Episode 211: Just Think Of It As A Temporary Separation
The control car of the Cottswold differed from the one on the
Flying Cloud in several important ways. Its flight instruments
were more elaborate, as befitted a flagship. It was somewhat larger, to
make room for the additional communications equipment a flag officer
would require. Finally, the atmosphere was significantly more formal.
"Windspeed?" said Commodore Clark.
"Averaging eight knots at 110 degrees," answered the helmsman.
"We should be six hundred pounds light," said the ballast officer.
"Ahead one-quarter on One, Two, Five, and Six, idle on Three and Four,"
The helmsman reached for the engine telegraphs. "Ahead one-quarter on
One, Two, Five, and Six, idle on Three and Four."
Behind them, the sound of the engines deepened. The Commodore listened
for a moment, then nodded. "Drop the mooring, then bring the nose up two
The mooring release on a flagship was too well-trained to make a clunk. The
elevatorman watched until the indicator flashed, eased the wheel backward,
then the airship was climbing away from the field. MacKiernan watched
silently as the evolution continued. A lesser man might have despaired at
its perfection, but the Irishman was made of sterner stuff. Show off
while you can, laddies! he thought. We can do better on the
Flying Cloud! With a few more years of practice...
After the ship had reached cruising altitude and was on a course to the
west, the Commodore turned to his guests. "Mister MacKiernan," he asked,
"what can you tell me about this Oa Ki?"
"It's a small coral atoll, some distance east of Timor at
8 degrees 16 minutes south and 129 degrees 29 minutes east," said the
Irishman -- who'd memorized the coordinates in anticipation of just such a
question. "I didn't participate in the landing myself, but a summary of our
findings was included in our report to the Admiralty."
"This was rather terse," Clark observed. "Miss Perkins, would you care to
elaborate on the contents of this document?"
The secretary showed not a flicker of emotion. "The landing took place on
the 18th of August, 1926," she replied. "The investigating party consisted
of the ship's ballast officer and a rigger. They found no inhabitants when
they arrived, but they did discover extensive traces of former occupation.
These took the form of a laboratory, barracks, and a crater where a radio
station once stood. The latter appeared to have been struck by an aerial
bomb. Circumstantial evidence suggests the attackers were a group of
renegade German nationalists aboard an airship, the L137, which they'd
hijacked two weeks earlier. The laboratory had been partially looted,
presumably by them, but the looters left behind an assortment of chemical
apparatus, including some glassware, a furnace, and a centrifuge."
"A centrifuge?" said the Commodore. "What does that have to do with
"Our scientists speculate it might have been used to separate materials
according to their specific gravity."
Clark nodded as if he understood. "Your investigation could have been more
comprehensive," he said dryly. "We will resupply at Kupang, then proceed to
Oa Ki to conduct a proper examination. Dismissed."
MacKiernan was quiet as he and Miss Perkins made their way back to the crew
section. They had not parted on easy terms at Rabaul, and he was suspicious
of the circumstance that had thrown them together again. Everett had told
him of the ploy Michaelson had used to place his secretary aboard the
airship, and the senior captain's plans were always cause for concern.
At last Miss Perkins broke the silence. "Do you think we'll find anything on
this atoll?" she asked.
And what did Michaelson send you to find, lass? MacKiernan wondered.
But he kept this thought to himself. "It seems unlikely," he observed. "The
Fat Man's people will have made off with anything important when they
plundered the site."
"Perhaps," she replied, "but the Commodore must expect to learn something.
Otherwise he would have given this mission to Everett and gone to Lifou
"To search for an obsolete French dirigible?" asked MacKiernan. "I wager
that'll turn out to be a wild goose chase."
"You have some money riding on it with Abercrombie?" she asked innocently.
Unexpectedly, MacKiernan found himself chuckling. "Ah, lass," he admitted,
"you know us too well."
"This'll turn oot tae be a wild goose chase," Abercrombie grumbled.
"Let us not leap to conclusions," said Everett. "There may be more to this
alleged hijacking than meets the eye. The Commodore and Captain Michaelson
both seemed intent on sending us here, but I suspect their motives were at
They were waiting on the verandah of Lifou Island's modest Government House.
It was an unprepossessing structure
-- `Government Bungalow' might have been a more accurate description --
and Abercrombie couldn't imagine they'd learn anything significant in such a
place. He was considering his reply when the doorman returned.
"The Administrator is ready to see you now," the man announced. "If you'll
The interior of the building was every bit as rustic as the outside, with
wicker chairs and tables fashioned from island wood in place of the severe
government furniture one might have expected. The staff wore island garb as
well -- which was something of a distraction since most of them were female.
"I'd say the fellow's gone native," Jenkins whispered as he studied their
"I will nae complain," Abercrombie whispered back as he studied the
The Administrator received them in his office. He was a cheerful French
gentleman with a distinctly non-French secretary perched on the desk
beside him. "How can I help you monsieurs?" he asked after the
airmen were seated.
"We have been ordered to investigate the hijacking that occurred here last
week," Everett replied. "We were wondering if you could give us an account
of the incident."
"There is little to tell," said the Administrator. "I was preparing for
bed..." his glance strayed to his companion, "...when I received word the
ship had been taken. I rushed to the field and found that my gendarmes had
apprehended a party of Englishmen atop the mooring mast. These men claimed
to be innocent, but they could not provide a satisfactory explanation for
their presence, and I needed someone to arrest, so..." he shrugged.
"I understand," said Everett, who was also a member of an organization noted
for its bureaucracy. "How did the ship's owners react to the theft?"
"They seemed rather upset when they returned. The vessel was uninsured, for
who would underwrite such a relic? But they also seemed relieved not to
have to fly her again."
"Returned?" asked Jenkins. "They were not here when the ship was taken?"
"Non," said the Administrator. "They had traveled to Easo to watch
a tennis match."
"Then who raised the alarm?"
The Administrator scratched his head. "I do not know." He turned to his
companion. "Monique, était-ce les indigénes?"
The woman shook her head. "Non, c'était un étranger."
"A stranger," mused Everett. "Could you provide us with shipping records
for the previous month?"
The Administrator nodded. "Juliette will see to it before you depart."
"I ken you were right, Captain," said Abercrombie as they made their way
back to the ship. "What's our next move?"
"We'll return to Cairns and compare these records with the ones at the
Station. With luck this will give us some clues."
Clarice gazed out the window and sighed. Rain beaded the pane, dripped
from the eaves, and trickled through the gutters, as it had for most of
the past month.
"I think it's letting up," said Emily. "What time is it?"
"March," said Clarice
"Oh bother. What will we do until May?"
"I don't know. Maybe Aunt Leviatha has more of those Mills bombs."
Their conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. Clarice opened
it to see a familiar face. "Lieutenant Dabney," she asked, "what brings you
"G'day ladies," said the lieutenant. "I was wondering if you might be
interested in undertaking a mission on behalf of our friends on the R-505."
The two women glanced at each other and smiled. "Yes!"
Next week: A Small French Island...
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