Episode 270: Catspaw
Kurt stood by the administration building watching the airship begin her
descent toward the field on Buka island. Sunlight gleamed on the silver
fabric of her hull, highlighting her elegant lines. Air vessels tended
to be things of beauty, but this one looked unusually graceful. What
yard, he wondered, had produced such a design?
Beside him, Herr Muldorf coughed to attract his subordinate's attention.
The veteran's eyes, hardened by two long years in the trenches, seemed
insensitive to works of art. "You know what you are supposed to do?" he
"Ja, Mein Herr," said Kurt. "The Englishers will call to examine
our shipping records. I relinquish the information we rehearsed, taking
care to make sure that this seems spontaneous."
"See that you do," said the other man. "We both know the penalty for
Kurt shuddered. "Ja, Mein Herr," he replied submissively. Then
he made his excuses and returned to his office.
Walking a ship to the mast, even at a German station, could be a lengthy
process. Kurt was deeply engrossed in paperwork when he heard a knock on
his door. He looked up to see two figures he recognized from his briefing.
"Gutentag, Capt... Meine Herren," he told them,
"I am Kurt Donner, Chief of Records here in Bougainville. How may I help you?"
"I am Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Navy Airship Service, and this is my
aide, Jenkins," said the first man. "We wish to learn what airships have
called at this station over the past few months."
"Certainly, Kapitan," said Kurt. "You might... is there any
particular nationality you're interested in?"
The two men exchanged glances. Kurt was unable to read their expressions,
but he thought he detected some subtle play of emotion. What was that
about? he wondered.
"Perhaps," the captain told him. "Have you received any visitors from
"There have been a few, but I don't recall the details," said Kurt, pleased
to note that his delivery no longer sounded so wooden. He opened a logbook
and pretended to open a page at random. "You're welcome to examine our
records. This is the... this one is the most recent."
The two men exchanged another set of glances that Kurt was hard-put to
decipher. Perhaps it's something they ate, he decided. The
captain studied the entries. "The Shiratori Maru," he mused. "These
might be the fellows we're looking for. Can you tell us much about this
"I'm afraid not," said Kurt. "So many ships call here at Bougainville. We
can hardly be expected to keep track of the details of their visits."
"I see," the captain replied. "Is there anyone here who might be able to
supply us with information?"
This was a question Kurt had considerable practice answering. He gazed at
his guests with an expression that dated back to the invention of currency.
The captain's aide produced a small bill. "We would, of course, be happy to
remunerate you for services beyond your usual duties," he said.
Kurt made the note disappear with an ease a stage magician might have envied.
"You might inquire among the shopkeepers," he said after what he felt was the
appropriate pause. "Josef would be the one to start with. He runs a small
chandlery in town."
The captain nodded. "That should serve. Thank you for your time, Mister
Kurt watched smugly as the two men left. This had been no trouble at all.
These Englishers were so gullible.
Josef was bustling about his shop, making a show of ordinary business, when
the two English airmen knocked on the door. He set down the bubble sextant
he'd been cleaning and pretended not to have been expecting them.
"Gutentag, Meine Herren," he said courteously. "How may I help
"We're seeking information about an airship named the
Shiratori Maru," said the man wearing captain's insignia. "We
understand you might have had some dealings with them."
"So I did," said Josef. "They were Japanese, as I recall."
"Quite," said the captain. "Did they mention anything about their
passengers or itinerary to you?"
"Perhaps they did," Josef told them, "but I'm just a poor chandler, with
little time for such things."
"We understand," said the other man -- the aide he'd been warned to keep an
eye on. "Naturally we'd be willing to provide you with some compensations
for your efforts."
Josef slipped the proffered bill into a pocket. That's two parties
paying me for this information, Josef thought smugly, one to
deliver it and one to receive it. Now what will these people give me to
"You are most gracious," he told them. "Is there anything in particular
you'd like to know?"
The two airmen seemed to consult each other as if deciding how much they
could trust him. Josef did his best to look innocent. At last the captain
appeared to reach a decision.
"As a matter of fact, there is..." he began.
By the time the conversation was over, Josef had received more information
than he'd bargained for. He hustled his guests out the door, then closed up
the shop and hurried to make his report. It didn't take him long to notice
he was being followed. In a town as small as Buka, it was difficult for a
tail to remain undetected. The chandler pulled out a pack of Geislings,
shook out a light, and glanced backwards as he struck a match. Behind him
he saw the aide pause to study a shop display.
You are not very convincing, mein freund, he thought. And you
will not be very difficult to lose.
Taking advantage of the other man's halt, Josef slipped around the corner,
dashed ahead, and ducked into a doorway. He was rewarded, moments later, by
the sight of the aide hurrying past with a worried expression on his face.
The man reached the next intersection, stopped, and studied his surroundings
with an attitude of defeat. Then, reaching some sort of decision, he
pressed on ahead.
Josef allowed himself a smile. The Englisher's handwerk was
pathetic. It was a wonder their Empire had lasted as long as it had.
Turning on his heel, he strode back the way he'd come, past a drunken French
seaman who sat nursing a bottle of vino. He gave the man a
We'll deal with them too when the next war comes, he thought to
"How did the exercise go, gentlemen?" Everett asked Jenkins and Pierre after
they were back at the ship.
"My part was fairly straightforward," said Jenkins, "though it took some
effort to let the man know he was being followed. Pierre?"
The Frenchman shook his head in bemusement. "These Germans," he replied.
"They were too busy trying to fool us to pay much attention to
their surroundings. They all saw what they expected to see."
Next week: The Parable of the Elephant...
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