Wailing Octopus


3. The Shadow

The two scientists had been walking ahead of Rick and Scotty, but Zircon's keen ears had overheard the boys' remarks. However, he was too wise to make his interest obvious. He waited until the group passed a store with a large display, then stopped, as though to examine it.

Rick found himself surveying a collection of tools for the do-it-yourself addict.

"What's this about Steve and a tail?" Zircon asked. He pointed at a power-drill set, as though discussing it. His normally loud voice couldn't have been heard five feet away.

Rick shook his head, then pointed at a different drill set. Anyone watching would have thought the tools were the subject of conversation. Rick quickly outlined what had happened and concluded, "Scotty spotted a tail on us a few minutes ago. Same guy?"

Scotty bent down for a closer look at a series of wood power bits. His voice was scarcely audible. "Not the same one. This one is a Virgin Islander. Looks like a farmer. When we stopped he walked right on by. He's out of sight now. But he'll pick us up as soon as we start."

Tony Briotti, to whom this kind of adventure was new, asked, "What do we do about it?"

"Nothing," Zircon answered. "Steve Ames wanted to get rid of his shadow and the boys helped him out. But we have no particular reason for wanting to get rid of ours. Let him follow. Undoubtedly whoever is tailing Steve got interested when they saw him talking with the boys, but they'll learn nothing by trailing us."

"And it's one less for Steve to contend with," Rick added.

Scotty straightened up. "I have to admit this bunch of tools is beginning to bore me a little. Where are we going?"

Zircon shrugged. "I have nothing in mind. We might check in at the hotel."

"I'd rather swim," Rick said.

"Same here." Scotty made a quick survey of the street without seeming to do so. "No sign of our friend. He's probably in another doorway."

"Then Hobart and I might as well check in," Tony suggested. "I'd like a swim, but frankly I'm a little sleepy from too much lunch."

"How about checking in for us?" Rick asked. "Then we could get right into the water. No need for all of us to go to the hotel."

The scientists agreed, and at Scotty's suggestion hailed a taxi. As the car rolled off toward the boat where their luggage was stored, Scotty grinned. "This was the only taxi in sight. Wonder how our friend will manage to follow us?"

He had his answer at the pier. While Zircon was piling their overnight bags into the taxi, a farmer rode past on a bicycle. He didn't look at them. "There he goes," Scotty said. "Pretty easy after all. Guess the town is small enough so he wasn't worried about finding us."

"We'll give him a choice to make when Tony and I leave." Zircon smiled. "Let's see whether he stays with you, or follows us."

Not until the boys had changed to swimming trunks in the cabin of the Water Witch did they find the answer to Zircon's question. The shadow had decided to stay with them. This time it was Rick who spotted him. The shadow was nearly hidden beyond a curve in the shore line. To anyone not aware of being tailed, he would have appeared to be with any of the other casual figures that went unhurriedly about their business in the neighborhood. If Scotty hadn't pointed him out, Rick would not have suspected that the shadow had the slightest interest in the Spindrift party.

"We going to rig the aqualungs?" Scotty asked.

"Let's not bother. Masks, snorkels, and fins. We can swim out and take a look at some of the coral heads."

"How about a gun?"

Rick considered. "I guess not. We don't want to do any hunting. But you might take a hand spear in case something real inviting shows up. And let's take our knives." He had also decided against taking his camera. A leisurely, unencumbered swim was what he wanted. There would be time enough for hunting fish or taking pictures later, when they got to Clipper Cay.

While Scotty went into the cabin to select a spear from their assortment of fishing gear, Rick surveyed the Water Witch with satisfaction. It was a thirty-five-foot craft with a small cabin forward and a spacious cockpit aft. It had been used as a diving tender before, apparently, because there was a ladder that could be swung outboard for a diver to use. There was also a small boom that could be rigged quickly for lowering or lifting gear from the water.

The gas tanks were ample for their purposes. One filling would be more than sufficient for a round trip to Clipper Cay plus any cruising they would do while at the island. The tanks were full.

Water capacity, an important consideration on waterless Clipper Cay, was more than adequate. In addition to a built-in fifty-gallon tank in the cabin, there was a rack of five ten-gallon jerry cans in the cockpit.

Scotty emerged from the cabin with a short, low-powered spring gun. "Thought I might as well bring a light gun," he said. "It's just as easy to carry as a spear."

"Okay." Rick led the way down the pier to the beach, carrying his mask, snorkel, and slippers. These he placed carefully on one of the Sky Wagon's pontoons, in order to protect the clear glass of his mask from any possible scratching. Then, with a yell to Scotty to hurry, he bounded through the shallows, threw himself forward, and planed along the surface of the water. Lifting his head for a quick breath, he dove under, feeling the wonderful coolness of the water close over him. He judged its temperature quickly. It was close to eighty degrees, he estimated, and cool only by comparison with the warm air.

He reversed course quickly and stood up. Scotty was also in the water.

"I'm glad we didn't bother with suits," Rick said. "In water like this we'd even be too warm in midseason suits."

Because of the coldness of the water off the New Jersey coast, the boys had equipped themselves with full, waterproof rubber suits under which long under-wear was worn, and with lighter "midseason" suits of foam neoprene. Because of the reported warmth of water in the Virgin Islands they hadn't added the suits to their already heavy load of supplies.

They returned to the beach, picked up their equipment, and took it into the water. Rick sat down and rinsed out his flippers, then carefully removed the last traces of sand from his feet. He pulled the flippers on, adjusting them for maximum comfort. His face mask was next. He spat into it, then rubbed the saliva over the glass. This rather unsanitary-appearing trick was essential, since saliva is an excellent antifogging compound needed to help keep the glass clear underwater. Then he rinsed his mask lightly and adjusted the head straps, leaving the mask on his forehead.

The snorkels used by the boys were plastic tubes curved at both ends. At one end was a mouthpiece; at the other was a cage that held a rubber ball. A dive or rough wave action floated the ball upward, closing the tube and preventing water entry. Rick and Scotty adjusted the rubber bands of their snorkels around their heads above the mask straps.

Scotty was ready. He slipped his mask into place, molded the soft rubber skirt of the mask to the contours of his face, inhaled through his nose to make sure the seal was airtight, then called, "Let's go!" He gripped the mouthpiece of his snorkel between his teeth, the rubber flange under his lips, and slid into the water.

Rick was right behind him. As his mask touched water he saw the white coral sand of the bottom a few inches down. The only sign of life was a hermit crab, perhaps a half inch in length, dragging his home of the moment--a tiny spiral shell.

In one hand, Scotty carried the spear gun by its pistol grip. He swam in the position that suited him best, both arms hanging limply down. Rick, on the other hand, preferred to swim with arms relaxed along his sides, as long as his hands were empty. When carrying a spear gun or his camera, he also swam with arms hanging downward. Neither boy used his arms for swimming. The rhythmic, powerful leg strokes were enough, thanks to the swim fins.

The water deepened rapidly but lost none of its clarity. Even at a depth of a dozen feet, Rick thought, he could have counted every grain of sand. This was unlike anything he had ever experienced. At home, visibility of five feet was considered good. Lost in the enjoyment of really clear water, he completely forgot about the shadow.

Scotty reminded him. He touched Rick's arm and signaled a stop. The boys removed their snorkel mouthpieces and faced each other upright in the water, holding position with easy flipper movements.

"Just pretend we're talking," Scotty said. "Don't look around. I'm trying to spot our friend over your shoulder." After a moment he shook his head. "No sign. Wonder if he ran for a bathing suit?"

"Forget him. Let's swim. See any coral heads?"

"Darker water off yonder. Let's look."

They readjusted their snorkels and headed in the direction Scotty had indicated.

Rick breathed easily through his tube, constantly scanning the bottom. Now and then he saw various kinds of debris on the bottom, including abandoned beer cans and a section of newspaper that had not yet rotted away. Rubbish like this was to be expected in a harbor, he supposed, still it was as unattractive to a swimmer as junk along the roadside is to the motorist.

Suddenly he noticed a fish--the first he had seen. He took a deep breath and dove by letting his head drop and then lifting his legs to a nearly vertical position. He slid underwater without a splash. When his fins were below the surface he started his leg motion again, and the flippers propelled him smoothly downward.

The fish was perhaps a foot long, silvery, with a pointed nose and yellow fins. Rick couldn't identify it. The fish was busily rooting in the sand for morsels of food and paid no attention to the diver until Rick reached out and almost touched it, then it sped just beyond reach and commenced rooting again.

His curiosity satisfied for the moment, Rick surfaced and rejoined Scotty. As he took position at his friend's side, the other boy hooted once, their signal for "attention." The hooting was done by making a kind of "hooty" groan into the snorkel mouthpiece, about the only sound that could be made without letting water pass the lips. Because water conducted sound so well, the hoot could be heard clearly some distance away.

Rick lifted his face from the water and saw that Scotty was pointing to an area a short distance to their right. He followed Scotty's lead and saw the reason for the signal. It was a rocky, coral-covered area about thirty feet square and perhaps fifteen feet below the surface.

The boys swam directly over it, then floated motionless, watching the activity below. At first glance, there appeared to be only a pair of odd-shaped file-fish nibbling at the formation, but as their vision adjusted they made out literally dozens of tiny, colorful fish in clefts, under overhangs, or waiting motionless against a patch of color on the rocks. Rick pointed to a school of about ten vivid little fish of electric-blue color. The largest was less than two inches long. Scotty hooted for attention and pointed in his turn to a section of the rock that held over a dozen sea urchins that looked like black horse chestnuts with exaggerated spines.

Rick watched a pair of brown doctorfish about eight inches long swim by below, then his attention was attracted by a brilliant red squirrelfish peering out of a cleft. He pointed the red fish out to Scotty, who in turn showed him where a little moray was peering out of a hole near the base of the rock.

Rick was fascinated. If a tiny patch of rock held this amount of life, what must the real reefs be like off Clipper Cay? He was suddenly impatient to get going, to put on his aqualung and explore the reef from top to bottom. And if they should really find the wreck of the Maiden Hand, there was every chance that the exploration of the wreck and the sea life it had acquired would more than compensate for the treasure none of them really hoped to find anyway. What a vacation!

He was suddenly conscious of a throb in his ears. He listened and tried to identify it. A motorboat of some kind, but it didn't sound like a very powerful one. He lifted his head and searched for it.

Scotty, too, had heard the boat. He began to tread water, lifting his mask, then rinsing it because it had fogged a little.

Rick spotted the boat. It looked like a large row-boat, powered with an outboard motor, and it was headed in their direction.

Scotty took his snorkel out of his mouth. "Better stay topside and watch. We don't want to start our vacation by getting run over."

"Too true," Rick said. "Isn't this great? I've never seen so many kinds of small fish in one place in my life. Wait until we get out to the reefs where the big ones are."

Scotty patted his spear gun. "I'll keep us supplied with fresh sea food. Wonder if there are any lobsters around?"

But Rick had stopped listening. "Scotty, that guy is heading right for us!"

The boat was getting close, and through his face plate Rick could make out the figure of a single occupant.

Scotty suddenly gripped his arm. "Rick! It's our shadow!"

Rick started. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I don't like this. What would he come out here for? Get ready to dive." Scotty pulled his mask into place and molded it to his face, then gripped his snorkel between his teeth.

Rick followed suit and leveled off in the water in diving position, but he hesitated, waiting to see what the boat would do.

It didn't take long to find out. The boat stayed on a perfectly straight course, headed directly for them. Rick waited. Perhaps the shadow intended to sheer off when he got close. He might have come out to talk with them.

Scotty hooted four times, their signal for danger! Then he went under. Still Rick hesitated, until it was clear that the boat did not intend to swerve. He saw the shadow's face, set in grim lines, then his legs went up and he slid under, using his hands as well as his legs to pull himself down to safety. He thought incredulously, "He tried to run us down!"

A dozen feet under he turned over on his back and saw the bright circle of the propeller and its trail of foam. The boat was past. He shot to the surface and filled his lungs with air, waiting for the next move.

The boat spun around in a tight turn and headed back.

Scotty surfaced next to Rick, pulled the snorkel from his mouth, and gritted, "Swim away. Let him use you for a target. I'm going to get that son of a spiny sea walrus."

Rick saw from the position of the spear in Scotty's gun that his friend had charged the weapon during the dive. He nodded, then turned and swam away, flippers flailing as though trying to hurry. He watched over his shoulder and saw the boat head for him.

He was breathing hard from the excitement now, but he took a deep breath and got ready to dive. But still he swam, leading the rapidly overtaking boat until it was almost on him. Only then did he shoot downward, twisting as he went. He looked back in time to see Scotty sight the spear gun and fire as the boat went past.

At first Rick thought his pal had missed, then he realized what Scotty had done. The spear shaft was attached to a long wire leader, and the leader to a safety line coiled around a spool just ahead of the pistol grip. Scotty had deliberately fired ahead of the propeller, knowing that the wire leader would be caught and would wrap around the shaft.

Rick saw the spear stop short as the wire caught, saw it hauled back against the propeller and drop free as the prop blades cut it loose. Scotty shot up for a breath, then dove instantly, toward the rapidly falling spear.

Rick had to breathe himself. He surfaced, caught a quick breath, then went under again. Scotty was picking up the spear. Rick saw him place it in the gun barrel, swing the loader over the razor-sharp harpoon head, and shove down on the spring. In a moment the gun was loaded again. Luckily the spear had not bent when the prop blade hit it.

The boat had come to a halt, the engine dead. The propeller could no longer turn against the wrapping of wire and heavy fishline. Scotty hooted twice, their signal to surface, and Rick followed him up. Near the surface they separated, Rick taking the side of the boat away from his friend. He longed for a weapon, even a hand spear. But he was helpless. Scotty would have to get in the first blow with the gun. But, Rick thought, that might give him time to get over the gunwale to grapple with the shadow.

His head broke water. He pulled the snorkel from his mouth and let it hang. As luck would have it, the shadow saw him first. He stood up, oar in hands, poised for a swing at Rick's head.

Scotty's voice stopped the swing. "Don't do it or you'll get three feet of steel through you!"

The man turned and faced the needle point of Scotty's spear. The oar dropped from his hands.

Rick gulped his relief. Apparently the shadow had no weapon.

"Jump overboard!" Scotty ordered.

The man hesitated. Scotty thrust the spear gun forward. "Jump, I said!"

The shadow did, and sank in a flurry of bubbles. When he rose to the surface again, the point of the spear was against his back. "Hang on to the boat with both hands," Scotty directed.

Rick got to his side with a kick of the flippers and ran his hands over the man's clothing. He found a switch knife, which he put in his belt. "He's clean," he said. "No other weapons."

"Take a look in the boat," Scotty suggested.

Rick did so, lifting himself up on the gunwale. There was nothing in the boat but oars and a can of gasoline.

"Want to tell us why you tried to run us down?" Rick asked.

The shadow merely stared.

"Talk," Scotty ordered, "or I'll put this spear through you."

The man spoke, and his accent was the soft speech of the island. "No, you won't. I could explain running down swimmers by accident, but you could never explain putting a spear through a man in a boat. You don't want that kind of trouble."

Scotty grinned at the truth of it. "Okay," he said. "Just one thing. Don't push us too far. Stay in the water until we're ashore, and don't try to overtake us."

"Better heed that advice," Rick warned. "Come on, Scotty. Let's go." He put his snorkel in place.

Scotty moved to his side. "Welcome to the hospitable waters of St. Thomas," he said. "What say we look up some friendly sharks before we go ashore?"