Marm grabbed both of us boys by the collars, but Nip wriggled away. I trudged after her to the Foundlings’ Aid Office for my lecture.
“You are too easily distracted,” she said.
I wondered where my Gizmo had got to.
She said, “You’re demoted to fifth assistant cogmonkey.”
She’d demoted me to sixth last week, so I grinned. I wiped grease off my nose and found the offending cigarette behind my ear. Perfect day.
Gizmo whirred quietly on my knee as Nip retold the details of yesterday’s flight. Outside the theatre gondola, engine fumes stained the sky.
“Bored?” I said.
Nip said, “The play hasn’t begun.”
“Let’s sneak backstage and join in.”
Giz rolled under a chair, and we crawled after it.
“Parp!” said Gizmo.
We looked up into the pulley ropes, and saw a man with an eyepatch and a crooked neck. A dead, dangling pirate!
We snuck back into the empty theatre when the coast was clear. The body was gone, but Nip and Gizmo and I were determined to Find A Clue.
“Bing!” said Gizmo, dancing on one of its six radiating legs. I hurried over and saw an eye. It was some kind of metal, like my arm.
“It’s awful heavy,” I told Nip.
He stared, and said, “Jack! It’s heavy because it’s an auto-eye made of gold.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
Nip dodged a gear twice his size and flicked grease at it as it crunched onward. Zeppelin School for Boys minded an engine older than Marm.
“Was the pirate killed for his eye?” I mused.
Nip said, “More importantly, should we sell it?”
I pondered until Giz shrieked, “Parp!”
Metal teeth grasped my leg. I yelped and leapt into the air. The teeth kept turning.
Nip said, “You’re too easily distracted.”
“So I hear.”
Nip came running with the day’s paper: “Deadly Dueller Strikes Again!”
“It was him! The infamous Saturday killer killed our pirate.”
“He wanted the eye!” I said.
Nip’s eyes boggled: “I don’t want to duel him!”
“Me neither,” I said, “since I’d hoped he’d duel Marm one day.”
“I know where he kills them,” I told Nip.
He looked pale to me, but it’s hard to tell with Chinese kids.
“The roof,” I said, “so let’s go.”
Nip was quiet as we climbed the metal access ladders to the zeppelin roof. The wind whipped our hair, and Giz parped insistently.
Nip searched East, and I put Giz into my metal left arm and searched West. But when I returned to our meeting place, Nip was gone.
I put an ad in the paper: “I have your eye. You have my friend. Let’s meet at the same place at noon.” Hopefully Nip was still alive.
I stood on the vast canvas roof and heard the click-thump of a man with one metal leg. Nip shouted to close my eyes. I did. Giz didn’t.
The dueller said, “Stop messing about, kids. This is a vital clue.” He took the eye.
I asked Nip if he was hurt. “Nah. He gave me pork pie.”
Nip filed down a lump in a new cog. “Who are the alchemists?” he asked.
I said, “Dunno. Why?”
“The dueller kept telling me to stay away.”
We went immediately into unfamiliar territory: the library. All the books on alchemy were gone. The librarian said Marm took them.
We snuck off work and into Marm’s gondola. Her drawers were full of icky unguents and powders, and – for some reason – loaded mouse traps.
After binding Nip’s broken finger (luckily Nip didn’t have any metal parts, because those are expensive to fix), we found the books.
“Victory!” said Nip.
Giz said, “Bing!”
I said, “Now we read them.”
Giz said, “Parp!” and Nip fainted dead away.
I found diagrams of cool experiments. We stole giant canisters of helium and nitrogen. Something made me laugh maniacally for no reason.
“What happens if we mix them?” said Nip.
Giz said, “Parp!”
We crowded together on our bunk and unscrewed the lid of the nitrogen.
Nip giggled and fell asleep. “PARP!” said Giz.
I said, “My hands are soooo big. Look Nip! Nip?” My eyes closed.
Giz said, “PARP-PARP-PARP!”
When we came to, Giz was badly scratched from opening the vents.
Marm had her hands on her hips. “I TOLD you not to smoke,” she said.
I said, “We weren’t. We were studying alchemy.”
Marm blanched and left without another word.
Nip said, “She’s not angry – she’s scared.”
I found a note on my bunk. It said, “I know who you are and what you’re attempting. No more misguided mercy. We duel at noon this Saturday.”
Giz carefully examined the note. “Bing,” it said. I translated that as ‘Follow’.” We did – all the way to the dueller’s hideout – a home.
The dueller’s wife spotted us and invited us in for honey cookies. They were delicious. Then we left, wondering what to do.
We discussed our mystery at work. A gear malfunctioned, jumped its track, and came rolling to crush us both. We jumped out of the way.
Nip inspected the mess.
“Sabotage?” I said.
Nip said, “Yep – but not the dueller, since he’s already going to kill you on Saturday.”
“Parp!” said Giz.
Nip said, “Er. . . he’s going to TRY to kill you. Do you think his wife knows?”
“No-one who cooks that well could kill.”
Nip offered to teach me kung fu, since he was Chinese.
I said, “But you don’t remember your parents, so how could you–”
“I. Just. Know.”
Nip made me clean and wax our bunks for no apparent reason. Then he made me do it again. Why?
Finally Nip said I was almost ready. Then he punched me in the nose. I kicked him in the leg until he agreed to stop teaching me.
Nip paused in his cog-cleaning duties and made a face. “Did you just fart?” I denied the charge, and he threatened to show me more kung fu.
As I clambered onto the cog’s conjoined twin, I saw the cause of the smell. “Hey! There’s sulphur over here. It’s turning toward you, too.”
Nip said, “Mine’s got charcoal, and some kind of black stuff. It stinks like sh–”
I shouted, “Nip! RUN!” The alchemist’s trap met and BANG!
Despite Giz’s objections, I went to meet the dueller. “Thanks for trying to kill me yesterday. Did you get too scared to face a kid?”
The dueller paused: “Who tried to kill you? And how?”
“Alchemists, with gunpowder. Wasn’t it you?”
“No. I thought you were with them.”
He lowered his pistol: “I guess I’ll have to duel someone else. Like to meet tomorrow for home-baked pie and grandiose plans?”
The dueller made us pork pies and tea as he explained: “I’m trying to stop the alchemists. I saw you stealing chemicals and I thought –”
His wife rolled her eyes.
I said, “Well, now we’re clear – what do the alchemists want, anyway? Gold, I suppose.”
The dueller laughed. “Who wants gold these days? It’s nothing but a bauble – a useless side effect. They’re trying to develop a more powerful form of gunpowder.”
The dueller agreed that Marm’s behaviour was suspicious, so we followed her all day, sneaking behind clanking cogs and giant smokestacks.
At last we discovered her noxious secret: Marm had a boyfriend. They did gross, horrifying things – like kissing. Being a hero was tough.
We gritted our teeth and tailed Marm again. This time, we saw HER sneaking behind gears. We crept after her. So did our school-friend Grim.
We couldn’t get close enough to hear what they said – but Giz could. Grim showed her something, and she cried. It was as bad as her kissing.
We asked Giz a series of bing or parp questions, and discovered that Grim was an alchemist in training. He’d threatened Marm’s secret son.
Nip tried out his kung fu on Grim, and it actually seemed to work. “Leave me alone,” Grim said, “and I’ll pay you as much as you like.”
Nip and I conferred: “We want a pound of real gold.”
“Done,” said Grim, and left.
Nip sighed, “He’s definitely with the alchemists.”
We’d gotten good at trailing people, so the dueller agreed to let us follow Grim ourselves. Grim ducked behind a red-hot piston.
We circled the giant piston three times – no Grim!
I gasped: “The alchemists much have a secret passageway through the balloon!”
We cornered Grim and told him the dueller was on to him, and demanded he defend his honour at noon tomorrow on the Western roof section.
Grim smiled privately, and Nip and I exchanged a look. What did he know that we didn’t?
Nip and I hid, despite our assurances to the dueller that we could fight in his place. All he did was smile, and advise us to get comfy
At last Grim appeared, with a pistol in each hand. “I’m just a kid,” he said, “so I’ll take the first shot.”
“No,” said the dueller.
Nip and I leapt out and pinned Grim’s arms. The dueller said, “I don’t kill children – I question them. You’ll tell me everything you know.”
Grim endured the delicious baking of the dueller’s wife all night before the dueller even asked a question. Nip and I were invited.
At last the dueller sat Grim in a chair and asked him who he worked for. Grim burst into tears and touched a switch on his metal arm.
He exploded in a fireball, and nothing but his legs remained, stuck to the chair with blood. His metal pet jiggled in horror at his feet.
“Parp!” Giz said ferociously, standing over Grim’s metal spider pet. “Paaaarrrrp?”
The spider cracked and blurted out everything it knew.
We followed the spider along darkened passageways through the zeppelin’s helium heart. At last we heard voices – the alchemists!
Marm’s boyfriend stormed into our passageway and stopped dead. His mouth dropped open when he spotted the spider – and he kicked it to bits!
When we visited the dueller and his wife, they’d just received a note. “We know who you are, and we can defeat you,” read the dueller.
“Not in a duel they can’t!” I said loyally.
The dueller read on: “You die at noon on Saturday – wherever you are. We have eyes everywhere.”
Giz hid inside my metal arm and his beeps directed me all the way back to the baddie’s hideout by another route. I let him out by the hatch.
He rolled up the wall, parping quietly.
I whispered, “Be careful. Don’t get hurt. I’ll miss you, Giz.”
He stopped: “Bing.”
The dueller and Nip and I prepared for the fight while his wife separated a batch of glycerine. “BOTH my legs are fake,” said the dueller.
We loaded his golden leg with fuming nitric and sulphuric acid, and the other with glycerine. “When it happens, I want you to run,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” said Nip.
I said, “We’re definitely not stupid enough to go near Nitrogen of any kind.”
Nip said, “Oh, yep. Definitely.”
“Are you nervous about tomorrow?” I asked Nip.
He said, “No. You?”
“Nah. Although Marm might be mad about us blowing up her boyfriend.”
Nip said, “Does she know he’s the baddie?”
I said, “She’ll figure it out eventually on her own. She knows a bad egg when she sees one.”
Nip and I hid – again. The dueller waited – again. Hopefully Marm’s secret son would be saved. I remembered Grim’s bloody legs and shivered.