Joe canted his head. “Could leave a lot of weight behind, you know, if we’re racing.”
“How much?” Cannon said.
Iseabail ticked off items on her fingers. “Guns an’ ammunition. Nae fightin’ allowed in the rules. Rocket rails. Yon radios, extra fuel tanks, plumbin’ for the wee wing tanks, half th’ cockpit instruments. It’s a low-level race, aye? Ye dinna need tae know how high you are, or how fast you’re going. Bulletproof glass, cockpit armor, an’—why even keep yon canopy? The windscreen’s aye plenty. A ton, maybe? Nae much more, at any rate.”
Cannon tapped his chin. “That’s something. Can we do anything about the power?”
“Wi’ a better tune, we can add twa hundred, maybe,” Iseabail suggested.
“We have that old Napier in the hold,” Joe put in. “Got a turbosupercharger on it.”
“It’ll ne’er work,” Iseabail said. “We already run the Bentleys verra near tae knockin’. More compression’ll tear them ta bits. An’ we only hae the one supercharger.”
“Put the supercharger on a common intake,” Joe said. Iseabail looked aghast.
“Could we do water injection, too?” Cannon wondered.
Joe nodded thoughtfully, while Iseabail’s expression turned from aghast to horrified.
“What?” Cannon said. “I read.”
“We could,” Iseabail said, her tone endeavoring to make her thoughts on the idea very clear. “It’ll nae be good for the engines.”
Cannon dismissed that concern with a wave of his hand. “They don’t have to run for long. Get on it.”
Joe wiped the sweat from his brow, tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket, and flipped his welding mask down. A framework of steel tubing grew in front of him, mated at its top to a bracket. The bracket came from a set of removable landing gear belonging to one of the Kestrels. Now, it would serve to connect their takeoff floats to the fuselage.
That was their ace in the hole: most Schneider Trophy planes carried their floats with them. Iseabail had hit on the idea of leaving them behind at the start. All they had to do was float the Kestrel for six hours before the race, and survive through the takeoff run. At the end of the race, they’d land on hydrofoils—Joe’s next task.
Behind him, the Kestrel hung from its skyhook in one of the maintenance bays. Iseabail’s legs sprouted from the engine access panels behind the cockpit. A steady stream of socket wrenches and parts flowed in from her assistants, and a steady stream of Scots invective flowed out in reply. Other mechanics worked at the canards and the wings, and in the cockpit. A distressingly large pile of equipment sat off to one side, swelling as the mechanics worked to pull out all the bits and pieces they’d deemed unnecessary for the race.
Further forward in the hangar, engines roared as another Kestrel fired up its Bentley radials. The sound died quickly as it dropped from Inconstant‘s hook and out the bottom of the zep. Reflexively, Joe looked forward, watching for the hook operator to give the thumbs-up. He saw Cannon walking up instead.
“How’s it coming?” the captain asked.
“It’s coming, boss.”
Cannon pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “That’s Lecocq, heading out again. Isea says a Kestrel loaded light is close enough for practice.”
Somehow, Iseabail heard them over the noise of the hangar. She extracted herself from the engine compartment and called over, “That’s nae wha’ I said!”
Cannon held up a placating hand. “Fine. She said it won’t be completely useless for Lecocq to practice.”
“That’s nae wha’ I said!” Iseabail protested. “I said, ‘It willna be completely useless for Lecocq tae practice.'”
“Close enough,” Cannon said. “Any snags?”
“No new ones,” Joe replied. “Have to build a new intake, though.”
Cannon raised an eyebrow.
Iseabail slid down the side of the Kestrel, landing lightly on her feet. “We dinnae have twa turbosuperchargers, an’ yon existin’ intakes are nae big enough ta tie together.”
“What sort of power will we have to work with?”
Iseabail scratched her cheek. “Nae more than nineteen hundred sustained, but aye up tae twenty-two hundred while the water lasts.”
“It’ll have to do,” Cannon said. “All right, back to work. We have to be ready to fly in less than three days, if we’re going to make the entry deadline. Good work so far. Let’s see it through to the end.”
Mercifully, tests both static and flying turned up no problems they hadn’t foreseen. The day of the race came quickly. Cannon, Emma, and a few other pirates took an Albatross into Southampton and hired a few cars to take them down to Calshot. Marcel Lecocq, who would fly the race, Iseabail, and Joe had arrived the day before. As Cannon and his team left the city, they caught a glimpse of the contestants, a dozen or so sleek floatplanes bobbing alongside a pier in the docks. The Kestrel was among them, to Cannon’s relief. Looking beyond that, the Southampton Water, an inlet form the Channel that split into the River Test and the River Itchen at Southampton.
The cars took them inland until they came to a bridge across the River Test, then turned down toward the coast again. They passed through rugged heaths interrupted by the occasional patch of woodland. It was a cloudy day. The yellowish green of the heaths gave way to the deep emerald of the forests, then yielded to the meadows again. They passed through a few small towns, though today, they were jammed with spectators. Then, the sea was right in front of them. Today, it had a chalky color to it, and a stiff breeze whipped spray from whitecaps between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. Tens of thousands of people crowded the beaches. Hundreds of thousands more would be watching from the Isle of Wight and the other bank.
The cars left them a few hundred yards from the end of the Calshot Spit, a little sand and shingle bank sticking out into the Southampton Water at the very edge of the mainland. The Royal Navy had built a seaplane base at the end of it; today, it was the finish line. Cannon and his team had come into some tickets, thanks to the generosity of some of England’s wealthiest. The pirates had dressed up: Cannon had traded his usual khaki for a dark gray three-piece suit and bowler, and more surprisingly, Emma wore a dress. They showed the gatekeeper their tickets, and he waved them along.
They came to the end of the spit. An old circular castle, surrounded by a circular moat, stood proudly at its tip. Grandstands faced all directions from the end of the spit, and a dais surrounded with cheerful bunting put a splash of color into the otherwise dismal day. An usher showed them to their seats. Overhead, their Albatross climbed away. It would linger nearby, waiting for the second half of the plan. Cannon folded his newspaper under his arm. Its listing of the entrants had been illuminating. Lecocq’s nom de guerre had passed muster, and as far as Cannon could tell, nobody suspected the Long Nines’ involvement. Le Vot had somehow found an old Curtiss biplane racer, a relic from the Americans’ heyday five years ago. Time would tell whether it could still compete. He checked his watch. Any minute now.
“I can hardly believe she’s still afloat,” Iseabail said, patting the Kestrel’s jaunty blue and white hull. Lecocq clambered aboard and lowered himself into the cockpit. Reflexively, he reached back to pull the canopy forward. “Ye dinna have one now.”
“I am aware,” Lecocq replied darkly.
“Remember, five minutes on the supercharger, five minutes off. Save it for when you need it.” Joe nodded. “We got a good plane. Bring us the gold.”
“That,” Lecocq said, tugging on his helmet and settling his goggles over his eyes, “is the plan. I would say I will radio if I have problems, but…” He trailed off, and pointed to the hastily-installed covers on the instrument panel where the radios had been.
“Tha’s the price of speed,” Iseabail retorted. “Make us proud, aye?”
Lecocq nodded. Iseabail and Joe untied the Kestrel from the cleats and gave it a push out away from the dock. A moment or two passed, then the engines coughed and came to life. All along the docks, the same scene played out. After a few minutes of maneuvering, a dozen seaplanes lined up side-by-side, paced by a small motorboat. A man in the motorboat stood, waited to be sure he had the pilots’ attention, then waved a green flag. The quiet chatter of idling engines turned to a roar, audible for miles. The planes shot forward.
Lecocq worked the rudder, keeping the Kestrel straight as it skipped across the water. He eyed the supercharger switch. No, best to wait.
The Kestrel took a particularly high skip, touched its floats once more, then clawed into the sky. Lecocq reached to his left, pulled a lever next to the seat, and felt the Kestrel leap ahead as his floats dropped away. He leveled off at three hundred feet—or what he figured to be three hundred feet, at any rate; his altimeter, along with his airspeed indicator and artificial horizon, were back on Inconstant. He checked the engine gauges. The Bentleys purred healthily for now.
He spared a glimpse around. Half a mile to either side, spectators packed the banks of the Southampton Water, an endless sea of them. The Kestrel was out to an early lead, a few hundred yards ahead of the nearest competitor. That wouldn’t last. Carrying so little weight, his plane could out-accelerate the others. Those with more power, the Supermarine and the Gloster, in particular, would likely catch him as they built up a head of steam. Le Vot’s Curtiss, on the other hand, would likely gain on them out of the turns, but unless he had found a miracle engine, he would lose ground on the straights. For now, he was already falling behind.
Cannon pointed, and Emma dutifully turned to follow his arm. The racers screamed down the Water. Less than a minute passed before the racers reached the spit. The Kestrel passed first, the throaty rumble of its engine unsullied by the whistle of the turbosupercharger, followed closely by the Supermarine and the Gloster. Both had a mechanical supercharger’s characteristic whine to them. Le Vot’s Curtiss shot overhead, with a similar engine note. The rest of the pack followed shortly after, already a few seconds back.
As the noise died down, the cheers picked up. Over the din, Cannon turned to Emma and said, “Forty minutes.”
Lecocq might have waggled the wings if he had more of a lead. The captain and his team were down near the castle. In the space of a few moments, they were behind him. Ahead of him was the Southampton light ship, bobbing in the waves. That was the first turn. He lined up on the northeast coast of the Isle of Wight, trimmed the Kestrel to fly level, and settled in. The race was four laps around the Isle of Wight, each lap about fifty-five miles, an elongated diamond pointing east and west. Then it was back up the Southampton Water to Calshot Spit. The first plane across a line forty-five degrees northeast from Calshot Castle won the trophy.
Lecocq glanced to his right. The Gloster drew nearer and nearer. He thought for a moment, then flipped the supercharger switch. The bypass gate closed, and exhaust flooded through the turbine. He felt the power at once, and quickly pushed the prop pitch coarser to hold the engine at the redline. The Gloster slipped further back. Le Vot’s Curtiss somehow hung with him. Perhaps he had better mechanics than they thought.
Ahead, the pylons marking the Bembridge turn drew ever closer. Lecocq turned his supercharger off, rolled into a steep bank, and pulled the Kestrel around, g-forces pushing him deep into the pilot’s seat. Waving crowds flashed by, then the southeast coast of the Isle came into his view. He leveled off, steeling himself for the rest of the race.
Emma chuckled as Cannon checked his watch again. “That won’t make them come by any faster,” she pointed out.
Cannon ignored her, looking back up. The “There they are!”
The racers approached at top speed, nearly four hundred miles per hour. The Supermarine in its browns and greens led the way. Le Vot’s bright blue Curtiss and the Kestrel both trailed by a hundred yards. The Gloster followed a hundred yards behind them. The leaders zoomed by, and only then did the rest of the pack come into sight.
“Can’t believe that biplane’s with the pack.”
Cannon’s brows drew together. “Le Vot must have had something done to it. That old thing wasn’t that fast five years back.”
Lecocq rolled out of the Bembridge turn. Joe and Iseabail had thoughtfully left him a clock. He had another thirty seconds to go before he could run the supercharger again. The Gloster had caught him, and the Supermarine was slowly pulling away. The seconds ticked down. He flipped the switch. Nothing for it. The Kestrel gained ground.
A few hundred yards ahead, the Supermarine bucked. Reflexively, Lecocq’s hand twitched backward with the stick. Suddenly, a cloud of black smoke hid the Supermarine from view. The Kestrel shot over it. Leaning to one side, Lecocq caught a glimpse of the stricken machine, props seized, arcing down toward land, still spewing smoke. One fewer thing to concern himself with, and a good thing, too. He was pretty sure the Supermarine was faster.
The racers whizzed by, finishing their second lap.
“Supermarine’s missing,” Emma said.
Cannon nodded. “The way they push those engines, it’s a miracle we’ve only lost one so far.”
The Curtiss, the Kestrel, and Gloster all rolled into the first turn of the third lap within a few seconds of one another. A puff of dark smoke issued from the Gloster’s exhausts.
“Did you see that?” Cannon said. Emma blinked. Cannon pursed his lips. “I sure hope Marcel did.”
Lecocq had indeed noticed something very interesting about the Gloster. In the straights, it seemed faster than he was. In the turns, especially the sharp turns, it lost ground, and struggled to gain it back until they’d run straight for some time. Could it be that Gloster’s engine had fuel troubles in the corners? That would be worth finding out.
The bulk of the third lap passed before he had the opportunity. They came up on the Needles turn, the westernmost point on the course. The dramatic chalk cliffs which made up the western coast of the Isle of Wight ended in three white pinnacles rising from the waves, a lighthouse clinging to the very end of the formation. The Gloster had found its way up Lecocq’s inside, and was now nearly dead abeam. Lecocq held off on the supercharger switch, waited for the pylon, then turned hard toward the Gloster. The English pilot rolled into the turn harder, moving out of the Kestrel’s way—and, just before Lecocq lost sight of him, the blur of the Gloster’s prop changed, slowed. They rolled out of the turn, Lecocq now a few hundred yards ahead. Worth finding out indeed.
“This is aye the closest I’ve been tae real piracy, the kind wha’ ye do at sea,” Iseabail said, closing the cover on the motorboat’s engine as it came to life. “D’ye need a hand wi’ that?”
Joe fixed a pole into a bracket on the gunwale, across from the other. “Got it,” he said, looking up and admiring his handiwork. “You think this’ll work?”
“The maths say aye,” Iseabail replied doubtfully.
Joe nodded. “Sounds about right. Let’s get going.”
“I dinnae know how tae drive a boat.”
“No wonder you’ve never stolen one.” Joe sat at the wheel pushed the throttle forward.
Lecocq kept an eye on his engine gauges. He doubted he could hold the lead without surpassing the limits Joe and Iseabail had put on their modifications. The Kestrel tore around the Freshwater turn, the Gloster falling behind a few dozen yards. Lecocq could hardly see Le Vot, the Curtiss was so close on his tail. The crowds on the Isle of Wight and the mainland thickened as they neared the Calshot turn. Lecocq looked between his tachometer and the propeller control. Something had to give. He set his engine speed fifty revolutions above the redline, felt the Kestrel pick up a few more miles per hour, and said a little prayer.
The racers passed again, and Cannon leaned forward in his seat.
Emma snorted at him, and he glared. “You know, it’s your payday, too.”
“It isn’t exciting yet.”
The planes receded rapidly. Cannon squinted. “What’s that?”
Lecocq’s heart soared. A fine trail of misty white fluid leaked from the Curtiss’ engine compartment. Glycol, undoubtedly, and as Le Vot ran low on it, he would have to back off or risk blowing his engine. Lecocq could win yet.
As they passed the Bembridge turn, he wondered if he was mistaken. As they passed the Ventnor turn, at the south of the Isle, fluid still spewing from the Curtiss’ cowling, he began to worry. Just before the Needles turn, though, Le Vot throttled back, and Lecocq began to gain. His lead was one hundred yards, now two hundred. Two and a half minutes would bring them to the Southampton light ship and the last turn. Lecocq glanced down at his gauges. Too many of them pointed in the red. He agonized for a moment, then flipped the supercharger switch to off. The Gloster drew closer, and the Curtiss stopped losing ground. Lecocq looked down at the gauges one last time, then pulled his gaze upward. He could do no more. The machine would carry him through, or it wouldn’t.
“Here they come,” Emma said.
Cannon looked up from his watch. “Good of you to let me know.”
“It actually looks like a race now.”
It did. The Kestrel, Gloster, and Curtiss ran in that order, in near-perfect echelon formation, each plane a length behind and a wingspan away from the plane in front of it. Cannon stood and cheered as they went past. After a moment, Emma joined him.
In their motorboat, Joe and Iseabail relaxed. Suddenly, Iseabail leaned forward. “Here they come!”
Heading straight for them, the racers leveled off out of the last turn. Suddenly, flames burst from the Curtiss’ engine, and Le Vot veered away, aiming for the nearest clear patch of river. A cheer went up from the crowds lining the Southampton Water.
It was down to the Gloster and the Kestrel. The Gloster pulled even, then ahead— the Kestrel banked toward the British plane, and the Gloster rolled away. Its engine coughed, and the Kestrel shot ahead, diving toward the finish line. The Gloster’s wings leveled as its pilot followed Lecocq down. They shot past Joe and Iseabail, a hundred yards away, the Kestrel leading by a length, and crossed the line.
The Kestrel climbed immediately, its roar fading as Lecocq eased off its tortured engines. The pilot of the Gloster kept the throttle forward a few moments longer, then followed Lecocq away.
“Did he win?” Iseabail said. “Did we take it?”
“Don’t know,” Joe said, taking the wheel again. “Marcel’s gonna need a ride either way. Let’s go.”
Half an hour later, the motorboat pulled up to the dock extending off the end of Calshot Spit. Lecocq climbed out of the boat, and made his way through the crowd of photographers to the platform. He caught sight of Cannon, Emma, and some others in the crowd, studiously ignoring them. The mayor of Southampton joined him on the stage, resplendent in the traditional ruffled collar and black and red robes. A number of flunkies followed him. One carried a briefcase, and another two carried the trophy between them.
That was the sign. Cannon, Emma, and five other pirates hauled themselves up onto the platform. Cannon drew his trusty Mauser from inside his coat. The others followed suit. Over the gasps from the crowd, Cannon shouted, “What a race! Good flying, mister,” he added, nodding to Lecocq. “Can we interest you in a job? No?” Lecocq looked affronted, and Cannon shrugged. “Oh well. We’ll be taking these.”
The pirates relieved the mayor’s men of the briefcase and the trophy, and retreated down the dock to the motorboat. Cannon waved, and Joe piloted them out to sea. “Looks like the plane held together all right,” Cannon remarked.
“Ye didna think it would? Ach, ne’er mind. Get inta the harness.”
Cannon complied, strapping in. The harness was connected to a heavy rope, which ran up to a line between the poles at the gunwales. The others snugged their straps, spread along the rope. “Tie the trophy in,” he directed.
Bullets snapped past, and Cannon looked back to the rapidly-receding spit. Some enterprising British soldiers had set up a machine gun. Quick work, Cannon thought, but too late. Half a mile away, an Albatross flew low across the bay, right for them. The already-ungainly transport wore some unusual gear, a pair of prongs protruding past its nose in between its double fuselages.
“Get ready,” Iseabail said.
The Albatross rumbled overhead, not more than ten feet over their heads, catching the line between the poles. For a moment, nothing happened as the slack went out of the rope. Then, a spring-loaded clew on the Albatross grabbed it. All nine pirates, plus one trophy, rose twenty feet straight into the air, then accelerated as the rope pulled taut. They left Calshot behind, as the men in the Albatross reeled them in.
Four days later, in the Gulf of Guinea, Inconstant paced an American-flagged freighter, Amelia painted in script on her transom. Inconstant‘s cargo winch hauled the racing Kestrel into her hangar, along with Marcel Lecocq, and deposited Lecocq’s fare in return.
Cannon watched from the radio room at the aft end of Inconstant‘s gondola. “What do you think?” he asked Joe.
Joe stood behind Cannon, reading from a sheet of paper. “‘Dear SPAD: Guillaume Le Vot is a greaseball, and you should work with a better class of pilot. Still, a Frenchman won the trophy, so it belongs to you. We look forward to next year’s race in Marseilles. Yours, Nathaniel Cannon and the Long Nines.'” Joe looked up. “Sounds like you, that’s for sure.”
Cannon smiled. “Mr. Churchill, lay in a course for the Australias. We’ll send it when we’re home.”