The Striker – 10

LT Valentine’s bright golden light had dimmed hours before. His ice-blue fluorescent eyes showed disdain for his status as a serial killing suspect. Those eyes looked coldly through Wade standing, observing his prisoner.

It had been a remarkable cascade of events, starting with Valentine’s essentially sabotaging himself when he pointed out a burial place having been overlooked. Wade’s surprise at this outcome dimmed as fast as Valentine’s holy demeanor had. Aside from rank, from among those murderers he had contact with in past arrests, Valentine was no more arrogant than many. From Jones’ description of serving under Valentine, his arrogance seemed as natural as breathing. Becoming an officer had been Valentine’s resolution to finding his college deferments had melted away after graduation and the draft board showing interest in his availability. In his Boot Camp, he had played the get out of war free card by wrangling his way into Officer Candidate School.

In his early hours of incarceration, this had been Valentine’s repeated story to those who fell under his enchantment. Wade had gotten tired of hearing the same preposterous ironies over and over. However, why Valentine had stayed in the Navy lingered uncomfortably close to Wade’s reasons for staying, too.

There was this thrill.

Another two year enlistment was waiting in the wings for Wade. Would they tempt him with money, training, rank; or would they understand the tempting power of thrill?

Of course they understood. The Navy shanghaied men with tempting illusions that were satisfied in foreign ports out of sight of the Silent Majority.

Wade lost interest in this prey that had given up the struggle, and he returned to the office end of the Brig. The more significant, cynical reason to avoid interest was the inevitable political veil that investigating officers would draw across Valentine’s case—if the disturbing evidence could be cautiously subdued and kept out of the local headlines.

He looked back down the short cinder-block hallway to the bay of three cells that typically held weekend drunks if they hadn’t been returned to their ships. But here it was early Wednesday night, and they were booked-up.

He could see Valentine had shifted in his rack, and was bent over towards the side of his cell he shared with Dusty. Valentine looked like he was dressed for golf, just as he had been on the beach. However, his shirt’s loud colors were drained to faint tints by the damp concrete walls’ TV reflected light. Bob, Dusty’s running buddy, must be watching the ten o’clock news, and that meant it was time for Wade to enforce taps. Before he could swing his feet off his desk to do that, the door to the street burst open.

“Ras Wade!” Jones drew a nimble licorice colored girl in behind him, and shut the door quickly with another crash. “I want to show Shanelsie, here, how secure—”

“—and safe,” said Shanelsie as she tugged at her burgundy micro-mini skirt.

“—and safe,” said Jones enthusiastically. And …” Jones paused for Wade to wordlessly fill in the blanks.

“Forget the lube-job, Ras Will. The motel is booked, and even if I double-bunked them, I don’t think Miss Shanelsie would feel comfortable.”

“But Honey,” Shanelsie cooed into Jones’ ear. “How we gonna celebrate yo’ leavin’ fo’ Vi-et-nam? I so want to give you your hour’s worth.” She tugged at her hem again.

Wade tried to back out of this, but Jones’ high was imperturbable and he eyed each of their desks for opportunity. “You going out, Tomodachi? Like on a patrol of the Strip?”

“Is that short for I include you out?

Shanelsie volunteered a solution. “If Ras bunk up those terrible mens in one … room. We can use the other if you want to pay double for they to enjoy sex show. C’mon, Honey. You knows yo’ worth it.” She stroked his chest and squirmed in under his arm.

Jones dismissed the absurdity and his dignity as soon as she added a compelling emphasis.

“I have a soft spot for real men like you goin’ to war.” She nibbled at his earlobe without regard for Wade. “A soft, wet, tight spot that aches for a man. Double the pleasure for both of us.”

“How’s ‘bout the Junior Duty Officer’s rack in that cubbyhole behind you? Can ya dig it?”

Wade shook his head. That was his for the night.

“Wade,” he begged, but he quickly saw pity was a small draw-card for a hand that couldn’t open. “C’mon, who’s in the cells, then?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Who cares about those hitch-hikers late for muster? They’ve been there for days and no one’s claimed them? Roll ‘em out and we can bust ‘em agin’ tomorrow. Those innocent lambs will freeze at the gate.”

Wade knew this was about as true as things could be summarized. But dismissing his idea would only have Jones pounding Shanelsie on the carbon copies of today’s Plan Of the Day. “This morning, they brought in Lieutenant Valentine.”

Shanelsie popped out of her nestled position like a boiled goober when Jones snapped-to. Jones said, “Lieutenant jay gee Valentine.” His euphoria lost, he looked at Wade for understanding. “You be shittin’ me.”

Shanelsie danced over to the hallway leading to the cells. “Is that the bad man?” The question was childish, the interest was not. “He kill the girls on the beach after he prayed to them?” She no longer tugged at her skirt that had risen high above the wedge of her mossy patch.

“You are shittin’ me, Wade.” Jones stepped past Shanelsie and took the several steps down the hall to the drunk tank. “No, you are not.”

Shanelsie tip-toed down the hall like a licorice fawn and stood slightly behind Jones, holding his arm with both hands as she tucked herself close alongside him. As Wade approached, she said, “Make the bad man say somethin’.”

“Do you know the Lord’s Prayer, Child?” said Valentine to Shanelsie. “Dusty and I are saying it together. You can join us.”

Wade took Shanelsie by her shoulders, peeled her off Jones, and steered her back towards the office. He whispered in her ear, “That was probably the last thing those girls heard.” He felt a shudder wrack her body, and she stumbled.

“They are right. He looks so … nice.”

Wade felt like she would collapse if he didn’t keep hold of her.

“You coppin’ a feel with my babe?” Jones slipped one arm behind her and kept her moving to the door.

“Yo gotta put the fire out, Honey. An’ soon. Free. That bad man done stir things up.”

Jones cast a glare at Wade as he said, “We go look for a comfortable dumpster.”

“With only office paper in it?”

“There’s lots of those. I kin lift you in easy, too.”

She brushed his hair, but looked at Wade. “You can lift me on right here.” She licked her dry lips and drew her leg up, baring the promise within her inner thigh. “Put out the fire, now, Honey. That bad man a-scares me so.”

This perverse fantasy had his blood up. Wade couldn’t remember a breath taken since they walked down the hall into the vacuum. His heart felt like the first, slow thumping cylinder of a triple-reduction steam engine. He still wanted to pulverize Valentine’s pretty face, and that anger’s focus rode like a destroyer’s hurricane bow through the storm.

The opening door nearly toppled Jones and Shanelsie. Henderson stared around its edge, muttered a vulgar noise, and then hustled four men inside the office. One, rubbing his swollen eye, resisted, and Henderson slapped his billy club loudly in his thick hand.

The slap brought Wade’s breath back. Shanelsie tugged her skirt. Jones looked over shoulders and past faces for his reward to be enjoyed in a new promised land. He steered Shanelsie through the crowd. Two called her name.

“Where’re you goin’, Jones?” said Henderson.

Jones threw his arm high and over Henderson’s shoulder and twisted at the waist as if he were swimming past. “I don’t have the dirty duty until midnight, Cinderella. Talk to the Prince about your glass shoe’s size.”

“Don’t hand me that shit. My watch is over at midnight dead-on, and I want my rack time before I pick it up again at four tomorrow morning,” said Henderson. He looked suspiciously at Wade. “And I don’t get your game, either. Port and Starboard duty sections overnight are a bitch. You and Jones seem to be on the inside of something with your stripes changing directions up and down your arm.”

It was a typical challenge Wade came across in his minor assignments from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Occasionally, he had overlaps with personnel who knew him under different names or ranks. Jones took his costume changes in stride, not asking about the masquerade Wade was playing. Henderson would get nothing.

It was strange that ONI had let him sit here in dead irons. This was truly an X-Division banishment into what the Ruskies called their gulag archipelago. ONI told him to wait for his new handler to appear. Until then, Wade used the Navy’s time-honored method of leadership in these situations: he pulled rank.

“Usher them into the tank. We’ll take names and—“

“—kick asses. Yeah.” Henderson recognized an order, but submitted to no more than that. With his billy-club, he directed the mute four down to the cells.

This inspired another eruption and forced Wade to shoe-horn himself into the small hallway. “What gives?”

“We got a brig-attorney in here that says we can’t overload the cells.”

It had to be the one called Bob, thought Wade. He may have been right, but this was going to be done the Navy way. “Henderson, divvy them up, two to a cell. And send the blind one to Sick Bay with Jones and nurse Shanelsie.”

“What about the guy in the cell with the magenta accent?”

Wade suppressed a laugh. Henderson mistook the Lieutenant, in civvies, as being gay. For as often in life as he had moved between countries, he found the fringes rough.

Thrills were in the rough, but so were hidden bodies.

He wondered about Ras Johnny’s message to him about saving the next boy. Was that Henderson? Even as old as he was? Wade shrugged the idea away. It was too grandiose and it might end up with one of them getting a thumping.

Wade offered: “Buddy him up with a volunteer then.”

“Whoa,” said Henderson to someone inside the tank. “That was too fast. Buddy, indeed.

“OK. OK. Knock yourself out and get your scrawny ass in the barrel with him.

“You others. Sort yourselves out, pronto.

“The fuckin’ TV goes off—now. Lights out in two minutes.”

Henderson turned off the lights immediately and strode back. He ignored Wade as he went to the arms locker and opened it. He reached for the riot gun, and noticed the lock. “Is the key near?”

Wade had to get on top of this quick. “I’ve got the watch. As Duty Petty Officer, I’ve got the key. You don’t need the key, and there’s no riot.”

Henderson stared at Wade’s stripes, then shrugged, strutted to the door, and left.

It had been a long dozen or more minutes since the last lonely car passing had crushed over the gravel in the dark road outside the open door. The heavy air off the Cooper River brought the smell of the swamps from the opposite shore. Wade took one more check on his full house, walking quietly down the short hall into the inky black.

“Kent is right,” said Dusty inside the darkness. His hand rested between the bars. In the light from the door it looked like Dusty was reaching out, but his voice inhabited a darker place. “These are the end of days.”

Without an answer for that, Wade returned to the duty desk to wait for Jones to take the mid-watch so he could roll into the cramped rack in the cubbyhole.

Someone roughly shook his shoulder, time jump-started, and his fist swung automatically, clipping a retreating shoulder.

“Ouch. Dammit! He’s gonna shoot someone.”

Wade squinted at the long-faded fluorescent hands on his Seiko World Time watch. Almost reveille. “This better be worth it,” he grumbled. There was a heavy crash of the arms locker door against the wall between this cubbyhole and the office.

The newcomer, lit by a dim red standing light, was one of the prisoners, probably Bob. The young sailor backed away from Wade’s rising to turn towards the noise.

“Stand fast,” said Wade. The sailor froze. “Keep talking until you run out of words, then repeat.”

“Some guy comin’ back from Sick Bay showed up, and—” The outer office erupted in a brawl. Wade shoved Bob aside and took stock of the struggle in front of him between his door and the one to the outside.

“Stop!” said Henderson. He forced away sailors with the short butt of the riot gun as he pursued what looked like Dusty disappearing outside into the dim red morning light.

There was only a second or two for Wade to reach Henderson. It was a disaster, and oddly enough, Valentine seemed immune from the confusion as he watched Wade. Wade muscled past and was about to take advantage of an opening when he tripped.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!”

The riot gun blast stunned everyone in the office.

The rising sun was heavily veiled by the river’s mist, turning its thin crown into dark orange. It’s promise of warmth struggled against the clammy night’s remains. A heavy truck lumbered in a street running parallel a block away. Wade took a breath, and examined the probabilities. Valentine was in this story somewhere.

He wondered about Ras Johnny’s advice. Should he have paid more attention to Henderson? He knew that answer. He had already asked the question, himself, and cast Henderson adrift.

For Dusty, it was as if he watched him disappear into the storm’s rage like his brother before. Could he go on doing this work? He could walk away from the Navy in as little as six weeks or so when his enlistment ended.

Forty three days, and a wake-up.

He heard his mother say in her slight German accent, “Wade, running away from things won’t work.” That was her advice following Mike’s death, Wade’s sudden enlistment, and on each of his re-enlistments.

What did that mean in the next forty three days?

“Junior Duty Officer, I want you and Jones to sort this out,” cried the Lieutenant. “Right here and now. First, who was Duty Petty Officer when this happened?”

Jones thumbed toward Henderson silently sitting shackled nearby. “This cluster-fuck was underway when I arrived after observing Reveille at the barracks.”

Wade noticed three things about the Lieutenant. He didn’t flinch at Jones’ language, and he didn’t even seem to hear what had been said once Jones put the finger on Henderson. The third thing was he could see wheels turning.

“Had you had any sleep before you arrived here?” said the Lieutenant.

Wade withdrew his assessment. The Lieutenant had been listening intently, purposely. And that purpose was now spinning those wheels.

“Say what?” Jones had his back up.

“You heard my question, Sailor. Now give me an answer, respectfully.”

“’spectfully, Sir. Say what?”

Wade moved aside into the cubbyhole. A small body was wrapped up in Navy gray wool blankets. A large spot of blood was soaking through from the shoulder and upper back if the red fringe at the shroud edge suggested anything. Outside, a heavy vehicle’s wheels crushed into the gravel as it came to a quick stop.

Shoulders bumped him aside as corpsmen swept into the room, surveyed the situation, and began to remove the body as if they were on the battlefield in ‘Nam and hustling a medivac stretcher to a Huey helicopter.

“Aren’t you going to check him out?” Wade’s voice felt weak and lost to the turmoil inside.

One corpsman peeled back the blankets that had been wrapped as if Dusty had just been put to bed one cold, winter night. One hand went to the side of the neck as the other explored the extensive wound. “No pulse, bled-out.” As professional and practiced as this corpsman was, his hand made a small sweeping gesture of the cross, and he re-wrapped Dusty’s gently composed face for his long winter sleep. “Sorry about your buddy.”

The other corpsman took a deep sympathetic breath. “Yeah. Me too. I signed up to save ‘em, but I’ve been carrying friends too long.”

After taking in an anesthetic breath, then without ceremony, they hefted the stretcher up and ignored those in the main room as they returned to the ambulance. Wade followed slowly, feeling the clammy wet of the night trapped in the main room. He looked numbly at Henderson still hunched over, catatonic; and the tragic comedy of the Lieutenant and Jones early morning show. They were both stuck in a dialog circling the drain.

“Then you won’t vouch for Henderson’s account of protecting himself out of fear for his life from vicious attack.”

“As I tol’ you, Sir. We have a fire hose to calm down trouble of any form. Getting the riot gun …”

Yelling emerged from behind the closed door that lead to the cells. Outside, the ambulance ground the gravel deeper as it left. The Lieutenant slammed the front door shut. “They weren’t in their cells, Sailor!”

“I didn’t turn them out.”

The Lieutenant seemed at a loss to carry his objection further along that line; and distracted himself with the increased yelling. “Go hose down those mutineers. I’m going to make it my mission to put them into Portsmouth Naval Prison.”

Wade was struck by the retribution implied for a rowdy band of drunks in overcrowded cells. “Mutiny?” He was shocked at having said the word out loud and quickly added, “Sir?”

The Lieutenant stood erect, with a glint in his eye. “You two write up a report with a charge list for each of the prisoners.” He moved stiffly, like a butler in a stale Agatha Christie mystery. As he stood at his office door, he jangled through a ring of keys.

Wade had never seen the door open, or the office occupied, and he lost count of the Lieutenant’s frustrated attempts to fit the key. He turned to Jones when the Lieutenant finally found his way through the door.

“So, you tell me the start of the report, and I will finish it.”

Jones walked to the front door and leaned against the frame. As he mused, he lit up a Kool. The scent of menthol followed. “Sad case. Hit you pretty hard, didn’t it? I mean, the kid and all.”

“Yeah …. Tell me about Henderson’s part in this.”

“What’s goin’ on?” said Jones. He turned into the office toward the coffee pot, poured some, and handed the paper cup to Wade.

“Feeling guilty as hell.”

“Guilt ain’t no feeling.”

“Yeah …. He reached out, and I wasn’t there.”

“This isn’t about you. It’s about Henderson. That stupid cracker got spooked by the fellow he hit.”

“He hit? …” Wade remembered the black-eyed prisoner that went off to Sick Bay. “Yeah …. OK …. go on.”

“That fellow that came back is a stupid douche-bag, too. He could’ve skied out, but when the doctor ordered him to return here to finish his sentence. Get that! Sentence. Like there’s so many brig-attorneys in this man’s Navy … Anyway, that fellow came back and it turned into a world of hurt.”

Wade felt his chest tightening like he was slung in the tight harness for a highline transfer between ships at sea. The only way through the pain and doubt was to focus on the opposite ship and trust the crews that were hauling him across. The image drew the last of his breath away when he realized he matched Dusty’s descent from Argus Island in the cargo net.

“Earlier, you said spooked.” The words struggled out as he gulped for air.

“Well, it’s not because the stupid fellow is black. Take another sip of Java and cool your jets.

“Spooked, as in frighten. Henderson wasn’t ‘specting visitors after the bars closed, and the kid stumbles in some six hours later.

Wade recalled the scene when these new prisoners had come in, and when the kid had gone. “Why so much time at Sick Bay?”

“Cards, I hear tell from Bob. No one wanted to end the rubber of Bridge they were playing. Then another. He crashed out on a cot until they rolled him out and he wandered back.

“Boy spooked Henderson. Henderson hustled the kid into the tank. The guys began to beef. We can thank Bob and Valentine for that. They shoved him back. In retreat, Henderson reached the gun locker before the rest of the prisoners could find their bearings.”

“According to who?”

“This is from the fellow, himself. As stupid as he is, he was the ripest of that bunch of green bananas.”

“Let’s question that guy Bob, or Valentine.”

“They blue-skied outta here, and Valentine isn’t gonna be stopped at any gate like a wide-eyed doe.”