The Spy (Isaac Bell Series #3)by Clive Cussler, Justin Scott
Detective Isaac Bell, hero of The Chase and The Wrecker, returns in the remarkable new adventure from the #1 New York Times-bestselling author.
It is 1908, and international tensions are mounting as the world plunges toward war. When a brilliant American battleship gun designer dies in a sensational apparent suicide, the man's grief-stricken/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
Detective Isaac Bell, hero of The Chase and The Wrecker, returns in the remarkable new adventure from the #1 New York Times-bestselling author.
It is 1908, and international tensions are mounting as the world plunges toward war. When a brilliant American battleship gun designer dies in a sensational apparent suicide, the man's grief-stricken daughter turns to the legendary Van Dorn Detective Agency to clear her father's name. Van Dorn puts his chief investigator on the case, and Isaac Bell soon realizes that the clues point not to suicide but to murder. And when more suspicious deaths follow, it becomes clear that someone—an elusive spy—is orchestrating the destruction of America's brightest technological minds...and the murders all connect to a top-secret project called Hull 44.
But that is just the beginning. As the intrigue deepens, Bell will find himself pitted against German, Japanese, and British spies, in a mission that encompasses...
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER
A STREAK OF GOD
ON DISTANT SERVICE
DIRK PITT® ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
Treasure of Khan
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
Raise the Titanic!
The Mediterranean Caper
FARGO ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH GRANT BLACKWOOD
ISAAC BELL NOVELS BY CLIVE CUSSLER
(WITH JUSTIN SCOTT)
KURT AUSTIN ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH PAUL KEMPRECOS
OREGON FILES ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH JACK DU BRUL
The Silent Sea
WITH CRAIG DIRGO
NONFICTION BY CLIVE CUSSLER AND CRAIG DIRGO
The Sea Hunters
The Sea Hunters II
Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed
CLIVE CUSSLER AND JUSTIN SCOTT
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Copyright © 2010 by Sandecker, RLLLP
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The spy / Clive Cussler and Justin Scott.
1. Bell, Isaac (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Private investigators—Fiction. 3. Sabotage—Fiction. 4. Railroad trains—Fiction. 5. Washington (D.C.)—History—20th century—Fiction. I. Scott, Justin. II. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER
MARCH 17, 1908
THE WASHINGTON NAVY YARD SLEPT LIKE AN ANCIENT city guarded by thick walls and a river. Old men stood watch, plodding between electric time detectors to register their rounds of factories, magazines, shops, and barracks. Outside the perimeter rose a hill of darkened workers’ houses. The Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument crowned it, glittering under a full moon like polar ice. A whistle moaned. A train approached, bleeding steam and clanging its bell.
U.S. Marine sentries opened the North Railroad Gate.
No one saw Yamamoto Kenta hiding under the Baltimore and Ohio flatcar that the locomotive pushed into the yard. The flatcar’s wheels groaned under a load of fourteen-inch armor plate from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Brakemen uncoupled the car on a siding, and the engine backed away.
Yamamoto eased to the wooden crossties and stone ballast between the rails. He lay still until he was sure he was alone. Then he followed the tracks into the cluster of three-story brick-and-iron buildings that housed the Gun Factory.
Moonlight lancing down from high windows, and the ruby glow of banked furnaces illuminated an enormous cavern. Traveler cranes hulked in shadows overhead. Colossal fifty-ton dreadnought battleship guns crowded the floor as if a fiery hurricane had leveled a steel forest.
Yamamoto, a middle-aged Japanese with threads of gray in his shiny black hair and a confident, dignified manner, wove a purposeful route through the watchmen’s prescribed paths, examining gun lathes, machines for rifling, and furnaces. He paid special attention to deep wells in the floor, the brick-lined shrinking pits where the guns were assembled by squeezing steel jackets around fifty-foot tubes. His eye was sharp, refined by similar clandestine “tours” of Vickers and Krupp—the British and German naval gun factories—and the Czar of Russia’s ordnance plants at St. Petersburg.
An old-style Yale lock secured the door to the laboratory storeroom that dispensed supplies to the engineers and scientists. Yamamoto picked it open quickly. Inside, he searched cabinets for iodine. He poured six ounces of the shiny blue-black crystals into an envelope. Then he scrawled “crystal iodine, 6 ounces” on a requisition sheet with the initials “AL” for the Gun Factory’s legendary chief designer, Arthur Langner.
In a distant wing of the sprawling building, he located the test caisson where armor experts simulated torpedo attacks to measure the awesomely magnified impact of explosions underwater. He rummaged through their magazine. The sea powers locked in the international race to build modern dreadnought battleships were feverishly experimenting with arming torpedoes with TNT, but Yamamoto noted that the Americans were still testing formulations based on guncotton propellants. He stole a silk bag of Cordite MD smokeless powder.
As he opened a janitor’s closet to filch a bottle of ammonia water, he heard a watchman coming. He hid in the closet until the old fellow had shuffled past and disappeared among the guns.
Swift and silent, Yamamoto climbed the stairs.
Arthur Langner’s drawing loft, which was not locked, was the workshop of an eccentric whose genius spanned war and art. Blueprints for stepped-thread breeches and visionary sketches of shells with smashing effects as yet unheard of shared the workspace with a painter’s easel, a library of novels, a bass violin, and a grand piano.
Yamamoto left the Cordite, the iodine, and the ammonia on the piano and spent an hour studying the drafting tables. “Be Japan’s eyes,” he preached at the Black Ocean Society’s spy school on the rare occasions that duty allowed him home. “Take every opportunity to observe, whether your ultimate mission is deception, sabotage, or murder.”
What he saw frightened him. The 12-inch guns on the factory floor could throw shells seven miles to pierce ten inches of the newest face-hardened side armor. But up here in the drawing loft where new ideas were hatched, the Americans had preliminary sketches for 15-inch guns and even a 16-inch, seventy-foot-long monster that would hurl a ton of high explosives beyond the curve of the Earth. No one knew yet how to aim such a weapon when the distances were too great to gauge range by “spotting” the splashes of near misses. But the bold imagination that Yamamoto saw at work warned him it was only a matter of time before America’s “New Navy” invented novel concepts for fire control.
Yamamoto stuffed a wad of paper money in the gun designer’s desk—fifty twenty-dollar U.S. gold certificates—considerably more than what one of the arsenal’s skilled workmen earned in a year.
Already the U.S. Navy was third only to England’s and Germany’s. Its North Atlantic Fleet—brazenly rechristened the “Great White Fleet”—was showing the flag in a swaggering voyage around the world. But Britain, Germany, Russia, and France were not America’s enemies. The true mission of the Great White Fleet was to threaten the Empire of Japan with naked steel. America aimed to command the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Tokyo.
Japan would not allow it, Yamamoto thought with a prideful smile.
It was only three years since the Russo-Japanese War spawned in blood a new master of the Western Pacific. Mighty Russia had tried to strong-arm Japan. Today the Empire of Japan occupied Port Arthur. And Russia’s Baltic Fleet lay under three hundred feet of water at the bottom of the Tsushima Strait—thanks in no small part to Japanese spies who had infiltrated the Russian Navy.
As Yamamoto closed the drawer on the money, he had the eerie sensation of being watched. He looked across the desk into the bold gaze of a beautiful woman whose photographic portrait stood in a silver frame. He recognized Langner’s dark-haired daughter and admired how faithfully the photographer had captured her compelling eyes. She had inscribed it in a flowing hand “For Father, the ‘gunner’ who ‘dreads nought’!”
Yamamoto turned his attention to Langner’s bookshelves. Bound volumes of patent applications vied with novels for the space. The applications filed recently had been written on a typewriter. Yamamoto pulled volume after volume, working his way back to the last year that applications were submitted in longhand. He spread one on the designer’s desk, then chose a sheet of paper from a side drawer and a Waterman fountain pen with a gold nib. Referring repeatedly to the sample of handwriting, he forged a brief, incoherent letter. Ending it with the words “Forgive me,” he scrawled Arthur Langner’s signature.
He took the iodine and the ammonia into the gun designer’s washroom. With the butt of his Nambu pocket pistol he crushed the iodine crystals on the marble washstand and brushed the resultant powder into a shaving mug. He wiped the gun clean with the washroom towel, leaving a purplish smear on the cloth. Then he poured ammonia onto the iodine powder, stirring with Langner’s toothbrush until he had a thick paste of nitrogen iodide.
He propped open the lid of the grand piano, reached into the narrow end farthest from the keyboard, and smeared the paste on the closely bunched strings. After it dried, the explosive concoction would become unstable and extremely sensitive to impact. A gentle vibration would set off a loud bang and a flash. Alone, the explosion would damage little beyond the piano. But as a detonator, it would be deadly.
He placed the silk sack on top of the cast-iron frame, immediately above the strings. The sack contained enough Cordite MD smokeless powder to propel a twelve-pound shell two miles.
YAMAMOTO KENTA LEFT the Gun Factory the way he had entered, his eyes still stinging from the ammonia. Suddenly, things went wrong. The North Railroad Gate was blocked by an unexpected burst of late-night activity. Switch engines were huffing gondola cars in and out, attended by a horde of brakemen. He retreated deeper into the arsenal, past the powerhouse, through a maze of roads, buildings, and storage yards. Orienting himself by the powerhouse smokestacks and a pair of experimental radio-antenna towers silhouetted against the moonlit sky, he crossed a park and gardens bordered by handsome brick houses in which slept the families of the commandant and officers of the yard.
The ground rose higher here. To the northwest he glimpsed the Capitol looming over the city. He saw it as yet another symbol of America’s fearsome might. What other nation could have erected the largest cast-iron dome in the world at the same time they were fighting a bloody Civil War? He was almost to a side gate when a sentry surprised him on a narrow path.
Yamamoto had just enough time to back into a hedgerow.
His capture would disgrace Japan. He was ostensibly in Washington, D.C., to help catalog the recent contribution of the Freer Collection of Asian art to the Smithsonian Institution. The front allowed him to mingle with the Diplomatic Corps and powerful politicians, thanks to their wives who fancied themselves artists and hung on his every word about Japanese art. Genuine experts at the Smithsonian had caught him off base twice already. He had blamed gaps in his hastily learned knowledge on a poor command of English. So far, the experts accepted the excuse. But there would be absolutely no plausible explanation for a Japanese curator of Asian art caught prowling the Washington Navy Yard at night.
The watchman came up the path, boots crunching on gravel. Yamamoto backed in deeper, drawing his pistol as a last resort. A gunshot would rouse Marine guards from their barracks at the main gate. Deeper he pushed, feeling for an opening in the branches that would lead out the other side.
The watchman had no reason to look into the hedgerow as he plodded by. But Yamamoto was still pushing backward against the springy branches, and one snapped. The watchman stopped. He peered in the direction of the sound. In that instant the moon bathed both their faces.
The Japanese spy saw him clearly—a retired sailor, an “old salt,” supplementing his meager pension with a night watchman’s job. His face was leathery, his eyes bleached by years of tropical sunlight, his back stooped. He straightened up at the sight of the slender figure hiding in the hedge. Suddenly galvanized, the pensioner was no longer an old man who should have called for help but was hurled back to his time as a long-limbed, broad-shouldered “blue jacket” in the full tide of life. A strong voice that once carried to the mast tops demanded, “What the devil are you doing in there?”
Yamamoto wormed out the back of the hedge and ran. The watchman pushed into the hedge and got tangled in it and roared like a bull. Yamamoto heard answering shouts in the distance. He changed course and raced along a high wall. It had been raised, he had learned while preparing for his “tour,” after looters invaded when the Potomac River flooded the yard. It was too high to scale.
Boots pounded on gravel. Old men shouted. Electric flashlights flickered. Suddenly he saw salvation, a tree standing near the wall. Digging his india-rubber crepe soles into the bark, he shinnied up the trunk to the lowest branch, climbed two higher, and jumped onto the wall. He heard shouts behind him. The city street below was empty. He jumped down and cushioned a hard landing with flexed knees.
AT BUZZARD POINT, near the foot of 1st Street, Yamamoto boarded an eighteen-foot motorboat powered by a two-horse Pierce “Noiseless.” The pilot steered into the current and down the Potomac River. A shroud of surface mist finally closed around the boat, and Yamamoto exhaled a sigh of relief.
Huddling from the cold in the cubby under the bow, he reflected upon his close call and concluded that his mission had suffered no damage. The garden path where the night watchman had almost caught him was at least a half mile from the Gun Factory. Nor did it matter that the old man had seen his face. Americans were contemptuous of Asians. Few could distinguish between Japanese and Chinese features. Since immigrants from China were far more numerous than those from Japan, the watchman would report an intrusion by a despised Chinese—an opium fiend, he thought with a relieved smile. Or, he chuckled silently, a nefarious white slaver lurking to prey on the commandant’s daughters.
Five miles downriver, he disembarked in Alexandria, Virginia.
He waited for the boat to depart the wooden pier. Then he hurried along the waterfront and entered a dark warehouse that was crammed with obsolete naval gear deep in dust and spiderwebs.
A younger man whom Yamamoto had labeled, scornfully, “The Spy” was waiting for him in a dimly lit back room that served as an office. He was twenty years Yamamoto’s junior and ordinary-looking to the point of being nondescript. His office, too, held the outdated paraphernalia of earlier wars: crossed cutlasses on the walls; a Civil War-era Dahlgren cast-iron, muzzle-loading cannon, which was causing the floor to sag; and an old 24-inch-diameter carbon arc battleship searchlight propped behind his desk. Yamamoto saw his own face mirrored in its dusty eye.
He reported that he had accomplished his mission. Then, while the spy took notes, he related in precise detail everything that he had seen at the Gun Factory. “Much of it,” he said in conclusion, “looks worn out.”
“Hardly a surprise.”
Overworked and underfunded, the Gun Factory had produced everything from ammunition hoists to torpedo tubes to send the Great White Fleet to sea. After the warships sailed, it forwarded train-loads of replacement parts, sights, firing locks, breech plugs, and gun mounts to San Francisco. In another month the fleet would recuperate there from its fourteen-thousand-mile voyage around South America’s Cape Horn and refit at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard to cross the Pacific.
“I would not underestimate them,” Yamamoto retorted gloomily. “Worn-out machines are replaceable.”
“If they have the nerve.”
“From what I saw, they have the nerve. And the imagination. They are merely catching their breath.”
The man behind the desk felt that Yamamoto Kenta was possessed—if not unhinged—by his fear of the American Navy. He had heard this rant before and knew how to change the subject by derailing the Jap with lavish praise.
“I have never doubted your acute powers of observation. But I am awed by the range and breadth of your skills: chemistry, engineering, forgery. In one fell swoop you have impeded the development of American gunnery and sent their Congress a message that the Navy is corrupt.”
He watched Yamamoto preen. Even the most capable operative had his Achilles’ heel. Yamamoto’s was a self-blinding vanity.
“I’ve played this game a long time,” Yamamoto agreed with false modesty.
In fact, thought the man behind the desk, the chemistry for the nitrogen iodide detonator was a simple formula found in The Young Folks Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports. Which was not to take away from Yamamoto’s other skills, nor his broad and deep knowledge of naval warfare.
Having softened him up, he prepared to put the Jap to the test. “Last week aboard the Lusitania,” he said, “I bumped into a British attaché. You know the sort. Thinks of himself as a ‘gentleman spy.’”
He had an astonishing gift for accents, and he mimicked, faultlessly, an English aristocratic drawl. “‘The Japanese,’ this Englishman proclaimed to all in the smoking room, ‘display a natural aptitude for espionage, and a cunning and self-control not found in the West.’”
Yamamoto laughed. “That sounds like Commander Abbington-Westlake of the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Department, Foreign Division, who was spotted last summer painting a watercolor of the Long Island Sound that just happened to contain America’s latest Viper Class submarine. Do you suppose the windbag meant it as a compliment?”
“The French Navy he penetrated so successfully last month would hardly call Abbington-Westlake a windbag. Did you keep the money?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The money you were supposed to put in Arthur Langner’s desk. Did you keep it for yourself?”
The Jap stiffened. “Of course not. I put it in his desk.”
“The Navy’s enemies in Congress must believe that their star designer, their so-called Gunner, was guilty of taking a bribe. That money was vital to our message to the Congress to make them wonder what else is rotten in the Navy. Did you keep the money?”
“I should not be surprised that you would ask such a degrading question of a loyal associate. With the heart of a thief you assume that everyone is a thief.”
“Did you keep the money?” the spy repeated. A physical habit of maintaining utter stillness masked the steely power of his compact frame.
“For the last time, I did not keep the money. Would you feel more secure if I swore on the memory of my old friend—your father?”
Yamamoto looked him full in the face with undisguised hatred. “I swear on the memory of my old friend, your father.”
“I think I believe you.”
“Your father was a patriot,” Yamamoto replied coldly. “You are a mercenary.”
“You’re on my payroll,” came the even colder retort. “And when you report to your government the valuable information you picked up in the Washington Navy Yard’s Gun Factory—while working for me—your government will pay you again.”
“I do not spy for the money. I spy for the Empire of Japan.”
“And for me.”
“GOOD SUNDAY MORNING TO all who prefer their music minus the sermon,” Arthur Langner greeted his friends at the Gun Factory.
Rumpled in a baggy sack suit, his thick hair tousled and bright eyes inquisitive, the Naval Ordnance Bureau’s star designer grinned like a man who found interest in all he saw and liked the strange bits most of all. The Gunner was a vegetarian, an outspoken agnostic, and devoted to the theories of the unconscious mind put forth by the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud.
He held patents for an invention he named the Electrical Vacuum Cleaning Machine, having hitched his fertile imagination to a heartfelt notion that science-based domestic engineering could free women from the isolation of housework. He also believed that women should have the right to vote, work outside the home, and even practice birth control. Gossips smirked that his beautiful daughter, who ran with the fast set in Washington and New York, would be a prime beneficiary.
“A one-man lunatic fringe,” complained the commandant of the navy yard.
But the chief of Naval Ordnance, having observed Langner’s latest 12-inch/.50 caliber gun shoot up his Sandy Hook Atlantic Test Range, retorted, “Thank God he works for us instead of the enemy.”
His Sunday-morning chamber musicians, a ragtag mix of Gun Factory employees, laughed appreciatively when Langner joked, “Just to assure any eavesdropping blue noses that we’re not complete heathens, let’s start with ‘Amazing Grace.’ In G.”
He sat at his grand piano.
“May we please have an A first, sir?” asked the cellist, an expert in armor-piercing warheads.
Langner lightly tapped middle A, to which note the strings could tune their instruments. He rolled his eyes in mock impatience as they fiddled with their tuning pegs. “Are you gentlemen cooking up one of those new atonal scales?”
“One more A, if you can spare it, Arthur. A little louder?”
Langner tapped middle A harder, again and again. At last the strings were satisfied.
The cellist began the opening notes of “Amazing Grace.”
At the tenth measure, the violins—a torpedo-propulsion man and a burly steamfitter—took up “once was lost.” They played through and began to repeat.
Langner raised his big hands over the keys, stepped on the sustain pedal, and lofted “a wretch like me” on a soaring G chord.
Inside the piano, Yamamoto Kenta’s paste of nitrogen iodide had hardened to a volatile dry crust. When Langner fingered the keys, felt hammers descended on G, B, and D strings, causing them to vibrate. Up and down the scale, six more octaves of G, B, and D strings vibrated sympathetically, jolting the nitrogen iodide.
It exploded with a sharp crack that sent a purple cloud pouring from the case and detonated the sack of Cordite. The Cordite blew the piano into a thousand slivers of wood and wire and ivory that riddled Arthur Langner’s head and chest, killing him instantly.
BY 1908, THE VAN DORN DETECTIVE AGENCY MAINTAINED a presence in all American cities of consequence, and its offices reflected the nature of each locality. Headquarters in Chicago had a suite in the palatial Palmer House. Dusty Ogden, Utah, a railroad junction, was served by a rented room decorated with wanted posters. New York’s offices were in the sumptuous Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street. And in Washington, D.C., with its valuable proximity to the Department of Justice—a prime source of business—Van Dorn detectives operated from the second floor of the capital city’s finest hotel, the new Willard on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the White House.
Joseph Van Dorn himself kept an office there, a walnut-paneled den bristling with up-to-date devices for riding herd on the transcontinental outfit he commanded. In addition to the agency’s private telegraph, he had three candlestick telephones capable of long-distance connections as far west as Chicago, a DeVeau Dictaphone, a self-winding stock ticker, and an electric Kellogg Intercommunicating Telephone. A spy hole let him size up clients and informants in the reception room. Corner windows overlooked the Willard’s front and side entrances.
From those windows, a week after Arthur Langner’s tragic death at the Naval Gun Factory, Van Dorn watched apprehensively as two women stepped down from a streetcar, hurried across the bustling sidewalk, and disappeared inside the hotel.
The intercommunicating phone rang.
“Miss Langner is here,” reported the Willard’s house detective, a Van Dorn employee.
“So I see.” He was not looking forward to this visit.
The founder of the Van Dorn Detective Agency was a heavily built, bald-headed man in his forties. He had a strong Roman nose, framed by bristling red whiskers, and the affable manner of a lawyer or a businessman who had earned his fortune early and enjoyed it. Hooded eyes masked a ferocious intelligence; the nation’s penitentiaries held many criminals gulled into letting the big gent close enough to clamp on the handcuffs.
Downstairs, the two women riveted male attention as they glided through the Willard’s gilt-and-marble lobby. The younger, a petite girl of eighteen or nineteen, was a stylishly dressed redhead with a vivacious gleam in her eyes. Her companion was a tall, raven-haired beauty, somber in the dark cloth of mourning, her hat adorned with the feathers of black terns, her face partially veiled. The redhead was clutching her elbow as if to give her courage.
Once across the lobby, however, Dorothy Langner took charge, urging her companion to sit on a plush couch at the foot of the stairs.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
“No thank you, Katherine. I’ll be fine from here.”
Dorothy Langner gathered her long skirts and swept up the stairs.
Katherine Dee craned her neck to watch Dorothy pause on the landing, turn back her veil, and press her forehead against a cool, polished marble pillar. Then she straightened up, composed herself, and strode down the hall, out of Katherine’s sight and into the Van Dorn Detective Agency.
Joseph Van Dorn shot a look through the spy hole. The receptionist was a steady man—he would not command a Van Dorn front desk were he not—but he appeared thunderstruck by the beauty presenting her card, and Van Dorn noted grimly that the Wild Bunch could have stampeded in and left with the furniture without the fellow noticing.
“I am Dorothy Langner,” she said in a strong, musical voice. “I have an appointment with Mr. Joseph Van Dorn.”
Van Dorn hurried into the reception room and greeted her solicitously.
“Miss Langner,” he said, the faintest lilt of Irish in his voice softening the harder tones of Chicago. “May I offer my deepest sympathy?”
“Thank you, Mr. Van Dorn. I appreciate your seeing me.”
Van Dorn guided her into his inner sanctum.
Dorothy Langner refused his offer of tea or water and got straight to the point.
“The Navy has let out a story that my father killed himself. I want to hire your detective agency to clear his name.”
Van Dorn had prepared as much as possible for this difficult interview. There was ample reason to doubt her father’s sanity. But his wife-to-be had known Dorothy at Smith College, so he was obliged to hear the poor woman out.
“I am of course at your service, but—”
“The Navy says that he caused the explosion that killed him, but they won’t tell me how they know.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that,” said Van Dorn. “The Navy is habitually secretive. What does surprise me is they tend usually to look after their own.”
“My father deliberately established the Gun Factory to be more civilian than naval,” Dorothy Langner replied. “It is a businesslike operation.”
“And yet,” Van Dorn ventured cautiously, “as I understand it, civilian factories have recently taken over many of its duties.”
“Certainly not! Fours and 6s, perhaps. But not the dreadnought guns.”
“I wonder whether that shift troubled your father.”
“Father was accustomed to such shifts,” she answered drily, adding with a faint smile, “He would say, ‘The slings and arrows of my misfortunes are the tugs and pulls of Congress and local interests.’ He had a sense of humor, Mr. Van Dorn. He knew how to laugh. Such men don’t kill themselves.”
“Of course,” Van Dorn said gravely.
The Kellogg rang again.
Saved by my Bell, Van Dorn thought to himself. He stepped to the wall where the instrument was mounted, picked up the earpiece, and listened.
“Send him in.”
To Dorothy Langner he said, “I asked Isaac Bell, my best operative, to step down from an important bank robbery case in order to look into the circumstances of your father’s death. He is ready to report.”
The door opened. A man in a white suit entered with an economy of motion unexpected in one so tall. He was well over six feet, leanly built—not more than one hundred seventy-five pounds—and looked to be about thirty years old. The full mustache that covered his upper lip was gold, as was his thick, neatly trimmed hair. His face had the robust appearance of an outdoorsman who was no stranger to sun and wind.
His large hands hung still at his sides. His fingers were long and precisely manicured, although an observer keener than the grieving Dorothy Langner might have noticed that the knuckles of his right hand were red and swollen.
“Miss Langner, may I present chief investigator Isaac Bell?” Isaac Bell assessed the beautiful young woman with a swift, penetrating glance. Mid-twenties, he estimated her age. Intelligent and self-possessed. Desolated by grief yet extraordinarily attractive. She turned to him beseechingly.
Bell’s sharp blue eyes softened in an instant. Now they were tinged violet, his inquiring gaze veiled with tenderness. He took off his broad-brimmed hat in deference to her, saying, “I am so sorry for your loss, Miss Langner,” and swept a drop of blood from his hand with a pure white handkerchief in a motion so graceful as to be invisible.
“Mr. Bell,” she asked. “What have you learned that will clear my father’s name?”
Bell answered in a voice pitched low with sympathy. He was kindly yet direct. “Forgive me, but I must report that your father did indeed sign out a quantity of iodine from the laboratory store.”
“He was an engineer,” she protested. “He was a scientist. He signed for chemicals from the laboratory every day.”
“Powdered iodine was an essential ingredient of the explosive that detonated the smokeless powder in his piano. The other was ammonia water. The porter noticed a bottle missing from his cleaning closet.”
“Anyone could have taken it.”
“Yes, of course. But there are indications that he mixed the chemicals in his private washroom. Stains on a towel, a volatile powder on his toothbrush, residue in his shaving mug.”
“How can you know all this?” she asked, blinking away angry tears. “The Navy won’t let me near his office. They turned away my lawyer. They even barred the police from the Gun Factory.”
“I gained admittance,” said Bell.
A male secretary wearing a vest, bow tie, banded shirtsleeves, and a double-action Colt in a shoulder holster entered urgently. “Beg your pardon, Mr. Van Dorn. The commandant of the Washington Navy Yard is calling on the telephone, and he’s hopping mad.”
“Tell the operator to switch the line to this telephone. Excuse me, Miss Langner . . . Van Dorn here. Good afternoon, Commandant Dillon. How are you today? . . . You don’t say?”
Van Dorn listened, casting Miss Langner a reassuring smile.
“. . . Well, if you’ll forgive me, sir, such a general description could fit half the tall men in Washington . . . It could even describe a gentleman right here in my office as we speak. But I assure you that he does not look like he’s been at fisticuffs with the United States Marines—unless the Corps turns out a lesser breed of Leatherneck than in my day.”
Isaac Bell put his hand in his pocket.
When Joseph Van Dorn next replied to the caller, it was with a benign chuckle, though if the commandant had seen the chill in his eyes he might have retreated hastily.
“No, sir. I will not ‘produce’ an employee of mine on your sentries’ assertion that they caught a private detective red-handed. Clearly the man in my office was not ‘caught’ as he is standing here in front of me . . . I will register your complaint with the Navy Secretary when we lunch tomorrow at the Cosmos Club. Please convey my warmest regards to Mrs. Dillon.”
Van Dorn replaced the earpiece on its hook, and said, “Apparently, a tall, yellow-haired gent with a mustache knocked down some navy yard sentries who attempted to detain him.”
Bell displayed a row of even white teeth. “I imagine he’d have surrendered quietly if they hadn’t tried to beat him up.” He turned back to Dorothy Langner, his expression gentler. “Now, Miss Langner. There is something I must show you.”
He produced a photographic print, still damp from the developing process. It was an enlarged photograph of Langner’s suicide note. He had snapped it with a 3A Folding Pocket Kodak camera that his fiancée—a woman in the moving-picture line—had given him. Bell shielded most of the photograph with his hand to spare Miss Langner the deranged raving.
“Is this your father’s handwriting?”
She hesitated, peered closely, then reluctantly nodded. “It looks like his handwriting.”
Bell watched her closely. “You seem unsure.”
“It just looks a little . . . I don’t know! Yes, it is his handwriting.”
“I understand that your father was working under great strain to speed up production. Colleagues who greatly admired him admit he was being driven hard, perhaps beyond endurance.”
“Nonsense!” she snapped back. “My father wasn’t casting church bells. He ran a gun factory. He demanded speed. And if it were too much for him he would have told me. We’ve been thick as thieves since my mother died.”
“But the tragedy of suicide,” Van Dorn interrupted, “is that the victim can see no other escape from the unbearable. It is the loneliest death.”
“He would not have killed himself in that manner.”
“Why not?” asked Isaac Bell.
Dorothy Langner paused before she answered, noting despite her grief that the tall detective was unusually handsome, with an air of elegance tempered by rugged strength. That combination was a quality she looked for in men but found rarely.
“I bought him that piano so he could take up music again. To relax him. He loved me too much to use my gift as the instrument of his death.”
Isaac Bell watched her compelling silvery blue eyes as she pleaded her case. “Father was too happy in his work to kill himself. Twenty years ago he started out replicating British 4-inch guns. Today his gun factory builds the finest 12s in the world. Imagine learning to build naval guns accurate at twenty thousand yards. Ten miles, Mr. Bell!”
Bell cocked his ear for a change of tone that might express doubt. He watched her face for telltale signs of uncertainty in her lyrical description of the dead man’s work.
“The bigger the gun, the more violent the force it has to tame. There is no room for error. You must bore the tube straight as a ray of light. Its diameter can’t vary a thousandth of an inch. Rifling demands the artistry of Michelangelo; shrinking the jacket, the precision of a watchmaker. My father loved his guns—all the great dreadnought men love their work. A steam-propulsion wizard like Alasdair MacDonald loves his turbines. Ronnie Wheeler up in Newport loves his torpedoes. Farley Kent his faster and faster hulls. It is joyous to be devoted, Mr. Bell. Such men do not kill themselves!”
Joseph Van Dorn intervened again. “I can assure you that Isaac Bell’s investigation has been as thorough as—”
“But,” Bell interrupted. “What if Miss Langner is right?”
His boss looked at him, surprised.
Bell said, “With Mr. Van Dorn’s permission, I will look further.”
Dorothy Langner’s lovely face bloomed with hope. She turned to the founder of the detective agency. Van Dorn spread his hands wide. “Of course. Isaac Bell will get right on it with the full support of the agency.”
Her expression of gratitude sounded more like a challenge. “That is all I can ask, Mr. Bell, Mr. Van Dorn. An informed appraisal of all the facts.” A sudden smile lit her face like a sunbeam, suggesting what a lively, carefree woman she had been before tragedy struck. “Isn’t that the least I can expect of a detective agency whose motto is ‘We never give up. Never!’ ”
“Apparently you’ve investigated us, too,” Bell smiled back.
Van Dorn walked her out to the reception room, repeating his condolences.
Isaac Bell went to the window that faced Pennsylvania Avenue. He watched Dorothy Langner emerge from the hotel with a slender redhead he had noticed earlier in the lobby. In any other company the redhead would be rated beautiful, but beside the gunner’s daughter she was merely pretty.
Van Dorn returned. “What changed your mind, Isaac? How she loved her father?”
“No. How she loved his work.”
He watched them hurry to the stop as a streetcar approached, pick up their long skirts, and climb aboard. Dorothy Langner did not look back. The redhead did, casting an appraising glance up at the Van Dorn windows as if she knew where to look.
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