The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 176: Watching, The Detective

Another pulp fiction cover

They say you can't find trouble in American Samoa. They're wrong. You can find plenty if you look in the wrong places. That's where I come in. My name's Dan Straight. I'm a PI. Looking in the wrong places is part of my job.

"Mister Straight?"

I glanced up from my racing form, and tried not to stare at the vision that had just walked through the door. She was dressed like a schoolteacher -- the one you dreamed about when you were fifteen. She was a long lean brunette, with pouty lips, hungry eyes, and the kind of curves you usually don't see outside a certain kind of picture book. On anyone else, that dress might have looked demure. On a figure like hers, it looked like an invitation.

"That's what it says on the door," I said. "Pleased to meet you, Miss..."

"Stewart. Chastity Stewart."

Chastity, huh? From the way the lady moved, I got the impression she might not always live up to her name. "How can I help you, Miss Stewart?" I asked.

"I'm looking for a missing girl," she said. "Her name's Isobel Elmsford. I'm her governess. She's supposed to be in my care, but she wandered off yesterday, and I've been quite unable to find her. I have a picture of her here."

She reached into her purse and pulled out a photograph of a sweet young thing, eighteen at most, in a light summer dress that fit a bit too well for a healthy male's peace of mind. The girl might have caught my eye if my eyes hadn't already been busy with her governess.

"Suppose you tell me what happened," I said.

"We were out shopping," she said. "Isobel had left her handbag in one of the stores. I told her to wait while I went back to get it, but when I returned to the street, she was gone. I've been searching for her ever since, and I've grown quite frantic with worry! Can you find her for me?" She leaned close -- close enough for me to wonder why a governess would wear that sort of perfume. "I can make it worth your while."

The look in her eyes suggested she was talking about more than money, but money's always a good place to start. "My fee's ten bucks a day plus expenses," I told her. "First ten up front."

I might have given the lady a discount if I'd known she could smile like that. "Oh, thank you, Mister Straight!" she replied. "I'll be very grateful!"

Pago Pago has one neighborhood that always appeals to the dames: Fagotoga District, where the best shops are. I started near the ferry dock and worked my up the street, checking all obvious places -- Patou of Pago Pago, Coconut Chanel, Matzner's Swimwear -- but I didn't have much luck. Plenty of people had noticed the two ladies together, but no one had seen the younger one alone.

My last call was Marsh's Island Jewelry. Old Barney is reliable fellow, once you get over his appearance and the way his place always smells of fish. Some middle-aged Russian in a tropical suit was at counter ahead of me, talking about alien geometry. This was every bit as boring as it sounds.

"Who was that guy?" I asked when the man finally left.

Barney shrugged. "Some kind of schoolteacher, I guess. He kept asking if I'd seen some item with an obtuse angle that acts like it's acute." He shook his head. "Can't imagine why anyone would want such a useless thing. Takes all kinds, I suppose."

I pulled out the picture Chastity had given me and handed it over. "You seen this girl?" I asked.

He nodded his bald head. "She came by here yesterday with an older broad. That broad had a hungry look in her eye. Your type, Straight."

I ignored the quip. "You seen the girl since?"

"No, but you're not the only one asking about her."

"Who are the others?

"I don't know, but there's money on the street for news of the girl's whereabouts. Does Sami know about this job?"

"None of your business," I snapped.

He stared at me with those big lidless eyes of his, then grinned with that wide froglike mouth. "Your funeral, Straight, when she finds out."

It was late when I headed back to my office. I got there to find someone waiting for me: a kid in a lieutenant's uniform. I hadn't realized the Royal Navy took them so young. The kid seemed barely old enough to shave.

"Mister Straight?" he said. "I'm Lieutenant Murdock, Royal Navy Airship Service. I understand you're a private investigator."

"That's what it says on the door," I replied. "How can I help you?"

"I'm attempting to locate two missing women. I have their photograph here." He reached into his wallet and pulled out a shot of Chastity and the Elsmford piece. I did my best to hide my surprise.

"Friends of yours?" I asked.

"They're passengers aboard our vessel: His Majesty's Airship R-505, The Flying Cloud. We disembarked two days ago so they could do some shopping while I made inquiries at the Air Station. But now they've vanished."

"When was the last time you saw them?"


I raised an eyebrow. "And you didn't realize they were missing until today?"

"They were out shopping," he complained. "Why do women always take so long to shop?"

I shook my head. "Kid," I told him, "there are some things men were never meant to know." Then I leaned back in my chair to do some thinking. Something about Murdock's story didn't seem quite right. How had the two broads got separated? And why had Chastity come to me instead of him? I doubted it was just my good looks. I decided to play my cards close to my chest until I learned more.

"My fee's ten bucks a day plus expenses," I said. "First ten up front."

"What's a `buck'?" he asked.

I explained, sent him on his way, then poured myself a stiff drink. It was hard not to worry about a kid like that. He needed an adult to look after him.

Next morning I was back on the case. Or cases, as the case may be. This time I worked joints in the more questionable parts of town: the 'a'ina Plaza, the Ona Lama `café', and Victor's secret penis sheath shop next to the cannery -- no telling what kind of tastes these high class Englishwomen might have. I didn't find any sign of the broads, but I did pick up some information at Hannah May's place.

Hannah runs a fabric store on the road to Tula. She also deals in lingerie -- along with illustrated manuals on how to use it. She was seeing off a customer when I came in. I recognized the Russian gent from the day before.

"What was he buying?" I asked.

"Nothing," she said. "He asked to see the merchandise, then started talking about some color outside the normal spectrum that was only a color by analogy."

That sounded nuts to me. I said so, and Hannah laughed.

"Happens all the time in a business like mine," she told me. "A customer walks in, gets embarrassed, and starts talking nonsense until he can find an excuse to leave."

I produced the photo Murdock had given me. "Either of these two ladies look familiar?"

Hannah has a very expressive frown. This one meant there was trouble in town. "I haven't seen the girl, but the babe..." She dropped her voice low. "...word is someone's looking for her."

"Any idea who?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No," she replied, "and I get the impression it might not be healthy to ask. Does Sami know about this case?"

"You keep Sami out of this," I told her.

She gave a knowing laugh. "I hope you can, Straight," she said. "I just hope you can."

This was all interesting news, but I didn't know what to make of it. If Murdock was telling the truth, and there was no reason to doubt the kid, the two dames had only been on the island three days. Why would anyone be after them so soon? Had someone known they'd be coming? If so, how? As far as I knew, the Royal Navy Airship Service didn't make a habit of broadcasting its travel plans.

I stopped by the Pago Pago Pub to think things over. It hadn't been much of a pub since the Eighteenth Amendment, but they'd kept the name. That Russian fellow and some merchant skipper were walking out the door when I arrived, chatting about old stone ruins on sunken islands. I brushed past them, bellied up to the bar, and was drowning my sorrows in a Vin Fiz soda when I heard an oily voice behind me.

"Mister Straight, I thought I might find you in this establishment."

I turned to see Clarence Bartley, the British Commercial Agent, lighting a cig in a fancy black holder. I'd never trusted the man. He had a reputation for shady deals. He smiled an unconvincing smile and offered me a handshake that made the smile seem almost sincere.

"I'm looking for a fellow," he told me, "a Royal Navy lieutenant named Murdock."

I raised an eyebrow. I'm good at that one -- practice the move in my mirror. "Can I ask why?" I said.

Bartley tried to look surprised. "Why, the safety of British subjects is my responsibility."

That was news to me. The only thing Bartley ever seemed responsible for was making a fast buck. But where was the money in finding a missing lieutenant? And how had the kid managed to go missing since I saw him?

"Never heard of the man," I said.

"I find that somewhat surprising," he replied, "since he was seen coming out of your office."

The only thing I hate worse than people who pry into my business is corrupt officials who pry into my business. "Are you calling me a liar?" I asked.

Bartley drew himself up as far as he could and tried to stare me down, which might have worked if he'd been six inches taller and wasn't built like a weed. "I'll call you whatever you want," he sneered.

I grabbed him by the collar, yanked him off his stool, and gave him the glare I save for occasions just like these. "Would you care to step outside and say that?" I asked.

"Uh, no," he replied, "not at the moment."

We'd attracted a bit of attention by now, so I shoved Bartley back onto his seat, nodded to our admirers, and left. I'd run out of leads. It was time to talk to Sami.

Sami's short, spunky, and could be cute, if you happen to like short spunky Chinese girls with sharp tempers and an attitude to match. She was going over some accounts when I walked into her shop. I hadn't seen much of her since that business with the Fijian squidbat, and she didn't seem pleased to see me.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in," she said. "What is it this time, Straight?"

"I'm looking for some missing persons, and I've used up all my connections," I explained. "I was wondering what you could find through yours." I described the case, showed her the pictures, and braced myself for her reaction.

She gave me a long hard stare. "The girl's too young for you," she said. "You must be after the older one."

This was mild for Sami, but I still did my best to look hurt. "Jeez, Sami," I told her. "How can you say something like that?"

"Easily," she replied. "I know your tastes. But I'll ask around, see what I can find. Now clear out, you're cluttering up the place."

I left with more questions than I'd had when I started. Someone had stirred things up, but who? The girl and the kid seemed too innocent to be involved, but that left only Chastity. I didn't want to think the babe might be mixed up in something crooked. And who was after them? Why would anyone be interested in an ordinary pair of tourists?

I got part of the answer when I opened the door to my office. At first I thought someone had set up a tent inside. Then the thing turned, and I saw it was a very big man wearing a suit cut by an expensive tailor who specialized in formal wear for gorillas.

"Mister Straight," he said. He sounded like a waiter at a very exclusive restaurant. That hired gorillas.

"What's it to you?" I replied, wondering if I could edge past the goon to reach the Savage Arms .38 I keep in the top drawer of my desk.

"My employer wants to see you," he told me.

"Suppose I don't want to see him?"

The goon flexed muscles that would have looked big on an ox. "Your consent is not necessary."

My papa told me there's one sure way to win a fight: hit first and hit hard. I took Pa's advice and sank my fist into the ape's stomach. It was like hitting sack of cement. The man shook his head. "Very well," he said. "If that is your opening argument, I will offer my rebuttal."

He drew back a fist the size of a ham, swung, and it was lights out for Mister Straight.

When I came to, the whole room seemed to be swaying. At first I thought it was my head, then I heard waves lapping outside and realized I was on a yacht. It was quite the yacht too, with crystal chandeliers, enough fancy woodwork to keep an army of maids busy, and furniture that must have cost more than an ordinary Joe could earn in a year. As I lay there, wondering where I was, I heard a dreamy voice call my name.

"Ooh, Mister Straight, are you alright? I'm sorry our man had to be so abrupt, but it was the only way we could bring you here without anyone noticing."

She had a figure like a dream too -- if you happen to dream about fallen angels. Her face was innocent as Eve, but her eyes were sharp as a serpent's. I'd run into the type before, and the results had rarely been pleasant.

"I'm fine," I said flippantly. "Just tell him to watch himself next time we meet."

Someone chuckled -- the kind of chuckle that sends shivers down your spine. "Oh, I trust we won't have to worry about that."

I turned to see a man in evening dress standing by a desk. He was lean, fit, and self-assured -- obviously a man used to getting his own way. He opened a humidor, pulled out a stogie, and lit it. I recognized the brand. I'd been hoping to be able afford one some day.

"And who might you be?" I asked.

"I am Baron Warfield," he replied. "And this is my baroness, Lady Warfield. We understand you've been asking questions about a young woman."

Warfield. I'd heard that name. And what I'd heard had not been good. "What's it to you?" I asked.

He flicked his wrist like he was shooing away a fly. "The matter," he replied, "is none of your concern. But to you it could be quite profitable... if you bring the answers to us first."

Warfield's men blindfolded me so I wouldn't get a look at the yacht, bundled me into a dinghy, and put me ashore on Palagi Beach. That's at the west end of Tuvula, a long way from Pago Pago. By the time I got a lift back to town, it was well after dark. I was looking forward to some shut-eye, but a pair of American Samoa's finest were waiting in my office to make sure I didn't get the opportunity.

The two cops looked happy to see me. This is never good news. "Dundy, Polhaus," I asked, "to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Quite a shiner you have there, Straight," Dundy remarked. "Where'd you get it?"

"What business is it of yours?" I asked.

Dundy smiled. "You can come down to the station and ask Willard."

Chief Willard was the same as ever: a bald man in a cheap suit with an in for Mama Straight's boy. I couldn't understood the man's attitude. I'd never done anything to upset him. Much.

"You're in trouble now, Straight," he gloated. "Assault, battery, and suspicion of murder. Bartley is missing. There were signs of a struggle at his place, the two of you were overheard arguing at the Pub, and now you show up looking like you were in a fight."

I kept my mouth shut. I didn't have an explanation he'd believe. And I suspected it might not be very healthy to talk about that Warfield character. So Willard got to go home to his missus and I got to spend the night in a cell.

I woke in morning to hear Polhaus unlocking the door to my cell. "You're free to go, Straight," he growled. "Yer girlfriends found you an alibi."

"Girlfriends?" I muttered. I'm not at my best in the mornings.

"They're waitin` outside."

I wasn't surprised to see Sami, but I hadn't expected Miss Stewart and the girl from the photo to be with her. So this was the Isobel Elmsford everyone was looking for. She was a cute package -- one I'd be happy to look for any day. Still, there was something a little bit off about her. Was she really as innocent as she seemed?

Sami noticed me eyeing at the girl. "Don't you get any ideas, Mister Straight," she said.

"I won't." For once I was telling the truth -- I already had plenty of ideas, but this didn't seem a good time to bring them up. "Where'd you find these two?" I asked her.

"They found me. Miss Elmsford showed up at my shop yesterday when I was closing up, and Miss Stewart was waiting at my house when I got home. Both of them were looking for you. You weren't at your office, so I checked the police station."

I glanced at her suspiciously. "That was the first place you looked?"

Her smile was as innocent as the dawn. "Of course."

"Thanks for bailing me out, kid. How'd you do it?"

"It wasn't too hard. Old Zadoc gave you a lift to town around nine, but that's after Bartley's housekeeper reported the man missing, so there's no way you could have been responsible. What happened to your eye?"

I watched the two broads while I told Sami about my encounter with Warfield. Their faces gave nothing away. Either they'd never heard of the man or they were both good actors.

"What's their interest in all this?" I asked.

"We're trying to find Lieutenant Murdock," said Chastity. "We're worried about him."

"Yes," said Isobel. "It was sweet of him to look for Chase and me. And he is quite handsome."

Young love, I thought. Ain't it cute. I turned to Sami. "I assume you checked his rooms at the hotel."

"There was no sign of him. According to the staff, he left for the Air Station last evening and never returned. I spoke with the duty officer there, but he told me they couldn't discuss naval affairs with civilians."

I wasn't surprised. I hadn't expected this to be easy. "That leaves us with two angles," I said, "Bartley and this Warfield fellow. We'll split up. Warfield knows me, so I'd better leave him to you. I'll check Bartley's digs and see if his attackers left any clues."

"What about them?" asked Sami, pointing at the two women.

I thought this over. Now that we'd found the dames, I didn't want to lose them again. But it might be a handful to watch both of them at once. "You take care of Miss Elsmford," I said. "Miss Stewart can come with me."

Sami gave me a hard stare, as if she suspected my intentions. I tried to look innocent, but I'm not as good as that as I am with the raised eyebrows trick.

Bartley lived in the better part of town, in a house that seemed a bit too fancy for a man with his salary. At first glance, it looked like the place had been tossed, but when I took a closer look, I noticed some things that didn't fit.

"These rooms have been ransacked!" said Chastity.

"That's what someone wants you to think," I replied. "But look at that cricket trophy on the mantel, that Ming piece on the shelf, those Gauguins on the wall. They haven't been touched. Those were all items Bartley cared about. I think he did this himself to cover up his disappearance."

"Where did he disappear to, and why?"

"I don't have any idea, but I know where to look. We'll try Aunu'u."

"Who's Aunu'u?" she asked. She pronounced it right too.

"Aun'u's not a person," I said. "It's a place."

Aunu'u is a small island off the east end of Tuvula. It used to be a backwater, but Mister Volstead gave the place a big boost back in `19. The rumrunners needed somewhere to land their product, and Chief Willard, who likes his booze, was willing to look the other way. Now the place does a swinging business. When Chastity and I stepped ashore, we found three blimps moored at the air station and a row of sleek yachts tied up in the harbor. I took a long careful look at the yachts. Could one of them be Warfield's? There was no way to tell. Then I glanced at Chastity. Was that a flicker of recognition in her face? If she was thinking of a double-cross, it might be best not to put temptation in her way.

"I don't like the looks of this," I told her. "If Warfield is on one of those boats, there could be trouble. We'd better find you a place to hide."

"Where?" she asked.

"One of the blimps," I said. "No one would think of looking for you there."

I took my time giving the lady a boost into the control car -- I have a few problems with temptation myself. Then I left the air station and worked my way along the harbor, watching passers-by, stopping at the speakeasies, listening to the chatter, trying to get a feel for what was going on. I hadn't gone very far before I spotted a familiar face.

"Sami," I whispered, "have you tracked down Warfield?"

She nodded. "He's here on Aunu'u," she whispered back.

"Which one is his yacht?"

"I don't know."

"Where's Isobel?"

"I didn't want anyone to see her, so I told her to hide in one of the blimps."

In one of the blimps? This could be bad news if what I suspected was true. "Come with me!" I cried. "We need to get back to the air station now!"

The road past Aunu'u's air station runs right along the shore. When we reached the field, we found a man in a Royal Navy uniform studying the entrance as if he was checking an address.

"Lieutenant Murdock!" I said. "We've been looking all over for you! Where have you been? And what are you doing here?"

The kid turned when he heard my voice. "Good day, Mister Straight," he said politely. "I didn't mean to cause any inconvenience for you and Miss..."

"Ho," she said, "Sami Ho." I didn't like the way she looked at him when she said it, but I suppose I deserved that.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Ho," he replied. "As I believe I may have mentioned to Mister Straight, I disembarked at Pago Pago to conduct some inquiries on behalf of my captain. Those inquiries led me here. I've been attempting to locate a Russian archeologist who flies about the islands on a blimp and... oh my, that's an old Coastal Class! I trained on those back at Dover! Do you think anyone would object if I took a closer look?"

Before we could stop the kid, he was trotting over to one of the moored airships. "Is that where you hid Isobel?" I asked Sami.

"I think so," she replied. "But those blimps all look the same."

Was that the blimp where I'd hidden Chastity? I wasn't sure. Sami was right: Those things really do all look the same. While I was trying to remember, I heard an oily voice from my right.

"So, Mister Straight, have you reconsidered my offer?"

I turned to see Bartley holding a Webley Bulldog in one shady-dealing fist. Some people dismiss it as a pocket pistol -- a toy gun for some fancy gentleman who doesn't want to ruin the line of his suit. Me, I don't dismiss anything that fires a bullet, particularly when it's pointed at my chest.

"Perhaps," I told him, "if there's money in it. What are you doing on Aunu'u?"

"Looking for your clients. I know someone who will pay for their location. Tell me where they are and we split the profit, eighty-twenty. Don't tell me, and I'm afraid I'll have to shoot you."

This seemed like a good time for a snappy come-back. I was still trying to think one up when I heard a cultured-sounding voice from my left.

"We may not be acquainted, sir, but I must say I find your negotiating position rather unacceptable."

It was that Bludge joker, of course, big as life and twice as ugly. Bartley can't have been expecting this development, for he let the Bludge close most of the distance before he leveled his Webley at the man's gut. "I don't know who you are," he snarled, "but you've involved yourself in affairs that are no concern of yours!" Then he pulled the trigger four times.

I expected the ape to go down like James Garfield, but he shrugged the slugs off like they were nothing. "I beg to differ," he said calmly. "Let us discuss this matter in a civilized fashion." He plucked the piece from Bartley's fingers, tossed it into the harbor, and picked the man up by the collar.

"What... how..." gasped Bartley.

"Domestic staff in the Warfield's employ learn to wear bullet-proof waistcoats if they wish to remain in this employment for any considerable length of time," Bludge replied. "Now please tell me where I might find Miss Chastity Stewart."

"Who's Chastity Stewart?" asked Bartley. "I never heard of her."

"A pity," said Bludge. He set the man back on his feet, knocked him senseless, straightened his jacket, and turned to me. "Now, Mister Straight," he announced, "shall we resume our discussion of the day before?"

I'd come prepared for a bit of discussing. With a length of lead pipe I'd slipped inside my belt. I pulled it out and swung it at the ape's head. He raised his arm to block, just like I hoped. Most people do that, they get a broken forearm -- what cops call a nightstick fracture. Stops 'em cold. Unfortunately, this Bludge was not most people. His forearm must have been solid muscle. He glanced down at the pipe, shook his head in disapproval, and lifted me off the ground by the throat.

"Manners, Mister Straight," he said. "We must remember our manners. Now please tell me where Miss Stewart is before I forget mine."

"Your jacket may be bulletproof," said Sami. "How about your hat?"

She was pointing a long-barreled automatic at Bludges's head. I recognized the .38 from my desk drawer. She must have stopped by my office to pick it up before she left Tuvalu. Wonderful girl, that Sami.

Bludge didn't seem impressed by her threat. "We seem to be at an impasse," he told her. "You have a gun, it is true, but as you may have noted, I am a fairly substantial individual. If you shoot me, it's still quite possible that I'll be able to crush your boyfriend's throat before I expire. This would not be to his advantage. Still, there's no need for us to resort to violence. Once I know how to contact Miss Stewart, I'll have no further interest in the two of you."

"Don't tell him!" cried Sami. "I don't know why these people are after her, but they can't be up to any good!"

I was running out of ideas. I was also running out of air. Then I saw something out of the corner of my eye that changed the situation. It was my Russian friend, strolling across the field toward one of the blimps. Murdock had said something about a Russian archaeologist who owned an airship. Could this be the man?

"I'll talk," I gasped.

"Straight!" cried Sami.

"She's on that blimp. The one that Russian just climbed aboard."

Bludge looked where I was pointing. "This would be the one that has just dropped its mooring, started its engine, and set a course to the south?" he asked.

"Yes," I wheezed, "That's the one."

He opened his hand and let me fall. I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. I scrambled to my feet, raised my fists, and got ready for another fight, but Bludge ignored me.

"An unexpected development," he mused. "I'd best inform the Master. Miss Ho, Mister Straight, good day." With that he tipped his hat and left.

Sami came over to stand next to me as we watched the fellow go.

"Do you think we'll ever learn what that was all about?" she asked.

"I doubt it," I told her. "There are a million stories in the South Pacific. This is only one of them." Then I smiled and put my arm around her shoulders. "Sami," I announced. "I think it's time for a drink. I'm buying. I owe you one."

Watching the blimp leave.

Next week: One Of Our Lieutenants Is Missing...

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