The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 262: What a Tangled Web We Weave

An outing aboard the Clydesdale

From the air, the Cairns Royal Air Station looked the same as ever. No sign remained of the previous week's explosion. Groundskeepers had cleared away the debris and filled in the crater left by the bomb. The incredible fecundity of tropical vegetation had taken care of the rest.

Everett had given the mooring operation to Lieutenant Iverson. Now he watched the lieutenant with half an eye while he discussed the intelligence situation with MacKiernan. "We need to determine the real reason Captain Michaelson recalled us," he observed. "Otherwise we'll be working in the dark."

"He must know that his aide is an agent," said the exec. "Perhaps he decided we're wasting our time following planted information."

Everett shook his head. "I'd expect greater subtlety from our good captain. Phelps may be feeding us false clues on behalf of his masters, but these must contain some kernel of truth if they're to seem believable. It's possible Michaelson intends to sift through the misdirection until he identifies this core of solid information."

"And he means to do this with the spy watching his every move?"

"We must not underestimate the man. He's most certainly managed to outwit us. And we don't want to risk spoiling his play with some ill-considered revelation."

The Irishman scowled as he considered the implications. "So while Michaelson is pretending to be led astray by Phelps's masters, we'll be pretending to be led astray by Michaelson."

Everett smiled. "That would seem to be the face of it."

They found Phelps waiting by the mooring mast with Michaelson's Vauxhall. The touring car had been raised, restored, and showed no visible sign of its recent immersion in Cairns's harbor. "The Captain's driver is on leave today," Phelps explained. "Michaelson instructed me to bring you to his office at your convenience."

Everett could recognize a euphemism when he heard one. Soon the car was speeding toward the administration building, splashing through puddles left by the previous night's rain. Michaelson was standing by the entrance when they arrived. He frowned as the car pulled to a stop. "This," he announced, pointing at a muddy fender, "is quite unacceptable! Take this to the motor pool and have it cleaned." He stood, glaring, until his aide motored off, then turned on his heel and led the way into the building.

"I wasn't aware he also served as your chauffeur," Everett remarked after they'd reached the senior captain's office.

"I take it from your message that there were other things you weren't aware of," Michaelson said dryly.

Only one answer was possible. "Quite," Everett replied, "May I ask how long you've known he was..."

"No," said Michaelson, "you may not. Nor may you ask what brought the man's dual allegiance to my attention. Suffice to say we have that most rare of advantages, a means of telling an adversary exactly what we wish him to believe. You will not do anything to jeopardize this."

The statement was calm, matter-of-fact, and darkly ominous. Even so, Everett might have pursued the matter had he not heard footsteps in the hall. "What is our next step?" he asked, without missing a beat, as Phelps stepped into the room.

"We will identify this Japanese airship your informant mentioned," said Michaelson. "This would appear to be the means our supposed bomber used to reach Goodenough. Then you will investigate its previous ports of call to determine where the fellow boarded. Phelps, you have the information from Sydney?"

The aide produced a folder. Was it his imagination, Everett wondered, or did he notice a certain smugness in the man's demeanor? "They've wired the various stations and identified several vessels that were in the range of the island at the time," said Phelps. "I have a copy of their itineraries here."

Everett glanced through the report. "This is quite comprehensive," he observed. "It could take some time to visit all these places."

Michaelson made a dismissive gesture. "I'll have Phelps draw up a list."

The biblical Behemoth was supposed to have sinews like `stones', and bones like `bars of iron`. Even so, it might have hesitated to confront its namesake when she was annoyed. "It`s bad enough that you go gallivanting off to Sydney for the Railroad Company..." announced Aunt Behema.

"But we like gallivanting!" Emily said brightly.

"Don`t interrupt, young lady!" snapped the matron. "It was also quite inappropriate for you to return here unescorted. What do you know about this Cartwell chappie?

"He`s American," said Clarice.

Their aunt`s expression darkened. Like many Australians, her image of Americans had been colored by a diet of cinemas and popular novels.

"He`s unmarried," said Emily.

Their aunt`s expression grew even darker.

"And he appears to be heir to a substantial fortune."

Aunt Behema`s manner underwent a remarkable change.

"Let`s meet this gentleman."

Mister Cartwell spread a set of notes across the table. "I`m looking for examples of this: the Common Squidbat," he announced, pointing to a sketch of a remarkable-looking creature. "It was supposed to be endemic to this part of the world at the time of European contact, but reliable reports have been rare. Some zoologists believe it`s descended from some archaic species that was considerably larger and more intelligent. Others believe the creature to be entirely apocryphal. Physical evidence is limited to a few carved representations and a skin on display at a university in Massachusetts. Skeptics claim the latter is a fake, produced by sewing skins of different animals together, but same was said about the `platypus.

"Which platypus?" Emily whispered to Clarice.

"I think he means all of them."

Their aunt`s face brightened as if she was recalling her childhood. Or larval stage, as the case might have been. "Squidbats," she said wistfully. "I remember Great-Uncle Enoch pointing them when to me and my sisters when we went fishing near those old ruins to the west. Those were the days! We used to... well, I suppose you don`t need to know about that."

"Could you take a party there?" asked Mister Cartwell.

"I don`t see why not," said Behema. "We`ll use my boat."

The Clydesdale was aptly named. Big as its owner and every bit as solid, its timbers seemed substantial enough to shrug off surf, storms, and small arms fire. Its modern six-cylinder diesel was exorbitantly large for a vessel this size.

They`d cleared Darwin`s harbor that morning. Now they were motoring west at an easy five knots. To port, the coast was a succession of deserted beaches, islets, and headlands. It had been some time since they`d seen another soul -- few people lived in this part of the Australia`s North Territory -- but towards mid-afternoon, another vessel, somewhat more lightly-built than theirs, emerged from behind an island to port. As it drew closer, a man in fisherman`s garb stepped onto the foredeck and brandished a pistol.

"Heave to!" he cried in strongly accented voice, "or we`ll open fire!"

Aunt Behema sighed in exasperation, then cranked the wheel to port. "I`ll heave to, all right!" she bellowed as shoved the throttle forward. The engine roared, the bow rose in a wave of foam, and their would-be assailants just barely managed to get out of the way. For several minutes, the two boats turned and weaved as Behema did her best to send the other craft to the bottom. At last, satisfied, she pulled back the throttles to let her adversary escape.

"We won't see any more of those wankers!" she announced smugly.

"Who were they?" Mister Cartwell asked.

The matron shrugged. "Pearl smugglers," she replied. "This stretch of coast is infested with pearl smugglers."

Next week: More Fun With Rhotic and Lateral Consonants...

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