He ran after the twin taillights as a car finally swerved to the side of the highway in response to his thumb signal. The driver pushed the door open for him, and sent the big coupé away again with a rush the moment he was inside. David Young found space for his bag between his feet and settled back against the cushions to watch the highway come reeling into the headlights with swiftly increasing speed. He did not, these days, like fast driving, and as the big car lunged into a curve he could not help bracing himself in the seat, while through his mind flashed again, unwanted, memory of disaster that had nothing to do with automobiles.
The driver beside him spoke. "Kind of late at night to be hitchhiking, Lieutenant."
"I’m supposed to report at Norfolk in the morning," Young said. "Thanks for stopping. That gravel shoulder gets hard on the feet."
"Forget it," the man said. "Nobody minds helping out a guy who looks like he’s willing to try hoofing it if he has to. It’s these damn helpless jerks with two suitcases and a portable radio—" He spat out the open window beside him—a dim, husky figure in a light hat and topcoat. There was not enough illumination for Young to try to guess his age; but in spite of his rough way of speaking he had a well-to-do look about him that matched the car he was driving. Young looked away, remembering that even when you were in uniform people were always a little uneasy about picking you up along the road, particularly at night; there was no point in worrying his benefactor by seeming in a hurry to look him over. The man spoke again: "Been on leave, Lieutenant?"
"No." Young could not help making the answer short. "Reporting for duty."
"Called back, huh?"
"Tough," the man said. He took his eyes from the road briefly and seemed to study Young’s appearance, his eyes finally reading the ribbons on the Lieutenant’s uniform blouse; then he checked the car expertly as it began to stray. "Looks like you saw some action in the last one, Lieutenant. Pacific theater, eh? Wounded, too." He glanced back at the ribbons. One caught his eye and he whistled softly as he returned his attention to the road. "Got one of the big ones, eh? Don’t see too many of those around." He drove for a while in silence, perhaps waiting for Young to respond to this. When his passenger did not speak, the man went on: "You’d think this time they’d pick on the boys who sat the last one out, like yours truly. I suppose you had yourself all fixed up with a job and family, too, like a lot of the other guys they’re pulling back in."
Young shook his head. "No. I was still going to school under the G.I. bill, as a matter of fact. Graduate work in engineering. It looks as if I’ll be nursing a long gray beard when I finally get that degree. But no family, thank God."
"Just the same, it’s tough," the man said. He added slyly, "You’d think that, yanking you back that way, the Navy would at least advance you enough for train fare."
Young flushed slightly. "They did," he said. "Uniforms and transportation both. Only, well, I got a little high the other night—"
The driver chuckled. "I thought you looked kind of like the tail of a rough week-end. Celebrating, eh?"
"You might call it that," Young said.
He was glad when the man beside him did not ask for details; he did not like to think of how drunk he had been.
He leaned back against the seat wearily, removing his cap so that he could lie back comfortably. Presently he found himself looking at the cap in his hands; it had a raw and new look that did not appeal to him. The gold lace was very bright; the device shone silvery against its dark background. It might, he reflected distastefully, have been the cap of a baby ensign fresh from the trade school on the Severn that was located not so far from here. He could remember a really well-broken-in cap that he had lost on an occasion he preferred not to think about; and one not quite so salty-looking, but still quite presentably dilapidated, that he had given away. He had got rid of everything when they released him to inactive duty in 1946; he’d had his war, he remembered thinking, somebody else could take the next one. He had picked a school inland where water was something you used for washing, and for drinking if you couldn’t do better. He had not stepped aboard as much as a rowboat in seven years.
The headlights picked out the signs announcing the approach of Rogerstown, Maryland, Population 7000, Speed Limit 25, Enforced. The marked slowing of the car as they approached the darkened business area made Young glance at the driver, who had not impressed him as a person who took speed limits seriously.
"I turn off up ahead, Lieutenant," the man said. "Sorry I can’t take you any farther. Hope you make out all right."
Young concealed his disappointment. "Sure," he said. "Thanks."
He watched the intersection approach, and lifted his bag from between his feet, preparing to get out of the car when it should stop. Then the man glanced at him, seemed to hesitate nervously, and motioned to him to sit still, pressing down the gas pedal so that the coupé shot ahead again. The signposts and the stop light—dark so late at night—flashed past; then the town also was behind them. The driver laughed at Young’s questioning frown.
"Hell, I’ll run you into Washington, Lieutenant. You’ll grow roots like a tree trying to catch a ride out here in the middle of the night." He reached into his hip pocket and brought out a wallet, selected a bill from the proper compartment, one-handed, and held it out to Young. When Young hesitated, he said with a show of irritation, "Ah, take it! I’ll drop you at the bus station and this’ll get you to Norfolk. You can send it back when you get paid."
Young frowned, not entirely pleased by the other’s generosity. "Look, you don’t have to—"
"Skip it, skip it," the driver said. "Hell, it’s the least I can do, isn’t it?"
Young said, "Well, it’s damn white of you, but—"
The man dropped the ten-dollar bill into his lap. "Hell, it’s nothing, Lieutenant. I’ll get my money back, won’t I? And you’re not taking me a damn bit out of my way. I was heading for Washington, anyway. I was just going to stop off to see my wife on my way down from New York; she’s staying at our place over on the Bay. But it’s a forty-mile drive and the roads aren’t too good; and she’d a damn sight rather have me in the daytime, anyway. We haven’t been getting along lately. I can make it on my way back north."
Young picked up the money reluctantly; it made him feel like a drunken bum accepting a handout. His pride wanted him to refuse the loan, but common sense told him to take it. Reporting for duty late would not improve his situation any, and there was no point in hurting the feelings of a man who was trying to do him a favor.
"Well, if you’re sure—"
"I said, skip it."
"If you’ll give me your name and address—"
"You can send it to Bayport; my wife will see it gets to me. Lawrence Wilson, Bayport, Maryland." Wilson held out his hand. "My friends call me Larry."
"Dave," Young said, taking the hand. "Dave Young."
"Okay, Dave," Wilson said. He gave his passenger’s uniform another glance before returning his attention to the road. "I used to be in the Navy myself, in a way," he said presently. "Only quit last year." Then he laughed sharply. "Quit, hell! Who am I trying to kid, anyway? You’re looking at a dirty red subversive, Dave."
Startled, Young turned to look at the man beside him, thinking that some kind of a joke was intended. Wilson’s expression was obscured by the shadow of his hat brim; but it was clear that he was not smiling.
"That," said Wilson, "is what I’ve been trying to find out for a year now. What?"
"You mean they didn’t tell you—"
"Brother, you don’t know the setup. Nobody has to tell you anything, see. It’s that kind of a deal. They get ’information’ that you’re a risk to departmental ‘security.’ You get a couple of hearings, but what the hell good does that do? You don’t know what you’re fighting against. All you can do is tell them what a swell guy you are and how much you love the United States of America. They’ve heard that routine before. So you go, and your friends hear about it and start acting funny, too! Everybody looking at you like they expected you to pull a hammer and sickle out of your pants pocket....Nuts!" Wilson said bitterly. "I tell you, Dave, when it happens to you, you learn a lot of things about your friends and family you didn’t know before. Even the ones who don’t believe it about you stay away because they’re scared to be seen with you any longer." The man glanced at Young. "Maybe you want to give me back that ten-spot and start walking, now!"
Young shifted uncomfortably in the darkness, because the accusation was not far from the truth. His first instinct had been to get out of this. It was, after all, none of his problem; and he did not want to get mixed up in it, particularly in uniform. But now, directly challenged, he had to shake his head. Still it seemed strange that Wilson should tell so much to a complete stranger. It was almost as though the man wanted to be sure Young would remember him.
"You don’t know what it’s like," Wilson said presently. "Even a leper gets sympathy, but not a guy in my spot. Except from the radicals and crackpots who figure that because the government fired me I must be one of the boys. You’d be surprised how easy—" He checked himself abruptly.
The big coupé ran on through the night at high speed. Young tried to relax, but the speed made him uneasy, and he did not like the feeling of having brushed against the edge of a dark world of which he had no knowledge or understanding. He warned himself against the instinctive sympathy he felt for Wilson’s predicament; after all, he had nothing but Wilson’s own unsupported word for his innocence, and it was none of his business, anyway. He had problems enough of his own.
"Dave," the man beside him said.
"I bet you think I’m kind of a damn fool, spilling all this crap to a guy I never saw before. Well, to hell with it. You don’t know if I’m telling the truth and there’s no way I can prove it, yet. One day there are going to be some people with red faces around Bayport, and I mean red, get it? But right now let’s skip it. What about you? You’re not regular Navy, are you; you haven’t got the ring..."
They talked for a while. Young gave the name of the university to which he had been going; in answer to the other’s questioning—Wilson was the kind of a man to whom the most personal inquiries seemed to come quite naturally—he said that his parents were dead and that he was not only not married, he had no particular girl in mind for the honor. He said that he had originally joined the Navy because he had done some sailing as a kid and liked boats. Wilson brightened at this information.
"Say, if you like boats, maybe you’d like to see a picture of one I designed for a friend of mine. That’s my field, you know, ship design. This one’s a thirty-foot sloop, a little smaller than the stuff the Navy had me on...."
Driving one-handed, he produced his wallet again, and tried to find something among the licenses and identification cards shielded in clear plastic and hinged to form a sort of book. Young waited. The glow from the luminous dashboard gave Wilson very little light to work by; he had to look up quickly to pull the car back as it ran out onto the shoulder of the highway. In the dim light it was hard to tell, but Young was almost sure Wilson’s hand was shaking as he handed over the wallet.
"You find it; it’s in there somewhere. There’s a map light in the glove compartment, if it feels like working."
Young opened the compartment and leaned forward to hold the wallet under the light that came on automatically. Leafing through the cards, he came on a snapshot of a white sailboat made fast to a dock. A girl was standing in the cockpit, facing the camera self-consciously, sunburned and in bathing costume. She was quite small, and had an intriguing, innocent, tomboyish look about her.
"That’s it." Wilson let the car’s momentum carry it along with decreasing speed as he looked over Young’s shoulder.
"Nice-looking craft," Young said. "Is that your wife?"
"Elizabeth?" Wilson laughed sharply. "Hell, no. Just try to get her on a boat! No, that’s Bunny; we’ve sailed together since we were kids. She’s the only one who—stuck by me after that Washington business broke. Got her folks to give her a boat for Christmas and then asked me to design it for her, to give me something to do except brood, I guess. I knew she was doing me a favor, but I wasn’t going to turn it down. We worked on it together, as a matter of fact; she told me what she wanted in the way of racing gadgets and general layout and I did the calculating and the drawing up of the lines....She’s a pretty slick little bucket, eh? I wish I had a shot that showed you the lines, but you can make out the rig, all right. It takes three or four to race her right; but even a girl can handle her easy, for cruising." Wilson’s voice was insistent and his words seemed to be coming faster now. "The binnacle is set into the cockpit floor where it’s out of the way. We’ve got good big winches for the jib sheets..."
As Young leaned forward to study the details, there was a quick movement beside him; then something hit him across the head harder than he had ever been struck before. He tried to struggle upright, dazed and bewildered; but the man beside him, still talking rapidly as if to deceive some unseen observer—perhaps his own conscience—struck a second and a third time, driving his passenger down into black unconsciousness.
Copyright © 1954 by Donald Hamilton.