The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 72: Back to Hostile Territory

Mooring operations at the Royal Air Station, Cairns

Cairns was the same as they'd left it: a small tropical port on the shores of the Coral Sea. At this early hour, the town was still asleep, but the Royal Air Station to the north was bustling with activity. Out on the field, ground crews were taking their stations as handling equipment rolled into position. Winch motors clattered to life. From the top of the mooring mast, a light blinked to signal wind strength and direction. Everett studied it thoughtfully. The commander of the station, Captain Lawrence Bates-Shelby Michaelson, was their avowed enemy. He'd surely be watching their approach, waiting to reprimand them for any flaws in the evolution. This was an argument for being cautious and using his most experienced crew. But once you start running from danger, he told himself, you never stop. And fortune favors the bold.

"Mister Iverson," he announced. "We shall use this opportunity to polish your ship-handling skills."

The lieutenant swallowed. "Sir?"

"You have the con."

Iverson hesitated. For a moment, he seemed young, unsure of himself, and quite unready for such a responsibility. Then a change seemed to come over the lieutenant. His expression hardened and his voice grew firm. "Davies," he ordered, "all engines to idle and prepare to weigh off."

"All engines to idle," said the marine, reaching for the telegraph levers. Bells rang and the drone of the propellers dropped to a whisper. Slowly, ponderously, the vessel came to a stop. Deprived of aerodynamic lift, it began to descend.

"Miss Sarah?" said Iverson.

At the ballast station, the island girl compared their descent rate with their table of performance figures. "We appear to be 500 pounds heavy," she announced.

"Very good. Drop 400 pounds on Tank Two and Tank Four. I'd like to come in slightly light."

"Drop 400 pounds on Two and Four."

Everett watched with approval. The youth most certainly had a future as a commander. That future seemed likely to hold other things as well. They might be doing their best to act professionally, but there was no hiding the attraction between the lieutenant and the island girl. He smiled to himself. As a captain in the Royal Navy, he had a number of rarely-used privileges. Among them was the authority to perform weddings.

An hour later, the Flying Cloud was riding to a stub mast and stern trolley while engineers prepared to move her to one of the sheds for servicing. "Message from CIC Cairns," said Jenkins. "He would like you to report at your convenience."

At my `convenience'? thought Everett. Who does he think he's fooling?

"We don't want to keep the gentleman waiting," he announced. "Jenkins, if you'd come with me."

Everett brought only his signalman. It seemed best not to give Michaelson a chance to cross-examine anyone else. As they made their way across the field, he considered his strategy. The senior captain almost certainly had a hidden agenda. They had no idea what this might be or how he might turn their reports against them. And as their superior officer, he would be in control of the interview. But they were not entirely without resources. The trick would be to use these wisely.

Michaelson was busy with paperwork when they arrived. He didn't look up as they saluted, and for several long moments, the only sound was the scratch of his pen. Everett waited patiently. He knew this game, and he was not about to lose points by fidgeting. At last the senior captain set his papers aside.

"It appears that you've been busy, Mister Everett," he observed dryly. "I received reports from Darwin to the effect that you'd been kidnapped!"

"How peculiar," said Everett smoothly. "I suppose this goes to show one can't believe everything one reads in the papers."

Michaelson scowled, as if he'd lost a point. "Let's hear what you have to say for yourselves."

Everett gave his report with some care, making no mention of his activities on the ground. The movements of the Flying Cloud might be a matter of official record, but the fact that he'd left the ship with Jenkins and Abercrombie to track down leads in Darwin was known only to the agents who'd attacked them. If Michaelson asked any questions about these investigations, this would suggest the senior captain had some connection with their attackers.

"An interesting story", said Michaelson when he was finished. "But you don't seem to have much to show for it. The Germans were one step ahead of you the entire time, and they beat you to the vault."

Everett frowned to himself. Either his adversary was innocent or he'd spotted the trap. "Perhaps," he replied, "but this may work out to our advantage."

"How so?" asked Michaleson dangerously.

"If we'd breached the vault, we might have found some obscure piece of equipment that told no tales. But now we've established that the Germans were interested in the products of the Russians' research rather than the Russians themselves. We've also established that they had agents in Darwin to inform them of the movements of the R-67. Finally, we've learned that there are several different parties in Darwin -- German nationalists, White Russian exiles, and agents of the Soviet government -- and that at least one of these is in communication with someone here in Cairns."

"Here in Cairns?" said Michaelson. "Please explain yourself." His voice was non-committal -- too non-committal. Everett weighed his reply carefully.

"There were two attempts on our ship when we visited Darwin in July. The first involved sabotage to the town's hydrogen plant. This occurred before we arrived, which suggests the saboteurs were informed of our departure from the air station here. The second was a hijacking attempt. The hijackers subsequently disappeared while in police custody. When we tried to determine what had become of them, we discovered that someone has been sending coded messages between Darwin and Cairns in the police chief's name. I would hesitate to accuse a representative of the Commonwealth of Australia of malfeasance, but I cannot help but be concerned that Mister Channel's office might have been infiltrated by enemies of the Crown."

"Interesting," said Michaeson. Everett could sense wheels turning in the senior captain's mind. As acting head of Naval Intelligence in this part of Queensland, he was in a position to trace these connections and claim credit for himself. But instead of probing further, Michaelson rang a bell to summon his secretary. "Miss Perkins, if you could bring it in."

A trim young woman entered, followed by a burly ensign who staggered beneath the weight of a large wooden case. Everett recognized the transmitter they'd planted to spy on the senior captain. He kept his expression neutral, glad of those late-night poker games at Dulwich.

"We found this in my office," said Michaelson, watching Everett through narrowed eyes. "It was cleverly hidden."

"That must have taken some doing," Everett said innocently. "It looks quite substantial. What is it?"

"Perhaps your aide can tell us."

Jenkins made a show of searching for the latches, then unfastened the lid. Fortunately, the ability to maintain a straight face under any and all circumstances was a requirement for members of the Royal Navy Signal Corps -- those who couldn't master this skill were transferred to some less demanding branch of the Service, such as the commandos.

"It appears to be a portable radio transmitter," he said after he'd pretended to study the contents. "These dials are labeled in Cyrillic, which suggests it was made in Russia. Could this be how the saboteurs learned of our movements?"

Michaelson drummed his fingers on the desktop. His face gave nothing away, but then, he had a reputation as a poker player too.

"It's a reasonable hypothesis," he admitted. "I will have my men begin an investigation here in Cairns. As soon as the mechanics are done with your ship, prepare her for a flight to Darwin."

"Well played, sir," said Jenkins, after they were safely clear of the senior captain's office.

"That went much better than we had any reason to deserve," admitted Everett. "But Michaelson also played his cards quite well. We still don't have the slightest idea what he's up to, or even what side he's on."

"What shall we do now?"

The captain rubbed his chin. "This will take some thought."

Next week: Tragic Opera...

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