An accomplished vocalist, Florence Carstairs was accustomed to having her voice soar to remarkable heights. Having her body go along was a new experience.
She did not go quietly. The songbird elevated her chin to a haughty altitude. With her head held high, she looked down her nose at the man seated nearby. He was too busy working levers with his hands—and pedals with his feet—to notice her disdainful posture.
Flo leaned forward and said, “Dash my wig! The flapping of those infernal wings is ruining my coiffure.”
The man ignored her.
She put her lips close to his ear and all but screamed, “I’m a renowned chanteuse. I dislike being rotten-appled.”
This time the man flinched. The break in his concentration had untoward consequences.
There was a sudden lurch and Flo momentarily lost her balance. She grabbed a strut to keep from being knocked off her perch.
The man quickly adjusted the controls and equilibrium was restored. He turned his head slightly and raised his voice to make himself heard over the unconventional sounds produced by the uncanny machine enabling their airborne conveyance. “Time waits for no man. Nor for any woman either. Not even for her Majesty the Queen. We’re needed elsewhere post haste, and my steam-powered ornithopter is the swiftest vehicle for getting us across town. I can assure you the hissing is not directed at you personally.”
Flo quit talking and held on for dear life.
They resumed skimming over rooftops in relative silence. They were not impeded by flying traffic. Birds, both large and small, gave their airship a wide berth.
A short while later the pair of aeronauts landed safely in an open space between two rundown buildings. They were met by a uniformed policeman. “Professor Wescott, I presume.”
The new arrival nodded. “Your presumption is correct, Sergeant, and this is Miss Carstairs. We were summoned here by a consulting detective.”
“He awaits within. Constable Beal will show you the way.”
Flo was a reluctant follower. She began to drag her feet in earnest as they approached a stairwell inside the dilapidated structure.
The professor took a firm grip on the singer’s upper arm and urged her forward. “It’s too late for you to get cold feet now. I would be hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement at this late hour.”
As they descended, the hem of Flo’s voluminous dress brushed dust from the treads.
The space at the foot of the stairs was brightly illuminated with the harsh light from an assortment of lanterns. The only person in view was a man in a deerstalker cap. He was bent nearly double near the clear glass panel of a sturdy wooden door.
Flo paused. The stirred-up dust wafted around her. She sneezed.
The man glanced at her, but only briefly. Either he had no time for formal introductions or there was no inclination on his part to perform them.
“Where is my audience?” Flo asked the professor. “Where is my musical accompaniment?”
“A cappella will do.”
“This is hardly a fitting venue for a command performance.”
“Shall we be aboveboard with her, Mister H?” Professor Wescott asked. He waited for a brief dip of the leading brim of the deerstalker hat before continuing. “Although you are here at the Queen’s behest, her Majesty will not make an appearance.”
Flo folded her arms. “This is highly unusual. I refuse to sing even a single note until you tell me what’s going on.”
“One note should be sufficient.”
“To do what?”
The detective motioned for her to approach. He shone his lantern through a circular opening about four inches in diameter which he’d cut in the glass panel. “Behind this door is a woman in grave peril. Only you can save her.”