left temple, but above his right eyebrow the graze wept droplets of blood. He must have scraped it against a rough floorboard when he fell. Wincing as he dabbed at it with a piece of toilet paper, he stared at himself in the mirror, asking himself the question he had asked a thousand times in the past few months. What am I doing here? He still had no answer. He didn’t belong in this place. The anger and frustration welled up inside him, so that he felt he might explode, or scream, or smash the mirror in front of him. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and the moment passed. Sighing, he threw the toilet paper into the bin, and opened the door. He felt a bit steadier on his feet as he trudged back to the post room.
The rest of the day passed without incident, and when it was time to leave Joseph hurried out of the building and down the street, looking anxiously over his shoulder. But there was no sign of Mickey or his thugs, and he walked on with a growing sense of relief, which lasted almost all the way home. As he turned into the street where he lived, however, the familiar sinking feeling came over him. The sight of the dingy terraced house that was now his home was an unwelcome reminder of how much his life had changed after his father’s death. He still hadn't gotten used to living here. In his mind, home was the pleasant red-brick house in Hampstead, with its green lawns and shady oaks.
He sighed, and walked up the narrow steps from the pavement, letting himself in with his key. To his surprise he heard voices from the parlour. Visitors were a rare thing in this new house. He stuck his head around the door and saw his mother sitting and talking with a strange man.
“Ah, here he is now,” she said, rising and beckoning him into the room. “Joseph, I’d like you to meet Mr Monmouth.”
The stranger stood and held out his hand. “Hello, Joseph,” he said warmly. His grip was firm. “Get into a scrape at work?”
“Oh, you mean the graze? No sir,” said Joseph quickly. He didn’t want to alarm his mother. “Just tripped and fell.”
“Of course you did,” replied Monmouth, but there was a twinkle in his eye. He nodded knowingly as Joseph’s mother fussed over him, peering up at his face.
“You must be more careful, Joseph.” She turned to Monmouth. “I think he’s grown too quickly, he’s not used to his height. It makes him clumsy!”
“How tall are you, Joseph, six foot or so?”
“Yes sir.” Joseph had learned that people automatically assumed that he would want to talk about his remarkable height. None of them ever seemed to realise that he might be tired of having the same conversation over and over again.
“And you’re only sixteen! Still, I expect you hear the same thing from everyone. Must get boring, I suppose.”
“Oh no, sir,” said Joseph, so as not to appear rude, but he had to work hard to suppress a grin. Especially when Monmouth gave another knowing nod.
“Mr Monmouth knew your father,” said his mother brightly, as she resumed her seat on the sofa. Joseph waited for Monmouth to sit down in the shabby armchair before sitting next to his mother.
“Yes, we worked together at the Zeppelin company. We were all very saddened by his death.” Monmouth frowned deeply. “A terrible loss. He was an outstandingly gifted pilot. And a dear friend.”
The silence lengthened uncomfortably, and when his mother sighed deeply, Monmouth seemed to rouse himself from his reverie. “I must apologise, Miriam, I did not mean to upset you.”
His mother forced a smile. “No, Robert, it’s quite all right. Would you like some more tea?”
“No thank you, and indeed I must be on my way.” He stood briskly, picking up a black fedora from the side table. Joseph and his mother followed him to the door, where he paused on the threshold. “Thank you for the tea, Miriam.” He turned to go, placing the fedora on his head, then turned back. “Joseph, would you like to meet me for lunch tomorrow, in the City? I’ve something to discuss with you that you might find very interesting.”
“Well, what was all that about?” said his mother, as she closed the door behind Monmouth.
Joseph was just as puzzled. “I haven’t a clue, Mum.”
“Maybe he’s going to offer you a job. Oh Joseph, promise me you’ll never work for that awful Zeppelin company! I couldn’t bear the worry if you started flying as well. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?”
Joseph stared at his mother’s worry-drawn face. He understood her concerns, but her near-constant fear that he would suddenly decide to become a pilot could be tiresome. He forced a smile. “Of course not, Mum. Don’t you worry, I’ve got a good job at the bank. Anyway, whatever Mr Monmouth wants to talk to me about, I’m sure it’s nothing like that.”
“So you work at the City and Empire Merchant Bank, do you?”
Monmouth sat back in his chair and puffed on his cigar, regarding Joseph through the clouds of smoke. They were in the dining room of his club. Their conversation had been limited to the weather (good) and the food (bad), but now it seemed that Monmouth would finally come to the point of their meeting.
“Yes sir, I work in the post room.” He briefly wondered how Monmouth had known the name of his employer. My mother must have mentioned it.
“Ah.” Monmouth had that slightly annoying half-smile on his face again. “Do you ever see Winston Churchill, I wonder?”
“I do sometimes, when I deliver his post.” Joseph began to feel a bit uncomfortable about the questions, as if Monmouth were prying into something that didn’t strictly speaking concern him. “Do you know Mr Churchill?”
Monmouth nodded. “Yes, I have met him. So you haven’t sat in on any client meetings or anything like that?”
“No.” Joseph now felt defensive, and then annoyed with himself for feeling that way. He was only sixteen, why would he be sitting in on client meetings? “I told you, I’m just a clerk.”
“It’s all right.” Monmouth smiled encouragingly. “You can still help me.”
“Help you with what?”
“Before we get into that, I’d like to talk about your father.”
“My father? What does he have to do with it?”
Monmouth looked pained. He leaned forward, stubbing out his cigar, and glanced around before answering. When he did, he kept his voice low. “Joseph, there’s no easy way to say this, but I believe that your father was murdered, and I need your help to bring his murderer to justice.”
Joseph stared at him, shocked and stunned. “That’s impossible,” he said eventually. “My father was killed when his airship exploded. It was an accident, pure and simple.”
“It was made to seem an accident.” Monmouth shook his head. “But it wasn’t. Ever since the Hindenburg nearly caught fire at Lakehurst, we have been absolutely dedicated to safety at the Zeppelin company. The moment I heard about the explosion, I knew it could not be a fault with the airship.”
“So how was it done? Who do you think did it?”
Monmouth sat back in his chair. “I don’t yet know exactly how it was done. I’ve been following up clues and leads ever since the explosion. It’s taken months and months of very hard work.” He sighed, and rubbed his forehead. “Lots of dead ends, unfortunately. But just recently, I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. I’m certain that Howard Hughes is involved in some way.”
“You mean the Howard Hughes, the one who built Aeropolis? He’s a client of the bank.”
“Yes, I mean him. Hughes has been an enemy of the Zeppelin company for years, but I didn’t think even he would go as far as murder. But now some new evidence has come to light. I need more information to confirm it, and I need you to get it for me.”
Joseph was taken aback. “You need me? Why? What can I do?”
“You can tell me what Hughes gets up to when he comes to the bank tomorrow.”
“How would that help you? Are you with the police?”
Monmouth shook his head. “No, I’m still helping the Zeppelin company. But now I’m with a special department, known as the ZA. We work to keep Zeppelin employees safe, and if needs be, we undertake investigations. I’m the head of investigations at the ZA.”
Joseph grimaced at that. “Investigations, or spying? I’m not prepared to be a spy!”
Monmouth looked at him steadily. “It’s not really spying. You’re just going to tell me who Hughes meets, and so on. Just the sort of thing you might say to your mother, when you tell her about your day at work. Trust me, it will be a big help to me.”
“I don’t know. It still feels wrong, somehow. Like I’m betraying Mr Churchill.”
“So Hughes is meeting with Churchill, is he?” Monmouth grinned. “You’re helping me already!”
“I didn’t say that!” Joseph felt a rush of panic. He hadn’t known about the meeting, but Hughes had met with Churchill on previous visits. Now he had inadvertently given something away.
“It’s all right, Joseph. No-one will ever know. Besides, you know what they say about ends and means, don’t you?”
Joseph frowned. “I do, but I don’t know that I agree with it.”
“Well, agree with it or not, if you don’t help me, you’re effectively helping the man who killed your father to escape justice.”
The words struck Joseph like a knife, cutting him to the quick. He felt a painful lump forming in his throat, and he wanted to cry out that he would never do that, never do such an awful, horrible thing. He felt tears starting in the corners of his eyes and he looked down quickly, swallowing hard, trying to control himself. He took a sip of water, noticing how his hand trembled slightly.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded back at Monmouth, not quite ready to speak again. Monmouth in response gave a concerned smile. “Why don’t you think about it? We’ll meet again in a few days, and if you want to tell me anything then, you’ll do so. If not….” He shrugged.
Joseph had regained his composure, feeling grateful that Monmouth had not put further pressure on him. I’ll just bide my time, and tell him nothing when we meet again. “All right. In a few days then.” But there was a twinge of guilt there, when he thought about his father. Was he betraying him in some way, by not helping Monmouth? It was an awful dilemma, and it stayed with him through the rest of the meal, and on the walk back to the bank.
The familiar dread seemed to settle on his shoulders as he walked through the doors of the bank, and he looked anxiously around him for Mickey. He hurried through the wood-panelled corridors, the sound of his footsteps absorbed by the thick carpet. As he turned a corner he nearly ran into a portly gentleman who was smoking a large cigar.
“Mr Churchill! I’m so sorry!”
“Quite all right, dear boy,” said Churchill, recovering his balance, and peering up at him. “My word, but you are a very tall young man! It’s Joseph, isn’t it? Joseph Samson?”
Joseph nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“I knew your father, you know. Very sad to hear about what happened to him. He was a good man.”
“Thank you, sir.” Joseph stood awkwardly. He really ought to be getting back to the post room, as the meeting with Monmouth had taken him well over the allotted lunch hour. But the Chairman seemed to want to say more.
“Seeing you made me think of something, but now I’ve forgotten what it was.” He frowned, pinching his lower lip. Then he suddenly snapped his fingers. “I’ve just remembered! Come with me to my office, I’ve something you might enjoy reading.”
Joseph opened his mouth to demur, but Churchill had already turned to go back up the corridor. He followed the Chairman’s surprisingly rapid progress, trying to avoid the cigar smoke wafting back. Presently they reached a pair of oak doors. Churchill flung them open and strode into his office, as his secretary jumped up from behind his desk in surprise and agitation.
“Mr Churchill, sir—“
“Not now, Pertwee,” said Churchill, as he proceeded across the Persian carpet to his own enormous oak desk. He rifled through the papers and envelopes strewn across the green leather blotter. “Ah, here we are!” He picked something up and turned to Joseph with a flourish.
It was a copy of Life magazine. On the cover was a photograph of the city of New York, showing the Hudson River and lower Manhattan. Floating above the Statue of Liberty was an enormous airship, shaped like a silver doughnut. A forest of steel and glass towers rose up from the centre of a wide deck which covered the top of the doughnut.
“Is that… Aeropolis?” said Joseph.
"It most certainly is," said Churchill, smiling indulgently. "Would you like to borrow that, Joseph? I shan't have time to read it just yet. If you could let me have it back in a few days."
Joseph stared at the photograph, a mixture of emotions running through him. Airships and flying machines were anathema to his mother, being held responsible for his father’s death, and he felt that he ought to hate them as well. But the shining aerial city in the image was so beautiful, it touched something deep inside him.
Churchill continued. “Well, I just thought… what with your father being a pilot and everything… that you would find it interesting.”
“Thank you sir,” said Joseph, shaking off his reverie, and stepping forward to accept the magazine. “It’s very kind of you. I shall read it avidly.” He nodded. “Please excuse me, sir, I must get back to work.”
As he headed down the corridor towards the post room, his eyes were drawn to the cover again. The image of Aeropolis was hypnotic, calling up a nameless longing, a promise of escape into a wide blue world of adventure.
He shook his head. No, it’s not for me. My mother wouldn’t hear of it. In any event, if what Monmouth had told him was true, then Howard Hughes, the creator of Aeropolis, was responsible for his father’s death. He grimaced, rolling the magazine up in his hands. He certainly wouldn’t be able to take it home with him, in any event. As he entered the post room, he tossed it into his pigeon hole, and turned to the pile of post from the afternoon delivery. He sorted through it quickly, and had just placed the last letter on its pile when he heard a familiar voice. His heart sank, but he forced himself to carry on and not respond as Mickey and his two sidekicks swaggered into the post room.
As Joseph picked up his sorted pile and turned to begin his rounds, he found his way blocked by the bulk of Tom, who stood staring at him impassively, arms folded across his barrel chest.
Joseph moved to walk around him, but the other boy sidestepped smoothly to prevent this. Joseph sighed.
“Mickey, could you get this great lump out of my way, please? I need to get these letters delivered.”
“Oh, I don’t think ole Tom’s going to let you go anywhere until we sort out that guinea.” Mickey’s ridiculous waistcoat was today set off by a crimson silk cravat, and his face had a gloating expression on it. It made Joseph furious. He flung the pile of post back onto the table and rounded on his tormentor.
“When are you going to get it through your thick skull that I am NOT going to give you any MONEY!” he yelled. But Mickey just laughed.
“Temper temper, Samson.” He stepped forward, lip curling in a sneer. “You want to keep on my good side, you do. I’m quite an important bloke around here. I could make things very uncomfortable for you.” He leaned in until his face was inches from Joseph’s. “I could even get you fired.” His voice was virtually a whisper.
Joseph’s stomach lurched. As much as he disliked his job, the thought of losing his meagre wage didn’t bear thinking about. “You couldn’t.” He tried to say it with conviction, but his voice betrayed him. Mickey smiled thinly.
“Oh, I could. Suppose I told that stupid cow Honeywell to ‘ave a butcher’s at your pigeon hole, and she found a stolen banker’s draft in there? She wouldn’t take too kindly to that sort of behaviour, now would she?”
Joseph couldn’t imagine that she would. Banker’s drafts were similar to cheques, except that they were drawn on the bank itself. You could take a banker’s draft into any other bank and it would be honoured, no questions asked. Stealing a banker’s draft was essentially the same as stealing a large amount of money from the bank. Losing his job would be the least of his worries. He would in all likelihood go to prison if he were found in possession of a stolen draft.
Fear made a sick hollow feeling in his belly. He thought desperately, trying to find holes in Mickey’s plan. “How would you get your hands on a draft? They’re all locked away in Mr Pinborough’s desk drawer.” Joseph tried to speak with more confidence than he felt.
But Mickey just laughed. “Mostly they are. But ole Pinborough ain’t the most careful geezer, in my experience. Might be he’s careless with the key, one day.” The evil grin returned. “Might be he has been already.”
Mickey straightened up, pulling on his jacket lapels to straighten them. “So you’d best think about whether you want to show your respect for me, Samson. Best think really hard.”
He jerked his head at Tom and Ned, and then strode out of the mailroom. They followed, leaving Joseph shaken and worried.
Joseph was standing on a rooftop landing pad, somewhere in London. It was night, and a cold wind was blowing. An airship's dark bulk loomed above him. Gusts of wind struck its silver flank, making the fabric ripple slightly in the gleam of the moonlight.
Then from out of the shadows on the other side of the pad, a tall figure emerged. He was wearing a long leather flying coat, and he strode purposefully towards the entrance hatch of the gondola that was suspended beneath the airship’s great envelope.
“Dad!” shouted Joseph. He started to run across the landing pad towards his father. “Dad! Wait for me!”
Morgan Samson stopped, and turned to look back at his son. He smiled, a soft, sad smile, and shook his head slowly.
“Wait for me, Dad! Please! Please wait!” Joseph was running as fast as he could, running with all of his might. But something was wrong. He wasn’t getting any closer. He watched helplessly as his father turned and entered the gondola’s hatch.
“Dad! Don’t go! Wait for me!” Hot tears were rolling down Joseph’s face now, as the airship dwindled in his vision, falling away from him, becoming smaller, until he couldn’t make it out anymore.
He became conscious that he was lying in his bed, his pillow soaked with his tears, and knew the nightmare had returned. He lay there, the silence of the night all around him, and a familiar despair washed over him.
The unwelcome dream had been his nightly companion since the morning his mother, haggard and tear-stained, had awakened him with the news that his father had been killed in an airship explosion. For months it had tormented him, robbing him of sleep. The past few weeks had seen a slight respite, often with two or three peaceful nights in a row before the nightmare returned. But every time it did, he became afraid that it would get worse again.
Joseph rubbed his eyes and sat up, turning on his bedside light. He stared bleakly at the framed photograph on his nightstand. It showed a tall man in a leather flying coat, smiling at the camera. Why did you leave us? I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I needed you. I still do. Tears filled his eyes again as he felt the familiar, awful hollow pain in his chest.
He rolled away to face the wall, resigned to waiting until it was time to get up. He closed his eyes, even though he knew it would do no good, he wouldn’t sleep again. He didn’t want to anyway. The nightmare never returned a second time in the same night, but he was still afraid that it could…
“Joseph! It’s eight o’clock! You’d better get up!”
His mother’s voice awoke Joseph with a start. He sat up, confused, his heart pounding.
“Joseph! Get up now! You’ll be late for work again!”
“All right, Mum!” Joseph yelled irritably. He felt tired. The memory of the nightmare came to him in a rush, followed by the recollection of Mickey’s blackmail threat. And then he remembered the meeting with Monmouth, and the possibility that his father had in fact been murdered. He shook his head wearily. I wake up from a nightmare into more nightmares.
He hauled himself out of bed with a sigh, washed and dressed, and plodded listlessly down the stairs and into the kitchen.
His mother turned to him as he entered. “Joseph Samson, you are sixteen years old! Your school days are behind you. Why do you make me run after you as if you were a baby? When are you going to take some responsibility?”
The unfairness of the accusation took Joseph’s breath away. He had so much on his shoulders that he didn’t know what to do about it. A quiet voice in his mind urged him to share his problems with his mother. But he knew he couldn’t, he didn’t want to worry her about his work, and as for Monmouth’s accusations against Hughes, well, what was his mother supposed to make of that? He shook his head. He would have to deal with it all himself.
His mother was still looking at him expectantly. “Am I going to get an answer then?”
“Sorry, Mum. I didn’t sleep very well.”
Her expression softened. “The nightmare again? Poor Joseph.” She reached up and ruffled his hair. “Well, sit down. I’ll get your breakfast.”
He sat down at the table. His mother scraped bacon and eggs out of the big cast iron frying pan and deposited them onto a plate. Glancing at the morning’s copy of the Times, he took a sip of tea. The front page story was about Aeropolis. There was a large picture of the flying city, its elegant silver curves floating high above Big Ben, and the headline excitedly informed the world that “AEROPOLIS HAS ARRIVED IN LONDON”.
He frowned, picking up the newspaper, and held it so that his mother couldn’t see the front page. First the magazine that Churchill had given him, and now this. It was almost as if someone was deliberately trying to make his life more difficult. He read on, stealthily, about how Aeropolis had arrived in London only that morning, after a long transatlantic transition, and speculation as to the reasons for this were running high. Some senior City figures were quoted as saying…
The newspaper was snatched from his hands, and he looked up into the worried face of his mother.
“Oh, Joseph, you’re not reading about that horrible Aeropolis, are you? I just can’t bear the thought of it, I’m so afraid you’ll turn out just like him, obsessed with flying and airships—”
Joseph looked at the newspaper in her hand. “Oh Mum, I wasn’t reading about— that. I was reading about… something else.”
But it was too late, his mother was off on one of her extended recitations of all the things she was worried about, chief amongst them being that Joseph would take after his father, and be lost to her as well.
Usually he could let it wash over him, but today it just seemed too much to bear on top of all of his other worries. He suddenly decided he couldn't take it for another instant. Jumping up and running to the hall, he grabbed his coat and cap, and ran out of the front door.
It was a beautiful spring day, but Joseph saw none of it as he mooched along, head down, sad and worried. His route as always took him down from Newgate and past St Paul’s. But as he turned into Cannon Street he noticed a flash of silver, seemingly just above Mansion House. An airship? He started to turn back to get a better look, then caught himself guiltily. Maybe his mother was right, he should just forget about airships.
But something about what he had seen nagged at him. Something unusual in the glimpse. His curiosity got the better of him, and he turned towards the Monument, and then walked down to and out onto London Bridge. He stopped suddenly, gripping the stone parapet, and stared downriver. The soft early morning light made the river golden, and Tower Bridge was just a silhouette. But above, and to the right, hanging motionless over the Isle of Dogs, was Aeropolis.
The floating city was a silver shimmer, catching a stronger light from the sun at its altitude. It seemed huge, much larger than Tower Bridge, and yet delicate and light, a fantasy of curved aluminium and silver-painted canvas. The haze of distance made its features slightly indistinct.
Despite his guilty misgivings Joseph had to admit it was an impressive sight. There was something otherworldly about it, floating above the workaday reality, and he could almost believe that the people who lived up there had escaped the mundane world that he inhabited, leaving behind all of its trouble and woe as they floated on high. He wondered what it would be like, to live like that.
As Joseph watched, a tiny silver speck of an airship rose from some hidden launchpad and made its way north, towards the City, gradually descending as it did so. The sight of it brought his dream to mind, and he saw again his father board just such an airship. He turned his back on it and strode doggedly off to work, head down.
Turning at the top of London Bridge Approach, he glanced backwards, and noticed that the ship seemed to be following him. Of course it wasn't really, but it did grow steadily larger, glinting in the sunlight, a hint of engine noise borne on the morning breeze. He turned into King William, and redoubled his pace, almost running towards the Bank of England. The ship moved smoothly overhead, its engines growing louder as it continued to descend. It appeared to be making for the landing pad on top of the Royal Exchange. There were markings on its tail fins, H-1 in large lettering.
As the ship moved out of sight above the buildings, Joseph slowed to a walk and turned up an alleyway. Emerging into Lombard Street, he turned left and made for the entrance of the City & Empire Merchant Bank. He paused on its marble steps, wondering if it had in fact landed close by.
"Joey!" bawled a voice at his ear. He jumped and nearly fell into the street.
"Off in our dreamworld again, are we?" Mickey seemed to be able to make every syllable that he uttered to sound like a sneer. Joseph rolled his eyes and pushed past the older boy, footsteps echoing in the marbled entrance hall.
Mickey’s voice continued regardless. "You'd better get up to the Chairman right quick, and no mistake! Been waitin' for you, 'ain't he?"
Joseph was confused. He wasn't late; in fact, having skipped breakfast, he was earlier than usual. The bank didn't open for business for an hour at least; as a messenger, and general office-boy, his first job was to see if there were any documents waiting to go out, but he knew there were no deals being closed at the moment, and hence no late-night drafting sessions: he didn't expect to find anything in his in tray. But maybe something had come up overnight. Joseph turned and ran up the marble staircase to Churchill’s office, his heart thudding in his chest.
The door was open, and Churchill was standing next to his great mahogany desk, cigar in hand, as he looked out of the high window overlooking the Royal Exchange. Joseph crossed the Persian carpet again.
"Excuse me, sir?”
Churchill turned, and looked at Joseph. "Good morning, young man!" he boomed, smiling broadly. "What can I do for you?"
Joseph felt confused again. "Well, sir, Mickey said that you needed me, sir, and, well, I'm sorry I'm late..." he tailed off, not sure how to continue.
Churchill shook his great head. "You’re not late, Joseph. I simply asked Cooper if he could have a messenger standing by, that's all." He moved to his upholstered leather chair, and sat down heavily. "I have an unscheduled meeting with an important client, and we may need to move quickly." He turned to his credenza, and lifted a crystal tumbler to his eye, as if contemplating the amber liquid it contained. "Yes, quickly indeed, is how Mr Howard Hughes likes to move..." he said, half to himself. But Joseph heard.
There was a knock on the door. Joseph turned to see a slim man with slicked-back black hair and a neat moustache enter the room. He strode rapidly across the floor, radiating energy, and extended a hand.
“Mr Churchill. How are you doing?” He spoke with a strong American twang, his voice somewhat nasal. Churchill smiled broadly as his hand was seized and vigorously shaken.
“My dear Mr Hughes! How lovely to see you again.”
Hughes paced around the room, glancing back at his entourage, who were only then catching up with him. He strode rapidly to the window, looked out at the view, and then turned back to face the room. “So are we meeting the investors here?”
Churchill looked taken aback. “Why, no! I had thought it best if we spoke a little about why you need funding first. I need to have an idea of the nature of the offering, so that I can choose the best investors to make my presentation to—“
“Ah, hell, Winston! That’s gonna take ages!” Hughes grimaced impatiently. “Look, it’s quite simple.” He strode forward, his hands cutting through the air in decisive gestures. “The gusher of money I get from Tool Co is running dry. Aeropolis is costing me an arm and a leg. The helium alone…” He shook his head. “I need money in Hughes Aircraft for a new project. A lot of money. And I’m prepared to sell shares in Aeropolis Holdings to get it.”
Churchill nodded. “How many shares?”
“Not more than 20%. For 15 million.”
Churchill nodded. “US dollars?”
Hughes looked at him scornfully. “Of course US dollars!” He suddenly stared directly at Joseph. “You boy!”
Joseph stiffened, feeling his cheeks redden. “Me, sir?”
“Yes you! Your collar is all skewiff. Straighten it please!” He continued to stare at Joseph, who felt his collar with nervous fingers, conscious that everyone in the room had their eyes on him. He straightened it as best he could, feeling embarrassed and angry.
“Much better.” Hughes turned his attention back to Churchill. “So that’s it. You better get on the horn to your investors.”
Churchill blinked. “Well, I do need to know a bit more about the investment…”
Hughes sighed in a frustrated fashion. “It’s Aeropolis, Winston! Everyone knows about her. We can go outside and look at her right now. But you’ve been on her before, right?”
Churchill shook his head. “No, I’m afraid I’ve not had the pleasure.”
“What?” Hughes looked aghast. “Really? Well, let’s go there now! I’ll take you in my airship.”
Churchill looked completely non-plussed. But Hughes was already heading for the door, herding his people out ahead of him. The Chairman made as if to follow, then turned to Joseph.
"Would you be so good as to find my briefcase and overcoat, and bring them down to the lobby for me?" And with that he was off after the departing Hughes.
Joseph grabbed the briefcase and coat, and made his way down the marble staircase. So that was the great Howard Hughes? What an unpleasant man. I’m glad he’s leaving so soon.
He met the party in the lobby, putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. As he made to hand the briefcase to Churchill, the Chairman turned to him, and smiled gently.
"Why don't you carry that for me, Joseph? And get your coat."
Joseph was taken aback. His first thought was that his mother would go ballistic if she knew he had travelled to Aeropolis. He opened his mouth to protest, but Churchill had already turned back to face Hughes. Joseph stood still for a moment, willing himself to tap Churchill on the shoulder and refuse the assignment. But something held him back. He was thinking about his conversation with Monmouth. If I go along, maybe I can find out more about Hughes, satisfy myself as to whether there is anything to it. And if I do find anything suspicious, I can go straight to Monmouth. He ran to find his coat, trying not to think about his mother. He buried the nagging feeling of guilt under a growing sense of excitement. I’m going to Aeropolis!
And so it was that Joseph found himself aboard Hughes's famous airship H-1. Feeling swept up by events, he had followed the group across to the Royal Exchange, into the large elevator, and up to the rooftop landing pad. The majestic airship sat in the centre, dominating the view. When Joseph had watched it flying in earlier, it had seemed small and sleek, but up close, it was imposingly large, the curve of the gas envelope looming out overhead, and blocking the early morning sun. The elegant gondola sat neatly under this bulk, like a bus under a whale. Once again, Joseph found himself guiltily admiring what he saw. He followed the others across the landing pad to the entry hatch. Pausing to run a hand in wonder over the lustrously shined wood of the doorframe, he caught himself irritatedly and hurried aboard.
Inside were dark wood panels, polished brass fittings and instruments, and soft burgundy leather seats. A pretty blonde stewardess welcomed him aboard, and directed him to his seat. As he sat down he noticed that Hughes had taken the right-hand command seat at the front of the cabin, where he was going through the pre-flight checklist with the co-pilot. So Hughes flies his own airship, does he? Joseph felt simultaneously impressed and annoyed by this.
After closing the door, the stewardess turned and took the seat next to him, buckling herself in with quick, efficient movements. Joseph immediately felt awkward as he fumbled with his own seatbelt. I'm going to do something stupid, I just know I am. The stewardess turned to help him, and he mumbled his thanks, feeling his cheeks burn.
"I'm Betty, by the way," said the stewardess in a soft American accent, turning on a dazzling smile. "I'm the stewardess on H-1."
Joseph's mouth went dry. Why am I getting so nervous? His brain seemed to be stuck as he looked down and away from her bright blue eyes. He forced himself to return her gaze. "I am Joseph Samson, and I work for Mr Churchill. At the bank. Do you live on Aeropolis? Well you must do, silly question really, how else could you always be available to work on H-1?" He became aware that he was speaking too quickly, and he stopped himself, blushing and dropping his gaze again.
When he looked back up again, Betty was smiling gently. "Well, you're right, I do live on Aeropolis. Will this be your first visit?"
Joseph smiled and nodded as she launched into a spirited description of what Aeropolis was like, but inwardly he was seized with the sudden fancy that she knew what Monmouth had asked him to do. It was a ridiculous thought, but he couldn't quite shake it. It must be because he felt guilty about his decision to spy on Hughes. How do real spies stand it, pretending to be something they're not?
The whine of starter motors drew Joseph's attention to the engine pod visible just forward of his porthole window, and he was hit with a sudden strong smell of aviation fuel as the engine roared into life, then throttled back to a rough idle. Joseph hadn't flown for more than a year, but the old familiar excitement came fluttering up inside him as Hughes motioned for the mooring lines to be released, and then swivelled the engine pods upwards with a practiced twist on the brass control levers. The agile ship fairly sprang off the deck, the roar of aero engines rising to a crescendo. As soon as they had cleared the roof structures, Hughes rotated the great engines forwards, and the ship accelerated into a sweeping, climbing turn that brought them up over the City and pointed towards Aeropolis.
Joseph's seat had an excellent view out of the forward-most port window. He didn't know what to look at first. From this new perspective on the City, the old stone seemed to glow in the soft golden light, the sky pale blue fading to peach. The imposing bulk of the Bank of England dwindled rapidly, and then the Monument came into view, the gilded flames on its top already below them. They slipped smoothly across the north bank of the Thames and over the great river itself. Joseph imagined that the ship must look like a silver rugby ball flying towards Tower Bridge, as if it were an immense set of goalposts. They cleared the crossbar easily.
Turning to look out of the front windscreen, his eye was caught by Aeropolis, gleaming silver in the clear morning light. He watched it grow rapidly larger as H-1's powerful engines closed the gap.
From below the main visible features were the two torus-shaped gas envelopes, one inside the other, that kept the vast city aloft. Betty pointed at them.
"Do you see those huge doughnut-shaped rings? Beneath the silver-painted fabric, there are great hoop-like girders of aluminium, holding immense gas cells. They contain more helium than exists in any other single structure anywhere on Earth."
Joseph turned to look at her in surprise. But Betty was oblivious, staring at the enormous structure with rapt fascination.
"Those giant buttresses, now. The huge holes in them save weight, you know." Joseph glanced at them, curving out from the girders. "But they're still strong enough to support the deck." Joseph supposed she meant the flat circular bit that sat on top of the toruses like a beer mat on a doughnut. He sighed and shook his head ruefully. As much as he tried not to be, he was fascinated and excited by what he was seeing.
"Do you get paid to talk about Aeropolis, like a tour guide?" he said, and then immediately felt bad. But Betty just smiled good-naturedly.
"I'm sorry if I seem a bit obsessed with Aeropolis. I guess I just love her so much!" She looked back at the object of her affection. Joseph felt slightly bemused by her attitude. And a tiny bit jealous, as well.
As H-1 gained altitude, more and more of the superstructure of the air city became visible above the great curved edge of the deck. First the central spike atop the control tower; and then the control tower itself, its panoramic windows facing out in all directions. Below the tower, the central structure of Aeropolis thickened and broadened, until at its base it took up about a third of the area of the main deck. As Betty continued her narration, he learned that it was composed of offices, private dwelling units, dormitories, barracks, bars, and restaurants. He could also see gun emplacements, communications arrays, balconies, promenades, viewing decks, and other structures whose purpose Joseph couldn't even begin to guess at.
At last H-1 rose above the level of the deck, bringing into view the landing pads, flight offices, and refuelling stations that occupied the rest of the main deck space. The circumference of the deck was punctuated with gun emplacements and rocket launchers. As they drew nearer, Joseph realised, with a thrill of fear, that some of the guns were tracking them. Hughes reached up for the microphone, contacting the tower for permission to approach and land. After a brief pause, permission and approach instructions were given, and the guns swivelled away.
But not aimlessly. By watching where they aimed, Joseph could see that they were tracking about a dozen other airships and aircraft converging on Aeropolis. There were ponderous freighters, zippy pleasure cruisers, and enormous passenger liners. All were moving purposefully towards one or another of the many landing pads.
Joseph's eye was suddenly caught by a small airship that was not following the pattern. As he stared out of his window, he could see that the craft was not moving towards Aeropolis at all, but was instead heading directly towards H-1, and at high speed!
He tore his gaze away from the approaching airship, and touched Betty's arm. "What is that airship doing?"
She looked at Joseph slightly blankly, but when her gaze followed where Joseph's shaking hand was pointing, her demeanour changed instantly. "Mr Hughes, sir!" she shouted. "Incoming at nine o'clock!"
Hughes glanced to his left, and instantly put the airship into a steep dive. Joseph gasped as his stomach seemed to float up inside him, and he heard cries of alarm from Churchill and the others in Hughes's entourage. He turned to look out the window again: they had now descended below the level of the other airship, but it was still alarmingly close to them, and getting closer.
Joseph watched its nose, craning his head up as far as he could to follow it, until it moved beyond his field of view. He held his breath. Just as he started to think that the other airship had missed them, there was an impact which shook the entire airframe, followed by horrendous grinding and tearing noises -- and then a high-pitched hissing sound, accompanied by periodic rapid flapping noises. "We're losing lift gas!" someone shouted, panic in his voice.
The nose of H-1 pitched forward in a steep dive, and Joseph had to grab on to his seat arms to stay upright as his stomach seemed to do a somersault from the sudden drop. Ahead he saw, through the windshield, the green hills of south London, growing larger at horrifying speed. H-1 was heading straight for the ground, and a certain crash!