The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 171: Three Imperfect Reflections

Shotgun, Chianti, and embroidery

The `Make a Good Fist' forged eastward at a steady ten knots: a speed to eat up the distance. In the engine room, her powerful marine diesels were pounding out the revolutions, but no noise intruded into the salon, where the only sign the vessel was at sea was the graceful swaying of the chandeliers. The baroness sat at a table, leafing through a magazine while the baron cleaned one of his fowling pieces, a 10-guage automatic shotgun with an oversized magazine and an open choke -- the Warfields did not believe in giving their prey a sporting chance.

The two looked up as Bludge entered. "What is it?" snapped the baron.

"We've received word from our agent," said the butler. "It appears Lord Milbridge has taken the bait."

"Excellent!" crowed Lord Warfield. He turned to his wife. "Your judgment was sound, my dear. Would that I'd heeded it back in December."

The baroness set down her magazine, laid a knife atop it to hold her place, and rose to examine the wall chart. "There was nothing wrong with the original plan," she replied graciously. "We had no way of knowing our saboteur would act too soon."

"Perhaps," grumbled the baron, "but he did, and brought Milbridge's yacht down over the wilderness, causing us no end of trouble."

"Are we quite sure the crash was the result of sabotage, milord?" asked Bludge.

"Of course," snapped Lord Warfield, in a voice that oozed with sarcasm. "What else could it have been? Sky pirates?" The butler fell silent. This was an essential skill for those in the service of the baron and his lady.

The baroness had been studying the map of Australia, tracing out different routes across the Cape York Peninsula. "I still wonder how he managed to get to Cairns ahead of us," she remarked. "We never imagined the fellow would be so resourceful."

Lord Warfield's smile would not have looked out of place on a shark. "It hardly matters now. He may have made arrangements with our old acquaintances to take passage aboard a naval vessel, but we know precisely where he's headed, thanks to you."

Lady Warfield returned his grin. "It was an obvious move," she said smugly. "Do you think he knows we're after him?"

'I doubt it. The man is quite naïve."

"Then why would he be looking for the Professor?"

"The same reason we were, of course."

The airship cruised through the evening sky, driven by three finely-tuned aeronautical engines. Inside the narrow control car, the twins had the watch to themselves -- a circumstance that made these cramped confines seem almost spacious. Digby glanced at the variometer, eased the elevator wheel back a few degrees, then returned his gaze to the windows. In this smooth marine air, it took little attention to keep the ship at a constant altitude, and the view outside was stupendous. To the west, behind them, a pale band of crimson marked the last of the sunset. To the east the sky was filling with stars.

"I thought we had him at Australia," Michael remarked from his station at the helm. "Who'd have imagined he'd be so resourceful?"

"It must run in the family," Digby observed. "Remember who his ancestors were."

"You raise a good point," chuckled Michael. "Still, we aren't the only ones after him. Do you think he knows about our... competitor?"

"Hardly, Lord Milbridge always was too trusting. But I don't think we need to worry about Warfield yet; the man must still be in Palestine."

Michael did not seem reassured. "That may be true," he admitted, "but the baron must have agents here in the Pacific. If they find the Professor before we do, there could be trouble."

"Did you ever learn why the Milbridges are looking for the fellow?" asked Digby.

Michael shook his head. "She couldn't tell me."

Digby sensed his brother's mood. "You're worried about her," he said softly.

"Yes," sighed Michael. "Her position is dangerous."

The old freighter creaked and groaned as she pushed her way east. Below deck, her ancient machinery hammered away -- a deep mechanical heartbeat that filled the ship from end to end, echoing from the bulkheads, thrumming in the companionways, and setting the tea service rattling in the owner's stateroom.

When the Milbridges took possession of the vessel, the cabin had some rather remarkable furnishings, but it hadn't taken the viscountess long to set the place to rights. The bunk was more than adequate after she'd replaced the leather bedclothes with more conventional linen, the altar made a fine writing desk, and she had pressed the idol into service as a towel rack. The effect was somewhat incongruous, but the couple had seen stranger things over the years.

Lord Milbridge finished wiping the cups and draped the dishcloth over one of the tentacles. "Are you glad we came, Atalanta?" he asked his wife.

Lady Milbridge smiled. "Of course, Edmund, it's been quite the adventure. Almost as exciting as that time at Khartoum! Do you know when we'll make landfall?"

"No, but I will ask Mister Spencer. Then I may take some air. Shall I bring you anything?"

"I have my embroidery to keep me occupied. But be sure you wear your scarf. We wouldn't want you to take a chill."

When Lord Milbridge reached the bridge, Spencer was at the chart table checking his reckoning. As usual, the airman looked worried. He seemed uncomfortable with the prospect of traveling on the surface of the ocean rather than above it.

"Good evening, Mister Spencer," said Milbridge. "I trust we're on schedule."

Spencer set down his dividers and gave the chart a distrustful glance. "We should make landfall tomorrow morning," he replied. "Unless we strike some unmarked rock."

The viscount knew better than to chuckle at his officer's concerns. This was not the way gentlemen of a certain class behaved. "I don't think we have much to worry about in this part of the Pacific," he observed kindly.

"That may be so, sir, but I took the liberty of sending Jean to the bow to keep watch."

"A wise precaution," agreed Milbridge. "But that is a lonely post. I believe I'll pay him a visit. He should welcome the company."

Lord Milbridge reached the bow to find Jean standing at the rail gazing at the waves. The youth's expression was hidden by the night, but he seemed wistful, as if lost in some memory. Never one to take advantage of someone unnecessarily, the viscount scuffed his feet to alert the other to his approach.

"Milord!" exclaimed Jean when he recognized his visitor. "I didn't notice you coming."

The viscount gestured to show that he hadn't taken offense. "You looked thoughtful," he replied. "I imagine you left someone behind in England."

It was too dark for Milbridge to see the youth blush, but there was little doubt about the matter. "Uh, no milord..." stammered Jean, "I mean, yes... I mean, yes, but not like that..."

Milbridge held up his hand to save the youth from further embarrassment. "Please forgive me," he said. "I didn't mean to pry. I'm sure she's healthy, happy, and waiting patiently for your return."

Next week: You Mean There's More Than One?...

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