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· Greybeard Island, 1940 ·
A dreamlike night, Nick McIver felt, pulling up the soaking sheepskin collar on his father's leather bomber jacket. A cold, wet wind swept mist in from the dark and restless sea as he made his way along the coast road that defined the small coastal town of Pennywhistle.
The multicolored lights at Pennywhistle Park, a tiny amusement center, were shrouded in ghostly haloes. The lights of the park's rides looked, the boy thought, the way a Christmas tree looked when you squinted your eyes, peeking at it one last time before sleepily climbing the stairs on Christmas Eve.
Strolling the empty streets, young Nicholas McIver vaguely recognized the town. His mother had a sister who lived in a village that very much resembled this one, but he'd visited only once, years earlier, and he was a bit foggy on the details.
He did recall that Pennywhistle Park was located on a rocky point sticking out into the sea. It was nearly deserted at this hour, he saw, passing under the lighted entrance. The sun was long down, and the night was growing cold. Most children were home having supper or climbing into their warm beds. Why wasn't he?
He couldn't say, really, but here he was.
The Ferris wheel, his original destination, came to a creaky stop, and a few strangely silent children climbed out of the cars and rushed into their parents' arms, all of them soon disappearing into the mist. Now, it seemed as if he had the entire park to himself. He stepped up to the ticket window. The ticket-taker, with his green eyeshade, looked an awful lot like Nick's best friend in the world, a man named Gunner. A dead-ringer, as his dad would say, down to his full white beard and gold-rimmed glasses!
"Sorry, son, park's shutting down for the night," the bearded man said when the lad approached, his money tightly clenched in his fist.
"Are all the rides closed, sir?" Nick asked, marveling at the man's voice. He even sounded like Gunner!
"Well, there is one ride still open, lad. The Whirl-O-Drome."
"The spinning airplanes, do you mean? That's the one I've come for, sir."
"Not just any old airplanes, son, but miniature Spitfires. Supermarines, just like the real thing our boys will be flying when the shooting war with Germany begins. Only without the working engines and machine guns, of course." The man laughed.
"Which way is the Whirl-O-Drome, sir?"
"Farthest ride out there. Follow the midway here all the way to the end of the point. See that big flashing red propeller sign spinning round out there? Bit foggy to make out, but there she is, all right. Still catch a ride, looks like, if you hurry."
"Thank you very much, sir. If I can't ride the Ferris wheel, that looks like a good one."
"Fancy yourself a pilot, do you?"
"Someday I will be one, sir. My father, you see, was a hero in the Great War. Shot down over the Ardennes, but he took more than a few German Fokkers with him. I plan to sign up with the Royal Flying Corps soon as I'm old enough. You can count on that!"
"Good lad. England will need thousands of brave boys like you before this coming war is over. I just heard over the wireless that German armies have marched into Belgium and Holland. And that Chamberlain has resigned, and Churchill is to be Prime Minister."
"I've had the pleasure of meeting the great man, sir. And if anyone can bring us safely through this war, it is Winston Churchill."
Nick McIver bade the man farewell and followed the darkened midway out to the Whirl-O-Drome. It was very windy and chilly. But he was wearing his father's old leather flying jacket and leather helmet, and both gave him a good deal of warmth.
The ride was like a big wheel set on its side, with a slowly revolving beacon light at its hub and eight tiny silver Spitfire airplanes at the end of each spoke. He noticed that all the little planes were empty. As the great wheel turned, the propellers at the nose of each plane spun rapidly in the stiff breeze off the sea.
There was a kindly old man in the ticket booth, snow-white hair and big blue eyes, like a baby. He, too, reminded the boy of someone. His grandfather. Yes, he looked exactly like Nick's grandfather! He smiled at Nick. This was indeed the strangest place—everyone here reminded him of someone else!
"Sir, may I have just one ride? I'm sure you're closing down for the night, and I don't want to be a bother."
"This ride never closes, Nick. I keep it open all the time. Just for young boys like you."
"But, but, sir, you called me ‘Nick.' How on earth do you know my name?"
"Oh, I've seen you about, here and there. My name's Captain Orion, but you just call me Cap'n. Want to be a pilot someday, don't you, Nick? I've seen that look in a boy's eyes before, y'know."
"I'd do anything to become one, sir. My father, whose name is Angus, flew a Sopwith Camel with C Flight, Number 40 Squadron, the very same squadron as Mick Mannock, the famous ace who shot down sixty-one German planes."
"Your dad was an ace, too, before he got shot down by Baron Manfred von Richtofen over the Ardennes forest. Lost the use of one of his legs, I believe. Walks with a cane."
"That's correct, sir. The Red Baron ended my father's service to his country. But how on earth did you know about all this?"
"Why, Angus McIver is famous, too, Nick. A real hero."
"Thank you, sir. He'd be pleased. Here's my money. I'll take five rides, please."
"Your money's no good on this ride. Future knights of the air like yerself ride the Whirl-O-Drome for free. Our patriotic duty, y'see. Step inside the gate here, and I'll have you airborne before you know it."
Cap'n Orion brought the spinning ride gradually to a stop, let Nick pick the Spitfire he wanted to fly (they were all identical save the big red numbers painted on the stubby wings) and then helped him climb up inside the bare metal cockpit. He'd chosen No. 7, his lucky number. The seat was like a small bucket with leather padding. It had a realistic-looking instrument panel, but when he reached out to touch it, he saw that the dials were all peeling and painted on wood.
"Does the joystick really work?" Nick asked, pulling back on it.
"Sure does. Pull back to bring her nose up; push forward and she'll go into a dive."
"What about these two pedals?" he asked, pushing them with his feet.
"Your rudder. She'll change course a couple of feet left or right, depending on which pedal you push, Nick. You ready for takeoff, Captain?"
"I am, sir."
"Let me go crank her up, then."
Cap'n Orion disappeared back inside the ticket booth, and sure enough, the great wheel began to revolve, round and round. The sea mist made it seem like flying through clouds, and Nick quickly made use of the stick, climbing and diving, using the foot pedals to turn side-to-side.
Orion stepped outside to watch the boy.
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Nick cried out through cupped hands as he whirled by.
The man gave him a thumbs-up and ran back inside the booth. Nick could see him through the window, turning a large wheel mounted on the wall.
Suddenly, the little Spitfire was going so fast Nick could hardly believe it. He was amazed the toy airplane didn't just fly right off the end of the long pole. Everything was a blur. He had to pull the old leather goggles down over his eyes because his eyes were tearing up so badly.
He looked around. He could no longer see the dark town or Pennywhistle Park or even Cap'n Orion inside the ticket booth. It was a little frightening, but Nick supposed he'd better get used to real speed if he was ever going to fly a real Spitfire.
Then the strangest thing of all happened. The painted-on instruments on the wooden panel began to light up one by one. He leaned forward and looked at them, tapping his finger on the rev counter. The needles were spinning behind real glass! And his altimeter was working! His altitude was six feet. His speed, however, was almost sixty miles per hour and climbing! And now there were tiny red lights flashing out on his wingtips.
He heard a strange squawking noise behind the instrument panel and reached up under it to see what it was. There was a hook under there, and on it hung an old pair of headphones, just like the real ones his dad had brought home from the war. There were small ear-holes in his leather flying helmet, and he put the headphones on over it.
"Captain McIver! Captain McIver! This is Pennywhistle Control. Do you read me? Over."
It sounded like Captain Orion, who sounded a lot like his grandfather.
"What's going on?" Nick cried, "Is everything all right? Is the ride broken? I think it's going too fast!"
"Roger, Captain, I read you loud and clear. Everything under control. You are cleared for takeoff, skipper."
"See that flashing red button on top of the joystick?"
"Yes, sir, I do," he said, and suddenly there really was a flashing red button.
"Just push that button, skipper, and you'll be on your merry way. Happy flying, sir!"
Push the button? On your way? Happy flying? Being a naturally curious boy, Nick McIver had no choice but to push the red button. What happened next took his breath away.
Excerpted from The Time Pirate by Ted Bell.
Copyright © 2010 by Ted Bell.
Published in April 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.