The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Nine

Episode 446: The Ninth Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Christmas tree and air station

They'd resupplied at Singapore so as not to strain the limited facilities at Bhamo. Now the Flying Cloud was cruising southeast over the Java Sea en route to Cairns. In the mess hall, Second Watch was enjoying a cup of tea after their duty was over. Predictably, the topic of conversation was the ship's recent guest.

"Do we have any idea who this Scott fellow was working for?" asked Iverson. "What is this mysterious `Yard' of his?"

"He wouldn't reveal this information," said Everett. "It appears to be some agency of the Crown, so well-connected that it can obtain carte blanche authority from the First Lord, but so secret even Jenkins has never heard of it."

"How do they select their agents?" Sarah wondered. "They could hardly place an advertisement in the papers."

"I'd imagine they subject candidates to some manner of test," said Jenkins. "We had similar traditions at the Signals College."

The island girl seemed intrigued by the prospect. "Where is the Signals College," she asked, "and how did these tests work?"

"The College is located in Portsmouth, at the grounds the old Royal Naval War College maintained before the War. It was established in 1916 to address... deficiencies... the Royal Navy identified after the Battle of Jutland. The tests were many and varied, but I particularly recall the one involving the annual Christmas Eve party."

"What's so special about a Christmas Eve party?" asked Sarah.

"At the Royal Navy Airship Service Signals College, the time and location of the party are secret."

Sarah chuckled. "That must cut down on attendance!"

"It does allow the College to economize on expenses," Jenkins admitted. "It also leads to a convivial atmosphere, though this may be accompanied by a certain smugness among the attendees."

The signalman took a sip of tea. A smile passed across his face as he reminisced.

Our challenge as cadets was to determine where and when the Christmas Eve party would be held. During my first attempts, I tried to accomplish this by following the organizers of the party as they went about their ways. This proved futile, for quarry always has the advantage against a single tail. Even when Pendleton, Clark, and I pooled our efforts, the men we were tracking managed to eluded us, for their skills at the game were greater than ours. Then we recalled the adage that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics -- this is attributed to Napoleon, but one suspects it dates back to Ramses III. Instead of following people, we would follow supplies, under the assumption that the relevant suppliers might not possess the same skill at evasion as our professors.

The immediate question was which supplies to follow. Food and drink seemed too generic -- surely the organizers could procure these from any grocer. We also rejected the idea of tracing Christmas ornaments. Items of that sort were sufficiently out of the ordinary that we could expect purchasers to be on the lookout for watchers. At last we decided to concentrate on trees. These were mundane enough that wouldn't seem to demand special precautions, but not the sort of thing one could lay one's hands on easily. They were also comparatively bulky and difficult to conceal.

There proved to be quite a few purveyors of Christmas trees in Portsmouth, but members of the Signal Corps are expected to rise to challenges like these, and we visited each one to examine their books. Our cover story was that we were representatives of a government office charged with compiling an inventory of strategic materials -- this sort of thing seemed quite plausible after the War. We quickly eliminated purchases by repeat customers with verifiable addresses, deliveries to locations such as private homes, schools, hospitals, and public locations, and trees that seemed large or too small. We also eliminated trees purchased before a certain date. The precise time of the party may have been a secret, but it seemed reasonable to suppose that a Christmas Eve party would occur on Christmas Eve, and they couldn't rent a suitable venue too far in advance.

These criteria still left us with a fair number of trees. We had to investigate all their purchasers one by one. This was a substantial task, and as the days passed, we began to develop some reservations about the merits of our procedure. Then, as we were visiting a shop near the Milton Common, the proprietor mentioned that he'd set aside one of his trees for a `sspecial customer' that afternoon.

This sounded more promising than most of our leads, so we found hiding places outside the shop, then concealed ourselves to wait. Shortly after lunch, we saw the customer step into the shop. We knew at once that we had our man. We didn't recognize him, of course, but his very ordinariness proclaimed that he was in disguise. He emerged a few minutes later carrying the fateful tree. We smiled at each other and set off in pursuit.

This proved more difficult than we'd expected. You'd think it would be easy to shadow a man carrying a tree, but as I noted earlier, the quarry always has initiative, which gives him the advantage. He also benefited from three escorts who seemed to be following him at a distance to warn him of pursuers.

Hours passed as we trailed the fellows through the streets of Portsmouth, up major thoroughfares, through narrow alleys, down rustic dirt lanes. He almost lost us as we passed by the Gunwharf Quays. In the end, it was tree that betrayed him. Pendleton spotted its branches vanishing around a corner of the lane leading to the civil air station. We reached the station in time to see him boarding a commercial flight to Salisbury, Christmas tree and all. There was no chance to book passage ourselves, so we dashed over to the naval field, where Clark dashed off forged orders allowing us to take charge of a patrol blimp. Moments later, we were airborne in pursuit -- to the extent that a blimp is capable of pursuing anything.

A Coastal Class was not the vessel I'd have chosen to follow a fast modern airship. I'm not even certain it's the vessel I'd have chose to follow a man on a bicycle. Fortunately, the flight was sufficiently short that we didn't fall too far behind. We didn't bother mooring when we reached Salisbury, but just lept to the ground -- this also allowed our pilot and crew to economize on ballast. Then we dashed over to the commercial field to see what had become of our quarry.

He seemed to have left one of his escorts behind in Portsmouth, but we spotted the remaining two leaving the field ahead of us. Following them, we caught up with the man at the train station, where he was boarding the first class carriage of a train to Southampton. You'd think a railroad company would object to someone bringing a tree along, but it seems first class has its privileges. His escorts boarded the second class carriage, leaving us no choice but to squeeze aboard the third, minutes before the train set off.

Our car was packed with members of the laboring class on holiday. The atmosphere was almost certainly more convivial than it might have been for members of the managerial and upper classes, but it was also more crowded, which made it difficult to maintain a proper watch. Fortunately we were able to find a bench by a window where we could see who disembarked at each station. One of the escorts got off at Downton, perhaps to run some errand or file a report. The other remained on board with his superior until we reached Southampton.

Our arrival posed a new set of difficulties, for the platform was under renovation, and only one car could unload at a time. Needless to say, our car was last in the queue, which gave our quarry a significant head start. By the time we'd disembarked, the man was nowhere in sight.

"What now?" asked Pendleton.

I had given this matter some thought as we waited. "There seems to have been a theme involving the traditional elements," I noted. "We've done earth, air, and fire. That leaves us with water. I'd suggest a visit to the harbor."

We nipped down to the docks. Once again, our quarry was betrayed by his tree, which we saw bobbing above the line of passengers boarding the ferry to the Isle of Wight. The man's final escort stood between us and the wharf -- apparently to prevent fellows from following him aboard. As we watched, a whistle blew, the gangway was raised, and the vessel's screw began to churn.

I glanced around, looking for some other means of transportation. At a neighboring pier, I spotted a fisherman putting his boat to bed for the night. "Crown business!" I told him. "Follow that ferry!"

"What type of Crown business?" he asked suspiciously.

"The type of business that's worth a quid," I said, passing him a pound note.

"For King and Country!" he replied as he leapt for the halyard. Moments later, we'd made sail, and were following the ferry down the Solent estuary.

Fortunately the tide was with us. Otherwise the chase might have been hopeless. Even so, by the time we reached Cowes, the ferry had docked, her passengers had all disembarked, and our quarry was nowhere to be seen. It was time to resort to one of the subtle expedients for which the Signal Corps is known.

"Excuse me," I asked as I cornered a passerby. "Did you happen to see man carrying a large Christmas tree pass this way?"

"Would that be the fellow with the furtive manner, who kept glancing over his shoulder as if he thought someone might be following him?"

"That's the one."

"He's on his way to the Golf Club."

It seemed our quest was almost over, but the Cowes Golf Club posed one final challenge. It was larger than we anticipated, with numerous lodges, arbors, and pavilions for members of the gentry. We searched the grounds as quickly as we could, but it soon became clear we couldn't finish this task by nightfall. Then, as light was fading from the western sky, Clark noticed a recent trail of pine needles, leading to a small club building. Once again, our quarry had been betrayed by his unfaithful branches.

We hid next to the windows and listened. Curtains muffled the voices, making then impossible to recognize, but it was clear from their conversation that we'd found the right place.

"Did you have any trouble with this year's cadets?" asked one.

"Not in particular," answered a second. "Three tried to follow me, but I lost one in Portsmouth, tricked the second into disembarking too early on the train from Salisbury and lost the third in Southampton on the way to the ferry."

Pendleton, Clark, and I exchanged glances. Had some of our classmates also been following the man without our notice? This reflected badly on our skills. Still, we'd found the place, and that's what mattered. We could count this as a victory. We straightened our jackets, strode to the door, and flung it open. Inside, as we expected, a group of men in evening dress was putting final touches on decorations for a party.

"We've found you!" we announced.

One of the men turned. To our surprise, he was entirely unfamiliar. "Found who?" he demanded.

"The secret Signal Corps Christmas Eve party!"

"This is the secret Signal Corps Christmas Eve party!" he replied. "But who the devil are you?"

"If this is the Royal Navy Airship Service Signal Corps secret Christmas Eve party, who the devil are you?"

"The Royal Navy Airship Service Signal Corps has a secret Christmas Eve party?"

It took several moments to clear up the misunderstanding. Who would have imagined that the Royal Army Signal Corps had a similar tradition? After the surprise had worn off, they invited us to join them -- interservice rivalry tends to be forgotten during the Yuletide season -- and it was late the next day when Pendleton, Clark, and I finally made our way back to the College.

There was some disagreement among our professors regarding how our accomplishment should be judged. One faction held that since we didn't find the right party, we hadn't passed the test. Another held that we'd scored something of an intelligence coup, and deserved to pass with flying colours. Anticipating such a division, I'd appropriated several bottles of Glenmorangie from our Army hosts. This evidence of foresight seems to have tilted the judgment in our favor.

"What happened to the Royal Army Signal Corps cadets?" asked Sarah. "Did they eventually find the Royal Naval Airship Service Signal Corps party?"

Now it was Jenkins' turn to chuckle. "That would have given the conclusion a neat symmetry, but I believe they ended up at a celebration hosted by the Royal Marines. The moral would seem to be that Christmas is a time to reach out to others, and be grateful for all the gifts life brings."

Yuletide Arbor Fidelity Evaluation

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the R-505! We hope your year was cause for celebration, and your new year will be filled with happiness and joy! The Flying Cloud will be on vacation for three weeks while crucial members of the Royal Naval Airship Service are on leave. Season Ten will begin on 8-Jan-2018. We look forward to seeing you...

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