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Ghostboat [MultiFormat]
eBook by George E. Simpson & Neal R. Burger

eBook Category: Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: "All hands to battle stations." The words still haunt Jack Hardy, even after thirty years. As a young Navy lieutenant, he watched as his submarine, the U.S.S. Candlefish mysteriously vanished in the Pacific amidst an attack by an unseen enemy. Now, the Candlefish has emerged out of its own shadows, fully intact and in perfect working order, miles from Pearl Harbor. Only a return to the scene of the original incident can answer the question of what strange forces stole the lives of his crew. As Hardy leads a new team toward Latitude 30 North--a place known as the Devil's Triangle--he realizes he must solve a riddle from the past or finally meet his fate. As they near their destination, the ghostboat begins to reveal its secrets?and all may be headed toward a watery grave. -- George E. Simpson and Neal R. Burger titles at E-Reads: BLACKBONE; FAIR WARNING, GHOSTBOAT; SEVERED TIES; THIN AIR

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1976
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2012


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CHAPTER 1

December 11, 1944

Five hundred miles southeast of Tokyo Bay, night lay raven-black over a lackluster sea, its languorous movement unusual for that time of year. A long, inky shape slipped invisibly across the Pacific, stroking the surface of the watery desert. The boat cut a path through a hush so vast that even the men keeping watch on deck were moved to a reverent peace.

Below decks, Captain Basquine checked his watch and listened to the gentle whine of the diesels as he waited for Dusty Rhodes to finish his hammering. "How about it?" he asked. Rhodes gave the plug one more whack with the hammer, took a deep breath, and came out of his crouch slowly, muscle-weary, fatigue etched on his face.

"That's the last one, sir," he mumbled, and wiped his sweating chin and chest. He watched the Captain straighten, clear his throat, and stroll forward through the crowded torpedo room.

Billy G. Basquine, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy, went as far forward as he could, turned at the torpedo-tube doors, and glanced down into the below-decks storage bays. His eyes traveled up, lingered on the torpedoes nesting on their skids; he felt the adrenalin start to pour through his body. The men settled into position and Waited as he took three steps to the center of the room, then faced them again. His arms ... shot out sideways, and he braced himself between two torpedoes.

An auxiliaryman opened the intercom line so the Captain's voice would carry to all compartments. And Basquine launched into his speech: "All right, here's the poop. The Exec and I have been through the entire boat, and everything is up to snuff again. The Japanese had a go at us this afternoon with the MADs, and I have to admit they're getting better. Maybe if the war lasts another three years..."

There were some titters and some groans. Basquine let them die out and then roared: "They might learn to hit their own asses with a bull fiddle!"

The men laughed. Basquine knew they liked to hear him use their own language. And they liked it loud.

"NOW THEN! Four points! In order. One: The clowns in those planes, those cockeyed little Nips, are already taking bows for sinking a big fat American submarine! That's us--Candlefish. They're probably collecting medals right now. Two: Tomorrow, Tokyo Rose is going to tell the world we've been sunk ... again. That's twice on the same patrol."

Quinn, a throttleman from New Jersey, shouted out, "Dat's a new record for stupidity!"

"Matched only by yours, bub." Basquine grinned, and the laughter came at Quinn's expense. "Point number three! They're hitting oh-for-two and we're on a streak, five-for-five, and we still have our turn at bat!"

That was sure-fire. Baseball always got to them. Three men beat on the bulkheads with tin cups and added to the din.

Basquine watched, satisfied. Those Jap peckerheads with their Magnetic Airborne Detectors had almost done them in, but they were still functioning, and that was all Basquine wanted. He took on a grim look and started aft. The men, all smiles now, scrunched back to let him pass.

"Skipper? What about point number four?"

Basquine stopped, looked around, finally located the voice. "What about it, Ramos?"

"Well, what is it, sir?"

Billy G. Basquine gazed hard at the grinning faces, and they slowly withered.

"Number four," said Basquine softly. "Tomorrow we are changing course, and we're changing orders. We will not proceed to the Kuriles. Instead, we will take up a station right inside Tokyo Bay." His voice thickened. "Then I am going to shoot the living hell out of anything flying the meatball; as long as it floats."

Smiles crumbled and men sagged as the meaning of his statement sank home. Then there was an explosion, of cheers, started by four war-rabid torpedomen. But Basquine was already moving through the hatch to officers' country.

A stream of men moved aft, clearing the corridor for the Captain. He entered his cabin and slowly sank into the chair by his desk. He sat and reflected over the patrol up to date. He knew they were on a streak. More ships? More tonnage? Why not? The Candlefish could move right up alongside all the other big ones. Mush Morton's Wahoo, Dick O'Kane's Tang--Billy G. Basquine's Candlefish. Just the thought of it brought a proud smile to his lips. He pulled down his drop-leaf desk top and drew the day-to-day log out of one of his stuffed cubbyholes. He flipped through the pages with their heavy ink scrawl, stopping at December 11th. He started to write his version of their afternoon encounter with the MADs.

Lieutenant Jack Hardy had telescoped his too-long frame into the too-short bunk that was his living space aboard the Candlefish. The navigation officer was in a nether state, between sleep and wakefulness, aware of the sounds of the sub but not taking particular note of any one thing ... except the pumps...

Then the sweat began. First the hands, then under his arms. The hum of machinery blended into nothingness. He felt himself sliding over ... again.

"God in heaven," he murmured, "no more, please..."

Once more: the sharp hiss of compressed air, followed by the rending of metal, the tube door ripping open, slamming Kenyon back against the bays, crushing the life out of him. The gush of sea water that slammed through the after torpedo room, sweeping Hardy off his feet along with the torpedomen. The sudden knowledge of responsibility--

The hand shaking his shoulder pulled him back to reality. Jack's eyes snapped open. He looked around for the hand and heard only a voice: "Twenty-one hundred hours, Mr. Hardy."

Hardy pulled the curtain aside and gazed up into the somber, unsmiling face of the executive officer, William Bates.

"Disturb your nap, mister?"

"No ... I was awake." Hardy threw his legs over the side and hit the deck.

Bates permitted himself the smallest of smiles, his own precious sneer. "Captain wants a position report. For some reason, he still thinks you're qualified."

"Well, sir, I suppose he knows best."

Bates blinked but let it slide by. This cat-and-mouse game was so familiar to both of them that each knew how far the other would go. Hardy had just reached his limit. Now it was the Exec's turn.

"I'm feeling charitable tonight, Hardy. So just get your ass up on the bridge."

Hardy glared at him. "Walinsky's checking out Cyclops--"

"Get your ass aft, get your one-eyed wonder, and get up to the bridge--on the double!" Bates spun on his heel, stepped out into the passageway, and was gone.

Jack Hardy ripped open his locker, shrugged into his black watch sweater, and tore his foul-weather jacket off its hook. He slammed the locker door shut, promising to do the same to Bates's face some day when the war was over. Then he stalked out of his quarters, heading aft.

He was in no mood to appreciate the complexity of this mechanism he was a part of, this fleet boat. Basquine's Boomers. "Three hundred twelve feet of lean and mean," as the Captain put it.

What bullshit! Too often Hardy found Basquine an insufferable bore.

He ducked through the hatch into the control room, A petty officer was leaning over the plotting desk, studying a chart. He looked up and smiled at Hardy, but from here on the smiles would be fewer and further apart.

Past the radio room and into the galley. Slugger was busy fortifying his peanut-butter habit, loading up crackers with the brown goop, He glanced up at Hardy, turned suddenly cold, then marched around to the crew's mess, careful to back out with his plate so he wouldn't have to offer Hardy any.

Hardy followed and slipped quickly through the crew's quarters, the one compartment aboard ship he wished were located somewhere below, so he wouldn't have to traverse it so frequently. But what difference did it make? He was trapped aboard this floating cocoon with eighty-three other men, and three-fourths of them considered him the scapegoat for all their ills. Especially since Kenyon's death.

In the crew's quarters, most of the men simply ignored him. Corky Jones, poring over his Ann Sheridan scrapbook, started to say something but caught himself in time. Hardy continued through to the forward engine room, looking for his one friend among the lower ranks: Anton Walinsky, King of the Diesels. The Chief had served aboard the old S-boats before the rest of the crew had their first teeth.

The Fairbanks-Morse engines were immense, each one covering deck space nearly the entire length of the compartment, some twenty feet. As usual, the Candlefish was charging her batteries on the forward diesels, main engines one and two, while running surfaced at night. The sheer power of those giant pistons, coupled with the heat they threw off, was overwhelming.

Walinsky was aft, near the engine stand, a diminutive figure bathed in sweat, securing a wooden cabinet to the bulkhead over one of the engines. It was a handmade, felt-lined, carved mahogany pipe rack. And the pipes it contained were Walinsky's pride and joy: Danish Larsens, British Charatans, Dunhills, and a couple that Walinsky had carved himself.

The Chief straightened and surveyed the cabinet, admiring his collection. He felt Hardy's presence and turned to him.

"Mighty handsome, Chief."

"Me or the pipes?"

Hardy smiled and inquired about Cyclops.

"All fixed," Walinsky said, and called to one of the oilers tending main engine number two, "Hey, Rieser, bring me Mr. Hardy's sextant!"

Rieser looked up dully from the gauges he was reading, regarded Hardy coldly, then turned away and winked at his cronies. His eyes scanned the small workbench, passing right over the sextant Stooping, he opened one of the drawers in the bench and made a show of rummaging through the tools. Hardy took it all in stoically. Walinsky built up steam. He approached Rieser from behind as the greasy oiler went on fumbling around the workbench.

"Can't seem to find it, Chief ... I..." He saw Walinsky coming and, at the last second, scooped up the sextant like a prospector discovering a gold nugget. "Here it is! Right in front of me all the time."

Walinsky snatched it out of Rieser's hand. He ran a practiced eye over the tangent screw, tested the clamp screw, then turned and marched back to Hardy.

"Okay, sir. She's as good as new. Like the day we put her together. You won't drop her again, will you?"

Jack smiled and took the strange device from Walinsky, palming it in his left hand. Cyclops looked like any other sextant, but with one variation: Instead of the standard eyepiece, one half of a pair of 7x35 binoculars had been secured to the clamp.

"Thanks, Chief. Maybe coffee later, hm?"

Walinsky nodded and watched Hardy walk forward, past the gazes of the men, his eyes straight ahead. Walinsky swept a gaze over his domain. The men were working. Rieser was taking readings from the gauges as if his life depended on it.

Walinsky sidled over to him and spoke just at the level of the diesels, a mere shout, but low enough so Rieser had to strain to hear.

"You pull a stunt like that again and I'll kick your butt from one end of this boat to the other, inside and then outside. Hear me?"

Rieser tried ignorance "Honest, Chief, I just couldn't find the lieutenant's goddamned sextant."

"That's because you're stupid, Rieser. You're the stupidest creep on this boat. Well, I got something you can find. The stop valve on the number two sanitary tank. Check it. It's sticking."

Rieser relaxed. That wasn't too bad.

"From the inside." Walinsky purred like a cat lapping cream from a saucer. He watched with great satisfaction the look of horror and dismay that spread over Rieser's face. "If I don't smell something mighty strange inside of ten minutes, we're gonna talk some more! Capisce?"

Hardy, Cyclops clutched in his left hand, pulled himself up the control-room ladder to the conning tower. Because the bridge hatch was open, the con was bathed in a red glow from the combat lights. As his eyes adjusted, Hardy .became aware of the other people sharing this, the topmost part of the sub's interior.

Jenavin, the quartermaster of the watch, was positioned right behind the helmsman, an Officer Candidate School prep manual poking out of his back pocket.

Bates, Basquine, and Ensign Jordan, the gunnery officer, were hanging over the chart table playing war games.

The young ensign cleared his throat, looked from the Captain to the Exec, then jumped in feet first: "Supposing we did get through the mine fields, sir. Suno Saki here has suspected shore batteries, and the Japs have airfields ringing Tokyo. After all, it is their capital."

Basquine had been following Jordan's pointing finger on the chart. Now he froze and raked the top of the con with a withering look. "Who told you I needed a geography lesson?" His fingers started drumming on the charts. He wanted tonnage. "Don't you guys understand? It's because of the mine fields!"

Hardy smiled. He had to admire Basquine's ballsy approach.

"If they won't come out," the Captain said, "we'll just have to go in and get them! Okay?" The drumming fingers increased their tempo; then, without looking around, he barked: "Mr. Hardy, what the hell are you doing?"

Hardy's admiration evaporated. "Permission to go topside, sir."

"I don't know any other way I'm going to send that position report by twenty-two hundred hours. Move it!"

Hardy retreated awkwardly up the ladder.

He popped through the hatch into the black Pacific night and stared at the Great Empty. The whine of the submarine's diesels and the hiss of the sea--Hardy could communicate with these. His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dark. He sucked in a lungful of the moist air, clearing his senses of the machine-oil smell of the sub. He snatched a life jacket from a corner locker and put it on. It cut the cold better than his foul-weather.

Behind him the lookouts were perched on the periscope shearwater, in the truncated crow's nest that was the highest vantage point on the Candlefish. Above them loomed the twin periscopes and the radio and radar antennae. And beyond that, only the heavens.

Hardy looked up in surprise when the first strands of mist rolled in. He watched patchy hunks of the stuff creep by, low to the water, hovering on top of the deck slatting below. While he still had a clear canopy of night sky above him, he hefted Cyclops and moved to starboard of the bridge. He craned his neck to pick out stars, then steadied himself and raised Cyclops.

He locked in on the North Star, timed it, and moved the horizon glass. Adjusting the clamp screw, he found another star. Swinging his body, he picked up his third point. He jotted the positions down on his pad and then stopped.

The entire bridge shivered abruptly beneath his feet.

He looked around. The others on the bridge were reacting to the tremor: the lookouts; Stanhill, the Officer of the Deck; Lopez, the chief of the watch--they all gazed ahead, into the gathering fog, then to the sides. Had they struck something?

"Bridge--what the hell was that?"

Stanhill moved to the open hatch and looked down at the Skipper's red-illuminated, upturned face. "Nothing topside, sir."

Hardy joined Stanhill and ventured an opinion. "Maybe an underwater earthquake, sir?"

Basquine ignored him and turned to the sonar operator in the con. "Anything?" Collins adjusted his dials, listened, and shook his head. Then he whipped off the headset and offered it to Basquine.

And then the second tremor hit. It sounded even more like an earthquake.

The sub took another violent shimmy, and this time the men in the con could hear things below rattle and fall to the deck. Somebody swore.

On the bridge they heard Basquine's familiar "Now nobody get your bowels in an uproar" boom through the ship's comm line and up the open hatch. "Stanhill, sonar and radar don't have a thing. What's the sea like?"

Stanhill looked over the side. If anything, the water had grown calmer, more subdued. Hardy looked over too, and could make out glassy smoothness through the thick patches of fog. It felt as if the sub weren't moving at all ... Yet she must be. The diesels were still going. He checked his watch. It was 2130.

Without warning, the sub took a rending shudder that whipped her stern sideways. Hardy's feet shot out from under him. He caromed off the TBT and slammed into Stanhill, cold-cocking him on the jaw with his elbow. Both men fell. Hardy's Cyclops made a lazy arc in the air and landed with a sickening clank on the cigarette deck aft. Hardy tried to sit up, but this time the shaking wouldn't stop; the sub was gripped by a series of tremors. Hardy reached out to protect Stanhill from the heaving deck plates. He wondered fleetingly what it was like below--

Basquine, in the well under the conning-tower hatch, managed to hang on. Bates was okay, but Jordan was down. He must have hit the chart table. The Captain took a fast nose count, then hollered up the well, "Bridge! Do you see any shell splashes?"

The sub took another shake and leaned starboard. Lopez's head filled the hatch. "Mr. Stanhill's out cold--Mr. Hardy's shaken up a bit--but nothing else, sir!"

Basquine lurched over to the intercom. "All compartments, report!"

The Candlefish's superstructure took one quivering jolt after another, and Hardy heard responsive cursing from the con.

From the forward engine room came Walinsky's distraught bellow: "Skipper--we're getting screwy readings! I think we should shift to batteries!"

Hardy struggled to his feet when the diesels cut out. He grabbed the Target Bearing Transmitter as the sub heeled sharply to port, whipping and bucking like a long steel shake. The panic welling up inside him subsided as the boat righted herself in a shower of spray. He ducked instinctively, then straightened and looked forward. Swirling fog was closing in, drifting higher. Then, as the bow disappeared in the mist, the Candlefish bucked again. Hardy gaped at seas that he could barely glimpse around the boat. The glassy smoothness was gone, replaced by churning, frothing waters. A teeth-rattling crash and flying spray blurred his vision. The sub was trembling and twitching in the throes of some incomprehensible disease. Hardy's grip on the TBT loosened. He tried to shield his head as he fell. He got a fleeting glimpse of Lopez and the lookouts hanging on to the shearwaters. Stanhill was still down.

The next crunch slammed Basquine into the periscope shaft. Stunned and hanging on, he watched Jordan slide past him, his head bouncing off the back of Collins's seat. He was dimly aware of a cry of pain, then saw the quartermaster clutch his face and reel back, blood streaming through his hands.

"Bates! Get topside! Report!" Bates nodded to the Captain, then staggered to the ladder and started up. Water showered through the hatch and knocked him loose. Doggedly, trying to match his steps to the now constant spasms of the submarine, he started up again.

Hardy felt the next big shake coming--a flutter fast and hard, rippling through the boat, followed by a wrenching convulsion. The juggernaut churning through the Candlefish refused to stop. And then he heard a godawful metal-grinding screech coming from somewhere below--somewhere aft--

"Main engine number one just jumped its mounting--God, what a mess!" The voice boomed up through the con. Basquine cut Mm off and screamed something unintelligible through the mike.

The submarine took to plunging up and down, in addition to its rapid sideward shakes. Two hands shot out of the dark, and Bates pulled himself up out of the conning-tower hatch. He looked into Hardy's surprised face. In the fog and darkness, they could barely make each other out. Basquine's bellows filtered up from below as he yelled instructions to the helmsman, trying to fight the starboard lean. Hardy and Bates lay face down on the twitching bridge. Bates used Hardy's body for support and lunged upward, grabbing the side of the bridge to survey the boat. Over the roar of a howling wind that had come up from nowhere and now whipped around them in concentric circles he could hear the Candlefish's plates groaning, but he could not see any signs of attack.

"Where the hell did this storm come from?" he yelled at Hardy. He moved to the voice tube, but Hardy, also on his feet, went spinning into the Exec, almost knocking his teeth out on the lip of the voice tube.

"Dammit, Jack. Make yourself useful. Get Stanhill below!"

Hardy ducked as a wall of spray hit them. He looked for Stanhill, then thought of Cyclops. Where was the sextant? A heavier wall of spray hit the bridge, and the sub was caught in an epileptic seizure. Bates wedged his hands around the voice tube, closed his eyes against the salt spray, and hung on. But Hardy went down again. His fingers splayed out, trying to get purchase on the wet metal. He rolled past the con structure and kept going, past the after machine gun and out the cigarette deck. His hands shot out too late as the lower railing of the cigarette deck passed over him. He fell on the top deck and landed with a crunch on his right knee. His scream was lost as the rushing water carried him back, slamming him into the base of the huge deck gun. He snatched at the traversing gear and tried to stand. His right leg was like jelly; it went out from under him. He fell, still clutching the gear, conscious of acute pain and terror. The submarine's jolting tremors were even more severe on the deck than on the bridge. He held on tightly as the Candlefish shimmied and frothy waves formed high over his head and crashed down on top of him.

In the conning tower, Basquine grabbed the Intercom mike and shouted, "Come to battle stations! All hands to battle stations! Secure all compartments!" He whipped around to the helmsman. "Maitless, what's our course?"

Maitless glanced at the compass as the alarm rang through the boat.

"Two-five-three, sir."

"Left full rudder. Come to two-zero-five."

Maitless strained at the wheel. It was frozen. "She won't answer, sir."

"Emergency helm!" Basquine shouted below.

Bates flipped up the cover of the voice tube and shouted over the howling wind, "Captain--there's nothing shooting at us. I'm positive!"

Basquine's voice crackled up: "Mr. Bates, stay on the bridge!"

Reports were pouring into the control room from all stations. Gauges and dials were getting so hot, the glass was shattering right out of them. Main diesel number one was still sliding around in the forward engine room. Shackles had snapped; a torpedo had rolled off its skid. The reports spelled pandemonium.

Basquine hit the diving, alarm and yelled, "Clear the bridge! Dive! Dive!"

Hardy sloshed around on the afterdeck, still clinging weakly to the traversing gear of the deck gun. He heard the OOGA! OOGA! of the diving alarm and felt a rush of fear--they were going to submerge and leave him. He could just make out fog-shrouded silhouettes on the top of the conning tower, the lookouts rushing down from their perches and disappearing below. He was alone on the deck of a twisting, bucking sub, and she was going to drop right out from under him.

Bates, the last man down the ladder, watched Quartermaster Jenavin secure the hatch, his face still streaked with blood. The sub's trembling gathered momentum, and their teeth chattered in time to it.

"Bates! Where's Hardy?" bellowed the Captain.

"Didn't he get Stanhill below?" Looking around, Bates could see he hadn't. He leaped for the intercom, swearing out loud, "Shit! Hold the dive! Surface! Surface!"

Basquine hit the alarm--three blasts. Bates was already up the ladder again, opening the hatch. The pumps reversed, and he could hear the air-intake valves.

Hardy heard the rush of high-pressure air as the Candlefish forced out the water ballast she had so eagerly sought seconds before. He had already started to make his peace with God, desperately cried out for his wife, Elena, and Peter, the son he would never see. Through the mist and flying water and the awful trembling of the boat he made out a figure standing on the bridge, looking for him.

Yelling into the wind, he hailed, "Down here! By the deck gun!"

He saw the figure turn, homing in on his voice. His joy turned to horror as the entire superstructure of the Candlefish lit up in a blue-white display of electricity. Bates froze. Still crying out for help, Hardy dragged himself along the strakes. The roar of air and the extra shudder that ran through the boat told him that the Candlefish was getting ready to submerge again.

The sub took a bonebreaking spasm, and Hardy was ripped loose of his hold on the slatting. Water rushed up around him and flung him hard against the base of the conning tower. For a moment he was bathed clearly in the blue-white light from the flickering St. Elmo's fire on the antenna cables, and Bates flopped down on the cigarette deck and flung out a hand to grab him--too late. The decks went awash, and Hardy was carried away on a wave. The bow dug in deeply; Bates could feel the stern rising, the water cascading off the afterdeck. He jumped to his feet and, with a last glimpse at Hardy thrashing around in the sea, Lieutenant Bates struggled back to the hatch and rode the lanyard down. He secured the hatch himself, avoiding Basquine's gaze. He could hear men starting to yell around him and below as the sub tilted forward. His eyes met Basquine's, and he saw at once horror, anguish, and total, mind-bending fury.

"Not now!" Basquine let out a roar that reverberated through the boat as he felt glory slipping through his fingers. The deck canted, and somewhere forward Bates heard a grinding noise.

The rending screech of metal cut through Hardy's numbed senses. He watched through fog and heaving waters as the stern of the Candlefish lifted high in the air and loomed almost directly overhead, then slowly slipped beneath the ocean surface.

After a few moments, silence descended. The sea stopped churning. The fog wisped around him, and he looked about for some trace of the submarine. It was gone. The quickness of it all overwhelmed him. He let his arms dangle around the life jacket, and his heart began to slow its powerful thumping. After a long time just drifting around the little patch of sea, he began to swim away...


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