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Four cranes loomed like sentinels in the fog—steel frameworks dulled by the mists swirling over the Navy Yard.
There was the clanking sound of the anchor chain running, then a splash. The shudder of the deck beneath his feet as the engines stopped.
His footsteps echoed loud on the wooden deck as he turned up the others.
Fletch, old buddy! We gonna do it today?
Looks that way, he answered—as he always did.
He saw the ripple of apprehension, and felt it, too. Always the same every time.
The captain jumped down to the forward deck and droned orders at them. Form up—everybody in a circle—maintain hand contact—
He stiffened when the alarm sounded. In reflex, his arms shot out, grabbing the two outstretched hands on either side.
The humming tone started low and distant, from behind the bridge and below. He felt the vibration building up through his shoes.
Then the deck started to go.
The dark caulking strips lost color, then definition. The wood faded.
The circle moved, each man trying to draw closer to his neighbor.
He shifted, adjusted his position, and stared aft, locking onto the bridge.
The deck! Look at the deck! someone yelled.
He swung his eyes down, then sucked air.
The deck had vanished.
Beneath his feet, he saw the vague outline of what must have been the chain locker. And below that—nothing.
Nothing except the dark waters of the river.
The humming tone climbed the scale, piercing through his body. A force gathered and swelled with the rush of noise.
The circle of men writhed, contracting like a mindless animal in pain. He watched a man's features contort with fear, the mouth moving, trying to form words that never came. The man's face vanished. All that remained was his right leg.
He watched the dismembered limb jerk back and forth in empty space, riding the roll of the invisible deck.
Harold Fletcher sat bolt upright in bed—screaming.
His terrified wife switched on a bedside lamp.
She ripped a hand free from his iron grip and cradled her husband's head against her breast. An hour later his heaving sobs finally subsided.CHAPTER 2
Hammond bit at his toast and leaned back in the chair to read the telegram once again. An autumn breeze stirred the curtains and he glanced up at them. They were hers. She had bought them and put them up herself—the girl in the telegram. Girl, hell. Woman.
He reached into his shirt and scratched his chest, looking out the window and down at the still green waters of the C&O. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal ran right through Hammond's front yard. The locks were only two blocks away, the barge landing even closer than that.
They used to walk together—he and this woman—down the cobblestone bike path that had once been the old canal towing road, and they had picnicked together on the grass fronting the canal.
Jan Hoyle ... she had long brown hair, huge green eyes, a pillowy body, and tanned skin. After their last fight she had walked out on him, left Georgetown forever, and he hadn't heard from her since. Almost two years ago, this coming Christmas.
Now, out of the blue, he'd received a telegram:
ARRIVING WASHINGTON SEVENTEENTH. URGENT MUST SEE YOU. SAVE LUNCH MONDAY. LOVE JAN.
Today was Monday. Hammond pushed his toast aside and got up with the wire. He had read it four times since getting home Friday. It had haunted him all weekend. All the feelings he had worked so hard to bury had come rushing back to the surface: how much he had loved her once, how furious he had been when she'd left him.
About two a.m. last night he'd been unable to sleep. He had gotten up, had taken a long slug of brandy, and then had come to a smug conclusion: she wanted him back.
He had gone back to sleep feeling satisfied, but this morning the doubts were stronger than ever.
Damn the woman. And damn Western Union.
He glanced at his watch. She would probably call him at work. He thought about making a reservation at one of the Pentagon restaurants and the glorious folly of staging a scene for the benefit of tired generals and admirals.
Halmmond was feeling nasty and self-righteous. He imagined all sorts of entrances, greetings, thrusts, and ripostes ... but in the back of his head nagged the thought that revenge wasn't justified. Yes, she had left him, but after three years of living together the subject of marriage had finally come up and he had said no. She had been shocked and hurt and had demanded to know why. He couldn't bring himself to tell her about his divorce: that he'd never told anyone.
At twenty-two, he had married a high school cheerleader just turned eighteen. The marriage lasted two months, just long enough for him to get his first sailing orders and for her to find a sugar-daddy.
The experience had even soured him on being at sea. Never again did he want to be caught in that position. So he finished his tour, then had gone back to get his pilot's wings and served a hitch in Naval Air. Today he was a "zoomie," attached to Naval intelligence, a land-locked career man from a family of sailors. And he'd never remarried. The reason why was a secret even to him, because he tried never to think about it.
So he had given Jan his customary line of poop about marriage: that it wasn't for him, it was too demanding, and these days nobody had to anyway. She had listened with the hurt building to tears, then she had taken a swing at him and called him names. She called him "liar" so many times he began to believe it.
In the two years since she had left, he had somehow managed to convince himself that it was all her fault, that they could have lived quite comfortably without the little ties that bind if she hadn't been so old-fashioned. Now, here she was on his doorstep again, and he was totally unprepared. What could she possibly want from him?
He glanced at his face reflected in the toaster and wondered what the attraction was. She wouldn't come back to him just for sex, would she? He felt a tingling of interest.
He finished his coffee quickly and pushed his cup and plate into the sink. He lived in a four-hundred-dollar one-bedroom apartment in an old two-story Dutch townhouse. He had a kitchen, a living room, and a small den which he had converted to an office after Jan had moved out.
He loaded his briefcase and stood for a moment, taking stock of himself again. I'm thirty- eight, he thought, unmarried. No immediate prospects, but no anxieties about it either. I've got a flat, a car, a job, and plenty of accrued leave. I can have any woman I want, within reason, and with no strings attached ... so why am I alone?
He scowled at himself and cursed Jan again. He reached for his uniform blouse and cap. He was out the door and walking over to Thomas Jefferson Street a moment later.
In Washington, no one paid attention to the tall figure in uniform. Navy commanders were a dime a dozen in the nation's capital. Hammond jumped into his Ford Maverick and drove up to M Street, joining the flow of traffic headed west across the Key Bridge.
He parked in the north lot and walked across the grass to the Mall Entrance of the Pentagon. He cleared past the guard and went up the escalators to the third floor where he entered a door marked Naval Investigative Service, Pentagon Branch, Room C-630.
Hammond stopped at the receptionist's desk and gave her the required morning smile. She smiled back, pulled her blouse straight, and reached around for a stack of memos and TWX's. She handed them over ceremoniously and announced, "The director will be around to see you in twenty minutes, sir."
"Thanks." Hammond walked into the Pit, a long room with glassed-in cubicles on either side of a wide aisle. Most of his co-workers were already in: he could hear chairs creaking, typewriters clacking, and voices droning on telephones. The daily drudge for the ten to twenty Navy officers on duty at this branch of the NIS. Yet they were supposed to be an elite task force, answerable only to the director. Some elite. Their operations were an unending exercise of clearing through red tape, bureaucratic hierarchies, and their own internal filing procedures. Much the same as any other government institution.
Hammond entered his cubicle in the center of the aisle, the only one big enough to hold a second desk.
He glanced at Ensign Just-Ducky: gorgeous, but a walking block of ice, except for the amenities.
"Black or brown?" she inquired with a stewardess' smile.
"One of each," Hammond smiled back. She ducked out, taking orders down the aisle. Hammond dropped the papers onto his desk and took Jan's telegram out of his pocket, slipping it under the phone so he wouldn't forget lunch. Already he found himself torn between hope and dread for her call.
He flipped quickly through the memos and tossed them into action slots. Most went under FILE, but three crept into SOON, and one into HOT.
Ensign Just-Ducky returned with his coffee. He started sipping the black and then the phone rang.
"A Mrs. Fletcher for you, Commander. She says you probably remember her as a Miss Hoyle."
He was very still for a moment. Mrs. Fletcher. So she was married. He punched into the line and said softly, "Hello, Jan."
There was an, embarrassed silence at both ends. "I got your wire," he said. "Where are you calling from?"
"The Watergate. Harold's firm keeps a company apartment here."
"You're married," he said flatly.
"Is ... is he with you?"
"Not now. He's at a meeting. Nicky, would you have lunch with us?"
Us, he thought. All his fantasies that she might be after him again were dispelled.
"You want me to meet him?" God, I must sound slow, he thought.
"It's very involved, Nicky. And unfair, I know.... After all this time ..."
"You better explain."
"Just a second—"
He heard the phone rattle as she put it down and moved away. He waited patiently, hearing something rustle, then a sharp intake of breath—a sob?
"I'm really scared, Nick ..."
Hammond choked back a laugh. He had visions of the man she had married: some hulking Boris Karloff slinking through the corridors of a ritzy hotel, hand outstretched for a quick strangle....
"Not the way you think," she was saying. "He's been very good to me ... but he's got this problem ... and I'm at my wit's end trying to cope with it.... So is he."
Hammond felt something tighten across his, chest. He had a sudden desire not to hear any more. He didn't even want to imagine Harold's problem and he felt certain she was going to tell him over the phone.
He drained his black coffee. For a moment, all he could think about was the objective reality: old girl friend calls up because her marriage is rocky. If he had ever wanted revenge, this was perfect, although distasteful.
"Jan, I'd like to help you, but I don't know what you're getting at."
"Nicky, please. I can't take much more. He gets depressed and irritable—he even cries. Last week was the worst yet. And he's convinced it's real, that these things happened to him—"
She stopped, recovering her reticence. "Nick ... it's taken me months just to get him to agree to approach the Navy. He's so scared of what he's going to find. It's got to be someone he can trusts—"
"Wait a minute. What has this got to do with the Navy?"
She was silent a moment then said quietly, "He has nightmares. He dreams about some sort of awful experiment they're putting him through ..."
This time her silence was so long he thought he'd been cut off. "He's on a ship ..." she began. "He's on a ship.... It disappears ... and people ... people disintegrate.... I don't understand any of it, I'm sorry."
She paused again, finding it hard to relate this. "You're the only one I know in a position to help," she went on. "Harold doesn't know anybody: he's forgotten the men he served with. Please—you've got to talk to him!"
Hammond sat back for a long moment, frowning to himself. He was growing angry with her for dragging him into this domestic quagmire. And one question was plaguing him: "What have you told him about us?"
"Just that we ... dated."
"I hope so, because if he believes it was anything more than that, this unstable husband of yours, I might not survive lunch. When do you want me?"
They made an appointment for noon at the Watergate Terrace. Relieved, Jan opened up and started to tell him about Harold's good qualities: his job as a vice-president of the Tri-State Insurance Company, with offices in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles; their California ranch home in Brentwood; their sedate life together. Hammond got the impression Jan had just what she'd always wanted, and what he'd never offered: a loving husband and a happy, uncomplicated, if somewhat dull, existence.
Except for Harold's "problem," which was taking on a magnitude in his mind that it probably didn't deserve. He was both curious and repelled.
But as he thought about it more, paying scant attention to her chatter, he was relieved in a sense. She wasn't after him at all. The hell with his ego. He'd always preferred his women playful and deceptive, with flaws you could count on two hands. He liked the games they played, the lies.... He enjoyed feeling superior. And safe.
As long as he didn't have to become the Fletchers' bosom buddy, a lunch wouldn't do any harm.
She was being grateful when he stopped her and said he had work to do. She thanked him warmly but reminded him not to forget the lunch. He promised to be there and hung up.
He was just reaching for the brown coffee when Admiral Gault strode in flashing a taut smile. Hammond rose. Gault was in a grouchy mood.
"I've got Wharton breathing down my neck about everything. He's not content to be Commander of Naval Intelligence. Wants to be Traffic Commissioner of Washington, D.C., as well. Gets himself a parking ticket going to some third-rate massage parlor, so now he wants NIS. to investigate the meter maids. If I were him, I'd keep my mouth shut."
Hammond grinned as Gault dropped his tall frame into the other chair. Rear Admiral Robert Henry Gault, Director of the Naval Investigative Service, was in his early fifties, handsome and brisk, and new to flag rank. He had been a rear admiral for a mere twenty- nine days and was having trouble losing his familiarity with old buddies and cohorts, Hammond prime among them. They were tennis partners, and they used to spend every Sunday on the Naval Rec courts until Gault's work began to interfere. Now there was no such thing as spare time. Gault had a twenty-four-hour job and was starting to show the strain.
He opened his briefcase and drew out some papers. "All admirals are entitled to aides, but mine is so busy they should make him an admiral too. Okay, here we are."
He tossed a pile of papers at Hammond, who pulled the clip and glanced through them.
"First this business," said Gault. "Large scale pilferage at Pearl Harbor. CINCPAC is royally pissed and wants it cleared up right away. Can you dispatch one of your boys to help the regional office?"
"Don't want to step on toes, sir."
"Step away. They're snails out there."
"I've got one bloodhound in Tahiti ..."
"He's on leave."
"Revoke it. Give him another ten days when he's finished."
"Now, here we've got something on a black-market ring at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan," Gault mumbled, shuffling a few papers aside.
"Drugs?" asked Hammond?
"Meat. The price of meat in Japan is off the wall. Some of our boys are pushing fresh meat liberated from the mess supply. The base C.O. wants us to come down hard."
"Hard it is."
"Finally, Okinawa. Someone sabotaged the propulsion system on a missile cruiser. Someone on our side."
"Mundane, huh?" snickered Gault.
"Not as mundane as something I just heard."
Gault glanced up, still shuffling through papers.
"You remember Jan Hoyle?"
"Sure. Nice girl."
"She's married to some guy now. And he's got a problem" He put sarcastic emphasis on the words and looked at Gault for reaction.
"What's she looking for—a pinch hitter?"
"No." Hammond paused, carefully choosing his words. "Have you ever heard about a Naval experiment to make a ship disappear?"
Gault stared at him suspiciously, expecting a punch line.
"Her husband has bad dreams about it."
Excerpted from Thin Air by George E. Simpson, Neal R. Burger. Copyright © 1978 George E. Simpson and Neal R. Burger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 6, 2012
Those who remember the 1980s film starring Michael Pere should definitely check this out. First published in 1978, Thin Air tells the story of an NIS Agent investigating a discrepancy in someones service record. The investigation leads to a WWII experiment with far reaching implications.
Simpson and Burger's book was plagiarized the year after publication when Charles Berlitz wrote his "nonfiction" book The Philadelphia Project.
Posted May 15, 2012
I first discovered this book in the late 70's and it was one of my favorites. I reread it regularly until I lent it to a friend who never returned it. I was thrilled to find it as a Nookbook and immediately set about rereading it. I still enjoyed the book and recommend it as a fun sci fi adventure. Interesting characters, action and a darned good story make for a super read. I hope another favorite book, Ghostboat, by the same authors shows up as a Nookbook soon. Enjoy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.