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Authors: Curt Autry

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

The Reunion (2 page)

BOOK: The Reunion
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2

Beaufort, North Carolina

Rolf Werner stood in silence with head down and hands folded as the Coast Guard cutter gently pitched on a wrinkled sheet of blue. From the bow, a chaplain in dress whites eased down a ladder to a steel platform just inches from the wind-chopped water line and tossed a large wreath into the water.

“We commit our brothers to the deep, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return. But the Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory. We return these souls to the sea.” Watching the greenery slip below the whitecaps, the coordinates flashed through Rolf's mind. 34.21 North, 76.35 West. He smiled. How odd, he thought, that his brain had somehow managed to store those numbers, the exact coordinates he hurriedly punched out in a coded distress call exactly sixty years ago today.

At first, Rolf had no intention of attending this memorial and reunion. North Carolina was a long way from Bonn, Germany, for an eighty-three-year-old man to travel, and his career in the
Kreigsmarine
had been less than stellar. In two tours of duty, U-352 had only one sinking to its credit. Worse yet, the ship had the dishonor of being the first sub crew captured by the Americans in the Second World War—and by the Coast Guard, no less. These two historical facts were still a source of humiliation to him, when he allowed himself to think about it. But none of that mattered anymore.

An inner calm overtook him like a drug being pumped into his veins. As his eyes wandered around the circle, the tired, hollow shells of men that surrounded him transformed into boys again. He could see all eight of them, just as they were, and call each by name. This was the end of a long journey, a warm place in his soul that would give him comfort until his final day.

***

Up on the bridge, Marvin Bailey cursed the wind as he attempted to light his pipe. He was a mammoth black man, at least six feet four and two hundred fifty pounds with a scraggly white beard and wire-frame glasses designed for function and not appearance. At first glance he was intimidating, yet Marvin had a kind demeanor and was quick to smile.

The once-menacing class VII-C attack submarine was now a mangled mass of corroded struts and beams lying on the ocean floor. All traces of the hand-carved teak finish inside the U-boat had been gone since 1960. In recent years, much of the outer hull had given way to the saltwater. Yet now, floating above the submarine he helped sink, Marvin Bailey questioned whether this reunion was worth the effort.

He studied the old men below as they stared out to sea. Their conversation waned, and a sense of sorrow seemed to sweep over them like a heavy fog. They wiped their eyes clear frequently from a mix of melancholy and the cool salt spray.

At one time they had been the
Kreigsmarine's
finest, hand-picked by Admiral Donitz himself. Yet they had the misfortune of serving under the command of one of the youngest, most inept submarine commanders in the German Navy. Years later, at the German Naval academy, instructors would recount his missions as classic examples of what
not
to do.

Gregg locked his Panasonic digital camera onto the tripod. He held it tightly, using its bulk and weight to help him keep steady. Sally stood behind him, tightly gripping his shoulder as she tried to maintain her balance on the tossing ship.

“I'm rolling,” he said.

The reporter pushed her lips right to his ear to whisper a few instructions. “Watch your audio levels. I know it's all in German, but I want lots of natural sound.”

“Let's bow our heads and pray,” said the preacher.

Marvin was the lone holdout. He stayed at the wheel, watching the service from above. He felt like an intruder on his own ship.
This is their moment,
he told himself. He closed his eyes and said his own little prayer.

Sixty years had transformed the taut young sailors of 1942 into frail old men. Still, Marvin could close his eyes and see them just as they were. Their faces, indelibly etched in his mind, had haunted him for the better part of six decades.

When Marvin opened his eyes he noticed the camera pointed in his direction. His instinct was to turn away, but he didn't. He had been told that it was his presence that most intrigued the NBC people. The announcer's voice played over and over in his head. “Captives reunited with their former captor after sixty years! Join us tonight for a
Dateline
exclusive!”

Marvin knew that notoriety would be the price he would have to pay to exorcise the demons of his military career.

May 9th, 1942

They stood at attention in two single-file lines across the deck of the
Icarus.
At least five of the prisoners were bleeding, and another ten were dying or dead in the water. A lieutenant with a pocket translation book barked at them in a crude attempt at German. They understood enough to know to clasp their hands together over their heads. Periodically, their knees seemed to buckle under a combination of terror and the ocean swells.

The enemies Marvin had no qualms killing from the safe distance of his gunnery position now stood nose to nose with him, gripped with fear. Marvin avoided their eyes as he frisked them. They had been at sea a long time. He could feel their ribs; their skin quivered at his touch. All were pasty white with dark circles under their eyes.

He watched one boy, no older than sixteen, repeatedly become physically ill, his chest continuing to heave long after his stomach had emptied. Marvin could also smell the urine. Many of the boys had wet themselves, convinced they were about to be shot and thrown back into the sea. It was a kind of terror Marvin prayed he would never know.

3

The shirt read JAKE on the breast pocket. The disguise came from the locker he vandalized the night before. Joey had to smash seven lockers in the Havelock Plumbing Company before finding a pair of blue work pants with a size thirty-two waist. The plumbers at this company must have all been big, fat-ass guys, he surmised. Joey laughed at the thought of the obese workmen bending below a kitchen sink, exposing the crack of their lard butts to a bunch of giggling housewives.

Some guy named Jake seemed to be the only one in the bunch who kept in relatively good shape. Joey took Jake's shirt, his matching blue work pants, his heavy work boots, his tool box, and even his May issue of
Cheri
magazine. Joey would become Jake, at least for a day.

He drove back and forth on Front Street at least six times, pensively chewing on his unlit cigar. The old and stately Beaufort Inn was three stories tall with two large columns in front and a weathered tin roof. A National Historic Registry plaque honoring the two-hundred-year-old structure hung beside the front door. The paint and trim appeared fresh. The property was obviously maintained with care, yet he was certain the salt air had taken its toll. It would go up like a stack of hay.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror and smiled. “How y'all doin' today?” he said aloud, practicing his southern drawl. His New England accent was difficult to conceal. He tried again. “How y'all doin' today?”

Satisfied, he ran a mental checklist and turned to make sure the toolbox and rolls of plastic were still in the bed of the truck. The blue Ford F-10 pickup had been stolen from a shopping mall just north of Richmond and the commercial license plates from a salvage yard a hundred miles further south in Rocky Mount. He bought a Carolina Panthers ball cap to look sufficiently blue-collar and to cover his thick, curly dark hair. He now had everything he needed to complete the job.

It was just after ten o'clock when he parked the stolen pickup in a metered spot on Front Street. The sun felt hot on his shoulders. He wasn't used to this kind of heat so early in May. He plugged two quarters into the meter. No need to call undue attention to the truck. He grabbed the toolbox, slipped two of the three rolls of plastic under his left arm, and hit the sidewalk.

He casually strolled up the walkway, opened the ornate etched-glass door, and smiled at the two elderly women behind the desk.

“Ladies, how y'all doin' today?” he asked, delivering the line like a native.

The portly, white-haired woman returned his grin. “Fine, what brings you round today?” she asked with a southern familiarity, as if she'd seen him before.

The other old woman couldn't be bothered. She looked up from her paperwork and nodded in his general direction. “I don't think we called anybody today,” she said.

He shook his head. “You didn't, ma'am. The county has us out checkin' all the gas lines on every building on Front Street,” he replied. He casually reached into his pocket, pulling out a copper tubing connector he had picked up that morning at the hardware store. “If you have any of these copper connectors, I'll replace them with a PVC one—no charge.” He pulled off his sunglasses and squinted. “I don't know what's wrong with copper. It's been just fine for the past two hundred years, but y'all know the county,” he said, shaking his head.

He touched a nerve. The stern-faced woman nodded in agreement as if recalling her own squabbles with Carteret County officials over the years.

The heavier woman gave him another one of her big toothy smiles. “Sounds like a fair deal to me. You need anything, Jake?”

The name caught him off guard, but just for an instant. She had noticed the embroidery on his shirt pocket. “Naw, just point me to the crawl space and I'll get after it,” he announced in his best southern drawl.

“Around back, under the porch, you'll see a little white door behind the brick steps.”

“Thank you, ma'am. It shouldn't take me too long,” he promised.

The woman had lost interest in chatting and continued flipping through her issue of
Southern Living.
“Take your time, Jake.”

He found the rotted wooden door that led under the house. The crawl space was approximately five feet high. Brick supports were positioned every four feet, and spider webs were everywhere. A bare bulb hung between the first two beams. Joey reached up and pulled the string, illuminating the dark, musty space.

Countless wires and pipes ran the length of the building. His knowledge of plumbing was limited, but the gas lines were easy to pick out. Still, he had at least a good two hours of peremptory work before he would even touch the copper pipes.

He opened his toolbox and took out a pair of heavy shears. Unrolling the plastic, he cut off a dozen two-foot sections. He covered nine of the twelve metal ventilation ducts, sealing them tightly with the plastic and heavy silver tape. He wanted the crawl space as airtight as possible.

He rummaged through the toolbox again, this time pulling out a small glass-cutting device purchased that morning at the Ace Hardware in Havelock.

“Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man.” He sang the jingle softly under his breath and laughed out loud. He had picked up the glass cutter in the discount barrel in front of a cardboard cut-out of John Madden. The sportscaster would unwittingly be his accomplice in this mass murder. The absurdity of it made him cackle again.

He took a sixty-watt bulb and circled the glass cutter around the base. It took him four bulbs before he cut one without breaking the filament inside. That tiny, delicate piece of metal would be his ignitor.

He heard heavy footsteps on the porch and could smell the lilac. It was the fat woman from the front desk. He stopped his work to trace her movements.

“Jake, Jake, you still down there?” she hollered.

He froze, not knowing whether to answer. He could see the tent-sized floral frock and her chubby legs standing by the crawl space door. He had noticed the shine in her eyes at the front desk. She had been a pretty woman once. But now her body was thick, and spider veins had spun an ugly blue web along the back of her plump legs.

“Yes?” he replied with annoyance in his voice.

“Could you come up here a minute?”

***

His mind raced. Was she standing alongside a real Carteret County workman or, worse yet, a cop? He darted toward the door, grabbing a scrap piece of two-by-four in case he needed to make a quick first strike. He tentatively stuck his head out to look up at her.

She held out a plate and a tall glass of iced tea. “I hope you like shrimp salad. The cook just whipped up a fresh batch. I've got some key lime pie up here too. I made that myself,” she said proudly.

The Jake impersonator smiled up at the old woman. He crawled out and stretched, his knees popping as he stood upright. His leg muscles were cramped; he'd been kneeling for the better part of an hour and a half.
It's a shame she has to die,
he thought.

“Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate it,” he said, forcing a smile.

“It's nothing, dear.”

They sat together on the screened porch. He didn't have time for this, yet refusing her hospitality might raise a red flag.

She noticed him gazing at the horizon. “Peaceful, isn't it?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“I fell in love with this place back in the fifties. I came here with my husband on a vacation and we never left. He passed about ten years ago.”

He wolfed down the sandwich. He didn't need to linger. “This is really good,” he told her with his mouth full.

“Slow down, boy. You act like you haven't eaten in a week!” she scolded. “Jake, you don't have a woman that cooks for you, do you?”

“No, ma'am,” he admitted in a rare burst of honesty.

“I'm gonna have to introduce you to my daughter Cheryl. She's thirty-one years old; a beautiful girl. Divorced recently, no kids though. You must be about that same age, am I right?”

He rolled his eyes. “Thirty-three,” he replied.
A match made in heaven,
he thought to himself. He could escort her to her mother's funeral. It was doubtful the old woman would be alive after tonight.

“I'd like that. I don't get out much,” he said, lying again.

She slapped his knee in mock anger. “Son, you can't kid a kidder. A handsome boy like you?” she laughed. “I bet the girls are just chasing you all over town. You live in Beaufort?”

“No, ma'am, Havelock.”

Her eyes were shining again. “Oh, over there by the Cherry Point Base. You weren't in the military, were you?” she inquired.

“No, ma'am.”

“That's okay,” she said, as if his failure to serve was some kind of black mark that she and her lonely daughter would be willing to forgive.

He handed her the plate and glass as he finished the last swallow of iced tea. “That was good. Thank you very much.”

She extended her arm for Jake to help her up from the porch chair. “You're a nice boy. Come say goodbye when you're done.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he said, tipping his ball cap.

He opened the French doors for her, holding her hand as she walked over the threshold. As soon as the door slammed he looked down at his watch. It was almost twelve-thirty. He had been at the Inn for almost two and a half hours. “Shit, I might as well check in,” he mumbled to himself. He still had another good hour.

He went to his truck for the other roll of plastic. The entire crawl space had to be sealed. Two Beaufort County deputies passed by on their mountain bikes.

“Good morning,” said one of the young officers.

Joey merely smiled and nodded.
Fuckin' goombas.
He was glad the two cops had seen him in the area in his work clothes. They wouldn't be suspicious later when he opened the manhole to tamper with the gas main.

Back under the house, the plastic work was moving quickly. He had created a long, flat, makeshift dirigible under two-thirds of the Beaufort Inn. It was a plastic balloon with many small holes, but a balloon nonetheless. It would serve the purpose.

He took the timer out of the toolbox. It was a simple device, the same one many homeowners use to turn on their porch lights when they're away on vacation. He screwed in the special light bulb very carefully, not wanting to snap another filament. He set the timer for midnight Sunday morning.

“No, better set it earlier,” he told himself. These were senior citizens, eleven o'clock was plenty late for them. He wanted all of the guests in the main dining hall at the same time for maximum kill.

He then went to work on the gas line. He didn't want to interrupt gas service to the stoves or the hot water heater; that would prompt an immediate call to the county. They would send someone out to investigate and instantly discover his handiwork.

He was convinced, however, that the line to the furnace would not be missed. It was May, and temperatures hovered in the eighties during the day and the mid-sixties at night. Great sleeping weather. He pinched the one-inch copper line with his pliers, snapping it. The gas angrily hissed out.

It was a simple bomb. Over the next ten hours the gas would collect in his homemade balloon. At eleven o'clock Saturday night, while the party was winding down, the timer would switch on the bulb, not a true light bulb anymore, instead, an ignitor. The heat from the bare filament would spark a huge explosion.

BOOK: The Reunion
5.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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