Virtue at Market Price

In April 1924, airship pirates descend on the luxury liner S.S. Paris and make off with a bounty of feminine booty. When the various authorities appear powerless to act, one man steps forward, pledging himself to recover said booty and thereby render American womanhood secure.

Unfortunately for all concerned, that man is E. Pluribus Van Slyke….

Motivated by his twin appetites for personal enrichment and female companionship, this trans-oceanic con man and cashiered naval officer deftly persuades a succession of equally ignoble characters of his suitability for the task.

Soon Van Slyke heads into the empyrean with a crew of halfwits, misfits, and felons, determined to secure all the American womanhood he can get ahold of—including the one instance who may or may not be his own wife.


About M.E. Meegs
M.E. Meegs

M.E. Meegs began writing epic poetry while still in the cradle, though her first real recognition came only after the completion of her dramatic tragedy, Dolly’s Fourth, and Final, Crusade. Written when she was five, it chronicles the midnight adventure of a favorite doll, which ended sadly in the jaws of a neighbor’s mastiff.

She lives now—inasmuch as any pseudonym may be said to live—with a first-class typewriter and a middling husband, who will soon be in need of a food taster if he doesn’t begin showing a little more appreciation for her literary efforts.

A truly loving soul, she harbors neither children nor pets—fearing the temptation to make sacrifices of them to her tetchy muse might prove irresistible. She does, however, heartily enjoy correspondence and may be reached at:

Virtue at Market Price
(This excerpt is from the opening of chapter one: Snatched at Sea!)

I could tell at once from the ugly look the bond broker gave me that I’d overplayed my hand. He sat just opposite, his malevolent mien mixing equal parts indignation and satisfaction: indignation at having been plucked, and satisfaction at having at last detected it. We were playing draw and I’d discarded two duds. When the dealer tossed me my replacements, I palmed a knave and replaced it with the queen of diamonds I’d held from the last hand. That gave me a sister pair with an ace high.

“Get up!” The wily jobber had come prepared. He produced a little revolver from an inside pocket and pointed it in the direction of my now palpitating heart. “He’s got a sixth card on him somewhere.”

By then it was stuffed deep between the seat cushions of the chair I’d only just vacated. But they were a thorough bunch. After having me undress, they tore apart a rather expensive suit. (On that point, at least, I was in luck—unlike the Parisian tailor still awaiting payment.) Then, in a matter of seconds, they dismantled what had seemed a quite solid piece of furniture. When the Texas cattle baron located the jack hiding amongst the upholstery, he announced the fact by calling for a rope.

Egotist that I am, I’d always harbored the expectation that I’d someday achieve some level of notoriety. But being the first man lynched aboard a steamship of the French Line wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Fortunately, the wiser heads among the mob countered with a proposal to call the purser. Not so fortunately, they were quickly overruled by heads of even more colorful imagination than that of the Texan.

The debate turned now on a choice between two forms of punishment deemed more in keeping with the sea-voyage theme: keelhauling, or walking the plank. It was a lopsided vote. The fault lay with an English coal magnate who took a good deal of relish in explaining what exactly keelhauling entailed.

“A rope is brought under the beam of the ship. The victim’s tied to it and then drawn under the boat. There his body’s bashed against the hull by the swells, and then nearly torn in half crossing the keel! If he survives, he’s given another chance.”

“Gets let off?”

“No. Gets another chance to die! He’s sent down the opposite way, then back and forth until all that’s left tied to the rope is a pair of bloody arms!”

Cheers all around. Well, nearly so. For once in my life, I was struck dumb. By the time I’d prepared my rebuttal, my wrists had been bound with a length of cord and a napkin stuffed in my mouth.

Once we were out on deck—me in my union suit and nothing else—the logistical obstacles to their plan became readily apparent. The S.S. Paris was a modern luxury liner and the distance between the boat deck and the keel considerable. They’d already tied one end of a coil of rope to my ankle, but it was hardly likely to be long enough. And then came the not insignificant problem of how to get the rope under the keel in the first place. The coal magnate admitted his ignorance on this point.

So the plank it was. Aided by the light of a full moon, they located a gangway stowed among the air vents and dragged it out to between the davits of two of the lifeboats. It ran about twenty feet and they gradually slid one end out over the sea. When it began to tilt, three of the party’s heavier members got on to act as counterweights.

It seemed to me the joke had been taken far enough, so I spat out the gag. “I should have you know, protests will be made.”

“Not by you, they won’t.” Again, cheers all around.

“My wife, then.”

“Sounded to me like she’d be glad to be rid of you.”

That from the young scion of an oil fortune who’d sat with us at dinner that evening. Sesbania had been feeling a little peevish, and partly to annoy me, and partly for her own amusement, she’d flirted with the unctuous little Lothario shamelessly. I tried another tack.

“I am an officer of the United States Navy, retired. A graduate of Annapolis. If only someone here knew me, you’d learn what a serious mistake you’re making….”

Once more I’d overplayed my hand. There was, unfortunately, someone there who knew me. Another Annapolis man who’d served in the same command during the war.

“I can tell you all you need to know about him: Van Slyke is his name. E. Pluribus Van Slyke.”

When you’ve been saddled with a name like mine, you get used to hearing it spoken through a sneer. But this would-be admiral’s mate took it a little far. Dirk Gilbert had been a year behind me at school and now, from the looks of it, was a genuine two-stripe lieutenant. He hadn’t even been near the game table, so I couldn’t imagine what interest he had in the affair.

“He was an officer, all right. And a graduate of the Academy. But a couple years back the Navy drummed him out for gross negligence while in command.”

That’s the thanks I get for hardly tormenting him at all during his plebe year. He must have had in mind that embarrassing episode with the Academy mascot. You might not believe a goat capable of such things, but there’s photographic evidence to the contrary.

“Not so,” I protested. “My discharge was an honorable one.” And it was, at least ostensibly. It’s amazing what a little extortion can achieve.

“Who gives a damn about his war service?” the cattle baron inquired. Apparently, no one beside myself. “He’s a card cheat, and that’s all we need to know!”

They prodded me with oars taken from the boats, compelling me ever further out onto the plank. If I could just delay things long enough, one of the ship’s officers would be by on his rounds and put a stop to their fun. I picked the feeblest-looking of the prodders—an old codger with a sunken chest—and launched myself headfirst at his midsection. Like hitting a brick wall. And now I’d really annoyed them. They took turns cleaning their boots on me, until finally the cattle baron righted me by means of my hair. The prodding now came not nearly so gentle as the first round.

It was mid-April, and a cool night out on the Atlantic. What’s more, the ship was making over twenty knots into a steady breeze, and my underwear had been torn to shreds by the evening’s trials. Goosebumps were rising on my poorly clad extremities. If we’d made it as far west as the Gulf Stream, the water might actually be warm enough to offer some relief from the chill—fleeting though it would be. I’d always been an able swimmer, but staying afloat in ocean swells with one’s wrists tied would prove a pretty tall order. I began working the cord—this being the S.S. Paris, it was silk, and fairly slippery. But I needed time.

“I’ll have you know, I’m an acquaintance of the president.” This too was true. Silent Cal and I once resided in the same burg, back when he practiced peanut politics in the provinces.

“I wouldn’t believe a word of that,” Gilbert told them.

“I don’t give a damn if you’re acquainted with Christ himself,” the bond broker informed me. “Tonight your appointment is with Old Nick! Into the fiery pits of hell with you!”

While his scenario would certainly offer relief from the chill, after careful analysis, I found it not to my liking. I continued working the cord about my wrists.

“Watch it! He’s getting loose!”

The old codger gave me a couple energetic prods to the kidneys and I involuntarily lurched forward, just inches from the end….

Then, quite suddenly, the moon went into eclipse. A distinctive noise could be heard above that of the waves breaking on the ship’s hull—like the chugga-chugga of a slowing locomotive. I looked up and was amazed to see the black mass of a giant airship! Almost as large as the liner itself, and matching its speed and course.

As all eyes fixed upon the alien vessel, three dozen ropes unfurled from the unusually large gondola. Shortly after, three dozen boarders repelled down to the boat deck. They were near enough to see in the marker lights. And believe you me, they were a decidedly scruffy gang of characters. Every man came armed: little daggers mostly, but a smattering of cutlasses as well.

The commotion drew other revelers out from the lounge and several of the bandits began moving about the crowd, taking everything of value—wallets, watches, jewelry, etc. Very few objected. And none for long. It’s remarkable how compliant even the most imperious snob becomes when he feels cold steel against his throat.

My erstwhile tormentors were, needless to say, thoroughly distracted. I had almost freed my wrists by then and began inching my way back toward the deck. Unfortunately, one of the three men acting as counterweights chose that very moment to drift off. The gangway dipped. That, in turn, alerted numbers two and three to the precariousness of their situation. They leapt off in unison, sending the gangway overboard and your terrified hero into a free fall.

As you may remember, they’d earlier tied my ankle to a long coil of rope, and I don’t doubt it would have reached the brine below if it hadn’t gotten entangled in something. I found myself hanging by said ankle just off the promenade deck. There were several passengers not far away and I called to them for help. But their attention was riveted by goings-on elsewhere.

A blanket atop a deck chair was moving in a manner one couldn’t help but find suggestive. There were other telltale signs of occupancy as well: three stockinged feet extending from beneath the blanket, and a female voice emitting sounds reminiscent of those little red squirrels that inhabit the New England forest. The lady seemed to be pleased with how things were progressing, and either unaware of, or unconcerned with, the spectators held enthralled by her performance.

Complicating matters further, in the opposite direction were the open windows of the music room. A concert of operatic excerpts was being performed. Gruesome stuff, as you can well imagine, and loud—too loud for my shouts to overcome.

Sesbania was in there, as were most of the women traveling in first-class berths. The music room served as a sort of seraglio on the liners: one of the few places a woman could go and be sure of avoiding the company of men—well, outside the occasional eunuch.

I’d given up shouting for the moment, waiting for a lull in either the din from the music room or the squeals from the deck chair, when a couple dozen of the boarding party appeared on the scene. They barged in on the performance (operatic, not coital) and turned up the lights. While half of them displayed armaments, the other half went about the room and picked out what they seemed to consider worthy booty—jewelry, furs, etc. This prompted a good deal of excitement among the assembly. There were shrieks aplenty, and more than a few swoons. Especially once the et cetera came to include certain of the younger women.

They took only the choicest of the lot, with their taste running toward mine. A point borne out most vividly when I saw Sesbania among the captives. I was concerned, of course, but now did not seem the time to call attention to myself. As quietly as possible, I finished working my wrists free. Then, through herculean effort, I folded my body and grabbed onto the rope. An extraordinary feat, no doubt about it. But I was a man driven. My woman, my helpmate, my boon companion, etc., had been taken hostage! I feel no shame admitting I’d grown rather fond of the old girl—not to mention the bundle of assorted currencies hidden amongst her undergarments. I estimated its value at not less than fifteen thousand dollars American. Hers, of course, was without measure—though admittedly, neither was it so easily convertible.

It was slow going, inching my way up, but I managed to regain the boat deck just as the press-gang emerged from below. I waded into the crowd. When I’d sidled close enough to see Sesbania—held tight in the clutches of her abductor—our eyes met. She gave me the most curious expression—a sort of flat smile, with eyebrows raised. Then she made a little shrug, as if to say, “What can I do about it?”

“They have my daughter! Lizzie!” the bond jobber bellowed. He lunged forward, brandishing his pistol—then dropped the weapon when a dagger struck his arm. A remarkable bit of knife work—unless it was his heart the marauder aimed for.

By then a squad of crewmen with rifles appeared under the command of the first mate. They knelt, preparing to fire. But when the pirates held blades to their captives’ necks, the mate had no choice but to order his men to stand down.

As if the scene weren’t strange enough, suddenly a steam organ, like the calliope of a circus, took up a familiar tune. Stairway to Paradise, I think it was. Now each of the boarders placed a foot in a loop at the end of his respective rope and, one after another, they were winched back up—their captives hanging on for dear life.

Next came a loud whoosh, and a huge cloud emerged from the dirigible. When it had dissipated, the moon shone upon us once again.

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To be continued…
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Virtue at Market Price may be purchased at: