The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 203: Now That We Have It, What Do We Do With It?

The false registration

The control car was narrow and cramped. It had never been intended as a meeting place, and the clutter of archaic equipment and controls left little room for Marty and his men. The din from the Number Five diesel assaulted their ears, but nothing could dampen their exuberance.

"We did it, Boss!" Jake shouted from the helm. The thug's battered face beamed in a smile.

"Yeah, Marty!" cried Craig. "That idea with the masks and armbands was brilliant!"

"Those Brits fell for it hook, line, and sinker," gloated Finnegan. "They thought we were them!" The Irishman twirled his own armband around a finger, then spread it out to admire the insignia -- a blue and red circle, split by a white lightning bolt labeled with the number `3'.

"They fell for it good," laughed Marty. "Now we got our mitts on an airship!"

"How'd you come up with this emblem, Boss?" Books asked from the ballast station. Stoop-shouldered, bespectacled, he seemed out of place in this company.

"That was Nettie's idea," said the gangster. "Ain't she great?" He grinned at his moll, who'd perched herself on the chart table and was swinging one stockinged leg with casual disregard for its effect on the men's libidos. "Anything for you, Marty," she crooned back. The men stared, but knew better than to whistle.

"Hey, Boss?" asked Jersey. The mechanic had just finished checking the oil supply for the ancient six-cylinder Renault diesel that dominated the aft end of the car and was making a half-hearted attempt to clean his hands with a rag. "Now that we got dis ship, what're we gonna do wit' it?"

Marty scratched his head for a moment, then smiled. "I was planning to use her to run booze back in the States," he told his men. "I'd like to see those Feds catch an airship! But seeing as we're here in the Pacific, we oughta check the local rackets on our way home. How's she flying, Al?"

Their skipper, a gaunt figure with heavily-veined nose and bloodshot eyes, studied the flight instruments, then rested one hand on a girder as if it could tell him something about the condition of his charge. "About how we expected, Marty," he replied. "She's an old ship, and those Frenchies were letting her run down. We'll want to patch her up before we head back to the States."

Marty nodded. "How're we fixed for fuel and ballast?"

"We're a bit low, but we've got enough to make Aneityum."

The boss grinned, thinking back on some of the radio dramas he'd heard. "Make it so!"

Aneityum was the southernmost inhabited island of the New Hebrides group. Like its brethren to the north, it resembled everyone's image of a volcanic Pacific isle -- a single jungle-cloaked peak surrounded by a trackless sea. Before Westerners arrived, it had been home to almost 12,000 inhabitants -- a culture so isolated it even had its own language, also called `Aneityum'. But the twin scourges of disease and blackbirding had taken their toll, and now it held less than a thousand souls.

The air station consisted of a single mast and a rickety shed on the tiny islet of Inyeug, just south of the island's principle -- and only -- village, Anelgauhat. Product of some misplaced concern about a German invasion, it had been thrown up quickly during the closing days of the War, then just as quickly abandoned. From a distance, it looked neglected and forgotten -- another one of the Pacific's impractical dreams.

This was a carefully-calculated illusion.

Marty and his men arrived to find a team of islanders waiting to take their handling lines. In less than an hour, the airship had been walked to the shed. The inside of the structure was entirely at odds with its appearance. Neat rows of fuel and hydrogen lines ran along the floor. The walls were stacked with equipment and supplies. At the far end of the shed, lights shone down on a small but well-equipped machine shop.

Marty flung open the door to the control car and hopped to the ground, followed by his men. A balding island trader with a neatly-trimmed mustache and beard stepped forward to greet them.

"Marty!" he cried. "You did it!"

"Vlad," said Marty, "you didn't think we could pull off the caper?"

The other man laughed. "Let's just say I wasn't putting any money on it. What can I do for you now, gentlemen?"

"You got the registration? For the price we agreed?"

"Of course!" said Vlad. Like many Pacific hands, he'd come to the islands with the purest of intentions. But the spell of the tropics -- combined with access to this station, forgotten by any government officials, but conveniently located for those whose business involved avoiding those officials -- had worked its predictable spell. "Here it is. You're the N-109, an American commercial vessel, registered in Akron, Ohio."

Marty looked the papers over. "What about the real N-109?" he asked.

"She's a copy of a German S Class, just like this ship, built by the Goodyear yard after the War. She was sold to a buyer in Argentina who wanted to keep the transaction secret, so you don't have to worry about her showing up here."

"Did you take money from the Argentines too?" asked Books.

Vlad smiled.

"How do we change the hull numbers so no one will notice?" asked Al.

"I've got just the thing," said Vlad. He reached to a table beside him to pick up a bottle. "Chateau Rennell. It's a wine-like substance that doubles as a paint thinner. And it will age the fabric so no one can tell the old numbers were there."

"We also gotta list of repairs," said Jersey. "How long will it take?" He reached into his overalls to produce a set of oil-stained pages. Vlad leafed through them, set them aside, then wiped his fingers with a handkerchief.

"New injectors for two plants, head rebuild for another, rigging, frame sections, overhaul the cells for leaks..." mused the trader. "We can do it in a week, maybe two if we need to fabricate parts, but it will cost you."

"How much?" asked Marty suspiciously.

"Five thousand dollars."

"Five grand!" spluttered the gangster. "We could almost get a new ship for that!"

"And that's what you'll have when we're done," Vlad said smoothly. "But if you like, I can take it in trade. There's a job I'd like done. It should be easy for a man of your talents."

The gangsters withdrew to talk things over.

"Whatcha think, Boss?" asked Jake. "Is he on the level?"

"Perhaps," said Marty. "Jersey? Books?"

"That price seems fair," admitted the mechanic. "And we ain't gonna get a better deal here in the Pacific."

"I would guess the man's bargaining in good faith," said Books. "He's not likely to find anyone else who can handle serious work. And he knows what'll happen if he tries to chisel us."

"He has a good face," gushed Nettie. "Besides, honey, weren't you looking for a caper? This one sounds like money."

"Yeah," grinned Marty. "And that's a sound I like to hear."

Next week: Clark Takes Charge!...

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