The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 288: Bubble Guam Crisis

Dan Straight, Emily, and Clarice

The shore of Afra Bay was a long way from my usual beat. Twelve hundred miles if you're counting. But a dump like American Samoa can get old, and Sammi was getting in one of her moods, so it seemed like good time for a vacation. On an entirely different island.

I was lounging in a beach chair, sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it, when a shadow blocked my view. I looked up to see a vision: two visions to be exact. One was a slim brunette in a slinky blue number that fit a bit too tight for my peace of mind. The other was a leggy blonde in a short red dress that showed off a whole lot of leg. I hopped to my feet and offered the visions a seat -- in my business you learn to act fast. It's a good thing Sammi wasn't around. That could have been trouble.

"Are you Mister Straight?" asked the brunette. "The private investigator?"

"Dan Straight's the name," I replied suavely, "and investigation is my game. How can I help you two ladies?"

"I'm Emily Wilcox and this is my friend Clarice Blaine," said the blonde. "We're looking for our Aunt Behema. She disappeared yesterday while we were shopping in Piti. We fear she's been kidnapped."

She rummaged through her purse and handed me a photograph. It showed my two angels posing on a sofa next to what I guessed was their aunt. I'd seen trimmer cement mixers. Why would anyone want to kidnap this dame, I wondered? And how had they pulled it off? I hadn't seen much heavy equipment on this island.

I thought it over for about three seconds. "I'll take the job," I said. "My fee's ten bucks a day plus expenses."

I was rewarded by two bright smiles, two big hugs, and a sweet pair of kisses. Yes, it's a good thing Sammi wasn't around.

The girls gave me the story as I walked them back to the air station. They'd come here on an airship with their aunt and some rich American looking for something called a squidbat. That perked up my ears. The last squidbat I'd seen had been a gold-plated statue some nasty characters were after back in Pago Pago. But it seemed this squidbat was just an animal -- descended from some alien race that filtered down from the stars before the dawn of time, sleeps beneath the waves, and will rise again when the stars are right to sweep the world clean of humanity. You get a lot of those around this joint. I watched the two ladies climb the ladder to their ship -- it's a very good thing Sammi wasn't around -- then headed back to town to see what I could learn.

The first thing to do was to check the place their aunt had vanished. It didn't take long to find. You get an eye for these things in my line of work. Those cigarette butts might be where someone had hidden. Those scuff marks on the ground looked like signs of a struggle. And that palm tree had almost certainly been standing this morning. It was a snatch, all right. But who'd pulled it off, and why?

I knew just where to ask. Every town has one: the character who'll sell anything to anyone. This one was called Whately the Snake, and he lived up to his name, with a narrow head, scaly skin, and bulging eyes that never seemed to blink. He ran a shop near the waterfront filled with trashy jewelry and trinkets. He grinned when I entered, like he'd just seen a nice juicy mouse.

"What can I do for you, Mister..."

"Dan Straight's the name," I announced, "and investigation is my game. I'm looking for a broad someone put the snatch on yesterday. Her name's Behema." I pulled out the picture the girls had given me and pushed it across the counter. Whately rubbed what there was of his chin with a knuckle full of webbed fingers and smirked.

"She's a hefty one," he said. "I might know something, but it'll cost you a hefty sum: fifty big ones."

I shrugged and headed for the door. "I ain't that interested," I said over my shoulder.

"Wait, Mister Straight," he called after me, "perhaps we can come to a bargain."

The bargain was two bucks for an address and a name. I guess the market for cheap copper tiaras wasn't that good. The address took me to a small plantation east of town. It wasn't much to look at -- a white bungalow with an old Ford truck parked in front and a row of sheds in back -- but a few things didn't seem on the level. Why would an ordinary bunch of planters need a shortwave radio antennae? Why were German army uniforms hanging from the clothesline? And why was the place ringed with barbed wire? I wasn't the only one interested in the joint. A middle-aged man in a nice suit was standing nearby, casing the place through a pair of field glasses. He turned as I approached. His face looked familiar, like I'd seen it in a photo somewhere.

"Are you Mister Straight?" he asked.

"What's it to you?" I said. In my a line of work, you get nervous when strangers seem to be expecting you.

"I'm Mister Cartwell," he replied. "That's my airship, the Philadelphian, down at the station. Miss Wilcox and Miss Blaine are guests aboard my vessel. They told me they'd hired a private investigator named Dan Straight to look for their aunt."

Now I knew where I'd seen the face. This was Vincent Cartwell, of the Pennsylvania Cartwells. He was tycoon whose family had made a pile with their automatic railway brakes. His picture was in all the society pages.

"Dan Straight's the name," I said, "and investigation is my game. How did you find this place?"

"When Miss Behema went missing, I started asking around town. A man named Whately the Snake gave me this address. He wanted fifty dollars, but I bargained him down to two. I've been watching the house, trying to find out if they're holding the lady prisoner."

"There's an easier way," I said. I pulled out my piece, strode up the path, and pounded the knocker. "Open up" I yelled. "Police!".

Sometimes the simple way is the best way.

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. It swung open to reveal four men. They were German, they all carried rifles, and all four of the rifles were pointed at me. That can be a bad combination. "I am Albrecht," said one. "Welcome to our home. You will put down the gun. Then you will tell us who you really are and why you come here."

Sometimes the simple way is not the best way.

"I'm a private investigator, looking for a lady named Behema," I told him. "I got good reason to believe you grabbed her."

The man pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "It isn't what we feared!" he told his men. He made a gesture and they lowered their rifles. "We were afraid you'd come to bring her back," he explained to me. "She is safely gone now."

"Who took her?" I asked suspiciously.

"The Dutchmen," he said. "And they are welcome to her! I will tell you where they stay."

It turned out the Dutchmen were staying on a ship: an old island freighter that must have dated back to Grover Cleveland's administration. Or perhaps it was Millard Fillmore's. This made things difficult. The problem with ships is that they're usually surrounded by water. That makes it hard to sneak aboard, particularly when the deck is lit by floodlights and patrolled by armed guards.

I thought about trying direct approach, but that hadn't worked well with the Germans. It was time for something more subtle. "We can steal a canoe and paddle alongside," I told Mister Cartwell, "but we'll need a distraction. You got any ideas, boss?"

The tycoon walked over to a pair of beached motorboats, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a set of tools. "I can rig these boats so they drive past the ship past at full throttle, then turn towards each other and collide."

I raised an eyebrow. "You're sure about that?"

Cartwell smiled. "I do design automatic controls."

A few minutes later, we were climbing a handy ladder on the port side of the freighter while echoes from the crash faded away to starboard. We reached the deck, snuck past the guards to the deckhouse, and crept down the companionways 'til we found the captain's cabin. The lock was no trouble at all. I was congratulating myself on how smooth things were going when we heard a voice behind us.

"Halt," it said, "or we will shoot you."

We halted. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Then I looked back to see four men covering us with automatics. One of them walked with a limp. He patted us down, took my piece, and nodded to another who I guessed was in charge.

"Welcome aboard the Eiland Meisje," said the leader. "I am Salomon, the captain. I have seen you before, in American Samoa. It was in that bar on Aunu'u: The Great Old Ones Saloon. You were with a Chinese lady. Who are you and why are you here in Guam?"

"Dan Straight's the name," I admitted, "and investigation is my game."

"I see," he said. "This gentleman must be your employer. What are you investigating now? You will tell us, or we will beat it out of you and then you will tell us."

Some choices are easier than others. "We're looking for a lady named Behema," I told him. "We got reason to believe she's on this ship."

His eyes narrowed. "And what would you do with this lady if you found her?"

"Why, we'd rescue her!" Mister Cartwell said valiantly.

The Dutchman turned to his men. "Put down your guns," he told them. "It is safe." Then he turned back to us. "She was here, as you suspected, but now she is gone. We were afraid you'd come to bring her back."

"Where is she now?" asked Cartwell.

"The Englishers have her: servants of She Who Must Be Obeyed. I will tell you how to find them."

It's easy to spot the Limey neighborhoods. Those lawns are a dead giveaway. I don't know how they manage to keep them so neat in the tropics. Some sacrifice to the elder gods, perhaps.

The street was almost empty. The only people in sight were a well-dressed man and a sultry-looking babe in a skimpy island number. They strolled past without a glance, stepped into a little blue shack, and closed the door. It didn't take much imagination to guess what they were up to. A few minutes later we were crouching in the bushes outside the address the Dutchmen gave us.

"What shall we try this time?" whispered Cartwell.

"I'm through monkeying around," I told him. "We're sure these guys have your babe. We'll just pull the place apart until we find her."

It didn't take long to jimmy a window latch. I slipped over the sill, quiet as a cat, and gave the to the door and eased it open a crack. A guard was making his rounds down the hall outside. I'd taken the precaution of stuffing a sock full of sand. I waited 'til the goon walked past, then let him have it alongside the head. He went down like a sack of potatoes.

We dragged sleeping beauty into a closet, locked him in, and started to search the house. The place was pretty posh. It was clear these Brits had money. It was also quiet: too quiet. That's never a good sign.

"Are they all asleep?" whispered Cartwell.

"Maybe it's tea time," I whispered back. "You never can tell with these Limeys. Keep your eyes open for trouble."

Trouble came sooner than I expected. One minute we were fine, the next, the floor opened under our feet. We didn't fall very far -- a dozen feet at most -- but it was enough to knock the stuffing out of us. By the time we got our breath back, the trap had swung closed overhead.

"Darn!" I said. "I hate it when they do that. Why do these upper-crust English villains always have dungeons in their basements?"

Cartwell had pulled an electric torch from his pocket and was studying the ceiling. "I don't have the slightest idea," he replied. "But that was a nice piece of engineering. I wonder what happens next."

He was answered by a cough from our right. We turned to see three well-dressed men carrying double-barreled shotguns. One tipped his hat to us and smiled. "Welcome to Piti Acres," he said. "My name is Kersey. May I ask who you are and what brings you to our modest estate?"

"Dan Straight's the name," I sighed, "and investigation is my game. We're looking for the woman you're holding prisoner."

The man raised his eyebrows. "Whatever for?" he asked. "She's hardly the most engaging company."

"She is a guest aboard my airship," Cartwell said sternly. "Take us to her now, or you will answer to the Cartwell Automatic Air-Valve Company!"

"As you will," said the man. "A moment while Underwood searches you for weapons, then we'll be on our way."

The Limeys did a good job of shaking us down. They found my piece, my sap, the switchblade sewn into my coattails, the billy club stuffed in my right sock, and the brass knucks in the hollow heel of my left shoe. They pulled what looked like a complete set of mechanic's tools out of Cartwell's pockets. When they were done, they marched us down the hall to a cell.

"She Who Must Be Obeyed will be pleased with today's catch," gloated Kersey. "In you go. I'll allow you to make the introductions yourself."

They shoved us through the door, locked us in, and left. I gave the bars a rattle, but they were solid -- no way we were kicking our way out of this slammer. Then I looked around the cell and got a surprise.

She was short, spunky, and filled out her dress like a river fills the curves in its bed. She had a sweet face, pert chin, and the kind of mouth that just begs to be kissed... if you like to live dangerously.

"Sammi!" I cried. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you, Mister Straight!" she said. "You thought you could sneak off to Guam?"

There was only one answer to that. "Well... uh... err..." I began.

"I know how your mind works!" she snapped. "You don't get off that easy! I caught the weekend packet from Pago Pago, asked around the station here, and found those two... clients... who hired you. After that, it was just a matter of learning who might have grabbed this Behema dame and staking them out. I was going to catch you when you showed up, but they caught me first."

"I take it you know this lady," Mister Cartwell whispered to me.

"All too well," I whispered back.

"You have my sympathy," he said. Then he turned to face my nemesis. "I don't mean to interrupt," he told her politely, "but did you see any sign of Miss Behema while you were looking for your friend here?"

"Uh, no," said Sammi. "I figured he'd have found her by now."

There was something wrong with her reasoning, but I knew better than to point this out. "What's the plan now, boss?" I asked Cartwell.

"We still need to find Miss Behema," he said. "She must be a prisoner somewhere else. How can we get out of this cell?"

"Give me a moment," I told him.

The lock didn't present much of a challenge. Our captors had missed the pick and torque bar in the seam of my boxers -- most Limeys tend not check there, though there are some exceptions. The guardroom at the entrance to the dungeon was empty, but it did have a gun rack, with three nice Webley and Scott over-and-unders. Those looked like they might come in handy, so I picked that lock as well. We slipped some shells into the chambers, climbed the stairs, and peered around the corner.

"The coast is clear," I told the others. "Let's blow this joint."

No one showed up to stop us as we crept down the corridors. Soon we'd reached the front hall. We were heading for the door when it swung open and our three Limey friends marched in, shotguns in hand like they were coming home from a shoot.

"Halt!" they yelled.

"Don't move!" I yelled back.

"Bloody hell," said that Kersey character, "how did you get out?"

"The same way we got these shotguns," I told him, "Yankee ingenuity. Let us go all peaceable-like and no one gets hurt."

"I'm afraid this might not be possible," Kersey said. "She Who Must Be Obeyed will want us to salvage something from this fiasco. She'd be quite upset if we allowed valuable hostages to escape."

"Who is this lady?" I asked.

Kersey seemed surprised by this question. "Why... She's She Who Must Be Obeyed."

"Sounds like someone I know," I muttered, quiet so Sammi wouldn't hear.

"I know someone like that too," Mister Cartwell muttered back.

"Looks like we got a standoff," I told Kersey. "Let's just stand here and see who flinches first."

"Five gets you ten it's you chaps."

"You're covered!"

We never got a chance to find out who would have won. While we were busy pointing guns at each other, a businesslike pair of hands appeared behind Kersey's two buddies, grabbed their noggins, and slammed them together. They dropped with a thump. Kersey spun, but before he could shoot, the right hand made a fist and punched out his lights.

Floorboards creaked and a solid-looking matron stepped into the room. She was built like a cement mixer and seemed to be just as tough. It wasn't hard to guess this was Emily and Clarice's Aunt Behema. She smiled when she saw Mister Cartwell. At least, I think that was a smile. "G'day, Vincent," she said cheerfully. "'ow ya goin'?"

"Heather!" said the tycoon, "It's good to see you!"

Piti's a dry town, but you can always find booze if you know where to look. Whateley the Snake steered us to a nice little joint called the Eighteenth Amendment that didn't pay much attention to its namesake. There, Cartwell, the dames, and I settled down to sample the local vino.

"That was exciting, Mister Straight!" said Emily. "Let's do it again!"

"Oh let's!" said Clarice.

"Let's not," Sammi said dangerously.

"How did you find us?" Cartwell asked Behema. Guy must have been born a diplomat.

The broad tossed down a glass of rum and grinned. "These wankers locked me in a cell behind the house," she said. "That got me narked, so after I broke out, I went to have a word with them. I reckon they heard me."

"I reckon they did," laughed Cartwell. "Mister Straight, can I give you a lift back to Pago Pago?"

"Naw," I said, with a long glance at Sammi. "I got everything I need right here." It wasn't much of a line, but the lady's smile told me that everything was forgiven. Whatever it was.

"Then we're off for the Carolines," he said cheerfully. "It seems that's where that squidbat photograph came from. I appreciate your help today. Let me give you something to cover expenses. And if you're ever in Philadelphia, please feel free to call." He pulled out his wallet and handed me some crisp new pictures of Mister Hamilton. Then he and his passengers rose to leave.

As soon as they were gone, Sammi reached over and grabbed me by the collar.

"Mister Straight," she announced, "you're in a lot of trouble!"

"I know," I said meekly. Mamma Straight didn't raise no fool.

"Do you know what's going to happen as soon as we're alone?"

I found out. But I ain't gonna tell you that part of the story.

Several wine glasses

Next week: A Matter of Some Gravity...

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