The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 177: One Of Our Lieutenants Is Missing

Tea and beer

Captain Everett stood by the window of the control car, gazing across the field to where the Americans were preparing one of their Los Angeles class airships for a sortie. Already, the vessel's propellers were turning at idle. As he watched, her stern swung free as the handling dolly backed away. He nodded in approval, then turned to Jenkins.

"So no one's seen them in town?" he asked.

"Not for the past two days," said the signalman. "I spoke with the local chief of police, a fellow named Willard, but he seems rather ill-informed regarding events in his jurisdiction."

"What about the Air Station?"

"According to them, Lieutenant Murdock arranged for transport to a nearby island named Aunu'u on the afternoon of the 7th. It doesn't appear he ever returned."

Everett sighed. "I wish people would stop kidnapping our lieutenants. We do not have an indefinite supply. I take it our passengers were with Mister Murdock when he disappeared."

"As far as I could ascertain, though the trail grows difficult to follow when it reaches Aunu'u."

"That's hardly surprising, given what I've heard," mused Everett. "We'll have a devil of a time finding someone who knows his way around the place."

"We could try that private investigator I hired last year," suggested Sarah.

"A `PI'?" asked Jenkins, "Such as one encounters in those inexpensive literary publications the Americans are so fond of?"

The island girl laughed. "Why not?"

A good PI learns to expect the unexpected. So I wasn't too surprised when a young lady with a spear walked into my office followed by a kid in a Royal Navy uniform. "Miss Sarah, Lieutenant Iverson," I said, "what can I do for you?"

If the two were surprised I remembered them, they didn't let it show. "Our captain has a job that might require your particular talents," said the Iverson kid. "Would you be interested?"

Job. That was one of my favorite words. And rent was due next week. "I might," I remarked casually. "What's the case?"

"If you'd accompany us to the ship, the Captain will explain."

I heaved my feet off the desk and picked up my hat. "After you, my friends," I said.

I'd never seen the mess hall of a Royal Navy airship before. It was plainer than I expected -- almost like something the Japanese would make. Inside, three men in uniform were sitting at a table. The first looked like you'd expect an airship captain to look, with a square jaw, chiseled features, and eyes that missed nothing. The second was obviously his exec. The third was plainer -- the kind of man you'd pass without noticing in a crowd. I recognized a kindred spirit.

"These are Captain Everett, Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, and our signalman, Jenkins," said Iverson. "Captain, may I introduce Dan Straight."

"Welcome aboard the Flying Cloud, Mister Straight," said the first man. "Would you care for some tea, or would you prefer beer?" He even sounded like an airship captain. Training, I guess.

One thing I like about the English: their country isn't dry. "Beer," I said. "I understand you have a job."

"That is correct," he said. "We're looking for a missing person: a Lieutenant Murdock."

"Murdock?" I said. That Jenkins character must have noticed my surprise.

"I take it you're familiar with the gentleman," he said.

"He hired me to look for a da... a young lady, who'd hired me to look for another young lady, who turned out to be looking for him. I tracked them all down, but then they got carried off on a blimp."

My hosts exchanged glances.

"Bloody..." began MacKiernan.

"Oh dear," said Iverson.

Their captain seemed to take this news in stride. "We'd appreciate it if you could describe the circumstances, starting at the beginning," he said. "We'll be happy to pay your usual fee."

I gave them the whole story: Chastity, Murdock, Bartley, Bludge, and that Baron Warfield. They all frowned when they heard the last name: all except the captain. His expression was unreadable. I wouldn't have liked to play poker with that man, but I guessed there was a tale there.

I'd had plenty of time to think about the case since the blimp left, and I'd noticed a few things that didn't fit. Jenkins noticed them too. "So Warfield's man Bludge told you he wanted to `contact' Miss Stewart?" he asked. "Not `find', but `contact'?"

"Yes," I said, "as if they had some kind of deal."

"You think she was working for the Baron, with orders to hand over Miss Isobel?" he said.

"Perhaps," I replied, "but Warfield didn't seem to know the girl was on the island, and this Bludge seemed surprised by the blimp, so she might have been an independent operator, holding out for a higher bid."

The captain didn't seem surprised. He must have seen this sort of thing before. "It's fortunate Miss Isobel chose that moment to go missing," he remarked.

I could guess what the man was thinking. "You're wondering if she left her handbag in the shop on purpose, so she'd have a chance to slip off."

"You think Miss Isobel had an agenda of her own?" asked Iverson. That kid had a few things to learn about human nature.

The captain sighed. "We must consider the possibility," he said. "It may be that the only entirely innocent party aboard that blimp is our Lieutenant Murdock. We're quite certain the vessel belongs to Professor Otkupshchikov?"

From the way he asked, I guessed they'd had some trouble there. "That was the name he used," I told him.

Before he could reply, an airman rushed into the room looking pale as a sheet. "Sir!" he told the captain. "There's a young woman outside who demands we release our guest immediately or she'll do something we'll regret."

The captain glanced at me with what looked like a smile. "Can you shed any light on this matter?" he asked.

"That must be Sami," I sighed. "I'd better go talk with the lady."

Yes, that was definitely a smile. I guess they don't let you command an airship until you've learned a thing or two about women.

"What a remarkable individual," said Jenkins, after their guest had departed.

"I daresay," Everett replied. "And he has most certainly given us some leads. Mister MacKiernan, can we predict Professor Otkupshchikov's next port of call?"

The Irishman shook his head. "He lifted ship more than two days ago. He could be anywhere in the Pacific by now."

"How about Baron Warfield?"

MacKiernan consulted the chart, then shook his head again. "If we assume his yacht has a top speed of ten knots, it must be within a 500-mile radius of Tuvala, but there are a dozen major island groups in that area."

Everett nodded. He hadn't expected the search to be easy. "Then we'll speak with this Bartley fellow. He offered Mister Straight a share in a bounty for information about Miss Isobel's whereabouts. Let's find out where this bounty came from."

Bartley was a furtive little man with a manner that alternated between belligerent and obsequious. Everett wondered how such an annoying person could have risen to the position of Commercial Agent. Perhaps the private sector had different standards from the Royal Navy.

"We understand you were trying to locate a young lady named Isobel Elmsford on behalf of some clients," he said. "Could you tell us who they were?"

"As de facto representative of the Foreign Office here in American Samoa," Bartley announced, "I am not at liberty to discuss confidential transactions of this sort."

Everett smiled. "So you consider this is a matter of diplomatic immunity?"

The other man must have noticed the smile. "Uh... yes," he replied uneasily.

"A valid position," Everett observed, "but captains in the Royal Navy have certain... discretionary powers in matters of this sort."

Bartley did not seem overjoyed by this revelation. "How wide a range of powers?" he asked cautiously.

Everett gave a careless shrug. "Wider than you might suppose."

"Quite," muttered Bartley. His shoulders sagged in defeat. "They were the Sky Pirates of Tahiti."

Eyebrows went up around the table.

At last Everett broke the silence. "Could you say that name again?"

Next week: Shiver Me Gardenias!...

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