The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 220: An Airship In The Hand Is Worth Two Over The Pacific

Two almost-identical airships

The order was unusually terse, even for Michaelson.

Contact reports vessel resembling AT-38 visited Rabaul 6-8 May registered as N-109. Proceed to investigate.

"'Proceed to investigate'?" asked Emily. "Whatever does he mean by that?"

Everett shook his head. "Captain Michaelson has a tendency to give vague instructions for missions that might have political repercussions. If his subordinates succeed, this rebounds to his credit. If they fail, he can blame them for failing to follow his orders."

Emily's eyes brightened. "I see," she replied archly. "I hadn't realized men knew how to do that too."

Clarice had been watching Everett with some concern. She'd sensed that there was bad blood between captain and his superior, even if she didn't know the cause. "What is this `N-109'?"she asked.

"It would be an American civilian registration," said Everett. "Jenkins, what have you discovered?"

"According to the station on Pago Pago, she's a copy of a German S Class, built by the Goodyear yard in 1917. Her career followed the usual pattern, beginning as a passenger vessel, then a cargo liner, then a charter as newer designs appeared to replace her. She was sold to a private buyer sometime last fall. The station didn't have any details regarding the transaction, but they believe the new owner is somewhere in South America."

"That sounds too convenient," Clarice observed. "It means there's absolutely no way to know if this airship in Rabaul was the real N-109."

"I rather suspect she wasn't," said Everett. "And Michaelson must share this suspicion or he wouldn't have ordered us to look into the matter. But we have no way of knowing his intentions. He could honestly believe this is the hijacked French vessel, he could be sending us on a highly visible wild-goose chase to hide some investigation of his own, this could be some scheme to discredit the Commodore, or..." he sighed, "...I don't suppose we need to consider all of the possibilities."

"What shall we do?" asked Jenkins, deciding this might be a good time to change the subject.

"We'll proceed to Rabaul, as ordered," Everett announced cheerfully, "but we shall keep our eyes open. And this might be a good time to call in some favors."

MacKiernan sat in the Cottswold's mess hall, pretending not to study Miss Perkins. The secretary looked quite innocent as she sipped her tea. No onlooker would have suspected her of any untoward designs, but the Irishman remembered how she'd manipulated them all on Michaelson's behalf that spring. Was she working for the senior captain now, he wondered? Almost certainly. Michaelson had gone to some trouble to get his secretary aboard the Commodore's ship. But was she here as an agent, a distraction, or a sacrifice? And what were her feelings about the matter?

For that matter, what were her feelings about him? She'd seemed quite sincere during their encounter aboard the Viking Girl II. Then she'd betrayed him to Oswald Mosley. She'd claimed this was merely a stratagem, undertaken on Michaelson's orders, but did he dare trust her again? And why did this question loom so large in his thoughts?

If Miss Perkins noticed his scrutiny, she gave no sign. "What are you thinking, Fergus?" she asked.

The Irishman gestured at their surroundings -- a plain grey compartment, furnished with an eye to economy and utility rather than style -- and smiled. "'Tis a dull and cheerless place for a lovely colleen," he said gallantly.

Her smile seemed entirely genuine. "Really?" she laughed. "That's kind of you."

MacKiernan was saved a reply when a crewman appeared. "Lieutenant-Commander? Miss Perkins? You're wanted in the control car."

They reached the bridge to find Clark studying a message. As usual, the Commodore's attitude suggested that there was something profoundly unsatisfactory about the world around him and he was looking for someone to blame. "We've received a peculiar report from Cairns," he announced. "It appears there's been a bank robbery in Port Vila, on the island of Efate in the New Hebrides."

"A bank robbery on an island?" marveled MacKiernan. "This suggests a certain lack of foresight on the part of the perpetrators. However are they planning to escape?"

"They have already accomplished this," the Commodore said curtly. "They led the local gendarmes on a merry chase into the hills, then fled aboard an airship."

The Irishman's eyes widened. "Cad é sin! Where'd the rôgaires get themselves an airship?"

"These will be your German nationalist conspirators," Clark replied. His tone was condescending, as if this answer should have been obvious to anyone with even a moderate degree of intelligence.

Miss Perkins beamed at him with what MacKiernan hoped was feigned admiration. "How can you tell, sir?"

The Commodore smiled. "As you gain experience as an investigator, you will learn that conspiracies require money, and what better way for Germans to obtain money than by robbing an Anglo-French bank?

"Couldn't it have been those hijackers in the French ship?"

"No," said Clark, "those fellows will almost certainly have taken their prize elsewhere by now. One assumes they captured the ship to sell her, and there can't be many potential buyers in the South Pacific."

Then why did you order Captain Everett to look for them? wondered MacKiernan. But he kept this thought to himself. "Where do you think they'll go?" he asked.

Clark shrugged. "Argentina, I imagine. It's the richest country in the Western Hemisphere, and large enough to make air travel a necessity. But this is irrelevant to the matter at hand. We need to track down our bank robbers. Adley, have the replies come in?"

The Commodore's signalman produced a sheath of message flimsies. "Here they are, sir. I would call your attention to the sixth one."

Clark nodded and began to leaf through the pages. "These fellows may believe they escaped scot-free," he observed, "but they have overlooked one essential fact. Airships are large, and tend to be noticed. I instructed my aide to contact maritime operators in the vicinity of Efate to compare their sightings with a list of regular commercial traffic. And here we are: the N-109. She was seen approaching the island on May 7th by a freighter named..." he frowned, "...the Fille de L'ile, but she doesn't appear to have called at the station. Adley, what do we know about her?"

"She's American, sir -- one of the old Goodyear ships, patterned after the German S class. According to the station in Pago Pago, she was sold to a private owner last year."

The Commodore nodded. "This can hardly be the real N-109. It must be our Germans under a false registration. The disguise might have served them in the past, but now Clark's on the case!"

"They've both acknowledged the messages, sir," said Phelps.

"Very good," said Michaelson. "Keep me informed if there are any further developments."

The ensign turned to leave, then paused. "Sir?" he asked, "I can't help but notice that these two reports placed this supposed N-109 at two widely separated locations on the same day. This suggests two entirely different ships were involved."

"Quite," Michaelson admitted. "The registrations will almost certainly prove to be forgeries, and the supply of possible false registration numbers cannot be unlimited."

"But you only forwarded one report to Everett and the other to Clark. Why didn't you send each man both reports?"

Michaelson kept his expression neutral. This was a very subtle game. The trick was to make the right moves without your adversary realizing you were playing. And it grew even trickier when you didn't know who your adversary was.

"They're busy men," he replied. "We would not want to burden them with unnecessary information."

Next week: Mariners and Mobsters...

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