Episode 145: Rabaul Without a Pause
They circled the spot where they'd dropped the depth charges, looking for
some sign of the submarine. Great shoals of fish, killed by the explosion,
had floated to the surface, where flocks of gulls squabbled over the
There was no oil slick or debris to suggest the vessel had been hit, but
MacKiernan doubted her commander would be in any particular hurry to
Satisfied that they'd driven away one opponent, the Swedes headed to where
they'd left the other. By now the hapless torpedo boat had slipped beneath
the waves. Her crew bobbed above the place she'd gone down, clutching life
preservers with the stoic indifference characteristic of English-speaking
peoples everywhere. Helga's men fished the Australians from the water,
brought them below, and handed out tots of rum. There were two dozen men
all told: all enlisted ranks. Their leader -- a crusty old bosun built
according to a plan that was old when Nelson was young -- raised his glass
"Arvo! Good of you to pick us up, seeing our skipper was out to scupper
"It seemed the charitable thing to do," observed MacKiernan. "What became
of your officers? Did they drown before we could reach you?"
"Hardly!" spat the bosun. "Those sooks nicked off in the motor launch and
left us behind."
"Do you have any idea why they meant to attack us?"
"Not a clue, mates. We thought our skipper had gone troppo."
"That would have been Lieutenant Commander Hinton?" asked Miss Perkins.
"No," said the bosun. "The Exec took us out today. It seems the Old Man
was feeling a bit crook this morning."
"Ha!" said Helga, from atop the crate where she'd been sharpening her axe.
"What's this all about?" asked the bosun. "Why was old Hinto after you
MacKiernan shook his head and did his best to look enigmatic. "It's a Naval
Intelligence matter," he announced. "Quite hush-hush. We may have to hold
you incommunicado until it's been resolved."
The bosun scratched his head, as if puzzling out a foreign language. "Will
we draw shipboard pay?" he asked.
"In accordance with RNR 283-171, `Remuneration Schedules for Enlisted
Personnel Interned Aboard Swedish Merchant Ships During Peacetime'."
"And will there be beer?"
"I believe this can be arranged."
The Aussie cracked a wide smile. "No worries, mate!"
After they'd arranged accommodations for the Australians, Helga's crew set
to work altering the Viking Girl II's appearance. By noon the next
day they'd shifted the lifeboats and davits aft, stripped and varnished the
wheelhouse, remounted the ventilators, and repainted the bulwarks and
funnel in the colors of the American-Asiatic Steamship Company. MacKiernan
marveled at their efficiency. The accumulation of small changes left the
vessel quite unrecognizable. Where had they learned this skill, he
wondered, and to what end did they usually employ it?
"We forging the papers too," said Helga cheerfully. "Now we the Honest
Gentleman, out of New York. This good disguise. American traders go
"Won't the Germans wonder about yer accents?" asked Abercrombie.
"No," laughed Helga. "America is land of immigrants. Everyone there is
having the accents!"
"Do you think she can get away with it?" MacKiernan asked Abercrombie that
"She might," said the rigger. "That lassie's quite... uh... capable. And
her men seem to know what they're doing. I ken they've done this afore."
"Would you be willing to put some money on it?"
"Aye," laughed the Scotsman. Then he frowned. "I'd be happier if I knew
how those lads from the British Union keep finding us. They were waiting
for us in Bougainville. D'ye ken someone in the crew's been givin' out
wuid of our doings?"
MacKiernan shook his head. Helga's men might have some unusual character
traits, but disloyalty wasn't among them. "That seems unlikely."
The Scotsman pursed his lips. "That doesnae leave many possibilities." He
glanced toward the secretary's cabin.
"You suspect Miss Perkins?" said MacKiernan.
"It's not as if we've been keeping watch on the lass. And when I think
back, it seems that every time the fascists showed up, she was somewhere
MacKiernan reviewed the events of the past six weeks, beginning with the
mole in Cairns who'd passed information to Blacker, and ending with their
encounters on Eua, Lifuka, and Buka. With a sinking heart, he realized that
the Scotsman was right. The secretary had had plenty of opportunity to pass
messages. Even the kidnapping in the New Hebrides could have been a ruse
to contact their opponents.
"But Fuller tried to sink us," he protested, grasping at straws. "Why would
she cooperate in her own destruction?"
"She might not hae known what the fellow was planning."
MacKiernan turned away to hide his expression. No! he thought
desperately. Not Alice! Surely not Alice!
"All right," he said in a flat voice. "We'll keep an eye on her."
They raised land at New Guinea early the next morning.
Soon they'd passed through Saint George's Channel to enter Blanche Bay.
Rabaul looked much the same as ever. Smoke still trailed from the summits
of Tavurvur and Vulcan. Simpson Harbor was still filled with shipping
from a dozen nations. No one noticed another freighter as she threaded her
way past the anchored vessels toward town.
Continuing their deception, they tied up to the commercial wharf and began
to unload cargo. Derricks whined and longshoremen shouted orders as they
swung crates ashore. Helga and her purser -- a burly Swede named Hrolf --
watched the operation begin, then set off for the warehouse district to do
some discreet information-gathering and learn what was for sale.
All day long, MacKiernan kept his people on board the Viking Girl
II, hoping to avoid explanations. He was standing near the head of
the gangway, watching the throng below, when Miss Perkins tracked him down.
"When will we go ashore to make some inquiries of our own?" she asked.
"I'm... not sure," he replied, doing his best to sound convincing. "I
worry that we might be recognized."
She smiled uncertainly. "Why, Mister MacKiernan, do you think I'd give us
He struggled to find an answer, but he'd never been good at deception. She
must have noticed, for her face darkened.
"You don't suspect me, do you?" she asked incredulously.
He opened his mouth to speak, but then she was stepping backwards.
"You do!" she cried. "After all we've been through together, all that we've
shared, you don't trust me!"
"Alice..." he began helplessly. Before he could finish, she was running
down the gangway, eyes brimming with tears. He started after her, but by
the time he reached the wharf, she'd vanished into the crowd.
He was still standing there, trying to grasp how things could have gone so
suddenly and terribly wrong, when Helga appeared beside him.
"Good news!" she announced. "We've found them!"
Next week: That's What Happens When You Screw Around...
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