Part 2- The War- 1917-1918
Somewhere in the heaving gray wastes of the North Atlantic, the USS Carson plowed through an endless succession of foaming swells, thumping and throwing spray with each wave. The Carson was a long slim “four-stacker” destroyer, and like the sea and sky around her, was gray and drab-looking, as if color did not exist. Ensign Max Hurlock stood by the port rail of the bridge wing scanning the rest of the convoy with his binoculars. Presently the executive officer, Lieut. Cmdr. Charles Bradwell came up beside him at the rail.
“Still pretty quiet out there,” Bradwell said to no one in particular.
Max nodded, still looking through the binoculars. “I’ve been looking for periscopes, but there’s nothing. The U-boats haven’t discovered us yet. Things could get a little more lively when they do.”
After another pause, Bradwell said “My boy Robert is graduating from Rutgers in a few days. Wish I could be there.”
Max put down the binoculars and turned to Bradwell. “Maybe we’ll get some leave after this convoy. You could get home…”
“And you could see Allison.”
“Well, that thought had occurred to me, I have to admit. Hey did I read you her last letter?”
“Twice,” said Bradwell. “I’ll say one thing; that girl can write. Each letter is like a magazine article; full of information, observations, and witty banter. It’s better than reading Colliers.”
Max scanned the water again. “She’ll be graduating soon, too. She already has a job lined up with the Baltimore Sun. Not as senior editor or anything, but she will get to do some writing. How about Robert? Is he still going to be an accountant?”
“That’s the plan. It was good enough for me until the Navy called me up. Sometimes I think…”
The grating sound of the bridge speaker cut through the air, loud and insistent. “Now hear this. Now hear this. All officers except the OOD lay to the wardroom on the double. All officers except the OOD lay to the wardroom on the double.”
“You’re not the Officer of the Deck at the moment, Max. That means they’re playing our song. Let’s go.”
At the writing desk in her bedroom in Roland Park, Allison finished her letter to Max and carefully sealed the envelope. Max’s letters stood in a small box in a drawer.
“Allison, are you ready? David is here.”
David. What to do about David?
“I’ll be right there.”
David was waiting in the parlor with a new suit and some flowers. Allison smiled as she came down the stairs.
“Hello, Allison. Ready for that senior dance?”
“David, I told you; we are going to the reception, not the dance.”
David’s face darkened. “It’s that Max guy, isn’t it? Suddenly, I’m not good enough for you. Is that it?”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Dear sweet David. You will always be my special friend, but I don’t really want to go dancing.”
“…because of Max.”
“I didn’t say that, David.”
“You didn’t have to, Allison. I know you pretty well, and I know when you have something on your mind and that something is that sailor boy of yours.”
Allison smiled patiently. “Jealousy does not become you, David. You and I have never been affianced, and you have no right of prior possession over me. I like you and consider you a true friend. You have always been a gentleman and acted protective of me, but that doesn’t mean we will be moving into a vine-covered cottage together.”
“But you and Max…”
“…are also good friends. I would not tolerate it if he spoke ill of you, and I will not tolerate it if you speak ill of him.”
David was silent and Allison gently grasped his arm. “Look, David. I really like you. We have a good time together, but there just isn’t that certain something…that spark. I told you before; we really should see other people.”
“In other words, get lost, David.”
“David, you are still coming to graduation tomorrow, and the president’s tea afterwards. We still have a lot of fun things we will do together.”
“Oh, sure,” said David, sullenly, “at least until Max gets back.”
“No one knows what tomorrow will bring, David, so let’s enjoy what we have today. Now are we going to the reception, or not?”
David opened the door and sighed. “After you, Allison.”
As she watched Allison get in the car, Allison’s mother looked through the curtains and slowly shook her head.
The wardroom of the Carson was a little bigger than an average parlor, but was crowded with officers talking and trading rumors when Max and Charlie Bradwell arrived.
“What’s up, Max?” one of them said. “You were on bridge watch. Do we have a contact?”
Max shook his head. “No, there’s nothing out there, and all the ships in the convoy are keeping station.”
“Then what do you suppose…”
“Attention on deck!” someone shouted, and Captain Sloane appeared. He was tall, red-faced, and clearly unhappy about something.
“Be seated, gentlemen,” he said. There was a rustle of chairs scraping against the deck as everyone got settled.
“Gentlemen, Bosun’s Mate Third Class Donotto is dead.”
All around the table, heads turned towards each other in disbelief, but no one spoke.
“He was just found in the engine room. Someone bashed his skull with an iron rod. The place he was found was screened from the rest of the compartment by the starboard engine, so no one saw anything. Now, I don’t have to remind you that we’re in the middle of the North Atlantic riding herd on a convoy right now, so we can’t call in the local flatfoots to find the killer. We have to do it ourselves and we have to do it fast. The whole ship will know about it in a matter of minutes if they don’t know already, and we can’t have a panic, or have everyone accusing everyone else.”
He paused, looking around the table. “Now I am appointing every one of you to investigate and track down who did this. It looks like we have a German agent aboard and he’s trying to create a panic. We need to examine the personnel records and question every man and find out who has a German background and impound them until we get to Liverpool, even if it means we run shorthanded. There’s no time to lose. The killer may be planning another attack right now. Mr. Bradwell, as XO, you will be in charge and will coordinate the efforts.”
The captain stopped and looked at the other end of the table, where Max had raised his hand.
“You got something to add, Mr. Hurlock?”
All heads turned towards Max.
“Well, sir,” Max began. “It occurred to me that we might be going about this all wrong.”
“Oh, really?” said the captain, in an icy tone.
“Yes, sir,” Max continued. “I think we’re missing the most important point. What would a Bosun’s Mate be doing in the engine room?”
“Captain, you know the deck men don’t mix much with the engine room gang. They call them snipes. Donotto wasn’t a chief or section head, so he would have no reason to be in the engine room, especially an odd corner of it. A German agent would simply kill someone who was isolated, like a lone sailor having a smoke on the weather deck. There would be no reason to somehow contrive to lure a Bosun’s Mate down in the engine compartment.”
The captain hesitated. “I see. And what course would you suggest, Mr. Hurlock?”
“It looks like Donotto was feuding with someone in the engine room and went there to confront him. The argument got out of hand and Donotto was killed. I don’t think any German agents are involved at all.”
The wardroom was silent as all heads turned towards the captain.
“All right, Mr. Hurlock. You pursue that angle. But I want the rest of you tracking down that German agent. Dismissed!”
“Holy cats, Max,” said one of the other officers when the captain had left. “You’re the most junior officer on the ship and you just told the captain he was wrong in front of the entire wardroom. You might want to rethink your career choice.”
“Yeah, Max. My money’s on the German agent any day,” said another.
But Max wasn’t listening. “Hey, Bill,” he said to Bill Yancy, the engineering officer. “Did you see the body?”
“See it? I found it. Damn near made me sick.”
“Which side of the head did the bar hit; front or back?”
“It looked like the front. Yes, it must have been, because Donotto was on his back. Why?”
“Bill, if you were a German agent and wanted to kill someone in a sneaky, way, wouldn’t you hit them in the back of the head so they wouldn’t see you coming?”
“But if you were in an argument with someone and were facing him, you’d hit him in…”
“The front,” said Bill, snapping his fingers. “Say, maybe you have something there, Max.”
“All right; settle down,” said Charlie Bradwell. “Let’s get the investigation parties organized and get started. The war just got more complicated.”
In the shade of an oak tree in the flagstone-paved garden behind her house in Roland Park, Allison sat with Max’s latest letter in her lap, but stared straight ahead. A bird landed on the arm of a nearby chair, regarded Allison for a moment, then flew off again. Presently, Allison’s mother appeared and sat in the chair the bird had just vacated.
“What a lovely graduation,” she sighed. “You and your friends were radiant. Why, I thought Betty Pringle would burst.”
Allison nodded. “Betty has always been enthusiastic. She’s stopping by later. We’re going to Morgan Millard’s for lunch.”
Her mother noticed the letter.
“A new letter from Max?”
“No; just rereading an old one. This one is from a week ago, just before he shipped out.”
“You really think a lot of Max, don’t you, Allison?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Allison, I don’t mean to pry, but have you considered David?”
“As a husband?”
“Well, you could do worse, but I mean considered his feelings.”
“Of course I’ve considered his feelings, mother. I like David a great deal and would never want to hurt him, but I don’t love him. I would do a great deal for David’s sake, but I draw the line at marrying him just to avoid hurting his feelings.”
“And that’s why you’re still seeing him?”
“I do like him. Besides, I’m trying to get him used to the idea of seeing someone else.”
“You feel that’s your responsibility?” her mother said softly.
Mercifully, Betty Pringle appeared at that moment and the two newly minted graduates were off to lunch.
Morgan Millard on Roland Avenue was a neighborhood institution. A solid, half timbered building was the sort of place that Shakespeare might have recognized. It billed itself as a combination pharmacy and tea room, but was more of a neighborhood hangout. Allison and Betty settled into a corner booth and ordered hamburgers and cherry phosphates.
“So was your mother asking about Max again?” Betty asked.
“She’s concerned about David. She’s worried about his feelings.”
Betty shrugged. “He’s a big boy, Allison. You have to look out for yourself. Remember when Robert gave me the icy mitt last month? He wasn’t worried about feelings. But I survived. David will, too. Besides, you have more important things to think about. You start at the Sunpapers Monday. You must be so excited. Imagine; writing essays and getting paid for it.”
“Yes,” said Allison. It’s pretty exciting, but I keep wondering how Max is doing.”
“Max?” said Betty. “Don’t worry about Max. He’s on an ocean cruise.”
“Chief, what can you tell me about Donotto?”
Chief Watson pushed his cap back on his head and frowned in thought.
“He was a good sailor. Never had any trouble with him. Sorta quiet guy. I never would have guessed…”
“No,” said Max. “Did he have any problems with anyone on the ship?”
“No, not that I ever saw. He seemed to get on with everyone.”
“Any problems at home?”
“He told one time that he was worried his wife was cheating on him, but a lot of sailors say that during a long voyage. They had an apartment in Norfolk somewhere.”
“No money troubles?”
“Naw; not that I ever heard.”
“Do you have his personal effects?”
“Yes, sir. Got everything in a box I sent to the captain’s cabin.”
A little later, Max was in the engine compartment with Bill Yancy, the engineering officer. The compartment was oppressively hot and they had to shout to be heard over the roar of the diesel engines..
“This is where you found him?”
“That’s right, Max.”
“Pretty private here.”
“Yeah. An engine compartment has a lot of places like this. Oh; here’s that list of the men on duty down here when the murder occurred.”
“Where did the killer get the iron rod?” Max asked.
“Right here,” Bill said, indicating a tray stacked with threaded rods in various sizes. “They use them for spare parts, clamps for damage control…that sort of thing.”
“Pretty handy,” said Max, “if you know where to look.”
Machinist’s Mate Mason Wright was an average sized man with a trim mustache and neatly combed brown hair. He sat across from Max in a quiet corner of the enlisted mess.
“Naw, I didn’t see a thing, Mr. Hurlock. I was looking at the gages and making sure everything was running smooth. That’s what they pay me for. There could have been an elephant over there and I wouldn’t have seen it. Say, I hear it was a kraut spy.”
“Did you know Donotto?”
“No, but I don’t know that many of the deck gang.”
“Did you see the body?”
“I saw something lying there, but it Mr. Yancy had it covered up by the time I got there.”
“One more thing,” said Max. “Here’s a piece of paper. Would you draw a simple diagram of where everyone was during your watch?”
“Sure thing. Now I was here, and …”
“Is that a new tattoo? The skin is still a little red and swollen around it.”
Wright pulled back his arm self-consciously. “Yes, sir. Got it just before we left port. They said it would be all right in a couple of weeks. Well, here’s the drawing.”
“Thank you, Wright. I know you didn’t see anything, but do you think Donotto would have been visible to any of the others if they had been looking in the right direction?”
Wright frowned. “Well, look for yourself, Mr. Hurlock. That’s sort of a blind spot, what with that big generator pretty much blocking the view. With someone tall like Donotto, you might have seen the top of his head, but that’s about it.”
Max nodded. “That’s the way it looked to me, too. Thank you, Wright. I may want to talk to you again.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Hurlock.”
In a small office off the captain’s cabin, Max went to pull Donotto’s personnel file and found the place full of officers sorting through files for people with German backgrounds. They had turned up several suspects already.
“Look at this guy,” one of them said. “Heinkle…and his parents run a German restaurant in Milwaukee. We need to have a little talk with Herr Heinkle.”
Max ignored the commotion and made a few notes, then found the box of personal effects in the captain’s cabin. There was the usual collection of life souvenirs, clothes, a picture of his wife, a few packs of cigarettes, a wrist watch, a partially written letter home. Funny, but there were no letters from his wife. Maybe that’s why he thought she was cheating. Feeling like a peeping Tom, Max read the unfinished letter.
I’ve been suspicious of what you do when I’m at sea for a long time, but now I think I know who you’ve been seeing and I’m going to put a stop to it.
The rest of the page was blank.
DON’T MISS PART 3- COMPLICATIONS 1917-1918