The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 283: An Insufficiently Long Spoon

Michaelson, Phelps, and silverware

Michaelson studied Phelps as the man took a seat. He seemed quite unconcerned, as if he hadn't realized he might be under suspicion. Was this a ruse, Michaelson wondered? If it was, he maintained it well. Skillful play might be required to put the signalman off-balance.

"You rang for me, sir?" Phelps asked.

"Yes," said Michaelson. "We've received a message from Captain Everett. He reports that he was able to track down the Shiratori Maru using the intelligence you provided -- a commendable bit of work on your part. Unfortunately, the mysterious cruiser showed up to destroy the vessel before he could make contact."

"The mysterious cruiser has reappeared?" said Phelps. "Is Everett certain of this?" He seemed genuinely surprised by the news, but Michaelson dismissed this as irrelevant. He knew what kind of training members of the Royal Navy Airship Service's Signal Corps received.

"So it would seem," he replied. "His people managed to rescue a survivor who described the attack in some detail."

Phelps seemed to tense slightly. "A survivor," he said with studied nonchalance. "Were they able to learn anything else from this fellow?"

Michaelson feigned disinterest. "Unfortunately not," he replied lightly. "It seems he was merely a member of the cabin staff, and would not have been privy to the details of the packet's contracts. The rest of the crew and passengers were lost with the ship, so we have no idea why the cruiser might have attacked them."

"One imagines they were trying to stop us from tracing the bomber's movements," Phelps suggested.

"Perhaps," said Michaelson, "but another explanation has occurred to me."

"Sir?" Phelps asked cautiously.

It's time to step up the pressure, thought Michaleson. "I wonder if the bomber was ever aboard the Shiratoru Maru," he mused. "Perhaps the vessel was involved in some entirely different business of which we are unaware. Some adversary of the cruiser's masters might have fabricated this business of a stowaway to put us on the scent. When the cruiser's people discovered our interest, they might have struck to prevent us from learning more."

"Do you have any idea who this adversary might be?" asked Phelps. By now the signalman looked distinctly uncomfortable. The signs were so slight that another man might not have noticed them, but Michaelson had learned his lessons from a particularly harsh teacher. He decided to play some low cards.

"This most obvious candidate would be the Fat Man's people," he observed. "We've hypothesized that the two groups are at odds. We've caused them a fair bit of trouble recently. They might have decided to return the favor by setting us against their foes."

Phelps seemed to relax. "Do you have any idea how they went about this?"

Michaelson pretended to think this over. "It may be premature to speculate about the details, but we know the nationalists maintain a network of agents throughout the islands. They must also have a cell here in Cairns that dealt with the late Mister Yakov and put them on the trail of Antonio Notariello. Any of these people would have been in a position to plant evidence... or bombs."

"So you think the Fat Man was behind the bombing?" asked Phelps.

The moment had arrived. Michaelson leaned back in his chair and allowed himself a smile he'd learned from the same teacher.

"I think we both know the answer to that question," he said.

To Phelps's credit, he recovered quickly. He glanced about the room, as if calculating his chances of escape, then realized that marines would surely be waiting outside. "How did you guess?" he asked sullenly.

"I began to wonder last October, when Lieutenant Blacker made his reappearance on the R-87," Michaelson told him. "Someone here at the station must have known the vessel would be carrying our report on the Ujelang Event and smuggled him aboard to steal it. There were only a limited number of candidates. At first I was inclined to blame Captain Harris, but his subsequent escape seemed a trifle too obvious. It also suggested that the agent was still at large. From then on, it was just a matter of pretending to remain oblivious to this possibility while planting information in front of the various suspects and waiting to see who leaked it. You obliged by warning Baronet Mosely's people to evacuate Darwin before Captain Everett arrived. No one else was in a position to do this."

Phelps nodded. This principle of handing out lengths of rope to see who might choose to hang themselves was as old as espionage itself. "This also gave you opportunity to pursue your vendetta against Everett," he observed.

"The good captain's fate is none of your concern," said Michaelson. "We are here to discuss yours."

"What is there to discuss?" asked Phelps. "You must already have decided what you'll do with me. Otherwise you would not have called for this interview."

"Only up to a point," said Michaelson. "You have supped with the devil, but you took insufficient precautions. Now you will be dismissed from the Service. The precise nature of this dismissal will depend on how much you can tell me about the host with whom you currently dine. I take it this is no longer the British Union of Fascists, since the Baronet is back in England, and we accounted for most of their remaining leadership last year. Who ordered you to set the bomb and send us on that false trail?"

Phelps hesitated, as if a reply would place him in some jeopardy. Michaelson waited for a moment, then reached for his pen. The signalman recoiled as if his superior had just reached for a weapon, which in some sense, he had.

"I know very little," the signalman said in a subdued voice. "After the debacle in Rabaul, someone else took over the network. This person appears to be an outsider, with no previous connection with the British Union. Her identity, purpose, and nationality all remain a mystery, but she's shown herself to be quite ruthless. We call her `She Who Must Be Obeyed'."

Who could this woman be? wondered Michaelson. Some adventuress, out to make her fortune by playing the various sides against each other? She would find that she'd underestimated one of the players. "Interesting," he remarked. "I believe we can draw some conclusions regarding the lady's taste in fiction. If you wish your discharge from the Royal Navy to occur under reasonably clement terms, you will help me learn more about her."

"How, sir?" asked Phelps. He did not seem to welcome this prospect.

Michaelson's smile broadened. "We will set a trap for this `She'."

Next week: More Fun With Ancient Spanish Settlements...

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