The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Eleven

Episode 507: Useful Directions

A ladle

Rain swept across the field, beating against the mooring mast, drenching the handling party that sheltered at its foot. Up in the R-83's control car, MacKiernan studied the sky, then turned to his ballast officer.

"Mister Smade, what have you got... Mister Smade?"

The lieutenant looked up, blinked, and glanced at his board as if he'd never seen it before. "We should be 200 lbs light, after accounting for the weight of the rain," he replied vaguely.

MacKiernan suppressed a sigh and turned to the elevatorman. "Palmer?"

The airman rested his fingers on the wheel and nodded to himself. "One degree down, sir. 200 lbs seems about right."

"Very good," said MacKiernan. "Mister Wilcox, drop the mooring."

The bow fitting disengaged with its usual clunk. Then the ground was dropping away. As the altimeter climbed through 500', MacKiernan turned to the helmsman.

"Bartley, Engines One, Two, and Three to half-power and give me a turn left to 210 degrees. Palmer, bring the nose up to four."

"One, Two, and Three to half and turn left to 210."

"Nose up to four."

The sound of the engines deepened as the R-83's crew worked her up to an economical cruising speed -- on Wollesely class ships, the concept of `economy' always loomed large. Soon the vessel was droning southwest between layers of cloud. It was not an edifying vista. The same could be said of the place they'd just departed.

"Where shall we look for Captain Phillips next?" asked Miss Perkins. "There was no trace of him in Port Moresby."

"That was always a long shot," said MacKiernan. "I never expected anyone there to remember him."

"There was that fellow near the harbor," Wilcox remarked.

Eyes turned to the lieutenant.

"What fellow?" asked MacKiernan.

"This was a shopkeeper from Colonies -- some strange place called `Massachusetts'. He'd purchased goods from the captain. I brought back an example."

The lieutenant fished through the pockets of his Number Threes to retrieve a figurine of a girl in traditional island garb playing a stringed instrument. Some hidden arrangement of springs allowed the figurine to sway when it was given a tap.

"That's an... interesting bit of craftsmanship," Miss Perkins remarked.

"He assured me it was a valuable example of native artwork."

MacKiernan examined the base, which was embossed with the letters `Made In Japan'. "Those look rather like European characters," he observed.

"I noticed that myself," said Wilcox. "It's a remarkable coincidence the way these native ideograms happened to mimic forms with which we're familiar."

"Quite," said MacKiernan. "Where did this... work... come from?"

"I gather this particular cargo was purchased in Bougainville."

The rain eased slightly as they cruised northeast. The night found the R-83 approaching the Solomon Islands beneath a broken layer of clouds. Sunrise was still an hour away, but a few shafts of moonlight slanted down through gaps in the overcast to the west. MacKiernan was sitting in the upper lookout station, waiting to take the dawn sight, when he heard a voice behind him.

"Fergus, I thought I'd find you here."

He turned to see Miss Perkins emerge from the hatchway, smooth down her skirt, and take a seat across from him.

"Alice," he said in surprise. "What brings you here?"

"Memories," she told him. "Do you recall the first time we came to Bougainville, that night on the Viking Girl II?"

The Irishman felt himself blushing. "How could I ever forget?" he replied. "Do you think Captain Helga guessed?"

Her laughter was bright in the darkness. "Of course she did, Fergus. Was there ever any doubt? But we must also remember that attack by the British Union. I wonder what we'll find in the island now."

MacKiernan had been wondering the same thing. "We must assume they still maintain agents in Buka," he observed. "We also have reason to believe that the Chief of Records at the air station is working for the Fat Man. It may be difficult to escape their notice."

"Perhaps we can turn this situation to our advantage," said Miss Perkins.

MacKiernan nodded to himself. He should have expected the secretary to have a plan, "I take it you have an idea," he said.

She reached out to touch his hand. "I have several ideas," she said softly. "How long do we have until you have to take that dawn sight?"

The mooring parties at Bougainville's air station were every bit as efficient as one would expect in a German territory. The Chief of Records, Kurt Donner, was equally archetypal -- a middle-aged man in a tropical uniform who might have come straight from some production line for Imperial German bureaucrats. He studied MacKiernan with the same courtesy one machine shows for another.

"How may I help you?" he asked.

MacKiernan passed over the authorization Miss Perkins had forged on Imperial Navy stationary. "I would like a record of all visits by the L-147 over the past fourteen months, but make sure no word of this gets out," he replied. This seemed a harmless piece of misdirection. Feigning interest in a vessel the Japanese nationalists had already destroyed could hardly betray an ongoing operation to their foes.

The clerk blinked, as if surprised by this request. "I'll see what I can do," he replied. "Please wait while I consult my files."

The café owner was a lean man of indeterminate age in a trim white tropical suit. "How may I help you, Miss Perkins?" he asked, in an accent that suggested a certain amount of breeding.

Miss Perkins took a sip of tea. If her thoughts were elsewhere, she gave no sign of this. "I understand we have a mutual acquaintance: a member of the nobility," she replied.

The man made as if to protest, then thought better of it. "That would be She Who Must be Obeyed. Why is the Royal Navy interested? You are hardly friends of the British Union."

"We may share an interest," Miss Perkins replied. She made a show of looking though her handbag to remove a slip of paper. "We're interested in the movements of this vessel."

The café owner unfolded the paper and raised an eyebrow. "The L-147? That's a German naval vessel. What makes you think we'd have any information about it?"

Miss Perkins shrugged. "I have not been informed," she replied. "I am merely a courier."

The other man glanced toward the air station, where the R-83's crew were taking this opportunity to overhaul one of the airship's antiquated engines. "This would seem to be a clever ruse to disguise the matter's importance."

"Did you encounter any difficulties?" MacKiernan asked Wilcox when they were all back at the ship.

The lieutenant had clearly been busy. His manner was even more breathless and his uniform more rumpled than usual. "No, captain," he replied. "I visited the fuel oil company, the chandlers, the victualers, the longshoremen's hall, several mechanics, and a soft drink vendor. They confirmed that the Innsmouth Shadow made four visits to this port during the past year and a half. I have the dates here."

"How about you?" MacKiernan asked Smade.

The other lieutenant blinked, in the same way a snail might blink, if it wasn't in any particular hurry. "I visited the customs office and went through their records, as you instructed."

MacKiernan waited for Smade to elaborate, then realized the futility of this plan. "What did you discover?"

This prompted another slow blink. "I have copies of the vessel's harbor dues, customs dues, clearance forms, and bills of lading for every one of her visits."

"Good work, gentlemen," said MacKiernan. "Let us see what these things can tell us."

Next week: What Should We Do With All These Extra Germans?...

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