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The Abalone Ukulele: A Tale of Far Eastern Intrigue

Knapp sat in a fan-backed rattan chair with her hands clinched tightly together. She looked confused, chagrined, and upset. Draper assumed he had destroyed any chance of reciprocal interest. An afternoon involving theft, murder, assault, and kidnapping, was no one’s runaway success.

“The shoulder cape meant nothing to me, though I think I know why you did what you did. All of it. I’m sorry.” Knapp gave Draper a glum look.

Seven white-uniformed tars filed in and assumed a rigid, but occasionally weaving, oval formation around the table. Each carried a tot of rum in his left hand. They were led by a diminutive white-haired salt of indeterminate age with a neatly trimmed white beard. His words were clipped and fierce, and his face battered, scarred, and puckered like old leather. He wore crossed-anchors on his sleeve. These men were followed by several other more casual, and also uniformed, tars.

“Miller’s senior,” someone said and they all looked toward the bearded white-haired salt.

“Matelots, uncover,” the old salt barked.

They clutched their white flat-hats to the center of their chests.

“Eu-lorgies, report,” he demanded looking straight ahead.

Draper heard the phrases “un-wake” and “almost wake” several times. What followed he took to be premature eulogies. He couldn’t understand more than a smattering of the words. Rum, slang, and widely varying syllable emphasis, made the eulogies difficult to decipher, and he realized, the onset of delirium on his part didn’t help. He picked up references, he believed, to “Jones the Pirate,” “George Washington,” “Davy Crockett,” “Admiral Dewey,” “Hector,” and even “Beowulf.”

“Present arms,” Miller barked again.

They held out the enameled cups.

“To the ‘Yank cowboy,’” Miller growled. “To a fellow warrior. Matelots, up spirits!”

One by one, the tars in the room toasted firmly, “to the Yank,” and downed his tot of rum, then slammed his cup on the table where Draper lay immobile.

“Was that an old ceremony?” Draper sounded out each syllable carefully.

“Name’s Miller,” the old man muttered. “Can’t say, not really official, init? Did one for a mate what cleared a taverna in Crete with a broom handle when the Greeks and Turks got into it in ‘97. Unarmed he was, ‘cept for that broom handle an’ I don’t mean a Mauser pistol. Mean a real broom handle.”

“Trouble there were they established a temp’ry truce between ‘em, the Greeks and Turks, an’ they went after him personal. We had to haul ‘im to safety unconscious, too.”

He paused for a moment. “No rum that time. We had to settle for ouzo. He weren’t never the same. Great bloke, but never the same.” He frowned in remembrance.

“Seemed this were a time to do it ag’in, even it being a Yank what done it. Valor’s valor, bein’ what I always say. Savin’ a fair damsel’s noble-like. Pardon, my sayin’ so, if bein’ a damsel ain’t the same as bein’ a lady.”

Either Miller, or Miss Knapp, was snuffling. Draper’s head was back on the table and he was gazing at the stamped-tin ceiling. He had been gallant, though he now realized that he had been the more likely subject of surveillance, and clear kidnapping target. Draper didn’t know where the gold was going, but he knew a good deal about the heist.

“I’ll see Miss Knapp gets back to her residence hotel safely,” Fairbairn said, and offered Knapp his arm. “Sergeant Fairbairn, at your service. Meeting you has been a honor, Lieutenant Stuyvesant Draper. An honor, sir.”

Draper drifted in and out of consciousness, thinking it a rare honor indeed to be recognized by comrades-in-arms and the possible lamentations of a woman. The pain was considerable, yet he speculated the honor was one of those best appreciated in retrospect.

The tars broke off the legs of the table, hoisted the table top with him on it to shoulder-height, and carried him to the French hospital, St. Mary’s, because “them Frog nurses were ‘deevie,’” which he assumed meant “divine.” Fairbairn hadn’t shared Draper’s geographical limitations with the Royal Navy.

Sailors — officers, and men alike — took great comfort in traditions, Draper could appreciate — even those they made up. The sky was dark and forbidding when the left the café. By the time they’d reached the French Concession, they were enjoying a monsoon deluge.

Miller’s tars only dropped him once.