Adventurer Raymond Swift stars in......

Trail of the HMS Fortuna

A Far-Flung Epic in 8 Chapters!

by Andrea Tran
About the author

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Previously: After hurrying to the missing Professor Kramer's country estate, Ray and his allies succeed in rescuing the professor's daughter from a sinister mesmerist. But the villain escaped after hypnotizing a couple of soldiers into killing each other. Now, a few hours later...

Episode 5: The Clue from Beyond


  THE ATMOSPHERE IN THE SUITE at the fourth floor of the Metropole Hotel was heavy. Colonel Halley was writing a report covering the events of the night before. Raymond was studying the Operation Meridian files for the hundredth time.

Annabelle Kramer had been placed under military protection, and was resting behind a closed door in the suite bedroom. After her rescue, she seemed to have snapped out of her state of trance, and had learned of her father’s disappearance on the Fortuna. Ray had been struck by the woman’s strength of will despite the circumstances.

The whole hotel was teeming with army and Intelligence agents. The cost of the previous night was heavy. Two army men and one henchman dead on the scene. The other gunman had died on the way to the hospital. The third man had disappeared, and the one Ray had knocked out by the taxi cab had been interrogated, turning out to be a real cab driver. All his credentials checked. He had just picked up the three men at Victoria Station, and had been generously paid in advance to drive to Annabelle’s address and wait for them. Strangely, his memory of the three men’s faces was just a blur.

~~~

‘Hypnosis.’ Ray broke the heavy silence. ‘It’s the only explanation for the strange suicides of Professor Kramer’s assistants and for the... horrible deaths of our two soldiers.’ Ray felt responsible for the loss of the two young lives. He should not have underestimated their mysterious opponent. His singular eyes saddened. ‘If only I had come to this conclusion earlier, their lives could have been spared.’

‘Don’t be too harsh with yourself, Mr. Swift,’ Halley replied. ‘Thanks to your intuition, Professor Kramer’s daughter is alive. And it is very likely that our cab driver would have ended in a similar way to the others. He can consider himself lucky to come out of it with just a headache.’

‘I would keep him under surveillance, Colonel. Hypnosis is a powerful technique, capable of instilling in the victims commands that can be triggered at any time by specific external stimuli.’ He lowered his voice. ‘For what we know, even Miss Kramer could have been...’ he halted, as the bedroom door opened.

‘Please continue, Mr. Swift.’ Annabelle was standing at the door in a dressing gown. ‘Don’t mind me.’ Despite the stress, and the oversized Metropole Hotel garment she was wearing, Ray could not help noticing her beauty. She had blue almond-shaped eyes, fair hair, a slender figure and a dignified posture. A remarkable woman.

She walked to an armchair, sat down. ‘I am afraid you are right about me... everything before you came to rescue me... is just a blurry memory,’ she looked up at Ray in gratitude, then frowned. ‘I can remember... a light in the dark. And a warm, soothing voice. A friendly voice that knew me, and wanted to help me.’

‘I heard that voice too, Miss Kramer,’ Ray said gently. ‘It belongs to a very dangerous man, a wicked Master of Hypnosis.’ Ray stood up, thinking out loud. ‘His influence is so strong that it can overrule the natural life-preserving instincts that normally protects individuals. Sadly we have seen this happen four times already.’

‘Five,’ Annabelle corrected him. ‘I remember really wanting to keep my head in the water. I didn’t feel my life was at risk at all.’ Her hands covered her face as she broke down, sobbing. ‘All this is horrible! What does this man want from me? What has he got to do with my father?'

Ray walked close to her, gently put an arm around her shoulders. ‘Miss Kramer, we know this is very hard for you.’ He waited for the girl to calm down, then carried on. ‘It is likely that this man somehow came to know of your father’s invention, and seized the opportunity to steal it while it was transported on the airship. For this purpose he organized a mutiny on board, probably by hypnotizing armed crew members. The fact that he is still trying to gain information on the Device possibly means that it didn’t fall in his hands.’ Ray turned to Halley, who nodded in agreement.

They were interrupted by a knock on the door. ‘Message for Colonel Halley’, said a voice. The officer opened the door, revealing a soldier, who saluted and handed him an envelope. The Colonel read the message.

‘Finally!’ he exclaimed, walking close to Ray. ‘One of our ground patrols in French Sudan has found a part of an airship. Here!’ He produced the photograph of something metallic, pictured against a measuring tape for scale. ‘It’s possibly a fragment of one of the flaps.’

Ray examined the picture and the message, then rushed to a table and unfolded the map from the Meridian files. ‘There are coordinates. Let’s see. Yes, they found it within two degree seconds of the last known position of the Fortuna!’

Halley reached him at the table. ‘This must be from our ship.’

‘It’s a possibility. Or it is simply the fragment of another aircraft... No, we can’t be positive.’ Ray reasoned.

As the two men were concentrating on the map, Annabelle walked beside them, then did something very strange. Her eyes wide open, she delicately touched the photograph on the table. Her fingers ran slowly along the outline of the metallic fragment. Halley saw this and felt pity for her. ‘Miss Kramer...’ he started, compassionately, but Ray gestured him to let her carry on. The two men silently watched as she kept feeling the photograph, strangely transfixed, unblinking. It was as if her eyes were focusing on something beyond the photograph, or the table, or the room itself. Then her fingers stopped, she stiffened. The Colonel looked at Ray, confused. Annabelle started trembling. Abruptly, she withdrew her hand from the picture and gasped, taking a deep breath. She closed her eyes, and would have flopped down, had Ray and the Colonel not supported her.

‘It’s from the ship my father was on...’ she said weakly. The men helped her to the armchair. ‘I... I am sure of it....’

Ray crouched beside her. ‘Your... gift... told you?’ he asked softly.

Annabelle looked at him, frightened. ‘Why, yes! How... how do you know about my gift? She was confused, and genuinely scared. Tears had appeared in her eyes.

Ray took her hand, tried to reassure her. ‘The man who hypnotized you. He said that he sensed your gift, just like he sensed my presence at the window!

‘Annabelle’, Ray continued gently, looking into her eyes. ‘I know your gift scares you. But... could it help us find out what happened to your father?’

The woman nodded bravely, wiping her tears. ‘Yes, I think it could,’ she whispered. She looked at the table, fearful. ‘I...I got an impression by touching that photograph.’ She looked at Ray again, ‘I think if I could touch the real fragment I could...see more.’

‘Colonel Halley,’ said Ray standing up. ‘I think Miss Kramer’s presence is urgently required in Southern Sahara.’

~~~

Camp Meridian had been set up by the British Army near the spot where contact with the Fortuna had been lost, in French Sudan territory. The desolate Sahara desert stretched endlessly around it. The Camp consisted of an airstrip bordered by painted oil drums, some wooden constructions that hosted officers living quarters and the radio post, and a number of tents for the troops. Large tanks on trailers, containing water and fuel, were arranged next to several vehicles, kept under canvas sheets. There was even a fenced area where a few camels grazed. A separate compound, comprising some twenty tents, had been set up to one side of the camp. ‘Probably a small French garrison monitoring the British’, Ray thought.

He was observing the outpost from the air, through the window of a small Fairchild 71 aeroplane. This was the last leg of their journey. They had flown to Morocco, then by seaplane to Freetown, in British Sierra Leone, where they had waited hours to gain permission to fly to French Sudan. Annabelle was asleep next to him, her head against his shoulder. Ray looked at her. She was wearing light cotton clothes, a white shirt with a red scarf around her neck, khaki trousers and leather boots.

The long journey had drawn them closer together. It was not her first time in the desert, Ray had learned. She was an experienced assistant archaeologist, and had participated to various field missions. She was strong and determined. Many women in her situation would have just cracked. Ray’s instinct told him to trust Annabelle’s psychic abilities. He had met many strange things in his travels. He had seen similarly gifted individuals in exotic lands, who could gain impressions about people by handling objects associated with them. He hoped that her gift could help.

Colonel Halley was also aboard, wiping his reddened face with a handkerchief. It had been quite difficult to persuade him to bring Annabelle. He was very sceptical about her alleged powers. The officer had only acquiesced when Ray had assumed full responsibilities for the girl. Besides, Ray preferred to have her within sight. He was still nervous about the chance that she may have been conditioned to a post-hypnotic command.

Before leaving London, Halley had ordered a nation-wide search for the mysterious hypnotist. Airports, train stations and ports were being checked by Intelligence agents. Possible links with Professor Kramer were being evaluated. They were also trying to identify the two dead henchmen.

Ray had had the time to collect his belongings, including his special equipment. He felt much better knowing he could count on his gear.

The plane landed on the airstrip, lifting sandy clouds of dust.

~~~

‘Welcome to Camp Meridian,’ the young British Captain said, after the newcomers had rested for a few hours and introductions were made. His name was Fitzroy, and the African sun had given his lean figure a firm, healthy look. He had been leading the set-up of the small outpost and co-ordinating the aerial and ground research teams for the past ten days. The finding of the metal fragment was their first tangible result.

They were in one of the wooden buildings, sheltering from the fierce outside heat. ‘I have received your radio instructions, Colonel,’ Captain Fitzroy continued. ‘Everything is ready in the other room. If you would care to follow me....’ He led the way through a door. Ray, Annabelle and the Colonel entered after him.

The room was in semi-darkness, the windows covered with improvised blinds. On a folding table, the metallic fragment they had seen in picture was displayed on a plain cloth. A notepad and some pencils were to one side, a tape recorder to the other. Fitzroy closed the door.

‘Annabelle?’ Ray gently invited her. She slowly stepped forward, looking at the fragment. She paused in front of the table, turned to Ray. ‘I think I am ready,’ she said. Captain Fitzroy activated the tape recorder, then stepped back. The room was silent, except for the low whirring of the tape reels.

The fragment was roughly the size and shape of a postcard. On one side, a faint burn mark was visible. Annabelle took a deep breath. She raised her hands and delicately touched the metal object. Immediately her eyes opened wide, she stared at the object with the same transfixed expression they had seen before. She started to move her hands on the object, as a blind person would do to get an impression of it. Her whole body stiffened, tendons visible under the white skin. The tremor began, moving up from her hands, which continued their tense exploration, turning the object around. Presently her whole body was shaking, the trembling much more violent than before.

Ray and the Colonel were intently watching, ready to intervene. Captain Fitzroy had turned pale, a troubled expression in his eyes. The atmosphere in the room was unsettling.

Suddenly Annabelle seemed to petrify, her tremor halting at once. The muscles on her neck tensed, she clenched the fragment with one hand, while raising the other in front of her. Then she began outlining a shape with her finger, in jerky, violent movements. She repeated the motion again and again.

‘She’s trying to write something!’ Ray rushed to her side, put one of the pencils in her hand, closed her fingers around it. Then he guided her hand on the table, towards the notepad. The pencil left scratchy lines on the paper. Ray released her. Annabelle traced a roughly circular design, over and over, then new lines intersected the first shape, in small crosses. Finally, a short horizontal mark below the circle. The pencil stopped at the end of this last mark, Annabelle’s hand pressing violently on the paper. Her other hand was grasping the metal fragment so tightly that blood started dripping between her fingers.

Eventually, the pencil lead snapped under the pressure, and the woman let out a feeble cry, her body falling limp on the table.


On to Episode 6: Trek into the Desert

Back to Episode 4: Carnage in the Country


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On the Trail of the HMS Fortuna is copyright by Andrea Tran. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)