Episode 237: There's Something Special About That Girl
Fleming was making his way aft to check ballast tank levels when Nettie
stepped out from behind a frame junction. He realized at once, from her
manner, that the encounter was planned. It was brusque and businesslike,
entirely unlike her pose as a moll.
"Fleming," she announced crisply. "I have a job for you."
"You must be mistaken," he protested, "my name is..."
"Peter Fleming, Airman First Class, Royal Navy Airship Service, Service
Number AU86012," she snapped. "Enlisted at Sydney, March 1922. Posted to
'aptain Everett's command in 1925. We don't have time for games, so shut
up and listen."
Fleming shut up. He knew when he was at a disadvantage. Also, he was dying
to find out what was going on.
"You have met our passenger: the Russian woman who goes by the name of
'Anna'," said Nettie.
"Dinki-di," Fleming replied. "What's her real..."
"That," said Nettie, "is none of your concern. She keeps a document in her
stateroom. I need you to find this and make a copy of several passages."
The Aussie began to whistle, then thought better of it. Sounds carried
strangely inside an airship. "That sounds a bit crook," he observed. "I
can't just waltz in for a Captain Cook. She might be inside with Vlad having
Nettie studied him for a moment. Was that a trace of a smile? "You
won't..." she replied "...end up in a gum tree. Anna will be in the mess
hall enjoying a tin of Beluga caviar that just happened to turn up in the
commissary. Vlad will be on the bridge with Marty and the boys, discussing
our next move."
Fleming nodded. It wasn't as if he had much choice in the matter. He had
no doubt what would happen if he tried to betray Nettie's plan to the
gangsters. Her gender would give her an insurmountable advantage in the
ensuing confrontation. And for all he knew, her interests might coincide
"What does this document look like?" he asked.
"It will be a book, bound in dark leather, with a coat of arms in the cover."
"Where's your camera? And how will I take photographs inside the stateroom?
A flash could catch someone's eye and it doesn't sound like I'll have a
chance for time exposures."
"You won't need a camera," she told him. "The book will contain entries in
Cyrillic. Most of these should be unmarked, but some will be crossed out and
others will be circled, with notes beside them in the margins. You just need
to record which ones are circled and copy the notes."
"I don't read Cyrillic," said Fleming, fishing for information.
The woman gave him a hard stare -- it seemed his ploy had not gone unnoticed.
"That won't be necessary," she replied curtly. "I only need copies, not
translations. But there's one more thing. After you've finished, leave the
book out on table."
This seemed like a strange request to Fleming, but he wasn't in a position to
argue. "Bob's your uncle."
A short time later, the Aussie was creeping along the longitudinal girder that
ran next to the passenger staterooms.
These were not cabins in the ordinary sense of the term. To reduce weight,
their walls were fashioned from thin sheets of aluminum -- more like walls of
a tent than those of a room. These would be difficult to force without
leaving a trace.
He halted next to the outer wall of Anna's stateroom and felt for the
fastenings that held the panel in place. On an English ship, it would have
been secured with a businesslike row of #8 machine screws, but he had no way
of knowing what to expect from the French, so he'd brought a dillybag filled
with tools. At last, after some groping in the dim light that filtered
the hull, he identified a set of lever-operated clips.
Bonzer! he thought. That'll make my job easier! Clever, those
Moments later, he was inside the compartment. Its furnishings were well-made,
but Spartan -- a bunk, a lamp, and a table that doubled as a nightstand and
writing desk. They offered little scope for concealment, and it didn't take
him long to find the book he was looking for hidden beneath a mattress. He
flipped on his hand lamp to examine it.
The coat of arms on the cover was much as she'd described: a two-headed eagle
holding what looked like a billiard ball in one talon and a cue in the other.
This looked familiar, but he couldn't recall where he'd seen the emblem
before. From the layout of the entries and the family crests printed beside
them, he imagined this was a book of genealogies -- a Russian equivalent of
Burke's Peerage, perhaps. If this was true, the first entries would almost
certainly be for the late Czar and his family. He noted that all but one
were crossed out.
The remaining entry listed a date of 1901, which suggested its subject would
be in his or her mid-20s by now.
He glanced toward the mess hall. This was food for thought.
Flipping through the rest of the volume, he found that a dozen or so entries
had been circled. Several words recurred in the marginal notes -- place
names, perhaps? He needed some way to record them. Reaching into his
jacket, he pulled out the journal he'd found on Serua, ripped out one of the
blank pages at the back, and slipped it beneath the first leaf of the notepad
Nettie had given him. Then he began to write, pressing hard enough to make
an impression on both sheets. Now he'd have a copy for his own use, and
Nettie would be none the wiser... unless she'd happened to listen to the
same radio drama.
No one disturbed him while he copied the text -- a tribute to Nettie's
planning. He wondered where she'd found the caviar. Did she buy it in
Hollandia or did she maintain a supply of such things to distract potential
targets? Neither alternative was reassuring. At last he was finished.
Before he left the stateroom and replaced the wall panel, he set the book
on the table as he'd been instructed.
What, he wondered, is that supposed to accomplish?
He found out sooner than he expected. He'd just returned to the control
car and handed Marty the ballast figures when Anna came storming down the
companionway, walked up to the gangster, and glared.
"Someone broke into my cabin and rummaged through my papers!" she announced.
"I demand you find the culprit!"
Marty gazed back in annoyance. It seemed he had little use for exiled
Russian aristocrats. "It wasn't one of the crew," he told her. "The
off-duty watch couldn't have left their bunks without being noticed, the
mechanics were in the engine cars, and Starbuck here was back in the tail
section, checking the ballast tanks." He hefted Fleming's log as evidence of
the latter. Nettie had done an excellent job of forging his handwriting --
another intimidating display of expertise.
"What about your henchmen?" Anna asked.
"The boys were all here on the bridge with me and Vlad," said Marty, "and
they stuck around after he went back to his cabin."
The woman's eyes widened in suspicion. "When did he leave?" she asked.
Marty shrugged. "I don't keep tabs on yer boyfriend, lady," he replied.
"You wanna know, ask 'im yerself."
Anna stared at the gangster, then spun on her heel and left. Fleming
watched the woman go, marveling at Nettie's skill. In one simple move,
she'd managed to obtain information she wanted, tighten her hold over him,
and drive a wedge of mistrust between the Russians and the gangsters and
between the Russians themselves.
What the devil is she after? he asked himself. This must be
about that Karlov chappie, but is she trying to help him or hurt him?
Next week: There Are Several Different Approaches...
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