It was Christmas Eve, 1897, and Joey Lunardi had invited us all up for a party on his airship, but he was anxious, because he wanted the party to end so he could make it in time for midnight mass. The plan was to land in Central Park’s airstrip at 11 o’clock and we’d all get in electric taxis to the church. Best laid plans of mice and airmen, often go a-gley – in this case, the turning point was when the flamingos went missing at 10:35.
Claire LeMaire, star of stage, screen and Edison cylinders, had just won the diamond prize for guessing the most mystery dishes at the buffet. And Joey, he didn’t do anything small – it was a flawless 10-carat rock, hanging from a pretty hefty gold chain. Claire was waving the thing under the nose of her “patron”, Eddie the Rat, taunting him. “How come you never get me anything this nice, Eddie?” she said, while casting a flirtatious glance at Joey.
Eddie was turning red – only a dozen of us at this party, because let’s face it, an airship is still limited capacity, especially when you are filling it up with buffets and Christmas trees and a fake ice pond, but still, at least ten of us who are not that impressed with Eddie – when he said, “What are you talking about, honey? I got you dem flamingos, didn’t I?” And we all turned to the fake ice pond, where the flamingos had been delicately dismembering fish most of the evening, and they were gone. “Hey,” Eddie said. “Where dem flamingos go?”
And so, after ten minutes of recriminations flung at Claire, Joey and Eddie’s “associate” Dasher Adams who was supposed to be Eddie’s bodyguard for the evening (“But nobody said nothing about being no birdguard, boss.”), Ava Astor suggested searching the airship.
“Maybe it’s a prank,” Eddie said sinisterly. “But it ain’t a very funny one, because dose flamingos, dey don’t belong here. So youse got to be neighborly and not upset them. Flamingos are very delicate birds.” Claire, who was already in tears from the previous shouting match, now melted into a useless puddle on the snow white divan. The rest of us began the search for the missing birds.
One of the chorus girls stayed with Claire, while the rest of us naturally fell into pairs. There were a surprising number of nooks and crannies on this airship – the kitchen galley, the ladies’ restroom, the gentlemen’s facilities, the closets, and of course, the crew quarters, the telegraph room and the control car. I wound up with Ava in the control car. The pilot on duty courteously suggested that there were no flamingos in the control car, and that we would be more comfortable on the main deck. We retired quietly to the telegraph room. By that time, it was 10:50, and Joey was yelling so loud, they could probably hear him in passing airships.
I started to light a cheroot when Ava took the lighter from me. “What are you trying to do? Blow up the airship?” “Sorry,” I muttered, and shot the cuffs of my evening suit.
Ava half-heartedly looked in cupboards and under the telegraph table – places where no self-respecting flamingo would hide anyway, but Ava wanted to be doing something, so she did. I started doodling a humorous penguin in a tuxedo on the telegraph pad, and when I started shading it in, the imprints from the ham-handed telegraph operator’s last message showed up. “’Get Joey down here now, STOP,’” I read slowly as the message revealed itself. “’The plan goes down at 11:45, not midnight, STOP.’ Hey, Ava, you don’t think this has anything to do with the missing flamingos, do you?”
I heard a loud thump, and I turned to see Ava next to the open wardrobe, with an unconscious telegraph operator slumped on the floor, and two dead flamingos. Ava arched an eyebrow at me, and in that Gilded Aristocrat way of hers said, “It possibly might.”
We dragged the telegraph operator to the infirmary and left him in the hands of the doctor on duty, then scurried back to the main deck. The chorus girl had apparently joined the search party, and Joey was consoling Claire on the sofa. In fact, he’d consoled about half of her dress off. Ava tutted and rolled her eyes, and I tapped Joey on the shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt, Joey, but your telegraph boy got cudgeled, and I don’t think you were supposed to see this.”
Joey’s eyes got big, and he showed the message to Claire, who had pulled herself together already. Her eyes got big, too. “The fools! If the turf war starts tonight, every Italian and Irish gang in the city is going to join in. Joey! You’ve got to stop them!”
“Joey, you ain’t stoppin’ anyone.” It was Eddie’s bodyguard, Dasher Adams, looking like a scared rabbit. A scared rabbit with a blow-torch.
“Where’s Eddie?” Claire asked.
“Out of commission. Not like you cared, anyway, Claire,” Dasher said. “Now, Joey, you and I are going to the control car, and we’re going to tell the pilot about the change in flight plans. We’re going to Florida.”
Joey smiled that big Joey Millionaire smile. “C’mon, now, Dasher. We don’t have the fuel to get to Florida. Now give me the blow-torch.”
Dasher flared the blow-torch briefly, and we all flinched. “I ain’t giving you no blow-torch. And if we don’t got the fuel to go to Florida, well, we can at least get a little bit closer. I’m not spending one more winter in goddamn New York, and that’s a fact. Now, let’s go.”
Dasher obviously hadn’t choreographed too many abductions before. He was nervous and tense, and it was the work of a moment for Claire to throw a slipper at his greasy head, Ava to trip him, me to grab the blow-torch, and Joey to tackle him to the ground. Joey strong-armed Dasher to the console on the main deck, and rang the electric bell that brought the first mate to the deck. “Toss this piece of trash in the brig,” Joey said. “And then make sure the captain is safe until we touch down in Central Park.”
Joey kissed Claire, and I looked at Ava Astor and wished she was still Ava Willing. She looked like she felt the same, but what was done was done in 1891, and all our wishes were horses. Still, we had the satisfaction of a job well done, and that would have to be enough. We looked out the window of the airship, and watched the stars and moon float in the night sky.