Episode 429: A Wake Up Call
Fletcher stood in the Salgari's control car watching Lady
Warfield's airship dwindle behind them. Soon it had vanished in the gloom.
He imagined there might be some consternation among the Baroness' crew.
Vincenzo seemed satisfied with the situation. "Bene!" said the
Italian. "We have defeated our adversaries without having to fight. We
have also led them a day's flight away from Tahiti, so it will be another
day before they can accomplish anything of importance."
Fletcher could appreciate this sentiment. He hadn't been looking forward
to an action. He wondered how Salgari was armed. Did these Sky
Pirates of Tahiti have any weapons at all? They seemed to have a somewhat
casual attitude toward air combat.
Peters had a more immediate concern. "How are we going to get back to the
Thumper?" he asked.
"That is a matter for another day," Vincenzo said with a shrug. "With the
Baroness abroad, it might be safest for your command if you left her in
The lieutenant nodded ruefully. Airships were the mortal enemies of small
surface craft. "What are your plans now?" he asked.
"Che dipende," said Vincenzo. "It seems you two
signores were searching for us. Can you tell me why?"
Fletcher considered his answer. As pirates went, their hosts might not have
been in the same league as Bartholomew Robert or Edward Teach, but they were
still pirates. Of a sort.
"We were seeking information about a young Korean woman named Miss Kim," he
replied carefully. "We understand you helped carry her to freedom."
"Certamente!" said the Italian. "I felt it our duty to rescue a
signorina in distress from those odioso Tedeschi. I gave
her my motorcycle to speed her on her way."
This explained one mystery, but others remained. "Where did you encounter
her?" Fletcher asked.
Vincenzo smiled. "We are headed there now. Would you care to accompany us?"
"Grazie," said Fletcher. The alternative seemed to involve
The Italians' destination proved to be a small coral atoll with the
un-Polynesian name of Wake Island. Like many of the Pacific's less
noteworthy islands, this one had been discovered at the end of the 16th
Century by that great Spanish overachiever, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra. It
had spent most of the subsequent centuries languishing uninhabited and
obscure -- the lack of a reliable source of fresh water combined with the
fact that most of the atoll was only a few feet above sea level may have
contributed to this neglect. After the Spanish-American War, the McKinley
administration had annexed the island under the belief that it might come
in handy someday. This belief had yet to be realized. Plans to build a
cable station on Wake had been abandoned in favor of Midway Island, which
seemed less prone to inundation by storms. A proposal to establish a port
for deep water ships had been thwarted by the fact that the lagoon was
only fifteen feet deep.
In spite of its insignificance, the island was not entirely uninhabited.
The American government maintained a settlement there, partly to serve as a
coaling station and partly to deter feather smugglers. The latter
enterprise, while not necessarily one of the greatest crimes ever to plague
humanity, offended the sensibilities of a certain type of administrator.
The island also had a small air station that the Pan American Airship Line
had built to support their famous `clippers'.
Mooring went as smoothly as one would expect at an American facility, and
soon Fletcher and Peters were strolling through the settlement with
"Why do the Americans let you resupply here?" Fletcher asked the
"It is a simple matter," said Vincenzo. "Their country is, how you say,
`arid', because of this strange law of theirs. We provide a solution, they
become our friends."
"To whom do you provide this `solution'?" asked Fletcher.
"A man named Mario. He moved to this island after things became... what
is your phrase... too `hot' for him back in America. You will like him.
It was he who introduced me to Signorina Kim."
Predictably, Mario turned out to be another Italian. He seemed more like a
character from some radio drama than an island trader -- the sort of
businessman who used a submachine gun in his negotiations and measured his
competitors for concrete overshoes. He greeted Vincenzo with some
"Ah Vincenzo!" he exclaimed. "What do you have for me today?"
"Two hundred cases," said Vincenzo. "And you have something for us?"
"Si!" said the smuggler. "The usual cargo from
il Giapponese. But who are these two men?"
"Not to worry, Mario. These are miei amici. They know how to
keep a secret. They wish to ask you about something that does not involve
Mario gave the Englishmen a dubious glance. "What are your names?" he
Fletcher recognized his cue. "This is Lieutenant Peters, and I am Ensign
Fletcher... Royal Naval Airship Service Signal Corps."
The man's expression changed at this news. "Io capisco," he said.
"What is it you wish to know?"
"We understand that you helped a friend of ours, Miss Kim, escape from the
Germans," said Fletcher. "Do you know how she reached Wake Island?"
"She arrived on John Morton's boat, the SS Reluctant.
He'd smuggled her out of a Japanese naval base with which we do business."
"What kind of business?" asked Fletcher.
"They sell us pearls in exchange for fuel and hydrogen supplies.
This is very profitable for us."
Peters seemed perplexed by this arrangement. "Surely they already receive
these things from their government."
"So they do," said the Italian,
"but it seems they need extra, and are willing to pay."
They'd taken advantage of the USN's radio station on Wake to send messages
to the Thumper and Cairns.
After this obligation had been satisfied, they'd lifted ship for a visit to
Mario's business associates. It seemed these gentlemen dwelt on an obscure
island named Iwojima, some distance to the west. The Salgari made
short work of the flight, and they raised land the next day.
This proved to be a broad slab of rock and sand with an unpromising veneer
of vegetation. The remains of an ancient volcano loomed above its
southwestern tip like a battered bowler hat. The aviators examined the air
station through binoculars, for it wouldn't do to stumble upon some
adversary by accident. An airship rode from one of the masts.
"Can you make out who they are?" Peters asked nervously. One of the
possibilities was cause for concern.
"I do not believe this the cruiser of which you spoke," Vincenzo assured
him. "She seems too old and small."
Fletcher studied the vessel and frowned. Surely only one ship could have
that characteristic droop in its tail section.
"I believe that's the R-46!" he said in surprise. "Whatever are they
Next week: Dacoits and Dirigibles...
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