The wind churned and the angry Malaysian sea was frightening in its fury. The rain had gone from drizzle to downpour north of the Rioun Archipelago. The waves erupted with a thousand tiny founts from the collision of raindrops and the glassy ocean surface, and the salty foam hit the air like an angry slap. It truly seemed a sea ready to birth a demon on the world of man.
Slugger Harris, looking like a very wet terrier with a rain slicker over his leather flight jacket, stood alert in the hatch of the afterdeck of the tramp steamer the Ginza Maru. Slung over his right shoulder was a pump shotgun, in his right hand, he held a compact two-way radio.
"S. to S., come in, over," he said quietly.
"S. to S., here," the radio crackled in a faint whisper, "No sign of trouble here, Slugger, but I could use a dry towel. Over." Doctor Shadows, who was Harris's employer and friend, was hidden forward amongst some deck cargo near the bow.
Both men had been in position since nightfall and they would stay on guard until well after dawn when the ship was in open waters at full cruising speed again. The danger of piracy would be minimal then, for they would almost be in sight of Singapore and only minutes away from police launches.
"I was thinking about this secret cargo we're guarding," Harris said in mountain Korean, the language that he and the other inner circle of the 'Shadows Foundation' used when they wanted privacy. "Over."
"What about it," Doctor Shadows asked. "Have you figured out what the war department decided was too classified for us to know about? Over." Dr. Shadows was a figure that could have been carved of granite. Even in the half-light of the storm lights his skin was ash grey. He wore a dark grey slicker over his usual action garb of grey leather double-breasted tunic top and pants. He eschewed a hat, his silver hair slicked to his head like a ghostly skullcap above a handsome, intelligent face.
Harris, whose gristle of a nose showed evidence of his bantamweight ring career, screwed up his face with distaste. "It's not it was too classified to tell us, Boss," he said, "I think that Brooks guy is a straight guy. I just think they forgot to tell you. I got an idea though. Over."
"And what do you believe, Sherlock Harris? Your last guess was some combination of fuel components to fight the Japs in Manchuria. Over."
Harris wished it were possible to keep a cigarette lit in the increasing fury of the storm. "Well, Boss," Harris began, his Flatbush accent betraying his roots, "Youse said I noticed the food manifest lists too much in the way of corn meal, soy meal, and a few other things for a thirty-man crew. I think our cargo some super food supplies for the Chinese army. Over."
The two men talked to fight the boredom unknowing that out on the ocean another answer to their boredom was approaching at flank speed. . .
Eddie Leung, standing at the wheel of the Ginza Maru was nervous this voyage, very nervous. After all, the law of averages was against the ship this voyage out. Other vessels to pass through the Strait of Malacca's Phillips Channel on the way to Singapore in the past month had been boarded by pirates.
It was the only passage to nearby Singapore and ocean-going vessels had to slow to only a few knots to negotiate it. It was easy for a tiny six-man prau to pull up alongside, discharge its scavenger horde and pace the ship while the piracy was committed.
Eddie clutched the wheel and eyed the compass bearing. He tried not to let the first mate, standing beside him on the bridge, see his nervousness. This special voyage was high paying and with the shortages created by the raiders.
The owners even had security guards to ride shotgun. They were two Americans, one tall and sculpted from granite with oddly grey hair and haunted intense eyes and, and one little one who looked like a Dead End Kid and dressed like a movie gangster. The guards made Eddie feel better, but by no means happy.
"I must still reach port to spend my danger pay." He thought.
"Watch your heading, Leung," the First Mate's hoarse voice cut into Eddie's thoughts and made him jump. "I'm going forward to check the cargo lashings and the hatches. The barometer's starting to drop again." Eddie nodded. The Beaufort wind scale was rising and the barometer falling. That could mean only one thing; the storm was becoming a typhoon.
Eddie relaxed a bit, for as the sea grew worse, the chance of pirates lessened. They would have to be crazy to sail a small boat in a monsoon. Crazy or desperate!
"Could just be they figured on you appetite. Over." Dr. Shadows said over the intercom.
Harris nodded, then 'uh huhed' into the mike. "After we hit safe water past the Phillips, I think I'll mosey down there and take a look in the cargo hold --" Harris stopped abruptly when the red emergency light began to flash on his walkie-talkie. He released the sending key and Dr Shadows' calm whisper came through the speaker.
"--eat Caution red. We have visitors," Dr Shadows said. "I can see four, make that five boarders I can see. I'm going to cut in the lights." A moment later Dr Shadows shouted a command in flawless Cantonese at the pirates. By virtue of the open com-link, Harris could hear their answering gunfire in stereo, followed by the thup-thup-thup of Dr Shadows' unique chemically propelled automatic gun.
Harris dropped the radio into the pocket of his slicker and slung the shotgun into ready position. "Good luck to us both." He said then he muttered under his breath, "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo." He kicked the trip switch on the floor. Like its twin up forward by Dr Shadows, it worked perfectly, flooding the after deck with artificial daylight from spotlights.
The lights caught four pirates sliding over the rear railing. All held automatic weapons and all opened fire at the blinding lights. The heaving deck and their clumsy positions made accuracy impossible.
"Hell of a place for a Brooklyn Buddhist," Harris thought grimly as he chambered a round and returned their fire.
In the wheelhouse, Eddie Leung's blood froze. The fore section of the ship suddenly exploded into blue-white brilliance that threw the figures on it into bold relief. Then the burp and flash of gunfire became a storm within the storm.
Two of the tiny figures dropped like puppets whose strings had been cut, while three others dove behind the cover of the forward cargo hatch and pooled their fire at the crates lashed forward.
Eddie watched the violence, yet felt strangely removed from it, as if it all were a play for his benefit. The gunshots were muffled when they reached his ears at all through the howl of the wind. Looking at it through the wheelhouse window was like watching a silent American gangster movie.
There were other pirates climbing over the rails, peppering the crates with automatic fire. Then one of the pirates threw a hand grenade and the sound of its explosion reached through the window to slap at Eddie's courage. That was it; Eddie had had enough. He lashed the wheel and ran aft as fast as he could, past the chart room and down the companionway, looking for a place to hide.
Harris had blown two of the pirates back over the side, but like a hydra, they had been replaced by four more, all firing in his direction. He fired twice more with fatal results when the first grenade up forward exploded.
He knew it was a pirate grenade, because he and Dr Shadows had elected not to bring any on board. Dr. Shadows was in real trouble. Harris fired again, hitting another raider, then backed into the corridor and headed straight for the companionway that would lead up to the bridge and wheelhouse. If he could get above and behind the pirates attacking Dr Shadows, the crossfire might be enough to equalize things for a bit.
"Buddha's hotdogs," he cursed. "No one could have figured on an assault of this size. It's a darned army!" Distant explosions added to his speed and he bounced along the corridor at near breakneck, careening off the metal walls of the pitching ship like a billiard ball. It was at that speed that he rounded a turn in the corridor and bounded up a ladder, only to collide full force with a descending pirate.
Both men held their weapons at ready and forward, both men made eye contact and registered the shock on each other's face; and both men fired.
Harris's shotgun blast disintegrated most of the pirate's upper chest and head, spraying gore and brains all over the wall and ceiling behind him. The pellet penetration also killed a second pirate directly behind the first. Hector Mantaro, third pirate in line, but out of direct pellet spray, was covered with gore, but uninjured.
Slugger Harris took the full pointblank impact of the Thompson burst in his chest. Though he wore a six-in-one weave chainmail backed by resin undergarment, his slicker and jacket, the bullet impact fractured two of his ribs and bruised him deep enough to bleed.
Gravity, the shotgun recoil and the bullet force slammed Harris into the steel deck with tremendous velocity. Even so, he was unconscious before he hit. The remains of both pirates followed him down, falling on top of him, hiding most of him from view. Harris looked very dead.
The first hand grenade that the pirates threw fell short of Dr. Shadow's position behind the forward cargo hatch cover and spent it's force nosily but harmlessly upward.
The second grenade caused him to die. It landed with a metallic thud a few feet behind him on the open deck and detonated only two seconds later, barely enough time for him to make the decision to let it kill him. To that end he took a deep breath, angled his body, closed his eyes and focused his mind.
The explosion came like a slap of an angry god, lifting the Granite Man from the deck and hurling him over the sea rail in a thunderstorm of light. He hit the cold sea out past the stern of the last prau, though with the lashing waves it looked more like Neptune rose to greet the unconscious Grey Wolf with an icy cold embrace.
A moment after Harris slammed into the steel deck, Eddie Leung, who had been hiding in a nearby cabin, raced out to snatch up Harris's weapon. He meant to take the weapon with him into his bolt-hole and defend himself should a pirate stumble onto him. He had not seen the pirate at the top of the stairs.
But Hector Mantero had seen him.
Eddie instinctively raised the gun to fire. Hector, breed to a life of crime in Manila, acted by instinct too, but just a bit faster.
Eddie staggered back with Hector's thrown knife imbedded in his chest, then fell to his knees with a shocked look on his suddenly so young face. The shotgun clattered to the deck as he clutched at the strange protrusion from his chest but his palsied fingers had no strength. His heart stopped, and Eddie Leung fell over sideways with a dull thump.
Hector watched him fall and stared at his own out flung hand; the hand that had thrown the knife that had killed a man. Behind him he could hear Conners, the leader of the pirate band, yelling orders to the rest of the men. "Blasted Razoo, finish that and then head her for the shallows! We'll beach 'er on a bar and offload the cargo--then tow 'er out at high tide and scuttle 'er like a gibber!"
Down below, pirates slaughtered the unarmed crew with automatic weapons fire.
The screams and the howl of the wind filled the ship with sound to rival the cries of the tormented demons in hell.
Doctor Shadows' trip to the land of the dead was brief and well planned.
The icy cold of the stormy sea and the violence of the waves revived the stunned Granite Man the moment he hit the water. He had, in fact, not been killed by the explosion; his bulletproof undergarments had protected him from shrapnel and his Sulsa breathing techniques of Nae Gong had eased the concussion when he had been propelled over the side.
It had been a calculated risk on the Granite Man's part, a choice of a stand up fight against hopeless odds or trusting that his Sulsa training in breath control to harness his inner power would give him a better than even chance to survive being blasted into the sea. If the pirates thought him dead they would not hunt him and he might have a chance to turn the tables on them.
First, however, Dr. Shadows had to survive the savage pounding of the Malaysian sea. The blast flung him face down into the surf a dozen yards from the Ginza Maru. The first wave he hit was rising and he was propelled through it into a momentary calm between the swells. This was the lucky break that allowed him to survive.
The wave woke him from the hurried semi-trance he'd achieved before the blast, but he was still dazed and disoriented. When he hit the wind lull between the waves he was able to stay at the surface and tread water while he got his bearings. He untied his shoes and removed them and his socks but opted to keep his trousers on for the equipment concealed in them. Like wise his body armor was light and by adjusting a button on his lapel was able to create a chemical reaction in a network of tubes concealed through out the armor which created buoyancy chambers that more than offset the weave fibers and the weight of the man.
He could not see the Ginza Maru through the storm and the dark but he knew he had to find it quickly or loose the strength to stay afloat. Once again Neptune favored the Granite Man as the swells carried him toward a crest and gave him a glimpse of the besieged ship for a brief second. It was enough.
Dr. Shadows dove into the wave with every ounce of strength he had. His normally powerful strokes were all but useless against the raging torrent. Though the ship was barely ten yards away it was a full twenty minutes before he was slammed painfully against the steel hull just above the waterline.
It was fully another ten minutes until he gripped one of the hanging ropes the pirates had used to board the ship and secured a moment's rest. Only then did the Granite Man realize that the ship had turned toward the wind and was heading for a sandbar.
"They must be going to beach her and off-load the cargo," Dr. Shadows thought. "Once they do that they'll have reinforcements."
He ordered his exhausted sinews back into service and began to ascend the boarding rope hand over hand. He braced his feet against the cold surface of the bow plates and literally walked up the side of the pitching vessel.
Twice, huge waves smashed him against the hull and had not the pirates knotted the rope at regular intervals his grip would have been torn loose.
When the Granite Man finally heaved over the rail to sprawl on the sea washed deck he had no strength left at all. "Focus!" He thought, 'Imjun Moe Tae (No retreat!)!'
By inches he pulled himself along the pitching deck and through an opened hatch into a companionway where he lay, shivering and exhausted for many minutes. He eventually reached into his leather tunic and secured two small cubes from one of the many padded pockets where he kept emergency gear.
These cubes were concentrated food; pemmican, a Native American mixture of beef, nuts and grain which he had treated chemically with vitamins and sugar for additional energy. He downed them in true wolf fashion and they helped fight the wracking weakness and paralyzing chills. Soon he was able to climb to his feet.
Dr. Shadows removed a palm sized grey box with two dials on its surface from it from his tunic, taped the dials to center them. Then the Granite Man shook his head to clear it and moved off into the companionways; away from the sound of the storm into the bowels of the ship.
Dr. Shadows moved through the strangely silent corridors of the steamer like a grey ghost. He made no sound yet he moved with speed beyond caution. Everywhere he passed were grisly reminders of the pirates' bloody work. At each corpse the Grey Wolf stopped to check for signs of life but there were none; the sea tigers had been thorough. Anyone who could possibly have resisted had been slaughtered. From time to time Dr. Shadows stood still, rotated the box in a three hundred and sixty-degree circle, intently watching the dials before moving on. The Granite Man was amidships, two decks down when he heard the first signs of life, a distant murmur of voices and the muffled sounds of violence.
He increased his speed even more, but did not neglect stealth as he moved toward the sounds. His senses, hyped by the circumstances and long training alerted him a moment before a pirate stepped out into the companionway from a stateroom. There was no cross-corridor so Dr. Shadows dropped and froze the instant he heard the scuffling of the bandit's steps. Being below the line of sight and dead still as only a Sulsa master could be Dr. Shadows escaped the pirate's notice.
The buccaneer, a scar faced Ifugoes tribesman from Luzon, was intent on hiding the gold cross he had looted from an officer's quarters and so barely glanced at what he thought was just another victim lying in the corridor. Thus he did not see the 'corpse' rise and strike him on the nerve center at the back of his neck.
Dr. Shadows eased the unconscious pirate to the deck and quickly administered a pin stick hypodermic to keep the pirate out for several hours. Then the Granite Man gathered the buccaneer's weapons; a machine gun, a bolo knife and a single hand grenade. He consulted his grey box for a direction and raced off deeper into the ship.
Within minutes of Dr. Shadows' encounter with the pirate, the grey wolf came to the pile of gore beneath with Slugger Harris lay. "Oh gods!" Dr. Shadows murmured when he saw the bodies and realized his friend was in the tangle. Then he steeled himself for what was to be and began to remove the bantamweight from beside Eddie and the dead pirate. He carried the ex-boxer to a nearby room, a junior officers quarters and set him on a bunk. Then the Granite Man dogged the hatch and set about examining Harris.
"Okay, pal," Dr. Shadows whispered, "Let's hope you're as tough as I think you are." He removed the outer jacket and shirt, then carefully examined the impact points along the fiber weave armor giving a satisfied "Uhhuh" when he could detect no penetration of the armor. He gingerly removed the vest and examined the blunt trauma impacts with practiced hands. It was during this process that Harris' eyes fluttered open with a start.
"Look out, Doc there's pirat--ow!"
"It's okay, Slugger," the Granite Man said quietly, "We're in a locked room; stay still you've been pretty badly banged around."
"Aw, I was worse up when I sparred Maxey Rosenbloom." He started to rise but only made it a few inches before he groaned and fell back. "Oh--I feel like Jack Sharkey worked me over!"
"I'm not surprised," Dr. Shadows said, "If I was a betting man I'd put money down you had some cracked, maybe broken ribs and a concussion."
There was a muffled gunshot from further below decks and Harris suddenly remembered where he was again. "Geeze, Boss--"
"I know," Dr. Shadows said, "When I've got you taken care of, I'll see to them."
"Hey," the groggy pugilist asked, "How'd you find me?"
"The nose." Dr. Shadows said absently as he ransacked the room until he found a first aid kit. Slugger smiled. "The nose" was Slugger's term for a sensitive chemical detector that simulated many of the characteristics of the human nose. It was the grey box Dr. Shadows had used to locate Harris. Each man's clothing was impregnated with a rare combination of plant extract distilled by the Granite Man. As the essence evaporated it left behind a detectable trace which, allowing for air currents and chemical degeneration gave a map of where each had been for up to three hours.
"Not bad, considering," Dr. Shadows remarked as he finished his exam of the fighter.
"Then let's go get those murderin' rats!"
"You are staying here."
"No 'but boss' this time Slugger," Dr. Shadows said sternly. "You move around with broken ribs and you could puncture a lung or worse!" The pugilist knew Dr. Shadows was right and stopped his protests. The grey wolf expertly bandaged his companions ribs then walked to the end of the bunk.
"What if they find me while you're gone, Doc? I'm a sitting duck."
"That's what this is about." He went to the end of the bunk nearest the door and with a lightening swift kick broke the wall support, catching it before the bunk tilted downward to the floor and gently lowered it so that Slugger was angled toward the door with his feet lowered.
"Take this," Dr. Shadows said, handing Slugger the Tommy gun he taken from the pirate. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He started to head out the door then stopped, looked the bantamweight in the eye and smiled: "Don't move!"
"I wouldn't think of it," Slugger smiled back. "Where you goin' Boss?"
"To take back the ship."
"How you gonna do that?
"I'm not quite sure," the Granite Man said as he pulled the hatch closed behind him, "But I have a few ideas!"
The pirates had herded the survivors of the attack to the aft cargo hold. They were systematically searching the ship to make sure they had all hands accounted for, a fact which caused the Granite Man to twice seek hiding places; once in a tool locker and once suspended from overhead pipes.
When he saw the thoroughness of their search, he knew he had made a mistake leaving the pirate he had drugged in plain sight. The other corsairs would find him soon if they had not already and, though the sedative could not be counter-acted for some twenty hours, the fallen pirate's silence would proclaim a dangerous survivor loose on the ship.
"I'd better be brilliant quickly," the Granite Man chided himself, "Or mine and Slugger's return from the dead will have been just a temporary situation."
Dr. Shadows then made his way to a paint locker, picked the lock and began to gather some supplies for a plan he had formed.
"You blasted Razoo," Conners cursed, "What is wrong with you, Mantero?"
The men were standing in the corridor outside the aft cargo hold. Both seemed oblivious to the cries of the Ginza Maru's surviving crew who where pounding on the bulkheads.
"I-I--I just don't think there is any reason to kill the rest." Hector stammered, "We can take off the cargo and be gone long before they can free themselves."
"You've turned ruddy chicken, boy," Conners said derisively, "Or gone bleedin' Holy Roller! There can't be no witnesses. Floodin' that compartment finishes 'em all nice and quick."
Suddenly there was a cry amidships and both men jerked around toward it. It was Chowdury, one of the Hindu buccaneers who came racing toward them like a drunk afire. "Connors Sahib," he squealed, "The curse of Shiva is upon us: a sea demon!" The man ran wildly, staggering and careening of bulkheads and companionway walls, oblivious to any damage he was doing to himself.
"You blasted Razoo!" Conners exclaimed again, " What the hell is wrong with you?"
"The Sea Demon, Sahib!" Cowdury mumbled, his words beginning to slur. "All men in ship all curse," He finally fell at Conners and Marnero's feet and began to make horrific gurgling sounds.
Conners drew his pistol in a fury of indecision. "Nonsense!"' he yelled, "He's gone around the twist!" He looked at Mantaro with contempt. "You're all a bunch of superstitious children; you stay back here and make sure those crewmen don't get out!"
Conners started down the companionway that the Hindu had come from and stopped to add, "And don't touch those sea cocks; I want that compartment flooded when we blow the bottom out of this scow."
When the Australian left, Hector Mantaro leaned back against the steel wall of the corridor exhausted from the sheer tension of opposing Conners' will.
He could still hear the trapped sailors in the hold pounding on the hatches, and his own guilty heart beating like a hammer in his chest. But more chilling than those sounds were the liquidy, horrid gurgles that came from where Chowdury had fallen.
Suddenly there was a gunshot from amidships and a voice in anger and pain; Conners' voice. Then silence.
Just as suddenly the wind seemed to die and the creaking of the ship magnified so that it sounded liked the snap of bones. "Mother of Mercy," Hector whispered to himself, "Forgive me."
Abruptly there was the scrape of metal on metal and Hector whirled to see a demon standing in the companionway from amidships. The demon was vaguely man shaped with a swollen head that reflected the half-light oddly. In its two massive paws was a trident of metal pointed straight at him.
The young Filipino fired twice at the apparition, sure he hit it both times, for it staggered back with each shot, but the demon continued to advance. "God forgive me!" Hector cried as he dropped to his knees in tears then fell forward in an incoherent heap.
Dr. Shadows rendered Hector unconscious with a simple rabbit punch before he removed the welder's gloves and mask he had modified. Then the Granite Man quickly moved to the aft hatch and undogged it.
The frantic crewmen poured through the hatchway ready to fight and it took a few strong shouts on Dr. Shadows' to get them calmed down and convinced he was on their side.
"Most of the pirates are like this one," the Granite Man said, indicating the pathetic form of Chowdury, "But I'm sure I missed some; get weapons and get to the sea cocks, engine room and bridge." The officers organized parties and raced off with a nod from their captain. The skipper, an old salt who had been roughed up a bit and so had his head bandaged, stormed up to Dr. Shadows.
"What the hell is going on?" he demanded. "What did you do to that brigand?"
Dr. Shadows removed the spray painting compressor and trident like spray nozzle he had cobbled together then removed the rubberized diving suit. "He and the others are suffering from a curare-like nerve toxin I was able to make using some anesthetic I had with me and some components I found in your paint locker."
Dr. Shadows crouched to check Chowdury's pulse and pupils. "The toxin in this dilute form blocks or scrambles external nerve impulses, some thing like a grand mal epileptic seizure. It's more terrifying than damaging. But it won't last for more than ten or fifteen minutes."
"I'll have my ship back long before that," the captain said with determination. He and the last of the crew started to leave.
"Two last points," the Granite Man added. "Don't mind the numbness if you handle anything or the men; it's residual from the toxin, but it's breaks down fast and," the Grey Wolf of Justice smiled. "Let me handle the guy in cabin twenty four; Slugger's liable to shoot anyone else who pokes their head in just out of sheer orneriness!"