The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 252: An Interrupted Conversation

Agent climbing fence

The deck of the freighter lay cloaked in darkness. The moon had set several hours ago and the only light was the glimmer of riding lamps, the ghostly glow of the Magellanic clouds, and the flash of an electric torch where the night watchman was making his rounds. Footsteps rang as the man climbed the ladder to the pilothouse. Then a door slammed shut and the vessel was still.

A hatch eased open and a dark-clad figure emerged into the night. It glanced in the direction the watchman had vanished, then retrieved a small parcel, tiptoed to the rail, and swung over the side. It slid down the anchor chain without making a sound. Then it was swimming toward shore, where the lights of Cairns Royal Air Station sparkled in the distance.

In Michaelson's office, Phelps was serving tea. This station might lie on the other side of the universe from England and civilization, but there were still certain proprieties to be observed before conversation could begin. After cups had been poured, Michaelson nodded for his aide to depart. "We've received word from the station in Columbo," he told Everett. "Commodore Clark is still on his way back to England, so it should be safe to assume this particular affair is over."

"It seems that I served as your catspaw... again," Everett observed dryly.

"You can hardly have cause to complain," said Michaelson. "And it appears we were both being used by Whitehall. You're sure it was them rather than the Admiralty who was behind Clark's mission?"

"The Commodore was most definite about the matter," Everett replied. "He also made a point about the different reactions the Prime Minister and the First Lord might have to these nationalist movements."

"He implied the two were at odds?"

"With Mister Churchill and his faction sitting on the fence," said Everett.

Michaelson frowned. On him, the expression looked natural. "Matters of that sort are entirely beyond our pay grade. I hope we can avoid becoming involved, but I doubt we shall be so fortunate. What did the Commodore say about our elusive Karlov and the mysterious Device that began all this business?"

"He claimed that his search for the former was merely a cover for his real mission of scotching the nationalists, and he suggested that neither the Government nor the Admiralty have any interest in the latter."

Michaelson looked incredulous. "The Commodore expressed no concern about a weapon capable of obliterating an entire island?"

"Not in so many words," said Everett. "But he did observe that with the White Russians, British Union, and Fat Man's organization accounted for, there are no remaining parties with sufficient resources to reconstruct the thing."

"It is difficult to believe anyone could be so complacent," said Michaelson. "We still have Trotsky's agents and the Dutch and French Colonial Offices to consider, as well as the masters of that mysterious cruiser."

Everett kept his expression neutral. Why had Michaelson steered the conversation in this direction? Could this be a prelude to some new stratagem, with him and his crew as bait? And just what information was the senior captain holding in reserve? Perhaps it was time to probe.

Lance Corporal Brummie, Royal Marines, halted and peered into the gloom. Had something just moved, out near the treeline? The peculiar events of the past few months had prompted a call for extra security, but there could never be enough sentries to keep watch on every inch of the perimeter, particularly on moonless nights such as these.

"Who goes there?" he called. Seconds crawled past with no reply. At last, with a shrug, the marine resumed his rounds.

After he was gone, a dark-clad figure emerged from the jungle, dashed to the fence, and scrambled over the top. It paused to make sure it hadn't been observed, then vanished into the gloom. For several long moments the night was still. Branches rustled somewhere in the darkness. Then a second shadowy figure slipped from the trees to follow the first.

Everett had been wondering about the mysterious cruiser ever since it had destroyed his previous command. Who could have built such a monster? What were their goals? And how had it just happened to cross his path on that ill-fated sortie? The safest way to gain information, he reflected, is often the most direct.

"Something about that business with the cruiser bothers me," he observed. "The orders we received for our patrol on the R-212 last June sent us straight into their hands. This seems... fortuitous."

Michaelson's eyes narrowed. "Those orders originated in Admiral Wentworth's office. Are you suggesting the Admiral was involved?"

Did they? wondered Everett. And how much of your indignation is an act? "Hardly," he replied. "But do we have any idea who drafted them? We also must consider the possibility of an agent."

Michaelson nodded. The man's face gave away nothing, but Everett had the sinking sensation that he'd lost some crucial round in their undeclared game.

Before he could reply, shouts rang out from somewhere on the field.

"What the devil?" cried Michaelson.

A flash of light stabbed through the curtains. This was followed, seconds later, by the sound of a distant blast. But by then, both men had leapt to their feet and were heading out the door.

They reached the field to find several guards gathered by the remains of a building. Charred planks and fragments of glass littered the ground about them. One guard, a young marine with corporal's insignia, saluted the newcomers. "Sirs," he said nervously, "there's been an explosion."

"We can see that," snapped Michaelson. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Not that we knoo," said the corporal, lapsing into dialect. "This was 'un of the noo barracks. There was no 'un inside."

"What happened?" Michaelson asked.

"I was maken me rounds, dowl by the suthe fence, when I thought I saw summat hiden in the trees. I went back fer another look an' spotted twothree fellows here by this wall. They looked loike they were fighten. When I gave a shout, they split up an' ran, 'un northe an' un suthe. I lit off after the second, but then a big bang knocked me flat. When I got back ter me feet, the fellow was gone."

"What do you make of this, sir?" asked Everett.

"They would appear to have been saboteurs," mused Michaelson, "but why were they fighting each other, and why would they blow up an empty building?"

"Perhaps they had some disagreement regarding where to plant their bomb."

"That," said Michaelson, "was not helpful. Did they leave any footprints?"

Everett crouched to study the ground, then rose and shook his head. "If Miss Sarah were here, she might be able to make something of this, but the area is too badly trampled for me to tell. I imagine the man who fled south has already escaped across the perimeter."

"This leaves us with another saboteur heading deeper into the station, perhaps with another bomb," said Michaelson. He turned to issue an order to the guards, but at that moment, a cry rang out from the other side of the shattered building.

"Sirs! Over here!"

They followed the cry to find a sentry gazing down at a dark-clad shape sprawled on the ground before him. The figure was unconscious, evidently struck down by debris from the explosion.

"Is this one of the men you saw?" Michaelson asked the corporal.

"It moight be," the marine said cautiously. "I doy get a bostin look at the fellows."

"Let us rectify this oversight," growled Michaelson. He bent down and pulled away the figure's mask to reveal a delicate face streaked with blood from a shallow wound in the scalp.

"Good lord!" he exclaimed. "It's a woman!"

Next week: A Missing Link...

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