The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 199: The Hand That Pulls the Strings

Puppet strings with airships, yacht, and starstone

The Milbridges had ferried everyone to Mahina aboard the Windsong X while Vincenzo brought the Salgari to the resort for resupply -- the succession of deployments and recoveries had strained the latter's ballast reserves to the point where he felt it unwise to embark any passengers. Now the cruiser lay at anchor in Matavi Bay while the airship rode from the mooring mast on Point Venus. At the foot of the mast, a party was running hoses to a portable hydrogen plant. Everett wondered how the resort's owners explained this equipment to the French colonial authorities.

The adventurers had adjourned to a cafe to exchange stories. They were deep in conversation when Vincenzo arrived. The Italian looked pleased. "We got a good price for most of the artwork and valuables," he announced. "These tourists... they have plenty of money, but they lack discrimination. This is a vantaggioso combination! The only thing we couldn't sell was this." He unwrapped a small bundle to reveal an unprepossessing lump of stone.

"Whatever is that?" asked Michael.

"It is that Nui Mana your baron was seeking."

"It doesn't look like much," said Digby.

"The tourists seemed to feel the same way," Vincenzo said ruefully. "No one would offer a single franc for the thing."

Everett had to agree with the tourists, for the object was quite unremarkable. It was vaguely star-shaped, carved by some long-forgotten artist into a peculiarly unattractive combination of corners and angles -- he quickly abandoned any attempt to follow the pattern. Its color was difficult to determine, challenging to define, and impossible to appreciate.

Professor Otkupshchikov examined the artifact with some interest. "It may not be much to look at," he observed, "but it could provide clues about the origin of some elements of indigenous culture. You say you obtained this from the owners of the Mighty Fortress?"

"Si," said Vincenzo, "but I have no idea where they got it."

"No matter," said the Professor. "I should be able to find out from my sources. I'd say this affair ended quite well." He glanced toward the patio, where John and Isobel sat lost in each other's eyes.

Everett followed the Professor's gaze and smiled to himself. After his recent encounter with a ghost from his past, it was good to know there was still joy in the world. Michael and Digby seemed to feel the same way.

"You seem to be taking this philosophically," Lady Milbridge remarked to the twins. "I understand you both had an interest in the young lady."

"Well, he is our younger brother," said Digby. "It would be uncharitable for us to be jealous. And I suppose this does beat languishing in some forlorn desert outpost, haunted by the memory of lost love."

The waiter arrived to announce that their table was ready. They followed him outside to the terrace. After they'd been seated, Michael addressed Lord Milbridge.

"Sir, we're quite sorry about your airship," he said contritely. "I hope you weren't too attached to the vessel."

The viscount made a dismissive gesture "We can always find another. And this was a rousing adventure in a good cause."

"Warfield signed the declaration?" asked Digby

"We just sent it to England by packet. We'll hold the baron and baroness incommunicado until it's had time to arrive, then we'll let them go."

Digby raised his eyebrows. "You don't intend to press charges?"

Lord Milbridge shrugged. "It hardly seems worth the effort. And it could be difficult in a French jurisdiction."

"What?" exclaimed Michael "They tried to kill you!"

"Perhaps," said the viscount, "but the local authorities would want to wash their hands of the matter, and the baron would make sure they had enough money for soap."

"That means they'll get off scot-free," Digby protested.

"Not entirely," Lady Milbridge replied pleasantly. "They did suffer an embarrassing defeat. And they also lost a rather expensive yacht."

"It's strange how this all worked out," mused Jenkins. "There were times when it almost seemed choreographed, like some annoyingly complicated dance."

The viscountess took a sip of her tea. "In what way?" she asked.

"It began shortly after the attack on your airship. From what I understand, your party, the Calhoun brothers, and Lord Warfield just missed each other in Mount Malloy and Cairns, but the timing of your arrivals was exactly right to make the Warfields conclude you were aboard the Flying Cloud while the Calhoun brothers concluded you were aboard the Make a Good Fist. Then, in Port Moresby, Sir Hubert just happened to have the information to put us all on the trail of Professor Otkupshchikov."

"Surely we could ascribe the former to coincidence," said the viscountess," and the Professor's interests were public knowledge."

"Perhaps," said the signalman, "but the coincidences hardly end there. We missed each other again in Kirakira and Porto Villa. In Leava, the Cressmans spoke of a 'lone Anglican missionary' who could only have been Lord Warfield. And it seems that all four of our parties crossed paths in Aunu'u."

"Surely the latter was Warfield's doing," said Michael. "We can assume he planted the message that lured you to American Samoa."

"So it would seem," said Everett, "but Mister Murdock's report suggests the baron's man Bludge was just as surprised as the rest of us. And surely the baron couldn't have been behind our various encounters and near misses on Wallis Island."

Lord Milbridge rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "This does seem rather remarkable," he agreed. "But who could have arranged such a thing, and how?"

"I've given some thought to the latter," said Jenkins. "If someone knew we were all searching for the Professor, they might have been able to control our movements by controlling our supply of information."

Lord Milbridge frowned. "You think Sir Hubert was responsible?"

The signalman shook his head. "No, I believe his involvement in this affair was just a matter of chance, as your wife suggested. Unfortunately, I can't think of anyone else who had the opportunity."

"Neither can I," mused the viscount, "though there was that young Russian fellow, Andre, who led us to the Professor's archeological site on Pukapuka."

"Andre?" exclaimed Michael. "Digby and I also met an Andre! Could this be the same man?"

"Abercrombie and I met a young Russian here in Mahina," said Pierre. "He was the one who suggested we visit Taravao."

Lady Milbridge laid a hand on her husband's arm. "Edmund, didn't that beachcomber we met in Taravao also mention a young Russian?"

"Goodness!" exclaimed the viscount. "So he did!"

"Miss Stewart," said Everett. "You mentioned that someone here in Mahina told you the baron's yacht was in Papao. Was his name Andre?"

The governess paled. "He was a young Russian, of moderate height, with light hair and quite ordinary features. You'd never notice him in a crowd."

Jenkins glanced at his captain. "Sir," he began, "you don't think it could possibly be..."

"I'm sure it is," said Everett, "but what could the man possibly..." Then he made the connection. "Vincenzo," he asked, "where did you leave the Nui Mana?"

The Italian pointed over his shoulder. "It's back in the café."

Everett leapt to his feet and led a rush to the door. Inside, they spotted a familiar figure slipping the artifact into his pocket.

"Karlov!" exclaimed Jenkins.

The man gave them a mocking salute. "Thank you for recovering this for me," he replied. "Now I must be about my business."

Before anyone could react, the man slipped out the front door. They dashed after him, but when they reached the street, there was no sign of their quarry.

"I take it you know the fellow," Lord Milbridge remarked dryly.

"We've met," said Everett. "He has a habit of disappearing like that. It's something of a trademark."

"Do you have any idea what he's up to?"

Everett sighed, troubled by this development. "No," he replied, "but I imagine it may become an issue."

Next week: The Fourth Flying Cloud Christmas Special...

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