Episode 281: Seeking Clues in the Santa Cruz
By now, Clarice had come to the conclusion that
the islands of Microneasia were all much the same.
They might vary slightly in their ethnic composition, the denomination of
the missionaries, and the number of cannibals, but otherwise there was
little to choose between them. Nendo, in the Santa Cruz group, was no
exception. Its huts might be round rather than square, its canoes might
have square prows rather than round ones, and the copra sheds might be an
unbecoming shade of mauve, but none of these details struck her as
The air station at Lata did not seem to attract many visitors. The only
other vessel in sight was an old War-vintage blimp that was lifting ship as
they arrived. It was uniquely unattractive, with an graceless three-lobed
hull that clashed glaringly with the elegant dolphin painted on the side.
Clarice thought the emblem looked familiar, as if she'd heard it described
"I wonder who they are," she wondered.
"It's probably the local mailboat," said Mister Cartwell. "It seems we just
missed them -- a good thing too, since this place only seems to have one
Aunt Behema snorted in amusement.
"Why would a place like this ever need more?
The appearance of a modern rigid airship in this out-of-the-way corner of
the Pacific was sufficiently novel that the islanders had turned out in
droves to help with the mooring. The results were predictable. Mister
Cartwell endured the ensuing confusion and delay with the good nature that
seemed to be one of his defining characteristics.
"That went better than I expected," he announced when the
Philadelphian was finally moored. "Let's stretch our legs and
see if we can find the Government House."
"Do you think they actually have such a thing here?" Emily whispered to
Clarice giggled. "We'll be lucky if they even have houses."
Lata's Government House proved to be a tin-roofed shack built in imitation
of a Spanish hacienda -- a relic, perhaps, of some earlier phase of colonial
occupation. The result was not an unqualified success. A flag drooped
limply from the pole beside it, as if embarrassed to be seen in the
building's company. Clarice glanced at the pennant, trying to determine
what nation it might belong to, then abandoned the effort and followed the
others up the steps to the veranda.
The local administrator -- a trim Englishman in neatly-pressed field
clothing and a pith helmet -- was waiting for them next to a pitcher of iced
tea. "Good afternoon," he announced. "I'm Andrew Merrit,
Junior-Assistant-Under-Administrator for the Santa Cruz Islands."
"I'm Mister Cartwell, and these are my guests Mrs. Behema, Miss Wilcox, and
Miss Blaine" the industrialist replied, "I take it this is a British
The administrator smiled. "The Spanish foisted it on us in 1899. We've
been trying to give it back ever since, but they seem glad to be rid of the
"I can't say I blame them," chuckled Mister Cartwell. "Still, I see you do
have some amenities here." He gestured at the chilled pitcher.
Now it was Merrit's turn to laugh. "The Colonial Office provided us with an
electrical generator to power our wireless station. They don't seem to care
what we do with it when we aren't on the air."
"And just what do you do when you aren't transmitting reports or enjoying
"We're supposed to promote trade," said Merrit, "though it's immediately clear
what form this trade is supposed to take. There's copra, of course, but that's
tedious stuff. I've never understood what all the fuss was about. This
island's only other products are logwood and snail shells."
"Snail shells?" Emily asked in wonderment.
"Yes. They export several dozen tons every year."
"Whatever for?" asked Clarice.
"I'm not entirely certain," the administrator confessed. "Someplace with a
shortage of snails, I imagine."
"This could be our lucky break," said Mister Cartwell. "Would these snail
shell merchants know much about the local fauna?"
"Perhaps," mused Merrit. "They should certainly know a fair bit about
Several small trading posts were clustered
near the village wharf. Their names were
unusual, even for the islands -- apparently the proprietors had little to do
but think of imaginative titles for their establishments. The party made
their way past signs for
`International Coconut Merchants',
`C Bay', and
`Kopraweich GmBH'. At last they came to an enterprise named
Inside, an old man was gazing out the window with a distracted expression,
as if wishing he'd been born in another era, when commercial opportunities
took a somewhat more substantial form.
"I'm Marcus Sugerton," he said, when he noticed their presence. "What
can I do for you today?"
Mister Cartwell produced his notebook and opened it to a sketch. "We're
searching for a local animal known as a squidbat," he replied. "It would
look something like this."
The entrepreneur studied the drawing, then shook his head. "It doesn't have
a shell, so I'm afraid I can't help you," he said. "You might ask Professor
Goodwin over at the Anglican Mission."
They found Professor Goodwin at a bungalow belonging to the Anglican
Mission, where he was taking advantage of the Fathers' hospitality.
The professor was a middle-aged American naturalist who'd travelled to
Microneasia to make a study of the islands.
He brightened when Mister Cartwell introduced himself.
"I read your monograph on terrain requirements for the hypothetical
Ophidia Circulus," he told the industrialist. "An excellent piece
of work. I don't imagine you're looking for one of those animals here."
"No," chuckled Mister Cartwell. "I'm searching for evidence of
Desmodus Teuthida: the Common Squidbat. So far I've visited
Australia's North Territory, Goodenough Island, and Nam Madol on Ponape,
without much success."
The latter name seemed to perk Goodwin's interest. "Nan Madol," he said.
"When you were there, did you happen to notice a strange moonlit pool
"Uh... never mind. It wouldn't have involved squidbats."
"You've encountered the creatures?" asked Mister Cartwell.
"No, but a local colleague recently gave me this photograph. I'll let you
decide what to make of it." The professor rummaged through his papers
until he located a blurry black and white print. The subject was difficult
for Clarice to determine, but if it was an animal, it was quite unlike any
one she'd seen before.
"Interesting, if it isn't a forgery," mused Mister Cartwell. "Do you have
any idea who took this and where?"
"My colleague could not say," said Goodwin, "but I understand he purchased
it in Pago Pago.. or perhaps it was Guam."
"Why, they're only sixteen hundred miles out of our way," Mister Cartwell
said brightly. "We'll give them both a call."
Sigmund scowled at the empty mooring mast as the Todstalker
dropped anchor. "Once again, we are too late," he growled.
Captain Trommler knew better than to make excuses. "The fault was mine,
Mein Herr," he replied meekly. "I did not anticipate that our
quarry would leave so soon. What are your orders?
The Fat Man's lieutenant seemed slightly mollified by this display of
servility. "We will ask among the merchants. One may have learned the
"Surely they would not violate a customer's privacy," objected Trommler.
"They are businessmen," said Sigmund. "They will consider privacy a
commodity for sale, like any other."
The captain nodded in relief. His distraction had succeeded.
"The cook wishes to go ashore to purchase fresh provisions," he said,
taking this opportunity to change the subject. "Shall I give her
Sigmund snorted. "We could certainly use some. But tell that old
jungfer to hurry or we'll leave her behind."
Trommler brightened. "Do you think there's a chance of this?"
"No," Sigmund said sadly. "She is too ugly. We will not be so fortunate."
Next week: A Deduction and a Confrontation...
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