The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 476: Another Fine Day In The Dutch East Indies

Macassar Oil

Jenkins studied the records Aunt Prodigia had browbeaten the coffee merchant into providing. These were written in a cryptic shorthand, based on some abbreviated form of Dutch, but members of the Royal Navy Airship Service were expected to take such challenges in side. At last he nodded.

"I've found the information we're looking for," he told her. "It appears that our Captain Ray undertook to carry the cargo to Manila for delivery to a representative of the Hills Brothers Company of San Francisco."

The matron frowned. "That's a bloody long way away. It would take us at least a week get there, and we've no guarantee the Tranquility will head straight to the Philippines."

"You suspect they'll make some intermediate stop?" asked Jenkins.

"That's a tramp steamer," said Aunt Prodigia. "It's what they do. They'll be looking to pick up more cargoes along the way."

"Do you have any idea what route they might take?"

The matron consulted some mental map of the South Pacific. "There are three possibilities: the Banda Sea and the Mollucas, Macassar Strait and Celebes, or Malacca Strait, Sumatra, and Borneo" she decided. "We'll have to pick one and hope for the best."

Their choice was simplified by a wireless message that arrived as they were getting underway. Jenkins decoded it, then turned to their chart and indicated a small port on the soutwestern peninsula of Celebes. "Captain Everett has obtained a list of places the British Union of Fascists maintains agents," he reported. "One is here, in Macassar."

"Whatever are Limey's doing there?" demanded Aunt Prodigia.

"I understand that a famous London barber used some product from the area as the basis for a hair conditioner, back during Queen Victoria's reign," mused the signalman. "This might have prompted some trading house to establish a presence on the island."

"So we'll be looking for militant nationalist hairdressers?"

"We must be prepared for this possibility."

Macassar might have been closer than Manila, but it was still a substantial passage. Aunt Prodigia steered her vessel past the tip of Timor, negotiated the channel between Pulau Alor and Pilau Wetar, and began the long journey west. To starboard, scattered rain squalls swept across the Banda Sea. To port, the peaks of the Alor Archipelagao dwindled to the south. Evening of the second day found the Stalking Herring passing the cluster of small islands that separated the Banda and Flores Seas, with a hundred miles still ahead of them. Fortunately the tug was stocked with an ample supply of the beverage Aussies knew variously as grog, king brown, or amber fluid, and her owner saw little need to economize.

"`Ere you go, mate," said the matron, handing Jenkins a stubbie.

"Thank you," said the signalman. "I don't mind if I do."

They took seats next to the deck crane and sampled their examples of the brewer's art. Aunt Prodgia belched, studied her bottle with approval, then turned to her passenger.

"How'd you become a signalman?" she asked. "It's not your usual yakker."

"The Royal Navy recognized the importance of the role after some... mishaps... at Jutland," said Jenkins. "The Airship Service has expanded on it, and conducts tests to identify candidates with particular aptitudes. I gather that I scored adequately on the test for dissimulation."

"Strewth!" chuckled the matron. "So would Emily!"

"Your niece has demonstrated some ability along these lines," Jenkins agreed.

"That's why the two of you are so matey."

Jenkins glanced at his hostess. This seemed like a good time to change the subject. "It has led to an element of mutual understanding, but one shouldn't read too much into such things. How did you come to manage a marine salvage operation? This seems like an unusual choice of career..."

"...for a sheila?" laughed Aunt Prodigia. "I reckon it was Uncle Garret's fault. He was a real corker. He moved to Darwin during the Pine Creek gold rush, but it didn't take him long to figure that fossicking was hard work, and there was more moolah to be made selling supplies to the fossikers. He bought an old island schooner and set himself up carrying goods in from Cairns and Brisbane. When the mines petered out, he tried shipping cargoes for the cattle stations, but Vestey's Meatworks had already taken control of that one. They had a nice shonky bizzo holding the ranchers up for freight charges while paying their wharfies zilch. He couldn't compete with the chappies, he decided to do salvage work for them."

"Didn't his neighbors object when he salvaged vessels belonging to the company that was exploiting them?"

Aunt Prodigia grinned. "You didn't ask why those vessels needed salvaging."

"I take it these were not ordinary maritime mishaps?"

"Uncle Garret might have helped matters along," chuckled the matron. "Leviatha and I did too. Back when we were grommets, we'd pester the engineers until they gave us tours of the machinery, and dump sand into the works when they weren't looking. When we grew older, we'd row out in a skiff and pack kelp into the condenser intakes, drop trawls over the propellers, and drive nails into the rudder bearings. Those were the days!"

"Didn't the company suspect something was afoot?"

"Perhaps, but they got driven out during the Darwin Rebellion. Since then, there's been enough honest bizzo to keep me afloat."

They reached Macassar towards noon the next day. Established by the VEO as Fort Rotterdam, during their subjugation of the Sultanate of Gowa, it had grown over the centuries, but the old fort still dominated the harbor district. To the north, several high masts marked the location of the new air station. Island blimps rode from two of these, but the others were empty.

Jenkins and Aunt Prodigia found no hairdressers, Fascist or otherwise, but the administrator of the air station seemed happy to receive them. Life in these out-of-the-way corners of the Pacific cannot have offered much in the way of novelty. "We did have a Wolseley class here four days ago," he said, in answer to Jenkins' question. "She was called... let me check the log... the Coup de Grace. I suppose the owners must have been French."

Jenkins and Aunt Prodigia exchanged glances. "Quite," said Jenkins. "A friend asked us to watch out for some relatives who are touring this region by airship. Did you happen to notice two young women among the passengers?"

"Ja," said their host. "They disembarked shortly after the crew and headed toward the harbor. I haven't seen them since, so I suppose they might have continued their journey by sea."

"You're quite sure they didn't leave on the airship?" asked Jenkins.

The Dutchman nodded. "Ja!" he announced. "Two jongevrouwen like that I would have noticed!"

Aunt Prodiga frowned at this news. "Stone the crows!" she muttered. "We just missed them! I wonder where they're off to now."

Next week: We Hope That You Enjoyed Your Visit...

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