The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 198: Always Negotiate From a Position of Strength

The 'Windsong X'

The view from the Salgari's control car was the very picture of tranquility. Ahead of the airship, the waters of the Pacific sparkled in the sun. To port, a small fishing village nestled beneath the palms. To starboard, a low wall of unmortared stone stood near the water beach. From this distance, it was difficult to make out details of the structure, but there seemed to be an unusual amount of driftwood on the beach before it.

"I believe that is the marae of Taravao," said Jenkins.

"Si," said Vincenzo. "We will investigate this first. Bolivar, bring the nose down four degrees and level off at 150 meters. Marat, we will stand offshore, turn right, and make our approach into the wind."

Everett watched with professional interest as the self-styled pirates brought their vessel to a halt above the ruin. The Norge class ship might not have had reversible propellers like the Flying Cloud, but by running the two wing engines forward and the center engine astern, her crew were able to achieve an equivalent degree of control.

Soon the ship was maintaining station while the landing party abseiled down to the beach. Michael and Digby did this athletically, Everett and Jenkins as befitted gentlemen. Vincenzo descended with style, Miss Stewart in his arms. The governess had insisted on coming and no one could think of any reason to refuse.

"Where is everyone?" asked Digby after they were down.

It was a fair question. The ground around the ruin was covered with footprints, but there was no sign of the people who'd made them. Jenkins followed one set of tracks down to the water and crouched to examine some of the planks that littered the shore.

"These appear to be part of a skiff," he reported. "I can make out the words `Notre Dame de Otiroa' on this one."

"That sounds rather like the name of a mission," observed Michael. "Could it have anything to do with us?"

"I imagine it does," mused Everett, "but I'm quite at a loss to say how."

"Perhaps we can ask this signore," said Vincenzo. He indicated a man approaching from the village -- a middle-aged gentleman dressed in conservative clothing such as an academic might wear. As the stranger drew closer, they noted a Russian cast to his features.

"Professor Otkupshchikov, I presume," said Everett

"At your service," the man said cheerfully. "And you would be Captain Everett."

The captain raised his eyebrows. "Have we met?"

"No, but the others have spoken of you."

"Others?" asked Digby.

"They are waiting at the village."

When they reached Taravao, they found a circle of curious islanders surrounding seven Europeans. To one side stood a wet-looking Lord Warfield, a ruffled-looking Lady Warfield, and an unhappy-looking crewman who seemed to be doing his best to remain inconspicuous. Facing them were an elegant couple in bespoke field clothing, Lieutenant Murdock, and a young Englishman wearing airman's garb.

Everett recognized the couple from the entry in Burke's. "Lord and Lady Milbridge," he said politely. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I am Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Navy Airship Service. We've been looking for you."

"So your lieutenant gave me to understand," said Lord Milbridge, nodding toward Murdock. "We appreciate your concern, but I believe we have matters in hand."

Michael and Digby had been staring at the final member of the party in surprise. "John!" cried Michael, "whatever are you doing here in the Pacific?"

The youth gave a rueful shrug. "It turns out Miss Stewart was Lord Warfield's agent. She threatened Isobel and forced me to sign aboard the Windsong IV as a spy. I was supposed to receive further instructions after we reached the Pacific, but it never came to that. It seems the Milbridges already knew about the lady. They were one step ahead of the baron all along."

Lord Warfield glared at the governess. "You betrayed us to these people! And I paid good money for your loyalty!"

"So you did," Miss Stewart replied tartly, "but I realized that some things are more important than money." She might have meant Isobel, but her gaze lingered on Lieutenant Murdock. The young officer seemed oblivious to the attention.

Lord Warfield turned to glower at Lord Milbridge. "I imagine you're going to claim this was all part of some plan."

The viscount was much too well-bred to smile. "I believe my lady and I owe everyone an explanation," he announced. "We knew that the baron had designs on Isobel's fortune. It was easy to guess he'd place someone in our household. John's arrival gave us something of a start, but we soon realized he was too guileless to be an agent. Miss Stewart was a rather obvious candidate, and we were watching when she tried to turn John."

The youth looked embarrassed. The governess hung her head.

"Unfortunately, this knowledge did nothing assure Isobel's safety," Lord Milbridge continued. "We considered legal proceedings to void the clause in Sir Reginald's will that named Lord Warfield as an executor, but this seemed a frail reed on which to place our hopes as long as the baron was present to oppose us, so we decided on a more direct approach. This trip to the Pacific was intended to draw the baron away from England. He would pursue, hoping to waylay us, never dreaming that we might have a similar plan. There were some complications when Isobel chose to follow us, but I gather the Professor and Lieutenant Murdock have been looking after her."

"So," snarled Lord Warfield, "you've `waylaid' me. What happens now?"

"You will sign a document attesting to Sir Reginald's innocence in the Burmah Oil affair. As an additional gesture, you will relinquish all claims to Isobel Elsmford's fortune."

"And if I don't?" said the baron. "I know you, Sir Edmond. You're much too kind-hearted to carry through on a threat."

"Such was not my intention," the viscount said lightly. "I know you're a busy man, so I've instructed Captain Spencer to convey you back to England aboard the Windsong X with all due speed. You should arrive in a month, and the yacht is a Dresden Class light cruiser, so I'm sure you'll find the accommodations to your taste."

"What about you?" the baron asked suspiciously.

Lord Milbridge shrugged. "My wife and I will find our way back aboard one of the French aerial packets. The quarters may be somewhat cramped, but we should only have to endure them for a few days."

Lord Warfield gazed at his adversaries, as if calculating what damage they could do in the courts with a one month head start. Then a smile passed across his face.

"I still hold the high card," he observed. "Where is Miss Elmsford? She isn't here, so I assume the Professor and your Mister Murdock left her in Mahina. That's where my man Bludge was headed. He'll most certainly have taken her by now."

The viscount had no reply. Michael and Digby raised their fists, then sagged when they realized there was nothing they could do to save the girl. Everett turned to Vincenzo. Perhaps there was time to summon the Salgari for a flight to Point Venus. But the Italian was staring at a point behind the baron.

'Che é questo?" he exclaimed in surprise.

The circle of islanders parted to admit two newcomers. One was Pierre. The Frenchman looked somewhat the worse for wear, with an improvised bandage perched on his skull. The other was Isobel Elmsford. She looked as fresh and clean as if she'd just stepped out for a stroll. Her eyes swept over the party until she spotted one particular figure.

"John!" she cried.


Then the two youths were in each other's arms.

Michael and Digby seemed unprepared for this development. "Well," Digby said at last. "It seems a lot happened while we were away."

"So it does," sighed Michael. "I guess that spells the end of our rivalry."

Lord Milbridge nodded, then turned back to Lord Warfield. "Sir Walter," he observed, "you had mentioned something about `holding a high card'..."

Next week: The Hand That Pulls the Strings...

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