Episode 433: A Confidence Game
Fletcher and Miss Kim had little trouble passing themselves off as laborers
when they returned to the station the next morning. With the sentries
still recovering from the previous night's celebration, they'd have had
little trouble passing themselves off as members of some primordial race of
elder gods who'd filtered down from the stars before the dawn of history,
sunk beneath the waves, and were returning now that the stars were right
to sweep the Earth clean of humanity. A short time later, they were
delivering their report in the R-46's auxiliary control room. Like its
counterparts on other vessels, this was a narrow compartment in the lower
fin. It was a cramped place to hold a meeting, and the sag in the airship's
stern gave the deck an awkward tilt, but it offered a measure of security
that might not have been available in the mess hall.
"Were you able to find the German supply records?" MacKiernan asked them.
"They were still filed in the abandoned barracks, as we had supposed," said
Fletcher. "We weren't in a position to take flash photographs, but I was
able to transcribe a copy using the Taylor system."
MacKiernan glanced at the pages of shorthand notes and passed them to Miss
Perkins. "That should serve," he said. "But it seems we have a more
immediate concern. While you were completing your mission, Captain Everett
sent us a message using a one-time pad."
Fletcher might have been young, but he understood the implications. "It
must have been of unusual importance."
"Quite," said MacKiernan. "The Captain traced the American archeologists
to Bhamo, in northern Burmah. Shortly after his arrival, inspector Scott
and Lieutenant Murdock were kidnapped by dacoits who may have been in the
employ of Baron Warfield."
Fletcher's eyes widened. ""The baron has returned to the Pacific?"
"So it would seem," said MacKiernan. "This leaves the Captain with little
choice but to pursue the kidnappers. We will use this to our advantage.
While he takes Warfield's bait, we will continue his investigation of
Burmah. Our adversaries can have no way of knowing about us."
Fletcher nodded. Misdirection such as this was a staple of Signal Corps
legends, but he wondered about the details. "How will Lieutenant Peters
and I fit in?" he asked.
"We will prevail upon Vincenzo to take you back to Tahiti and the
Thumper," said Miss Perkins. "Your encounter with the Warfields'
butler suggests that the British Union maintains agents among the English
community there. With a suitable cover story, you will be able to mislead
The Salgari's return to Tahiti was a reverse of the flight to
Iwojima. Vincenzo called at Wake Island to exchange crates of sake for a
cargo of illicit feathers -- a concept Fletcher still found it difficult to
credit -- then continued on to Mahini. There Fletcher and Peters were
able to hire a launch to carry them back to Papeete.
The British commercial agent in Papeete was the closest thing His
Majesty's Government maintained to a naval attaché in French
Polynesia. He received Fletcher and Peters with suspicious enthusiasm.
"Good day, gentlemen," he said cheerfully. "What can I do for you?"
"We are engaged on an inquiry of some sensitivity," said Fletcher. "I
trust you will keep the matter secret."
"Of course!" said the agent. "You may rely on my discretion!"
The combination of youth and Signal Corps training made it easy for Fletcher
to project an air of innocent naiveté. "Several weeks ago, the
constabulary apprehended a saboteur in Cairns," he told the agent.
"Lieutenant Peters and I were sent to determine where she came from. With
the aid of a local airship captain, we were able to follow her trail to a
Japanese possession some distance west of Wake Island. This suggests she
was dispatched by some party in Japan. We would like you to watch for any
Japanese activity here in Tahiti and pass word on to Cairns."
The man nodded a bit too quickly. It seemed he'd been aware of Miss Kim's
movements. Fletcher nodded to himself. The mark of a good cover story was
that it was close enough to the truth for its audience to draw the wrong
The R-46's profound limitations as an airship prevented it from making the
flight from Iwojima to Burmah in one leg. Making virtue of necessity,
MacKiernan called for resupply at the Royal Air Station in Hong Kong, where
they could lose themselves among elements of the Fleet. At Miss Perkins'
suggestion, they also took this opportunity to acquire a cargo. Two days
later, they were crossing the Shan Highland en route to Bhamo. To
starboard, the Hengduan Mountains -- a southeastern arm of the Himalayas --
gleamed in the sun. Miss Kim studied them intently.
"Those peaks looking familiar," she said. "Mountains like that were north
of the place I held."
"What were they called?" asked Miss Perkins.
"Japanese not telling us place names," said Miss Kim, "but they did say
region was home of people called Tcho Tcho."
"That might be a possible line of inquiry," MacKiernan suggested.
"Our adversaries might be on watch for such a tactic," Miss Perkins said
curtly. "We would do better to study logistics. If the nationalists have
built a secret base somewhere north of Bhamo, they will have needed to bring
in the necessary materials. The only practical route would be to ship them
up the Irrawaddy River, then transship them to pack trains for the journey
into the hills. These will leave have left records. The challenge will be
to find the information we're looking for without revealing our
"I assume you have a plan," said MacKiernan.
"Of course," said Miss Perkins. "We will have Lieutenant Wilcox pose
as a supply officer, sent to evaluate local shipping facilities. I will
accompany him as a secretary, and we'll bring along Abercrombie in case we
need to lift heavy things."
MacKiernan studied the secretary's face. Was that a trace of a smile?
They arrived at Bhamo's air station to learn that the Flying Cloud
had departed two days earlier, destination unknown. This was fortunate, for
the facility might have been hard put to accommodate two full-sized airships.
An hour after they'd moored, Wilcox and Miss Perkins were making their way
along the bank of the Irrawaddy River, examining the various warehouses,
docks, and stevedore companies. Abercrombie followed carrying a bulky
satchel. Their efforts did not go unnoticed, and when they paused at an inn
for lunch, they were accosted by a man whose easy manner seemed at odds with
his hard-eyed gaze.
"Good day, sirs, madam," he told them. "I am Nathaniel Gilman, a local
shipper. I understand you have been inspecting our port facilities, and I
thought to offer you my assistance."
"How did you learn about us?" asked Wilcox, in response to a nudge from Miss
Perkins. As always, he sounded like a man trying to hide something -- one
of the reasons the secretary had chosen him for this mission.
"I have my sources," said the man. "And their reports suggest there is some
additional motive to your inquiries."
Miss Perkins laid a hand on the lieutenant's arm. He'd acquitted himself
well. "That is correct," she told Gilman. "We are trying to find someone
who could ship a cargo downriver, no questions asked."
"What kind of cargo?" Gilman asked.
She nodded to Abercrombie, and the Scotsman hoisted his satchel onto the
table, which creaked under its weight. "A dozen of these," she said,
opening the satchel to reveal one of the motor-generator pairs they'd
bought in Hong Kong.
Gilman studied the unit, then smiled. "You might not need to ship it
south," he told them. "I believe I can find a buyer here."
Next week: Yes, It's Who You Thought It Was...
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