The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 281: Seeking Clues in the Santa Cruz

Squidbat with tennis racket

By now, Clarice had come to the conclusion that the islands of Microneasia were all much the same. They might vary slightly in their ethnic composition, the denomination of the missionaries, and the number of cannibals, but otherwise there was little to choose between them. Nendo, in the Santa Cruz group, was no exception. Its huts might be round rather than square, its canoes might have square prows rather than round ones, and the copra sheds might be an unbecoming shade of mauve, but none of these details struck her as particularly significant.

The air station at Lata did not seem to attract many visitors. The only other vessel in sight was an old War-vintage blimp that was lifting ship as they arrived. It was uniquely unattractive, with an graceless three-lobed hull that clashed glaringly with the elegant dolphin painted on the side. Clarice thought the emblem looked familiar, as if she'd heard it described somewhere.

"I wonder who they are," she wondered.

"It's probably the local mailboat," said Mister Cartwell. "It seems we just missed them -- a good thing too, since this place only seems to have one mast."

Aunt Behema snorted in amusement. "Why would a place like this ever need more?

The appearance of a modern rigid airship in this out-of-the-way corner of the Pacific was sufficiently novel that the islanders had turned out in droves to help with the mooring. The results were predictable. Mister Cartwell endured the ensuing confusion and delay with the good nature that seemed to be one of his defining characteristics.

"That went better than I expected," he announced when the Philadelphian was finally moored. "Let's stretch our legs and see if we can find the Government House."

"Do you think they actually have such a thing here?" Emily whispered to Clarice.

Clarice giggled. "We'll be lucky if they even have houses."

Lata's Government House proved to be a tin-roofed shack built in imitation of a Spanish hacienda -- a relic, perhaps, of some earlier phase of colonial occupation. The result was not an unqualified success. A flag drooped limply from the pole beside it, as if embarrassed to be seen in the building's company. Clarice glanced at the pennant, trying to determine what nation it might belong to, then abandoned the effort and followed the others up the steps to the veranda.

The local administrator -- a trim Englishman in neatly-pressed field clothing and a pith helmet -- was waiting for them next to a pitcher of iced tea. "Good afternoon," he announced. "I'm Andrew Merrit, Junior-Assistant-Under-Administrator for the Santa Cruz Islands."

"I'm Mister Cartwell, and these are my guests Mrs. Behema, Miss Wilcox, and Miss Blaine" the industrialist replied, "I take it this is a British possession."

The administrator smiled. "The Spanish foisted it on us in 1899. We've been trying to give it back ever since, but they seem glad to be rid of the place."

"I can't say I blame them," chuckled Mister Cartwell. "Still, I see you do have some amenities here." He gestured at the chilled pitcher.

Now it was Merrit's turn to laugh. "The Colonial Office provided us with an electrical generator to power our wireless station. They don't seem to care what we do with it when we aren't on the air."

"And just what do you do when you aren't transmitting reports or enjoying iced drinks?"

"We're supposed to promote trade," said Merrit, "though it's immediately clear what form this trade is supposed to take. There's copra, of course, but that's tedious stuff. I've never understood what all the fuss was about. This island's only other products are logwood and snail shells."

"Snail shells?" Emily asked in wonderment.

"Yes. They export several dozen tons every year."

"Whatever for?" asked Clarice.

"I'm not entirely certain," the administrator confessed. "Someplace with a shortage of snails, I imagine."

"This could be our lucky break," said Mister Cartwell. "Would these snail shell merchants know much about the local fauna?"

"Perhaps," mused Merrit. "They should certainly know a fair bit about crustaceans."

Several small trading posts were clustered near the village wharf. Their names were unusual, even for the islands -- apparently the proprietors had little to do but think of imaginative titles for their establishments. The party made their way past signs for `International Coconut Merchants', `C Bay', and `Kopraweich GmBH'. At last they came to an enterprise named `My Snails'. Inside, an old man was gazing out the window with a distracted expression, as if wishing he'd been born in another era, when commercial opportunities took a somewhat more substantial form.

"I'm Marcus Sugerton," he said, when he noticed their presence. "What can I do for you today?"

Mister Cartwell produced his notebook and opened it to a sketch. "We're searching for a local animal known as a squidbat," he replied. "It would look something like this."

The entrepreneur studied the drawing, then shook his head. "It doesn't have a shell, so I'm afraid I can't help you," he said. "You might ask Professor Goodwin over at the Anglican Mission."

They found Professor Goodwin at a bungalow belonging to the Anglican Mission, where he was taking advantage of the Fathers' hospitality. The professor was a middle-aged American naturalist who'd travelled to Microneasia to make a study of the islands. He brightened when Mister Cartwell introduced himself.

"I read your monograph on terrain requirements for the hypothetical Ophidia Circulus," he told the industrialist. "An excellent piece of work. I don't imagine you're looking for one of those animals here."

"No," chuckled Mister Cartwell. "I'm searching for evidence of Desmodus Teuthida: the Common Squidbat. So far I've visited Australia's North Territory, Goodenough Island, and Nam Madol on Ponape, without much success."

The latter name seemed to perk Goodwin's interest. "Nan Madol," he said. "When you were there, did you happen to notice a strange moonlit pool that..."

"That what?"

"Uh... never mind. It wouldn't have involved squidbats."

"You've encountered the creatures?" asked Mister Cartwell.

"No, but a local colleague recently gave me this photograph. I'll let you decide what to make of it." The professor rummaged through his papers until he located a blurry black and white print. The subject was difficult for Clarice to determine, but if it was an animal, it was quite unlike any one she'd seen before.

"Interesting, if it isn't a forgery," mused Mister Cartwell. "Do you have any idea who took this and where?"

"My colleague could not say," said Goodwin, "but I understand he purchased it in Pago Pago.. or perhaps it was Guam."

"Why, they're only sixteen hundred miles out of our way," Mister Cartwell said brightly. "We'll give them both a call."

Sigmund scowled at the empty mooring mast as the Todstalker dropped anchor. "Once again, we are too late," he growled.

Captain Trommler knew better than to make excuses. "The fault was mine, Mein Herr," he replied meekly. "I did not anticipate that our quarry would leave so soon. What are your orders?

The Fat Man's lieutenant seemed slightly mollified by this display of servility. "We will ask among the merchants. One may have learned the American's destination."

"Surely they would not violate a customer's privacy," objected Trommler.

"They are businessmen," said Sigmund. "They will consider privacy a commodity for sale, like any other."

The captain nodded in relief. His distraction had succeeded. "The cook wishes to go ashore to purchase fresh provisions," he said, taking this opportunity to change the subject. "Shall I give her permission?"

Sigmund snorted. "We could certainly use some. But tell that old jungfer to hurry or we'll leave her behind."

Trommler brightened. "Do you think there's a chance of this?"

"No," Sigmund said sadly. "She is too ugly. We will not be so fortunate."

Next week: A Deduction and a Confrontation...

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