Summary:— Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas take an Atlantic voyage in 1940 to the Bahamas on War business, and are torpedoed. Escaping, they are hunted by a U-Boat. They meet the famous real-life racing speed-boat owner, Betty Carstairs.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ', and I have no rights to them.
The bearded officer, white-covered cap jauntily reversed on his head, continued peering closely through the lens of the periscope, hands twisting nervously as he swivelled the tube around.
“Still nothing, Kapitan.”
“Don't worry, Walter. It's close by.” At the chart table, silhouetted in the dark red-lit gloom, the tall stooped figure of U-414's Kapitan pulled the folds of his thick jersey more comfortably round his waist. Like almost all the other crew he too sported a fine beard. Conditions aboard the Type VIIC sub did not accommodate much in the way of personal hygiene. “We caught a glimpse of it earlier. And we can still hear its engines. She's not far away.”
“Shall we be surfacing to use the cannon, Kapitan?” This from the shadowy form of Oberleutnant Martin Oelke, standing on the other side of the spread out charts of the North Caribbean.
“No. In ordinary circumstances I would do so.” Kapitan Horst Neidermayer spoke with an underlying authority gained from nearly 12 years in the Reichsmarine, and now the Kreigsmarine. “But considering our instructions from Admiral Doenitz himself, I have no choice but to torpedo the ship. Anything else would perhaps give them time to steal away with the item they are transporting.”
“Survivors in boats, Kapitan?” Martin continued his train of thought, reassured by 6 months experience with his commanding officer and a thorough knowledge and liking of his personality. “If they have the object with them? How will we recognise it?”
Kapitan Neidermayer nodded as he edged carefully past the obstructing chart-table to reach the periscope, just released by his Kapitanleutnant, Walter Kutsch. The tightness and lack of room, even in the bridge area, meant a deal of jostling at the best of times. If you wanted to be close to your shipmates nothing served better than a commission on a Type VIIC U-Boat. Their single passage-way from one end of the vessel to the other, and general constriction gave all the up-close time anyone could possibly want. U-Boat crews were always friends with each other; there wasn't enough room to develop a dislike for anyone.
“The sealed instructions I opened two days ago tell me the object concerned will be contained in a steel box of the dimensions of a suitcase; and light enough, in a crisis, to be handled by one person.” Kapitan Neidermayer, having reached the periscope, looked over his shoulder at Martin as he spoke. “If they throw it overboard, it's gone. If they have it with them on a lifeboat my instructions are to either take it out to deep water and sink it ourselves; or place a charge on it on any nearby safe beach and destroy it. On no account, Admiral Doenitz writes, should we attempt to transport it any sibstantial distance ourselves or think of opening it.”
Oberleutnant Oelke, whose one failing was perhaps an over literal view of his duties, nodded concisely. He wasn't interested in the case's contents; only what the German High Command expected him to do with it.
“Destroy it one way or another. Perfectly clear, Kapitan.”
Horst wasn't prone to making light of his men's personalities, but he smiled briefly as he hunched down at the periscope lens. It was always a good thing to know how your officers would react when faced with decisive action.
“What heading are we on?” He spoke in the usual submariner's whisper, always afraid of making too much noise; everyone aboard had early developed a gentle quiet tone in conversation.
“187 Degrees, Kapitan.” The helmsman spoke briefly from his seat five feet away across the Bridge area.
“Urrh. Nothing—Nothing.” Horst grunted as he pressed his forehead close to the eyepiece, using his draped arms to slowly push the periscope handles around. He shifted his feet inch by inch as he swung round, then stopped as something above caught his attention.
“Got her. There she is. About 2 miles North. I can see her smoke and superstructure. Turn—turn 193 Degrees.”
“193 Degrees.” The helmsman echoed quietly.
“Time to wake up the Torpedo Room, Martin.” Kapitan Neidermayer spoke with a harsh undertone. With action imminent he and his crew became smooth cogs in a well trained routine; even though their total bag to date on this, their second patrol, amounted to only one small merchant vessel sunk on the surface with their cannon. But now real War was clearly at hand: the hiss of sharply in-taken breaths from the Bridge crew could clearly be heard in the ensuing seconds as they all prepared, in their own ways, for the coming minutes.
“Torpedo Room to Action Stations. Aye, sir.” Martin went off forward crouching low, but at the nearest to a run that the cramped quarters allowed.
“Gentlemen.” Horst turned to glance round at the group of men in the Bridge area. “We have all been well trained. I know no-one will fall short of my faith in them. Now is our chance to do great things for the Fatherland, and for the Fuhrer.”
There was a buzz from a communication light and the radioman turned to the two officers, taking one headphone from his ear.
“Oberleutnant Oelke reports Torpedo Room ready and both forward tubes loaded, sir.”
Horst nodded then hunched over the periscope once more, eyes focussing on the distant smudge that represented his target.
" Friendship, I fancy, means one heart between two. ”
“What's that, Mel?”
“Something I've just read in this novel.” Melinda Pappas raised the thick volume she had been resting on her lap. ‘ ‘ Diana of the Crossways '—George Meredith wrote it in the 19th century.”
“Meredith.” Janice Covington's voice echoed the concentration she was giving the subject. “I've heard of him. At least, I think I have.”
“Well. That's something, I suppose.” Mel, when she felt the situation demanded it, could be caustic with her friend—and now was one of those times. “You think you've heard of the greatest English novelist who has ever lived. That's nice.”
“Come on, Mel.” Janice, in her turn, could be as obstreperous as her companion. “Agatha Christie is the greatest English novelist who has ever lived. Everyone knows that.”
“That's it.” Mel rose from her chair. “I'm going to beat you to death with this book. I knew it would come in useful, at last.”
“ Ow . Mel. I'm sorry.” Janice tried to apologise at the same time as she was gurgling with laughter, while Mel grappled with her on the floor of the cabin they at present occupied.
The SS ‘ Perdicus ', on which they were now travelling, was one of those Blue Funnel Line cargo ships which also took a few passengers in well designed comfort. On this Atlantic voyage, in September 1940, they happened to be the only civilians on board. Any other passengers had obviously thought better of the dangers of the North Atlantic in wartime. But Janice and Mel had a necessity which made travelling on this ship essential. They were one day out from landfall at Miami, Florida, and were relaxing for the first time in all 5 days of their anxious crossing of the ocean; infested, as it was known to be, by scores of German U-Boats.
As they struggled in a melee on the cabin's floor, with Mel straddling her smaller friend and clutching her grasping hands, there came a sudden business-like knock on the door. Giggling still the women helped each other up and tried to tidy themselves before Mel, assuming an air of Southern haughtiness which nearly set Janice off again, twisted the handle to open the door. There standing revealed was the Captain himself.
Captain John Malvers had taken great interest in his two female passengers since his instructions to transport them with all haste and military secrecy to Miami. He was a kind-hearted 52 year old man with over thirty years experience at sea; and now determined to do his part in this present sad conflict to the best of his and his ship's ability.
“Good evening, ladies.” He was a man of consistent politeness, honed by long experience with passengers of all sorts and conditions. He had developed a personal liking for these two in the last few days, more through intuition than anything else. He had therefore made a habit of coming round to ask after their comfort, before he made his way to the Bridge for his evening duty each day.
“Evening, Captain.” Mel had a natural ability to fit in with this high-falutin' style of living and answered the officer like an aristocratic lady from the old South. “A fine day's sailing. We should be in Miami by tomorrow, I think?”
“Oh yes, ladies.” Captain Malvers was on firm ground with his ship's performance. “Not a doubt of it. The old girl still has pep and vim. Even though she's over twenty years of age now.”
“Mel's ov— ouch !” Whatever snide remark Janice had felt tempted to make was lost in her gasp as the point of a high-heeled shoe made contact with her ankle.
“My friend and I are looking forward to reaching America, Captain.” Mel glanced haughtily at her companion. “I intend taking her to meet the folks in Georgia. It will be a new experience for Janice to meet people of standin' and refinement.”
The last words were spoken with an emphasis that made Janice stop trying to rub her leg and, instead, lower her brows ominously.
“Like I ain't been used to refinement an' good manners in Hoboken.”
“Hoboken.” Mel curled her lip, in a perfect reflection of a movie star's performance they had both gone to see in London just before their voyage. “Hoboken is another world, darling. You'll love my folks estate.”
In answer Janice merely hunched her shoulders and started looking moodily about at the rather haphazard equipment and possessions scattered around the large cabin.
“Where's my hat, Mel? We were just going to take a turn round the deck, Captain, before turning in.”
“A fine night for it, ladies.” Captain Malvers turned to leave the doorway. “A little misty, but when darkness falls it'll be a clear starry night. Goodbye.”
‘ ‘Bye, Captain.” Mel closed the door and listened to the heavy tread of the officer receding along the passageway, and then the clang-clang-clang as he negotiated the ladder to the higher deck at the far end. “Well, Janice. Here I am trying to instil some elegance into our conversation with the Captain, and all you can do is bring in Hoboken.”
“And what's wrong with Hoboken? I came from there, and I'm proud of it.”
“Everyone who leaves Hoboken is proud of it; you're not alone there, sister.”
“Oh. Oh. So that's the way it is. I see.” Janice tried hard to glare at her friend but this was offset by the bright spark of humour clearly visible in her eye. “Just because I read Alfred Henry Lewis instead of—who was it you said, again?—I get to play the maid instead of the grand lady. Oh well.”
“Never the maid with me, Jan.” Mel's voice quavered slightly, with these words. Then she made a valiant attempt at recovery. “Here's your hat where you put it; behind the rifle box, under the pile of sheets. Come to that, Janice, when were you going to remake the bed? Tomorrow maybe?”
“Don't worry about the bed.” Janice laughed as she joined her friend at the door. “Will we have one room and one bed at your people's place in the wilds of Savannah?”
“Mother would think that most unusual, deah.” Mel giggled in her turn as they left the cabin and walked out on the long roofed shelter-deck with its low railings. “I shall have the Blue Room, of course. I suppose we can knock up a palliasse in a nearby cupboard for you, darling.”
The dead silence in the cramped Bridge area of the submarine was offset by the ordinary sounds of pipes rattling; a gentle hiss of steam somewhere far back near the engine room; or the scrape of a boot on the metal grid of the floor as someone tried to ease their discomfort on the small hard seats. Kapitan Neidermayer remained firmly glued to the periscope lens.
“Looks like 3,500 yards.” He spoke for the benefit of the Kapitanleutnant, now at his side. “Still too far. The sea's calm, but I think there's some mist forming.”
“Will we lose her, Kapitan?” Kapitanleutnant Walter Kutsch had visions of an incident some two weeks previously, when they had spotted a large ship bearing the British flag but had lost her in a sea-fog that had lasted a whole day. They had wasted two more days searching for her again, without success.
“No fear of that, Walter.” Horst knew the basis for his officer's concern. “We're fine. Just have to close the range a little. When we've fired we'll surface and look for the survivors in their boats. Have you got the water casks and the blankets ready?”
“Aye sir.” This was a long established routine with Neidermayer's crew. Horst insisted, with a deeply felt personal interpretation of Germanic honour, that it was a Kapitan's duty to succour the victims as well as they might, after the event. “We have the compass we took from that merchant ship we sank last week that we can give them.”
“Good. Good.” Horst spoke quietly as he continued watching through the periscope. “I can see the Red Ensign now. It's one of the Blue Funnel Line.”
“Ah. A legitimate target, Kapitan.”
“Ja.” Horst smiled inwardly at his companion's relieved tone. “As you say, a legitimate target. Keep her steady on 185. Increase to 12 knots.”
“185 it is, sir.”
“Increase to 12 knots, sir.” Kutsch responded in his turn; the tense atmosphere in the confined space around them almost visibly increasing at the whispered orders. Otherwise the enfolding silence remained.
“Have you got the key, Jan?”
“Yeah. On my belt.” Janice stepped forward and unlocked the empty cabin next to theirs. It was here, with the Captain's permission, they had placed the object which they were tasked with transporting to America.
Once inside Janice made sure the door was closed and re-locked while Mel took a look at the window curtains, then turned her attention to the floor. Here, in a space cleared by moving the table across the room, sat a suitcase-sized steel container with brass corners and metal hand-grips on each of its long sides. The purpose and contents of the case were as much a mystery to the two women as they were to the Captain, who asked no questions. They had both, however, attended a meeting at the War Office in London just over a week previously where a refined but nondescript gentleman had given them some facts.
The case apparently contained a newly discovered material which it was hoped might have some future bearing on the course of the present War. This material was a sort of a new, very new, metal; and had to handled with great care and delicacy. It would not at all do to consider opening the case, the grey representative of Whitehall had explained in a clipped voice. When Mel knowledgeably, but clearly unexpectedly, brought up the name of Lord Rutherford the official was visibly startled and raised a hand to stop further discussion.
“That name must never be mentioned in this context by either of you again. In any circumstances. Do you understand?”
With this the women had to be contented. Any rising disagreement that they may have felt at the mysterious, and possibly quite dangerous, object about to be entrusted to them was put at rest within five minutes. At that moment, as the grey official was bringing his remarks to a conclusion, the door of the briefing room swung open and the short squat form of the erstwhile First Lord of the Admiralty and now recently appointed Prime Minister strode in; cigar characteristically fuming like a battleship at sea.
Winston Churchill had only been in his present exalted position for a couple of months, after the unseemly debacle of Chamberlain's departure, but had already made his mark on the world.
“ Aarh , good morning, Haverfield.” Churchill took his cigar from his lips, to hold it casually in his right hand. “I hope I find you in good health. Good morning ladies. Do not, hrmph , let your surroundings overbear you. We here at the War Office are all pretty ordinary, by and large. Have you been informed of your duties?”
“Ah, Mr Haverfield told us a fair bit, sir.” Janice looked from the Prime Minister to the grey official and back. “That is, not a lot.”
“Ha! Quite right.” Winston chuckled, like a volcano preparing to wake up. “It would not at all do if my officials went around, aamrph , telling everyone our secret activities. I am sure he has told you quite enough to be going on with. Now, to business. The war is not at present going quite the way we here in Britain would desire. We are struggling along, nonetheless. Professor Rutherford—don't jump like that, Haverfield, you make me quite nervous—in conjunction with some American people of equal standing, has come up with a possible means of assistance. It is all very curious. In fact, quite unbelievable; so I will not trouble you with any form of explanation. All that matters is that you escort a small but vital consignment of material from here to America; where it will be taken under the authority of the American Secret Service. This is not, ummph , a matter of simple transportation alone. It is vitally important that this, er, shipment reaches the hands of those in America who, ammph , know what to do with it. A successful outcome to your voyage will be of enormous help both to we British, and to the Allies as a whole. It is something which you both should regard with pride. Thank you for your help; your, aah , vital assistance. Goodbye, ladies. Good morning, Haverfield.”
And in another cloud of cigar smoke Winston opened the heavy oak door, and passed through; leaving Janice and Mel staring at each other. Mr Haverfield expertly shuffled some papers on his desk to bring their attention back to the matter in hand.
Janice exchanged a look with Mel.
“Well, Mr Haverfield, when do we leave?”
“The locks are secure, Mel.” Janice had instituted a routine of inspecting the box each morning and evening, for safety's sake, which Mel heartily agreed with. “These blocks of wood bolted to the floor certainly keep it steady. Do you want to check it?”
“Nah. I'll leave that to you.” Mel shook her head. Both women knew she was somewhat unhappy with the object; not the least reason being that it was constantly warm, almost hot, to the touch even after being left on the cold floor of a ship's cabin for five days. Mel didn't like it at all and it was only her sense of duty, and perhaps Churchill's personal words, that made her take anything to do with it.
“Well, it'll be OK for tonight.” Janice rose from her crouched position. “Let's go for a walk around the shelter-deck. I could do with some fresh air.”
With the key again dangling from Janice's belt the two friends strolled along the deck, now becoming dim with the onset of evening. It would be dark in a few minutes.
“Janice? How long do you suppose this War will last?”
“Can't say.” Janice shrugged her shoulders and put a protective arm around the taller woman's thin waist. “That idiot Hitler's definitely bitten off more than he can chew. As much idea of how to run a military campaign as a circus clown, I'd say. Maybe a year. 18 months, tops.”
The women leant on the railings for a few minutes enjoying the cool evening air, and just being together. On their first meeting in Macedonia some months previously they had become close friends, eventually ending as fully-fledged partners and lovers; though they still didn't make a show of their private relationship. At their first meeting they had engaged in something of a debacle with Smythe, a dubious character on the outskirts of professional archaeology. It was through the Macedonian dig, connected with his activities, that they had first been involved with both the supernatural and the sudden appearance of the God Ares; followed by Xena's spirit entering Mel's body. Mel herself had been astonished and amazed; but not as much as Janice, who thought she was Xena's direct descendant. Nor had Janice ever had any intuition, up to that point, that Gabrielle's spirit was ever anywhere near her . Over the ensuing months Xena had made a couple of return appearances in Mel's body, depending on circumstances; while Gabrielle had not as yet deigned to visit Janice, much to her private annoyance. Janice still harboured several half-formed plans to continue delving into the history of the two almost mythical woman warriors.
“I hope so.” Mel smiled at her friend, arms crossed on the wooden rail and nervously twisting her fingers together in a way that Janice often joked about, though not this evening. “I don't like what War brings. Death; destruction; people being ejected from their countries as refugees; everyone at odds about what the right way is. There's never any good comes from wars.”
“Except when the bad guys are beaten, and the good guys win.” Janice spoke quietly, but seriously. “I mean, what if the bad guys always won. Like Napoleon. Or Kaiser Wilhelm. Or the South in the American Civil War. What then? Oh, sorry, Mel.”
“Nah. I'm with you there, Janice. You're right.” Mel put her hand on the shoulder of the one person in the world she dearly loved. “Good has to fight to win, a lot of the time. I suppose that explains policemen.”
She made this remark with a soft chuckle and Janice laughed with her. Six weeks ago, while she was driving their rented car on a country road in Sussex, Mel had listened to Janice describing the races at Brooklands. Janice related a visit she had made there about five years before, and the thrill of watching the racing cars rushing around the inclined banking. Suffused with excitement at her friend's description, and showing an erratic driving style that reminded Janice of a Will Hay movie they had both seen and laughed at recently, Mel pressed down on the accelerator and began to emulate Malcolm Campbell; with the unsurprising result that a black car with a ringing bell had suddenly appeared and forced them to a standstill; at which point the full majesty of the Law had made itself felt to the two young women. The memory still rankled with Mel.
“Let's go in.” Janice affected a shiver. “It's getting a little cool. Did you put that radiator thingy on, Mel?”
“Yeah.” Mel had regained all her cheeriness. “All the considerate attentions of the Blue Funnel Line are aimed towards satisfying Madam's every desire. Her cabin will be a jolly hothouse, with the help of an electric heater.”
“Well, I like my comfort.” Janice tried to appear contrite, without being self-apologetic. “In fact I like this ship all over. I feel good here. It's about the best I've ever been on. I'm not really an aficionado of ocean travel; but I feel at home on this ship.”
“Oh, well.” Mel laughed again as she threw a pile of clothes onto the floor from a chair and ceremoniously offered it to the beautiful green-eyed girl whom she loved so much. “Please to be seated on your throne and enjoy the delights of the voyage. What's yours? Whisky or gin?”
Mel moved to the sideboard, situated under a large open porthole, on the right-hand side of the cabin door. This side of the cabin featured two brass ringed portholes which had delighted Mel with their atmosphere of the sea. Her reaction to which, and Janice's remarks thereon, had resulted in an earlier tousle on the floor; a recurring feature of whatever room they happened to be residing in wherever they went. Their only other tousles of similar potency taking place in the bed they always shared nowadays.
“It ought'ta be rum I suppose, but I'll settle for whisky, thanks.” Janice liked her evening aperitif, sitting by the side of her now truly acknowledged lover.
“Straight, or a dash—?”
“Straight, partner.” Janice dearly loved to tease her friend. “We Covington's drink it straight from the bottle. We leave it to them purty Ladies in Boston an' Georgia to make girly drinks with soda and whatnot.”
“Oh, you are so going to regret that later, Missie Covington.” Mel laughed “Now just don't embarrass me like you did at Lady Alford's soiree by knocking it all back in one, then wiping your lips. Gods. The look on her face.”
“2,500. Get ready.”
There was an almost palpable aura of intense silence in the cramped Bridge area. No-one moved; even the nervous scraping of shoes had stopped. Everyone concentrated totally on their individual duties as the moment of action neared.
“Ready on Number One.” The radioman repeated Horst's words into his microphone.
“Steady—Steady. Wait. A little lon—Fire one.”
The radioman pressed a switch and hunched over his apparatus. A single red light among a long row flickered then stayed on, bright in the surrounding gloom.
“Torpedo Number One fired, sir.”
“27 seconds from—now, sir.” Walter's voice rasped as his dry throat hampered his speech. No other voice sounded in the tense hush.
They all waited.
“When we reach Miami are we each going to have a long luxurious hot bath, then deliver the box to the authorities; or the other way round, Janice?”
The two women had settled themselves comfortably in the growing darkness as night came on. As yet the lamp remained unlit, with Mel leaning against the sideboard with her own glass of gin.
“Knowing the American Navy they'll probably have most of the Florida militia at standby on the quay for this ‘ Top Secret ' initiative. I wouldn't put it past them.” Janice clearly had no deep feeling for the Authorities. Probably as a result of her father's, and her own, dealings with them in the past.
“Oh. More likely there'll be a grey man with a grey car and some grey receipts to sign; and that'll be the last we ever hear of the matter.” Mel brought her more stoical nature to bear on the subject. “No matter. As soon as the damn container's gone the better we'll both feel.”
“You're right there, sister. How's abou—” Janice raised her glass to toast this sound judgement, but got no further.
Before either woman could utter another word a seemingly immense, but also totally silent, pressure wave encircled them, embracing both with unimaginable strength and throwing them across the width of the cabin. Janice, seated in her chair, was hurled across the floor to end up lying amidst a mess of sheets and equipment fallen on top of her. Mel, standing, was unceremoniously picked up and thrown the length of the cabin to end up, thankfully, on the wide double-bed with a chair landing on top of her as well as a leather suitcase. There were bangs and crashes as most of the other furniture and loose items in the room finally came to a rest, mingled together.
Silence reigned for several seconds before Mel found her voice.
“What—what the Hell was that?”
“Gods. Are you OK, Mel?”
“Yeah. I'm fine. But what happened? Did we hit something?”
Janice finished extricating herself from the trash on the floor and raced across to offer assistance to Mel, now crawling in a somewhat bedraggled state off the bed.
“I don't—I don't think this is the usual way to reach America, Mel. Most ships just dock: actually running into the continent isn't usual.”
“Stop babbling, Janice.” Mel, surprisingly, seemed the one with her wits most about her in the present circumstances. “We must have hit a rock. Though how the Captain allowed it is beyond me. Come on. Let's go on deck and see what's happened. Do you feel that shuddering? What does that mean?”
The door was jammed and it took the concerted strength of both women to haul it open. What met their eyes when they stepped out onto the shelter-deck was beyond their wildest nightmares. Looking towards the stern all was now dark and seemingly normal. Looking to the bow however revealed, instead of forty feet of deck ending with the ladder to the Bridge, a mass of twisted metal and debris closing off the view some twenty feet further along from their cabin. Above and beyond this impediment wild flames could be seen, with the dark shadow of heavy smoke furling up from unseen fires apparently nearer the Bridge. There was certainly no way they could reach the Bridge on this deck, and of any sight or sound of any crew members there was none.
“Shit.” Janice had grasped the wooden handrail and glanced overside. “Look.”
Mel joined her at the rail and both women gazed forward in disbelief at the sight so revealed, some thirty feet ahead of their present position. Of the side of the ship, with its portholes and gleaming metal sides nothing could be seen: instead the carnage visible at the end of the shelter deck continued down the whole side of the ship to disappear below the waterline. From the little now visible in the growing darkness the entire ship's side seemed to have been replaced by a gigantic and deep hole gushing swathes of dark black smoke, which they now began to smell as a thick haze enveloped them. Just then the whole ship trembled beneath their feet and the deck visibly slid sideways to take on an acuter angle. They had to stagger slightly upwards to reach their cabin door again.
“We've been torpedoed. That's what it is, Mel.” Janice's voice quivered with the realisation of events. “Those damn Krauts have done for us. We need to get up on the boat deck and reach a lifeboat.”
“The case, Janice.” Mel was sure of her surroundings now, and of what had happened. “We must take the case with us. Come on. Get your key.”
They both scrambled across to the farther cabin, clutching at the door frame while Janice detached the key from her belt. On entering they found to their relief the case was still firmly fixed to the deck by its wood blocks. Jan unceremoniously kicked these away then lifted the case by herself.
“Come on, Mel. Let's go. I don't think we have much time.”
Outside again it was obvious that trying to reach either the Bridge or the upper Boat deck where the lifeboats were housed could not be done by going forward. The destruction and wreckage was impassable. Their only hope was towards the ship's stern.
“We'll get a lifeboat free and lowered then, if we can, take a look for anyone else before we leave.” Janice was authoritive in tone, but didn't want to make it obvious to Mel that she was beginning to feel a little overcome by events. This wasn't just another incident in her adventurous life like many others; it was earth-shattering in its immensity. Her whole world was, quite literally, going down beneath her feet and she suddenly realised that she was really scared. At this thought she took on a more purposeful attitude and recollected herself: if she was scared, what of Mel? She had to do all in her power to keep her lover from harm, and this thought imbued the small figure standing in the smoky flame-lit darkness with a courage she had never felt before.
“Come on, Mel. Up this ladder, then we can unhook the nearest lifeboat.”
A steep metal-runged ladder came into view at the rear of the shelter-deck and both women scrambled up, though impaired by the way the ladder now tilted towards the climbers as they struggled. Reaching the upper deck they found their footing just as dangerous.
“At least the ship's tilting over the right way, Janice.” Mel brushed a strand of long hair from her eyes as they surveyed the long vista before them. “The boat'll still slip down its cables into the water, at any rate.”
A swift glance showed the same level of destruction way ahead at the far end of the deck towards the Bridge. There was clearly no chance of going forward by using any of the decks. The torpedo, when it had struck, had done an immense amount of damage.
“You're right, Mel.” Janice dumped the heavy case into the first lifeboat with a sigh of relief, then wasted no time on lingering. “I don't see any of the crew, or know where they are. We'll just have to take to the water, and row around afterwards looking for other survivors. You take this cable and hang onto the winch brake. When I say release, turn it slowly so both cables go out at the same rate. Got that?”
Before Mel could reply the ship gave another lurch sideways; the deck tilting to an even steeper angle beneath their feet. Both women were thrown to the deck; Janice was dazed slightly by hitting her head on the deck plates. Mel too had come into contact with the solid steel apparatus of the winch gear for the lifeboat.
Janice pushed herself up to a sitting position still groggy and, for a moment, looked around hardly aware of her surroundings. Beside her the other figure twisted into position on the metal deck and gracefully rose to her feet in one flowing movement: but the person who now stood by Janice's side was no longer her lover Mel, but someone altogether older and more experienced in scenarios such as the present one.
A long piercing cry, almost of exaltation, broke from her lips; then strong arms reached down to lift Janice to her feet with incredible ease.
“How're you? Can you stand? Operate the winch? We need to get off this boat, you know.”
“Hello, Xena.” Janice gazed in wonder at the warlike figure standing proud beside her, long hair blowing wild in the gathering breeze. Suddenly she felt confident once again. “Yeah, I'm fine. I'll tell you all about it. If you don't already know?”
“Oh, yeah. I know, alright.” Xena grasped her companion by the arm and stared into her face. “Our first need is to get you off this boat. It won't last much longer. Come on, grab that winch brake.”
“It was the Germans.” Janice still spoke a little groggily, as a thin trickle of blood ran down her face from a cut on her head. “They must have a ship—a submarine—nearby, that torpedoed us.”
“I know, Ga—Janice.” Xena spoke as the two women adjusted the winch cables by turning the handles of the brakes at either end of the boat housing. “I know what happened and who did this. And I ain't happy.”
“All clear and stand down in the Torpedo Room, Walter.”
“All clear it is, sir.”
Horst turned from the periscope for the first time in minutes to regard the group of men standing expectantly around the crowded Bridge area.
“The ship's going down. A direct hit forward of amidships. Quarter speed, Walter, and prepare to surface.”
Kapitan Neidermayer returned to the chart table where he leaned once more over the spread-out map of the Caribbean Sea.
“Walter, there is a possibility we have not discussed yet. Which is that the people holding the case we need to find may escape the vessel, and also elude our search for them.”
“What then, Kapitan?”
“Our instructions from Headquarters are unusually full, Walter.” Horst scratched his head as he looked from the map to his Kapitanleutnant. “I must say for Admiral Doenitz that he sends very detailed messages. Shows a confidence in our military codes which, I admit, I don't entirely agree with. However, he reports that there is an island nearby; what these Americans call a Cay, which is inhabited by a British woman who may now have British military connections. If we find the case was saved from the wreck; or even if we are unsure, it may be well to pay a surprise call on this lady later on tonight or in the early morning.”
“And who is this British paragon, if I may ask, Kapitan.”
“She is called Miss Betty Carstairs.” Horst spoke with something of respect in his voice. “I myself remember her from several years ago. She used to race fast speedboats for the honour of Britain, but has been retired for some years I believe. However, as I say, it may be necessary for us to pay an unsolicited call on her nevertheless.”
“Ready for surfacing, Kapitan.” The Oberbootsman spoke quietly from his position at the far end of the enclosed space.
“Right.” Horst wasted no more time. “Blow forward tanks. Cut speed to 3 knots. Surface.”
“Here. There's a couple of oars here, in the bottom. They thought of everything when this lifeboat was provisioned.” Xena leaned over to pass the end of the long oar to Janice, in her seat on the other side of the boat. “We'll need to do some fast rowing to get away from the ship. Good thing those winch cables fell free without trouble.”
“Yeah.” Janice was still gasping for breath. It had been exhausting work controlling the lifeboat's descent into the water, from a ship's deck that was tilting upwards almost by the minute; but they had ultimately been successful. Within seconds of the boat hitting the water both women had scrambled down the cables then unhitched them, to begin steering the boat away from the impending disaster area around the foundering ship.
“Can you see anyone, Xena?” Janice peered across the surface of the dark sea. Even the vast bulk of the ship was now only visible by the light of the several fires that were still burning fiercely from midships forward. The entire Bridge was entirely obscured by smoke, and the ship was clearly settling deeper into the water; its port side now low with water running over the deck railings, and the starboard side rearing high in the air.
“No. No-one since we left.” Xena's voice was strained with the effort of pulling on the long wooden oar; though her natural tone, to Janice's ear, was still much deeper than Mel's Southern accent. “There may not have been any survivors, Jan. The explosion happened right in the middle of the ship, where most of the crew would have been working, apart from the engine-room. I think the Bridge took the full force.”
“Oh, Gods.” Janice was appalled at the consequences of this supposition. “Captain Malvers. He may have been killed just after he spoke to us. Oh, God.”
“Nothing we can do, I'm afraid.” Xena was concerned with the physical well-being of the woman by her side most of all; and all others, though a sad loss, took second place. “We can spend an hour or so looking for survivors, anyway, when we're well clear of the ship.”
“The German submarine, Xena.” Janice spoke hurriedly and excitedly. “They sank the ship specifically because they knew, somehow, the case was aboard. They're not going to just slip away. They'll surface and spend time searching for lifeboats just like this. We need to get away from here as fast as we possibly can.”
“OK. I hear ya.” Xena fiddled with her blouse for a moment and Janice suddenly heard the ripping of material. “Gods. These fashions are so constricting. I don't know how you suffer these clothes, er—Janice.”
“Come on. Keep rowing.” Janice for her part didn't quite understand Xena's last remark, but focussed on the action at hand.
“Turn a few degrees to port, Janice. Then we can head away from the ship. If anyone survived apart from us they'll just have to take care of themselves.”
“Oh, God, Xena.” Janice's cry was loud and heartfelt. “I can see a conning tower. Over there, about quarter of a mile away just past the ship's stern.”
“Keep rowing. We have a good chance of disappearing in the darkness, if we can make some headway.”
Suddenly an engine, loud and powerful, could be heard in the distance approaching on the other side of the lifeboat from their view of the U-Boat. With astonishing speed this noise rose to frightening levels, before suddenly tailing off as the dark shape of a low sleek boat slipped into view and came to rest close to the lifeboat.
“Who's there?” Xena's voice was loud and challenging, with no sound of fear as she rose to stand at bay; a hand stretching out to protect Janice, sitting by her side.
“Hello. Friend. British friend.” An obviously English accent greeted her call. “Get those damn long oars out'ta the way, an' come on board quickly. I can drive my boat out of danger in a matter of seconds. Come on. I know all about you. The Admiralty gave me instructions.”
“Did they give you a codeword?” Janice was surprised herself at her caution and intelligence.
“They said the word ‘ Potidaea ' would mean everything.”
“Get on board, Janice.” Xena bent over the centre of the lifeboat. “I'll follow you with the case. I hope her boat is as fast as she boasts.”
“1 degree port. Speed 3 knots.”
Kapitan Neidermayer spoke calmly as he stood on the conning tower of the newly surfaced U-Boat. The tangy sharpness of the sea-air was fresh in his lungs as he looked over the intervening ¾ mile or so of sparkling water to the crippled victim of his attack.
A large cloud of oil-laden smoke was pluming into the air; though it would not, he realised gratefully, create a visual target for American planes or British ships, the night now being so dark.
Dark in principal, but those few hundred yards away a fierce fire was still burning along what appeared to be the entire central section of the Blue Funnel Line ship. So strong a fire that the ship's outline was easily visible. Her stern was clear of smoke and the single drive shaft, with its three-bladed propeller could be seen as the ship settled on its beam-ends facing away from the spectators on the submarine.
The bow was almost entirely underwater as the German crew studied the result of their precision attack. What parts of the superstructure were visible were belching orange flame; the wavering roar of which could be heard even at some distance.
“Boat to starboard of the ship's bow, Kapitan.” The look-out, on his step slightly above the officers, spoke sharply. “About 50 yards away from the ship.”
“I see it.” Kapitanleutnant Kutsch nodded and held out his field-glasses. “It's a lifeboat.”
Neidermayer studied the silhouette before returning the glasses and turning to take a long considered glance across the whole panorama of tragedy being acted out before their eyes.
“Only one. But at least there may be many survivors. Bring us close and get a boarding party ready. We need to search that lifeboat, Kutsch.”
“Carstairs. Betty Carstairs. I'm British. Live on a Cay not so far away. I'm working for the British Military at the moment.”
Janice, as she spoke, was squeezing herself into the narrow cock-pit at the rear of the long streamlined vessel. They had placed the steel suitcase, not without difficulty, in a sort of cubby-hole just behind the seating compartment. With Mel trying to get her long legs safely stowed the space was fully taken up. Her earlier change of persona had apparently suddenly reverted back to her normal character. Janice did not act as if she had noticed the incident. The boat's owner appeared amused; smiling broadly at her newly arrived passengers as she sat in the centre, between the two women and behind what appeared to be a large motor-car driving wheel.
“Navy. Well—sort of. Strictly temporary, you know. Are you both in? Hang on to that brass bar behind your shoulders. It'll get a little bumpy when I go to full power.”
“What is this thing?” Mel, finally settled, was full of interest at the small boat and its curious owner.
“Yeah.” Janice spoke, somewhat suspiciously. “When we went over the side I didn't imagine we'd have a rescue party already waiting. How'd you know this was going to happen here?”
“Oh. I've been following your ship for about 2½ hours.” The lanky dark haired woman glanced at her passengers again. “My orders were that she would be traversing the North Channel about now; and that I should keep an eye on her.”
“A bit of luck for us, eh, Janice?” Mel squirmed in her place on the starboard side of the seating bench, looking from the boat's owner to her friend squashed on the far side against the port bulwark.
“It surely is.” Janice admitted, with pursed lips. “The British military are sharper than I gave them credit for, I think.”
“Oh, the Admiralty can work well enough; when something important stirs them off their butts.” The elegant tone of the woman's voice offset the curious vulgarity of her words, though Mel raised an unseen eyebrow.
“So what happens now, er—Betty?” Janice returned to the present. “We need to look for survivors, but try to evade that U-Boat. We have something they're looking for and I don't want them to capture it. But still, the survivors?”
“If there were any survivors, and I'm not convinced there were, they'll have to look out for themselves, I'm afraid.” Betty was now fiddling with switches on the softly glowing control panel in front of her. “My instructions were, if I had to rescue you, then I should bring you to Whale Cay as soon as possible. I can send a coded message from my house, and a British destroyer should arrive in a day or so. That's the plan anyway.”
“I saw the U-Boat on the far side of the ‘ Perdicus ' just before you rescued us, Betty.” Janice glanced across to where the billowing flames from the doomed vessel were still lighting the night sky some ½ mile away. “Are we in darkness? Could the U-Boat see us from there?”
“No. We're OK, for the moment.” Betty's voice was calm and assured. “But we need to slip away as soon as possible. Thank God the ship's still burning; the sound'll drown us out.”
“What d'ya mean?” Mel turned in the confined space to look from the owner to the curious dark mass that seemed to block out vision a few feet ahead of them, on the boat's forward deck.
“This is one of my racing speedboats.” Betty favoured her two companions with a white-toothed smile. “Thought it would best serve the present purpose.”
“Racing speedboat?” Janice felt an icy chill begin to trickle down her spine.
“Yeah.” The young woman spoke with assurance and a touch of pride. “I built a series of these boats for the Harmsworth Trophy Races. Haven't won yet, but this is the latest. ‘ Estelle VII '—a real beaut.”
“So it has speed enough to outrun that U-Boat?” Janice's voice, though calm, had a slight tremble.
“Hell, yeah. They'll only have some kind'a diesel engine for surface power. I've got two 12 cylinder aero engines.”
“Aero engines!” Mel's voice was shrill with astonishment.
“Uh-huh.” Betty sounded nonchalant as she started flicking a series of switches underneath the driving wheel. “Napier Lion's. The same type the RAF used in their fighters.”
“And you have two in this boat?”
“How fast can it go?” Janice suddenly felt she had a great need to know the basics here.
“80 easily.” Betty ran a hand through her short hair. “100 mph when you try hard. 110 mph if you want to die trying.”
“Holy Gods.” Janice was impressed. “What's it like at that speed? I mean the last time you went that fast.”
“Ha.” Betty regarded the young woman by her side with a contemplative air. “The last time I hit 110mph the boat overturned. I was lucky to escape relatively unscathed.”
Suddenly Janice wasn't so sure about a high-speed getaway after all.
An enormous explosion from forward on the deck stopped further conversation. Janice and Mel looked at each other appalled but Betty, bowed over the switches and seeing their distress, merely laughed.
“Don't worry.” Her voice now had a curious tone, halfway between a giggle and a mad cackle. “They have to be blasted into action by swamping the cylinders with fuel. Once they get going it'll really be noisy. So hang on.”
Another huge explosion rent the night air, making Janice glance over her shoulder back towards the still burning wreck of the ‘ Perdicus '. But nothing was visible on the flame-lit ocean between it and themselves. A third explosion battered her eardrums and this seemed to be the kick the engines were awaiting. With a roar like a volcano blasting its top both engines sprang into full life and the women felt the boat suddenly become alive beneath them.
Betty turned her steering-wheel and the boat lifted up in the water as the hugely powerful engines dug the propeller into the water and pushed them along at an ever increasing speed.
“Here we go, ladies. Hang on tight. Whale Cay in 20 minutes.”
“Captain John Malvers. SS ‘ Perdicus '. Blue Funnel Line.”
“I am sorry we meet in such circumstances, Captain Malvers.” Horst shouted down from his high vantage point to the dishevelled man standing in the boat tossing in the water a few feet away from the submarine's side. He had to raise his voice more than normal to combat the horrendous roaring of flames coming from the listing ship. There was a perceptible aroma of burning fuel in the air, drifting across from the tragedy being enacted a few hundred yards away. Several crewmen were standing on the deck with boathooks ready to catch on to the lifeboat's side.
“I need to give your boat an examination for—for vital War material. Then we shall leave you to go on your way unharmed. Did most of your crew manage to escape?”
“There are about 16 men here, Captain.” Malvern waved at the group of sorry-looking people in the boat beside him. “I'm afraid there are seven men missing, mostly engine-room staff.”
“Ah.” Neidermayer nodded. “I understand. It will only take about five minutes to search your boat, Captain, then we will leave you. Martin, take it down.”
“Aye, sir.” Oberleutnant Oelke left the conning tower deck, clutching a small box, to clamber down the ladder on the far side of the anti-aircraft gun slightly below.
“Captain Malvers,” Neidermayer tried to make his words echo the true regard he had for seamen in such circumstances. “We can give you a compass to help with your navigation, as well as a couple of barrels of water and some rations. You need not worry about the compass. It is British, after all.”
It was perhaps just as well the ocean was a flat calm as the boat scythed through, or rather over, the waves. Janice had given up any attempt at conversation with the thunder of the engines drowning anything she tried to say. The noise was truly ear-splitting and Mel was sitting slumped with both hands hard over her ears. Janice too felt an almost physical throbbing in her head at the unhindered sound of the engines; while the immense vibration travelling though the frame of the small vessel seemed to shake every bone and sinew in her body. It was the most awful, nerve-deadening noise she had ever experienced.
They had been racing over the ocean for just short of 20 minutes and Janice; watching the driver intently, had not felt any great confidence when she realised Betty was navigating by compass and timing alone. Almost guess-work, Janice thought gloomily. But with absolutely no way to influence events she could only sit back and hope. She held tightly, with her left hand, onto the brass rail set in the deck behind her.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the boat suddenly eased its speed and quite gently and unexpectedly ran into quiet calm water. A dark shape appeared on their left that materialised into the timbers of a small jetty and a soft male voice called from the darkness.
“Miss Carstairs, ma'am.”
“OK, Gerry.” Betty had switched off the engines, which collapsed into silence with guttural gurgles, leaving an unearthly silence behind them.
“Are we there?” Mel's voice echoed both women's relief at the cessation of the terrible noise and bouncing of their journey.
“Yep. Let's go up to the house, ladies.” Betty put out a helping hand to Janice as the boat rocked at its moorings. “Gerry here will look after things for us. Come on.”
“Not without the case please, Betty.” Janice was adamant and, after a slight pause, Betty leaned over and helped the women undo the ropes and lift the ungainly object up onto the wooden planks of the jetty.
“Bloody heavy, ain't it?” The intrepid boat-owner spoke musingly.
“Yeah. And important, too.”
Something in Janice's tone made Betty look appraisingly from her to the case and back again as the three women traversed a white gravel path. After a few hundred yards a white-walled two storied house came into view, lit by a series of exterior lanterns placed on the encircling patio.
“A small place—but mine own. Welcome to Whale Cay, ladies.”
Inside, Mel was enthralled by a wide high-ceilinged hall and a wooden staircase which went up to an encircling walkway with mysterious doors along its length.
“Let's go into the lounge. We can have some food and drink there—and relax.”
The house's cicerone pointed to the left where a few steps brought them all into a smaller panelled room furnished with soft couches and leather chairs. A little fire was burning in an ornate fireplace and glasses and bottles were waiting on a low table. It all seemed very cosy, and a million miles away from the danger and tragedy of the last few hours. Janice felt a throb of amazement at the course of events, and was suddenly very grateful for the glass of whisky offered by the lady of the house. The case was deposited in a small room off to one side, and the women settled down. The fire was warm; the whisky good; and the peaceful atmosphere a remarkable contrast to earlier events.
“Sorry we had to meet like this.” Betty smiled at her guests. “But at least you survived a shipwreck. That's something to tell the folks, later.”
“Yeah. But how many didn't.” Janice spoke glumly. “I know for a fact—I think I know,—that the Captain didn't make it. The torpedo hit just abaft the bridge. He couldn't have escaped.”
“Maybe he did.” Betty shook her head. “Things like that can never be easily classified. Look at me, for instance. For all my accidents, I'm still here in one piece—mostly.”
“Oh.” Mel's voice held a questioning tone. “How'd ya mean?”
“A few years ago, like I said earlier,—when I was really into motor-boat racing,—I had a fearful crash. Too light a boat; and too-powerful engines. And the hull design left a lot to be desired. Well anyway, when I reached 100mph she jumped up in the air—out of the water, I mean,—and rolled over several times. My mechanic and I were thrown out into the sea, both with multiple injuries. He suffered badly. Pretty awful at the time.”
“Yeah.” Mel agreed wholeheartedly. “Makes you think.”
“Made me think I needed a better boat.”
Janice grunted in reply to this remarkable statement; while Mel just looked at her hostess with wide eyes. Betty, to look at, was something less than tall; but her lithe shape gave the impression of height. This was accentuated by the fact her favourite clothes were short pants apparently made from cut-down jeans. These showed her legs to advantage; limbs which impressed by their muscularity. Her complexion was pale and her features square and determined. Her hair was blonde and cut short in a slightly wavy boyish style. Her blue eyes held more than a hint of strong character and even superiority. Her shirt had short sleeves, which showed to advantage several large blue-tinted tattoos running up both arms.
Glancing around once more Janice realised this house was the residence of someone with lots of money; and probably just as much power. The walls of the entrance hall, she had noted, were hung with various sporting trophies; which, if gained by the lady of the house must reflect worldwide travel.
“You said something about radioing a British naval ship?” Janice got down to facts. The case in the other room still exerted its baleful aura over her. “If you can do that, how long before they come to pick us up? We need to be in Miami as quickly as possible.”
“I'll get the message off in a few minutes. Then I'm afraid it will probably be the best part of 24 hours before they arrive. The destroyer is some distance away, at the moment.”
“Oh, God. Can we stay here that long?” Mel sounded frightened, and Betty tried to relax the tension.
“Nobody'll harm us here. This is my island. I say what happens here.” Betty raised her chin in the air with a wholly determined expression. “If the Germans come, I'll be ready for them by morning. I have a private militia, you know. Newly armed with rifles and other weapons, courtesy of the British Navy.”
“There are people here, on this island?” Janice gazed at her hostess with interest. “And you are—what? To them, I mean.”
“Well,” Betty paused slightly while Janice, eyeing her keenly, gauged her age at something like the early thirties. If she was older she was certainly well preserved. “I bought the island—Whale Cay—some years ago. There are about 250 islanders here. The place was a dump when I arrived, so I set about building necessary works. A hospital; school; better houses; that sort of thing. It's nominally British, you know; being part of the Bahamas. But for all the interest the British Government has ever taken in the people here it might as well be in the Antarctic.”
“You must have lots of money to do all that. Oh, sorry.” Mel looked down at her glass, blushing.
“Ha-Ha.” Betty laughed in answer. “Yeah. I'm afraid so. My mother was related to Standard Oil; so I found myself rolling in the ready from an early age. That helped me get into motor-boat racing and buy this island. So things haven't worked out badly.”
“You're not married?” Janice asked the question innocently, just as a conversational topic. “Your husband would be in his element here, I should say.”
Betty didn't answer and, on looking over at her hostess, Janice found the blonde-haired woman examining her curiously.
“No. Not married.” Betty inclined her head sideways in an obviously habitual manner; eyes focussed on Janice. “I don't like men that much. I get on better with women.”
As she said this she raised an eyebrow and both Janice and Mel suddenly realised her meaning. There followed a certain amount of embarrassment as both tried to pass her words off with as much insouciance as they could muster at short notice.
The door, at this point, thankfully opened and a young man dressed in white shirt and shorts appeared. He was clearly one of the house staff and approached Betty simply but respectfully.
“Boat's seen to, ma'am. The men are stationed on the jetty and the shore along the North coast. Richard's got his squad round the house as ordered.”
“Good. That should take care of things. Thanks.”
The man left the room with just a nod and smile to the two travellers and they heard the heavy outer door bang closed, with something of a squeak.
“Oh. Those hinges.” Betty laughed once more. “We leave some things to do another day, and then find we've run out of oil. Ain't it just the way.”
“Nothing to report, Kapitan.” Oberleutnant Oelke called from the submarine's deck as he stood by the side of the main gun. “There is no sign of, er, illegal items. All clear.”
“Very good.” Neidermayer gazed once more at the group of somewhat tattered survivors huddled in the vessel bobbing on the waves by his ship's side. “Kapitan Malvers. I am sorry for this incident. But the necessity of War, you know. We will leave you to go on your way. Take a course due West and you will hit Florida without trouble.”
Captain Malvers, sitting in the low boat and grasping a rowlock, could hardly be said to be in the happiest frame of mind. It is never easy to go through the motions of politeness with a man who has just sunk your ship from under you; but with true British phlegm Malvers did his duty.
“Thank you, Captain. The compass will see us through. Thank you for the water.”
“Of course, Kapitan Malvers. We are, after all, not monsters. You wi—”
“She's going, Kapitan.”
Oelke's soft voice was hardly needed as the distant ship had now begun emitting horrible groans and tearing noises. The lifeboat was still tied to the side of the submarine where a group of men had been scrupulously investigating every corner of the surprisingly large vessel.
Although swathed in smoke, and some 300 hundred yards away in the dark night, the sinking vessel was clearly visible; mostly as a result of the submarine's searchlight which had been focussed on her for the last ten minutes. The ship had rolled over to port with her bows mostly underwater. Vast masses of smoke; oil-fuelled, were still pouring from the main superstructure accompanied by gouts of orange flame.
All that could be seen from the submarine's point of view was the curved underside of the vessel and parts of the crushed centre decks. To the rear the long drive shaft was clearly visible with the propeller reflecting in the searchlight's beam. It's blades surprisingly, still revolving slowly. As the ship emitted ever louder and more sustained sounds of ripping metal and destruction the spectators, on submarine and lifeboat, watched as the vessel leaned sideways and rolled further over still.
Finally the stern rose above the waves into the air. The surrounding water was wreathed in black smoke and flames; and then began splashing and bubbling like a monstrous cooking pot at boiling point. There was a hissing sound; the smoke washed around the ship as it settled in the water, making observation more difficult; then, with a final groan and roar of failing metal the flames were suddenly doused.
Swirling bands of thick smoke obscured the ship as its doom approached. The central superstructure began to slip beneath the surface and, with a speed which caught everyone watching by surprise, the stern inclined higher still till it was silhouetted nearly vertically in the air. Then roaring torrents of air seemed to escape the ship; probably from the unseen after hatches and, surrounded by rising black clouds of impenetrable black smoke, the last sight of the stern was caught as the ship, obscured in smoke and darkness, disappeared under the waves. A few seconds later and all that could be seen was an area of oily disturbed water reflected in the beam of the U-boat's searchlight.
There was only a pause of perhaps 10 seconds before the first waves from the disaster's epicentre hit the low submarine. Three of the crew clung to the large gun for support while water washed up to their knees. On the lifeboat the men held onto their vessel's bulwarks; while on the conning tower even Neidermayer found it necessary to grip the binocular stanchion for support as the submarine rolled in the unexpectedly rough water. Then all was relatively calm again, and the tragedy was over.
“Release the lifeboat, Oelke.” Neidermayer called the order in what he hoped was a commanding tone. “Goodbye, Kapitan Malvers.”
“Shall I order the men below, sir?” Oelke spoke from his vantage point on the metal-grid of the submarine's main deck.
“No. Stay there, Oelke. We may need them if there are any other lifeboats about.”
“Increase speed to 5 knots. Head to starboard.”
The lifeboat was left free to find its own course away from the scene of the sinking, while the submarine headed for the far side of the recent disaster. Neidermayer wanted to inspect the water on the side of the incident, so far hidden from him. If there was another lifeboat there might well yet be a chance of capturing his prize. In fact events seemed to be favouring him as, within three minutes of leaving the now invisible lifeboat in their wake, a call came from the look-out on the conning tower above the Kapitan's head.
“Boat ahead. About 400 yards, 127 degrees.”
Using the searchlight and his excellent field-glasses Neidermayer soon distinguished the low white-painted boat bobbing in the waves. A few re-directions of course and speed and within five minutes the submarine hove to once more beside the second lifeboat. A boathook grasping its bulwark brought it to the side of the ship for inspection.
“Empty, sir.” Oelke called up; rather unnecessarily. “But we'll take a look.”
Another five minutes went by till the Oberleutnant reported again.
“Nothing. Nothing at all, sir. There are some scratches on the bulwark edges that might mean someone had scrambled aboard, maybe. But there's nothing here.”
“All right, Oelke. Bring your crew below. We will have to head away from this location quickly.”
“Shall we submerge, Kapitan?” Walter Kutsch eyed his commander, awaiting orders, as they stood on either side of the two periscopes.
“No, Walter. I think we will remain on the surface. I'm not satisfied about this.” Horst scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Kapitan Malvers escaped the wreck; even after being so close to the torpedo impact. So might anyone else.”
“It's possible, Kapitan.” Walter agreed, remembering his own years at sea. “Strange things can happen at sea. Even impossible things, sometimes.”
“Just so, Walter.” Neidermayer nodded in agreement. “And with that prospect in mind I think we have no alternative but to pay a courtesy call on our British lady-friend on Whale Cay. Probably mere etiquette; but it might have results. Let's go.”
“You have a private army?” Mel spoke with an awed tone as she replaced her glass on the table, refusing a refill from the British lady opposite.
“Hardly that.” Betty laughed softly. “About 75 men in uniform and armed with a few rifles for the last few years. It keeps the people out of mischief, and gives them an interest. There's nothing much else to do here. If ever an island could be described as desert, that desert island is this desert island.”
“But you've made contact with British er—er, channels?” Janice was at a loss how to describe her host's position.
“Yes. Certain British Government departments have expressed their pleasure at my presence and nationality. For the first time, I have to say, in about ten years. Including the new British Governor.” Betty raised a quizzical eye, as if expecting a mark of recognition from her guests. “You know who he is? No? Well, it doesn't matter. But at least they've re-equipped my ‘ army '.”
“Oh.” Mel's voice expressed interest.
“Would you like to see?” Betty jumped up grinning; looking for all the world like a schoolgirl on holiday. “I have most of the stuff safely locked up in a shed out back. Come on. You'll love this.”
A bare few minutes found the three women traversing the gravel paths again; but this time round to the rear of the house. They shortly came up to a small one-roomed building with, Janice could just glimpse in the darkness, white-painted walls. Clearly situated on the out-lying perimeter of the house environs.
Betty took a large key from a bunch tinkling at her waist and flung the door wide. She entered first, to flick a light switch, and the two adventurers followed. Inside was an Aladdin's cave which made Janice whistle with glee.
On shelves attached to the walls on either side was an array of guns; not old decrepit weapons, but well-maintained .303 rifles of obvious British military vintage. A variety of ammunition boxes were stacked in every available space, and on one of the two tables were the jewels in the crown. Three Thompson machine-guns.
Betty lifted one in her hand and hefted it admiringly before offering it to Janice who almost snatched it in return.
“Tommy guns. I'll be damned. This is the way to run a War.”
“Ha-Ha.” Betty laughed at the obvious joy in Janice's eye. “If it ever reaches us here. Do I take it you're experienced with weapons?”
“She can shoot any kind of gun that's ever been invented.” Mel said proudly. “If it's got a trigger, and a bullet up the spout, Jan can wreak havoc.”
“I begin to like you even more.” Betty smiled. “But you haven't noticed the piece de resistance. Over there.”
Both women turned to look in the direction indicated and both reacted in their several ways. Mel gulped then let out a sound like a lamb in pain: Janice just stood transfixed.
“My God. It's a cannon.” Mel was first to regain her voice.
“Ha.” Betty laughed at the effect her surprise had on her visitors. “Not quite. It's a Bren gun.”
Jan walked over to the formidable weapon lying on the other table-top and caressed its vicious-looking barrel with a delicate fingertip. She gave a whimper of pure pleasure; like a girl at a birthday party who has just been informed she can have all the jello to herself.
“This—this—this is a real gun.” She put both hands out; then glanced at her hostess enquiringly.
“If you think it's not too heavy.”
Putting her hands on barrel and stock Janice leaned over the weapon, then lifted it into the air with a grunt.
“My God. It is heavy.” As she lifted her arms for a better grip the barrel hit the metal edge of a nearby shelf with a clang. “And long. God, it's cumbersome.”
“Nearly 4 feet.” The owner came over to stand beside Janice. “Weighs 22lbs. When you stick the magazine in the top holder here and fire, it has a kick-back like a bull.”
“I bet.” Janice was clearly enthralled with the weapon and was visibly salivating over it. Mel meanwhile, as was her way, had gone exploring.
“ Oh God! ”
“ Oh God! ”
Two responses. Two voices filled with horror. Jan was the first to recover her wits.
“Mel, darling. Do just what I say. Nothing less; nothing more. Got that? Don't speak. Just nod.”
Mel nodded uncomprehendingly, still clutching the object in her hand which she had picked out of an open box.
“Don't squeeze it. Just gently put it back where you found it, OK?”
Mel, with raised eyebrows did as requested and, as she brought her empty hand back up in sight, the other two women broke into action.
Janice dived at the offending box and, after a swift glance inside, closed it. Betty jumped to the door and held it open, as if ready for escape at a moment's notice.
“Phew, Betty. You might keep grenades stored more safely.”
“Sorry, Janice. I didn't think anyone would be so—”
“Quite.” Jan looked at her bosom friend with a pained expression. “ Grenades , darling. Be careful. Don't touch anything else, without I'm at your elbow. OK?”
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, Betty.”
“S'alright. No harm done.” The relief in Betty's voice was apparent to all, nevertheless. “Perhaps we'd better lock up here for the night? We—we still need to make that radio call.”
As they walked back to the house, lit brightly with no regard for blackout regulations which were making people's lives so much of a misery back in Britain at this time, Betty questioned the duo about their recent escapade.
“When I call the destroyer they'll want to know some details.”
“Like what?” Janice was still tingling with righteous anger at the Germans' attack. “We were sittin' comfortably in our cabin; then a goddamned Jerry torpedoed us without so much as a ‘ by your leave '. What details do they want? It was a U-Boat. Ain't that enough?”
“Its number, darling.” Mel attempted to put herself back in favour with her loved other half. “They all have numbers on their sides. For recognition purposes. You see the German Navy first—”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” Jan looked at her companion scornfully. “I get the idea. It was U-4, er—07.”
“U-404.” Mel corrected the jerkin clad woman at her side; then raised her eyebrows at the look she got in return.
“Yeah. That's right, Betty. It was U-404.”
“Thanks, Jan.” Betty escorted them back into the house through a side-door which led into a short passage. From there another door took them back into the small room they had recently left.
“I'll have a servant bring some food and wine.” Betty waved at the chairs and smiled at her visitors. “The radio's upstairs. I'll only be a few minutes. It takes some time to put these messages into code and then de-code the answers.”
As she left Jan and Mel settled down to recover some of their composure after both the sinking and the incident in the weapon shed.
“Sorry about that grenade thing.”
“Don't worry.” Jan noticed the sad expression on her beloved's face and broke into a grin. She rose from her chair and sat beside Mel on the couch. “What's a grenade between friends?”
“More than friends.” Jan looked deeply into the blue eyes of the woman by her side. “More than friends could ever be, or lovers. Soulmates.”
They both reached out to embrace each other, and there was peace in the room for a long time.
“Report from the look-out. He's spotted a beach with a jetty.” The Kapitanleutnant gave his information calmly, though he felt an inward surge of excitement. “And what appear to be roof-tops behind some trees a hundred yards inland.”
“So, Kutsch. We appear to have arrived. Let's go up on deck and inspect the English Lady's demesne.”
The U-Boat had been sailing for almost an hour and their goal had come in sight a bare 10 minutes ago. It had all the appearances of being abandoned and empty, but Horst had steered his vessel along the island's southern coast, staying a hundred yards off-shore all the way.
On stepping onto the conning tower's deck and tasting the fresh night air again Neidermayer couldn't but feel elated at the turn events were taking. Ordered by Admiral Doenitz himself to find a particular ship, he had done so, and sunk it as instructed. Now he had arrived at the very door of a British citizen and was about to make a personal call. Although not a vain man, and even less anxious than most to play the conquering hero to rapturous German crowds and superior officers, he still could not help thinking that this would almost certainly mean the Iron Cross, 1st Class. His mother would be so proud.
“Looks like a desert island, Kapitan.” There was an anxious note in Oelke's voice as he greeted the other two officers. “I've been examining it through the glasses. It's very low-lying. There aren't any hills at all. I don't think it rises more than 30 feet above sea-level anywhere. Are we quite sure this is the correct island, sir?”
“There are several other islands in the vicinity, Kapitan.” Kutsch spoke confidently. “But they are easily distinguishable and I am certain this is Whale Cay, even if it isn't much to look at.”
“Well, let's get the men on deck.” Neidermayer too was certain of his navigation. “We must get a party on land quickly and investigate that house we can see inland. Remember, if the people we are after are there—then we must be absolutely certain we fulfil the task given us by Admiral Doenitz.”
Two hours had gone by and the women were beginning to settle into their new quarters. Jan and Mel were still in the small drawing-room where they had just finished a good meal a few minutes earlier. Betty had taken them upstairs to freshen up a little in a delightful bedroom with attached bathroom. Jan had remarked on the fact that a long hot bath was just the thing a battered young War waif needed; and Mel had managed, through long experience, to avoid the thrown cushion when she retorted that when a poor War waif hove in sight she would be sure to give it a good bath.
Downstairs again they were deep in a discussion with their hostess about the possible dangers posed by a U-Boat loose in these waters. Betty had given it as her opinion that the German captain would be cautious about attempting any kind of sustained activity. Jan and Mel both had reservations about this, but didn't pursue the matter. Instead Mel asked Betty to tell them of her attempts to achieve the Harmsworth Trophy Cup; and they were avidly listening to her describing an incident in the 1931 race when an interruption came.
The outer door could be heard crashing open and a few seconds later a man in uniform, clutching a rifle, barged into the room.
“Madam. They're here.” He was out of breath and clearly excited as he stood by Betty's chair. “On the other side of the island. They've attacked the empty school-building.”
“OK, Robert. Take a breath. I have everything under control. Give me your report like I trained you to.” Betty spoke with a studied calm that apparently had its effect. The young man raised his head and visibly mastered his excitement.
“Yes, ma'am. We were on patrol on the south coast when we spotted the submarine. It was some way out, following the coastline. We used our motorbikes to keep up with it and then it stopped off Short Beach. A boat came ashore and a party of men headed for us at the school. We sent a few shots over their heads; just to let them know we were there. And they started firing with rifles and a machine-gun. We kept it up for a few minutes but it got too dangerous, and I ordered the men to slip away and head over here through the trees. Ma'am, they can only be about 15 minutes behind us.”
Betty, along with her two guests, was now on her feet.
“OK, Robert. Listen to me. Don't try defending yourself against them anymore. People are bound to get hurt that way. Just disappear into the scrub-trees and go to the North of the island. They really want me, and whoever is with me here. They won't have any time to hunt you down. Go now.”
“But you, ma'am?”
“I'll be alright, Robert.” Betty grinned at her employee. “And Robert, thanks for keeping such a good look-out and holding them back.”
The man nodded, then left as precipitately as he had come. Betty wasted no time either.
“Jan, Mel. We need to get weapons from the shed; get that case of yours back on the boat; and hightail it out of here right now.”
“How much time have we?” Jan asked this pertinent question as they left the main door and headed round towards the shed. Batty was in the lead, with Jan and Mel following clutching the heavy case between them.
“The island's not anything more than a sand-bank, really.” Betty glanced over her shoulder. “Though the scrub and trees make it a little difficult to march across. Maybe 10 minutes tops.”
“What do you plan on doing?” Mel gasped as they reached the door of the low shed.
“We'll take a Tommy gun; and the Bren; and magazines for both. Anything else will just be a hindrance.”
“The Bren's heavy and unwieldy.” Jan took the realistic view; even though her heart bled at the thought of leaving it behind.
“We need it.” Betty was decisive. “I've already got attachments fitted on the boat for it. It'll come in handy for defence; even against a U-Boat. Come on.”
“Can we evade a U-Boat, Betty?”
Mel looked at Betty anxiously, as the three women grabbed handfuls of magazines. Betty handed a Tommy gun to Jan, and gave Mel a heavy canvas pouch-bag with a shoulder strap.
“You take the Tommy, Jan. Yeah, we can lose the U-Boat if we can reach my boat and get out to sea.” Betty's manner was suddenly swift and efficient, as she picked up magazines and other necessary bits and pieces. “Remember, they're now on the South Coast. They'll have to round the island again to reach the Northern waters where we'll be making our escape.”
“How long a lead will that give us?” Jan was breathing heavily too, now.
“Probably about 40 minutes, maybe an hour.” Betty laughed loudly and unexpectedly. “Once I get old ‘ Estelle ' going we can run like the wind. Come on, let's go.”
They quickly left the environs of the estate behind as they walked through the sandy scrub. Betty had a torch which lit their way, though the stars were bright above. Soon nothing but trees and sand surrounded them. Another 5 minutes walk and they arrived back at the jetty where they had come ashore, seemingly so long a time ago.
As they packed the case into the small free space at the boat's stern, and Betty placed the ungainly Bren onto the boat's deck just in front of the driving compartment, they all suddenly stopped and straightened as the far sound of sustained gunfire reached them on the calm night air.
“Gods. Someone must still be trying to fight them.” Betty's voice was anxious as they all listened to the distant fusillade.
“How far away?” Jan enquired, as she clipped a magazine into the underside of her gun and cocked it.
“Maybe about ½ mile.” Betty returned to her task of fixing the Bren to the tri-pod stand already bolted on the deck. After a minute she jumped over the low windshield to sit behind the wheel again. “OK, ladies. Everything stowed? Right. We're heading out into the North Channel. Hang on.”
Once more there was an explosion from the open-cowled engines. Another couple followed before they burst into life with the remembered ferocity. The ropes were thrown clear and they headed out into the dark sea. After a few minutes cautious running, and close attention to the dim compass on her control panel, Betty suddenly turned to the two women squeezed in beside her.
“This is where you find out what it is to try for a World Record. Hang on to your hats, and start praying to whatever Gods you follow; however small or ineffective they may be.”
An increasing roar, a sensation of being forced down in their seats by an invisible but powerful force, and the boat became a wailing banshee rushing through the darkness on its mission of terror.
Nothing had prepared either Jan or Mel for what followed. The windshield deflected the worst of the wind, but enough reached them to make breathing, never mind talking, extremely difficult. The boat surprisingly, instead of travelling smoothly, appeared to be bouncing over the water; only touching it at intervals. The resulting crashes were like being thrown out of bed onto the floor in an earthquake, only with three times the force. The noise was terrific. Not only the wind and the engines, but the very fabric of the boat could be heard groaning and cracking under the massive forces at play. To Mel at least it sounded as if the boat was genuinely ripping itself apart.
Betty crouched over the bucking wheel; obviously straining all her strength in the effort to keep control of the vicious beast that the boat had become. Jan found herself wondering how the slight form of the rich British woman, only a little taller than herself, could have endured such a struggle over so many years of racing. She was even more impressed with Betty's raw courage than she had been before.
The ghastly noise and shuddering impacts as the boat pursued its course went on for what, to the inexperienced sailors, appeared to be hours. In fact it was only about another 20 minutes before the next incident in their odyssey occurred.
An explosion, louder and of a different calibre to the general beat of the engines, sounded from forward. This was closely followed by another, more sustained, eruption as a thick cloud of evil-smelling black smoke engulfed the women in the steering compartment. Betty shut off the engines swiftly and the boat came to a shuddering halt, smoke billowing from the interior of the port engine.
For a minute they could only gasp and cough as the fumes swirled around; but eventually these thinned, then retreated to mere wreaths of hot air rising from the engine. Everyone gasped in the fresh air gratefully.
“What the Hell happened?” Jan's voice grated as she tried to spit the taste of oil out of her throat. “I thought the goddam thing was going to explode.”
“It has.” Betty raised her hands wordlessly, then lowered them again to the now useless wheel. “What you have just experienced is a Napier Lion 12 cylinder aero engine blowing one of its cylinders.”
“Is that bad?” Mel's voice started low but by the third word had reached a high treble.
“There's a descriptive British phrase that covers the situation perfectly.” Betty looked across at the tall woman. “But as you're a lady, I won't use it.”
“How long till you can fix it?” Jan's mind was working on altogether different lines. “We still need to put some distance between us and those damned Germans.”
“I can't fix it.” Betty sounded exhausted. “At least, not out in the middle of the ocean. The engine needs expert attention, and machined parts. All we can do now is sit here and wait for someone to pick us up.”
“What. Aren't you going to get up there and try to do anything?” Jan was appalled by this news, and now really angry. If there was one thing that got her fuse burning it was inaction in the face of danger. “Come on. At least take a look. See what's really happened. Show me.”
“OK. OK. But you won't like it. Step over the windshield and don't slip on the wet wood. You'll go right overboard.”
A few minutes industrious effort by Betty, with Jan's help, served to reveal the full extent of the damage. One of the cylinders had indeed cracked across, splintering its casing and damaging a fuel pipe and oil line. But matters were not quite as bad as they might have been. At least Betty thought so, as she gave Jan her report after the close examination.
“The cylinder's obviously gone. But I can repair the fuel line and oil pipe; given time. That won't be enough to let us go on though.”
“Why not?” Jan was surging with re-newed excitement and was jittery with nerves. “What's to stop us going on when you've done what you can?”
“Well—it's the port engine that's gone.” Betty brushed oily fingers through her hair, leaving a mark across her forehead. “These engines work in tandem; not by themselves. At least they're configured to work that way as they stand.”
“What does that mean?”
“We either have both engines working; or we don't go. It can't operate on only one engine.”
“It can't move on one engine.” Jan was now hyper-ventilating and started waving her hands in the air. “Here we are in the middle of the Caribbean Sea—”
“Whatever.” Jan didn't care. “And you tell me this goddamn boat won't go on one engine.”
“It's specially built for a particular purpose.” Betty too was losing her cool at the harsh description of her beloved vessel. “I didn't design it for pleasure riding at night with—with you on board.”
“ You designed it?” Jan looked piercingly at the slim figure of the British woman.
“Er, yes. What do you mean?”
“You designed it to operate on two engines.” Jan's voice had taken on an icy calm. “Well re-design it to go on one. Right now. Remember, this is War. And the Germans are on our tail.”
Betty considered her loved engines; the messy oil-stained metal of the damaged engine; and the excited face of the woman beside her.
“Well—if I could disconnect the drive shaft couplings it would separate the engines; and then the starboard engine might go on its own. I'm not guaranteeing anything, mind.”
“Get to it. We have no time left. Lem'me help with the tools. Mel can help too. Hey, Mel.”
“Yeah. I hear ya. I've been listening.”
“Stay where you are.” Jan scrambled across the wet slippery and dangerously curved deck of the racing boat to put a hand on the windshield where she could whisper to her companion. “Keep a look-out for any lights in the distance. I'll try and keep Betty at it. She's our only hope. If the U-Boat catches up with us we may need to think about jettisoning the case into the sea.”
Although she was whispering it apparently wasn't low enough. Betty called over anxiously.
“Did I hear something about jettisoning the case?”
“Yeah.” Jan replied reluctantly.
“I don't think that's a good idea.” Betty spoke with confidence. “We're still in the North Passage here.”
“I thought you said earlier we were heading for the Channel. The North Channel?” Jan replied with a doubtful note in her own voice.
“Yes. That was my plan. But we're not there yet.” Betty had scampered across to join the two at the cockpit. “This is still the North Passage. There's only depth for boats and ships to travel along here in a channel about ¼ mile wide. So the U-Boat can't fail to spot us when she arrives. This may look like the middle of nowhere; but it isn't. We've stopped in the middle of a Highway. The only Highway in these parts. And even here the water's only 15-20 feet deep. If you threw the case overboard the Germans could probably retrieve it with boathooks or divers in a few minutes.”
There was a pause, vibrant with subdued energy and disquiet. Then Jan began swearing. Unlike Betty's regard for Mel's ladylike qualities, Jan let herself range widely and unrestrictedly. Mel listened with only half an ear to this tirade then, happening to glance over her shoulder, turned hurriedly to the women on the deck in front of her.
“Look. Look behind me. There's a light in the distance.”
“Oh, piss.” Even Betty dumped her politeness at this. “Yeah. I see it. Strong, but a couple of miles away. It's a searchlight.”
“What can we do?” Jan suddenly became calm and focussed. “Can you do anything with the engine in a few minutes?”
“I think I can just about sever the connections and re-route the fuel and oil. It might be messy and smoky. And we won't go anywhere near our earlier speed. But I need about twenty minutes.”
“You've got ten, if that. Go to it. Mel, the case.”
“We can't throw it overboard, Jan.” Mel looked over her shoulder to where the edge of the offending case could be seen sticking up from the cubby-hole in which it was fastened. “It'll just be giving it to them.”
“I've got an idea.” Jan looked into her lover's eyes and put a hand on her shoulder. “I need you to be really brave and do this for me.”
“What?” Mel spoke without hesitation. “Tell me, and I'll do it.”
“I want you to get in the water and swim away from this boat.” Jan turned slightly away to hide the tear she had to brush from her eye at her friend's unwavering trust. Then she outlined her plan quickly. A glance had shown the distant light appreciably nearer. “About a hundred yards away. They don't know how many people are involved with this; or how many survived the sinking. Stay away till they take the case and us on board. Then swim back to the boat, if they don't sink it too. But I don't think they will.”
“We can't allow this case, damned thing as it is, to fall into Germany's hands.” Jan gripped her partner's shoulder tightly. “I want you to open up on the U-Boat with the Bren gun. The shells are heavy enough calibre, if fired at close enough range, to penetrate the hull. If you manage to get off long enough bursts it might stop them from submerging, maybe for several hours. Maybe altogether.”
“I can take it off its stand, Mel.” Betty joined in the plan's outlines. “Look. See this? Unscrew it and lift, then the gun comes right off. The same to put it back on. Just the one screw. We can hide it under this tarpaulin, beside the engine; and the mess the engine's made will help to cover things up. Once you come back aboard it'll only take a minute to get the gun in working order. There's a case of ammo in this locker by the engine, too. Can you manage that?”
“I can do it.” Mel nodded instantly in reply. All her usual nervous hesitation of manner had disappeared, while a cooler stronger personality appeared to be in the process of taking over the brave woman. Jan felt proud of her companion.
“I know you can do it, Mel. Good girl.”
“Better get over now and swim fast, in that direction.” Betty pointed. “The U-Boat's coming up from the West; you'll be hidden in the dark.”
There was the slightest of splashes and Mel was gone. Jan caught a glimpse of her swimming strongly, then the shadowy darkness hid her from view.
“How's the engine, Betty?”
“Another two minutes and it'll be ready. If they don't sink her I'll guarantee she'll go at least 40 miles an hour. But I'll need at least another 5 minutes to pressurize the fuel line and then swamp the cylinders to fire her up again.”
“Let's hope we get that time, girl. I ho—”
Before she could finish there was a throbbing in the distance; a couple of flickers of light passed over the boat; then came the intense glare of a searchlight fell full on the sleek shape of the racing boat. In another minute the dark bulk of the submarine glided up almost to within touching distance.
“Good evening, ladies.” A loud metallic voice boomed out across the waves. “May I offer my assistance? Allow me to send some men aboard to help. I assure you it will be no trouble at all.”
From her vantage point, some hundred yards away in the surrounding darkness, Mel had a clear view of events. The U-Boat was outlined sharply by the strong searchlight shining from its conning tower. The two-story conning tower was silhouetted crisply in the wavering light; showing the lower platform to the rear with its 20mm ant-aircraft gun. While immediately forward of the conning tower sat the evilly powerful long barrelled 88mm cannon. Altogether the U-boat exuded an aura of fierce strength and power. Its beam served to make the low sleek form of the racing-boat look like a silent predator as it swung gently by the side of the submarine.
Bobbing in the low waves Mel watched as a couple of sailors jumped into the boat to assist Jan and Betty onto the much higher submarine's deck. Then they disappeared into the dark shadow round the conning tower. Mel was temporarily swamped by a wave hitting her full in the face; but a few seconds later the person who regained the surface, to float gently in the water watching events through narrowed eyes, was no longer the somewhat inept American archaeologist but a much more dangerous individual.
Xena watched as the sailor still aboard the racing boat made a cursory examination of the hull and engines. He bent over the still smoking port engine for a few moments then raised his head and called up to the submarine's bridge. Xena could see the shaken head and wave of a hand that clearly stated the sailor's impression of the engine's state. Then he moved to the rear and bent over the metal suitcase tied into the small cubby-hole there. A minute's work, with the help of another sailor, and the men hauled the case up onto the submarine's deck and then through some unseen hatch. One sailor remained on the racing boat, sitting in the driver's seat.
Xena could see the boat was tied to the submarine's hull some way forward of the conning tower, towards the bow of the vessel. This put it in almost total darkness, once the searchlight had been turned off. From what she could glimpse Xena thought there were only a couple of people on duty in the bridge. With a few motions of her powerful arms Xena began quietly swimming towards the submarine, in the silence of the night.
“It's U-414, Janice. Not 404, like you told me earlier.”
“Oh. Well. I don't suppose it matters much, anyway. Probably the only U-Boat in these waters.”
“Umph.” Betty didn't sound convinced. “Don't they operate in packs?”
“Here? Gods. I hope not.”
“Why'd you let Mel go overboard?” Betty changed the subject. “Do you think she has—”
“She'll come through. Don't worry about that, Betty.” Jan allowed herself a grin, which mystified her companion. “Mel has hidden depths.”
“In here, ladies, please.” Oelke waved them through a circular hatch into a large room set with a long table. “The crew's mess-room; but it will serve for the purpose of a small talk.”
“What do you mean to do?” Betty tried to sound confident and as unconcerned as events would allow. “I'm a civilian, you know. And Jan here is an American.”
“Merely a few questions, ladies.” Oelke himself sounded confident on his side, and pleased too. “Herr Kapitan Neidermayer will arrive shortly. We need some information from you. And, I fear, we may have to confiscate a certain article as War munitions. But then we will set you free to go on your way unharmed. It will all only take a few minutes.”
The curtain, closing off the entrance to the small section with its fitted table and wall mounted cupboards, swung aside and Neidermayer entered. For this auspicious occasion he had taken the time to change into his No.1 uniform jacket and was wearing his cap complete with white dust cover, the prerogative of the submariner's division.
“All right, Oelke, thank you.” He bowed to the two dishevelled women standing in the tight confines of this small space set a little forward of the Bridge area. “I am sorry we meet in such unedifying circumstances; but the exigencies of War take precedence, I'm afraid.”
“What do you want with us?” Jan felt it time to get down to brass tacks, without further parleying. “We're not in the military forces; so you can't have anything to do with us.”
“With you, no.” Neidermayer allowed himself a somewhat restrained smile. “But with your cargo we have much to do.”
“Our cargo?” Jan tried to sound nonchalant, furrowing her brows.
“Come, come.” Neidermayer, though pleased with the success of his mission, was in no mood for obfuscation. “Let us not cavil over details. Your quite remarkable suitcase–made from steel, and curiously heavy–is not the usual appurtenance of the Lady of Fashion, I think.”
“Ah. Well —”
“I am afraid I must insist on keeping your luggage.” Horst laughed gently as he surveyed the despondent expressions of the women. “But only a few more questions and you can return to your boat. An amazing vessel, I may say. Quite extraordinarily powerful; when the engines work, no doubt.”
“I'll have you know –”
“So, may I ask if you are the famous and, indeed, renowned Miss Carstairs?”
Cut off in her prime Jan sat back on the hard fold-down wooden seat and let her friend take over.
“I am.” Betty attempted to hold her head high, and look at the German with as much contempt as she could muster. But this came across more as doubt and hesitation to the tall man by her side. “What's it to you?”
“Merely personal respect, I assure you, madam.” Neidermayer tried smiling again in order to deflate the rather nervous atmosphere, but with little success. “I have read of your exploits in the past and am honoured to meet you in person. In other circumstances I might even have felt emboldened to ask for your autograph: but I feel this is hardly, er –”
“So.” Horst turned once more to Jan, looking into her green eyes with what he hoped was steely determination. “What was the name and rank of the officer who so gallantly put you in possession of this strange object, which you have transported half-way across the world?”
“I'm sure I can't remember. And if I could, I wouldn't tell you.”
“And the name of the regiment to whom he belonged?”
Jan remained totally silent, merely looking at him with raised eyebrows which spoke volumes.
“Or the name of the Department of the War Office in Whitehall which was the source of this whole affair?”
“The British War Office is run by Mr Joe Higginbottom, grocer to the aristocracy; of Little Marpling-in-the-Marsh, Derbyshire. Everyone knows that.” Betty butted in once more with a snide tone. “Why, he had his portrait on the cover of ‘ Time and Tide ' a few months ago.”
“Dear me, ladies.” Neidermayer began to realise that these two women were probably going to be too much for him. He hadn't felt so helpless and frustrated, he began to recall, since his presence at a meeting last year where Reichsmarschall Goring had held forth at length on the proper way to run a Navy; with Admiral Doenitz sitting stonily silent at a nearby table. “We don't appear to be addressing the situation in any constructive manner. However, I have what I want. So I see no reason to hold you back from continuing your voyage. If I may be allowed a few minutes you can then return to your vessel. In the meantime, if you will stay quietly here while we carry out certain operations, I will have Oberleutnant Oelke escort you back on deck forthwith.”
He left the small room hurriedly, shutting the curtain behind him. Left alone the women looked at each other.
“What can we do?” Betty sounded baffled by events.
“Wait for Mel to act. She'll come through in a minute or two.” Jan was feeling more confident by far. “And when things start to happen just do everything I say; don't hesitate; and move fast. Got that?”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Betty looked curiously at the almost elfin form of the young woman by her side. “But even if we make it back to ‘ Estelle ' I'll need about 5 minutes to warm her up and flood the engine to allow it to start.”
“You'll need to go on your own, Betty.” Jan spoke in clipped accents now that action loomed once more. “I'll take you to the hatch we entered by, then you're on your own. OK?”
“Right. I'm up for it.”
Xena grasped the edge of the boat's bulwark and silently pulled herself up till her shoulders were out of the water. Peeping over the edge of the vessel she took in the dark form of the one sailor stationed on the boat. He was now standing far forward, in front of the engines and fuel tanks, where the deck flattened near the bow. In a single movement Xena stood on the deck herself, just behind the engine cowlings and about 15 feet from the sentry. The bulk of the submarine's conning tower nearby spread a dark shadow over most of the little boat. The only sound was of water dripping from her clothes, and grunts from the sentry trying to keep warm in the cold night air.
A fraction of a second later he no longer had any need to worry about the chill. Xena lowered his inert body quietly to the deck and took the sub-machine gun from his grasp. A little fumbling gave her the four magazines of ammunition he had strapped at his belt.
Moving swiftly, but in absolute silence, Xena returned to the open engine cowling and felt under the hastily dumped tarpaulin. Her hand came out with the long barrel of the Bren gun safely in her grasp. Beside it was the canvas pouch containing several curved magazines. Another brief search brought to light the compact form of the Thompson machine gun with its magazines, in another bag. She took a few seconds to lower the Bren onto its boat mountings and see it securely fastened ready for action. Then grabbed one of the magazines and fitted it to the top of the gun, before quietly pulling the cocking lever. She threw the Tommy gun magazine pouch over her shoulder along with the 4 magazines for the German gun. This Schmeisser she too threw across her other shoulder; leaving her hands free for the Tommy gun.
On the conning tower there was no-one manning the main gun, and only one look-out facing aft. Of officers she could see or hear nothing. Grasping the pouches about her shoulders and holding the machine gun tightly she took one high leap and landed silently on the submarine deck in the lee of the conning tower. Just a few feet ahead of her was the hatch where the women had been led into the interior of the ship.
Laying her gun aside she pulled on the circular ring with both hands and expelled breath silently as it swung round on well-oiled hinges. One pull brought the lid up without a sound; the only thing visible was a flash of white from Xena's teeth as she grinned with satisfaction. Another moment saw her through and safely inside the vessel.
Here a few seconds acclimatised her eyes to the bright electric lamps, then a gasp from behind swung her round to face a young sailor who had just come through a connecting hatchway in the corridor.
One step forward; a swing of her gun butt; a sickening crunch, then the man lay at her feet. With instantaneous sharpness Xena realised he had come from the bow of the vessel; where the torpedo room was situated. Stepping over the inert form she went through the hatchway and found herself in that very place. On either side were two torpedoes lying in long racks, with others stored on the floor under them. Ahead of her two men were bending over one of these weapons with tools in their hands.
As one looked back over his shoulder the last sight he saw were the blazing amethyst-blue eyes of a Demon close approaching him. He went down before the unexpected onslaught like a sack of coal. His compatriot managed a single call, not very loudly, before a thrown spanner caught his head. Xena stood over him for a second, contemplating the idea of retrieving the weapon, then decided against wasting the time. She turned instead to the long sleek evil-looking weapons in the racks on either side of the narrow gallery.
About 30 feet forward she saw what were obviously the hatches of the two tubes; both at present closed. Turning, she placed her fingers on the gleaming oiled surface of the torpedo. She was standing by its fin and propeller blade so had to walk some 20 feet to reach the silver-painted nose. At the front of this was the red-painted contact tip. It still had the metal cover protecting it, but had clearly just been prepared and armed by the men. Placing the cover aside Xena looked at the exposed firing-tip. Grasping it with one hand she began delicately screwing it loose. After a second it turned easily and she continued till it fell gently into her hand, with the connecting wires leading into the explosive chamber. She screwed the tip back in; but only a few millimetres, then turned to the restraining straps enclosing the long body of the weapon.
There were four of these and she took a couple of minutes to undo them before wedging a piece of wood, found on a nearby work-shelf, underneath the curving side to stop it from rolling free. This was, she knew, only a short-term restraint and with any sustained movement the torpedo was certain to fall off its shelf with devastating results. She then returned to the torpedo room hatchway and, after passing back through into the submarine's main gallery, closed it behind her. A quick glance showed this short part of the corridor still empty, though voices were apparent nearby. She put both hands on the locking-ring of the hatch and, exerting her strength, was rewarded with the grind and crunch of metal teeth as the internal gears slipped and broke. It would take some time to get through that hatch again, she thought, as she turned once more to go on her way; an evil grin now playing round her mouth.
Some yards further on she stopped in her tracks to look closely at a small wheel-valve set into the floor of the deck. With a surmise amounting almost to the supernatural she recognised this as an outside valve meant to flood the ship in an emergency. Leaning down, a single wrench broke the light padlock chaining it and a sharp pull sent the wheel spinning open. There came the hiss and gurgle of inrushing water from somewhere under the steel-mesh deck as Xena resumed her run along the corridor, smiling still.
Kapitan Neidermayer was in conference with both Kapitanleutnant Kutsch and Oberleutnant Oelke in a small room behind the Bridge area. Here he was accustomed to hold discussions on tactics with his officers, but now they all three stood contemplating the metal case lying on the wooden table in front of them.
“Well. We have it at last.” Walter Kutsch spoke with satisfaction.
“We do indeed, Walter.” Horst nodded. “And very glad I am.”
“All we need do now, sir, is find a convenient spot and blow the thing to Hell.” Oelke was rather gladder than his companions that the object of their mission had been achieved. At heart he was a somewhat nervous individual, though he tried to hide this by a show of strict attention to detail.
“If it doesn't blow us to Hell first.” Kutsch was curious. Even more so, now he saw the rather innocuous nature of the case before him. “What could possibly be contained in a thing this size that could be so dangerous; or so important to the Fuhrer?”
“Not for us to know, Walter.” Horst shrugged. “And not for us to worry about. We need only destroy it as soon as possible; then return to Germany with a successful mission under our belts. Have you picked out any particular spot close at hand, Martin?”
“Yes, Kapitan. About four kilometres to the North there is an extensive sandbank. It should be perf—“
The loud rattle of a machine-gun firing somewhere in the submarine, forward of their position, broke into his words. A stunned silence ensued before Kutsch found his voice.
“Kutsch. To the Bridge.” Horst was quicker on the uptake, pulling aside the thick curtain which separated the room from the corridor. “Oelke. Go to the conning tower and man the main gun and anti-aircraft gun. Let's go.”
The three men ran out of the room and along the corridor with Horst in the lead. He had been caught completely unawares, like the others, by the gunfire and was now in the process of realising it had been a bad mistake to leave those women alone. As they ran another burst of fire rang out; clearly within the submarine and right forward. The torpedo room suddenly occurred to Neidermayer and a cold trickle of sweat ran down his back. The lights began to flicker.
In the small mess-room the women were nearly deafened by the roar of a machine-gun very near at hand. Before Jan could react the curtain was pulled aside and Mel darted in. But a subtly changed Mel from the woman she knew. This tall woman was a warrior; with a warrior's eyes and stare. She looked indomitable and grim and capable of anything.
“Jan. Glad to see you. Bring Betty and follow closely. Here's a Tommy gun. Take these magazines, too.”
In an instant all three were out in the corridor again. There was some kind of disturbance along the corridor some yards in front and a group of sailors came into view through one of the connecting hatches. Without pausing Xena levelled her Schmeisser machine-pistol and sent a blast of fire along the tightly confined space. Not waiting for the smoke to clear she carried on her way. Suddenly another hatchway door opened and they found themselves face-to-face with both Neidermayer, Kutsch, and several ratings. One man aimed a pistol hurriedly, but a burst from Xena's weapon threw him against the hull-side before he crumpled to the deck.
As Xena and her two companions advanced Neidermayer looked uncomprehendingly, for an instant, at the tall woman he had never seen before, then found his voice.
“Ladies. This is not –”
Xena sent a short burst of fire right into the steel-mesh floor, making the Germans duck back.
“Not a word.” Xena shouted, as she continued moving forward with Jan and Betty close behind. “Jan, if either of these jerks makes a move you take the one in the sweater; I'll blast the uniform and cap. OK?”
With both barrels pointed at them, and with a look in the eyes of the two women that both Kutsch and Neidermayer recognised as fanatical, they had no choice but to stand motionless; awaiting the desires of their erstwhile captors. Xena stepped close to Niedermayer and gazed into his face.
“Back, Kapitan, back.” She bared white teeth, like a tiger's, as she spoke. “Back through that hatch, then the one behind it too. Now.”
As the German officers, and their men, returned towards the corridor hatch-door in their rear Jan glanced across at the white-capped captain, aiming her gun at him and showing her teeth also.
“Follow us, and die.”
She turned, darted through, and slammed the hatch behind her.
“Right. That won't hold them long.” Xena was in full control. “This is the plan. You, Betty—”
She was interrupted as an unseen hatch above their heads swung open and the lanky form of another German officer slid down. He dropped to the deck with a metallic clang, then looked stupidly at the women in the crowded corridor for an instant before putting a hand to his belt to draw a pistol. It was the last thing Oelke ever did.
Leaning slightly to the side, to aim past Xena, Jan pressed the trigger of her Tommy gun. The short blast, lasting only a second, lifted the man off his feet and threw him to the deck. There were a few coughs and twitches, with a spray of blood splashing the pipes beside the fallen man's chest, then all movement stopped.
“Look. Look here.” Betty meanwhile, in attempting to avoid the unexpected gunfire, had slipped and partially fallen through the curtain of a nearby room. “It's the case. We've got it back.”
“As I was saying,” Xena continued, after all three had contemplated the ill-omened metal container for a moment. “You go on deck through this hatch, Betty. Taking that damnable case with you. There's no-one on deck now. Get into your boat and kick it into life. We want a quick getaway. Got that?”
Betty nodded wordlessly. This was not the first time she had seen death. She had in fact seen a lot of death during her work in the Great War; but this close involvement was something much worse. It was not something she wanted to see again.
“Go, then. Jan, will you help with the case?”
Xena crouched on the corridor deck-grill, listening to the ever louder rush of in-coming water under her feet, till Jan quickly slid back down the ladder.
“Shall I close the hatch, Xena?”
“We'll leave it open. That's going to be our escape route. How long does she need?”
“Five minutes.” Jan pulled the cocking lever of her gun again. “About five minutes. We'll hear the engine running.”
“OK. We need to keep these Jerries occupied till then. You see that valve near your feet, Jan?”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“It's another flooding valve. I dealt with one near the torpedo room. Swing the wheel clockwise; that's right. Hear the water coming in below? Now her sinking's doubly sure.”
“Gods, Xena. You really fight to win, don't you?”
“Yeah.” The tall woman looked, with a gleam of deep affection in her blue eyes, at the small figure by her side. “Always fight to win; or don't fight. Remember that.”
A clang suddenly rang out back towards the Bridge area and both ducked for cover as a fusillade of bullets came along the corridor, from Niedermayer's once again mobile force. Hunching close behind a metal partition Jan put the barrel of her Tommy gun round the edge and fired off a short burst. This emptied her magazine and she had to duck back while she unclipped the empty mag and threw it to the floor. Dragging another from the pouch hanging at her side she felt for the loading rim under the barrel and clipped the full mag in place. With a quick nod at Xena, standing almost opposite, both women stepped out and fired in short bursts the whole length of the corridor.
Metal fragments and torn wood flew in all directions as the mass of bullets took their toll of equipment, machinery, and sailors. The noise; both from the guns firing in such an enclosed space, and the untold numbers of ricochets was enormous, but Jan seemed not to hear any of this. It all appeared to be taking place in a curiously quiet manner; her brain not fully recording the noise of the moment in which she was engaged.
A number of yells came from the far reaches of the Bridge area where Neidermayer was taking his stand, then another burst of fire; this much less organised than the first. Bullets whistled past the women. though a few ricocheted nearby with evil whines, and the harsh zip of debris and shrapnel was all around them.
“Getting hot, ain't it. Think we've got the War all to ourselves, here.” Jan laughed again, more maniacally than before.
“War. Don't ya just love it?” Xena glanced quickly at her friend, with the true light of battle in her eyes. “Ares, eat ya heart out.”
Jan in her turn saw Xena was now occupied in re-loading, so stretched round her protective metal partition and let off another short burst; the whine of the ricochets almost drowning out thought itself. As she retreated behind cover again a muffled roar could be heard from outside the submarine and both women looked at each other.
“Betty's got the engine going. Looks like we're in business.” Jan's voice was loud and triumphant. “Let's see how long we can give her.”
She twisted her gun round the angle of the partition and let off another burst. There was a confused noise of activity along the corridor and a quick glance showed Jan that a number of sailors had managed to enter the corridor. The Bridge corridor-hatch now being open gave an unrestricted view of about 40 feet along the central spine of the submarine. Both women let fly in short bursts again; the ensuing dust obscuring any view of the effect.
“That was my last mag, Jan.” Xena called across. “Give ‘em one last burst, while I climb up the escape hatch, then follow. Got that?”
“OK. Go ahead. I'm ready.”
As Jan stepped out and crouched low on the deck-grid, now swirling with incoming water from the open valves, Xena reached up for the rails of the open hatch over her head. The noise of the Tommy gun in Jan's hands suddenly stopped after only a second's firing and both women realised it had jammed.
Far along the corridor Xena was just in time to see the distant white-cap of the Kapitan as he dived forward through the Bridge connecting-hatch. Although the atmosphere was now thick with dust Xena could see the dim forms of other sailors forming by his side. Another instant and Jan would be dead as she fumbled with the defiant weapon in her hands.
Glancing to her side Xena saw, resting on a low shelf, a metal plate left over from someone's recent meal. In one swift movement she gripped it in her hand and, with an eerie shriek that reminded Jan of a banshee, threw it with immense force and unerring aim. It flew with a vicious whine the entire length of the long corridor, straight through one connecting-hatch; and, as far as Xena could see through the dust, appeared to take the Captain full in the chest. He, at least, fell back through the hatch-door with several sailors retreating after him. A general hubbub ensued as Xena jumped up the rungs of the ladder and out onto the deck. A final burst of fire came from below, to be instantly followed by Jan emerging through the hatch at a rate of knots.
“OK. OK, Xena.” She gasped, slipping on the wet metal deck before gaining her feet. “Fun's over. I want to go home.”
“Right there with ya. Hang on.” Xena slammed the hatch shut, then took the smaller woman by the shoulder and dragged her with amazing strength to the side of the vessel. “We're coming aboard, Betty.”
A few instants shuffling; a jump and skid on the wet wooden deck, and they were back onboard the racing-boat. They slithered along the side of the low vessel, past the inert port engine and the deafening roar of the hotly smoking starboard engine, to take their seats on either side of the driver safely ensconced behind the wheel.
“Is this the charabanc for Brighton beach?” Jan was pretty much hysterical with excitement by this time. “Let's go, driver. All passengers aboard.”
Betty on her part didn't need any encouragement. A twist of the wheel, followed by a stamp on the accelerator and the sleek boat turned in its own length and glided smoothly away from the dark bulk of the submarine.
She pressed the accelerator firmly and the roar of the single Napier Lion drowned out all around them, rising finally to a guttural throb. Betty steered the boat away at an angle, leaving a white-streaked wake as the bow began to rise out of the water. But just as the women were heaving sighs of relief there was a ripple in the noise of the engine then, with no further warning, it went quiet and dead. The bow sank back and the boat came to a standstill. Looking back Jan and Xena could see they had only put about 250 yards between them and the U-Boat.
“What's up?” Xena's tone was harsh and rasping.
“It's the fuel line.” Betty crouched low, hunting for something beneath her feet under the control panel and wheel. She came back up grasping what appeared to be a thin spanner and a rubber tube. “I can fix it. Give me 5 minutes.”
She grabbed the windshield and hauled herself to her feet before climbing nimbly over onto the rolling deck. In another few seconds she was almost invisible as she dived into the open bay where the engine sat. The others could hear the sound of metal scraping as she tinkered with the obstinate machinery.
“Five minutes. It's always five minutes with that woman.” Jan was exasperated. “If Ginger Rogers, Louise Brooks, and Claudette Colbert were all lying naked in a bed shouting her name together, you know what? Yeah. ‘ Give me five minutes '. I guarantee it.”
“Don't bother being catty, Jan.” Xena nodded over her shoulder. “It's back to work for us. See the activity on the conning tower? In another half minute they'll be manning the anti-aircraft gun, and the big cannon on the foredeck.
“Shit.” Jan took in the situation in one swift look. “What d'we do?”
“Here, come up onto the deck, Jan.” Xena was efficient and calm, scrambling over the windshield in Betty's wake, then leaning back to help her friend over. “We need to get defensive again. Can you really fire the Bren?”
“Yeah, I can. I had practice back in Blighty.”
“OK, good.” Xena grinned as she bent down to the open bay where the now useless port engine sat. Her calf-length tight skirt had long since split on both sides, revealing powerfully muscled legs as she moved. “I'll take this second Tommy gun. There're enough mags in this pouch to keep me going a while. This other pouch has the curved magazines for the Bren. That's your baby.”
“So what're we doing?”
“Get seated behind the Bren and start shooting, both at the conning tower and the anti-aircraft gun. If anyone appears by the big cannon, spray them too.”
“Got it. And you?”
“I'll try to look after our engineer, here. I'll just spray the sub generally. Give them something to think about.”
As she finished speaking a fusillade of shots came over the water and some splashes in the water beside them gave evidence of the German's aiming.
“Right, Jan. Start spraying them like it's a water-hose.”
Xena held the Tommy gun firmly, with a steadying hand on the barrel stock just ahead of the firing mechanism and mag. She let off a short burst, which seemed to disappear without trace; there being no sign of ricochets from the submarine. She settled more solidly in her position, took careful aim, and fired off another 3 second burst which emptied her magazine. Again there was very little, if any, sign of hitting the target.
She unclipped the mag and let it fall to the deck at her feet. Picking another from the open pouch she fitted it into the magazine lip under the barrel and again looked up at her target. Taking her time, and not forgetting to pull the cocking lever, she let off another 3 second burst. This time she saw sparks fly from a point a few feet forward of the conning tower, but nowhere near those standing on its Bridge. Moving slightly she fired another 4 second burst whose better aim was shown by the sparks flying from the sides of the conning tower itself, just underneath its top. Moving her arms slightly to ease the ache of the gun's kick she pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened; the mag was empty again. Swearing foully she once more went through the time consuming motions of re-loading.
“Jan. When're you going to start firing? Next January.”
“Ha. Very funny.” Jan spat back viciously as she hunched behind her long-barrelled weapon. “Getting these goddam curved mags to clip-on is dammed difficult. There. Right. So who wants a haircut, then. Take that.”
Jan settled the stock of the long weapon hard against her shoulder and pulled the trigger. The enormous kick-back from the powerful weapon was so strong it caught her unawares and she actually slid sideways on the wet deck on her behind, pivoting on the fixed metal stand set into the deck and pulling the gun's barrel off-target. Most of her first long burst went harmlessly into the air.
“ Goddam. Goddam. Goddam .”
“Jan.” Xena was peeved at this ineptitude, even though she was struggling with her own magazines. “Kindly leave the clay-pigeon shooting for Bisley. There's a German submarine over there, you know.”
“ Goddam. Goddam. Goddam .”
Jan squirmed back into position, wheeling the barrel back into line with the distant target. Once more she took aim, but before she could fire another fusillade from the German sailors this time sent shrapnel flying from the deck and sides of the boat itself. Pieces of wood whined through the air close to her face as she involuntarily bent her head and screwed her eyes shut for a second. Then looking up, she aimed the barrel approximately in the direction of the conning tower and fired.
A blast of sparks engulfed the top of the conning tower for an instant as the bullets hit their target; more from luck than judgement. Xena spied a couple of men on the anti-aircraft gun deck behind the conning tower and let fly a burst at them. Her eye was in now and the men both disappeared as the metal railings around them flashed with the sparks of ricochets.
“There are three men out at the main gun. Spray them, Jan.”
Jan looked over her gun and saw the shadowy figures around the heavy mass of the great 88mm forward cannon. One of those shells hitting the sleek speedboat would certainly be the end of them all. Swivelling a few inches she took aim and let off another burst. The Bren fired for only about 2 seconds before falling silent.
“Hell's teeth. It bloody eats these magazines. Keep firing, Xena.”
“Gim'me a chance.” Xena too was bent over her Tommy gun. In trying to clip in another mag she had found it wouldn't connect with the loading slot. “I'm having trouble here.”
Jan glanced at her companion and took in the situation instantly.
“The magazine lip's probably bent. Tap it on the deck gently a few times then fit it again.”
Without replying Xena took her friend's advice. Leaning over she tapped the front edge of the magazine gently on the wet wooden deck then tried it once more. With a sharp click it clipped into place.
By chance both women fired together. Xena's short burst flashed sparks around the conning tower once more; though there was no sign of anyone standing there now. Jan's shorter burst vanished without trace; apparently having had no effect on the distant figures around the big gun.
“ Shit. Shit. Shit .”
Again Jan pulled the trigger, firing for about 3 seconds before the gun fell silent, and was rewarded by a closely grouped mass of sparks flying from the body of the great gun. She leaned over to unclip the empty mag; threw it away; and grabbed another from the pouch at her feet. Leaning over the gun she clipped this in place more easily than the first and aimed at the submarine again.
“Spray the whole area around the gun. That'll keep their heads down.”
Xena too began firing at the rear anti-aircraft gun once more, sending up a shower of sparks all around it and that side of the conning tower. Jan's burst again hit the big gun in a close group, sending flashes of fire up from its loading mechanism behind the long barrel.
“I said spray the area, Jan.”
“I'm doing my best.” Jan crouched behind her now smoking weapon with bared teeth. “The bullets just keep hitting where I aim, nowhere else. It's difficult to move the barrel when its firing.”
“That's just great.” Xena was wholly unimpressed with the situation. “A machine-gun that only hits directly where you aim. Trust the British.”
Further bursts of fire from sailors hiding behind the bulk of the conning tower again sprayed shrapnel all around, though luckily with no injuries to either woman. Xena fired again, then began swearing herself as the Tommy-gun ceased firing. She pointed the barrel in the air while she jerked the empty magazine out and tossed it over the side before crouching to pick up another. As she did so a vicious noise as of thousands of wasps whined over where her head had been seconds before.
“Goddam, they're getting better.” She finished clipping in her latest magazine and rose once more. With a warrior's sharp eye she took in the position and number of her enemies on the distant vessel's deck. Coolly still, she fired and was rewarded with the sight of several of the men falling, while the others dived for cover.
At her side another raucous snarl from the Bren showed Jan was still in the fight. This time her aim was just as accurate. Though the gun was still refusing to give anything like a diffused spread of fire, she was at least managing to keep anyone from manning the big gun. She swivelled on her behind and sent a second short burst into the body of the shadowy conning tower; then shuffled round once more to fire a third burst, shortened by the magazine emptying again, into the region round the big gun.
“How's it going, Xena?”
“Hotsy-totsy, girl.” Xena unexpectedly laughed. “Are you having as much fun as I am?”
“No, I ain't.” Jan spat over the side; a vicious frown furrowing her brows. “This damned Bren eats ammo like there's no tomorrow. This is about my fifth mag in two minutes.”
“Same here.” Xena took time to glance over to the starboard engine bay where the sounds of activity showed Betty was still hard at work. “This Tommy ought'a be belt-loaded. Hi, Betty. How're ya doing?”
Her muffled response was entirely lost on the women as another fusillade of return fire from the submarine's defenders sent splashes up in the surrounding water, with bangs and screeches as shrapnel tore up from the boat itself.
“Swat those buggers, before they kill my beautiful boat.”
This heartfelt cry by the boat-owner was, however, clearly heard by the two women; and they returned to their work with grins on their faces.
“Hey, Xena.” Jan paused in re-loading to glance at her companion. “There's no-one on the deck anymore: and I can see its bows're under the water now, a-ways. What's up with it? Is it diving?”
“See how the conning tower's leaning over slightly, Jan?”
“It's sinking.” Xena voice was exultant. “Remember those sea-cocks we opened? I bust them so they couldn't be shut again. She's sinking.”
The women watched as the stern of the submarine rose suddenly above the water-line; rising till it jutted several feet into the pale dawn sky. The conning tower seemed suddenly very low; so steeply angled away from them now as to be difficult to spot at their distance, but still there was no sign of any crewmen trying to reach the open deck or otherwise abandon ship.
“Xena. What did you do in the Torpedo-room?”
Jan's question was hardly spoken before an immense flash, followed by an eye-searing white glare, blotted out the vessel in the distance. The sound, when it reached them, was like a volcano erupting and both women ducked low with hands over their heads.
“I kicked one of the torpedo's around a bit.” Xena sounded unrepentant. “Looks like it took umbrage.”
Betty clambered out of the engine-bay to crouch on the deck at their side; gazing wonderingly over the intervening sea to the blur of smoke.
“God Almighty. What have you done?”
“We killed the sub, Betty.” Xena's tone was curiously matter of fact as she leaned over the windshield to place her Tommy-gun on the leather seat. “That's War, you know. Them, or us. Today it was them.”
A curl of steam and the hiss of hot metal, accompanied by the smell of burning leather, made Xena hastily grab the Tommy-gun back from its resting-place as the overheated barrel burned the seat-covering.
“We'll need to get right over there, to look for survivors.” Betty seemed unconscious of her upholstery. “There may be people in the water.”
“Oh. It was just a blocked fuel line. Nothing significant. Happens all the time.”
A few minutes saw the bow of the low sleek boat once more heading in the direction of the submarine's last position. On reaching the scene of devastation there was nothing to be found except a giant oil-slick and various pieces of light flotsam. Of anyone, alive or dead, there was no sign. While Betty manoeuvred the boat Jan and Xena stood on the deck forward of the engine bays and fuel tanks, near the bows. They examined every yard of oil-stained ocean as they covered it, but there was no sign of life.
While Betty was engaged in taking the boat slowly around the perimeter once more Jan suddenly noticed Xena holding her head and swaying. Guiding her by her arm Jan led her to the stern and helped her take her seat, where she sat with her head in her hands.
“Excitement. A little shock, you know.” Jan explained, rather weakly, to Betty.
“Yeah. I know. It takes a lot of soldiers that way, too. I've seen it in the Great War, myself.” Betty was unexpectedly knowledgeable. “Just let her stay quiet for a while. It'll ease.”
Mel had subsided back into her seat with a dazed expression as if she was not quite sure of the part she had recently played in events; and Jan recognised once more the symptoms of Xena's fighting spirit having taken flight from the body and mind of her dear companion: she had Mel back again.
“Betty?” Jan spoke quietly, as she put a loving arm around Mel's shoulders. “How far West are the shipping lanes, and Miami? Can we reach them with one wonky engine?”
“Shipping lane's about 15 miles away. Miami's about a further 120 miles West.”
“Let's go West, Betty.”
1. I place U-Boat offensive activity taking place in the Caribbean Sea & Bahamas area in late 1940, around 18 months before any such action first occurred.
2. U-414 is not meant to represent the actual Type VIIC sub with this number, which was in reality commissioned 2 years after the events recorded in my story; nor is its Kapitan meant to bear similarity to any real U-Boat Kapitan.
3. Oberbootsman. Chief Petty Officer.
4. There was never an SS ‘ Perdicus ' in the Blue Funnel Line.
5. The Red Ensign. Flag of the Merchant Navy of Great Britain.
6. Betty Carstairs had given up professional speedboat racing some years before the date of this story.
7. British Governor of the Bahamas. Edward, Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII), from 1940 to 1945.
8. I know the German ‘Schmeisser' machine-gun is incorrectly named, being in fact an MP-40; but that is what they were generally called by the Allies.
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