The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 229: Signing Articles

Fleming and the Gangsters

The N-109 was an old ship, with the long narrow hull and arrow-like fins typical of her era. She carried four engines: one in her external control car, two in cars mounted to either side of the keel, and one in a central car toward the stern. Like many airships of her vintage, she was based on one of the late-War German designs that had ushered in the beginning of modern aviation, but any doubts Fleming might have had about the vessel's origin vanished as soon as he was aboard. A host of clues, ranging from the arrangement of her ballast tanks and rigging of her gas cells to the furnishings of her mess hall made it clear she was French -- a product of the Astra-Torres yard in Billancourt.

Bonzer! he thought. I've found the AT-38!

Unfortunately, he had no way to report his discovery. With no access to a wireless, and no idea where the Flying Cloud might be, getting word back to his own people could prove something of a poser. But Fleming was an Aussie -- member of a culture noted for its persistent belief that Things Would Work Out -- so he set this problem aside while he studied his new home.

Astra-Torres's standard of workmanship was excellent. Englishmen might deride Gallic engineering, but this was the land of Gauss and Leibnitz: the same nation that built the famed `75's that blasted the German Army to a standstill at the Marne and Verdun. Even so, the ship's interior was Spartan. The galley was rudimentary -- little more than a sink, a wine rack, and a small electric stove -- and the crew accommodations, such as they were, consisted of hammocks slung from girders next to the keel passage.

The other new crew members were the sort of anonymous airmen who frequented hiring halls throughout the world. Their conversation seemed limited to airships, money, and women -- fascinating subjects to be sure, but not ones that afforded any particular insight into the affairs of nations. None of the new men seemed to have anything to do with nationalist conspiracies, secret weapons, or missing scientists.

The ship's regular crew had somewhat more character. Fleming assumed these were the same people who'd hijacked the vessel on Lifou Island. They certainly looked the part. They were quite obviously the American equivalent of bushrangers -- a modern version of the Kelly Gang, with an airship rather than suits of home-made body armor.

The leader, Marty, was a hardcase, straight from some radio drama. He was tough, aggressive, and forceful, with hard features and eyes that missed nothing. This was clearly a man who wouldn't take `no' for an answer and might react unfavorably to a `maybe'. Fleming resolved to stay on his good side.

The second-in-command, Craig, did not seem cut from the same mold. His manner was less uncompromising and his expression more thoughtful, as if he had second thoughts about some of his boss's enthusiasms. Fleming didn't find this surprising. He'd been in the Service long enough to recognize qualities that made a good lieutenant.

The accountant was entirely unremarkable -- the sort of man who would always be called Books. Fleming had seen plenty of people like him back in Sydney. Short, bespectacled, going to bald, his was an archetype old as time. In another era, he might have been called Scrolls... or Clay Tablets... or Petroglyphs...

Jake was another matter entirely. Fleming had seen people like him too, and learned not to mess with them. He had the build of a brawler, with a scarred face, a broken nose, and fists that had broken their share of noses. The other gangsters referred to him as a `torpedo'. Fleming had never encountered this particular usage of the word, but he could guess what it meant.

The skipper, Al, was the hardest to read. He was an older man with a last name Fleming didn't quite catch. It seemed he was not part of the original gang. He looked steady enough now, but his sallow features, bloodshot eyes, and the broken veins in his nose suggested that some time in the past, he'd been on the sauce. Fleming wondered about the man's history.

In addition to her crew, the ship carried three passengers. When he had a chance, Fleming asked Jersey, the ship's engineer, about them. The opportunity came when they checking the rigging of the port engine car.

"Steer clear of Nettie," warned the mechanic. "She's the Boss's girl. Mess wit' her, and he'll mess you up good."

"Aye, mate," said Fleming. He'd figured this one out himself. The lady in question was a stunning brunette with an unforgettable figure and an outfit that made sure it would not be forgotten. It didn't take much imagination to guess why she was on the ship. "What about the other two?" he asked, "the Ruskies?"

Jersey shrugged. "No one tells me dese things, but I hear the Boss is doin' a job for them. The tall one's named Vlad. He runs a station on one of the islands -- they're the ones did our overhaul. The stocky lady's named Anna. I'd a guessed she was the man's squeeze, but they sure don't act like it. She carries herself like some kinda princess."

Fleming had noticed that himself. Who were these people, he wondered, and what were they up to?

"What did Clark's people discover?" Miss Perkins asked MacKiernan.

They were sitting in the closest thing Hollandia's air station had to a cafe -- a collection of rattan chairs and cable spools that been pressed into service as tables beneath an awning fashioned from airship hull fabric. The secretary, as always, seemed entirely unaffected by her surroundings. If the world thought it could impose itself on Miss Perkins, it was laboring under a serious misapprehension. Where does she get that poise? MacKiernan wondered. There's much I do not know about the fair colleen. But he kept these thoughts to himself.

"According to the Station's' records, the N-109 has called here twice," he told her. "They showed up here on the 9th to sign aboard new crew and lifted ship on the 10th. They called again two days later for repairs to one of their engines. It appears that they burned a main bearing. Some of those older plants had problems with oil starvation."

"Do we know anything about the men they hired?" asked Miss Perkins.

"We have a list of names," said MacKiernan, "Borone, Clentin, Longcourt, Starbuck, and Wiesmuller. None of these people has come to the notice of Naval Intelligence."

Miss Perkins thought this over. "Did the ship resupply on both occasions?" she asked.

MacKiernan glanced through his notes. "Apparently so. On their first visit they took on 6,000 pounds of ballast and 1,200 gallons of fuel. The second time it was 7,000 and 1,100."

His companion raised an eyebrow. "Is it usual to consume such a large quantity of expendables in only two days?"

The Irishman ran through the figures in his head. "This does seem rather odd," he admitted. "I don't see how one ship could burn so much fuel in such a short..." His eyes widened as realization dawned. "You don't think there could be two airships masquerading as the N-109?"

"It's possible," mused the secretary. "There can't be an unlimited number of unaccounted-for registrations available for people to forge."

"Should we tell Commodore Clark?"

Miss Perkins glanced toward the field, where the Cottswold, His Majesty's Airship R-382, was riding from the Number One Mast. MacKiernan would have given much to know what she was thinking.

"Given our uncertainty regarding the true purpose of the Commodore's mission," she replied, "we might do better to remain silent and see what he does."

Next week: What Color Are Their Parachutes?...

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