Story by J.A. Becker
Illustration by John Waltrip
My God, we ain’t gonna make it.
I drop the blood-stained beige canvas back over signalman Bucky Winslow because I can’t stand the site any longer. His face is all twisted up into a terrible smile, a bloody pack of nudy cards is stuffed into his mouth, and his neck’s been just about been sawed all the way through.
First the Germans, then the Japanese, and now we’re murdering each other.
What chance do we have in this madness?
I don’t know nothing about nothing, just been promoted to Master-At-Arms by Admiral “Bulldog” Mick Williams a mere twenty minutes ago cause I was the only man on board the Aircraft Carrier, the USS Breton, that had any kind of schooling in criminology.
I may know nothing, but I do know you don’t move a body. That I know.
They got Bucky in the mess-hall fridge, a whole two levels down and 150 feet from where he was killed. They were thinking it upsets the men to see a mate dead in their bunk, a mate murdered by another mate, and I’d say they were right. But you never move the body.
I swallow a cold lump grown so huge in my throat the gulping echoes in the frigid steel room. Gulp, Gulp, Gulp, it goes.
There’s 1,225 men aboard and one of them is the killer. I mean they’re all killers when you think about it, but whoever it is has killed one of our own and I’ve got to find him.
I light a Lucky Strike, take a deep ragged breath, and considered the infinitude of issues at hand.
Drafted into the navy when I didn’t want it, to a rank I don’t want, to do a job I got no interest in doing. One year of crime, then I dropped it hot cause my whole outlook of becoming a policeman changed when some low-level mob flunky blew my dad’s cop brains out with a Colt rifle. Figured I couldn’t do that to my girl, to my future son. So, I got all kinds of ill-feelings about taking this on.
But by God, when Bulldog tells you you’ve been promoted and you’re to find the killer ASAP, there is as much as point arguing that as there is against the war.
His fingers, I suddenly think and lean down and pull the canvas back. Rigor mortis and the freezer’s chill has set in and his hands are like frozen claws. Tips are covered with grease. Burnt grease, I notice, which is kinda odd. How did a signalman get that on his fingers?
Though this ship weights 8,000 tons, is 500 feet long, and 100 feet wide, it pitches about in this swell like a cork in a bathtub.
I grab onto a huge chunk of frozen ground chuck on a rack to steady myself as everything tilts right and then left and then right again.
Can’t stand swell and with all that’s happened my lunch of creamed corn and powdered milk just about comes rocketing up.
A sea-sick sailor in charge of a murder case. Could this be any more ridiculous?
I stamp out my butt and light another and try to think back to my courses, think of what to do.
I get maybe ten minutes into that when the air-raid alarm wails and I leap to my feet.
Japanese attacking in this storm!? I think. Are they out of their minds?
And I fly out the door and down the hallway to my gun mount, leaving the body and all my thoughts about it behind.
— ♦♦♦ —
Howling winds tear at me, bite down through my rain-drenched slicker and into my chilled flesh.
Spray lashes my face and the salty sting boils my eyes in their sockets.
We crest a titanic swell that nearly swallows the ship clean and then we come crashing down with a deafening boom that nearly buckles the hull. Our bow drops deep, cleaves apart two-mile-high waves that come pouring over the decks, swamping everything. And then we rise to do it all again.
They’re attacking in this? It just can’t be. Nothing can be out in this whirling hell.
My wet-and-frozen butt is in the seat of the 20mm repeaters, a swivable turret-gun with twin barrels. I’m frantically scanning the leaden skies, trying to fight my lunch back down.
We’re ducks here if they’re actually attacking. Can’t scramble the planes in this as they’d launch right into the swell.
Then I see one: a black turd screaming in from the swirling grey clouds.
“Twelve-o’clock” I shout and start reefing on the wheels to turn my guns up towards the plane.
There’re all sorts of alarms going off now cause this is real, not just a drill. Men start screeching and jumping into positions, guns load with loud clicks and whangs, and everybody not already below deck scrambles for cover.
He’s coming in low, crazy low; his wings nearly slice off the white tips of the boiling waves.
We’ve been warned of this. His plane is loaded to the gills with dynamite and he’s got the emperor in his eyes.
In range now, I unload. My 20mm start pumping hot metal up into his dire plans. Smoke clouds explode about him and alone like this he ain’t got a damn chance.
He doesn’t even shoot back. Just explodes as I catch him right between the eyes and cries of triumph surge up from the ship.
Then a hundred black specks scream in from the skies and all hell breaks loose.
Time evaporates here, goes all wobbly. You pull back from yourself and just keep hammering down on the triggers like none of this is real.
Tracer fire erupts from the ship and strings of Christmas lights rise into the black swarm of approaching planes.
One of the rising suns has got the right idea and comes howling down from above us.
I’m the only one that can adjust quick enough and I swivel the turrets up and around and I unload.
But there’s nothing, just massive clicks of the gun as the lead has run dry.
“Ammo!!” I scream and look for my loader.
I hadn’t noticed during the insanity that he’s gone Section 8. He’s frozen to the ground, his blue eyes have hollowed out, and a mad smile creeps across his lips.
“Jake!” I scream. “Ammo!!!”
He’s maybe 17, just a month of training and then dumped out here. Not much hardness in that head yet to take all this all without blinking.
He looks at me. “It’s sure hot today,” he says, and I suddenly know what he’s doing to do.
His mind has had enough and it’s time to leave.
He steps out over the edge of the ship and there’s a hundred-foot drop to angry waters below.
I leap off my seat and grab him by the back of his slicker.
He doesn’t struggle, just lets me haul him in.
The plane I was supposed to take out slams in the center of the deck, kicking up a black cloud of fire and the blast throws us to the ground.
Then over the roar of men, the whine of attacking planes, and the pop of guns, I put my arms around Jake and hold him as he shivers.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Admiral Williams wants a report ASAP!”
The deck is an inferno, there’s dead and dying all around, a chorus of groans and black smoke rises to the now quiet heavens, and for all I know, I could already be dead and in hell cause I’m sure it’s just like this.
I’m so tired I lean against my 20mm for support.
“Report ASAP!” Barks one of Bulldog’s officers. He’s wearing a crisp blue suit and not a drop of anything is on him, not blood, nor water, nor grease.
Jake’s in the infirmary, recovering for the awaiting court-martial, and I’m sure Bulldog wants a complete rundown of how this happened. I’m the Sgt. Gunner here, after all, and Jake was under my command, so this is directly my fault.
So, I follow quick, cause making the old man wait can cause hearing loss when he screeches a strip off you.
We walk up a long flight of stairs circling the outside of the tower. From up here, you get a sense of how dire it all is. A quarter of the deck is in flames with black smoke belching into the sky, bullet-holes are every which way, there’s scores of wounded being carted off, and there’s not a supporting ship in sight, just an empty blue sea.
Inside the bridge room, Bulldog stands by the wheel in the center of a storm.
There’re maybe a dozen officers dressed in their navy blues running around him with their heads cut-off, shouting orders into the COMs, taking stock of the carnage, and pouring over the placement of ships on the map table.
“Report,” Bulldog barks to me and my back stiffens, and my hand automatically snaps up to my head.
He got his name from his kindly disposition and his thick, square jowls. What’s amazing about him is the cigarette at the end of his lips. Neither wind nor rain nor expletive-laden tirade can knock that smoke from its place. It’s a permanent fixture.
His suit is 5 by 5 and he’s so tall you have to look up a blue mile when you talk to him.
I can’t throw Jake to the wolves. He’s a boy in the woods out here.
“My gun jammed sir. I…”
“What?!” He snaps.
“Sir, my 20 it jammed.”
“I don’t give a goddamn about that.” He says, the lit smoke bobbing at the end of his lips. “The killer man. Who killed signalman, Bucky Winslow?”
In the insanity, I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be tracking down a killer.
“It’s an A-one priority, Kopang. That’s why I made you master-at-arms, to give you the powers to interview the men, pull them from duty, and arrest somebody. You’ve got all you need.”
“Sir, I…” and I trail off.
“Godamn,” he says. “Get on it!”
And that’s how it is out here. Regardless of what the task is, no matter how impossible, you get it done. No excuses.
“Sir! Yes, Sir!” I say and snap a smart salute.
“I want a report on the hour, every hour. Now dismissed.”
And with that, I spin smartly on the heels of my black shoes and walk out.
— ♦♦♦ —
The body is gone. The goddamn body is gone.
I pull in all the men from the area, line them up in the kitchen, and berate them. I unload like I’ve seen Bulldog do and it feels damn good to work my tensions out like that.
But nobody saw nothing.
And they’re scared, I realize, looking at that perfect line of white, furtive eyes. They’re scared that a killer is amongst them.
Signalman Winslow is likely shark food by now. Stuffed out of an open port window and that’s that.
I dismiss the men and walk into the fridge and look at the empty patch where he lay.
I’ve smoked down to the butt and the acrid taste of the filter fills my mouth. I spit it out on the floor and then light another.
Obviously, there was more evidence on the body than I realized and that’s why the killer dumped it. I think back to what I saw. Burnt grease on the fingers, a pack of bloody cards with pin-up girls on them, and a neck that was nearly sawed all the way through.
That ain’t much to go on, and 45 minutes till Bulldog wants his report.
No pressure. None. I light another cigarette without realizing I’ve already got one going.
Then I nearly slap my forehead when I realize how stupid I’ve been, how I haven’t even been to the scene of the crime yet.
I jump up and rocket out of the room.
The ship is a madhouse. The corridors are stuffed with navy men running every which way. A tight pack of officers comes racing down the hallway towards me and all the non-coms leap out of their way.
Used to be that I’d dive to the side too and snap a salute as they passed by. But when they see me, it’s they who get out of my way and stop and salute.
It’s an odd feeling walking past them, all ridged and respectful like.
A man could get used to this.
— ♦♦♦ —
Five beds to a bunk, stacked so close you can’t even turn over, then each bunk within reaching the distance of the others, twenty-five bunk stacks make one-hundred men to a room.
Bucky Winslow’s bunk is second from the top. The blood rained through each level and then pooled on the floor.
And nobody hears or sees anything. Not a peep I get out of the one-hundred men I’ve called into these tight confines to question, not even the ones that got rained on.
“OK,” I say. “Dismissed.”
They instantly fall out and file through the narrow passageways between the bunks and leave the place quiet.
I was hoping one of them would betray something, a smile, a glance, or something. Or somebody pipes up with a kernel of something I can run with.
Nothing but his footlocker to go through next and my faint hopes are dashed when I open the trunk.
Inside is nothing but clothes, dirty socks, and navy signal books with notes scrawled all over them.
Then there are packs and packs of cards and poker chips.
The man was a notorious poker wizard. Always won.
The thing is when the Japanese hit us, a lot of these guys were shoveled out of the gutters and poured into a navy suit. They weren’t exactly the creme de la creme. Probably a good lot of them would settle a gambling debt like this.
I reach for another smoke and find the pack empty. I crumple and slam it on the floor.
Five minutes till I have to report that I’ve no leads and no idea who or why Winslow was killed. The only thing I must report is the obvious: that he was killed over a gambling debt.
And I know nothing about nothing, but I don’t buy it. It’s too obvious.
Why would a guy who owed him money do that? Wouldn’t a guy just kill Bucky and walk away? Debt cleared. Why stuff a pack of cards in his mouth. What’s the point? Why send a message like that? And why get rid of the body?
The pack is a red herring, I think. It’s meant to look like he was killed over gambling. But why?
Something drops on the ground behind me with a metallic clink.
At my feet, there’s a grenade with its fuse hissing down.
I open my mouth to scream as it explodes in a flash of white shrapnel.
— ♦♦♦ —
(to be continued)
— ♦♦♦ —
Saturday, 19th April 1777
I make my last entry; this is the fourth such entry I know. But this is the closest that I have been. I hunt the demon today. I have the tools, the cross, the stake, the knife, blessed and marked with the words of the Lord. I have the knowledge and the drive; I will find her at the brothel today and destroy her where she sleeps…