Constantinople, July 1881
I swayed in the mouth of a filthy alley not far from the Galata Bridge, staring down at the man who’d served as my surrogate father for as long as I could remember, the toes of my boots nudging the dark puddle spreading around his head. The slit in his throat gaped black in the moonless night, a macabre echo of his slack mouth.
No. I must be mistaken. Captain Rollins had remained at the airfield. This couldn’t be him.
But it was.
“Melly, lass! What’re you looking at? We have to get back to the ship!” Obadiah’s slurred voice barely registered through the pounding echoes in my head. He staggered from the next alley over, where I’d left him pissing against the wall.
“Obadiah,” I said, sounding hollow even to my own ears. “It’s Captain Rollins. I think… I think he’s…”
“What, drunk? Not he, lass. Captain Rollins knows his limits.” Obadiah peered blearily over my shoulder at the captain’s still form.
“Not drunk. Dead.” My head reeled. Too much fermented raki. Too much shock.
Obadiah put a hand on the mud brick alley wall to steady himself and rubbed at his chest, a habit he’d acquired in the last few months. With a name like Obadiah Butterfield, one might expect the old man to be round and jolly, but he carried corded muscle under his baggy uniform trousers and coat, and the only time he could be considered jolly was well after he’d passed three sheets to the wind on his way to unconsciousness.
He’d been nearly in such a state tonight, but now all hint of humor had fled.
Obadiah stared at the body at my feet and cursed, using at least five languages and great creativity. I hardly heard him.
I sank to my knees, feeling the hot blood seeping through the wool of my uniform’s trousers. My hand shook as I reached for the slash on Captain Rollins’ throat. I needed to stop the flow.
But the captain wasn’t bleeding anymore; not really. No more than a sluggish trickle oozed from the gaping wound, soaking into his normally pristine collar. His eyes stared sightlessly up into the clear night, as if, at the last, he longed for one more glimpse of the sky that had been his home for so many years. He was still warm, whether because he hadn’t been dead long or from the stifling, near blood-temperature air, I couldn’t tell.
I looked over my shoulder at the street. Deserted, at this late hour, but for me and Obadiah. If anyone had seen who had done this, they were gone. Impossible to find in Constantinople’s maze of streets.
Obadiah scrubbed a gnarled hand over his age-spotted face. “I always thought I’d go first. That’s how it shoulda been, him being younger than me and all. He was a good man, our captain. Who would have done this?”
“Captain Rollins was as fine a man as any I’ve ever known. I have no notion who could possibly have hated him at all, let alone enough to slash—” My voice gave out, and I shook my head without looking at Obadiah, unwilling to reveal the moisture filling my eyes. Doughty airmen didn’t cry. I hadn’t when I’d left Maman to join the Mercury’s crew at twelve years of age. I wouldn’t now, ten years later.
“Come away, lass. There’s naught we can do now but call the watch.” Obadiah grasped my shoulder, his voice gruff.
I shrugged him off. “You go. I’ll stay with him.”
A small noise rose from the depths of the alley beyond me, as of an empty basket tipping over and rolling. Obadiah froze.
“Who’s there?” I called in Turkish, my voice harsh.
The faint rustling immediately ceased. Too late. I knew someone was hiding in the inky blackness. Captain Rollins’ killer? I eased out the knife I carried in my boot and bared my teeth. If it was the killer, I’d do my best to return the favor.
Obadiah dug a candle stub and a few matches from one of his numerous pockets. He struck the match on the alley wall, lit the stub, and held it up. It revealed only Captain Rollins’ legs, bent in an awkward sprawl.
“That’s not going to help!” I snapped. We needed more light, enough to see through the shadows of the old crates and rubbish that choked the back of the alley.
I didn’t think, or I’d never have done it. Couldn’t think past the raki, past the grief, past the anger.
I reached inside for the part of me I’d worked to smother, the part that needed to stay hidden, the part that let me feel the tiny dancing particles that made up the little candle flame, and I poured all my desperate emotion into them. “Burn,” I whispered.
And they did. Each particle abandoned its graceful, controlled waltz for a frantic tarantella, robbing me of breath and weakening my knees.
The flame shot up, more than a foot high, illuminating the alley walls like flash powder. Obadiah shouted and dropped the candle, nearly on top of the scrawny orange cat that leapt from behind a crate and raced past us into the street.
The candle landed on Captain Rollins’ sleeve. Something glinted in his half-clenched fist.
The intense burst of heat melted the last of the stub into the captain’s sateen uniform, and the flame guttered as my attention wavered.
I snatched the flame up in my bare hand. The little orange tongue licked at my palm like a friendly lapdog. “Don’t you go out,” I hissed at it. I still needed its light, despite the danger my obvious use of pyromancy brought with it.
Raised voices came from the houses bounding the alley. In one, a baby began to cry.
“Melly, put that down!” Obadiah jerked me up by the back of my coat, and I nearly crushed the flame between my fingers.
“He’s got something in his hand, Obadiah! I need to see what it is.” I twisted and pulled, but he had a firm grip on my uniform. The old engineer was strong, despite his advanced years.
A stack of broken baskets sat beside Captain Rollins’ head. I tossed the flame at the bottom of the pile and forced it to grow, not caring what else might catch.
Firelight blazed across Captain Rollins’ bluish features, all the blood gone from his body into the dirt and onto his clothes; red, so red.
“Stop it, Amelia!” Obadiah snapped. “You have to leave, before anyone sees what you’ve gone and done.”
“Just a minute more.” I squirmed out of my coat, leaving it dangling limp in his hands, and dropped beside the captain. I pried open his hand. Not stiff, yet.
A figured brass button lay on his palm. I picked it up, held it to the growing light. It depicted a sailing ship swooping around a sphere. I think it was meant to be a planet, presumably the Earth. A dark substance crusted the back. Old blood, perhaps. Not Captain Rollins’, at least not from tonight. Tonight’s blood had not yet begun to dry.
Surely this was a clue. It looked like a uniform button, but it hadn’t come from any uniform I’d seen before.
I left the button for the Turkish authorities and rifled through Captain Rollins’ pockets, trying not to think how utterly still and…and lifeless he felt. I wasn’t about to put all my trust in the Turkish police to find an Englishman’s murderer. England and Turkey were not allied that closely.
I found the captain’s pocket humidor containing one cigar when I knew it had held three earlier tonight, a handful of Turkish coins, a few English pound notes, the captain’s gold pocket watch, a weather almanac, and a crumpled piece of paper with the words “Russian’s Cap—2300 hrs.” written on it. I could read it easily as the flames beside me climbed well over my head as I bent over the captain.
I’d heard of the Russian’s Cap seyhane, a Turkish public house close to the expensive hotels in the Pera district most English travelers frequented in Constantinople, but I’d never been there. Airmen stayed near the airfield, on the Stamboul side of the harbor. Who had Captain Rollins been meeting at a Turkish tourist establishment?
I stuffed everything back into Captain Rollins’ pockets and touched his cooling hand one last time.
Smoke curled around me, and I coughed. The crates piled next to the baskets had kindled, the flames leaping past the alley’s brick foundations, clawing at the ancient wooden walls of the upper stories.
What had I done?
I’d used pyromancy—phlogistry—that power sent from the devil, which corrupted and twisted all who espoused it. Or so it was said. I didn’t feel corrupted. I did feel tired, and angry, and weighed down with sorrow.
The window above me cracked open, and shouts rang out from all sides.
Obadiah hauled me up once more, forcing me to meet his eyes. “Amelia,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “You are a rogue phlog. You cannot be found here. If they catch you—”
If the authorities caught me, I’d be collared, branded, and sold to the highest bidder, usually the military.
If Constantinople’s citizens caught me, I’d be stoned.
I broke free and flung myself bodily onto the fire, ignoring Obadiah’s growled “Amelia!” I wouldn’t risk starting a blaze that could burn down whole blocks of the old wooden buildings around us.
I beat at the fire with my bare hands. Red, orange, and yellow flames curled around me, warm and silky and much softer than the fuel they fed on. “Go out, go out, go out,” I chanted. Five seconds. That’s all I would spare.
It was enough. The fire died beneath me. I sprang to my feet, grabbed my coat from the ground where Obadiah had dropped it, and ran.
Turbaned men and a few women holding the edges of their head scarves across their faces were pouring out into the narrow street. I knew what I must look like, covered in soot and blood, running from the scene of a trash-fire—and a murder. I pulled on my coat, hoping that and the darkness would hide the worst of the stains.
“You! Boy! Stop right there!” one man called in Turkish.
I ran faster, my booted feet sending up little puffs of dust from the packed earth road with each stride.
“Don’t worry about that one,” Obadiah told the gathering neighbors as I skidded around a corner towards the airfield. “He’s with me. The murdered man is our captain. I sent the lad to secure the ship and notify our second–”
He was protecting me, pretending I was a boy to hide my identity.
His voice faded into the rush of the ocean, the yips of street dogs, and the confused grumbling of the crowd.
I struggled to hold back the hot tears pressing at the back of my eyes. I couldn’t let grief overwhelm me. I had my duty. I needed to let Lieutenant Whitcomb know what had happened. The responsibility for the safety of the ship, cargo, and crew now fell on the lieutenant’s narrow, priggish shoulders.
The canyon of wood and brick buildings, crooked as if they were afflicted with rickets, fell away as I spilled out onto the waterfront. The Ahi Ahmet Celebi mosque with its single white minaret lay to one side, the airfield on the other. Constantinople had little flat, open space to waste on airships, so the field had been built out over the water, beside the piers. It was dotted with shacks, each accompanying a pair of spires constructed of metal scaffolding. Several of the mooring spires were currently occupied, a few with small personal craft, one with a Turkish military vessel, and one with a standard cargo carrier from Falcon’s Flight, a newer company focused on heavy lifters. The carrier’s enormous hydrogen gasbag rose like a mountain above its deep hold, obscuring the stars as I approached.
Another spire cradled our ship, the Winged Mercury, the flagship of Captain Rollins’ company, Winged Goods. She was as technically innovative an aircraft as any you’d find in the most advanced shipyards in the Empire. I should know. Obadiah and I constantly refined and refitted her works.
Sleek and divine as her name promised, her trio of silvery-grey gasbags—a Roziere-style combination of aether and hot air—were fixed in single aerodynamic file above a neat sliver of a gondola skinned in azure blue-painted wicker. Emerald green railings lined her decks, of which she also had three: a quarterdeck to aft, a waist, and a forecastle.
The purposes of the decks were reversed from the nautical, as the forecastle bore the glass-walled bridge, with the crew quarters to the aft. Three varnished wood propellers projected from her stern, and her sides were lined with sails on extensible masts to aid in both propulsion and maneuverability. Her silver and bronze brightwork gleamed in the moonlight.
She’d been my schoolroom and laboratory, my masterwork, and the home of my heart for ten years, and I adored every inch of her with the fervor most reserve for a lover.
But the sight of her gangway brought little comfort tonight, for no light shone from the captain’s quarters in the bow. Strange how the emotions associated with a place depended so strongly upon the presence—or absence—of a single person.
I made my way aboard as quickly as I could, considering the amount of alcohol I’d consumed and the lack of light on the sleeping airfield. The tears occasionally blurring my vision didn’t help, but I managed not to let them fall, and I had myself under control as I crossed the deck and climbed the ladder to the glass-enclosed bridge.
Lieutenant Whitcomb rose from his seat at the navigator’s table just this side of the ship’s wheel where he was going over cargo manifests. He barely returned my salute.
The words I spoke struck me as surreal, nonsensical. “Lieutenant Whitcomb, I am sorry to inform you that Captain Rollins is dead, murdered by persons unknown. Chief Engineer Obadiah Butterfield requests your assistance.” How could the man who’d played such a central role in my life be gone? Even after seeing his body, I had a difficult task to convince myself he was truly dead.
Lieutenant Whitcomb’s pinched features passed through so many emotions in those scant moments I couldn’t follow them all. Disbelief, anger, a flicker of anxiety, maybe, before his face settled into lines of regret sincere enough to soften even my harsh feelings towards the fastidious and unpleasant man.
“Where?” he said.
I gave him the location of the alley.
“I must go see to matters.” He hesitated, smoothing non-existent dust from his knife-straight lapels. Distaste overcame the deep sadness in his expression. “As ranking officer aboard this vessel, the responsibility of keeping the ship, cargo and crew will be yours until such time as you are relieved.”
His lip curled at the words “ranking officer.” He had never been able to stomach having a woman aboard the ship, let alone letting one tinker with the complex steam engines that drove her, or granting that female the formality of rank. His protests when my promotion to assistant engineer required I be included in the chain of command were legendary among our crew.
I hadn’t the heart or the energy to take offense tonight. What was the point? Our feelings changed nothing. The lieutenant must leave to deal with the captain’s remains, and neither able airman Reuben Dodd nor our cook, Henry McDonnell, were qualified to take charge of the ship in the lieutenant’s absence. Certainly ship’s boy Benjamin Tibbets, who was only thirteen, could not.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and saluted again; perfectly, for once.
He gave me a curt nod and left the bridge, clambering down the ladder leading to the waist and the gangway.
The hours of the night dragged as if they labored against a persistent head wind, with nothing to do but record the reports from my regular patrols of the decks. I rescued a discarded chart or two from the burn pile and used their backs to sketch the brass button I’d found in Captain Rollins’ hand and write down everything I could remember of how I’d found him and the items in his pocket. Not that I thought anyone would need my input. But the habit of writing down important information was too ingrained to break.
Besides, I couldn’t get the image of Captain Rollins, lying so still in the dust and dog feces, out of my head.
I’d spent the evening laughing with Obadiah and other airmen, drinking raki, letting the seyhane owner’s oldest son, all of fifteen years old and who’d known me since he was six, practice his flirting on me. And all the while, Captain Rollins had been bleeding out his life, alone, not three alleys over.
“I’m sorry, Captain,” I whispered, hoping he could hear me, wherever he was. “I should have been there. Maybe I could have saved you like you saved me. Maybe not; but I should have been there with you, nonetheless.”
# # #
Dawn turned the forest of mosque spires a flaming pink and the haunting call to prayer, the aggam, drifted over the city, one call echoing another, before Obadiah made his way back to the Mercury. The bruise-like circles under his eyes spoke of a difficult night.
“Did the police find out anything?” I asked, gathering my notes from the navigator’s table to take back to the engine room, where I slept.
Obadiah shook his head, slumping into the chair I had vacated. “They didn’t seem all that interested in the fate of an English businessman.”
I stared at him. “But they’ll keep looking. They won’t give up, will they, Obadiah?”
He covered his eyes with a trembling hand. “I don’t know, Melly. I just don’t know.”
“Get to your bunk, Amelia. Sleep yourself out. You look like you took a pair of fists to your eyes.”
“You’ll sleep, too, won’t you, Obadiah? I can’t look any worse than you.”
“I intend to, as soon as Lieutenant Whitcomb returns.”
I left him staring out the glass sides of the bridge at the barges ferrying goods and a few hardy passengers across the Sea of Marmara, took my notes and dragged myself down the ladder and across the deck to the stern, where the engines resided. Thank goodness we were not scheduled to depart for another two days. Time enough to recover from this night, at least physically, though the emotional toll would be harder to pay. Time enough for the authorities to find Captain Rollins’ murderer.
I crawled onto the thin mattress snugged on a narrow ledge above the workbench in the engine room, slid shut the curtain that blocked the light from the furnace if not the noise, and gave thanks to whatever god was listening that the grumbling of the coal fires, idling low to give only enough heat to keep the hot air gasbag taut, covered the sound of the occasional hitch in my breathing.
After a time I slept, and when I woke it was to the leonine roar of the engines at full power as we steamed at top speed back towards England.
I whipped back the curtain to see Benjamin Tibbett, his fine, sandy hair straggling limply about his large ears, shoveling coal pellets into the furnace’s hopper.
How could we leave Constantinople? What about the captain? What about his killer? We had clues to follow: two missing cigars; a dirty brass uniform button; and a note with the words “Russian’s Cap 2300 hrs.” written on it.
If such clues could lead to the culprit, it appeared I was the only one who cared.