The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 91: A Tale of the South Pacific

A chart of the Marshall Islands, with quaint knickknacks

"Ujelang?" asked Iverson.

Howard Philips unrolled the poster he'd taken from the bar and spread it across the chart table. It showed a model clad in a scandalously short-skirted maillot posing on a beach. The setting was distinctly tropical, with brilliant white sand, a line of surf, and sea and sky that unique shade of blue found only in the South Pacific.

'My informant in Rabaul told me that the Inselm�chen carried photographers to an island in the Marshalls to take pictures for some sportswear company. I believe we've found our island." He pointed at the legend, which proclaimed. "You Look Better in a Ujelang!"

"You think the nationalists are using the place as a base?" asked Iverson.

"I'm sure of it. But we can't just barge in there and hope for the best. We'll want to case the joint first."

Iverson had never encountered this idiom before, but its meaning was clear. "How shall we accomplish this?"

The skipper walked over to shelf, picked up a curio -- a small carved figure of a winged frog with a peculiarly-shaped head-- and used it to weight down a chart of the German Marshall Islands. He studied this for a moment, then tapped one of the atolls with his pipe.

"We'll land here, at Kwajalein, and ask around. I know a few people on the waterfront who owe me some favors."

'Isn't that where the Inselm�chen is registered?" asked Iverson. "Surely the nationalists will be watching the place."

"They won't be looking for me!" said Phillips with a grin. "They think I'm dead! They must think my crew and I drowned when they sank the Tualua's Dream."

"How did you survive?" asked Natasha, curious.

The American flexed his muscles. "It's no great trick to stay afloat in these waters if you're reasonably fit. And there were plenty of ships passing by on their way through the Torres Straights. It was only a matter of time before someone picked us up."

"You said my brother was aboard. What became of him?"

"Oh, he'd left the ship a few days earlier."

"Left ship?" asked Natasha in alarm.

"Vanished from his cabin, without even leaving a note," said Phillips wryly. "And it wasn't the first time. I imagine he'll turn up again when he's ready. But that's why I make him pay in advance."

"You'd met him before?" asked Natasha. "When? Where?"

Phillips contemplated his pipe reflectively. "The first time would have been on Java. That was two years ago, just after Black Gold won the Kentucky Derby. He was wandering the docks of Batavia, trying to find passage to Australia. This was just asking for trouble -- a newcomer to the Pacific trying to find an honest skipper in one of the most notorious ports in the Dutch East Indies -- so I took pity on him and gave him a ride."

Natasha gave the skipper a heartwarming smile. "That was very noble of you, Captain Phillips. How was he?"

"It's hard to say," said Phillips. "Sometimes he seemed vague and otherworldly. At other times he could be burningly intense."

"Yes," said the woman, as if to herself. "That's Karlov."

"He left ship in Cairns," said Phillips. "I spotted him the next time we called. He was running with some rough characters -- there was a Russian named Yakov whom I did not like at all. I tried to warn him, but he gave me that cryptic smile of his and said he knew what he was doing.

"He dropped out of sight after that. We met again this May, at a town called Broome on the shore of Roebuck Bay. I have no idea how he got there or what he'd been doing during the intervening two years, but it was clear he'd learned his way around. He bought passage to Darwin. When we reached port, he was missing from his cabin! That was the first time he pulled his Houdini act."

"Houdini act?" said Natasha.

"He's an American stage performer who..." Phillips studied the woman's face, saw her incomprehension, and shook his head, "...never mind. There were some shifty-looking individuals asking after your brother -- Russians, Germans, an Englishman, and that police chief -- but I saw which way the wind was blowing and kept mum."

"Do you have any idea why they were after him?" asked Natasha. Iverson thought there was something odd about her tone.

"Not a clue," said Phillips, "but it seems he gave them the slip. He turned up again in June, when we called again Darwin heading west -- knocked on the door to my cabin, without anyone noticing him come aboard. He seemed amused, as if he'd just pulled off some coup. He wanted us to drop him off near the mouth of the Prince Regent River and look for him again in a month."

Iverson did the calculation in his head. Broome and the Prince Regent River both lay near the hidden Russian laboratory. If that had been Karlov's destination, he must have left a few weeks before the Germans attacked the place and returned shortly after they were gone. This information was subject to several widely divergent interpretations.

"Did he make the rendezvous?" asked Natasha, obviously worried.

"Yes," said Phillips, "we picked him up July 12."

"Did he have any luggage?" asked Natasha.

The skipper glanced at her strangely. "I don't think he had more than a satchel. And all he wanted was a short ride out to an island in the Timor Sea."

"Had he been living there all along?" asked Iverson incredulously.

Phillips laughed. "I doubt it. The place was little more than a rock. But he could easily have hidden a boat there or arranged for another rendezvous. That airship attacked us three days later. They must think they got away with it. But they'll learn not to mess with a Yankee!"

As Iverson was heading back to his cabin that evening, he spotted Natasha leaning against the rail, gazing toward the east. The moon was full, rising above the horizon like a window into another world where anything was possible. In its light, the woman looked small and vulnerable. She looked up as she heard him approach.

"I wonder where Karlov is now," she said quietly.

Naval College might have been a peculiarly sheltered upbringing, but Lieutenant Iverson was not entirely clueless about the ways of the human heart. "You must miss him," he said.

The woman nodded. "We grew up in Odessa. Father was often away and Mother was gone, so all we had was each other. He left for University in 1904, when he was 14. I missed him terribly, but he wrote the most wonderful letters about the places he went and the things saw. I remember one he sent from Tunguska." She glanced at Iverson, as if that name should mean something to him. "You could almost feel the snow and smell the pines."

Listening to the woman talk of events before the War, Iverson wondered how old she was. Like many Eastern Europeans, her age was difficult to tell. At times she showed world-weary poise that only years could provide. At other times, she seemed innocent and unsure of herself.

"Do you think he's still alive?" she asked in a trembling voice.

"I imagine so," said Iverson, doing his best to sound reassuring.

"You're sure?" She rested a hand on his chest, leaned closer -- so close that Iverson could smell her perfume, sense her breathing. He was keenly aware that this was a woman. Instinct told him to reach out, hold her, and comfort her, but thoughts of Sarah held him back.

She studied his expression, then turned away. "Ich kann es nicht," she muttered to herself.

Iverson wondered what she'd said. All of these foreign languages sounded the same to him.

She patted his cheek. "You're a good boy," she told him. "You must love her dearly." Then she was running back to her cabin, footsteps echoing in the night.

Next week: Resupply...

Comments about Episode 91? Start a new topic on the Forum!

StumbleUpon        submit to reddit Reedit