“Zeppelin Jack and the Black Diamond” so far

1

My best friend Nip and I snuck into a real bar – sort of. We’d annoyed our zeppelin’s one and only barkeep until he punished us with dishes.

Giz parped in my pocket. Things are truly dull when your automata complains. But then I saw two men whispering, with their heads bent close.

I snuck closer and heard one man mutter that the black diamond had to be found. As I took their empty mugs, I heard a name – Esmerelda.

2

“But Jack,” Nip said again, narrowing his Chinese eyes at me until he went cross-eyed, “we don’t know an Esmerelda, and nor does anyone.”

We were half mad with curiousity, so we went and asked Matron if she knew an Esmerelda. “Oh no,” she said, “other than me, none at all.”

“Do you know anything about a black diamond?” I asked. She blushed three shades of red: “You orphans weren’t meant to know I was engaged.”

3

Nip and I hid outside the jeweller’s where Matron’s ring was getting polished. “So it was her fiancé we threw off the zeppelin roof,” I said.

“He DID try to kill us,” said Nip. “And, we blew him up.” “Shh! Gizmo’s coming out!” Giz parped frantically at us, and fled down a pipe.

The jeweller was deep in conversation with a hooded man. I crept in to listen and heard, “Do you think Esme knows what it is?” “No chance.”

4

Nip and I went to the library (ugh!) to learn (ugh!) about black diamonds. The librarian scowled at us, but she let us in.

Nip said, “Hey Jack! Black diamonds come from outer space.” “Is that why the jewellers are interested in Matron’s one?” “I don’t think so.”

5

I rubbed more grease into my side of the cog while Nip worked on the other side, hidden by the mechanism. The engine thrummed around us.

I said, “Black diamonds are exciting, when people aren’t silly enough to make them all lovey-dovey. But I think Matron’s ring is special.”

Gizmo said, “Bing!” and we moved on to the next piston. I said, “There’s only one way to figure out what it is, and that’s to steal it.”

6

Nip and I snuck into Matron’s gondola, wincing at the girly stink of it. I reminded myself she wasn’t a real girl, and was able to go on.

Hoping against hope that Matron was too old for cooties, I snuck close and saw the ring glinting beside her bed. I reached out and-

-she whipped out a hand and got me. “Jack? You’re demoted to sixth assistant cogmonkey for this. And you should be ashamed!” “I am.”

7

Nip and I bravely crept back to Matron’s gondola. There were other boys at her door, and when they spotted us they gave a shout! We ran off.

8

Nip knew the boys Matron had set outside her door, so he sacrificed himself for my sake, and challenged them to a kung fu battle elsewhere.

Giz and I crept to Matron’s gondola alone – only to be foiled again. More boys! As Matron, Esme had an endless supply. Giz parped sadly.

9

I reported to Matron for my extra duties, wearing my saddest, most parentless face. She shook my hand by way of forgiveness.

Her diamond ring slid off, neat as you please. Being a good boy is worth it after all! I took it to Nip and once.

There was something strange about the ring. The surface was badly scratched, despite the supposed polish. Giz rolled over to look.

10

Nip and I broke into an alchemist’s lab (much easier than Matron’s gondola, and far less hazardous in cooties terms) to borrow their scope.

Between the three of us, we drew the pattern of scratches from the ring’s surface. The scientist returned, but we just hid under the desk.

11

I returned Matron’s ring and told her a story about rescuing it from a Nasty Piece of Work. “Thanks,” she said drily, “you’re my hero.”

Somehow I found myself demoted to seventh assistant cogmonkey. Oh well – it could be worse. I could be blown up and thrown off the roof.

12

I had a dream and woke up knowing what was scratched on the black diamond. “It’s a map!” I said. Gizmo said, “Bing!” and I knew I was right.

Nip was unimpressed. He said, “A map of what? It’s just squiggly lines and a picture of a lemon.” I said, “And an X. Don’t forget THAT.”

13

The picture of a lemon was definitely A Clue. Nip and I went to the grocer to “investigate”. We stole three lemons, two limes and a tomato.

The fruit was delicious. The clue remained a mystery. What kind of treasure had anything to do with citrus fruits?

14

Nip passed me a rag saturated with oil, and I wiped down the number four piston. As I leaned forward, the map fell out of my shirt.

I grabbed the map, but it was covered in engine grease. Gizmo rolled around on his six little legs, parping miserably.

Nip carefully spread it out: “It’s okay, Jack. The oil seeped into the pencil grooves, but we can still read it.”

15

I slept with the map under my head, determined to keep it safe. When I woke up, my pillow was covered in squiggly lines of oil.

Matron called Nip and I to her office. Did she know about the fruit? I hid Giz in my metal arm in case she tried to confiscate him.

Matron dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief: “You boys know what happened to my fiancé, don’t you?” I said, “Didn’t know you had one.”

16

“We’re going to have to tell her,” I told Nip. Matron burst in: “Tell me what?” I panicked, and showed her the map taken from her ring.

Matron said, “A map? Really? It’s just squiggly lines and a picture of a lemon.” “And an X,” I said. She said, “Hmm.”

17

Nip and I had Gizmo thoroughly check we were alone before we dared to talk openly about the death of Matron’s evil fiancé.

“We have to tell her,” I said. Nip said, “She’ll kill us to death for not telling her sooner.” “Yes.”

18

I woke up and the map was gone! Someone had snuck into the foundlings’ quarters and stolen the only valuable thing. I suspected Matron.

Nip searched with me, but it was no use. The map was gone. But all was not lost – we still had a backward copy of the map on my pillow.

19

Nip and Giz and I were temporarily assigned to roof cleaning duties. The burnt nets where Matron’s fiancé had fallen through were fixed now.

When I’d scraped off the bird poo, I stopped to look at the view. Below me the wide sea was smooth, and the few people in the bay were tiny.

I pulled the stained pillow from my shirt and yelled for Nip, “Come here quick! It’s the bay! The map shows the coastline of Botany Bay!”

20

Nip and I went up on the roof again, so no-one could eavesdrop. I said, “How do we get down?” Nip said, “Can you fly? Because I can’t.”

Nip said, “Isn’t the Bay full of convicts anyway? Isn’t that why all reputable folk are up here in an airship – to avoid them?”

I said, “We’ll deal with the convicts later, once I’ve thought of a way down. Nip – Gizmo – we’re going to fly!” Nip said, “We ARE flying.”

21

I went to Matron and told her the truth: her fiancé had given her a treasure map. “We need your help to get down and collect it,” I said.

“There’s no way I’m applying for permission to take you on land,” she said, “You’d be a bad influence on all those convicts. I’ll go.”

“Nice work,” said Nip when I told him. I said, “Yep. Now we gotta get down there before she does. I bet she’s made copies of the map, too.”

“Meg the Egg” story so far

4

Mum walked in on Hugh and I kissing. “Sex ed clearly isn’t enough,” she said, and gave each of us an egg with a drawn-on face to look after.

She said it was the latest technology, and it would teach us about parenthood. Hugh freaked out and went home. My egg began to cry.

Mum made me walk up and down with the egg cupped in my hand until it finally shut up. I named it Meg, and decided never to have kids.

5

Stupid Meg is stupid crying and it won’t shut up. From now on, I’m only kissing Hugh if we’re both wrapped in cling wrap. Just in case.

Hugh tweeted that he didn’t want kids. Perfect. I wonder if sixteen is too young for him to get a vasectomy.

Discussed vasectomy with Hugh. He says he’ll do it if my Mum takes the eggs back. Definitely worth it. Meg makes my hands itch.

6

Miss Bobbit asked us what we were holding under our desks, and when we explained she had a coughing fit and left the room. NOT FUNNY.

Meg is oddly compelling. I feel funny without her neat warmth in my hand. Her little marker-drawn face looks like it’s smiling.

7

My BFF Sasha said that if I have to face parenthood my Mum should let Hugh stay with me so we can experience the pitfalls of married life.

When I asked Mum why she disagreed with Sasha she sent me to my room. Meg was making little gurgling noises. Pretty cute for a robot.

8

Meg was doing so well, and then at 3am she spat out some kind of green goo. Mum sucks! I never woke HER at 3am when I was a baby.

Fell asleep and missed drama class. Why couldn’t I fall asleep in maths? What’s wrong with me? I LIKE drama. Uh-oh, Meg needs a walk again.

9

Hugh pulled me over at lunch to show me something cool. He threw his egg (Sven) up in the air. It made a squealing noise like it was happy.

I wasn’t sure I dared throw Meg anywhere, even if it helped develop her motor skills in later life. Hugh grabbed her and chucked.

Meg flipped over and – yes, she was laughing! Hugh stepped forward to catch her and slipped. I dived facedown and JUST got her. Never again!

10

Rough night. When I woke up, both my hands were dark purple with bruising. Hugh came over and his hands were the same – especially the left.

“It’s Sven,” he said, “because I hold him in my left hand so my right is free for the remote.”

“Should infants be watching TV?”

“Not the point,” said Hugh.

I said, “Fine. We’re – allergic, or something. Should we tell my Mum?”

“What if she makes us give them up?”

11

I walked into Mum’s room without thinking, and saw her getting dressed. Her skin was green and slimy, and she pulled on a human skin suit.

She turned slowly and looked at me with two bulbous eyes on stalks: “We need to talk.”

I stood frozen: “You’re not Mum.”

“No.”

The alien explained that my real Mum was in Barbados and would be back for Christmas: “Call me Xarla.”

“Oh. . . sure. Er. Nice name.”

12

Hugh and Xarla and I sat down with the eggs. “We need human blood to feel our children,” she explained – “so, sorry about your hands.”

“Why don’t I remember Mum saying she was going away?” I asked.

Xarla said, “Short-term memory wipe. Give it another day or two.”

I called Mum in Barbados. “Are you doing your homework?” she trilled.

I said, “Um. Yes. So you’re fine?”

“Time of my life!”

“Okay then.”

13

Meg was crying again, so I walked around with her in my hand for over an hour. Now I knew she was doing it, I could feel tiny pinpricks.

I called Hugh. “Is Xarla implanting me with something? Because I’m finding it cute how Meg drinks my blood.”

Hugh was silent a long time.

“No,” he said at last: “They’re not altering us to like the eggs. Humans are biologically programmed to like small messy helpless things.”

14

Hugh and I sat close together at the back of English and discussed whether or not we were aiding an alien invasion of Earth.

I decided, “I don’t THINK we’re betraying the human race. I think we’re just. . . babysitting.”

Hugh nodded.

“If the aliens do take over, do you think they’ll abolish school?” said Hugh.

I said, “Another excellent point.”

15

For the sake of the children, Hugh and I skipped maths. I know I’D wipe out humanity if that was what I saw of it.

16

Hugh and I had dinner with Xarla – she cooked a great lasagna.

I said, “Er. . . would you mind putting your human skin suit back on?”

“No problem,” said Xarla.

Hugh whispered, “Adults are sooo gross.”

“I know.”

17

We took the eggs to a Lady Gaga concert. They moved around a lot, but I couldn’t tell if they were dancing or trying to escape.

“Meg the Egg” tale so far

[I think you’ll enjoy tomorrow’s tweets.]

4

Mum walked in on Hugh and I kissing. “Sex ed clearly isn’t enough,” she said, and gave each of us an egg with a drawn-on face to look after.

She said it was the latest technology, and it would teach us about parenthood. Hugh freaked out and went home. My egg began to cry.

Mum made me walk up and down with the egg cupped in my hand until it finally shut up. I named it Meg, and decided never to have kids.

5

Stupid Meg is stupid crying and it won’t shut up. From now on, I’m only kissing Hugh if we’re both wrapped in cling wrap. Just in case.

Hugh tweeted that he didn’t want kids. Perfect. I wonder if sixteen is too young for him to get a vasectomy.

Discussed vasectomy with Hugh. He says he’ll do it if my Mum takes the eggs back. Definitely worth it. Meg makes my hands itch.

6

Miss Bobbit asked us what we were holding under our desks, and when we explained she had a coughing fit and left the room. NOT FUNNY.

Meg is oddly compelling. I feel funny without her neat warmth in my hand. Her little marker-drawn face looks like it’s smiling.

7

My BFF Sasha said that if I have to face parenthood my Mum should let Hugh stay with me so we can experience the pitfalls of married life.

When I asked Mum why she disagreed with Sasha she sent me to my room. Meg was making little gurgling noises. Pretty cute for a robot.

8

Meg was doing so well, and then at 3am she spat out some kind of green goo. Mum sucks! I never woke HER at 3am when I was a baby.

Fell asleep and missed drama class. Why couldn’t I fall asleep in maths? What’s wrong with me? I LIKE drama. Uh-oh, Meg needs a walk again.

9

Hugh pulled me over at lunch to show me something cool. He threw his egg (Sven) up in the air. It made a squealing noise like it was happy.

I wasn’t sure I dared throw Meg anywhere, even if it helped develop her motor skills in later life. Hugh grabbed her and chucked.

Meg flipped over and – yes, she was laughing! Hugh stepped forward to catch her and slipped. I dived facedown and JUST got her. Never again!

10

Rough night. When I woke up, both my hands were dark purple with bruising. Hugh came over and his hands were the same – especially the left.

“It’s Sven,” he said, “because I hold him in my left hand so my right is free for the remote.” “Should infants be watching TV?”

“Not the point,” said Hugh. I said, “Fine. We’re – allergic, or something. Should we tell Mum?” “What if she makes us give them up?”

“The Captain’s Daughter” so far

1

I curled my toes around the narrow foot-rope, and dug my nails into the knot tying up the sail. No good; I bite my nails too much. On the up side, my teeth are good. I leaned into the wind and pulled at the knot with my teeth. Spitting fibers, I pulled the rope free.

Da’s first mate, Hank, met me on deck. He said, “You’re disgusting, Gail. Biting at ropes like a dog.”

“At least I don’t look like one.”

2

Da called me to his cabin. “Sir?” I said.

He said, “In here, call me Da.”

“Yes Da.”

“You’re old enough now to think of your future.”

“Oh.” My heart sank. I bit my nails, wondering if he’d marry me off.

He cleared his throat: “I want you to be captain after me.”

“What?”

He said, “The men know you – and I won’t live forever.”

I said, “You WILL live forever, Da – I order it.”

He grinned: “Whatever you say.”

3

We neared a familiar port. I held the lead line – mainly so I could sit apart from the rest and wonder if they’d really obey me one day. The cord ran through my hands and stopped. I stared for a second before realising the harbour floor had shifted. “Avast! Turn about!”

My friend Jim was on the wheel, and he pulled hard. The ship wailed as it turned too hard, but we made it safely. Jim, at least, obeyed me.

4

I still wanted to think, so I stayed on board while the rest went to spend their gold or line their pockets with other people’s purses. Da came back with a red-faced and slouching boy who wouldn’t meet my eye. He introduced my brother, Al.

Al said, “I’m gonna be captain.”

“No you ain’t!” I said.

He threw a punch and I threw it back, giving him a nice bloody nose with his own fist. Da sent me to the hold.

5

Da came to me: “I didn’t know about Al until now – and Hank said the men’d be ashamed to let a woman lead them. He knows the crew, Gail.”

I shook my head at him, too furious to speak.

Da said, “It’ll be better this way – you’ll see. We’ll find a place for you.”

Da left, and I fumed. The ship was mine, and no long-lost landlubber kid was going to take it from me. I was NOT going to be married off!

6

A dash of bilgewater poured into my face, waking me. I couldn’t help noticing the ship was heeling badly. Above me, thunder rolled. I watched as rats leapt and scuttled up the walls, leaving the bilgewater and I alone. Hm.

I climbed on top of some crates and held on.

7

The hatch opened and Al peered in, munching on a fresh red apple. My stomach growled.

“Our Da sent me to let you out,” he said. “There’s a big storm happening. I wouldn’t want my baby sister to get hurt.” He closed the hatch, and I heard the lock turn.

“Baby?” I muttered, and followed the rats upward. Da had long since taught me to undo any lock. If he said I was allowed out, I was free.

8

I was tugging on a line with Al when we were all tumbled by a rogue wave. Most of us were smart enough to hold on. Al wasn’t. I let go and dived for my landlubber half-brother, and caught hold of his curly red hair just before he was swept overboard.

When the wave was gone, I let go of Al’s hair and went to tie up the sails. He got up – slowly. We both knew I’d saved his life.

9

Al and I worked and I saw Da nod an apology to me. He’d taught me long ago that sometimes, a captain needs to turn a blind eye. I got that.

We made port at Tin Island – the place Da found me when I was just a kid. The orphanage stood majestically shining on a high hill.

10

Da summoned all hands. “As you are aware, I now know I have two able-bodied children. I intend to leave this ship to one of them. Here is the challenge: Whichever one gains the most gold in the next two weeks will be my heir. Are we agreed?” The crew cheered.

I gave Da a nod of thanks, and he grinned back. All I had to do was get more gold, and the crew’s hearts and minds were mine forever.

11

Da found me in the market and asked me to come with him. We walked all the way up the winding orphanage path, past children working. “Why bring me back to this hole?” I asked.

Da said, “Sometimes, our future is found in the past.”

He left me at the same place Ma dumped me.

My old mistress tried to sell me a “good, hard-working set of twins” and I said I’d think about it. I slipped the kids a few coins and fled.

12

I suddenly realised why Da had reminded me of my past. Rope in hand, I went back up the hill to the orphanage and climbed the back wall. The strongboxes were where I remembered them. Mistress had punished me once by making me count out all the gold coins in one trunk. Mistress’ Dobermans ran to attack, but the mum remembered me. I’d always treated her well.

I took as much gold as I could carry.

13

I presented my haul publicly, and promised the same again. Da hid his smile. I saw cogs turning in the heads of the crew, and knew I’d won.

Al took me aside: “This is a fool’s contest. What say we get rid of the greedy old man and take this ship as ours.”

“No!”

He drew his sword. I grabbed his blade with my hand and kneed him in the groin. He pulled back, splitting my palm, and bashed my head with the hilt. I fell.

14

When I awoke, Hank was there. I blinked: “Why are we in the hold?”

“Because your brother bribed me to kill you while your Da was with him.”

I said, “You like bribes, then?”

Hank smiled and drew his sword.

I said, “Let me go, and I’ll tell you where I got all that gold.”

I went up on deck smiling.

Hank was honorable enough to leave my death for later. I hoped he enjoyed meeting my old mistress’ Doberman.

15

I hadn’t seen Al, and hoped he’d fled to make a different life for himself. But I had a bad feeling, and went to check on Da. I unpicked the lock and flung open the door to my exhausted Da and brother, each bleeding in a dozen places. I yelled my rage and attacked.

Al fled.

Da collapsed, and I ran to him instead of giving chase. “Gail, I’m so sorry – for everything.”

“Shut up,” I said, and bandaged him.

16

There was no sign of Al when we set sail. I privately hoped my old mistress found him.

“Where’s Hank?” Da asked.

I said, “Dog food.”

17

Da surprised me by officially passing across captaincy of his ship to me. The crew cheered – evidently, I was the last to know. I straightened up, accepting my new life. Jim winked, and I wondered if he was being disrespectful. He confused me. That could be an issue.

18

I made Da keep his cabin, but we were both on night watch so it didn’t matter. Not until we finished, and found a corpse locked in there.

Kip was just another member of the crew until I found him stabbed in the captain’s cabin. Who would do something like that?

Our cook ran out of the galley. “Who took my apples? They were for a pie for all of us. Where are they?”

Suddenly I knew: Al was a stowaway.

19

We searched the ship room by room and found another dead body – stabbed in the back. Al was a coward as well as a killer. But it got worse. The crew took Da and I and locked us inside Da’s cabin. “If you can’t protect us, we’ll take Al over you,” they said.

Jim didn’t look at me.

Da and I stood with clenched fists, waiting for Al’s visit. We heard him pass, but he didn’t visit – not even to gloat.

20

Al came to see us: “Will you obey my command?”

“Not a chance,” I said.

Da tried to stand in front of me, so he’d be killed first.

Al left us to stew all day. Someone snuck a dagger under the door, and I hid it under my shirt and hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

“Gail?” said Da.

I said, “Mm?”

“Did I mention I was sorry about your brother? From about a day after we met?”

“I had gotten that feeling.”

“The Captain’s Daughter” so far

In theory, I post the current twittertale so far each Friday (immediately before posting that day’s awesomeness). Today, I actually remembered.

The Captain’s Daughter

1

I curled my toes around the narrow foot-rope, and dug my nails into the knot tying up the sail. No good; I bite my nails too much.

On the up side, my teeth are good. I leaned into the wind and pulled at the knot with my teeth. Spitting fibers, I pulled the rope free.

Da’s first mate, Hank, met me on deck. He said, “You’re disgusting, Gail. Biting at ropes like a dog.”

“At least I don’t look like one.”

2

Da called me to his cabin. “Sir?” I said.

He said, “In here, call me Da.”

“Yes Da.”

“You’re old enough now to think of your future.”

“Oh.”

My heart sank. I bit my nails, wondering if he’d marry me off. He cleared his throat: “I want you to be captain after me.”

“What?”

He said, “The men know you – and I won’t live forever.”

I said, “You WILL live forever, Da – I order it.”

He grinned: “Whatever you say.”

3

We neared a familiar port. I held the lead line – mainly so I could sit apart from the rest and wonder if they’d really obey me one day.

The cord ran through my hands and stopped. I stared for a second before realising the harbour floor had shifted. “Avast! Turn about!”

My friend Jim was on the wheel, and he pulled hard. The ship wailed as it turned too hard, but we made it safely. Jim, at least, obeyed me.

4

I still wanted to think, so I stayed on board while the rest went to spend their gold or line their pockets with other people’s purses.

Da came back with a red-faced and slouching boy who wouldn’t meet my eye. He introduced my brother, Al. Al said, “I’m gonna be captain.”

“No you ain’t!” I said. He threw a punch and I threw it back, giving him a nice bloody nose with his own fist. Da sent me to the hold.

5

Da came to me: “I didn’t know about Al until now – and Hank said the men’d be ashamed to let a woman lead them. He knows the crew, Gail.”

I shook my head at him, too furious to speak. Da said, “It’ll be better this way – you’ll see. We’ll find a place for you.”

Da left, and I fumed. The ship was mine, and no long-lost landlubber kid was going to take it from me. I was NOT going to be married off!

“Zeppelin Jack and the Deadly Dueller” so far

1

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.

2

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!

3

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.”

4

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.”

5

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.”

6

“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.

7

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.”

8

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.

9

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.

10

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!”

11

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.”

12

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.

13

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.”

14

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.

15

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!

16

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?”

17

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.”

18

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.

19

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.

20

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.”

21

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!”

22

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?

23

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.”

24

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.

25

“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!

26

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.”

27

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.”

“You too.”

28

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.”

29

“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.

“ZEPPELIN JACK AND THE DEADLY DUELLER” so far

1

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.

2

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!

3

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.”

4

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.”

 5

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.”

6

“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.

7

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.”

8

 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.

9

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.

10

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!”

11

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.”

12

 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.

13

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.”

14

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.

15

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!

16

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?”

17

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.”

18

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.

19

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.

20

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.”

21

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!”

22

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?

23

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.”

24

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.