The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 312: Not Quite The Heart Of Darkness

Island trader and friends in a jacuzzi

Captain Ashdown was an elderly gentleman with face that had weathered a thousand storms, and ten thousand encounters with obstreperous passengers. He'd served the line for decades in peace and in war. Now he was enjoying a well-earned retirement ferrying tourists about the Indies.

"Thank you for coming so quickly," he told Everett and Jenkins as they stepped from the Transporter platform.

"The Royal Navy Airship Service takes these matters seriously, " Everett assured him. "We understand that you were attacked by pirates."

"Quite," said Ashdown. "They struck four days ago, on the morning of the third. My crew made an attempt to resist, but the fellows were too well-armed."

"And you're quite sure they had an airship?" asked Everett.

"It was hard to miss, hanging up in the air like that."

Everett nodded. "Do you have any idea of the vessel's class?"

"I'm afraid not," said Ashdown. "It didn't look English or German, but beyond that I couldn't say."

"That does narrow it down to a dozen nations or so," Jenkins observed.

"True," mused Everett, "but I'm not certain this is particularly helpful. Captain Ashdown, would it be possible for us to speak some of your passengers to obtaibn their accounts of the incident?"

The captain seemed dubious about the prospect. "I suppose so," he said hesitantly, "but... well... you'll see...."

"It was romantic!" gushed the matron. "They came dropping out of the sky in that big silver airship, like characters from a radio drama!"

Everett exchanged glances with his signalman. These interviews were proving even less informative than they'd hoped. "Did their vessel have any distinguishing features?" he asked.

"It was very long, it had fins in the back, and I believe there were some engines on the bottom."

"Thank you," Everett said politely. "Did you get a good look at the pirates themselves?"

"Oh yes! They were all very handsome!"

"I hope they come again!" announced one of her companions.

"Yes!" agreed another. "They're welcome to attack me any day!"

"How much did they take?" asked Jenkins.

"Not enough," the first matron sighed. "I would have been happy to..."

"Did they have any distinguishing features, aside from their undoubted good looks?" Everett interposed hastily.

"They had American accents, with elements of working-class slang," said a man who'd been standing nearby.

Jenkins frowned. "Are you quite certain of this?" he asked. "It's possible for people untrained in deduction to be mistaken about such things."

"Of course," said the man. "This is my particular area of expertise. I'm a consulting philologist. Here's my business card."

"It appears some old friends may have made a reappearance," Everett observed to Jenkins as they rode back up to the ship.

"You think these might be the Americans who hijacked the AT-38 from the French back in March?" said the signalman.

"The evidence seems to point in that direction," said Everett. "This could present a problem. I'm not sure it's in our interest to apprehend these fellows for the Admiral when we have reason to believe that his office might have been infiltrated by our adversaries."

"The Royal Navy does have a duty to protect shipping," Jenkins observed.

"True," said Everett, "but these incidents hardly constitute piracy on the high seas. They seem more in the nature of public entertainment. I wouldn't be surprised if Captain Ashdown's line advertises them as an attraction. We need some way to warn these fellows off without being too obvious about it."

Jenkins thought this over. "We could conduct a highly visible investigation of the places they might resupply," he suggested. "If these fellows are as astute as they've been in the past, they should take the hint."

Everett nodded. "That should serve."

Buton Island was a row of jungle-covered mountains rising from the sea like the spine of some long, furry, and somewhat lethargic leviathan of the deep. Near its southern end, the village of Bau-Bau nestled next to Murhum Harbor. It was an idyllic prospect -- a vision of Eden transplanted to the Pacific. Everett studied it and shrugged inwardly.

"What does the Almanac have to say about this one?" he asked MacKiernan.

"Its principal export appears to be bitumen," said the Exec. "It's also one of two habitats of the dwarf buffalo."

"I suppose that counts for something," said Everett. "Jenkins, make our signal and request a handling party."

Like most of the Dutch East Indies, Buton was densely populated, with members of a dozen different cultures mingling in varying degrees of disharmony. Dwarf buffalo, if any, were not readily apparent, but ordinary water buffalo were present in great numbers, serving as beasts of burden, dairy animals, and obstacles for visiting Royal Navy officers. The air station at Betoambari had no recent visitors who could have been their quarry, but Pierre's inquiries revealed the existence of another station in the village of Pasarwajo, on the other side of the island.

"It's run by a Mister Kurtz," he reported, "and it doesn't seem to get much attention from the local authorities."

"This," observed Everett, "is reason for us to give it some attention ourselves."

The shortest route to the other side of the island was a narrow track across the hills. In the interests of economy, Everett and Pierre made the trip aboard the Flying Cloud's motorcycle. Aside from a few close encounters with members of Genus Bubalus, the journey was uneventful, and soon the two found themselves in Pasarwajo. The place was remarkably uninteresting. The only things to distinguish it from any of a dozen other village weere some placards printed in an unknown script. On impulse, Everett collected one for Jenkins to examine.

"That must be the air station," said Pierre, pointing to the north.

"I believe you're correct," said Everett.

At first glance, the station gave the impression of dilapidation. A weathered mooring mast leaned to the side, surrounded by ancient drums that might have held anything from diesel fuel to wines from the Lost Continent of Mu. On closer inspection, Everett saw nothing that couldn't be set right with a few moments of work.

"An interesting place," Pierre observed.

"So you noticed too," said Everett. "Let's see what this Kurtz fellow has to say about his establishment."

They found the manager seated on a verandah, attended by two young women from the village. His clothing was notable for its quality. Theirs was notable for its economy.

"Mister Kurtz, I presume," said Everett.

The man looked bewildered for a moment, then chuckled. "Oh yes, my friend Marlow gave me that nickname. I never did understand why. My real name is Albert Fall. Welcome to Pasarwajo Air Station."

"Your name sounds familiar," said Pierre. "Didn't I read something in the American papers..."

"It was a perfectly legitimate business transaction!" the man announced. "I was hounded out of office!"

"The public can be remarkably ungrateful when officials make sacrifices on their behalf," Everett said sympathetically. "We're glad you've found a haven here in the Dutch East Indies. I am Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Naval Airship Service, and this is my purser, Pierre. We've been conducting a survey of air stations in the Banda Sea and we wonder what you could tell us about this facility."

"There's not much to tell," said Fall. "We don't get many visitors here except for a few island blimps, but we do turn a small profit."

"That mooring mast looks fairly substantial," Everett observed.

"I bought it surplus."

"Have any larger vessels visited here recently?"

Fall shrugged. "I leave day-to-day operations of the station to Obediah. He's away visiting relatives in Bali, but he should be back in a month. Or two."

Everett nodded. If he'd had any doubts that the Americans had resupplied here, these had vanished. "Thank you, Mister Fall," he said. "If you ever do have such visitors, please give them my regards."

Next week: Shiver Me Diesels!...

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