The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 374: The Big Sheep: Conclusion

The 'Black Sheep'

If you've never been attacked by a flock of rabid sheep, I don't recommend it. These ones were more rabid than most. They were foaming at the mouth like some science experiment gone wrong and their eyes were so bloodshot they almost glowed in the dark. Things didn't look good for my favorite PI. I hefted my sap and was preparing to make a stand when the door behind us swung open. A familiar voice shouted, "Duck!"

I pushed Murdock down and hit the floor next to him as a Tommy gun hammered over our shoulders. When I looked up, the sheep were history. I got to my feet, brushed off my fedora, and turned to face our rescuer. She was short, spunky, and looked like an angel would look if angels carried heaters,

"Thanks, Sami," I told her. "Where'd you get the piece?"

"I took it off one of the guards," she said with a smirk. "Serves him right for letting me knock him out."

"How'd you know where to find us?" I asked.

"I knew you'd get into trouble, so I followed when you left your office and..." she started to reply. Then she spotted Murdock and her face lit up like a neon sign. "Who's your friend?' she asked.

"This is Lieutenant Murdock of the Royal Navy Airship Service," I told her, "Murdock, this is..."

"Hi," she interrupted, "my name's Sami Ho! I live right here in Pago Pago! How long are you visiting? I'll be happy to show you around!"

Murdock didn't seem ready for this. Neither was I. With the climb up the cliff and Sami making eyes at him, it was a while before the kid got a chance to tell his tale. Seems he'd been heading back to the harbor with Captain Everett and Jenkins when two dames showed up to warn him that some Germans were about to attack. By the time he got this story straight, the other two Brits had vanished around a corner. He went looking for them, but then another bunch of goons tried to grab his new companions. When Murdock stepped up to give the ladies a chance to escape, the goons grabbed him instead

"Do you have any idea why they brought you here?" I asked him.

Murdock shook his head. "I asked the chap who seemed to be in charge what this was all about, but he just replied with a sinister laugh, accompanied by observations to the effect that 'I'd find out soon enough', so I abandoned the queries as unprofitable."

"You learn to expect that sort of thing in American Samoa," I told him. "We'll stop by my office to get my spare piece, then go looking for your captain."

When we got back to my office, we found an unpleasant surprise. Captain Willard, chief of Pago Pago's finest, was sitting with his feet on my desk, working his way through a pack of Luckies. He stubbed out his butt as we entered.

"It's about time you showed up, Straight," he snapped. "Where've you been?"

I was glad Sami had sense to ditch the heater. That would have been tough to explain. "Out for a walk on the beach," I snapped back. "What brings you to this dump?"

"Your friend with the gunshot wound has vanished from the hospital," he told me. "When the nurse looked in this afternoon, he was gone. You know anything about this?"

I could recognize a leading question when I heard one. I figured I'd better come up with an alibi, in case this one led in the wrong direction. "No," I said "Sami and I were busy finding a missing person. Captain Willard, meet Lieutenant Murdock, Royal Navy Airship Service."

That caught Willard by surprise. He looked Murdock up and down and scowled as if he suspected a trick. "You expect me to believe this?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "Why else would we be walking around with a British airship officer? What's going on, Willard?"

The captain decided it was time to lay his cards on the table. "I'll tell you," he said. "We've been trying to shut down a sulfur smuggling operation. It hasn't been easy, `cos these guys are sharp operators who know how to cover their tracks. A few days ago, we got a lead from someone using the name `Madison' that Ted Doubleton was behind it. This Madison offered to send us evidence so we'd know he was on the level.

"His go-between was the guy who showed up at your office. It's mighty curious he got plugged right after you took a job from Doubleton. I'd almost say it looks suspicious. Care to tell me what you were hired for?"

This seemed like a good time to show my cards as well. "Doubleton didn't say anything about sulfur," I told Willard. "He claimed someone was trying to blackmail his daughter and he wanted me to track the man down. I believed him at the time, but now I wonder if he was hoping I'd stumble across this Madison character. Any idea who the guy is?"

"It could be some old business partner with a grudge," said Willard. "Unfortunately, that doesn't narrow it down. I've looked into Doubleton's history, and he seems to think that stiffing his investors is part of the deal."

I nodded. That matched what I'd heard about Doubleton's character. "I'll keep my eyes open," I told him. "Now give me back my chair."

After Willard left, I opened the wall safe to get my spare piece. Inside, I found a message from Jenkins. I was impressed -- he must have been a darn good operator to crack that lock. It said that he and Everett were heading to Aunu'u to `pursue their inquiries', whatever those were.

"What is it, Mister Straight?" asked Murdock.

I touched a match to the note and dropped it in the ashtray. "Looks like we're going on a boat ride," I told him.

Aunu'u was a conveniently-located islet, a few miles south of Tutuila, where the Volstead Act wasn't taken as seriously as it was in the rest of American Samoa. A regular ferry service ran there from Pago Pago for people who wanted something stronger than they could find in the local bars. Three more customers were just a drop in the bucket, and no one paid any attention to Sami, Murdock, and yours truly as we rode across the bay.

"We'll split up to look for our Brits," I announced when we stepped ashore. "Sami, you search the harbor for their launch while Murdock and I check the air station."

Sami didn't seem happy with this plan. "Why can't I take Murdock to the station while you search the harbor?" she asked.

I wanted to say it was so she wouldn't make a spectacle of herself, but I caught myself in time. "You'd attract too much attention," I told her. She was still glaring when Murdock and I headed into town.

Aunu'u's air station was busy as always. It gets mighty thirsty here in the islands. The visiting ships ranged from small island blimps to a cruise liner whose passengers must have wanted a bit more excitement than they could get on Tutuila. At the hydrogen plant, we found Captain Everett and Jenkins leafing through some records, trying to make sense of the names.

"Good day, Mister Straight," the captain said when he saw me. "I see you found our missing lieutenant."

"Yeah," I grumbled. "But that's all I found, if you don't count that business with the radio operator."

The two Brits looked at each other like I'd just found their missing keys underneath a sofa cushion. "A radio operator," Jenkins said in a flat voice.

"An acquaintance of mine," I explained. "Some frail slipped him a mickey so she could make a copy of his codebook. You learn to expect that sort of thing in American Samoa."

"Do you have any idea who this lady was working for?" asked Everett.

"No," I told him. "Was that important?"

Everett sighed. "We just spent two days trying to discover who leaked the American naval codes, with singular lack of success. All we found was a blackmail plot involving some heiress."

"An heiress," I muttered.

"Yes," said the captain. "Her name was Maybelle Doubleton, and it appears she had an affair with a commercial airship captain who used to be her brother-in-law."

Now it was my turn to sigh. It looked like we'd solved each other's cases by accident. I hate it when that happens.

"We need to talk," I said.

We retired to a joint I knew -- Sunken Riley's Bar And Grill -- to compare stories. This took some time, because the waitresses kept interrupting us to offer Murdock drinks, but we kept at it until we were done.

"Let us review what we've discovered," Jenkins said when we finished. "After the Doubletons moved to American Samoa, Maybelle Doubleton had an affair with her sister Viola's husband, a White Star captain named Ralph Pickman. When this became public, Pickman lost his job, and Mister Doubleton paid him to leave the islands. Pickman used this remittance to purchase a small commercial airship he named the Black Sheep.

"Sometime later, Mister Doubleton became involved in a sulphur smuggling operation -- whether he ran it or was merely a customer scarcely matters, but given the man's reputation, I suspect the former. Someone learned of his connection and threatened to expose him. One imagines this was the mysterious Madison. Doubleton hired Mister Straight to track his adversary down, pretending this was a simple case of blackmail.

"Meanwhile, in an unrelated series of events, a German nationalist leader, our old adversary the Fat Man, determined to hijack a visiting American air cruiser. To accomplish this, he needed a copy of the American codes, so he hired a local woman to drug one of the radio operators and steal them."

"It's a tight picture, " I said, "but it leaves us with some unanswered questions. Who were the guys who grabbed your lieutenant, and why did they take him to Shawnie's sheep ranch?"

Jenkins frowned. I could tell this bothered him too. "That does remain a mystery," he admitted. "Mister Murdock, do you recall anything noteworthy about your abductors?"

The kid thought the question over. This took him some time. "No," he said at last. "But I believe that Miss Elana cried out something about 'the Frenchman's goons'."

My ears perked up. "Who was this Elana?" I asked.

"She was one of the woman who accosted me," Murdock replied. "Why do you ask? Is the name important?"

"That could be the same babe who stole the codes. If she was working for the Germans, this 'Frenchman' must be their enemy. Does the name ring any bells?"

"We're acquainted with the gentleman," Everett said dryly. "He's allied with a group of Japanese nationalists who just happen to frequent the island your sulphur comes from."

"It sounds like Doubleton's up to more than just smuggling," I mused. "I wonder if this has anything to do with this `Ali Troop' Madison's messenger mumbled about before he passed out. I'm guessing it's some military outfit."

Jenkins rubbed his chin. "Could the man have said 'allotrope'?"

"What's an allotrope?" I asked.

"Allotropes are different physical forms of the same element. These can have very different properties -- one example is coal, graphite, and diamond, all of which are allotropes of carbon. Sulphur has more than thirty solid allotropes. Most are crystalline, but there's also an amorphous form that resembles crude rubber."

I put two and two together. "The so-called handballs Everett found!" I exclaimed. "They were made from this amorphous stuff. That's how Doubleton was smuggling the sulfur in. But wouldn't someone had noticed the smell?"

Everett smiled. "Under ordinary circumstances, this might well have been the case, but the shipment was stored above open tanks of fertilizer. Madison's man must have stolen a sample, converted it back to crystalline form, and been taking this to his employer when he was ambushed. Do we have any idea who this Madison might be?"

"It must be someone close to the Doubleton family," said Jenkins. "No one else would have had the necessary information. The most obvious candidate would be the disgraced Mister Pickman. He would most certainly have a motive, and he also had the means and opportunity."

"We must get to the bottom of this," said Everett. "You may be in the best position to make inquiries here on Aunu'u. We'll leave Mister Murdock with you to serve as a liaison. Meanwhile, Jenkins and I will take to launch back to Pago Pago and see what we can find there."

"Sounds good," I told him. "My fee's ten bucks a day plus expenses."

After Everett and Jenkins had gone, Murdock and I headed back to the docks to look for Sami. I was sure she'd want a piece of the action. We met her coming the other way with someone in tow. She grinned when she saw us.

"Hey, Straight!" she said. "Look who I found!"

I looked her companion over and did a double-take. It was the man from my office, with his arm in a sling "You!" I cried. "You're working for Madison. Why'd you come to me?"

"I needed a place to stash the sulfur, and I knew you wouldn't squeal," he said. "You got a good reputation."

That's the problem with reputations. Doesn't matter if they're good or bad -- either kind can get you into trouble. "Thanks," I grumbled. "What are you doing on Aunu'u?"

"I'm here looking for my boss," he said. "She's leaving on some airship called the Black Sheep."

"`She'?" I said.

"`Black Sheep'?" said Murdock.

"Yes," said the man. "Is there a problem?"

"This 'Madison' wouldn't happen to be a hard-looking woman in her thirties who acts like she's used to getting her own way."

The man grimaced. "I take it you know the lady."

"Yes," I said. "And she's played us all for saps. Sami, Murdock, we have to get to that air station, fast!"

We reached the station as one of the ships was preparing to lift. She was a Parsival semi-rigid, half a million cubic feet, with two Maybach diesels. The name Black Sheep was painted on the control car. We sprinted across the field and vaulted aboard just as the handlers released the lines. Our weight made the ship sink back toward the ground.

Mister Doubleton was sitting in back of the car, next to Maybelle and someone I guessed was Pickman. He frowned when he saw me. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Stop her!" I cried, pointing at Viola, who was standing next to the ballast board. I was too late. Before anyone could move, she'd yanked on a toggle to drop more ballast. As the ship started climbing again, she reached into her handbag and pulled out a neat little 32. I glanced at the crew, but just as I'd feared, they were looking at the lady for orders.

"So," she said smugly. "You figured it out."

"You were the blackmailer," I said. "You knew your father was smuggling sulfur and planned to spill the beans to Willard. Why? Don't tell me it was because of your respect for the law."

Her smile was harder than crystalline boron. "Haven't you guessed?" she replied. "I wanted revenge. My father needed a pilot to get his operation started -- someone he could control. He ordered my sister to seduce my husband so he'd lose his job, then offered him this ship to do his dirty work. Daddy and May ruined my life, and Ralph didn't have the guts to stand up to them. Now it's payback time."

I glanced at the gun, but the lady held it like she knew how to use it. Even if she hadn't, the crew were on her side, and outnumbered us three to one. They started the engines and set a course west, toward the setting sun. It was a pretty sunset. I wondered if I'd live to see another one.

"What are you going to do with us?" I asked, playing for time.

"I haven't decided yet," said Viola. "We might take you to the Banks Islands and give you to our Japanese friends, or we might just shoot you and toss you overboard. Which would you prefer?"

"The Japanese are my business partners!" sputtered Doubleton. "They'd never let me down."

Viola smiled. "I offered them a better deal." she said sweetly. "Development rights for all your properties on Tutuila. We're going to make American Samoa great again."

"We're standing under half a million cubic feet of hydrogen," I warned her. "If you pull that trigger, the whole ship could go up."

Her smile broadened. "We'll take our chances," she replied. "You have no chance at all."

I started laughing. I couldn't help myself. The scene was just too funny.

"What are you laughing about?" she snapped.

"Look behind you," I told her.

She scowled. "I'm not falling for that trick," she announced. "You must think I'm some kind of..."

"Uh... Viola..." said the helmsman. "You might want to do what he says."

She glanced over her shoulder, then sagged in defeat You'd sag too, if you thought you'd gotten away scot-free, then turned to see a three and half million cubic foot cruiser with the words, Flying Cloud, R-505, on a parallel course, less than half a mile away.

"Where'd they come from?" asked Sami.

"Well, Captain Everett did say that he and Jenkins were going to Pago Pago to see what they could find," I told her. "I guess they found a radio, called for their ship, and came back to look for us. I'm not about to complain.

"What happens now?" asked Murdock.

"I guess there will be some hearings, and some folks will end up in stir. I'll let Willard figure that out. As for us..." I did a quick calculation, then smiled. "... Sami and I just earned forty bucks!"

The Black Flying Sheep Cloud

Next week: Follow the Leader...

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