The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 483: A Mysterious Pho

Pho, Namu, and Parabellum

There was no way they could bring the Stalking Herring to Saigon without attracting notice. It wasn't every day that a foreign salvage tug owned by a piratical North Australian matron with a Royal Navy signalman as passenger paid a visit to a colonial administrative center in French Indochina. Jenkins doubted that port officials would be fooled by a cover story, so he decided on a direct approach.

"What was your port of departure?" asked the customs officer.

"We cleared Manila on 22 November," Jenkins replied.

The Frenchman entered this information into his ledger. "And what is the reason for your visit?"

"We're trying to intercept a shipment of vacuum tubes that renegade nationalists plan to use to construct a powerful superweapon capable of destroying an entire city in an instant," said Jenkins.

"Monsieur!" scolded the customs officer. "You cannot possibly expect me to believe such an absurd story! What is your true purpose?"

Jenkins shrugged inwardly. He'd tried to be honest. "We're trepang smugglers, looking for a new market for holothuroidea."

"Merci," said the officer. "C'est meilleur! The bribe is five Francs, in additional to the usual port fees."

After this transaction was complete, Jenkins and Aunt Prodigia set off to locate the British Union's agents. This promised to be a time-consuming process, for Saigon was a sizable town. Established by the Nquyen Dynasty at end of Seventeenth Century, conquered by France and Spain in the middle of the Nineteenth -- according to some legends, they'd flipped a coin to determine who kept it -- the settlement had grown steadily over the generations, to become one of the principal ports in Indochina.

The two began their inquiries on the water front. This was seedy in a uniquely Gallic fashion, with cheap wine and brandy taking the place of beer and whiskey, but the effect was much the same. From there they moved to the business district, where throngs of workers streamed past French colonial offices, Chinese godowns, and native Anamese shops. Aunt Prodiga moved through the crowds like a dreadnought, defying anyone to contest her passage. Jenkins followed in her wake, doing his best to avoid the wreckage.

Noon arrived with no sign of the British Union. Jenkins and Aunt Prodigia stopped at a cafe to have a lunch while they decided on their next move. The matron regarded her food with suspicion.

"What's this?" she asked, prodding a bowl of noodles, meat, and vegetables in some form of broth.

"It's called pho ga," said Jenkins. "This would be the local equivalent of chicken soup."

Aunt Prodiga sampled a spoonful and gave a grudging nod. "Strewth, " she admitted. "But why don't they call it by its proper name?"

Jenkins was considering his reply when a man in colonial garb approached their table. The stranger glanced over his shoulder, then leaned forward to address them.

"You come from Manila?" he asked.

"Yes," Jenkins said cautiously. "I'm afraid you have us at a disadvantage."

"I also serve She Who Must Be Obeyed," said the man. "Did you bring the weapons?"

Also serve? thought Jenkins. It seemed the man had mistaken them for agents of the Warfields. It would be wasteful not to take advantage of this situation. "The American authorities discovered the stockpile," he replied. "We'll have to proceed without the arms. What is the situation here?"

"The Japanese are still waiting for the shipment of vacuum tubes," said the man. "They remain unaware of our presence in Saigon, but they outnumber us, and without the weapons, we won't be able to solicit support from the rebels."

This reply raised as many questions as it answered, but Jenkins saw no way to ask them without revealing his allegiance. "We'll wish to inspect the Japanese base from a distance," he said instead. "Where is it located?"

"It's on the other side of the river. We don't have the resources to keep it under observation, but I can draw you map."

The town of Cholon, on the west bank of the Saigon river, was even more cosmopolitan than its sister city to the east, with a population that ranged from native Anamese to Chinese merchants, Indian shopkeepers, visiting Arab captains, Khmer traders, and anonymous hillmen from some mysterious land to the north. In such an environment, the Japanese community went unnoticed -- an unremarkable collection of shops and houses clustered around a temple.

Jenkins studied the latter with interest. "Unless our informant was mistaken, that would seem to be the nationalist's secret headquarters," he told Aunt Prodigia.

"They're using the temple?" asked the matron.

"They may be continuing a tradition of warrior monks that dates back to the Heian period," said Jenkins. "Unfortunately, I don't see any easy way to approach the place. This could be a bit of a poser." He gestured at the landscaping, which was tranquil, serene, harmonious, and offered little in the way of cover.

The matron took him by the arm. "You're making things too difficult," she snorted. "We'll just walk right up pretending to be tourists."

Jenkins had to admit this was a reasonable plan. After all, the Japanese nationalists had no reason to expect them. But it seemed that his companion's stratagem had been unnecessary.

"I don't know much about these Japanese gardens," Aunt Prodigia remarked as they made their way down the path, "but those craters look rather crook."

"So they do," agreed Jenkins. "The bullet holes in that wall would also seem to be an unconventional feature."

"It looks like someone started a blue. Who do you reckon it was?"

"It cannot have been the British Union," mused Jenkins. "That narrows it down to the German nationalists, White Russians, Red Russians, rival temples, criminal brotherhoods, followers of elder gods who filtered down from the stars before the dawn of time, sleep beneath the waves, and will rise again when the stars are right to sweep the Earth clean of humanity, or the Sky Pirates of Tahiti. I believe we can safely eliminate the latter."

"That doesn't narrow things down much."

"No," admitted Jenkins, "I'm afraid it doesn't. Let us see if these gentlemen can shed some light on the matter." The signalman approached two gendarmes who were inspecting the remains of the front door. This had been blown open by some form of explosive charge, to reveal an interior littered with cartridge cases and debris. Two calibers were in evidence: the 9mm Parabellum that seemed to be a trademark of the Fat Man's nationalists, and another that was somewhat smaller.

"I'm an investigator from the Royal Navy Airship Service," Jenkins told the officers. "May I ask what happened here?"

"Oui," said one. "Sometime last night, this monestere was attacked by a party of Allemands from a visiting freighter. Les mones fought back with weapons they had concealed on the premises. We dispatched a squad to take custody of the combatants, but both sides fled before the authorities could arrive."

Jenkins thanked the man and drew Aunt Prodigia aside. "This is an interesting development," he observed. "It appears that someone has done our work for us, and made sure the Japanese won't be in a position to receive the shipment from the Tranquility."

"Bewdy!" said the matron. "That's convenient for us."

"So it is," mused Jenkins. "I wonder if it isn't a bit too convenient."

Next week: Meanwhile, Some Distance To The North...

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