The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 414: Wine That Maketh Glad The Heart Of Man

Waiter with protective gear pouring Chateu Rennell

Fenwick and Lieutenant Peters met in the HMS Thumper's diminutive wardroom to discuss the former's discoveries. It would have been a perfectly adequate wardroom for rabbits. Provided they were small rabbits, who kept their shoulders hunched and didn't mind bumping their ears. Naval personnel had to fare as best they could.

Peters finished examining Fenwick's notes, then straightened, taking care not to strike his head against an awkwardly placed girder. "So Miss Kim was traveling aboard some freighter named the Viking Girl II," he remarked.

"That's what my informants told me," said Fenwick. "It seems an odd name for a ship in this part of the world. I would have expected something along the lines of Island Girl."

Peters smiled. "Do you know how many vessels in the Pacific are named Island Girl?"

"I take it there are more than one," said Fenwick.

"According to Admiralty records, there are at least 1,789, not counting fishing boats and small craft."

"Then we must give the owner credit for defying tradition," Fenwick admitted. "Now we need to determine the vessel's previous port of call. There was no mention of this in the port records."

"The authorities here in New Guinea are not as diligent in this regard as they are back in England," said Peters. "Perhaps we can get some clue from the vessel's cargo."

A visit to Samarai Island's Customs office established that the Viking Girl II had been carrying copra -- the ubiquitous substance that people seemed to produce and ship around the Pacific for no apparent reason. She'd also carried dried fish -- another product whose origin might be difficult to pin down in this part of the world. More promising was a delivery of several crates of something called `Chateau Rennell' to the United Anglican Temperance Union. The Almanac described this as a `wine-like substance, produced on Rennell Island'.

"That's curious," Peters remarked. "Why would an organization opposed to the consumption of alcohol purchase a cargo of alcohol?"

Fenwick shrugged. "Life is full of mysteries. This may be one of them. Are you familiar with this Rennell Island?"

"It's a medium-sized island in the middle of the Coral Sea," said Peters. "The passage should be easy, provided we don't have more trouble with the engines."

The Thumper made the crossing as quickly as could be expected for a vessel of her antiquity. Three days after leaving Milne Bay, they reached the village of Tigoa on the eastern end of the island. While the gunboat's small crew, accompanied by one not-particularly-fierce marine, went ashore in search of a bar, Fenwick found a wagon to carry him to the vineyard where Chataeu Rennell was produced. On impulse, Peters decided to go with him. The lieutenant was curious to learn more about this mysterious beverage.

The interior of Rennell Island was less verdant than the Englishmen expected. This was a raised coral island -- a reef lifted several hundred feet above the waves by some caprice of geology -- so the soil was not particularly well-watered or fertile. Palm tress might have flourished, accompanied by a profusion of orchids, but it was not a promising place for agriculture. A few enterprising islanders had cleared patches of brush to plant crops of taro and sweet potato. These plots didn't look very productive.

The vineyard stood to the west of Lake Tegano -- home to one of the world's two known species of freshwater sea snake. It was a ramshackle collection of buildings that entirely failed to scream the word `prosperity'. The vintner seemed a good match for the establishment. He was a lanky Englishman who might have been expressly designed for patience and equanimity. They found the man sitting on a stack of lumber, using a solvent-soaked rag to strip old varnish from the handle of a tennis racket.

"Good day," Fenwick told him. "I trust we're not interrupting anything."

"Not at all," the vintner said cheerfully as he rose to shake their hands. "We've been getting ready for the inter-island tennis tournament, but that won't occur for several days. I'm William Landsdown, owner of this vineyard. Who do I have the privilege of addressing?"

"I'm Ensign Fenwick, Royal Navy Airship Service, and this is Lieutenant Peters. We were wondering if we might ask you a few questions."

"Airmen?" mused the man. "We've seen quite a few of you fellows around here. The last lot was a party from some ship named the Flying Claude back in February. What would you like to know?"

"We're trying to trace the itinerary of someone who purchased a cargo of your wine. This would be the captain of Viking Girl II. Do you recall the relevant transaction?"

The vintner chuckled. "It would be difficult to forget! She showed up a few weeks ago with a young Asian lady on a motorbike."

"The captain of the Viking Girl II is a woman?" Fenwick asked in surprise.

"Oh yes!" the vintner assured him. "There's no doubt about that!"

"Do you know her previous port of call?"

The vintner indicated the stack of planks he'd been using as a seat. "She brought this cargo of lumber over from Espiritu Santo. We don't have much good timber on Rennell Island, so there's always a demand for building material here."

"Thank you for your assistance," said Fenwick. "I believe my companion also has a question."

"Quite," said Peters. "It seems that your wine was purchased by a temperance organization in New Guinea. Do you have any idea why?"

"I can hazard a guess,' said their host. Drawing on some secret vintner's skill, he produced a pair of wine glasses, then reached for what they'd assumed was a bottle of cleaning solution and poured them each a sample. "Would you gentlemen care to try some?"

The airmen accepted the glasses and took a cautious sip. A brief shocked silence ensued as they struggled to control their reaction.

"It's an... interesting vintage," Fenwick observed when he'd recovered his ability to speak.

"So it is," the man observed sadly. "It's been said that once someone has tasted Chateau Rennell, they may never want to drink anything else."

The commander set down his pen and nodded to the aide who'd been waiting with a message slip in hand.

"What is the word from our agents on Borneo?" he asked.

"Captain Everett has called at Kuching, as we expected," the aide replied. "They tried to capture one of his officers for questioning, but they were intercepted by agents of our former ally."

"We're sure these were the Fat Man's people?" asked the commander.

"Hai. Several of them were known to our men."

The commander thought this over. "They must also be after the fugitive. This confirms she's aboard Everett's vessel. Perhaps we can find some way to set these gaijin against each other."

Next week: Interview Strategies...

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