The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 141: Hello, My Sultry

Pulp fiction

I was leaning back in my chair, spinning a picture of a buffalo on the desk beside me, when she walked in. She had more curves than a Broadway chorus line, legs that didn't know when to quit, and a dress that quit too soon for my peace of mind. I could tell from the spear she carried that she meant business.

"Mister Straight?' she asked.

"That's what it says on the door," I answered.

"My name's Sarah. I'm looking for some friends. I'll pay you to find them."

In my line of work, women have lots of ways to get a man's attention. One is to say that magic word: `pay'. But before I took the case, I needed a bit more information.

"What were they doing here in Pago Pago?" I asked

"They were looking for dealers in used submarine parts, trying to track down some... purchases. We were supposed to meet at the Hotel when they were done, but they never showed up."

That would do for starters. I could tell the dame was hiding something, but that was her business. Mine was finding a way to pay the rent.

"Ten bucks a day plus expenses," I said. "First ten up front."

She handed me ten pictures of George Washington. I held one up to the light, then reached into a drawer, pulled out my piece -- a Savage Arms .38, if you want to know -- and slipped it into a pocket. "Used submarine parts?" I said. "There's quite a few dealers in this town. We'll start with Sami."

"Who's he?"

"Sami's not a he, she's a she."

Sami's shop was near the main wharf, where she could be one of the first to part the tourists from their money. She was a tough girl from western China -- some dump called Leng -- slim as a knife with eyes that were even sharper. Her main business was Polynesian artifacts, but she dealt the occasional depth gauge and gyrocompass on the side. A nice racket, if you aren't too picky where your goods come from.

We knew each other from way back. She'd helped me on a few cases, I'd helped her with a few deals, but that didn't mean we were friends. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked in the door.

"You're back!" she cried. "You lousy yuggoth-spawn! You have the gall to come here after the stunt you pulled with that jade necklace..."

"Now wait, Sami, let's not be hasty..."

I ducked as she picked an ashtray off her desk. Good thing I did. It made a deep dent on the doorframe a few inches below the last one. Good throwing arm on that girl.

"I'm here on business," I said, before she could follow the ashtray with something more to her taste, like a grenade.

"What kind of business?" she asked suspiciously.

"Sami, may I introduce my client, Sarah."

I could tell by the way the two dames exchanged glances that they hit it off at once. More trouble for Mama Straight's boy. I interrupted before they could decide what that trouble was.

"We're looking for gents," I said, "an Englishman and a Frenchman. They'll have been asking around the docks about... underwater merchandise."

Sami nodded. "They called the day before yesterday. Haven't seen them since, but someone's looking for them."

"Who?" I asked.

"It'll cost you," she said. "Three bucks."

I looked at my client. She shrugged and dug into her purse.

"A man named Klaus was here yesterday looking for a case of hydrostatic pistols," said Sami. "He mentioned those two, said it would be worth my while to pass word if I saw them."

"Klaus, eh?" I knew the man. Big as an ox, with a brain to match. There was no way he was operating on his own. "Who's he working for?"

Sami glanced both ways, then bent forward and lowered her voice. "Someone called the Fat Man."

I could tell from my client's reaction that she'd heard the name before.

"The Fat Man?" she cried. "Here? If he hurts John I'll kill him, strip the flesh from his bones, and feed it to the blind crawling things that dwell at the bottom of the Great Abyss!"

A good investigator can spot subtle clues like these.

"Who's this Fat Man?" I asked.

"He's a renegade German, leading a nationalist conspiracy bent on overthrowing the government. We've dealt with him before."

Renegade German nationalists. I didn't like the sound of this. But she'd paid up front, and I owed her a day's shoe leather. "Who's 'we'?" I asked. "Level with me, sister."

"We're British airmen -- or airwomen, as the case may be -- from His Majesty's airship R-505, the Flying Cloud. We put ashore two days ago on a launch to do some investigating."

Amateurs. It's people like these who keep me in business. "The Flying Cloud," I said. "Weren't you mixed up in that business on Ujelang?"

"That was the Fat Man's doing," she said. "And we want to make sure it doesn't happen again."

I didn't like the sound of this either, but rent was due next week.

"Let's go," I said, "we've got more dealers to visit."

Pago Pago is the place you go if you're looking for used submarine parts. And Neutral Buoyancy Street is where you'll find the best. It's lined with stalls that sell everything from periscopes to deck guns. My client stopped to look at one of the displays -- a neat little set of Mark VI practice torpedoes, still in the original packing.

"Where do they get all this merchandise?" she asked.

"Some of it's legit," I said. "The rest fell off a barge."

"And the authorities tolerate this?"

"This is business. And according to Mister Coolidge, the business of America is business."

She looked dubious. I didn't blame her. We may be living the good times now, but I wonder if we're headed for a fall.

Her friends hadn't made any attempt to hide themselves. Quite a few of the boys had seen them, but no one knew where they'd gone. That left one more potential lead, and it wasn't one I relished: Sami's chief competitor, Pete Marlin. I'd dealt with the man before, and I trusted the man about as much as I trusted any stool pigeon, which wasn't much.

Marlin's place was an old tin warehouse on the bad side of Pago Pago. It had seen better days, but this wasn't saying much -- for a place like that, any day would be better. The owner was as seedy as his establishment. Marlin wasn't his real name. He was a small-time punk from some town in New England who'd lit out for reasons unknown. Perhaps it was his looks. He had eyes only a fish could love, and an expression that could curdle milk.

"Straight!" he said, pretending he was glad to see me. "You looking for a diesel-generator pair? I have a nice unit. Eight hundred watts. New-style injector pump. No serial numbers."

"Another time," I said sharply. "This lady is looking for some friends. An Englishman and a Frenchman. They might have been here, looking for goods."

"Haven't heard of them," he replied in a voice as false as a three dollar bill.

"Funny," I said. "You may be the only one in town who hasn't. Let's try another question. You heard anything from the Fat Man?"

Marlin's face changed. Somewhere nearby, some neighbor's milk was curdling as well. His eyes strayed toward a drawer, but I got there in time to slam it on his fingers. I pulled out a neat little Colt .25 pocket pistol and an envelope.

"What have we here?" I said.

"That's personal correspondence!" he replied.

"And this is a personal gun," I said, jamming my .38 under his nose while my client opened the envelope. "What's inside?"

"There's half of a ticket and a scrap of paper with the words `Fijian Squidbat'."

I nodded. Pieces were beginning to fall into place. I ejected the magazine, cleared the chamber, and handed our fishy friend back his toy. "We'll be going now," I told him. "Don't try to follow if you know what's good for you."

"What does it all mean?" my client asked after we were outside.

"The ticket's part of a marker. Marlin must owe someone money, and it sounds like he's taken a job from the Fat Man to pay them off. But the other... we'll have to ask the Professor."

No one knew the Professor's real name. He'd retired from some university in New England and come out to the islands 'for the weather'. Or so he said. Me, I think it was the dames. His eyebrows went up when I mentioned what we'd found.

"The Fijian Squidbat," he said. "My colleague Professor Otkupshchikov wrote a monograph about the subject shortly after the War. It seems that back in the 11th century, under Tu'i Tonga Momo, the Tongans established an empire in this part of the Pacific and forced other islands to pay tribute. As part of its annual levy, Fiji was required to send the Tu'i Tonga a squidbat."

A squidbat? I'd never heard of the things. This might have been hot stuff to a bunch of eggheads, but it didn't get us any closer to solving the case.

"Thanks, Professor," I said. "That was very helpful. We'll be back when we have more questions."

I dropped my client off at her hotel, headed back to my office, and poured myself a glass of Mister Daniel's best. Then I sat back to do some thinking. The news about Ujelang had just made the rounds. Word was the entire island had blown up. Was this the Fat Man's doing? Was that why he wanted the hydrostatic pistols -- to set off some sort of bomb? What kind of bomb could destroy an entire atoll? I wondered if Mama Straight's boy was getting in over his head.

My drink was interrupted by a knock on the door. I opened it to see two of Pago Pago's finest holding a pair of war clubs like they were looking for an excuse to use them.

"Captain Willard wants to see you," said one. "Now."

Willard was as honest as they come in American Samoa. Which isn't saying much. He was a bald man in a cheap suit who wore shades indoors and smoked his cigarettes in a holder. When I arrived, he was studying a sheet of figures -- a racing form, perhaps.

"Heard you've been talking with Ho and Marlin," he said.

"Maybe I have, maybe I haven't," I said. "What's it to you?"

"They've gone missing. This looks suspicious, since you were known to be on bad terms with both of them. Unless you can answer some questions, we may have to hold you on suspicion."

"Questions?" I said sweetly. "I'm always willing to cooperate with officers of the law."

"Who hired you and what are they looking for?"

"Unless business is involved."

As lockups go, the pokey at Pago Pago was better than others I've seen. And a man in my business gets to see quite a few. The accommodations were roomy enough, the floor wasn't too hard, and I even managed to catch a few winks before morning. I woke to the sound of a key turning in a lock. It was Willard, looking like a cat whose canary had gotten away.

"You're free, Straight. Your friend came by to give you an alibi."

From the Captain's leer, I could guess who that `friend' might be. I wasn't surprised to find Sarah waiting outside.

"Thanks, sister," I said, holding out my arm, in case Willard was watching.

"Any time," she said, taking it. "I knew a man like that Captain. I hit him over the head with a war club. This was almost as much fun. What do we do now?"

"We head back to your hotel, like we have something on our mind. Once we're in the front door, we ditch our tails, slip out the back, and pay a visit to Marlin's office. Maybe we can find some clues."

The lock on Marlin's door was cheaper than a tin cup and almost as sturdy. His office was a mess, as if there'd been a struggle, but I knew it was always that way. Except for a faint fishy smell, there was no sign of the man himself.

"What's this?" asked Sarah. She pointed at a small crate stenciled with the words 'RN Torpedo and Mine School. Do Not Drop!' I found a pry bar and levered the thing open to reveal a row of narrow cylinders attached to gleaming metal plungers.

"Those are our hydrostatic pistols," I said. "They're used to set off depth charges. Water flows into those plungers and compresses a bellows to trigger a detonator at some preset depth. No, don't unscrew that! The cap at the end will go off at a touch!"

She tossed the unit back into the crate. I did my best not to flinch. "Why didn't the thieves take them when they kidnapped your Mister Marlin?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Maybe they missed 'em in the dark. And we still don't know if there were thieves. Let's get these things out of here before Captain Willard finds them."

We lugged the crate back to my office and stashed it above the false ceiling in my closet.

"That's a clever hiding place," said my client. "Who else knows about it?"

"Just Sami and the Professor. We'll check Sami's place next."

There was no sign of a tail, but we cut through a few shops just to make sure. By the time we reached Sami's bungalow, it was noon. I checked around one last time for watchers, then unlocked the door.

"Why do you have a key?" asked Sarah.

"None of your business," I snapped. I hate it when amateurs leap to conclusions. Particularly when they might be right.

The place was neat as a pin, as if someone had cleaned it up after a struggle, but I knew it always looked that way. It didn't take me long to figure out that this was a dead end.

"We'll check the Professor," I said. "They're pals. He might have seen her."

The Professor's house was only a short distance away. We got there to find him gone as well. The place was empty, and no one had seen him since the night before. This was not looking good.

Back at my office, we reviewed what we found. This didn't take long, because we'd found exactly nothing. Three people were missing -- five, if you included my client's friends. We didn't have the slightest idea what they'd been up to, where they'd gone, what had become of them, and who else might be involved.

As we sat there, wondering what to do next, there was a knock on the door. I pulled it open, expecting another cop... and life got even more complicated. An islander staggered inside -- a big fellow, from Fiji or Tonga. Whoever'd worked him over must have been even bigger, 'cos the man had more bruises than a squashed banana. He handed me a box and mumbled three words.

"Take this to..."

Then he passed out, just like a character from some radio drama.

I hate radio dramas.

Willard didn't seem happy to see me. We'd reported our guest, to get the man medical attention and in case the Captain had posted a stakeout to watch my place for anything suspicious. It seemed that he had.

"A witness saw the man enter," he said, "so I can't pin this one on you. But the man's got a concussion and the doctors say it could be some time before he can answer questions. I know you're up to something, Straight. Want to spill the beans? It'll be a lot easier on you if you do it now rather than later."

"I'd like to, Willard, but this is...."

"Yeah, I know, business. Get out of my office before I run you in for loitering."

I could tell from his words that I wasn't wanted -- a good investigator can spot subtle clues like these -- so I left the place and headed back to my office, where Sarah was waiting. The box was still there, of course. We'd stashed it next to the hydrostatic pistols before I called the cops. The lock was a solid piece of work from some factory in Russia. Some folks might have tried to pick it. Others might have tried to jimmy it. I used a set of bolt-cutters. Mama Straight taught her boy not to mess around.

The box fell open to reveal a length of tapa cloth. I unrolled it to find the ugliest statue I've ever seen. Sarah clapped her hands in delight.

"A squidbat!" she cried. "We have them on our island! I used to keep one as a pet. Of course, it wasn't made of gold covered with a layer of black paint."

I hefted the thing. At twenty bucks an ounce, there was enough of my favorite metal there to pay the rent for a long long time. "That'll be worth a lot of money," I said. "Why does the Fat Man want it?

"To finance his nefarious plans for world conquest?" she suggested.

"If I had something like this, I'd forget the about the world conquest and finance a place on the Riviera." I said.

"What do we do now?" she asked.

I'd been thinking about this ever since the islander showed up, and I'd come up with a plan.

"We wait," I said.

"Wait?" she said.

"We have all the goods. Sooner or later, the fellows we're looking for will come calling."

She nodded. I guess dames know about these things.

Waiting is boring. Even with Mister Daniel's help to speed things along. The sun was getting low when we finally heard a knock on the door. I opened it to see Werner, a small-time hood from the docks.

"You received a package," he said. "You are also looking for a friend. We can arrange a trade."

I shrugged on my jacket. Sarah got up to follow, but the hood shook his head.

"No," said Werner, "you come alone."

The hood led me across town, taking a few turns in a half-hearted attempt to confuse me. I wished he'd tried harder. His carelessness suggested I might not be in a position to use my knowledge even if I did memorize the route. At last we came to a place near the docks where Klaus was waiting -- all 350 lbs of him. Werner shook me down, took my piece, and handed the goon the box.

"That's it," I said, "the item you're looking for. Now where's Sami?"

Klaus flipped open the lid, looked inside, and frowned. "What kind of game are you playing, Straight? Why would we want a carving of a winged frog?"

Mama Straight taught her boys that there was a time for talking and negotiation. This wasn't one of them. I sank my fist into the big man's gut. It was like hitting a brick wall. He grabbed me by the lapel, lifted me off the ground, and pulled back a fist the size of a ham. Things might have gone badly for Mama Straight's boy if my client hadn't picked that moment to show up, knock Werner flat with the butt of her spear, and rest the point against Klaus's throat.

"Set down my employee," she warned, "or you may not live to regret it."

I'll say one thing for the creep: he didn't even flinch. "Very well," he said, "we will give you another chance. Go back to your office and wait for our message."

The creeps worked fast. Before we were even back at the office, someone hailed us from an alley. "Psst, Straight."

I turned to see Jimmy Caine, a small-time crook from LA, peering from the shadows.

"You have the package," he whispered. "We have an offer worth your while. Meet us at the Plaza at midnight."

"That was quick," said Sarah after the man was gone.

"This Fat Man is efficient. Let's get back and get those detonators."

We reached my office to find the place ransacked. Whoever had tossed it had known exactly where to look. The hatch to the false ceiling was hanging open and box of hydrostatic pistols was missing.

"It must have been a professional," said Sarah, in a voice that suggested she knew about these things.

"Either that or they put pressure on Sami or the Professor," I replied. I didn't want to think about it. While I stood there, not thinking about it, there was another knock on my much-abused door. I yanked it open to see Werner nursing a bruised noggin.

"The Plaza," he said, "at midnight." Then he vanished into the dark.

"Why did they send two messages?" asked Sarah. "For that matter, why did they send a message at all if they've already taken the hydrostatic pistols?"

"That's a very good question," I said. And I had a hunch I knew the answer.

The Plaza was a vacant lot toward the west side of town. It was a good place for a midnight rendezvous. It was also pretty much the only place for a midnight rendezvous in a dump as small as Pago Pago. We got there early and spotted two figures lurking in the shadows. One was Jimmy Caine. The other was a chubby figure who could only have been his employer.

I hissed to get their attention.

"You have the goods?" asked Jimmy.

"Perhaps," I replied. "But first, where's Sami?"

He looked puzzled. "Sami who?"

Sarah looked puzzled too. "You aren't the Fat Man," she said to Mister Chubby.

"Yes I am!" he said. He sounded indignant, like he'd gone to a lot of trouble to put on all that weight.

My suspicion had become a certainty. Klaus and Werner confirmed it by showing up from an alley with a pair of pistols. When he saw me, Werner smiled.

"So," he said, "you think to deal with the authorities? We have been following you, Straight, in case you planned to squeal."

"Who are you?" asked the Fat Man.

"Our names are unimportant. We're working for the Fat Man."

"But I'm the Fat Man!"

"No you're not!"

"Of course I am!"

"Are not!"

"Am too! Do you think there are two Fat Men?"

That's exactly what I thought. And I could tell from his expression that Werner was about to figure it out too -- Klaus might take a little longer. As I watched, hoping they'd get distracted, someone took care of this for me. There was a flash, a bang, and something exploded behind them. In the light of the next explosion, I saw Sami perched on the roof across the way, while the Professor handed her detonators from a box of hydrostatic pistols.

Good throwing arm on that girl.

Sarah had already charged Werner. From the way he'd turned tail and run, he didn't seem in the mood for a rematch. I reached for my .38 to deal with Klaus, then remembered -- the goon had taken it after Werner shook me down. I expected him to go for his own gun, but he tossed it into an alley, rolled up his sleeves, and smiled.

"I've been waiting for this for hours, little man," he said.

I had too. And I'd made good use of the time by stuffing sand into an old sock. I let him have it alongside the head. He didn't give me any more trouble.

By now, the two dames had cleared the field of the other attackers. They chatted for a bit -- women always want to talk -- then came marching in my direction, followed by the Professor. I did not like the look in Sami's eyes. At all. What had I done this time? Besides get her kidnapped by an overweight American gangster and/or a bunch of German nationalists bent on world domination?

I was bracing myself to find out when a cry came from across the square, where an Englishman and a Frenchman were standing. The Englishman looked puzzled.

"Sarah," he said, "whatever are you doing here?"

"John!" she cried.

Then the two were in each others' arms. They looked so sweet I might have forgotten about Sami if she hadn't kicked me.

"Ahem," she said. "Are you going to thank me for saving you? Again?"

"What happened to you," I said, trying to sound repentant. "And how did you get here?"

"Klaus and Werner were waiting for me when I got home. The Professor showed up in time to see them carry me off to their hideout. He followed, waited until they were gone, then snuck in and picked the lock."

"Picked the lock?" I asked the Professor.

He shrugged. "I learned a few tricks back at old M.U."

"What happened then?" I asked.

"We went to your office to look for you," said the Professor, "but you were gone, so we checked your secret hiding place and found the hydrostatic pistols. We figured you'd gone to meet the thugs and bargain for our freedom, so we came here -- it's pretty much the only place in Pago Pago suitable for a rendezvous." He tipped his hat to the two of us. "I'll be getting back to my studies now. I'll leave you and Sami to pick up the pieces."

We watched him go, then exchanged glances. By now most of the fire seemed to have gone out of Sami's eyes, to be replaced by a look I knew a bit too well.

"What happened to that solid gold squidbat?" she asked innocently.

"I hid it at your house, before we came here," I admitted. "I figured that was the last place anyone would look for it. Shall we go?"

She laughed and put her arm through mine. "Dan," she announced, "this could be the start of a beautiful relationship."

The Fijian Squidbat?

Next week: Are They Still Following Us?...

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