The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 71: The Dancer

A portrait of the dancer.

The island of Java was a timeless place, whose rich volcanic soil had sustained a succession of civilizations that stretched back to the dawn of history. Its present-day inhabitants were Malay -- followers of Mohammed for the most part, but old Buddhist temples still stood atop the hills, and legends told of even older structures hidden in the jungle.

The Dutch Naval Air Station at Jakarta was quite substantial, with dozens of masts, a long row of sheds, and extensive handling facilities. A detachment of the Fleet was in port along with the usual merchant traffic, so the Flying Cloud received little notice. Captain 'verett paid a courtesy visit to the attach´┐Ż then left MacKiernan in charge of refueling while he set off with Iverson and Sarah to visit the Countess.

The Zelle estate lay some distance away. Jenkins hired a car -- an aging Crossley 20/25 of uncertain origins, driven by a taciturn chauffeur -- but even so, the journey took several hours. The landscape through which they passed was intensely green, in dramatic contrast to Australia. Every square inch of the lowlands seemed devoted to cultivation. Even the hills were terraced for rice paddies.

"There must be quite a few people here on Java," remarked Iverson.

"Jenkins could tell you more," said Everett, "but I believe it's one of the most heavily-populated places on Earth."

"Who is this Countess?" asked Sarah.

"She's the Gravin Margaretha Zelle," answered Everett. "It's a new title, awarded after the War for reasons that have been the subject of some speculation. She's retired now, living as a planter, but in her youth, she gained considerable success in Paris as a dancer."

"A dancer?" asked Iverson. He might be young, but he could recognize a euphemism when he heard one.

"She had a number of companions," said Everett discreetly. "These included several high-ranking officers during the War. There was some question about how well she kept their confidences. This might have led to trouble if the conflict hadn't ended when it did."

The lieutenant's eyes widened. "She was a spy?"

The captain smiled. "This might be too strong a term. But she understood the value of information. As you are about to see."

Their driver had turned off onto a side road. This led through an ornate gateway with sign that said `Eye of the Day Tea', up a series of switchbacks, past slopes covered with close-set rows of bushes -- quite obviously Camellia Sinensis. It ended in front of a modest mansion built in the European style. A doorman took Everett's card and led them to a sitting room. A few minutes later a well-dressed servant appeared.

"Captain Everett," he announced, "I am Torrence, the Countess's butler. She will see you now."

Countess Zelle was a striking middle-aged woman with the figure and grace of a dancer. She dressed conservatively, but this did little to hide her almost tangible sensuality -- an animal magnetism that contrasted sharply with Sarah's comparative innocence. Her parlor smelled faintly of incense, and was draped with exotic tapestries that might have come straight from Arabian Nights. One wall held a portrait of a young woman in a jeweled headdress wearing little more than a veil. Iverson guessed this was the Countess as a youth. He noticed Sarah glaring at him and looked away quickly.

"Mata," said Everett, offering the woman a bow.

The Countess gave a cry of delight. "Captain Everett, how kind of you! You remember!"

"You haven't changed at all," said the captain gallantly.

The woman laughed. "You always were a charmer. It's good to see a face from the old days. What brings you to our island?"

"We're on the trail of a mystery," said Everett. With this prelude, he began a detailed explanation of everything they'd discovered. The Countess listened carefully, interrupting from time to time with a question.

"I've heard of these nationalists," she said when he was done. "They're said to be led by disgruntled veterans who feel their nation was betrayed by the Peace. One of these is rumored to have been a pilot during the War -- I wonder if this could be your 'Fat Man'. Unfortunately, I haven't heard much more. But I may know something about this Karlov. You are not the only ones looking for him. A few days ago, an Italian opera singer named Antonio Notariello was here on Java asking about the man."

An opera singer? wondered Everett. Could this be the same fellow who'd been at Enterprise Creek? Surely there couldn't be that many opera singers in the Southwestern Pacific. But this was a question for another time. "What can you tell us about Karlov?" he asked.

"I was married before the War," the Countess began, "to a Dutch Colonial officer here in the Indies." She made an expression of distaste. "Before we moved to the Netherlands, back in 1902, an anthropologist from the University of Odessa named Karolek Solovyov visited this region to study its indigenous cultures. He had an assistant named Yakov: an ex-Army officer who had some ambitions as a singer. This Yakov was the type who'd do anything to get ahead, but my ex-husband had dealings with people of that sort, and they made a bargain to sell any artifacts Yakov could lay his hands on. This came to nothing, for it appears Solovyov had some experience that frightened him so badly he fled straight back to Russia.

"Two years ago, this Yakov reappeared in Jakarta. His dreams of fame had come to nothing, and now he was back in the East, like so many other failures. This time he was working for Karlov."

"What was this Karlov like?" asked Everett.

"He was a young idealist, betrayed by the world," said the Countess. Noticing the captain's expression, she patted his arm in sympathy. "Like Solovyov, he was from the University of Odessa, but I believe he was a physicist."

"A physicist?" said Iverson. "They study electromagnetism. What possible connection could such a fellow have with weapons?"

'Perhaps they needed him to operate the prospecting device -- this Müller Counter," mused Everett. "Where is this Yakov now?"

"He turned up dead," said the Countess. "In Cairns, about a month ago."

"In Cairns!" said Everett. "How do you know these things?"

The Countess smiled. "I have my sources. It appears that many people have agents in Cairns. Now you must stay for dinner. It's much too late for the drive back to Jakarta and it's not often I have a chance to play hostess."

Diner was followed by tea -- a black variety grown on the Countess's own estates. Everett found it mild with pleasant overtones, quite unlike some of the industrial-grade beverages he'd encountered in the Service. The Countess led the conversation, drawing out each of her guests in turn while she entertained them with tales of Paris before the War.

At last the hour grew late. "We'll put you in the south wing," she said to Iverson and Sarah. "Torrence will show you to your rooms. I'm afraid most of my staff is away for the Muharram festival, but if you ring loud enough, someone may hear you."

The two young people exchanged glances. It didn't take Everett much imagination to guess what they were thinking. They hurried after the servant like children rushing to unwrap their presents.

"That was kind of you," he said to the Countess after they were gone.

"It was the least I could do," she replied. "I doubt there's much privacy aboard an airship, and I remember what it was like to be young."

"You're still young, Margaretha" said Everett.

"Oh, Roland," she laughed. "We both know the truth. I can feel the years creeping on. But what about you?"

He smiled. "I don't have time for such things. My duties keep me busy."

She touched his arm. "Is this really true? You came to me because you know I hear stories. You can't imagine that I haven't heard yours."

Everett stared at one of the candles that stood on the table before him. Flames, he thought. They can burn away many things. Is there anything that can burn away these memories?

"You poor man," said the Countess softly. "It's only the honest ones who suffer. But tonight you can forget."

She rose, took his hand, and led him from the room. Behind them the candles burned low.

Next week: Back to Hostile Territory...

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