Wailing Octopus

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13. Message in the Storm



The wind blew. It piled the surf high on the reef and blew the tops from waves between the reef and the shore. Hour by hour the wind stiffened, until the breakers on the shore were higher than those through which the Spindrifters had swum on the reef.

The first hours of the morning were spent getting ready for a blow. The Water Witch was secured by springlines, and extra fenders were put over her side. The four hauled the Sky Wagon high onto the beach by sheer muscle power, then turned the plane into the wind. Rick and Scotty salvaged the concrete-block foundation from the wreck of the cottage where they had found the planks, and used the blocks for land anchors on the plane.

The shutters were checked, and closed on the front of the cottage. The shed where the tank had broken through was repaired as well as improvised tools and materials allowed, and all loose gear was stowed inside.

The rain came. It drove with the wind into the front of the cottage in a continuous thunder. Its force carried it under the door, through cracks beside the window frames. The Spindrifters were forced to shred rags to stuff into cracks. In the kitchen the roof began to leak, and soon every available pot and pan was being used to catch drippings.

Rick worked almost in silence, not joining in the bantering of his friends. As was his way, he worried the problem of the frogmen and their mysterious behavior the way his dog, Dismal, would worry a bone.

He discarded a dozen possible reasons for their actions, including underwater communications, bombs, and an unusual way of fishing. He pondered on the relations of the Spindrift group--or lack of them--with the frogmen and re-examined their various theories.

First premise: The frogmen, specifically Steve's former shadow, hadn't recognized them or the Water Witch.

Second premise: The frogmen considered them harmless tourists, interested only in diving to the wreck, and therefore to be watched but not considered dangerous.

He rather liked that one. It would mean that the chicken had been dropped "mischievously," to use Zircon's word, to try to scare them out of the immediate vicinity. But there were other possibilities.

First premise: The frogmen knew of their connection with Steve.

Second premise: The frogmen weren't worried about people with JANIG connections.

This might be explained by superior weapons in the hands of the frogmen, coupled with the assumption that the Spindrifters had no communication with Steve. It might also be explained by knowledge of their real reason for being on Clipper Cay.

Rick didn't care much for the last two premises. The first one seemed more reasonable. After all, they were not sure that the former tail had seen the Water Witch in St. Thomas, or had known of their connection with it. On the contrary, to get to Clipper Cay so soon after the Spindrifters arrived, the frogman must have left about the same time the scientists did. There was even a possibility that he had arrived ahead of the Spindrift group and that the frogmen's boat had been out when Rick and Scotty had first spotted the diving equipment in the house. Anyway, there had been no sign of any tail but the Virgin Islander while they were around the pier and on the Water Witch. Either he or Scotty would almost certainly have spotted a second man--especially since they had seen him before.

There was a major precaution, however, to be taken: he and Scotty must not let Steve's former tail get a good look at them. They had to assume he had recognized their clumsiness for what it was--a deliberate stall.

Scotty poked him, and Rick suddenly realized that he had been leaning for quite a long while on the broom he was supposed to be using.

"Made up your mind about anything?" Scotty asked.

Rick knew his friend had been watching him. During their many adventures each had developed a rather unusual understanding of how the other's mind worked.

"Partly," Rick replied. He told Scotty his thoughts.

"You make sense," Scotty agreed, then added practically, "but I don't see what difference it makes, whether they know about our connection with Steve or not. The moment they catch us snooping they'll assume we're enemies. Until then, they'll let us alone just as they've been doing."

Zircon and Scotty joined forces to prepare lunch. The temperature had dropped sharply, and hot soup and hamburger sandwiches were welcome.

After lunch, Rick braved the storm long enough to go to the Water Witch for his camera. He returned to the cottage soaked to the skin. "We'll need diving equipment to go outside if this keeps up," he announced.

He took the camera case apart and disconnected his circuits, then he went outside again with tools in hand and got into the Sky Wagon. The plane had a heater switch that would do. He removed it, leaving the wires to dangle for the moment. If the heater was needed he could put the wires together.

That done, he sat in the plane and racked his memory for a source of sheet rubber. There was none, but he recalled a repair kit for the plastic floats in their tool supply. He found it and took it back to the house.

Using the awl blade on his scout knife, he bored a hole through the plastic back of the case and installed the switch. Then he reconnected his circuits so the new switch would turn on only the infrared light. He waterproofed the switch as best he could, making gaskets from a rubber jar ring he found in the kitchen.

He knew, however, that the switch wouldn't be waterproof under pressure. He took a sheet of plastic repair material from the float repair kit and shaped it carefully with his knife. After much trial and error he succeeded in cementing it onto the case so that it would protect the switch from the outside, but left enough slack for the switch to be operated through the flexible patch. Satisfied, he put it aside to dry.

It was nearly time for dinner when he finished. He took a hand in cooking ham and eggs with fried potatoes, while Tony prepared a salad and made coffee.

As they ate, Zircon gestured toward the front of the house. "Getting worse instead of letting up. This must be a hurricane, although I've never heard of one quite this early in the season."

"If it gets much worse we'll have to anchor the cottage," Scotty observed.

They finished just in time to tune in for the weather forecast from St. Thomas. According to the announcer, the storm was now centered off the island of St. Croix, moving in a northwesterly direction. That meant it would pass St. Thomas, and perhaps come very close to them. The announcer said, "While the storm has many of the characteristics of a hurricane, including the general form and wind velocities, we hesitate to designate it as one."

"In other words," Tony said, "it's a hurricane but we'll call it something else because it's too early in the season for hurricanes."

"Whatever it is, we'll have more of it," Zircon stated.

Rick switched to the Navy command frequency in time to intercept a conversation with a destroyer somewhere off the British Virgin Islands. The destroyer had just lost one of its boats.

At four minutes after six the air went silent, then a new voice took over the microphone. The voice said:

"A message for the ones who hunted blue sheep."

"That's us!" Rick gasped.

When Steve had dispatched Rick, Scotty, and Zircon to Tibet, it had been with the cover story that they were going to hunt the blue sheep called Bharals in the mountains of West China. Only Steve would know that. The message was from him.

Static crackled, but the message was clear:

"The one who started the hunt needs the biggest hunter. Only the biggest hunter. He should be delivered as soon as possible. Call your usual contact before arrival and say that the doctor is coming and to notify the patient."

The message was repeated, while the four strained to be certain they had heard every word. When normal traffic resumed, Rick switched the set off.

"It appears," Zircon said slowly, "that I'm wanted."

"Yep." Scotty grinned. "The demand is there, all right. But delivery is a long way off."

The storm punctuated his words.