Sunday, July 5, 2009

A, B, or C? (Part 2)

We traveled at a frightening speed across the water and landed in New Babbage just about ten o’clock the following morning. The young pilot went off to find some much-earned rest, while the three of us remaining boarded the Ada. We found the captain, who was none too happy with the arrangement, and the captain arranged to have all the passengers form a line and walk past Kathy, who attempted to see whether any of them matched her recollection of the stranger she had seen the night before.

“Is this the lot of them?” Major Howell asked. The captain nodded. “No one stowed away elsewhere on the ship?”

“My good sir,” the captain replied, “what kind of ship do you think I run? When the ship is at dock, at all times I have crew guarding all the entrances onto the ship. If your man is here, he is one of those you just saw.”

“Then it must be one of them. Request permission to search their baggage, Captain.”

The captain looked aghast. “Permission denied! I will not have my passengers treated this way. If you want to search someone’s personal effects, you must arrest him first. I will say this: the passenger luggage has not yet been delivered to the cabins. If you find your man and arrest him, he will not have had a chance to remove any effects from his possessions.”

The major sighed, though he did not appear surprised. “We’re going to have to confer. Is there somewhere private we can palaver?”

“You can use my quarters, which is the only really private place aboard the ship. But mark my words: at eleven o’clock you will be off this airship and I will be unmooring. Am I clear?” It was now approaching 10:30.

“Perfectly, Captain.” He escorted the three of us to his cabin, and left us.

“Well?” Major Howell demanded.

“I…I cannot be certain,” Kathy said.

“You’re all we have – you have to do better than that, girl.”

“I really am not certain. There were three men,” she consulted her notes, but for the purposes of this narrative I shall denote them A, B, and C, “who looked as though each could be the man I saw. All were the right height, and their faces looked similar enough to the man I saw, particularly if he could have shaved his mustache or trimmed his hair.”

“We’re going to have to bring in all three and see if we can get the truth out of the right one.” He shook his head. “If the man is a spy, he may have been trained to resist interrogation.”

At a word with the steward stationed outside the cabin door, Mr. A arrived before us. He glared at Kathy, then Major Howell, then me, with rage in his eyes. “What do you mean by this humiliation?” he thundered. “Paraded down the ship like a common criminal, subjected to interrogation by a…a woman. I shall have to suffer this indignity for the remainder of the voyage, of course, as the other passengers shall surely remember me as one suspected of malfeasance.”

“Now, sir, a serious crime has been committed, and I would be derelict in my duty were I not to pursue all avenues of enquiry,” the major said smoothly. “Just a few questions and you may be on your way.”

“Then ask, though you may wish to be careful. I will have you know that His Grace Caer Firnas is a personal friend of mine.” Major Howell’s expression did not change. Kathy, who once dated the Minister of War of Oceania, looked unimpressed.

“Did you board the Ada in Caledon?”


“Were you in or near the Guvnah’s mansion in Victoria City?”

“No, other than passing by in the hansom as it passed through Victoria City to Loch Avie. Otherwise, I was in the south of the land.”

“What is your business in Americus?”

Mr. A managed a small smile. “That is none of your concern, Major, and is not germane to your inquiry. Let me just say…a business venture.”

Major Howell rolled his eyes. “This is getting us nowhere.” The clock showed they were down to twenty minutes. He motioned to the steward. “Please return Mr. A to the ballroom and bring us Mr. B.

Mr. B bore a superficial resemblance to Mr. A, but wore his hair flattened with a great quantity of an oily pomade and his eyes were more closely-set to one another. He stood before the group and gave an unctuous smile. “What can I do for you, ladies and sir?”

“Did you board the Ada when she was docked in Caledon?”

“Indeed I did. It was my first voyage on the Ada, but what a delight it was! I was talking to Zen Wormser the other day about travel, and Sir Wormser said that the Ada was the future of airships. I quite agree. You see –”

“That’s enough, sir. While you were in Caledon, did you visit the Guvnah’s mansion in Victoria City, or were you traveling near it?”

“Guvnah Shang? Delightful man, simply delightful. I did not have the pleasure of his company this time, but I remember one trip when the man turned to me and said –”

Major Howell attempted to control his frustration. “Enough, man! What might be the purpose of your visit to Americus?”

A faraway look developed in Mr. B’s eye. “Ah, Americus! Land of opportunity! Why, as I was telling Lady Eva, these new lands open up countless ways for a man to make his mark….” He saw the murderous look in Major Howell’s eyes and stopped. “But I digress. I have a cousin in Phillydelphia in the flensing business, and he has offered me the opportunity to join him.”

The major called over the steward once again and bade him bring Mr. C to us. Ten minutes to go.

This time the resemblance to Mr. A was closer, save for the fact that Mr. A was clean-shaven and Mr. C had a neatly-trimmed mustache. “H-how do you do?” the man said anxiously.

Major Howell once again went through his list of questions. “Did you embark on the Ada in Caledon?”

Mr. C nodded. “Yes, at L-Loch Avie.” He hesitated for a moment. “I don’t mean to be rude, but the captain said our delay would be sh-short. I am on urgent business for Lord Primbroke, and His Grace would be m-most upset at an extended delay.”

“I understand, Mr. C. We should be finished momentarily, and the ship should be airborne shortly. Now, did your visit take you to the Guvnah’s mansion in Victoria City?”

He nodded again. “My mission for His Grace Argylle required that I first call upon the Guvnah to ascertain his views on a subject of great importance, and then to travel to Am-Am-Americus.”

“I see. And may I inquire the nature of your business with the Guvnah and in Americus?”

“I’m afraid I c-c-cannot, sir.” He had a pained expression on his face, as though his refusal was something he did not take lightly.

“Cannot? Or will not?”

Mr. C smiled slightly, though there was no humor in his expression. “They amount to the same thing, I’m afraid.”

“Then we’re done here. Steward!”

The steward closed the door behind him as he escorted Mr. C back to the ballroom. I glanced at the clock. The captain would return in about four minutes. Turning to Kathy, Major Howell said, “Tell me, Miss Jameson: was one of those gentlemen the one you saw last night in Victoria City?”

My sister’s expression was grim. “I…I cannot say for certain. The voice…I heard the man speak but one sentence, to the cab driver, and that from some distance away. Perhaps…but no, I cannot name a man and have him placed under arrest on a feeling. I am sorry, Major, but I confess defeat.”

Major Howell shook his head. “Then we are all defeated. The captain will be pleased that his airship can now leave.” He turned to call the steward. I placed a hand on his arm to stop him.

“Wait, Major. Perhaps I can be of some assistance.”

He hesitated, then turned to me. “Miss Jameson? How can you shed light on this puzzle? You were not with your sister last night in Victoria City, were you? You cannot identify the man we want.”

“True, I was not there, but I think I can convince you of the villain.”

He looked at the clock. It ticked down the remaining minutes until our deadline. “Go ahead.”

“To begin with, presumably we are looking for someone who is not a Caledonian, a spy within our midst sent to do the nation harm.” He nodded. “Although a spy might be well-coached as to our ways, he cannot be expected to know all that Caledonians have taken a lifetime to master. Certain idioms or mannerisms, for example, are unique to Caledon, or, at the least, are more prevalent in Caledon than elsewhere, even in other Steamlands. Our culprit made a mistake that betrayed his origins from a society without our aristocratic leanings. Although Kathy and I are not originally from Caledon, even we know how to address the aristocracy. Mr. Wormser is ‘Sir Zen’ – and most certainly not ‘Sir Wormser.’ The other two may be name-droppers and poseurs, and one is almost certainly a smuggler, but the man you want is Mr. B. I’ll wager he is from Americus, sent to learn the secrets of the Caledon Navy and Air Force.”

The door opened and the Captain stood in the entryway. “Your time is up, Major.”

“Understood Captain. Please have a steward offload Mr. B’s baggage. He won’t be needing it aboard the Ada, as I am placing him under arrest.”

In the event, not only were the Guvnah’s plans retrieved, but so were similar plans from Babbage. I later learned that a high-level delegation from Caledon and Babbage met to decide which nation had the honor of executing him.

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