The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 329: Sometimes There's No Taste For Accounting

Account books

Michaelson feigned a sigh of satisfaction as the yacht dropped anchor. It seemed appropriate, given the surroundings. It was also what his crew would expect, and he saw no reason to raise their suspicions. They lay off one of the small islands that were strung like jewels along this stretch of the Great Barrier Reef, and it would be difficult to imagine a more idyllic setting.

"Well done, Tompkins," he told his skipper. "I believe I'll go ashore to do some botanizing. Send for my collecting gear and have the bosun lower the dinghy."

"Would you like someone to accompany you?" asked the lieutenant. "With all these recent disturbances, one worries about hostile agents."

Michaelson affected a chuckle. "That can hardly be a concern here. We're in the middle of the Practice Area. No one could have landed here without being observed."

The lieutenant nodded. This region was subject to constant overflights. Any airship or surface vessel that approached the island was certain to be spotted.

"Very well, sir."

A short time later, Michaelson was giving the oars a final pull to run his craft onto the beach. He waited until the bow grated against the sand -- dry socks were one of the privileges of command rank -- stepped ashore, and dragged the dinghy beyond reach of the waves. Then he gathered his specimen bag, hand lens, and a copy of Shaw's Flora of the South Pacific, and set off up the strand.

Like most islands in this part of the Coral Sea, this one was a child's fantasy of a desert island. Palm trees swayed beneath a flawlessly blue sky while surf muttered in the distance. The place might have been too small to support a castaway for any length of time, but children were never aware of such practicalities. Such innocence, he thought sadly, how do we lose it?

When he reached the treeline the senior captain paused, made a show of comparing the flora to his guidebook, then ducked into the woods. Soon the yacht was lost from sight behind him. There was no trail, but gentlemen were expected to ignore such inconveniences. A brief hike brought him to a clearing, where several trees had been downed by a storm. He set down his gear, took a seat on one of the fallen trunks, and whistled the opening bars to Wait 'Till You Get Them Up In The Air, Boys.

Branches rustled and a dark-clad figure emerged from the brush. "Captain Michaelson," said the newcomer.

"Agent J," said Michaelson. "Do you have word of our friends?"

The other nodded. "They're operating from a hidden air station in Western Australia."

"That would explain why there was no word of them in the Dutch East Indies," Michaelson mused. "How have they managed to escape notice by the local authorities?"

"The station is located somewhere in the Outback," said the other. "The only authority with any interest in that region is the State Vermin Control Agency, with whom they seem to have some accommodation. What have you discovered?"

"My inquiries have not been quite as productive as yours," Michaelson said dryly. "I manipulated Captain Everett into searching for the pirates to provoke some response from the Admiral's office, but the agent there has not revealed himself... or herself."

"Then we have run out of what you would call `leads'."

Michaelson sighed. "Perhaps not. I have another resource, which I have used at some cost. Let us see what it can discover."

Michaelson spent the trip back to Cairns in his cabin, sorting various plant specimens he'd collected on the island -- attention to such theatrics was an important part of maintaining one's cover. When they arrived at the station, he emerged on deck to see a Vickers Class ship riding from one of the outlying masts. These were some of the oldest vessels in service, used for training flights, harbor patrols, short-range fisheries protection flights, and other missions that would not strain their very limited capabilities. He recognized the Quail from the Sydney Air Station.

"When did they arrive?" he asked as he disembarked.

"An hour ago," said Carlson, his new aide. "They brought some fellow here from Hawkesbury to go over our books."

Michaelson hid his elation. It seemed his quarry had risen to the bait. "Quite," he said sourly. "Send him to my office."

Lieutenant Driscoll Baxter from Accounting was so unremarkable that that it took some effort to notice him. Michaelson got the impression that in certain light, the man might almost vanish -- a useful attribute for an agent, if that's what Baxter really was. "Welcome to the Cairns Royal Air Station," he said, giving no hint of this thought. "How can we help you?"

Baxter rummaged through his briefcase, as if searching for the source of some unpleasant odor, and withdrew a set of orders. "There have been some questions regarding expenditures for fuel, hydrogen, and other consumables at this station," he said. "I've been instructed to review your records, with particular attention to long-range flights, to identify any opportunities for economy."

Michaelson studied the orders and nodded to himself. They would justify a detailed inquiry into his operations. They were also entirely plausible. It might require some finesse to determine if his visitor had some hidden agenda. The best plan, he decided, would be to leave the door wide open in hope that his adversaries might stumble as they tried to force an entrance.

"I shall instruct Carlson to make them available to you," he told the accountant. "Please let me know if you require any other assistance."

Michaelson was making his way through a pile of RNR 591-763 forms when Baxter visited him the next day. "Good morning," he told the lieutenant. "How may I help you today?"

Baxter hesitated, as if unused to receiving cooperation during an audit. "Your expenditures seem to be in order," he told the senior captain, "but I will need more information about the other side of the balance sheet. I see that you've received some charitable contributions for your Chaplain's Office and your Veteran's Fund. I will want to review those accounts. I'll also want a record of any items you may have confiscated during your anti-smuggling operations. Finally there's this anti-piracy patrol by your Captain... Everett, I believe the name was. We will require a comprehensive list of every object the marauders have taken."

The man is too obtuse to be an agent, Michaelson decided, but he is almost certainly one end of a string that leads to the agent. We will give this string a tug.

"I trust the captain has kept a record of such things," he said absently. "If you wish, I'll summon his vessel back to Cairns so you can examine this list in detail.""

Next week: Rumcake, Sorority, and the Lash...

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