(an untold story from "The Sky: The World") by Jessica McHugh
“Quite the turnout, Jack,” Kat Barlough said as she scanned the empty airfield. “I thought you said you had tons of pilots lined up to audition.”
Jack hated that Kat remembered everything he said, especially when he didn't even remember half of it. She'd probably stormed into The Still while he was skull-deep in whiskey, accusing him of not adequately promoting the auditions for his dream aerobatic team. And he'd probably belched up a shoddy claim about there being so many pilots vying for a spot in the crew, they'd have to turn them away by the dozen. He may have under-promoted the event, but he did mention it while drinking at The Still and what place better than a pilot bar to spread news about recruiting pilots. True, many of the pilots that frequented The Still were either retired or too undisciplined, but Captain Jack Racine spent many of his nights there and he was the finest pilot in London, if not the world.
Buckles was good enough to keep his mouth shut about the lack of attendees, but Jack new he wouldn't get so lucky with Kat. He could always count on her to dash his good mood to bits. If she wasn't such a damn talented engineer, he would have ditched her ages ago; at least that's what he told her when she got haughty.
“How long do we have to wait for nobody?” she groaned.
“Don't make me give you a good slating, Kat.”
“You know he's not above hitting a woman,” Buckles wheezed in amusement.
“Woman? What woman? I don't see a woman,” Jack snickered.
Kat growled before hurling herself at him and knocking him to the ground. He let her have the upper hand for a few moments, delighting in the change of her expression when she realized she hadn't actually won. He rolled her just as easily as he had when they were children. She fought against him, but they both knew only part of her wanted to escape. Not that either intended on mentioning it.
“Now that's a woman,” Buckles purred gruffly.
“Stow it, Buckles,” Kat spat at him.
Jack cackled until Buckles yanked on his hair, and with his head lifted, so lifted his gaze to the beautiful woman standing on the perimeter of the airfield. When their eyes connected, her lips parted and a smile danced up her cheek. He was paralyzed by the power of her stride. Only the aid of music would have improved it; perhaps a waltz with echoing chimes to suit the bounce of her buxom charms. The breeze seemed delighted in playing with her fiery hair and lifted the panels of her skirt to grant glimpses of the flesh where her thigh-high boots ended and paradise began.
Jack sprang to his feet, butting in front of Buckles as he made a beeline for the woman in the skintight basque.
“You must be Captain Jack Racine,” she purred as she extended her hand. “It is a great pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Then let us meet again and again,” Jack said as he kissed the back of her hand. “And again.”
“That shouldn't be too difficult once I'm a member of your crew.”
“You are here to audition?” Kat asked with a snide emphasis on the “you”.
“Not that it's necessary, but yes,” she replied. “My name is Harlow Haddix and I'm the best pilot RAF Shrewsbury never had.”
“I was wondering if my non-discriminatory policy would drag any ladies out of the woodwork.”
“Nothing about me drags, Captain Racine.”
“So I see.”
“This is Kirkov, a truly expert navigator,” she said, gesturing to the man who was so slight and spindly, they didn't even notice him until he peeked over Harlow's shoulder.
He moved so gracefully and with such deliberate precision that Jack didn't doubt Harlow's statement. He'd known plenty of navigators in his life and the best understood that a plane's path was little different than a dance: something of which Kirkov, as a former member of the Ballet Russe, knew all about.
“Your qualifications speak for themselves and I”m glad to have you on board,” he said to Kirkov. “But you, Miss Haddix, I'll need to see in action.”
“Don't say you need it when you really want it. Besides, do you think an untrained woman would just saunter in here and pretend to know her stuff?”
“A woman like you might,” Buckles said, and Harlow scoffed.
“Darling, there are no other women like me.”
“From the look of your outfit, I'd say there are plenty of women like you found by those with loose morals and good coin,” Kat snorted.
Harlow sneered as she approached Kat and looked down at her.
“Don't tell me you're a pilot too. How can you even reach the pedals?”
“I'm a mechanical engineer, specializing in aerial picoepistemology. So, if you aim to take up one of our planes, I suggest not insulting me, lest you find yourself without an EPS.”
“That's enough,” Jack said as he pulled Kat away. “So, Miss Haddix, are you ready for your audition? Do you need to change your clothes?”
“I'm always sky-ready, Captain.”
She ripped a pair of goggles from her belt and as she began sliding on her gloves, Jack could easily picture her sliding other garments off.
“This is yours?” she asked and looked over the Azaz-450 as if it were a prospective lover.
“She's called The Sherwood,” Jack said proudly.
“I suppose that makes you Robin Hood.”
“Oh, for Azaz's sake,” Kat groaned.
“What about that plane?” Harlow asked, staring at a sparkling Azaz-D46 on the other side of the airfield.
“The Dragon? Dream on, Lady,” Buckles grunted. “The Dragon is the Flying Foxes' pride and joy and they never lend out their buckets.”
“She's hardly a bucket. I've never even seen a D46 this close before.”
“That's because Doctor Azaz only made fifteen models and never distributed the plans for more,” Kat said matter-of-factly.
“Well, look who knows her basic aviation history,” Harlow snickered. “It seems unfair that the Flying Foxes wouldn't share, especially with pilots that are clearly superior.”
“Don't even think about it.”
“Too late,” she said with a smirk and took off running.
“Jack, if she gets caught stealing that plane, she's going to get us booted from the airfield,” Kat said.
“You're right. Damn. I wish I had thought of it,” he said and dashed after her.Harlow made short work of climbing the Foxes' fence and plastered herself against the shimmering side of the coveted Azaz Dragon. Jack was enamored of The Sherwood, but he had to admit the extraordinary beauty of the D46. And it wasn't even at its full glory yet. The appeal of the D46 for aerobatics existed in 80% of the plane being comprised of picocrystals. The wings, nose, and tail had regenerative properties like most planes, but they also had the ability to change length and shape at the flip of a switch. It also possessed the Bird-Catcher feature, which was common among other aircrafts, but the D46 was the only aerobatic plane that came with it standard.
“Come on, Robin Hood. Steal from the rich and give to a poor girl like me,” Harlow cooed.
“I thought there were no girls like you.”
“I'm impressed. Most men can't recall anything I say when I wear this outfit.”
“I'm not most men,” he replied. “After you, Maid Marion.”
She flashed him a sneer, albeit a sexy one, as he lifted the front canopy and Harlow made herself at home behind the yoke. As excited as she was, Harlow dutifully performed her pre-flight inspection. After declaring everything nominal, she hit the master switch, depressed the primer and locked it in place, and with a quick prayer, she started the engine. The instrument panel shimmered irridescent as the D46 rumbled to life.
The Dragon took to the air like no plane Jack and Harlow had felt before. Each roll and yaw was smoother than the last, making servants of the currents. Harlow demonstrated her aerial prowess with little difficulty, executing maneuvers that only a seasoned pilot could perform. Jack was more than a little titillated by watching her. Her concentration was perfectly blended with her joy, calling up gleeful giggles and hollers as the Dragon sliced the clouds to wispy ribbons. She flicked one switch and the wings glittered as they thinned and elongated, lifting the craft higher into the heavens. She normalized the wings and elongated the nose, sending Harlow and Jack shooting through the sky like a rocket.
“Try the Bird-Catcher,” Jack said and Harlow looked back at him with a grin.
There were only a few birds in the sky and they kept their distance until Harlow slowed the aircraft. As soon as they became a little more courageous, she pressed the button and braced herself as the cabin started to shimmy. From the Dragon's belly flew a flock of crystalline birds. They glittered in the sun, but only enough to capture the eye of the nearby birds and not distract the pilot. Jack leaned against the canopy like a child watching his first magic show. Indeed, it had been many years since he'd seen the Bird-Catcher in action. It was beautiful to behold the birds built from Doctor Azaz's ingenuity, endurance, and mechanical dream, and it was also effective. The crystalline birds ushered their feathered forebears out of the plane's path. If robins could be intrigued, they were in the thick of it, trailing the strange but similar creatures away from the D46. Harlow and Jack were so mystified by the Dragon's amenities, they hardly noticed the crackle of the radio. The voice that spewed from it, however, would not be ignored.
“Jack Racine, we know it's you. You have five minutes to return our Azaz-D46 to the Flying Foxes paddock before we call the authorities. Do you understand? Over.”
“Allow me,” Harlow said and donned her silkiest whisper to answer. “This is Harlow Haddix. May I ask who I'm speaking with? Over.”
There was a slight pause.
“Lieutenant Leroy Bowman. Over.”
“Leroy. I've always liked that name. Listen, Leroy. Captain Racine is with me, but it was not he who borrowed your plane. It was me. I simply couldn't resist. I suppose I have some issues with control. I'm always doing the wildest things,” she giggled. “Captain Racine couldn't stop me once I had the idea in mind. No one could. He came along to ensure that I did no damage to the plane of a crew he respects so highly. I will return your plane immediately, but I want to be certain that you won't call the authorities or blame Captain Racine. Blame me. Punish me. Over.”
“I see. Return our plane, Miss Haddix, and we'll discuss repercussions face to face. Over.”
“How kind you are, Lieutenant. I look forward to being face to face with you. Over,” she exhaled and switched off the radio.
The Dragon was gracefully returned to its lair, despite how regrettable it was for its temporary pilots. As deeply rooted as Lieutenant Bowman's scowl was at first, it was lifted with the ease of Harlow Haddix's curling lips as she popped open the canopy. Although they'd abandoned the plane, Jack let Harlow continue with the control. As he slipped away, she steered herself straight toward the Lieutenant and barrel-rolled him with smiles until his thoughts of reprimand turned to thoughts of ribaldry. He didn't see Jack Racine. He didn't mention Jack Racine. All he knew was Harlow, and all Harlow knew was victory in her sensual ease.
“Thank you for the gift you gave me today, Lieutenant. Your plane is sheer delight,” she said as he opened the gate for her.
“Perhaps we could arrange another ride one day.”
Harlow chuckled. Leroy waited for her to give him some hope, but she simply tapped her finger under his chin with her lips pouted and turned away.
“That was an impressive display. In and outside of the Dragon,” Jack said as Harlow leaned against the Sherwood. “You could be quite useful to me.”
“My talent greatly exceeds use by only one person, Captain Racine.”
“It also exceeds use by this company, but hopefully you won't let that stop you.”
“From commanding the sky as my Second, Miss Haddix.”
“Welcome to the Sherwood Six,” Jack said and extended his hand.
She shook it demurely, but her excitement burst through and the grasp turned into a jubilant embrace. Jack was more than happy to squeeze Harlow just as emphatically, but as much as he wanted to tilt back a pint or two and see just how commanding Harlow Haddix could be, his exuberance about the crew surpassed both pub and bed. As raucous as Jack Racine could be, nothing was about to distract him from the task at hand, not even Kat's nagging about the silliness of the crew's name when they only had five members. He had good reason to keep focused. Not only did Jack intend on surpassing the Flying Foxes and the Azazian Aces as the most popular aerobatic crew in London, he intended on being as well known as the elusive Doctor Azaz himself.