~Yes, I have been working on this thing....
The Makassar Maru slipped out of Panjim's harbor a little after one in the morning. That was very much her style, coming and going in the dead of night.
She was a disreputable looking vessel, faded paint and rust streaks on her and decking. But inside she was as spit and polish as the flagship of the Royal Navy. She had a good turn of speed and a pair of 3.5 inch guns wrapped under tarpaulins, one each, fore and aft. There were numerous other weapons on board, as well.
Though she was registered to a Dai Bo Shipping of Hiroshima, the Makassar Maru had never been within five hundred miles of Japan. She plied Indian Ocean route almost exclusively, where overly suspicious harbor masters could be told unofficially to “mind their own business” by very official Imperial officials.
On another registry in the files of a 'non-existent' government bureau in New York City she was simply listed as C-23.
At five thousand dead weight tons, the Makassar Maru was small enough to to blend in, yet large enough to be flexible. Powerful engines and over sized fuel tanks cut her cargo capacity by nearly half, but since it was usually some type of contraband, that was a non-issue.
She did have passenger accommodations: a high security brig forward that could hold twenty 'special prisoners' for long voyages or up to fifty for a short run. Topside were six small but comfortable cabins grandly called 'staterooms'.
There was only one passenger on this run however, William Frederick Dudley “Snapper” Pennington, Commander, Royal Navy Reserve, and he slept soundly in Stateroom C, the door locked and a Fosbery .488 revolver tucked under his pillow.
Once out of harbor, the Mak, as her crew called her, picked up speed, her bow hissing through the dark ocean, its surface slightly illumined by the slim crescent of a very new moon.
The sound of the engine's increased throbbing caused Snapper to turn over, snuggle in his covers, and then fall into a deeper sleep. He knew that India was being left behind, at least physically.
In all his dozen plus years with the aforementioned 'non-existent' government bureau he had never been this tired before and his sleep was blessedly without dreams.
He vaguely remembered turning over, looking at dawn's pink glow coming in the porthole, snorting derisively, and going back to sleep. Next time he woke up, the sun's light was flooding brightly into the cabin.
“Coffee time,” he muttered and hauled himself upright.
At the edge of the bunk, a brand new pair of rubber flip-flops awaited his large callused feet. He'd bought them just before boarding and planned to wear nothing else for the duration of the voyage. Digging into his duffel bag, he pulled out a raw cotton shirt, short sleeves, v-neck. The red and white stripped shorts he'd slept in completed his ensemble.
After peeing in the cabin's small metal sink, he washed his face using a bar of the fragrant green soap he had come to favor during these last two years in India. He dried his face and then looked at the thing in the mirror.
It was still a handsome face, though certainly well lived in; tan and weathered, high brow, not too full lips, blue eyes, black hair with a bit of gray. He'd been a fine featured youth, almost pretty, which he had hated...except for the part where women swooned over him.
That boyishness had been well beaten out of him. Twice broken nose, once broken left cheek, and various small scars. Plenty more on his body, bullet holes and stab wounds. He was thirty pounds heaver than that slim ensign stepping out of the Royal Naval Academy sixteen years ago, yet he was as hard as jerky.
But there were dark circles under those blue eyes and he hadn't shaved in three days. He rubbed that blue-black bristle.
“Well, Snaps, old man, you look like a fucking dago,” he said in his best Pukka drawl.
He then looked past that face to the reflection of his cabin and it reminded him of another small room, a simple cubical really, off of a throne room in the abandoned palace of a dead maharajah.
Five by twelve, but with an over twenty foot ceiling, it had seemed the bottom of a pit, which was precisely the effect that Snapper had wanted.
It was now nearly a decade since Snapper had been recruited by his 'employers' and he would work for them for two years before he learned the name by which they went; Room 19. That was it, the entire title. He approved of its simplicity.
Back then his 'supervisor' was Mr. Greane, a 'naval type' who was a rather elderly gentleman, but sharp as a tack, make no mistake about it. It seemed that many of those who worked for Room 19 were 'naval types'. These days, Mr. Blaque ran things. He also had the smell of the sea about him.
It was a well known and high ranking Royal Navy officer who first approached Snapper about 'alternative service' as he put it. The transfer came with an automatic promotion and a shift to the Naval Reserve List. He thought the assignment would last a year or two. This was before the adrenaline hooked him.
His first assignment was a simple 'bean counting' op to see if the expenditures of 'certain persons' matched their income using both legal and extra legal means which took him through central and southern India. It was a boring and tedious operation meant to test his patience and diligence.
It was during that trip he came upon The Palace, seen in the distance from the window of a train.
It belonged to a maharajah who'd gone broke and moved to his house in the city, where he had died. His family still owned the place, but had no money to run it, so the place stood empty and abandoned for decades. As the local economy had depended upon serving The Palace, it was now effectively in the middle of nowhere.
“What a marvelous base of operations this would make,” Snapper had thought as he explored its dozens of large, empty rooms. He informed his employers of its potential and advised them to purchase it forthwith. To his surprise, they agreed.
He then went about his business and largely forget about the place. He would some times hear that The Palace was in use, but neither needed nor wanted to know the details of said use.
But when he realized it had become necessary to kidnap and interrogate Johannes Troutmann – and at length – right away he knew the perfect place to stage the operation.
Troutmann was an interesting character, in some ways quite representative of the Anglo-Indian Ascendancy that ruled Her Majesty's Indian Empire and much of Her other Imperial possessions.
Troutmann's parents had moved to India when he was three years old. His father was a civil engineer from Brandenburg and his mother a teacher from Saxony. As they were both devout Roman Catholics, they were not welcome in the Grand Dominion of America, a circumstance that brought many non- English Europeans to India.
Troutmann's father found work right away even though his English was poor to begin with. India's cities were booming and his skills were in high demand. His mother stayed home and studied not only English, but also the major Indian languages, which she taught to her husband and son. The Troutmann's prospered and moved up in society.
Somewhere along the way his father lost his Catholicism, not an uncommon occurrence in the Ascendancy, and became a Tamist, a follower of the Nine Fold Tara, the faith inspired by the Queen-Empress. His son followed suit. Mrs. Troutmann however remained a staunch Catholic and, when Johannes turned seventeen, she returned to Saxony and became a Bride of Christ.
This had a profound effect upon both the Troutmann males. The father went completely native, married a Hindu woman half his age, and proceeded to have seven more children.
Johannes left home just before that marriage and never spoke directly with his father ever again. He joined the Merchant Marine and was absent from India for over a decade. It is believe it was during this time that he was recruited by the SIR, the Sluzhba Inostrannoi Razvedki, Czar Michael's Foreign Secret Service.....
...the story of the Troutmann Episode here...
.....He slipped sunglasses into the V of his shirt, tucked a ciggy behind his ear, but left the Fosbery under the pillow. He knew where all the small arms on board were kept.
The galley was empty at mid morning, but there was still hot coffee in the pot, bread, some crock cheese, and he knew how to use a bloody broiler grill.
No newspaper. They were at sea after all. He grunted at that and made a mental note to raid the captain's library. Reading something was a key part of his morning ritual. When he had the luxury of one.
No newspaper was just as well. The whole purpose of sailing in the Mak was to unwind a bit. The wireless would inform him of any overriding crisis. It would be a week to ten days from Panjim to Cape Town. He'd be moving fast again soon enough.
At Cape Town he'd grab a berth on board any available warship of the Imperial Naval Air Service, which would take the ocean route to New York. Normally he would have booked a cabin on a commercial airship, probably an Imperial Airways aeroliner, but those stopped at Recife in the Brazilian Empire and relations with them were strained these days.
No use taking chances.
His operational logs were already en route in a fast scouting airship, probably reaching Gibraltar just about now, and New York before he ate dinner. By the time he reached New York, they'd be properly prepared to debrief him.
The afternoon before he left Panjim, a hard looking Royal Marine major had showed up with two even harder looking Royal Marine sergeants to pick up Snapper's lock box, a steel case with three locks and two wax seals.
“I'm here for the item, sir,” he said, offering Snapper a form on a clipboard to sign. And “Thank you, sir,” at attention after Snapper signed it. “Loquacious chap,” Snapper had thought.
Snapper watched from his window as the two sergeants put the box into a closed van. There was an open truck full of Marines armed with various types of automatic weapons stopped both fore and aft of the van.
He would have preferred something a bit more low key, maybe one of his local operatives with two bully boys and a donkey cart full of straw. But he knew the whole operation had passed far beyond that point.
“A show of raw power is best, I suppose,” he thought as he watched the military convoy pull away from his doorstep. There were in fact six heavily armed men in his house at the moment.
Still, he did slip away quietly after dark dressed as an ordinary seaman lugging a ratty looking duffel bag and he was quite certain that his exit had gone unobserved.
He ate his breakfast slowly and silently, feeling the ships engines throbbing through his feet. “About twenty, twenty two knots,” he estimated.
When he was done, he washed his cup, plate, and silverware. “The proper gentleman is aways a good guest,” had been drilled into his head before he could tie his own shoes. He put on his sunglasses, lit his cigarette from the broiler grill, and headed topside
It was a clear warm day, about eighty degrees at the ocean's surface. The breeze from the Mak's speed was quite pleasant.
Snapper leaned on the railing and watched the water rushing past. He allowed it to mildly hypnotize him, letting his body and mind loosen up. That both were wound tight was an understatement.
The ship's engines suddenly throttled back by at least half. Snapper automatically looked up and scanned the horizon. Off the port bow was a sliver of white.
He focused upon it with great intensity. Soon enough its silhouette resolved itself into a warship. Of course, a white hulled warship in the Indian Ocean meant only one thing: the Royal Navy.
He relaxed a little.
He could tell the vessel was moving at a good clip by the speed with which it grew. A single fast warship traveling alone meant either a corvette or a frigate, probably heading into Panjim, mostly likely on general maritime security patrol.
No wonder the captain had slowed down. An old rust bucket like the Mak whizzing along at twenty knots would raise the suspicions of a first year midshipman, especially with a Japanese ensign waving at the stern, ally or no ally.
A few more moments passed and then a small grin twitched upon Snapper's lips. He knew that outline by heart; a Truxtun class fast frigate. Too soon to tell which one, however.
He was slightly surprised at how happy seeing her made him feel, no matter which ship she was.
His first billet out of the Academy was HMS Truxtun herself, only a year in commission and already upsetting the Naval Establishment. His classmates were green with envy.
He served two years in her as a Nav/Com officer and received his first promotion from her captain, Sir John “Mad Jack” Hartley, who was quite the old seadog by then. It was the happiest time he had ever known, before or since.
His eyes practically caressed the oncoming warship, her sleek six thousand ton hull, clean lines, two raked funnels, a pair of turrets forward and one aft, each mounting a single 3.5 inch Mark VII Ellis gun.
It was Truxtun's speed – rated at thirty two knots, but demonstrated at up to thirty eight – and her Ellis guns that created such a stir. Properly maintained and operated, the Mark VII, a five barrel electric rotary cannon, could fire thirty one 3.5 inch shells per minute, sufficient to reduce a battleship's superstructure to ruin if she got close enough.
The Royal Navy's 'old guard' still had their bowels in an uproar over the creation of the Imperial Naval Air Service as a separate arm a few years earlier. That Ellis guns were an Air service innovation simply added insult to injury.
But a number of the crusty old bastards fell in love with her once they saw her glide swiftly across the water. Nine more were ordered.
Snapper finally got a fix on her hull number; large black characters reading F-51. He thought for a moment. “HMS Bonaire, ” he whispered. Truxtun was F-43.
She was almost upon them now, her hull a high gloss white, superstructure a flat off white, red and blue bands on her funnels. Her 'spit and polish' was fully evident from stem to stern.
Most of her on-deck personnel paid little overt attention to the disreputable looking tramp steamer, but four officers on her bridge watched the Mak closely through their binoculars.
The Mak dipped her ensign as the Bonaire slid past and got a brief toot of her horn in acknowledgment.
Snapper still leaned casually against the railing, but as the Bonaire's stern came up, her White Ensign flapping vigorously, he could not help but come to attention and give a crisp salute. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed one of the officers on her bridge point that out to the captain.
And then she was past. And getting smaller.
He looked up at the Mak's bridge. Captain Ederveen was watching him, too. He nodded his head and Snapper nodded back.
Suddenly, he felt very tired. Time for some more sleep.
Five hours later, Snapper lay in his bunk dozing. It was a truly wonderful sensation. He did not have to be anywhere he didn't want to be. He did not have to see anyone he didn't want to see. He had nothing unpleasant to attend to.
“Fucking bliss,” he muttered with a smile.
There was a quiet knock upon the cabin door. He instinctively grasped the grip of the Fosbery and almost flowed out of the bunk to the door.
Back to the metal bulkhead, pistol at the ready, he said, “Yes?”
“Captain's compliments, sir,” said a voice from the other side of the door. Snapper thought, “Good English, slight Malay accent.” He let out a deep breath and opened the door.
A fierce looking South Asian greeted him with a polite smile.
“The captain is serving dinner in an hour and fifteen minutes, sir. Medallions of veal in a massala sauce he told me to say,” the crewman said pleasantly.
Snapper returned the smile. “Please tell the captain medallions of veal sounds lovely and thank him for giving me time to make myself presentable.”
The crewman grinned. “Certainly, sir. Do you have all that you need, sir?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Very good, sir.” The crewman gave the slight nod that passed for a salute on The Mak, which Snapper returned, then headed back up the companionway. Snapper closed the door. He noticed he was squeezing the grip of the pistol.
“Steady, Snaps old man,” he whispered.
He shaved and showered in the closet sized stall at the head of the companionway. He dressed in a fine cotton shirt and the raw cotton pants that went with the v-neck shirt he'd worn earlier...and his flip flops, of course. He fished around in the duffel and retrieved a leather bound jewelry case. From that he took his Naval Academy graduation ring. It still fit comfortably.
Now he felt properly dressed for dinner.
To be continued...
© 2008/2010 Michael Varian Daly