Wailing Octopus

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4. Visitors by Night



Rick and Scotty stood on the pier and watched their erstwhile shadow row slowly toward another pier some distance away.

"We probably should have tied him up and called the police," Rick remarked.

"It wouldn't have gotten us anything," Scotty disagreed. "He could always claim he didn't see us in the water. After all, it wouldn't be the first time divers had been run over by motorboats."

"It's too late now, anyway. Let's dress, then go to the hotel and tell Zircon and Tony about this."

As they dressed in the small cabin of the Water Witch, Rick spoke aloud the question that had been bothering him. "What did he have to gain by running us down? That's what puzzles me. It was a stupid thing to try, because he didn't really have much chance of getting both of us, or even one, once he failed to catch us by surprise."

"He wasn't very well prepared for murder, either," Scotty added. "No weapons except a switch knife."

Rick nodded agreement. "He was desperate," he concluded. "Suddenly he had to take a chance on getting us. He must have known it wasn't much of a chance. Either he lost his head, or he wasn't very bright. What could have made him try?"

Scotty had no answer, nor could Rick even hazard a reasonable guess.

They locked the cabin of the Water Witch, walked into town, and found a taxi. Their shadow did not show up again, and if a new tail had replaced him, the new one was too good to be spotted. However, the boys doubted that they were being followed.

"I just don't get it," Rick said for the twentieth time. "Our friend must have lost his head. Otherwise he'd have waited on shore and continued to follow us when we came out of the water."

"We'll probably never know," Scotty returned. "After all, we'll be gone in the morning."

"I know. But meanwhile, we'd better have eyes in the back of our heads."

The taxi discharged them in front of Alexander's Rest and they climbed out and surveyed the hotel with interest.

Scotty spoke first. "Alexander's Rest? Which Alexander? The Great, or Hamilton? If it was Hamilton, as Dr. Ernst said, he must have built it personally."

It was a two-story frame structure that had definitely seen better days. On closer inspection Rick decided that the second story had been added as an afterthought. It looked like the second layer of a poorly constructed cake.

Inside, however, the hotel proved to be very comfortable. It was cool, and the rooms were large and clean. The boys learned that they had been registered in a twin bedroom on the second floor, while Zircon and Briotti were on the first floor.

The boys found the scientists attired only in shorts, cooling off over long, cold drinks. They accepted glasses of iced ginger ale and told the scientists of their adventure.

"It's amazing." Tony Briotti shook his head. "Do you realize that you two are a phenomenon? I should write you up for one of the scientific journals."

"You mean because we turned the tables on the shadow?" Scotty asked.

"No. Because you're adventure-prone. Did you ever hear of people who are accident-prone?"

Zircon chuckled. "A good observation of these two. I agree absolutely, Tony. They are adventure-prone."

Rick sighed. "All right. What's the joke?"

"None. I'm quite serious." Tony found more ice for his glass. "Insurance statistics show that certain people are accident-prone. Accidents happen to them. They're going along minding their own business and bang! A streetcar jumps the tracks and hits them. Or they step into open manholes. They're the kind of people who always manage to be walking under things when workmen drop tools."

"And you," Zircon concluded, "are adventure-prone in the same way. Consider this. Had you walked down the street either a minute earlier or later this morning you would not have seen Steve Ames. It's quite likely that you would never have known of his presence in town. But what happens? You walk right into an adventure. One thing leads to another, and suddenly a stranger is trying to run you down with a motorboat."

"That's what bothers me," Rick replied. "There's no pattern. It just makes no sense."

"It doesn't have to," Tony Briotti said with a grin. "The Golden Skull pattern makes no sense, either. But you got us into more excitement than I knew was possible. You're just adventure-prone."

"And for the sake of my gray hair, stay out of trouble," Zircon pleaded. "Stay close to us until we get to Clipper Cay."

"It will be a pleasure," Rick assured him. "Only let us out of your sight long enough to shower, please. I'm sticky."

"We'll stay in the hotel," Scotty promised.

"Fine. I'll feel better about it if I know where you are. Suppose you come by in an hour and we'll have a quiet dinner at the Ernsts'."

Dinner was quiet but interesting. The Ernsts were excellent hosts, and both Dr. and Mrs. Ernst had many tales of the islands to tell. As the good doctor had promised, the boys enjoyed the wonderful variety of sea life Mrs. Ernst had collected to keep in salt-water tanks. She identified for them a number of the smaller reef fishes, including clowns, demoiselles, and even the deadly scorpion fish.

The party broke up early, since the start for Clipper Cay was to be made at dawn by the scientists. The plan was for Zircon and Tony to make the trip in the Water Witch, with the boys flying over in the Sky Wagon. That way, both the plane and boat would be available. Zircon thought that fast trips to St. Thomas might be necessary to replenish supplies, and he added that he would be happier if the plane were available in case of accident. That way, the patient could be in Charlotte Amalie in a short time.

As the boys bade good night to the scientists and started up the stairs to their room, Rick asked, "Any sign of a shadow tonight?"

"Nope. Guess Steve's friends--or enemies--must have lost interest."

"I hope that you're right. As long as Steve ordered us to stay out of the case, I'll be glad when we get to the cay and get underwater. We have to find that precious gadget even if it takes two solid weeks of diving. If we don't, Barby will never let us forget it."

This last was uttered as Rick turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. He flicked on the light, then gave a sudden gasp.

The shadow and a stranger--in their room!

The boys looked into the muzzles of .38-caliber pistols.

"Come on in quietly," the stranger said. "Put your hands on the tops of your heads and sit down on the bed over there."

The boys did so. They had no alternative. Rick's mind raced. Somehow they had to warn the scientists, and they had to get out from under the muzzles of the guns! What could these men want of them?

The stranger sat down on the other bed. His pistol muzzle was centered precisely on Rick's belt buckle. "We want information. Give it to us without any trouble and we'll go away. Give us a hard time and you'll regret it."

Rick studied the stranger. He was of medium height, dressed in tan slacks and sport shirt with a darker jacket. His face was ordinary. He might have been a store clerk, or streetcar conductor, or nearly anything. But Rick saw from the way his jacket fitted that he was powerfully built for his size, and his hands were lean and strong-looking. He had a heavy tan, as though he had spent many months in the sun.

"What do you want to know?" Scotty asked.

"Let's start with what you were saying when you walked in. Who is Barby?"

"My sister," Rick said. "She's at home, in New Jersey."

The stranger sighed. "I was afraid of this. Give us straight answers or you'll buy plenty of grief. Now, who is Barby? Who does he represent?"

"He told you," Scotty answered. "She's his sister."

The stranger tried a different tack. "How did you know where to swim today? Did Ames tell you?"

"No," Rick replied. "We just swam straight out from the pier looking for coral heads."

"Come on! You must have had some source of information. Who gave it to you?"

"We didn't have any source of information," Scotty protested. "We just went for a swim!"

The stranger lifted the pistol menacingly. "You'd better sing, and it better be straight. I'm warning you!"

"Warn all you like," Rick said angrily. "What do you want us to say?"

The shadow walked over and pulled back his fist.

"Lay off!" the stranger growled. "You've pulled enough stupid stunts for one day. You'll be lucky if the boss doesn't rip the hide off you."

The former tail subsided and glared at the boys.

The stranger rose. "All right. If you won't talk here, we'll take you where you will talk. Get up."

The boys looked at each other. Scotty raised his eyebrows. Rick grinned. He asked calmly, "Suppose we don't go?"

"You'll go!" the stranger snapped.

"I don't think we will," Scotty answered. "Look, mister. You're in a hotel. It's early, and there are people in the lobby. How far do you think you'd get if you tried to march us downstairs with a gun in your hand?"

"We're not going through the lobby," the stranger told them. "We're going the way we came--through the window. And you'll go quietly or we'll take our chances. They might catch us, but you wouldn't care with a couple of slugs in you. Pete, go outside and wait. They'll come down one at a time. Keep them covered, and don't hesitate to shoot if they try anything."

The shadow slipped through the window, hung by his hands, and dropped.

The stranger's gun singled out Rick. "Get going."

Rick shrugged. There was nothing else to do but obey--at least for the moment. He looked at Scotty, and his pal made a small gesture to the right. Rick's forehead wrinkled. This was no signal he recognized, unless Scotty meant to jump to the right.

He swung a leg over the sill and looked down. The shadow was waiting, and the light from the window glinted dully off the gun in his hand. Rick went on out, then holding by his hands he gave a swing to the right and dropped. The gun covered him as he rose to his feet again.

"Against the wall!" the shadow hissed.

Rick dutifully moved back against the wall. The shadow was standing about six feet away.

Overhead, Scotty was climbing through the window now. Rick watched carefully as his pal lowered himself to full length, and swung to the left.

Instantly Rick divined Scotty's tactics. If the two boys were apart, the gun couldn't cover both of them at the same moment, and there would be an instant while the stranger jumped when only a single gun would be on them. And the shadow had already shown that he wasn't the smartest man in the world. Rick slipped to the right a step or two while the shadow was distracted by Scotty's jump. Scotty fell to his knees, and in getting up he managed to put a few more feet between himself and Rick.

"Watch 'em!" The stranger's voice floated down. Rick glanced up and saw the stranger with one leg over the sill. He tensed.

Scotty said, "Listen, you mug ..."

The shadow's head turned toward Scotty, and Rick left the ground in a wild spring. He struck the shadow, hand clawing for the gun. He found a wrist, and twisted, falling backward as he did so. The shadow, the entire weight of his own body on his wrist from the throw, screamed!

The gun landed on the ground. Rick let go and scrambled for it, but Scotty was there before him.

In the instant of the struggle the stranger had hesitated on the window sill, hand grabbing for the pistol he had tucked in his belt. He pulled it free and aimed at the struggling figures below, but in the gloom there was no way to distinguish friend from foe. And in that heartbeat, Scotty picked up the shadow's gun and fired one snap shot.

The stranger's gun dropped to the ground and he fell backward into the room.

Scotty thrust the pistol into the shadow's stomach. "Face the wall," he ordered. "Put your hands against it. Now support your weight on your hands."

The shadow did as ordered. Rick took the man's legs and pulled them backward so that the shadow's whole weight was against his hands, his outstretched body forming the hypotenuse of a right triangle. The only way he could move to regain his balance was to lower himself to the ground and then get up.

Rick picked up the stranger's fallen pistol and hefted it. "Better see about the one upstairs," he advised. "I'll watch this one."

"I fired at his hand, but I was high," Scotty told him. "He got it in the shoulder. He won't get far."

Zircon and Briotti charged around the corner of the hotel in pajamas and slippers, followed by other guests and members of the hotel staff.

"We had a little trouble," Rick explained briefly.

The scientists took in the situation at a glance.

"As I said," Tony Briotti muttered. "Adventure-prone. And lucky! How do you beat a combination like that?"