The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 232: You See One Airship, You've Seen A Moll

Fleming, Nettie, and brutes

"What's the plan now, Boss?" asked Jake, from his station at the elevator wheel. The gunman had developed an unexpected skill at ship-handling, and now he was standing watches with the regular airmen.

Marty gazed north, in the direction of their coming landfall, then glanced aft toward the airship's crew section, where their passengers were doubtless engrossed in some plot.

"We'll call at Ternate," he announced. "Our Russian friends want to meet a contact there, and Nettie will want to go shopping."

"What is it wit' the dames?" Jake complained. "Why do they always have ta' go shopping?"

"It's part of our evolutionary heritage," Books replied from the ballast station. "Back in the Stone Age, the men went out to hunt large dangerous animals while women stayed near the caves to forage for nuts and berries. This gave women an instinct to collect..." His trailed off when he noticed the other's blank expressions.

"That's great, Books," said Marty. "Since you know so much, you can escort the lady."

The accountant opened his mouth to argue, then realized this would probably be a mistake. "Yes, Boss," he sighed. "Anything you say."

Jake had noticed the direction of his boss's glance. "Those two Ruskies," he asked, "ya think they're an item?"

Marty snorted. Any relationship between their passengers was conspiratorial rather than romantic. "Naw," he replied, "but I wonder about this guy they're after. Why's he worth thirty grand to them?"

"Yer wondering if he might be worth more to us?"

The gangster smiled. "We might want to consider this angle. But no word of this leaves the room." He turned to the skipper. "Al, how are the new crewmen working out?"

The airman's long face looked thoughtful. "About like we expected," he replied. "They ain't gonna win any prizes, but they know their jobs. And that Aussie fellow, Starbuck, is shaping up good."

Fleming wasn't so sure about this. He could handle his duties well enough -- he'd trained on airships of a similar vintage in the Service -- but their route wasn't carrying him back to Crown territory. Indeed, it appeared to be taking them back the way he'd come. And it was clear by now that the ship wasn't big enough for him and Nettie.

The moll seemed to be everywhere: strolling down a passageway, emerging from a cabin, appearing around a doorway. Try as he might to ignore her, her outfit was difficult to ignore, and the interior of an airship, with its profusion of ladders, stairs, and companionways, gave a healthy young man all too many glimpses of things to remind him that he was a healthy young man.

Was this unintentional or deliberate, he wondered? It was impossible to tell. But either way spelled trouble. He'd listened to enough radio dramas to know what happened to someone who got involved with a gangster's girl.

The vessel's arrival at Ternate came as a considerable relief. As soon as the engines fell silent, Fleming joined the group who were waiting for assignments ashore. The skipper announced these one by one, beginning with the hardest. "We need a man to pick up supplies at the local market," he began. "It's a long list, so..."

Fleming waved his hand. "I'll go, Captain!"

Ternate's port, at the foot of Mount Gamalama, was the Dutch administrative center for the Moluccas -- the famed `Spice Islands' that formed the basis for the East India Company's very considerable wealth. This gave the town a somewhat ambiguous character. The area around Fort Oranye was a model of order -- wealth tended to have this effect -- but neighborhoods became increasingly questionable the farther one ventured away from the center of town.

By the time Fleming reached the market, he was having second thoughts about his errand. As a child in Sydney, he'd divided Pacific islands into two categories: Islander Islands -- flat, fringed by coral reefs, with white sandy beaches and dusky island maidens -- and Cannibal Islands -- tall, volcanic, with impenetrable jungles inhabited by people with disturbing dietary habits. Ternate most definitely looked like one of the latter. Its inhabitants might be Muslim, heirs of the long-vanished Sultanate, and their religion might frown upon anthropophagy, but this did little to quell the youth's misgivings. He strolled past the food stalls, doing his best to look nonchalant, hoping no one would consider him part of the merchandise.

His reflections on comparative cuisine were disturbed by a cry for help. He rounded the corner of an abandoned fruit stall to see Nettie struggling with two burly seaman. Books lay unconscious at their feet.

"'Ere, mates!" he yelled, "let go of that sheila!" Then, without considering the odds... or the consequences of involving himself in such a conventional cliche... he charged.

"Huh?" said one of the thugs.

"What's a... oof!" grunted the other as Fleming sunk his fist into the man's stomach.

A brief exchange of fisticuffs put the ruffians to flight. The youth watched them go, then recoiled in surprise as Nettie threw herself into his arms and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you, Fleming!" she whispered. "You saved me!"

At first the Aussie didn't notice what she'd said. By the time her words registered, she had stepped back to readjust her dress, such as it was.

"Pardon me," he began, "but you must be mistaken..."

"Mistaken about what?" said Books. The accountant was sitting up and rubbing a bump on his head.

"Those goons were mistaken if they thought they could snatch us!" Nettie said brightly. "Starbuck showed up and taught them a lesson!"

Books picked up his glasses, realized they were broken, then reached into his jacket to remove another pair from the supply he kept for such contingencies. Then he clambered to his feet.

"We'd better get back to the ship and tell Marty what happened," he announced.

The atmosphere in the control car was tense with suspicion.

"Thanks, Starbuck," Marty said dryly. "Seems like you're handy with your fists."

"Everyone likes a good bluey," said Fleming, trying to pass the matter off as nothing.

"It's a good thing you just happened to be nearby when those bums showed up."

Fleming hid his alarm. He was getting in over his head. Did the gangster think he'd set up the fight? He'd have to find some way to divert the man's attention. "Strewth!" he replied, as sincerely as he could manage. "Who d'ya reckon those wankers were after?"

The gangster seemed surprised by this question. "Whathca mean, kid?"

Fleming pretended to think this over. "They could have been after your girl..." he mused, being careful to stress the word `your', "...but what if they were after him?" He pointed toward Books. "Doesn't he handle the money?"

Marty scratched his head. "That's an interesting angle, kid. You got a good head on your shoulders. Get back to work while I think this over."

The gangster made a gesture of dismissal. Fleming left the control car with a sigh of relief. As he mounted the ladder up to the hull, he risked a quick look at Nettie. The moll gave him an incurious glance, then went back to examining her fingernails.

What is she up to? thought Fleming. She obviously hasn't told these people who I am. Who is this woman and how does she know my name? What have I gotten myself into?

Next week: A Less-Than-Perfect Union...

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