Snippet from Leo Champion’s Highway West

Leo Champion’s book, Highway West, will be coming later this month.  He’s asked me to post a sample here, which you should find enjoyable:

Chapter One

Lieutenant junior-grade Peter Ashford had just returned to the Kyrenia docks with his shore supply party when the first salvo slammed into his ship, which was moored a few hundred yards out in the mouth of the shallow harbor.

Oh shit, was his first reaction. There were two waterspouts and two explosions, one in the center of the USS Woodrow Wilson’s superstructure and the other by the stern. Thick smoke began to boil up from the stern area, by the cruiser’s main aft battery.

The local boats – lighters, skiffs and rowboats – that had been surrounding the Wilson, fled like water bugs, those that hadn’t been overturned by the forty-foot high waterpouts. People on the docks ran for cover. One of the delivery men with Ashford’s party dropped his wheelbarrow of fruit sacks and bolted. Chief Petty Officer Briggs, the senior NCO of Ashford’s eight-man party, muttered something vile and drew a very non-regulation automatic pistol from somewhere inside his jacket.

Ashford stood at the docks, numbly watching his ship die.

Men ran across the deck with fire extinguishers; others ran for the guns. The ship shuddered as secondary and tertiary explosions set the aft battery on fire, as the superstructure burned. The Wilson’s engines started and she moved slightly; her fore turrets begin to traverse to port.

How the hell? What the hell? Who the hell?

Alarm bells began to clang somewhere. No doubt the garrison of the harbor fort was going insane right now. Maybe this was a pre-emptive Greek strike on a misidentified target.

Another salvo hit the Wilson, at least two explosions and a huge waterspout. In one blazing explosion the fore part of the superstructure, including the bridge, simply vanished; smoke and blazing fire. A wave of secondary detonations rippled across the stern of the ship; the aft battery itself was ripped apart. Something at the very aft started to burn furiously, waves of heat making Ashford, more than a quarter of a mile away, turn his face. Men started to bail overboard.

Who the hell was doing this and why the hell?, Ashford wondered desperately. He wanted to turn and run or do something, but he couldn’t turn away. It was inconceivable that this could be happening.

The United States was not at war. Not on this side of the Atlantic, not even officially on the North American side. The Wilson was here for a few reasons, the main one being just to show the flag. Gathering intelligence and killing pirates were stated but secondary objectives. People out this way had to be reminded that the real United States was the secular East Coast government and not the fundamentalist theocracy inland.

Colorado, thought Ashford. They were the enemy he’d grown up hating, grown up fearing. But the Inland Republic governed from Colorado Springs, the false United States, didn’t have a navy – they didn’t have a coastline outside a few miles on Lake Michigan around the rebuilt ruins of Milwaukee. Most pirates used cigarette boats or fast sailboats. The Caliphate nations sponsoring them didn’t have ships capable of laying down this level of fire – their engineering mostly depended on slaves and was nowhere near good enough.

Some European nations disliked the United States, but they were fighting a constant low-intensity war against Islamic invasion and preparing right now for an imminent high-intensity one. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t do this.

The last time anybody in this part of the world had considered the United States of America to be their number one enemy had been a hundred and eighty years ago. Before the Pulses, in the near-legendary days of computers and jet aircraft and nuclear weapons. Back when there had been fifty stars on the United States flag.

Something drew his eyes to a dark shape, barely visible above the edge of the horizon. Tiny even in the binoculars his hands had unconsciously raised. Brutally-shaped and angular, without the elegant lines most cruisers had.

Not like Captain Reece to get caught with his pants down like that,” muttered Briggs. “Intelligence musta really fucked up. That or someone got the wrong target.”

Shit oh shit oh shit oh shit,” the newest of the enlisted men, Riden, was saying. Grundy, the second-ranking NCO of the party, said something and Riden shut up.

Ashford could empathize. It took an effort of self-control – I am an officer of the United States Navy, I am an Annapolis graduate and an officer of the United States Navy – to keep from gibbering in fear himself.

The Wilson was slowly turning to port, putting on steam, moving, trying to fight. There was a huge waterspout near the cruiser’s stern, a hundred-foot-high blast of water that swamped the fleeing small boats and drenched the men on the docks. Ashford barely noticed that he was soaked. One of the shells that hit went through the center of the cruiser’s already-blazing superstructure.

He had an instant to remember that seventy percent of the Wilson’s ammunition was in the amidships hold when the shell exploded.

Down!” yelled somebody in English. Ashford refused to move as his cruiser became the biggest explosion he had ever seen. A bigger explosion than he could ever have imagined. Pieces of metal rained across the port, zinged into the concrete docks, snipped into wooden trading boats and snicked through the metal roof of a truck’s cab.

Then there was nothing but thick grey smoke over the turgid water where Ashford’s ship had been. Of the six hundred and thirty men that Ashford and his party had gone out to buy food for, only the eight men of that party remained alive.

For what must have been half a minute, he stood there in shock. Not seeing, not thinking. A part of his mind watched for survivors and prayed for them, but nothing moved around the spots of burning flotsam.

Then something other than what the hell or oh God went through his mind. Something new.

That was the realization that he was alone with a handful of enlisted men, a thousand miles away from the base at Gibraltar and the nearest friends. Aside from his service automatic and whatever contraband weapons the enlisted men had, they were unarmed. They had no money to speak of. Between them and Gibraltar were pirates, hostile navies and an emerging New Great Jihad. The very nation he was in now, the Turkish Empire, was about to go to war with Greece.

And around them now were a thousand traders, spies, pirates and freelance killers who knew just how alone he and his seven men had suddenly become.

Shit,” Ashford said – almost casually – to Briggs. Nodding his head.

Shit,” he said again.

* * *

We need to sell this crap,” Briggs said. The eight of them were sitting in a large private room in the back of a shoreside tavern. Most of the room was filled to the ceiling with the supplies they’d bought. Chains of bananas, bags of dates, orange and lemons, sacks of flour and bundles of corn-sheaves. Shanks of beef and mutton. Strings of chickens tied together by their strangled necks. Several fresh meals for six hundred and thirty men. It took up a lot of space and had cost a lot of money.

Ashford nodded. He was just starting to understand that the Wilson’s destruction had been real.

Briggs had done most of the buying. Ashford came from a merchant’s family and spoke more than one language, but he barely understood the trade argot that they used here. It was a bit of Spanish, a bit of Italian and of Greek and Arabic, with no more than one in five words English. Briggs was an old-time Navy man who’d been tough when Ashford was a toddler. He didn’t know any individual foreign language, but he spoke the trade pidgins as though he’d been born to them.

Briggs scared Ashford. All those hard-core veteran enlisteds did. The line officers, the guys from old Navy families whose fathers and great-grandfathers also had Annapolis rings, knew how to deal with those guys. They had some kind of an instinct for it.

Ashford was the first in his family to be a peacetime, non-reserve member of any military service. He’d never served in a line command; he was twenty-six years old and his assignments had so far been political and logistical. This was – had been – his first shipboard duty, as the Wilson’s assistant supply officer.

Is it just my imagination, or does the chief have contempt for me? Come to think of it, he hasn’t called me ‘sir’ once in the half-hour since whoever-it-was killed the Wilson.

We need to sell it,” Ashford agreed. “We need the money. How much do you think we’ll be able to get for it?”

Not what we paid for it,” said Briggs. “Not eight-tenths.” He threw back another shot of whatever he had in his plastic flask. The other six enlisted men, sitting around the same table, watched the exchange between their two leaders.

Not when we have to unload the stuff quick,” Briggs went on, “and everyone knows it. We’ve got nowhere to store it if we don’t. If we’re lucky we’ll get three-quarters. This is a trade town. We should be able to do at least seven-tenths.”

Then we’ll keep what we can carry,” said Ashford. “Trade value, and we’ll need to eat ourselves. The rest – seven tenths of what we paid is just over six thousand dollars. That’s still a good bit of money.”

That it is,” Briggs agreed. The other men nodded themselves. The annual salary of an unrated seaman second-class was two hundred and five dollars. Most of these men made between three and four hundred dollars a year.

That’s seven hundred and fifty each way,” said the second-highest of the enlisted men, a petty officer named Grundy. He was short and wiry, middle-aged with a trimmed brown beard and a slightly bushier brown moustache, thinning brown hair and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from his mouth. Ashford had never seen Grundy without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. It wasn’t always lit, but it was always there.

That would be, if we were splitting up,” Ashford said. “To make Gibraltar, we’ll need to stay together and we’ll need all of it.”

Maybe,” said Grundy. “But think of it, jake. We got this payola, and we’re on Cyprus, and everyone in Charlestown’s gonna think we’re gone. When Charlietown hears about this, they’re gonna assume we died with everybody else. They’re not gonna come looking for us. Or for the money.”

Charlestown was the Admiralty, a catapulted stone’s throw from where Congress sat on Beacon Hill, in the old Massachusetts statehouse.

When they learn someone did a Pearl Harbor on the Wilson,” said Ashford. If this new enemy doesn’t hurt us worse before Boston gets the word. “They might hear that in three months, or they might hear it in a year if we don’t make it back.”

There. I’ve voiced the possibility. And now I’m going to overcome it.

We’re going to make it back,” Ashford continued. “We have easily enough money to get to the embassy in Athens, and then some. They’ll probably send us on to Gibraltar anyway, but Athens is the first step.”

And who says, Lieutenant, that we’re going to want to make it to the embassy?” asked Briggs.

Oh, God.

Ashford had been terrified beyond clear thought of this possibility. For these enlisted men, seven hundred and fifty dollars was a lot of money. Six grand was a fortune. And since Charlestown did have reason to consider them all dead men… Grundy was right. There wouldn’t be much of a search.

I say that we’re going to want to make it back to Gibraltar,” said Ashford with every ounce of firmness he could muster. “Because it’s our duty to. You saying you’re not going to do your duty, Briggs?”

That was supposed to be the question they couldn’t say no to, wasn’t it? It was a rhetorical question, but they’d say yes to it, that of course they were going to do their duty. And from there he’d remind them that it was their duty to obey orders.

Man has a duty to his nation,” Briggs agreed pleasantly. “Duty to himself and his shipmates, too. I been doing duty to this country since before you were born, LT. Fought under the Prez on Lake Michigan, almost got my balls blown off in St. Larry’s Gulf. Nobody can say I didn’t do my share of duty for the country. Reckon it’s now time I did some duty to myself. Man could set himself up pretty sweet out here, if he had some money to get himself going with. Seems to me like we’ve got that now.”

What?

Briggs had been a hard case aboard the ship. Of course he’d been. That was why Lieutenant Marning, the supply officer, had chosen him and these others to do the shore party, because they could handle themselves in a rough town and keep their nominal commander alive long enough to get some experience.

But Ashford had always thought the man – these men – to be basically loyal. Right? Right?

You’re kidding, Briggs,” said Ashford, trying to keep the edge of desperation out of his voice. “You realize that Charlestown will reward us when we get back. With a medal if nothing else.”

You, maybe. But you’ll get your cut of this,” Briggs said. “Seven fifty. Twelve and a half percent of this. You can go back, LT. Or you can come with us. Man with your book-knowledge could be handy, and you could do pretty good out here yourself.”

What the hell is it exactly that you plan to do?” Ashford stammered. He wasn’t even trying to sound commanding any more. All his Navy time until six months ago had been staff duties, because ship duty was for men with connections and nerve and aggression and he’d had none of those. And now, the first time he’d ever had anything remotely resembling an independent command, the men were deserting him right away.

Aegean Sea,” Briggs said. Grundy and the others nodded.

He’s their leader, Ashford thought bitterly. Not me. I’m just the guy with the rank. And since the nearest organization is at Gibraltar, the rank doesn’t mean shit.

Lots of little islands,” Briggs said. “Little territories. Bit of commerce. Slammies, Greekies, Turkeys, Eyeties, all fighting each other for a bit of it. Room for some independent operators, if there’s the startup money. Your family’s merchants – you know how to do books, and once you get the lingo you’ll probably be as shrewd as Grunds here. More money for you than Navy pay. Lot more, LT. Think about it.”

This is outright mutiny.

That thought clarified things. Mutiny. And it was. He could shoot men for mutiny. Kill the ringleaders, arrest them, throw them irons. The local authorities would co-operate with that, right? And then the others would fall into line.

He went for his gun. His hand was closing on the butt when there were the clicking sounds of two guns being cocked. Briggs was pointing his automatic at him. Another man, Henley, had a revolver on the table as well.

Don’t, LT. Please don’t,” said Grundy. “Killed me an ossifer down in the Free City of St. Louis once. Don’t wanna kill another one, not today. You’re a nice kid and all, but if you don’t get your hands palm down on this table here by the count of three, you’re not gonna have a head.”

Briggs’ tone was calm and friendly. The gaping mouth of his huge .48, eighteen inches from Ashford’s eyes, was all the emphasis he needed. Slowly, Ashford complied.

Good boy,” Briggs said. “If you didn’t wanna come along, you might’ve just said so. You’d have had your piece and the freedom to make it back to the Rock yourself if that’s what you wanted to do with it.”

Can’t trust him to agree we’re dead now,” said Grundy. “I say we zag him.”

A long, slender knife was in Grundy’s hand.

Briggs shook his head.

Not `less we got to, Grunds. I can see the good business sense in that, but I’m not gonna have murder on my conscience `less we have to, and I’m hoping that we still don’t. Pour the man a drink. Looks like he needs it.”

We all do,” said Riden, the youngest of the enlisteds.

You ain’t gonna have one, not now. We got things to do that we can’t accomplish drunk,” said Briggs firmly. “But the LT here, he hasn’t got a lot to do right now. Not things that we won’t be doing for him. Drink up, jake.”

Henley’s revolver was still on the table, pointed in his direction. Ashford took the metal shot-glass Grundy had poured, threw it back. The liquor tasted like burning sewage; it wasn’t local, must have come from some hidden distillery that one of the men had operated on board the Wilson. Ashford spluttered. His stomach churned as the vile stuff hit. Unable to speak, he gestured with a hand for a chaser – some water, anything.

Take another one, LT.”

No, thanks,” Ashford made himself say. It hurt to speak with that burning acid in his throat. “One’s enough.”

Wasn’t a request, LT.”

A second shot was placed on the table in front of Ashford. Conscious of the gun pointed at him, he gritted his teeth and raised the glass.

Another officer would have found something to say to bring these men on side.

A combat officer would have overpowered them or something.

I should not be letting them do this.

Pour the jake a glass of water,” said Briggs. “He can have a chaser after this one. Promise it’ll be your last, sir.”

There was something in the chief’s tone that made Ashford uneasy. Even more uneasy. It wouldn’t be poisoned or anything, would it?

Of course not. If they wanted to kill him, they’d slit his throat or shoot him. Murdered corpses were probably routine in a district like this, in a town like this. They just wanted him drunk.

Two shots wouldn’t do that, but they’d definitely get to him. This stuff was almost pure alcohol.

He could see Grundy getting ready to say something. Images of a man giving the ready-aim-fire commands to the firing squad at his own execution came to mind.

Die like a man.

He raised the shot glass and chugged it down. There was something different, something heavier, about the taste of the second one. He reached for the glass of water Grundy had put on the table.

The room seemed to waver. His reaching hand shook. Everything was like a blurred telescope, out of focus. No – a broken, shattered lens. Had it gotten so dark so suddenly? Had one of those bastard mutineers turned out the lights? Why – why was everything spinning?

Two… yes, two… shots… weren’t – he felt himself stifle a vomit-reflex – weren’t… meant… to do something… like… like… huh?… like…?

You bastards poisoned me, came through as a single, final, coherent thought before the black hammer hit.

* * *

A fragmentary notion – a dream, perhaps? – of loud shouting above him, and a gunshot. Movement and perhaps a scream as the notion or the dream faded away again into darkness.

* * *

The blazing sun woke him. He was looking up at one of those beautiful azure Mediterranean skies, with the sun almost directly overhead, a large part of it obscured by a dirty white sailcloth.

He was naked except for his briefs, he realized as his consciousness slowly returned, and he was lying on beaten wood that had to be a ship’s deck.

Memories came back to him of what had happened. The Wilson’s destruction and Briggs’ betrayal; Briggs poisoning him with something in the alcohol that they’d forced him to drink.

So why was he still alive?

Either the stuff had only been a knockout drug, or it hadn’t worked.

Briggs had wanted to poison him so that no reliable witnesses could ever tell Charlestown that there’d been survivors from the Wilson. That was a motivation; Ashford had spent enough time around politics, and in his family’s merchant business, to understand just how valid a motivation that was. It was that thought – coupled with if they’d meant to kill me, why am I alive now? – that made him keep still.

Wherever he was, it was likely that he was some kind of a prisoner. There was a thriving slave market in the Black Sea, Turkey and the Caliphates. If he was a prisoner and he wasn’t tied down, he wanted time to think and look before making it apparent that he was now awake.

Slowly, carefully, he turned his head to the left. This boat was moving, but the deck rails prevented him from getting any view of where they were. From the roll, it wasn’t a large boat. He was at the very bow of it, his head on a coiled rope. A grappling hook lay nearby. The big fore sail, on a mast about ten feet away, obscured the rest of his view.

A barefoot brown man wearing baggy pants, a loose sheepskin vest and a red bandanna came past. His back was to Ashford and he carried a heavy net. He shouted in a language that Taylor recognized as Turkish; from the handful of words he’d picked up, something about turning and nets.

I’m on a fishing boat, he thought. That didn’t make sense; slavers generally had their own ships. For that matter, why wasn’t he tied?

A moment later, whoever was at the tiller obeyed. The boat swung starboard. The billowing fore sail billowed a good bit less, and the sea became a fraction heavier. There was more shouting from the aft, words Ashford didn’t understand.

Behind the sail was a small wheelhouse. The man with the red bandanna came back to pull and refasten a couple of ropes, trimming the sail a bit tighter. Something splashed into the water.

I hurt, Ashford realized. His stomach felt vile, and there was a dull ache in the back of his head. A general pain covered his whole body, with particular emphasis on his chest and his throat. It took hard effort not to reach up and feel the sources of those pains.

Why the hell am I on a fishing boat?

Someone thinking he was dead, taking him out to deep water so as to tie weights to his corpse and dump him?

In Boston that would be plausible, or Plymouth. This was Cyprus. Dead foreigners weren’t a law-enforcement problem to local authorities in this part of the world, they were a trash-disposal problem.

Briggs being really careful?

If Briggs was being careful enough to do this, he’d have been careful enough to cut his throat or tie him up. This made no sense.

More shouting in the same language, something about a hundred something.

Another man came by, wearing baggy brown pants tied at the ankles and an open leather vest. He ducked under the sail and went over to where Ashford lay. The fact that this man wasn’t armed – outside a small utility knife on his belt – was what caused Ashford to fully open his eyes and stop pretending to be unconscious.

A second later it occurred to Ashford that those pants were baggy enough to conceal a light machine-gun. By then it was too late.

You awake, then?” the man asked in heavily-accented English.

Yes,” Ashford said. “Where am I?”

Now that he’d stopped pretending to be unconscious, there was no point lying on his back. He got up to a sitting position, where he found that his chest, his arms and his legs were mildly sunburned. The cause of the sharper pain was a long but apparently shallow slash along his lower biceps, visible by a wide streak of yellow salve. They were at sea with no land visible, but a handful of other fishing boats in the middle distance indicated that they probably weren’t too far out.

He turned back to the man, who was squatting next to him. He had sharp features, intelligent eyes and looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties. He was short and stocky, with heavy muscles visible under his vest. His black hair was cut short on the sides and tied into a shoulder-length ponytail in back.

You are on Corianna’s Pride,” he said. “Fishing boat. You feeling alright?”

There was pain in his neck, too. Ashford touched it, and felt sticky salve across his throat.

Did not do it right,” said the man. “They were disturbed.”

Ashford nodded dumbly.

They poisoned me and then tried to cut my throat for good measure.

I’m Pete Ashford,” he said. “Who are you, and what happened? How did I get here?”

My name is Hiram Najif. First mate and part owner of this fine vessel. You are United States Navy?”

Ashford nodded. The motion made his throat hurt.

Lieutenant junior-grade Pete Ashford,” he said, extending a hand.

Najif shook it.

I had thought that, an officer. You are a lucky man, Lieutenant Ashford.”

I’m alive,” Ashford said. “You said that someone was trying to cut my throat, and they were disturbed?”

Disturbed by my friends and I,” said Najif. He produced a flask. “Would you like a drink of water?”

Yes. Very much. He took the flask and drank greedily from it. It tasted good.

Then I owe you and your friends,” Ashford said. He sat up straighter. He was fine; aside from those cuts and a couple more scratches on his arms and his legs, he’d really felt worse after a heavy night’s drinking.

What happened, exactly?” he asked. “You said they were trying to cut my throat?”

Two men, in back of one of the Corsair taverns,” said Najif. “You were in whites that could have belonged to any Western sailors, but it was in English that I heard one of the men talking. About doing the lieutenant for good and all so that he never wakes up. From that, I decided that you might have been a British or American navy officer.”

Ashford nodded.

So you and your friends stepped in?”

In the Nicholas of time. The one who was talking was bending down with a knife. I was walking home, with three of my friends who were drunk. In the Corsair district it is always wise, you see, to have a man in the group who does not get drunk. Last night it was my turn.”

I attacked the man who was going to cut your throat; I pushed him hard out of the way. The younger man was probably meant to be the lookout, but he was not paying attention; he had been watching his friend. That man hit one of my friends, who was drunk; we had a short fight, my three friends who were drunk against those two, while I tried to carry you away.”

The man who had been trying to cut your throat, he tried again to cut you as I carried you away; I was forced to kick him in the face so he would give up. Then my friends and I, we were able to get away with you slung between two of us. We ran fast because the men who tried to cut you, they might have had more of their own friends.”

Briggs and those bastards.

When he found them, he was going to kill them.

Never in his life until now had he felt this kind of anger.

Those mutineering traitors abandoned their duty and tried to murder me. I’m going to personally shoot Briggs and see the rest hang.

Najif was looking at him.

Yes, they had friends,” said Ashford. “Seven of them. Thanks for saving me. You realize I don’t have any money?”

And your ship was destroyed yesterday afternoon. I was near the ship that did the killing, only a mile away. She had no flag. But you are an American.”

And that makes me a god, I suppose.

No – this wasn’t the Pacific. And those stories were probably lies in the first place.

Get up, Lieutenant Ashford. Would you like to get dressed?”

Yes. Thank you.”

I undressed you because wounds like yours, they need air so they can heal. So the medicine can work. Your clothes are in the wheelhouse.”

As well as the yellow salve, there was something on his body that seemed to be some kind of suntan lotion.

The boat appeared to have a crew of about half a dozen men. Most of them were tending nets right now; they turned as Najf and Ashford passed, staring at the half-naked American officer whose throat had almost been cut.

It was a relief to find his clothes in the wheelhouse. Najif was right, though – not just his rank insignia but all identification had been removed. His cap and coat were missing and his shirt wasn’t much more than a white civilian shirt, tattered from where the flags, rank tabs and ship name had been torn away. It still felt good to get dressed.

His gun was gone, of course, along with everything else from his pockets. His wallet, the Dear John letter from Susannah that he’d been carrying out of morbid self-pity since Gibraltar, and even the handful of pocket change he’d carried. And his Annapolis ring.

Briggs, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you.

No – taking the word back to Gibraltar had to take priority. Duty above revenge. Besides, in his current situation – unarmed, no money – it would be a difficult question as to how he was going to do either.

You look like an officer,” said Najif. “You look educated.”

Thanks,” Ashford said warily.

This is the Mediterranean, he thought. Nobody does favors for free here.

What do you plan to do now, Mr. Lieutenant Ashford?” asked Najif.

I’m going to go find that mutineering bastard Briggs and kill him.” There was a raw satisfaction in saying that. A feeling of violent freedom that he’d never before felt. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked it.

And I’m going to go back to Gibraltar, to report my ship’s destruction. It might take them six months to hear of it otherwise, and it could be a year before they have the fact verified. Anything could happen in that time.”

And then the United States?” asked Najif. “Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have always wanted to see the United States. I have heard the old stories about the United States of All North America, whose land spread from ocean to ocean and which ruled the world. I have heard good things about the United States of the Eastern Coast.”

It’s a pretty good place,” Ashford agreed. Wary again.

How do you plan to get to Gibraltar, without money and without a ship and without your men?”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

He’d figure that out when he got to shore. If he had to, he’d work his way there as a common seaman. That would take a long time and probably be dangerous. Not to mention difficult – he didn’t have the skills to be a common crewman on most of the ships that plied the Mediterranean nowadays.

I’ll figure something out. Why do you ask?”

Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have heard that the United States always takes care of its friends,” said Najif. “The old stories said so, and so do the stories I have heard from more recently. Mr. Lieutenant, this part of the world is poor and primitive and dangerous compared to all I have heard of the United States. Your country is somewhere a man does not need family or violence in order to get rich.”

Ashford nodded. He was far too much the political staff-officer not to see the slightly calculating look on the fisherman’s face.

Mr. Ashford, I saved your life. Because I like the stories I have heard of America, and because I hope your country will reward its friends. Your mission is probably an important one; your country’s commanders will want to know that their cruiser has been lost with almost all hands, and that they have an unpleasant new enemy, and that some of their men have become traitors.”

I will help you to Gibraltar to bring this news, Mr. Lieutenant, if you will help me the rest of the way to the United States. I hear that a man needs a permit to live there and those permits are not always granted, especially when a man has dark skin. I need a permit. Can you do that?”

He wants a green card.

Well, those had been handed out for this sort of thing in the past. Alongside, sometimes, fair-sized sums of money. The Navy didn’t have direct authority to give those things out – the Department of State jealously guarded its power in that regard – but Ashford had made friends on Beacon Hill. For that matter, his family had a couple of friends, too. And the loss of the Wilson was big enough, important enough, that the case would probably stand on its own merits anyway. State was nowhere near as unreasonable as most line officers seemed to think they were.

He extended a hand.

Mr. Najif, help me get to Gibraltar, and I’ll do everything I can to get you a green card.”

The fisherman beamed; he clasped both of his hands around Ashford’s right and shook eagerly.

We have made a deal, then,” he said. “I hear Americans are good at that.”

***

Highway West will be available at the end of March.

 

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