Episode 91: A Tale of the South Pacific
"Ujelang?" asked Iverson.
Howard Philips unrolled the poster he'd taken from the bar and spread it
across the chart table. It showed a model clad in a scandalously
short-skirted maillot posing on a beach. The setting was distinctly
tropical, with brilliant white sand, a line of surf, and sea and sky that
unique shade of blue found only in the South Pacific.
"My informant in Rabaul told me that the Inselmädchen carried
photographers to an island in the Marshalls to take pictures for some
sportswear company. I believe we've found our island."
He pointed at the legend, which proclaimed. "You Look Better in a
"You think the nationalists are using the place as a base?" asked Iverson.
"I'm sure of it. But we can't just barge in there and hope for the best.
We'll want to case the joint first."
Iverson had never encountered this idiom before, but its meaning was clear.
"How shall we accomplish this?"
The skipper walked over to shelf, picked up a curio -- a small carved figure
of a winged frog with a peculiarly-shaped head-- and used it to weight
down a chart of the German Marshall Islands. He studied this for a moment,
then tapped one of the atolls with his pipe.
"We'll land here, at Kwajalein, and ask around. I know a few
people on the waterfront who owe me some favors."
"Isn't that where the Inselmädchen is registered?" asked Iverson.
"Surely the nationalists will be watching the place."
"They won't be looking for me!" said Phillips with a grin. "They think I'm
dead! They must think my crew and I drowned when they sank the
"How did you survive?" asked Natasha, curious.
The American flexed his muscles. "It's no great trick to stay afloat in
these waters if you're reasonably fit. And there were plenty of ships
passing by on their way through the Torres Straights. It was only a matter
of time before someone picked us up."
"You said my brother was aboard. What became of him?"
"Oh, he'd left the ship a few days earlier."
"Left ship?" asked Natasha in alarm.
"Vanished from his cabin, without even leaving a note," said Phillips
wryly. "And it wasn't the first time. I imagine he'll turn up again when
he's ready. But that's why I make him pay in advance."
"You'd met him before?" asked Natasha. "When? Where?"
Phillips contemplated his pipe reflectively. "The first time would have been
on Java. That was two years ago, just after Black Gold won the Kentucky
Derby. He was wandering the docks of Batavia, trying to find passage to
Australia. This was just asking for trouble -- a newcomer to the Pacific
trying to find an honest skipper in one of the most notorious ports in the
Dutch East Indies -- so I took pity on him and gave him a ride."
Natasha gave the skipper a heartwarming smile. "That was very noble of
you, Captain Phillips. How was he?"
"It's hard to say," said Phillips. "Sometimes he seemed vague and
otherworldly. At other times he could be burningly intense."
"Yes," said the woman, as if to herself. "That's Karlov."
"He left ship in Cairns," said Phillips. "I spotted him the next time we
called. He was running with some rough characters -- there was a Russian
named Yakov whom I did not like at all. I tried to warn him, but he gave
me that cryptic smile of his and said he knew what he was doing.
"He dropped out of sight after that. We met again this May, at a town
called Broome on the shore of Roebuck Bay. I have no idea how he got there
or what he'd been doing during the intervening two years, but it was clear
he'd learned his way around. He bought passage to Darwin. When we reached
port, he was missing from his cabin! That was the first time he pulled
his Houdini act."
"Houdini act?" said Natasha.
"He's an American stage performer who..." Phillips studied the woman's
face, saw her incomprehension, and shook his head, "...never mind. There
were some shifty-looking individuals asking after your brother --
Russians, Germans, an Englishman, and that police chief -- but I saw which
way the wind was blowing and kept mum."
"Do you have any idea why they were after him?" asked Natasha. Iverson
thought there was something odd about her tone.
"Not a clue," said Phillips, "but it seems he gave them the slip. He turned
up again in June, when we called again Darwin heading west -- knocked on the
door to my cabin, without anyone noticing him come aboard. He seemed amused,
as if he'd just pulled off some coup. He wanted us to drop him off near the
mouth of the Prince Regent River and look for him again in a month."
Iverson did the calculation in his head. Broome and the Prince Regent River
both lay near the hidden Russian laboratory. If that had been Karlov's
destination, he must have left a few weeks before the Germans attacked the
place and returned shortly after they were gone.
This information was subject to several widely divergent interpretations.
"Did he make the rendezvous?" asked Natasha, obviously worried.
"Yes," said Phillips, "we picked him up July 12."
"Did he have any luggage?" asked Natasha.
The skipper glanced at her strangely. "I don't think he had more than a
satchel. And all he wanted was a short ride out to an island in the Timor
"Had he been living there all along?" asked Iverson incredulously.
Phillips laughed. "I doubt it. The place was little more than a rock. But
he could easily have hidden a boat there or arranged for another rendezvous.
That airship attacked us three days later. They must think they got away
with it. But they'll learn not to mess with a Yankee!"
As Iverson was heading back to his cabin that evening, he spotted Natasha
leaning against the rail, gazing toward the east. The moon was full, rising
above the horizon like a window into another world where anything was
possible. In its light, the woman looked small and vulnerable. She looked
up as she heard him approach.
"I wonder where Karlov is now," she said quietly.
Naval College might have been a peculiarly sheltered upbringing, but
Lieutenant Iverson was not entirely clueless about the ways of the human
heart. "You must miss him," he said.
The woman nodded. "We grew up in Odessa. Father was often away and Mother
was gone, so all we had was each other. He left for University in 1904,
when he was 14. I missed him terribly, but he wrote the most wonderful
letters about the places he went and the things saw. I remember one he sent
from Tunguska." She glanced at Iverson, as if that name should mean
something to him. "You could almost feel the snow and smell the pines."
Listening to the woman talk of events before the War, Iverson wondered how
old she was. Like many Eastern Europeans, her age was difficult to tell.
At times she showed world-weary poise that only years could provide. At
other times, she seemed innocent and unsure of herself.
"Do you think he's still alive?" she asked in a trembling voice.
"I imagine so," said Iverson, doing his best to sound reassuring.
"You're sure?" She rested a hand on his chest, leaned closer -- so close
that Iverson could smell her perfume, sense her breathing. He was keenly
aware that this was a woman. Instinct told him to reach out, hold her, and
comfort her, but thoughts of Sarah held him back.
She studied his expression, then turned away. "Ich kann es nicht,"
she muttered to herself.
Iverson wondered what she'd said. All of these foreign languages sounded
the same to him.
She patted his cheek.
"You're a good boy," she told him. "You must love her dearly." Then she
was running back to her cabin, footsteps echoing in the night.
Next week: Resupply...
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