The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 169: Narrowing the Possibilities

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Baron Warfield shrugged off the surplice and cassock and handed them to his valet. They were a useful disguise in the South Pacific, where missionaries often seemed to outnumber the islanders, but the deception had been a waste of time, for his investigation had not been a success.

On the other side of the salon, the baroness raised an epee, assumed a guard, and lunged at a golf ball swaying on a cord from the ceiling. Her tip hit dead center with an intimidating `thock'. "I take it this was not the Professor," she remarked as she parried an imaginary riposte.

The baron walked over to the weapon stand, picked up a second blade, and gave it an idle swish through the air. "No, it appears our sources were in error. These ignorant fools don't seem to know the difference between an archaeologist and an anthropologist. Did anything noteworthy happen while I was away?"

"We received another message from our informant. According to her, our quarry has doubled back to the Coral Sea. This should give us an opportunity to intercept them."

The baron set the weapon back, opened a cabinet, and unstoppered a flask of brandy. "How will we accomplish this if we don't know where to find the Professor?" he asked.

The baroness smiled. It was not a kindly expression. "If we don't know where the Professor is, they won't either. We can take advantage of their ignorance."

Everett and Jenkins studied the list they'd obtained from the Lloyds representative. It was concise, neatly written, and significantly longer than they'd expected.

"Interesting," Everett observed. "It appears that we underestimated the number of attacks."

"Seven vessels in seven days?" said Jenkins. "I'd say someone is a bit of an overachiever."

"So it would seem," mused the captain, "but none of these attacks involved any significant amount of plunder. This suggests the attackers were looking for something else."

"Do you think they found it?" asked Jenkins.

Everett thought this over, then shook his head. "The evidence suggests otherwise. We can assume they were still looking for whatever it was when they boarded the May Goldfinch, and that's the last vessel on our list. Unless there have been some unreported attacks since then, it would seem they've abandoned their search."

The signalman nodded as if this confirmed his own reasoning. "Who do you think these people are, sir?"

Everett suppressed a sigh. "It's difficult to say. We've been told two of the fellows were English while another was a foreigner, but this does little to limit the possibilities. And our only other clue is a rather unreliable description of their airship."

"Surely Mr. Trenton got the number of engines right. After all, the man is an accountant."

"We should not leap to conclusions," said Everett. "The Wollseleys have four engines, but two are mounted in the control car to drive one propeller."

"Three propellers then: how many vessels meet this description?"

"More than we can conveniently investigate," Everett replied. "The minor Powers maintain any number of small three-engined patrol craft vessels -- it's possible one has passed into private hands. There are also quite a few yachts with this configuration. I would have thought it unlikely any could have made it to the Pacific, but Lord Milbridge's flight suggests the thing is possible. We must also consider America. They've built a sizable fleet of transports to link their country together by air, and they also have some reputation as a nation of immigrants. Perhaps this hypothetical foreigner is one of their so-called `gangsters', who has commandeered a used dirigible and hopes to pursue a new career here in the Pacific."

"What about Russia or Japan?"

"I doubt they're involved. We can hope Mr. Trenton would have recognized a Russian accent, and as for the Japanese..." Everett paused in thought, "...I have my suspicions about the state of affairs in Japan."

"Where does that leave us?"

"In search of information, as usual," said Everett wryly, "so we'll continue to Futuna and try to track down that wine shipment. While we're there, we should contact those anthropologists, the Cressmans, to see if they have any thoughts regarding the attack on Iverson's party -- given our current state of ignorance, I'm reluctant to dismiss the incident as mere coincidence. We'll also send a query to Captain Michaelson to learn if any yacht with a name similar to the ones on our list has been seen at Cairns. I doubt anything will come of this, but we must leave no stone unturned."

In the interests of speed, Everett sent a party down by Transporter rather than wait until the ship was moored at Leava to contact the Cressmans. Predictably, Iverson found himself in charge of the sortie. He endured the descent with admirable stoicism, extricated himself from the palm tree, then led his people to the settlement where he'd met the couple before.

They arrived to discover the anthropologists standing in front of their dwelling, surrounded by shipping crates and packaging material. Mr. Cressman was packing items into one of the former while his wife recorded its contents on a list. "Welcome back to Kolotai," she said. "At first we thought you were the passenger blimp en route to Leava, but then we recognized the Flying Cloud. She's a beautiful ship. How goes your voyage?"

"It's been pleasant enough, though it has not been without incident," said the lieutenant. He gestured at the crates. "I take it you're preparing to leave?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Cressman with some satisfaction. "We've completed our study of the tennis cults of Futuna. Our work here is done."

"Finally," grumbled her husband.

"Then it's good we caught you in time. We had an unusual experience in the hinterlands of Porto Villa, and wondered if you might be able to offer any insights into the matter."

The anthropologists listened with interest while Iverson described his encounter in the New Hebrides. When he was finished, Mrs. Cressman shook her head in puzzlement. "That's very peculiar," she observed. "These indigenous cultures don't place much value on material goods. I can't imagine why they'd threaten you over something they consider so unimportant."

"Is it possible we offended some local religious belief?" asked Iverson.

"I can't imagine how," said Mr. Cressman. "Most of these islanders are animists, though there are the usual legends of the Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars in some age before time, created human beings as an accident or a joke, and will return again when the stars are right to wipe the Earth clean of humanity. These are peaceful belief systems. For the most part."

"Have there been any other reports of islanders attacking Europeans whom they accused of stealing the `secret of cargo'."

"Not as far as we know," said Mr. Cressman. It occurred to Iverson that this observation could be explained in several profoundly different ways.

"And you have no idea what this `secret' might be?" he asked.

"No," said Mrs. Cressman, "but I doubt your would-be attackers knew either. It is the nature of myths to be vague and unspecific. That way, believers never have to worry about them coming true. It's like the childhood experience of Christmas: anticipation is much more rewarding than the event itself."

Iverson nodded. He was not so old that he didn't remember waiting up on Christmas Eve. "Thank you for your assistance," he said politely. "We'd better get back to the ship. But I do have one more question. At any time during your recent travels, did you happen to encounter an English nobleman and his wife searching these islands for an archeologist?"

"No, the only Englishmen we've met since we came here was a lone Anglican missionary."

Next week: Lean Times in Leava...

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