Episode 235: Don't Mind Me, I'm Just The Help
Fleming had plenty to keep him busy over the next two days. A full-sized
rigid dirigible such as the N-109 -- or the AT-38, as the case might be --
had miles of rigging, girders, fuel lines, control cables, and wiring for
her crew to maintain. Even on a new ship, this could be a challenge, and
on a vessel this old, where years of stress and corrosion had taken
their toll, that challenge could become substantial.
Fortunately, the ship's layout was comparatively uncomplicated, with none
of the elaborate refinements found in modern vessels. Her envelope was a
simple cylinder with tapered ends, which meant that most of her ring girders
and longitudinals were identical.
Her fuel and
ballast tanks were arranged in easy-to-service single rows beside the keel.
And her wiring and control runs might have
served as models for an illustrated primer on airship design.
This left Fleming ample time to contemplate his situation.
In some ways this had improved. The gangsters' attitude toward him had
changed after the incident on Ternate. Before, they'd treated him as
hireling. Now they seemed ready to accept him as one of their own. They
grew even more welcoming when he dropped a few hints about a questionable
this was an easy task for someone who'd grown up on tales of the Kelly Gang.
Had this been Nettie's plan, he wondered? Had she staged the fight to bring
him into the gangsters' confidence? Who was she, and why was she aboard this
ship pretending to be an airheaded gun moll?
She'd given no clue she recognized him after that one incident, but he
couldn't help but worry how he fit into her schemes.
"The Boss's lady is one grouse sheila," he remarked to Al one morning when
they were alone in the mess.
"Yeah, that she is," the skipper replied wistfully. "She reminds me of a
girl I knew back in California ..." his voice trailed off.
"How long have they been together?"
"A month or two, maybe," said Al. "But don't get yer hopes up, kid.
They've been an item since before I joined, and she's got the Boss's ear."
This was the opening Fleming had been hoping for. "That bird?" he
scoffed. "Don't come the raw prawn."
The skipper nodded. "From the way some of the boys talk, this whole trip
to the Pacific might have been her idea."
"Strewth?" said Fleming, trying to sound casual. He did not find this news
That afternoon, Books brought him something more to worry about. "The Boss
wants you in the control car," the acountant announced.
Fleming made his way forward, wondering what his hosts were up to now. He
reached the bridge to find the gangsters and Vlad gazing down at a small
tramp steamer. His heart sank as he recognized the vessel.
What the devil are they doing here? he asked himself. I hope
this is just a coincidence.
His hopes went unrealized. "The Tranquility," said Marty. "Funny
moniker. You sure that's the right boat, Vlad?"
The Russian nodded. "The name is correct, and this is the position we were
told to expect. Our man should be aboard."
"How we gonna play this, Boss?" asked Jake.
"Give 'em a shot across the bows!" said Marty. The gangster was
obviously enjoying the opportunity to act like a character from some radio
"Aye aye, sir!" said Jake, who'd obviously listened to the same shows. The
gunman slid back a window, unlimbered one of the Hotchkiss guns Astra Torres
had mounted in the control car as a pretense at a main battery, and squeezed
off a short rattling burst. Cartridge cases clattered to the floor at his
The crew of the freighter couldn't have noticed the rounds, but they must
have seen the muzzle flashes, for the vessel slowed and began a ponderous
turn into the wind. "Good work, Jake," said Marty. "Now we need someone to
lead the boarding party. Starbuck, how d'ya feel about some piracy on the
The gangsters' hoist operator didn't have much experience, so Al managed
the deployment by ordering the launch lowered, turning into the wind, then
flying a gradual descent until the craft touched the waves. Under ordinary
circumstances, Fleming might have wondered at the skipper's skill, but he
had more immediate concerns.
First of these was the launch itself. It was somewhat less substantial than
the one on the Flying Cloud -- a collapsible wood and canvas skiff
he hoped wouldn't choose the wrong moment to collapse. Second was the
craft's engine. In place of a real powerplant, it boasted an aging ELTO
Pup outboard that required constant fiddling with the throttle and mixture
to run. Third was the reception he'd receive aboard the
Tranquility. What would he do if they remembered him? He'd
managed to snag a pair of sunglasses as he left the ship, but he had little
confidence in their utility as a disguise.
All too soon they'd laid alongside the freighter and were scrambling up the
boarding ladder. The Tranquiltiy's skipper, Ray, met them at the
top. Either the sunnies were more effective than Fleming had hoped or Ray
was preoccupied, for the man showed no sign of recognition.
"G'day," the skipper told Vlad. "Have a brew."
The Russian brushed the stubbie aside with distaste.
"We did not come here to drink," he replied curtly. "You seem remarkably
unperturbed by our attack."
Ray pointed up at the vessel they'd left. "That's an airship, mate," he
said cheerfully. "Her useful lift can't be more than a dozen tons. We've
got a cargo of cooking oil, flour, kerosene, and roofing nails. Yer welcome
to as much as you can carry."
"We do not want your cargo," said Vlad. "We want your passenger: a man
Ray seemed both surprised and amused. "You found the right ship, sport, but
yer three days too late. We just dropped him off on Gilolo."
Vlad glared at the Aussie suspiciously. "You will not mind if we search
Ray shrugged. "Go ahead, mate, 'av a squiz."
The gangsters' search was fast, efficient, and thorough -- rumrunning,
smuggling, and longshore theft all involved similar skills. In a
remarkably short time, Jake reappeared on deck and nodded to Vlad.
"It's like he said," he told the Russian. "I found your man's stateroom,
but it looks like he cleared out days ago, and there's nowhere on
this boat he could hide."
Vlad did not seem pleased by this news. "Very well," he announced. "Let
us return to our ship."
Ray and Elance stood beside the wheelhouse, watching as the airship
disappeared toward the south.
"It worked out just like he said it would, Cap'n," the girl remarked.
"I'm not surprised," said Ray. "He's always been right in the past."
"Was that Starbuck wearing the dark glasses?" she asked. "What
was he doing with those chappies?"
"It looked like him," said Ray. "This must be part of Karlov's plan.'
"I hope he knows what he's doing, Cap'n," said the girl.
Ray's brow furrowed in concern. "I'm sure he does, Elance,"
he replied thoughtfully.
"I just wonder if he knows what he's doing it for."
Next week: In Their Footsteps...
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