The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 168: Variations on a Theme

Sling and stone

Lord Milbridge finished furling the mainsail, checked the lashings, and stepped back with a smile of satisfaction. It was unlikely anyone would ever sail the schooner again -- at least not until they refloated it -- but he believed that any job worth doing was worth doing properly.

"Well," he announced, "that was a bracing experience. And those turns at the pump gave us some much-needed exercise."

"What are our plans now, sir?" Spencer asked warily.

"We'll change into our shoregoing clothes, enjoy the ambiance of this delightful port, then see if we can find some more substantial conveyance for the next leg of our journey."

Spencer nodded in relief. The past few days had been a nonstop struggle to keep their vessel from sinking. He was about to suggest they book passage on some reputable liner when Lady Milbridge pointed toward rust-streaked freighter that listed at anchor nearby.

"Oh look, Edmund!" she exclaimed. "Isn't that the most adorable little motorship?"

The viscount smiled. "I agree, my dear. Shall we see if her owner is willing to sell?"

The vessel proved to be the Atoll Maiden, a 1500 ton Baltic freighter condemned to the South Pacific after she'd failed to pass survey for more demanding waters, with an ancient hot bulb engine that was significantly larger and less powerful than a London omnibus. Lord Milbridge gave the craft a quick but thorough inspection to make sure she was sound -- ducking through hatchways, flipping open access ports, and sliding aside gratings with casual efficiency. Somehow, throughout all this, his white tropical suit remained spotless. Spencer noted that the viscount was even able to wade through the bilges without getting filthy. How, he wondered, does he do it?

By the time the purchase was concluded, Jean had returned from town. "I found a breaker willing to buy the schooner," the young airman reported. "I also got a good price for the sharks."

"Well done, my boy," said Lord Milbridge. "At this rate, we might even turn a profit on this expedition! Let's see to changing the name, then we'll be off."

After some thought, Everett had decided to visit Porto Villa. It wasn't too far off their route to Futuna, and as capital of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, it was a potential source of intelligence. They arrived mid-morning, as the town was coming awake. Below them, a small island freighter was plodding out to sea. Everett gave it an idle glance, then turned his attention to the air station.

"Make our signal," he told Jenkins, "request a handling party, and let them know we'll want some fuel. We won't need to top up on hydrogen after such a short hop."

"Should I also send a message to the Lloyds representative to arrange a meeting?"

"No, I believe we'll want to keep our inquiries out of the public eye."

The Lloyds establishment in Porto Villa bore little resemblance to the Society's home offices in London. With little underwriting to do in a region that offered few hazards to shipping, it functioned as an express company, providing mail services, storage facilities, and the local equivalent of a pawnshop.

Like many Englishmen in isolated colonial posts, the manager seemed in little danger of going native. Indeed, he seemed only vaguely aware that he wasn't in England. He wore a conservative grey suit, quite impractical for the tropics, and he'd managed to avoid any trace of a tan -- a remarkable achievement in this part of the world. This might have been due to caution, but Everett suspected it resulted from a steadfast refusal to admit that such a thing was possible.

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" asked the manager.

"We're interested in any reports you might have of piracy," said Everett, "particularly incidents that involved airships."

"Pirates on an airship," mused the man. "There have been some rumors from French Polynesia, but I discounted them as exaggeration until this recent series of attacks on yachts."

"Attacks on yachts?" asked Everett and Jenkins simultaneously.

Their host didn't seem to notice their reaction. He glanced out his window, as if annoyed by the palm trees, then rummaged through his files to produce a sheet of paper. "These were the vessels involved," he said. "None of the incidents involved any claims, so I didn't feel they were worth reporting."

Everett read the list and raised an eyebrow.

Maid of the Guid Firth, 17-January
Macey's Goldfish, 18-January
Mighty Fortress, 19-January
Make Good Froth, 20-January
Marigold's Fifth, 21-January
Made for Good Fishing, 22-January
May Goldfinch, 23-January

"Interesting," he told the underwriter. "Did you notice any similarity between these names?"

"Not in particular. Why do you ask?"

It was Iverson and Rashid's turn to escort the passengers. To Iverson's great relief, the two women demanded a tour of the countryside, where Isobel's tendency to wander off would be less troublesome than it might have been in town. After considering several possibilities, he decided to take them to the village he'd visited with Sarah the year before. It was in easy walking distance, comparatively civilized, and offered the possibility of watching some tennis.

The track had been improved since his earlier visit. Someone -- loggers, perhaps -- had graded the surface and spread gravel to fill in the ruts. Even so, the party's progress was slow, for Isobel was easily distracted, and matters were not helped by Miss Stewart's determination to enforce her standards of propriety.

"Oh look!" said Isobel. "There's a fruit bat!"

"You mustn't stare at bats, Isobel. They're filthy."

"What kind of animal was that? It looked almost like a frog with tentacles."

"Nothing a young lady should concern herself with."

"What a clever statue! But why is he holding that banana in his lap?"

Iverson followed the girl's gesture to spot an ancient tiki, half-hidden by vines, in a pose that could only be described as 'indelicate'. He glanced at Miss Stewart in alarm, realized it was too late to prevent what promised to be a spectacular reaction, and was bracing himself for the worst when a party of islanders appeared ahead.

"Can I help you gentlemen?" he asked loudly, hoping to distract the governess from her impending tirade.

"You!" one of the natives exclaimed. "You're the ones!" His manner did not seem friendly.

"Could you clarify that statement?" Iverson asked politely. "Is it possible you've mistaken us for someone else?"

"You stole the secret of cargo!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"De les capturer!"

Iverson's understanding of French was limited, but some words were common to both languages. "I do believe they mean to attack us," he observed to his companions. "You ladies might wish to step back while Rashid and I deal with the situation."

"How exciting!" said Isobel. Miss Stewart frowned, hands on hips, getting ready to issue a scolding. Iverson doubted she'd be as effective as Miss Perkins, but he had other resources at his disposal. He turned to Rashid, who had already unwound the sling he wore as a belt.

"Shall I?" asked the airman.

"I see no reason not to."

The Persian fitted a projectile, swung, and loosed. There was a whistle, a crack, and one of the islanders toppled. The others recoiled in anger.

"You killed him!" cried the leader.

"Your friend is not dead," Rashid replied. "That was a only lump of clay. But the next one will be a stone."

"There is only one of you," the leader snarled. "There are many of us."

Rashid shrugged and gestured toward the cobbles at his feet. "No matter. I see many stones."

The islanders held brief conversation among themselves -- a discussion of comparative mathematics, perhaps -- then shook their fists and departed.

"Is that a sling, like in the Bible?" asked Isobel after their would-be assailants were gone.

Rashid offered the girl a polite bow. "We call it a falaakhan. And my people were using them before your bible was even written."

Next week: Narrowing the Possibilities...

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