Wailing Octopus


14. Below the Dark Coral

The sky was overcast, ceiling about two thousand feet, visibility about two miles. The wind was moderate and steady. Rick examined the water in front of the cottage and told his friends, "I can take off all right. But I don't want to leave without a weather report or we might find ourselves with no place to land."

"I'm going to swap this radio for a newspaper," Scotty grumbled. He had been trying without success to get a weather report.

Tony Briotti looked at the Sky Wagon, brows furrowed, then asked, "Rick, couldn't you turn on the radio in the plane and get a weather report from the airport at Charlotte Amalie?"

Rick was climbing into the Sky Wagon before Tony finished. Of course he could! He called, "I'm a chump!"

The set warmed and Rick called the airport, then held the phones to his ears to hear the reply through heavy static. When the airport answered he asked for a weather report for the area between St. Thomas and Clipper Cay. He got it, and climbed out, his face thoughtful.

"The storm is having a pup," he told the others. "We're in a lull at the moment. The main storm swung off to the north, but there's another one right on its tail. We have just about time to get to Charlotte Amalie and back before the second one closes us in."

The group went into action fast. All four pushed the plane into the water. Zircon ran to pack a bag, and Tony went to get the film Rick had taken for Zircon to carry to Steve. Scotty and Rick went through the check list, inspecting the plane for possible storm damage. Then Rick started the engine and warmed it up. By the time they were ready, Zircon was climbing aboard.

Scotty yelled, "Tony and I will keep the home fires burning. Don't waste any time, Rick!"

"I won't."

Zircon closed the cabin door and Rick taxied out. In a few moments he was air-borne, swinging seaward over the north end of the island. He looked down and saw two of the frogmen. They were in front of the house, watching the plane.

"Be sure to tell Steve everything," Rick reminded the big scientist, "and don't forget to give him the film. I won't have time to see him, unless he meets the plane. But it doesn't matter, because you know everything Scotty and I do."

"I'll be glad to get actively to work on this confounded business," Zircon stated. "I'm so curious about that brass ball the frogmen had in the cave that I'm about to burst."

Rick set a compass course for St. Thomas, flying just under the clouds. When they were a half hour out he contacted the airport again and asked for the weather. The report hadn't changed. He told the airport operator, "The doctor is coming. Please notify the patient." He could almost see the operator jerk to attention as the headphones gave out a crisp "Roger."

He sat down on a heavy chop at Charlotte Amalie, and the Sky Wagon gave them a rough ride as he taxied to the pier. Lieutenant Jimmy Kelly was waiting in a Navy sedan with an armed guard in attendance.

Rick supervised the refueling of his plane at the pier gasoline depot, a task he would not delegate to anyone else. The presence of attendants made it impossible to talk to the Navy lieutenant.

As Rick tightened the gas cap, Jimmy Kelly said, "Hop into your great mechanical bird and shove off, birdman. You'll just about beat the weather home as it is. Don't stop to fish on the way."

"I won't. Professor Zircon will tell you an interesting story. And we'll be monitoring the command channel at six for any advice you can give us."

"Okay. Don't get your feet wet."

Rick waved good-by to Jimmy and Zircon, then taxied out to the clear area and took off. The ceiling was lower than on the trip in, and he almost missed Clipper Cay because of strong winds and low visibility. He spotted the southern tip of the island just in time to avoid going right on by. He landed with beads of perspiration on his forehead. If he had missed, with luck he might have hit Puerto Rico, but more likely he would have had to make a landing in the open ocean.

Scotty and Tony came to greet him.

"We were worried," Tony said. "It's closing in fast."

"I got a little worried myself," Rick admitted. "Anything new here?"

Scotty gestured toward the northern end of the island. "Our pals have been busy, diving. They got the brass ball, or whatever it is, and stowed it aboard their boat. I kept an eye on 'em through the binoculars. Also, I suspect they're going to do some more diving, because they left their equipment on the boat."

Rick didn't particularly care at that moment. The flight back had been something of a strain. "Let 'em go," he said. "We can't do anything about it, anyway--not in broad daylight. Maybe tonight we can take a look."

They spent the afternoon indoors, napping or reading, unable to swim or fish because the second storm had arrived on schedule. Then, a few minutes before six, Rick turned on the radio to the Navy command channel.

At six on the nose, the radio emitted: "A message for the blue-sheep hunters. The blue sheep seen by the big hunter and the little hunter is important. Obtain more information if possible. But remember that the owners of the sheep are also mighty hunters. The snapshots of the sheep were fine."

The message was repeated. When they were sure there was no more, Rick switched the set off. "Well, we're in it, and with Steve's blessing. Now what?"

Scotty shrugged. "Now we steal the brass ball. Didn't Steve's message say to get more information?"

"Apparently the pictures turned out well, if I understood that reference to snapshots correctly," Tony said. "Be serious, Scotty. What can we do next?"

"Keep an eye on the frogmen, I guess, and play it by ear. I can't see anything else to be done. We probably could steal their brass ball, all right, but they'd know at once who had done it because we're the only other people on the island."

"Have you looked recently to see what they're doing?" Tony asked.

Neither boy had. Both went to the front porch, but the frogmen's cottage was invisible through the driving rain. "We'll have to go see," Rick said.

"After dark," Scotty added. "In about an hour. It will be pretty dark then."

"Do you suppose the brass ball is still on the boat?" Rick inquired thoughtfully. "We might be able to sneak aboard after dark and get a picture of it from close up, and we could examine it and have something definite to report to Steve."

"That's a possibility," Scotty admitted. "Anyway, we can get ready."

Rick rechecked the camera and infrared unit. He loaded the camera with a fresh roll of film. Then the three sat in the living room over coffee and listened to the storm batter at the front of the house until it was nearly dark outside.

"What now?" Tony inquired. "Do we all go? Or just one of us?"

"No point in all of us getting soaked," Scotty said. "Have you had any experience in this kind of spying, Tony?"

The archaeologist had not. He grinned. "Until I came to Spindrift, I led a rather quiet, academic sort of life. Except for the war, of course."

"Then Scotty or I had better go," Rick said. "Or both of us."

Scotty shook his head. "No need for both. It's only a reconnaissance, anyway. Toss you for it."

Rick produced a coin. "All right. Call it." He flipped it as Scotty claimed heads. It was a tail.

"Best two out of three?" Scotty invited.

Rick grinned. "And after that, best three out of five?"

Scotty growled, "All right. I'll go." He got ready by taking off shoes and socks. He could change his shirt and shorts when he returned. He slipped through the back door and was gone.

Rick turned on the radio, tried for a weather report, and settled for a Miami disk jockey who was playing some good records. The static was bad, but the station came through clearly enough to make listening worth while.

Scotty was back before a half dozen records had been played. He sat down, ignoring the water that dripped from him. "Listen, our friends just rounded the northern tip of the island in the boat and they're heading south just inside the eastern reef. What do you make of that?"

Rick pictured the movements of the enemy boat from Scotty's description. "They can't be putting out to sea, otherwise they'd be outside the reef. And they're not interested in anything on the island or they'd have walked. I'd say they're planning to do some night diving on the eastern side of the island."

"In this kind of weather?" Tony asked incredulously.

"Sure. It's stormy on top, but once you're below the wave motion it's quiet as ever. They could dive."

Scotty stood up. "If they can, so can we."

There was no denial to that. They made a trip to the Water Witch and collected their equipment, then planned what they would do.

"We'll all use lungs," Tony said. "We have three regulators and there are plenty of full tanks, enough for two dives each. However, we have only two pairs of glasses for the dark-light camera. I'll yield to Scotty as the more experienced diver, so you and he use the glasses, Rick. I'll stay on top, or near the top, with a single float, and a gun. If I use the lung I can stay submerged most of the time and not have to fight waves."

"Lash yourself to the float," Scotty cautioned.

"And we'll use a buddy line," Rick added. "The same one the professor and I used. Scotty, you take a gun, and I'll take the camera."

"If I see any trouble in the making, I'll bang on my air tank," Tony said. "You should be able to hear that for quite a distance."

There was nothing else to be planned in advance. They picked up their equipment and went out the back door into the storm, crossing the island through the palms. As they emerged onto the eastern shore, Scotty called, "Look--about five hundred yards north."

The lights of the frogmen's boat, visible as bright halos through the rain, were tossing violently just inside the eastern reef. Apparently the boat was anchored. The rain was too thick for them to see any movement aboard, or to see details of the boat itself.

"Move carefully," Rick cautioned. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the storm. "We haven't explored this shore. It may be full of coral heads."

"I doubt it," Scotty returned. "It would be too dangerous for the boat in this kind of weather, even if they knew a channel."

"Rick's right about careful movement, nevertheless," Tony replied. "We must move with care, especially near the reef." He indicated his float. "I'll never be able to tow this through that water, so I'll leave it in the palm grove. We can pick it up on the way back. We shouldn't need it with lungs, anyway. Do you boys have rescue packs?"

The packs were plastic floats compressed into packages no larger than a cigarette pack. They contained a carbon-dioxide cartridge and could be inflated simply by squeezing them, which punctured the cartridge. The boys had carried them on their weight belts for so long that they took them for granted.

They donned their equipment, then walked down to the beach. The surf was not heavy, since the wind was blowing from the opposite side of the island. Nevertheless, there was enough water motion to lift a fine screen of sand and dust.

"The camera will be useless until we get into deeper water," Rick called. "Let's rope together and swim straight out."

They waded in, awkward in the fins, until they were deep enough for swimming. Then all adjusted mouthpieces and started out. Rick tried the infrared light intermittently, but not until they were in about twenty feet of water did the roiled bottom allow its use. He led the way to the reef, the others following in file.

The reef was closer to the surface than on the western side. Rick had to swim along it until he found a place where they could cross without being buffeted by breakers. Once across, he swam down the face of the reef, knowing that the trip was hard on Tony, because the underwater world was completely dark to one without light, or glasses with which to see the infrared illumination.

Rick found a fairly level shelf at about thirty feet and swam along it, keeping close to the reef wall, until he thought they were in the vicinity of the frogmen. Then he pulled twice on the tie rope in a signal to surface, knowing that Scotty would pass the signal along to Tony.

He emerged in a rough sea, only yards from the point on the reef opposite the anchored boat. He was in time to see two frogmen climb down the boat's ladder. They got into the water and the third man, on deck, lowered the brass object to them.

Rick had no fear that they would be seen from the boat. Their heads would be hidden by the breaking waves, and their bubbles would merge with the natural foam.

He saw at once what their tactics should be. He pulled Scotty and Tony to him, then let his mouthpiece drop. Putting his lips close to their ears, he said softly, "If it's like last time, they won't be down long. Scotty and I will track them to find out where they go, and watch what they're doing. Then, after they leave, we'll see if they left anything behind."

Scotty and Tony nodded. Tony untied the line that had held him to Scotty. Rick replaced his mouthpiece, cleared a little mist from his face mask, and led the way down.

This time the infrared light operated continuously. Now and then Rick worked the toggle switch through its loose plastic covering and shut the unit off while he searched for visible light. He found it, far down the face of the reef.

The camera made it easy, and his mind was at rest because this time nature had made it impossible for their bubbles to give them away to surface watchers.

There were heavy swells on the surface. He knew it because of the pressure surges on his ears. But otherwise there was no sign of the storm. He grinned because he suddenly realized that he felt dry. On the surface, with the rain beating at him, he had felt like a drowned kitten.

Moving with the confidence gained in his first experience, he led the way seaward, then went to the level of the light. Soon they were close enough to see the frogmen working over something on a coral ledge on the reef face. They hovered motionless, watching, and as one of the frogmen moved they saw that it was the brass ball.

Rick started his camera. He had an advantage, because the frogmen were concentrating on what they were doing, their backs to him. He moved in cautiously, camera grinding, then backed away again when he thought he had enough long shots.

One frogman moved away a few feet, and Rick's breathing stopped as the man's belt light flashed toward him. Had the frogman been looking, he could have seen the boys, but he was too interested in the second frogman's actions.

The second frogman crouched over the brass object, hand moving.

Rick recoiled as a wail lanced through his head with painful impact. He felt the rope tighten as Scotty involuntarily drew away.

It was not the octopus, then! It was the brass ball that wailed. But why? For what possible reason?

The frogmen were apparently satisfied. One of them picked up the powerful light they had been using and turned it off. Then, with only belt lights, they started back up the reef.

Rick waited until the lights were no longer visible. He glanced at his depth gauge and wrist watch. They were at eighty feet, and they had plenty of air left. He swam to the brass ball, camera grinding.

He had never seen anything quite like it. The brass sphere was mounted on a box about twelve inches square and six inches high. From the sphere, two rounded projections thrust out. He identified a waterproof switch on the box, and two small knobs mounted on calibrated plates. These were obviously controls, but he had no idea what they controlled.

Steve would want a few close-ups. Rick worked his camera focus and took shots from every angle. When he had enough, he pulled twice on the rope in a signal to surface. Scotty motioned to him to lead the way.

As Rick started up, four metallic clangs, irregularly spaced, rang faintly in his ears.

Tony, banging his tank in the signal for trouble! Rick instantly changed course and followed the bottom, watching the water overhead for any sign of the frogmen. When he had reached a spot below the point on the reef where Tony should be waiting, he turned toward the surface, moving slowly, searching for any sign of activity. There was no sign of whatever had alarmed Tony.

He paused a few inches under the surface, then carefully put his face into the air. Scotty surfaced beside him.

There was no sign of Tony. Rick peered through his mask and saw that the boat was still anchored in the same place. There were figures on its deck. Four of them--Four! He ripped his mask off for a clearer look, and his heart skipped a beat. The frogmen had Tony!