The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 261: A Gentleman Biologist

The Philadelphia, N-187

America was a comparatively recent player in the game of lighter-than-air aviation, but the Yankees had entered the contest with considerable enthusiasm. The Philadelphian, N-187, was a commercial version of England's Wolseley Class, built under license at Goodyear's new yard in Lakehurst. The design might be growing outdated by modern standards, but it was one of the first to feature a fully streamlined hull. This gave them performance out of proportion to their modest size, making them surprisingly versatile. Properly handled, a Wolseley could travel several thousand miles before resupply, and its three engines -- two in engine cars, one in the heavily-streamlined external control car -- could drive the ship almost 60 knots.

This particular representative of the breed was cruising northwest from Sydney under her two aft engines, counting on a tailwind for a boost in speed. Around her, the landscape became drier and less interesting with every passing mile. To the east, one of Australia's many narrow-gauge locomotives steamed along on some inexplicable errand, pulling a string of flatcars behind it.

Emily and Clarice stood by the radio shack, pretending not to study the bridge crew, while the crew pretended not to study them. They'd already met several of their new shipmates. Captain Collins was the skipper, cut from a mold that was old when civilization was young. In another era, he might not have looked out of place on the quarterdeck of a China Clipper or Lord Anson's Centurion. The elevatorman was Pierce, a lean Midwesterner with that seedy ready-for-anything look that was a mark of good elevatormen, cavalry troopers, and drummers. The helmsman was Rawling. Well-dressed and immaculately-groomed, he might have stepped straight from an ad for menswear.

The men came to subtle attention when their employer entered. The master was a man of moderate build, approaching middle age, clad in a well-tailored suit and vest. With a slightly different pair of glasses, he could have been a dead-ringer for America's 26th President. He smiled at the two women.

"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," he said politely. "I'm Vincent Cartwell, of the Pennsylvania Cartwells. Father invented the Cartwell quick-action valve for railroad air brakes, and my brother and I inherited the business after he passed away. Jacob's back in Philadelphia now, running the company while I make this trip."

"We're chuffed you're here," said Clarice. It seemed best to acquaint the fellow with the challenges of the Australian language as early as possible. "What brings you to the Pacific?"

"My interest is cryptozoology."

"Whatever is that?" asked Emily. "Some way of hiding animals?"

Their host chuckled. "Actually, it's the opposite. Cryptozoology is study of creatures believed to be legendary or extinct.."

"Like the Loch Ness Monster?"

The American shook his head. "I'm afraid that one's been thoroughly discredited. There's no way a small freshwater lake could support enough prey animals to maintain a stable population of large aquatic predators. No, my subject is creatures with a firm basis in fact, such as the okapi."

"That would be Okapi Johnstoni, identified by Harry Johnson, governor of Uganda, in 1901," observed Clarice. "It's an artiodactyl herbivore, related to the giraffe, that European explorers used to call the 'African unicorn'."

If their host was disappointed that he wouldn't have a chance to explain, he gave no sign. "Exactly," he told her. "The creature I'm looking for is Desmodus Teuthida, otherwise known as the Common Squidbat. It was supposed to be endemic to this part of the world, but there have been no confirmed sightings since the reports of the original European explorers."

Emily clapped her hands in delight. "Squidbats! We used to have them in Darwin, along with those funny lobe-finned fishes. Our aunts used to tell us stories about them when we were young."

Mister Cartwell was obviously pleased by this news. "Do you think your relatives would mind showing me some of the places the creatures used to be found?"

Emily and Clarice exchanged glances. Their host's request seemed simple enough, but their aunts' reactions were unpredictable at best. "I suppose so," Clarice said cautiously.

Mister Cartwell turned to his skipper. "Captain Collins, how long would it take us to reach Darwin?"

Captains of privately-owned airships learned to be ready for questions like these. "At three-quarter power, with this quartering tailwind, we should arrive tomorrow evening in plenty of time to moor," he replied.

"Excellent!" said Mister Cartwell. "Make it so."

The Philadelphian's crew section might not have been particularly spacious, but it did include a small salon, with lightweight but elegant duralumin furniture. The two women had retired there after they left the bridge to study manuals for the ship's radio equipment. Now they discussed the vessel's owner

"What do you think of Mister Cartwell?" Clarice asked Emily. Somehow it was impossible to think of their host as `Vincent'.

"He can't have any shortage of oscar," said Emily, gesturing at the ship around them. "And he seems like a solid chappie. But I wonder if he's entirely prepared for this part of the Pacific."

Clarice laughed. "Bob's your uncle!"

"Did we do right thing, leaving Sydney?" asked Emily. "We're heading away from all the excitement."

Clarice gazed out the window and sighed. She didn't always share her companion's taste for adventure. "We're heading for Darwin," she replied. "Something always happens in Darwin."

The orderly stood impassively, waiting for his master to notice him. This was always the safest course. At last the Fat Man glanced up like a predator disturbed during a meal. "What is it?" he growled.

"We've received a message from Sydney, Mein Herr," said the orderly. "Muller informs us that everything is proceeding as planned. He has obtained a copy of the latest guard schedules and expects to move tomorrow."

"That is what we expect," the Fat Man said dismissively. "Why does he waste our time with this routine report?"

"It seems there has been a... complication."

The other's expression was not pleasing to behold. "Go on."

"One of Muller's men spotted the two women from Darwin -- Fraulein Wilcox and Fraulein Blaine -- leave the naval air station and enter a cab. He contacted Muller, who tried to apprehend them, but they managed to elude him."

The Fat Man's eyes widened very slightly. "This would have required some skill. Muller is a competent man."

"You believe they are agents?" asked the orderly.

"We must make this assumption. It could be dangerous to do otherwise. Was anyone else with them?"

"Muller thought he saw another woman in the cab."

The Fat Man nodded. "That would have been a courier from Everett. We can be sure the two aren't working for Michaelson, because we know every move that man makes."

Next week: Weaving a Tangled Web...

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