The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 330: Rumcake, Sorority, and the Lash

Vegemite

Like many Irishmen, MacKiernan was proud of his culture's martial tradition. From Lugh of the Long Hand to Cù Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill, he'd been raised on tales of legendary heroes and their deeds. But nothing in his upbringing had prepared him to deal with Clarice and Emily's aunts. He felt like a warrior who'd stumbled into a lair of dragons without his sword.

"Would you care for more rumcake?" asked Prodigia. "We make it with Vegemite. I find it sets one up fabulously."

MacKiernan cringed inwardly. He'd prefer getting lashed to a post and flogged. "I appreciate your kind offer," he replied "but I don't wish to make unnecessary inroads on what I'm sure is a limited supply of this delicious confection."

"Then have some tea," said Leviatha.

"Thank you," he replied cautiously. What could possibly go wrong with tea?

"You'll take sugar with that," the matron announced with what he assumed was a smile for members of her species. Before he could protest, she'd spooned most of the bowl into his cup. He took a polite sip and struggled not to flinch.

On the other side of the table, Enorma took an appreciative slurp. "There's nothing like good cup to settle the nerves," she observed. "Remember that time at the quarry, when the charges went off prematurely? I don't know what we would have done without tea."

"Dinki di," said Prodigia, "though that was the end of that dress."

"And good riddance too! Can you believe Lewella Parker wore one just like it to the Administrator's ball?"

"She had her eyes on young Braddock."

"And he was so busy chasing that Robinson girl he never even noticed."

"Her mother certainly did. And according to Mister Nichols, she was interested in him herself..."

MacKiernan glanced around for some way to escape. His hostesses' conversation was setting new records for tedium. He wondered if they'd notice if he made a lunge for the door. Unfortunately, Prodigia blocked his path to freedom.

"What brings you to Darwin, Mister MacKiernan?" the matron asked unexpectedly.

What should I tell these gossips? thought MacKiernan. If I reveal my mission to them, I might as well broadcast it all over town. That would put paid to my chances of tracking down the Korean agent. But I'll need to provide some explanation for my presence to keep them from prying.

"We've been investigating reports of piracy in the Dutch East Indies," he said smoothly. "Captain Everett sent me here to determine if the marauders have been active on the north coast of Australia."

"The only pirates I know are those no-good nieces of mine," Prodigia exclaimed. "They made off with my oyster dragger without so much as a by-your-leave!"

"What else would you expect?" asked Leviatha. "Girls these days have no respect for their elders!"

"It's because of this so-called `jazz' they listen to," snorted Enorma.

"And those short dresses!" said Leviatha. "I never wore anything like that when I was their age!"

One imagines this was some time before mankind mastered the use of fire, MacKiernan thought to himself. Did people even have clothing back then?

"Do you have any idea where they went?" he asked politely.

Prodigia seemed entirely uninterested in her nieces' possible itinerary. "They'd been going on about looking for George Channel's crook resort, then they took off with that woman from Cairns."

Michaelson's ears perked up. "Who was this woman?" he asked.

"She went by the name of Miss Blaise," said Enorma. "She claimed to be from Alice Springs, but when I picked her ticket out of the trash, I saw that it was issued in Cairns."

MacKiernan congratulated himself on his decision to invent a cover story. These three sisters were nosier than he'd imagined. "Thank you for your hospitality," he told them. "Captain Sanders and I will keep an eye open for your missing vessel."


They spent the next day cruising west at 2000', slowing to inspect every vessel they spotted. If Clarice and Emily's companion was Miss Perkins -- and it was difficult to imagine who else this mysterious 'woman from Cairns' could be -- MacKiernan assumed they were on the trail of something important. But none of the small craft resembled Aunt Prodigia's fishing boat, and larger vessels were conspicuous by their absence.

This stretch of coast saw very little traffic. To some extent, this was an accident of geography -- the major airship routes to India, The Middle East, and Africa all lay to the north and west -- but mostly it was due to the lack of any place worthy of a visit. The only port of any note was Broome, and this did not loom large on anyone's list of worthwhile destinations.

As evening approached, they passed what appeared to be a railroad line heading south. "Wherever does that lead?" McKiernan asked Captain Sanders. "There's nothing here but wasteland."

"I don't rightly know," the skipper admitted, "but I understand it has something to do with the Rabbit-Proof Fence."

"Why would anyone build a fence in the middle of nowhere?"

Captain Sanders shrugged. "It's the kind of thing these Australians do."


The R-67's arrival at Broome was a time-consuming affair. First the airship had to stand offshore until morning -- a station this insignificant would hardly be manned at night. Then her crew had to wait while a handling party was assembled, organized, and briefed on its duties. The handlers were anything but efficient, and MacKiernan feared they'd never finish before the sea breeze filled in to make mooring impossible, but at last, after a long hour of mishaps and misadventures, they managed to walk the ship to the mast.

MacKiernan's inquiries regarding Clarice, Emily, and Miss Perkins proved almost as frustrating as the mooring operation. Several people remembered seeing the `fishing boat with those three grouse sheilas' arrive, but no one could say where it had gone. Some thought it had continued west down the coast, others believed it had turned back east toward Darwin, a few thought it had stood north into the Timor Sea, and one ancient drunk claimed to have seen it head south up one of the tidal creeks that emptied into Roebuck Bay. Since the watercourse in question was only a few feet deep, this last assertion did not seem particularly credible.

The Irishman paused to think the matter over. If Miss Perkins was involved, she might well have guessed that someone from the Flying Cloud would follow. If that was case, she might have left a message to say where she had gone. He laughed. He was overlooking the obvious.

A short time later, he was ringing for a clerk at the village post office. "Excuse me," he told the man. "My name is Lieutenant Commander MacKiernan of the Royal Navy Airship Service. Here are my papers. Would you happen to be holding a letter for me?"

The clerk nodded, disappeared into a back room, and returned with an envelope. MacKiernan took this outside and sat in the shade to read it.

Dear Fergus.

I'm sorry we missed you. We had a terrific time in Broome. Now we're heading back toward Darwin. I hope you're doing well. I will always remember that wonderful picnic we had by the railway station. We must do that again soon.

Love, Alice

MacKiernan tucked the letter away and nodded to himself. I seemed the three women had turned back to investigate that mysterious rail line. He should have guessed as much. He wondered where they were now.

Next week: Dueling Cover Stories...

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