The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 185: Several Ways To Send A Message

The Warfields at home

The masterís stateroom of the Make a Good Fist was spacious and well-appointed, as befitted persons of quality. No sound intruded past its rich mahogany walls. Outside, the yacht might be forging its way into a stiff headwind, but the weather knew its place.

Inside, Lord Warfield was cleaning a two-barreled Howdah pistol. Some might have questioned the need for a handgun that fired rounds the size of a shotgun shell, but the baron was a firm believer in the principle that Ďmore is moreí. Across the room, Lady Warfield was working on the edge of a misericorde. The scrape of steel against sharpening stone blended pleasantly with music from the Victrola.

"We seem to have competitors," she remarked.

"Yes," replied the baron. "It appears our friends on the Royal Navy airship are also after the Professor."

"Whatever could be their motive?" asked the baroness. "Weíve learned that the Milbridges were never aboard the vessel."

"True, but according to the headmistress at Miss Absticiaís, the viscountís ward has vanished."

"You believe she traveled all the way to the Pacific and found her way onto...." the baroness frowned, "...Everettís ship?"

"Weíd be unwise to discount the possibility."

"Then why didnít our agent send word? Could she have betrayed us?"

The baron snapped his weapon shut, then worked the hammers to check the action. "I imagine it was lack of opportunity," he replied. "Who could she possibly have betrayed us to?"

"These Ďsky piratesí we've heard of?"

Lord Warfield shook his head. "They canít possibly have anything to do with this affair. I imagine theyíre opportunists who stumbled onto the trail by accident. Unfortunate for them, if they happen to cross our path." He picked up a cartridge, examining it for imperfections. The dull brass cylinder was thicker than a big man's thumb.

"And the Milbridges?"

"We will find them... and there will be a confrontation."

The baroness held out her polishing cloth -- a worn silk handkerchief with an almost illegible monogram -- and dropped it on the edge of her dagger. The cloth fell to the floor in two pieces.

"Good," she replied.

Everettís cabin was small, neatly organized, and strangely impersonal, as if its owner had packed away his feelings with the rest of his belongings. Inside, the captain sat listening to the shipís engines, taking comfort from their faithful drone. Then he reached for the log and made an entry.

February 20, 1927, 2000 hrs. Lat, 5 12í S, Long 169 19í E. En route from Narau to Wallis Island to follow up our investigation of the 18th. There's still no sign of Lord Milbridge, but I feel weíre getting closer to finding him.

He paused and studied his words, wondering what had moved him to write something so unprofessional. But the feeling was as undeniable as it was mysterious. His reflections were interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Sir," said Jenkins. "Iíve made contact with Mata'utu. When should I tell them to expect us?"

Everett thought for a moment, estimating deployment and flight times. "I believe we'll visit the mission and send down a party by Transporter before we make our way to the station. Tell the commander to expect us at 0900 hours."

"Itís been a strange mission," observed the signalman. "All these coincidences... they almost seem to form a pattern."

"Iíve wondered about that too," mused Everett. "There are times when it seems as if some unseen player has been manipulating us for some purpose of his or her own. But I canít imagine how anyone could possibly do such a thing, or why."

Jenkins frowned. "You donít think..." his voice trailed off.

"What is it?"

The signalman shook his head. "Nothing, sir. Iíd best send that message before the operator in Mata'utu closes up shop."

The interior of Wallis Island was dotted with clearings, but it was easy to identify the missionís field from the air. It was marked by a circle of drag marks, centered on a region of packed earth, where someone had moored a small dirigible.

"You have the con," Everett told MacKiernan. "I would like to talk with these people myself. Jenkins, if youíd come with me."

The head of the mission was still rubbing sleep from his eyes when his assistant ushered the airmen into his office, but if the cleric was nonplussed by unexpected visit, he didnít show it. "Good morning," he announced. "Iím Father Blake. How may I help you?"

"Iím Captain Roland P. Everett, captain of His Majestyís Airship R-505, the Flying Cloud, and this is my aide, Jenkins," said Everett. "We are trying to locate an archeologist named Professor Otkupshchikov, who we believe may have information of interest to the Royal Navy. Are you acquainted with this individual?"

"Oh yes. He called here the day after your lieutenant paid us a visit."

Everett suppressed a sigh. Heíd expected as much. "I donít suppose he said where he was going next?"

"No," said Father Blake. "You know these academic fellows -- they tend to be circumspect about their researches until theyíre ready to announce some discovery. But after he was gone, I found that one of his passengers had left a message behind in my office. They didn't have time to place it in an envelope, but I assume it was for you."

Everett and Jenkins exchanged glances. "A message?" said the captain.

"Yes. Itís in what I imagine is some sort of Navy code."

The cleric handed Everett a sheet of paper. The captain unfolded it to discover a jumble of characters.


He passed it to his aide. "Jenkins?"

The signalman studied the text, as if estimating letter frequencies. "Iíll see what I can do, sir."

Michael was gazing out the window of the mess hall when Digby appeared. "I spoke with Vincenzo," said Digby. "He's reduced speed to let that Navy ship get ahead of us, but we should reach Wallis tomorrow evening."

Michael sighed. "More delays. I wonder if we'll ever get to the end of this."

"Buck up," said Digby. "Weíve been through worse. Remember the siege of Fort Zinderneuf?"

His brother gave a wry smile. "Yes, I suppose that was a tight spot. And our current host does set a better table than the Legion. Itís fortunate our paths converged. But I wonder what Father would have said if he could have known what we're up to."

"Youíre concerned about..."

"Sheís scarcely more than a child."

Digby rested a hand on his brotherís shoulder. "Don't worry, Michael. I suspect she's more resourceful than we realize."

The missionís field had seen considerable use since their previous visit. Its surface was scarred with tracks, drag marks, and piles of earth that suggested at least two ships had arrived before them. The brothers descended by hoist, and found Deacon Smith waiting with a smile on his face.

"Why, itís my friends the pirates!" exclaimed the cleric. "Welcome back!"

"I wish you wouldnít call us that," complained Digby.

"You prefer to think of yourselves as gentlemen forced to piracy by some injustice."

"Yes," said Michael.

"As you wish. How can I help you today?"

"I see that several ships have been here in our absence."

"Yes. One was a Royal Navy cruiser, which I imagine youíre glad you missed."

Michael nodded. "Would another have happened to belong to a Russian archaeologist named Otkupshchikov?"

"You know the gentleman? Heís a good friend of ours. He called here a few days ago with an RNAS lieutenant and two young women."

"Two young women?" asked Michael. Digby nudged him in ribs, but cleric had already noticed his interest.

"Would one of these happen to be someone you know?"

Michael did his best to appear nonchalant. "Itís difficult to say. The Pacific is a large place. I donít suppose either of them left a message for us."

Deacon Smith shook his head. "Father Blake didn't mention any to me."

"Thank you," said Michael. "We won't take up any more of your time." He turned to leave, then noticed his brother watching several children play hopscotch on a neat pattern scrawled in the dirt.

"I say, Michael," said Digby, "what have we here?"

Michael looked where his brother was pointing, then laughed. "Well well," he replied. "I believe you were right."

Next week: A Bit of Archeology...

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