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Authors: Sarah R. Shaber

Louise's Blunder

BOOK: Louise's Blunder
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Table of Contents

A Selection of Titles from Sarah R. Shaber
The Professor Simon Shaw series

SIMON SAID

SNIPE HUNT

THE FUGITIVE KING

THE BUG FUNERAL

SHELL GAME

The Louise Pearlie Series

LOUISE’S WAR *

LOUISE’S GAMBLE *

LOUISE’S DILEMMA *

LOUISE’S BLUNDER *

*
available from Severn House

LOUISE’S BLUNDER
Sarah R. Shaber

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

First published in Great Britain and the USA 2014 by

SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of

19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

eBook edition first published in 2014 by Severn House Digital

an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Shaber.

The right of Sarah Shaber to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Shaber, Sarah R. author.

Louise’s Blu
nder.

1. Pearlie, Louise (Fictitious character)–Fiction.

2. United States. Office of Strategic Services–

Employees–Fiction. 3. Murder–Investigation–Washington

(D.C.)–Fiction. 4. Suspense fiction.

I. Title

813.6-dc23

ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8392-6 (cased)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-558-1 (ePub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk,

Stirlingshire, Scotland.

In honor of Fosse, my family’s miniature schnauzer, my constant companion for almost fourteen years. Good dog!

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

It’s true that writing is a solitary occupation, but it takes a small army to support a writer and get a manuscript turned into a book. As always I must thank my family, my husband Steve, my daughter Katie and my son Sam, for putting up with me while my creative juices are flowing.

My writing buddies, Margaret Maron, Bren Witchger (Brynn Bonner), Diane Chamberlain, Kathy Trochek (Mary Kay Andrews), Katy Munger and Alexandra Sokoloff, I can’t imagine my writing life without you!

My friend Vicky Bijur is the best agent in the universe.

I am so fortunate that Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh is my home bookstore.

And I am very thankful that Severn House publishers took a chance on this series during the depths of the recession. To my editor, Rachel Simpson Hutchens, thank you for your patience!

ONE

T
he following is an excerpt from the ‘1943 Guide to Hiring Women’, published in the July 1943 issue of
Mass Transportation
magazine. It was written for male supervisors of women in the workforce during World War II.

Pick young married women. They [ … ] usually have more of a sense of responsibility than do their unmarried sisters; they’re less likely to be flirtatious; they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it [ … ]; they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.

The GI ground his cigarette butt into the heap of decaying cherry tree blossoms. Just the color, a rotting baby girl pink, made him angry. What was he going to tell his children and grandchildren? That he spent the war guarding three thousand lousy Jap bushes? If it were up to him he’d have every one of them uprooted and burned in the biggest bonfire Washington DC had ever seen.

After Pearl Harbor four of the cherry trees had been vandalized. Since then, on orders from the Great Father himself, regular Army soldiers had been stationed around the Tidal Basin to protect the remaining trees. Which were now called ‘oriental’ trees. Which didn’t fool anyone. Imagine, the US Army guarding a grove of pink trees! It was embarrassing, that’s what it was. He lied in his letters home, telling his dad that he was learning to operate an M3 Light Tank. If the old man found out the truth he’d never hear the end of it.

The soldier gazed out over the shimmering blue water of the Tidal Basin. He had to admit it was a pretty sight, especially on a soft May early morning like this one. The circle of cherry trees, now fully leafed out, framed the gleaming white marble of the new Jefferson Memorial to the south. If he turned and looked north, he’d see the Washington Monument standing tall, keeping watch over the District. And at midday the grassy banks of the Tidal Basin would be crowded with pretty government girls eating their sandwiches.

But he wasn’t fighting the Nazis. Nightly he prayed, silently so his bunkmates couldn’t hear him, that when the United States invaded Europe, which had to happen someday, he’d be in the ranks of fighting men sent overseas. It was what he wanted more than anything else in the world. Just thinking about being stuck in the States for the entire war made him want to heave.

Something drifting in the Tidal Basin floated into his field of vision. He squinted, cupping his hands over his eyes to block the sun. Whatever it was bobbed toward the shore – the tide was coming in. The object rolled over and he saw a face. Jesus Christ!

The young GI turned and shouted out to the sentry closest to him.

‘Help!’ he screamed. ‘Help! Man overboard!’ He pointed out into the water. At ten feet deep the Tidal Basin was plenty deep enough to drown in.

The soldier flung his rifle to the ground, threw off his helmet and dropped his duty belt. He unlaced his boots in record time and plunged into the cold water. Within a few feet the water deepened and he started swimming. It wasn’t like swimming in the lake at home; it was slow going against the tide. He could hear shouting from behind him on the shore.

By the time the soldier reached the body he knew the fellow was dead. Just the way the body rolled in the small swells told him that. And the color of the man’s face confirmed it. Nonetheless he grasped the corpse under its arms and began to tow it back to shore. The dead weight of the body slowed his progress to what seemed like nothing, but then another soldier joined him and the two of them dragged the dead weight of the corpse to shallow water quickly. Another GI waded out and helped them lug the waterlogged corpse to land.

His squadron leader, Sergeant Tyson, stood on the shore barking into his radio. He clicked it off and nodded to the young soldier.

‘Good work spotting that guy,’ Tyson said. ‘I’ve called the District police. A patrolman will here soon. And a mortuary wagon.’

The four soldiers, three of them dripping wet, stared down at the corpse, splayed face up on the grass.

‘He hasn’t been dead long, I’d say,’ Tyson said. ‘Not much bloating.’

The victim was not a young man, maybe forty, dressed in civvies – khaki trousers, a white short-sleeve shirt and brown wingtips. A ballpoint pen stamped ‘US Government’ was clipped to his shirt pocket. It had leaked ink all over the front of his shirt.

‘Guy’s just a pencil-pusher,’ the sergeant said. ‘Wonder how he got himself drowned.’

A teetering stack of intelligence reports jammed my in-box. It was my job to analyze them and then to summarize them on index cards. The cards would be added to our vast index card files and the documents themselves filed in one of the hundreds of file cabinets that crowded the Central Information Division, or Registry, of the Office of Strategic Services, our country’s wartime spy agency. So that other OSS divisions, the Army and Navy, the State Department and the White House, had access to the latest intelligence.

This was a critically important job for which I and the other forty or so girls who worked in the Registry (secretaries of war, ha-ha; boy, had that joke gotten old) were well paid – for females, that is. But the interminable task was wearing me out. It wasn’t unusual for some general bristling with chest hardware to hover over me, stone-faced and arms crossed, while I analyzed a document he wanted yesterday. Or for some irreplaceable file to go missing, only to be found after hours of searching, forgotten on some analyst’s desk. And at the end of the workday every file that had been left on the return table in the OSS Reading Room had to be replaced in its original location before the next day. At least the record cold and ice-bound winter of 1943 was over and I could walk home in the twilight of a warm spring evening.

What I wouldn’t give for a transfer! I’d heard the librarian of the Registry’s telephone book archive had left. Even that job sounded good to me.

I turned when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. Pat, one of our Negro messengers, stood behind me.

‘Mrs Pearlie,’ he said. ‘Mr Wilmarth Lewis requests your presence in his office right away.’

My stomach lurched. Lewis was the Chief of the Central Information Division. A famous Walpole scholar from Yale, he’d invented the indexing and cross-indexing system that kept our Registry’s millions of index cards, thousands of foreign serials, fifty thousand books, the Map Room and countless loose postcards catalogued so that they could be located by the researchers who needed them. But Lewis was an aristocrat and dandy who didn’t bother with the day-to-day running of the Registry. He spent his time with people like OSS Director General Bill Donovan and Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress. What on earth did he want with me? I couldn’t imagine he even knew my name. I had done some fieldwork in the past, and although my participation was both accidental and controversial, I had acquitted myself very well. But I doubted very much that Lewis knew anything about my fieldwork.

The messenger had left when I realized I had no idea where Lewis’s office was. I caught up with him between the row of file cabinets where ‘Q’ ended and ‘R’ began. The young colored man grinned at me. ‘You mean you don’t know your way around the main building? Mr Lewis’s office is on the same hall as General Donovan’s. Right next to the water fountain.’

Lewis’s secretary occupied a desk outside his office in a wide hall on the upper floor of the main OSS building, which had once been a naval hospital. She directed me to wait in a nearby chair. Then she went back to typing from her shorthand notebook, mouthing words to herself as she typed. I barely had time to compose myself and apply a little face powder and lipstick before her telephone buzzed and she indicated that I was to go into Lewis’s office.

I knew Lewis was wealthy – he was funding the Yale Walpole Library himself. But I’d never seen an office at OSS like this one. An oriental carpet covered the floor and the desk was a walnut leviathan inlaid with some lovely golden wood I couldn’t name. Two leather club chairs faced the desk. Obviously Lewis had furnished the office at his personal expense.

Lewis stood behind his desk with his fingers resting on a thick file. My personnel file! I could clearly see my name on the tab. My pulse pounded in my head and I felt drops of perspiration form behind my neck.

‘Mrs Pearlie,’ Lewis said. ‘Please have a seat.’

I took one of the deep leather chairs. Lewis remained standing and glanced down at my file before raising his eyes to my face again.

‘For a government girl you have quite a record,’ he said. ‘Superior commendations, Top Secret clearance. You haven’t spent your time with us just filing and typing, have you?’

‘No sir,’ I said, dry-mouthed.

Lewis tucked a hand into his pants pocket, revealing a heavy gold watch chain with a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from it.

‘We need you to do something for us today. It’s rather distasteful.’ The man wrinkled his nose as if he’d smelled something nasty. ‘My secretary is going to the cafeteria for coffee and I’m required at a meeting. You’ll be joined shortly by an officer with the OSS Security Office. You’re to work for him and report only to him, am I clear?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said. What on earth was this about?

Several long minutes later the office door opened and a man entered whom I would have been hard-pressed to identify as a security officer. He was wearing an Army major’s uniform that hadn’t spent any time with an iron lately. His top shirt button was undone and his tie loosened. He was shorter than I and weighed, I would guess, fifty pounds more.

We shook hands. ‘Mrs Louise Pearlie?’ he said. ‘I’m Major Angus Wicker, OSS Security. Good to meet you. I understand you can keep a secret.’

‘Yes, sir, I can,’ I said. Now I was intrigued.

He sat down in the other leather chair and crossed his legs. His uniform jacket fell open and I saw a handgun holstered at his side. He wore a hefty gold class ring on his right hand. I’d learned at The Farm, the OSS training facility, how much damage a heavy ring could cause in hand-to-hand combat. Maybe Lt Wicker was more capable than he appeared.

‘I have an assignment for you, Mrs Pearlie. And I must tell you that it comes from the very highest levels of OSS. Top Secret, Eyes Only and all that.’

‘I’m ready.’ Was I ever!

‘Do you know a Research and Analysis staffer named Paul Hughes?’ he asked. ‘Thin, fortyish, sandy hair, Europe/Africa division?’

‘The name is familiar but I can’t place him,’ I said.

‘He’s an economist on the German desk, specializes in German labor statistics. We need you to find out what files he’s been checking out in the Reading Room over the past month. He’s not in today, so now would be a good time.’

‘All the files?’ I said.

‘Just the regular files,’ he said. ‘Hughes doesn’t have access to the Limited files. And we need specifics. Give us the file numbers and subject titles. Mr Lewis has told Mr Shera that you’ll be compiling statistics for him today.’ Shera was the Head of the Reference Section, my boss. ‘At the end of the day place your notes in an envelope, seal it and sign across the seal. Bring it back to this office and observe Mr Lewis place it in his safe. That’s all.’

‘What if I’m not finished?’

‘Add a note to that effect. We’ll take it from there.’

‘All right.’

‘And Mrs Pearlie, you might not hear anything about this ever again.’

‘I understand.’

I practically ran back to the huge old apartment building across the street that housed the R&A Branch and the Registry. OK, it was just one day free from my regular job, and I’d still be doing clerical work, but by God, I was looking for a double agent! Well, perhaps it was wrong to use such a strong term. But Hughes was reading files that he shouldn’t be reading; why else would he do that except to share the information with someone he shouldn’t? That was the only reason I could think of why the big OSS bosses wanted to know what files this Paul Hughes checked out! Even better, I’d been trusted to do the job.

District Police Detective Sergeant Harvey Royal slammed the door of the old black Chevy police car and cased the accident scene. A motorcycle policeman stood guard over a soggy corpse splayed across the path that circled the Tidal Basin. His motorcycle leaned up against the nearest cherry tree. A mortuary van with its rear doors opened wide was parked on the grass nearby, its white-clad driver and his assistant leaning up against the vehicle, smoking. An Army sergeant supervised a handful of soldiers who were preventing a gathering crowd from getting a good look at the corpse. Royal walked with a limp over to the motorcycle policeman and the body.

‘What the hell, patrolman?’ Royal said. ‘You’d better have a good reason to call me to the scene of a drowning. This stiff should be on its way to the morgue by now.’

The patrolman removed his helmet revealing a young freckled face and a ginger cowlick.

‘Sir,’ he said. ‘The victim had no identification on him. No wallet, nothing in his pockets at all. Only that government pen clipped to his shirt pocket. And he’s got a big old lump behind his right ear, too.’

‘No kidding,’ Royal said. He knelt clumsily next to the corpse and turned out all the victim’s pockets. ‘No wallet,’ he said to himself, ‘no cigarettes, no lighter, no handkerchief, no pocketknife, no keys. Nothing.’

Royal bent over the corpse and felt around the back of its head. There was a lump behind the right ear, all right. A big one. He felt a depression in the man’s skull beneath the lump.

Royal got to his feet and wiped his hands with a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. He nodded in approval at the young patrolman. ‘You did the right thing to call me, son. Go on and radio for a photographer.’

‘You mean he didn’t drown?’ the Army sergeant asked. He’d been hovering nearby, after sending his soaking wet soldiers back to their barracks to change into dry clothes and ordering the rest of his squad to contain the civilians that gathered on the bank of the Tidal Basin to gawk at the corpse.

‘I don’t know,’ Royal said. ‘It’s unusual for a fellow not to have a wallet or anything else in his pockets. Makes me wonder if someone didn’t empty them out for him. Help me turn him over.’

BOOK: Louise's Blunder
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