Catfish was asleep on a cot in the engine room of the ship when she realized that someone was standing over her. At first she had the vague idea that it was a member of the crew, who had come back to the ship with some message or other from Neriena, who was back at her mansion with the rest of the crew. Catfish was usually the only member left on the ship, and she enjoyed having the entire ship to herself. It meant that she could do as she pleased, like stay up all night and then fall asleep in the engine room, even though she did actually have her own room. Once she was properly awake though, she sat up quickly.
“If you're looking for money, you're in the wrong place,” Catfish shouted at Jack, who had been leaning over her. She reached for any weapon she could find, but there were none that she could reach.
“Calm down and wake up,” said Jack. “I'm not after anything but talk.”
Catfish did not even respond to this comment, she was too busy muttering curses to herself. In groping for a weapon she had accidentally pulled at a valve, and the hissing sound suggested that something had now gone wrong. Still in her pajamas, she got up and dug out a wrench. Jack could wait, the ship came first, and she had gone and hurt it in her sleepy panic. In any case, if he wanted to attack, she now had a weapon in hand, and an innocent seeming excuse for it.
Catfish finished tightening the bolt before she turned to face her visitor. She was somewhat resenting his intrusion into what she considered to be her private space. Not that she was overly pleased with the nature of her guest in any case. It was somewhat unsettling that he had been able to find them, especially with how little information they had given him about themselves. She had guessed he was smart back when they had first met him, but now she was thinking he was all together too clever.
“So what are you doing here? And get off that,” she told Jack. The bandit was sitting on a pipe, watching her work.
“I told you, I'm here to talk. I figured you'd be the person to talk to about the little problem I've got. You see, I've figured out who you folks are, thanks to some digging. Newspapers are a wonderful thing aren't they?”
“I don't read them,” said Catfish.
“You're missing out,” said Jack. “See, you folks were so happy about finding that Chinese guy, you didn't even think to check and see if you were being followed.”
“Don't see as we had done anything to get us followed,” said Catfish, shortly.
“Come on, you guys made a better entertainment than the last medicine show that went through town. I wasn't going to let that pass, especially since I figured some good might come of it. You'd be amazed what I saw, I saw this here airship, with all you getting on it.”
“So?” asked Catfish, trying to make it as clear as she could that she had no interest at all in his continued presence.
“So, here we come to newspapers, which happen to have a picture of the same airship, some years ago it's true. But it is the same for sure, it's sort of distinctive you know, always with headlines about piracy. It was a dead giveaway about you folks being crooks too, and having an airship, all it took was some research. I will say that there was never any pictures of you folks, but I tracked down the airship alright, and found out who owned it. It's a matter of public record.”
“What kind of bandit knows about that stuff?” demanded Catfish, who felt her image of the criminal class was being betrayed.
“I guess I'm not so different from a airship pirate that reads about etiquette,” said the bandit.
“So it's blackmail,” guessed Catfish, tightening her grip on her wrench. She didn't have much to lose, since she had never enjoyed the high class society life that Neriena and the rest lived anyway, but she was still not going to let a threat go unchallenged.
“Maybe it is, or maybe I'm just curious,” said Jack shrugging. “Either way I have all the evidence tucked away safe, and I wouldn't touch me if I were you. For now how about we just say that I am very interested in your group.”
“They aren't here,” said Catfish.
“Which means that you're going to take me to where they are,” said Jack.
“What if I bring them here instead?” asked Catfish, after a moment's consideration.
“Not a chance,” said Jack, leaning casually in a pipe in a way that made Catfish wince. If he was placing as much weight as it looked like on the pipe, she was amazed that nothing had broken yet.
“Someone needs to watch the ship,” Catfish explained. “I can send a telegraph and fetch them here, but I can hardly simply lead you there, leaving the ship.”
“Then give me the address.” Again Catfish considered this, and then she grinned. That would be a fine chance to dump this whole mess on Neriena, as well as a way to get him far from her engine room. Catfish supposed that Jack was probably looking for a fight, and she did not consider herself to be among the fighters of the crew. Indeed she avoided harming others as much as possible.
“Have a piece of paper?” she asked. Jack pulled out a memorandum book from his breast pocket and handed it to her. Catfish had a bit of pencil that she used to mark measurements on pipes with, and she jotted a few lines down in the book and handed it back to the bandit. “There,” she said, “now, get out.” Jack grinned at her and sauntered out, leaving Catfish to hope that he had not damaged anything to get in.
Blaze was only at the end of the path to their house from the road by coincidence when Jack walked up. He had several ideas about the original composition of Greek fire, but Neriena had put her foot down about him experimenting with anything flammable near the house. There had been a bit of a mistake with an early prototype and one of Neriena's rose bushes. She did not much see the point in any case, since a fire weapon would be suicide to use in a balloon of helium, which was all their dirigible really was. Since then he had decided to use the front lawn, something that had gotten him labeled an eccentric by the neighbors, but surprisingly was not something that Neriena objected to. She found the annoying invitations that she received had diminished greatly since Blaze had begun to play with fire, which she felt was all to the good.
“Is the captain anywhere around?” Jack asked leaning on the gate, as Blaze looked up at him from an impressive blaze of wood. He had to give the boy credit though, he did not bat an eye at him. A minute later he did bat an eye, but that was because something in the wood exploded. Jack was forced to jump back, removing something from his entrance, but feeling that a spoiled entrance was better than loosing his eyebrows.
“Don't call her the captain around here, she won't like it,” said Blaze, once the ringing had stopped in his ears. “She's Neriena.”
“Was that any reason to try and blow me up?” demanded Jack. Blaze looked at him blankly for a moment, and then realization dawned.
“It wasn't on purpose, something went wrong, it's only supposed to burn, not explode. Incidentally, if you brought your guns, it would probably be best if you left them here rather than taking them with you into the house. She does not respond well to threats and it would be unfortunate if something happened.”
“To me or her?” asked Jack.
“Does it matter?” said Blaze, shrugging.
“I didn't bring my guns,” said Jack. He had found the conversation with Catfish predictable at least, she was angry and bewildered and off balanced. Somehow Blaze's calmness was pushing him off balance instead.
“They still shooting well?” asked Blaze. “The lever reloading mechanism working for you, I know it is a matter of personal preference.”
“They have been working fine. You don't care how I got here? Or how I found you?” Jack finally asked.
“Doesn't really matter, your here, I'm not really interested. Now if you know anything about flammable jellies on the other hand, that's what I'm interested in at the moment. If the ancient Greeks can do it, there is no reason why modern technology cannot find the formula.” Jack had to admit that after his close call with the earlier experiment, he got nervous as Blaze turned back to what he was working on.
“Is she up the path at the house then?” he asked, edging through the gate while giving the burning wood a wide berth.
“Yeah, tell the man at the door I sent you and you'll be let in. Be nice to him, I once saw him cut off a man's nose. Not here of course.”
Jack had to admire the estate as he walked up the path to the house, or manor if you wanted to give it it's true name. The grounds were carefully cultivated, and in the distance in one direction were carefully laid out gardens, while in another there was access to the woods. Still, here and there Jack could see reminders of the true nature of the residence. The gardener he met on the path had rather more scars than were generally gained working with roses. There were scorch marks here and there on the grass, he imagined the work of Blaze. Up in the enclosed widow's walk Jack also thought he could see a telescope pointed at the road. That was a sign of vigilance, people always on the ready, he steeled himself, knowing that they were expecting him, maybe even preparing for him. He only hoped he had the time to make the same threat he had made before to Catfish about documents before anything bad happened to him. It unnerved him that the butler opened the door before he could ring the bell.
“Tradesman's entrance around the back please,” said the butler, once he was close enough. The implication was enough to steady Jack's shaken nerves.
“Blaze said nothing about the tradesman's entrance when he sent me up here,” Jack protested. “I'm here to see Neriena.” The butler looked at him closer.
“You are not here about the flowers then?” he asked.
“No, I am not, I am here to see the lady of the house,” Jack said, saying it differently just in case it had not gotten through the first time.
“I do beg your pardon, sir, please step in and I will check if she is receiving visitors,” said the butler. The tone he used suggested that he very much doubted that she was seeing visitors right now, but that only made Jack more determined to see her. After all, he had come all the way from California, the least she could do is meet with him. He conveniently ignored the fact that he had not been invited. “Who should I say is calling?” the butler asked.
“A last name, sir?” asked the butler.
“There is none, she will know me by Jack,” said Jack. He could see the butler's eyebrows raise at this. If Jack had judged Neriena right she was not on first name bases with many men at all, except maybe the people who formed her crew, he amended mentally. He could see the butler tense, and knew that the man did not trust him. Another member of the crew then, it seemed most of the household was. If things did not go well with his meeting with Neriena, Jack had the feeling that he would have a lot of difficulty leaving the house. Still, having come this far, he could hardly leave now. He therefore stood impatiently while the butler left on his errand. He did not have long to wait.
“And now there's you,” said Neriena, coming to the door.
“What's that supposed to mean?” asked Jack, affronted.
“It means that trouble always comes when I am the most busy. Well you might as well come in. I won't ask how much you know, because you found me here, which means that you know everything. I am far more interested in what you mean to do with it.”
“Is there somewhere private we can talk?” Jack asked as he entered the house. It was a thing of breathtaking beauty, well taken care of, well appointed. It was clear that Neriena had spent much of her ill gotten gains on this.
“Don't worry about that. There isn't a person in this house that does not also serve on the dirigible,” said Neriena. “My business is theirs. However there is a place where we can sit comfortably as you try and shake me down.”
“How do you know that is my intention?” asked the bandit.
“You have gone to an awful lot of trouble, you are a crook, and apparently you know everything about me. It is the only logical conclusion,” said Neriena, sounding bored. She opened a door and led him into a study. She sat down behind a desk and motioned that he should have a seat across from her. Jack was well aware of the tactic, Neriena had smoothly put herself in the position of power.
“Just so you know, I have things filed away so if anything happens to me who you are will be made known to the law,” said Jack. He held up the sentence like a shield, which was basically what it was.
“I assumed as much,” said Neriena shrugging. “And you want what? Money? I don't have much time to talk.”
“Your butler suggested that you were busy?” said Jack, looking curious.
“I am, very. And you are lucky that he did not know your errand or you would have never met me. Gaspar is my navigator, and fiercely loyal. Which means that he is a pirate. Which means that it is best to be careful around him. He is also amazingly busy and therefore under a lot of stress and ready to snap.” She paused for a moment as there was another explosion from the yard. Then she smiled. “And for anyone who has ever been in battle, hearing so many explosions is enough to put anyone on edge. It's as if we live on a battlefield and old reflexes die hard. Blaze means well, but I thought it was just supposed to be fire, not a bomb.”
“He says he keeps getting it wrong,” said Jack, smiling.
“You don't seem to be in any hurry, but I am,” snapped Neriena.
“What is the hurry anyway?” asked Jack.
“A garden party,” said Neriena, peevish. “I hate them, but it is rude to turn down the invitations, so I attend them when I have no excuse, and when you attend them, people expect that you throw one in return. Worse, as we are considered the richest family in the neighborhood, we will be shamed if we do not throw the most elaborate. I suppose it is good for the locals, I think I am employing half of them for this,” she added dryly.
“So you care a good deal for your reputation?” said Jack, his voice silky.
“Can we wait until after the party tomorrow to speak on that?” asked Neriena. “Surely you can wait, especially since you have shown yourself in no hurry so far. Attend the party, have a good time, then we can talk business.”
“How would you introduce me?” asked Jack, laughing. He would be the first to admit that he would hardly fit in at such a thing as a garden party.
“Blaze is already my brother, so you'll have to be my cousin,” said Neriena, smiling for the first time. “Jack Jones, though of course your first name is really Jonathon, so that is what I will introduce you as.”
“You know my name is not actually Jack or Jonathon,” said Jack.
“What does that matter?” asked Neriena. “Anyway you are free to go where you want, and you can spend the night here, I will let the staff know. You are my guest after all. Now if you'll excuse me.” Neriena stood and left, just like that, leaving Jack startled by her trust.
Jack did wander the house, especially since no one had told him a room he could use. The study certainly did not offer any distractions for a man of Jack's temperament, he wanted more excitement than the somber wood paneled room. For a little while he simply wandered through the halls, and then he heard laughter. That sounded appealing. He found himself, after a short walk down some stairs, in a kitchen. There were men there, no women, which struck him as strange for a kitchen, but they were enjoying himself, and so he decided to stay. He was more comfortable in such a space than the fancy house that surrounded it in any case. He found himself a chair and sat down while the men around him worked. It was Fall now, and the heat was not unpleasant. It took him a moment to start paying attention to the conversation around him though.
“Took us forever to wash out the blood stains, remember?” asked the man who seemed to be the head cook. It did not escape Jack's notice that the man only had one leg.
“She did have a temper back then,” agreed another man, who was chopping onions.
“Did? She still does. We're just lucky no one has upset her for some time, or we would be cleaning up blood stains again.”
“Back in the days when we thought that a woman couldn't be a captain,” said the head cook, laughing. Before Jack had not been certain who they were talking about, now he was sure. The men had not objected to his intrusion so far, so he risked a question.
“What did she do?” he asked.
“Oh, we were mutinying, no captain has ever had patience for something like that. Seeing as she is still the captain, you ought to be able to guess who won.”
“That's why she's our captain alright,” said another man. “People only ever think they have her at a disadvantage, she always comes out on top.” The men in the room began laughing, and Jack laughed too, but left quickly, it was not such a comfortable place to be after all.
Jack was back to wandering the halls when he bumped into Gaspar coming from the other direction. The butler gave Jack a confused look for a moment, as if he did not recall who he was, and then grinned at him. Jack remembered that Neriena had said the man was busy, it was clear that a surprise guest was not something that stayed in his mind.
“Would you like me to show you to the dinning room, sir?” asked the butler, bowing slightly. “We will be having supper shortly.”
The dinning room was of the sort that Jack would expect from the house. It had a long table, with Neriena already seated at the head of it. The seat to her right and left were empty, but past that, much to Jack's shock, was seated the general house staff other than the ones serving. It was like a court, Jack thought, or maybe more like a mess hall, he corrected himself. Neriena motioned him to the seat at her right. A moment later Blaze came in and took the seat at her left. Jack had been waiting for Neriena to begin eating, but Blaze simply reached forward, took a roll, and bit into it.
“Sorry I'm late,” he said, once his mouth was no longer full, “I singed one of the trees and it took a while to put the fire out.”
“If it took so much time to put the fire out, I suspect the tree was more than singed,” said Neriena. “I am supposed to be having a garden party tomorrow, and that will be difficult if you burn down the garden.” There was another explosion outside, this time the windows rattled.
“Another explosion,” said Blaze, sighing while the rest of the room jumped.
“But you're in here,” protested Neriena.
“A timer,” explained Blaze. “I have to eat, but that does not mean that I cannot run experiments at the same time.”
“It certainly does,” said Neriena, “when they stand the chance of burning down the house. If you really must do both, take your food out their, where you can keep an eye on things. Take a fire bucket with you.”
“Alright,” said Blaze reluctantly, but he did load his plate with things and take it out of the room. A moment later there was another explosion.
Once Blaze was gone though, dinner was a subdued affair. Everyone seemed too tired to talk much in any case. It was contagious and after supper Jack asked where he could find the room he was to sleep in. Gaspar led him to a comfortable seeming room on the top floor of the house that looked as if it had not received any use for some time. Jack did not really mind the dust, though, he had slept in far more out of the way places.
Jack would later try to piece the night together in his head with some luck. He was certain of some things. There was the very loud singing of old sea shanties from the floor below him. There were shouts of fire from outside, and people running around. That got him out of bed to look, and there was indeed what looked like a bonfire from where Blaze had been lighting fires near the gate. Then, just as that had calmed down and Jack had gone back to bed, a man wandered in as if Jack was not there, went to the chest of draws, pulled out a sword and cutlass, and wandered back out. Then there was the hammering from the direction of the garden, and the sound of sawing. It sounded as if three in the morning was considered a fine time to construct something. To say that Jack did not get a good night's sleep was an understatement. It seemed to Jack that he had hardly slept at all when there was a knock at the door. Gaspar was standing there, crisp, and clean, and cheerful.
“I hope you slept well, Sir. Breakfast is in ten minutes. It is an early meal since we wish to have time to prepare before the guests arrive.”
The breakfast table was a happy one, with everyone laughing and joking around it. Blaze was back at the table, presumably because he was not burning anything at the moment, and he and Neriena were teasing one another about who snored. Jack was hardly feeling so flippant after such a hard night, and it did not help that nowhere in the room did anyone mention the singing, the man with the sword and cutlass, or the fire. Jack had not thought that he was dreaming, but surely those were the sort of thing that was talked about. Neriena glanced over at him with a smile a couple of times, but she said nothing until the meal was over, and then she stood up.
“I have an announcement to make,” she said, to the room in general. “It is unusual that a blackmailer gives their victims the time to act, but for once a blackmailer gave me just such an opportunity, and I have used it to advantage. I had some favors to call in, and so I did, it has been a busy night. Mr. Jack Jones, your true name is Jethro DuPage, and your criminal record is very extensive indeed. You are currently wanted in this state even, for theft and perjury. I warn you now, you will drop your threat against me or I will speak to the police and have you arrested.”
“Then I will tell them what I know,” said Jack, wishing that his brain was working better. It seemed fuzzy with lack of sleep and confusion.
“Well you could do that,” agreed Neriena. “I doubt that they would believe you, since there is no proof anymore. You were cleaver to think of the ownership of the dirigible, but that has changed, and the ship is no longer where you found it.” What Neriena did not mention was that the papers of ownership were now simply in Blaze's name rather than hers, that would still be a problem if he told the police about it, but what she was counting on was getting him off balance enough that he would not even try. He was certainly looking baffled which was a good sign. “I am an upstanding and wealthy citizen, while you are someone who has been proven a liar in court. You can tell them all sorts of things, but I doubt that you will be listened to. What I do know is that you will find yourself in prison for a long time if you have any dealing with the courts.” Jack gave her a long look, coming to terms with everything, and then he nodded and stood. Without another word he left the house, though Gaspar did follow him to make sure he did not pick up any trifles on the way out. Neriena waited until she heard the front door close behind him and then she grinned.
“Good job everyone,” she said, the happiest they had seen her since they had come back from California. The smile remained on her face even as the guests began arriving for the garden party, and that was impressive indeed.