Doom Offshore

Edward Ronns

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Popular Detective, October, 1941

 

Death Stalks in the Wake of a Northeaster as Toby Waters Pilots Killers to a Fatal Trap!

 

THE three passengers in the station-wagon were getting uneasy. Toby Waters bleeped the horn again and tried to peer through the windy, sand-swept darkness to the house set back from the road. The lights were on, but there was no sign of anybody coming. Sand whispered on the metal fenders as the car rocked in the blasts of the growing northeaster.

It was on nights like these that Toby wished he had never secured the franchise to run the station-wagon bus from Ochreville to Crystal Point.

But business was good, and every trip he made meant an addition to the bank account he needed in order to marry Pat Wayne.

Toby turned to his three passengers. “I've got a regular fare in that house,” he explained. “Pat Wayne—she's the music teacher. She's my girl.”

The fat passenger in the green hat spoke up gutturally.

“We haven't got all night,” he said impatiently.

The one in the middle, a scared little rabbit of a man, licked his lips and leaned forward. His fingers dug like claws into Toby's shoulder.

“Listen, buddy, you—” the little man muttered.

He broke off with a sudden gasp of pain. Presumably the third passenger, a big ape-like man with a shock of stiff yellow hair, had rammed an elbow into the rabbit's ribs. Toby turned in the driver's seat to look around. He encountered cold, glittering stares from the pig, the rabbit, and the ape.

“Is something wrong?” he asked. “Nothing is wrong, young man,” the fat one grunted. “But hurry, you understand?”

“I'll go out and get her,” Toby decided. “I'll only be a minute.”

He took the key from the ignition before leaving the station-wagon. The wind was a living, malignant force pressing against the open door. Scuds of white spray whipped through the black air like disembodied scraps of ectoplasm. The thud and rumble of the surf nearby shook the night.

“Only a minute,” Toby repeated.

HE TURNED away from the three pairs of hostile eyes and slogged toward Cap'n Joe Hathaway's ramshackle house. He was halfway there before he realized that the front door was open.

An odd, uneasy feeling tightened inside him as he stared at the open door. Generally, Toby had occasion to swear at the monotony of his twice-daily trip from Ochreville, at the southern end of the Carolina island, to Crystal Point, to the north—a bus trip made over rolling sand beach at where a flat tire or a miscalculation meant hours of delay, sticking in the sand.

But this time he would have welcomed monotony. Maybe it was the brewing northeaster, or maybe it was his three queer passengers who had desperately flagged him just as he pulled out of Ochreville. Their car had broken down, they said. Toby stifled an impulse to shout at the house now. He slid down the last dune and stamped upon the sand-blown front porch.

“Cap'n Joe!” he called.

It was unlike the old man not to leave things ship-shape. Especially with a blow coming on. That open door would mean a house full of sand in twenty minutes.

He stepped inside and called again. “Joe! Pat!”

Silence answered him. The piano light was on, and the sheet music Patricia Wayne used in giving her lessons was strewn over the keys and blown in a disheveled pile in the corner. The place was deathly quiet except for the rattling of the wind and the ever-present boom of the surf. When Toby usually called for Pat, there would be the tinkle of the piano as she supervised little Millie Hathaway's lessons; and Cap'n Joe would be accompanying them on his ancient violin.

Toby swallowed sudden dryness in his throat and leaned against the door, shutting out the tongue of sand that licked inside. He stared at the room. A lamp lay overturned nearby, the hook-rug was crumpled, a wall picture was smashed. Tossed contemptuously in one corner was a girl's brown felt hat. Somebody's heel had crushed it out of shape.

Toby bent down and picked it up. An icy hand squeezed the breath out of his lungs. It was Pat Wayne's hat.

There had been a struggle here. A struggle involving Cap'n Joe and Pat and old Cap'n Joe's little daughter, Millie. And they were all gone. . . .

THE whimpering sound, dim and muffled, must have been audible all the time; or perhaps the blustering wind had covered it. In a momentary lull, when the silent, disrupted room seemed to shriek of violence, Toby heard it.

It came from the kitchen in back of the house—a snuffling noise, a strangled sneeze, and then choked sobbing. The short red hairs stiffened on the nape of Toby's neck. He swallowed, and stepped cautiously into the kitchen.

She must have heard him coming. She was halfway out the back door, on the path leading to the tugboat slip, when Toby glimpsed her. Her round, freckled face was as white as paper.

“Millie!” he yelled.

She gasped in fright and started to run. Then she paused and abruptly whirled. Toby caught her in his arms, her pig-tails batting at his sleeve as she clung to him. The child's slender little body shivered and quaked in his grip.

“Toby, Toby—don't let them hit me! Please!”

“What is it?” he asked. “What happened?”

“Don't let them hit me or the Cap'n or Miss Pat any more! Please, Toby!”

Spray stung Toby's face, lashing out of the blustery darkness.

“Who were they, Millie?” he demanded tensely.

She shivered violently, her face buried against his coat.

“They came in while Miss Pat was giving me my piano lesson, and they grabbed us. The one who had me let me go once and I ran away. I saw him hit the Cap'n and pull Miss Pat into the car with them. I ran to the tug, but that's the way some of them came, too, so I went down the creek and I fell and I hit a rock and—” She broke off, terror silencing her as she remembered.

“You're all right now, Millie.” His tone was soothing and it steadied the little girl.

“They took the Millie H., Toby. My boat. And they took the Cap'n and Miss Pat, too.”

“Where, Millie?” “To Grover's Creek. To those old barges. They're going to make the Cap'n tow 'em out to sea.”

“That's impossible,” Toby said. “Those old scows are rotten, they'll sink.”

Millie's eyes were enormous in her white, freckled face.

“Oh, no!” she insisted. “That's what they're going to do! And, Toby, they said something about g-getting rid of a man named Jamieson and about a tugboat skipper who was sick and so they needed the Cap'n to take those barges out to sea.”

“Did you ever see those men before?” Her body quaked less violently as he held her. There was a bruise on her forehead and terror shone in her big eyes. “No, I never saw them before. They're from the mainland, Toby; they talked so funny, some of them.”

“When did all this happen?” Toby asked.

“Why, just now. Just before.” “All right, Millie,” Toby said gently. Everything will be all right. You come along with me and we'll drive to Crystal Point and get the sheriff.”

 

HE HELD the child's cold hand tightly, thinking of Pat's crumpled hat which somebody had stepped on. Anger choked him suddenly. Then his ears caught the sharp be-eep! of the station-wagon's horn. His three passengers were growing impatient. The horn sounded again, high and shrill through the thin, whining wind.

It ended abruptly in a sharp, cracking noise. Just one report, like a period to punctuate the long wail of the horn. Then the wind came back, raucous and blustering, and sand dug stinging fingers in his voice.

“You better stay here, Millie.” Toby's voice was harsh.

“But you said you were taking me to the sheriff.”

She said it pleadingly, still frightened. “Stay here. If anybody comes back, hide—unless, of course, it's me. Don't ask questions.”

Her eyes were wide and big with wonder.

“All right Toby.”

He pulled himself free of her small hands and went around the ramshackle house. From here he could see the headlights of the station-wagon, streaming into the night. They were focused on the moss-grown piles of a half-buried jetty. The lettering on the car door, Toby Waters Transportation Co., was barely visible.

He broke into a run, slogging through the sand.

The fat passenger was dusting off his hat when Toby came up, gasping. In the headlight glare, Toby saw the man's loose face quiver, then harden.

“So. You finally return,” the fat man said.

“I thought I heard a shot,” Toby gasped.

“A shot?” The fat man laughed. “Such nonsense. Are we ready to go on?”

“Where are your friends?”

Out of the darkness came a big stumbling figure. It was the blond ape. He ignored Toby and spoke to the fat man.

“It is all right, Velman,” he said. “Good,” said the fat one. “Where is the little guy?” Toby demanded. “He'll get lost on this beach. We can't go on without him.” Cold suspicion was congealing in his mind.

The big man laughed and there was horror for Toby in the deep-throated sound.

“You mean Jamieson?” asked the big ape. “He's all right—now.”

The fat man gasped with sudden anger and stepped forward toward his friend who had spoken. He slashed at the big man's face with a gloved fist. The big man staggered against the fender, his mouth open in consternation.

“Dumkopf!” Velman snarled. “I—I am sorry. I did not think when I said—”

“Be quiet!” Velman turned to Toby. “We go on without the little man.”

Toby was remembering Millie's frightened words. Something about getting rid of a man named Jamieson. He swallowed sudden dryness in his throat.

“We go on,” Velman repeated.

His hands were thrust deep into bulging pockets. Toby looked from him to the blond man. The other was grinning crookedly. His hands were in his pockets, too.

“Where?” Toby asked. But he already knew the answer.

“Grover's Creek,” said the fat man.

TOBY nodded and slid into the driver's seat. His mind was working with the speed of desperation. Something was wrong—horribly wrong. His hands gripped the driving wheel until his knuckles shone white.

He trembled inside, switched on the ignition, trod the starter, eased his foot on the clutch. The station-wagon lurched ahead on the sand, the headlights shooting erratic beams over the rolling, grass-grown dunes. The speedometer needle touched twenty-five, and old rutted tracks showed directly ahead, made by other beach drivers. Toby tightened his mouth and slid into them.

The station-wagon jarred and slowed with a suddenness that pitched them forward in their seats. The wheels whined and sand rattled futilely under the fenders. The car slowed as the wheels caught in the ruts, then they stopped altogether.

Velman cursed. “What is it? Why do we stop?”

“Stuck,” Toby said curtly. He hoped his voice sounded normally irritated. He didn't tell the fat man that the safest way to avoid getting stuck when beach driving was to beat a trail of your own and avoid other tracks. He elbowed the door open. “I'll have us out in a minute.”

There were two heavy planks under the driver's seat, carried for just such an emergency. Toby got them out and trudged around to the rear of the station-wagon and slid one under the right wheel. Velman got out and stood near him in the gloom, his topcoat whipped around thick, elephantine legs. Toby jammed the board under the tire, then straightened with the second plank firmly gripped in his hands.

“Hurry,” Velman rapped. He glanced out to sea expectantly, although there was nothing out there but dim, racing lines of white breakers.

Toby straightened swiftly, the board in his hand. He jerked his arms up, then down. The board made a flat, cracking sound on the fat man's head. Velman grunted and sank to his knees, then toppled limply forward. He sprawled on his face in the sand. He didn't move after that. Toby dropped the board and stood over him, panting. The station-wagon jounced as the blond man, suspicious, started to climb out. Toby turned and ran.

Something cracked behind him and a bullet whined through the whip and thunder of wind and surf. Toby ran faster, cursing the sand that dragged him back as if glued to his feet. He hit the hard-packed tidewater beach, only a few feet from the surf, and sprinted. The gun hammered futilely behind him. A dune came between him and the stalled station-wagon. Toby dodged right, up a narrow gully like a trench, splashing through shallow ponds of salt water.

There were no other sounds behind him. Nobody came after him.

He found the missing little rabbit man five minutes later. Jamieson lay in a tangle of sharp marsh grass, sprawled on the edge of a rancid pond. Light from Cap'n Joe Hathaway's house nearby shone on his pinched, sharp face as Toby slid down the dune toward him. There was blood on his face, crusted with sand, and his clothes were torn and twisted as if he had dragged himself to where he lay now.

TOBY knelt and helped him gently out of the salt water. “Mr. Jamieson, what happened to you?”

The little man stared blankly for a long moment. Marsh grass rustled over his head. Recognition finally dawned in his pain-stricken eyes.

“You're the kid—the bus driver.” “Yes. You were shot. I stalled the wagon and came back here for you.”

Jamieson's mouth twitched. “Don't let 'em catch you, son. Velman and Otto shot me.”

“But why?” Toby demanded. “Why? What's it all about?”

“Oil and supp1ies—for a ship out there—” A limp hand waved to the black sea nearby. “Nazi ship—raider— refueling—four miles due east of Chicken Reef— Got it?”

Light suddenly burst like dawn over Toby's mind.

“And they're planning to tow a line of loaded barges out to this raider?”

“Yes. Velman and Otto went into Ochreville—to get a tugboat captain to pilot the barges out to sea.” The pain of the wound appeared to have eased for the moment and Jamieson was speaking more clearly. “The tugboat captain was sick. They telephoned to Grover's Creek to send some men to Cap'n Hathaway and get him—the other tugboat man gave them the Cap'n's name. Then on the way back the car stalled and you came along in your bus, so we stopped you.”

“They've already got Cap'n Hathaway—and my girl,” Toby blurted.

“They've got to—to be stopped. Understand?”

“Why did they shoot you?” Toby asked.

A wry smile twisted the little man's lips. Dim sounds came from his throat.

“Me? They let me think I was working undercover—they pretended not to know who I really was—They're dangerous, clever, desperate—I've been trying to get the goods on Velman for three months. I-”

The dim sounds in his throat became a rattling, and from the way the body sagged suddenly against his arm, Toby knew that Jamieson was dead. He swallowed a hard, painful lump in his throat. The rats, he thought. The dirty, murdering rats!

He bent over the dead man, knowing now what he would find. A Federal badge, a card in an isinglass case. Jamieson had been an F.B.I. man.

He was surprised to find a gun in the dead man's pocket. A heavy .38 automatic, with a full clip. It hadn't been fired. Evidently Velman and his gangster's outfit had fully allayed the little man's fears until they murdered him.

Wind rattled the grass bending over the dead man's face. Toby kept his hands tightly clenched around the gun and the badge. A fear for Pat and Cap'n Joe shook him.

Turning suddenly, he clambered up the slope of the dune and headed for the house. Little Millie wasn't around, but he felt no concern for her. She could take care of herself; she knew every inch of the island and its inlets.

Toby knew what he had to do. The telephone box in the hall gave forth a whining sound, a click, and a buzz when he cranked it. He had turned out the lights and left the front door open. From where he stood he could watch the approach to the house, at least, the front of it. Impatience crawled inside him.

“Number, please!” “Crystal Point Coast Guard,” Toby snapped. “Hurry.”

“Is that you, Toby?” the operator said. She giggled. “Did you lose Pat somewhere? Or maybe you're lost, driving that wreck along the beach on nights a body can't see his hand in front—”

“Hurry!” Toby snapped.

A light flicked in the windy darkness beyond the front door. It was joined by another, converging on the path leading to the porch. Two shapes, one fat, the other big and brutish, came closer and closer.

The telephone buzzed, clicked. A man's voice said: “Coast Guard. Lieutenant Sutherland.”

“Phil,” said Toby, “this is Toby Waters. Get this.”

“What's up?”

“Barge wreck on Chicken Reef— smugglers. Get out there, Phil.”

“Is this a rib, Toby?” “No, no—they've got Cap'n Joe and my girl, Pat—”

Something crashed in the doorway. The telephone box seemed to explode in Toby's face as the bullet hit it. The casing clattered to the floor and a spark jumped from the dead receiver Toby held. He spun around to face the front door and froze.

Velman's fat face was a mask of fury. A trickle of smoke leaked from the Luger he carried. His pale green eyes glittered, and Toby braced himself for the second, and last shot.

It didn't come. Otto, the blond man, broke stark silence.

“Shall I kill him, Herr Lieutenant?” he snarled.

Velman cursed softly. “We can't. Not here.”

“Let me kill him,” Otto urged softly. He licked his lips and grinned at Toby. “I would like that.”

“No,” said Velman. “He made a telephone call. The police will probably be here, and they will search for him. The longer they search here on the island, the more time we shall have for our own purposes.”

“Kill him and bury him,” Otto repeated softly. “Like we just did Jamieson.”

“We have not the time, fool. No, we must take him to sea with us. The sea has swallowed many dead men before this. Every hour we gain while the police search fruitlessly for him is precious to us. We can't leave his body to be found and end the search here.”

Otto grinned. The wind buffeted the frame house and made the floor tremble underfoot. Toby stood still as Otto slid behind him and swiftly searched his pockets. The blond man exclaimed gutturally when he found the .38 automatic.

“Jamieson's. It was missing when we searched the body,” he said shortly. He shoved Toby stumbling forward, tripped him, yanked him to his feet again.

Velman nodded coldly. “Let's go,” he said.

GROVER'S CREEK was a deserted colony of tumble-down fishermen's shacks amid sand dunes and sour-smelling, stagnant salt-water pools. In the windy, spray-scudded darkness, the only light seemed to be the red signal on a radio tower miles to the northwest, on the Carolina mainland. But as Toby braked the station-wagon he made out dim, scurrying shapes and a long heavily laden line of barges and a glow from the stack of Cap'n Joe's sea-going tug, the Millie H.

“Out, you,” Velman said curtly.

Toby stretched his long legs to the sand. Hoarse, guttural commands cut through the blast of wind. Sand blew in stinging clouds over the rest of the Nazi raider's crew. They were heaving oil barrels from the trucks ranged on the dock.

Otto shoved Toby forward, digging the muzzle of his gun cruelly into his back. They made for the tug over the sandy pier. Lights glowed cautiously from the wheel-house. A uniformed guard challenged them as they loomed out of the darkness, only to apologize at Velman's curse.

“Pass, Herr Lieutenant.”

Pat and Cap'n Joe were in the wheel-house when Toby was shoved inside. They weren't tied. There were two more of the Nazi raider's crew standing in sullen silence over them. Pat's face was pale, but her blue eyes were level as Toby kissed her.

“So these rats got you, too?” she whispered.

Toby nodded. He chucked her chin up and looked at Cap'n Joe. The old skipper was slumped forlornly on a bench against the cabin wall. His white hair was spattered with blood; his nose and mouth were swollen, battered until the lower part of his face looked shapeless. But it was his eyes that shocked Toby.

The skipper's eyes were haggard— beaten. There was a dull glaze of pain behind them and a slump to his normally squared shoulders.

“Cap'n Joe,” Toby said.

The old man didn't look up. “Cap'n Joe,” Toby said, “Are you going to take these barges out to their murder-ship?”

The white-haired old man still didn't look up. He nodded slowly.

“Look at me, Skipper,” Toby snapped. Cap'n Joe lifted his head a little—just enough to clear his chin off his chest. It was all Toby needed. One swift step forward, and his fist seemed to graze the floor as he lifted a hard right that cracked on the older man's jaw. Toby hated doing it, but it was the only way.

Cap'n Joe crashed sidewise on the bench and slid limply to the wheelhouse floor.

Patricia gasped. Otto cursed in dismay. Velman's Luger jumped in his hand as Toby turned, grinning, to face him.

“I should kill you for that,” Velman's voice was deadly soft. “I needed the old man. We must have a pilot.” The fat man stared tightly at Toby. “But I won't kill you—not yet. They say all you natives of this island know the coast. You will pilot us out to sea.”

Pat's face was white, and color ebbed from her lips. She clung to the redheaded young man.

“You are going to pilot us past the sand bars to the ship,” Velman went on softly. “You hear?”

“I hear—but it doesn't mean anything,” Toby said. “You and your rotten breed get no help from me.”

Velman grinned. He looked at Pat. He licked his lips.

“I think perhaps you will change your mind. Otto!”

The blond giant stepped forward. “Take the girl below. You know what to do with her. Unless—”

Pat's body trembled violently against Toby. Her lips were ashen.

“No, honey,” Toby muttered. He swung around to face the fat man. “Let the girl stay up here. I'll pilot your load of supplies to your ship.”

Velman nodded quietly. “I thought you would. You Americans mix sentiment with bravery, fortunately for us.”

Toby swung to the charts. “Any time, you're ready, rat.”

“We leave now.”

THEY rode without lights. The Millie H. was a sturdy craft, built for the buffeting of any sea. Her blunt bow plunged through rising swells and burst spray high over the little deck; her plates vibrated and trembled with the effort of towing the line of barges behind. The wheel-house was silent, thick with tension. Through the plate-glass windows could be seen, faintly to port, the lights of Crystal Point.

Toby kept his hands steady on the wheel, his face impassive as he tried to quiet the thumping of his heart. Velman was bending over the charts nearby, Pat and Cap'n Joe were seated on the little bench, their faces taut with strain, watching him. Otto lounged against the wheel-house door, the Luger dangling from his fingers. Smoke from his cigarette formed gray strata in the close air.

“We are passing now between two sand bars,” Velman spoke abruptly. “Right?”

Toby nodded. “And north-northeast is a reef, also a sand bar. Chicken Reef.” Velman studied the chart.

Toby nodded again. He eased his grip on the wheel so his knuckles wouldn't show his tension. The dark void and the thundering sea ahead were black, evil forces, grappling with him. Behind the tug, the line of scows, manned with the raider crew, lurched and plunged, half buried in a smother of foam and breaking seas.

Velman looked up from the charts with a grunt of satisfaction. “Then if we continue on this course we just pass this Chicken Reef and are on the open sea. Right?”

“You've got the charts,” Toby said laconically. “For a Nazi rat, you read English pretty well.”

Velman chuckled in good humor. “It seems that all you coastal peasants know how to pilot along your shores.”

“I was born on a boat,” Toby said. “Ach, yes.”

Toby glanced again at the distant lights of Crystal Point. They were just pinpoints now, often hidden by the black thundering swells. There was no stopping the hammering of his heart now. He moistened dry lips and glanced at Otto. The big man was staring thoughtfully at Pat, the cigarette dangling from grinning lips. The Luger was pointed at the floor.

IT STARTED as a faint, almost inaudible grating sound, rose to a hiss and then a shuddering thud as the Millie H. buried her prow in sand. There came a crash from behind as is the first barge slogged into the stern, then a metallic screech, then a whole series of crashes, each one urging the tug tighter and higher onto the bar. Surf thundered wildly, beating at the ship's sides. The tug heeled, shivered, shook from stem to stern. Water roared in wild triumph.

Toby heard Velman gasp, “Gott in Himmel, we're on a bar!” and moved with the first warning sound. He streaked across the pilot-house toward Otto. The blond giant was jarred forward by the ship's impact and staggered straight toward him.

Toby swung a hard left and dived for the man's gun. It went off with a crash, and plate-glass shattered as the wild bullet whined into the night. Then, there was a blur of smashing fists, a leg tripping him, Otto's contorted face leering before him, dropping away in a welter of blood, and then the feel of the hard butt of the Luger in his hand.

A series of crashes, heeling the tug further over on its beam, sent Toby staggering. He jarred against the wall, looked up the sloping deck, in time to see Velman smashing toward him. The fat man caught at the wheel and braced himself to recover his balance. His pink, pudgy hand streaked for his pocket and a gun.

The lights went out.

The darkness was alive with the shrieks of the raider's crew and the crashing, grinding, tearing of battered barges. The surf roared in triumph. Startled shouts and guttural oaths sounded from the raider's crewmembers out on deck.

Gunflame suddenly seared through the black wheel-house. A bullet splintered wood an inch above Toby's head. He triggered twice at the orange flash tilted above him.

With a suddenness that was blinding, the wheel-house was flooded with dazzling white light. Velman was etched starkly in the beam coming through the shattered windows. The fat man's face seemed to come apart slowly, sagging. Blood trickled from a corner of his mouth. He dropped his gun. Toby realized that his single shot had found its mark.

Velman stared at Toby. His fingers relaxed their grip on the wheel. His body thumped and bumped and slid to a halt down the tilted deck to the wall.

From a distance, through a megaphone, came a Coast Guard's hail, the clatter of a winch, the crisp shouts of rescuers. Feet thumped on deck and in a moment, men in blue crowded the wheelhouse.

Lieutenant Sutherland stared at the shambles and then at Toby, holding Pat in his arms. Toby was grinning at the disbelief in the Coast-Guardsman's eyes.

“You called me about a wreck on Chicken Reef and we went hunting for it,” Sutherland growled. “Now you show up with one. What is all this?”

“I manufactured this wreck, Phil,” said Toby. “I had to stop this outfit somehow.” He told Sutherland about the Nazi raider lying in wait offshore for the load of oil and supplies.

Sutherland was still dubious. “You say Velman held the charts and he still didn't know what you were doing when you deliberately grounded on the reef?”

Toby grinned. “He had the charts, all right, showing the channel to sea between the sand bars. He knew where Chicken Reef was. And maybe he knew something about the way these sand bars are always shifting position in the roadway. But what he didn't know is why the bar is named Chicken Reef. He didn't know that every lime a northeaster blows, the chicken crosses the road!”