Episode 215: A Packet of Trouble
Kupang could have been any port in the Dutch East Indies: an untidy
clutter of warehouses, godowns, and lodging houses that sprawled along the
shore of the Timor Sea. The harbor held craft ranging from copra schooners
and island freighters to the HNLMS Gelderland, an old
Holland-class protected cruiser that had been relegated to the South
Pacific lest it come to harm in more demanding waters. Several commercial
airships were moored at the air station as well.
The Station provided the Commodore and his party with a motor to carry them
to the Government House. This was a stately edifice, built in European
fashion, with a gravel driveway, columned portico, and neatly-manicured
grounds. A servant was waiting at the door to greet them. He conducted
them past a pair of very businesslike guards, down a series of corridors, to
the Administrator's office.
The Administrator of Timor was a well-dressed Dutchman with that
peculiarly polished manner that is often associated with a flexible
morality. "Welcome to Kupang," he said graciously. "It is not often our
modest town receives visit from officers of flag rank."
"I quite understand," Commodore Clark replied, with an ambiguity that might
or might not have been intentional. The Administrator did not seem fazed
by this possible slight. He offered his guests a seat, then unstoppered a
bottle of brandy.
"I assume you're here on business," he said as he poured out drinks.
"The Royal Navy has taken an interest in the movements of certain Russian
nationals," Clark replied casually. MacKiernan noticed that this wasn't
really an answer to the question their host hadn't asked.
"I see," the Administrator said. "Might this be connected with the unrest
that occurred in Darwin?"
"I assume you're referring to the events of Administrator Gilruth's tenure,"
said Clark. "One does wonder about the possibility of collusion between
agents provocateurs and local smugglers. Have you had any trouble with
Russian nationals here in Timor?"
The Administrator was also adept at dodging questions. "This was never a
'referred destination for �igr�," he replied. "Do you have any specific
"We will wish to conduct a brief survey of nearby waters... with your
permission, of course."
Their host's eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you interested in any
The Commodore didn't seem to notice the other man's reaction. " I'm
required to file reports to the Admiralty," he said airily, "you know how
these things are."
MacKiernan marveled at this reply. It was quite impossible to tell if Clark
was merely being obtuse or this was some calculated evasion. Judging from
his expression, the Administrator couldn't tell either.
They lifted ship the next morning. The flight to Oa Ki was only a
matter of hours, which gave them plenty of time to identify the right
atoll, take station above a beach, send a party down by Transporter before
winds arose to make the operation difficult.
The Cottswold's hoist was subject to the same laws of physics as
equipment on lesser vessels. The platform struck the ground with a thump,
then dragged through the sand while its passengers then vaulted over the
side with varying levels of grace. Last to alight was Miss Perkins. She
smoothed down her skirt while the others took stock of their surroundings.
These were somewhat unprepossessing. The beach was an bare expanse of sand,
unmarked by any footprints. A few scraps of driftwood might have been the
remains of some forgotten wreck, or might just have been timber washed
ashore by some storm.
"This place looks rather deserted," Commodore Clark observed skeptically.
"Are we quite sure there's a laboratory here?"
Miss Perkins produced a file and leafed through its contents. "According
to our party's report, there should be a trail leading inland."
"Here it is, sir," announced their marine, pulling aside some branches to
reveal a faint track.
The path was heavily overgrown after months of neglect. The marine led the
way, hacking through the undergrowth with a machete. Wildlife called from
the depths of the jungle, but didn't dare emerge to menace officers of flag
rank. Eventually they came to the remains of a settlement. It
seemed this had been camouflaged to make it invisible from the air. By
now, enough brush had grown back to make it almost invisible from the ground
"Mansfield, what's your opinion?" asked Clark.
"You can see there where their radio station was struck by a bomb," said the
marine. "A 200-pounder, I'd say. From the state of the vegetation, I'd
guess the attack happened sometime before the rainy season."
"That's consistent with Everett's report," said Clark. "Has anyone been here
"Not that I can tell, sir."
The Commodore nodded. "Very well, let's have a look at this laboratory of
The laboratory was a low cinderblock building, almost buried under a new
layer of growth. It took Mansfield several minutes to clear away the vines
blocking the entrance. The interior was a tangle of wreckage and debris.
Light streamed in through the broken windows and places where the roof had
"Dixon, can you make anything of this?" Clark asked his scientist.
The American switched on his Mueller Counter and poked through the ruin,
sweeping the area with his detector. He crouched to study some broken
piece of equipment. MacKiernan thought he gave it an unusual amount of
attention. At last he rose and shook his head.
"It's hopless," he told them, "the rains have washed away any evidence."
"Very well," said the Commodore. "It appears we'll have to revise
Everett, Jenkins, Iverson, and Abercrombie watched as the
City of Berwick, R-129, sank toward the mast. They had no official
reason to be there, but it was common practice for people at the Station
to gather when a ship arrived, for as a wag once observed, the real reason
Count Zeppelin invented airships was so that airmen could stand by the field
and criticize mooring operations.
"He let the bow come up after they dropped the hawser," sniped Abercrombie.
"True," said Iverson, "but he caught it before the handling
party had any trouble."
"Perhaps," grumbled the rigger. "We could a' done better."
"We cannot always expect commercial vessels to live up to navy standards,"
observed Everett. "They've hooked up the bow fitting. I imagine the
passengers will be disembarking shortly. Keep an eye out for Fleming.
He'll almost certainly be traveling incognito."
"We're sure he'll be on this ship?" asked Iverson.
"It seems a reasonable supposition," said Everett. "Lieutenant Dabney would
have informed him of the vessel's schedule, and it's the only way he could
reach Cairns in a timely fashion."
Above their heads, the packet was lowering its boarding ramp. Around the
mast, onlookers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of new arrivals.
"It's a pity he couldn't have found some way tae let us know what he was
doing," said Abercrombie.
"True," said Everett, "but he could hardly send a wire without being
noticed. Be careful not to react when you spot him. I wouldn't put it past
Michaelson to have someone watching us, and we wouldn't want to draw his
attention to our man's arrival." He frowned as Iverson raised his arm to
point. "Mister Iverson, have you been listening?"
"Sir," choked the lieutenant.
"Oh dear," said Jenkins.
"Captain?" asked Abercrombie, "how will we handle this situation?"
Everett followed his men's gaze to where two young women had emerged onto
the handling platform. Even from this distance, he could recognize Clarice
and Emily. They raised their hands to wave. He sighed.
"We're Englishmen," he replied stoically. "We'll make do."
Next week: Ships That Don't Quite Pass In The Night...
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