Tonks stood near the starboard railing and watched while four crewmen turned the longskiff loading winches. Suddenly, one of the ropes pulled at a sharper angle than the other four, threatening to snap. The pilot leaned over the rail. Below, the longskiff used by Captain Hunter and his landing party the day before hovered just inside the leather loading harness. The harness was the typical kind, being a wide net of leather straps used to help maneuver such a craft aboard larger vessels, such as the Griffin. The ropes from on deck wound their way up through pulleys and over to the harness itself that cradled the unharmed longskiff. The only two crewman aboard the smaller airship were busy with slowly releasing the air from the longskiff’s gas bag. The small propellers on the craft, however, turned far too quickly than they should.
“More slack in your bag! Cut your engine or you’ll snap the moorin’ lines!”
“Aye!” Came the reply from crew aboard the longskiff.
“Problem, Mr. Wilkerson?”
Tonks turned to see Krumer Whitehorse approach. “Nay anythin’ that some closer attention would cover, sir.”
“Understood. Anything found aboard the ‘skiff?”
“Some lads went through it close. Blankets and a few supplies are missing, but not all the travel packs are gone. No sign of the landing party yet. The wreck’s a mess though, and they found gunshot and other sign of a fight. Got some scourin’ that now, maybe make some sense of it.”
Krumer nodded, his jaw set, his mouth in a hard line of concern. He folded his arms over his chest then tapped a finger idly on one of his short tusks. “Did they find any idea who did the attacking? Same group as found us?”
“Hard ta say. Plenty of damage from the same kind ‘a ordinance that they were usin’ on us. Lightning guns and all that. They’ll send word when they find somethin’ or if somethin’ finds them.”
Krumer paused in thought, watching the crew slowly haul the longskiff aboard. He let his eyes play over the craft from its partially deflated gas bag to snow-covered skids and undamaged hull. “Just the blankets are gone, might mean they are camped nearby.”
“We kept spotters through the night, but none claimed ta see campfire. A’course the treeline’s thicker down slope. If they headed that way, we might’ve missed them.”
Krumer swore under his breath a moment. “All of this. This cannot be just coincidence. If those were pirates that happened across us, that longskiff would be missing anything not nailed down.”
“Aye, true that. Searchers I’ve got down there had sent word about the lightning gunfire. It was all about on ground, trees and what’s left of the Marie Celeste. Krumer, we’re bein’ hunted. Ya know it, as do I. I just can’t tell who they’re gunnin’ for.”
“Also, if they were hunting us, why here? Why now? This isn’t the most well-traveled flight path for most ships. Cargo ships take the more southern route. News of the Celeste going down wasn’t known when when we set out this way. How did these pirates find us or this place?”
Tonks looked stunned. “Yer not claimin’ a spy aboard? Can’t be, we’ve not taken on crew in better on two years, no one’d be disloyal here.”
Krumer shook his head. “I’m not saying a spy. Like you just said, it couldn’t be. We’re a small ship and a tight crew. We all know each other too well. I’m wondering what we took aboard. Maybe something in our supplies or any cargo?”
The pilot frowned. “We’ve got a tracker on us.”
“I think so. Worst case, the more elaborate ones can pick up sound like an opti-telegraphic, but they would have to be nearly as large also. Spread the word, but do it quietly. Search the ship. Something’s aboard with us and we need to find it.”
Tonks nodded with a frown. “Aye ta that.”
Word spread quietly, yet quickly among the nearly twenty crew members aboard. Immediately all bent themselves to the task. Repairing the damage the Brass Griffin had sustained was important. Making sure they were not being hunted like a rabbit was more so. The more common areas such as the main deck, midship area below decks for meals and crew storage, the hold and so on were searched more than once. Each man and woman took to searching their belongings and sleeping hammock – or cabin in the case of Krumer and Tonks -on their own. Searchers even prowled through the various places for lookouts to stand watch on the bow or above on the gas bag.
An hour later, the search had uncovered little more than frustration and a growing anxiety that they may be attacked again. Only this time, they would not be fully prepared to withstand it. In the small, plain cabin that served as a common room for the captain and the Griffin‘s officers’ quarters, Tonks lifted a long wooden case that held the bundle of navigational charts for the ship. He flipped the latch open and dumped the contents unceremoniously on the small wooden table in the room. Parchment charts fell out, some partially unrolling. He shook the box twice then, convinced it was empty, set it on the table with a sigh of frustration. Most of the ship had been searched thoroughly, some places twice over and no one had anything to show for it.
Krumer walked out of his cabin with an expression similar to that Tonks wore. “Anything?”
“Nay a bloody thing. Krumer. If there’s one ta be had, its hidden tight.”
“Or worse yet, hiddin on the landing party.” Krumer’s rising frustration was readily apparent in his voice now. “Which if it is, we cannot contact them and warn them! I cannot believe …”
Tonks waved a hand at his friend. “Hush, now. Wait. Didya hear that?”
Krumer bottled his temper and frowned in concentration.
“Hear what? I don’t …”
Then he stopped in mid-sentence when a faint, fleeting buzz reached his ears.
Tonks nodded, a smile of satisfaction slowly grew on his face. “I’m hearin’ it too.”
Slowly, carefully, the pair turned to face different parts of the room. They each listened, and when they heard the faint buzz again, took a careful step in that direction. In no time, they found themselves staring at a blank corner. Krumer looked to Tonks quizzically. Tonks shrugged, a little confused himself. Then an idea struck him, the narrow cabinets high on the wall to his right could hold the source of the sound. He gestured at them and reached for the knob of the closet cabinet. As if on cue, they heard the buzz again from behind the cabinet door.
Tonks smiled as Krumer tensed to grab whatever the source of the sound was. The pilot took a slow breath. If the device could fit in a small cabinet it would have to be small. Perhaps no larger than a person’s open palm. Especially given that cabinet was only used to store spare twine and cotton rags for cleaning. He had dealt with such items in the past when he worked for the Foreign Service. Never had he expected to see them again, especially here. He yanked open the cabinet door.
Immediately a small object shrieked in alarm and shot out of a dark space beside a stack of cotton cloths. A glint of brass among the blur was all they saw as it raced around the room.
Krumer dove immediately for it but crashed into the wall. His hands clutched at air where it had been. “Missed!”
Tonks watched the small brass blur fly about the room as it looked for an opening to escape. “Ya can’t grab at it like that, it’ll expect that. We can’t let it outta our sight, though. We’ll lose it for sure.”
“How do we catch it then?”
A thought came to the pilot. “Burlap! Them stacks of old coffee bags we’ve got from the last cargo we hauled. Catch it with that or some other kinda cloth. Like catchin’ fish with a net.”
Krumer got to his feet and raced out of the cabin, calling for the crew. Tonks eyed the blur with an impish grin. “Oh you’re wantin’ loose, I can tell it. Well, we’re not gonna hurt ya, but we gotta know what ya know or who ya workin’ for.”
The little blur darted this way and that, Tonks did his best to jump in the way to block it, but in the end it outmaneuvered him. It raced out out the cabin door. “It’s on deck!” Tonks shouted, fast in pursuit of it.
Above, the crew scrambled with old brown burlap bags stamped with either plantation names or simply ‘coffee’ on them. They swatted and waved at the blur but none could catch it. They managed to barely prevent it from flying off ship. Finally, the brass blur dodged one crewman, sailed beneath Krumer’s legs and soared upward towards the gas bag and rigging.
“Don’t let it leave the ship!” Krumer shouted in a mix of anger and disbelief.
Suddenly a shirtless Tonks Wilkerson threw himself from the rigging directly at the blur. Man and flying object collided in mid air. No sooner than that, Tonks wrapped his shirt around the buzzing creature like he would bag a bird. Just as he finished, he and his captive fell to the wooden deck sideways in a hard landing. He held the shirt closed tight, inside his captive struggled fiercely. Finally, the struggles and angry buzzing subsided. The pilot carefully unwrapped part of his catch.
In his shirt was a brass dragonfly, no longer than ten inches in length and an inch and a half wide at its thickest point. Its wings were a gossamer, copper metal mesh and its body a series of brass tubes jointed with some unusual gray leather. The teardrop-shaped head with its ruby faceted eyes looked at Tonks then around at the crew nervously.
Tonks stood slowly, careful not to harm his small captive. “Mr Whitehorse. Looks like ya were right. We’ve been bugged.”
“Good work Mr. Wilkerson. Can we learn anything from it?”
The pilot raised an eyebrow at the brass dragonfly with a grin. “More’n a bit I’d suspect. Depends on how helpful it’ll be. Now little bug, just so yer on the same terms I am, all we want ta know is what yer doin’ here and who sent ya. No harms comin’ to ya. Understand?”
After a moment of consideration, the brass dragonfly nodded slowly, nervously and buzzed once.