Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 7

“Then perhaps,” said Wailani, “you’ve heard of our most distinguished passenger, Artiom Volkov?”

Cannon didn’t need to feign his excitement. “I have. He has advanced the state of Central American archaeology by decades.”

Wailani nodded. “He is also a three-time heavyweight champion in the Soviet Union.”

Cannon blinked. “How unexpected. He seems a fascinating fellow. I should like to meet him.”

“You may have the chance,” Wailani said. “You asked for tips? Flying aboard a Soviet zep is certainly an experience—there are no classes. Odds are you will come across Mr. Volkov at dinner at least once. All but the captain’s favored few dine as equals.”

Cannon raised an eyebrow. Iseabail said, “Tha’ sounds like classes ta me.”

Wailani laughed. “Don’t you see? The Soviet Union is a classless society. The captain is, of course, a good Soviet. Therefore, the captain dining with his friends among the wealthy and famous cannot be evidence of separate classes.” He lowered his voice and leaned in conspiratorially, eyes gleaming. “Don’t let the Russians catch you talking like that.” Straightening, he added, “Nor should you expect much service from the stewards.”

Cannon leaned back, momentary speechless. “What, then, do they do?”

“Deliver meals, and sometimes help with cleaning. If you want more, you may hire one.”

“Haven’t they already been hired?” Cannon said, then held up his hand to forestall further comment. “Never mind. It is too bizarre.” He smiled regardless. “Thank you for your advice, Mr. Wailani. Perhaps we will meet over dinner.”

All three of them stood, and Wailani grinned. He offered his hand, and Cannon shook it. “Undoubtedly.”

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Late update update

Today’s story update will end up being tonight’s story update, because I’ve been playing around with Second World War British web gear all night, and my fingers hurt from loosening the snaps. Have a great day. See you tomorrow night.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 6

The Hawaiian folded his paper and set it aside, then gestured to the empty chairs at his table. Cannon pulled one out for Iseabail, then sat next to her. “First,” the Hawaiian continued, “introductions. I am John Manu Wailani.”

“Doctor Daniel Smith,” Cannon replied, “and my wife, Iseabail. It is our pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wailani. I confess, I had some concern we would be the only ones who speak English on this voyage.”

Wailani showed an ear-to-ear grin. “The pleasure is all mine. I have had my fill of Russians lately.”

“D’ye meet many Russians in your line, then?” Iseabail put in.

Wailani nodded. “Though I am a mere man of business, the Kingdom of Hawai’i nevertheless thinks I am a worthy economic ambassador for our little island paradise. The Soviets are national partners, as are the Central Americans. I spend much of my time traveling. Fortunately, I am returning home for a time.” Wailani spread his arms. “Enough talk of me. To meet fascinating strangers is one of life’s delights. Tell me of yourselves.”

Cannon gave a little laugh, then embarked on a round of that traditional British sport, self-deprecation. “I’m rather afraid you’re the more fascinating personality. The lives we lead must seem terribly dull by comparison. Mrs. Smith and I are archaeologists working under the British Museum.

Wailani laughed, a booming sound as deep as his voice, but no less musical. “Archaeologists! Fascinating indeed. What brings you to the Red Banner?”

“We’re headed tae Yokohama,” Iseabail said. “An’ India, after tha’. Our tommies found a temple wha’ hae been lost ta time near Assam.”

“And what brought you to Panama?”

“I am something of a specialist in pre-Columbian peoples of Central America,” Cannon said sheepishly. “An acquaintance of Mrs. Smith called on me to give my opinion on a find of his.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 5

Cannon and Iseabail sat at their table for a full hour. At two o’clock, midway through their vigil, Red Banner set out, the stirring strains of the Internationale playing over her loudspeakers to mark their departure. From Panama City’s port, the zep turned northwest by west, taking them over the jungles of Panama, five hundred feet above sea level at the keel. The verdant hills roles so near to the zeppelin that Cannon could nearly have reached out and touched the tallest branches.

The clock at the forward end of the lounge chimed: two thirty. “I guess our Volkov isn’t looking for company.”

“Wha’ d’we do, then?” Iseabail asked.

Cannon touched the side of his nose and found his accent again. “Why, you just trust me, my dear Mrs. Smith. Our man is an academic! If we sing his praises loudly enough, he’ll hear us.”

“Ego,” Iseabail mused, canting her head. “Aye. Tha’ could do it.”

Cannon nodded. “Nothing more to do just now, I’m afraid. Perhaps I’ll freshen up for dinner.”

He stood. The lounge was now half-full, and had been for some time. As nice as the midships cabins were, they held little in the way of entertainments. A quiet buzz of conversation, mainly in Russian and Spanish, filled the air. At the aft end of the lounge, someone sat at the aluminum Wurlitzer, playing tunes straight from the Russian folk canon.

Cannon made his way toward the midships corridor, Iseabail in tow. Before he got there, a conspicuously English-speaking voice hailed him. “Your first time on a Soviet zep?”

In fact, it was. Cannon had never had much use for zeppelin liners in the days before Inconstant, and had none at all now. He turned to t he source of the voice, to see a bulky man with the dark hair, dark eyes, deep tan, and broad face of a Pacific islander—a Hawaiian, most likely.

“It is,” Cannon said. The man had next to him a stack of books with Cyrillic titles, and regarded them over the top of a newspaper whose masthead read ПРАВДА. This, Cannon thought, might be a good fellow to know. “Do you have any tips for the first-time traveler?”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 4

Leaving their bags, Cannon and Iseabail made their way to the portside lounge. Though the Red Banner was smaller than Inconstant, she didn’t need so large a flight deck. Freed from that constraint, she had a much greater amount of space for accommodations. The zep could carry some three hundred passengers. All of them could fit into her lounge without crowding. It stretched on and on, just over half the length of Inconstant‘s hangar. From the windows at the hull in to the inner wall, it was some thirty yards across, divided into two tiers. Coming from the centerline, Cannon and Iseabail arrived on the higher tier; staircases ran down to the lower tier at intervals.

The lounge had the same aesthetic as the cabins: bare metal, simple furniture, and, more unusually, bamboo flooring. The only other nod to style—indeed, the only splash of color in the whole of the lounge—came from the inboard walls. A massive red banner bearing a golden hammer and sickle hung at the forward and aft ends of the lounge, and in between, murals depicted scenes from the glorious people’s revolution, Chairman Trotsky front and center.

Iseabail and Cannon descended the nearest staircase to the lower tier, settling in at a brushed aluminum table for two with a view out the windows. “I wonder if our Mr. Volkov has boarded yet,” Cannon said, back in character. “I simply cannot wait to meet him.”

Per the plan, they’d do a lot more than just chat. After the stop in Hawaii, Cannon would knock Volkov out, tie him up, and take the item. Then, they would await the Long Nines and head to an engine pod. An Albatross would pull up next to them, and Emma would launch a line across.

Iseabail elbowed Cannon. “Look,” she said.

A short, mousy man pushed open the door to the cabin forward of the lounge. Porters wheeled a large crate in behind him. “How come they didna help us wi’ our bags?” Iseabail asked.

“So much for the dictatorship of the proletariat,” Cannon agreed. He flagged down a passing steward. “Pardon me, my good man. I heard Artiom Volkov is taking this flight. Has he boarded?”

The steward looked at Cannon as though he’d grown a third arm, but answered nevertheless, in a thickly-accented baritone. “Artiom Vladimirovitch,” he mused. “Ah. There he is now.” He pointed, then scurried away before Cannon could ask anything else.

“Rude,” said Cannon, turning to Iseabail. “Wouldn’t you…” Her mouth hung open. Cannon followed her gaze.

Volkov was a mountain of a man, the largest Cannon had ever seen. He stood nearer seven feet tall than six, and must have weighed well north of two hundred pounds. Muscles bulged through his ill-fitting suit. He opened the door to the forward cabin, only barely squeezing through, even though the door stood wide open.

Iseabail leaned over as Volkov slammed the door behind him. “I still think you can take him.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 3

Cannon and Iseabail disembarked. Cannon collected their bags from the porters.

“Where now?” Iseabail said.

“Out the west door,” Cannon replied, putting on his best generically English accent.

Iseabail chucked. “Who d’ye think’s going tae buy tha’, Dr. Smith?”

“I’m aiming to fool a gaggle of Russians, dear, not the King,” Cannon replied archly. “Come along. We’ve a mile’s walk to the zeppelin.”

The sea breeze only slightly tempered the jungle humidity, so they adopted a leisurely pace, strolling through the city. Ancón sat along the coast; Panama City mainly occupied a tiny rectangular peninsula, jutting east into the Pacific. They crossed it at its inland end, ambling along dusty avenues. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on a sleeping city. They were all but alone on the streets. Passing another shuttered cafe, Cannon found a patch of shade, set the bags down for a moment, doffed his hat, and mopped at his brow.

“I can carry me own, if it would help,” Iseabail offered.

Cannon folded his handkerchief and put it back in his pocket and sniffed. “It wouldn’t be proper.”

“Careful. We dinnae want ye tae become the mask,” Iseabail replied.

Cannon broke character for a moment, cracking a grin. “What was it you said? Who do you think will buy that?”

Iseabail rolled her eyes. “Let’s go.”

Forty minutes, all told, took them through Panama City to the zeppelin field, which covered a mile or thereabouts between the city and the Gabilan Rock to the southwest. Two zeppelins were moored by the old method, fixed only at the nose and free to weathervane. Panama was small and unimportant, as far as the world was concerned. Too few zeppelins put in here to merit a more modern sky harbor.

The nearer zep bore a gold hammer and sickle on her side, and a red star on her tailfin. Beneath the star was her name, stenciled in Cyrillic characters.

“If I had to guess,” Cannon said, “that one is ours.”

 

An hour later, they settled into their cabin. The Red Banner was shorter than Inconstant by more than a hundred yards, with a correspondingly greater curve to her sides, so the Soviets had built her in the traditional German style. All the cabins were amidships, inside the hull, surrounded on either side by public spaces with windows looking down and out the zeppelin’s flanks. The nicest cabins, fore and aft of the portside lounge, had their own windows, but such accommodations were beyond the modest means of a pair of British archaeologists such as Doctor and Mrs. Daniel Smith. Still, the inner cabins were well-appointed in the Soviets’ traditional restrained style. They had a washroom to themselves, a luxury not even found on Inconstant.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 2

For his part, Cannon leaned back and stretched his legs. Finally, after two years, he was mere days from putting the whole ugly affair in Panama behind him. He had mixed feelings about the place—no, that was wrong. He had deeply negative feelings about the whole country. He had lost crew, his friends. He had nearly lost his zeppelin, all on a mountainside not far from here. Fortunately, he didn’t plan to stay long.

He and Iseabail had tickets to board a Soviet zep, the Red Banner of the People’s Crusade, which awaited their arrival in Panama City. It would soon depart for Vladivostok, by way of Honolulu and Yokohama. Traveling with them would be one Artiom Volkov, a Red archaeologist who had recently excavated the temple complex in which Cannon and his crew had nearly met their ends. Volkov had in his possession a particular item, a statuette that Cannon had promised to deliver to a particular client. At last, he could make good on his word. They would board the zep, gain Volkov’s confidence, and then abuse it to gain their target. After that, the rest of the Long Nines would attack the Red Banner after she left Hawaii, and retrieve Cannon, Iseabail, and the item.

Simple. Too simple, in Cannon’s estimation. A plan that easy had no room to improvise when things went wrong, and something always went wrong.

The train ran alongside the Rio Grande for a few miles, then turned away through a valley and a small village, and past a sign beside the tracks labeled ‘Corrazal’. The train pushed on, the jungle on both sides nearly close enough to touch. Through the open windows, the birdsong and an occasional monkey’s cry vied with the rattle of the wheels, the chug of the engine, and the whir of the electric fans pushing a humid breeze through the carriage. A steward stopped by their compartment with iced lemonade, which Cannon gratefully accepted.

They rounded a bend, and suddenly, Panama City and the Pacific Ocean stretched out before them. The azure sea faded into the infinite distance, dotted here and there with whitecaps. Somewhere in the haze, it became the sky, filled with cotton ball clouds.

The train’s near-constant descend eased as it reached the coastal plain. They would be in Ancón, Panama’s sister city here on the isthmus’ southeast coast. Just before the Ancón wharf, where stevedores worked to load the rail freight onto waiting ships, the train turned down a siding and came to Panama City Station.

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Commentary, The Panamanian Idol No. 2

Artistic license (Russian): to my knowledge, there is no Russian word that maps to ‘crusade’ in the sense of a weighty endeavor (as opposed to a religious war) more closely than related English words like ‘undertaking’, ‘campaign’, or ‘struggle’. ‘Red Banner of the People’s Struggle’ doesn’t sound as cool, though.

I suspect this is for several reasons:
1. The Orthodox Church never did crusades, so it isn’t woven into the cultural fabric.
2. The only undertaking likely to be labeled ‘crusade’, the Revolution, would have explicitly objected to the usage of religious terminology.
3. Russians aren’t given to look too optimistically on big, weighty undertakings.

The more you know!

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Panamanian Idol No. 1

The train wove around the verdant hills of central Panama, passing small villages nestled against the slopes as it clattered downhill toward Panama City.

In a first-class carriage, Nathaniel Canon glanced down at his timetable, then at his watch. They had just passed the town of Culebra. In half an hour, they would be getting off at Ancón.

Iseabail Crannach sat to his right, though had Cannon not known her so well, he would scarcely have recognized her. Gone were her usual lab coat and khaki trousers, in favor of a severe gray blouse and utilitarian skirt; her hair was pulled into a tight bun, its usual vicious frizz tamed for now. A minute or two ago, she had been and leaning out into the corridor, as though she could push the engineer to take the curves a little faster. Now, she stared out the window across from their compartment with barely-contained glee.

Cannon sat up straighter to peer over her head. The sun was shining, and the deep blue of the sky and the gleaming silvery thread of the Rio Grande’s headwaters neatly framed the emerald jungle climbing the valley’s opposite wall. “Lovely day, isn’t it?” he said.

Iseabail jumped, then waved away his remark. “That’s nae what I’m thinkin’,” she said, her brogue as thick as ever. “Did y’know there was talk of buildin’ a canal through here, back before the war?”

Cannon raised his eyebrows. “Yes. I was twelve.”

Iseabail shook her head. “Ach, of course. I forget how old you are, sometimes.”

“Keep digging that hole, and maybe you can find yourself a new job in the canal business,” Cannon replied, showing a grin.

“Sorry, cap’n.”

“It’s fine, and no more ‘captain’. We’re almost there.”

“Aye, ca— Nat.”

“Who’s Nat?”

“Ach, aye, Dr. Smith.”

“That’s right, Mrs. Smith.” Cannon nodded his approval, noted Iseabail’s pained look, and gave her a friendly pat on the arm. “Eighty-six the nerves, Isea. You’ll do just fine. I’m sure of it.”

Iseabail nodded, took a deep breath, and became a little more herself. She looked back to the window.

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