The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 380: Let's Try The Other One

The shop in Honiara

Passenger records at Leava's air station established that Iverson's would-be assailants had arrived the previous day on a packet from the German Protectorate of the Marshall Islands. The captives refused to talk, but there was little doubt they were the Fat Man's minions. There was, however, some doubt about their mission.

"We've assumed they were sent here to take the American ship," said Jenkins, "but they arrived after the Americans changed their codes. This must have warned them the game was up. Why didn't they turn back?"

"Perhaps they were sent for some other purpose," MacKiernan suggested. "They didn't arrive until some time after the Sunnyvale departed. That would seem to complicate any effort to take the vessel."

"The delay might have been unplanned," said Iverson. "Communications and travel can be uncertain in this part of the world."

MacKienan shook his head. "These are Germans. They have a well-deserved reputation for efficiency. They would have calculated their schedule with some care."

"They must have been after the Captain," said Sarah. "They suggested as much when they attacked John."

Everett allowed himself a smile. "I suppose I should take this as a compliment. MacKiernan, did you learn anything of note during your investigations?"

"Unfortunately not," said the Irishman. "All people would talk about was the opera. It seems the Argentines have been scheduling the performances to coincide with times a fleet is in port. This guarantees them an audience and publicity. It also protects them against the unlikely chance of piracy."

Sarah raised an eyebrow. "The only pirate we know of is that fellow over in Tahiti."

"As I noted, the prospect is unlikely."

"Whatever their motives, they've muddied the waters here," said Everett. "I believe it's time for us to move on, and investigate the sighting in the Solomons. This will have been our friends on the mysterious cruiser. We'll lift ship as soon as we finish resupply."

They kept careful watch during their flight to the Solomon Islands, lest they be surprised by their adversary. They'd survived their two encounters with the cruiser entirely by chance. They might not be so lucky a third time. This caution proved unnecessary, for the few ships they spotted were all commercial.

They reached Honiara's air station to find it almost empty, like a theatre after a performance. The only vessels present were some of the ubiquitous island blimps and an Improved Armstrong-Whitworth, the R-72, owned by the P&O Line. With little other demand for their services, the handling parties were unusually efficient, and soon the Flying Cloud was riding from her mooring.

"It doesn't seem you have much business today," Everett remarked when he and Jenkins paid a call to the commander.

Their host chuckled and gestured toward a colorful programme that lay on his desk. "You should have been here a month ago," he told them. "Between the Fleet visit and that opera, this place was madhouse. Their tenor was quite remarkable -- some Italian fellow named Notariello."

Everett nodded to himself. The Argentines must have stopped here en route to Futuna from some point farther to the west. "Have any naval units called during the past week?" he asked. "We're particularly interested in arrivals and departures on or around the 15th."

The commander shook his head. "Things have been rather quiet. The only visit I recall was some big American cruiser named the Sunnyvale."

"The Sunnyvale?" asked Everett. "You're quite certain of the name?"

"Of course," said the commander. "It was painted on the side in big black letters, bright and fresh as day. They stayed two days to resupply and departed in the evening. Most of her crew stayed aboard -- some business about quarantine, I understand. All we saw were a few Chinese stevedores."

Everett and Jenkins exchanged glances. "Could these stevedores possibly have been Japanese?" Jenkins asked.

Their host seemed surprised by this question. "I couldn't say. Those fellows all look alike."

"There seems little doubt that was the cruiser," Jenkins remarked as they made their way back to the ship. "And they took care to depart when their course would be hidden by darkness, which suggests they were after more than just resupply. What could they have been up to?"

"We'll need more information before we can hazard a guess," said Everett. "We'll send our people to make inquiries in town and hope they find someone who was more observant than the commander."

Once again, Iverson and Sarah were one of the investigating parties -- this time accompanied by Pierre. They kept an eye out for trouble as they made their way through town, but the villagers showed no inclination toward hostility. Unfortunately, they also showed no knowledge of the cruiser. Like the inhabitants of Leava, they seemed preoccupied by the opera.

At last, after they'd exhausted all other alternatives, they tried the address of the antiquarian Caldwell and Behema had visited that spring. This lay near the waterfront, on a street lined with establishments designed to separate visitors from their money by deceit, alcohol, violence, or some combination of the three. Pierre seemed at home here, and pushed through the door without hesitation.

The interior of the shop was even seedier than its surroundings. The windows were covered with grime -- a fortunate circumstance considering the view -- and the shelves were lined with cheap trinkets, moth-eaten books, and artifacts so old they might plausibly have predated humanity. The proprietor was as questionable as his merchandise. His name seemed vaguely Asian, but his broad batrachian features raised some questions about his species affiliation.

Pierre toyed with one of objects on sale -- a star-shaped emblem fashioned from some greasy-looking stone -- then nodded to the shopkeeper. "I might be interested in making a purchase," he said. "I would also be interested in learning if you've seen any unusual foreigners recently."

The man made a gesture of disinterest. "You can hardly expect me to remember everyone who passes through this shop."

Pierre produced a banknote and slid it across the counter. "Would this help your memory?

The shopkeeper smiled. "You're wondering about those strange Europeans. They were here a month ago asking about the ruins on Choiseu."

"Do you have any idea who these gentlemen were?"

"I couldn't place their accent, but from their features, I'd guess they were from somewhere to the north -- possibly northern Russia or Sweden."

The blimp captain took a sip of tea, then leaned back to recollect. "It was the evening of the 15th," he told MacKiernan. "We were returning from Suavanao on Santa Isabel, but we were behind schedule, with no chance of making the station here before it closed for the night, so we throttled back our engine to drift until morning."

MacKiernan nodded. This was common practice on blimps, which were almost always `behind schedule'. "That's where you saw the airship?" he asked.

"Aye," said the captain. "They passed to the west, running without lights. The ship was enormous -- I'd guess at least seven million cubic feet. It must have been the lads you're looking for."

"Do you have any idea where they were bound?"

"No, but they were heading northwest, up Hydrogen Sound. The closest islands in that direction are Choiseu and Wagina."

Next week: I Suppose It's No Longer Much Of A Secret...

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