Episode 261: A Gentleman Biologist
America was a comparatively recent player in the game of lighter-than-air
aviation, but the Yankees had entered the contest with considerable
enthusiasm. The Philadelphian, N-187, was a commercial version of
England's Wolseley Class, built under license at Goodyear's new yard in
Lakehurst. The design might be growing outdated by modern standards, but
it was one of the first to feature a fully streamlined hull. This gave them
performance out of proportion to their modest size, making them
surprisingly versatile. Properly handled, a Wolseley could travel several
thousand miles before resupply, and its three engines -- two in engine cars,
one in the heavily-streamlined external control car -- could drive the ship
almost 60 knots.
This particular representative of the breed was cruising northwest from
Sydney under her two aft engines, counting on a tailwind for a boost in
speed. Around her, the landscape became drier and less interesting with
every passing mile. To the east, one of Australia's many narrow-gauge
locomotives steamed along on some inexplicable errand, pulling a string of
flatcars behind it.
Emily and Clarice stood by the radio shack, pretending not to study the
bridge crew, while the crew pretended not to study them. They'd already met
several of their new shipmates. Captain Collins was the skipper, cut from a
mold that was old when civilization was young. In another era, he might not
have looked out of place on the quarterdeck of a China Clipper or Lord
Anson's Centurion. The elevatorman was Pierce, a lean Midwesterner
with that seedy ready-for-anything look that was a mark of good elevatormen,
cavalry troopers, and drummers. The helmsman was Rawling. Well-dressed and
immaculately-groomed, he might have stepped straight from an ad for
The men came to subtle attention when their employer entered. The master
was a man of moderate build, approaching middle age, clad in a
well-tailored suit and vest. With a slightly different pair of glasses, he
could have been a dead-ringer for America's 26th President. He smiled at
the two women.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," he said politely. "I'm
Vincent Cartwell, of the Pennsylvania Cartwells. Father invented the
Cartwell quick-action valve for railroad air brakes, and my brother and I
inherited the business after he passed away. Jacob's back in Philadelphia
now, running the company while I make this trip."
"We're chuffed you're here," said Clarice. It seemed best to acquaint the
fellow with the challenges of the Australian language as early as possible.
"What brings you to the Pacific?"
"My interest is cryptozoology."
"Whatever is that?" asked Emily. "Some way of hiding animals?"
Their host chuckled. "Actually, it's the opposite. Cryptozoology is study
of creatures believed to be legendary or extinct.."
"Like the Loch Ness Monster?"
The American shook his head. "I'm afraid that one's been thoroughly
discredited. There's no way a small freshwater lake could support enough
prey animals to maintain a stable population of large aquatic predators.
No, my subject is creatures with a firm basis in fact, such as the okapi."
"That would be Okapi Johnstoni, identified by Harry Johnson,
governor of Uganda, in 1901," observed Clarice. "It's an artiodactyl
herbivore, related to the giraffe, that European explorers used to call
the 'African unicorn'."
If their host was disappointed that he wouldn't have a chance to explain, he
gave no sign. "Exactly," he told her. "The creature I'm looking for is
Desmodus Teuthida, otherwise known as the Common Squidbat. It was
supposed to be endemic to this part of the world, but there have been no
confirmed sightings since the reports of the original European explorers."
Emily clapped her hands in delight. "Squidbats! We used to have them in
Darwin, along with those funny lobe-finned fishes. Our aunts used to tell
us stories about them when we were young."
Mister Cartwell was obviously pleased by this news. "Do you think your
relatives would mind showing me some of the places the creatures used to
Emily and Clarice exchanged glances. Their host's request seemed simple
enough, but their aunts' reactions were unpredictable at best. "I suppose
so," Clarice said cautiously.
Mister Cartwell turned to his skipper. "Captain Collins, how long would it
take us to reach Darwin?"
Captains of privately-owned airships learned to be ready for questions like
these. "At three-quarter power, with this quartering tailwind, we should
arrive tomorrow evening in plenty of time to moor," he replied.
"Excellent!" said Mister Cartwell. "Make it so."
The Philadelphian's crew section might not have been particularly
spacious, but it did include a small salon, with lightweight but elegant
duralumin furniture. The two women had retired there after they left
the bridge to study manuals for the ship's radio equipment.
Now they discussed the vessel's owner
"What do you think of Mister Cartwell?" Clarice asked Emily. Somehow it was
impossible to think of their host as `Vincent'.
"He can't have any shortage of oscar," said Emily, gesturing at the ship
around them. "And he seems like a solid chappie. But I wonder if he's
entirely prepared for this part of the Pacific."
Clarice laughed. "Bob's your uncle!"
"Did we do right thing, leaving Sydney?" asked Emily. "We're heading away
from all the excitement."
Clarice gazed out the window and sighed. She didn't always share her
companion's taste for adventure. "We're heading for Darwin," she replied.
"Something always happens in Darwin."
The orderly stood impassively, waiting for his master to notice him. This
was always the safest course. At last the Fat Man glanced up like a
predator disturbed during a meal. "What is it?" he growled.
"We've received a message from Sydney, Mein Herr," said the
orderly. "Muller informs us that everything is proceeding as planned. He
has obtained a copy of the latest guard schedules and expects to move
"That is what we expect," the Fat Man said dismissively. "Why does he
waste our time with this routine report?"
"It seems there has been a... complication."
The other's expression was not pleasing to behold. "Go on."
"One of Muller's men spotted the two women from Darwin -- Fraulein
Wilcox and Fraulein Blaine -- leave the naval air station and
enter a cab. He contacted Muller, who tried to apprehend them, but they
managed to elude him."
The Fat Man's eyes widened very slightly. "This would have required some
skill. Muller is a competent man."
"You believe they are agents?" asked the orderly.
"We must make this assumption. It could be dangerous to do otherwise. Was
anyone else with them?"
"Muller thought he saw another woman in the cab."
The Fat Man nodded. "That would have been a courier from Everett. We can
be sure the two aren't working for Michaelson, because we know every move
that man makes."
Next week: Weaving a Tangled Web...
Comments about Episode 261? Start a new topic on the