Wailing Octopus


2. The Scuba Slip

Charlotte Amalie had color. It was an old community, dating back to Danish ownership of the Virgin Islands, and there was a feeling of antiquity underneath the color of the tropics. There was no sharp lines to buildings; everything had a pleasant weathered look.

"Friendly folks," Scotty observed, after the tenth passer-by had bidden them a good day. "Doesn't seem to matter whether they're rich or poor. They look happy, and they're certainly polite."

"I like it," Rick agreed. "Those colored roofs get me." He stumbled on a cobblestone and added, "But the street could stand improving. Cobbles are fine for horses, maybe, but they're hard on cars."

"What do they do here for a living?" Scotty asked. "Wish we had Chahda along. He could reel off the straight dope from his Worrold Alm-in-ack." Their Indian friend, Chahda, was at home in Bombay and they hadn't heard from him in some time. His ability to quote from The World Almanac, which he had memorized, had caused the boys considerable amusement, even while they appreciated having a kind of walking encyclopedia with them.

They passed a fruit stand where women were shopping for mangoes, soursops, and other delicious-looking things, including sugar cane. "That's part of it," Rick said. "Sugar. This is also the headquarters for bay rum."

Scotty's eyebrows went up. "Bay rum?" He stepped out of the way to let an ancient woman on a donkey go by. "What's the bay part of it?"

Rick shrugged. "Search me. Anyway, you don't drink it, you put it on your face. I guess it was originally distilled from bayberry trees or something. Anyway--" He stopped suddenly as Scotty's fingers sank into his arm.

"Look!" Scotty exclaimed.

Rick looked, and let out a yell. "Steve! Steve Ames!" In the next moment he could have bitten his tongue out, because it was entirely possible that Steve wasn't traveling under his own identity.

Ames was an athletic-looking young man in a white suit and Panama hat. He stopped at Rick's hail, turned, and waited for the boys to catch up. His face split in a pleased grin.

Rick breathed his relief. Evidently Steve didn't mind being called by name.

The boys knew Steve as Spindrift's contact with JANIG, the Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Group for which Spindrift had worked in the past, once to solve The Whispering Box Mystery, and again to track down the secret of The Caves of Fear.

"Wonder what he's doing here?" Scotty muttered.

"We'll soon find out," Rick said.

Steve greeted them cordially. "What brings you two wanderers to these shores?"

"We were about to ask the same of you," Rick returned.

Steve grinned at the obvious curiosity in the boys' faces. "Nothing very exciting. I'm here on a little vacation. Swimming."

"What kind of swimming?" Scotty wanted to know.

"Oh, skin diving, mostly."

"Gosh, that's wonderful!" Rick exclaimed. "Scuba or snorkel?"

There was the barest of hesitations before Steve replied. "Snorkel. There's nothing that's more fun than snorkeling around the reefs. That's the only way to swim in waters like these. You can get right down among the fish."

Rick saw Scotty's mouth open to point out Steve's error, but he stepped on his friend's foot and said quickly, "We're here for the swimming, too. Maybe we can join forces."

He knew the answer would be no. Steve wasn't vacationing; he was on a case. A vacationing skin diver would know that a snorkel is nothing but a tube that allows a swimmer to float face down on the surface of the water while looking for something to dive after. Once the dive starts, the snorkel has no purpose, since its short length only allows it to project a few inches above the surface while a diver is floating face down. On the other hand, the Scuba--Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, like the boys' aqualungs, really does allow the diver to get down among the fish.

"Thanks for the invitation," Steve said. He smiled. "I don't usually try a cover story unless I have it down cold. Just for my future guidance, where did I slip? Your faces were quite a study."

Rick told him. Steve nodded. "Thanks. I just got here on the morning plane, and I haven't been briefed yet. By tonight I'll be an expert on skin diving."

The statement only whetted further Rick's over-sharp curiosity. If Steve was to be briefed on skin diving, it sounded like a case that would interest him and Scotty.

Steve continued to smile. "I don't want to linger too long. Want to give me a hand?"

Rick refrained from shouting and merely nodded his head. Scotty, with only slightly less restraint, said, "You know we do."

"Fine. Don't look. In the doorway of the tailor shop is a dark-complexioned man in a gray sharkskin suit. He's a tail. He picked me up at the airport. I don't know the town well enough to lose him easily in broad daylight. Never been here before today. Take him out for me?"

Rick and Scotty nodded. Neither looked toward the doorway. "How will we get in touch with you?" Rick asked.

Steve hesitated. "There's no one I'd rather see more of, and no one I'd rather have on my side. But this case is not for you. Just do me this favor, then forget you saw me."

"You never know when you'll need help," Rick pointed out. "We won't horn in, but it won't do any harm to know how we can reach other. Tonight we'll be at a hotel called Alexander's Rest. Tomorrow we take off for an island called Clipper Cay."

"All right. If you really need to reach me, call the duty officer at the UDT base and leave a message. I'll get it."

Rick turned slightly. In a plate-glass window across the street he could see a reflection of the tailor shop Steve had mentioned, and he could make out the form of a man in the shadowed doorway. He estimated that the shop was about fifty feet away.

Scotty was also measuring the situation. He said, "Walk away from us so the tail will have to come by."

Steve nodded. He shook hands, gave them each a grin, and was gone.

Rick said loudly, "Give me your shoulder to lean on. I've got a rock in my shoe."

Scotty obliged, and Rick half turned as he did so. He saw the man in the gray sharkskin suit saunter out of the doorway and start toward them.

Rick balanced on one leg, one hand on Scotty's shoulder, the other hand fumbling with the shoelace on his lifted foot.

The tail walked toward them, unfolding a paper as he did so. He was apparently devoting his full attention to the paper; his actions said he didn't even know the boys existed.

"You ought to get tighter shoes," Scotty observed. "Then you wouldn't get stones in them."

"Save the advice," Rick grunted. "I've got a knot in the lace."

The man came abreast of them, between Rick and the building, and in that moment, clawing wildly for balance, Rick lost his hold on Scotty's shoulder. He fell squarely against the man in the gray suit and crushed him into the building.

Pretending to lose his balance, Rick fell squarely against the man

"Hey!" the man yelled. "What's the idea?"

Scotty rushed to the rescue, took the fallen shadow by the shoulders, and tried to pull him to his feet. This only made matters worse, since Rick was stretched across his legs.

"I'm so sorry," Scotty said. "Gosh, I'm sorry. He slipped. Here. Let me help you up."

"Get off me," the man yelled.

Rick tried, lost his balance again, and fell against the man's chest, pinning him to the sidewalk.

Scotty groaned. "Rick! You clumsy ox. Get off the man!"

"I'm trying to," Rick said plaintively. "My shoe came off. Here. Help me up."

"Help yourself!" Scotty returned sharply. "I'm trying to help this gentleman."

Rick rolled clear and Scotty got the man to his feet. He was something less than spotlessly clean, thanks to the dust of the road, and there was a rip in the arm of his coat.

"Look at that!" Scotty exclaimed. He made ineffectual efforts to dust the man off. "Rick, you ripped his coat."

Rick looked embarrassed. "I'm terribly sorry. Here, sir. Let me take you to this tailor shop. We can have it repaired in a jiffy."

"Forget it!" the man snapped. "And get out of my way. I'm in a hurry."

"It was all my fault, and I refuse to take no for an answer," Rick said firmly. He took the man by the arm. "Come on. It will only take a moment. You can't walk around town like that. I insist on having your suit repaired. I'm sure that the tailor can mend it so no one would ever notice."

"No," the man grated. "Please stand aside." Both boys had managed to block the sidewalk.

"Please," Rick pleaded. "This is terribly upsetting. We really should have the damage to your suit repaired."

The man's dark complexion was turning a grayish pink with rage. Rick estimated quickly. If he knew Steve Ames, the JANIG agent was long gone, and the tail would not catch up with him again. They had delayed the shadow for perhaps two minutes, but for Steve that would be enough.

Rick stepped aside. "Very well. If you insist--"

"I do." The man brushed by and hurried off.

The boys looked at each other and grinned.

"He won't catch Steve," Rick said.

"Not a chance. Well, my clumsy friend, shall we put your shoe back on and go meet the others for lunch?"

"We shall," Rick returned. "Indeed we shall." He slipped his shoe on and tied it quickly. "Wasn't it interesting, where Steve said we could reach him?"

Steve had said at the UDT base. That meant simply at the home of the Navy frogmen--the Underwater Demolition Teams. No wonder Steve had said he would be an expert on skin diving by nightfall. He was going to be with the most expert experts of all.

Rick sighed. "Just our luck he doesn't want us in the case. Wouldn't it be great to work with the Navy frogmen? We could learn plenty."

"Forgetting St. Francis?" Scotty inquired. "There he lies, twenty fathoms down, probably covered with barnacles and waiting to be rescued. And you want to go fogging off with the frogmen."

"All right, all right! Don't rub it in. We'll go back to being interested in the bark Maiden Hand. And St. Francis. And pirates. Let's cast off, my hearty."

The Danish Pastry was only a few blocks away, and Dr. Ernst and the Spindrifters were already seated. The boys joined them, with apologies for being late, but without mentioning their meeting with Steve Ames. There was nothing to be gained by bringing the matter up in front of Dr. Ernst. They could tell Zircon and Tony later. Zircon knew Steve, but Tony didn't.

Over dessert, Dr. Ernst reached into his bag and brought forth a chart. "I thought you might need this," he said.

It was a detailed chart of Clipper Cay and the surrounding waters. It showed clearly the position of the reefs, and it gave soundings that showed the depths.

Zircon shook his massive head. "Paul, your thoroughness has never failed to amaze me. What would we have done without you?"

Ernst smiled his pleasure. "Thank you, Hobart. I try to be thorough. Besides, I want you all to have a pleasant recollection of the Virgin Islands. We who live here love them very much."

The boys and Tony echoed Zircon's thanks, then fell to a study of the chart.

It was apparent that the water deepened rapidly beyond the western reef. In a few places, the twenty-fathom line was only a short distance out.

"Have you any idea where this ship went down?" Dr. Ernst asked.

"A bare idea," Tony replied. "It was off the western shore of the island, probably close to the reef, in twenty fathoms. The bark had been hit and was sinking. The captain ran for the island with the hope of beaching the ship on the reef, but he never made it. The bark went down, and Anne Bonney's pirates picked up the survivors."

"We know of Anne Bonney here," Dr. Ernst told them. "You realize that the Virgin Islands were once a hangout for pirates? Oh, we have a dark and bloody history, what with piracy, slave rebellions, even Indian massacres."

"You'd never know it," Rick said. "This is the most peaceful place I've seen in years."

He didn't add that the peace was only apparent. Steve Ames wasn't needed in really peaceful places. Something was stirring under the tropical calm of St. Thomas.

"Tonight you must have a taste of St. Thomas home life," Dr. Ernst said. "You shall be my guests at dinner. Dr. Briotti will be interested in my collection of Indian pottery. And you young men will be interested in my wife's hobby, which is fish. She has an amazing collection."

"Alive?" Scotty asked.

"Yes, indeed. In salt-water aquariums. Our misfortune makes it easy. You see, we have no natural fresh-water supplies on St. Thomas. We depend on catching rain for our drinking water. So our plumbing is operated by sea water, of which we have plenty. As a result, Mrs. Ernst is able to have a constant supply of salt water flowing through her aquariums. I know you'll be interested."

The boys agreed. Mrs. Ernst's hobby sounded like fun.

After lunch Dr. Ernst departed for his office, leaving the Spindrift group to their own devices. Not much remained to be done, except for checking in at their hotel. For now, they were content to walk around town.

As they passed the post office where Alexander Hamilton had once been a clerk, Scotty smiled meaningfully at Rick.

"Steve lost a tail this morning. Remember?"

Rick looked at him doubtfully. "Of course. Why?"

"Somebody loses, somebody gains," Scotty replied cheerfully. "Don't look behind you, but we've found one!"