SAILORS TAKE WARNING
Nautical Fiction by Malcolm Torres ©
PART 3 of 5
The aircraft carrier Nimitz steams toward the equator where her crew of 5,000 women and men will hold an ancient hazing ritual, but something is wrong aboard the ship.
Bodies have turned up missing from the morgue and several jets have been sabotaged on the flight deck.
Can Corpsman Kate Conrad and deckhand Terrance McDaniels figure out what’s wrong before the ship crosses the Golden Line? Even if they do, will their superior officers listen to them and prevent a disaster at sea?
* * *
A new part will be posted weekly in August and September 2016. Check back to read Sailors Take Warning here on the blog, or if you would like a free eBook or paperback of Sailors Take Warning in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, send the author your contact info. Your info will never be shared and you will not be spammed.
* * *
PART III: NAVY JUSTICE
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO – Day 4
Crammed in among cardboard boxes and mailbags, Commander Shakley sat buckled to a jump seat in the back of a tiny cargo plane on a flight from Hong Kong. He listened to the engines humming and the cargo creaking under bungee nets as the plane bounced through the sky. The acrid odor of burnt fuel saturated the tiny space, and with all the boxes piled around him, Shakley worried the plane might catch fire and crash in the ocean.
Through a tiny window, he saw water twenty-thousand feet below, spreading all the way to the curvature of the earth.
“Commander Shakley,” the pilot’s voice crackled through a speaker somewhere behind the cargo, “we’ll start our descent in a minute and FYI the Nimitz is a few ticks north of the equator.”
Shakley had never crossed the equator, but he’d heard plenty of stories about what happened aboard a ship when it ‘crossed the line’ as they said. The most common tale told of sailors dressed like pirates forcing pollywogs like him down onto their hands and knees for an ass paddling. A pang of dread shot through his thick midsection as he imagined a gang of twenty-somethings forcing him to wear his underwear outside his pants and making him roll in garbage as part of an ancient hazing ritual.
Shakley removed his glasses, closed his eyes and massaged his hairless scalp. The tiny plane buzzed and bounced and descended through the brilliant blue sky.
After landing on the ship, the plane taxied to a spot in front of the superstructure. The entire rear end of the aircraft folded down and a burst of hot exhaust filled the compartment. Jet engines howled, and the flight deck director’s amplified voice barked orders through the air. A gang of deckapes tossed boxes out of the plane. Shakley disembarked and met Captain Brandt, who wore a crash helmet with a dark visor covering his eyes. Brandt ordered a deckhand to carry Shakley’s bag, and led the way into the ship and down a ladder. They zigzagged through passageways. Every few seconds, a jet landed on the steel plates above their heads, and a loud CLANK and a tremendous WHIIIRRR shook the walls.
All the ambience of a medieval castle under siege, Shakley thought.
“This is your private stateroom,” Brandt said as he pulled his helmet off and handed Shakley a key.
Shakley unlocked the door and saw a Spartan cell, with a narrow bunk, two plastic chairs, a flat panel TV and a small door partially opened, revealing a cramped sink, toilet and shower.
“VIP accommodations,” Brandt said seriously. “Normally, as the ship’s executive officer, I wouldn’t get involved in a crash investigation, but Captain Fox has delegated this matter to me because he’s busy with a special exercise.”
“I see,” Shakley said.
“The pilot was missing from the wreckage,” Brandt explained, “so I’m concerned.”
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation,” Shakley replied.
“I’m sure there is,” Brandt agreed.
An awkward silence ensued. Brandt waited for Shakley to volunteer something, but Shakley only glanced from the outlandish tattoos on Brandt’s forearms to his blue eyes where he saw schemes and calculations brewing.
“I want you to work with Mr. Keef,” Brandt said. “He’s already investigating the Stinger squadron—”
“I’ll do an initial assessment alone,” Shakley said.
“Hands to help you sift the wreckage,” Brandt insisted.
“I’m capable,” Shakley cut him off again.
Brandt didn’t like the hard little eyeballs behind Shakley’s wire frame glasses. And he didn’t like the shine coming off Shakley’s dome either.
“I’ll have Keef check in with you,” Brandt said, determined to monitor the investigation.
Shakley didn’t want Brandt’s mole burrowing into his business, because evidence got messy when a guy like Brandt and his lackeys weighed in.
“There is one thing I need,” Shakley said.
“What’s that?” Brandt asked.
“Flight deck DV.”
Brandt grabbed the phone and pressed a few buttons. “Brandt here. I’ve got Commander Shakley with me and he requires access to flight deck DV.” He handed the phone to Shakley and said, “This guy’ll get you through the firewall.”
* * *
Shakley opened his canvas seabag and pulled out a tube of scalp cream. He turned on his laptop, touched the colored tiles, opened a new crash investigation file. He clicked through the multipage form, scanning the empty fields, each waiting for him to enter the appropriate code.
For Shakley and his Pentagon counterparts, a code existed for every variable that occurred between the time an aircraft started and the time it became a pile of twisted wreckage. The Pentagon regularly kicked back reports that lacked the appropriate codes. He avoided narrative explanations because they made him uneasy. They were subjective, and sometimes loaded with innuendo and opinion. He liked codes.
With a few fuselage fragments, Shakley could determine the exact codes for anything that had gone wrong. During almost two decades of crash investigations, he’d codified the tragic ends of more than 100 aircraft and many pilots.
His counterparts at the Pentagon would only accept codes, not words, never mind sentences, in their data-crunching computer programs. They wanted codes like AQ-43-R: Aircraft depleted fuel supply in flight; or KH-90-E: Foreign object damage to engine in flight; or FC-22-L: In-flight collision with terrain.
Codes kept the Pentagon’s information management systems flowing with programmed precision.
People like Brandt, Shakley knew, could prevent him from reporting the proper codes. Brandt had an agenda, Shakley was certain.
He decided to look at the wreckage and examine the flight data recorder right away.
He pulled a pair of Latex gloves and a handy 10-in-1 tool from his bag, locked his stateroom and went down to the hangar.
* * *
Crash and salvage crews had chained the twisted fuselage and a bent section of the main landing gear to the deck. They spread several hundred pounds of absorbent granules, like cat litter, to soak up hydraulic fluid, oil and jet fuel still dribbling from broken hoses and mangled components.
Shakley handed his orders to a marine who examined them before allowing him to pass under the tape.
What’s missing, Shakley asked himself. Several fuselage panels, the cockpit canopy, the nose radome and a tailcone off one of the afterburners.
The fuselage had started to come apart, but the airframe held together because the Hornet’s tailhook had grabbed an arresting cable. Shakley worked his way along the mangled heap, examining every inch. He couldn’t stop thinking about Captain Brandt. He knows he should stand back when a crash investigator arrives. I can report him if he interferes. Shakley pondered Brandt’s comments about sabotage and the pilot’s body missing.
He had to determine the facts.
He pulled on the Latex gloves and climbed onto the fuselage, between the twin tails. With his pocket-sized 10-in-1 tool, he unscrewed fasteners holding a panel over the flight data recorder. Setting the panel aside, he noted the small compartment was clean and dry as he unclamped and unplugged the recorder. He held the orange metal unit, the size and shape of a stuffed FedEx overnight envelope, in one hand while carefully climbing off the wreckage. Continuing his inspection along the fuselage, he noticed the ejection seat still in the cockpit. Gould had unbuckled during flight. Odd, Shakley thought, and a big mistake because it prevented him from ejecting.
On the badly burned side of the cockpit, he tapped the melted buttons and cracked LEDs. His gloves prevented soot from contacting his skin. He noticed scratches in the paint on the heads of several fasteners on one of the armament black boxes. Shakley folded out his 10-in-1 tool’s straight-slot screwdriver. Had someone tampered with the cockpit’s control panel? He unscrewed the box and looked closely at the cannon plug on the back. What do we have here? A twist of safety-wire that should have secured the plug in place was broken.
As he unscrewed the cannon plug someone behind him said, “You must be the sabotage investigator.”
Shakley craned his neck around and saw a chief petty officer standing beside him next to the wreckage.
Immediately the marine guard stepped between them.
“Stand down, marine,” Crenki said. “This is my airplane.”
“You are unauthorized in this area,” the marine said.
“I need to speak with this man,” Crenki objected.
“Unauthorized personnel are not permitted inside the perimeter.”
Crenki backed up a few steps and ducked under the tape.
“I’m Chief Crenki, head of Stinger maintenance,” he said from a few feet away. “I’ve got a report for you. It shows the data on the sabotaged engines. Boy, am I pissed they didn’t get you out here sooner, but the invisibility shield prevented that, I’m sure.”
A missing pilot, Shakley thought with dismay, and now sabotage and an invisibility shield. He wondered how many other kooky ideas would try to attach themselves to his investigation. “I must get back to work,” Shakley said as he turned away.
“I’ll help you interrogate suspects,” Crenki said, “and search their lockers. We’ll nail the dirty saboteur, you’ll see!”
“Thanks, Chief.” Shakley looked back into the cockpit and picked up the black box. He examined the cannon plug and the broken twist of safety wire. When he looked inside the plug, and saw that several copper pins were broken off, a word formed in his mouth before he could stop it.
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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE – Day 4
Flickering candlelight cast eerie shadows of two young men inside the narrow steel well. The big chain, hanging from the darkness above, swayed each time the ship rose and fell.
“You piss me off, E-darg!” Danny Jenks spat the words.
“I ain’t into this, Jenks,” Grady Dutro said, wishing he hadn’t come down here.
“You prevented me from communing with Satan, E-darg!”
Grady stumbled and wrapped an arm around the big chain to steady himself.
Their shadows flickered on the steel walls.
Jenks bit down on his cigarette and took several quick puffs, turning his face into a sinister, black and orange mask. “Do you want to join the dead crew, E-darg?”
The burn on his face, where Terrance McDaniels had flattened a cigarette, still stung. Now he wanted to pass that insult along. “Do you want to join the dead crew, E-darg?” Jenks asked again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Grady said. He wanted to climb out of there without further antagonizing this psycho. “Who’s the dead crew?” Grady tried to distract his tormentor. “I never heard of them.”
Jenks lurched forward, touching the cigarette’s hot cherry to the cowering man’s face.
“Don’t you want to join the dead crew, E-darg?”
“Come on, Jenks. Stop it, please.”
“Do you know why I’m calling you E-darg?”
“No.” Grady ached for the courage to fight back.
“Because E-darg is your name backwards,” Jenks said, certain he had Grady paralyzed by fear. “It means I’m gonna sacrifice you to Satan. Listen,” he shouted. “Don’t you hear him calling you to join his dead crew now?”
Grady mustered a spark of courage. “The hell with this,” he muttered under his breath.
Jenks puffed his cigarette and lunged, attempting to burn Grady’s face again.
But Grady braced his feet on the pile of big links and shoved Jenks as hard as he could with both hands.
Jenks shrieked in surprise and grabbed franticly for the anchor chain, but tumbled backwards empty handed. His head struck one of the links and he fell silent.
The candle had fallen over and gone out.
The hush of the hull slicing through the sea and the faint whir of machinery filled the black space.
“Jenks?” Grady called a little louder.
Grady climbed the chain as fast as he could.
* * *
Scratching the infernal itch.
Clawing at his thighs, Jenks regained consciousness. The damn rash drove him nuts. He waved his hand in front of his eyes but saw only blackness. Chain links, lumpy and cool, pressed against his back. He groped around and tried to sit up, but pain jolted along his spine. He lay back with his head between two links, his arms and legs splayed at odd angles. He remembered Grady shoving him. He wondered how long he’d been lying there and realized he must have hit his head.
He stood up, scratched hard at his thighs and began climbing.
As he made his way to the Stinger living compartment, he knew it was past lights out. There was hardly anyone roaming the passageways.
Jenks removed his boots. He usually slept in dirty clothes, but now he had to wash.
In the shower, cold spray from the nozzle numbed his itchy skin. He lathered his torso with a bar of soap and reflected with sick pride on the tattooed, rash-ravaged thing he’d become.
* * *
Reveille’s bugle blares woke him.
Jenks rolled out of his bunk, opened his locker, pulled on a pair of canvas pants, a brown jersey and his flotation vest. He tied the laces on his scuffed black boots.
Since his jet had crashed, he had nothing to do.
He went to the line shack to show his face and grab a tool pouch and the boom room key.
In the boom room, a tiny steel compartment under the flight deck in the front of the ship, the Stingers stored bales of rags and drums of aircraft soap. Jenks unlocked the padlock on the tiny door, climbed into the cramped space and locked the door from inside. There wasn’t enough room to stand, only to lay with his legs scrunched across several wire-bound bails of rags.
He pulled the flashlight from his tool pouch, turned it on and set it on a beam. The boom room rose as the ship climbed a swell and then slowed for a moment, filling him with a weightless sensation, like an elevator reaching a skyscraper’s top floor. Drums of aircraft cleaner creaked beneath him. Then the boom room fell as the ship slid down into a trough between the waves.
He removed his float-coat and pulled his jersey off over his head.
He squeezed forward in the cramped space and reached down against the ship’s outer skin, feeling around for a bag of joints he’d smuggled aboard in the Philippines. He lit one and smoked it half way and then set it on a drum of aircraft cleaner. He pulled his Phillips screwdriver from the tool pouch and put the tip in an angle in the I-beam.
For an hour, he worked the tip quickly back and forth against the steel.
Occasionally he took a toke to maintain his buzz.
If he returned the screwdriver to the line shack, someone would see that he’d sharpened it. “Damaging government property,” he snickered. “I’ll get in trouble for that.”
He poked his fingertip with the fine point, but it had to be sharper, like a needle, so he continued honing it against the steel.
Another hour passed before he was satisfied with his handiwork. He set the shank down and took a big toke off the roach. Then he stabbed a bail of rags with his new weapon.
“Messy work,” he whispered.
He pinched some skin on his chest and pressed the point there. It hurt, but he recited a little incantation and pressed harder.
After a year of practicing dark arts, he’d arrived at a place where pain felt good. The metal point pressing against his skin sent a chill through his ribs.
Pulling the skin out harder, he pressed the shank there and gritted his teeth so tight enamel chipped.
He’d ventured beyond his mother’s abuse. He no longer wondered about a father he’d never met. He sensed a dark voyage ahead, one that would open realms of mystery.
He wanted to stand before that door again and read the words DEAD CREW. He’d fling the door open, burst into the morgue, grab the drawer handle and pull with all his might.
He imagined it sliding open and the dog-faced sailor barking ferociously, lunging at him.
“I’ll stab that fucking mutt,” he whispered. “It won’t stop me from climbing into that drawer!”
Chanting had gotten him this far. Now, through deeds, he had to demonstrate a new level of devotion. It wasn’t enough to light another candle and chant.
“If I want to meet the man,” he whispered, “I gotta pierce the mutt!”
He pulled hard on the flap of skin on his chest and exhaled slowly.
And with a smooth upward stroke, the sharp tip pierced his flesh.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – Day 5
Rubbing moisturizer into his bald scalp with his fingertips, Shakley stretched his husky legs under the table. He turned the words sabotage and pilot error over in his mind, speculating that the case ran in both directions. The flight data recorder had revealed that the armament system experienced an electrical failure, wires melted and smoke filled the cockpit. Gould sent a mayday and flew back to the ship but came up short on his final approach. That was all obvious. It was the broken safety wire on the cannon plug and Gould’s missing body that had Shakley rattled.
But those weren’t the only things knocking him off his game. Being close to the equator worried him too. He’d heard about the barbaric initiation rituals, and dreaded the thought that a gang of young-buck sailors would paddle his ass and force him to crawl through garbage.
Sabotage and pilot error; he forced himself to focus as he opened a crash investigation form. His fingers scrambled over the keyboard while browsing codes. Thirty minutes later, he had a scenario worked out: Someone vandalized the cannon plug causing an electrical short, which led to sparks under the control panel. Wires melted and the cockpit filled with smoke. Why did he unbuckle? Panic? Possibly. Where the hell is Gould’s body? Wait a minute. Was he even in the cockpit when the jet crashed?
Shakley grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. He logged into the ship’s digital video library, found the files he wanted, pressed play.
In the sky behind the ship, the fast-approaching Hornet pitched and yawed as if flown by a drunk but Shakley knew better. Melted wires had knocked out the autopilot. Gould worked the stick and rudder pedals manually.
Shakley pressed pause. Through his wireframe glasses, quick and observant eyes studied the screen. A lone plane captain stood near the landing area, watching the Hornet approach. Shakley pressed play and heard the amplified voice, “ALL CRASH AND SALVAGE TEAMS REPORT TO EMERGENCY STATIONS IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It bothered him that the plane captain didn’t get out of the way. A landing safety officer stood on the port side aft. Shakley noted a brunette ponytail under the officer’s helmet. Wearing a white vest and khaki pants, she waved a pair of colored paddles, signaling Gould to pull up. Shakley saw Gould’s crash helmet in the cockpit now. He held the pause button and the crash played in slow motion. The safety officer frantically signaled Gould to pull up. Just as his nose gear was about to touch the deck, the main wheels slammed into the round down on the flight deck’s aft-most end. The safety officer dove into the catwalk as a chunk of wreckage flew past her.
Catastrophic crashes were routine in his line of work, but he rarely had the opportunity to watch video of this quality. No code could describe the hot ball of admiration swelling in his throat as he watched Gould struggle to control tons of space-age alloy and electronics gear racing forward at over 200 miles per hour. Seconds before dying in a scrape of fire and steel, Gould’s jaw showed grim determination. Shakley gulped down the hot gob of emotion clogging his throat, and attempted to dismiss the crash’s human element. Codes could never capture this untidy business.
If Gould stayed buckled to his ejection seat, he could have yanked a lanyard and shot himself into the sky. He could have traded death in a fiery crash for a splash in the ocean.
“Sabotage shit,” Shakley whispered, “this looks like suicide.” He wondered if Gould was dealing with any emotional stress, but he pushed speculation from his mind. “What are the facts?” he asked, attempting to refocus, but another question popped into his mind.
“Where did he go?” Shakley whispered. “Or she? It could be a woman, I suppose.” Pressing rewind, Shakley found the plane captain in the brown jersey standing on the foul line, aft of the superstructure. He hit play and saw the person turn toward the camera. He pressed pause and saw a young man in a brown helmet with dark goggles hiding his eyes. A toothy grin pushed apart a pair of baby-fat cheeks. The jet seemed to swoop right in on top of him. Shakley pressed play and the guy glanced back and then turned and looked directly at the camera as the plane crashed a few feet behind him. In slow motion, the Hornet’s main landing gear slammed into the round down. The tires blew out and black rubber shreds bounced forward along the deck. A jet fuel mist blurred across the screen. Shakley rewound and watched again. The cockpit canopy flew off, because Gould pulled a lanyard to eject it. One of the main landing gear shocks—a ten-foot-long and one-foot-wide hydraulic cylinder with a blown-out tire at one end—sheared off and flew directly at the smiling plane captain. He didn’t even flinch as the shock tumbled end-over-end inches above his head. Orange and black fire erupted around the Hornet. And this kid stood a few feet away smiling at the camera.
Shakley watched the crash a dozen times. He tried to study every pixel as the Hornet hit the deck with tremendous force. Tires erupted, landing gear flattened and snapped like empty pop cans. Panels popped off. The airframe buckled at its center. Both wings flapped downward with incredible force. The skin on the starboard wing cracked and alloy ribs broke through. The engines self-destructed as they sucked in debris. One of the tail cones broke off, bounced on the deck and into the air. Shakley watched in disbelief as the Hornet’s tailhook miraculously grabbed one of the arresting cables and dashed forward out of the frame, engulfed in a whoosh of orange fire.
The plane captain with the chubby cheeks disappeared. No wreckage hit him. The blast concussion didn’t knock him out of the picture. One second he was standing there and the next he was gone.
The camera stayed focused on the aft section of the landing area while the Hornet continued forward in a crashing blur. Shakley pressed a button and opened a menu where he could switch between six cameras mounted in different places on the flight deck. Three pointed away from the landing area, so he watched the crash from the others. One showed Gould in the cockpit as the jet touched down, but another showed the cockpit empty when the busted fuselage stopped in the landing area. When the jet spun and the fuel exploded, all three shots went completely white, so Shakley concluded that Gould lost control and was thrown from the wreckage.
It was the only logical explanation.
When he wondered about the chubby-cheeked kid standing close to the crash, the phantom sailor theory blinked in his mind.
Phantom sailors are characters in shipboard catastrophe tales that involve mysterious men or women who appear briefly during a cataclysmic event. Phantom sailor stories are rare, and the phantom is always either good or bad.
A good phantom arrives in the heat of a disaster; a sailor nobody knows. The benevolent stranger helps fight a fire or carry a smoke inhalation victim out to a weatherdeck for air. Afterwards people realize nobody knows the person’s name.
The bad phantom, on the other hand, bumps an electrician who is working in a high-voltage panel, killing the poor fool in a spray of sparks. A bad phantom kicks over a welder’s acetylene tank, setting off explosions and starting fires. When sailors lean too far over the side, a bad phantom bumps them into the sea.
But there are no codes for the work of phantom sailors, so Shakley wrote on his legal pad, “Plane captain, approx. 5-5 190 lbs., standing at the foul line aft, starboard side during Gould’s crash. Who is this guy?”
He refined the scenario: Someone sabotaged the plug, causing an electrical failure and sparks under the control panel. A wire bundle melted, filling the cockpit with smoke. And Gould unbuckled. But why? Shakley caught himself, refocused on the facts. It didn’t matter why Gould unbuckled from the seat. The simple fact was Gould did unbuckle and that is an easily codified pilot error. Unbuckling degraded Gould’s ability to control the aircraft and prevented him from ejecting safely. His main landing gear hit the round down. And when his jet spun hard at an angle, it tossed him from the wreckage, over the side and into the sea.
Shakley sighed contentedly. A combination of sabotage and pilot error codes would neatly complete his investigation.
Then he heard someone knocking at his door.
* * *
Shakley opened the door and Keef pushed his way inside.
“Mighty nice room they got you in here, inspector. I’m Mr. Keef. Captain Brandt sent me to, well long story short, I’m your new partner.”
If he were on land, Shakley would tell Brandt’s man to leave. He’d call the Pentagon and file a complaint. But, being in the middle of the ocean, close to the equator, and having already sensed hostility from Brandt, Shakley decided to play along. He already had his investigation wrapped up, so he looked at Brandt’s snoop with mild interest.
“What are your qualifications?” Shakley asked.
Keef sat down and shifted his ass in the chair. His mouth opened. He inhaled. He scratched at a patch of red bumps on his forearm. Finally he said, “Well, ah,” and after a pause, he said, “I’ve been investigating sabotage in the Stinger squadron.” Keef scratched his bumps vigorously. “And I also got experience looking for missing bodies.”
“You’re referring to the pilot,” Shakley said.
“No corpse in the wreck—”
“Let me show you the video,” Shakley cut Keef off and grabbed the remote.
“I reckon a body don’t just disappear—” Keef looked at his arm, where he’d scratched so hard it bled. “What the heck?” he muttered.
“Your first lesson in crash investigations is to not let eyewitnesses fog the data,” Shakley spoke in a lecturing tone, and ignored Keef’s bleeding. “Of course, if you like sea stories, listen to them after you inspect the wreckage and watch the video. It’s rare when the data is so inadequate that you have to rely on eyewitnesses.”
Keef smirked at this bald guy’s pompous bullshit.
They watched the crash from multiple angles. Shakley paused here and there to explain. “See, the wreckage goes forward out of the frame,” Shakley pointed at the screen. “There’s no missing-body mystery. Lieutenant Gould unbuckled from his ejection seat, and when he hit the deck, the impact threw him from the wreckage and he went over the side.”
Keef didn’t notice the mysterious plane captain, and Shakley didn’t complicate the matter by pointing him out.
“Them Stingers fodded a slew of engines and the jet shop thinks somebody’s tossing bits of steel down their ventilation ducts.”
“So I’ve heard.” Shakley recalled the ranting maintenance chief he’d met in the hangar. He wanted to tell Keef to go away, but he spoke diplomatically instead. “Sabotage may be a factor,” he said. “I’ll give Brandt a copy of my report before I leave.”
“He’s set on us working together,” Keef said.
“I’ll call you if I need anything.” Shakley opened the door and ushered Keef out.
As Keef stepped into the passageway, he glanced at the scratched-raw bumps on his arm and decided if they didn’t go away after a shower he’d go to sick call and get it checked out.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – Day 5
“Why don’t you want to talk about it?” Captain Brandt sat behind the big desk, swiveling playfully. His blue eyes smiled over that bad-boy smirk.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Nikki said, restraining her disgust. She couldn’t file sexual harassment charges against him, because the charge would go to him, and even if they went up the chain of command, she dreaded being at the center of the drama that would follow. She blamed herself for falling into the affair before she found out about his dark side.
“You have to sign these papers.” She placed the clipboard on his desk and stepped back. She stood at attention and stared directly at the wall behind his desk.
The amused glow in his eyes flickered. He wasn’t used to persuading others to do what he wanted. Sure, he could make life miserable for her, just as he’d made it difficult for other girls. He wanted Nikki to come back to his stateroom and do what he knew she wanted to do. Her compliance would allow him to take her beyond her artificial limits. He came out from behind the big desk and sat on the corner nearest her. “Nikki, honey,” he started his pitch, “you got frightened. That’s natural, baby. Fear is part of the attraction.”
* * *
She had screamed when he removed the ball gag.
He tried to force it back into her mouth, but she kicked as if her life depended on it. A minute later, the MAA were banging at the door, but he made them wait while he uncuffed her. She pulled her clothes on and ran out. A crowd had gathered, but he didn’t give a shit. He slammed the door, shut off the light and sat in the dark for a while.
All night she laid awake stifling sobs. She didn’t want the girls sleeping nearby to hear. Bruises covered her chest where he’d put those clamps. She couldn’t imagine what he’d do if she went back for another round of torture. When she thought about his creepy hands touching her, shivers of fear crawled over her skin like bugs.
Slow days passed. A confusing, sinister sensation tingled in her belly when she thought about him.
She’d always had a weakness for rough boys.
It started with athletes in high school. Defensive linemen, point guards, running backs, track stars, third basemen, home run hitters. At first, she liked the popular boys and their quick hands, but later developed an appreciation for the power she had over nerdy boys who were all thumbs. Bold or shy, most managed to lift her shirt and pull down her jeans. A cold beer and a joint always helped. Nothing got her going like being with a boy in a roomy pickup truck cab or best of all, his parents’ bedroom when they were out of town.
With Captain Brandt, it was different because he was a man. At first that really turned her on.
She sat in her cubicle doing data entry and the boredom crept in. She found herself thinking about him. The power radiating from his pressed khakis, the golden eagles on his collar points, the curly gold hairs on his brawny, tattooed forearms, his blue eyes and that smirk; it all started seducing her again.
And now, standing in his office, she knew she could escape the temptation by simply turning around and walking out. But then what? Work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, three meals a day and a rerun movie at night. How much boredom could she take before she started fantasizing about him? If nothing else, he provided an escape from the dull days at sea.
* * *
“You know I won’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s like a play and we’re the actors.”
“Call it what you want,” Nikki cut him off. “I’m not into pain.”
Brandt pulled the wooden ruler from a desk drawer, and smacked his thigh. “You wouldn’t let me spank you with this if I asked permission, would you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “But, if I pull it out in the heat of passion, it makes sense and that shows you can’t trust your everyday state of mind to tell you what’s gonna feel good when your thighs are burning, Nikki. Trust me, and we’ll have so much pleasure together.”
All morning she’d sat in her cubicle preparing to resist this. Now she decided to walk out if he didn’t sign the papers, but the ruler slapping his thigh distracted her. She looked at the strip of wood, held firmly in his big hand. A crazy kind of heat prickled across the front of her neck because she knew that sting could rock her dull routine.
Like actors in a play, he’d said.
A play with handcuffs and clamps, she painfully recalled, but the ruler whacking his leg held her attention.
“Come on, Nikki, we decide as we go,” he coaxed her. “If it gets boring, we add a little action.”
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m not playing your games anymore.” She turned around and walked out of his office.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX – Day 5
Air stirred by the helicopter’s rotor whipped Bradmore’s pant legs, providing some relief from the morning heat. Deckapes chained the helo down and a forklift started moving crates to the aft aircraft elevator, where a team of technicians pried them open with crowbars. Bradmore grabbed the installation manual from one of the crates as horns blew and the elevator lowered.
Getting this unit installed was Captain Fox’s number one priority, so Bradmore and his team were determined to make it happen. Welders lit arc torches and started the hot work to attach brackets and erect two 15-foot-tall stanchions ten feet apart on the aft-most area of the fantail. Mechanics bolted a narrow, metal-mesh catwalk with a safety railing between the tops of the two stanchions and Bradmore climbed up to quality check their work.
From his vantage point atop the platform, he saw men and women wrapping up welding gear, hoisting components out of crates and assembling three gray metal boxes. A team of electricians clipped a wire bundle to the overhead to feed the mirage projector with required operating voltage. Another team pulled in fiber to provide remote control of the new gear. Bradmore inspected the flanges atop the stanchions where they’d mount the components.
Everything checked out.
Millions of bubbles spun in turbulent blue vortices out from under the ship. He imagined the massive bronze propellers spinning under the hull. The deck vibrated beneath his boots. His eyes followed the ship’s wake, a wide light-blue stripe on the dark surface trailing behind. He remembered the Hayward’s Lieutenant saying their wake was like a fingerprint, and they used software to analyze every pixel on a million satellite images to find it.
“We’re ready to hoist this unit,” a cargo handler shouted.
Bradmore climbed down.
A technician operated an electric winch mounted on cables overhead. It took an hour to hoist three metal boxes, the size of front-loading washing machines and bolt them down. Wires came out one side of each unit and a big glass eye stared out the other. Technicians locked out the high voltage circuit and connected the units to the electrical grid.
Hustling, everyone on the job broke a sweat beneath a merciless sun in a cloudless sky. Fox wanted the mirage projector operational in hours, not days.
Bradmore climbed back up just as the mechanics tightened the last lock-bolts. He plugged his laptop into the control port and waited for the system to boot up. The lasers inside each unit started humming. He remembered spending weeks calibrating the big projector atop the superstructure, synchronizing its millions of lasers, training them to cloak the ship. He had to admit, TenRay technology was PFM—shorthand among electronic warfare experts for Pure Fucking Magic. Bradmore had seen countless electronic gadgets over the years, but to earn the PFM designation, a piece of gear had to perform at a level beyond the known laws of physics, and TenRay technology consistently did just that.
Except, Bradmore reminded himself, for the scary levels of static emitted when they turned it on. And the hum from inside these units indicated that the static level around the ship was about to spike.
Bradmore walked around the narrow service chase to look inside the glass lenses. He knew the TenRay technology in there monitored natural light and shifting color on the water’s surface. Simple enough, he figured, with today’s color recognition and pattern matching technology. But to project a holograph large enough to cover the ship’s two-thousand-foot-long wake—that was TenRay’s proprietary secret, the PFM—Bradmore reminded himself as he peered inside each unit through its big glass lens. Clearly, they’d discovered something special in their labs. The thought of working at TenRay intimidated him. Were they black-operators who’d stumbled on something at DARPA or National Labs? Who knew? Stories about engineers making tech breakthroughs at corporations like Verizon and Apple were legendary at the Department of Defense. How many times had an R & D wonk split the corporate sector with their discoveries, patented them, and started their own company?
“TenRay engineers have lightening in a bottle,” Fox told him over steak and Lobster, “but they need you to make it work here on the Nimitz.”
Bradmore clicked away on his keyboard, booted the operating program, set it to local time, made sure it registered the correct temperature and barometric pressure. The hum out of these units was like nothing he’d ever heard, and he’d heard lots of gear hum. It sounded like money.
Before he powered up the lasers, Bradmore remembered sitting in the back seat of his parent’s sedan at a drive-in movie. His dad explained how projectors shined lights through colored film to make the picture on the screen. He bugged his dad until he got out of the car and took him to the front row so he could see for himself. Standing under that gigantic whitewashed wooden screen with hundreds of moths and mosquitoes fluttering in that beam of colored light—that was the first time he experienced genuine awe. For days, he tried to imagine a bulb powerful enough to put moving pictures on a gigantic outdoor screen.
“I’m going to light this thing up,” Bradmore shouted to the team, and then he reached inside one of the metal boxes to flip the switch.
“This is just a fancy drive-in movie projector,” he whispered, “except it’s got an argon-krypton laser and a top-secret Intel chip set.”
A solid beam of white light shot from each unit. Amazed and a little nervous, Bradmore stepped back and fought an impulse to shut it down. At some deep level, he knew that projecting so much energy into the atmosphere was dangerous. White light shot through the daylight, nearly to the horizon. It reminded him of a car dealership in San Diego; shining searchlights into the night sky. But here it was noon, and even with tropical sunshine glaring off the water, the three crisp beams of light began to change. One turned blue, the middle one turned a shade of yellow and the other turned green.
“Awesome,” someone shouted.
“Wow,” another voice echoed.
It sounded like a crowd on the Fourth of July.
This thing is smart, Bradmore realized.
He clicked through screens and watched the light beams dial down to slivers and widen, shining perpendicular to the water. They blended into a single flat, wide beam. The colors adjusted to match the water’s shades of blue and green, dappled with white sunshine. Once again, a 9-year-old at the drive in, Bradmore watched in awe as the lasers coalesced in the air, undulating and tossing, cloaking the ship’s wake under a mirage that exactly matched the chop on the ocean’s broad surface.
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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN – Day 6
Brandt already owned Keef; had turned the poor sap into his personal private investigator, and now he toyed with the idea of doing the same to Shakley.
“Give me a few days to look at your crash report,” Brandt said. “In the meantime, I have a situation requires your expertise.”
“What more can I do?” Shakley asked.
“We’ve got evidence of sabotage on Stinger engines,” Brandt said. “And now you’re reporting sabotage on their armament systems.”
“Them are serious charges,” Keef drawled.
Brandt lit a Parliament and blew out the match with exhaled smoke. “I need you guys to root out the malfeasance in the Stinger squadron.”
Shakley’s brain scrambled for an excuse to extract himself from this situation, but the pressure mounted with each passing second, and inexplicably he said, “I’d like to stay and help, but—”.
“Thanks for volunteering,” Brandt said, certain he had Shakley by the short hairs. “Now I don’t have to go through the rigmarole of ordering you to stay.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Shakley conceded.
“Great,” Brandt proclaimed. He looked at Keef, who sat there scratching a nasty rash on his arm. “You guys are gonna turn the Stingers inside out. Toss their paperwork, computers, living compartments. Do whatever it takes to find out who’s sabotaging their aircraft.”
“That’s not my expertise,” Shakley protested.
Brandt slapped a copy of the jet engine report in front of him and said, “Start by reading this.”
* * *
A body missing from the wreckage or a stranger appearing in a crash scene video, would normally irritate Shakley. But after a few days on the Nimitz, so many odd characters, like Brandt and Keef and Crenki attached themselves to his investigation, Shakley realized all he could do was keep things from getting out of hand.
He sat in his compartment watching the video of the kid with the toothy grin. He considered the phantom sailor angle, and felt a chill like cold water against his skin. He shivered. He bolted out of his seat and stood there feeling foolish.
He stared at the kid on the TV screen and realized that he was memorizing the good-natured gleam in the young man’s eyes, the toothy smile. “Stop,” he pleaded, but it was too late. The curse was on him. As long as he was aboard the Nimitz, he was doomed to search for this character.
Self-loathing forced him to shut off the TV. The set went black and he saw a face staring back from the glass screen. He glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see someone lurking there, but he was alone. He squinted and realized it was his own reflection. He wanted to get off the ship, to feel grass between his toes. He went out the door and walked along the passageway, imploring himself to stop pursuing phantom sailors.
* * *
The rash spread along the back of Keef’s arms, across his shoulders, down his fat back and into his ass crack. From there it bloomed across his balls and cock, and burrowed in under his overhanging roll of belly fat. Combined with ass-sweat and fart gas, the rash inflamed his hemorrhoid. He couldn’t sleep at night, and that put him in a foul mood. At sick call, they gave him a plastic bottle of greasy soap, and he rubbed it everywhere he could reach. It stopped the spread and took the edge off the itch, but he still had red welts where his gut folded over. Chills shivered along his spine and hot flashes made his forehead sweat; convincing him the critters weren’t dead. His ears rang. Red veins swelled in the whites of his eyes, and watery ooze pooled on his lower eyelids.
* * *
On the table between Keef and Shakley sat a legal pad with a list of clues printed in Shakley’s meticulously neat handwriting.
- Armament system plug sabotaged on Gould’s aircraft.
- Seven Stinger engines fodded by stainless steel bits.
- Jenks was plane captain on Gould’s flight; Trueblood assaulted in sleep; Chief Crenki (Stinger maintenance chief) threatens subordinates; Commander Aronson (Stinger CO) has a loose grip on discipline.
- Who sent photo to Gould’s wife? Did it cause the crash?
“How does Captain Brandt want us to proceed?” Shakley’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I’m sick of Brandt riding the hell out of me,” Keef said.
“I thought you were pals.”
“He’s a whirlpool of bad shit,” Keef said.
“So, why are you investigating the medical department?” Shakley changed the subject.
Keef shook his head. “Someone’s snatching bodies out of the morgue, and I’m stuck on this tub ‘til I find out who it is.”
“Missing bodies,” Shakley said in disbelief.
“You better watch yourself,” Keef warned.
“What?” Shakley came up short.
“You might get stuck here like me.”
“I think I already am,” Shakley said.
“We gotta solve these crimes.” Keef glanced at the photo of Lieutenant Gould and the Filipino girl. He thought about the Stinger jet engines, destroyed by mysterious bits of metal. “It’s simple,” Keef said, as it came to him.
“What?” Shakley asked.
“That cargo plane you flew out here is gonna leave in a few days, and I reckon it’ll be the last contact with the real world.”
“I don’t follow.”
“When Fox turns on his invisibility shield,” Keef explained, “there’s no more care packages from home, no email, no satellite phones, not even a link to the Pentagon.”
“What’re you getting at?” Shakley asked.
“We solve this case in a couple of days,” Keef said, “or we’re trapped here.”
“Are you suggesting we frame somebody?”
“Course not. We just need to catch a criminal right away.”
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – Day 7
After 0200 the Nimitz steamed with a skeleton crew. Passageways and office spaces fell silent.
Peeping from behind a ladder outside the supply runner’s office, Danny Jenks waited for half an hour. Mumbling curses and clawing at his thighs through his pants, he waited for Grady Dutro. And finally, Grady stepped into the passageway and walked aft.
Jenks hung back in shadows cast by steel frames. Grady crossed the galley, walked past the serving line, now dark and quiet. Jenks hid behind a trunk of wires.
Grady bent over and spun a wheel on a round scuttle. He opened it and climbed down through the small opening.
Inside his vest, Jenks clenched the screwdriver’s hard plastic handle so tightly his fingers went numb.
Minutes later, the scuttle opened. Grady emerged with a bubble-wrapped aircraft part under his arm. He shut the scuttle and walked outboard into a ladderwell. Jenks stalked his prey. He peeked around corners before rounding them, never letting Grady get more than a few steps ahead.
Grady delivered the part to a maintenance shop and headed back to the supply runner’s office.
Jenks followed with determination pulsing through his limbs. He worried about being able to do it quickly, because if Grady got away screaming, people would come running.
Grady walked outboard into an industrial space where only a small red bulb glowed. He pushed back a canvas curtain and opened a door onto a small weatherdeck. Hot night air blew in. Jenks flattened himself behind a steel I-beam and prepared to pounce when Grady came back inside.
He heard the scratch of a disposable lighter and smelled Grady’s cigarette.
Jenks imagined punching Grady in the face, knocking him down, pinning him to the deck, stabbing him in the chest. Now all Grady had to do was walk back through the curtain and die.
A stern voice: “You can’t smoke out here!”
“Shit!” Grady bolted through the curtain, orange sparks burst from the cigarette.
“You better run!” the voice again. “I’ll write your ass up!”
* * *
The elevator in the base of the superstructure clanged open. Jenks, lurking nearby, heard Grady ask, “Can I catch a ride, sir?”
“Dammit!” Jenks ran up ladders not knowing where the elevator would stop. He climbed into the cramped maze of passageways behind the bridge. He stalked around corners and waited in the red-lit shadows. He feared running into an ornery officer or an armed marine. Then he saw Grady walking toward him, so he put a hand to his brow. As they passed a door opened, and Jenks saw a woman at a computer studying an aerial picture of the Nimitz. It pricked his curiosity, but a marine stepped out, followed by Captain Fox, and another marine. He followed them down a ladder, his heart racing when he saw Grady walk outboard toward the observation deck. Fox and his marines continued descending.
Hot night air filled Jenks’ lungs as he stepped outside. He saw the aft end of the flight deck below, full of aircraft, several with taxi lights flashing, preparing to launch. The sea’s black monochrome surface swept past in the moonlight. The roar of jet engines filled his ears. He glanced around the empty observation deck. Grady had to be just ahead where it wrapped around the superstructure. A machine-like voice filled the darkness, “STAND BY, AIRCRAFT LAUNCHING ON CATAPULT TWO.”
Jenks heart slammed like a jackhammer under his ribs.
Tobacco smoke wafted around the corner.
Jenks stepped in that direction.
Grady popped his head out and his eyes opened wide.
Jenks leaped around the corner and they stood face to face. He stabbed wildly, the screwdriver’s sharp tip struck Grady’s collarbone, then his jaw, igniting fear and confusion in both of them.
Grady landed a punch on Jenks’ chin.
They stared at each other, stunned.
Then Jenks exploded, whipping his arm wildly, determined to poke the little fucker with his shank.
Grady backed up against the wall, his cries for help drowned by roaring engines.
A demented mix of sobs and laughter burst from Jenks’ lips. “You ain’t supposed to smoke here, man,” he screamed.
Grady fought like a kid who’d never won a playground scuffle. Jenks knocked him down and jumped on, straddling him. He grabbed the front of Grady’s shirt with one hand and stabbed with the other.
The shank penetrated Grady’s neck all the way to the hard plastic handle. A piercing cry escaped Grady’s lips, but Jenks jerked the shank like the shifter on a sports car, making a mess insides Grady’s neck, drowning his final cry in a bloody gargle.
Jenks didn’t hear, behind him, a witness running away. He looked in Grady’s eyes and whispered, “You’re gonna meet the dead crew now, E-darg.” He couldn’t tell the exact moment Grady died, and wondered if he was already dead, or maybe just in shock.
He got to his feet, panting hard, his heart hammering a thrill rush of adrenaline in his chest. His boots slipped and stuck in the puddle of blood.
Paranoia closed in like a jail cell and panic jolted his brain. He ran, but six bloody footprints away he froze. He knew they’d bust him if he left the body like this. He wiped the shank on his pants and dropped it on the deck. He pulled the laundry sack and plastic garbage bags from inside his vest.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE – Day 7
With eighty men milling around in the Stinger living compartment—some wearing flannel pants, others in shorts or boxers, wife-beater T-shirts, doo-rags, bare feet, flip-flops—it was getting hot. Several pilots and the MAA, under Keef and Shakley’s supervision, searched every locker. In every cubicle, an officer went through every article of clothing, every book and every shoe. MAA stood by observing. Probing fingers and prying eyes explored. They looked inside prescription pill vials and sniffed shampoo bottles. They looked through wallets. They searched the digital pictures on every electronic device. They wanted clues to the fodded engines and a digital camera or memory stick containing the original picture sent to Gould’s wife.
Up to their elbows in engines, hydraulic systems and weapons all day, the Stingers had returned to their living compartment earlier that evening. A few men watched a movie while others played cards or games on tablet computers. By midnight, they’d all fallen asleep.
The raid came at two in the morning. Officers, chiefs and MAA burst in, turned on lights and shouted for everyone to get out of their bunks.
The Stingers groaned but they understood something evil was operating in their squadron. They willingly opened their lockers. Several said, “I hope you bust somebody. I’m sick of the trouble.” Tired, with scraped knuckles, strained backs and sore arms from lugging toolboxes and tiedown chains across the pitching decks all day, they glanced at each other wondering what was being searched for. Who’s guilty? Who’s gonna get nailed? Big trouble roamed the compartment like a ghost about to wrap its arms around an unlucky sailor. They weren’t searching for a few bullets missing from an aircraft’s gun—taken for a souvenir. Nothing petty like that. With Lieutenant Gould dead and so many engines fodded, the top brass demanded answers.
* * *
Crenki went straight to Terrance McDaniels’ bunk to search for something incriminating. But as he went through McDaniels’ gear, the smirk on the kid’s face insinuated that someone tipped him off. “You cleaned house,” Crenki said, frustration crackling in the nerves behind his forehead. An acidic belch erupted into his esophagus.
“Chief, I keep my locker squared away.” McDaniels thought about the cabinet in medical station 12, where Kate let him stash his inventory.
Crenki jammed a hand inside a dress shoe, felt nothing and threw it back into the locker with a bang. “You little—” He had that dog-shit breath from smoking cigarettes.
After so many sabotaged engines, Trueblood getting punched in his sleep and Gould’s fatal crash; McDaniels moved his stash. Anyone who didn’t see this coming, he figured, deserved brig time just for being stupid.
Frustrated at the prospect of not being able to bust McDaniels, Crenki was making a mess of his clothes when he felt a bulge in the sleeve of McDaniels’ peacoat.
“What do we have here?” Crenki’s heart raced like a panting rodent.
McDaniels’ mouth opened but words failed to come. He saw all his profits snatched up in Crenki’s hand.
“You’re busted!” Crenki held the sleeve inside out.
“That’s my personal savings,” McDaniels’ voice rose.
Commander Aronson stuck his head into the cubicle and asked, “Find something, chief?”
“McDaniels has contraband sewn into the sleeve of this coat.” Crenki tore the lining. A fat roll of fifties and twenties, bound in red rubber bands, dropped from the torn sleeve.
McDaniels snatched it up.
“This man’s been selling drugs.” Crenki grabbed for the cash. “And these are his profits.
Their fingers tangled on the fat roll of bills.
“Where’s that money from?” Aronson asked.
“It’s from drug dealing,” Crenki insisted. “Look at the fight he’s putting up.”
“Where’d you get that money?” Aronson asked again.
“It’s drug money,” Crenki bawled, “or loansharking profits.”
“Hold on there, Chief.” Aronson placed his hand under theirs. Like a magician untying a knot with a wave of his wand, the bills appeared in Aronson’s upturned palm.
“I save every paycheck,” McDaniels explained.
Another electric belch erupted into Crenki’s esophagus.
With all the Midwestern wholesomeness he could muster, McDaniels said, “This is my college savings, sir.”
Crenki opened his mouth to object, but another acidic belch burned his throat so bad he clenched his chest and braced for a heart attack.
Aronson handed the money to McDaniels and noticed wetness around Crenki’s eye. “What’s the matter, chief?”
Crenki swallowed hard. He opened his eyes wide to keep tears from falling. He coughed something hot and sticky into a cupped hand. His rancid exhale forced McDaniels and Aronson to step back. “I need fresh air,” the chief’s voice cracked. He glared at McDaniels as he pushed past and left the cubicle.
“This trouble’s upsetting him,” Aronson said.
“Nobody likes it, sir,” McDaniels said.
“They even searched my stateroom.”
“No shit,” McDaniels said in disbelief.
Aronson thought about the photo sent to Gould’s wife while looking at Terrance McDaniels face. This kid wouldn’t do something like that, Aronson thought to himself.
McDaniels glanced at his forearm, surprised to see bumps where he’d been absentmindedly scratching.
“Better get that checked,” Aronson advised.
* * *
“Whose locker is this?” Keef asked.
“That’s Danny Jenks’ locker,” Trueblood said.
Shouts went up for Jenks but he hadn’t returned after work that evening.
“Can we cut the lock without him here?” Rhodes asked.
“Sure, we’ve got reliable witnesses,” Keef said as an MAA stepped over with the bolt cutters and clipped the lock. Keef opened it and suppressed excitement as he looked at the mess before him. Even if this pigsty didn’t belong to the culprit, he figured, it was bound to yield something incriminating.
Candle butts, crumpled candy wrappers, porno magazines crammed in with rumpled clothing. A used bar of soap and a twisted tube of Crest without a cap stuck to a gray towel. A metal tray overflowed with coins from many countries, random pills, butterfly knives, a burnt roach clip. A pentagram scraped into the white lacquer.
Rhodes used a pen to lift a charm bracelet from the mess. He held it gingerly and studied the shiny metal charms. Each was a tiny archer with a drawn bow and an arrow ready to fly. Delicate artisanship rendered each figure with a muscular chest and wings on its back. Rhodes’ expression turned to shock when he saw horns poking through each figure’s hair and little fangs in their mouths.
Keef asked, “Where’s Jenks?” But nobody heard the question, because right then an alarm and an announcement boomed throughout the ship.
“SAILOR OVERBOARD ON THE STARBOARD SIDE. LAUNCH THE ALERT HELICOPTER. ALL HANDS REPORT TO SAILOR OVERBOARD STATIONS.”
CHAPTER THIRTY – Day 7
A metal door banged.
Heavy boots ran on steel.
“Corpsman!” someone shouted, “I need a corpsman!”
“What’s going on?” Commander Sternz ran from her office.
Kate Conrad and Corpsman Gutierrez came out of the records room.
“Someone’s been stabbed,” the MAA said. “He’s bleeding bad!”
“I’ll get an emergency kit.” Kate took off.
Corpsman Gutierrez ran to grab a stretcher.
“What happened?” Sternz asked.
“There’s blood all over the observation deck. They put out a dragnet and caught a guy carrying a bloody laundry bag across the hangar, but he dropped it and ran.”
“What condition is the victim in?”
“He’s down with multiple stab wounds and bleeding real bad.”
Kate ran out of the pharmacy, kit in hand. Gutierrez appeared with a stretcher.
“We’ll follow you,” Sternz said. “Let’s go.”
As they ran, the MAA shouted back, “Stuffed him in a sack and left a bloody mess behind. We almost caught him on the hangar, but he dropped the body and ran.”
They arrived on scene utterly unprepared. A small crowd stood around an unconscious sailor on bloody, ripped plastic. A mechanic pressed his jersey against the victim’s neck and chest.
Kate felt a faint pulse at the wrist. Under the jersey, she found a constellation of puncture wounds and a tattoo of a pentagram above the word DAMMED on the left side of the victim’s chest.
* * *
Kate, Gutierrez and an anesthesiologist scrubbed for emergency surgery.
Sternz entered the prep room and said, “They found this on the observation deck.” She held out a screwdriver sharpened to a point and covered in dried blood.
Gutierrez tied a drawstring at her waist and Sternz pulled on latex gloves.
A corpsman burst in. “We lost his airway.”
* * *
Surgical lamps glowed, life support equipment beeped. In green scrubs, gloves, facemasks and skullcaps the team surrounded the operating table.
As Kate wiped the blood-streaked neck and chest with disinfectant-soaked gauze, the heart rate monitor emitted an urgent tone and flatlines crossed the screen.
A rattling noise erupted from the dead man’s mouth.
“His last exhale,” the anesthesiologist said as he lifted the oxygen mask.
Someone pressed a button to silence the shrill noise. The ship’s steady hum filled the silence.
Behind her surgical mask, Gutierrez grimaced.
Flat lines continued crossing the heart monitor.
Sternz checked for a pulse, but found none.
Suddenly, the dead man grabbed Sternz’s wrist. “He’s alive,” she declared, as she tried to pry his fingers loose.
His jaw open and closed so violently his teeth clacked together. His eyeballs rolled crazily, stopping here and there, as if trying to make contact with those around the table. Broken bits of words slurred off his tongue, “edrew ill mut n ekwa!”
Flatlines crossed the heart monitor.
Sternz broke the dead man’s grip on her wrist. “Cardiac resuscitation!” she ordered.
Gutierrez squeezed lubricant onto the paddles.
“—eware of —ed crew mutin on —ekwa,” blood ran from the dead man’s nostrils.
Sternz grabbed the paddles and pressed them to the man’s chest.
An alarm boomed and an urgent voice announced, “SAILOR OVERBOARD ON THE STARBOARD SIDE. LAUNCH THE ALERT HELICOPTER. ALL HANDS REPORT TO SAILOR OVERBOARD STATIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The body bucked from the electric jolt. A gout of blood erupted from his mouth. His eyes blinked and he groaned, but still another flatline beeped across the heart monitor.
Sternz jolted him again.
The body lay still on the operating table.
Everyone looked at each other, wondering what the hell was going on.
And then the man propped himself on his elbows and looked around. He made eye contact with Gutierrez and then Sternz. “Beware of the dead crew.” His words were unmistakable. He looked at Kate Conrad and said, “They’re going to mutiny on the equator.”
“Holy shit,” Gutierrez whispered.
The dead man collapsed on his back as another flatline cross the monitor. His head lolled to one side and his tongue hung from his mouth in an exaggerated expression of death.
“Who the hell are the dead crew?” Gutierrez asked.
Kate looked at the crude tattoo on the dead man’s chest—a pentagram over the word DAMMED.
“I don’t know,” Sternz replied, as shaken as the rest.
It started as a patter, rose to a drum roll, and finally the trampling of 10,000 boots reached a crescendo as sailors ran to their overboard stations.
In a few minutes, every person aboard would report in and they’d all know that Danny Jenks was in the water.
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE – Day 7
Officers sat around the conference room table. Coffee cups and tablet computers scattered about the polished Mahogany.
Captain Fox placed his hand on the shoulder of a young, red-haired lieutenant sitting next to him and said, “Lieutenant Gallagher here will be our prosecuting attorney. But before we get started, I want to make it clear that no matter what the crime, every sailor aboard this ship deserves a fair trial before we find them guilty.”
“In order to stick Jenks with multiple life sentences,” Gallagher said with a businesslike expression on his freckled face, “we have to put him through the formalities of a general court-martial.”
Captain Brandt laughed sharply. “We’re gonna throw the book at this kid!”
Commander Aronson’s brow furrowed, because Lieutenant Gould was dead and he couldn’t duck the blame. An ass chewing didn’t worry him because that would heal. Red text worried him. He knew he’d have to fight to prevent a red text reprimand in his record. Red text stopped an officer’s career dead in the water.
Commander Shakley drummed his fingers on a neatly bound report, documented with meticulously selected sabotage and pilot error codes. “My testimony will connect Jenks with the sabotage of seven Stinger engines,” Shakley said decisively. “I’ll also present evidence implicating Jenks in the sabotage of Lieutenant Gould’s aircraft.”
“I’ll meet with each of you to plan your testimony,” Gallagher said.
“I want everyone to know,” Captain Fox said, “that we will commence another cloaking exercise as soon as this matter is settled and unnecessary personnel—” Fox glanced at Keef and Shakley, “—are flown off the ship. He glared at Aronson, “I expect my entire airwing will be ready to fly.”
Everyone understood Captain Fox’s message: Pin this mess on Jenks and get back to work.
“I got a list of Jenks’ violations cross referenced to the evidence.” Keef handed Gallagher a sheet of paper.
The words murder, necrophilia, theft and sabotage leaped out at him. “Thank you, Mr. Keef,” Gallagher said.
“This kid’s locker was unbelievable,” Keef said with animated glee. “He had a dead snake in a shoe and dirty skivvies stuck to—”
“Save it for the witness stand, Keef.” Brandt turned his gaze on Aronson. “I fail to see why you, as the Stinger commanding officer, would allow such a troublemaker to work on the Nimitz’s flight deck.”
“Well,” Aronson replied, “perhaps we should have a psychiatrist testify.”
“We haven’t got a psychiatrist on board,” Brandt said. “Besides, anyone who needs a shrink is unfit to serve in the Navy.”
“I examined Jenks briefly after he was locked up,” Sternz said, “but I plan to thoroughly evaluate his mental condition—”
“Don’t bother! We’re not interested in hearing a sob story about how his mother didn’t breast feed him.” Brandt focused his attention back to Aronson. “I want to know how this criminal was serving as a Stinger all this time.”
“According to his aptitude tests, Jenks is a genius,” Aronson said. “He was first in his class at avionics training and that’s a grueling program.”
“He might be a sociopath,” Sternz persisted.
“Within a month after joining the squadron he could troubleshoot any bug in the Hornet’s electrical system.” Aronson said as he planted his big elbows on the table. “Lieutenant Gould himself wrote Jenks outstanding fitness reports. He was such a straight arrow, we sent him to special weapons school in Nevada.”
“This kid is nuke loader certified?” Fox asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” Aronson said. “Two years ago he was a model junior petty officer, earned loading crew leader status in record time.” Now that he had their attention, Aronson paused and sipped his coffee. “Then one day Lieutenant Gould heard that Jenks had compromised classified information. When Gould and I called Jenks in to ask him about it, he demonstrated outrageous insubordination. I ordered him to calm down. Sometimes these smart types self-destruct if they’re accused of anything. Jenks insisted we tell him who made the allegations. Gould explained we were doing a routine follow up, but Jenks waved a finger in my face and demanded I tell him who accused him. He left me no choice, so I put him on restriction and docked his pay. A week later, he was involved in a drunken fistfight. One offense led to another, and he eventually did two weeks in the brig. His career as a weapons handler was over. He went to the line division to carry tiedown chains and wash aircraft. He hasn’t been in trouble in over a year.”
“He caused a lot of trouble on your watch,” Brandt said.
“He might plead insanity,” Gallagher said.
“I’ll ensure that doesn’t happen,” Brandt said.
“Regardless of his defense, he’ll spend the rest of his life locked up,” Gallagher said.
“I want him chopping rocks at Leavenworth until he’s ninety-nine years old,” Brandt demanded.
“Let’s give Gallagher the evidence and wrap this up,” Captain Fox insisted.
But Brandt said, “Captain, allow me to ask Aronson another question.”
Brandt glared at Aronson. “It sounds to me like you were searching lockers for clues to the problems you’re having when you stumbled on enough evidence to convict this kid of every serious crime committed aboard the ship. Can you explain how one person under your command could inflict so much damage and get away with it for so long?”
Aronson calculated his response. He could roll over and play dead, which would mean getting a viciously worded red-ink reprimand in his record and possibly lose command of the Stinger squadron, or he could grab Brandt by the horns and settle it now. Aronson inhaled sharply through his nose, sneered at Brandt and said, “Stop twisting this around to make me look bad. This kid stole a dead body from your morgue, and he’s been holding black masses in your anchor chain locker for Christ’s sake!” Aronson paused long enough to shift his tone from rage to rational. “Like all of you, I’ve been investigating, and now that we’ve caught him, it’s clear that Gallagher and Sternz are correct. This kid is ruthless but he’s smart enough to have eluded multiple investigations.”
Brandt sat back and glared around like a bull that just had his horns ground down. “In spite of sloppy investigative work,” he looked at Keef, “we did finally catch this little bastard.”
After an awkward silence, Brandt spoke again. “We need to make sure the Pentagon doesn’t review this for a while,” he looked directly at Lieutenant Gallagher. “You have to nail Jenks so hard on all counts that anyone who glances at this case will see such a big knot they won’t want to untie it.”
Everyone looked at Gallagher, the redheaded lieutenant. “The key will be to hold Jenks in the ship’s brig for as long as possible,” he said. “The more time that goes by before he gets back stateside, the less likely anyone will reopen his case.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Brandt said.
“Very well then,” Fox said and looked at Gallagher. “My resources are at your disposal.”
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO – Day 8
In the back of the ship’s administrative office, Captain Brandt found Lieutenant Jones, a wrinkled old man who claimed to possess a certificate in legal training. Brandt considered it pure luck that no one in the department had ever heard of the old fart. Lieutenant Jones had a full head of black hair and seemed wiry and spry in his neatly pressed uniform. When Jones had little to say, Brandt decided he was the perfect defense attorney for Danny Jenks.
Brandt plopped a copy of the Manual for Courts-Martial on Nikki Thompson’s desk and told her to complete all the required forms right away. He scooted behind her desk and leaned over and opened the manual, as if he was going to show her some particular section. When he rubbed his forearm against hers, she stood up and shoved him hard. “Get the fuck away from me,” her voice strained.
Fire flared in his eyes as violence sparked between them. “My responsibility as the court recorder,” he smirked, “is to ensure that guilty verdicts and a life sentence stick to this son of a bitch like hot glue, and you’re going to help me do it.”
“Whatever, just keep your hands to yourself.”
Nikki tagged all the evidence, which included the letter Gould received from his wife, the photo of Gould fondling a prostitute and a memory stick found in Jenks’ locker with the digital original on it. Nikki displayed the devil charm bracelet, a bag of marijuana and a silver Navy ring on the evidence table, along with a glossy color picture of Stanley Comello in his cracker jacks standing at attention before an American flag. Several photos of Grady Dutro, with 27 puncture wounds circled and numbered on his face, neck and chest. The bloodstained screwdriver, sharpened to a point, sat beside a wad of bloody plastic and a laundry bag. Several coil-bound reports, that nobody wanted to read, stacked in a pile.
* * *
Brig guards shaved Jenks’ head, shifting his demeanor from drifty-eyed moron to violent criminal. Sleeveless white paper coveralls, revealing a scrawl of demonic tattoos and an infectious looking red rash, left the jury with little room to doubt Jenks’ unstable mental condition. A chain hanging between his handcuffs and leg irons jangled on the deck when he scratched himself, which was often. His looks alone practically convinced everyone in the room that Jenks belonged behind bars.
* * *
Gallagher called Commander Aronson to the stand first and asked about Jenks’ disciplinary record.
“Danny Jenks impressed everyone in the squadron when he first arrived,” Aronson explained, “but then he got in trouble, he spent time in the brig and got busted in rank. He seemed to settle down after I assigned him to work in the line division.”
Chief Crenki, heavily sedated on painkillers, lips white from chewing antacid tablets, provided the exact dates and times that each engine was fodded. Gallagher didn’t ask about Jenks’ character or work habits, but Crenki freely peppered his responses with negative innuendo. Several times Gallagher cut Crenki off and asked that he provide only facts.
Under oath, Terrance McDaniels said Jenks watched his aircraft, number 309, right before it fodded an engine. McDaniels felt like a rat for incriminating a fellow enlisted man, but when he glanced at Jenks, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong in the dude’s brain. After testifying, Terrance took his seat and looked at the bumps on his arm. He remembered grabbing Jenks that night in the catwalk and figured that’s where he picked up this strange rash.
Petty Officer Trueblood took the stand. Bruises shined like raw meat around his eyes. He told the court: “Over a year ago, I roomed with Jenks when we were stationed ashore for training and I heard him regularly sharing classified information with people who did not have a need to know. He smoked marijuana and stayed awake past taps listening to devil music.”
“Please explain how Jenks shared classified information,” Gallagher said.
“We joined the Stinger nuclear weapons loading team at the same time, so we got orders to training in Nevada—”
A member of the jury pointed at Jenks and asked, “Does this man have nuclear weapons training?”
Gallagher let the jury stew on the possibility that Jenks, a satanic madman and a murderer, knew how to arm nuclear weapons.
“Can you answer the jury’s question?” Gallagher asked.
Trueblood glanced at his boss, Commander Aronson, who gave an affirmative nod.
“Airman Jenks graduated from fire control technician training and nuclear weapons school,” Trueblood said. “He knows everything the Navy will teach an enlisted man about weapons, nuclear or otherwise.”
“How do you know this?” Gallagher asked.
“Because I went to school in Nevada with Jenks, and they taught us how to load, arm and detonate nuclear weapons. After training, we roomed together. That is until he got busted for compromising classified information.”
“Is that why Airman Jenks assaulted you in your sleep?”
“Yeah, I—” Trueblood paused. “They never caught who hit me.”
Next Gallagher called Commander Shakley to the witness stand and questioned him about his investigation into the Stinger’s fodded engines. Shakley made it clear that the metal fragments found inside the damaged engines had the same metallurgical properties as the devil charms found in Jenks’ locker. He held the bracelet, with one end in each hand, so the jury could see it.
Gallagher pointed a pencil at the charms dangling from the bracelet and said to the jury, “Notice the charms are evenly spaced across only half of this bracelet.”
The jury members’ expressions remained blank.
“At one time this bracelet had fourteen charms, but now it only has seven,” he touched the dangling demons with his pencil eraser. He took the bracelet from Shakley and handed it to a member of the jury. “Examine it for yourself and see where seven devil charms have been broken off.” Then he snatched the engineer’s report and waved it over his head. “Seven charms missing and according to this report seven Stinger engines sabotaged.”
Shakley also testified that Jenks had performed preflight checks on the aircraft Gould flew on his ill-fated flight. Shakley linked the broken safety-wire, and the cannon plug with the missing prongs, to Jenks’ detailed knowledge of armament systems. He didn’t say Gould’s death, and the destruction of his aircraft, were Jenks’ fault, but Lieutenant Gallagher made the connection for them when he told the jury, “Danny Jenks is a devil worshipping saboteur who tormented Lieutenant Gould and his wife. His actions, directly or indirectly, caused Gould to crash his aircraft and endanger the lives of every person on this ship.”
The sailor who witnessed Jenks stabbing Grady Dutro told her story. “I went to the observation deck to watch airplanes take off, but when I got there I saw Daniel Jenks stabbing Grady Dutro. I ran and found the MAA and took them back to the observation deck, but nobody was there, only a sharpened screwdriver in a puddle of blood.”
Testimony from a petty officer on the ship’s MAA squad explained how they chased Jenks across the hangar, and how he dropped Grady Dutro’s body and led them on a wild chase through passages and up and down ladders before he finally jumped overboard.
Gallagher questioned the medical officer, Commander Sternz, about the stab wounds on Grady Dutro’s neck and chest. While she provided expert medical testimony, confirming that Jenks stabbed Dutro with the sharpened screwdriver, Gallagher handed the shank and the gruesome picture of Dutro’s naked corpse to the jury for their examination.
Next, Gallagher questioned Mr. Keef about his medical department investigation.
“I had no luck on the case,” Keef explained, “but Captain Brandt assigned me to assist Mr. Shakley on the crash investigation—”
“This seems rather extraordinary,” Gallagher said with mock incredulity. “Charges of murder and sabotage have been brought with overwhelming evidence, and now the jury is to believe that Jenks is also guilty of stealing a corpse from the morgue?”
Keef sucked in his enormous belly and shifted his ass in the chair. “I’m fixin to tell about my investigation and show some evidence. I reckon the Jury can make up their own minds.”
“Okay,” Gallagher agreed. “Please explain how you connected Jenks to this hideous act.”
“Stanley Comello had gotten crushed to death by a jet engine shipping container, and his body went into the morgue—”
Gallagher handed the glossy portrait of Comello to the jury. They passed it around and examined the chubby cheeked young man standing proudly in his dress uniform before the American flag.
* * *
When Shakley saw the picture, a horrible disturbance vexed his thoughts, because he recognized Comello as the phantom sailor he’d seen in the video of Lieutenant Gould’s crash.
* * *
“That ring over yonder,” Keef pointed to the evidence table, “it was on Comello’s finger when they stuck him in the morgue.”
Gallagher removed the ring from the plastic bag and handed it to the jury. They examined the blue gem and “Stanley Comello USN” inscribed inside.
“And how does this ring connect Jenks to Comello’s missing body?
“I found that there ring in Danny Jenks’ locker.”
“Are you saying that Danny Jenks stole Stanley Comello’s corpse from the morgue and kept his ring as a souvenir?”
“I’ll tell you that ring was on Comello’s finger in the morgue and the next place it showed up is Danny Jenks’ locker.”
Before resting the prosecution’s case, Gallagher called Sternz back to the witness stand, where she stated that Stanley Comello’s body had in fact vanished from the morgue and remained missing and unaccounted for.
Terrance McDaniels couldn’t wait to drop that bombshell on Kate.
Shakley wondered how Stanley Comello, a dead man, could possibly have been on the flight deck during Gould’s crash. He looked at Jenks and saw arms covered with tattoos and an angry rash; manacles locking his wrists and ankles. Shakley considered the charges: murder, steeling a corpse, sabotage. It made a mad sort of sense that Jenks had snatched Comello’s body from the morgue and brought him back to life in a demonic ritual. For a second Shakley believed that Comello had come back from the dead—and now he was a phantom sailor roaming about the ship. But that’s impossible, Shakley told himself. The guy in the video had to be someone who looked like Comello. Shakley glared at Keef and wondered if he had planted the ring in Jenks’ locker.
* * *
Lieutenant Jones sat perfectly still and didn’t utter a peep the entire trial, so nobody knew what to expect when Brandt called him to present Jenks’ defense.
Jones stood quickly and took two springy steps forward. His thick black hair looked like a wig the way it slicked back from his emotionless, wrinkled face. He cocked his head at an angle as if he were listening for a sound nobody else could hear.
Seconds ticked by with Jones frozen like that while Captain Brandt looked on feeling embarrassed. I should have checked this guy out better before assigning him to defend Jenks. He’s going to cause a mistrial if he doesn’t get on the ball. Brandt considered speaking up but wondered what he could say to get this senile coot back on track.
The Jury members shrank back at once, their chair legs scraping noisily against the floor when Lieutenant Jones opened his eyes wide and revealed red veins and watery ooze. He scratched at both elbows and finally, in a creaky rasp, through crooked yellow teeth, he said, “If Danny Jenks utters so much as one syllable he’ll incriminate himself.” And with that, Jones turned abruptly and walked back to his seat. With a fiendish smirk on his lips, he winked at Captain Brandt.
Gallagher cleared his throat and dove into his closing argument. “With a simple statement I will rest the case of the United States Navy versus Daniel Jenks on charges of murder, sabotage, Satanism, drug use and theft of a shipmate’s corpse from the morgue. And that simple statement is this. We do not need to hear from Danny Jenks because nothing he says could refute the evidence presented against him.”
* * *
The chain between Jenks’ wrists and ankles jangled on the deck when he stood to hear the verdicts.
“The jury finds Daniel Jenks guilty of the murder of Seaman Grady Dutro,” Brandt read, “guilty on seven counts of sabotage for willfully and intentionally damaging jet aircraft, guilty on one count of sabotage for willfully and intentionally damaging the electronics system of a jet aircraft contributing to the death of Lieutenant Gould, guilty of possession of controlled substances and guilty of stealing Airman Stanley Comello’s corpse from the morgue.”
Jenks yawned as if waking from a nap. His chains rattled as he rubbed his eyes. He glanced around, first at Lieutenant Gallagher and then at the members of the jury. Then he looked straight at Captain Fox.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Fox asked.
“I didn’t steal a body out of your morgue,” his tone calm. “Likely it was a member of the notorious dead crew who are walking about your ship as we speak.”
Jenks spoke with a calm seriousness that convinced everyone that what he said was true, at least for him. This caught most off guard. If he’d screamed or cursed, he’d have discredited himself, but his sober tone made everyone perk up with curiosity.
But then Jenks shifted his feet, the chains jangled, and broke the illusion.
“That’s enough out of you,” Fox said.
The guards grabbed Jenks arms and nudged him toward the door.
“Don’t rub elbows with the dead crew,” Jenks hollered. “Satan will lead a mutiny if you do!”
A guard slapped a big hand over Jenks’ mouth, as they wrestled him out of the compartment.
Shakley wondered about the video of Stanley Comello smiling as Gould’s Hornet crashed behind him. Sternz wondered if Jenks had really snatched Stanley Comello’s body from the morgue; and what about Donna Grogan and Larry Burns? A pang of guilt quivered in Keef’s big gut as he glanced at the silver Navy ring on the evidence table. Nikki Thompson looked at the old man, Lieutenant Jones, and wondered where he’d come from. She’d worked in the ship’s administrative office for several months, but had never seen Lieutenant Jones before.
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE – Day 8
Terrance admired Kate’s smooth complexion, her lips and straight white smile. He glanced in her eyes and couldn’t wait to see her facial expression change.
“Quit looking at me like that,” she said
But he kept right on mooning at her with a big grin. And then he dropped the bomb. He said, “I heard Sternz testify that Stanley Comello’s body was missing from the morgue.”
“No way!” Her eyes opened wide.
“Sternz said it at Danny Jenks’ court martial.” He could see the wonder and disbelief charging through her brain. “And a guy named Keef has been investigating the medical department.”
“Big guy with a Texas accent?”
“Yup, said he found Stanley Comello’s Navy ring inside Jenks’ locker.”
“That’s a lie,” she said. “I took that ring off Comello myself.”
“Keef said it was on Comello’s finger when Jenks took him from the morgue.”
“Did they say anything about Donna Grogan or Larry Burns?”
“What’d Sternz say exactly?”
“Just that Comello’s body was missing from the morgue.”
“What else?” she insisted.
“Nothing, but Keef said Jenks used Comello’s body for a black mass or something like that.”
“How did Jenks get into the morgue?”
“They didn’t say,” Terrance said.
“A person can’t just walk out of the medical department with a body slung over their shoulder,” Kate said.
“Jenks carried a dead guy in a laundry bag down from the observation deck to the hangar,” Terrance said.
“Yeah, but that was in the middle of the night,” Kate protested. “Comello disappeared from the morgue in the afternoon. Somebody would have seen him.”
“Maybe somebody helped him,” Terrance countered. “Any shady characters working in the medical department?”
“I pulled that ring off Comello’s finger myself,” she insisted.
“What happened to it then?”
“I put it in a plastic bag with his wallet, and put it in a big envelope and I wrote his name on it.” She tried to remember. “Then the envelope went somewhere,” she said hesitantly. “OH MY GOD!” she shouted, “It must have gone to Keef!”
“Maybe he planted it in Jenks’ locker,” Terrance said.
“You think he framed Jenks?”
“I don’t know.” Terrance pulled up one of his sleeves and showed her his arm. “These bumps are driving me crazy.”
“How’d you get that?” she asked
“From Jenks,” he said, scratching hard. “He’s a total skeezball.”
“Yeah,” he said with a sense of dread. “He probably got it from messing with dead bodies.”
“Gross!” Kate stepped away.
“Thanks,” Terrance said. “I have satanic death rot and all you can say is gross?”
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR – Day 8
On the TV, four Hornets sat parked in a row. Mechanics and handlers in colored jerseys dotted the scene. Shakley pressed pause and grabbed the glossy picture of Stanley Comello from the table. He held the picture next to the TV. He pointed from the picture to the face on the screen. “Any resemblance?” he asked.
“That fella looks like Stanley Comello,” Keef admitted.
“Now watch this.” Shakley pressed play and Comello walked over and stood next to one of the Hornets. A pilot and a plane captain walked around it performing preflight checks. Comello smiled directly at the camera before it panned forward.
When it panned back, Comello was gone, the pilot was in the cockpit, and the plane captain was starting the engines.
“This video,” Shakley proclaimed, “is from yesterday.”
“Dammit!” Keef shook his head.
“Yesterday,” Shakley declared.
“We’re off this ship,” Keef said.
“That Hornet—” Shakley said.
“I am not hearing this,” Keef interrupted.
“That Hornet fodded an engine on the launch yesterday.”
“And I reckon you took it apart and found a little devil inside,” Keef said.
“My ass!” Keef yelled. “We’re on the last flight off this boat.”
Shakley’s shoulders slumped.
“This ship is fixin’ to go invisible and cross the equator,” Keef said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting on my hands and knees so a bunch of kids can paddle my ass!”
“That’s Comello,” Shakley pointed at the TV.
“Who?” Keef asked.
“Stanley Comello,” Shakley said.
“Never heard of him,” Keef replied.
* * *
Even a pint-sized beaker of refrigerated, mint-flavored Mylanta with two shots of Benadryl stirred in, couldn’t extinguish the peptic burning sensation at the base of Crenki’s esophagus.
No matter what Sternz said to console him, no matter what pills she gave him, no matter what kind of frothy, numbing concoction she mixed to cool his insides, Crenki worried that he was on the verge of a heart attack. At the back of his mouth, he could taste blood seeping from ulcers in his stomach.
“Navy coffee and cigarettes have ruined my belly and played havoc with my heartbeat,” he claimed. “I cough blood and I’m telling you, doc, there’s blood in my stool!”
“Normally, I’d give you a physical before sending you off the ship, chief,” Sternz explained, “but your orders just came down and the cargo plane is leaving right away.”
“Is it safe to fly in my condition?”
“Absolutely,” Sternz said as she typed a note in Crenki’s record and pressed the enter key.
* * *
Strapped in among the mailbags in the back of the cargo plane, Shakley and Keef nodded as Crenki climbed in and sat in the empty seat across from them.
A few minutes later, the aircraft taxied to the catapult. In a crescendo of roaring engines, the little plane shot off the bow and flew into the sky.
Crenki watched through a tiny window as the ship vanished on the shimmering water below. He strained his eyes, looking for the line where the sun rides from east to west, where lowly pollywogs make the mysterious passage to become Trusty Shellbacks. A dull ache scratched inside Crenki’s chest; not his bleeding ulcer though, just a pang of regret. His naval career would always be incomplete. He would always be a lowly wog.
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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE – Day 9
At 0830 every other morning, Kate Conrad grabbed a medical kit and followed Sternz along the main deck and down several ladders to an iron gate. A brig guard thoroughly examined their ID cards before unlocking the gate and allowing them to enter the brig. In recent weeks, Kate had become impatient with the guard’s robot-like examination of her ID, even though she arrived at the brig every other morning at the same exact time. But after seeing firsthand how Jenks made a pincushion out of Grady Dutro, and knowing that they had Jenks locked inside the brig now, she found the guard’s meticulous inspection of her ID reassuring.
Rumors circulating around the medical department identified Jenks as the body snatcher. According to one outrageous account, Jenks dismembered and ate the dead, leaving their bones in the bottom of one of the anchor chain lockers. Another rumor described Jenks as an enraged Shellback, possessed by spirits from the deep. Some said Davy Jones and his minions had come aboard and tormented Jenks until he went on a pollywog-killing spree. The approaching equator-crossing ceremony, according to some of the old Shellbacks, would be an especially brutal torture for all the unworthy pollywogs aboard.
The first few times Kate went down to the brig, the big clanking locks in the barred doors and the jangling key rings carried by the muscular marine guards intimidated her. The walls were the same green as chocolate chip mint ice cream; she figured it helped keep the prisoners calm. The cells were tiny and nondescript, each designed for one occupant, with a metal toilet and sink and a narrow bunk that folded down from the wall on chains. Each prisoner had a thin mattress, a black scratchy wool blanket, two flat sheets and a pillow. Most cells had doors with bars while others were solid plates of steel with a peephole and a little pass-through for food, which was sometimes bread and water. The only reading material allowed was the Bluejacket’s Manual. Electronic devices were banned.
There were 16 prisoners in the brig. Sternz and Kate examined them all, saving Jenks for last.
* * *
Outside the steel door, held shut by several deadbolts, Sternz asked the guard, “Has this prisoner done anything violent?”
“No, ma’am. He’s been on his back, moaning, that’s about it.” The guard pulled her club from a ring on her belt and made ready to use it. Drubbing her hand with the club, she told Sternz, “He’s a murderer and we consider him dangerous.”
Sternz glanced at Kate and then looked at the guard. “I want him shackled at wrists and ankles and secured to this fixture.” She pointed to a metal ring welded to the bulkhead at eye level.
“I’ll need some extra muscle.” The guard walked away.
Kate studied the ominous door. Three hinges welded on one side, a peephole at eye-level, and a rectangular pass-through for food.
“He’s a disturbed individual,” Sternz warned, “capable of deranged and violent behavior.”
“Is this the guy who stabbed Grady Dutro?” Kate asked.
Kate was on the verge of saying that she’d heard Jenks had stolen a body from the morgue, but stopped herself and asked, “Is murder his only crime?”
“He vandalized aircraft,” Sternz said, while Kate studied her facial expression for unspoken information. “And he had drugs in his locker.”
Amazed at her boss’s unemotional, robotic precision, Kate almost said she’d heard Jenks stole a body form the morgue. Instead, she said, “This morning I read Jenks’ medical record.”
“I looked at it myself,” Sternz said.
“I counted eleven treatments for gonorrhea.”
“Did you look closely at the test results?”
“Just glanced,” Kate said.
“The culture testing showed that several times he waited months to seek treatment, and going that long with gonorrhea causes brain dysfunction and scarring of the heart muscles.”
“That probably explains why he’s so violent,” Kate said.
“Correct,” Sternz said.
The brawny woman who had escorted them from cell to cell, and two other guards, came down the passageway with shackles and chains jangling in their hands. Their white T-shirts stretched over broad chests and beefy shoulders.
“Until we get him chained up,” one of the guards said, “please move to the end of the passageway.”
Kate and Sternz listened as the guards struggled with Jenks inside the cell.
“You think you’ve got me trapped,” Jenks’ voice echoed along the narrow passageway, “but this tin box won’t hold me!”
“Get the cuffs on him,” one of the guards ordered.
Jangling chains, cursing and grunting.
“Okay, let’s move him.”
As one guard’s broad back came through the open cell door another shouted, “He bit me!” Arms and legs thrashed in the doorway. Jenks swung his fists as much as the chains allowed. A drum roll of baton blows beat him until the guards were panting and Jenks lay in a heap.
Kate pulled out heavy duty Latex gloves and handed a pair to Sternz.
* * *
Sternz’s snipped off Jenks’ paper coveralls with a pair of scissors to reveal large blotches of red rash covering his arms, extending across his back and down between his buttocks. All across his torso, the rash obscured the artwork and lettering tattooed on his skin.
Kate cringed. She struggled to make sense of this naked thing. She thought about abused patients in an old-time insane asylum. But this killer didn’t fit the helpless patient profile; nevertheless, a subtle sense of pity crept over her unexpectedly.
When Sternz put a hand on Jenks’ shoulder, he relaxed. His knees bent as if the chains were weighing him down.
“I want to listen to your heart,” Sternz said, as the cold disk of her stethoscope touched his chest. She put her head close to his shoulder. He turned, chains jangling, and stared straight into her eyes. He had the tube of her stethoscope pinched in his fingers, and she flinched back, startled.
The stethoscope yanked from her ears.
Dropping it to the deck, Jenks whispered as if telling a secret, “The tigerfish are swarming.”
A guard stepped over, club raised.
Jenks whispered, “They’ve surrounded the ship.”
Sternz waved the guard off. She took a syringe from the medical bag and said, “Stay still while I draw your blood.” She swabbed the crook of his arm and stuck the needle into a vein. As blood filled the collection vial, she studied a green and black dragon, its tail wrapped around his bicep. A pentagram above the word DAMMED on the left side of his chest. She recalled the stabbing victim, Grady Dutro, had the same tattoo.
* * *
After the guards locked Jenks back in his cell, he whined like a cat with a broken tail trapped in an empty dumpster.
The guards led Sternz and Kate back through a cage door. A logbook sat on a metal podium on a gleaming tiled floor. Sternz entered the time and date, and noted that all prisoners were in satisfactory health. She flipped back several pages, read the entries and noted nothing unusual during the past 48 hours.
“I want you to do two things for me,” Sternz told the guard.
“What is it, ma’am?”
“First, I want you to make sure Jenks showers with this.” She handed over a plastic bottle of BacteroDerm soap.
“Yes, ma’am,” the guard replied.
“Second, I want all the guards to record observations on Jenks’ behavior.”
“How about we put a pad here by the logbook?” the guard suggested. “And we’ll write a note about him after each round.”
“That would be great.”
“He’s not leaving the ship any time soon,” the guard said.
“That’s precisely why we need to keep a close eye on him,” Sternz said. “I don’t know if you were informed, but when the MAA tried to apprehend him, he jumped over the side.”
“He’s dangerous, huh?” the guard asked.
“An observation log will help us figure him out.”
“What do you want us to write in it?”
“Descriptions of what he says and does.”
Before leaving, Sternz said, “He’s a convicted murderer, and his mental health is impaired. Everyone dealing with him must use extreme caution, because he might lash out violently when you least expect it.”
* * *
With the blood sample dropped at the lab, Sternz sat at her desk and reconsidered the case they’d made against Daniel Jenks. Was it decided too quickly? And what about the other missing bodies? Had Jenks stolen Donna Grogan and Larry Burns too? These woeful speculations sparked more questions. How could Jenks have walked out of the morgue with three dead bodies? It’s locked and only a few know the combination. He couldn’t have done it alone. Who helped him? She felt the too-quick and too-neat convictions unraveling. Did Comello’s corpse really have a ring still on its finger as Keef claimed? Fox and Brandt wanted to blame it all on Jenks! Fox especially, because he wanted to get back to his cloaking exercise. Frustration tied her thoughts in knots. But what could she do?
She considered his rash and satanic tattoos, remembered him threatening Captain Fox and the constellation of stab wounds he’d left on Grady Dutro. He’s a cold-blooded murderer, she concluded again.
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX – Day 9
Sailors sat at glowing computers in the dimly lit electronic countermeasure command center.
Captain Fox and Mr. Bradmore stood at the center of the compartment.
“Prepare to commence the cloaking exercise,” Fox said.
Bradmore repeated the order loud enough for everyone to hear. Men and women at workstations began reporting out.
“TenRay warming up.”
A technician wearing a headset stood near the large touch-sensitive, see-through display lit with a 3-D scale image of the ship. It showed the cloaking system components in their actual locations. The technician touched an icon on the screen, opening a data window that displayed parameter updates.
Fox paused behind the new satellite-tracking technician. Pictures of ships taken from earth-orbiting satellites flashed on her screen above a status bar climbing steadily to 100%.
“What’s the capability of this workstation?” Fox asked.
“Well, sir, we know the orbit of every satellite with image capability,” the technician explained. “The instant one comes over the horizon we hack it and stand by to feed it the image we want it to see.”
“How much testing have you done?”
“We’ve taken over seven-thousand pictures of the Nimitz from cameras on nine different satellites over the past forty-eight hours, and we’ve fed them images of fishing trawlers, supertankers, garbage barges, cruise ships, you name it, if it floats I have a picture of it in my database.”
“What about simultaneous threats?” Fox asked.
“Yesterday we had three satellites overhead for several hours” the technician said proudly. “We took hundreds of pictures of ourselves and every one of them showed exactly what we projected on the holograph.”
“Keep up the good work,” Fox said.
“Mr. Bradmore,” someone shouted. “The TenRay is ready for total spectrum processing.”
Captain Fox and Mr. Bradmore stepped over to the big monitor at the center of the compartment. Bradmore slipped his key into the panel and typed his user-ID and password. On the big 3-D screen, the system components glowed yellow.
Fox inserted his key and typed his credentials. One by one, the cloaking system components and the fiber optic network connecting them turned green.
“TenRay report,” Bradmore ordered.
“Processing at full spectrum,” a technician shouted.
“Flatpanel array report,” Bradmore said.
“Processing at max capacity.”
“All cameras streaming live, sir.”
“Laser holograph projector?”
“Ship cloaked three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.”
“Confirm, projecting broadband image astern, sir.”
“Peak capacity, pinging down nine hundred and twenty-two fathoms to the muddy bottom, sir.”
“Captain,” Bradmore said, “the Nimitz is invisible.”
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN – Day 9
Screams of agony and spit erupted from his cracked lips. Tears ran from his swollen eyes. A million microscopic creatures chewed into the flesh on the backs of his arms and legs. Itchy bumps prickled across his back, down the crack of his ass and onto his white thighs.
A school of tigerfish swam in slow, menacing circles around him. The sleek small ones darted quickly and the cell’s florescent light shimmered on their orange and black stripes. A big one slid by with its gills undulating, black rubbery lips pulsating. Its mouth opened and closed rhythmically, revealing jagged teeth.
He relaxed for a moment and one of the damn things nipped the back of his neck. He jerked around to fend it off, but another nibbled his ass. This torture went on for hours.
A brig guard watched through the peephole and then made a note in the logbook: “Prisoner is thrashing on the floor. He didn’t touch his bread and water so he must not be hungry.”
Flailing about, fighting off tigerfish, raised bruises on Jenks’ back and knees. He scratched the chapped skin on his elbows with one hand and clawed his thighs with the other. His breath came in ragged gasps.
A big tigerfish squeezed out of an air vent in the ceiling and hovered menacingly above. The creature circled down; its yellow eyes winking slowly.
He touched its undulating gills as it nuzzled his leg, and his fingertips sank into its thick coat of slime. Something tingled inside his hand.
“What the—” He yanked his hand away.
Its rubbery lips opened, revealing splintered teeth. Its tiger-striped scales quivered as it darted directly at his belly and bit him. He screamed and punched it while running in a panicked little circle. Pain shot through his torso and blood appeared where it bit his stomach. Jenks slammed himself into the bulkhead in an attempt to get it off but it refused to let go. In a rage, he threw himself as hard as he could, repeatedly, into the gray steel wall.
A brig guard heard the commotion and pressed an eye to the peephole. She saw Jenks stumbling in a daze. His wobbly knees folded and he collapsed. The guard walked back to the logbook and wrote, “Heard a loud bang and now Jenks is resting face-down on the floor.”
* * *
Hideous laughter echoed off the walls. Jenks heart bolted with anticipation. He got to his knees and bowed his head. Slowly he lifted his gaze, expecting to see Satan, but he saw his lousy defense lawyer, Lieutenant Jones, standing there inside his cell. Waxy grease slicked his black hair back from his brow. Deep wrinkles cut the skin around his eyes. He wore a black tuxedo with tails and gold buttons, a white shirt with a ruffled front and a black bowtie. A pearl-handled sword hung in a scabbard on his belt.
“Am I getting a retrial?” Jenks asked confused.
Jones’ lips curled into a brown-toothed smirk. “No,” he said, “there won’t be another trail, not for you anyway.”
“You did a lousy job defending me.” Jenks stood up.
“You were guilty,” Jones said.
“I didn’t steal a corpse from the morgue.”
“They pinned that one on you.” Jones scratched the back of his arm with a white-gloved hand.
“You got this damn rash too?” Jenks indicated his arms; scratched raw. “It’s driving me nuts!”
“Get used to it,” Jones advised. “Blasted tropical fever,”
“Tropical what?” Jenks’ face crimped in confusion.
“Catch it from sea creatures,” Jones said. “You haven’t seen any sea creatures, have you?”
“The slime on the tigerfish!” Jenks knew he’d gotten it from Ratcomb.
“It burrows under your skin and breeds.”
“Why are you here?” Jenks changed the subject.
“I’m the one you’re waiting for.”
“Shit. I’m not waiting for you,” Jenks sneered and stepped close to Jones, his fists clenched at his sides. “I’m waiting for Satan.”
Jones spat to the side without taking his eyes off Jenks, and said, “Satan shit his little red pants when he met me.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Jenks said.
Jones grinned and said, “There’s so much you don’t know.”
Jenks made a grab at Jones’ lapels, but Jones got the jump and clamped his hands around Jenks’ neck. He lifted him off the deck and pressed his back against the wall.
Jenks gasped, surprised by the old man’s agility and the power in the big thumbs pressing against his windpipe.
“Now that I have your attention,” Jones said, “I’ll make you an offer.”
A blue tint crept into Jenks’ face as he struggled to breath. He clutched Jones’ wrists and tried to pull the powerful hands off his throat, but only managed to loosen them enough to croak, “I’m not interested.”
Jenks’ carotid artery pulsed against Jones’ palm.
They stared into each other’s eyes, and Jones expression softened. “I sure do look nice in this suit!” Jones’ eyebrows arched, as if to say, don’t you think so? “And I sure do argue eloquently,” his voice bubbling with phony enthusiasm. “Fancy clothes and highbrow rhetoric is what I’m all about, can’t you tell?”
Jenks lungs ached for air.
“And there’s this little matter of my hands around your neck, eh?”
Jenks’ tongue slipped out and a rattling noise came from the back of his throat.
“It’s really something, ain’t it,” Jones asked, “how so much of our civilized behavior relies on the way people dress and how they talk?”
Jenks’ heels kicked against the wall and his hands, on Jones’ wrists, shivered in an uncontrolled convulsion.
“But we know fancy clothes and big words don’t add up to shit. Ain’t that right?”
Jenks’ eyes blinked all crazy.
Jones clenched his teeth and growled, “After you peel the veneer off our civilized behavior, Danny, what do you have left?”
Tears trickled down Jenks’ blue cheeks. Clear snot ran from his nose.
“What’s left of your humanity without our fancy clothes and persuasive conversation?” Jones growled and spittle flew from his lips.
White slobber formed at the corners of Jenks’ mouth. His heels stopped kicking. His arms hung at his side.
“Where are your God and your devil now?”
Jenks couldn’t reply.
“I’ll tell you where they are,” Jones screamed, “They’re in your fucking head!” He squeezed tighter and stared into Jenks’ eyes, trying to connect with his last glimmer of life, “So, what is our human race then?”
Jones loosened his grip the slightest bit.
Jenks gulped air and whispered. “I don’t know.”
Jones’ ancient eyes leered at the foolish sailor. He re-tightened his grip, blocking Jenks’ airway and cutting off the flow of blood to his brain.
“I’ll tell you,” Jones whispered. “Humans … are … maggots! All you do is eat and fuck, and you, Danny Jenks, have been thoroughly eaten … and thoroughly fucked!”
With his last ounce of strength, Jenks said. “What do you want?”
“I want to save you, my friend, save you from this doomed ship,” Jones said with mock benevolence.
“So, you’re joining my dead crew, is that it, Danny? Do I have your oath now?”
Jenks nodded again.
At that, Jones dropped him in a heap.
The pressure inside his skull decreased as he heaved several ragged breathes. He glanced at his lawyer’s face, now shoved down at him full of expectation. A shock of waxed black hair flopped across one dark eye.
Jenks wondered why Jones had choked him and asked all those crazy questions. And then it occurred to him that Jones was a low-level demon trying to get him to sell out before his big meeting with Satan.
“Why do you want me?” Jenks stalled.
“There’s a particular wog aboard this ship who is passing himself off as a Shellback,” Jones explained, “and I am conspiring to punish him.”
“What are you talking about?” Jenks was confused.
“King Neptune, on the other hand, has a substantial grievance of his own—”
“King Neptune?” Jenks wondered aloud.
“Yes,” Jones said matter-of-factly. “Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main and all that, he’s hot over this invisibility shield. It’s messing with his magical powers or some such—”
“Why do you want me?” Jenks asked, propping himself up on an elbow, circling back to his original question.
“Because you have secret knowledge,” Jones’ voice popped with excitement. He leaned close to Jenks and whispered, “You can bring this tub to the bottom in grand fashion.”
Jenks took a deep breath and went all in. “I demand to see Satan.”
Supremely disappointed, Jones stood up straight and shook his head. Gritting his teeth, he inhaled sharply and leaped into the air and drew his knees up to his chest. His tuxedo tails flapped upward, the pearl-handled sword on his belt rattled in its scabbard.
The sight of Jones dressed so splendidly and leaping so high sent a temblor of fear through Jenks.
The heels of Jones’ shiny black boots stomped on Jenks’ right leg, shattering both bones below the knee.
* * *
A SHRIEK like an injured animal alerted the guard who peeked in and saw the prisoner on his back, moaning, leg bent at an impossible angle.
“Oh, gross,” the guard whispered. “Is he pissing himself?”
Moments later, brandishing handcuffs and a straightjacket, three guards cautiously entered the cell.
Jenks leaped to his feet and swung a fist.
The guards stepped back as the lower half of Jenks’ right leg crumbled. The broken end of his shinbone tore through the paper coveralls and scraped against the floor.
A jolt of pure pain shot up his leg and into his hip. It zinged up his spine and struck the base of his skull.
As he collapsed, he saw urine and blood messing his paper coveralls. Blotchy bruises and a red rash covered his tattooed arms. His head swam in dizzy nausea. His eyes simmered in a hot, red soup.
* * *
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SAILORS TAKE WARNING
Nautical Fiction By Malcolm Torres ©
Copyright 2014 by MT Press
All Rights Reserved
Available in eBook and print at all major book and eBook retailers
This book is intended for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or reproduced or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please send them a link to this post, or purchase a copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the author’s hard work.
Sailors Take Warning by Malcolm Torres is a work of nautical fiction. Any resemblance to real people or actual events is purely coincidental. The narrator assumes responsibility for tampering with anything that does not match the reader’s version of reality.