Erika strode onto the Entertainment Deck, her eyes narrowing in the reflection of the sun on the pristinely white-washed deck. She glanced over her shoulder as she came out into the open on the deck: yes, her Fedora-ed “companion” was still there, a discreet ten paces behind her. Not close enough to make her actually grimace in distaste, but close enough for the guard-dog role he’d proved very effective at several times before. The sight of Thom standing across the deck made Erika glance at her watch as she skirted the pool and moved toward him. She’d intended to arrive ten minutes or so past the “hour” prescribed by the very precise Kapitän von Holigaan---just late enough to make the point, after his display of ignoring her on the ship’s bridge, in front of his officers. She hadn’t planned on keeping him waiting for nearly twenty minutes, but then, what she’d just found in her cabin had needed some very calm thought, especially with the blond Hauptsturmführer raging around……
“Erika, darling,” Thom said with just a trace of sarcasm, “there are very few people who can get away with making me wait for them on my own ship. Even fewer manage it twice. I made an exception in your case, but only because I had some interesting memories to keep myself company. Now, would you care to explain that incident?”
“I realize that the method of….dealing with those civilians earlier was distasteful to you,” Erika said simply, the quiet statement coming unusually close to an apology, for her. Thom merely raised an eyebrow. Her expression returned to a cool mask and she added with an elegant shrug, “But it was necessary. They were enemies of the Reich, willing to barter away information that our government can’t afford to have fall into enemy hands.” Leaning back against the deck’s rail, her smile held just the slightest suggestion of taunting. “And you shouldn’t be so outraged about the civilians, Kapitän von Holigaan. You’ve had a good hour or so to think about it,” she jibed subtly about the time he’d had her spend cooling her heels before their meeting, “and I’m sure you’ve wondered why it happened now, halfway through the voyage, during your first engagement?”
“Regardless of when it happened, I should not have been surprised by it. You can play secret agent all you want, but I am the Kapitan of this vessel, and the only ones authorized to surprise me here are Mother Nature and God. You are neither. I am solely responsible for this vessel, her crew, and her passengers. Anything that happens to any of them reflects on me. I would point out that your shooter almost developed terminal lead poisoning himself. I stayed my men only because I knew you. Or, at least I thought I knew you. I can’t guarantee that you’ll receive such a benefit of the doubt again.”
In the hat’s shadow, her gray eyes were only a shade lighter than the ocean behind her, and the taunting edge was still in them as she answered the question for him. “The Calcutta . The Britishers were assured that their rendevous with the Graf Spa , known to them as the Royal Princess , would be safe. They were assured of this through contact with the traitors among our own countrymen, before we left Kiel, who in turn had it on the highest authority of the OKM. Their contact was, I believe, the ship’s second in command, a man named Jenkins,” she added for emphasis, as she saw doubt rising on the Captain’s face. Erika paused for a moment to allow him to absorb the implications, both political and personal.
“But I did not know that your orders obviously required you to sink Calcutta without taking prisoners. I only knew that your orders required you to seek the ship out and make contact with her.”
Von Holigaan shrugged. So the puppet masters in Berlin hadn’t trusted either of them completely. It occurred to him that even she had no idea of Graf Spa’s ultimate purpose. Like the good Doktor, she was too enwrapped in the web of her own viewpoint to discern the truth.
The casualness of his reaction surprised her. The Thom she’d known years ago would’ve been outraged by the idea of luring a ship’s crew into obliteration by a false promise of protection. The Thom she’d known years ago...., she repeated wistfully to herself, then forced the thought out of her mind.
She knew that he had changed from their University days, but she had no idea how, or how much. Her voice was very quiet when she spoke again. “The Calcutta’s appearance was all that was required to draw out the traitors---and their information. They were huddled around a transmitter when my man found them.”
Erika’s gaze moved past him to the rail on the opposite side of the deck where she’d been standing when the Calcutta went down. And then to the blond man in civilian clothes on a nearby lounge chair, who despite his overly obvious attempt to appear casual looked nothing like a vacationer enjoying the sea air. The Hauptsturmführer obviously wasn’t the type to tote an MP-40 under his Italian-cut jacket, and as Erika turned back to the ship’s Captain, she knew that Thom must realize that the blond man wasn’t the only one from Berlin who’d been sent on the cruise.
“What was necessary, was done. A Verräter or two....Well, five of them to be exact.” Erika’s tone was matter-of-fact, and she shrugged again, dismissing the incident with a small toss of her head. “The problem is solved, and hopefully it won’t be necessary to embarrass your command with that kind of incident again. Except….” Erika’s eyes finally met Thom’s, and there was also a faint, uncharacteristic shadow of doubt behind the suggestion of further action, if necessary, to protect the Reich’s interests. “Except that one never really knows who one travels with aboard a ship.” Her gaze ran to the swimming pool. There were several passengers lounging by the pool’s heated waters.
Thom followed her eyes, a habit he thought he had outgrown.
“That man there”, Erika said of one of them. “He is Lupo Solitario, a representative of IL Duce, but actually working for an Italian aircraft manufacturer. He is traveling with Michael Avanzini, who represents a rival Italian aircraft manufacturer. Interestingly enough, Signore Avanzini has been linked by our intelligence to the Vatican. An unlikely duo to sell airplanes to the Japanese, don’t you think? ”
Von Holigaan smiled and said, “Yes, but do you see the gentlemen sipping a martini under the umbrella on the third table?”
Erika looked. “The dark-haired gentleman in the blue suit?”
“Yes. That is Herr Arajs. He is Latvian and a member of the ruling council of the “White Guards” Party in Latvia. An odd tourist for the Orient.” Von Holigaan allowed himself to lean back against the ship’s rail, surrendering his rigid posture in a gesture designed to indicate his confidence in his control of the ship and everyone aboard.
Not to be outdone, Erika nodded towards another passenger. “Do you see the Indian gentleman over there in the turban? That is Doctor Prit Buttar. The turban and beard are fakes and part of his disguise. He’s an Indian revolutionary, intent on making contact with other Indians conspiring with the Japanese against British rule in India.”
Thom adjusted his cap against the sun. “Another Doctor, just what we needed aboard this ship. So, we are in agreement then, that all of the passengers bear watching?” He asked, with heavy emphasis on the word “passengers”.
“My cabin was searched this afternoon, Herr Kapitän. Of course, they didn’t find what they were looking for.” The smile Erika flashed him was mischievous, covered quickly by the brim of her hat as she bent to casually slide her skirt’s hem up well above her knee, to reveal the bottom two inches of a document tucked smoothly between her stocking and the inside of her thigh. He shouldn’t have looked, but he succumbed to the lure. He never could help himself where Erika was concerned. He wondered if she fully realized her hold over him, and hoped that she didn’t. That brief flash of thigh started to bring back memories that were best kept buried.
She dropped her skirt back into place, and her smile slowly lost its amusement as she straightened. “Perhaps, Herr Kapitän---because we are both concerned about preventing more civilians from being injured---perhaps you have an idea who ransacked my cabin sometime between the sinking of the Calcutta and about half an hour ago. And perhaps you also understand now, Thom, that it’s crucial for the interests of the Reich that I get to Shanghai as quickly as possible.”
“You and I have a history, my dear, but I am more concerned about my ship at the moment. Right now, I don’t care if Uncle Adi himself signed your orders. Unless I get you to your destination safely, your mission fails before it begins. Until I put you ashore at Shanghai, your mission is secondary to me. I don’t know if you can fully understand that, or not.”
Erika reddened slightly at the old barb about her single-mindedness, but decided to brush over it for the more important point---the main sore spot between them years ago, which obviously hadn’t disappeared with time. Pouring salt in the wound, she thought, but she couldn’t resist raising a finger to brush away an imaginary dust speck from the gold rim of the Party pin on her lapel, as she turned to smile up at him in mock sweetness. “No, he didn’t actually sign the orders himself, Thom….” Her expression sobered, and her voice lowered, to communicate the gravity of her assignment, and the level of their government who had an interest in it. “But I hope you understand that I wasn’t exaggerating when I conveyed his congratulations to you on the bridge.”
Thom sighed to himself. He had read her orders. But she had not read his and his were still unclear enough to cause sleepless nights. He grappled mentally with the puzzle. While he might make getting Erika to Shanghai and safety a personal priority.....his thoughts trailed off, merging into other thoughts just as the wake of his ship merged with the sea. If they had sent any other agent, it would have been easier. He’d just ignore the distraction and that would be it, but it had to be her.
He stepped closer to her, holding her gently by her upper arms. He looked her up and down, flashes of memories in his mind’s eye. How well he could recall the feel of her in his arms, the smell of her hair. He wondered if her lips still tasted as sweet. A strand of hair fell across her face, blown by the sea-breeze. He reached up and gently moved it back. He stared into her eyes, thinking of how he used to get lost in their gray depths.
Erika braced herself at his touch, at the memory of his closeness, of his hands closing gently around her arms. They’d sent her on this particular mission precisely because of that time years ago. They’d said she could use it, as she’d never hesitated to coolly, calculatingly turn anything, professional or personal, to her advantage. And coolly, calculatingly, she’d agreed, sure that she was a different person now. What had been between her and Thom was in the past, dead. Then Thom raised his fingers from one of her arms to gently brush back a strand of her hair with the back of his hand. Something inside her lurched at the familiar gesture, and Erika turned her eyes up slowly to meet his, feeling the wall of ice she’d constructed so carefully around her melting and slipping dangerously.
And then he dropped his hands to his sides, side-stepped around her, and walked away. His responsibility was to his crew and to his true mission. Then perhaps he could think of her and the safe waters of Shanghai. Suddenly, he realized that his Erika and this agent were two different people, and he had to keep them separate in his mind. Setting a determined look on his face, he climbed the outside ladder back to the bridge. He had a war waiting for him. And he must be as cold as stone and iron hard.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....