The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 76: Ballast Mistresses of the Empire

Heads up!  Flappers on the bridge!

Sarah stood on the lawn, gazing at the entrance to the dance hall, remembering the reception. Iverson had looked so bewildered and hurt when she'd flirted with Loris. Was it then that she realized what was happening? Why had it taken Helga to point out the obvious? And why had they waited so long? Had they really had so little time together? She still found it hard to believe he was gone.

"You have lost someone," came a cultured voice from behind her. She turned to see Antonio Notariello, the Italian they'd taken aboard in Cairns, studying the building as if evaluating its potential as a performance venue.

"It's a private matter,'" she announced, annoyed by the intrusion.

"I understand," he replied apologetically. "I am an opera singer. We must be sensitive to these things, for the very essence of opera is tragedy." He bowed, withdrew, and made his way up the steps into the building.

As she was turning to go, she heard his clear tenor voice echo from the hall in a song from Act III of Tosca: Cavaradossi's final declaration to the heroine, 'Amaro sol per te m'era il morire' -- `Dying was bitter only because of you'.

Captain Everett escorted his guests to the mess hall -- it would not have been appropriate for an officer of one of His Majesty's airships to receive two unaccompanied women in his personal quarters -- and summoned his aide. "This is my signalman, Jenkins," he said after the other man arrived. "He enjoys my complete confidence. Jenkins, I believe you already know Miss Emily Wilcox," he gestured toward the brunette, "and this is Miss Clarice..."

"...Blaine," said the blonde woman, as if daring him to defy her. "Clarice Blaine."

"Thank you, Miss Blaine. I brought you aboard so we can be assured of privacy. I understand you have information that might be of interest to the Royal Navy. Before we proceed, I must ask how you learned what we were looking for."

"It was hardly a secret after those men attacked Emily!" said Clarice indignantly. "Police chief Channel kept prying, trying to learn what they were after. It wasn't difficult to put two and two together."

"What did you tell Channel?" Jenkins asked the brunette.

Emily smiled innocently. "Nothing! I pretended to be so shaken that I was on the verge of fainting. My grandmother taught me that trick. Men always fall for it."

Jenkins nodded as if committing this to memory. "How did Channel react?"

Clarice scowled in contempt. "He pretended to apologize. Then he downplayed the matter, as if he wanted to keep the entire affair secret."

Which would hardly be surprising if he was behind the attack, as we suspect, thought Everett. "What is this information you discovered?" he asked.

"I won't tell you unless you promise to take us along!" announced Clarice. "I won't let you put Emily in danger again!"

"And I'm not letting Clarice go into danger without me!" added Emily.

Everett knew better than to comment on the fact that these two statements were mutually inconsistent. He drew his aide aside. "Jenkins, your opinion?"

"I don't see that we have much choice, sir," said Jenkins. "I doubt they'll reveal the information otherwise. They seem formidable opponents."

Everett had reached the same conclusion himself. "Very well," he announced to the two women, "you can come, provided that your information is sufficiently valuable."

"How do we know you'll value it fairly?" asked Clarice suspiciously.

"You have my word as an officer."

The woman opened her mouth to object, but closed it when she noticed his expression. "Emily?" she asked her companion in a subdued voice.

"We know who ordered the cargo of saw blades that was aboard the R-67," said the brunette. "It was consigned to a party here in Darwin, but this was just a front. The real destination was a German steamer named the Inselmädchen that called here from Noumea on Grand Terre."

Jenkins cringed. "Inselmädchen?"

Emily nodded ruefully. "I know. The name does suggest a certain lack of originality."

"Grand Terre," mused Everett. "That makes a certain amount of sense. We know that the renegade German nationalists have some contacts in New Caledonia."

"Renegade German nationalists?" asked Clarice.

"I'll explain after we're underway."

"You mean we can come?" asked both women at once.

"Of course!" said Everett. "You had my word. Now we need some official excuse to bring you aboard. Do you have any particular skills that might be useful aboard one of His Majesty's Airships?"

"I don't know," said Emily. "We worked as clerks at the railway office."

"Perhaps they could serve as ballast masters while Sarah is indisposed," suggested Jenkins.

"Quite," said Everett. "Miss Wilcox, Miss Blaine, you are now enlisted in the Royal Naval Airship Service as civilian specialists under RNR 247-632 subject to naval regulations and conditions subject the provisions of RNR 247-401 Clauses C and D with final pay grade and bonuses to be determined according to Clause G welcome aboard."

Iverson woke to a throbbing sound, in a room that seemed be swaying from side to side. At first he thought this was the aftermath of the blow to his skull -- he distinctly remembered the tree trunk rushing up to meet him after he'd been thrown from the car. But as he became more awake, he realized that the sound came from machinery, and his room had a porthole rather than a window. Other sounds reached his ears as well: the creak of tackle, the groan of hull plates, and the splash of waves. It seemed he was on a ship. But what was he doing here?

He sat up, then sank back down as a wave of dizziness engulfed him. On his second attempt, he managed to swing his legs out of bed and get to his feet. His uniform had vanished and been replaced by a hospital gown. At least, he assumed it was a hospital gown. The alternative -- that the crew of this vessel had a taste for women's clothing -- seemed unlikely. Making his way to the porthole, he found his view blocked by a lifeboat with the words Inselmädchen, Kwajalein, written on the prow. He frowned. The name seemed singularly unimaginative, and was `Kwajalein' a person, a place, or a profession?

The door opened behind him. He turned to see two men in seaman's garb enter the cabin. One held a long-barreled automatic that Iverson recognized as a Parabellum. The other carried himself with a precision that suggested he'd seen military service.

"I see you are finally with us," said the second man, with a distinct German accent. "I am Captain Ritter. You will tell me your name."

"Lieutenant John Iverson, Royal Naval Airship Service."

"Will you give me your parole and promise not to escape?" asked Ritter.

"I can hardly do that," objected Iverson. "Since I rather doubt you're officers of a recognized government, I don't believe you'd be entitled to accept it."

The other man nodded sadly. "That may well be true," he admitted. "I'm afraid this means we must confine you to this cabin. Please accept my apologies."

Iverson hardly noticed the next two days pass, for he was filled with worries about Sarah. Had she managed to escape? He didn't dare ask about the circumstances of his capture lest he alert his captors to the fact he'd had a companion. Then, on the third day, he awoke to the sound of the ship's engines reversing as the crew backed her down to a wharf.

Wherever they'd been taking him, it seemed they had arrived.

Next week: A Flight to the East...

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