Episode 218: How Hard Can It Be To Find A Large Plainly-Marked Airship?
The Cottswold had left Oa Ki the previous evening, bound for Port
Moresby. Now the airship was cruising east as the morning sun climbed
above the tip of New Guinea's Owen Stanley Range. It might have been a
scene from the dawn of the world -- dark green jungle-clad slopes,
untouched by the hand of man, rising above a primeval sea, but Commodore
Clark seemed unmoved. He studied the spectacle as if marking down demerits,
then turned to MacKiernan and Miss Perkins.
"Your Russian laboratories did not prove particularly informative," he
announced, in a tone that suggested he held the two personally responsible
for this deficiency. "We shall have to pursue another approach."
"What do you have in mind, sir?" Miss Perkins asked politely.
The Commodore didn't seem to notice her attempt at diplomacy. "You may not
have noticed," he replied, as if letting them in on a secret. "but the
Kupang's Admistrator did not seem entirely on the level. Some suspicious
events have occurred during his tenure."
"In what way, sir?" asked the secretary. MacKiernan marveled at her
ability to say this with a straight face.
Clark glanced at her if much the same way a lecturer might glance at a
particularly slow student. "He took an undue interest in our plans to
visit Oa Ki. This suggests he has some interest in the place. But
according to your report from last year, he seemed unduly complacent
when the German nationalists hijacked the L-137, and we know they were
the ones who attacked the atoll. The natural assumption is that the
Administrator and the nationalists have some understanding."
Miss Perkins nodded as if this thought had never occurred her.
MacKiernan, less confident of his acting skills, managed a non-committal
grunt. "So how does this help us find Karlov?" she asked. The question
seemed entirely artless.
Clark gave the secretary a patronizing smile. "We know these nationalists
are after the fellow. If we find their airship, we're quite likely to
find him as well. And I don't imagine it will be very hard to track down a
"How can the Commodore possibly be so clueless?" MacKiernan asked Miss
Perkins as they made their way back to their cabins. Around them the keel
passage was empty. As long as they kept their voices low, there was little
chance of being overheard.
The secretary paused. In the dim light of the overheads, MacKiernan could
see her frown. "I wonder," she replied. "No matter how powerful his
patrons at the Admiralty might be, he must have a certain amount of
intelligence to have risen to flag rank. And he did a remarkable job of
avoiding the Administrator's questions. At the time, I put that down to
chance, but now it appears he was suspicious of the man from the start."
Understanding dawned. "You think this is all an act?" said MacKiernan.
Her frown grew deeper. "I don't know. But the possibility troubles me.
If he's pretending to be obtuse in order to hide his real intentions, what
could those intentions be?"
Clement paid off the skipper, then waited while the other man wrote out a
receipt. "Thank you for flying with us!" said the Frenchman. "We
understand you have many choices when it comes to air travel today, and we
hope you'll keep us in mind the next time you fly!"
"Er... yes," said Clement, as graciously as he could. The ancient Parseval
had not been particularly notable for its speed, comfort, safety,
convenience, or efficiency. Behind him, his men were straightening out all
the cramps and kinks they'd acquired while crammed into what passed for the
vessel's cabin. He bid his host farewell, then turned to join them.
"What now?" asked Peters as they made their way to the road.
"We'll check the shipping records to learn if our quarry has preceded us,"
said Clement. "They should be easy to identify: an older commercial vessel
with German lines."
Peters glanced around the field and shook his head. "This is an Imperial
German colony," he observed. "I'd expect half the ships that call here are
older commercial vessels with German lines."
Clement gave the other man a stern glance. "Your attitude is unduly
negative," he annouced. "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it."
'Don't you mean `cross that bridge'?"
Peter's pessimism proved justified. A quick check of the Station's logs
sufficed to establish that the majority of its traffic involved variations
of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's ubiquitous S Class -- the same class on which
the Astra-Torres design was based. The lists of owners, crew, and
passengers were not particularly more informative.
"I'm doing my best not to say `I told you so'," Peters remarked after
they were finished.
"I can't say you're doing a very good job," said Clement.
"True," mused Peters. "I trust you have a plan."
"We shall have to cast our stones wider," said Clement. "The fellows we're
looking for can hardly be an ordinary airship crew. One imagines they might
have done something to distinguish themselves if they were here. We shall
inquire in town for reports of any unusual behavior."
This proved harder than Clement anticipated. The Germans had done their
best to impress a measure of Teutonic efficiency upon the disorder of a
Pacific trading port, but their efforts had not been uniformly successful,
and unusual behavior seemed the rule rather than the exception. Two days
later, the Englishmen gathered to review their findings. These varied from
the unlikely to the improbable.
"A party of English spiritualists was here to search for the Lost Continent
of Mu," volunteered Jamison.
"I believe we can discount the fellows," said Clement. "That's the sort of
thing English spiritualists do."
"The crew of several German packets were involved in some altercation over
the relative merits of schnapps and Jägermeister," reported Gilmore.
"As well they might," said Clement, "though one wonders whether they were
arguing for or against their respective causes."
"According to the Lutheran Mission, an American tennis coach was set upon by
headhunters when he ventured into the interior to recruit players for his
university," reported Neil. "He escaped by using his racket to pelt them
with shrunken heads."
"And when did this alleged attack occur?" Clement asked dryly.
"On the first day of... hmm..." said Niel.
"Peters, did you discover anything of note?"
"Not in particular," said the other man. "Some fellows were asking around
town after a man named Karlov. They caught my informant's eye because their
vessel had an American registry, but they appeared to be German."
"That's not much to go on," Jamison observed.
"But it is suggestive," mused Clement. "This is the sort of incongruity we
might expect from our hijackers. Did your informant have any idea who this
Karlov might be?"
"No," answered Peters, "but he did recall the vessel's number. It was the
Next week: Gunboat Diplomacy...
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