Planes, Craynes, and Aeromobiles
High Flight story #5
written by: Constance "Eilonwy" Cochran
outline by: Kevin "SpotWeld" Corcoran and Constance "Eilonwy" Cochran
additional material by: Kevin "SpotWeld" Corcoran and Mary "Stormy" Pletsch
Tale Spin and its characters are copyrighted by Buena Vista/Disney. All original characters and situations are the property of the High Flight Crew and may not be borrowed without permission. Please see our "Policies" page if you would like to use High Flight's new creations. Please do not repost or link to this story without express permission from the High Flight crew. Linking to the High Flight home page is, of course, more than welcome.
"Home is Where the Heart Is" was part of the original broadcast of "Plunder and Lightning," but was cut from subsequent airings. We tried to find information on the lyricist of the song--if anyone has this info please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The song is most likely copyrighted by Disney.
"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Moll-y, Happy Birthday tooooo yooooooou!"
The singing ended with voices dissolving into laughter and cheering. Molly leaned forward and blew out the candles on the cake.
"So, how does it feel to be a big girl now, Molly?" Baloo asked.
Molly paused in between picking out each candle one by one and licking off the icing. She fixed Baloo with a level stare. "It feels like I can go on missions with you and Kit now."
"Hey, yeah!" Kit said, with a grin.
"Nice try, but no." Becky put her hand on her daughter's shoulder, and leaned down to give the gold-furred bear-cub a kiss on the cheek. "Happy Birthday, honey." With her other hand, she pressed a small white box into Molly's hand.
"What's this?" Molly's mouth opened in surprise. Then, with a more practical expression on her face, she opened the lid on the box. Her eyes popped wide open and she let out a squeak of delight. "Oh, MOM!" Inside, nestled on a bed of downy cotton, was a necklace. A small, gold, heart-shaped pendant spun in the light as Molly pulled it out. She started to put the necklace on, but Becky caught the pendant.
"Wait, honey." Becky opened the heart. "You can put a picture inside. And on the back..." She turned it over.
Molly read the inscription--"Remember where my heart is and you'll always have a home." Her brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "What's that s'posed to mean?"
Becky looked disappointed. "Well, sweetie, it's from an old song. It means that home is where--"
"You'll understand it someday," Baloo said. "You just remember it and you'll do fine." Becky and Kit looked at him in surprise. The big gray bear shrugged.
Molly accepted this explanation for the moment, and put the necklace on.
"Are you going to open your other presents?" Wildcat shoved a very oddly shaped bundle towards the birthday girl.
There was a polite tap on the door. "That must be Lungri!" Becky hurried over and opened it, admitting Lungri Khan into the Higher For Hire, Inc. office.
"I'm so sorry I'm late, Rebecca," he said in his soft, deep voice. He leaned his cane against a chair and peered down at Molly through his spectacles. "Hello, Molly. Happy Birthday."
"Hi, Lungri!" Molly waved happily, her attention absorbed in the strange angles of Wildcat's gift.
"Hi, Lungri," Kit said. "You're just in time."
"Oh, hi," Baloo said, watching as Becky touched Lungri's arm, smiling up at him.
The phone rang in the other room.
"That's the third time in the last half hour!" Looking a tad distracted, Becky ran off to answer it.
"Gee, business has been booming lately," Baloo said, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms behind his head in a satisfied way. "Profits up, overhead down."
Kit nudged him in his substantial gut. "You've been hanging around with Ms. Cunningham too much, Baloo," he said, trying to keep a straight face.
Baloo's chair returned to its proper position with a *thud* as a faint red tinged the gray bear's muzzle. "I...ah...hey, Molly, let's get those other presents open! That's what a birthday's all about, right?"
But Molly shook her head. "I want to wait for Mom."
A faint thread of Becky's side of the conversation became audible. "You can't be serious!...I don't care, we won't...I don't care if the Queen of Walla Walla Bing-Bang wants to speak to me-- oh, call back, but that won't...fine!" The phone banged down. After a moment Becky returned to the kitchen area, her expression a mixture of fury and awed disbelief. "That was Mr. Khan's secretary on the phone. She said Khan Aeronautics wants to send a representative to work with US! With Higher For Hire, Inc."
"What?" Baloo got to his feet.
"They have a new airplane part that hasn't been tested commercially yet, and they want us to do it. Of all the gall of that--after what he did to Lungri, he actually expects to work with us." She clenched her fists, her body practically radiating sparks.
"Yeah, work for him and I can kiss my plane goodbye. You remember what happened the last time _I_ flew a mission for that shark?" Baloo folded his arms. "That big fish is just looking for a way to swallow up us little fish."
"We won't do it. We just won't."
A nasty smile touched Lungri's face. "If I know Shere, there will be plenty of publicity involved."
Becky turned to him, hands on hips. "Lungri, you almost sound as if you think we should take his offer!"
Lungri adjusted his spectacles. "I wouldn't trust him for a moment. However, you will be on your guard. And this would benefit your company, correct?"
"Yes, of course. The publicity would be wonderful. But how can we...for one second..."
"Because it would be good for Higher For Hire. I cannot stand back and watch you give up a wonderful opportunity because of my personal family vendetta."
"Beckers, don't listen to him. Lungri, she's nuts. Tell her she's nuts!" Baloo turned to Lungri pleadingly.
Wildcat, Kit, and Molly watched the verbal three-way match like spectators at a ping-pong ball tournament.
Lungri took Becky's hand. "There have been several news stories lately about how ruthless Khan Industries can be."
"Darn straight," Baloo nodded in satisfaction.
"He wants full coverage for this deal. He can't afford to double-cross you, not with the whole world watching. This is a bid to repair his reputation, so I think you'll be safe. The end result will be increased profits for Higher For Hire."
Baloo's jaw dropped. "Lungri," he complained, "I thought you were backin' me up here, buddy! And it's Higher For Hire, _Inc._," Baloo added.
"Well..." Becky hedged.
"I can't believe you're even considering it!"
"It would be great publicity...and since Lungri doesn't mind..."
Baloo clamped his hands over his ears. "Hmmm-hmm-hm-hm, I can't hear you!"
A hard look came over Becky's features. "Baloo, we're--" She stopped. Then, slowly and deliberately, she closed her hands over Baloo's wrists and pulled his hands from his ears. She stared him in the face and said, very fast, "I think we should do it, butifyouthinkit'sabadideaI'mwillingtolisten."
"Hark?" Baloo put a hand to his ear. "What was that?"
"She said she was willing to listen to you," Molly said, rolling her eyes at the ways of grown-ups.
"We're partners now, right?" Becky sat down and looked at the presents on the table.
Baloo blinked. Several times. "Uh...well...maybe we could at least talk to the representative..."
"We'll all be on the look-out every moment," Lungri told Baloo. "It would be wonderful to me to see friends benefit at _his_ expense for a change."
Becky turned abruptly back to her daughter. "Well, Molly, you haven't opened your presents! What did Uncle Wildcat get you?"
The limo was small, and black, and sleek, with chrome fenders that gleamed in the sunlight. It had business-like lines to it, much as if to say, here is someone of importance--but not _that_ important.
The black car pulled to a halt outside the Higher For Hire office. A stiff-faced chauffeur emerged and opened the rear door, where a pair of long legs emerged, clad in a smart business skirt. The rest of the personage followed, revealing a trim figure in a navy jacket, white blouse, and tasteful little hat. Briefcase in hand, the petite tigress looked at the "Higher For Hire, Inc." sign at the end of the dock, and at the yellow sea plane moored there, a measuring expression on her whiskered features. Then, paying no more heed to the chauffeur than she might pay to a garden hedge, the business woman approached the door, and knocked.
"So you see, Ms. Cunningham, this contract with Khan Aeronautics will not only give your small business some...much needed...exposure, but it will benefit Khan Industries as well, by encouraging other small businesses and providing positive publicity." Ms. Kanat leaned forward towards Becky, who sat in her chair on the other side of the desk. "Truth be told, Ms. Cunningham," she said, in a low, conspiratorial voice, "one businesswoman to another, Mr. Khan has a certain...reputation, shall we say? For stepping on the little guy. We are hoping that this deal will help prove that Khan Industries is not out to destroy the small entrepeneur. Not to mention, Higher For Hire has one of the best reputations in the business, due to its...legendary...pilot." Ms. Kanat winked at Baloo, who answered with a brash smile.
Ms. Cunningham coughed and shuffled the papers on her desk. "Well, it sounds most tempting, Ms. Kanat. But I will have to consult with my business partner first," she added, waving a hand at Baloo.
"Of course. He _is_ the one who will be flying the mission. Let me assure you, Mr. Bear, that the Khan Aerobuckler has been designed by the top engineers in the field." The tigress reached into her briefcase and pulled out what looked like a thick piece of cardboard. She unsnapped a hook on its side, and the board opened up into a full-color, three-dimensional mock-up of the part in question.
Wildcat, who had been hovering in the shadows by the filing cabinet, moved forward curiously to see better.
"The Khan Aerobuckler makes it easier for the pilot to control the plane," Ms. Kanat began, in a projecting voice reserved for boardrooms. Removing a slim stick of metal from her jacket pocket, she gave a flick of her wrist, and the piece of metal extended into a gleaming pointer. She aimed the pointer at the cardboard display. "You see, Ms. Cunningham, the Khan Aeronautics Aerobuckler--or the KAA, as we like to call it--actually makes flying easier and safer for the pilot."
"Easier?" Baloo frowned.
"How wonderful!" Becky exclaimed. "Tell us how it works?"
"The Aerobuckler is installed as a supplement to the control lines. It makes the controls more responsive to the pilot. It helps alleviate any loss of cable tension as the aircraft moves through different thermal layers."
"You still haven't told us _how_ it does that." Baloo folded his arms.
"Of course," said Ms. Kanat, a bit impatiently. "Yes. You see, the Aerobuckler effectively clamps around the control lines." She snapped the tip of her pointer against the cardboard model as if that settled the point.
Now Becky looked doubtful. "But how does that..."
"It keeps the tension in the control lines at a constant," Ms. Kanat added in a bored tone.
"If the control lines are kept alllllllll tight and hummy like that, you hardly even have to touch a control to get it to work. It's like a rubber band allllllll stretched out--except it won't break. And since the lines don't go all limp--wuh--tight--twang--limp--wuh-- tight--twang, like they normally do, it's easier to control. Because up in the air, you get different temperatures as the plane goes higher or lower. And the metal cables either streeeeeetch or contraaaact." Wildcat smiled brightly, as if the very thought of the Aerobuckler made the world a very fascinating and sparkly place.
Baloo looked impressed, either at Wildcat's explanation, the capabilities of the Aerobuckler, or both. Becky nodded as if she'd understood every word. Ms. Kanat tossed her hair over one shoulder and glanced at Wildcat.
"Ah...yes, that's not quite how I would have put it, but I'd say he's pretty close."
"Well, I like what I've heard." Becky reached out to shake Ms. Kanat's hand, then glanced at Baloo. "I'll have to discuss this with my partner first, but Higher For Hire, Inc., is definitely interested!"
"Don't take too long." Ms. Kanat folded up the cardboard display and shortened her gleaming pointer with a click. "We have another small company interested in the deal." She handed Becky her business card, which was printed in gold raised lettering on bond paper.
"I understand." Becky took the card. "We'll let you know in a few hours? Oh, and if it's all right, we'd like our own mechanic--Wildcat here--to install the part."
"Ms. Cunningham," Ms. Kanat said stiffly. "I happen to hold a PhD in aeronautical design, and will be personally installing the part for you. You're probably better off with me than with a...grease monkey. Now, I'm certain he's an excellent mechanic," she added quickly, holding up a hand, palm flat, when Baloo and Becky began to protest. "But this is highly specialized, and I want to make sure it's done right. Which is why I'm doing the installation myself. Five pm today, I'll expect your call. Good-day."
With that, Ms. Kanat gathered up her briefcase and gracefully exited, long legs and all.
"Whoof!" Baloo twitched. "Talk about icy. Wonder if her fangs come out after sunset?"
The rumble of the limo driving away seemed to snap Wildcat out of his dazed state. " Grease monkey'?"
"Aw, now, Wilcat, that corporate type doesn't understand, fancy degree or no fancy degree. She didn't mean it like that." Baloo went over and put a large hand on Wildcat's skinny shoulder.
"Yeah." Wildcat sighed. He went to the door, opened it, then paused with his hand on the knob. "She's real smart, though, isn't she?" He stepped outside, back to his dock and mysterious jumble of airplane parts.
Puffy, dark gray clouds raced across the warm night sky, where the stars gleamed. The guns atop the cliffs slept dormant for the moment, ready to come to life in a flash of fire and noise if anything threatened the city they guarded.
Rising over the arches and fancifully designed rooftops of Cape Suzette, the narrow, newly constructed, pointed tower of gray concrete had only two rivals for height--the looming green hills beyond the city, and the skyscraper crested with the symbol of a "K" inside a circle.
Cut in the concrete of the gray tower was a pattern that suggested a bird of prey about to attack. The huge design was striking even in daylight; at night, it was dazzling, floodlights etching the design over the city skyline.
A brass lamp on the large desk shed an oasis of light in the vast office. The furniture was sparse but expensive--leather, mahogany. Plush beige carpeting covered the floor, a scarlet design at its center, an echo of the bird of prey on the outside of the tower.
The slender, bony figure seated behind the desk took a long, slow drag from the end of an elegant cigarette holder. He let out a breath, the smoke wraithing around him like mist. Ichabod Crayne arched an eyebrow in an elegant gesture and leaned forward.
"Is all in readiness for the morning?"
A second figure, nothing but a silhouette in the shadows, feminine in shape, nodded.
"Good. Then we will proceed as planned." The skinny crane rose from his chair, the expensively tailored lines of his blue suit falling along his thin frame. He took another pull from the cigarette holder, his orange beak bright against the white feathers, and turned towards the big window above the desk. The other tower was visible, with its bright, encircled "K" symbol. "You see that tower?" Crayne gestured with the cigarette holder, glancing from the window to the figure in shadow. "I remember when it was nothing more than a two-story warehouse. How proud that tiger must be."
The female form in the shadows started to speak, but Crayne silenced her with a gesture. "For all his supposed power, he is weak," he explained. "They all are. Crayne Enterprises will soon take its proper place," he added with a bored cadence to his voice, as if he had said this many, many times before, was certain of its inevitability, but was sick and tired of waiting. "...And allied with the...right...forces...will rise to dominance." A smile lengthened the long lines of his beak. Then he nodded. "Go. In the morning, do your work carefully, so no one will guess. We wouldn't want the trail to lead back to you, would we?"
The feminine shape slipped away via a side-door to the office. Crayne continued his watch through the window, a smug smile on his face.
~And now it's time for Movietone News, your window on the world. Dateline, Cape Suzette. The aviation industry looks on today as that giant of the skies, Khan Aeronautics, signs a deal to safety test a new product with fledgling business Higher For Hire, Inc. Flying the test run is world-famous pilot, Baloo. The device they are testing, claims Khan's designers, will revolutionize the way planes are controlled, making them safer and easier to fly even in the worst of conditions. Here we see Ms. Rebecca Cunningham, co-proprietor of Higher For Hire, shaking hands on the deal with Mr. Kahn himself, while the pilot looks on...~
Seated in the co-pilot's seat, Kit checked the reading on his silver compass, made the appropriate marks on the map, and closed the compass with a snap. "Maintain course six-zero-niner, Baloo," Kit announced. "South-west."
"Gonna be a long flight, Little Britches." Baloo's elbow shot out and popped down the window flap that held two soda-pop bottles, clamped in place. He tossed one to Kit, who caught it deftly, and took one for himself.
Kit took a long guzzle. "How about I fly the next stretch?"
Baloo choked in mid-swallow. "Arghahhh, sure. I guess." But he didn't release the pilot's control over to the co-pilot seat.
The bear cub sighed. "Baloo. I'm only two years away from being allowed to have a license. I have to learn sometime!"
"I know that. And I want you to be a pilot, more'n anything."
"So..." Kit prompted.
"So...take 'er," Baloo answered, swallowing down something besides soda.
Eagerly, Kit grabbed the co-pilot's yoke.
"Keep her steady," Baloo prompted, as Kit urged the plane faster.
"Right." Kit grinned. Lacy wisps of clouds raced past the windows.
It was clear flying. After an hour or so, Kit relaxed and let himself feel the hum of the plane up his arms, into his soul. It was almost comforting. Baloo seemed to relax, too, leaning back with his feet up on the dashboard, guzzling another soda.
"Baloo, what was it like the first time you flew a plane?"
"...and then *boom*! You should have seen the look on Mr. Maloney's face." Baloo chuckled. "Of course, they all said they'd _never_ seen anyone pull a maneuver mid-air like that before. Sparky checked--said it wasn't a world's record, but it came darned close."
Kit laughed. "That's a good one, Baloo, you never told me that before." Kit leaned forward to peer out the window. "There's Oldport below us. I'd better start the landing cycle."
"Okay, don't forget the windshear."
As the yellow sea plane touched down, sending up twin sprays of foam, not one of those waiting on the dock guessed that it wasn't the "world-famous" pilot at the controls. The plane coasted in to its moorings. Kit popped open the cargo side-door, and threw out the mooring line. A flashbulb popped in his face, making him see purple spots.
"Becky said you buzzards would be circling around," Baloo grumbled at the small cluster of reporters, as some minutes later he and Kit attempted to unload the cargo.
"Baloo, how long did the trip take?"
"How heavy is the cargo?"
"How do you feel owning half of the business?"
"How do you feel dealing with Mr. Khan?"
"What is your opinion of the safety of the new device, Baloo?"
"Khan Aeronautics has an excellent reputation," Baloo called out the cargo doors. He hit a switch, and they began to close. "The flight so far has been as smooth as butter."
"What about reports of a storm rising between here and Cape Suzette?"
"Nothing worse that what we've handled before, _gentlemen_. And I use the term loosely."
The doors clanged shut as the reporters scribbled furiously in their little notebooks.
A few minutes later, The Sea Duck had slipped the tethers of the clamor on the pier and was climbing like her water bird namesake towards the sunlight, which was now edged with silver from a distant storm bank.
"Gosh Baloo, you handled that kind of...well," Kit ventured, after a time of silence filled only with the drone of the aircraft's engines.
Baloo reached back to scratch the back of his neck, then adjusted his pilot's hat. "Hrum, can't go around punching every reporter you meet. Even if they do deserve to be buried alive in rotten anchovies."
"I dunno." Kit shrugged. "It seems as if ever since Becky made you equal partner in Higher For Hire, you don't get into as much trouble. And did you actually pay a bill last week?"
"Awww, man!" Baloo slapped his hand to his forehead.
"Forget another bill?"
"No! I knew this would happen. Once you become a businessman...settling down. All that paperwork. I--I'm gettin' OLD, Kit."
"Old? You?" Kit slid down in his seat, chuckling. He sat up. "Hey, how about letting me fly the way home, huh?"
Baloo's eyes flicked from Kit to the darkness tinging the horizon ahead. "I don't know, Little Britches. We are heading into a storm..."
"I've watched you fly through hundreds of storms. Listen--" Kit turned in his seat, both hands curling around the arm rest as he stared hard at Baloo. "If I don't get to fly in certain conditions, how will I ever learn to handle them?"
Baloo didn't answer right away.
Kit grinned. "Gotcha there."
Baloo sighed. "Okay, Little Britches. She's all yours--"
"Yahooo!" Kit grabbed the co-pilot's controls.
"Keep 'er steady, there...good. Watch your attitude, keep 'er level.."
"I know, Baloo, I know!"
"Now, when you come into a storm, the wind can get tricky. Key is to fly _around_ the choppy weather. You go over it, you could lose oxygen or your plane might choke. Under it--uh-uh. Bad visibility, rain, wind, macrobursts, you name it. Anyway, I'm taking the controls back before we hit the storm anyhoo."
Leaning back in the pilot's seat, Baloo folded his arms behind his head. "Gotta walk before you can run, kiddo."
But Kit wasn't listening. His eyes had darkened from excitement, and his mouth was set with concentration as he watched the sky ahead, the readings on the controls, the sky again. His hands held the grips of the yoke firmly but not too tightly.
The dark grey on the horizon began to veer closer, headed, like the plane, towards Cape Suzette. A beam of sunlight which had been sliding along the dashboard, marking their progress, suddenly winked out, and it grew darker. A sudden gust of wind made The Sea Duck buck slightly.
"Kit, maybe you should hand 'er back to me now," Baloo said, sitting up.
"No, Papa Bear. It's okay. I need to learn how to handle turbulence."
The cliffs came into view, far in the distance. The sun streaked through the ominous cloud cover in silver shafts, spotlighting the restless surface of the water below. Then the clouds thickened, and the sun faded altogether. Wind began buffeting the sides of the plane, and big drops began to splatter the windshield.
The Sea Duck began to roll to starboard. Empty soda bottles rolled along the cockpit floor and struck the opposite wall with a clink. Kit's grip on the yoke became a stranglehold; the muscles in his lower arms tightened as he pulled to port, trying to right the plane. "Come on," Kit muttered. "Come on..."
The plane pitched. The empty soda bottles rolled to the front of the cockpit.
"Bring 'er nose up, Kit!" Baloo ordered.
Kit pulled on the yoke with all his might. "She won't--I can't--" His voice cracked.
Baloo grabbed the pilot's controls, while Kit slumped back in his seat, blinking back tears. "I don't get it. It was fine, and then it just got so sticky all of a sudden. I--I knew what I was doing..."
"Easy, Little Britches. Windshear can get tricky up here--WHOA!" Baloo pulled on the yoke, hard, but the plane didn't respond. "We're still going over, hang on!"
The cliffs were looming closer through the windshield, the rain thick now, banging on the roof and wings of the plane. "Going to throttle down, see if we can reduce our speed, then coast in level for a water landing."
The pitch of the engines dropped. Kit clung to the armrests of his seat, trying not to slide out since the floor was still tilted at close to a 45 degree angle.
"No, c'mon baby..." Sweat began to stain the brim of Baloo's hat.
"The elevators...they're not responding. I can't right her!"
"They must be stuck," Kit said, climbing out of his seat. With one hand on the wall to steady himself, he made his way to the cockpit door.
"Where are you going?" Baloo demanded.
"Out," Kit yelled back.
"Something has to knock those elevators loose, or we'll crash."
He left the cockpit door banging open behind him as he went into the cargo hold. Baloo turned to follow, but when the plane jerked dangerously, he gripped the yoke with both hands again. "Kit!" He turned his head, and saw Kit, airfoil in hand, standing at the cargo doors.
"Open the doors!" Kit yelled, slinging over his shoulder a coil of rope which was attached to a winch on the wall.
Baloo muttered something unintelligible and almost savage, and hit the switch to open the doors. He saw Kit skid out into the wind on his airfoil, clinging for dear life to the tow-rope. Then the bear cub was lost from view, his presence signalled by the tension in the rope trailing out the back of the plane. Baloo reluctantly turned his attention back to the plane's controls.
The wind whistled past his ears, cold and relentless. Kit gasped for breath, his fingers tight around the handle of the tow-rope. The storm lashed around him, making the airfoil's surface slippery than normal. Balancing his weight automatically, he kept a firm foothold. The hum of the plane's engines blended with the wind, and he suddenly couldn't imagine hearing anything else but the drone of wind and propellers.
Slowly, hand over hand, Kit pulled himself up to the tail of the plane. Tightening his grip on the rope with one hand, he let go with the other, getting a finger-hold on the slick, chill metal surface of the plane's tail assembly. Through the murk he could make out the elevators, stuck at a 45 degree angle. The wind pushed at him, trying to tear his fingers from the tail. The muscles of his arm ached from holding on to the plane.
Kit twisted his body, looping the tow-rope around his ankle, freeing his other hand. He grabbed the side of the plane with both hands, and using the leverage, reached down towards the elevator. The airfoil struck the elevator with a metallic thud. Again, Kit pushed down on it. This time, the elevator gave under the airfoil.
Now for the other one. Gasping for breath even as the wind tried to steal it away, he pulled himself slowly, inch by inch, towards the other elevator. He went through the same routine, but the other elevator was stuck more firmly. His fingers were growing numb. Murky clouds fell away around the plane as it kept descending. He was running out of time.
With a desperate gathering of his muscles, Kit let the wind carry him and the airfoil up above the elevator a bit. Then, with a twist, he maneuvered the board down as hard as he could. It struck the elevator, pushing it back into place, then skidded out from under his foot with the impact.
As soon as he felt the sickening lurch, the loss of stability under his feet, he reached out and grabbed the rope that flailed wildly by his face. His other foot was still tangled in the rope, securing him, but if he hadn't gotten a hand-hold, he would have been dragged along, possibly hitting the plane. The airfoil itself had gone spinning away into the swirling storm.
The plane continued to descend, slower now, but apparently Baloo was having trouble pulling The Sea Duck out of her dive. With fingers growing numb with cold, Kit clung to the tow-rope, his life-line, unhooking his ankle as he did so. The line went taught under his hands, and through the rain he made out the turn of the winch, pulling him back in.
Glancing down, he saw choppy waves a few hundred feet below, rushing up closer by the second. Then he was between the top and bottom half of the cargo doors, still airborne when he suddenly found dry metal beneath him. Clinging to the winch to keep from being blown out the back again, Kit shouted to Baloo to close the doors.
The doors clanked shut behind him and blessed stillness, if not silence, surrounded him. He slumped to the deck, and had time to note that the floor of the plane was pitched sharply downward before the world shuddered, one violent pitch forward. The sound of water gushed around the hull. Empty cargo containers, utensils, a coil of rope, went flying. Kit's grip on the winch loosened, and the hold went upside down and dizzy for a split second, until he landed on his side by the bunk beds, the breath knocked out of him. Then he felt the plane rise, and steady, bobbing on the water.
Exhausted, wet, spent, Kit lay where he was, trying to regain his breath. He thought fleetingly of the time Baloo had mistakenly landed The Sea Duck upside-down in the water. But even then, Baloo had control of the plane; he'd just gotten confused. Kit could tell by the feel of the plane that this time Baloo might as well been flying on nothing but a prayer.
He heard the cockpit door bang open; the sound startled him, and he tried to push himself up on his elbows.
"Kit?" Baloo knelt on the deck. "Kit!" He felt two strong hands grab his shoulders, helping him up until he and Baloo were both on their knees, facing each other. "Son, you okay?"
"Yeah, Papa Bear, I'm okay," Kit said, his own voice sounding calm and strangely hoarse in his ears. He started to get to his feet, and felt Baloo pulling gently, helping him. Then Baloo turned and staggered back to the cockpit to raise the Coast Guard on the radio.
Kit leaned weakly against the side of the plane, and realized emptily that this was the second airfoil he had lost.
Becky stood at the end of the Higher-For-Hire, Inc., dock, a lone figure in a yellow raincoat holding up a blue umbrella as the rain poured down, making rings on the water at her feet. The Coast Guard had relayed news of the crash to Higher-For-Hire; she had been waiting at the end of the dock for an hour, while Wildcat held Molly in his arms and watched anxiously from under the eaves of the main building.
Lightning flickered, thunder boomed softly. She saw what she'd been looking for, the powerful boat pulling the yellow sea plane in its wake.
The boat came up alongside the dock, dragging the plane into its mooring, both sending up foamy waves that slapped up over the already slick surface of the wood. As the cockpit door of the sea plane opened, revealing two very-much intact, alive figures inside, the tense, still, look left her eyes, replaced by annoyance. Becky strode forward, mouth opening to speak--
She stopped, frozen, as an ashen-faced Baloo pushed mutely past her, barely even looking at her. He walked like a sleeper, shoulders slumped, not an excuse on his lips.
Becky closed her mouth and turned to the other, smaller form. "What on earth--" Then she saw the cub's face, and her tone softened. "Kit, what happened?"
He had been about to pass her without stopping, but at her voice he did stop, and turned, looking up at her. "The plane," he said, his voice scratchy. "It...it wouldn't respond. Baloo couldn't control it."
Kit stood just outside the shelter of her umbrella. Becky reached out and touched his shoulder, gently pulling him towards her. He barely seemed aware that his sweater was soaked through, or that he was shivering.
Hugging Kit under the umbrella with one arm, Becky looked up at The Sea Duck where it bobbed, now earthbound, at its mooring.
"But I asure you...yes, we're paid up through the 3rd quarter...No! Certainly not!...now you listen to me, we've had an excellent...but that was just a little misunderstanding...let me talk to your supervisor!"
Morning sunlight streamed in through the Higher For Hire, Inc., office windows. Becky, surrounded by stacks of papers, twirled the phone cord around one finger agitatedly. When the murmuring din of reporters outside grew too loud, she released the cord and plugged her finger into her ear.
"...hello? Yes...yes, but this was a fluke, not pilot error...raise our premiums?! We can barely...surely if I explain in the report...oh, yeah? Well raise this, buddy!" Becky slammed the phone into its cradle with a bang.
She let out a long sigh, resting her elbows on the table; her head sank into her hands.
"Rebecca, if there's anything I can do..." Lungri Khan came around the desk and gently took her shoulders.
Slowly, she raised her head. "Thank you, Lungri, but I'm not sure what. The insurance company wants to stop coverage on the duck--says we're too high of a risk...the flight licensing board is on my back and wants Baloo in for a review...and he's not here! No one's seen him since last night. I'm getting worried."
The bespectacled tiger chuckled. "No doubt he's holed up at Louie's, drowning his sorrows in a triple-decker Highalowa cheeseburger."
"Ms. Cunningham, Ms. Cunning--" there was a thump from the landing upstairs. Becky and Lungri looked at each in alarm, and both ran to the steps and stared up.
Kit was sprawled half-in, half-out the landing window, a newspaper clutched in his hand.
"Kit!" Becky raced up the steps to his side. "I didn't even know you'd gone out. What are you doing?" She helped Kit to his feet, brushed off his green sweater, and gently touched the sticking plaster over the cub's left eye, a small cut.
"Sneaking back in past those reporters. Have you seen the mob outside?"
"A mob? That's putting it mildly." Her glance fell on the paper. "What's this?"
The headline screamed loudly "KHAN PART KAUSES KRASH!"
"Don't those cretins know how to spell?" Lungri said mildly, looking at the paper over Kit's shoulder. "Well, brother, let's see you get out of this."
Becky sighed again. "Well, at least headlines like this--" the slapped the back of her hand against the paper-- "are helping Higher For Hire in the public eye. Unfortunately, the insurance company doesn't believe everything they read. If we _could_ prove the part was defective...but it was installed by one of Khan's best engineers."
"And if I know my brother, he already has sixteen solicitors forcing the paper to print a retraction in tomorrow's early edition. The blame will, eventually, turn back to Higher For Hire..." He paused. "The Sea Duck _is_ an old plane--" he began.
"And more reliable than any new, high-tech model on the market!" Kit threw the paper down angrily. "It wasn't The Sea Duck, Lungri! And it wasn't Baloo's fault."
Lungri instantly looked contrite. "Of course. I'm sorry, Kit, I didn't..."
"It was my fault." Kit looked down at his feet. Lungri went silent, and Becky blinked. "I was flying the plane when it went out of control. I may have misjudged the windshear, or caused it to pitch...I must have done something wrong." He looked up and Becky and took her arm. "Please don't get Baloo in trouble for letting me fly. I kept nagging him and nagging him..."
"No. No, oh, Kit," Becky said, swallowing.
They were interrupted by a second commotion, this time at one of the downstairs windows. Two orange-furred arms covered in grease stains lifted Molly, who was in oil-stained overalls, into the room. There was a soft thump, a muttered exclamation, and the sound of several voices rising in protest, and Wildcat appeared. He kicked at a reporter who shoved a microphone at him, slid into the room head first, rolled to his feet, turned, and slammed down the window. A howl of pain came in response from outside.
"Molly!" Becky stared down at her oil-stained daughter in alarm. One hair ribbon had straggled askew and there was a dark streak on her nose.
Molly calmly retied the ribbon. "Hi, Mom. Guess what, me and Wildcat solved the mystery!"
The three on the landing noticed the odd bulge in Wildcat's coveralls. As Becky, trailed by Kit and Lungri, came back down the stairs, Wildcat went to Becky's desk and dropped a slender but intricately-shaped airplane part all over Becky's clean white stacks of paper.
"What is that?" Becky said, as if Wildcat had dropped a meteor from the deep unknown recesses of the galaxy onto her desk.
"That's the Khan Aerobuckler," Molly said proudly.
"We found a teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy flaw." Wildcat held up a thumb and forefinger to show just how tiny it was. "But it caused a really, really biiiiig problem. This little piece, here"--he pointed with one dirty finger, "was 2 degress too far to the left. That may not sound like much, but the Aerobuckler is a verrrrrry delicate instrument. It got all lopsided and wobbly-like. So instead of making the plane easier to control, it just sort of messed everything up!"
"See, we figured it out because of the little scratches, there--" Molly's tiny golden finger joined Wildcat's. "Little marks that showed it had been moved. Wildcat found those," Molly conceeded.
The din of the reporters outside grew louder in the quiet that enfolded the group clustered about the desk.
"So it was Khan," Becky said softly.
"But why?" said Kit.
"No, it can't be..." Lungri's voice came out as a broken whisper, those rose in fury and volume. "I never actually thought--"
The normally gentle tiger whirled with a feral violence towards the filing cabinets. Seconds later there were eight gouges on the wall beside them. The "Gas'N'Go" wall callendar would never be the same. "I'll kill him for this," Lungri said low in his throat, hands flat against the wall now, claws still unsheathed.
"No Lungri." Becky put her hand on his arm.
"Rebecca..." he pushed away from the wall and looked at her, and his eyes softened.
"This is something I have to handle," Becky said. Shere Khan has to learn that sometimes little fish...bite back. Higher For Hire is my...belongs to Baloo and me now. I don't know where Baloo is, and I wish he were here right now. But if I have to do it alone, I will." Her mouth set into a determined line. "It was our responsibility, our decision. You were only trying to help, Lungri."
"This is my fault." Lungri said.
Becky shook her head.
Tiredly, Lungri glanced at Kit, Molly, and Wildcat, and then his eyes returned to Becky. "Rebecca, I have been terribly unfair to you, and to Baloo and Kit. I've lied to myself, and to you."
"What are you talking about?" Becky said, a strange catch in her voice. Molly stepped closer to Kit, eyes wide.
"Kit and Baloo's lives were in danger yesterday, because...because as much as I despise what Shere has become, I am not much better. At the time, yes, I thought I _was_ thinking of Higher For Hire. But now I realize that what I wanted was some way to drive the dagger into Shere. I wanted to see Higher For Hire take the spotlight and throw Khan Industries into shadow for once. To make him suffer, even the smallest bit. And for that, I talked you into taking a calculated risk that turned into a terrible one. Rebecca-- Kit--can you ever forgive me?"
"It's only natural you would want some kind of vengeance for what he did. And it was my responsibility, remember? Baloo could have said no.' I could have said no.'" She reached out, and took Lungri's hand. "I trust you. Even if you think you're at fault--you're not."
"Kit?" Lungri turned miserably to the bear cub.
Kit fiddled with his hat, which had skewed to one side. When the brim was settled at the back of his head to his liking, he spoke. "I forgive you. The question is, will Baloo?"
"Gimme another one."
"Cuz, that's your third. I think you've had enough."
Baloo growled at his friend Louie, the orangutang in the loud tropical-printed shirt behind the bar. "I said, another Krakatoa special."
Muttering under his breath, Louie ladeled out more scoops of ice cream. "Never listens to me...I'm just the best friend...four is his limit and he knows it...here!" he slammed the dish down in front of Baloo. "And don't say I didn't warn you."
Louie leaned his elbows on the bar and watched Baloo eat his Krakatoa special. Louie's Place was empty except for a few pilots trying to catch a meal between ports-of-call. A soft, Jazz-like piece played on the phonograph at the end of the bar. The palm fronds placed decoratively along the bamboo walls stirred faintly in the breeze from the overhead fans. The elevated far end of the dining room, which had once been the bridge of a ship, at the moment looked completely deserted and eerie even in the morning light.
The gray bear showed no joy in the process of consuming his Krakatoa special. Finally, he set down his spoon and stared at the ice-cream, watching it melt into a sticky, gelatinous mess along with the whipped cream.
"Shouldn't've been lettin' him fly, Louie. Not with a new part on baord. Don't know what I was thinking..."
"Cuz, it wasn't your fault..."
"It's always the pilot's fault. I'm the pilot."
"The papers say that part was flawed."
"From Usland's leading aeronautical design firm? I don't think so."
"Baloo, you're startin' to scare me, man. You aren't losing your nerve to fly, are you?"
Baloo's head snapped up to attention. "No. No, Louie--I can still fly. It's not for me that I'm worried. Lately, things have been goin' so well--with the business, with Kit bein' so happy--I forgot. I forgot that Lady Fate can be smilin' at you one moment, then turn around and drop you into the shark tank the next. Flying with Kit--it's different than flyin' alone, or with anyone else for that matter. He's...he's like..."
"Your flesh and blood?" Louie pulled out a cloth and began wiping down the bar. The song on the phonograph changed to a bluesy number.
"Yeah. Watching him learn to fly is like seeing myself. And I forgot. I forgot that beneath all the clouds of glory and the freedom, flyin's dangerous. Louie, the times they are a'changin'. All this experimental aircraft, jet engines, new parts...the kid could get himself killed. It's not like when we were cubs..."
"It was dangerous then, Baloo. Remember when we cracked up in your uncle's Puma Butterfly? Man, that thing crumpled like a matchbox when we hit that swamp."
For a moment, an answering wraith of a grin lit Baloo's face, and his eyes went far away. "Boy, was Uncle Henry mad at us..."
"Hey, wasn't my idea, Cuz. You were the one who wanted to take it up. Anyway, you can't keep Kit a little boy forever. He's growing up--" The phone behind the bar rang. Louie picked it up. " Lo, Louie's Place, what's shakin'?...Well, hello...Yeah?...Really?...Hey, sugar, that's great news...yes. Yes, he's here...at least, what's left of im...oh, no. When he hears this he'll get his wings back, don't you worry." He hung up. "Baloo, put away those blues. That was Becky, an' she says Wildcat just proved it ws the part that was to blame, not pilot error. What do you say to that?"
"It was Khan?" Baloo said blankly. "But why would he...that slimy, back stabbing..."
"Yeah, he's rottener'n a crate of month-old mangoes."
"I gotta get back to Cape Suzette. Wiley ready to go?"
"Few minutes, I think, he'll be happy to give you a lift. Bet you feel better, now?"
"You bet Louie. I'll even pay my tab." Baloo dropped a few bills on the bar.
"Will wonders never cease?" Louie gathered up the bills and dropped them in the register with a cheerful *ping!* "You and Kit will be back in the air in no time."
Baloo paused as he started away from the bar. "No, Louie. Maybe it wasn't my fault. But I meant what I said about Kit. This time, it was fine, we got out okay. But someday...no. Maybe it's time I started acting like a responsible father instead of a buddy."
"Baloo!" Louie's jaw dropped. Baloo only sighed and started for the door. "No, man, you've got it backwards...you treat the kid like that, it'll hurt his spirit..." Louie's voice trailed off as the double doors leading outside slapped to and fro, marking Baloo's exit. "...It'll hurt him worse than any crash," Louie finished, speaking to the empty bar.
The overhead fans spun silently, stirring the palm fronds. The blues throbbed from the phonograph. Louie let them play on.
Of the figure concealed behind the open newspaper, only his tiger-striped hands were visible. On the big mahogany desk were a series of deep gouge marks. The fingers holding the paper clenched tighter, claws digging in, marring the neat lines of print. Only the soft rustle of paper, the tiger's breathing, and the lazy stirring of the Venus Fly Trap broke the stillness.
"I don't care if he's too busy! Out of my way!"
The voice, feminine but strident, broke the quiet. The paper lowered and Shere Khan looked towards his office door expectantly. As the door exploded open with a force like a gale, only an eyebrow twitched in reaction.
Rebecca Cunningham strode towards the desk, trailed by an entourage of frantic secretaries all babbling at her that she couldn't just burst in unnanounced like that. Becky stopped at the desk and slammed her palms down on its varnished surface.
"Mr. Khan, we signed a contract to test a new part, a contract that was violated when that part proved defective. The controls to the plane failed to respond during a storm and nearly caused a fatal crash. You endangered my pilot and my business' reputation. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Khan watched her silently for a moment. Then, lifting a paw, he dismissed the frantic secretaries. Still without a word, he reached into his desk and pulled out a folder. He slid it across the desk to Becky. Suspiciously, she opened it and began thumbing through the contents.
"As you can see, Ms. Cunningham, that particular device has been in place in all of my private planes for some time now. And not one of them has failed in the dramatic manner you describe. Furthermore, I do not allow any of my products to reach the market in substandard form."
Ms. Cunningham slapped down the folder, then pulled a document from her purse. "Really? Then explain my mechanic's report."
Shere Khan's eyes ran over the document. "Hm. Most interesting. Span socket several degrees too far left...groove marks. Ms Cunningham," he looked up. "It sounds as if what we have here is a case of Industrial Sabotage, plain and simple."
"Sabotage is never plain or simple, Mr. Khan," Becky said coldly.
Becky glared at him. He stared coolly back. More seconds ticked by. The fire in Becky's eyes began to falter.
"You...deny that you sabotaged that part?"
Shere Khan indicated the newspaper. "Why would I seek to destroy my own company's reputation? I assure you, it was in my best interest to be seen in an amicable agreement with your establishment."
"Then who did?"
"That would seem to be the question of the hour." Khan put his hand on the office phone. "Good afternoon, Ms. Cunningham."
~ "...and in other Movietone news, Ichabod Crayne, proprietor of Crayne Enterprises, Inc., while standing on the front steps of his grand corporate headquarters in beautiful downtown Cape Suzette commented on the failure of a new part created by his rival, Khan Aeronautics. "Such a shame, of course. The pilot could have been killed! Khan Aeronautics was once the top designer of airplane parts in the world. But perhaps they have become a bit...complacent? Now, if Higher For Hire had been using a Crayne Hydrobuckler, this never would have happened. Crayne Enterprises offers only the most reliable parts."~
The delivery boy dropped the bundle of afternoon edition papers just ouside the news kiosk. The kiosk owner snipped off the string and started putting them out. Now the headline read, "Khan Aero Looses It Touch" with the subheadline, "Will Higher For Hire Fall Lower and Lower?"
A short figure in a trenchcoat, fedora, and sunglasses purchased a paper, tucked it under his arm, and walked away. A few seconds later a very tiny figure in a trenchcoat, also in sunglasses and fedora, purchased a rival paper, and also walked away. The figure's trenchcoat trailed on the ground, and the sleeves were rolled up.
As the little figure turned towards the park, a hand reached out of an alley and pulled.
Molly let out a yelp, which was quickly muzzled as Kit's hand went over her mouth.
"Sh!" Said Kit. He lowered his sunglasses and watched the park. "There's something going on over there. Just watch."
Molly nodded, the fedora sliding around on her head. She pushed it out of her eyes. Together, they peered out past the brick wall of the building.
Under a tree, by a park bench, a female tigress in a business suit stood talking to a dog dressed in a suit that had seen better days, a loosened tie, and a brown fedora.
"That's one of the reporters Baloo and I saw yesterday when we made the delivery. And that woman looks like the businesswoman Ms. Cunningham described. Ms. Ka--..."
"Kanat," Molly finished for him.
Ms. Kanat handed the reporter a thick envelope. The reporter rifled through the contents. Molly gasped. It was cash. The reporter tipped his faded fedora at Ms. Kanat, and walked away. Ms. Kanat nodded to herself, satisfied, and began to move briskly towards the other side of the park.
"Come on, let's follow her," Kit slid out of the alley and gestured for Molly to follow him.
They trailed her several blocks, until finally she went into the service entrance of Crayne Enterprises.
"Well, what do you know?" Kit leaned against the wall of a building.
"What does it mean?"
"It means we know who sabotaged the plane."
Baloo said several unrepeatable, unintelligible words under his breath. Lungri looked relieved.
"My dear Rebecca, although I am filled with indignation at what that rat did to your business, I can't help feel...surprised and rather happy that my brother had nothing to do with it. And it makes me feel more the fool than ever." The tiger glanced at Baloo nervously.
Baloo rose from his armchair. "Don't worry Lungri, I'm too angry at that skinny-nosed weasel to have time to be annoyed at you. Well, Becky, what's say you and me go and teach that guy his PDQ's?"
Becky looked subdued. "No, Baloo. That's not necessary."
"But Becky, he--"
"It's been taken care of," Becky said quietly. She gathered up her purse and went to the door.
"Where're you going?" Baloo followed her.
"I have some business to attend you. Mind the shop, Baloo." She turned away from him and left, shutting the door behind her.
"Well of all the--" Baloo spluttered. He looked at Lungri and threw up his hands. "WOMEN!"
The security guard at Khan Industries stratched his head, then handed the envelope to the messenger boy. "Take this up to Mr. Khan right away."
"Who should I say delivered it?" The boy asked, straightening his crisp uniform.
"Well, the envelope stationary says Higher For Hire, Inc.' You know, that company that's been in the news. Better take it up quick, it's marked urgent.'"
"Yes sir." The messenger, barely out of puppy-hood, turned smartly and hurried for the elevator bank.
Mr. Crayne sat calmly in his office, wraithed in cigarette smoke as he looked over a set of blueprints.
The door slammed open. Crayne looked up as Rebbecca Cunningham strode towards his desk, looking composed and radiating dignity.
"My pilot and navigator could have been killed, Mr. Crayne. What you did was unconscionable, unethical, and dangerous."
Crayne took a long draw on his cigarette and exhaled, letting the smoke wraith about her. "My dear Ms. Cunningham, I have no idea what you're talking about."
Becky coughed. "Oh, you don't, do you? What about Ms. Kanat? Would she know?"
Crayne didn't even blink. "Mr Kanat is an employee of Khan Industries."
"Is she?" Rebecca countered. She tried again. "And what about the reporter you paid to start slamming Higher For Hire and Khan Industries?"
"Again, I have no idea what you are talking about. How cynical you are, to think the press can be bought.
"There was a fourteen year old boy on that plane."
"Fourteen!?" Crayne sets aside his cigarette. "Ms. Cunningham, I am shocked, shocked to hear it."
A gleam of triumph flared in Becky's eye, but then Crayne went on--
"That a businesswoman of your reputation would use *children* in cargo runs. Tsk. I may have to report this to the child welfare board."
"Kit's always flown with Baloo," Becky countered, and now her voice shook, ever so slightly, although her face was one that could out-bluff a boardroom full of powerful businessmen, "...and he's never been in more danger than he was that night. I am going to report you to the better business bureau--and the police!"
Crayne chuckled condescendingly. "Ms. Cunningham, that would be...foolhardy. What proof do you have?"
"Take a look." She dropped a manilla envelope onto the desk. Mr. Crayne flipped it open and pulled out the contents. "My mechanic says the Khan part wasn't flawed, but tampered with. Mr. Khan has documents proving they've been in the Khan planes for months without incident. And my navigator and my daughter saw Ms. Kanat talking with a reporter who wrote an article against Mr. Khan, then go into _your_ office building. I'm sure I don't need to add, Mr. Crayne, that what you hold in your hands are merely copies, and that other copies, as well as the originals, are secreted in safe places all over Cape Suzette."
"Such documents can be forged, Ms. Cunningham," Crayne pointed out. "And I see here that your witness to this meeting never actually saw this...Ms. Kanat...in person before. How can he be so sure it was her? You don't have a legal leg to stand on."
"Yet Mr. Khan has in his possession a part without one single flaw. Imagine that."
"Now, that _is_ surprising. But a glitch in the assembly line process resulting in a handful of faulty parts hardly implicates _me_. What are you suggesting? That _I_ somehow arranged to have the parts tampered with? Why would I do that? You are a small business--no threat to me. It would be senseless."
"No, we're no threat to you. But Khan Industries--" "Do you have any _other_ evidence, Ms. Cunningham?" Crayne asks in a bored fashion. He took another drag on his cigarette. "Go head, report me. These documents aren't concrete. Highly suggestive, yes, but last I heard, the Better Business Bureau and the Aeronautics Commission was not in the habit of convicting people because of one fluke and the statement of a questionable witness operating on the basis of a second-hand identification."
"Perhaps you're right, Mr. Crayne. Perhaps we don't have enough evidence. But I know what you did, and you know that I know it. We will turn these documents in, and then we'll see. But someday you're going to make a mistake--your sort always does."
The doors to the office opened, and two security goons appeared. Becky gave them a cursory glance, then turned back to Mr. Crayne with a look almost of satisfaction. "Oh, so you called security on me? What's the matter, Mr. Crayne?" She leaned forward across the desk, regardless of the cigarette smoke. "Do I make you nervous? I can show myself out," she snapped at a goon as he tried to take her arm and pull her away from Mr. Crayne.
Becky walked out of the office, the goons trailing her, at a bit of a loss as to whether to dare touch her or not.
Alone, Crayne said softly after her-- "Perhaps I will, at that, Ms. Cunningham. Pity that by then neither you--nor anyone else--will care about doing anything about something so trivial as airplane sabotage." Shrugging, he turned back to his blueprints.
Kit and Molly crouched together in a corner of the Higher For Hire office together, pieces of lightweight wing material and tools spread out around them. Molly was in her overalls again.
"Okay, now tighten that bolt..." Kit showed her. "Good, now hand me the spanner."
The object they were working on was only half-finished, but what was there had a familiar curve to it--an airfoil.
"Kit, let's paint this one yellow and orange, like The Sea Duck."
Kit nodded, deep in concentration as he fit the pieces together, his hands moving fluidly, as if by instinct.
Deep in his armchair, Baloo gloomily pored over the late edition of the paper. "We're doomed," he said.
The door opened, and Becky, her shoulders slumped, trudged over to her desk and fell back into the chair.
"What happened?" Kit, Molly, and Baloo were on their feet, moving to the desk.
Becky folded her arms on the desk and rested her head on them for a moment. "I went to confront Mr. Crayne. Because we had the documents suggesting he arranged for the sabotage. He had an answer for everything. He threated to call the Child Welfare Board about Kit. And he said all we had was circumstantial evidence. Which is true." She looked up at their faces, then asked tiredly, "Where's Lungri?"
"He had to take care of a problem with his company," Kit said. "He said he'd join you for dinner."
"Oh," Becky said flatly.
Molly's fingers played with a rivet for Kit's new airfoil. "But Mom, if he did something rotten like that, he'll go to jail for it, right?"
"Not this time, honey."
"I don't understand. The bad guys are always stopped. Why not now?"
Baloo moved around the desk and put his hands on Becky's shoulders. She reached up and put her hand over one of his, looking up at him. "Because sometimes that's how things are," Becky said bleakly.
The tiger's hand crumpled Becky's note. "I don't like being made into a scapegoat," said Mr. Khan. "And I don't like being made a patsy." He turned to one of his pilots, who waited by a potted palm. "You understand what you are to do? Very well. Let's go, then--Ms. Kanat will be waiting for us at the airfield."
Ms. Kanat took another sip of her martini. The liquid vibrated slightly with the hum of the plane.
"What is it you wished to discuss with me, Mr. Khan? Why here, and not the office?"
"Oh," said Shere Khan, holding his own martini, "since you have been so intrumental in the introduction of the Aerobuckler to the market, I thought it symbolic that you come along today. You see, we installed the Aerobuckler from The Sea Duck onto this plane. It's part of the press release--as a gesture of good faith, I and one of my most trusted employees will be the passengers. To prove that the part was fine all along, and it was simply a fluke in the assembly line process."
"Why, Ms. Kanat. You're not drinking your martini. Is something wrong? Oh, don't worry, the part was repaired. The engineers discovered the flaw. Apparently the widget should have been a #7, or some such thing."
"But--no, oh no..."
The floor of the plane tilted abruptly. The martinis went flying, glass broke. Ms. Kanat was thrown from her chair. "Oh, no, we're going to crash, we're going to crash!!"
"Crash? Nonsense, Jeffries is an excellent pilot. Just a bit of turbulence."
"No, you don't understand! The Aero's design was perfect. Perfect! You...you didn't move the span socket two degrees right on The Sea Duck's aero, did you?"
Khan paused. Ms. Kanat looked up at him imploringly. He leaned forward. "Now, how would _you_ know the the span socket was too far to the left, Ms. Kanat?"
At that moment, the floor of the plane levelled again, and stayed there. Ms. Kanat stared up at Mr. Khan. Then her eyes widened...
~"The aviation world was stunned this week when Khan Industries charged Crayne Enterprises with industrial sabotage. The part in question was the new Khan Aerobuckler, said to revolutionize ease of pilot control. All charges of pilot error have been cleared against Higher For Hire, Inc., which was the first to test the Aero commercially. Higher For Hire's pilot will be testifying against Crayne Enterprises.
"In other news, Walla-Walla-Bing-Bang asked Thembria for military assistance against the increasingly devastating nature of Houn attacks at their border. The Grand High Marshall refused, pointing to Thembria's historically neutral position...."~
EPILOGUE--ONE WEEK LATER
The day had turned bleak. Gray clouds closed around the sun, finally dimming the light. A rough wind rippled through the thick but well-trimmed grass that edged the runway.
Kit walked across the runway, and continued until he was behind the hangers, reaching an area where the grass was worn into thin, hard dirt patches. With sure steps he went to the third trailer and knocked on the door. A sign hung over the door creaked back and forth in the wind: "Senior Flight Instructor." Beyond the trailer, the field ended in woods that seemed pressed under the weight of the blustery sky.
The door opened, and Bertie Tanfur blinked through his spectacles at his visitor.
"Hi, Bertie. Can I come in?" Kit hunched his shoulders as the wind wrapped around him.
"S-sure." The cat pushed up his spectacles and opened the door wider, beckoning the cub into an office with a fastidiously neat desk. At the end of the room was another door leading to a sleeping area. Over the desk hung a framed poster, a vintage illustration showing some of the past's most legendary flyers. Bertie sat on a canvas chair and directed Kit to do the same. "Wh-what b-brings you here?" he asked.
"I have a favor to ask."
"Sh-sh-shoot," said Bertie. "S-sorry, w-wish I had some soda p-pop to offer you, but I-I'm f-fresh out."
"I have fifty-nine dollars saved up. I'm a good worker--I could wash the planes and paint the outbuildings and--"
"K-kit, wh-what d-do you w-want?" the cat asked, looking puzzled and a bit overwhelmed by the sudden flood of words.
"Flying lessons. I want you to give me flying lessons. I can't pay you the full amount, so I was hoping I could make up the rest in chores."
"B-but d-doesn't B-Baloo t-teach..."
"No," Kit said flatly. "Not anymore."
"I d-don't understand." Bertie leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees, watching the cub. "D-did you ar-argue about something?"
"I don't know!" Kit threw his hands up in the air, then slouched, jamming his cap down as if taking all his frustration out there. "Everything was going great, but then that business with the Khan Aerobuckler happened. I almost cracked up The Sea Duck. It wasn't my fault!"
"I k-know," said Bertie. "I re-read the n-news report. I-industrial s-sab-sabotage."
"But after that, Baloo said he wouldn't let me fly. I could fly _with_ him, but I wasn't aloud to take the stick. So I guess..." Kit swallowed. "Guess he thinks I'll mess up The Sea Duck for good next time. He's always thought I was too young the start flying..."
Bertie sat back in his chair. A thoughtful look crept into his eyes. "Or maybe there's another reason he feels he can't teach you anymore. Flying is a glorious act of freedom, Kit. It has its rewards. But it is dangerous. And a young pilot like you is at particular risk of crashing because of your inexperience."
"So, he doesn't want me crashing his precious plane."
"I don't th-think it's his p-plane h-he's w-worried about, Kit."
A droning sound, faint, grew louder outside the trailer as a small, single engine plane landed on the runway.
"So, will you teach me or not?"
Bertie gave him a wan smile. "Sure. S-sure, I c-can t-teach you. D-don't w-worry about the m-money. Y-you just h-help m-me out around here and it'll b-be f-f-fine."
"Thanks, Bertie." Kit got to his feet. "I need one other favor--please don't tell Baloo."
"K-kit, I c-can't..."
"B-but you d-don't underst-stand..."
"Please, Bertie. Flying means more to me than almost anything. And Baloo...Baloo doesn't want me to fly anymore," he added, his voice catching into a whisper.
"R-report f-first thing W-wednesday. 6 am," Bertie said quickly, whiskers looking mournful.
"You got it," Kit said with more energy, and he left, letting the trailer door bang behind him.
Left alone, Bertie sighed. His hand went towards the telephone on the desk, then withdrew. Sitting back in the chair, he stared up at the poster of his heroes, lost in thought, for a long time.