The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 472: Perhaps We Weren't The Only Ones With This Idea...

Horch AG aromored car

"Who is the Countess?" Miss Perkins asked MacKiernan as they headed back to the accommodations section at the end of his watch.

"She's the Gravin Margaetha Zelle," said MacKiernan. "She maintains a tea plantation on Java."

Miss Perkins raised her eyebrows. "This would the Margaretha Zelle?" she asked.

"So it would," said MacKiernan. "I understand the title was awarded by the Dutch government after the Peace."

"I believe she earned it," said Miss Perkins. "She's become a legend in certain circles. However did Captain Everett happen to meet her? They can hardly have crossed paths while she was... working in her professional capacity during the War."

"I don't have any idea," MacKiernan admitted. "It never seemed my place to ask."

Miss Perkins paused to think this over. In the dim light of the keel passage, her expression looked troubled. "Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, Fergus," she said quietly, "but it seems that Captain Michaelson is acquainted with her too. I wonder of this has any connection with..."

"...Lady Warfield?" said MacKiernan. "So do I, Alice. So do I."

The Flying Cloud reached Jakarta the next evening. The air station at Pademangan was busy as ever and their arrival went unnoticed amidst other traffic. It was too late to contemplate negotiating Java's network of roads after dark, but the next morning, Everett hired a motorcar and driver for the journey to the Countess' plantation.

The party consisted of the captain, MacKiernan, and Miss Perkins. This was MacKiernan's first visit to the Zelle estate, and he studied his surroundings with interest as they drove past a gate that read Eye Of The Day Tea. Their route climbed to the top of a hill where a small mansion -- something that might have been home to a Dutch merchant from some previous century -- stood at the head of a lawn. A fountain ornamented with sculptures in the style of the Chola dynasty added a touch of the East, while a pair of temple dogs with batlike wings and quaint tentacled faces flanked the stairs leading to the entrance.

A butler met them at the door. "Captain Everett," he said politely. "The Countess is expecting you. If you'll accompany me."

"How did she know we were coming?" MacKiernan whispered to Miss Perkins.

"She must maintain an agent at the station," said Miss Perkins. "It seems she hasn't abandoned her previous career."

The butler led them down a corridor decorated with art entirely unlike the heroic and religious themes MacKiernan remembered from his childhood in Ireland. He glanced at Miss Perkins, but she seemed unfazed by the subject matter. For his part, he was relived when their guide ushered them into a sitting room. Inside, a slender middle-aged woman with the figure and poise of a dancer rose to greet the captain.

"Roland!" she said in delight. "How kind of you to visit!"

"It was kind of you to make time for us, Mata," Everett replied. "I'm afraid our visit is not motivated purely by sentiment. We're seeking information."

"This would be about the British Union?" said the Countess.

Everett smiled ruefully. "I should have realized you'd guess."

The Countess touched his arm in sympathy. "I was aware that the Warfields had returned to the Pacific -- it is my business to hear about such things -- so it seemed a reasonable assumption. How are they involved?"

"They're in race with the Fat Man to intercept a shipment of vacuum tubes aboard a freighter named the Tranquility," said Everett. "Along they way, they kidnapped two young women you'll recall from our visit earlier this year."

A smile flickered across the Countess' face. "That would be Emily and Clarice. They showed promise."

Everett wasn't entirely certain what this might be a promise of, but before he could reply, the butler appeared. The Countess listened to his message, then beckoned them to follow her to a window. "It appears you aren't the only visitors today,' she said.

They followed her gaze to see an ungainly vehicle approaching up the drive. Its shape suggested some hybrid between camel and turtle that combined the grace and elegance of the former with the speed and agility of the latter. Its engine rumbled as it crested the hill.

Miss Perkins studied the machine with a professional eye. "That's a modern German armored car," she said, "one of Horch AG's products. What's it doing on Java?"

"One imagines it belongs to the Fat Man's people," said Everett. "This may not be a positive development."

The car halted at the head of the lawn and the sound of its engine dropped to an idle. There was a brief pause, then a speaker came to life with a screech of feedback.

"Grafín Zelle," crackled an over-amplified voice. "You have information we require. You will provide it to us."

The Countess called back out the window. "Why should I?" she demanded. "I know the specifications for your vehicle. It mounts one Maschinegewehr 34 and carries a crew of four. You can't hope to storm my mansion with such a force."

"These walls are proof against machine gun fire?" Miss Perkins asked her in surprise.

"Of course," said the Countess. "Tea cultivation can be a highly competitive business."

"We do not need to take your schloss by storm," announced the voice. "We can simply destroy it. This spahwagen has been modified, as you shall see."

The turret swung to point at the fountain, a cannon spoke, and the structure was blown to fragments.

Everett frowned thoughtfully. "That would be a 20 mm cannon, similar to what we carried on the old Mayfly class," he observed. "This may be somewhat more competition than your estate was designed to withstand."

"You may be right," the Countess admitted. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Perhaps," said Everett. "Let us put this to the test."

Everett strode across the lawn with an air of confidence -- such things were expected from officers in the Royal Navy Airship Service. As he approached the armored car, its side hatch swung open and a man with a similar bearing and posture emerged. Everett nodded to himself. He'd guessed correctly.

"Captain Ritter, I presume," he said.

The other man raised an eyebrow. "You know me?"

"I expected to find you here," said Everett. "We have a mutual acquaintance -- my lieutenant who you held captive last year -- and it's become a tradition for naval officers to command armored car units."

"Ja," said the German. "You have come to negotiate your surrender?"

Everett shook his head. "We both know otherwise. You weren't aware that I'd called at Java. If you had been, you wouldn't have approached the Countess in such a vulnerable machine. You may be able to destroy her mansion, but I've already summoned my airship, and you can't possibly hope to escape after it arrives."

Ritter nodded glumly. "That may be true," he admitted. "Unfortunately I have my orders. I must learn where the shipment of vacuum tubes from Melbourne might be bound."

"So I understand," said Everett. "You wish to prevent that shipment from reaching the Japanese nationalists or their allies in the British Union. So do we. Our interests coincide."

This observation seemed to catch the German by surprise. "What do you propose?"

"The Warfields have abducted two young ladies who had the misfortune to cross their path. We will share the Countess's information and agree that whoever intercepts them will rescue their captives and destroy the cargo."

Next week: Meanwhile, Over At The Coffee Plantations...

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