Shrouds of Grey

It was 1915, and though we weren't in the war yet, the United States and United Kingdom were secretly sending envoys back and forth as we discussed buisness pertaining to the Great War. That's what I was then, in fact it was my first assignment, and to this day those screams haunt my memory, urging me to tell the tale of what happened that day in May all those years ago.

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12. Epilogue: The Last Secret

 

   ~June 3rd, 1987

   It had been some time since the interview and expedition had ended and yet the young man sat still on his work that at the start he was so intent on finishing and publishing as the words of George Callahan continued to drift in and out of his conscious thought. Eugene had stopped by several times since then in an attempt to see where his friend stood in terms of progress as after all, his work was a large part of the final report due to his employer back at the Oceanographic Institute and thus tardiness on Bret’s behalf was to prove a very bad thing to his work.

   “Bret,” Eugene had said in his last visit, “I think it’s time we move on about what we found out and just publish your findings. I need them, the Institute demands them and your personal finances would appreciate a nice stimulus the published work could generate.”

   “I suppose…” Bret answered halfheartedly. “Though still, what about the repercussions of my actions?”

   “If you lead your life by fear, you’ll accomplish nothing,” Eugene smiled as he walked towards the door. “Think about it, please.”

   Bret had thought about it, he’d thought about it over and over again, yet still he found himself conflicted about what action he should take. Finally however, a sudden urge came into his mind and acting on it he tore to his closet in the back of the house where it lay since the day he returned. The bag had aged a bit more since then and more cracks had formed in the leather, the buckles tarnished a bit as he carefully pulled it from the spot of its deposit.

   The contents of this bag had yet to be examined in any thorough detail by him until now but as he sat down on his bed he opened the shoulder bag and with great care pulled out the folder of yellowed and ruined manila that once perhaps kept the records of Mr. Callahan’s mission but now hung empty with an unknown collection of documents within. Carefully examining the envelope there was no immediate indications that the file within was of any classified importance and so for now he ignored the folder and placed it with great care onto the bed on which he sat. As he rummaged through the bag he next pulled out a stack of letters that were held together via rubber band which also seemed yellowed with age.

   “Interesting,” he mumbled to himself as he looked the stack over, “Again, seems like nothing more than civilian mail, not some official document or confidential order.” Continuing to search through the bag he pulled out the final item, a tattered journal that had long been worn along the edges along with some photographic prints. The journal had a small buckle on it serving as a clasp to keep it closed, the yellowed pages inside stained with discoloration splotches like some mid-century artwork. He looked it over carefully before with nimble fingers and the care of a surgeon he undid the worn old clasp and opened the ancient leather to reveal the secrets of the small book before him.

   “Definitely interesting,” he whispered as he flipped through a few of the worn pages, skimming through their content searching for key words or phrases to catch his attention. Suddenly something caught his attention; flipping nervously back through the notebook he came across a date that read: May 7th, 1915 3:13pm.

   “That’s only an hour or so after the ship was torpedoed,” Bret thought to himself as he skimmed over the entry with more interest. “By now… his boat would be on shore I think as the ship would've gone down and the rescue trawlers arrived on scene…”

***************

   ~May 7th, 1915 3:13pm

   Once on shore the members of his lifeboat were immediately both covered and swarmed by the local police and curious villagers as to what had just occurred though to George it seemed simple to him; why else would anyone wash up here on a lifeboat were it not a ship had gone down? He scribbled his thoughts when no one appeared to be looking into his journal which he had kept with him for the past few years.

   It would seem the curiosity of the villagers is not forgone here as they pester us, almost unaware of the disaster to which only a small handful of us have lived through. I find it honestly rude as they seem to only want to know why we washed ashore on such a nice day as they say; you’d think people in a war zone would be a little more conscious to what happens around them.

   Finished with his personal thought he moved on with the others as he pulled one thing from the lifeboat to which Joe had almost drowned him for bringing once he saw that was the reason his swimming was so laxed in comparison to how he normally swam. The leather bag he and Joe had been entrusted with was heavy with seawater and sure to crack and degrade if not dried properly soon along with the many things inside. As he caught up to Joe he received a sigh and a grumble from his partner.

   “I can’t believe you dragged that damned thing with you,” he grumbled, “almost lost yer life for such a thing, my god you’re stubborn.” His eyes stared straight ahead as he kept his vigilance up as if expecting an ambush though perhaps it was just that the ordeal they’d both been through had left his adrenaline still pumping in force.

   “Couldn't risk someone picking it up who shouldn't have, right?” George smiled as he readjusted the bag’s strap on his shoulder whilst maintain pace with Joe and the others as they were escorted into town. “Besides, we technically are still charged with the delivery of the documents within, regardless the dangers as like you said, this my dear friend, is war in its truest form.”

   “Throwing my own words in my face huh?” a small grin came across his face for a brief moment before quickly vanishing again as expected we was still on guard and probably would be until our mission was completed.

   When we finally got into town we were placed inside a small church for shelter until all the events and eyewitness accounts could be collected in which then and only then would the local government look into finding a ship suitable for transit to complete our voyage to England.

   You’d think that the incessant nature in which they ask the questions about the disaster one might mistake for an interrogation. It seems that in all accounts in war, the true nature of man comes out of which, I find it honestly quite sickening. It’s quite unimaginable the type of trauma that such an event has incurred on those who experienced it and now to have it exasperated is just inhuman and inconceivable that the matter born to which an answer is demanded and the wellbeing of fellow man is forgone is perhaps that of the greatest indecency of man.

   Again George put away his journal as he followed Joe into a back room seemingly to avoid the riff raff of the other now made refugees of the Lusitania. Aptly though, upon entering the room, Joe’s swift hand met the door as he slammed it shut and locked it. Turning to him he looked at the weathered bag on his partner’s shoulder.

   “Alright, let’s see it,” he spoke gruffly but in a minor whisper so no one on the outside could hear. “Let’s go George, open the bag and let’s see these orders that our government so lovingly put us in charge of.”

   “Why? It’s not our business,” George commented slightly taken aback. “Our orders were simply to get them to our contacts in London, that’s it.”

   “I know but… after all this,” Joe simmered as he drew closer, “I want to know what’s so bloody important that we had to go through all this, now, give it ‘ere.” He came up to and rather gruffly yanked the bag from his partner, almost sending him spinning into the wall nearby. Carefully he undid the clasps on the bag and sat down on a bench as he began to rummage through the contents of the bag.

   “Joe, I really don’t think that’s a good… idea,” He paused as his partner withdrew a sealed manila folder and looked it over for a second before carefully prying the seal on the fold open with a knife he kept in his back pocket. “I hope you know what you’re-“

   “Of course I do,” he mumbled as his attention was on his hand which was uplifting the seal with utmost care, “I used to do this quite a lot actually when I was younger, got quite good at it in fact.”

   “Joe, I never knew you had a criminal side to you,” George smirked with surprise and whimsy, “I always took you to be the pudgy lawyer type who never broke a law and then you tell me this… interesting.”

   “There’s quite a lot you don’t know about me George old buddy,” he snickered lightly as he continued to pry until finally it came free in one whole piece. “Gotcha, now... let’s see what we risked out lives for…” Carefully he withdrew the documents and began to read over them with care and attention to detail.  “Well, indeed this is a very good secret you’d want to keep from the government and especially the general public.”

   “What is it?” George asked with growing curiosity. “A secret declaration of war, a deal of lease, what then, tell me Joe.”

   “I suppose you could call it a lease of sorts,” he answered as he slowly replaced the documents in the exact order he found them in before closing the envelope. “Hey, you got a lighter or a match perhaps?”

   “A lighter, why you got a cigarette you need lit?” George asked as he withdrew his minor dampened lighter “It’s wet so I can’t guarantee any sort of good flame.” As he turned over the lighter to his friend he watched carefully as he let the small flame lick at the bottom of the waxen seal he had so carefully pried apart. After but a few moments he extinguished the flame and carefully replaced the now slightly liquid wax onto its original stoop.

   “There we go, now no one’s the wiser as to what we've just done,” it was at that moment he then pulled out and lit a still semi-soggy cigarette and coughed on the soured fumes. “Blegh, seawater flavored tobacco tastes like horseshit.”

   “That was very sneaky of you, damn near treason,” George coolly protested as he replaced the bag and its contents onto his shoulder.

   “What they don’t know won’t hurt them, and besides, if you saw then you’d have done the same thing,” he replied as he shuffled to the door.

   “What do you mean, Joe what was in the note?” George asked as he ran after his friend and partner. As they approached a stone bridge a man walked up to them and subtly flashed a badge of English Parliament.

   “I’m guessing you two are the blokes the United States sent over,” he gruffly spoke, “Sorry for the rough reception the Germans gave but don’t worry, it won’t go unpunished, now if you would.” He motioned to a black ford sitting on the roadside to which he quietly stepped into and waited for it to start up and take off. When it finally did a couple of moments passed before anyone said anything.

   “So how did you get here so fast?” Joe questioned with suspicion. “Or have you been here the whole time?”

   “I received a telegram this morning to board a vessel and head to Liverpool where the ship would dock but…” he left off as the car took a sharp turn down a country road, the suspension on the car making the ride now a bit uncomfortable. “I later received a call saying that a large ship was coming ashore as it had been struck by a torpedo from a friend in the village and so, here I am.”

   “Convenient,” Joe muttered, almost disbelieving what he was being told. As the car ride continued Joe did do one strange thing; he asked for George’s Journal and a writing utensil as he tried to scribble down some notes in the journal whilst the car shook about violently. It took the entire car trip to write the notes with any clarity but he did it. George quietly stuffed the notebook in his pocket as the group followed the agent into a nearby house on the river bank.

   Treaty of Lease Between United Sates of America and Great Britain. Specifies that for hold over the Territories of Newfoundland and New Brunswick the United States shall lend half of their destroyers to the England along with provisional use of leased Capitol Ships in exchange for 1 million dollars worth of up front munitions and supplies.

   “That’s practically a declaration of war in the eyes of Germany,” George thought to himself as he read the document notes Joe had scribbled down. “We’d take a lease on territory and supply ships in exchange for money and munitions… That’s war right there… This can’t happen, not now.”

***************

   ~June 3rd, 1987

   “And so Joe and I agreed that it would be safer if we erased all mentions of the deal,” Bret read the portion of the journal entry aloud to himself. “After we gave over the bag we arranged to be in London on the day this man was to give the documents to the Admiralty; Joe followed him closely whilst I made preparation to return us to America. Finally on the day of the tenth we put the plans into action and silenced this agent and stole back the documents and shortly after fled in secret back to America.”

   The thoughts that Mr. Callahan and his partner had made the singular decision to forestall the US’s entry into the war enraged him until he sat back and examined the consequences of what if had happened. At the time the economy was flocculating and importing and exporting with both Germany and England had stabilized the economy and thus entering the war and losing out on Germany’s business could’ve prematurely sunk the frail economy and then the harsh Isolationist sentiment in the country would’ve meant that the might of the US military would’ve been sharply reduced, leaving the nation almost crippled and unable to wage war effectively. Bret looked through the journal and skipped to a later date.

   ~June 4th, 1917

   Now that I look back on it, I’m glad I made that choice with Joe to not allow that deal to go through. Though we left a man crippled and probably less than useful to his country for war, keeping our country out until now proved more than worth it. If we had gone to war, not only would there be dissent in the entire country but in our weakened state had we not intercepted that telegram to Mexico, we’d probably be fighting the damn Mexicans on the homefront along with the Central Powers abroad. So it seems perhaps it seems our gambit was worth the risk. Then again, isn’t that what spies are for; keeping their country in top condition and a better state of well being by learning of the intent of other countries?

   “The United States was at war by this entry,” Bret sighed as he lay back on his bed. “What is Mr. Callahan trying to tell me to do with this garble?” Then the thought raced into his head as why did they keep the bag and all the stuff they tried to stop from reaching its destination as it would’ve made more sense to destroy it. He spent a good hour thinking of the reason until it finally clicked.

   The next day he presented a rewritten and partially edited finding of his work to the Institute and had it published on a small scale. Immediately the knowledge he leaked and fibbed about began to circulate and soon the questions were raising themselves as to why things occurred the way they did. Over time, Bret leaked bits and pieces of information to anonymous parties to keep the questions alive, to keep the memory of that day in the conscious mind of the common man as his final tribute to the man that told him so much about the forgotten past.

   “Knowledge should be used,” he said later in an interview, “But, it should be used with caution and discretion to avoid conflict or widespread panic.” His words clung to the conscious of a dying man far away in a retirement home in the United States as he watched from his sterile linens the interview to which he had banked so much on to occur in the future; he was 98 years old now and knew he didn’t have long for the world, however he felt solace in the knowledge he had left his knowledge of the Lusitania’s final secret in the capable hands of a responsible man.

   “It’s all a game,” he whispered hoarsely to himself, “It’s all spying is, a game of hide and seek of which no one will get hurt or upset if you’re not caught.” He paused as he inhaled feebly on his air tank’s supply. “We preserve peace and destroy nations… all through secrets and espionage. But I guess the question is… Within those shrouds of grey, does the end justify the means of keeping such secrets from others…” He stared blankly at the image of the younger man he had the pleasure of knowing briefly and smiled, “Tell me, young buck, what do you think about secrets?”

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