Two Americans, a naval petty officer and a shipping agent, are drawn into the undercurrents of early 20th-century Yokohama, Inchon, Manilla, and Shanghai as they investigate four grisly beheadings and a missing sailing ship. Smoldering insurgencies in Korea and the Philippines backlight USS Pluto ’s course between violence, betrayal, and hope. Blending the historical authenticity of Patrick O’Brian with the crackling dialogue of Raymond Chandler, Crossland establishes himself as a unique voice in nautical fiction.
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About the Author
Captain Crossland served as a Navy SEAL platoon officer in Vietnam in 1971. During his combat tour in Cà Mau, An Xuyên Province, Vietnam, he participated in Phoenix operations (the abduction of high level Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army leaders) and Britelight operations (the rescue of American P.O.W.s). Immediately following his Vietnam tour, he served as an advisor teaching unconventional warfare tactics to the South Korean Underwater Demolition Teams in Chinhae, Korea. On completion of his active duty, he elected to attend law school and remain in the naval reserve. As a reserve officer he received orders to South Korea on nine additional occasions. In 2002 he was mobilized as a reserve officer for duty with Naval Special Warfare Group One Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central and Southwest Asia. In 2005, Capt. Crossland retired with 35 years commissioned service, active and reserve, as a SEAL officer.
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The whaleboat bobbed in the waves drifting sideways to the wind, nearly broaching. The currents of the West Sea, as it was known locally, carried it through the dissipating fog. Two two-fold blocks, constituting the lower half of the launching falls, were fouled in unraveling lengths of line and rattled across the flemished painters in the fore and stern sheets. No oars were visible; in fact no oarsmen were visible. The crutch clattered in the bottom boards. It was just a boat adrift, with its mother ship, a Yankee-built barque, nowhere to be seen. Painted on both sheerstrakes in pale green letters were the words "Jade Rooster." Hastily tied to the thwarts were four flat bamboo baskets.
Nestled in each bamboo basket lay a cleanly severed, and very pale, human head.
It was a statement. The originators had chosen to make their communication in a manner underscored with grisly menace. A message in a bottle would have been the time-honored method for casting a communication adrift — to be read by the random discoverer — but to the cold-hearted originators a more dramatic form of message had seemed more appropriate. It was after all "make see pidgin."
It was mid-morning in Yokosuka, and the harbor waters were as still as those of a millpond.
Sabatelli leaned against the landing's railing and watched the famous Mikasa glide to its mooring, spewing great billowing clouds of cindered smoke. Japanese coal was notoriously dirty and some years had passed since Mikasa's great victory over the Russian Fleet at the Straits of Tsushima.
Military ships always struck him as overturned anthills, with their swirling dots clad in white cotton. Those massed dots represented extremely large crews by merchant marine standards. Those dots now hustled to "man the rail" of Admiral Togo's famed flagship as it came into its homeport. As a ship entered port, manning the rail or standing at attention near the rail that rimmed a naval ship and on its yards, was a longstanding naval tradition.
Mikasa and its fleet had turned the world upside down. It had been centuries since a non-European navy had beaten a European navy. The steamboat was America's first world-class invention and now where that invention's ramifications would end, Providence only knew. As a merchant shipping agent, Sabatelli knew navies were necessary, but tried to keep a good distance from their power, arrogance, and asceticism. He didn't care for navies, nor did he care much for Spartan Yokosuka, an imperial Japanese naval base. He was glad his office was in the merchant shipping port of Yokohama which only a decade or so earlier had been exclusively a settlement for foreigners. The word "ascetic" did not fit well with Sabatelli's view of what was good and important and he found Yokohama far more relaxed and more accommodating to civilized western diversions.
On the road that paralleled the harbor Sabatelli could see a few aristocratic Japanese women in broad belted robes and large paper and bamboo parasols, followed by their maids. The skin of the women with the parasols was like porcelain and they carried their belongings in carefully folded silk scarves. The men bustled by in broad conical hats and sandals carrying baskets, buckets, and sacks — sometimes on poles. Sabatelli had a theory that the longer the robe or kimono, the higher the station of the wearer. Laborers wore little more than tights, sandals, and a shirt length robe-like jacket. Yokosuka was a gritty little naval base and fishing town and the short jackets were prevalent. The predominant colors were peach, plum, and faded crimson.
This morning his duties had necessitated the train ride down to Yokosuka. The presence of an American naval collier, which was moored on the other side of the harbor, and the expected arrival of the American naval attaché, had left him no choice.
In the distance two Japanese crews were racing double-banked pulling boats and doing so with a great deal of clamor, far too much clamor for a nationality known for its enigmatic reserve. Several Imperial Navy coxswains waited in their gigs on the lee side of the landing and provided commentary on the race in a language Sabatelli had only recently begun to study.
An American officer, rowed by two bluejackets in a single-banked wherry, tied off crisply at the base of the landing and the officer strode ashore full of purpose. "Bluejackets" they might have been called, but it was late summer and they were not wearing jackets at all. What they did wear was predominantly white. One of the bluejackets lifted a white seabag, lashed hammock, and enameled bucket out of the wherry and placed it carefully on the dock. The other man began to row the wherry back out to the collier.
The sailor who remained waited and looked back out to sea thoughtfully. He wore dress whites with dark blue cuffs, a matching dark blue collar with three white stripes, and the now-popular Fighting Bob Evans whitehat. While rowing he had rolled up his cuffs to display embroidered Chinese dragons on the reverse, and now still, his cuffs remained unbuttoned.
He had extremely well developed forearms and had what was known as the bent-at-the-elbows look, which Sabatelli noted, was not as common as it had been among seafarers only decades earlier. Once sailors had been distinguished by the abnormal development of their arms, the product of daily handling of lines to raise and adjust sails. The advent of steam had made this singularity of physique less common, but navies still had sailing launches and cutters with lines to haul and sails to raise. Presumably he was from the collier. That meant the unending shifting of coal, which too developed the forearms.
If former President Roosevelt's physical fitness initiatives had not completely eliminated the sailor's hips (and those of his fellow sailors), naval fashion worldwide had eliminated the presence of pockets to hang on those hips. In this case, the style had a svelte and favorable effect.
He wore his rating badge on his right arm. Sabatelli vaguely remembered that this had significance. Most sailors had specialties, he remembered. The strictly seagoing naval rates wore their badges on the right arm. The wearers of right arm rates possessed skills that could not easily be converted into civilian professions ashore. Occasionally the right arm rates found their way into the merchant marine. Carpenters, sailmakers, machinists, painters, and ironworkers wore their badges on the left arm. They had learned skills that could earn them a living out of the Navy. They could find work ashore.
The bluejacket's hair was nearly black, his cheekbones high, his cheeks hollow, and his lean build set off the flared billow in his bellbottom trousers.
He reached down and pulled a corncob pipe out of his sock. As he did, Sabatelli noted a small tattoo of a rooster. A pig no doubt was tattooed on the other leg. Sailors were a superstitious lot and naval sailors had their own particular superstitions. Tattoos of a rooster and a pig, one on each leg, ensured a sailor would not drown.
The sailor took a puff on his corncob and said something to the gathered Japanese coxswains, which elicited a laugh. It was Japanese, a language very similar in its phonetics to Italian. Italian and his Italian heritage were one of the reasons Sabatelli had been posted in Yokohama. Unfortunately, Sabatelli was a third-generation Italian-American and spoke neither language. The other reason that Sabatelli was in Japan was that he had never been able to forego the comforts of society. This had led to his being caught in the wrong bedroom, and formed the second reason he had been assigned to Yokohama.
Sabatelli wasn't sure who he was meeting and settled in to wait.
A half-hour later, another American bluejacket with a thick neck, and a girth suggestive of heavy armor plate stormed down the dock with his hat in his hand and his neckerchief askew. He, too, wore his rate on the right arm.
"Goddam Baltimore, where's the goddam Baltimore?"
There wasn't a protected cruiser in sight. He muttered, kicked pilings and threw his hat down onto the dock. His words were slurred and he had trouble keeping his balance.
The sailor with the corncob said something to a nearby Japanese coxswain.
The Baltimore sailor turned and squared on the collier sailor. "Hey, you got something to say, auxili-airy-fairy, you say it in goddam American, not Nip sing-song."
The collier sailor said, "Chum, I said 'Rocks and Shoals: Missing ship after absence with or without leave,'" and spat. He did not back away or change his casual posture.
This seemed to enrage the Baltimore sailor further. "Yeah, well what do you know? Gunboat Gunnarson got the skipper the gold football and the gold rooster — Baltimore's, cock o' the station — and Gunboat Gunnarson ain't gonna git no Summary." Sabatelli started on hearing the words, "gold rooster" and pondered its significance.
"No how, no way, not from my skipper. Only thing I'll get is maybe a pat on the back. Naw, not Gunboat Gunnarson, he ain't gonna get no loss of pay, get no confinement, get no nothing. Won every smoker for the ship I ever fought in. Say, sleeve, maybe you're some kind of wiseacre? Lemme give ya a little pat, either end'll do."
This speech he said all in one breath, with the words accelerating to near flank speed at the end. The heavier man had raised both fists in the posture of a prizefighter in a rotogravure, and he'd begun to bob and weave unsteadily. A right cross for emphasis provided punctuation. The collier sailor skipped sideways to his seabag, hammock, and bucket without crossing his feet, and the punch swung wide.
The Baltimore sailor feigned another right and then let loose with a very practiced left jab.
The corncob sailor must have anticipated the blow because he stepped inside, and grabbed material inside the Baltimore sailor's cuff with his well-developed hand and forearm. He twisted, put the bottom of his brogan against the Baltimore's shin and seemed to sweep him up off his feet. The Baltimore seemed to levitate for just a moment, like the crest of a wave about to break.
The Baltimore sailor, Gunnarson, fell on this side with a great exhalation. He looked confused and rose to one knee. He didn't know what had just happened, but sensed Asian treachery.
"Careful there, Gunner's Mate, these decks are some sloppery in the morning with the fog and dew and all," the corncob sailor said, tapping his pipe against the bollard and looking thoughtful. "Wicked sloppery and slicker than a smelt. Well, got to go, got an appointment."
The lean sailor had heard one of his shipmates combine "sloppy" and "slippery" and like the idea of invented words.
"Next time, you smart-mouthed, coal scuttle Ferris wheel ..." the thickset cruiser sailor snarled holding his side, "... you're gonna be spitting salvos of teeth."
"I guess," the lean sailor replied vaguely. "Hobson, Quartermaster Third, glad to make your acquaintance while you were staving around. By the by, we of the Ferris wheel rate," he looked down at the ship's wheel on his Quartermaster's rating badge, "... are who navigated your ship here."
He puffed a moment on his pipe thoughtfully. "Could be that we'd be the ones who left you here, too."
The rawboned Quartermaster standing over the burly Gunner's Mate called to mind the pictures of Remington, the popular magazine illustrator. The scene was awash with the same whites, blues, buffs, and craggy faces. Remington was known for painting Westerners. Why, wondered Sabatelli, had he overlooked Easterners?
An early Monday morning in Yokosuka could be every bit as entertaining as a morning in Yokohama, Sabatelli mused to himself, running his finger along the fabric of his vest lapel. Sabatelli looked landward to see two American officers, in high-collared white uniforms and white hats that looked like pills with visors, walking with noticeable determination in his direction. Ah, he thought, my meeting with naval management is at hand.
Sabatelli left his place at the rail and his path converged with the naval officers in the shade of an outdoor noodle shed in the lee of a red brick warehouse.
Sabatelli assessed the two officers. The taller one had a strong jaw and the chiseled features of a young Captain Sims, the well-known naval gunnery innovator. The shorter one wore thick glasses and the rumpled look of an old laundry bag. Sabatelli noticed he wore anchors everywhere the taller one wore stars.
"Lieutenant Commander Coley Wheelwright, USN" the taller one with the firm jaw said extending his hand.
"Lieutenant Junior Grade Stuyvesant Draper, Naval Militia," the other said without actually looking at Sabatelli.
"What's that last part mean?"
"Naval Militia? Kind of a new category, the states have been running naval militias, similar to army militias, for a couple decades now. The Navy Department has started to get involved. He's a part timer, but full time now, he's going to do something else in a year or two outside the Navy I guess," interjected Wheelwright diplomatically. "I'm the Commanding Officer of the collier, Pluto. Draper works for the ... er ... Bureau of Navigation, at the Embassy in Tokio. Colliers are under the Bureau of Navigation, too."
"You going to help me?"
"The cargo was partially naval. That sailor over there is going to help you." He pointed to the sailor with the corncob pipe who was leaning against a warehouse across the street and stirring his noodles with chopsticks. Wheelwright waved him over.
Sabatelli recognized him from the landing. Mondays in Yokosuka could be both interesting and disappointing.
"This is Petty Officer Third Class Hobson of Pluto." The sailor stood at attention.
"Hobson? The Deuce, you say. Any relation to the Hobson, the Hobson of Havana Harbor?"
"Naw, that just-a-cut-above-zero slip-knot never even blocked the channel ..." the petty officer stated firmly after a moment of reflection.
The officers stiffened.
"Ah yes, but a very brave and resourceful slip-knot. Mighty heroic," Hobson said, adjusting his neckerchief.
"Thank Providence, no relation 't all." He thought a moment more. "He was an officer, a naval constructor."
"Yes, not an officer of the line," Wheelwright felt compelled to interject. "A man of resource and imagination, but not an officer of the line."
"I need a man with an education, knowledge of navigation and seamanship, and a grasp of the local language," Sabatelli said petulantly. He had the feeling he'd been short-changed and had wasted both a day and a train trip. "I'm sure this very-well-turned-out young seaman is quite invaluable aboard ship, but I need someone who can make educated guesses about shipping, speak something more than bargirl Japanese, and can, to borrow from Kipling, maybe hustle the goddam East."
The Quartermaster studied the tips of his shoes. He was an item for barter at this point and, from a class standpoint, not really there.
"He's the best we can come up with on short notice," Draper said peering out of the side of his glasses and with a sort of a sigh. "This is, after all, only an insurance investigation, not a matter directly related to national interests or the defense of the Asiatic Fleet."
Sabatelli flattened down the edge of his vest and rubbed the inside of his high celluloid collar. He was what people might describe as "stout" and enjoyed the pleasures of a good meal and life ashore. In his youth, he had gone to sea, and there was still the hint of physical power in his deportment. He might enjoy life ashore, but he had learned his trade at sea.
Sabatelli was not to be consoled. He seemed to harden and grow in size, "Petty Officer, how many years have you got out here in the Far East, I mean, among Oriental people?"
"'Bout a score and five."
Two skylarking Japanese boys ran by in dark blue school uniforms that made them look like steamboat skippers. A group of schoolgirls of the same age in middy blouses hugged their schoolbooks and studiously ignored them.
Sabatelli examined him and then examined him again, confused. "You are near the required thirty years for retirement?"
Sabatelli knew the number of years for retirement because that was the point when many naval veterans crossed over into the merchant marine.
"Thirty years gets you three-quarters pay. Except you asked how long I'd been in Asia, among the people, that is. I'm only starting my second hitch in the Navy," he said, tapping the single hash mark on his sleeve.
"So I assume you were out here before you joined the Navy?"
"Born in Yokohama, grew up mostly here in Japan. Spent my last four years out here in Chosun."
"Korea," Draper clarified.
"Your parents foreign service?"
"Lay missionaries, er ... sir."
Excerpted from "Jade Rooster"
Copyright © 2009 R. L. Crossland.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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