R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 36: From Russia, With Fish

Man with a bucket of rotten fish

Fleming stepped from the train with a sigh of relief. His compartment, never comfortable to begin with, had begun to seem like a prison, and the passenger next to him -- a corpulent gentleman with a snore so loud it drowned out the sound of the locomotive -- had done little to make the trip more pleasant. He started walking toward the back of the platform to oversee the unloading of his glider, then noticed that people around him had stopped to gaze upwards. He followed their gaze.

Jenkins ducked back out of sight. Had he been another man, he might have cursed, but this was not the way of a signalman in the Royal Naval Airship Service.

"What is it, mate?" asked the freight forwarder.

"Channel's agent " said Jenkins, gesturing out the window. "He's back, and watching your door. If I leave now, he'll mark me."

"I could go out and knock the chappie down," suggested his host. "That might distract 'im."

Jenkins shook his head. "That would just let Channel know something was going on. Is there another way out..." His voice trailed off when he noticed Channel's agent and others on the street turn and stare towards the sky.

"There's your chance, mate," said the shipper. But Jenkins had already slipped out the door and ducked around a corner. When he was sure that he was clear, he paused to look up, take in the sight, and smile.

Loris reached to pull back the throttle and grimaced. The fishing boat had survived the trip back to Darwin without incident. He wished he could say the same for himself.

"You look like you shoulder hurt," said Helga cheerfully. "You want the massage? Helga know how to rub things. Helga rub things good!"

"Maybe that wouldn't be such a great idea..." Loris began, but before he could finish, the woman was pointing toward the sky behind them.

"Look!" she cried. "They back!"

"All engines slow to one quarter," said Captain Everett. The mast of Darwin's air station loomed a few miles ahead. Beneath them, the streets of the town were sliding past like a vividly detailed map. Townsfolk, alerted by the sound of the ship's engines, were streaming outside to watch her pass.

"Slow to one quarter," replied Iverson.

"They seem excited to see us again," MacKiernan observed.

Everett smiled. "Let's not disappoint them. Helm left to bring us around in a circle. When we've completed the evolution, give them our signal."

"Helm left," replied Iverson. In the town below, bells were ringing and drivers were honking their horns in salute. Everett gazed down, lost in thought. At least one man in Darwin would not be pleased to see them. This could complicate matters.

An hour later, the Flying Cloud was riding from the mooring mast, an ensign fluttering from her command car. Around her, townsfolk had gathered to marvel, for it wasn't every day one of His Majesty's Airships came to visit. Jenkins had taken advantage of the crowd to slip aboard unobserved and maintain the illusion that he'd been on the airship all along. Fleming, Loris, and Helga had reported in a more conventional fashion. Now they'd gathered in the ship's mess hall to report their findings.

"It wasn't an easy flight," said Fleming, "but I managed to reach the cattle station at Enterprise Creek. I had a chinwag with the owners."

"Did you encounter any problems after you were down?" asked MacKiernan. "Dangerous terrain? Wild beasts? Hostile ranchers, worried about their daughters?"

"I... uh... no," said Fleming, glad the Exec hadn't asked about dangers posed by the daughters themselves.

"Pay oop," whispered Abercrombie to MacKiernan.

"Did you learn anything about our mysterious cargo of ore?" asked Everett.

"It appears this was purchased about a month ago by a Russian geologist, who subsequently vanished on the train ride back to Darwin."

"That matches what I learned," said Jenkins. "The freight forwarder, John Decker, informed me that the shipment was arranged by a Russian who never returned to claim it. I imagine this was the same man. When he didn't reappear, Decker sold the ore to Helga."

"Did this Mister Decker have any other information?" asked Everett.

"Indeed he did. It appears that some Germans showed up to ask questions shortly after Helga set sail."

"Germans?" exclaimed several people in unison.

"So it would seem," said Jenkins. "One cannot help but wonder if they had some connection with the original crew of this vessel -- the fellows who attacked Helga's freighter."

"Quite," said Everett. "Fleming, did this mysterious Russian leave anything behind when he vanished?"

"Not at the cattle station," said Fleming. "And according to the staff at the railroad, Channel used his authority as chief of police to nick the fellow's luggage. But he missed one item, which is now in storage at the depot. No one could tell me what it was, but back at Enterprise Creek, the rancher's daughter mentioned that the Russian carried something like a clock wherever he went. I wonder if this could be the same object."

"A clock," mused Everett. "Did she say anything else?"

The youth flinched. "Uh... no, sir. Not about the clock."

The captain drummed his fingers on the table. "I believe it would be to our benefit to secure this item from the depot," he observed. "But we don't want to requisition it openly or Channel will know what we're up to."

"Perhaps Jenkins could use his command of the Russian language to pass himself off as a bereaved relative," suggested Iverson. "Then he could..." the lieutenant fell silent when he noticed everyone else staring at him.

"This might not be practical, lad," Abercrombie said gently.

"We shall have to steal it and leave something in its place," said Pierre.

"What?" exclaimed MacKiernan. "Someone will have to break into a brilliantly lighted reinforced concrete building with a single door that's patrolled by armed watchmen day and night, make his way past the staff inside to a locked storeroom, find an item he's never seen before and has no way of recognizing, replace it with something that looks identical, then escape back to the street?"

Pierre glanced at him in puzzlement. "And why should this be a problem?"

Next week: The Mysterious Box...

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