“It was pink.” The CEO’s face had turned its characteristic strawberry color. I held in a smirk, though it took all my willpower to do so. “My prime time blimp, soaring up above the city for all to see, my face, an icon of strength, masculinity, and industry, beaming down on the populace. And it was bright, screaming, sissy PINK.”
“I’m aware of that, sir,” I said in the most mournful tones I could muster. I’m a good actress, but it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. It had been a remarkable work of vandalism. Not only had the entire blimp been recolored in the CEO’s least favorite color, even his face had been completely repainted in gentle, friendly shades of pink. The detail had been truly impressive. The world’s most famous and powerful opponent to gay rights had been a laughing stock for several hours, until the pilot finally completed his route and brought it back down. He was still in custody, and had been questioned by half the police force and the CEO, Mr. Hanvil himself, but he appeared to genuinely not have noticed the paint job before boarding and starting his advertising flight. A drug test finally confirmed that he had marijuana in his system, so now he was being held for a different reason. But I was confident that he was telling the truth. The vandal was someone else.
“You told me you could find the lowlife who did it. It’s been three days and I haven’t seen a single arrest on the news. Where’s my vandal, detective?”
I forced myself to look intimidated despite my complete and utter lack of remorse. There was nothing to be gained by standing up to this man (or his army of lawyers) and a lot of money to be made in keeping him happy. “Yes, sir. It’s taking a bit longer than expected, but I’m sure I’m on the right trail. I won’t give up until I find the right culprit.”
“Damn right you won’t.” He seemed satisfied with my humility for the moment. “I expect results by the end of the week, Sharp, or I’m going to find myself another detective.”
Now that would be unacceptable. I couldn’t have another detective poking his (and it would certainly be a he) nose in on my case. “I won’t let you down, sir.”
“See that you don’t. I don’t want to have to regret hiring a woman to do what we all know is a man’s job. I hope you realize that if it hadn’t been for your little miracle last Thursday evening, I’d have never considered hiring you for a second.” It hadn’t been easy to persuade him to give me a chance. I’d had to fall back on sources of information I’d hoped to avoid, and nearly gotten myself into more trouble.
I repressed a grin of pride at having accomplished that without arousing the CEO’s suspicion. He was a miserable boss, but being in his employ gave me a lot of freedom, a lot of power, and, of course, a steady paycheck – so long as I gave him something he considered to be worth his money every now and then.
“Well I’d better get back to work straight away, then, hadn’t I?”
I had always loved blimp rides. It was like riding on a ship through gentle waters. The airships didn’t stutter and flail around on the turbulent air currents; they sailed. I opened the window and stuck my head out, allowing my long hair to be thrown around by the breeze. Some of it whipped back and hit me in the face, which always stung, but it was worth it to experience that unique sensation. Blimps were almost magical.
The other passengers were milling around, looking out the windows and listening to the sightseeing tour on their headphones. That was another bonus to blimp flight: it was loud, and you were spared any unwanted small talk.
But I had a job to do. I put on my own special headset and adjusted the microphone so the pilot would be able to hear me. Then I stepped into the tiny cockpit and once again flashed my badge.
This pilot was a little less abrasive than his colleague from the previous day. He invited me in to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I stepped in gingerly, afraid of bumping or brushing against some critical button or dial, which made the pilot chuckle.
“What can I do for you, Agent Sharp? Is this about the pink blimp, by any chance?” He smiled at me, and there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“As a matter of fact, it is,” I replied, keeping my both tone and my facial expression serious. I had a bad feeling about this one. “What do you know about it?”
He consulted a few dials nonchalantly, then leaned towards me – completely unnecessary, given that we were communicating via headset. “I was actually in the hangar that day. We spend a lot of hours on the job, you know. It’s not just…” He gestured broadly at the complicated instruments in front of him. “…this.”
I leaned back a bit, hoping (but, sadly, not expecting) that he would take the hint and give me some space. “And did you see the blimp in question that day?”
He let out an exaggerated sigh. “No, I’m afraid not. That one was in another hangar. I fly the passenger ships, you see. Mr. Hanvil keeps his blimp locked away in a private hangar. It’s a separate building, and none of us lowly passenger pilots are permitted to go inside.” He rested his hand on my knee. Ugh. I gently pushed it off and adjusted my position in the seat to keep as much distance from him as possible. I wished I could slap him for his inappropriate advance, but I still needed a little more information. Why couldn’t this job ever be easy?
“And did you see anyone else going into Mr. Hanvil’s private hangar that day? Or anyone at all suspicious on the grounds?”
He shook his head slowly. That arrogant smirk still hadn’t left his face. “Not a soul. I was so focused on my work, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a clown walking into the hangar.” He fake laughed at his own joke. This was too much.
He leaned in closer to me, his hands coming away from the controls and reaching for my arm and neck. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. Maybe there’s something else I could do for you?”
Fortunately, I believed him. This idiot hadn’t seen anything but his own reflection and the secondary sex characteristics of whatever females happened to be nearby. I didn’t even want to know how he planned to fly the blimp while he was doing something for me.
I quickly stood up, less concerned now about bumping something on the dash. “Nope, that will definitely not be necessary. I’ll just be going now.”
I hurried back into the passenger compartment and removed the headset, but not before I heard him mutter “frigid bitch” into the microphone. How charming.
I had one big question that urgently needed answering: had anyone seen the vandal? Was there anyone, anyone at all, who had a clue who had done it? Any evidence whatsoever as to who the culprit was? So far I was coming up with nothing, but I couldn’t give up yet. There had to be someone, surely. That blimp base was always full of people. Surely at least one person had a clue?
I certainly wasn’t out to help the CEO. That miserable old bastard was the worst enemy of almost everyone on the planet, whether they knew it or not. He may be most famous for his homophobic rants, but his manufacturing business was also frequently cited for failures to conform to environmental regulations. He was famous for saying that it was cheaper to settle a lawsuit than to conform to “hippie regulations” that protected our environment and several critical ecosystems. Aside from the countless animal and plant species he was casually rendering extinct, he was destroying communities of all sorts, razing tribal villages and polluting the drinking water of rural towns in several countries, completely collapsing small economies, and treating his workers as little more than slave labor. And that doesn’t even touch on his disgusting history of sexual assault and just plain unwanted advances on any woman he deemed attractive enough to merit his attention. He was, quite possibly, the most evil man who had ever existed – but because he provided luxury goods at low prices, few people were willing to call him out on it. And the ones who were, were generally not the types to have armies of lawyers at their disposal. The vandal would probably never be caught, I thought smugly, because no one would turn them in.
Ah, but that wasn’t quite true. Mr. Hanvil was a very wealthy man, and although he wasn’t exactly famous for his generosity, someone might hope otherwise and snitch on the vandal in the hope of a reward. And that was why I couldn’t give up. I had a puzzle to solve, and I wouldn’t rest until I’d found the answer.
On the other hand, it had been a stressful few days and I had hardly paused to sleep, eat, or use the toilet. I needed a break, even a short one. Just making the decision, giving myself permission to stop working for a short while, I already felt some of the stress of my current job lessening, however slightly. The fog in my mind that had been formed of pressure and worry started to clear, and I focused on my destination.
I changed trains and headed for the outskirts of the city. Thanks to the new high-speed train service that wove in every direction under the city streets, it was a short trip. Still, the acceleration and deceleration were jarring, and I found myself wishing I were in a blimp.
From the train, I got on a bus, and endured the bumpy ride over the unrepaired, pothole-riddled streets on the outskirts of the city. I was the only person on the bus. Frankly, it was a miracle it was even still running.
At last, I was at the edge of the forest. I watched the bus drive away, made sure there were no bystanders looking on with curious eyes, and ducked under the branches and on to the hidden trail.