Episode 76: Ballast Mistresses of the Empire
Sarah stood on the lawn, gazing at the entrance to the dance hall, remembering
the reception. Iverson had looked so bewildered and hurt when she'd flirted
with Loris. Was it then that she realized what was happening? Why had it
taken Helga to point out the obvious? And why had they waited so long? Had
they really had so little time together? She still found it hard to believe
he was gone.
"You have lost someone," came a cultured voice from behind her. She turned
to see Antonio Notariello, the Italian they'd taken aboard in Cairns,
studying the building as if evaluating its potential as a performance venue.
"It's a private matter,'" she announced, annoyed by the intrusion.
"I understand," he replied apologetically. "I am an opera singer. We must
be sensitive to these things, for the very essence of opera is tragedy." He
bowed, withdrew, and made his way up the steps into the building.
As she was turning to go, she heard his clear tenor voice echo from the hall
in a song from Act III of Tosca: Cavaradossi's final declaration to the
heroine, 'Amaro sol per te m'era il morire' -- `Dying was bitter only
because of you'.
Captain Everett escorted his guests to the mess hall -- it would not have
been appropriate for an officer of one of His Majesty's airships to receive
two unaccompanied women in his personal quarters -- and summoned his aide.
"This is my signalman, Jenkins," he said after the other man arrived.
"He enjoys my complete confidence. Jenkins, I believe you already know
Miss Emily Wilcox," he gestured toward the brunette, "and this is Miss
"...Blaine," said the blonde woman, as if daring him to defy her. "Clarice
"Thank you, Miss Blaine. I brought you aboard so we can be assured of
privacy. I understand you have information that might be of interest to the
Royal Navy. Before we proceed, I must ask how you learned what we were
"It was hardly a secret after those men attacked Emily!" said Clarice
indignantly. "Police chief Channel kept prying, trying to learn what they
were after. It wasn't difficult to put two and two together."
"What did you tell Channel?" Jenkins asked the brunette.
Emily smiled innocently. "Nothing! I pretended to be so shaken that I was
on the verge of fainting. My grandmother taught me that trick. Men always
fall for it."
Jenkins nodded as if committing this to memory. "How did Channel react?"
Clarice scowled in contempt. "He pretended to apologize. Then he
downplayed the matter, as if he wanted to keep the entire affair secret."
Which would hardly be surprising if he was behind the attack, as we
suspect, thought Everett. "What is this information you discovered?"
"I won't tell you unless you promise to take us along!" announced Clarice.
"I won't let you put Emily in danger again!"
"And I'm not letting Clarice go into danger without me!" added Emily.
Everett knew better than to comment on the fact that these two statements
were mutually inconsistent. He drew his aide aside. "Jenkins, your
"I don't see that we have much choice, sir," said Jenkins. "I doubt
they'll reveal the information otherwise. They seem formidable opponents."
Everett had reached the same conclusion himself. "Very well," he announced
to the two women, "you can come, provided that your information is
"How do we know you'll value it fairly?" asked Clarice suspiciously.
"You have my word as an officer."
The woman opened her mouth to object, but closed it when she noticed his
expression. "Emily?" she asked her companion in a subdued voice.
"We know who ordered the cargo of saw blades that was aboard the R-67," said
the brunette. "It was consigned to a party here in Darwin, but this was
just a front. The real destination was a German steamer named the
Inselmädchen that called here from Noumea on Grand Terre."
Jenkins cringed. "Inselmädchen?"
Emily nodded ruefully. "I know. The name does suggest a certain lack of
"Grand Terre," mused Everett. "That makes a certain amount of sense. We
know that the renegade German nationalists have some contacts in New
"Renegade German nationalists?" asked Clarice.
"I'll explain after we're underway."
"You mean we can come?" asked both women at once.
"Of course!" said Everett. "You had my word. Now we need some official
excuse to bring you aboard. Do you have any particular skills that might be
useful aboard one of His Majesty's Airships?"
"I don't know," said Emily. "We worked as clerks at the railway office."
"Perhaps they could serve as ballast masters while Sarah is indisposed,"
"Quite," said Everett. "Miss Wilcox, Miss Blaine, you are now enlisted in
the Royal Naval Airship Service as civilian specialists under RNR 247-632
subject to naval regulations and conditions subject the provisions of RNR
247-401 Clauses C and D with final pay grade and bonuses to be determined
according to Clause G welcome aboard."
Iverson woke to a throbbing sound, in a room that seemed be swaying from
side to side. At first he thought this was the aftermath of the blow to
his skull -- he distinctly remembered the tree trunk rushing up to meet
him after he'd been thrown from the car. But as he became more awake, he
realized that the sound came from machinery, and his room had a porthole
rather than a window. Other sounds reached his ears as well: the creak of
tackle, the groan of hull plates, and the splash of waves. It seemed he was
on a ship. But what was he doing here?
He sat up, then sank back down as a wave of dizziness engulfed him. On his
second attempt, he managed to swing his legs out of bed and get to his feet.
His uniform had vanished and been replaced by a hospital gown. At least, he
assumed it was a hospital gown. The alternative -- that the crew of this
vessel had a taste for women's clothing -- seemed unlikely. Making his way
to the porthole, he found his view blocked by a lifeboat with the words
Inselmädchen, Kwajalein, written on the prow. He frowned. The
name seemed singularly unimaginative, and was `Kwajalein' a person, a place,
or a profession?
The door opened behind him. He turned to see two men in seaman's garb enter
the cabin. One held a long-barreled automatic that Iverson recognized as a
Parabellum. The other carried himself with a precision that suggested he'd
seen military service.
"I see you are finally with us," said the second man, with a distinct German
accent. "I am Captain Ritter. You will tell me your name."
"Lieutenant John Iverson, Royal Naval Airship Service."
"Will you give me your parole and promise not to escape?" asked Ritter.
"I can hardly do that," objected Iverson. "Since I rather doubt you're
officers of a recognized government, I don't believe you'd be entitled to
The other man nodded sadly. "That may well be true," he admitted. "I'm
afraid this means we must confine you to this cabin. Please accept my
Iverson hardly noticed the next two days pass, for he was filled with
worries about Sarah. Had she managed to escape? He didn't dare ask about
the circumstances of his capture lest he alert his captors to the fact
he'd had a companion. Then, on the third day, he awoke to the sound of the
ship's engines reversing as the crew backed her down to a wharf.
Wherever they'd been taking him, it seemed they had arrived.
Next week: A Flight to the East...
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