It started for me when he lit the match. It had been worked, reworked, revised, scrapped, buried, and resurrected a thousand times over the last four years, but for me it started with the strike of a match. The chemically treated paper stick brushed across the sandpaper strip at the bottom of a cardboard pack, the brilliant flare of white and gold, the smell of burning paper and sulfur, the crackling of fired tobacco, the rising tendril of smoke, were all heralds of what was to come.
He inhaled deeply and the flipped the tip of the cigarette into a large, glass ashtray, its detritus smoldering in the bottom. He looked up at me, his round glasses flashed, his eyes looking like brilliant circles of light. “Did you want one of these?”
The room was dark save for incandescent bulb hanging suspended from a black wire in the ceiling. The soft, yellow, glow radiated outwards and then seemed to merge with the darkness.
I looked at him a long time without speaking.
He lifted the cigarette and looked at its tip. “I asked if you wanted one of these, Mister Harlin.”
“Cut the Mister Harlin stuff. You’ve known me for six years.”
He smiled disingenuously. “Not officially. This is official.”
“So why aren’t we in Washington instead of freezing our rear ends off here in Norfolk?”
He turned to look at the cigarette, his eyes intently studying the glowing tip. After a moment his gaze returned to me. “President Wilson has an assignment for you.”
“You want to quit beatin’ your gums and tell me what I’m doing here.”
He stared at me, a private thought stirring behind his eyes. Then, having reached a decision, he ground his cigarette into the ashtray and sighed heavily. “We found something in an ancient jungle temple in South America. We’ve translated what we can, but there are still some questions.”
“And it means what to me?”
“Everything the President has asked you to do, you’ve hit all sixes. Everything done to perfection and you always come back.”
“This is the part where I’m supposed to gush?”
“We need your help with this, Mister Harlin.”
“So you found some ancient piece of hoodoo in a South American jungle. I’m not an archaeologist, or a linguist. Call Gertrude Bell. When you want to find someone on the lam, secrets passed behind enemy lines, or you need some bad guys taken for a ride, you call me. I’m not a scholar.”
I could see an angry thought working in his eyes. He blew out his breath. “We’ve spoken to Miss Bell. She was head of this project and did all of the translation. Her work was instrumental in uncovering part of the artifacts secrets. But it’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle.”
“Then get the corn bread out of your mouth and tell me why I’m here.”
“The Lusitania, The Sussex, what do these names mean to you?”
“Ships sunk by the Germans. They’re pretty much the reason we entered the war.”
“To a degree, you’re correct. What do you know of the Black Hand?”
“I’ve dealt with those idiots on more than one occasion as you are well aware. I probably know the way they operate better than you do.”
He smiled. “I can agree with that. Now, what do you know of Drago Kevlozic?”
“He’s a mean bastard. No one can directly tie him to the Black Hand yet everyone knows he’s the leader. After that court room farce a couple of years ago that supposedly got rid of the Black Hand, Kevlozic disappeared for six months. Then reappeared using several aliases. He’s been robbing Europe blind of its treasures. He’s rumored to have been smuggling pieces out of the Louvre as far back as his Black Hand beginnings. I had an encounter with him in Italy less than a month ago.”
He seemed to be smiling at my reference to Italy. “We know all about your trip to Italy. We’re still cleaning up the political fiasco you created.”
“They dealt the hand, not me. The assignment while I’m young please.”
He withdrew another cigarette and sparked a match on the table top. He started to light the smoke and then paused, the match flickering wildly an inch from the tip. “Ever been to Rio de Janeiro?”
I stood at the bow of the great ship, my thoughts running as deep and wide as the ocean around me. It was hard for me to imagine that President Wilson was actually putting any credence in this, what we dubbed, stone machine. But with the way Germany was moving across the globe America needed an edge like no one else.
The U.S.S. Cyclops pushed easily through the waves, its hull slicing neatly through the azure froth. The air was cold and the sky was filled with rolling, grey, clouds that seemed to taunt rain.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a swirl of black cloth and I knew he was there. He’s always there, on the edge of my vision. He’s been there a long time and, although we’ve never spoken, we have an understanding. We are brothers in arms, each trying to rid the world of evil. And while I endeavor to never harm the innocent; my hooded partner can make no such claim. I cannot hate him for this. He is, after all, a soldier not unlike myself and takes his orders from one much higher. Ultimately, I know my brother will have orders to come for me and I will find a place in the folds of his dark robe, my soul awaiting final judgment. I have spent much of my life sending others into the arms of my brother, but something about this stone machine made me seriously give thought as to whether a face to face with him was soon to come aborning.
The mewing call of a Storm-Petrel drew me from my thoughts. I took a long look at the ship around me. A Proteus-class collier vessel, the ship was built to refuel and resupply warships. She was five hundred and forty-two feet of iron and steel on a mission I considered to be a complete waste of time. But, evidently, President Wilson felt differently. And who was I to argue with the President.
I decided it was time to check on my charge and the source of the mission. The damned stone machine was the most unusual thing I’d ever seen. It wasn’t really what you would call a machine and yet there wasn’t a name that could adequately describe what it actually was. It was also not made entirely out of stone. There were several carved and notched redwood figurines inset in the center piece. I had no idea what it was or how it worked. All I had to do was get it to Baltimore.
I started for the hold and had almost reached the hatch when it happened. Over the sounds of the wind and surf, I could hear Captain Worley yelling at a crewman. This was typical. Worley was always on about something. He drank heavily and to explain it away he told people he suffered from beriberi. If he head beriberi, he got it from drinking.
“I don’t care what that son of a bitch says! We’re right where we’re supposed to be!”
He was screaming at Lieutenant Frank Nigg and it didn’t sound good.
“Sir, with all due respect, we’re off course. We’re going to miss Bahia. And using that kind of language is unbecoming a captain.”
Lieutenant Nigg, you will not tell me what it means to be a captain! I think some time in the brig will show you your place!”
My visit to the hold would have to wait. If the ship was off course I was going to be a little annoyed. Worley had already put the ship off course on his way to Rio. He’d overshot the harbor by forty-eight miles. That wasn’t going to happen again.
“It’s obvious that son of a bitch Asper put you up to this! I think it’s about time he and I . . .”
“Is there a problem?” I asked, coming to the top of the deck stairwell.
Worley spun to face me. “What the hell do you want?”
I leveled my gaze at him. “I asked if there was a problem.” I could tell Worley was not thrilled to see me. He wasn’t used to someone he knew nothing about giving him orders.
“This isn’t your concern, mystery man.”
“Lieutenant Nigg, are we off course?” My eyes never left Worley.
“The navigator and I both agree that we are.”
“We’re not off course!” Worley screamed.
I continued to stare at Worley. “How far?”
Nigg looked at Worley and then quickly turned to me. “We’ve already missed a southern approach to Bahia. If we turn now, we can make a northern approach.”
Worley eyes locked on mine. “You don’t have the authority to tell my men what to do.”
“President Wilson says I do.”
Worley’s face was purple and the veins on his forehead were pulsating. “I don’t give a damn what . . .”
I snap drew the Colt Peacemaker on my hip, ratcheting back the hammer and pointed it between Worley’s eyes. “Finish that sentence and it’ll be your last. Language unbecoming an officer is one thing, treason is another.”
Sweat beads the size of marbles began rolling down Worley’s face. “I. . . It wasn’t. . . I never meant to sound as if I were questioning the president. I am a patriot.” His eyes stayed locked on the barrel of the pistol.
I held it there another ten seconds before lowering the hammer and dropping it back in the holster. I smiled at the young lieutenant. “Nigg, put us back on course.”
“Uh. . . Yes . . . Do I call you sir?”
“You don’t call me anything. I don’t exist. I’m not here.”
The young man nodded and then headed for the bridge.
I turned to face Worley. “You’ve got some good men. It’s time you started listening to them.” I stepped toward the staircase. “And, Worley?”
His voice quavered a bit when he responded. “Yes.”
“I think it best that we not stray off course again.”
He nodded, his eyes dropping to the pistol on my hip.
Seamen George Barrow and Ed Dresbach stood guard on either side of the hold’s entry hatch. They were both armed with Colt automatic pistols. Barrow held a Winchester, but the real firepower was held by Dresbach: a Browning automatic rifle.
They tensed a little at my approach. “It’s okay, boys. I just came to see the cargo. Any visitors?”
Barrow threw the Winchester over his shoulder. “Earl Whitesell tottered down here, drunker ‘n skunk.” He jerked a thumb at the hatch. “He tried to talk us into lettin’ him take a peek inside.”
Dresback laughed. “Then he saw the BAR.”
Barrow also barked a laugh. “That set him afire. He couldn’t get outta here fast enough.”
I smiled, nodding. “Anyone else? The captain maybe?”
Dresbach hefted the big machine gun. “He stuck his head in. He saw we were at post and then left.”
A heavy chain and padlock encircle the hatch wheel. I reached into my long coat and withdrew a key. I slipped it into the lock and gave it a twist. There was a reverberating snap as the lock’s shackle popped. I pocketed the lock and slid the chain free of the hatch wheel. I gave the wheel a quick spin and started to pull the hatch open. The hinges creaked as I eased the door open. I started to enter and then stopped. “How often has the captain gone off course?”
Barrow laughed. “Did he do it again?”
I nodded. “How many?”
“As far as I know,” Dresbach said, “he’s only done it once. You say he did it again?”
“Seems like it.” I started inside, stopped and turned to them. “Has the captain been acting strange lately?”
Both men looked at each other for a moment and then Dresbach sighed. “He seems to be getting worse. You knew about the inquiry?”
He continued. “His language is what started the mess. He just started calling everybody a son of a bitch. “It wouldn’t have been so bad except that he was doing it in an official capacity. I understand when it’s just the fella’s around the poker table, but not when you’re on duty.”
I started to enter and Barrow put a hand on my shoulder.
“Sir?” His voice was a little trepidatious.
“Can I ask what’s in there?”
I could’ve said no. I could’ve told him that his job was just to guard it, not see it. But, I’d gotten to know several of the men before the ship left Rio. I learned a long time ago how to look into a man’s eyes and know whether he was lying, whether or not I could trust him. This pair was in for the long haul.
“Come on. One at a time. Dresbach, you wait here. When Barrow’s done you can come in.”
“You’re gonna’ let us see it?” Barrow’s voice lifted in excitement and surprise.
“The way I look at it, if you’re putting your lives up to guard this thing, you deserve to see it. Besides, I’ve got to trust somebody and it sure as hell isn’t the captain.” I stepped through the hatch, Barrow at my heels.