As New England swelters in the summer of 1914, Detective Isaac Bell is asked to investigate the disappearance of a cache of rifles—only to discover something much more sinister. Whoever broke into this Winchester Factory wasn’t looking to take weapons, they wanted to leave something in the shipping crates: a radio transmitter, set to summon a fleet of dreaded German U-boats. Someone is trying to keep American supplies from reaching British shores, and if Bell doesn’t crack the conspiracy in time, the Atlantic Ocean will run red with blood.
Bell must hunt down a new piece of technology that is allowing the Germans to rule the seas from New York to England. With the outcome of the war at stake and Franklin Roosevelt’s orders on the line, Bell will risk everything to stop the U-Boats before they strike again.
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About the Author
Jack Du Brul is the author of the Philip Mercer series, most recently The Lightning Stones, and is the coauthor with Cussler of the Oregon Files novels Dark Watch, Skeleton Coast, Plague Ship, Corsair, The Silent Sea, and The Jungle, and the Isaac Bell novels The Saboteurs and The Titanic Secret. He lives in Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
New Haven, Connecticut
It was a gray area. That's all anyone could agree on, the politicians and the lawyers and the military people. The current situation was a gray area.
The war in Europe hadn't yet broken out when the first shipment of Springfield rifles, twelve thousand of them, in fact, had left the Port of New York bound for England. They were due in Bristol in just a day or two. The second shipment of eleven thousand rifles was loaded onto a ship still moored in New York Harbor on August fourth when England declared war on Germany. A timely phone call from the British consul in Manhattan to the harbormaster saw the freighter's hawse lines pulled from the pier moments before the declaration was announced. She was technically not in port when the war became official, so she wasn't violating America's strict neutrality. She'd steamed down the East River a short time later on her run to England.
The third consignment, six thousand desperately needed rifles, was where things became sticky, legally speaking. They had been purchased by the British government in the month since Archduke Ferdinand's assassination in Serbia, but before England had actually entered the war. Now that war had been declared, the guns were currently sitting in the Winchester Arms factory in New Haven, Connecticut, and subject to a U.S. military oversight. Current exportation laws meant that them leaving U.S. soil was a direct violation of America's vow to stay out of the latest European war.
Joseph Van Dorn himself had devised the work-around. His firm, the Van Dorn Detective Agency, had been hired by the British government to oversee security for the operation, so Joseph was aware of the looming legal problem and had a plan to sidestep the intent of the law if not its letter.
England had purchased the guns from the United States government and they were to have been shipped by rail from the Springfield Armory in western Massachusetts straight to New York. But as the situation in Europe rapidly deteriorated, concern grew that the weapons wouldn't make it out of the country on time and would then languish in some warehouse for the duration of the war.
Van Dorn's eleventh-hour suggestion was that the English reject the rifles in all three batches and that Winchester Arms buy those same surplus guns. The sale needed to take place before the war's declaration. That date was a closely guarded secret, so the deal went through on July twenty-eighth. Winchester Arms, a duly licensed manufacturer and exporter of all manner of weapons, then sold those three batches of Springfield rifles back to the British government. Again that sale took place before the declaration so it wouldn't violate America's promise to favor nor aid either side in the war.
To further the ruse, the rifles went from the Springfield Armory to Winchester's factory, where they were pulled from their Army-issue crates and loaded into wooden chests stamped with the Winchester name and logo. The first two shipments made it out of the country on time. The holdup with the third group came when plain-clothed Canadian Mounties, His Majesty's representatives in North America, along with their armorer, found fault in several dozen five-rifle crates, causing the inspection and selection of guns to take far longer than expected.
Today was August sixth, the war for England was two days old, and their guns remained on American soil.
To make matters worse, because so many people in Washington had been hastily consulted on the legalities, the German Ambassador had learned of the deal and had already lodged a complaint with the War Department. A reply was being drafted explaining to His Excellency that the U.S. government did not involve itself in private sales made during times of peace and viewed the transaction as permissible under current law.
Despite the certainty in that pronouncement, it remained a gray area.
The workers transferring the rifles from the Army crates to the familiar Winchester packing chests did so with the expectation that federal police would burst in on the operation and arrest them all.
The Van Dorn lead investigator had no such concerns.
Isaac Bell wore his traditional summer white linen suit and low-crowned hat, though his jacket was draped limply over the back of an office chair and the hat sat atop a nearby filing cabinet. Outside the bank of windows where he stood, he saw men down in the factory's loading bay work in the wilting heat wearing denim overalls, often unbuttoned with the straps flapping around the backs of their thighs.
The heat wave was in its second week and showed no signs of letting up.
Archibald Abbott sat at a nearby desk, his face inches from a desk fan, so when he spoke it sounded like it was through an airplane's propeller. "This is ridiculous, we were supposed to guard a couple of trains on a milk run from Springfield, not babysit worker bees swapping one box for another in what amounts to an industrial-sized oven."
Archie was another Van Dorn man and Bell's best friend since college. Their wives were close as well. He had once been a stage actor and still had the good looks of a matinee idol. His hair was burnished copper and worn a little long on the sides and back. In contrast, Bell was blond, his hair neatly trimmed. Handsome, but more intense than Archie, with warier eyes. Both men were in their thirties and had the look of comfort in their own skin.
"Don't forget," Bell said in a deep but languid voice that still carried a hint of his native Boston, "we have junior agents currently picking through three days' worth of Ritz-Carlton garbage looking for a diamond necklace that the owner swears she lost in the hotel. You could join them."
"Ah, the glamorous life of a private dick," Archie mooned. "Remember that time in Tampa with the rum distillery owner stepping out on his wife and he got the jump on us?"
Bell shook his head at the memory. "Doused head to toe in molasses. Had to shave our heads and scrub for hours and we still smelled of it for weeks."
Archie leaned back so the fan wasn't directly in his face. "And look at us now, melting like gelatos so politicians can give the old 'wink wink' to our neutrality. Mark my words, the European war will be over by Christmas. Both sides have too much to lose to fight any longer than that."
"Your lips to God's ear. Our economy is in shambles enough as it is. The New York Stock Exchange is closed indefinitely, and if we lose exports long-term, things are going to get a lot worse."
Just then another detective popped his head into the borrowed office. "Isaac, we need you." The agent was Eddie Edwards, one of Van Dorn's top people and a specialist on railroad crime. He'd led the men who'd guarded the trains carrying rifles south from Springfield. "There's something you have to see."
Grateful for the distraction, Bell turned away from the window and strode after the much older Edwards. Archie got to his feet, but didn't make a move for the door. He would take Bell's spot overlooking the work. Any change in routine could be a diversion and Van Dorns never allowed themselves to be distracted.
"What do you have, KC?" Eddie's nickname was Kansas City. They went down a flight of stairs double time, Bell's custom-made boots making his tread as light as a cat's.
"They are the point of this place, you know," Bell deadpanned. They had to raise their voices slightly. While there was no machinery in the big loading bay, the Winchester factory was still a working arms plant, and the throb of nearby machinery was ever-present.
Edwards wasn't known for his sense of humor, but he said, "It ain't what I found that's interesting. Like the real estate people say-it's the location, location, location."
Bell's mustache twitched with interest. "Lead on."
They crossed the busy room, where forty or so workers were using pry bars to open the wooden packing crates the Army used to store the Springfield Model 1903s. Each rifle was packed in grease to prevent rust and wrapped with oil-proof paper. As soon as a crate was opened, the guns were removed and nestled into the Winchester Arms boxes. Carpenters were at the ready to nail them shut and more men were on hand to load the crates into the boxcars idling on the factory's dedicated rail spur. It went as efficiently as Henry Ford's Detroit assembly line.
The two men turned a corner and approached a washroom. A young agent stood just inside the door and made to confront the pair until he recognized his superiors. Eddie had obviously left him to guard the facilities. The room was dimly lit, with dingy white tiles on the floor and walls and eight stalls partitioned by wood walls with louvered doors. A janitor's closet was near the entrance and stood open. Inside there were mops and buckets and shelves of chemicals, as well as a bundled tarp. In the corner were propped five forty-three-inch-long Springfield rifles still shrouded in wax paper.
Bell looked to the right of the closet door and immediately saw what had drawn Edwards's keen interest. There was a small smudge of yellowish grease, no more than a thin sheen really, but it was an anomaly, a tiny detail out of place, and for a detective there was nothing more intriguing than understanding its deeper meaning.
Most times such things are entirely banal, meaningless points of data that don't lead to a larger conspiracy. It could have been a condiment from the janitor's lunch transferred to the wall from his hand that happened to look like the packing grease. Or it could have been the actual grease smeared by a worker waiting for access to one of the stalls.
But it wasn't.
Isaac Bell had no idea then the implications of the innocuous little smudge and what it revealed inside the closet, the international ramifications or the number of lives about to be torn apart because a careless thief had left behind this single clue.
Bell leaned down to inspect the spot. There was no smearing. It was just a little dollop of grease, as if something had been leaned against the wall while the door was opened.
"You see it too, right?" Eddie asked.
"Had this been transferred from a person's hand, there would have been some sign of streaking."
"That's just a little dot. Made no sense, so I tracked down the janitor and he opened the door. A painter's drop cloth had been thrown over the guns."
"Good catch, KC. What do you think it means?"
"Boss, I find the clues," he drawled. "I'll leave it up to you to suss out their meaning."
Bell turned his attention to the lock. It was a cheap thing and easily picked. He usually carried a small flashlight powered by a single D cell battery, but it was upstairs in a jacket pocket. He turned his head this way and that and finally saw bright scratches inside the keyhole. Definitely picked.
He thought about taking the rifles, but decided against it. Whoever had pilfered them from the loading bay was still out there working and Bell didn't want to tip his hand just yet.
"Stay here for a couple more minutes," Bell told the junior man, and he and Edwards stepped out of the washroom. As they turned the corner into the loading area, Bell started laughing as if his companion had just told a joke. Eddie caught on and guffawed a few times. Just two friends without a care in the world. Bell noted that none of the workers looked up or paid them the slightest attention.
Bell returned to the upstairs office, while Eddie Edwards went out to check on his men guarding the train. Archie had his back to him, focused on the work below. "What's up?" he asked without turning around.
"KC found five of the Springfield rifles in a locked janitor's closet."
That got Archie's attention. "Who steals ten-year-old surplus Army rifles when you work at a plant producing some of the finest weapons in the world? That makes no sense."
Bell picked up the candlestick phone sitting on the desk he was using.
"Seriously," Archie said. "This is like someone snatching a paste earring from a jewelry store when they could have grabbed a diamond tiara."
"Hello?" Bell said to the receptionist who answered his wire. "I would like to speak with Mr. Hopley. This is Isaac Bell." Dick Hopley was their liaison with Winchester.
The line's static hiss was faint since this was a limited-range internal call. A moment later came a smooth voice. "Mr. Bell, it's Dick Hopley. What can I do for you?"
"We have a problem. One of my men found five of the Springfield rifles tucked away in a broom closet." Bell paused, but the arms rep didn't say anything, so he continued. "I need you to make sure none of your men have left the work area prematurely and then I'm afraid I have to stop any more of the rifles being transferred out to the train cars."
"I can see the need to make certain none of the men have left," Hopley said at length. "That may be an indication of guilt, but why stop loading the crates?"
"Because I don't think our thief wants the rifles. He wanted the space."
The Van Dorn men made their coordinated move ten minutes after Bell hung up the phone. Dick Hopley performed the head count himself. He was a slender man with a salt-and-pepper beard and fingers stained yellow by cigarettes. He'd given a nod up to the overlooking offices so that Bell knew everyone was accounted for. Bell pointed to Eddie Edwards, who stood by the chainfall mechanism that opened and closed the roll-up main door. He worked the chain, and the big metal door came rattling down, slamming shut with an echoing crash. All the workers looked up at this sudden interruption. The young agent who had been posted in the restroom took up a position near some swinging doors that led deeper into the factory. Other agents led the few Winchester workers who'd been stacking crates in the boxcars back inside through a side door.
Bell came down the stairs and commanded everyone's attention. "We're sorry for the interruption," he said loudly enough for all to hear. "My name is Isaac Bell and I'm in charge of the security detail. We've run into a situation that requires your help. Would you all please line up in rows of four?"
When the forty workers were properly aligned, Bell and Archie walked among their ranks. Bell said nothing, though Archie asked each man his name and home address. It took about fifteen minutes.
"Okay, gentlemen, please remain in place for a bit longer," Bell called out when they were done. He waved over to the floor foreman and led him to a quiet spot away from the others. He passed over the list Archie had compiled. "You know them all, right?"
"Sure. Some of my boys have been here twenty years on."
"That’s good. Did any of them lie to us about their name or address?”
“Not sure I know where they all live, Mr. Bell," the man said as he scanned the page of information. "The names are correct, and I recognize a lot of the addresses but some of the younger blokes move from place to place, looking for cheaper boarding houses or better ones once they’ve got some coin in their pockets."
"That’s good enough," Bell told him and motioned for the man to step away.
"Which one?" Archie asked, knowing Bell had already pinpointed a suspect.
"The young blond kid," Bell replied. "His eyes were bouncing like India rubber balls and he had the worst case of flop sweat I’ve ever seen."
"What about this one, Kraus? He has the scar across the chin. He seemed a bit jumpy to me."
"If you’d gotten a little closer you would have smelled the schnapps on his breathe. He was afraid of getting busted for drinking on the job. No, it’s John Kramer who interests me."
"For the sake of argument," Archie said, “let’s say we have our criminal. What exactly is his crime?"
"Smuggling, would be my guess."
"That’s to be determined." Bell sought out Dick Hopley. "We need to unload the train cars again."
"To discover what was hidden where in the crate where the rifles were removed?" he asked eagerly.
"That’s a lot of cases to be reopened and resealed again," the executive pointed out. "We’ve been at this for hours. Must be close to five hundred crates."
"We will only be opening one," Bell said confidently. "Can you shunt the rail cars to another large space similar to this one? And another brought in so the men can keep workin?"
Hopley nodded. "There’s an auxiliary loading bay closer to the main gates."
"Good. Have the cars moved and please get me a handful of men to unload the crates and I will need the services of a skilled carpenter. These men here can carry on working for now."
Bell gave word to his agents that John Kramer was to be watched like a hawk and prevented from leaving if he tried.