Saturday, October 24, 2009

DBTL 44B: The Long Auf Wiederseh'n - Book Two

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission.

In Danzig, a private investigator named Bednarski is approached by Norma Jean Baker, an OSS agent posing as Professor Fritz Strassmann's daughter Maria. He agrees to look for her "father", who went missing years earlier with the passengers and crew of the Minnie while taking a three hour tour. A three hour tour . . .

Book Two
The Big Shlep

Danzig, Polish Devo, Polish Commonwealth
6 September 1947

The ship I'd chartered was the Marlin, a small powerboat like the Minnie that catered to pretty much the same tourist trade. The captain, an old fellow named Raeder, nodded thoughtfully when I gave him our course. "You're going after the old Minnie, aren't you, Herr Bednarski?"

"What makes you think so?" I said.

He gave one of those wheezy chuckles that old sailors seem partial to, and said, "Every charter boat captain in Danzig knows the Minnie's last reported position. Some of us make a point of passing through it. Gives the punters something to ooh and aah over. You're the first charter I've ever had who wanted to make for it on purpose."

The old salt was sharp, I had to give him that. "Aren't you curious to know what happened to her?"

"Oh, I expect so," Captain Raeder said with a sigh. "You know, I told old Joachim that he oughtn't to go out. Awful weather we were having that week, but it cleared up Tuesday morning, and he figured he could do one of his three-hour coastal tours."

"You knew Captain Gromburg?"

"You could say that," Raeder said with another of his wheezy chuckles. "Met him back in the old days, when he was a crewman on the Moltke with the old High Seas Fleet. He joined the merchant marine after the war, knocked around a bit. That's where he met that sidekick of his."

"You mean McGillicuddy?" I prompted.

Raeder nodded, but his expression became mournful. "Now, I'm not a man to speak out of turn, Herr Bednarski, so I won't say there was anything wrong with Gromburg and McGillicuddy. Maybe the old man thought of the lad as a son, and that's all there was to it. But there wasn't a sailor here in Danzig who couldn't tell straight off that that McGillicuddy was a jinx. Every ship he served on came to a bad end, and soon as Gromburg took him on as mate on the Minnie I knew she was headed for trouble." Shaking his head at Joachim Gromburg's folly, Raeder went off to make the Marlin shipshape for the cruise.

Agent Baker/Fraulein Strassmann appeared at pier 94 at a quarter to seven, dressed in a check flannel shirt, denim slacks, and tennis shoes. I saw Captain Raeder's eyes widen at the sight of her, but he just gave her a friendly wave and went back to stowing supplies. After Agent Baker had brought her own luggage on board, she joined me on the dock and said, "Do you really think you can find my father, Herr Bednarski?"

"If I can't, Fraulein Strassmann," I assured her, "nobody can." It was up to her to decide whether my words were calm confidence or foolish bravado. As long as she (or the OSS) was willing to pay for my services, she could think what she liked.

It wasn't long after seven that we were pulling away from the dock. I sat on a grubby locker and looked back as Danzig receded into the morning mist. Agent Baker sat on another and did the same.

It's two hundred kilometers or so from Danzig to the coast of Lithuania. Being a thoroughgoing landlubber, I have no idea how much that is in nautical miles. Captain Raeder assured me he could make it there in the Marlin in ten hours. I told him to let me know when we were there.

The mist burned off in an hour or so, and as the bright September sun lit up the Baltic like a searchlight, I put on a straw hat I'd bought five years earlier in Minorca. Agent Baker dug into her bag and brought out something that looked for all the world like a ten-gallon hat from a Wild West picture.

As the Marlin made its way along the Prussian coast, Agent Baker and I mostly kept to ourselves, she staring out to sea, I making use of a fishing rod I'd found stowed on board. I've never been one for small talk, and I'm sure Agent Baker wasn't eager to share long reminiscences with me about growing up with her "father". When I was planning the trip, I'd been looking forward to spending my time killing off a couple bottles of vodka, but with Agent Baker along I reluctantly decided that I needed to keep a clear head, so I contented myself with small beer.

The sun was low in the western sky when Captain Raeder came back from the wheel to tell me that we had just entered Lithuanian territorial waters. I told him that I'd like him to steer a course north by northwest, angling away from the coast. I pulled out a chart of the Lithuanian coast and asked him to keep me appraised of our position.

We had been under way for about two hours on our new course when the sun slid behind a band of clouds, and night began stealing upon us. Captain Raeder suggested that we drop anchor for the night and resume our course in the morning, and I agreed. There was no point in looking for survivors from the Minnie when we couldn't see anything.

There was a small cabin belowdecks with a cot that Raeder usually slept in, which went by mutual consent to Agent Baker. Raeder slung a hammock near the stern, and I unrolled a sleeping bag along the deck. It had been a long day, and I was soon out like a light.

My first clue that all was not well was when I was awakened in the darkness by two hundred liters of seawater splashing over me. I fought my way out of the sodden sleeping bag to find that the Marlin was heaving like a college freshman after his first keg party.

"A storm's come up!" Captain Raeder shouted to me over the erratically blowing wind. As though to prove his point, another wave came sloshing over the ship's bow. "I had to weigh anchor!" he called again. I was soon joined on deck by an equally sodden Agent Baker. A flash of lightning was followed a few moments later by thunder, and the sky chose that dramatically opportune moment to open up on us. The only thing that could be said for the downpour that soon had us drenched was that at least it wasn't seawater (though of course we had plenty of that washing over us as well).

"Can you tell where we're going?" I called up to Raeder. He answered, "The storm came up from the south, but there's no telling where it's blowing from now!"

The night that followed seemed an eternity, but actually lasted only a few thousand hours (or five by my watch). Dawn was theoretically less than an hour away when our situation became an order of magnitude worse. Captain Raeder had begun to call out, "I think I see --" when the Marlin abruptly pitched over on its side. Raeder was thrown overboard, while Agent Baker and I clung to the rails that topped the ship's sides. Another wave served to jerk the Marlin in a semicircle, then roll it over on top of us. We were trapped underneath it for far too long before another wave caused it to break apart. I tried to fend off fragments of the ship while my life jacket dragged me up to the surface. I was barely managing to remain afloat when I felt a hand seize my ankle and try to drag me down. It took all the willpower I could muster to keep from kicking out, even though I knew it was one of the others trying to keep from drowning. Instead, I tried to lever myself in the water to bring whoever it was up to the surface. I felt like I was about to drown when the hand let go of my ankle and grabbed my arm, pulling my head back above water. I was able to shake the water from my eyes long enough to make out Agent Baker's face next to mine. Then another wave swamped us, and when it withdrew at last I realized with a shock that one of my feet had touched bottom. We were submerged again, and this time it ended with both my feet touching firm earth. Ten minutes later, as the sky was finally beginning to lighten in one direction (the east, obviously), Agent Baker and I made it up above the waterline, and collapsed onto dry land.

The next time I woke up, it was somewhat (though only somewhat) less rudely accomplished by someone standing over me, bellowing at the top of his lungs, "Skipper! Skip-perrrrrrrrrr!"

(to be continued)

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