Authors: Joe Poyer
CHAPTER ONÈYou are Dr. Mortimer Keilty?'
Keilty looked up from the scattering of papers and books on the table that served him for a desk. His eyes refused to focus for a moment and he rubbed the back of a dirty, sunburned hand across his forehead.
`Dr. Keilty?' the naval officer standing in front of him repeated impatiently.
Keilty reached over and shut off the tape recorder. The empty reel, which had been spinning for almost an hour, stopped its subdued clatter. He sat back down heavily and regarded the officer across from him with bleary-eyed distaste and absolutely no curiosity whatsoever.
`What the devil do you want?' he asked mildly.
The naval officer, startled, shifted uncomfortably. He tossed his credentials case onto the table so that it fell open to his I.D. card — a practiced gesture he was proud of.
`Hell, James Bond couldn't have done that better,' Keilty said, reaching for the case. The other flushed angrily.
`Lieutenant Commander Michael Redgrave, Bureau of Naval Intelligence,' Keilty read slowly, then tossed the case back. `So?'
'My instructions are to discuss with you something of the utmost importance to the security of the United States,' Red-grave answered seriously. 'The Bureau of Naval Intelligence, under direct orders from the Pentagon, has reviewed your file and decided that you are the man it needs.' He grinned a. friendly, comradely grin, 'Almost amounts to a command, you know.
`That's nice. Now get the hell out of here so I can get back to my work.' Keilty picked up his pencil stub and began correcting a much edited, dog-eared manuscript.
Redgrave shifted from foot to foot and looked around the cluttered room for a chair.
Finding none, he perched on the edge of the rickety table. Keilty looked up.
`Perhaps you didn't hear me. I ...'
`Beat it,' Keilty said, and went back to the manuscript. `Now look here ...' Redgrave exploded, 'either you listen to me or ...
`Shall I throw you out in tiny pieces, or will one pulpy lump do?' Keilty stood up and started around the table. He was almost six-two, and weighed well over two hundred pounds. Redgrave looked at the massive bare chest and sunburned expanse of shoulders and retreated backwards to the door.
'Lanahan, O'Malley,' he shouted. `Get in here! '
The door shot open and two shore patrolmen with rather ugly black service automatics in their hands stepped through, the pistols aimed at Keilty's midsection. Forty-five caliber, standard Colt side arm, Keilty decided, and my, didn't they look purposeful. Bet they could clean up a barroom brawl or a crap game faster than any squadron of marines.
Lanahan, a thickset, muscular individual with a crusty red scar running from ear to ear by way of the bridge of his nose, made the mistake of stepping around Redgrave, so that Red-grave was between him and Keilty for a brief moment. A lesser man would have ignored the unintended challenge. But not Keilty. He stepped quickly to the left, his right forearm sweeping Commander Redgrave up under the chin and catapulting him back into O'Malley. Lanahan, he caught round the gun wrist with his left hand and reversed into a hammer lock, then threw him onto the two sitting on the floor. From there, it was a simple matter to confiscate both weapons and deposit the three sailors in the middle of the gravel path leading to the bungalow.
Keilty went back to his manuscript and the window that opened onto the blue and green reaches of the quiet Gulf of Mexico, and watched the three sailors trudge back down the path. Rather sheepishly too, he decided.
It didn't take long for the U.S. Navy to return. Keilty's mildly alcoholic fog was punctured by the sound of his name shouted over a bull horn.
He went out, blinking in the late afternoon sunshine. Some one hundred yards offshore stood a Coast Guard cutter. Red-grave, looking very unhappy, stood next to a rear admiral on the forward deck. Keilty noted that although no one stood particularly near the deck gun, its canvas cover was unlashed and folded neatly on the deck forward of the mount — and that a two-foot magazine stuck out of the left side.
Keilty sauntered down to the beach and sat down on the edge of the grass, out of the sun.
He raised his half-empty pint of Gilbey's London Dry and toasted the cutter.
`You are Dr. Keilty?' the admiral shouted at him.
`Sounds familiar enough,' he yelled back. 'Go on.'
`Dr. Keilty, I am Admiral Rawingson, Naval Intelligence, Washington. We have something very important to discuss with you; may we come ashore?'
`Nope, say what you have to say from there, then beat it.'
`Dr. Keilty,' the admiral shouted again, 'this matter is very confidential.' He looked round at the grinning coastguardsmen with the senior service's disdain for amateurs.
Keilty considered for a moment; he shook out a Chesterfield and crumpled the empty pack, making great show of his deliberation. The admiral respected it. Half a cigarette later, he took it out of his mouth and waved.
'Hi, Jack, how are the girls in Miami since I left?'
`Great, how's Charlie?'
The admiral swung around and stared at the Coast Guard lieutenant on the bridge. Before he could say anything, Keilty hollered, 'Bring 'em ashore, Jack. Tie up at the dock, so they won't get their white bucks wet.'
The sound of the cutter's diesel engines increased as it swung round for the dock. Jack Weston brought it alongside smartly, aft of Keilty's twenty-four-foot overnighter. Keilty took the bowline and snubbed it down.
The two naval officers jumped down on the dock, but Keilty ignored them. Clapping Weston on the back, he led the way up to the patio.
`Sit down, gentlemen, sit down.' Keilty folded into a chair and shouted, `Margaritta: A lithe, dusky-skinned brunette appeared, wearing a very brief bikini. She stopped beside Keilty's chair, and ran a long finger over his ear. Redgrave flushed, Rawingson softened.
`Glad to see you at least put the top on for our visitors.'
Hmmm,' she said. 'Hello, Jackie, how are you?' She had a dusky voice to match her skin.
`Margaritta, this is Lieutenant Commander Michael Redgrave and Rear Admiral Rawingson. I, uh . . . didn't catch your first name, Admiral?'
'Uh, it's Peter.'
`Fine, Peter, Pete Rawingson, Margaritta. We're very informal here, Admiral, first name basis only,' he explained.
`How do you do, gentlemen,' Margaritta murmured again.
Redgrave managed to get out a strangled sound while Raw-
ingson stood and reached across the table to shake hands. Margaritta let her fingers slip slowly across his palm. Rawingson sat down looking much happier.
`Rustle up something to drink, sexy.' When she disappeared inside, Keilty laughed.
`She's a friend – out visiting for a while.
Redgrave let out a long, unsteady breath.
`Dr. Keilty,' Rawingson interrupted, 'this is all very interesting, but we have something extremely important to discuss with you.
Rawingson looked pained. 'Now look, Doctor, I realize that the Navy has treated you pretty shabbily in the past, but we are prepared to let bygones be bygones.'
Keilty exploded with laughter. 'You're prepared, hell, that's great. I'm forgiven.' He leaned across the table and growled, `What makes you think it works both ways? You birds kept me going for two years on a project with nothing but a lousy letter of commitment, then decided not to sign the contract after all. Instead, you gave me my walking papers, classified my work, rescinded my classification, and kept my reports.
Two years of work for absolutely nothing.'
To fill the sudden silence, Redgrave said brightly, 'Well, ah, we did pay your expenses.'
Keilty regarded him in such a way as to make Redgrave look around unconsciously for a hole to crawl into.
Àccording to the letter of intent, it was supposed to be a cost-plus-incentive fee. I not only lost my shirt, but I didn't even make a profit. For crying out loud, I'm a capitalist. I work for profit. You ask me to work for you, you damn well better pay me. That's why I pay you to protect me from our communist friends across the sea.'
`But, look here, Dr. Keilty, you're a scientist. After all, the Navy did pay your expenses for two years. We realize you did not make a profit, but as a scientist, you're not ...'
`Shut up, idiot,' Rawingson glared. 'You've ..
`You fathead. You imbecilic, unctuous offspring of a slimy .. Keilty broke off, breathing hard.
`No one, no one comes to me and says, you are a scientist. As a scientist you should not make a profit because it's indecent. That just isn't done.
He lowered his voice and went on. 'I will repeat again. I am an American citizen. I am also a capitalist. And the last time I looked it up in the Constitution, I was still guaranteed the right
to make a living. Don't come into my home and accept my hospitality and then ask for anything but a personal favor, unless you damn well make it worth my while to waste my time. That's my value – my time – past time in learning what I know, present time in sitting here listening to your insults; and future time, if I take your job. Jackass!' he finished.
Keilty subsided and Margaritta reappeared from the bungalow, swinging towards them, balancing the tray easily against the roll of her hips. She served the drinks and started to fold gracefully to the grass alongside Keilty. He caught her on the way down.
`Beat it, beautiful, men-talk. Give Jack's sailors a treat. Go for a swim off the pier.
`Nothing doing,' Weston shouted after her. 'You stay away from there. I want those characters in shape to sail that boat to Miami.'
`She swims with nothing on,' he explained to the Admiral. `Claims it's more natural that way.'
Rawingson nodded sagely.
`Dr. Keilty Redgrave began.
`Shut up, idiot,' Rawingson repeated in a weary tone. 'If you had read the report I sent down to you, we wouldn't have this mess now.'
`But, sir, I ...'
`Will you shut up,' he shouted savagely, then turned to Keilty. and in a milder tone, said, '
Look, Doctor, I know you are upset about what happened before. But I am here to see that it doesn't happen again. If we could talk to you alone for a few minutes, I am sure you will see the significance of what I have to say.' He glared meaningfully at Weston.
The coastguardsman started to rise.
`Sit down, Jack. He stays,' Keilty said to Rawingson. 'He's family and besides, I want a witness.'
Rawingson frowned. 'What's your clearance, Lieutenant?' `Top Secret.
`Well – all right. Remember it.
Rawingson put his brief case on the table and opened it. From the pier, long, drawn-out wolf whistles and a faint splash sounded.
'Oh God,' Weston groaned. 'She did it.'
Keilty grinned. Rawingson spread out an extremely detailed map. Keilty did not recognize it at once.
`This is a chart of the Strait of Malacca – Sumatra to the south; Malaysia, north.' Rawingson pointed out Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. 'I don't have to emphasize to you the importance to world trade — particularly Western trade —of this strait. Four major shipping lanes and numerous smaller ones pass through these straits from the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal.' He paused to see if this had sunk in. Keilty was staring at the map. Weston was hunched in deep concentration.
'If,' Rawingson continued, 'this strait were closed to us somehow, it would be a severe blow to our prestige and influence in the Far East.'
'Us, means us and Britain, I suppose?'
'Yes, Doctor, it does, but additionally, Australia, Japan, Scandinavia, et cetera.'
'I thought the British and Australians patrolled this area just to keep it safe for democracy?'
`They do, but in this matter they have asked our help, since it also concerns us. Let me finish setting the stage.'
'Be my guest.' Keilty looked mournfully at his drink, then picked up the admiral's untouched glass.
'If, as I said, we should find this strait closed to us, it would be costly beyond computation. We should have to detour our shipping nearly seven thousand miles 'round Australia from the Pacific, three thousand miles from the South China Sea through the Celebes, Coral, down into the Arafura and Timor Seas and into the Indian Ocean. A delay of weeks and months.
`From the western approaches, we would have to reverse the procedure. And we would have to abandon our economic and shipping influences in the Far East. And if that is the case, we would be finished forever in Southeast Asia. In addition, it would be a ruinous blow to Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia alone does an import—export business in excess of eight hundred million dollars per year — the vast majority of which goes through Singapore. And as you can see by the map, Singapore is strategically situated at the head of the strait. During the war, the Japanese tied us up good in the China Sea and the CBI by taking Singapore. With it, they were able to control the entire Indo-China peninsula and what was then the Dutch East Indies. They forced our shipping right out of Southeast Asia and forced us to institute the airlift over the Himalayas and build the Burma Road to get supplies in from the Indian staging areas.'
`Get to the point, Admiral. I know all that. This area is a British and Australian responsibility and they seem to be doing a pretty decent job, as usual.'
`Yes, well unfortunately, the straits are international waters. In the past few years since the end of the war in Indo-China, communist guerrilla activity has increased tremendously. Malaysia never did quite suppress the communist insurgents. Within six months of the time the United States withdrew from Vietnam, the communists were active again in Northern Malaya. The straits and the Bay of Bengal have become the new Ho Chi Minh trail for men and supplies into the south and across to Indonesia where the PCP is ...'
'I read the papers, Admiral. The Red Chinese are protesting their innocence everytime someone even so much as hints the insurgent movements are starting up again. And the Soviets are all sweetness and light again as usual. But I got the impression that the Malaysian and Indonesian armed forces were keeping well ahead. So ?'