Episode 89: The Island Trade
The German Imperial Possession of Narau, also known as Pleasant Island, was
an isolated speck in the middle of the Pacific. It had no real harbor,
just a few small breaks in the encircling reef, so visiting freighters had
to anchor offshore and bring their cargo aboard by lighter -- a dicey
proposition in any kind of a sea. The holding ground was poor, and
constant vigilance was required to keep a vessel from dragging. In spite
of these liabilities, the anchorage was filled with shipping that ranged
from lowly island schooners to a majestic four-masted barque flying the
pennant of the Laeisz company of Hamburg.
"What are they all doing here?" asked Natasha.
Howard Phillips tapped out his pipe, inspected the bowl, and began to refill
it. "They come for phosphates," he replied. "Valuable stuff. Worth its
weight in... well... phosphates. A New Zealand company runs the mines under
an agreement with the Germans. They try to maintain a monopoly..." he
indicated the barque, "...but there's always room for free-lancers. This
should be a good place to find information about the Inselmädchen."
"I thought we'd traced them to the Marshalls," said Iverson.
"Those are several dozen atolls spread across hundreds of miles of ocean.
We could search them for years and never find a thing. But my informant in
Rabaul told me that the Inselmädchen calls here for cargo. This is
a small island. Word gets around in a place like this. And sailors do like
They rode ashore in the Innsmouth Shadow's motor-lifeboat. They
could have rowed, like explorers of old, but as Phillips pointed out, there
was no sense in carrying these things to extremes. He steered them past the
reef, across a tiny lagoon, and ran the boat up on the beach. The shore
was lined with a clutter of grass huts, tin-roofed shacks, and warehouses.
The smell was remarkable -- a rich mixture of rotting seaweed, decaying
fish, and guano.
"This is Annibare Bay," Phillips announced, taking a deeper than usual draw
from his pipe, perhaps to drown out the odors. "It might be best if we
split up here; the gents I'll be looking for might not take kindly to
strangers. We'll meet this evening at Kelpie's Bar. You can't miss it.
It's the only one in half-decent shape."
"Where shall we go now?" Natasha asked Iverson after the skipper was gone.
"I'm not sure," said Iverson, trying not to inhale too deeply. "I imagine
Captain Phillips will accomplish more in town than we could, so we might
wish to investigate elsewhere."
This argument seemed compelling, as did the prospect of leaving the
immediate vicinity of the settlement, so they found a mining track that
climbed the bluff to the east. Natasha led the way. Iverson followed,
doing his best to look the other way when the breeze lifted the hem of her
light summer frock.
The interior of the atoll proved singularly unattractive. Miners had
stripped away wide deposits of ore, leaving a wasteland of shattered rock
quite unlike Iverson's conception of a tropical island paradise. He
wondered what they could hope to learn here. The only people in sight were
quarry workers, who seemed unlikely to know much about visiting shipping.
At last they found a stocky New Zealander who looked like a supervisor.
"Pardon me," asked Iverson, "but have you seen any strange airships
around here recently?"
"Can't say as I have, mate, but you might want to check the secret air
"Secret air station?"
"Aye. In the middle of the island, right next to the ruins. You can't
A brisk walk brought them to a jumble of rocks that might
have been shaped by hand. Their age was impossible to determine, and
any markings had long since been effaced by the passage of time. Beyond
them, a small airship rode from a temporary mooring mast. It was an
ungainly craft, with a bulbous three-lobed hull, three rectangular fins, and
a long gondola slung beneath.
"That's a Coastal Class blimp, left over from the War!" marveled Iverson.
"Whatever is it doing here?"
"I found her in Vladivostok," came a voice from behind them.
Natasha gave a start of surprise and clutched Iverson's arm. They turned to
see an elderly Russian gentleman emerge from a trench holding a fragment
of pottery. He studied this for a moment, made a few notes in a ledger,
then set it aside.
"Dobriyden!" he said with a kindly smile. "I am Professor Nikolei
Otkupshchikov: by profession an archeologist, by circumstance an adventurer.
And who do I have the fortune to be addressing?"
"Lieutenant John Iverson, Royal Naval Airship Service."
"It's pleasure to meet you," said the Russian, bowing to the lady. "My
servant should have tea ready back at camp if you'd like to hear the story."
A short time later, they were sitting beneath an awning while a stolid
islander of Samoan proportions served them from an
ornate samovar. Iverson took a sip -- it was a strong black tea with a
smoky flavor quite unlike English varieties -- and listened as Professor
Otkupshchikov recounted his vessel's history.
"Her name is the Delfin," he said "She was one of four coastal
patrol blimps your government sold to the Czar back in 1916. Two were lost
in the Baltic and another went unaccounted for after the War. This one was
shipped east by train for use against the Japanese. When the Revolution
came..." he frowned, "...I felt it wise to leave the country, so I
appropriated the vessel for my own use.
"Since then I've been making a living here in the islands. At the beginning
of each season, I ship the Delfin south on a freighter. Then I
make my way downwind from atoll to atoll, searching for artifacts I can sell
"What brought you to the South Pacific?" asked Natasha, favoring the man
with a hundred-watt smile.
"An old colleague of mine, Karolek Solovyov, had some fascinating
theories about Polynesia. He proposed that these islands were once settled
by colonists from the Baltic. Both regions have similar legends -- in
particular, both have tales of youth who climbs up to the sky on a magic
vine. Solovyov suggested this might be a reference to some primitive form
of aerostat, with an envelope stitched together from hides and filled with
hot air. If a crew took off during a northwest gale, they might have been
carried to the Persian Gulf, where they could have picked up the monsoon
for a flight to the Pacific.
Iverson didn't think this sounded even remotely plausible, but he kept
silent out of courtesy to their host.
"Did any of these legends involve music?" asked Natasha.
The professor stared at the woman in surprise. "Not that I can recall," he
said after a long pause. Iverson thought his tone sounded false.
"Be careful of that one," he warned Iverson some time later, when the woman
was out of earshot. "I knew another who drank from the same well."
Evening found Iverson and Natasha sitting in Kelpie's Bar. It hadn't been
hard to find. In a settlement notable for dilapidated structures, it was
one of the few with four intact walls and a roof. The interior was plain --
its only decoration a peeling poster featuring a woman in bathing dress.
"Well," said Iverson, "I'm not sure that was very useful."
Natasha laid a hand on his arm. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm sure we'll
The lieutenant disengaged her hand as gently as he could. What would Sarah
think? At that moment Phillips came barging through the door.
"Kelpie," thundered the skipper, "pour me a double! I need it!"
"I gather your inquiries were not satisfactory," said Iverson.
"You got it, kid. How about you?"
Iverson shook his head. "We didn't learn a thing about the nationalists or
"Well, it looks like this was a complete waste of..." the skipper's voice
trailed off as he caught sight of the poster. His eyes widened, then he
"So... that's where they're hiding!"
Next week: Swimwear...
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