The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 473: Meanwhile, Over At The Coffee Plantations

A barrel on the loose

The Thunderbird made the passage from Darwin without too much difficulty. The gunboat's archaic machinery might have been prone to breakdown, but her engineer -- a taciturn Finn named Scotti -- took problems such as broken crosshead bearings and cracked high pressure cylinders in stride. Two days after leaving Australia, they were approaching Timor. To starboard, the morning sun was peering between the clouds. To port, a rainbow framed the dark green hills to the west.

Reserve lieutenant Stevens indicated a small village on the shoreline ahead. "There's Mota'ain, right on schedule," he said cheerfully. He seemed inordinately pleased by this development, as if the port had done something unexpected by showing up at the position indicated on the chart.

"It's still a dump," snorted Aunt Prodigia, whose previous visit had done little to give her a favorable impression of the place.

Jenkins studied the village through binoculars. It had little to recommend it. "A case could be made for this point of view," he observed. "But whatever its merits or lack thereof, we need to decide upon a strategy. We can be certain the Fat Man's people pursued your nieces here, and they may have left agents in town. We'll wish to prevent these people from realizing our true purpose. To this end, some subtlety may be required."

Aunt Prodigia nodded sagely. "What's your scheme?"

"We will strive to give the impression that we've been sent to locate your relatives. This should seem entirely plausible, since they are one of our major concerns. In the course of our inquries, we should be able to slip in a few casual questions regarding where the Tranquility might be headed."

"Bob's your uncle," said the matron. "Let's give these chappies some subtlety."

Stevens backed the Thunderbird down to Mota'ain's wharf with typical Australian disregard for the integrity of physical objects -- if the structure couldn't stand up to the occasional bump, surely it wouldn't be able to handle what was to come. As soon as the mooring lines were secure, Aunt Prodigia vaulted over the rail to the dock. It shuddered under the impact, but showed no immediate sign of collapsing. Jenkins and Stevens waited until she was safely ashore, then followed her into town.

Mota'ain had but a single street -- a rutted dirt track that ran past coffee sorting trays, pulping sheds, drying tables, hulling machines, polishing machines, and a combined coffee warehouse and sales office. A cage of Asian palm civits, tucked next to the warehouse, hinted at the use of an additional and somewhat more exotic processing method.

Stevens studied this infrastructure with a bemused eye. "There seems to be a bit of a unifying theme here," he observed.

"The local industries do not seem noteworthy for their diversity," agreed Jenkins. "Still, these people must maintain shipping records. Let us visit their office."

It might have been a company agent's office anywhere in the Pacific -- a plain businesslike room lined with shelves holding rows of ledgers, some of obvious antiquity. Light came from a pair of windows in the near wall. The far wall bore a poster that showed a globe superimposed over a coffee pot, accompanied by the logo of Dutch trading firm and the words, "Der wereled is er vol van!" which Jenkins took to read, "The world is full of it!" This slogan seemed to suffer in translation.

A middle-aged Dutchman who clearly enjoyed his meals was making entries in an account book. He glanced up with a smile, as if he welcomed the interruption. "Goedendag!" he said cheerfully. "I am Meneer van Rijn, manager of this factory. What help can I offer to you?"

"We're trying to locate a pair of Australian nationals who we understand passed through your town," said Jenkins. "These would be two young women named Emily Wilcox and Clarice Blaine."

The merchant smiled. "The two jonge vrouwen with the Adler motorcar! I remember them well! They were... " he paused, glanced at Aunt Prodigia, and appeared to reconsider what he'd been about to say. " five days ago. They traded their auto to Kapitein Ray for passage on his freighter. He sailed off with them, leaving part of his cargo behind, and now I have to find another skipper to fulfill the rest of the contract."

"I trust that won't prove too difficult," Jenkins said sympathetically. "Where would it happen to be bound?"

The merchant made an apologetic gesture. "I am afraid that I cannot say. This is what I believe you call a trade secret. Coffee is a very competitive business."

Aunt Prodigia had been listening to this conversation with some impatience. Now she leaned forward, seized the merchant by the collar, and hoisted him to his feet. "Right!" she announced. "Enough of this larking about! Tell me where you're shipping that coffee or I'll ship you after it."

The merchant recognized a superior force when he encountered one. "Very well, mevrouw, since you ask so politely."

"I though we'd agreed to be subtle," said Jenkins as they made their way back to the wharf.

Aunt Prodigia seemed perplexed by this remark. "I was being subtle," she replied.

Jenkins raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps we have some different understanding of the term."

"Subtle, adjective: difficult to understand or perceive, having or marked by keen insight, cunningly made or contrived," said Aunt Prodigia. "What's so different about that?"

Jenkins opened his mouth to reply, then paused. "I'd be happy to continue this discussion of comparative semantics," he observed, "but past experience on expeditions of this sort suggests we can anticipate some form of attack about now. I wonder where it is."

As if on cue, three thugs emerged from an alley. Their leader produced a pistol -- one of the Parabellums that seemed to be a trademark of the German nationalists -- and leveled it at the Englishmen. "You have been asking questions," he told them. "We also have questions. You will come with us."

Jenkins studied their assailants. He had no doubt he could subdue them -- he was, after all, a member of the Royal Naval Airship Service Signal Corps -- but the pistol added an element of challenge. Beside him, Aunt Prodigia stepped over to a conveniently-located barrel, heaved it onto its side, and bowled it toward their foes. The Germans gaped at it for a moment, then scattered like skittles.

Aunt Prodigia turned to Jenkins and planted her hands on her hips. "Well," she demanded, "was that subtle enough for you?"

The signalman nodded. "I believe so."

Next week: It's Wise to Plan Ahead...

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