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The Brass Chills / Chapter 1

The Brass Chills

by Hugh Pentecost

Part One

THERE is a good deal that can’t be told at this time. It would give aid and comfort to the enemy if the name of the Island were made public. The Island is the means for striking hard body-blows at the enemy, and they would very much like to locate it and put it out of business.

Names don’t matter much. Names of places. Names of ships. Some day history may mention the Island in the same breath with such sturdy outposts as Bataan and Tobruk. I like to think, however, that it will fall into a different category. Bataan and Tobruk stand for stubborn, heroic defense; but the Island was one of the first springboards for attack.

There is another thing about the Island: to most of us “attack” means uniforms and guns, tanks and ships and planes. The Island saw the machines of war, but its heart and soul was a crew of men in overalls, with wrenches and hammers and welding torches in their hands. Men who worked and laughed and fought together; men from New England, from the Middle West, from the California coast; men who lived at such close quarters that an arm, flung carelessly outward in sleep, would wake a friend.

Light men and dark men; tall men and fat men and thin men; men whose hearts were stouter than the tough muscles in their arms and backs. But mostly this is a story of two men. One had been a detective but now wore the insignia of a lieutenant in the Navy. The other was a murderer. This is the story of a duel between those two, a duel which lasted for weeks. It brought fear to some, threatened disaster for all, and cost the lives of those whose names will never be inscribed on the roll of heroes, though that is where they belong.

On the day it ended I was sitting alone in my office. There were reports on my desk to fill out, but I was not working at them. I was listening; listening for the end. Everyone else had gone to see it with their own eyes. I couldn’t. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t, but as I sat there the other door opened and Bradley came in. His red hair was rumpled, and new lines in his face seemed to have grown deeper. His gray eyes, usually clear and direct, were clouded.

“You didn’t go,” I said.

“No, Chris,” he said. He sat down beside my desk. He was almost never without his short-stemmed black pipe. It was in his hand now, but he didn’t smoke. He sat there, tapping the stem against his teeth. Waiting.

“This is a big day for you,” I said. “All the cases you ever solved back home, rolled into one, were not as important as this.”

He didn’t answer for a moment. I could see the network of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes contract. He was not yet forty, but sometimes he looked like an old man who had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“I can’t forget,” he said, “that I sang songs with him, bummed cigarettes from him, ate and slept with him. I can’t forget that. I can’t forget, by God, that I liked him.”

“I know,” I said.

We didn’t talk any more. We just waited. At last we heard it. The guns of a firing squad. A few hundred yards away a man lay dead in the dust, and I knew that every gun had been aimed at his heart with a prayer.

Bradley’s voice sounded far away. “Well, that’s that,” he said.

That was the end. The beginning was elsewhere.

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