The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 81: The Man From Rhode Island

Iverson, Natasha, and Howard Phillips

Iverson had learned something about sailing at the Naval College, but the native skiff was quite unlike any craft he’d handled as a midshipman. Its sail and rigging were woven from palm fronds. Its hull was laid up of rough-hewn planks stitched together with twine. The rudder was little more than a paddle, lashed in place with rope. The craft leaked abominably, and the coconut shells that passed for bailers were barely adequate to stem the flow.

"Can we make it to Australia?" asked Natasha.

"I rather doubt we could stay afloat that long," said Iverson ruefully. "But we should be able to reach Grand Terre. If I remember the charts correctly, it’s about a day’s sail downwind. The capital is a town called Noumea. They should have a telegraph station."

There seemed no other alternative, so they put the helm up and set a course toward the northwest. Navigation was straightforward, for someone had left a compass aboard and there was no need to worry about leeway. The skiff was fast with the wind astern. Evening found them approaching the small island of L’lle-des-Pins. They spent the night on a deserted beach and set sail again in the morning.

By afternoon, they were working their way along the southwest coast of Grand Terre. They were also heartily tired of bailing, and Natasha gave cry of delight when Noumea hove into view. Iverson had half-feared the mysterious cruiser might be waiting, but the only airship in sight was a small Parseval class semi-rigid plodding inland with a pallet of mining equipment in an external sling. The air station itself was empty.

Their first order of business after they were ashore was to sell the boat -- neither of them was sorry to see it go -- and obtain some local currency. Their next errand was to purchase less obtrusive clothing, for Iverson’s uniform was all too recognizable, and Natasha’s outfit would have attracted attention even if she hadn’t been so noticeable herself. Freshly attired, they set off in search of the telegraph station, only to find it closed for repairs.

"A testament to the quality of French engineering," said Natasha in disgust.

Iverson was more charitable. "I imagine they find it hard to keep the equipment in order in this tropical climate. But this does leave us at a loss. My government doesn’t maintain an embassy here, and I’d hesitate to contact the local authorities lest some be agents of our enemies."

"Could we find passage aboard a British ship?"

"It’s a thought. Let’s check the harbormaster’s office."

The port agent was singularly unhelpful. He studied their faces as if committing them to memory, then announced that he couldn’t reveal shipping records to private citizens. Neither arguments not bribes could induce the man to change his mind, so they set off to inspect the harbor themselves. They didn't find any English shipping, but from an old German seaman -- a weather-beaten man with eyes that had seen many oceans -- they learned some disturbing news.

"The Inselmädchen?" asked Iverson.

"Ja," said the German. "Stupid name. I signed aboard in Rabaul a month ago."

"What was their business here in Noumea?"

"I don’t know. But I saw people sneaking aboard at night to speak with the captain. I didn’t like the looks of this, so I took my wages and left. They sailed a week later."

Iverson did the calculation in his head. At a speed of eight knots, the freighter would have had plenty of time to reach the Cape York Peninsula, pick up his captors, and return to Sarah’s Island. But how had they coordinated their movements with the L-137? "Have you seen any foreign airships in port?" he asked.

"Only one," said the sailor, "a medium-size rigid with three engine cars."

"That could have been the nationalists," mused the lieutenant. "Were they here when you arrived?"

"No, they came and left two days ago. The ship had a big number ‘505’ painted on the side."

There were times in a man’s life when he just had to slap himself in the forehead. Iverson decided this was one of them. "Bloody..." he began to exclaim, before remembering that there was a lady present. "We just missed them! What a rotten piece of luck!"

"You have other problems too, I think," said the seaman, gesturing at the gang of Kanaks that was heading in their direction. Their leader, an unsavory-looking European whose ear had been torn off in some long-forgotten fight, came to a halt in front of the lieutenant.

"You led us a merry chase," he announced in a thick Dutch accent, "but now we have you."

"We won’t go without a fight," said Iverson , doing his best to look threatening.

The Dutchman grinned. "Good. That makes the job more fun. And this time you won’t have guns." He gave an order to his minions. "Bringim dispela!"

The Kanaks closed in. Iverson raised his fists and strove to remember what little he knew of unarmed combat. The old seaman hefted a balk of timber and took a position by his side, but even so, the odds did not look good. Then the air was split by a cry.

"Dagon!"

Before the thugs could react, a muscular figure lunged from the shadows and laid out two with blows from a set of brass knuckles. The German took advantage their surprise to knock down another with his club. Natasha, not to be outdone, took out the last with a kick to the head.

"Verdomme!" swore the leader. "Niet wéér, hè?" Outnumbered, he turned and fled.

Iverson examined their rescuer. He was a tall man, bronzed by the sun, with an athletic build, piercing eyes, and a lantern jaw that seemed out of proportion to the rest of his features. Introductions seemed in order. "Thank you for your assistance," he said politely. "I am Lieutenant John Iverson, Royal Naval Airship service, and these are my companions Natasha and..."

"...Lucas," said the German, "from Cuxhaven."

"I’m Howard Phillips," said their rescuer, "originally from Rhode Island."

Iverson recalled that this was somewhere in America. "How did you come to be in Noumea?" he asked.

"I was after these fellows." The American gestured at the unconscious thugs. "They work for a pirate named Wasserman. I have a score to settle with that man! He sank my old ship."

Iverson made the connection. "You were captain of the Tualua’s Dream!"

Phillips gazed at him in surprise. "How do you know of this?

"We found the note you left with the wreckage in the Timor Sea."

"You’d better come with me," said the American. "It sounds like we have a lot to talk about."


Howard Phillips’s current vessel was the Innsmouth Shadow, a small British freighter, long since condemned for use on North Sea, given a new lease on life here in the calm waters of the Pacific. Phillips told them something of his history as he poured drinks.

"I was living in Providence," he said, "trying to make a living as a poet, if you can believe it! But a friend of my grandfather filled me with tales of the South Pacific -- I even used some in my work. After the War, no one seemed to care much for poetry, so I shipped out on a merchant ship, just like Henry Dana. It made a new man of me. I can’t imagine what might have happened if I’d stayed in New England."

"Is Phillips your given name?" asked Iverson.

"No." The American laughed. "That would only cause problems in some parts of Polynesia. But what is a lieutenant of the Royal Naval Airship Service doing in New Caledonia?"

It took Iverson some time to tell his tale. Phillips and Natasha listened with interest. Lucas, more practically-minded, took advantage of their distraction to refill his glass.

"So Wasserman was working for these renegade German nationalists when he sank my old ship," said Phillips when Iverson was done.

"So it would appear."

Phillips smiled a wicked smile. It was not the smile of a poet. "If they were the ones behind the attack, I’d like to return the favor. You say the Inselmädchen sailed from Rabaul?"

"Ja," said Lucas.

"Then that’s where I’m headed. You’re welcome to come along as my guests."

Next week: Rabaul...

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