Episode 223: A Refreshing Hike
The trail up the side of the volcano was anything but easy. It began with a
stiff climb through the jungle, past clinging undergrowth and overhanging
vines. As it ascended, this gave way to thick brush, burnt stumps and ashes,
and finally to a slope of recently-congealed lava. Fleming could understand
why Fuller's men hadn't come this way. Life aboard a submarine offered
little opportunity for cardio-vascular conditioning.
For that matter, neither did life aboard an airship. By the time he
approached the top, the Aussie was growing winded. Why had the islanders
built this trail, he wondered, and where did it lead? He imagined some
pagan temple where priests threw virgins into the volcano, then discarded
this hypothesis as unlikely. It didn't account for the challenge of finding
suitable candidates for the ritual in a culture notorious for its sensuality.
There was also a matter of geology. The interior slope was unlikely to be
steep enough for throwing, and somehow `rolling virgins into the volcano'
didn't seem quite as satisfactory.
A final scramble brought him to the rim of the crater. The lava here had
frozen into fantastic shapes as it cooled, like a menagerie of petrified
monsters. Some sections looked quite recent, broken by fissures where
wisps of smoke rose and streamed away to the north. Others seemed older,
their features softened by wind, rain, and time. The trail led along one
of the latter sections, ending at an anonymous tin shack. The structure
looked surprisingly ordinary in this lunar landscape. A small
wind-powered generator stood nearby. Fleming noticed that both were well
behind the military crest, where they'd be hidden from observers near the
shore, but it was impossible to tell if this was deliberate.
The windmill was a Comet, from the new factory near Sydney.
The airman studied it, unable to imagine how anyone could have manhandled it
up the trail he'd just climbed. The shack seemed equally inexplicable.
Could these things have been brought here by airship? Who would do such a
thing, and why? He knocked on the door, but the place seemed deserted. At
last, with a shrug, he lifted the latch and pushed his way inside.
"What the devil?" he muttered.
Fleming wasn't sure quite what he'd anticipated -- more tennis rackets and
shrunken heads, perhaps -- but he'd at least expected the place to have a
floor. Instead, he found a shallow pit, gouged out of the lava with pick
and shovel. The excavation was lined with a circle of pegs, from which
someone had strung cords to form a grid. It looked, more than anything
else, like an archaeological dig, but it was difficult to imagine what they
could have been looking for near the lip of an active volcano.
He examined the floor of the excavation for artifacts. It seemed
entirely empty. Either the diggers had made off with its contents, or
there had never any to begin with.
Somehow the latter seemed more likely.
Abandoning the pit, he turned his attention to the interior walls of the
shed. These were not particularly informative. Some were fitted with
shelves that might once have held electrical apparatus, but all that remained
of this were a few cables and wires. At last, in a corner of the floor, he
spotted a flat rectangular object half-hidden in the shadows.
Oy, he thought, what's this?
The object proved to be a small sketchbook. Its contents were singularly
cryptic -- a succession of diagrams he supposed were meant to represent
different levels of the excavation. These were marked with comments such as
`crescent-shaped scraper', `tualua icon', and `deer-like form'. In one
place, he found a scrap of paper that might have served as a placemark. The
page seemed no different from the rest. Holding the paper up to the light,
...too many differences. I can't tell what they mean.
The airman frowned. Neither could he. Then he noticed that someone had
torn off a page just before the final sketch and picked away at the remains to
hide the fact that a leaf was missing. This did not seem like usual
practice for a field scientist. He slipped the book inside his shirt.
Perhaps Jenkins could make something of it when he got back to the ship.
His thoughts were interrupted by the blast of a steam whistle. He stepped
back outside to see an island freighter coming to anchor some distance
offshore. Craning his eyes, he could just make out the name
Bonzer! he thought. I've been rescued! And he remembered
this ship. This was the one with the beer!
The flight to from Aneityum to Guadalcanal had taken the N-109 a day. Now
she rode from the commercial airship mast at Aolo while Marty and some of his
boys followed Vlad inland. Nettie, predictably, had left the ship on a
mission of her own.
"You think she'll be OK, Boss?" asked Craig.
Marty nodded. "I sent Jake along, just in case. He knows better than ta mess
wit' her, and these mugs..." he gestured at the islanders they were passing,
'...should know better than ta mess wit' him."
The other man scratched his head. "What is it with the dames, Boss? Why do
they always have ta go shopping?"
"Ya got me," said Marty. "I guess there's some things man wasn't meant ta
The trail brought them to small cane plantation. To their left, several
laborers dozen in the shade of a wagon. To their right, a plantation house
stood beneath the trees. The door was answered by a servant, who nodded when
he recognized Vlad.
"She's waiting," he announced.
The servant led them to parlor where a stocky Russian woman in her
mid-twenties sat attended by two stern-looking gentleman. By their bearing,
it seemed tthe men had once held military rank, but there was no doubt who
was in charge.
"Anna," Vlad said with a smile. "I am here, as I promised." He crossed the
room to take the proffered hand, then turned to Marty and his henchmen.
"Gentleman," he told them. "This is Anna. She is our associate in this
Marty noted the obvious warmth between Vlad and the woman. Who was she, he
wondered, and why were they so close? Perhaps they were exiles together.
He understood there'd been some kind of revolution in Russia, but like most
Americans, he had little awareness of events outside his own country. And
he had more important things to discuss.
"What is this `business'?" he asked.
The two Russians exchanged glances. Vlad gave the woman a
"There's a man we wish to talk to," she told them. "He will be traveling on
a certain freighter. We want you to bring him here."
"So it's a snatch job," said Marty.
It took the woman a moment to understand. "Our agents on board will do the
'snatching' as you put it," she said. "But this man has a way of slipping
out of people's hands. That's where you come in. There's no way he can
escape from an airship."
"What's in it fer us?" asked Marty.
"Fifteen thousand now," said Vlad, " and another fifteen on delivery."
The gangster whistled. "Thirty large? You got yourself a deal, lady.
What's this man's name?"
The Russian's expression was fierce. "Karlov."
"Why are they after this gent?" asked Al when they were back at the ship.
"I dunno," Marty replied cheerfully, "And I'm not askin' as long as we get
the dough. Can we manage the flights?"
The skipper flipped through his figures. The prospect of a challenging
operation had brought some life to his bloodshot features. "The schedule
shouldn't be hard," he replied. "This baby might not be fast, but she's
fast enough. I'm more worried about ship handling. This could get tricky,
and your boys don't have much experience."
Marty thought this over, "We kin afford a few more men. How many do you
The skipper rubbed his chin. "One could be enough, if he's good. And I
think I know where to look."
Next week: Could He Possibly Know What He's Doing?...
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