Episode 232: You See One Airship, You've Seen A Moll
"What's the plan now, Boss?" asked Jake, from his station at the elevator
wheel. The gunman had developed an unexpected skill at ship-handling, and
now he was standing watches with the regular airmen.
Marty gazed north, in the direction of their coming landfall, then glanced
aft toward the airship's crew section, where their passengers were doubtless
engrossed in some plot.
"We'll call at Ternate," he announced. "Our Russian friends want to meet a
contact there, and Nettie will want to go shopping."
"What is it wit' the dames?" Jake complained. "Why do they always have ta'
"It's part of our evolutionary heritage," Books replied from the ballast
station. "Back in the Stone Age, the men went out to hunt large dangerous
animals while women stayed near the caves to forage for nuts and berries.
This gave women an instinct to collect..." His trailed off when he
noticed the other's blank expressions.
"That's great, Books," said Marty. "Since you know so much, you can
escort the lady."
The accountant opened his mouth to argue, then realized this would
probably be a mistake. "Yes, Boss," he sighed. "Anything you say."
Jake had noticed the direction of his boss's glance. "Those two Ruskies,"
he asked, "ya think they're an item?"
Marty snorted. Any relationship between their passengers was
conspiratorial rather than romantic. "Naw," he replied, "but I wonder
about this guy they're after. Why's he worth thirty grand to them?"
"Yer wondering if he might be worth more to us?"
The gangster smiled. "We might want to consider this angle. But no
word of this leaves the room." He turned to the skipper. "Al, how are
the new crewmen working out?"
The airman's long face looked thoughtful. "About like we expected," he
replied. "They ain't gonna win any prizes, but they know their jobs. And
that Aussie fellow, Starbuck, is shaping up good."
Fleming wasn't so sure about this. He could handle his duties well enough
-- he'd trained on airships of a similar vintage in the Service --
but their route wasn't carrying him back to Crown territory. Indeed, it
appeared to be taking them back the way he'd come. And it was clear by now
that the ship wasn't big enough for him and Nettie.
The moll seemed to be everywhere: strolling down a passageway, emerging from
a cabin, appearing around a doorway. Try as he might to ignore her, her
outfit was difficult to ignore, and the interior of an airship, with its
profusion of ladders, stairs, and companionways, gave a healthy young man
all too many glimpses of things to remind him that he was a healthy young
Was this unintentional or deliberate, he wondered? It was impossible to
tell. But either way spelled trouble. He'd listened to enough radio dramas
to know what happened to someone who got involved with a gangster's girl.
The vessel's arrival at Ternate came as a considerable relief. As soon as
the engines fell silent, Fleming joined the group who were waiting for
assignments ashore. The skipper announced these one by one, beginning with
the hardest. "We need a man to pick up supplies at the local market," he
began. "It's a long list, so..."
Fleming waved his hand. "I'll go, Captain!"
Ternate's port, at the foot of Mount Gamalama, was the Dutch administrative
center for the Moluccas -- the famed `Spice Islands' that formed the basis
for the East India Company's very considerable wealth. This gave the town
a somewhat ambiguous character. The area around Fort Oranye was a model of
order -- wealth tended to have this effect -- but neighborhoods became
increasingly questionable the farther one ventured away from the center of
By the time Fleming reached the market, he was having second thoughts about
his errand. As a child in Sydney, he'd divided Pacific islands into two
categories: Islander Islands -- flat, fringed by coral reefs, with white
sandy beaches and dusky island maidens -- and Cannibal Islands -- tall,
volcanic, with impenetrable jungles inhabited by people with disturbing
dietary habits. Ternate most definitely looked like one of the latter.
Its inhabitants might be Muslim, heirs of the long-vanished Sultanate, and
their religion might frown upon anthropophagy, but this did little to quell
the youth's misgivings. He strolled past the food stalls, doing his best
to look nonchalant, hoping no one would consider him part of the
His reflections on comparative cuisine were disturbed by a cry for
help. He rounded the corner of an abandoned fruit stall to see Nettie
struggling with two burly seaman. Books lay unconscious at their feet.
"'Ere, mates!" he yelled, "let go of that sheila!" Then, without
considering the odds... or the consequences of involving himself in such a
conventional cliche... he charged.
"Huh?" said one of the thugs.
"What's a... oof!" grunted the other as Fleming sunk his fist into the
A brief exchange of fisticuffs put the ruffians to flight. The youth
watched them go, then recoiled in surprise as Nettie threw herself into his
arms and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you, Fleming!" she whispered.
"You saved me!"
At first the Aussie didn't notice what she'd said. By the time her words
registered, she had stepped back to readjust her dress, such as it was.
"Pardon me," he began, "but you must be mistaken..."
"Mistaken about what?" said Books. The accountant was sitting up and
rubbing a bump on his head.
"Those goons were mistaken if they thought they could snatch us!" Nettie
said brightly. "Starbuck showed up and taught them a lesson!"
Books picked up his glasses, realized they were broken, then reached into
his jacket to remove another pair from the supply he kept for such
contingencies. Then he clambered to his feet.
"We'd better get back to the ship and tell Marty what happened," he
The atmosphere in the control car was tense with suspicion.
"Thanks, Starbuck," Marty said dryly. "Seems like you're handy with your
"Everyone likes a good bluey," said Fleming, trying to pass the matter
off as nothing.
"It's a good thing you just happened to be nearby when those bums showed
Fleming hid his alarm. He was getting in over his head. Did the gangster
think he'd set up the fight? He'd have to find some way to divert the man's
attention. "Strewth!" he replied, as sincerely as he could manage. "Who
d'ya reckon those wankers were after?"
The gangster seemed surprised by this question. "Whathca mean, kid?"
Fleming pretended to think this over. "They could have been after your
girl..." he mused, being careful to stress the word `your', "...but what
if they were after him?" He pointed toward Books. "Doesn't he handle the
Marty scratched his head. "That's an interesting angle, kid. You got a
good head on your shoulders. Get back to work while I think this over."
The gangster made a gesture of dismissal. Fleming left the control car
with a sigh of relief. As he mounted the ladder up to the hull, he risked
a quick look at Nettie. The moll gave him an incurious glance, then went
back to examining her fingernails.
What is she up to? thought Fleming.
She obviously hasn't told these people who I am.
Who is this woman and how does she know my name?
What have I gotten myself into?
Next week: A Less-Than-Perfect Union...
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