The Close Shave

B.E. Cook

This page formatted 2011 Blackmask Online.

Short Stories, August 10, 1942

Captain Downs Was a Conscientious Man. He Felt Guilty that He Knew the Contents of the Roll of Precious Paper.

MUCH has been said about captains and mates and engineers, about sailors and wipers. Rarely is the steward mentioned. But he's aboard or the gang doesn't eat. Heads a department aft, too, like the chief; like the Old Man forward. He has a cook and it takes the two of them. He has a mess boy—or man—for the officers' mess, another for the sailors and firemen. Some cargo jobs carry a room steward also; he's no steward, he's a third mess man doing the house-keeping in the officers' rooms, maybe feeding petty officers.

The Roraima carried three mess boys—and I mean boys. The reason for three was Steward John Ferreira Carvalho; they were always boys for the same reason. Steward John knew his business extraordinarily well, insisted on boys, because grown men had so often failed him—they couldn't accept tyranny from the same hand that sometimes forsook it so far as to shave and haircut them when the ship got in.

J. F. could not endure his department's being demeaned by its members going ashore anything short of immaculate. “Men and boys who handle food must always appear clean as the food they serve,” he ruled. They did or e1se—

J. F. fairly worshipped the Old Man of the Roraima. Well he might. From the day J. F. had been saved from a Portuguese schooner out of the Azores to become a fiercely patriotic American, he had been listed on the articles of ships headed by Captain Luther Downs. Fact was, Captain Downs had done the rescuing; J. F.'s loyalty was born of gratitude.

As for the Old Man, he had found in J. F. the only steward who could roast beef right, keep the galley free of roaches and the rooms free of bedbugs. “So-o-ome Steward!” he'd say. He was right as hell.

But there were times when the Old Man unwittingly cut into J. F.'s little tyrannies. The latest was in full fury. Just before leaving Boston for Buenos Aires, two of J. F.'s boys had failed to show up, the skipper had phoned an agency for two mess men with more haste than consideration for J. F.'s insistence on boys. Men arrived with but two breastlines holding, have suitcases aboard and leaped almost into a dozen pairs of impatient, waiting arms.

That sort of arrival gives some men the wrong idea. These two signed on with an exaggerated conception of their vital importance. J. F. went to work on them promptly. He never did let up. The one on officers' mess soon spilled over; he told the second engineer the eggs were gone and mess was over. The engineer blasted him. J. F. demoted him to bed-making. The other one got into a crap game aft when he should have been laying the well-known ironware around to port. He gave J. F. back talk. It was one misdemeanor after another till the sailors joshed the pair at mess, on the stern, everywhere. And J. F. fought a ceaseless fight with them to keep clean of clothes and shaved of face.

All the way south the little guerrilla war raged aft in the Roraima all the way to B. A. Her engine room and deck complements came aft to realize what a man they certainly had in J. F., back there where good grub was tops and cleanliness paramount.

The Roraima docked at Buenos. Captain Downs entered his cabin and found the steward at a hundred and twenty, eyes flashing, fingers flexing, face florid.

“John,” he rumbled, half in jest, “you're running a temperature!”

“Who wouldn't, sir? Look at your bed, not made.”

“Oh? Yeah. What's the answer?”

“That rat has gone ashore, quit.”

“Without his pay?”

“I let him have what was coming and he assigned his to me.”

“Hm,” mused the Old Man for his mind was filled with a weightier matter. To wit, he'd just been guardedly informed by the agent that all his return cargo would not go north in the ship's hold. He eyed the ship's ancient safe, doubting its safety. “And the other one, Bounaki?” he asked in a detached manner.

“Suffering coalhods,” J. F. blustered, “I can't get rid of that one without firing him.”

“Can't do that, John, not in an out port. Cost us money.”

“That's bad, he's an alien, a foreigner, no business on an Amer—”

“Wait a minute, you're all steamed up. You don't know Bounaki's past, he's only been aboard here seventeen days.”

“No? His family lives on Cosmos Island, Greek Archipelago. He has pictures of a German fraulein, writes to her—oh hell, Cap'n, he's dirty about his person, he takes butter in his hands, spills soup, eats like a glutton. I don't keep such boys. You don't want me to.”

Captain Downs eyed the safe, saying, “No, but you've got him on your hands till Boston. As for the one that's gone ashore of his own free will, he'll have his troubles down here. I'll see what I can get you for a new—”

J. F. stepped closer, both palms vertical in tactful protest. “Please, Cap'n, please. You picked those two, let me pick the next one.”

“Oh, a boy. Go to it and be it on your own head.”

As J. F. departed, the skipper chuckled after him, “Reckon you'll check up on personal appearances before you write him a go-shore permit for me to sign, eh?”

“I'll shave and shine him if necessary,” J. F. retorted briskly.

CAPTAIN DOWNS boarded his ship, hugging a long roll of stiff paper under one arm lest the wind wrench it away. He meticulously avoided distractions en route to his cabin. Once there, he locked his door, opened the safe and measured the long roll in the vertical compartment between tiers of small drawers at either side. “Damn!” he growled; that thwart-shelf at the top must be removed to allow for the length of the roll—or could he unroll the precious papers and fold them flat?

He unrolled them cautiously and stared at them. Tentative plans for landing fields, for runways and underground hangars. His eyes caught a bit of hand printing on the wrapping and it warned: “Do not open. Do not fold.”

Captain Downs was a conscientious man. His face flushed with guilt. Of the two plainly stated “do nots,” he had already broken one; already he felt like Friday the thirteenth, a black cat crossing your path and all that.

Certainly he did not propose to break the other “do not”; he couldn't fold the plans to fit them inside the Roraima's safe. He did up the roll exactly as before—with solemn realization that his best couldn't be enough to conceal the fact it had been unwrapped. He was guilty, his eyes had seen plans entrusted to him because he had a reputation for honesty and carefulness, to him because no foreign snoopers would ever suspect such things to be sent to the States on a cargo ship.

He laid the roll on top of the safe, deep in contemplation of his next move. Which must be to remove the top shelf from the safe. He had difficulty with it; his tools were too big. He cursed the roll, the safe, the grave responsibility of delivering such a document. Abruptly he stopped talking; he wasn't supposed to know what, in fact, was on those stiff papers and he had—his eye came to rest on a grayish seal. He had broken it!

Straightway he hid the roll under his pillow, went out, locked the door and hurried aft for smaller tools. Stinking hides came aboard overhead, dropped into hatches. He scarcely smelled them, scarcely saw them. His one object was tools; that roll must be locked in the safe before he'd dare to smell or see anything.

Chief Burnett's greeting was: “Just in time, Cap'n. I have to go over this bill with you, it's a roast. And yet, we've got to have that dead generator rewound or pay for a new one. It's a matter for us to agree on, y'know, after the trouble we've had down here before. Read their bill.”

Captain Downs read astronomical figures and set his Yankee lips. “It's a holdup and they know they've got us.”

“Then we'll repair our own.”

“No, sir,” Downs refused flatly. “No time. Got to put to sea tonight, the stevedores are on double time to do it. And besides, I've another matter— No.”

J. F. came, looked in, knocked and entered before chief or captain could object; John Carvalho knew his way around. “Cap'n,” said he, “the meat didn't come with the rest of my stores. How soon do we sail? I gotta have beef.”

So Captain Downs dealt, in turn, with that situation. Not till an hour later did he go forward with small tools and his own headache. And J. F. watched his going. He had an old habit of sub-consciously watching over the man he thought more of than of anybody else afloat or ashore. Also he had noted others, their coming and going, their talk, their mannerisms. The sort of guy, y'know, who can tell you that on such a day or occasion you did so and so. John Carvalho might have made a fine hotel manager—or an efficient house detective.

J. F. didn't like everything he'd seen and heard outside and inside the chief's room. Nor the way Captain Downs hustled forward. Curiosity, concern for the skipper, something propelled him over the catwalk. He importuned the Old Man for admittance and got it because he was J. F.

Now, however, he locked the door and faced the most flabbergasted Luther Downs he had seen in all their years together.

“Gone!” the skipper groaned, hands flung wide, eyes baffled. “It's been stolen from my cabin within the hour. So help me, John, it's got to be reclaimed.” He stared at the steward. The man's ignorance irked him. “I tell you it's got to—”

“Yes, yes, I get that much, tell me—” So Captain Downs told him. He had to because, as he truly said, “A cap'n is the last person on a ship that can sleuth out stolen property.”

“Right,” J. F. agreed, and he concentrated on what he'd seen and heard aft within this fateful hour.

Captain Downs had a sudden suspicion. He almost shouted, “Did that runaway mess man return to this ship for anything?”

“No, siree; I can vouch for that. What's more, nobody but stevedores comes or leaves without a written okay from you yourself and you know it.”

“Did you send any man here to—” He caught the look in J. F.'s eyes and they were focused on the bed newly made. “Oh,” said the skipper, “I see. I begin to understand why your Bounaki did not elect to go ashore—yet. Where is Bounaki? Get him. Search him!”

J. F. confronted Bounaki with many questions. Where had he been these last two hours? How long in each place? Just what had he done? To it all, the mess man exhibited his portion of the centuries of poise which has marked the civilization of the Greeks. He continued to peel potatoes, he talked easily. Yes, he had gone up for'd—no, he hadn't, he had sent—”

“You put that cabin in order today?” incisively.

“Well, ain't it? Ain't the bed done and—”

“In order hell!” J. F. exploded, and for all that he didn't seem to be pinning things down very definitely.

“Hey,” cried Bounaki, “who's been murdered? What's the matter?”

“Very serious matter,” J. F. murmured solemnly. “It was there. Are you sure you didn't see a—?” He cut off the question barely in time; Captain Downs would not want the men to know there were secret drafts of prospective air fields aboard.

Next, J. F. awoke to the importance of time; whoever stole that roll must be apprehended before the ship sailed. It might be too late even now if the rat was foxy enough to get ashore, miraculously unobserved. Or so it seemed to J. F. as he edged into the mess men's room. He gave it a quick inspection, he found nothing.

“This won't do,” he told himself. “I've got to get through.” He questioned the sailor on gangway watch, the boss stevedore. There the captain got J. F.'s eye and beckoned him forward again. Had the Old Man found it?

Inside the cabin, the skipper said, “John, you and I have been shipmates a long time. I have trusted you implicitly. Now, however, I'm compelled to believe that either you or one of your men—or both—are the only persons who could possibly have entered this cabin. You see, nobody else has keys to my door.”

J. F. was stunned. “Cap'n,” said he huskily, “I can't believe you'd suspect me. “What in hell would I want of plans for air fields in the Argentine?”

Captain Downs wheeled on him. “Who told you they're in the Argentine?”

J. F. floundered. “I—why I don't know that they are.”

“Hm. Sounds lame, Steward.”

J. F. bit his lips and it was his turn to swelter. Never had the likes of this come between them. It was unbelievable! “Listen, Cap'n. So help me, Mother of God, what reason could I have for stealing your plans? Anybody's plans?”

Captain Downs gave him a penetrating stare. The blue eyes flared with intensity, anxiety and brutal frankness. “John Carvalho,” came the sonorous words, “you were born Portuguese. Both Portugal and Spain have long been under the Nazi shadow—”

“But I'm an American citizen!”

“Some of your family are still in Europe where the Gestapo can punish them if you don't carry out their assignment here. I might be all wrong, but look at my lock. The master key isn't made that could open it. What mess man has been in here since I came aboard with that roll?”

“I've pumped Bounaki dry, sir. I've ransacked their room. I don't even suspect that fellow.”

“And the other one that quit?”

“Gone ashore before you got back, sir, and he turned in his keys.”

“But you've not questioned that kid, the one who's been on here several trips?” the skipper persisted accusingly.

“Young Souza? Cap'n, he's never done rooms, he's got no keys.”

“Aha, then that narrows it down to— wait. When did the newest mess boy arrive?”

“I—I'm not sure, sir,” J. F. confessed in confusion. Indeed, his loyal heart was too full for further explanations. He turned slowly and went out.

“Looks bad, John, very bad,” concluded Captain Downs as the door opened and shut.

JOHN CARVALHO sat alone in his room aft. Outside, the cook and Bounaki received and checked belated beef, Souza clattered things in the galley. Farther away, winches spat steam, whips twanged, hides thumped coamings. John F. heard it all, heard indirectly because his mind was in conflict with his emotions. Cap'n Downs had accused him, Cap'n Downs had saved his life. A set of drafted plans were gone; a human idol, born of gratitude and enshrined in loyalty, had become more human than idol. A career as steward hung in suspense after years of success, self-confidence, an accumulated code of little exactions from subordinates. John Carvalho stood at the crossroads today as the sun outside went down. Its last spot of light from his open porthole stole up the wall, dimmed, faded—

J. F. relived those awful hours before the rescue. The schooner Mantos half full of water. Emigrants screaming in drenching rain, wind tearing the rags off them. A boat, badly overloaded, away alee to the top of a huge sea, shivering up there and slewing beam on down the far side, never to reappear. J. F. among those at the other boat, staying aboard the wreck until the very ultimate moment between going down in her and chancing it in the lifeboat. Then the awful hour in that boat— smoke—a steamship heaving seas over her bows—rescue—a peculiar mixture of severity and humaneness on the face of the rescuing officer. Then and there John F. Carvalho had vowed he'd always serve that officer if they both survived the ordeal. He had kept his vow.

Today, however, new circumstances; he must shake off the emotional. Up through his feelings he fought to concentrate upon the facts confronting him. His cook knocked on the door—he went along to supervise supper. Less than a hundred words he spoke as men ate, and the ship sailed. Then back to his solitude, to his problem.

“Only seventeen days to Boston,” he warned himself in the dark.

His first consideration must be motives. Somebody had entered the skipper's cabin. Under the pretext of working in there, that person had stolen the plans. Why? None of J. F.'s men were remotely interested in either plans or planes or—yes, Bounaki did have pictures of a girl with German looks and name; but Bounaki had not shown the slightest hint of guilt and the Greeks have no reason to serve the Nazis—or have they? Was Bounaki, like himself, a person with relatives under the Gestapo heel? Was that fellow so smooth that he could act while, behind the acting, he was in truth a crafty foreign agent or the tool of one?

J. F. concentrated on Bounaki—and kept seeing the storm-wracked Mantos. But repeatedly he fought back to Bounaki, to a plausible motive for a corrupt Bounaki, a traitorous American Bounaki. He thumped both fists on his bursting head. “Ahr-r that Bounaki, Bounaki!” he kept murmuring as the scales of judgment in his wild brain swung now up, now down.

A distant interruption at midnight broke the tension. The change of watches produced just enough noise in the passageways to overtone the stridence of the engine room turbines. Maybe what diverted J. F. was the fact of men in his galley, the mug-up for some going on, others coming off. Anyway he checked those sounds—and returned to his problem with a conclusion that Bounaki was innocent.

But this only partly solved his dilemma, it merely narrowed the suspicion down the closer to himself. The skipper had left no doubt on that score; if J. F.'s men were not guilty, only J. F. himself had the other key to the cabin. Alarmed by this and mentally fagged, he sprang off his chair. In the skipper's eyes, either he himself or young Souza was the offender! He strode out of his dark room.

Cold draught in the passageway chilled him. He crossed through his galley. Men still there eyed him, ceased talking abruptly, made way for him. Had they been discussing him? Was the finger of accusation already pointing to himself?

He went on into the portside passageway, on to the room where Bounaki and Souza slept. He went in and shook Souza to catch him off guard, to convict him out of his own mouth before he could think up alibis. “Where is that long roll? That roll of white paper you got for'd? Talk fast!” He shook Souza again. “Quick, that roll—”

The lad murmured incoherently, his eyes opened heavily, he muttered something it about rolls in a bread tin.

“Paper!” J. F. corrected, “long, white roll—you got it in the cap'n's cabin when you cleaned up there. Think, Manny. I must have it now!”

Manny responded to the sound of his name. He awoke abruptly, his eyes focused on the steward—and self-defensive devices came to his aid. “See Bounaki, Chief. I never done the cabin, I ain't got keys to any rooms.”

“No, it was not Bounaki,” J. F. countered impatiently, “and you know it.”

“Okay, then it's the new guy Ramirez,” and Souza sank to his pillow comfortably.

DISAPPOINTED J. F. went out. He swayed to the ship's motion in the passageway and gave thought to an oversight. Ramirez was the new mess boy and he, the steward, hadn't even noticed him during the supper rush in the galley. What about the boy? When had he boarded ship and was he on the articles yet?

J. F. went into the cook's room. In the dim light from overhead he took a critical look at Ramirez in the bunk below the cook's. Had he noticed those features before? It was a Spanish, youthful face, sensitive, sharp featured, intelligent. Under J. F.'s persistent gaze, the eyelids seemed to wiggle once—or was it J. F.'s imagination?

He woke the cook carefully and got him outside. “Tell me, Vic, about this new mess boy.”

“Rammy? You was in the Chief's room talkin' to the Old Man, see, so he reported to me. Bounaki brought 'im in. I turned 'im to. He's a fine kid, some diff'rent from that one we got rid of. He knows how to wait on like hotel stuff. I'm glad I got him in with me. Oh, yeah, and he's fussy like hell about shavin' and keepin' clean. You're gonna like that.”

“Did you send him for'd to sign on?” J. F. demanded while inwardly he felt a bit foolish about the old exactions regarding shaves, haircuts and immaculateness. They seemed so trivial now.

“No, Chief. He said the mate had signed 'im on already.”

“Yeah,” cried J. F. eagerly, “in the cap'n's cabin!”

The cook hunched his shoulders. “I wouldn't know.”

“I see,” mused J. F. insinuatingly, “I begin to see.” For he recalled a sensitive Spanish face, bed linen on a forearm in hotel style—

MR. LARNED rated on the stolid side. Devoid of imagination, he could be irritated by emotional, high-strung men. They were too quick for his slower wits, they lacked judgment, they sprouted crazy ideas—and sometimes as crazy suspicions. Take, for example, the ship's steward now before him, trying to worm some sort of mysterious information out of him.

“I dunno what you're cuckoo about this time, Steward,” he declared bluntly. “You hot-and-cold fellers get a lot o' strange hunches. I don't bother to keep up with 'em all, I'm mate o' this vessel—”

“Yes, yes, I know; you've said that many times. What I ask is, 'Did you sign on my new mess boy in the cap'n's cabin'?”

“I told you I did. That ends it,” came the stubborn reply.

“Wait, Mr. Larned. Wasn't the cabin locked?”

“You mean closed? Of course.”

“Then you unlocked the door.”

Mr. Larned's gray eyes flecked anger at his inquisitor. But his attitude did change to either a studied or a baffled manner. Which, thought J. F., was it?

“I—unlocked—no, the door was shut with the lock sprung back. Yeah, it was.”

J. F. was desperately fighting for his own reputation, his own standing with the skipper. Right now it seemed to him that he had caught Larned, that Larned was doggedly lying to cover up guilt. J. F.'s emotions welled above his reasoning faculties.

He turned on the mate fiercely. “You,” he scoffed, “you try to bluff me who knows that lock and Cap'n Downs' ways with it! 'Sprung back' hell; the cap'n had locked his room, he had good reason to lock it.”

“What reason?” came the surprising rejoinder.

J. F.'s mouth opened. The words “drafted air field plans” came to the tip of his tongue. Quickly he clamped shut.

And Larned, sensing a favorable turn in the verbal skirmish, cracked out, “And what's all this to you? Tell me, what do you care where I signed on a Spanish mess boy, s' long's he's signed? Come, Steward, sing it!”

J. F. turned toward the door precisely as he had turned when the captain had accused him. “There was a matter of—of a—The cabin was not cleaned out when the bed was made,” said he. Too late he sensed the silliness of such a remark.

“Haw, haw!” Larned guffawed. “Of all the nutty—you hot-heads aft! Come up 'nd see me again sometime, Stew'.”

That night, somewhere northeast of Rio Grande do Sul, at quarter after eight, J. F. checked the work of his men in the galley. He was noticing what a likeable lad was the new Ramirez when a harsh voice come through the open slide from the officers' mess room. “So—harumph—so th' great burnin' question aboard us this trip is: how come the cap'n's cabin got cleaned up after his bed's made? Haw, haw!”

J. F. flung a long knife expertly to its place. “I'd like to shave Luke Larned,” he growled. But Larned had spoken the truth, that was indeed “the great burnin' question” and none realized it better than John F. Carvalho.

He went forward, deeply disturbed by the mate's left-handed taunt to somebody in the mess room. Soon all hands would know the fix he was in—and become inquisitive. He hurried onto the bridge.

CAPTAIN DOWNS looked gray and drawn tonight. His eyes met J. F.'s uneasily when the latter asked, “Did you by chance leave your door unlocked when you went aft to get tools, sir?”

J. F. watched that face carefully, saw ideas come and pass. Captain Downs was not given to confessions to subordinates; he was much on the defensive tonight. He rumbled, “Of all the foolish questions!”

J. F. waited and watched men until it was safe. Then, somewhere east of Pernambuco, he searched Larned's room for half an hour. When it proved fruitless, he went aft with the growing suspicion that tough old Larned was wearing the plans in his clothes, on his person. He must be.

J. F. turned in in his clothes, too exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed to either undress or set the clock.

Instinct does strange things at times. Soundly though he slept, J. F. awoke at 2:45 a.m. as alert as though a shot had just missed his head. Why, he didn't know. He went outside, viewed the empty passageway, heard the strident turbines— and somebody in the galley. At this hour? He looked in and there stood Ramirez, only Ramirez drawing himself coffee. Had this awakened him?

The lad turned quickly at J. F.'s scuff on the stone floor. He looked older than usual and fagged. “Senor,” he apologized, “I don' sleep in so moch heat aft'r so cold in Buenos. Black coffee—”

Before J. F. could further question the lad or turn back, the bow lookout came in for sandwiches for the second mate on the bridge. He went close to J. F. and said, “News, Steward! Sparks is topside. We're headin' f'r Porto Rico.”

“Porto Rico? With hides?” J. F. cried. “Arh, y' never can tell, these days. Big army base there, they say. I dunno,” and away he went, with Rammy at his heels. J. F. stood there alone, petrified. Army base, those plans for army air fields in South America! He was stunned. His seventeen days of grace had shrunk to almost as few hours.

Two of those precious hours hadn't passed before Captain Downs sent for him. They reviewed the entire problem. The skipper disclosed that he had searched every mate's belongings, had checked on a similar search by the chief engineer aft. The crew's quarters below decks had revealed not the slightest clue. No plans anywhere.

“John Carvalho, I've been right from the start. Those plans are in your department. It is up to you. Hurry up, do something!”

And for all the poignant accusation, J. F. left the skipper with a changed viewpoint. Instead of himself, he began to think only of Luther Downs. In fact, both their futures were in the balance; but J. F. could not see his captain lose face, reputation, perhaps command of the Roraima by the deviltry of somebody in his own department.

Carefully he set all his men to the most confining tasks early that morning. He literally raided their most intimate belongings. He tested mattresses, emptied lockers, suitcases. The further he went, the more he sought chiefly the guilty person. For the plans would serve him only to point to “that rat!” as he frequently growled.

He emerged from the search as usual—disappointed. It made him fiercer than ever to spot the thief.

Back in the galley, he eyed the cook, Costa, Ramirez—“Where is Bounaki?” he demanded angrily.

“I dunno, Chief.”

“He's getting the dishes from the pilothouse,” Souza said.

J. F. went out the portside forward exit of a passageway. He rounded the high bunker hatch, looked forward and saw Bounaki emerge from behind a lifeboat with the basketful of dishes. J. F. stepped back almost abreast the funnel and discovered Ramirez at the far side, on his way forward, looking around cautiously as he went.

J. F. held his tongue that time. He watched those two like a hungry lion. Now, thought he, the search was narrowed down to those two men. Why had Bounaki hidden behind the lifeboat with dishes? Why had Ramirez gone out the starboard side to meet him?

With only eleven hours to go, the skipper haled J. F. forward again. “What in hell have you accomplished? Here we are, almost in, and I'm as certain as poison we're ordered here to deliver, not hides, but that roll of plans. Well?”

What could J. F. report? Nothing—yet. Since he'd quit talking to silently accumulate evidence among his own men, however, he had seen certain questionable things. Nothing though that would serve to convict the man he now believed guilty.

“No plans, eh?” the skipper groaned, knowing all too well the answer.

But that meeting crowded J. F. No longer could he wait for a man to convict himself. Under so much pressure, he went aft to force the issue. He entered his own room—and discovered Bounaki there!

“And just how do you get in here?” he demanded with inference.

Bounaki laid a key on his table. “With this, sir.”

It was a duplicate of J. F.'s own key. “Where the hell did you get that? Talk fact, mess boy!”

“Souza. We figgered you'd be surprised.”

“Get him. Lively. 'Figgered I'd be surprised'!”

Souza came calmly. “Steward, I found that there key on my bed this morning.”

“Wha-a-at?” doubtingly. “I swear I did, sir, while you was up for'd awhile ago.”

Evidence was accumulating too fast to sort. J. F. turned on Bounaki again. “So you borrow it to raid my room?”

“I had to see you quick and—”

“Go on for now, Souza. Well, Bounaki?”

“Chief, my identification card is gone.”

“What? Since when?”

“I—er, since we got the radio to go to San Juan. Me, I wanta go ashore, I never been there, I want—”

“You clear out. No more now,” J. F. cut in.

AN HOUR later J. F. got the bosun aside, set a new pie on his table and asked a special favor. Bosun acceded. By and by he came into the galley and reported very guardedly, ''I've searched both of 'em. They ain't any rolls or any paper in either o' them lifeboats. Sorry, Steward, you're out one pie.”

J. F. looked behind him quickly. He caught Bounaki eavesdropping. More important, he caught a confession of guilt on the man's face. Bounaki, one of the mess men the Old Man had secured last minute in Boston!

“Bounaki, you come into my room.”

JOHN F. CARVALHO looked the best he had been since that miserable hour in Buenos Aires when the captain had centered blame on the steward's department by the logic based on door keys. Now John F. was saying, “Bounaki, you came from behind that lifeboat and joined Ramirez on the main deck. You had a carefully guarded talk with that new greenhorn, then. You also entered my room with a new key soon afterwards. You have a lot of explaining to do; no wonder you wanted your identification card! Tell me, what—er, what 'plans' are you taking ashore?”

Bounaki turned ashy gray. His fist on the desk closed. Impulsively he sealed his lips—only to explode: “Okay, Chief, you got me. Listen. Remember the night we got the wireless? I found folded papers under my pillow. They were sweaty smelling and warm. Some guy'd just put 'em there, see? I knew about some kinda jam you or the Old Man was in, but I don't want none o' that secret stuff. Those papers got drawin's on 'em, they're hot in more ways'n one. So what do I do about it? I pack 'em next to my skin, too, same as somebody else did to get 'em all sweat like I found 'em. Then I watch f'r a break.

“It come in the mornin'. Cook sent me for'd f'r the pilothouse dishes. On my way down I went to the portside lifeboat and shoved the plans in under the edge of the tarp, into the boat, see.”

J. F. raised a hand. “Wait. What did you say to Ramirez? Why did he come to meet you?”

“Oh that? He wised me you was lookin' f'r me. He didn't know anything. Don't go houndin' that guy, Steward; he's just a greenhorn that wants to stay on.”

J. F. withheld judgment. He glanced up at his clock; seven hours to San Juan, only seven! “Very well for now,” he was obliged to conclude. “Keep your tongue.”

MINUTES later, to the surprise of Bounaki there, he entered the mess men's room, roused Souza, led the way to his own room and put the screws to this, his most trusted mess boy. Among other things he said, “You've been on this ship a lot of trips, Souza. Why? Who planted you aboard of us?”

Souza became wall-eyed. “Me, sir? Planted? I ain't dead yet!”

J. F. worked on him until he could say effectively, “You made a key to fit this room.”

“Not me, sir. No, no. I found it under my pillow. I dunno why. Maybe it's because I'm room steward and supposed to have keys.”

“Liar, then how did you know it fitted my door?”

“We tried 'em all. You was for'd. We started on the port side. Rammy, he says, 'We try other side' and he takes the key.”

“Tried my door last? It is the last room in the line.”

“No, sir. Your'n first.”

“Oh, I see. Yes, of course,” J. F. agreed, a new smile on his tired face. “Now,” he pursued, “you found some big papers folded flat under your pillow. You slid them under Bounaki's pillow. Explain that one away!”

Explain? Souza went rigid. His black eyes bulged. “Hey, what is this? Who says I found—”

“Never mind. Go back to bed. And hold your tongue or I'll break my new rule,” J. F. warned. He had verified one more suspicion.

“But, Steward—!”

“I tell you keep your mouth shut tight or I'll give you the closest shave—”

The door closed abruptly. Souza ran.

ONLY three more hours at sea and J. F. could not find the stolen plans. True, he had unearthed several pieces of circumstantial evidence. He even knew that the erstwhile roll of plans was by now a sweat-begrimed, folded flat paper and it was aboard ship. It had been in at least one of his subordinates' rooms, been forward in a lifeboat since then. But where was it now, almost in port?

Only three hours to lay hands on it!

J. F. had one more card to play. He thanked his luck that he had; also that he had, until now, been kind enough or indifferent enough to that new mess boy as a greenhorn. From the outset he had treated the fellow as one too new, too unfamiliar with either the Roraima or his own ways to become involved in so big a scandal as stealing out of the captain's cabin.

Meanwhile, however, J. F. had discovered that the “boy” Ramirez was not so boyish looking when surprised at 2:45 a.m. at the galley coffee urn. To fulfill J. F.'s present requirements, it must be assumed that Ramirez might have played a boyish role in order to get on the Roraima's articles. His Spanish features were the type that lend themselves to almost any age for a while if the brain behind them is trained and clever.

J. F. spent a priceless half hour of the three outside on the stern, carefully planning, anticipating eventualities. He decided not to call the captain into this critical, final attempt to pin down the guilty and force from him the present hiding place of the plans. Had he but foreseen the impending threat to his very existence, J. F. might have done differently. His estimate of Ramirez was in for a startling upset.

Just before the tropic dawn's abruptness, at the hour men are presumed to sleep soundest, J. F. went inside, made sure his room was locked and that he still had that extra key. Then he crossed over and entered stealthily the room where the cook and Ramirez slept. To his astonishment there stood a traveling bag on Ramirez's bed. No Ramirez!

J. F. did some fast thinking. Obviously the newest mess man expected to leave the ship—with his own photo inserted in Bounaki's identification folder, eh? But he'd need more than that, being a foreigner and in a Porto Rican port nowadays. He'd have to come to J. F. who would have to write him a special permit which, in turn, the captain would have to sign if it was to be of use. Even then it might not get Ramirez ashore here. And his pay. He might want to draw what he could of that, though J. F. doubted, tonight, this man's need of money.

So J. F. went directly to his own room to wait out the man, certain that he'd not get away with any attempted short-cut directly to the skipper at this hour—or at all.

He let himself in—and came face to face with Ramirez! And it was a changed Ramirez. But for the beard he had let grow, perhaps to hide the slight contrast between his face and the worded descriptions on the Bounaki identification folder. Even so, he could not conceal entirely his astonishment at being caught here. For, thanks to the strident whine of the turbines and J. F.'s newly acquired methods of approaching any room, the steward was in and before him ere he could—could what? J. F. now asked himself that vital question. This Ramirez was no longer a “boy,” but a gimlet-eyed, menacing demon poised to spring.

J. F. grasped the crisis instantly; he understood the Latin mind. He seemed not to realize his predicament, not to doubt the man's reason for being here. Said he, “Sit down, boy. I know what you want. You're all excited to see Porto Rico and you want me to write you the permit that the skipper has to sign. Right?”

Ramirez relaxed. Into his little foxy eyes came scorn, almost pity for this dumb, foolish steward.

Quite deliberately, J. F. sat down, back to the rascal, fully aware of the chance he took. He tried to write a steady hand, failed miserably . . . and was forced to resort to an inspiration. It was one of those flashes born of bad breaks. Only a long shot, at best, but there was no alternative. It might serve—it must!

With remarkable outward poise, he quit writing, turned slowly around to Ramirez and said with officious dignity, “I have it almost overlooked a matter of vital importance, my boy.” He scrutinized the fellow's face. “Do I see right?” Slowly he rose and moved toward the pseudo-mess boy. “Let me feel of your face.”

Ramirez responded to the excessive acting, his eyes became fixed on the steward's. Ah, yes, but his right hand crept toward a hip pocket.

Courageous indeed was J. F. He reached out until he felt the bristly cheek, totally unaware of the gun now coming around the hip. “No, my boy, I can't write you a permit, not with that growth on your face.”

IT WAS a brand new voice which snarled, “No-o, Señor? The revolver pointed to J. F.'s stomach. “You shall write eet. The captain shall decide.”

J. F. was cornered, his ruse a fizzle. No doubt, now, he faced a spy who knew where the plans were. He took a deep breath as though further patience were an effort. Blood swelled his temples, his scalp tingled. “No,” he finally said, “I shall not write—”

Ramirez hadn't expected such nerve. He blustered, he waggled the gun. “Ver' well, the capitan shall write my permit.”

“Not without coming aft for my okay. We are almost in to San Juan, very soon he'll be too busy to even sign one.”

“You t'ink so, Señor?” Ramirez retorted insinuatingly, but his free hand went to his face to chafe the stubble.

“Never has a steward's man gone ashore from this ship except spic and span, clean shaved and immaculate. It is a rule, the cap'n will tell you—and refuse you. In fact, my boy, he'll proceed to examine you.”

“Examine me! For what?”

“These are unusual times, Porto Rico is a great military base, they say, and you have a grip packed to leave the ship there.”

Ramirez gaped at him. He saw the clock. Impulsively he cried, “You shave me and I get a permit you sign?”


“Eef you sign, zee capitan he say I go ashore?”


“Shave me queek. Queek or I shoot—and keep your hand steadee about eet or I keel you dead!”

Heaps of lather. The razor started down the left sideboard while J. F. said surprisingly, “You watched Bounaki put the plans in the lifeboat. Later you removed them to—where?”

The razor started across the chin before Ramirez could answer; he dared not open his mouth just then. J. F. droned, “You carried linen for the cap'n's bed on your forearm, a habit not practiced aboard American cargo ships. You had seen him and me tied up with the Chief. Made his bed for Bounaki. But you made a mistake: you ran off with his plans without cleaning up the cabin.”

Ramirez tried to speak. J. F. drew the razor down the upper lip, prevented it. The gun moved; J.F. lathered the right eye. The gun hand flew to the eye, but it still gripped the weapon, using the back of the hand.

“Sorry. You jerk your head. Try to keep still, this is a sharp razor. You must be clean shaved to face the cap'n.” Now the razor reached down below the left jaw. “Found the plans under the cap'n's pillow. I searched rooms. They got too hot so you dumped them on Bounaki. Then to the lifeboat, then you took them from there and put them—tut, tut, don't move!” J. F. let the lather fall, he didn't dare to wipe the blade. Up the throat it moved slowly, dangerously. “I want those plans, my boy.”

Ramirez jerked taut, whipped up the gun to aim for J. F.'s torso. But the razor cut him, it stung, he couldn't move. He spluttered soap, ordering an end of this. He reached for J. F.'s razor hand with his left—another cut, this one on his very windpipe!

“Careful, my boy.”

Ramirez froze motionless for his very life—until he let the revolver slip to the floor. Another cut over his Adam's apple checked the impulse to reach down for it; J. F.'s foot deftly drew it behind the chair. And he said, “You made two keys to my room, one to put on Souza's bed to divert suspicion if you should get cornered, the other to let yourself in here tonight. For the second time, where are the plans?”

Both Ramirez's hands crept up toward the razor arm. A quick dash of lather filled both eyes full. “Mother of God!” J. F. reached away, scooped in the lather brush and filled the open mouth. He pressed the cold, back edge of the razor across the throat.

Despite the wholesale spluttering and spewing, J. F. said firmly, “For the last time, where are those plans?” He lifted a stretch of skin off the throat and applied the blade. “Better talk fast,” he warned in unmistakable tones.

Ramirez sneezed. J. F. snatched the gun off the floor at last. Ramirez looked at it and said, “God! I get them.”

“That depends. Where?”

“Under your mattress, you devil. . . .” The Roraima did not dock in San Juan. Instead, an Army boat came out with a certain officer who boarded the freighter. Captain Downs sent for J. F. and the three met in the captain's quarters.

Said Captain Downs, “I sincerely regret that these plans have been opened and seen by—”

“Not important,” came the crisp interruption. “They are only a fake. They were bait to catch Ramirez, as you call him. He has several names, by the way, and if there are real plans they went north by plane—of course. Or did you suppose they'd be risked in an ancient ship's safe?”

J. F. got the Old Man's eye; Captain Downs winked at him. To hell with supposing anything now.