The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 175: Disquieting News

Tophats, guns, and oil

The Flying Cloud was heading east, bound for the American air station near Pago Pago. On the bridge of the airship, Captain Everett reflected on the results of their investigations in Western Samoa. These had not been particularly productive.

"These past few days may have been diverting," he observed, "but our search for Lord Milbridge seems to have reached an impasse. We didn't find any sign of Professor Otkupshchikov, and he was our last significant lead."

"Do you think Lieutenant Murdock will learn anything on Tuvalu?" asked MacKiernan.

Everett shook his head. "That was always a long shot. The Americans keep meticulous port records. It's difficult to imagine how the Professor and his blimp could have arrived unremarked."

"What about this recurring business with the so-called `secret of cargo'?" asked the exec. "Could it be of any relevance?"

"Perhaps," said Everett, "but that's a slender thread on which to hang our hopes. I'd hoped to discover something more substantial."

At that moment, Jenkins emerged from the radio shack. The signalman, normally so unperturbed, looked perplexed.

"We've received a message from Cairns," he reported, "but it was not in any of the usual ciphers. They used a one-time pad."

Everett raised his eyebrows. One-time pads, used to encode a single message and then discarded, provided unparalleled security, but by their very nature, they were a limited resource. For this reason, they were reserved for matters of utmost importance.

"Interesting," he observed. "I assume you brought the codebooks."

"I took that liberty," said Jenkins. He produced a heavy leather case, weighted so it would sink if thrown overboard, and handed it to Everett. The captain undid the locks, withdrew the relevant tables, and busied himself with the message. For several minutes, the only sounds in the control car were the scratching of his pen and the steady drone of the engines. Suddenly he stopped and stared at the page.

"Sir?" asked Jenkins. He was familiar with most of his captain's expressions, but this one was new to him.

"Summon the officers and chiefs to the mess hall," Everett ordered sharply. "Summon Pierre as well. Detail Rashid to keep watch on our passengers and make sure they don't wander in."

"Is something wrong, sir?"

"Lord Warfield is in the Pacific."

"Who is this Lord Warfield?" asked Iverson.

"He would be Lord Walter Sennet, the fifth Baron Warfield," said Everett. "And if he's involved in this affair, it's no wonder Pierre's contact in Port Moresby was reluctant to talk. The price might have been quite high -- and of the sort it is only possible to pay once."

"The name sounds vaguely familiar," said MacKiernan. "I take it the fellow lacks scruples?"

The captain gave a rueful nod. "There are some people who abandon their morality when they find it expedient, others who were born without any, and a very few remarkable individuals who have heard the word and are quite unable to comprehend its meaning, but Lord Warfield is in a class by himself. His career has been... noteworthy."

"He sounds rather like the Governor of Sarah's island," observed Iverson.

"They may have traits in common," Everett said dryly, "but Lord Warfield operates on a somewhat larger scale. He ran a munitions factory during the War. This enterprise turned a substantial profit, and if there were some questions about the quality of the product, junior investigators showed a peculiar tendency to vanish while their superiors retired under comfortable circumstances. The absence of any specific complaints from the front can be interpreted in a variety of ways."

"That's where I heard the name," said MacKiernan. "Wasn't there some talk of an inquiry into his affairs?"

"Indeed there was," said Everett. "But the matter was hushed up... and a previously undistinguished inspector general received a knighthood."

The room fell silent as his audience contemplated the implications.

"What became of this man after the Peace?" asked Sarah.

"The cessation of hostilities left Lord Warfield with a large inventory of munitions for which there was no immediate demand," said Everett. "The Middle East offered an obvious new market. There were regulations against that sort of thing, but our baron had already polished his skills in this regard."

"I understand you served there after war," said Sarah. "What is it like?" To the island girl, deserts were as distant and unimaginable as the surface of the moon.

"It's quite beautiful, in its way," said Everett. "I'm sure Rashid could tell you more. And it was home to some rather colorful characters. There was that motorcyclist: Thomas... I forget his last name. I've always wondered what became of him. But that part of the world also has a long history of warfare and strife -- fertile ground for a man of Warfield's talents."

"What did his customers have to offer in return?" asked Iverson.

"Petroleum," said Everett. "Some people have been calling this the fuel of the future'. It's easier to transport and handle than coal, and also much cleaner. Studies by the Royal Society suggest it could entirely eliminate our notorious London smog. Most of the world's know reserves are in America and Russia, but fields have turned up in Mesopotamia and Persia, and there's even been talk of some in the Arabian Peninsula, though these latter are unlikely to prove substantial."

"Persia," said MacKiernan. "Wasn't there some unsavory business there involving petroleum?"

"Yes," said Everett. "And now we come to the heart of the matter. I will let Jenkins speak to this."

The signalman consulted his notes for a moment, then addressed the room. "The affair to which the Captain refers was the so-called Burmah Oil 'candal. In 1923, it was alleged that the Burmah Oil company gave �5,000 to a former Member of Parliament to acquire exclusive rights to oil fields in the Khuzestan Province of Persia. These allegations were quashed, and the principals involved have since gone on to prosper in their various careers, but it was necessary to find a scapegoat. This, as you will recall, was Sir Reginald Calhoun, Miss Isobel's guardian before she became Lord Milbridge's ward."

For several long moments, no one spoke.

"Oh dear," MacKiernan said at last. "This cannot possibly be a coincidence."

"This was my sentiment as well," said Everett, "but I can't imagine what this affair is all about. All we can say for sure is that if Warfield is involved, it's likely to be dangerous."

"I have heard rumors of this man," said Pierre. "None was very substantial, but I shall try to learn more. Does he have any allies or associates?"

"He has a wife," Everett said in a flat voice. "There will also be some servants. But I believe we should bring this discussion to a close for now. We have an airship to manage if we're to arrive at Pago Pago on schedule. Gentlemen, and lady, shall we adjourn?"

Sarah didn't have to go on watch for several hours, so she remained behind, trying to digest what she'd learned, after the others had gone. Jenkins sat across from her, gathering up his notes. As always, the signalman's expression gave no clue to his thoughts, but she could tell he was worried.

"The Captain seemed uncharacteristically upset," she said at last.

"So he did," Jenkins replied quietly. "I've only seen him like this on very rare occasions, and he has never offered an explanation. I suspect there's more to the story than we know."

Next week: Watching, the Detectives...

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