The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 125: Knights of the North Territory

Tank jousting

Lieutenant Dabney, Commonwealth Navy Reserve, toyed with his pencil as he watched the rain drum down outside his window. Darwin's air station was never very busy, and during the Wet, weeks could pass without traffic, leaving him with little to do. At last, with a sigh, he turned back to the report he'd been working on. Why, he wondered, was a company in Melbourne so interested in brewer's yeast?

He was still pondering this question when he heard a knock on the door. He looked up, and his eyes widened in surprise.

"Jingoes, it's Captain Everett! How'd you get here without an airship?"

"It was necessary to arrive unseen," explained Everett. "We're here to investigate a plot against the Empire. Can we count on your assistance?"

"Too right! What's the bizzo?"

"We have reason to believe that some resident of Darwin is involved in this conspiracy," said Everett. "We know the fellow's been monitoring telegraph communications, so we'll use this to smoke him out. We need you to send the following message to the Flying Cloud in Port Moresbey using the secure cipher: 'Have identified leader of conspiracy. Come immediately to take him into custody'."

"The secure cipher?" said Emily.

"This was Jenkins' suggestion," said Everett, "to make the deception more convincing. We know our adversary has agents in Cairns. Presumably they've passed him our codes. He's sure to intercept the message. Now we wait for him to react."

They were hidden in back of Decker's lorry -- a Buick Open Express with a canvas canopy over the bed -- watching the Andrews residence. This was a modest-sized villa surrounded by an enclosed verandah that provided essential ventilation during the rainy season. So far, the only activity they'd seen was a pair of men parading along the street with signs that read, `Repent, People of Darwin! Change the Name Before HE Arrives!'

"Who are those fellows?" asked Jenkins.

"American evangelists," said Emily. "We get quite a few of them. They don't seem to like our town. No one knows why."

"Something's up at the house," said Davies.

Three young women had emerged from the villa. Their clothing was distinctly inappropriate for this hour of the morning -- slinky black evening gowns that made it quite clear what they'd been up to the night before -- and the rain only made matters worse. The missionaries stared, scandalized. The women winked back, then sauntered away, hips swaying.

"Three `houseguests'?" said Jenkins, raising his eyebrows.

"That's nothing," said Decker. "He had six tarts over for a naughty on Remembrance Day."

"I suppose we must admire the man's enterprise," observed Everett. "I wonder how he finds time for espionage."

"You're quite sure he's the agent?" asked Clarice.

"He remains our most likely candidate. Were you able to discover anything more about the other three fellows?"

"Nothing worthy of note," said the blonde. "Mister Beckett served as MP for Gateshead. Mister Leese was Councilor for Stamford. And Mister Fuller wrote what I imagine was a book about the Middle Ages."

"Curious," observed Everett. "He doesn't seem the type. What was the title?"

"The Principles of Armoured Warfare."

"Sir?" asked Jenkins, when he saw the captain's expression.

"To Mister Fuller's house immediately!"

They arrived to find a crowd gathered outside. "The strangest thing just happened," said one of the onlookers. "A telegraph messenger dashed up and knocked on the door. A few minutes later, three gentlemen rushed out with their butlers, followed by several Chinese stevedores with a safe slung from a carrying pole. They all climbed into a motorcar and roared off to the east."

"I believe we know where they're headed," said Everett. "After them."

The Open Express -- little more than a motorized buckboard -- skidded dangerously as they sped down the muddy lane. After several near-accidents, they reached the field where they'd found the tanks. The motorcar was parked next to the Waltzing Mathilda. A party of stevedores had just finished heaving the safe, carrying pole and all, atop the hulking machine. The tank lurched into motion, pivoted on its tracks and headed down a trail leading north.

"No way we can follow them in the ute," said Decker, eyeing the mud.

"There may be an alternative," observed Everett, who'd been eyeing the other tank.

"You can't be serious!" cried several voices in unison.

The captain made a non-committal gesture. "It seems a pity to let this opportunity go to waste."

A few moments of fiddling served to open the hatch of the Chekhov's Gun. This revealed a cramped compartment filled with cryptic controls, a long iron crank, and a massive grease-covered engine. Clarice clapped her hands in delight.

"It's a Daimler-Knight 6! My aunt Behema has one of those!"

"Do you know how to start it?" asked Everett.

The blonde indicated the crank. "If you gentlemen could take your places."

After some strenuous effort, the engine clattered to life. Clarice had already moved to the driver's station. Everett nodded, then leaned out the door and swung up to the roof. "It might be best if I conned us from here," he announced. "Jenkins, if you could station yourself next to Miss Blaine and be ready to relay my instructions."

"Do you think we can overtake them?" asked the signalman. "They do have a head start."

"True, but their choice of routes seems unimaginative. They took the trail. If we cut through that stand of bamboo, we should be able to head them off."

The engine roared, treads clattered, then they were smashing their way through the grove. Everett waited stoically, brushing splinters from his jacket. By the time they reached the other side, the deck of the tank was littered with lengths of bamboo. Ahead, a broad field sloped down to a bluff overlooking the sea. To their right, the other tank was emerging from an opening in the trees. A figure stood atop it -- Everett assumed this was Mister Fuller.

It took Fuller a moment to notice them. He glared in surprise, then shouted a command to his driver. The other tank swerved to head in their direction. As it drew close, Fuller reached for the carrying pole, which was still lying next to the safe. Recognizing what his adversary intended, Everett looked around for a suitable length of bamboo. He barely had time to seize it and block the other man's swing. Then the two vehicles were clattering past each other.

"Brake!" ordered Everett. "Give me a 180 degree turn to port! Then full speed ahead!"

The second pass was not significantly more effective than the first. Everett and Fuller both tried thrusts, but neither man was able to connect. Tank jousting was somewhat trickier than the equestrian variety, and the challenge of maintaining one's footing while avoiding asphyxiation from the exhaust fumes left little time for the niceties of weapon-handling.

For the next several minutes, the two men maneuvered for position, trying different strategies in their efforts to knock each other to the ground. Each pass brought them somewhat closer to the ocean, but no closer to victory. At length Jenkins called from inside the cupola. "Sir, I don't believe Camelot is working."

"I believe you're correct. Let's try Salamis."

The signalman relayed the necessary instruction to their driver. Everett imagined he heard a giggle over the roar of their engine. He braced himself for the consequences.

On their next passage at arms, Clarice swerved to strike their adversary in the side. There was jarring crash, a loud shriek of metal, and one of the other machine's treads tore free. To Everett's disappointment, Fuller kept his footing. The safe was less fortunate. Knocked loose by the collision, it was rolling across the field, picking up speed as it bounded down the slope.

"Oh dear," said Jenkins.

"Back up!" ordered Everett. "Give me a turn to port! Then follow that safe!"

The engine roared as Clarice advanced the throttle, but this was a race they could not win. A 105-horsepower inline six was no match for the inherent perversity of natural objects. As they watched, the safe took a final bounce, sailed over the bluff, and plummeted into the sea.

Next week: Papers?...

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