The Striker – 9

Country roads, green tunnels draped in Spanish moss from Southern Live Oak, lead them to Folly Beach. The officer in charge looked like a scout leader, and the men he directed looked like boy scouts. They were all drawn from X-Division, like Wade and Jones. Wade recognized most of them were taken back from Mess Hall assignments. Someone was going to pay hell for that.

Good call, Wade, for coming straight here,” whispered Jones. “Daniels can become a hard ass when he gets behind in his drinking … I don’t see any Tiki Bars on this beach.”

I can take care of thirst right here.” A well groomed man Jones’ age was holding a tray with a pitcher of sweetened ice tea, and a stack of paper cups. He approached them in loafers, tan slacks, and a patterned long sleeve shirt turned fashionably up at the cuffs.

Wade’s suspicions quickened with an uncertain recognition. “Sorry, this is a crime scene. Do you have an ID?”

The man stopped in half-step—but without appearing awkward. His winner’s fixed grin on his clean shaved face hardened. Somewhere behind those vacant blue eyes, Wade sensed he was being sized up for a feint and a jab. It was the same response he had felt when he had confronted his and his brother’s straw-boss for Project Mohole.

Wade and Jones had yet to check in with the Duty Officer to get the low-down on the situation. It didn’t seem LCDR Daniels knew the protocol of setting boundaries or team control, but Wade taking on the role of being in charge often brushed officers in the wrong direction. He also wondered about Jones’ wide eyed reaction to Wade’s challenge for ID.

He’s Lieutenant J. G. Valentine, Jarvis.”

Valentine’s smile didn’t warm to Jones’ recall. “That’s alright, Jones. There’s no perimeter set, and Jarvis is it? Radioman Second Class Petty Officer Jarvis is correct to ask for identification—even if I am doing God’s mission.”

Wade wanted to hammer his platitudinous pretty face until the handle broke.

Valentine continued to look at Wade, but addressed Jones, “Still waiting for your orders to come through? I thought X-Division let you go.”

No, Suh. Been doin’ investigating stuff, Suh, and thangs like this for de Shore Patrol.”

You fellows bring more for the search party?” came another new voice.

Wade turned to find LCDR Daniels joining them. He was tall, carrying a traditional Navy beer belly like a service medal hanging from his sunken chest. His hair—unlike Valentine’s beach boy blow-dry blond—was jet black and slicked down with too much Brylcreem. It was black that came from a bottle.

No, Sir. Those are men in custody we apprehended without Liberty Cards hitchin’ rides along the Savannah Highway.” The ratio of officers to enlisted was beyond uncomfortable. Wade doubled down on following the script. “What are your orders, Sir? We came directly, and those two should be processed.”

Daniels mused silently as if weighing a problem Solomon couldn’t tackle. “Good work,” emerged from the process in a weak answer. “What would you suggest?”

Valentine’s lips curled and his grin became as white as splintered bone torn through a muscle. “Keep one, and send the rest back, Eugene.”

This glaring informality stunned Wade. Even between officers, such familiarity never crossed rank, rarely surfaced except between friends, and only in casual settings. Wade had been at the fringes of too many settings with his father heading diplomatic functions to miss this breach. But, he noticed that Daniels displayed no feeling about it one way or the other. He could follow this lead—indifference, and that suited him.

Wade,” said Jones. “Your lips are so far up that officer’s ass that you be wearin’ a van Dyke.”

You OK with taking back these two?” Dusty and Bob weren’t comfortable with their situation, but they offered no commentary which was unusual in its own way. “I volunteered myself for hazardous duty—not you.”

I go in half a heart-beat, Bro’. I don’t think I have the testicular fortitude to suffer that perfumed prince that be paradin’ you by the nose. Careful that missionary and his buddy Bolton don’t save you.” He scanned the beach, “Thankfully that oil spill, greasy more, Bolton isn’t at this party.”

Pretty low esteem for one of your former shipmates.”

Don’t shine me on with that fake Christian. Valentine, he suited for shark bait, but he meaner than a shark. You go swimmin’ with sharks, Wade, and …”

Wade felt a shudder at the mention of swimming with sharks. He turned as if it would dismiss his agony from Hurricane Betsy. He looked at Valentine serving tea to Daniels’ search team, and now those neighbors who had at first avoided close contact. “Go,” he said to Jones, and Jones, as true to his oath as possible, left hurriedly.

The crew of sailors who should have been helping in the Mess Hall were, instead, wandering the fringe of green along the beach. Wade had little experience in the matter, but this wasn’t very productive beyond the cluster of Charleston police he recognized.

One sergeant walked up to him. “Jarvis? I thought it was you, but we usually meet on the strip where the only lighting is neon.” He held out a hand and Wade shook it.

Makes us sound like vampires.”

The sergeant brushed Wade’s humor away like a mosquito dining on his temple. “Your group is getting in the way, tracking across evidence, and …”

Yeah, I get it, but that guy over there,” Wade pointed at Daniels. “He’s my boss—right now.”

The sergeant shook his head. “God, your system—that atrocity you call X-Division—is fucked up. Your bosses pass through like Yankee tourists that discovered cockroaches in their bathroom.”

The Navy is traditional. Nothing changes so it seems. X-Division is what we call our transient organization.”

Transient … You recognize irony?”

Wade had to laugh. “I live it every day.”

How about that gold braided Bible-thumper?” The sergeant pointed out Valentine handing out tea and fliers. “Let me tell you one thing. This is a Navy town, but that time is slippin’ away. We’ve got to get to the bottom of this … Oh! That’s the coroner. Gotta go.”

Wade joined LCDR Daniels holding court and whisking away the onlookers at the crime scene. Wade couldn’t see anything other than disturbed sand within a Palmetto grove. A woman with two children hanging on to her skirt joined them to express her shock.

It’s another girl. Does the Navy think it’s spies?”

Another?” said Daniels. He plunged his large hands deep into his coat pockets. “Spies? Sorry Ma’am, this is a crime scene and we need you to step back.”

Back to where? Those people over there drinking tea and gossiping are closer than I am! Ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis, I worry. What are you going to do about the spies?”

Wade could see Daniels’ knuckles pressed against the fabric of his coat. “No one said anything about spies, Ma’am.”

Killing girls isn’t American.”

Would you like something to drink, Mother?” Valentine held the last of his tea nearer to her and she took a cup. “Eugene, your men walked past a spot in their search. That rough patch just along the sidewalk.”

Wade wondered if Daniels’ coat pockets were going to bust their seams. Daniels composed himself and the strain slackened. “Lieutenant Valentine, this is official business, it demands dignity. We’re not in our church group.”

Yes, of course.” Valentine’s winner’s smile did not acknowledge the position of his lower rank. “I need to make another pitcher of tea. Would you like a flier to our next meeting, Jarvis? I really think you would love hearing Deacon Bolton.”

Valentine wasn’t going to leave until Wade took one, and Wade took one. He watched as the golden haired appointed one wandered across the sand and dune grass back to the sidewalk that lined the beach beyond. Part of Daniels’ crew were gazing at the waves, the others were sharing a joint. One who had removed his shirt looked back at Wade and nudged his buddy. Wade dismissed that and turned his attention back upon the receding Valentine.

Valentine stopped to talk to two teenage girls who were cautiously approaching the commotion on the beach. They became animated in conversation. One held her gaze on Valentine, and brushed her long red hair back frequently. This gesture enhanced her profile. As she tossed her head back, the line of her long neck swept in a curve that dipped at the base of her throat, rose again and plunged into the cleft between her breasts. Valentine, as best Wade could tell, never took his eyes off her face to enjoy the invitation.

Stop looking at titties,” said the sergeant. The red head was now flouncing her yellow polka dot sun-dress, as if cooling herself. It was a simple gesture given its hem was cut eight inches above her knees. Valentine was unmoved.

Yeah,” said Wade. “We’re pretty much useless, here.”

Don’t brag about it.”

The sergeant was joined by Daniels who also had observed the distant scene, and shook his head in either annoyance or disbelief. Wade found it hard to read Daniels.

Jarvis? Can you muster the men, get them into transport and back to the First Lieutenant’s office?”

Yes, Sir. Are we finished here?”

The coroner would feel better if we were. I’m sure the detective here agrees.”

The sergeant agreed, but instead of saying so, he simply shrugged his shoulders. He knew the politics of the situation. He was like a mouse who had to share the top bunk with an elephant.

We can take it from here, Commander.”

Daniels left in his staff car, a newer model of what Wade had arrived in. The transport, Wade knew, was the Navy bus. Its driver had replaced Valentine, and was engaged in passing a joint between himself and the two girls. The girl in polka dots used her sun-dress to flick the smoke away as she breathed out a cloud. Her panties matched the dress pattern.

Those tramps!”

The mother and her tethered children were at Wade’s side again. “They aren’t island people. That nice and decent Deacon Valentine should have given them Deacon Bolton’s message on how their wicked ways of exposing themselves will bring more communism.”

Wade could barely suppress a choking laugh—there were so many things wrong about what she said. He saw a faintly similar reaction in the sergeant, but the detective apparently had more exposure to this middle-class paranoia. “But communism?”

They barely suppress their demon urge in front of his piety. And just look at those strumpets smoking cigarettes.”

Thank you, Ma’am,” said the sergeant. “We will keep a watchful eye against any communist influence.”

And you should listen to the good deacon, too.” She turned to Wade. “Your men should investigate his suggestions.”

Wade was flummoxed by her statement, but the sergeant came through. “What would they be, Ma’am?”

She pointed to a distant point along the sidewalk. “He told these Navy men they missed a spot.”

Wade recalled the statement. “Did that upset you?”

For the first time, she calmed in reflection. “Not particular-like. Well, maybe at the time. But Deacon Valentine soothed my troubled spirit. He said everything would turn out OK.” She mused on that past conversation, folding her hands as if in prayer. Then, she became reanimated. “Come on children, Daddy will be home and he needs his victuals.”

Mama,” said the older child tugging at her mother’s apron. “Are the Commies killing big girls again?”

Hush that, child.”

Wade struggled to sort out his feelings about this girl’s fears. On the one hand, they were spun out of whole cloth. They were inventions of a mother’s worry which barely rose to a real problem in Wade’s mind. On the other, the girl needed watching over. Her mother’s biases were no preparation for real threat.

The sergeant stroked his chin as mother and daughters departed in the direction of the two girls and the bus driver who were laughing. They looped around them at a great distance before returning to their natural path. The two children, still holding mother’s gingham apron, looked back at that small loud group. Outside of her mother’s view, the youngest imitated a gesture of smoking and passing a joint.

In ten years, that woman is going to be calling me about run-aways,” said the sergeant. “And that lieutenant commander of yours. What a prize. You draw a new one every week or several, and yet you’ve been a constant. How does that work, or have you been sent to Hell without return postage? They catch the Admiral’s daughter goin’ down on you in the sand trap of the ninth?”

Detective Rice, that sounds like your fantasy, not mine.”

Suppose so, but your smile tells me something rings true there.”

I like golf.”

Mmmh.”

Best I could do is bogey the course.”

Not shabby, as far as my watching Sunday sports goes. Moving to other things, think you could bring your men to a come-to-Jesus moment?”

This wasn’t about Valentine’s mission, and it wasn’t another Sunday activity Detective Rice had on his mind.

For these new boots, that comes with every reveille. You want something special?”

Just impress upon them about the hell-fire that will descend upon them if they don’t follow my orders. I want to search that area over there without it turning into a beach blanket bingo party.”

Sure. Hell-fire coming from you is so much more natural.”

Don’t say it. I heard it so many times in ‘Nam when us grunts came up against you partyin’ white-hats. You guys are lovers, not fighters.”

You’ve never Shore Patrolled in Shit City.”

Rice shook his head sadly, refused to comment, and waited for Wade.

OK, back away. ALL OF YOU.” Rice bent over the exposed bare shoulder that had emerged from one of the men’s sweeping the ground with a neighbor’s broom. “Jarvis, get these dufus clowns out of here.”

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