Tesla’s Stepdaughters – Chapter 8 Excerpt

Andrews took Ruth to lunch at a hotdog restaurant.  He was becoming increasingly fond of the American fast food.  He specifically asked the cab driver to take them to one “on the other side of the railroad tracks.”  Sure enough, there was a thriving community of black women, and while upon cursory examination the houses and businesses looked prosperous, the streets, sidewalks, and public works were clearly not as well maintained as those in the rest of the city.  They ate their hotdogs.  Their encounter with the police however, had fouled both their moods and neither felt like continuing afterwards.  Upon returning to the Biltmore, Ruth went to the Ladybugs’ suite, while Andrews spent the evening going through the thick file that had been put together for him in Chicago.  There he found a brief notation regarding a town in Mississippi called Oxford.  The next morning, he asked Agent Wright about it.

“A woman named Pearl Kerrigan wrote a long rambling threat to the Ladybugs back in ’72,” she said, after examining the note.  “It seemed serious enough at the time, so it was investigated by local police.”

“What did they find?” he asked.

“I don’t have any record of a resolution of any kind, but that was three years ago and the woman hasn’t been heard from since.  We rated the threat level pretty low, both because of how long ago it was received and the distance from any tour venue.”

“I have half a mind to go check it out myself, just to find out what happened.”

“I think it’s a waste of time,” said Wright.  “But if you want to requisition an airflivver, I’ll sign off on it.  I don’t think both of us should leave the area though.”

“No, that’s fine.  I can handle this myself.”

The airflivver met him on the roof of the hotel two hours later.  About as wide and tall, not including the dragonfly wings as a good sized car, and about two and a half times as long, this particular flivver was owned by a private contractor who leased it out to the government when it needed vehicles. Andrews dreaded getting into such aircraft when they were still running because of the reaction that some of the pilots had to him.  This pilot, a pretty girl barely old enough to have a pilot’s license, had apparently had contact with men before.  Though friendly and curious, she didn’t seem shocked to meet him.

“Hi, I’m Deb.”

“Agent Andrews.”

“We’re going to Oxford?”

“Yes, you know it?”

“Yes indeed-oh!”  She pulled back on the steering column and the vehicle shot into the air and spun around in an arc so tight that Andrews thought he would be thrown through the door.

Airflivvers typically had an airspeed of nearly two hundred miles per hour, and this one seemed to be one of the fastest, so the flight to Oxford took just less than two hours.  Along the way Andrews learned quite a bit about pilot Deb Gale, who was nothing if not communicative.  She was twenty-one, had moved to Atlanta from Ohio in order to get her piloting job, lived with two friends in a small apartment, and had a long distance friendship with a young man in the enclaves named Bud that she hoped would blossom into romance.

“I want to eventually get a job flying one of the big dirigibles, after I get enough airtime in.  Right now, I’m just enjoying the adventure.  You’ve got to have fun and adventure in your life while you’re young.  That’s what I keep telling Bud.  He’s twenty-four and he’s still afraid to move up north.  Pretty soon he’ll be too old for adventure and then what will he do.”

There was no airport in Oxford, at least not one capable of landing an airship.  There was a small tarmac where four or five airflivvers parked next to a single Quonset hut.  A single black and white police cruiser was waiting nearby.  Once they had landed, Andrews climbed out of the passenger side. Deb secured the craft and then followed him.  They were met by a single uniformed woman climbing out of the car.  She was a stocky woman in her fifties, her hair shot with grey.

“Agent Andrews?”

“Sherriff Donnelly.”  He reached out and shook hands.

“My goodness, I can’t believe it. An actual man right here in Oxford.”

“There are no other men in town?”

“Not for years now.”

“But you’ve known other men?”

“I’ve known a few,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.

“As I told you on the phone, I’m looking for Pearl Kerrigan.”

“I can drive you out to her place. She lives right outside of town. Nobody’s seen her in weeks though.”

“I’m coming too,” said Deb, as they piled into the police car.

“All right,” said Andrews, “but stay out of the way.”

They drove through town.  The once thriving main street had fallen to disrepair and beyond it was a town filled with old worn down houses with peeling paint, and newer mobile homes set back from the street in lots overgrown with weeds and brush.  Beyond the edge of town were a few small farms and then the ruins of abandoned farmhouses.  At last they pulled up in front of a turn of the century home.  It was in better shape than some of the places they had seen, but it looked quiet now.  The windows were all shuttered over and there seemed to be no sign of life.

Sheriff Donnelly got out of the car and walked up onto the front porch, peering into the front window before knocking on the door.  Andrews got out and walked back along the long driveway toward the separated garage behind.  He heard the sheriff knock several times and then call out but there was no answer. The garage had a door that slid from the side and it proved to be unlocked, so he pushed it far enough to create a two foot wide opening.  He stared into the darkness inside.

“Aren’t you going to take out your gun?” asked a voice behind him.

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