Episode 214: And We'll Have Fun Fun Fun...
The rains were passing as Cape York's wet season gave way to the drier
months of summer. On the grounds of the Cairns Royal Air Station,
swallows flitted above the field, chasing down swarms of midges. Over by
the Administration building, a kookaburra glared from a fencepost with the
manic indifference that makes representatives of genus Dacelo so
unsettling. Jenkins ignored its gaze as they mounted the steps to the
"What will Michaelson make of this business?" he asked Everett.
"That depends on his agenda," mused the captain. "If he's only hoping to
embarrass us, he should be pleased by our failure to discover anything of
importance. If he has a stake in this matter, as I suspect, we can expect
some expression of concern. Our challenge will be to interpret his reaction
and guess, if we can, what that stake might be."
An attendant greeted the two men and ushered them down a brightly paneled
corridor to Michaelson's office. Inside, they found the senior captain
paging through their report. He looked up as they entered.
"I am somewhat disappointed with this," he announced, tapping the file. "I
expected you to extract some useful information from the authorities on
"I doubt there was any information to be had, sir," Everett replied politely.
"If they'd known who the real hijackers were, they wouldn't have arrested
those Englishmen and sent them here in a rather transparent attempt to dump
the problem in our lap. Whatever became of the fellows?"
The senior captain's expression was guarded. "They left Cairns a few days
ago," he replied ambiguously. "The question now is what to tell Commodore
Clark. Your failure puts us in a bad position."
Everett ignored the reference to failure -- this was, after all, Captain
Michaelson speaking -- but he took careful note of the word `us'. It seemed
that their interests coincided... for now.
"Our visit was not entirely unproductive." he observed. "We did obtain a
fairly complete set of shipping records. If we assume the hijackers couldn't
have remained on the island more than a week or two without becoming such a
part of community that their absence would be noticed, this leaves us with
four vessels to account for."
"I've instructed Phelps to inquire about their movements by wireless," said
Michaelson. "We should have responses in a day or two. Let us hope this
information proves sufficient."
"What do you think, sir?" asked Jenkins, as they made their way back to
"He's made some manner of gamble," said Everett, "and he's growing concerned
about price. I hope we don't end up paying it on his behalf."
Two days later, Everett, Jenkins, Iverson, and Murdock met in a wardroom to
study Phelps's report. "Michaelson's aide was able to determine the
previous ports of a call for three of the vessels, and he believes it's only
a matter of time before he discovers the fourth," said Jenkins.
"Are any of them plausible starting points for the hijackers?" asked Iverson.
"This seems unlikely," said Jenkins. "Two of the vessels hailed from copra
plantations on atolls that are remarkable for their anonymity. The third
seems to run a triangle route between New Zealand, Australia, and the islands,
trading woolen socks for leather goods, leather goods for vanilla, then
vanilla for woolen socks."
Iverson tried to picture some of these exchanges, then abandoned the effort
"There's another problem," noted the signalman. "All three ships are
itinerant traders -- tramp steamers, if you will -- with no fixed schedule.
If our hijackers took passage on one, they would have needed an improbable
amount of foresight to arrive at Lifou Island in advance of their target."
"What about other visiting airships?" asked Everett.
"Two vessels called at Lifou during the period in question: a fish-spotting
blimp and a Parseval owned by a timber company in the New Hebrides. The
former did not have any significant payload capacity. The latter left a
passenger manifest upon its departure from Porto Villa. This only contained
"That is a bit of a poser," said Everett. "Let's hope we learn more when
information about the fourth ship arrives.
We'd have to wait for Fleming in any event."
"You still believe he'll be on the packet from Darwin?"
"I imagine so. Where else would he go?"
The Thunderbird was one of the many nameless small craft the Royal
Navy had commissioned to extend its reach into the littoral areas of the
Built of riveted iron plates in some nameless yard in Scotland, she'd led an
entirely undistinguished career before her retirement to the backwaters of
Australia's Northern Territory. She was 100 feet overall, 107 tonnes, with a
nominal crew of two dozen -- half that number was more typical. Armament
consisted of two obsolete three-pounders and whatever small arms her crew
might happen to bring aboard. An ancient triple-compound engine
of dubious ancestry and even more dubious horsepower might have driven her
19 knots on a good day... with a tailwind.. and a following sea... back when
the vessel was new.
Now she plodded north at a stately eight knots while her captain and Fleming
studied the chart.
"Where did all those ruddy islands come from?" asked Fleming.
"This is the Timor Sea, mate," said the captain. "It's where they make
small useless islands for later export to impoverished nations that can't
afford small useless islands of their own. And this chart's sodding
useless too, so we might have to check every sodding one. Why didn't your
chappies keep better track of their position?"
Fleming considered the composition of the landing party. Navigation was not
one of Sarah's skills, and the positions Helga kept track of during her brief
but memorable sojourn aboard the Flying Cloud seemed unlikely to have
involved boats. "Busy I guess," he replied brightly. "How can I help?"
The captain gestured toward the roof of the pilothouse. "Go up and look for
your atoll. It should be around here. Somewhere."
Fleming reached the pilothouse roof to find two crewmen leaning against the
rail studying the ocean with attitudes of boredom. One waved his hand in
what was either a greeting or an attempt to flick away flies. "G'day mate,"
he said. "What's the word from His Nibs?"
"He says we're getting close to Oa Ki."
"Right," said the crewman. It was obvious he didn't believe this any more
than the captain did. "What's so special about the place?"
Fleming shrugged. He knew it held an abandoned Russian laboratory, but he'd
never thought to ask about the site's significance. "Beats me," he replied.
"But the sooner we find it the sooner we..."
He was interrupted by a remark from the other lookout. "I say, that looks
rather like a torpedo track."
"What does?" asked the first man.
"That line of white foam, which leads back to something that looks remarkably
like a periscope."
Fleming stared in horror, then leaned over the rail to shout a warning down
to the pilot house.
Too late. The missile slammed into the gunboat with a resounding clang.
The detonation that followed was more in the nature of a loud bang than a
full-fledged explosion, but shock was still quite sufficient to pitch the
airman from his insecure perch into the waters below.
Next week: A Packet of Trouble...
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