It had started a week ago, in Australia, when Pietro di Giacomo, one of his mechanics, had received a telegram.
“From my cousin,” di Giacomo had explained. “He read of your venture in Panama several years ago, and he thinks he has a problem you can solve. He says he can pay, but mio capitano, he is a monk, a man who has taken vows of poverty.”
Cannon had given him the third degree, and decided that most monks weren’t of the type to lie outright. Inconstant was due for a trip to Europe in search of spare parts anyway, so Cannon had rounded up his crew from Darwin’s bars, gambling halls, and houses of ill repute, and set his course for Istanbul by way of Arabia. It had been an uneventful crossing until the Sparrow turned up.
Joe’s fighter dropped back onto Cannon’s wing, and Joe clicked his mic and said, “Looks like you’re leaking fuel from the fuselage, boss.”
Cannon rolled into a tight turn, and saw the telltale trail of white vapor arc out behind his plane. “Looks like I am,” he said. He eased back on his throttle, and the roar of the twin radials grew less oppressive. A thousand feet below, the one British bomber that hadn’t taken fire hastily turned to follow its fellows back toward the Sparrow.
“Got your wing back to the zep,” Joe replied.
Cannon thumbed his microphone switch to click an affirmative, then turned for Inconstant. The zeppelin was much closer to the squall line now, and any minute Cannon expected to hear the signal for all flights to return.
“Good practice, anyway,” Cannon said.
Joe’s voice crackled back, “Expensive.”
Below them, the main dogfight raged on. A British fighter, trailing tongues of fire and a line of smoke, fell out of it and toward the sea. “I wonder if he’s going to call his fighters back,” Cannon mused.
“Have them follow us through?” Joe said. “Risky.”
“British,” Cannon replied. He switched his radio to Inconstant‘s frequency and said, “Bandit One here, coming in with damage and Bandit Two on my wing, over.”
“Roger that,” Inconstant‘s controller replied. “You’re cleared straight in to the number one and number two hooks, over.”
“Bandit One, acknowledged,” Cannon said, then tuned his transmitter back to his and Joe’s private frequency. “I’ll take the forward hook.”
They drew nearer to Inconstant now, the fifteen hundred-foot zeppelin dwarfing their aircraft—six Kestrels could have flown wingtip to wingtip in her shadow. Cannon pushed his fighter’s nose forward and throttled back until he was looking up at the zeppelin’s belly. Panels there had opened, trundling along their rails, and all three skyhooks reached down into the slipstream. Each was all steel, a long, telescoping bar, supported by two stranded hoist cables and terminating in the hook proper, a triangular frame.