The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 424: Some Historical Research

The HMS 'Charybdis'

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins had met in MacKiernan's cabin -- with Abercrombie as a chaperone -- to study the teapot and crucifix. Viewed side by side, the artifacts might have suggested a novel interpretation of one of the sacraments, but otherwise they told no tales. At last Miss Perkins reached for the Almanac and flipped it open to a page.

"We will need to make inquiries if we're to determine where these items came from," she said. "I believe our best place to find the relevant experts is here."

MacKiernan looked at the entry the secretary had indicated. "Why do you recommend Guam?" he asked.

"It's as good a place as any," said Miss Perkins. "It's not too far away, we're on good terms with the commander of the American air station, and the Royal Navy maintains an attaché there who might be able to provide information about this HMS Charybdis."

"What about the nationalists?" asked Abercrombie. "We ken the Germans and Japanese both have agents on the island."

"That may be true, but we can hope they won't have a major presence on an American possession. Also, our adversaries will be looking for the Flying Cloud. They're unlikely to associate this..." she glanced around the compartment as if wrestling with her sensibilities, "... airship with a Royal Navy investigation."

MacKiernan nodded ruefully. Somewhere in the distance, a rigging cable creaked. He hoped it wasn't about to break.

"I imagine you will be right," he admitted.

The flight from Truk to Guam strained the R-46's capabilities. So did the mooring operation. Even Abercrombie'sw heroic efforts hadn't been able to correct the sag in the vessel's tail -- a fault that led to pitch control problems at low speed. The vessel also lacked the necessary fittings to use modern mechanical handling equipment. This meant she had to be walked to a high mast by hand, the way the gods had meant man to moor airships when they wanted to punish him for some infraction.

The air station's commander was waiting to greet them as they emerged from the lift. Like all American officers, he seemed filled with the boundless enthusiam one would expect from representatives of a young and rising nation. "Welcome back to Guam, Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan," he announced cheerfully. "I see they've given you the R-46."

There was an awkward pause.

"Quite," said MacKiernan. "We're on a mission that requires some discretion, and we wanted to ensure no one would associate this visit with our previous one."

"That's a clever move," said the commander. "I assume you'll want to speak with your naval attaché."

"If you could be so kind as to tell us where we might find him."

The attaché, Lieutenant Roderick Williamson, was young man whose expression suggested he'd met with some recent disappointment. MacKiernan was too courteous to inquire what this might be. Instead he let his gaze roam across the shelves until he spotted a small statuette. Its attire was noteworthy for its inadequacy.

"That's an interesting figure," he observed. "I take it this is not Royal Navy issue."

Williamson frowned at the figure as if it brought back unhappy memories. "It's a representation of Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of Love and War," he said curtly.

"Love and War?" asked MacKiernan.

The lieutenant sighed. "Those ancient Sumerians didn't make our modern distinction between the two, and I can't say that I blame them. How may I help you?"

MacKiernan unwrapped the teapot and crucifix and set them on the table. "We recovered these artifacts during an investigation, the details and purpose of which needn't concern you," he said. "Now we need to determine where they came from."

Williamson picked up the teapot and examined the inscription. "A gift from Her Majesty and the captain, officers, and crew of the HMS Charybdis?" he read. "There can't have been too many vessels by that name. Let us see what we can discover."

The lieutenant turned to his shelves and began leafing through copies of Jane's. When these proved inadequate, he resorted to its predecessor, Brassey's Naval Almanac. At last he paused at an entry. "How about this one?" he said. "The HMS Charybdis, an Astra class protected cruiser, ordered under the Naval Defense Act of 1889. She was completed in 1896 at Sheerness Dockyard, served in Channel Fleet as flagship of the 12th Cruiser Squadron, and was sold into commercial service in 1918."

"Commercial service?" asked Miss Perkins.

"In today's challenging business environment, you never know when you might need a 4,000 tonne warship with a battery of 6" guns," said Williamson.

MacKiernan glanced the lieutenant, but the other man was maintaining a straight face. He sighed inwardly. "The name may be right, but I wonder about the timing," he observed, hoping this might keep the conversation from straying. "Why would the vessel be carrying a gift from Queen Victoria when most of her active service occurred during the reigns of Edward VII and George V? Also, how did a teapot from a cruiser in the Channel Fleet end up in the Pacific?"

"Some retired officer might have brought it here as a memento," suggested Williamson.

"It might also have been the work of international tea service thieves," said Miss Perkins. "I understand they were quite a problem after the War."

MacKiernan glanced at Miss Perkins, but she too had mastered the art of looking innocent. It seemed he was not fated to win today. "Do you have records for any earlier time periods?" he asked the attaché.

"After a fashion," said Williamson. "It will take some time to review them, but I should be finished by lunchtime."

"That should serve," said MacKiernan. "Do you have any idea where this crucifix might have come from?"

Something that might have been a scowl flickered across the young man's face. "No, but you might try Miss Mariane Smythe, over at the town library," he said with more than a hint of spite. "She fancies herself a historian."

Apra's Municipal Library was easy enough to find -- it wasn't as if establishments of this sort were particularly numerous on Guam. MacKiernan and Miss Perkins expected its custodian to be the traditional aging spinster, but instead, they found an attractive young woman sporting the latest fashions from America. These seemed admirably suited for wear in a tropical climate, as was the attire of the statuette MacKiernan noticed on the shelf behind her.

"That figure looks quite old," he remarked. "Was it made here on Guam?"

"It's a representation of Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of War and Love," the girl said with what might have been a trace of bitterness. "Those ancient Sumerians knew what they were talking about."

Her manner suggested he'd touched on a difficult topic, so MacKiernan hastened to change the subject. "We're conducting an investigation for the Royal Navy," he told her. "As part of this investigation, we need to determine the origin of this crucifix. We understand you're an expert on these matters."

This praise seemed to improve Miss Smythe's mood. She produced a magnifying glass from wherever it was librarians kept such things and began to examine details of the engraving. "It's definitely Spanish workmanship, from sometime during the Seventeenth Century" she said after a moment. "It might take me some time to narrow this down, but I should be done by lunch."

"We're not in any immediate hurry," said MacKiernan. "We're waiting for our attaché, Lieutenant Williamson, to complete a related inquiry. He also expects to finish by lunchtime."

Something about this statement seemed to annoy the girl. "Does he?" she exclaimed. "I'll show him!"

"It would seem that Mister Williamson and Miss Smyth are acquainted," MacKiernan observed as they made their way back to the lieutenant's office.

"They also don't seem on the best of terms," said Miss Perkins. "I wonder what he did to offend her?"

MacKiernan opened his mouth to comment on her immediate assumption that the man was at fault, then thought better of it. If the ancient Sumerians ever needed a Goddess of Secretaries and War, he knew who to suggest as a candidate.

When they got back to the office, they found the attaché studying a dog-eared volume titled The Cruise of the Flying Squadron, by M McCausland. He looked up as they entered. "I believe I've found your HMS Charybdis," he informed them. "This one is a Pearl class screw corvette, launched in 1859 at Chatham. She circumnavigated the world as part of the Royal navy Flying Squadron of 1869, with calls in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan."

"That sounds like the vessel we want," said MacKiernan. "Do we know what ports she visited?"

"Not yet, but I believe this information will be contained in this account by one of her midshipmen," said Williamson. "His presentation was quite succinct, so it shouldn't take much more than an hour to review it."

"There's no hurry," said MacKiernan. "We'll go back to the library and see if Miss Smythe has learned where the crucifix came from. She suggested she might be done by now."

"Did she now?" growled the lieutenant. "You tell her that I accept her challenge!"

"Challenge?" wondered Miss Perkins as they made their way back to the library.

"It would seem that our hosts are at odds," said MacKiernan. "From their vehemence, one imagines this is some long-standing feud. We must hope it doesn't interfere with their investigations."

Miss Perkins nodded. "Perhaps they should have chosen a different pair of statues, skipped the Sumerians, and gone straight to the Roman god of War."

"I imagine they might welcome that suggestion."

The library was much as they'd left it. Inside, Miss Smythe was flipping through the pages of a book titled A Boy's Guide To Seventeenth Century Spanish Altar Furniture. She smiled when they entered.

"Did Roderick find the information you wanted?" she asked them.

"He was still doing research when we left," said MacKiernan.

The librarian's smile broadened. "That shirker!" she snickered. "I'm already done! This crucifix came from a firm in Cordoba that mass-produced these things for Jesuit missions during the Hapsburg era. Those guys had missions all over this part of the Pacific. The one here in Guam had big sign that said "Over 10 million saved!" They changed it every few years."

MacKiernan considered the possibilities. Perhaps they could compare the Charybdis's ports of call with the locations of these missions and search for a match. "Can we discover which missions were established after this crucifix was made?"

"You bet!" said the girl. "And tell that Williamson pill I'll be done first!"

"Do you have any idea what Miss Smythe meant by that last remark?" MacKierann asked Miss Perkins as they made their way back to Williamson's office.

"From the context, one would imagine that `pill' was an expression of approbation," said the secretary. "We seem to be caught between a pair of belligerents."

"Such was my thought as well," said MacKiernan. "I hope we fare better than Belgium."

Miss Perkins glanced at him oddly, then laughed. "I suppose I deserved that for my comment about tea service thieves."

"All's fair in Humor and War."

"So it would seem."

When the office came into view, it was obvious that something had happened while they were gone. The door hung open and papers lay where wind had scattered them across the floor. There was no sign of the attaché. Several onlookers stood in front of the building. MacKiernan cornered one of them -- an American seaman, judging from his clothing -- while Miss Perkins made a quick inspection of the room.

"Did you happen to notice what happened here?" he asked.

"Yeah," said the sailor. "A few minutes ago this guy comes running out and takes off down the street like he owes someone money. Was it you?"

It took MacKiernan several moments to parse this statement. While he was wrestling with its grammatical innovations, Miss Perkins emerged from the office and handed him a crumpled sheet of paper.

"Fergus," she said urgently, "I found this in the dustbin."

The Irishman smoothed the sheet to discover a typewritten message.

You're trying to embarrass us. You'll quit now if you know what's good for you.

It took little imagination to grasp the implications. "It would appear some of our nationalist foes realized he was working for us," he said. "Who do you think they were?"

"I imagine the Japanese," said Miss Perkins. "They didn't trust their command of English, so they drew their text from some radio drama. Do you think they're also aware of Miss Smythe?"

"We will not want to take this risk," said MacKiernan. "Let us make haste back to the library."

Like the attaché's office, the library appeared to have been the scene of some altercation. The door was open, several objects from the desk lay next to it, as if they'd been hurled as weapons, and Miss Smythe's chair had been overturned. Of the librarian herself there was no sign. A small group of patrons from the bar across the street had gathered outside.

"What happened here?" MacKiernan asked one.

"I dunno," said the man. "A big black car pulled up, then a guy in uniform jumped out, grabbed the librarian, and drove off with her."

"What kind of uniform?" asked MacKiernan.

The man scratched his head. "Is there any difference? They all look the same to me."

"Which way did they go?"

"That way. Or maybe it was that way."

While MacKiernan was restraining his temper, Miss Perkins emerged from the library holding a note. "I found this in the trash," she said. "I believe it was typed on a different machine, but it's every bit as threatening as the other one."

You were warned, Miss Smythe. Now you must face the consequences.

"This one must be from the Germans," said MacKiernan. "It has that authoritarian turn of phrase of which they are so fond."

"It seems our adversaries have taken both our informants," said Miss Perkins. "Which one should we try to rescue?"

"Our first concern must be for the lady," MacKiernan replied gallantly. "Lieutenant Williamson will have to fend for himself for the moment. He's English. I trust he will manage."

The car proved easy to follow. There was only one major street in Apra, which did much to simplify the pursuit. This road branched several times after they left town, but the soft earth retained impressions of the tire tracks, so they had little difficulty determining which branch the vehicle had taken.

Soon they came to the car itself, parked beside a stand of trees. Its motor was off, the doors were closed, and there was no trace of its occupants. MacKiernan didn't find this reassuring. Had they matched their captive off to kill her, or worse?

Miss Perkins seemed to share his apprehension. "We'd better find her before it's too late," she said. "Do you see any sign of a trail?"

MacKiernan glanced around until he spotted several sets of prints leading into the grove. He couldn't tell how many had been in the party, but one set had obviously been left by a woman.

"This must be it," he said. "I can't imagine many people set of into the jungle wearing high-heeled shoes."

"You might be surprised," Miss Perkins informed him. "We can discuss this later."

They hurried down the trail as quickly as they dared, pausing from time to time to listen for their quarry. During one pause, MacKiernan glanced back at their own prints. Of course, he thought. I should have guessed.

At last they heard voices ahead. These were too muffled for them to make out the words, but one voice seemed to be pleading.

"Is that Williamson?" Miss Perkins whispered.

MacKiernan looked where his companion was pointing and spotted the lieutenant standing by a tree, staring at some figure that was hidden behind it. His face was contorted in some extreme of emotion.

"Good lord!" whispered MacKiernan. "He looks as if someone's about to shoot him!"

"We'll have to save him," said Miss Perkins. "Are you armed?"

"No, but I am an Irishman. If we get close enough, I can handle the matter."

They resumed their advance, being careful to keep the tree between themselves and whoever Williamson was facing. If they couldn't see their adversary, their adversary couldn't see them. The lieutenant seemed to be getting the worst of his encounter. He'd gone to his knees, as if begging for his life, but some unfortunate trick of acoustics kept them from making out what he was saying.

"Hurry or we'll be too late!" hissed Miss Perkins.

"Go sábhála Dia sinn!" muttered MacKiernan. "We're already too late!"

Williamson had reached into his pocket to pull out a box -- a bribe, perhaps, in some last desperate effort to purchase his life. With shaking hands, he offered it to whoever was standing behind the tree. MacKiernan checked the distance. It was too far to rush. And there was nothing he could throw, even if he'd been able to see Williamson's adversary. They could only watch helplessly while the lieutenant met his fate.

A gasp sounded from behind the tree. Seconds later, Miss Smythe stepped into the light, staring at the ring on her finger. She rubbed her eyes and gazed up into the lieutenant's face. Then she flung her arms around him and kissed him.

For several long moments, neither MacKiernan nor Miss Perkins spoke.

"Oh dear," MacKiernan said at last. "It appears that we've been laboring under a misapprehension regarding the precise nature of the relationship between those two young people."

"So it would seem," Miss Perkins said dryly. "It's not as if we didn't have any clues. Those statues..."

"It's also not as if we didn't have experience with just this sort of thing ourselves," mused MacKiernan. He paused in alarm, realizing he'd spoken aloud.

"Fergus?" said Miss Perkins.

He turned and realized she was smiling.

"Yes, Alice?"

"Come here."

Ring box

Next week: The What of Tahiti?...

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