Episode 81: The Man From Rhode Island
Iverson had learned something about sailing at the Naval College, but the
native skiff was quite unlike any craft he'd handled as a midshipman. Its
sail and rigging were woven from palm fronds. Its hull was laid up of
rough-hewn planks stitched together with twine. The rudder was little more
than a paddle, lashed in place with rope. The craft leaked abominably, and
the coconut shells that passed for bailers were barely adequate to stem the
"Can we make it to Australia?" asked Natasha.
"I rather doubt we could stay afloat that long," said Iverson ruefully.
"But we should be able to reach Grand Terre. If I remember the charts
correctly, it's about a day's sail downwind. The capital is a town called
Noumea. They should have a telegraph station."
There seemed no other alternative, so they put the helm up and set a course
toward the northwest. Navigation was straightforward, for someone had left
a compass aboard and there was no need to worry about leeway.
The skiff was fast with the wind astern. Evening
found them approaching the small island of L'ile-des-Pins. They spent the
night on a deserted beach and set sail again in the morning.
By afternoon, they were working their way along the southwest coast of Grand
Terre. They were also heartily tired of bailing, and Natasha gave cry of
delight when Noumea hove into view. Iverson had half-feared the mysterious
cruiser might be waiting, but the only airship in sight was a small
Parseval class semi-rigid plodding inland with a pallet of mining
equipment in an external sling. The air station itself was empty.
Their first order of business after they were ashore was to sell the boat
-- neither of them was sorry to see it go --
and obtain some local currency.
Their next errand was to purchase less obtrusive clothing, for Iverson's
uniform was all too recognizable, and Natasha's outfit would have attracted
attention even if she hadn't been so noticeable herself. Freshly attired,
they set off in search of the telegraph station, only to find it closed for
"A testament to the quality of French engineering," said Natasha in disgust.
Iverson was more charitable. "I imagine they find it hard to keep the
equipment in order in this tropical climate. But this does leave us at a
loss. My government doesn't maintain an embassy here, and I'd hesitate to
contact the local authorities lest some be agents of our enemies."
"Could we find passage aboard a British ship?"
"It's a thought. Let's check the harbormaster's office."
The port agent was singularly unhelpful. He studied their faces as if
committing them to memory, then
announced that he couldn't reveal shipping records to private citizens.
Neither arguments not bribes could induce the man to change his mind, so
they set off to inspect the harbor themselves. They didn't find any
English shipping, but from an old German seaman -- a weather-beaten man
with eyes that had seen many oceans -- they learned some disturbing news.
"The Inselmädchen?" asked Iverson.
"Ja," said the German. "Stupid name. I signed aboard in Rabaul
a month ago."
"What was their business here in Noumea?"
"I don't know. But I saw people sneaking aboard at night to speak with the
captain. I didn't like the looks of this, so I took my wages and left.
They sailed a week later."
Iverson did the calculation in his head. At a speed of eight knots, the
freighter would have had plenty of time to reach the Cape York Peninsula,
pick up his captors, and return to Sarah's Island. But how had they
coordinated their movements with the L-137? "Have you seen any foreign
airships in port?" he asked.
"Only one," said the sailor, "a medium-size rigid with three engine cars."
"That could have been the nationalists," mused the lieutenant. "Were they
here when you arrived?"
"No, they came and left two days ago. The ship had a big number `505'
painted on the side."
There were times in a man's life when he just had to slap himself in the
forehead. Iverson decided this was one of them. "Bloody..." he began to
exclaim, before remembering that there was a lady present. "We just missed
them! What a rotten piece of luck!"
"You have other problems too, I think," said the seaman, gesturing at the
gang of Kanaks that was heading in their direction. Their leader, an
unsavory-looking European whose ear had been torn off in some
long-forgotten fight, came to a halt in front of the lieutenant.
"You led us a merry chase," he announced in a thick Dutch accent, "but now
we have you."
"We won't go without a fight," said Iverson , doing his best to look
The Dutchman grinned. "Good. That makes the job more fun. And this time
you won't have guns." He gave an order to his minions.
The Kanaks closed in. Iverson raised his fists and strove to remember what
little he knew of unarmed combat. The old seaman hefted a balk of timber
and took a position by his side, but even so, the odds did not look good.
Then the air was split by a cry.
Before the thugs could react, a muscular figure lunged from the shadows and
laid out two with blows from a set of brass knuckles. The German took
advantage their surprise to knock down another with his club. Natasha, not
to be outdone, took out the last with a kick to the head.
"Verdomme!" swore the leader. "Niet wéér, hè?"
Outnumbered, he turned and fled.
Iverson examined their rescuer. He was a tall man, bronzed by the sun, with
an athletic build, piercing eyes, and a lantern jaw that seemed out of
proportion to the rest of his features. Introductions seemed in order.
"Thank you for your assistance," he said politely. "I am Lieutenant John
Iverson, Royal Naval Airship service, and these are my companions Natasha
"...Lucas," said the German, "from Cuxhaven."
"I'm Howard Phillips," said their rescuer, "originally from Rhode Island."
Iverson recalled that this was somewhere in America. "How did you come to
be in Noumea?" he asked.
"I was after these fellows." The American gestured at the unconscious
thugs. "They work for a pirate named Wasserman. I have a score to settle
with that man! He sank my old ship."
Iverson made the connection. "You were captain of the
Phillips gazed at him in surprise. "How do you know of this?
"We found the note you left with the wreckage in the Timor Sea."
"You'd better come with me,"
said the American.
"It sounds like we have a lot to talk about."
Howard Phillips's current vessel was the Innsmouth Shadow, a small
British freighter, long since condemned for use on North Sea, given a new
lease on life here in the calm waters of the Pacific. Phillips told
them something of his history as he poured drinks.
"I was living in Providence," he said, "trying to make a living as a poet,
if you can believe it! But a friend of my grandfather filled me with tales
of the South Pacific -- I even used some in my work. After the War, no one
seemed to care much for poetry, so I shipped out on a merchant ship, just
like Henry Dana. It made a new man of me. I can't imagine what might have
happened if I'd stayed in New England."
"Is Phillips your given name?" asked Iverson.
"No." The American laughed. "That would only cause problems in some parts
of Polynesia. But what is a lieutenant of the Royal Naval Airship Service
doing in New Caledonia?"
It took Iverson some time to tell his tale. Phillips and Natasha listened
with interest. Lucas, more practically-minded, took advantage of their
distraction to refill his glass.
"So Wasserman was working for these renegade German nationalists when he
sank my old ship," said Phillips when Iverson was done.
"So it would appear."
Phillips smiled a wicked smile. It was not the smile of a poet.
"If they were the ones behind the attack, I'd like to return the favor.
You say the Inselmädchen sailed from Rabaul?"
"Ja," said Lucas.
"Then that's where I'm headed. You're welcome to come along as my guests."
Next week: Rabaul...
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