Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 56

Three days later, Inconstant swung against her mooring lines in the countryside near Hanoi, east of the river which itself was east of the city. Hanoi was a better zeppelin port than most cities around the rim of the East Indies. Unlike them, it was twenty miles inland, with plenty of sparsely-populated jungle nearby to turn into landing fields.

It was also a French port. The tricolor emblem of the Third Empire flew over the citadel at the northwest edge of the city. That was fine with Cannon. The Empire’s official position was that he was a dastardly pirate, and should be hanged on sight. As a practical matter, he was free to come and go in the colonies, provided he neither made trouble nor brought it with him.

He had borrowed a car from the Annamese official at the landing field, an open-topped coupe which bounced furiously over the rutted roads. Carefully wrapped on the back seat was the idol, and Choufeng sat in the passenger’s seat.

Cannon invited Emma first—she usually made better conversation—but she had refused to see Lachapelle in no uncertain terms. Earlier in the drive, Cannon had attempted some small talk, to which Choufeng had responded with a polite nod and, “I am well,” before turning back to the view out the car.

Men and women toiled away in rice paddies to either side of the road. Some sang as they worked. Soon, though, they left the fields behind, crossing the bridge over the Fleuve Rouge and entering the city proper. People filled the narrow streets. Cannon soon found a spot to leave the car, and he and Choufeng continued on foot. Weaving through the crowds, they passed wooden buildings in between more imposing constructions of brick and red tile.

After a walk of some minutes, they arrived at their destination, a nondescript building of the former type. A painted sign over the door had once proudly declared ‘Le Syndicat’. Now, it diffidently mumbled the name. Cannon went inside.


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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 55

In one smooth motion, Cannon kicked Kopeikin’s pistol out the hatch and picked up his belt. The pistol skipped off the decking, clanked against one of the railing’s poles, and fell into the growing gloom below.

Cannon dashed behind the engine, slipped his Mauser into its holster, and looped the belt over the line. From the sound of the footsteps, the Russians were right behind him. As he jumped, the tails of his jacket slipped through Kopeikin’s grasping fingers.


 

“But why’d you have to go and throw a crate at me?” Emma said, punctuating the question with a finger in Iseabail’s face.

“If’n ye’d just—”

Emma threw her hands up. “First I have to come in before I even get to take a shot at the Reds.” Out the cargo door, perhaps a mile distant, a fireball blossomed near the surface of the sea. Moments later, a pillar of spray shot skyward. “See? I could have had that kill!”

“Let me explain—”

Emma shushed Iseabail. “And another thing—”

“It’s the cap’n!” Iseabail said.

Indeed it was. His jacket billowing behind him, Cannon swung side-to-side along the makeshift zipline, a dark spot against the silver flank of the zeppelin and the wall of cloud, now fading to purple in the twilight. Behind Cannon, a Russian gunman pointed a machine pistol out the engine car’s window and opened up. Bullets pinged off of the Albatross’s skin. Emma grabbed a rifle from a rack on the wall, worked the bolt, and took aim. Cannon, still sliding along the zipline, twisted out of the way as she fired.

Cannon swung his feet up and threw himself in through the cargo door, sliding across the deck and slamming into the fuselage’s opposite wall. Iseabail cut the zipline. As it slithered out of the plane, she rolled the cargo door closed.

Cannon sat up, wincing. Emma reverentially placed the rifle back in the rack, turned to Cannon, and slapped him. “That’s for throwing the crate at me,” she explained, helpfully.

Cannon rubbed at his cheek. “Did you see what’s in it?”

“I don’t see how that matters, skipper.”

He gave her a quizzical look. “We went aboard that zep to steal treasure. What did you think we brought back? Books? A year’s supply of onions?”

Emma’s mouth made an ‘ah’ shape. “How much?” she asked meekly.

“Whatever it comes to, a half share for you.” Cannon reached out toward her, grabbed her headset microphone, and twisted it so that he could speak into it. “We’re aboard. Take us home.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 54

Cannon undid his belt and handed it to Iseabail, ducking out from behind the engine to remind the remaining Russians what a bad idea it would be to come any closer. “Get across,” he said.

“An’ wha’ about you?”

“I have a plan.”

“Oh,” Iseabail said, shoulders drooping. “I thought ye migh’ have had somethin’ likely tae work.”

Cannon swatted her on the shoulder. “Go. I’ll see you in a minute.”

Iseabail fastened the belt around the line, locked her arms through it, and jumped. Her whoop of delight faded quickly. Cannon leaned out from behind the engine, fired a few shots at the Russians, and ducked away as bullets sparked off the block.

Quickly, Cannon reloaded, moving aft along the engine and taking up position beneath the stream of smoke still flowing out the shattered window behind him. After a few moments, the engine car’s hatch flew off its hinges, and Kopeikin stormed in, aiming his pistol at the forward end of the engine. Cannon rose from his hiding place to Kopeikin’s right and said, “Drop it, comrade.”

The chopper man behind Kopeikin swung his gun toward Cannon. Promptly, the pirate captain shot him in the leg. The Russian staggered backward toward the hull of the zeppelin.

“That goes for you, too.” Cannon swung the Mauser back toward Kopeikin as a pair of pistols clattered against the deck. Kopeikin’s eyes narrowed, shining with an inner fury. Cannon added, “Now give me your belt.”

“Pardon?” Kopeikin said, all the wind going out of his sails.

“You heard me. Off with it.”

Slowly and deliberately, Kopeikin unfastened his belt. As he did, he found his way back to his earlier rage. “You are not an archaeologist.”

“Pirate,” Cannon said.

“Thief,” Kopeikin corrected.

Cannon shrugged. “Six of one, a half-dozen of the other.”

“In the old days, we branded the word on their foreheads. For you, I think, we will bring the tradition back.” Kopeikin dropped his belt on the deck and held his hands up.

Cannon waved him out of the engine car with the muzzle of the Mauser. “Is this the part where you tell me I’ve made a dangerous enemy?”

Backing up, Kopeikin said, “You have made—da. Yes. When I find you, pirate, I will kill you.”

“Back of the line, comrade.


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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 53

“They’re here!” Iseabail cried.

Cannon had abandoned his position by the door, and now crouched behind the engine block, leaning out to exchange fire with a trio of Soviet torpedoes. A fourth gunman sprawled just inside the engine car, at the center of an expanding pool of blood. He was why the others still held back—he had demonstrated that charging across the catwalk was a good way to end up with a fatal case of lead poisoning.

“What are they waiting for?” Cannon replied. “I’m running low.” He leaned out and took a carefully-aimed shot. “I think I winged him.”

“Good shot.” Iseabail, further behind Cannon and fully behind the engine, stood up and waved her hands. “Ach, I think she’s gonnae—”


 

Emma leveled the rifle, bracing it against the door frame. The Albatross buffeted, throwing her aim off. She adjusted minutely, aiming high—grappling hooks made terrible bullets—and forward, so that drag on the hook would bring it back on target.

The sights lined up, and her gut told her she had the right point of aim. Her finger caressed the trigger, and the gun went off.

The grappling hook soared in an arc through the air. From Emma’s perspective, it moved forward relative to the engine car, then began to lose ground again. After a second and a half which felt like an eternity, the hook crashed dead center through the gondola’s window.

 

“—shoot!” Iseabail threw herself out of the way, and a moment later, the window shattered. A grappling hook clanked against the engine. Recovering quickly, Iseabail looped the line around an engine mount and through the hook’s tines.

“The crate, then you, then me,” Cannon instructed. “Take over.”

“Take over? I dinnae know how ta keep heads down!” Iseabail replied.

“Shoot at them,” Cannon suggested, leaning out of cover and doing just that. He grabbed the makeshift harness around the crate and pulled it back behind the engine with him.

Iseabail sighed and took his place at the very edge. She gave the Russians a moment to get confident, then put her arm around the edge of the engine and fired her Beretta blindly. A cry of pain answered her. She smiled.

“Yes, you’re very clever,” Cannon said, looping the crate’s spare strap around the grappling line. He grunted, hefted it up onto the broken window, and pushed it out of the car.

“Wait!” Iseabail shouted.

Cannon grabbed for the crate, but it was too far along the line, now picking up speed toward the Albatross and a very surprised, very peeved-looking Emma. Cannon faced Iseabail with a glare.

“The other cargo straps were tucked inta yon crate’s,” she said meekly.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 52

“There!” Emma called. A long line of white smoke, stirred into whirling eddies and vortices by the zeppelin’s propeller wash, stretched from one of gondolas along its side. “Third engine car back, this side.”

Choufeng made no response, but pulled the Albatross into a steep turn. Emma grabbed an overhead strap and hung on for dear life.

“Little warning might be nice next time!” she added.

The Albatross leveled off, how heading the opposite direction. A few moments later, it banked again, now running parallel to the zeppelin’s course, off its starboard side. Emma rolled the cargo door back on its track and opened the rifle’s action. Laying a blank in place, she closed it, then fed the grappling hook into the muzzle.

A line of bullet holes appeared in the aluminum skin overhead. Emma dove toward the inner bulkhead and out of the way. A black-painted fighter with a red star on the wing screamed past the open door, not ten feet away. A blue Kestrel followed it a heartbeat later.

The elephant gun skittered toward the door. Emma swore and scrambled toward it. The stock pushed out into the slipstream, swinging backward and pushing the muzzle forward. It balanced for a moment on the edge of the Albatross’ deck, and Emma locked her hand around the barrel.

She waited a moment for the shake to go out of her hands, then spoke into her headset’s microphone. “Any more coming?”

“We are clear,” Choufeng replied.

The Albatross slowed, jolting as the flaps extended, and slowly drifted closer to the smoking engine car. Emma doubted she could make the shot at more than fifty yards. About twenty yards remained before she would be in range.

In the window of the gondola, Iseabail waved her arms frantically.

Emma sighed. She had wanted a challenge. Here it was.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 51

Emma settled a headset over her ears, bent the microphone into place, and plugged the cable into a box on the fuselage. “How are we supposed to find the skipper?” she wondered.

“He will signal,” Choufeng replied.

“How?”

There was silence over the intercom.

Emma cradled the elephant gun and peered out the windows. The Red Banner loomed large, a mile or two distant. The Soviet gunners had finally made it to their battle stations, and lines of tracers reached out from the zep toward the pirate fighters buzzing around it.

Four sleek, black shapes dropped away from the Red Banner‘s underbelly. “Fighters,” Emma said.


 

There was a sudden din of aero engines on top of the drone of the Red Banner‘s diesels. “Fighters,” Cannon said.

Iseabail nodded, slipping past Cannon to open a hatch in the zeppelin’s skin. Over the roar of the airstream, she said, “Sounds like. They cannae have arrestin’ gear on a zep this size, can they?”

“I doubt it.” The crate carefully balanced on his shoulder, Cannon stepped out onto the catwalk to the engine car, leaning forward against the hurricane-force wind battering him. Head down, he sidestepped his way to the hatch. Iseabail flung it open, and the two of them pushed into the gondola.

It was easier to stand inside, but scarcely any quieter. Twelve cylinders of diesel engine beat a steady rhythm, turning at maximum revolutions as Red Banner fled.

“Make some smoke!” Cannon shouted, setting down the crate and drawing his Mauser. He flattened himself against the bulkhead by the hatch, ready to turn the corner and shoot.

In the toolbox sitting against the aft bulkhead, Iseabail found a heavy wrench. She swung it through the window at the back of the car, then ran it over the frame to knock out the shards still clinging to it.

Fuel lines ran into the engine car through a conduit overhead. Iseabail followed one to the motor, then yanked it free. The sharp smell of fuel filled the gondola before she pressed her thumb over the end of the line to stem the flow. She pointed the line at a nearby exhaust pipe and let the fuel flow.

Thick white smoke immediately billowed from the pipe, flowing out the back of the gondola in a stream. “How’s tha’?” she said, pleased.

“It’ll do,” Cannon replied. He flung the hatch open, leaned out through the frame, and fired his Mauser down into the zeppelin. “Not a moment too soon, either.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 50

Iseabail became aware of a snapping sound, and looked up. Cannon, glowering impatiently, withdrew his hand from its place next to her ear.

“Sorry,” she said. “Money’s distractin’.”

“The rest of this is worth ten times what Lachapelle owes us, easy. Can we bring it?” Cannon asked.

“Well—” Iseabail stopped herself and gave Cannon a close look. “Are ye sayin’ can we bring it, or are ye sayin’ we’re bringin’ it, figure out how?”

Cannon was silent.

“Righ’. Tha’s wha’ I was afraid of.” Iseabail put her elbow in one hand and rubbed at her chin with the other. “Yer no’ usin’ yon cargo straps, aye?”

“No.” Cannon tilted his head. “Well—”

“Too late, ye already said no.” Iseabail pointed at the crate. “Pu’ the lid back on, an’ give me a hand here.”

Cannon closed the crate and lifted it on Iseabail’s instruction. She ran one strap underneath it lengthwise and one crosswise, then tightened them together. A third strap looped through the other two served as a hanger. “Now we can run it down yon line.”

“Take the last strap,” Cannon suggested.

“Wha’ for? The wee grapple gun has runners.”

Raising an eyebrow, Cannon said, “How many times have you tested it?”

Iseabail thought for a moment, then coiled the last strap and slung it over her shoulder. Cannon nodded, hefted the crate, and followed her back to the catwalk.

Over the din of the engines, now running at full power, there was a shout: “Bот!”

Volkov’s voice. The big Russian was eighty yards distant, at the catwalk leading to his stateroom. Kopeikin was with him, pointing straight at them. Four Soviets leveled their pistols. Cannon set down the crate and went for his Mauser.

He was halfway there when Iseabail cried, “Duck, cap’n!” She had the Beretta in her hand. Cannon ducked. Iseabail sent a fusillade toward the Russians, who dove to the decking and scrambled for cover. “Quick now, before yon Reds realize I cannae shoot,” she said, replacing the Beretta’s magazine. She waved the pistol at a crossing catwalk twenty yards aft. “Tha’ goes tae an engine room, aye?”

“I don’t think we have the time to look at the map,” Cannon replied, already on the move.


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Commentary, The Panamanian Idol No. 50

Sorry for the delay in today’s post.

For once, it isn’t that I’m scrambling to get something written. Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol is, in fact, complete, and will be airing through the end of May.

Following that, we’ll be diving straight in to some more of The Continuing Adventures of Sif, following my favorite character from The Long Retreat. (Behind? You can catch up in the archives.)

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 49

Cannon padded along the catwalk. Further forward, behind them, came the sound of boots rattling on steel. He flattened himself against the bulkhead behind him. Iseabail scrambled to follow suit, but the Russians were going the other direction. Nobody seemed to be interested in the baggage compartment.

Nobody besides Cannon and Iseabail. Cannon readied his lockpicks. Before he could get to work, Iseabail turned the knob, and the hatch opened. Cannon frowned at her. She smiled innocently and shrugged. They went through the hatch.

The baggage hold was only thirty feet by thirty, and half-full at best. Most passengers couldn’t afford to carry freight beyond what they were allowed in their cabins. A handful of crates were stacked in one corner, strapped down tightly, and a row of suitcases lined the opposite bulkhead.

“Toss the place,” said Cannon. “Check the luggage. I’ll see if I can’t lever these open.”

While Iseabail went down the line, pulling out a bag, opening it, and scattering its contents, Cannon undid the straps securing the crates. He lifted the top one experimentally, then slid it off the stack and placed it on the ground. Prying with his fingers revealed that the top was nailed on firmly.

A handtruck leaned against the bulkhead by the hatch. That would work. He took it, wedged its ledge under the crate’s lid, and pulled hard. The nails popped out, and the crate opened.

“Isea,” he said. No reply was forthcoming, so he repeated, “Isea.”

“Ach, wha’ d’ye want?” she replied, irritated.

Mesmerized, Cannon murmured, “How big are your pockets?”

“I’m wearin’ a dress. They dinnae have pockets,” Iseabail said. “Why?” Cannon pointed into the crate. Iseabail huffed, rolled her eyes, and came over. The rancor drained away the moment she looked into the crate.

A golden idol stared back at her, a squared-off form with fiery opal eyes. She tore her gaze away after a few long moments. The crate was packed with straw, and almost equally packed with the riches of ancient Panamanian civilization. There was a ceremonial knife with an intricate engraved monkey, inlaid with gems, wrapping its limbs around the handle. Next to it was a ceramic jug, entirely intact, bearing a many-colored mural depicting some great battle. Tucked in against the crate’s side was a golden mask depicting a face and headdress, surrounded by sunbeams.


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