Istana Palace, Singapore, Late February 1942
Government House had taken quite a lot of damage in the recent Japanese bombardment. Von Lederhosen, standing at the bar in the banquet room, noted with admiration the blast holes left by artillery shells in the walls. He could see burn marks where windows had blown out and curtains had caught fire. The room was filled with Japanese Imperial Army officers, most in parade dress.
Every remnant of British rule had been removed from the room. White tablecloths were spread over long tables filled with fresh fruit. Ice water pitchers streamed condensation. The afternoon sun shone through the blast holes, making the banquet silver glow. An Imperial war flag flew from scorched rafters at the head table.
It was eight days since the British Governor-General had left Government House, just before the surrendering the city to the Japanese.
Von Lederhosen, nursing his champagne cocktail, found his Wehrmacht uniform stiff. He felt uncomfortable in uniform, but not so much that he would allow Tanaka any sense of it. Rigidly upright at the bar, Lederhosen took another drink. The early evening breeze cooled the room. But Lederhosen, crisply starched, noticed how Tanaka sweated. There is something about this man Tanaka, Lederhosen thought, that is not entirely comfortable in such surroundings.
They spoke English.
“Major Tanaka, the Imperial Army’s achievements in taking Singapore so quickly are impressive.”
Tanaka preened. “Yes, Lieutenant. Our forces advance inexorably toward victory.”
Lederhosen’s eyes closed halfway at the tone Tanaka had used when saying “Lieutenant.” As if Tanaka’s superior rank meant something in the larger scheme of their business together. This was an insult to remember, not one to redress immediately. Still, Lederhosen could feel his eyelids burning, as he forced himself calmly to take another sip from his drink.
“As do German forces in North Africa, I am told.”
“Quite so, Lieutenant von Lederhosen. Perhaps our countries’ forces can meet somewhere in the Near East, when the British have been routed.” Tanaka smiled without humor.
More unease in this man, von Lederhosen thought. As he stood watching the Japanese military guards saluting visitors at the door, von Lederhosen reminded himself he was far from home, and without any confirmation of these Japanese forces’ good intentions.
Perhaps there is a way to exploit Tanaka’s lack of grace in social situations, he thought.
As Lederhosen stood there at the bar, looking down at Tanaka, a hush fell over the large banquet room. One hundred male heads turned, as epaulets swung and eyes focused on the main stairway. When he glimpsed the focus of attention, von Lederhosen too stared.
Princess Pupuli descended the stairs one at a time. Pupuli turned as she reached the bottom of the stairs and looked straight at von Lederhosen. Smiling, she crossed the room at a natural pace. Every eye followed her. There was dead silence.
And then she was standing next to von Lederhosen. Surprised and delighted, he turned toward her, clicked his heels, bowed and kissed the air above the offered hand.
“Leutnant Manfred von Lederhosen, Princess. May I have the honor of addressing you by your name?”
“Of course, Herr Leutnant. Call me Pupuli. I hope we can be friends.”
“May I present Major Tanaka of the Imperial Japanese Army? He is our host this afternoon.”
Lederhosen thought Tanaka may have grunted, but said nothing.
Pupuli, who had been meeting soldiers all her life, offered her hand to Tanaka. He shook it without ceremony, in the American style. Pupuli’s smile widened. Lederhosen would have called it a grin.
“Major, is there a table where we three can talk? I would prefer to be out of the sight and sound of all this.” With a wave, Pupuli’s hand dismissed every other man in the room.
“Yes, Princess, please follow me.” With a clear objective, Tanaka became suddenly confident. He escorted Lederhosen and Pupuli to a table next to a window, where they could sit in relative privacy while looking out on the gardens surrounding Government House.
An orderly brought Pupuli a tall cool drink. Tanaka and Lederhosen positioned themselves one on each side of her. They passed several minutes talking about the flowers and weather. Eventually, the eyes around the room lost interest, and a general din of conversation rose in the banquet room again.
When she was sure the room had generally lost interest in the three of them sitting there, Pupuli dropped her voice.
“Leutnant von Lederhosen, I have been given to understand you have obtained a map that may lead to a treasured object. Am I right to have been so informed?”
Von Lederhosen concealed his shock, but betrayed nothing.
“I know of no such map, Princess. Whatever you may have heard.”
“My source of information, Leutnant, has been extremely reliable in the past. I am told you have obtained a map leading to a certain Buddhist palace in Rangoon. Have I been misinformed?”
Pupuli leaned forward, her lips making a small pursed expression. Then her look changed completely, and the poise became steeled resolve.
“Perhaps I can refresh your memory, Herr Leutnant. Your men and Tanaka’s dock patrol raided a bar on the docks in this city three days ago. The bar is named the Forbidden Island Social Club. Tanaka’s men have made it a . . . comfort station.” Pupuli’s lips curled with distaste.
Tanaka, immediately aware that Pupuli had insulted him by neglecting to refer to his rank, sat bolt upright.
Von Lederhosen smiled. This woman would be easy to handle after all. Predictable.
“Regrettably, Princess, you are misinformed. Major Tanaka’s shore patrol raided that club, it is true. But they found nothing, and the club has been allowed to continue operations.”
“I care nothing for the Japanese soldiers’ patronage of a house of ill-repute, Herr Leutnant. What I care about is that your agents have obtained a map woven into a tapestry. A map that shows the location of the Rangoon Ruby.”
Lederhosen smiled and said nothing.
A tense silence hung over the meeting for a long moment. Finally, Tanaka spoke.
“What is this Rangoon Ruby? Some trinket promised you by your father?”
Lederhosen watched amused, as Pupuli’s eyes flashed with anger.
“What would you know of my family, Tanaka?”
“If you persist in disrespecting me, Princess, I will have you removed.”
“You would not dare.”
Lederhosen was enjoying the spectacle, but broke in.
“Please, this is getting us nowhere. I have no such map, Princess. Your source has told you something that is not true.”
Pupuli, her chest heaving with anger and a kind of asexual lust, looked Lederhosen straight in the eye.
“Herr Leutnant, my source has told me quite a lot about you and your men. Perhaps Major Tanaka here would like to hear more about your black market activities.”
Lederhosen’s voice lashed out like a whip. “You will watch what you say, Princess. You may be royalty from a small island, but there are limits to my patience. And your small island is not so important that you can depend upon my good intentions in all matters.”
Pupuli took a moment, calmed herself, and smiled. She took a drink and looked out the window at the orchids. Suddenly Lederhosen noticed her perfume, a soft hint of jasmine which had not been noticeable before.
Now Pupuli spoke in flawless German. “Herr Leutnant, wir werden eine Vereinbarung treffen. We will make an agreement. I will not expose your gold-smuggling operations from Mindanao to Singapore, if you will take me along on your pursuit of the Rangoon Ruby.”
Tanaka, who spoke no German, stared at Pupuli. His face betrayed his concern. Lederhosen took notice, just as he was careful to conceal his surprise.
In English, he replied. “I am sure we can come to some agreement, Princess. I will need to discuss this matter with Major Tanaka. Shall we meet tomorrow at my office to discuss this further?”
“What assurance do I have that anything will be resolved at that time?”
“Because you have no options, Prinzessin. You want something that we do not possess. You have no cards to play in this game. Because it pleases me to make you wait.”
Von Lederhosen smiled. “It will be my pleasure, Prinzessin.”
And then the three of them stood, von Lederhosen helping Pupuli up from her chair.
“Prinzessin. May I call you a car?”
“That will not be necessary, Herr Leutnant. My men will drive me back to my hotel.” And with that Pupuli turned, crossed the room as decorously as she had entered it, and left by the front door. The hundred heads followed her out the door.
Tanaka looked up at von Lederhosen for a moment, then spoke. “How could she possibly know about our pursuit of the Rangoon Ruby?”
Von Lederhosen spoke slowly and carefully. “I do not know. But there is a security leak. We need to find it, and rid ourselves of it.”
“Yes. Immediately and with finality.”
“You will investigate the American and his whorehouse?”
“Yes, yes. And you will tell me what she said to you in German?”
Von Lederhosen just laughed. But the laughter was forced, and he could feel it choking him. The woman was dangerous, and needed to be watched. And, eventually, managed. With finality.
Von Lederhosen said a brief goodbye to Tanaka, and left.
Back at his desk, his uniform off, Lederhosen sat down and looked out at the harbor. The lights of the hundreds of junks anchored in the harbor glittered on the water. He thought about this woman Pupuli. And Tanaka. And the heroin shipments already spoken for in Rangoon. The war raged in Europe and North Africa. But here there was only money to be made. No clear path to glory.
The Rangoon Ruby? Every instinct told Lederhosen the Rangoon Ruby would be of incalculable value. His only orders had been to establish a black market. He had been given free rein, and OKW had never even sent word of a case officer responsible for reviewing his reports. He had stopped writing them a year ago. There had been no response from OKW. They were too busy winning the war, apparently.
Lederhosen drank little, but he sat there contemplating a glass of whiskey. It had been sitting in front of him since he had arrived back from the reception at Government House.
And then there was this Prinzessin, Pupuli. Not a beauty like the blonde Aryan girls Lederhosen had admired as a school lad. An exotic type, a riddle. A woman who was more than she seemed. Where had she learned such German? He knew that German missionaries had traveled to the Marshall Islands. There were still German schools there. In school, he had heard the islands called German New Guinea. Perhaps this Pupuli had attended schools in Hong Kong?
And Lederhosen had not met a woman of quality in some time. The British were too arrogant, and now they were gone. The Japanese had not brought any women with them. Perhaps Prinzessin Pupuli could serve more than one purpose in this war.
This Ruby. What of that? Every instinct told him to grab it, to play politics and intrigue in any way possible to possess it. Every inference told him it was a way to turn a war that had become banal into something he could bring home, something he could use to get respect. Something that might even impress his father.
And von Lederhosen sat there looking at the drink and the harbor lights for hours, his various lusts consuming his thoughts.
Created by Robin Enos