Episode 417: Thumper Fidelis
The passage to Espiritu Santo might have been quicker than the one to
Rennell Island, but it wasn't particularly more comfortable. The HMS
Thumper's accommodations extended the definition of the word
`accommodate' in novel and imaginative directions, and the vessel did
her best to live up to her name in any kind of chop. The result
compared unfavorably with being rolled down a rock-strewn slope in a
By the time they reached Luganville, the voyage had lost much of its charm.
The gunboat's off-duty crew lined the rail, gazing longingly at the land,
while their fellows snuck glimpses of the shore whenever they could.
Peters saw no reason not to grant them leave. Like any good captain, he
felt concern for his men's welfare, and keeping them aboard might violate
some of the conventions on the conduct of war that nations were negotiating
"What are your intentions?" he asked Fenwick as his sailors -- accompanied
by his single marine -- climbed the gangway to the wharf.
"We know that the Viking Girl II picked up a cargo of lumber
here," Fenwick observed. "I'll attempt to learn if this is where Miss Kim
joined the vessel. If she was already aboard, I will determine the
vessel's previous port of call."
Peters frowned -- it seemed he'd been hoping for a more exciting plan of
action. "Would you like me to accompany you?"
"That might not be to our advantage," Fenwick told him. "If Miss Kim's
pursuers have agents on this island, the appearance of a naval officer might
cause them some alarm. I shall pose as a civilian, continuing in the
disguise I used in Cooktown and Samarai Island.".
"Surely they'll connect you with the gunboat," noted Peters.
"I shall endeavor to allay any suspicions this may arouse."
Fenwick began his investigation with a visit to Luganville's harbor office.
This proved unproductive, for the arrangement by which France and England
shared administration of the port allowed some things, such as systematic
record-keeping, to slip though the cracks. The dockworkers and shopkeepers
along the waterfront weren't significantly more informative. It seemed the
Viking Girl II was such a frequent visitor that they got her
previous ports of call confused.
Abandoning the waterfront as an unprofitable venue, Fenwick began his round
of the lumber companies. These were more numerous than he'd expected -- it
seemed there wasn't much for people to do on Espiritu Santo except cut down
trees and eat their lunch. The lumberjacks were more colorful than their
equivalents back in England, and when he glanced into some of the bars,
Fenwick noted some imaginative alternatives to the traditional dungarees
and flannel shirts.
At last the signalman's inquiries led him to the Pacific Albion Hardwood
Company. This was a sizeable establishment, complete with a small air
station for the blimps that carried wood from the interior. The manager was
the very picture of an unscrupulous businessman, with a build that suggested
he appreciated island cooking. He offered Fenwick the same sort of
handshake villains in radio dramas must use when persuading some widow to
sign a mortgage.
"Welcome to Pacific Albion!" he announced. "I'm Steven Brannon, manager of
this fine establishment. Can I interest you in some hardwoods?"
"Not today, thank you," Fenwick said politely. "My name is John Stead. I'm
an inspector for the Imperial Bureau Of Fisheries, visiting in my official
The man seemed perplexed by this revelation. As well he might. "Whatever
are you here for?" he asked in amazement. "This is a lumber yard, not a
"That is true," Fenwick admitted, "but your product gets loaded aboard
ships, and ships may also carry fish. By tracing the movements of the
former, we can hope to uncover irregularities in the latter."
The manager made a pretense of thinking this over, then nodded as if it made
sense. Even in this out-of-the-way corner of the Pacific, it seemed people
understood how bureaucracies behaved.
"How may I help you?" he asked.
Fenwick reached into his attaché case to produce the list he'd made up
that morning. "We've been tracing the movements of several freighters that
might have been carrying illicit cargoes of seafood," he said. "Have you
sold lumber to any of these vessels? Consider your answer carefully. The
fisheries bureau has a long arm, and consequences of defying it can be
The man may or may not have been intimidated by this threat, but it did seem
to put him off balance. "The only vessel I've dealt with recently was the
Viking Girl II." he replied defensively.
Fenwick made a dismissive gesture. "They aren't on our list of suspects, so
they're of no concern to us unless they called here from..." he paused
dramatically, "...the Solomon Islands."
The manager shook his head in relief. "Their last port of call was
Fenwick was too well-trained to whistle as he made his way back to the
harbor, but he was pleased with the day's work. The next step would be to
examine the Almanac and consult the entry on Aneityum. He was speculating
about the name, wondering if it referred to a village or an island, when he
was accosted by four well-dressed men carrying truncheons. They handled the
weapons diffidently, as if uncomfortable to be seen with anything so
"So, Professor!" crowed their leader. "It seems that we have found you!"
Now it was Fenwick's turn to be perplexed. "Whatever are you talking
about? I'm a fisheries inspector, not a professor!"
"So you would have us believe," said the man, "but we have seen through your
clever disguise! Come along peacefully or matters will go hard for you."
"'Ere!" called voice from behind them. "Enough o' that!"
They turned to see the Thumper's marine scowling at them with his
hands on his hips. The leader of the assailants favored the man a with
stern glance. "I will trouble you not to interfere," he said icily.
The marine snorted, picked up a stray bit of timber and hefted it in his
hand. "If ye' don't clear out, I'll give ye' a bit o' trouble wi' this."
"We outnumber you," warned the assailant.
"That's as may be," the marine said lightly, "but I'm a Royal Marine, the
missus left me the other day, I spent the morning drinking, and I'm
looking fer a row."
The assailants glanced at each other.
"He does have some compelling arguments," one of them noted.
"I daresay," agreed another.
"We might not wish to pursue this discussion to a conclusion," observed a
The leader thought this over, then sighed and tipped his hat to the marine.
"Good day, sir," he said. "We'll be on our way now."
Fenwick watched the men depart, then turned to his rescuer. "Thank you for
your intervention," he told the marine. "It was quite timely."
"Think nothing of it, sir," said the marine, in an entirely different accent
from the one he's used during the encounter. "I was acting at Lieutenant
Peters' suggestion. He thought you might benefit from some assistance."
"Even so, I appreciate your appearance," said Fenwick, "and I'm sorry to
hear of your domestic troubles."
The marine seemed confused for a moment. Then he chuckled. "Oh, right,
that bit," he replied. "I made that all up. That Roosevelt chap over
in the Colonies might have gone on about carrying a big stick, but
according to Sun Tzu, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy
Next week: Truk Stop...
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