The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 221: Mariners and Mobsters

A can of shrunken heads

Fleming had never imagined a submarine could be so noisy. The howl of the turbines, the whine of the reduction gears, the thrum of the propellers, and groans from the hull as the boat rose to the swell joined into a clamor that made conversation almost impossible. In a way this was a blessing. With Fuller and his men determined to maintain the fiction that the vessel belonged to someone else, that conversation would almost certainly have been strained. But this was small recompense for the headaches and lack of sleep.

His hosts had released him from the improvised cell and moved him in with the crew. At first he'd welcomed the change of scenery, but pipes, valves, and unwashed uniforms soon paled. With no chance of winning his freedom -- it was difficult to imagine any vessel more difficult to escape from than a submarine -- he had little to do but lie in his hammock and pretend not to eavesdrop. What little he could hear over the noise was cryptic, but his hosts seemed unaware that an Australian could possibly understand the King's English.

"What... find on Oa Ki?"

"It looks like.. there ahead of us, but they didn't... look for. Wainright believes Karlov... before the Fat Man's men... took the equipment with him."

"What will we..."

"...clues point to... Investigate there next."

This was certainly suggestive, thought Fleming. It seemed Fuller was trying to find Karlov too. And the British Union leader seemed to have some destination in mind. But where could it be? The airman had no idea of the K-6's cruising speed -- try as he might, he found it hard to think of the vessel as the Sulituan -- but from the noise she was making, 15 knots seemed a reasonable guess. He would keep this in mind, and keep an eye on the clock.

Sometime the next morning, the engines fell silent. This was followed by the sound of orders, opening hatches, and footsteps on the deck overhead. Several hours passed, then the footsteps returned. Somehow they sounded disappointed. Straining his ears, Fleming could hear snatches of conversation in a neighboring compartment.

"...never was here."

"...sure? The time and distance calculations left only two possibilities."

"Nothing here but an abandoned mission. He must... at the other."

"What... do with our... Can hardly keep him aboard."

"...kill him?"

Flemings ears perked up.

"...act like civilized men. We'll..."

The Aussie relaxed. Slightly.

The door to his compartment opened and a man in oarsman's garb entered. "Come along, Starbuck. The... ah... Captain Omen wants to see you."

Fleming reached the deck to find the submarine lying off a small volcanic island. Two smaller islets -- little more than rocks -- could be seen to the west, but otherwise the sea and sky were empty. Fuller stood by the boat's conning tower, studying the scene with disapproval.

"Ah, Mister Starbuck," he said when he noticed the airman's presence, "you catch us at a bad moment. We have pressing engagements elsewhere, and we don't wish to impose on your time, so we'll be leaving you here."

"Um... er..." Fleming began.

"Oh, you needn't worry about food. We'll give you a year's supply. I'm certain another ship will be along by then."

"But what about.."

"Cannibals? They should all be gone. I believe the government evacuated the place after the eruption in `21."


Fuller's men didn't allow Fleming any more questions. Seizing the airman's arms, they hustled him aboard a collapsible canvas rowboat. The pull to the beach took remarkably little time. Moments later he was standing on the shore, watching the submarine steam away.

"Rack off, nongs," he muttered. "I'm jack of you too." Then he turned to study his surroundings.

These were not notably attractive. A plume of smoke trailed from the peak of the volcano, casting shadows across what appeared to be a recent lava flow. Closer at hand, a row of huts stood beneath the trees. They were quite obviously abandoned, falling into ruin due to lack of maintenance. Beside them, a small mission building was in little better shape.

Where was this place, he wondered? After some thought, he decided it must lie somewhere in the Banda Sea. There weren't too many other possibilities, and the region did have quite a few volcanic islands. He strove to remember which ones had erupted in 1921, but this didn't do much to narrow things down. Perhaps the mission building would offer some clues.

The first thing Fleming saw as he stepped through the door was a tennis racket. He relaxed, heartened by this sign of civilization. Beneath this were several shelves. One held a row of objects. Upon inspection, this proved to be a collection of shrunken heads.

The airman frowned. It was difficult to imagine a reassuring explanation for this display. Then, with a shrug, he resumed his exploration. He was a member of the Royal Navy Airship Service. If someone wanted his head, they were going to have to fight for it.

There was little more to be found. If the mission and village had ever held anything of value, this had been removed when the settlement was evacuated. Fuller's men must have felt the same. Their footprints meandered through the place at random before trailing back to the beach. Then Fleming noticed a path leading up into the jungle. For some reason -- lack of ambition, perhaps, or poor cardio-vascular conditioning -- the shore party seemed to have ignored it. He had plenty of time on his hands. There seemed no harm in seeing where it led.

"That was a sweet piece of work, Boss!" crowed Jake. "Did you see the Frenchies' faces?"

"Yeah," said Marty, "it was priceless!"

"Any chance they got our number?" asked Books.

"Naw," said Al. "The sun was in their eyes. That's why I picked that time for a pickup. Even if they did, the registration is fake."

The bookkeeper didn't sound convinced. He glanced toward the mooring and the big `N-109' painted on the side of their ship. "I hope you're right," he grumbled. "It could be a pain finding another. There can't be too many false registration numbers we can use."

Marty laughed. "You worry too much, Books! Next thing you'll be wondering if anyone else used this one."

Vlad stepped onto the patio. The Russian looked strangely incongruous in a bright island shirt. "The cash is no problem," he announced. "The bills are all small, and will be easy to pass. The letters of credit will be harder, but I know a buyer." He produced a sheet of paper. "Here is a copy of his offer. We would split this 50-50, as we agreed."

Marty handed the sheet to his henchman. "Books."

The accountant adjusted his glasses and studied the figures. After a moment he nodded. "It looks OK, Boss. The Ruskie's dealing straight with us."

Marty smiled. "A pleasure doin' business with you, Vlad," he said cheerfully. "Boys, it's time to get moving."

"Where will you head now?" asked the Russian as his guests rose to their feet.

"Back to the States," said the gangster, gesturing at the airship. "It's time we put that baby to use!"

The Russian looked thoughtful. "Could I interest you in another job before you depart?" he asked.

"I dunno," said Marty. "We got some thirsty customers waiting for their booze."

Nettie laid her hand on his arm. "Gee, Marty," she pouted. "Can't we stay a bit longer? I like it here."

The gangster ran his eyes up and down the moll's figure, which showed quite nicely in a native sarong. "All right, babe," he announced with a grin. "One more caper."

Next week: New Guinea Pigs...

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