Episode 71: The Dancer
The island of Java was a timeless place, whose rich volcanic soil had
sustained a succession of civilizations that stretched back to the dawn of
history. Its present-day inhabitants were Malay -- followers of Mohammed for
the most part, but old Buddhist temples still stood atop the hills, and
legends told of even older structures hidden in the jungle.
The Dutch Naval Air Station at Jakarta was quite substantial, with dozens
of masts, a long row of sheds, and extensive handling facilities. A
detachment of the Fleet was in port along with the usual merchant
traffic, so the Flying Cloud received little notice. Captain
Everett paid a courtesy visit to the attaché, then left MacKiernan in charge
of refueling while he set off with Iverson and Sarah to visit the Countess.
The Zelle estate lay some distance away. Jenkins hired a car -- an aging
Crossley 20/25 of uncertain origins, driven by a taciturn chauffeur -- but
even so, the journey took several hours. The landscape through which they
passed was intensely green, in dramatic contrast to Australia. Every square
inch of the lowlands seemed devoted to cultivation. Even the hills were
terraced for rice paddies.
"There must be quite a few people here on Java," remarked Iverson.
"Jenkins could tell you more," said Everett, "but I believe it’s one of the
most heavily-populated places on Earth."
"Who is this Countess?" asked Sarah.
"She’s the Gravin Margaretha Zelle," answered Everett. "It’s a new title,
awarded after the War for reasons that have been the subject of some
speculation. She’s retired now, living as a planter, but in her youth, she
gained considerable success in Paris as a dancer."
"A dancer?" asked Iverson. He might be young, but he could recognize a
euphemism when he heard one.
"She had a number of companions," said Everett discreetly. "These included
several high-ranking officers during the War. There was some question about
how well she kept their confidences. This might have led to trouble if the
conflict hadn’t ended when it did."
The lieutenant’s eyes widened. "She was a spy?"
The captain smiled. "This might be too strong a term. But she understood the
value of information. As you are about to see."
Their driver had turned off onto a side road. This led through an ornate
gateway with sign that said ‘Eye of the Day Tea’, up a series of
switchbacks, past slopes covered with close-set rows of bushes -- quite
obviously Camellia Sinensis. It ended in front of a modest mansion
built in the European style. A doorman took Everett’s card and led them to a
sitting room. A few minutes later a well-dressed servant appeared.
"Captain Everett," he announced, "I am Torrence, the Countess’s butler. She
will see you now."
Countess Zelle was a striking middle-aged woman with the figure and grace of
a dancer. She dressed conservatively, but this did little to hide her almost
tangible sensuality -- an animal magnetism that contrasted sharply with
Sarah’s comparative innocence. Her parlor smelled faintly of incense, and
was draped with exotic tapestries that might have come straight from
Arabian Nights. One wall held a portrait of a young woman in a
jeweled headdress wearing little more than a veil. Iverson guessed this was
the Countess as a youth. He noticed Sarah glaring at him and looked away
"Mata," said Everett, offering the woman a bow.
The Countess gave a cry of delight. "Captain Everett, how kind of you! You
"You haven’t changed at all," said the captain gallantly.
The woman laughed. "You always were a charmer. It’s good to see a face from
the old days. What brings you to our island?"
"We’re on the trail of a mystery," said Everett. With this prelude, he began
a detailed explanation of everything they’d discovered. The Countess
listened carefully, interrupting from time to time with a question.
"I’ve heard of these nationalists," she said when he was done. "They’re said
to be led by disgruntled veterans who feel their nation was betrayed by the
Peace. One of these is rumored to have been a pilot during the War -- I
wonder if this could be your 'Fat Man'. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much
more. But I may know something about this Karlov. You are not the only ones
looking for him. A few days ago, an Italian opera singer named Antonio
Notariello was here on Java asking about the man."
An opera singer? wondered Everett. Could this be the same
fellow who’d been at Enterprise Creek? Surely there couldn’t be that
many opera singers in the Southwestern Pacific. But this was a question for
another time. "What can you tell us about Karlov?" he asked.
"I was married before the War," the Countess began, "to a Dutch Colonial
officer here in the Indies." She made an expression of distaste. "Before
we moved to the Netherlands, back in 1902, an anthropologist from the
University of Odessa named Karolek Solovyov visited this region to study
its indigenous cultures. He had an assistant named Yakov: an ex-Army officer
who had some ambitions as a singer. This Yakov was the type who’d do
anything to get ahead, but my ex-husband had dealings with people of that
sort, and they made a bargain to sell any artifacts Yakov could lay his
hands on. This came to nothing, for it appears Solovyov had some experience
that frightened him so badly he fled straight back to Russia.
"Two years ago, this Yakov reappeared in Jakarta. His dreams of fame had
come to nothing, and now he was back in the East, like so many other
failures. This time he was working for Karlov."
"What was this Karlov like?" asked Everett.
"He was a young idealist, betrayed by the world," said the Countess.
Noticing the captain’s expression, she patted his arm in sympathy. "Like
Solovyov, he was from the University of Odessa, but I believe he was a
"A physicist?" said Iverson. "They study electromagnetism. What possible
connection could such a fellow have with weapons?"
"Perhaps they needed him to operate the prospecting device -- this Müller
Counter," mused Everett. "Where is this Yakov now?"
"He turned up dead," said the Countess. "In Cairns, about a month ago."
"In Cairns!" said Everett. "How do you know these things?"
The Countess smiled. "I have my sources. It appears that many people have
agents in Cairns. Now you must stay for dinner. It’s much too late for the
drive back to Jakarta and it’s not often I have a chance to play hostess."
Diner was followed by tea -- a black variety grown on the Countess’s own
estates. Everett found it mild with pleasant overtones, quite unlike some of
the industrial-grade beverages he’d encountered in the Service. The Countess
led the conversation, drawing out each of her guests in turn while she
entertained them with tales of Paris before the War.
At last the hour grew late. "We’ll put you in the south wing," she said
to Iverson and Sarah. "Torrence will show you to your rooms. I’m afraid
most of my staff is away for the Muharram festival, but if you ring loud
enough, someone may hear you."
The two young people exchanged glances. It didn’t take Everett much
imagination to guess what they were thinking. They hurried after the servant
like children rushing to unwrap their presents.
"That was kind of you," he said to the Countess after they were gone.
"It was the least I could do," she replied. "I doubt there’s much privacy
aboard an airship, and I remember what it was like to be young."
"You’re still young, Margaretha" said Everett.
"Oh, Roland," she laughed. "We both know the truth. I can feel the years
creeping on. But what about you?"
He smiled. "I don’t have time for such things. My duties keep me busy."
She touched his arm. "Is this really true? You came to me because you know
I hear stories. You can’t imagine that I haven’t heard yours."
Everett stared at one of the candles that stood on the table before him.
Flames, he thought. They can burn away many things. Is there
anything that can burn away these memories?
"You poor man," said the Countess softly. "It’s only the honest ones who
suffer. But tonight you can forget."
She rose, took his hand, and led him from the room. Behind them the candles
Next week: Back to Hostile Territory...
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