Captain Jack with the Flying Tigers

6 Oct

or
How Jack Harris Learned to Fly the Curtiss P-40B,
Why Twan Saw the Inside of a Powder Room, and
How They Found A Map

February 1941, Aerodrome Mingaladon, 12 km north of Rangoon

“Hand me that wrench, will you?” Jack gestured to the RAF flight mechanic.

“Do you mean the Spaniard?” asked the mechanic.

“What the hell?” Jack looked up from the 12-cylinder rotary 600 hp Curtiss engine he had nearly finished tuning up.

“Spaniard. You know, the bloody wrench,” asked the mechanic, annoyed.

“You mean spanner.”

“Spanner then, Yank. Whatever you say.”

“So the three-quarter inch ratchet, then?” Jack asked.

“Here ‘tis. Fresh from the box. Shiny as a new bride.” The mechanic handed over the wrench.

Jack peered up into the guts of the engine. All 12 cylinders needed fresh matching sparkplugs. Anything less, and the high compression aviation engine might just start to misfire in the middle of a dogfight. That could cost a man’s life. The margin between the P-40B and the Japanese Zero fighter was too thin for joking around, and the superior climbing rate of the Zero meant Jack’s P-40 needed every rpm it could muster.

Finally satisfied after fitting the last of the new spark plugs, Jack bolted down the engine cowling, jumped into the cockpit, and had the mechanic turn the propeller. The engine sputtered on the first try, then caught on the second and blazed to a throaty roar. Jack’s P-40 strained at its chocks, almost as if it wanted to jump into the air on its own.

Jack gestured thumbs up. The RAF mechanic pulled the chocks, and Jack’s P-40 shuddered forward onto the close-cropped grass runway. Jack turned her into the wind, got the go-ahead from the tower, and thundered off into the sun rising over the eastern mountains.

After adjusting to the sun low on the eastern horizon, Jack spoke to his trainer. “Okay, Tiger One, I’m airborne and heading due north climbing to 5,000 feet, bearing 210.”

The flight commander, radio ID Tiger One, responded immediately. “Tiger Four, you’re trailing white smoke. Abort flight, return to aerodrome.”

Jack looked into his rear view mirror. Blast! New spark plugs, and now an oil leak.

“Roger willco, Tiger One.”  Jack banked around carefully. In two minutes he would circle the aerodrome and set her down. Gently.

Jack set his course for a straight upwind landing. He was maybe 100 feet aloft, about to set down, when his radio crackled again. “If you don’t get those wheels down, Harris, I won’t even write your mother to explain how you ended up strawberry jam!”

Realizing he’d neglected to lower his landing gear, Jack, deeply embarrassed, tugged the lever and the wheels cooperated immediately. He brought his smoke-spewing P-40 to the ground, then taxied to a gentle stop in front of the maintenance hangar. Just as he was unhooking his safety belt, his radio crackled again.

“Report to the CO immediately, Harris.”

Well, there was always the saloon to fall back on, thought Jack as he made his way to the CO’s office.

Ex-RAF squadron chief trainer James L. “Jaimie” Harter, assistant to Col. Claire Chennault, commandant of the Flying Tigers, was standing behind his desk when Harris knocked, then entered the CO’s office.

“Harris?”

“Sir. Jack Harris, CAMCO trainee 2nd class.”

“Harris, you nearly pranged your kite this morning. Didn’t they teach you to check the undercarriage before final approach?”

“Yes, sir. No excuse sir.” Jack ignored the sweat dripping off his nose.

Harter said nothing for long seconds, puffing on an unfiltered Player, looked out the window at the line of Flying Tiger P-40s next to the hangar.

At last. “You’re a bloody fine natural pilot, Harris. See to it you don’t end up cracking up one of our P-40’s next time, what?”

“Yes, sir. Is that all sir?”  Jack couldn’t believe his luck.

“No. There’s something else.” Harter buzzed his assistant. “Send him in, Corporal.”

Jack, still standing at attention, broke his stance to look over his shoulder as the door swung open. It was Twan!

Harter puffed once more on his cigarette, then stubbed it out.

“I understand you two know each other, Twan?”

Nonchalant response. “Yeah, boss, I know Harris.”

“So you two think you can find this map?”

Twan smiled. “Yeah, boss.”

“So take Harris with you and go find that damned map.”

“Yeah, boss.”

And Harris?  This is strictly top secret. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Jack responded automatically, despite being mystified.

“My assistant will fix up your travel arrangements. Dismissed, Harris.”

“Yes sir.” Jack turned mechanically and followed Twan out of Harter’s office.

They drove away in Twan’s jeep. Jack, sitting in the left passenger seat of the right-hand drive jeep, sat silently as long as he could stand.

“So what’s this damned map he’s talking about, Twan?”

“Map somewhere in Singapore, Boss. We fly there tonight.”

“What’s on the map, Twan?”

“Don’t know, Boss. Hush hush.”

Jack grimaced. “So how the hell are we supposed to know when we find it?”

“Yank Navy Intel thinks Leilani might know something. That’s why they hired me. Leilani told them about me. She told them about you too.”

Jack thought about Sweet Leilani. That girl seemed to think of everything.

“So how do we get around in Singapore?”

“Jeep flies with us, Jack. Just like coming here.”

Jack said nothing. He reached for the cigarettes in his breast pocket. Pack empty. Damn. Now he’d have to bum one from the pilot of the C-46 Commando.

Ten hours later, the Commando cargo plane’s engines still ringing in their ears, Twan and Jack watched as the C-46 ground crew deplaned Twan’s jeep onto the Singapore airport runway.

An hour later, they stood outside the bar. It had a new sign above the door, the one that had been repaired after the Japanese shore patrol broke it down. The “Forbidden Island.” Jack made a mental note to compliment Leilani on another good move.

Twan took a last drag on his Camel, stubbed it and grinned at Jack. “Okay, Boss. Let’s see if Leilani remembers you.”

Jack pushed open the door. Leilani’s brother labored behind the bar. The place was jammed with Japanese sailors, soldiers and airmen, chumming with the working girls and drinking like fish. Someone was plunking out “It Had to Be You” on the piano. Cigarette smoke and the combined reek of whiskey and cheap perfume cut the air.

Jack made his way through the crowd of laughing, drinking, sweating and swearing Japanese to the back table. Leilani sat there, suffused with calm, with her leather book of accounts. She was dressed in a new purple gown. Looking somehow more in charge, than in the old red one.

Leilani looked up at Jack, smiled, and closed her book. “Captain Jack, it’s so good to see you. I have so much to tell you.” Not a word about “Where the hell have you been.” This girl was definitely a keeper, thought Jack.

“Leilani, my girl, how HAVE you been?” Jack sat down across from Leilani, mustering his most charming smile. Leilani leaned forward and spoke quietly.

“Jack, the bar is a fine business for you. You have thousands of Hong Kong dollars in the safe. But I’m worried the Japanese might still be looking for you. And there’s the German. Lederhosen.”  Her mouth twisted downward when she uttered Lederhosen’s name.

“I told you not to let that bastard into this bar with his men. What’s happened?”

“You remember he was here with his men and beat up my brother. They went away and didn’t come back for three months. I heard the German was overseas. Then a week ago, they came back. They arrived with ten men, natives and Japanese, no shore patrol around. They held a gun on me and asked me for a map. There was an old map in a frame behind the bar. I tried to tell them that was the only map I knew about. Lederhosen struck me. Then they broke the frame and took the map. Then they left.”

Twan, standing behind Jack and watching the door, listened impassively. He looked up at the faded spot on the wall behind the bar, where the map had previously hung.

Jack said nothing, confused.

Twan broke the silence. “Was it the map of the Straits? The one with Krakatoa in the middle? That had been here for years?”

“Yes, Twan.”

Twan lit another cigarette. “Leilani, is there still a silk tapestry in the Powder Room on the second floor.”

Leilani’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Twan.

“How would you know about that, sir?”

“Never mind. Is it still there?”

“Yes. But I don’t see what that has to do with . . . .”

Twan turned and ran up the stairs. Jack watched as Twan burst through the door of the second floor powder room. Squeals of laughter and screams accompanied Twan’s disappearance into that female sanctum sanctorum.

Leilani stood up, said nothing, and marched up the stairs. Jack just watched.

Twan emerged with a piece of silk cloth under his arm, and a pair of white silk panties on his left shoulder. Taking a moment to brush off the panties, and oblivious to the flutter of female voices behind him, Twan strode down the stairs two at a time, and back to Jack’s side. Leilani had disappeared without a word into the powder room.

“Boss, we have to talk. Private. Now.” Twan’s voice was urgent. Jack looked around. Nobody in the bar had noticed anything.. More likely, the regulars were used to pretending not to notice.

Jack motioned Twan into the office, and closed the door behind them once inside.

“Twan, what the hell was that all about?”

“Boss, that map has been hanging behind the bar of this club for years. The story on the docks is that it was left here by a crazy Englishman 20 years ago. Something about he’d traded it in Rangoon for his houseboy. That it carried a secret. Something about a Rangoon Ruby. Boss, this silk tapestry is an embroidered copy of the map.”

Jack opened his mouth. He couldn’t think what to say. “But how did you know . . .”

Twan was dead earnest now. “Boss, I’ve been working out of this club for five years. I know who made this copy. It was my mother.”

“Damn, Twan, this is great. Do you think the embroidered map has anything to do with what we were sent here to find.”

“Jack, the embroidered map IS what we were sent here to find. I had to play like I didn’t know about it with boss man, to get you out of there and to get air transport back here.”

Jack thought fast. It all added up. The only thing that didn’t fit was . . . what the hell was on the map?

“Okay, Twan, let’s keep that thing in the safe.”

“No, Boss. Too dangerous.”

“So what do you suggest we do with it?”

“First we make sure the place is calm and the girls get a bonus for keeping their mouths shut. Leilani can take care of that. Then we’ve got to get moving. That German is a week ahead of us, Boss.”

“What do you know about this map that you’re not telling, Twan?”

“Just that it had to be the map Harter was talking about, that we were sent to find. And that the German wanted it enough to come back for it. And that the crazy Englishman told wild stories about the Rangoon Ruby.”

The Rangoon Ruby. Captain Jack though a moment. This war stuff had made a big change in his life, but he was still Trader Jack, buyer and seller of anything of value. “Look, Twan, we’re supposed to be helping the war effort here. The US isn’t at war with Japan yet, but everybody thinks something’s going to happen to change that soon. And we know what the Germans are doing in Europe. We can’t mess around with chasing this Rangoon Ruby.”

“Doesn’t change anything, Boss. We’ve got to get moving and follow the map.”

“Why?”

“Boss, we were sent to find that map. The Flying Tigers can wait. If the German wants it, we need to beat him to it.”

Jack thought a moment. There could be lots of reasons why Harter had sent him after the map. With war coming, it could be crucial intelligence. “Okay, Twan, let’s move out.”

Just then Leilani appeared, unflappable as ever, standing behind Jack’s seat. Funny, Jack thought. I didn’t hear her come into the office.

“Captain Jack, the girls will be fine. They’re all getting double pay tonight. And they know how to keep silent.”

Jack looked straight at Leilani, again. “Okay, Leilani, we’ll need some of that operating capital.”  Leilani swiftly dialed the combination on the safe, and handed Jack a bundle of bills at least an inch thick.”

“Here, Captain. From your earnings. If you need more, just let me know.”

Jack’s eyes moved from the pile of money to Leilani’s face, then back to the pile of money.

“Leilani, I, uh . . .”

“Captain, there is no time. Take it and do what must be done.”

“Yes.” There seemed little else to be said.

Twan hissed with urgency. “Boss, let’s go! The shore patrol is coming down the dockside.”

Jack grabbed his hat and bag, and headed out into the bar, Twan right beside him.

And just as he reached the bar, Jack stopped dead in his tracks. Sitting at the bar, coolly sipping a Mai Tai, was an extremely familiar face. An extremely familiar female shape. Extremely familiar long black hair. Extremely familiar long legs, silk blouse, black jodhpurs, black leather riding boots, and red scarf. And those lips.

And, oh my God, thought Jack. That unforgettably-familiar jasmine perfume.

Pupuli looked Jack dead in the eyes, and smiled like the princess she was, had been all her life. Then she spoke in a low, languid voice.

“Hello, Jack. Long time no see.”

Twan and Leilani simply looked at each other.

Finis

Created by Robin Enos

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