Episode 138: Unsportsmanlike Behavior
Chain rattled through the Viking Girl II's hawsepipe, echoing from
the shore. In the bow, the bosun raised his arm as the anchor struck bottom.
'Lȧngsam back!" ordered Helga. The screw churned slowly and the
steamer began to back down. Moments later the anchor bit and she came to a
'Hon hȧller!" cried the bosun.
"Alla stopp!" said Helga. As the sound of machinery faded, she
turned to her passengers. "This is Lifuka Island. Your Captain Cook call
it Friendly Island. This is where we take the secret cargo for the
Russians. We go ashore, see if it still there."
They'd anchored off Pangai, the principal -- in fact the only -- port on
the island. The place looked somewhat larger than MacKiernan had expected,
but then he hadn't expected much. Helga's crew had already readied a
lifeboat for the trip to the shore. They held the craft steady while their
captain and her guests clambered aboard, then bent to the oars, grinning
with enthusiasm. MacKiernan was at a loss to explain their attitude.
Nothing about their destination seemed to justify such an effort. Perhaps
they liked rowing.
Moments later, the bow grated against the sand. Miss Perkins sucked in her
breath as Helga hitched up her skirts and vaulted over the rail.
MacKiernan sighed inwardly. Is there anything that woman doesn't
disapprove of? he wondered. Expecting a rebuff, he reached up his hand
to help the secretary down to the beach.
To his great astonishment, she accepted it.
"Where did you deliver this secret cargo?" Abercrombie asked Helga after
everyone was ashore.
"To the warehouse north of town," said the captain. "We go there, find
Russians, get Helga's money. If they not pay, maybe we renegotiate
contract," she grinned and hefted her axe, as if to demonstrate the
negotiating strategy she intended to employ.
The four set off for the village, with Helga in the lead. Glancing over
his shoulder, MacKiernan noticed that the Swedes had heaved the lifeboat to
their shoulders and were carrying it up the beach. They seemed quite
pleased with themselves. He shook his head. Physical exercise might be
all very well, but surely this was carrying things to extremes. Miss
Perkins seemed to share his opinion.
The warehouse was little more than a dilapidated shed at the edge of town.
It proved empty of Russians. It also proved quite empty of wares. Its
two broad doors leaned open on their hinges and the floor was covered with
footprints and debris. It was clear someone had arrived here before them
to ransack the place.
Miss Perkins prodded some of the rubble with her toe, then glanced at
MacKiernan as if she suspected he might be responsible. "Do you think
this was the work of our friends the fascists?"
The Irishman shrugged. "These prints look fairly old. I imagine that
whoever left them was gone long before Fuller reached Eua. Let's see what
these local fellows can tell us."
A small group of onlookers had gathered to watch the visitors. From their
expressions, MacKiernan gathered that this was the most exciting thing that
had happened in Pangai for quite some time. He spotted an Englishman among
the crowd -- a middle-aged fellow who might have been a plantation manager
or shopkeeper -- and approached him.
"Excuse me," he asked politely. "We were wondering if you could tell us
what became of the contents of this establishment?"
"A scandal, that's what it was!" said the man, shaking his fist. "A band of
German ruffians showed up on an airship a month ago and broke into the
place. What's this world coming to when passing airmen can swoop in and
plunder warehouses on peaceful islands such as this? It's a good thing it
"Empty?" asked MacKiernan.
"Yes!" said the man smugly, "Igor and his colleagues departed on a freighter
a few weeks earlier -- that would have been the Predpriyatie.
Serves those Huns right!"
"Has anyone else been here to ask about the place?" asked Miss Perkins.
"Not that I can recall," said the man. "Unless you count that fellow with a
"A scar," said Miss Perkins in a flat voice.
"Showed up here the day before yesterday, poked around for a day, then took
off. Never did find out how he got here. Mister Dark, he said his name
was," the man added helpfully.
The secretary glanced pointedly at MacKiernan. The Irishman had seen
daggers that were less sharp. "It would seem our adversaries have preceded
us," he observed, doing his best to sound unconcerned, "but they still have
to find this Predpriyatie. Miss Helga, do you know this vessel?"
"Ya," said the captain, "that Captain Tserkov's ship." She turned to the
shopkeeper. "You know where they headed?"
"I can't tell you that!" The man seemed scandalized. "That's proprietary
The Swedish woman grinned, handed her axe to Abercrombie, and clapped an
arm around the shopkeeper's shoulders. "You go back to ship," she told her
companions. "Helga buy this man a drink!"
Evening found MacKiernan and Miss Perkins leaning on the deckhouse rail,
watching the island slide by to starboard. Helga had returned an hour after
she'd left them, ordered steam raised, and gotten the ship underway. From
her smile, it was obvious she'd obtained the information she wanted. He
didn't care to speculate how she might have accomplished this.
"I'm not sure I approve of that woman," said Miss Perkins haughtily.
MacKiernan stifled a laugh. Somehow he wasn't the least surprised.
"Miss Helga does have a certain way about her," he admitted.
"How did she get to be so..."
"Unrestrained?" ventured the Irishman.
"I daresay," replied the secretary. Then, unexpectedly, her expression
softened. "I'd like to thank you for looking out for me these past few
weeks, Commander," she said. "I know it must have been difficult at times."
Difficult! thought MacKiernan. You've been bloody
impossible! But this sentiment seemed somewhat undiplomatic. "It's
been my pleasure," he replied politely, drawing on the skills that had seen
him through any number of performance reviews.
She chuckled, catching him by surprise, and turned to face him.
"MacKiernan," she asked softly," do you ever wonder what might have
happened if things had been different?"
"Different?" he asked, as if he hadn't been wondering exactly the same
"These circumstances that keep us at odds," she replied. "Your loyalty is
to your captain, as it should be, while mine..." She paused and her eyes
widened as if she'd spotted something over his shoulder.
"Commander!" she cried, "What's that?"
He spun to see a periscope slip beneath the waves. In front of it, a line
of foam was streaking toward their ship, straight as an arrow.
"Begorrah! It's a torpedo!" he cried, sprinting toward the
wheelhouse. "You there, Helmsman! Hard to port! Harda babord!"
The freighter swung with agonizing slowness. For a moment, MacKiernan
feared this wouldn't be fast enough. Then the torpedo was foaming past
to starboard, so close he imagined he heard the high-pitched whine
of its propeller. It dwindled astern, struck the reef, and exploded,
tossing fragments of coral high into the air.
He stared, stricken, at the place the periscope had been. "A submarine,"
he whispered. "Those diabhalta cladhaires have a submarine!"
Unbidden, a host of memories came flooding back: that terrible day the
telegram arrived, the rain,
the circle of mourners,
the empty casket, the broken heart.
Beside him, Miss Perkins must have sensed what was going through his mind,
for she laid a hand on his arm. "Oh, Fergus," she said helplessly.
"After all you lost, to have to face something like this.
You poor man."
Next week: Steamplunk...
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