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CHAPTER I A BITTER BLOW
“I say, Berta, thought you were going to do some work for that Mr. Howe of the Federal Service. Did it fall through?”

“Haven’t heard much more about it, Harv,” Roberta answered her brother, as she poured maple syrup over a serving of piping hot pancakes. Her mother came in at that moment with a replenished bowl of oatmeal, and she paused with an anxious glance at her young daughter.

“Hope you do not hear anything more about it, dear. I feel that your activities in helping clear up the mystery at Lurtiss Field placed you in any number of very dangerous situations. Being a pilot is hazardous enough10 without adding to the difficulties by running down air-gangsters of any kind,” she said soberly.

“Perhaps Mr. Howe has discovered that he does not require your services. In work of that nature very often, when men on the job think they have struck a hard snag, something comes up suddenly which clears the matter so they do not require outside assistance,” remarked Mr. Langwell, then smiled at his wife. “As a maker of pancakes, my dear, you draw first prize. The only drawback to such a breakfast is a man’s limited capacity.”

“You aren’t announcing that you have been limiting yourself!” Roberta laughed.

“No, that isn’t my claim, but I have to confess that my limit is in sight,” he told her.

“Tough luck, Dad. Now, I am only getting well started,” Roberta said, then added to her mother, “If you drew prizes for all the good things you cook you would have to have a museum for them as large as Colonel Lindbergh’s in St. Louis.”

“Second the motion,” Harvey put in, then went on to his young sister, “Who’s the lady you have been piloting along the coast the11 last couple of weeks? Larry Kingsley told me she’s got loads of money and has taken to taxiing about in the air with no particular objective.”

“Oh, that is Mrs. Pollzoff. Her husband used to be in the fur business and when he died she sold her interest to a big syndicate, she told me, because she knew there wasn’t much chance of her making a success against such competition. She is keen on aviation, and bought herself a plane but has never been able to get a license. I asked Mr. Trowbridge and he said he thought it was because she showed very little judgment in an emergency; she cracked-up three times, and they forbade her to fly alone.”

“I should think they would,” Mrs. Langwell exclaimed indignantly.

“That’s all I know about her, except that she is madder than a dozen wet hens at the government for depriving her of the right to fly; and she seems to be interested in fishes.”

“Fishes?”

“Yes. She always carries a wonderful pair of glasses, and when we are over the water orders that I fly low and as slowly as possible12 while she examines the deep. I have to keep my eyes on the board, so I haven’t been able to look at what attracts her attention especially, but a couple of times she has seemed very pleased over what she examined, and appears to admire the schools of fish we have followed a couple of times. Guess it’s a hobby of hers, and she hasn’t anything special to do, so she rides it—”

“Or rides the air,” Harvey laughed.

“Are you children riding in with me?” Mr. Langwell asked. “The time is getting short.”

“I am, Dad, thanks. If you will take me as far as the subway in Jamaica, I’ll land just in time for class,” Harvey answered.

“Phil will be here to pick me up, thank you,” Roberta replied, so, as the meal was finished, and the last pancake had disappeared, they left the table to start on the day’s occupations. Harvey raced up the stairs, three at a jump, while his sister gave her mother a hand straightening the dining room as she waited for Phil Fisher to take her to the flying field.

“I hear the motor, my dear,” Mrs. Langwell interrupted. “You’d better hurry.”

13 “He’s early this morning, but probably he has something to do before schedule.” The girl hastened with her own preparations so that when the young man appeared at the door she was properly helmeted and all ready to take the air.

“Top of the morning to you,” Phil called cheerily. “Your esteemed passenger wants to make an early start, so the boys will have Nike warmed up for you and you can start as soon as you get to the field.”

“It’s mighty good of you to come and fetch me,” Roberta smiled at the president’s son, who had not so many weeks before gone through a series of exciting, dangerous air-adventures with her. But those things were all in the day’s work and belonged to the past; the new day awaited them.

“It isn’t much of a hop, and as Mrs. Pollzoff has all the earmarks of being a good customer, she must be humored,” Phil grinned. “Just the same, I’m glad they wished her on you and Nike instead of the Moth and yours truly.”

“Well, it’s no particular fun piloting her. I wish she’d decide she wants variety, and14 give you all a chance at the job,” Roberta told him. They were making their way to where the Moth, Phil’s own imported machine, waited to leap in the air with them. “I say, when is Mr. Howe going to start that investigation he spoke of a few weeks ago. Heard anything about it?”

“You are not so fed up on Mrs. Pollzoff that you want to get away from us all, are you?” he demanded.

“No, of course not, but I was wondering what his plan was and what happened to it, if anything,” Roberta answered.

“Glad to hear you do not want to leave. Gosh, to lose our only girl sky-pilot would be—unthinkable; but, come to think of it, Howe came to the house to see Dad one day last week, perhaps they are getting it fixed up for you to take on the job. I heard the Old Man say the Federal representative would be at the office today, so perhaps you’ll get some information. Here we are.” They reached the plane and Roberta climbed into the seat beside the pilot’s, adjusted straps and parachute, while the young man gave his machine15 a thorough looking-over then took his own place.

“Any idea what it’s all about?”

“A small one. Several governments—ours and a couple of others, are trying to trace down illegal seal fishing; catch the lads who don’t follow the rules. Contact.” They were off, and Roberta inquired no more about the government work because Phil’s account of it sounded quite as tame as piloting Mrs. Pollzoff. Presently the Moth dropped out of the sky, landed near the office of the Lurtiss Airplane Company and a bit later the girl sky-pilot presented herself at the private office of Mr. Trowbridge for whom she worked when she first joined the organization as a secretary. Mr. Wallace, one of the special instructors, was already there, and when Roberta entered, they both rose to their feet to wish her good morning.

“Anything special?” she asked when greetings were exchanged.

“Only Mrs. Pollzoff. She ought to be here any minute,” Mr. Trowbridge replied.

“Howe is coming in this morning,” Mr. Wallace added.

16 “Phil told me—”

“Yes, and here I am,” Mr. Howe announced himself as he entered. “They told me you were all in here, so I took the liberty of coming in without knocking; I can go out the same way if you like.”

“You can stay here, without knocking,” Mr. Trowbridge hastened to assure him. “I’m thinking Miss Langwell is glad to see you.”

“She has been handling a job that is dull as ditch-water,” Wallace put in quickly.

“She will not find my work dull, but it will be cold, for it may take her to the Bering Sea,” Mr. Howe informed them. “I expect to be ready for her soon.”

“It sounds no end exciting,” Roberta said and her eyes sparkled. A job that would take her to the Bering Sea appeared to have endless possibilities and she was keenly interested. Just then the phone rang and Mr. Trowbridge answered it.

“Your passenger has arrived,” he told Roberta.

“I’ll go right down.”

“See you later,” Mr. Howe called after her as she hurried away. Ten minutes later Nike,17 her own prize plane, was taxied to the edge of the field, where Roberta and her passenger, a tall, slender woman, whose flying costume, however, gave her huge proportions, waited. The machine came up just as Mr. Wallace and Mr. Howe, in the company’s carrying automobile started for the further end of the field.

“There is to be a test for the racing machines this evening, Miss Langwell,” the instructor called as he brought the car to a stop close to where the two were standing. Roberta noticed that the Federal man gave her companion a swift, all-inclusive glance, but since that was the way with Mr. Howe, and he always looked everybody up and down, she did not think anything about it.

“Hope I can watch it,” she replied.

“All set, Miss Langwell.” Nike came to a stop a few yards away, so, forgetting everything else, Roberta turned her whole attention to the task at hand. Presently all was ready, and in another moment, Nike was leaping into the air, carrying her pilot and passenger up a steep climb until they were well in the air, then her nose was leveled and she shot east18 and south, as Mrs. Pollzoff designated the direction she wished to take.

Having taken the woman every day for over two weeks, Roberta knew pretty well how high and fast she preferred to travel, so they did not waste any time on discussions, but shot ahead swiftly. Almost as soon as she was seated, Mrs. Pollzoff got the powerful field glasses out of their case, and as soon as they were over the water, trained them on its smooth surface. The day was clear, the sky blue, and the sea calm, so the task of piloting was not arduous, and Roberta let her mind wander on speculations about her companion. That the woman was wealthy was obvious, but for the first time the girl began to wonder about her interest in things in the ocean. It occurred to her that the woman might be looking for sunken vessels, or something of that nature, but she had never let a word drop regarding what she sought. Then it struck Roberta that she was a bit mysterious. Although it wasn’t necessary for passengers to explain their businesses or hobbies, still when anyone traveled day after day with the same pilot it was only natural that they should establish19 more or less friendly relations and exchange odds and ends about each other. Thinking it over carefully, the girl realized that except for the facts that Mrs. Pollzoff’s husband had come to the United States from Russia when he was a lad, that he had gone into the fur business, and had been dead two years, she knew nothing more than the bit of information gleaned in the office regarding the failure to pass the flying tests to fly her own machine.

“Follow the coast south and keep outside the Government limit,” Mrs. Pollzoff directed after they had been in the air about an hour. “Have you plenty of gas? I want to remain up several hours.”

“Plenty,” Roberta assured her but she was becoming really puzzled about her passenger. It could not be possible that Mrs. Pollzoff was in search of vessels carrying liquor, for she never showed the slightest interest in ships of any description when they were sighted, but this was the first time she expressed a desire to keep beyond the juris