The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 191: Passing Through Papeete

Picking up a picturesque mooring

Papeete was a disorganized sprawl on the northwestern shore of Tahiti Nui, the largest of Tahiti's two landmasses. Rustic fales and groves of hibiscus flowers alternated with warehouses and administration buildings thrown up by unscrupulous entrepreneurs out to make a fast buck. Or franc, as the case may be. But even the tumults of the War, when the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had bombarded the town for reasons no one could ever quite fathom, had done little to alter the pace of island life.

Inside the harbor, a dozen freighters -- none of them named the Windsong -- lay at anchor in various states of disrepair. At the French naval air station, a Garonne Class cruiser rode from a mast, accompanied by several of the Parseval semi-rigids that did yeoman service in France's colonial possessions. Iverson studied the latter with interest. They had long teardrop-shaped envelopes, sleek rakish fins like the fletching of an arrow, and old-style external control cars suspended from cradles of rigging that wouldn't have seemed out of place on a pre-War blimp.

"How do they compare to the Nobiles, sir?" he asked Everett.

"Unfavorably," said Everett. "Those Nobiles are quite remarkable. They're every bit as fast as one would expect from the Italians, their range and endurance have raised quite a few eyebrows at the Admiralty, and their ceiling is at least as high as ours. They may suffer a bit in the cargo department, but that's only to be expected from vessels of their size."

"However did these `sky pirates' manage to lay their hands on one?"

"That is a mystery. Let's hope the Governor has some answers."

The Government House in Papeete was a substantial mansion at the end of a broad boulevard that led up from the harbor. Around it, what passed for Papeete's business district did its best to bustle. To the south, the land rose to a low hill topped with an observatory and a semaphore station. A small convent to the west seemed entirely out of place here in the South Pacific.

Everett, Jenkins, and Iverson found the Residency in a considerable state of 'isorganization. The previous Governor, Louis F�ix Marie �ouard Rivet, had left to take a post in China and his replacement, Jean Baptiste Dominique Solari, had only just arrived. Now the corridors were a bustle of confusion as laborers moved furniture, unpacked files, and painted new names on the doors -- in the case of the Governor's office, this promised to take some time.

An orderly asked their business, examined their papers, then escorted them through the chaos to a library. Inside, a harried-looking administrator who could only have been Governor Solari was wrestling with a mound of paperwork. He looked up in relief as they entered, as if he welcomed the distraction.

"Your Excellency," Everett said politely.

"Bonjour, monsieurs!" said the Governor. "You would be Captain Everett. Welcome to Papeete! I have heard of your exploits in Palestine. Please forgive the current state of affairs. It is..." he waved his hand in annoyance, "...impardonnable. How may I help you?"

'We seek information about a group of renegade airmen known as the �Sky Pirates of Tahiti'," said Everett. "Have you heard of these people?"

Governor Solari set down his pen, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. "Ah, les Sky Pirates," he said cheerfully. "My predecessor left me a report on their activities. It was a diverting change from all this routine. They're led by a charming Italian who styles himself Vincenzo, after the famous pirate of the Nineteenth Century. His crew seem to come from all over the world. Like him, they have assumed the names of famous brigands and revolutionaries: Tell, Huss, Marat, Paine, and the like. Their airship is called the Salgari -- no one is entirely sure why. With it, they cruise throughout the archipelagoes, plundering yachts, luxury liners, and the occasional resort for small, lightweight, and easily-transported valuables."

"Why hasn't the government put a stop to this?" asked Jenkins.

"This is hardly a matter for the Residency," the Governor observed. "It is obviously a Naval affair."

"Why hasn't Navy acted?" asked Iverson.

Their host seemed amused by the question. "They regard it as matter for the Foreign Office."

"And they believe this is a matter for the Residency," said Everett.

The Governor shrugged, as if he could not be held responsible for other's mistakes. "So it would seem."

The engines changed pitch several times, rumbled for a moment as if backing the yacht down, then fell silent. In the hush that followed, the twins could hear the rattle of the anchor chain. Michael listened for a moment, then nodded to his brother.

"It appears we've arrived. You remember your part?"

"Yes," said Digby. "Do you really believe this will work?"

"It should, if we play our roles properly. Remember, the trick is to pretend uncertainty, and act as if you're unwilling to leap to conclusions, so that the interrogator grows impatient and makes that leap himself."

Digby nodded back. It was obvious he had little faith in his brother's plan. But before he could say more, a key turned in the lock, the door swung open and Bludge stepped into the room, massive as a troll and almost as graceful.

"Lord Warfield would like to ask you a few questions," the butler said politely, indicating the baron behind him. "At your convenience, of course."

Michael glared at the baron. "What do you want to know?"

Lord Warfield studied his nails, then regarded the brothers. "I am curious how you managed to make your way to the Pacific," he said. "I'd heard you'd left England after your father's disgrace to join the French Foreign Legion, but this is a long way from Algiers. Do you have confederates who brought you here?"

"Hardly," growled Michael. "If we did, we wouldn't have gone to the island alone, you wouldn't have taken us, and we wouldn't be prisoners aboard this yacht."

"Come now," tsked the baron, "you can do better than that. Unless you wish to become very flat prisoners." He gestured toward Bludge, who looked capable of flattening an entire penal colony.

Michael glared back sullenly, willing his brother to speak. Beside him, Digby sighed. "What's the use, Michael?" he said in resignation. "It's hardly important information, and the baron seems quite ready to have his man pound it out of us. We took passage as crew aboard an airship."

Lord Warfield raised an eyebrow. "An airship?"

"A private yacht, owned by an Italian businessman of some means."

"Those means must be quite considerable if he can maintain his own dirigible," the baron mused. "What was this businessman doing in the Cook Islands?"

"I'm not entirely certain," said Digby. "We gathered he was some sort of collector."

Well done, Digby! thought Michael. Now will Warfield take the bait?

"A collector," said the baron, his interest quite obviously piqued. "What does he collect?"

Digby glanced at Michael, who shrugged. "We never learned," said Michael. "I suppose it must be natural curiosities or native art, but this was never any concern of the crew."

"Perhaps it wasn't," Lord Warfield said snidely, "but if you're fortunate, it might be the price of your freedom. During your service aboard this yacht, did you happen to see any object that looked like this?" The baron reached into his waistcoat and withdrew a sketch of what might have been a carving or might have been a figure from geometry.

The brothers stared at in very real surprise.

"Good lord!" exclaimed Digby. "That looks like the object we picked up when we were..." he caught himself just in time, "...touring the Coral Sea."

Lord Warfield's eyes narrowed. Michael had seen a similar expression on snakes. "Does your former employer still have it?" the baron asked.

"Of course," said Michael. "What else could he do with the ruddy thing?"

"He could give it to me," said Lord Warfield. "And one of you is going to help see that he does."

"Michael?" asked Digby after the baron was gone. "Whatever have we stumbled upon now?"

Michael shook his head in wonderment. "Digby," he said, "I don't have the slightest idea."

Next week: All Ashore That's Going Ashore...

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