This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission.
In Danzig, a private investigator named Bednarski is approached by Norma Jean Baker, an OSS agent posing as Professor Fritz Strassmann's daughter Maria. He agrees to look for her "father", who went missing years earlier with the passengers and crew of the Minnie while taking a three hour tour. A storm wrecks their ship, and Bednarski and Baker find themselves on an uncharted desert isle . . .
The Little Buddy
Somewhere in the Baltic Sea
7 September 1947
The sun was glaring down on me, and there was an idiot standing nearby bellowing inanities at me, but I was alive, something I would not have given long odds on too much earlier.
I somehow found the strength to roll over, which brought my eyes into blessed shadow. I opened them slowly and found myself graced by a closeup view of sand. Squinting, I raised my head to give myself a better view, and found that Agent Baker was doing likewise from a couple meters away. The two of us were a few meters above the water line on a beach. We had been joined here and there by washed-up bits of the Marlin. Regrettably, Captain Raeder was not among the bits. A damned shame; I had taken a liking to the old boy.
Standing equidistant from Agent Baker and myself, forming the third apex of an equilateral triangle, was the bellowing idiot. He had tangled black hair that fell down past his shoulders, and an equally tangled beard that reached halfway down his chest. He was dressed in a mix of tree bark, animal skins, and the patched-together remnants of what had once been a red jersey and white trousers, all topped off with a torn and battered sailor's cap. Through the numerous gaps in his clothing, I could see how thin he was, looking almost like those pictures of the concentration camp inmates after Piłsudski's army crashed through the gates.
"Mein herr, are you all right?" the tattered apparition asked me, then before I could answer he had spun around and begun to bellow "SKIPPER!" again. I knew without having to ask that I had found Adolf McGillicuddy.
A second figure dashed through the foliage at the edge of the beach, calling, "What is it, little buddy?" He looked much like McGillicuddy, only his long hair and beard were white, and the tattered remains of his jersey were blue. He bore very little resemblance to the newspaper photographs I had seen of portly Captain Joachim Gromburg.
"People, Skipper," McGillicuddy informed him, as though Gromburg were incapable of seeing for himself. "I found people!"
"I can see that, McGillicuddy," Gromburg replied with irritation. "Who are they?"
I stood up then, trying with little success to brush the sand off my trousers. "The name's Bednarski. I'm a private investigator. I'm looking for the survivors of the Minnie."
"Well, you've found them," Gromburg confirmed. "My name is --"
"Joachim Gromburg, and this is your first mate, Adolf McGillicuddy." I finished for him. "The young lady here is my client. She claims to be Professor Strassmann's daughter, but her real name is Norma Baker. She's an OSS agent."
Agent Baker was staring at me, momentarily speechless. She finally said, "How long have you known, Herr Bednarski?"
"It took me about an hour to figure out that you weren't Strassmann's daughter, but I didn't find out your real name until I had an interesting conversation with a fellow named Hochstetter Friday morning."
"What's going on here?" Gromburg demanded, and even after all this time, he could still bark out commands like a petty officer.
"Agent Baker here is an American spy," I explained. "She hired me to find Professor Fritz Strassmann so she could recruit him for her country's secret atom bomb project."
"You mean the Professor can build an atom bomb?" said McGillicuddy in astonishment. At first I was surprised that he knew about atoms bombs, since the Minnie had been lost before the Atomic Control Commission was formed, but of course they've been writing stories about atom bombs for years.
"Before he was shipwrecked here," Agent Baker explained, "he was a top scientist in the Polish atom bomb project."
"Unfortunately," I added, "our rescue attempt has run into a little snag."
Gromburg shook his head in bewilderment before saying, "We'd better go back and see the others." He turned and headed back into the foliage, and we followed him.
The trail Captain Gromburg led us along wound through the trees and ground vegetation of a hardwood forest, sloping gradually upward until we came into a clearing. There were three primitive-looking log cabins built low to the ground with smoke rising from holes in the center of each roof. Behind them was a large vegetable garden, with newly-sprouting tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and other things. There was a pigpen next to it, and a surprisingly large patch of barley beyond that.
"How did you manage all this?" I asked Gromburg.
"Janina did most of it," Gromburg answered with respect in his voice. "We were lucky to have her along." It took me a moment to place the name: Janina Wojas, the farm girl. "She knew just where to look to find all these vegetables, and she was able to grow all that barley from half a dozen plants. And the Professor was able to make fertilizer from bat dung in the caves, and from the fish I caught."
The noise of our arrival had evidently attracted some attention, because an elderly couple emerged from one of the cabins, dressed as Gromburg and McGillicuddy were in a mix of tattered clothing and scraps of animal skins.
"Captain," the elderly man said to Gromburg, "who are these people?"
Gromburg looked at us and made vague motions with his hands, but he had clearly forgotten our names. I introduced myself and Agent Baker again and said, "I presume you are Herr and Frau Max Silberberg."
The elderly man smiled at me through his beard and said to his wife, "You see, Lovey, I told you the Board of Directors would send someone to find us."
"But Max," said Frau Silberberg, "it's been three years."
"That's how long it usually takes the Board to make a decision when I'm not there," Silberberg chuckled.
"I have to hand it to you, Herr Silberberg," I said, "the two of you seem to have come through the shipwreck in good shape."
"We've had practice, my boy," Herr Silberberg replied with a grim smile. "We spent five years together in Buchenwald."
I remembered then a story from the paper about Silberberg. After the Röhm Coup, he and his wife had been arrested and their company nationalized. They had emerged from Buchenwald in 1937 with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but by the time they disappeared on the Minnie seven years later, Silberberg had amassed a second fortune. Looking at him now, I had no doubt he would be back in complete control of Silberberg Industries within a week of leaving the island.
My trip down memory lane was detoured by the sound of McGillicuddy calling out, "Hey, Janina, look what I found!" I looked behind me and saw a young woman. If the men all looked like Robinson Crusoe, the newcomer looked like Red Sonja from one of the Hollywood "Conan" films. She was dressed as the others were in animal skins, but on her they looked good. Her red hair hung in two braids down her back, and she carried a homemade bow slung across her back and what looked for all the world like a machete on a belt around her waist.
"Good morning, Fraulein Wojas. My name is Bednarski. I'm a private investigator from Danzig."
Her look was an appraising one. I had spoken to her automatically in German, but she answered me in Polish. "Is that a gun in your pocket, Pan Bednarski, or are you just happy to see me?"
"I left my gun back in Gdansk," I responded in Polish.
She gave me a cool nod, then gestured toward Agent Baker. "Who's the frail?"
"My client, Agent Norma Baker of the OSS. She's here to bring Professor Strassmann back to America with her."
"Is she?" Wojas said, and a slight smile came to her lips.
"I am," Baker answered her, also in Polish. If I saw two women trading looks like these over me, I'd feel three meters tall; I'd also be frightened out of my wits.
"Whyever would I wish to go to America?" a man said in German, and now I finally got a look at the object of my search. He was in his late 40s, thin and bearded like the other men, though his white shirt and trousers were in better shape than theirs. He moved to stand beside Wojas like it was the most natural thing in the world. I remembered that Professor Strassmann had a wife and daughter back in Berlin. I also remembered that Frau Strassmann had had him declared legally dead two years back, so I guess it all evened out.
"I think you'll wish to come to America," Agent Baker answered him, "because, unlike Herr Bednarski here, I did not leave my gun in Danzig." And just like that, it was in her hand, produced from heaven knows where, pointed right at Janina Wojas' heart. "And if I were you, sister, I'd leave that bow right where it is."
Prompted by Agent Baker, Professor Strassmann left Janina Wojas' side and followed her to the far side of the clearing. When they had disappeared into the foliage, a middle-aged woman with long blonde hair and nothing else emerged from the third cabin. "Is she gone?" she said vaguely. It didn't take much imagination to figure out how Emmy Sonnemann had managed to survive.
A look passed between Wojas and myself, and we both sprinted to the edge of the clearing. There was no sign of Baker and Strassmann, but Wojas was quick to spot a scrap of white clothing. It was the first of a series of scraps, and they led us through the trees to a section of beach. For some reason, I was not the least bit surprised to see a submarine surfaced offshore, an American flag painted on her conning tower. Four sailors were climbing into a black rubber raft beside it, while Baker and Strassmann waited on the beach next to the water. Wojas had nocked an arrow, but Baker was keeping to the far side of Strassmann. I head Wojas swear under her breath in two languages.
The raft had come halfway to the beach when I heard a low murmur coming from back the way we came. As it grew louder I recognized it, and I turned my head to face the sun just as the helicopter flew overhead. It was grayish-green, and painted on its side were the red-and-white square of the Polish Air Force and the silly orbiting-electrons sigil of the ACC.
The amplified voice of Wolfgang Hochstetter came booming out of the helicopter. "Agent Baker! This is the League of Nations Atomic Control Commission! Drop your weapon and keep your hands in sight! You are under arrest!" He repeated himself in what I guessed was English.
Baker fired at the helicopter, and Strassmann took the opportunity to hit the beach. Less than a second later, Norma Jean Baker was staggering back into the sea with an arrow sticking out of her chest. As the waves rolled over her, the sailors in the rubber raft turned back to the submarine.
* * *
It took two trips to ferry all eight castaways back to the waiting Polish cruiser. As short as the trip was, it was still pretty uncomfortable sitting there while Agent Hochstetter glared at me.
"I don't know what's got you so upset," I told him. "I think it was pretty clever of me to get shipwrecked on the same island as the Minnie castaways. The fine men of the ACC get the credit for locating and rescuing the castaways, I get a well-earned thousand złotys, and all these good people get their lives back."
"What the hell were you thinking, Bednarski, bringing an American spy with you on the search?"
"Come off it, Hochstetter," I sneered back, "you were just as sure as I was that Professor Strassmann here was dead." Strassmann didn't seem offended by my remark. He was too busy thanking Janina Wojas for saving him. "And like I said, all's well that ends well."
He didn't find my arguments at all convincing.
Arriving at the Navy ship, I was pleased to be greeted by Captain Raeder, who had been picked up safe and sound from among the wreckage of the Marlin. When we got back to the Commonwealth, Strassmann returned to Berlin with Janina in tow. The Silberbergs returned to Breslau, and it took Herr Silberberg maybe twenty minutes to get his Board of Directors eating out of his hand. Gromburg, McGillicuddy, and Sonnemann wound up in Warsaw, where their torrid tale of triune lust was soon dirtying up the bestseller lists.
As for me, I've got an ACC gag order to keep me off of publisher's row, but that's all right. I've still got my tiny office, my name in big letters on a door, and a battered desk with a bottle of schnapps in the bottom right hand drawer.