The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 266: This One Seems Popular Too

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The two airships reached Guadalcanal as the sun was clearing the horizon. The handling parties, warned of their approach, had already assembled on the field -- their annoyance at being woken so early tempered by gratitude that the mooring would take place in the early hours, before the wind could arise to make the work difficult. In his role as host, Everett allowed the Philadelphian to moor first. The Americans' ship-handling was competent, but flashy, as one would expect from Colonials. Not to be outdone, the crew of the Flying Cloud put on a display so subdued and unspectacular that it raised eyebrows.

"That went tolerably well, sir," the lieutenant in charge of the ground crew ventured as Everett and his party emerged from the elevator.

"It's a credit to your men," Everett replied courteously. "They were quite sharp this morning. I take it they've had some practice."

The lieutenant nodded. "We've had quite a bit of traffic. It seems our village has become something of a vacation spot for Japanese tourists."

"The innkeepers must be pleased by this development," Everett observed. "Do you have any idea why your guests find the place so attractive?"

The lieutenant glanced at the surrounding jungle -- a monotonous wall of vegetation that seemed to proclaim Island Of Bored Cannibals -- and shrugged. "Perhaps they come for the scenery."

Just as the lieutenant had said, the village of Aolo was thronged with Japanese tourists. The women were slight, demure, almost doll-like in their posture and bearing. The men seemed unusually fit, as if they'd benefited from some organized regimen of physical training. A surprising number of them carried cameras. Everett glanced at these thoughtfully.

The Administrator received them on a terrace overlooking the harbor. "Welcome back to the Solomon Islands," he said as a butler poured tea. "We recall your previous visit with some pleasure. It's not every day we play host to a Royal Navy airship."

"It was our pleasure as well," Everett replied. "It take it you've had a number of visitors from Japan."

"Yes," the Administrator replied, with a worried frown, "and I find their interest in our port somewhat unsettling. I've informed the Admiralty, but they seem unconcerned."

"Surely there's no need to worry about Japan," Iverson observed. "They were our allies during the War."

Their host looked unconvinced. "Perhaps," he said, "but today's allies may not be our allies tomorrow, and Japanese politics are more complicated than one might suppose. They may be one of the world's most liberal democracies, but they've also shown a disturbing element of militarism, and the ordinary people seem to have that same habit of unquestioning obedience that led the Germans to catastrophe under the Kaiser."

Everett refrained from commenting on this observation. There had been a fair bit of `unquestioning obedience' on both sides of the Channel during the War. "I can appreciate your apprehension," he replied. "Would it be possible for us to examine your port records?"

"Of course," said their host. "Who are these fellows you're travelling with?"

"They're Americans we met in Darwin, quite by chance. Since we shared a destination, I thought it would be good practice for my crew to maintain formation on their vessel."

"What are they looking for here in Aolo?"

Everett shrugged. "I'm not entirely certain."

"What are we looking for here in Aolo?" Aunt Behema asked Mister Cartwell.

The American consulted his notebook. "There's an old Chinese trader named Ho -- from someplace called Leng, I believe -- whose ancestors were reputed to deal in squidbats."

Aunt Behema frowned. "Whatever for? The creatures were entirely worthless."

"Who knows?" said Mister Cartwell. "Perhaps they're used in some traditional medicine."

Like many places in this part of the Pacific, Aolo had a Chinese settlement -- merchants whose ancestors had emigrated during the early days of the Ming dynasty. Inquiries there led the two travellers to an ancient shop cluttered with unidentifiable artifacts. Inside, an equally ancient proprietor was repairing a tennis racket. "What can I do for you?" he asked, in faintly-accented English.

"I understand you have some information about squidbats," said Mister Cartwell.

The man's eyes narrowed. "Squidbats," he mused. "Not many people remember them. They used to be more common... and somewhat larger. I have an old Latin manuscript on the subject." He rummaged through a drawer to produce a scrap of parchment, apparently a fragment from some long-forgotten book.

Mister Cartwell studied the archaic black-letter script. "Wormius," he mused. "What an odd name. How much are you asking?"

They emerged from the store sometime later with the manuscript, some tea, and a small cat figurine that had caught Aunt Behema's eye. Outside, they found three rough-looking English seamen waiting for them.

"They're the ones!" cried one. "Get them!"

Mister Cartwell reached for his pocket, but before he could withdraw whatever it held, Aunt Behema stepped forward and glared.

"Get who?" she demanded.

The thugs quailed, unready to confront an Australian matron in the fullness of her power.

"Uh, no one in particular. We'll be going now."

Lieutenant Murdock strode through the market, proud of the responsibility his captain had vested in him. While others busied themselves with the routine tasks of resupply, he'd been sent into town to procure... fresh produce! He was gazing at a pile of coconuts, wondering if he was supposed to squeeze them, when he heard a voice next to him.

"Please, sir, can you help me?"

He turned to see a young woman -- an islander, judging from her comparative lack of attire -- gazing at him with wide plaintive eyes.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"My mother received a letter, and we need someone to read it for us."

This, thought Murdock, does not reflect well on educational standards in this corner of the Empire. "I'd be happy to be of assistance," he replied.

The girl beckoned him to follow, leading him away from the market toward what seemed to be a native quarter. Murdock did his best to ignore the inadequate scrap of cloth she wore in place of a skirt. Does she know that knot's coming untied? he wondered. He resisted the temptation to reach out and adjust it.

As they rounded a hut, his guide gave a cry of surprise. The lieutenant looked up to see a massive Australian, six feet tall and full of muscles, watching him with a predatory grin. He smiled back nervously. Somehow, he didn't think the man was about to offer him a Vegemite sandwich.

"You're the one," the man announced. "Come with me."

"The one what?" asked Murdock.

"Aye," came a new voice. "What one would that be?" Murdock glanced back to see Abercrombie looming behind him like a mountain.

"Um... err..." said the islander.

The Scotsman smiled and cracked his knuckles. "Let's discuss the matter."

Emily and Clarice wandered through the market, delighted by their surroundings. With Mister Cartwell and their aunt away on some errand, they'd been left to their own devices, and this was far more interesting than staying on the ship. So preoccupied were they by the sights around them that they didn't notice the two men until one stepped forward to block their path.

"Frauleins," he said. "You will come with us."

"Whyever should we do that?" asked Emily.

"Because we would not hesitate to use force."

Emily thought this over. She still had the handgun Jenkins had taken from her assailant the year before, but it wouldn't do her much good sitting in her purse. Was there any way she could distract the fellow long enough to draw it?

Distraction took the form of a blur of motion, after which their two would-be assailants were lying on the ground and the Flying Cloud's engineer -- a taciturn Japanese man whose name Emily had never been able to remember -- was standing in their place. He gave the women a polite bow.

"Please forgive interruption," he said. "Would you like return ship?"

Next week: The Infallible Power of Deduction...

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