The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 212: A Small French Island

Wine glass with paper umbrella

Peters gazed into his cup as if wondering if it really held tea -- an understandable concern in this distant corner of the Empire. At last, gathering his courage, the airman ventured a sip. "Not too bad," he remarked, "if one ignores that hint of coconut."

"I find it blends quite well with the fish oil," Clement observed. "Would any of you gentlemen care for one of these scone-like objects?"

"Not at the moment," said Jamison. "I've had quite enough adventure over the past week. I thought we were scotched when the Frenchies caught us. How did you know the Navy would let us go?"

"It seemed likely," said Clement. "The commander here didn't have any excuse to hold us, and I doubt his budget makes a provision for such things. He must have been glad to wash his hands of the affair."

"I assume we'll be heading back to England now," Jamison said hopefully. "I checked at the Air Station and there's a packet due later this week."

Clement shook his head. "We have some unfinished business here. Those fellows on Lifou Island stole that airship right out from under our noses... after we'd stolen it first! We can't let them get away with that sort of thing. 'e will head back to W� find out who these people were, and take steps to address this situation."

"How will we track the fellows down?" asked Peters.

"We'll work that out once we get there."

There was no regularly scheduled passenger service to the out-islands of New Caledonia, but Clement and his men managed to find passage on a Wesleyan mission yacht bound for Lifou with a cargo of kerosene and bibles. Accommodations were somewhat Spartan, and they had to listen to lectures on the Divine Plan, but they'd endured worse during the War.

The village of Wé looked the same as they'd left it -- a cluster of warehouses and bungalows in the shade of the palms. The only other vessel at the wharf was a nondescript island schooner with an inappropriately grandiose name. An old Parseval semi-rigid rode from the village's mooring mast. Below the ship, workmen were gazing at a pallet of cargo as if wondering if it was worth the effort to unload.

"What's our next step?" asked Peters. He seemed even less enthusiastic than the workmen.

"We will pursue a direct approach," Clement replied. Gesturing for his men to follow, he led the way to the thatch-roofed bungalow that served the village as a police station, customs office, and air station office. Inside, a pleasant-faced man in a kepi was sipping a glass of wine.

"Ah, Monsieur Clement!" he exclaimed when he recognized his guests. "You have returned to our delightful island! How may I help you today?"

"Help us?" sputtered Jamison. "Like you did last time?"

Their host raised an eyebrow. "You are referring to your arrest?" he asked. "I trust you hold no hard feelings. You must appreciate our position. An airship is stolen. We must file a report. This must mention that suspects have been apprehended. But after this document is on its way..." he shrugged. "And you are free now, so no harm was done."

"We understand," Clement said diplomatically. "We did not come here to complain. But we do wish to locate the hijackers so we can bring them to justice and clear our good name."

The Frenchman studied his guests as if wondering if he should pretend to believe them. At last he uncorked a bottle and passed around a set of glasses. "You must try the product of the local mission," he told them. "It is testimony to human ingenuity, if not to the vintner's art. These hijackers... others have been asking about them too. The day before yesterday, one of your Royal Navy airships arrived here to make inquiries. Do you have any insight into their motives?"

Clement shook his head. "I can't imagine why they'd be interested in the matter. It must be some routine bureaucratic procedure. What did you tell them?"

"There was little to tell," said their host. "The vessel vanished. We have no idea who was responsible."

"This is a small village," observed Peters. "You must know if anyone else vanished at the same time."

The Frenchman seemed amazed at their diligence. "I suppose this is true," he mused. "There was that mademoiselle. She was gorgeous -- a tall slender brunette with a figure that promised... much. I could not help but notice her absence. Though I was not sorry to see the last of her companions."

"Companions?" asked Clement.

"Americans, and quite new to the islands, judging from their impatient manner. Would you care for more wine?"

It was late afternoon when they bid their host adieu. By that time, several of the Englishmen were having difficulty walking unsupported. Their 'eaders, better disciplined, or perhaps just less interested in cheap rosé did their best to ignore this phenomenon.

"I can't say that was a very informative conversation," said Jamison. "Even if these Americans were the culprits, we have no idea who they were, where they came from, or where they'll go next."

"This may not be entirely true," replied Peters. "That Frenchie ship was not in the best of shape. She'll need a good overhaul before they take her much further, and there are only a limited number of places capable of that sort of work."

"What are the possibilities?" asked Clement.

The airman thought this over. "They'll want to leave French jurisdiction, so New Caledonia and the New Hebrides are out, American Samoa seems a bit too public, and we can count on our friends in the Solomons to watch out for the fellows."

"What about Tonga?" asked Jamison.

"I understand they had some manner of accident at their air station recently," said Peters. "That leave us with Fiji or the German station at Rabaul."

Clement thought this over. "It will be Rabaul. There's no love lost between France and Germany, so it would be the best place for our adversaries to take a stolen French vessel."

"They have quite a head start," observed Jamison. "How will we catch up with them?"

Clement glanced at the air station. "I believe we can find a solution to this problem."

The Fat Man sat in his office, leafing through his files like a dragon studying its treasure. A dark cloud of cigar smoke heightened the resemblance. "Yes?" he growled.

"We've received word from our agent in Rabaul," said his aide. "A man resembling Karlov was seen during the Royal Navy's operations to recover the second Device."

If a dragon could have smiled, it would have looked much like the man behind the desk. "So," he mused, "our target reveals himself, just as we predicted."

"Shall I send Captain Ritter to investigate?"

"No," said the Fat Man. "Time will be of the essence. We will send Ernst in the L-137 with a suitably forged registration."

Next week: Did You Notice What Day This Was?...

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