'The Red Stinger Saga'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— In 1948 Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and her lover Gabrielle Parker, both members of a secret British security Dept active in Canada with Government permission, operate a haulage company in Saskatchewan, Atalanta Haulage, using trucks and a Noorduyn Norseman aircraft. They become embroiled with an enthusiastic botanist.

Disclaimer:— copyright ©2021 to Phineas Redux. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.

—O—

"Emberson's Tri-foliate Crimson Jesserine, to give it the scientific name; a member of the Corydalis family."

"What?" Gabrielle all at sea as the three women sat in Atlanta Haulage's plush cabin office on the shore of Lake Seclusion, Saskatchewan, Canada; said office making-up a large percentage of the municipality of Gatch's Point, a wide peninsula jutting out into the lake, having room enough for the jetty, associated offices, and the small community of the same name, encompassing some 1,200 citizens; Lake Seclusion lying some eight miles south-west of Lake Wapawekka and Lac la Ronge, making a lively trio with its two geographical neighbors.

"Red Stinger, if you want to stick with the general name—OK by me."

On this sunny morning of July 1948 Claire Mathews and her companion Gabrielle Parker, companion of heart as well as mere business activities, were interviewing a prospective client. This young lady apparently something of a high-class scientific blue-stocking, being a botanist of repute—at least in those areas and places where botanical repute and high scientific merit mattered; she relaxing on the only spare chair, itself of no great quality, in the poky office. Her long thick auburn hair rolling in waves past her shoulders, her dark green short jerkin serving to show-off her remarkably pale skin; her vocal tone rather deeper than average with an underlying quality of reserved anger bubbling just under the calm surface.

Gabrielle, having been hit unexpectedly on all fronts with an unforeseen botanical attack, came to the front bravely.

"Who's this Emberson? What does tri-foliate mean? And what's a Jessermine?"

"Jesserine. It's a member of the Corydalis family, of trumpet-flowered plants."

Gabrielle was hardly any the wiser, such clearly showing in her expression.

"It's, ahh, a member of a very common and widespread family of plants distinguishable by their low-hanging trumpet-like flowers." Miss Beverley Lannigan, Bev to her friends, wherever they might be at the present moment, going into lecture mode. "Prevalent all over the world, but mostly in Asia and to some extent Europe. It's just becoming known, in the botanical world, that certain off-shoots, variations, curious, er, mutations, of the species are to be found in North America as well—specifically, though extremely rare, here in Canada. That being the reason I'm here, too—looking for assistance from your company, if at all possible."

"And this Emberson guy, where's he come in?" Claire scratching at a sore point of the discussion.

"He was the original discoverer of the plant—at least the variation with which I'm interested." Miss Lannigan nothing loth to share her knowledge. "Victorian plant-hunter—very well-known in our, umm, area—died in nineteen twenty-one."

"Oh, so he's out'ta the picture, then?"

"Completely—forget Emberson, he don't matter anymore; what I want to know is, can you take me and my equipment up t'the north-west corner of Saskatchewan, Lake Athabasca way, in amongst the forest, hills, an' lakes, so's I can prospect that area."

"You fairly certain of finding this, er, flower thereaways?" Gabrielle's tone again showing she had little faith or interest in the matter.

"Well, not certain, as t'say as much, no." Miss Lannigan coming clean under pressure. "But, what the hell gals, where'd the world be if no-one ever went on voyages of discovery after the Jewels of the Nile, or the golden treasures of Samarkand, or—or—whatever!"

"Ten dollars an hour when we're on the job; twenty dollars for each individual flight, you pay all fuel expences—fifty dollars down at the start." Claire, running-out of interest herself, getting down to the nitty-gritty. "How's that sound?"

"Sh-t!" Miss Lannigan clearly not impressed. "Working up t' buyin' Buck House, are ya? What the Hell?"

"Ordinary business rates, is all." Gabrielle backing-up her partner all the way. "We fly a big plane, often on long hauls over dangerous territory—expences have t'be met, y'know."

Miss Lannigan's facial skin tone took on a deeper shade of pink, something of Arctic cold gleaming in the dark recesses of her green eyes.

"Eight dollars when y're on the job; fifteen dollars each flight; I'll pay two-thirds of the fuel; and ya can have twenty dollars down—take it or leave it. Mr Falbright, over t'the Grocery store, told me there's a great Haulage Company in Harrisonton, jus' ten miles off!"

Faced with a cold-hearted harridan who clearly knew how to squeeze till the pips squeaked, Claire and Gabrielle exchanged defeated glances before buckling under the pressure.

"OK, it'll do." Claire trying to sound as if the discussion had gone the way she wished. "When d'ya want to go up, on your first expedition?"

"Say next Saturday?"

"Fine by us, we'll be ready." Gabrielle smoothly shifting to professional business-woman mode. "Cargo, equipment, and luggage, not to exceed sixty pound total, OK?"

"Yeah—sure enough—yeah." Miss Lannigan not happy, but taking it on the chin, all the same, like a heroine. "See ya Saturday."

"Yip, we'll be here." Gabrielle taking the off-hand approach to goodbyes'.

"We'll be ready." Claire nodding somewhat dismissively as their client rose to leave the small office.

When the door closed behind the redhead the occupiers could get down to some top-quality criticism, and they did.

"Don't like her," Gabrielle saying it out loud. "Can't say exactly why—but I don't like her; less'n Dr Fell, in fact."

"Har!" Claire grinning at her lover's attitude. "Yeah, there's something, I don't quite know what, that ain't kosher about her. But, all the same, money's money, darlin'."

"You ain't wrong there, sis." Gabrielle brightening at this prospect of profit to come. "What is it the poet said?—how pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!"

"With ya there, babe, all the way!"

—O—

"Flight plan?"

"Written, recorded, an' registered, by phone not half an hour ago." Gabrielle showing she was on the job like a master.

"Huu-um!" Claire, denied her chance to score off her beloved, muttered something thankfully incomprehensible before turning onto another tack. "The gal turned up?"

Saturday had dawned bright and clear, which boded well for the flight, as both aviators had agreed over breakfast; now they were awaiting the appearance of their customer and her equipment preparatory to actually taking-off.

"Ten minutes ago." Gabrielle nodding as she shuffled multiple pieces of paper on the wide desk. "Say, what'd I do with this Form AG-127B? File it here, or send it on t'Ottawa?"

"Which one's that?" Claire hardly interested. "The one about the fuel records?"

"Nah, recording the overall take-off weight of the initial flight." Gabrielle scrutinising the yellow sheet with something very close to outright contempt. "As if it mattered at all! Shall I just put something reasonably close to reality down, or will they want exact figures, t'the last actual ounce or what?"

"Huh! Does it matter?"

Gabrielle took an instant to think about this, then curled a supercilious lip.

"Well, I expect it does t'the jobsworthy's over in the Ottawa office. Do we want a visit from some black-suited official askin' for the last three years' reports in triplicate, or what?"

This unnecessary expectation jolted Claire into a physical response, she sitting upright on her chair beside her lover.

"Bloody officialdom! All they ever think about is forms in triplicate—worse than the bloody WO, back in the day."

"Yeah, with you there, ducks; oh, here's Miss Lannigan."

Shaken out of her morning's good humour Claire was now in no mood for idle chat or small talk.

"Hi'ya! Got your equipment?"

"Yeah, out by the plane." Miss Lannigan instantly noticing she had arrived at an inopportune moment.

"How much?"

Miss Lannigan stared at Claire, obviously lost in a mist of unknowing.

"What?"

"Your equipment—how much of it is there? How's the overall weight?"

"Does it really matter?"

"Lady," Claire needled on a delicate spot, reacting negatively as a consequence. "If your equipment's so heavy the plane won't fly, the plane won't fly. D'ya want we shoot across the lake like one of those waterski jokers, only t'skate up on the rocky shore on the further side? 'cause that's what'll happen if we're too heavy; an' afterwards the Insurance Company'll very definitely indeed find you responsible. Ya got, oh, fifty thousand dollars goin' spare?"

Clearly thrown on her back foot by this horrible possibility Miss Lannigan shrugged in defeat.

"It's all out by the plane, like I said; about fifty pounds total, not more. How's that?"

"It'll do." Gabrielle, finished with her paperwork, coming to the fore. "Nothing too big, I hope? I mean, it'll all fit in the luggage compartment? You ain't got anything say, twenty feet long or ten feet wide, at all?"

"No, just boxes, nothing big; some heavier than others, but not over the score you want."

"OK, let's go, we're on our way."

—O—

Lake Athabasca, up in the far north-east corner of the Province, was large, wide, and deep, a perfect place to land a seaplane; except that their destination was an altogether smaller body of water some miles south, Brogan's Lake. The crew of the Noorduyn Norseman were presently, within ten minutes of reaching their destination, discussing this point in detail.

"There's some difficulty about landing on this Lake, as I understand it?" Gabrielle, as navigator sitting by her pilot's side studying her map intently.

"Steep shores, surrounded by forest, coming down to the waterline all round, apparently." Claire responding with her earlier study on the point. "We'll need to come in steep and sharp; same taking-off again, we got'ta hike the nose high from the start."

"Iimph."

This all came to a head in the next minute when the shimmering surface of the lake came into view surrounded, as had been established, by thick forest right to the waterline. Claire, gripping the steering-wheel, was not happy.

"Jeez! Jeez! Hang on, baby. Miss Lannigan?"

"Yeah? We there?"

"We are indeed," Claire turning the plane to port slightly, lining up on the lake dead ahead. "hang onto something, we're gon'na come in steep an' hard."

Two minutes later, after the surface of the lake took-up most of the view from the cockpit for several harrowing seconds, Claire levelled the Norseman off bringing it to a smooth landing, white water flying on either hand as they glided in to the shore.

"Home, sweet Home." Gabrielle, shifting uncomfortably, waxing silly. "Is that the jetty, over there?"

"If it ain't, there's nowhere else, baby."

"Har!"

—O—

The Norseman safely tied up against the old, but still solid, wooden jetty the women stood on the same structure, a couple of feet above the waterline, examining their surroundings.

"Nobody here." Gabrielle making a factual statement which, based on the available facts, could not be gainsaid.

"Ya noticed?" Claire coming back with her best sarcastic reply. "Miss Lannigan, ya expectin' anyone t'be here? What I'm sayin' is, where's the rest of your team, your expedition?"

The lady in question, shifting uncomfortably, looked embarrassed.

"Well, to be absolutely accurate, I'm the expedition."

A gentle pause, interrupted only by some unidentified bird noises from amongst the nearby trees, held sway for a time.

"Ah, I see." Claire nodding like a University Professor taking note of some abstruse theory. "Only you? Uum. I take it some of your equipment you've brought along includes a tent, food, and a portable radio to send out distress signals when ya get fed up being an expeditionist, or get partially eaten by a passing bear?"

Miss Lannigan had the stamina to take this personally, at least.

"Miss—Miss—er, what's your name, again?"

"Cartwright, Claire."

"Ah, quite. Well, Miss Cartwright, I am a well respected botanist, having trekked through the wilds of India, Nepal, the Himalayas, and parts of the bloody Amazon rain-forest. I can exist in the Canadian wild without any problems, thank you."

Ten minutes later all the botanist's equipment had been safely transferred from the seaplane to the solid ground next to the jetty, although both Claire and Gabrielle still harboured worries about the long-term wellbeing of their customer.

"Look, Miss Lannigan," Claire coming to the point just after the last case had been deposited on the stony proto-beach. "we, Gabs an' I, just wan'na be sure you're gon'na be safe for the three weeks you say you'll need here. Ya sure you got everything in hand?"

"Precisely so, thank you." Miss Lannigan seemingly happy with her lot. "Been in this sort'a situation plenty of times before. No worries. I'll have my camp set-up in a jiffy, an' everything sorted out as I like it. You can happily return to your base, just remembering I want some rations brought out this coming Tuesday afternoon. Don't arrive in the morning, I won't be on hand—searching out a distant site, y'know; Lake Maké, a few miles further north, but within walking distance of here. Make it the afternoon, when I'll be back at camp."

"Camp bein' somewhere close-by here, I takes it?" Gabrielle niggling for just those fine details that really matter.

"Yeah, in a clearing I saw thirty yards or so away in the firs over there, to the east."

"OK," Claire taking this as a reasonable parting note. "Well, we'll be on our way then—happy huntin'."

"Yeah, see you on Tuesday—afternoon." Gabrielle showing she had taken note of the needful.

Back in the plane Claire sat even more uncomfortably than before.

"Gab?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't like that gal—I really don't; I can't put my finger on why, but I definitely don't like her."

"I haven't any plans t'add her t'my Birthday List either, ducks."

"Well, let's get this crate in the air." Claire returning to the present with a disdainful sniff that spoke volumes. "How's your search for a good Lockheed Hudson goin'? Found any good specimens yet?"

"I've sent letters round all the relevant authorities and companies." Gabrielle unfolding her navigational map as she spoke. "Seems there's lots of machines goin' spare, but in several states of decrepitude, apparently. Think we may need t'go here and there t'see for ourselves. Buyin' blind'll just be insane."

"Yeah, thought that myself." Claire nodding her agreement as she pressed the motor starter button. "But, as things stand with us presently, a Hudson'll be a dam' all-round better bet than a larger Dakota. Well, we can sleep on it, lover-gal. Let's go!"

—O—

Gatch's Point, a small hamlet consisting of some 1,200 citizens, sat on the peninsula of the same name which jutted out into the calm waters of Lake Seclusion, lying some eight miles south-west of Lake Wapawekka and Lac la Ronge. Some three miles long and two wide with many low shelving pebbly beaches the lake was a perfect place for seaplanes to land as they went about their daily duties. Claire and Gabrielle, having relocated to Canada after the conclusion of the recent world conflict, had quickly spotted the small village's potential, opening their haulage business there to great effect. Now they had seven trucks of various sizes under their control, depending on the length of the haulage required and its nature; they also operated an air service using a single Noorduyn Norseman, a high-winged single-engined aircraft capable of carrying pilot and 10 passengers. The cockpit was double-seated, a navigator able to sit alongside the pilot without too much discomfort, still leaving room for 9 fee-paying passengers. It was also sturdy enough to take quite a weight of luggage as well, always looked on gratefully considering the lengths and types of routes taken and the passengers' needs.

Having established themselves in the community Claire and Gabrielle soon mixed smoothly with the local populace, who took little if any notice of their personal set-up and way of life. Quickly they found a two-storey house with attic in its own grounds that was particularly placed for just their requirements and here, on the Sunday following their meeting with the curious botanist, they were at home late in the afternoon settling down for a quiet evening away from the fray and struggle of petty business.

"Like your jim-jams, baby." Claire taking an appreciative all-over survey of the gal she loved most in all the world.

Gabrielle, as was her usual routine, had changed out of her disreputable leather jerkin and heavy oil-stained cotton trousers to a pair of pale pink silk pyjamas with loose jacket and wide legs; the whole ensemble shimmering as she moved in an wholly charming manner, as her lover had just noticed.

"Thanks, I do my best." Gabrielle grinning in response to this unelicited but still appreciated compliment. "Coffee, tea, sherry, or something with a real kick?"

"Tea'll be fine, don't feel like gettin' hammered this early in the day."

"Ha!"

When the tea arrived in the living-room, curtesy of Gabrielle's unassisted competence, they both settled down to sipping the beverage and nibbling on iced biscuits.

"So, what about that MacIntyre suit you were drooling over down in Saskatoon in Garnley's last week?" Gabrielle curling her legs under her as she sprawled on the long sofa, Claire at the further corner. "The Egyptian linen, ankle-length skirt, thin red leather belt, waist jacket, all in deep periwinkle blue? Gon'na go back an' grab it before someone else gets their grubby paws on it?"

"Haven't made-up my mind yet, still thinking over it." Claire in no hurry to modernize her wardrobe. "Might, might not, might go for something altogether different. Gal can change her mind, can't she?"

Gabrielle had no intention of niggling her lover unecessarily so poured soothing oil on the mildly disturbed waters.

"Sure thing, babe; why not? I saw an absolutely dinky outfit that'd suit me fine, while you were hoicking through the hat table, to that assistant's distress. Remember? She was nearly having a fit, the way you were throwing those tiles around."

"Had to examine what was available, didn't I?" Claire no way admitting guilt in the matter. "Anyway, came away with that adorable straw confection in lilac an' pale yellow with the wide brim—absolutely gorgeous;—I'll knock everyone's eyes out when we attend the upcoming Races at Docket Field in Saskatoon a month from now. It'll go down so well you'll be jealous for a month afterwards, guaranteed."

Gabrielle, reserving her feelings and reactions to this ridiculous assertion, merely grunted unintelligibly, instead reaching over to the low table to nab a fourth glace à la rose-icing dainty cake.

"That'll mean another hole in your belt, lady, t'hold the ever-expandin' waistline of those who can't resist temptation."

"Idiot!"

Rising from the sofa, still sniggering under her breath from the success of her late thrust, Claire walked over to the radio and started fiddling with the knobs.

"Fletcher Henderson's scheduled for eight-thirty, ten minutes time." She gently turning the knob, scattering static and unidentifiable human voices around the room as she covered the intervening wavebands. "Here we are, some kind'a drama—thriller, I think, be over soon. So, lover, you up for half an hour's dancin' in the dark, t'Fletch, or what?"

Gabrielle considered the matter with all the serous attention it required, frowning horribly in the doing-so.

"Yeah, fancy a swing or two around the room won't go astray, lady; why, you askin'?"

"Think I am, toots; ya up fer it?"

"Try'n stop me, is all, just try."

"Har!"

—O—

Tuesday came with a slight change in temperature and weather—an overcast of thin cloud at 12,000 feet giving a grey aura to the day and the feelings of the crew of the Norseman as they flew north-westwards again.

"Height?"

"Six thou."

"Direction?"

"Nor by Nor-east, one-two-seven."

"Fuel?"

"Three-quarters full, easy."

"Cargo?"

"Rations enough t'feed a starvin' army." Gabrielle running a finger over the list on her knee. "There's even a couple of cans of pâté de foie gras and duck breast in aspic, would you believe?"

"Likes the finer things in Life, don't she!"

"Seems so." Gabrielle curling a lip almost in the manner of an old strict Puritan lady facing-off a Cavalier.

For safety's sake Claire brought the seaplane round in several circuits of the lake at 1,500 feet, to scout the area and observe the state of the water's surface.

"Looks calm, no floating logs or debris that I can see."

"Yeah, but no sign of her Highness either." Claire bending her head to look down out her side-window. "Lost in those dam' trees, I suppose. Watch out, darlin', we'll have'ta come in steep again; might hit the water with a thump—can ya take that?"

For answer Gabrielle merely glanced at her lover with an expression that needed no words to convey her meaning.

As the plane taxied over the water to the edge of the small wooden jetty the women could already see there was a certain lack of that necessary ingredient to arriving on a schedule—any sign of anyone to meet them.

"Where is she?"

"Meb'be takin' a nap in her camp, after a hard mornin's plant-huntin'?" Claire being somewhat schoolmarmy at short notice. "Come on, let's get her tackle out; that's probably what's keepin' her; wants most'a the hard work done by the time she shows up."

"Har!"

But quarter of an hour later, still with no sign of their client anywhere in the vicinity, Claire took a leadership decision.

"Oh, come on, let's go an' drag her out'ta her hammock, sleeping-bag, or whatever. Dam'med nuisance."

The camp, some forty yards deeper in the surrounding trees, appeared pretty much as expected—small stone-lined fire, single low tent, odds and ends scattered around higgledy-piggledy, but no evidence of the owner to hand.

"Where the dam' is she?" Claire following this growl by bending to pull the tent flap aside, peering inside. "Not here, seemingly. See anything of her around, Gab?"

"Not so much as a footprint, ducks." Gabrielle industriously wandering round the site, peering at the grass as if for footprints or some other trail of any kind. "Maybe she hasn't returned from her expedition; remember she told us she'd be away further north, looking for that plant of hers?"

"Yeah, suppose that's the case." Claire standing tall, gazing round the camp. "So, what d'we do? Wait for her, all day? Or drag her gear here, an' leave her to it, whenever she deigns t'return?"

"Or make up a search party for her?"

"What?"

"A search party," Gabrielle coming over to stand by her lover's side. "I mean, she ain't here; she should be here; but she ain't. My view, a search party, is all."

Claire let this possibility sink in for a few seconds.

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Well, what else can we do?" Gabrielle painting the realistic view of the situation. "She said she'd be here to meet us; she ain't—ergo, she's lost in the wilderness somewhere, possibly injured to some extent. We can't just up anchor and fly off, leaving her behind."

"Oh, sh-t!"

Gabrielle waited for a more useful reply, but when this showed little sign of arriving sighed and took command.

"OK, we take the Norse up, fly around the local area; if there's no sign, we go further afield. She said she'd be prospecting close to Lake Macké, didn't she?"

"Yeah, suppose."

"It's only four miles to the nor-east," Gabrielle steadfastly putting on her Boudicca cloak. "come on, let's get to it."

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Your needle's stuck, dear."

—O—

At three thousand feet they could see Lake Macké seemingly very close at hand, while off in the distance the near shore of the far mightier Lake Athabasca cut across the horizon.

"Hope she didn't make a break for Athabasca." Gabrielle muttering this into her headphone. "If so she's lost in a wilderness of trees, rocky canyons, rivers and streams, and the assorted wildlife. Say! Does she have a weapon—for defence? Rifle or shotgun or such?"

"Can't say I've given it any thought." Claire responding as she put the plane on a heading for the nearby lake. "Didn't notice any such, I admit."

"Macké's a long thin snaky sort'a body, I see. Can we land on it?"

"Let's get over there, an' see how the land lies."

"Or water flows."

"What?"

"Nuthin'."

Macké, on arrival, showed as a long body of water approximately a mile and a half long, in a straggly way, nowhere being more then seventy yards wide at best; the trees, again, coming right to the edge of the water at every point.

"There's a stretch there, about a third of the way along; think we can land the ol' bus at that point."

Gabrielle gazed out her side-window at the area indicated by her lover's gloved hand, and found the sight wanting in every possible way.

"There? Are you crazy? A toy airplane couldn't land there, never mind a Norseman. God! You're not?"

"I dam' well am, lady; buckle up, it might be a bumpy ride."

"Oh, sh-t!"

"Strange, where've I heard that before recently?" Claire almost visibly going crazy as she brought the nose of the monoplane down, pointed at the far too small body of water on which she seemed intent on placing the huge machine.

—O—

Lake Macké, once arrived at and on safely, discovered itself to be as unimposing from ground level as it had appeared from three thousand feet.

"What a dump."

"Just a lake, is all; what d'ya want, Lake Erie?"

"Hii-rph! There's a pebbly strand over there—jolly the ol' girl along an' we can nose-up to it. Don't fancy getting my boots wet for no reason."

A minute later the floats of the seaplane edged against the pebbly shore and Gabrielle jumped ashore without, indeed, wetting either of her boots.

"Any sign of the Great Explorer?" Claire laughing out loud as she joined her partner, making sure the landline gripped in her left hand was wound tightly round a nearby boulder.

"No, far's I can see we may be the only human beings anywhere in a three hundred mile diameter circle."

"That's helpful."

They stood on what passed for a beach, looking around and along the stretch of water visible to them.

"Pity the thing winds so much, can only see a few hundred yards in either direction. Just trees an' water."

"Yeah, see any way of gettin' in'ta the forest? Any tracks or whatnot?" Claire focusing on the material aspect of their presence there.

"There's some light coming through the trees over to our left, meb'be a glade. Meb'be be a track going out from there." Gabrielle counting, probably unwisely, on memories of her Girl Guide days.

"Hmm!" Claire obviously thinking the same. "Let's give it a go, anyway."

Although the glade, an open grass covered space, was only some forty yards or so off it took the women almost quarter of an hour to reach it; the intervening undergrowth almost seeming to have a conscious and rational angst against such interlopers.

"God! If I trip over one more clump of thick grass I'll say something for the Ages, an' it won't be nice!"

"We've made it, at least." Claire taking the pragmatic view. "But now we're here, I think the journey was pointless. Just a grassy heath surrounded by thick impenetrable forest. See any tracks leading-off anywhere?"

Gabrielle, after brushing twigs and grass from her boots and lower limbs, had also taken the time to eyeball the surrounding terrain; but not to much success.

"Nah, just trees everywhere; we may be the first humans ever to stand here, y'know. Makes you think."

Before Claire could construct an adequate reply to this asinine remark a gunshot rang out in the clear silent air.

Bang!

"Ah-ha,—Life!"

"What?"

"She's here—somewhere close-by."

"And she's armed, at least with a pistol." Gabrielle closing the discussion off with professional acumen. "Which direction?"

This minor but important detail caused another silence to hang over the glade as both women turned their heads from side to side trying to pinpoint the sound.

"Well, I thought it came from the nor-west." Claire making her play, though with little of certainty sounding in her tone.

"Nah, more like the south-east, I'm sure of it." Gabrielle, chin in air, going for the positive stance, with no foundation whatever.

Finally the ladies looked at each other, glanced around one more time, then sighed softly in unison.

"G-d'd-m trees, make it reverberate so much ya can't say which direction any dam' sound comes from." Claire giving vent to her feelings unreservedly.

At which point their difficulty was somewhat relieved when another gunshot rang forth, this time more clearly.

Bang!

"Over there?" Claire glancing questioningly at her lover.

"Yeah, for sure, over there—come on. No, wait, we better arm ourselves. I'll stay here while you go and get the Bren from the plane, dear."

"F-ck that!" Claire in no mood for this sort of thing. "We'll both go back, an drag out our hand weapons; I'll bring a coupl'a clips, an' you can fill your jerkin pockets with loose ammo. You really should switch to an automatic, y'know—so much easier t'use."

"Lover, there's a Lady in distress not far-off, how's about getting a move on arming ourselves so's we can dam' well save the gal from whatever's threatening her? Just a suggestion."

"Oh, OK! Always naggin', like an old schoolmistress!"

"What was that last remark, sister?"

"Clouds're breakin' up, think the sun'll be out soon."

"Hrrph!"

—O—

A few industrious and agitated minutes later they found to their joy, when they returned to the glade, there was indeed a small track leading away towards the direction they had first heard the gunshots, but Gabrielle at least still wasn't happy.

"Looks like it was made by mice, hardly shoulder wide and the grass's knee-high all along it."

"Baby, we got places t'be, move it, OK?"

"Jeez!"

To both women's relief however, their destination turned out to be only a short distance further into the trees as rounding a tight corner they came across a pebbly gradient, a slope leading up to a low ridge. At the bottom was what at first appeared to be the entrance to a small cave, but rapidly showed itself as hardly more than a space under a huge boulder, in the dark shelter of which a crouching form could be made out. As they approached a woman's yell rang out.

"To your right, by that slanted fir—get the dam' thing!"

Turning in the direction indicated Claire and Gabrielle saw, for the briefest instant, something large dark and clearly alive moving in the shadows beneath the firs; Gabrielle first to open up with her revolver—

Crack! Crack! Crack!

Only seconds separated her fusillade from Claire's contribution.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Another pause filtered through the thick stands of firs all round, before a further anxious shout came from behind the rescuers.

"Did ya get the dam' thing?"

"Nah!" From Claire, turning away again. "Disappeared in'ta the trees—think we've scared it off, though. Bear?"

"Yeah, biggest, ugliest black bear I've ever seen—had me trapped under this dam' boulder since yesterday afternoon."

Returning to the stony gradient both women could now see the bent form of their erstwhile client scrambling out from her hidey-hole to stand, disheveled before her rescuers.

"Dam' glad t'see ya both, couldn't have taken much more of that—down t'my last three bullets."

"You OK? Wounded or anything?" Gabrielle, as ever, worried over the continued health of her client—as long as she remained their client, anyway.

"No, just cramped from crouching under this stone." Miss Lannigan heaving a deep breath of relief nonetheless. "Dam' straight of ya both t'come lookin' for me—thanks."

"Oh, all part of the contract, y'know." Claire passing their act of courageous heroism off with a wave of the hand; clearly much to Gabrielle's chagrin. "Suppose we better get ya back on the Norseman—you OK t'walk back t'the lake?"

Miss Lannigan spent a few seconds doing some brief exercises, bending and twisting her body and shoulders; more to get the muscle cramps out than anything more serious, then straightened.

"Yeah, I'm fine; can you hold on a minute while I retrieve some of my samples? Had t'abandon my rucksack a hundred yards off when that dam' bear scented me yesterday an' pinned me for it's dam' lunch. In fact, er,—"

"Ricky'll head back t'the plane—I'll come with you; back-up, an' all." Gabrielle stepping-up to the line when most needed. "That a Thirty-eight? Right, my shells'll fit yours, too. With two of us, don't think Bruno'll come calling back t'look at the day's menu again, eh?"

—O—

Brogan's Lake, on their return there once more, seemed like the original home from home to all three women; Claire taking the van of looking after their still somewhat shocked client.

"Figure you need a holiday; what I mean is, ya should give up the weed-huntin' business for a week—come back t'Gatch's Point, take a break, get your breath back, sort'a thing. Look like you could do with it."

"And bring a bigger gun, next time." Gabrielle putting her ten cents into the conversation just to show willing. "Find anything interesting, in the meantime, bye-n'-bye?"

They all stood by the small tent, Miss Lannigan bending low for a brief moment to glance inside before turning to her rescuers once more.

"Plants, y'mean? Well, I found a great large patch of Alchemilla vulgaris; Rosaceae, y'know. —er, er, Lady's Mantle."

Faced with two expressionless listeners, who clearly had no idea of what she was talking about, Miss Lannigan retreated to form a defensive square against further query.

"Ah, has properties to soothe wounds and, ah, certain pains, y'know. But, ah, obviously you don—er, yeah, I did find what I was looking for, actually."

But by this time both Claire and Gabrielle, never particularly interested at best, had lost all interest.

"Remind us what that was, again?" Gabrielle talking more from politeness than any wish to gain unwanted knowledge.

"—uum, Emberson's Tri-foliate Jesserine—the Red Stinger, y'recall?"

"Oh-ah, yeah." Claire frowning as she sought to remember the details. "Yeah, ya told us last week. So, what's it like? What ya intend doin' with it, now you've got it?"

"Is it gon'na make you famous?" Gabrielle letting her underlying romantic nature have full sway.

For answer Miss Lannigan stayed curiously silent, glancing around the campsite as if wishing another black bear would appear to disperse this more and more uncomfortable gathering. Finally, after a strange look all round as if suspecting members of the Press lurking behind every fir tree, she faced her interlocutors once again.

"Hell, no—at least, if I play my cards right. Fame an' fortune are the furthest from my mind, actually; always have been. What it is, is—er,—"

Claire and Gabrielle, during their late War service, had come across many similar situations to the one they now found themselves in, and could therefore read their ever-shiftier client like an open book.

"OK, Miss Lannigan, something dodgy's up here, that's clear as day." Claire taking the fore in the necessary interrogation. "Something illegal, not above board, non-kosher, in fact wholly unlawful in all its aspects—wan'na come clean, or what, before we call the cops in?"

"Oh, God! Suppose I better!" She sighed from the heart, looked around as if seeking some way out, then buckled. "I'm working for the Government—well, at least, a shady sub-Department of same. No names, no pack drill sort of thing, y'know."

"We know." Gabriele nodding, as from dire experience.

"So, what it boils down to is they—the Government—corralled me some months ago to start searching the wilder corners of this dam' country, lookin' for the plant in question—Red Stinger."

"Why?" Gabrielle obviously believing this was a significant query.

"Well, you ever heard of cocaine?"

Both women looked at each other, the pale cast of understanding dawning on their faces; Claire coming to the fore.

"Of course, everyone knows about the white stuff—what about it? What's it got t'do with you searching the bogs of Saskatchewan for this dam' flower whose name I keep forgettin'?"

"Tri-foli—er, Red Stinger." Miss Lannigan only trying to help but quickly seeing she was only making matters worse. "The thing is, cocaine's derived from a plant that's relatively common and peculiarly easy to grow, under the right conditions."

Gabrielle, against her better judgement, was becoming interested in the direction of the conversation.

"And?"

"Cocaine's an alkaloid stimulant, extracted from the coca plant." Miss Lannigan, now on home territory, getting into her stride. "Red Stinger also contains alkaloids, but much more powerful ones. The drug extracted from a Red Stinger is more than twice as powerful as the same amount of ordinary cocaine. It creates a faster dependency, too; and those trying t'drop the habit find it far more difficult. The plant can be grown almost anywhere across the world, and definitely anywhere when under cover and nurtured under the right conditions."

Gabrielle took time to digest this mass of information before coming up with some relevant questions of her own.

"Red Stinger? Or it's, ah, scientific name; this Emberson thing? Never heard of it; while everyone and their Grandma's heard of the coca plant and cocaine. Why so? Is this Stinger thing very rare? And, if so, why the worry?"

Thus pressed Miss Lannigan fell back a step or two, as she considered the matter.

"Rare? Well, yeah, it's rare; not so rare as we'd all wish, mind you. The scientific, the drug aspect, only surfaced in the scientific world around five years ago, when a few reports were published in the pages of mostly unread journals in Europe. But recently there's been some evidence that at least one big Crime Syndicate in Europe has it's eye on the burgeoning market for a newer stronger form of cocaine; ergo, here I am, trying to discover the places the dam' plant grows before the crooks do."

While this two-sided conversation had been going on Claire had been exploring her own angle on the subject.

"Surely all anyone interested in the dam' thing needs is t'get some of its seeds; and from there Bob's surely your Uncle?"

Miss Lannigan perked-up amazingly at this question.

"Ah, you'd think so, wouldn't you?"

As the botanist paused, obviously expecting a reply, Claire obliged.

"I do think so; so?"

"Oh, right." Miss Lannigan caught on her back foot again. "Yes; well, what it is, is it's seeds, thank Chr-st, don't travel well. You can take a pocketful of the things, travel say from here t'Ottawa, and when you arrived they'd already be useless for seeding and growing; very delicate, y'know. —er, that is, obviously you didn't know, but—"

"Miss Lannigan?" Claire rapidly losing whatever iota of her former patience still existed. "What's the dam' point?"

"—er, er, you need to transplant the entire plant, if you see what I mean." The botanist, driven into a corner coming-up with the relevant facts in the case, at last. "When re-planted it'll have a forty per cent chance of regrowth, and then you can go forward from there. But it'll never be as easy to grow in bulk as the coca plant, mind you. Which is a good aspect, under the circumstances, don't you think?"

Meanwhile Gabrielle had been putting in some brain exercise on her own time.

"Let me get this straight, lady." Gabrielle frowning horribly at the apparently innocent botanist. "Are you intending to eradicate the plant wherever you find it? Can that be done? Is such a viable answer?"

"Yes! Yes! Yes, it is; that's the whole point, don't you see?" Miss Lannigan, in her excitement, almost gibbering. "So far as can be identified it only grows in out-of-the-way corners of the wilderness as yet. It's abominably rare; finding any example at all anywhere tends t'make for a dog's life for a botanist. Which in itself is helpful, in a way; meaning that when found and destroyed, there's a far lesser chance of other undiscovered examples surviving anywhere in that general location, you see."

Claire had been digesting this information as it came hot from the press, or Miss Lannigan's lips, and now had a response to make.

"And you are doing that as we speak?"

"—er, no."

"What? What's goin' on, then?"

"I'm only the explorer, the hunter, the finder. I find the dam' thing; or a location where it may be breeding prevalently; within its own quantitative level of existence, that is." She shrugging her shoulders, as if what could she do about such things. "I report back t'Base; they get a group of Bods on the trail, they go out to where I pinpointed the dam' thing, an' eradicate the whole area as best they can. Its been going on, surreptitiously, for the last few months—but that's top secret, I shouldn't really have said as much. Forget I spoke."

But by this time both Claire and Gabrielle had heard quite more than enough to make themselves wholly au fait with the entire sorry affair.

"God! I don't know what t'say." Claire actually lost for words.

"Typical dam'med Government backroom secret jiggery-pokery." Gabrielle curling a supercilious lip before taking no further concern in the matter.

Claire sighed deeply, glancing around the camp and across the waters of the lake seen through the intervening firs, before facing the situation once more.

"And you—the Government—actually believe this'll make short work of the plant?"

"It's all we've got at the moment." Miss Lannigan apologetic but determined. "What else can we do? As yet, thankfully, there aren't fields of the thing we can just plough up an' burn; we can only hunt out its hiding-places in the forest an' mountains an' do what we can."

"What're the chances of it slipping through your fingers, taking-off around the world and becoming a major market challenger to cocaine?" Gabrielle fingering the important point.

Standing by the remains of her campfire, idly kicking one of the flat stones, Miss Lannigan pondered on this angle of the matter.

"Well, it's difficult to cultivate, like I said; there aren't, far as we can discover, any large amounts being held in captivity anywhere; and it would take years, anyway, for it to become marketable. Did I say, each plant needs at least five years to mature and become, er, viable?"

"No, you didn't." Claire's sarcastic tone revealing what she thought of this additional detail.

"Well, there you go." The botanist nodding, as at a major fact in her defence. "No, nothing'll come on the public market—you won't see any sign of it on the street corners—for, oh, at least ten years; if then, of course, depending on how successful we are at eradicating it at source."

Claire looked at her lover; Gabrielle reflected the same interest; then both caved in together.

"Gab an' I'll get your gear an' rations back onboard the Norse; then we'll take ya back t'Gatch's Point. You can report in from there, I expect; after which we'll store you, er, stores, till ya need 'em again. How's that sound."

"You're not goin' t'air all this publicly, I sincerely hope?"

Claire, backed-up by a mute Gabrielle, made the universal sign of silence, running two fingers over her closed lips.

"Don't worry; me an' Gab here, it's stumm all the way."

"Oh-ah. Yes, well!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Atalanta Haulage' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—