Episode 185: Several Ways To Send A Message
The master's 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
`more is more'. 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. "We've learned that
the Milbridges were never aboard the
"True, but according to the headmistress at Miss Absticia's, the viscount's
ward has vanished."
"You believe she traveled all the way to the Pacific and found her way
onto...." the baroness frowned, "...Everett's ship?"
"We'd be unwise to discount the possibility."
"Then why didn't 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 `sky pirates' we've heard of?"
Lord Warfield shook his head. "They can't possibly have anything to do with
this affair. I imagine they're 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.
Everett's 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 ship's engines, taking comfort from
their faithful drone. Then he reached for the log and made an entry.
February 20, 1927, 2000 hrs. Lat, 5 12' S, Long 169 19' 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 we're getting closer to finding
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. "I've 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."
"It's been a strange mission," observed the signalman. "All these
coincidences... they almost seem to form a pattern."
"I've 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 can't imagine how anyone could possibly do such a
thing, or why."
Jenkins frowned. "You don't think..." his voice trailed off.
"What is it?"
The signalman shook his head. "Nothing, sir. I'd 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 mission's 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
"You have the con," Everett told MacKiernan. "I would like to talk with
these people myself. Jenkins, if you'd 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 didn't show it. "Good morning," he
announced. "I'm Father Blake. How may I help you?"
"I'm Captain Roland P. Everett, captain of His Majesty's 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. He'd expected as much. "I don't 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 they're 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. It's 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. "I'll
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
"Buck up," said Digby. "We've been through worse. Remember the siege of
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. It's fortunate
our paths converged. But I wonder what Father would have said if he could
have known what we're up to."
"You're concerned about..."
"She's scarcely more than a child."
Digby rested a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Don't worry, Michael. I
suspect she's more resourceful than we realize."
The mission's 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
"Why, it's my friends the pirates!" exclaimed the cleric. "Welcome back!"
"I wish you wouldn't call us that," complained Digby.
"You prefer to think of yourselves as gentlemen forced to piracy by some
"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 you're glad you
Michael nodded. "Would another have happened to belong to a Russian
archaeologist named Otkupshchikov?"
"You know the gentleman? He's 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. "It's difficult to say. The
Pacific is a large place. I don't suppose either of them left a message
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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