Wailing Octopus


8. The Fancy Frogmen

"The question is," Rick stated, "when was the oil put in? While we were at Charlotte Amalie? Or while we were out hunting the wreck just now?"

"In Charlotte Amalie, of course," Tony said. "Why do you think it might have been done just a little while ago?"

Rick shrugged. He had no answer to that. The question had popped into his mind unbidden.

"We didn't take the compressor apart," Scotty reminded him.

That was true. But Rick had started it in Charlotte Amalie to be sure it was functioning. There was no oil in it then. He said as much.

"You started the compressor at the same time you checked the tanks," Zircon reminded him. "I believe the oil was put in at the same time the valves were loosened."

That seemed reasonable. Rick put aside his hunch. "Well, we found it in time, anyway. Now Scotty and I will have to tear the compressor down and clean it before we can recharge the tanks."

"After lunch," Tony said. "Don't you remember? A diver is supposed to rest after each dive. Relax, and I'll have some sandwiches ready in a few minutes."

All hands were hungry. Scotty stowed away four sandwiches and Rick did nearly as well. Then they started work on the compressor. It wasn't a hard job, but it was tedious, and nearly two hours elapsed before they finished. Each part had to be washed in soap and water, then carefully dried. Finally, the compressor was ready. They carried it to the boat, started the gas engine, and connected the tanks. But before the air started to flow, Rick carefully inspected the filter system to be sure that hadn't been tampered with too.

"You know," he observed, "these enemies Steve is hunting know a lot about sport diving."

Scotty considered. "They knew that tanks could be dangerous, and they knew that oil in a compressor is dangerous. You're right, Rick. They know plenty about it."

"But it doesn't do us much good to know that they know," Rick concluded. "Well, now what? It will be a few hours before all the tanks are charged."

"Where are Zircon and Tony?"

"Napping. We probably should join them."

"Not me. There's nothing to do after sundown but sleep. I'd like to take a walk and look the island over."

Rick sighed. "Always an eager beaver. I'll go with you, if you don't walk fast."

They turned north and walked up the beach. Somewhere off this stretch of beach was the Maiden Hand. But where? They strolled along leisurely, stopping now and then to examine some bit of beach flotsam. There were shells, but most of them were small and water worn.

"We'll have to collect a few shells on the reef," Rick said. "Barby will be disappointed if we don't."

"That's easy enough to do," Scotty replied. "I saw half a dozen different varieties this morning."

They passed a beach house, obviously empty. Rick gestured toward it. "Funny how few people there are here. If I owned a place on this island I'd be here all the time."

"Unless you had to make a living," Scotty added practically. "This isn't the season for vacations. I expect vacation time finds plenty of activity here. There's one cabin occupied to the south of us. I saw people there this morning. They're probably the same ones who waved at us from a boat when we flew over day before yesterday."

"The boat isn't there now," Rick observed. "At least, I haven't seen it."

"They may have gone to St. Thomas for supplies. Or they may have gone home." Scotty pointed to what seemed to be the largest house on the island, near the northern tip. "That's quite a place. Let's go have a look."

There was a long pier in front of the house, and, unlike the others on the island, this house had a second story. There was no sign of life. They walked around it and found a barbecue pit. Scotty examined it. "This has been used recently, probably in the past few days."

Rick bent down and peered at a scrap of meat. "You're right. They had steak. And this piece hasn't dried out yet."

"Maybe they're still here." Scotty walked to the back of the house. "They might be out fishing or something." He looked in a window and called urgently, "Rick! Look!"

Rick hurried to his side and peered in. The room was evidently used for storing diving equipment. Hung along one wall were three full diving suits of expensive make. Next to them, neatly racked, was an assortment of spear guns, all of the spring type, and all of Italian make.

On another wall were three Scuba regulators, not aqualung types such as the boys used, but the variety that carries a full face mask through which the diver breathes. In a rack on the floor were nine spare tanks and a compressor much larger and more expensive than theirs.

Swim fins, also of Italian make, were lying on a table. They were the shoe type, put on like a pair of slippers. Rick identified an underwater camera, complete with steering fins and outside controls, and a number of face masks with built-in snorkels. Boxes stacked on the floor carried labels that identified them as midseason suits of French make.

"We've found some real fancy frogmen," Scotty observed. "This place looks like a high-priced show-room for diving gear."

"Pretty plush," Rick agreed.

They wandered back down to the beach and found that this area of the island was apparently more open to the sea. There were bits of flotsam, including coconuts that had washed in. The sea shells were larger, and they found a few worth picking up.

Scotty beckoned and pointed to a piece of wood, nearly buried in the sand. "What do you make of this?"

Rick examined it. It was curved, and a shred of green metal still clung to the rusty remains of an ancient hand-fashioned nail. He looked up with sudden excitement. "It's a section of a ship rib. And a pretty old one, too." His finger indicated the shred of metal. "Copper. Or used to be." He broke it off. "Completely oxidized. It's been in the water a long time, perhaps even centuries."

The boys stared out at the reef, both half afraid to put their thoughts into words. Finally Scotty asked, "Do you remember reading about any earthquakes or big tidal waves down here recently?"

Rick tried to recall. "No. Why?"

"Well, the Maiden Hand has been under the water out here for a couple of centuries--and in pretty deep water, too. It would take some disturbance that could reach down a hundred and twenty feet to break off a chunk."

Rick grinned. "You're right. But we haven't anything to lose by taking a look, have we?"

They trotted down the beach toward their own house at a half run. Rick looked at his watch. "At least one pair of tanks should be full by now, and there's plenty of time for a dive. Come on!"

They paused at the pier, put the pressure gauge on the first two tanks in series, and found them charged, as Rick had predicted. Then they ran for the house.

Zircon and Tony were gone and there was a note on the living-room table. "We're exploring the southern end. Be back in an hour or two."

"Shall we wait?" Scotty asked.

"No need. We can take our floats. Let's get going."

They changed to trunks. Then, since they would not have anyone on the surface to keep track of time or depth, strapped on wrist watches, compasses, and wrist depth gauges. Floats and weight belts were put on, then the boys added small plastic slates and pencils for writing underwater. Knives, masks, snorkels, their favorite guns, fins, and lungs completed their equipment.

"Shall we walk up the beach, or swim?"

"Swim," Rick said promptly. "This stuff is too heavy to carry comfortably."

They launched floats, placed aqualung mouthpieces on top of their masks, and swam parallel to the beach. By using snorkels they avoided the effort of lifting their faces out of water to breathe and conserved the air in the tanks. With effective but effortless leg strokes they moved along rapidly.

As they approached the ship rib that Scotty had found they turned and swam straight out toward the reef, crossed it, then came to a halt.

"Let's tie our floats to something," Rick suggested, and Scotty nodded.

Aqualung mouthpieces replaced the snorkels, and each boy tested his flow of air, checked to be sure his mask was connected to the lung by a safety line, charged his gun, and set his watch. The watches, designed especially for underwater swimming, had an outer dial that could be set to show elapsed diving time.

Rick hooted and pointed down. Scotty nodded and they submerged. Because of their belt weights, and the weight of air in their tanks, they were just heavy enough to sink slowly. After the dive, when the air in the tanks was nearly exhausted, they would weigh about five pounds less and have a slight positive buoyancy that would help them to rise.

They found coral outcroppings and tied their float lines, being careful not to cut their hands. Rick suddenly wished they had brought canvas gloves. Scotty still wore a single rubber one.

Then, with a few strong kicks to overcome their inertia, they started down the face of the reef. It fell off sharply for about forty feet, then more gradually until sand bottom was reached at about ninety feet.

Rick felt the sensation of thrusting his face into a wedge as the pressure increased. He swallowed a couple of times and felt his ears equalize, but his mask was beginning to hurt. He exhaled through his nose and equalized the pressure inside the mask.

There were plenty of fish around now. A grouper saw them coming and ducked into his hole in the coral. A fairly large moray eel, only his head visible, watched their progress. Tiny demoiselles fluttered around them, and a pair of red squirrelfish watched from the shelter of a purple coral fan.

The coral growth was spectacular, with fantastic shapes and colors. Then, as they went deeper, the colors gradually faded to a uniform green. Rick knew from underwater flash photographs that the appearance was deceptive. The colors remained, but the quality of light changed.

Scotty hooted four times, the signal for danger! Rick looked and saw a barracuda hovering near by. He gulped. The fish was easily five feet long. Both boys lifted their spear guns just in case the 'cuda attacked, but the motion alarmed him and he was gone with one powerful flick of his tail.

Rick consulted his wrist depth gauge, holding it close to his face plate. They were at bottom at ninety feet, and the clean sand dropped away at an angle of about thirty degrees. The boys planed downward, a few feet above the sand until Rick's gauge read 120 feet. This was the limit of their dive. Going deeper would mean stopping for decompression on the way up.

He recalled that the waves came into the beach from a slightly northerly direction and motioned to Scotty that they should turn north. Scotty moved out to the limit of visibility, and they swam on a compass heading of north, watching for any sign of a wreck. Now and then a coral shelf extended out from the reef, but they saw nothing that could have been a wreck. Once they swam over a patch of marine growth perhaps twenty feet long and ten wide, and a huge eagle ray lifted from it and glided off like a weird futuristic airplane.

It was quiet, except for the regular chuckle of their exhausts, and the light was subdued and even. It was a world without shadows. Still, Rick thought, there was plenty of light for photography. Next time he would bring his camera.

The watch showed him that over half their allotted time was gone, and he hooted once to Scotty, then reversed course, heading back toward their floats.

They approached the patch where they had seen the ray and Rick paused suddenly. There was an odd shape on the sand near the patch. He flippered over to it and examined it. Scotty joined him. It looked like an oversized mushroom protruding from the sand at an angle.

Rick unsheathed his knife and poked at it. The sharp tip penetrated for a fraction of an inch, then stopped. It was either rock or metal, and judging from the shape, it was unlikely that it was rock. He put his knife under it and pried, and the thing moved in the sand.

Both boys went to work on it, scooping the sand from around it. In a moment they had it clear. It was something like a dumbbell, covered with marine growth where it had been above the sand, but fairly smooth under it.

Rick took his belt slate and scribbled, "Metal."

Scotty nodded. Then both of them turned to look at the patch of marine life.

A distant throb, as though of a boat, caught their attention. They looked up, but the surface was invisible.

It was Tony and Zircon, Rick decided. They probably had returned to the cottage and found the diving equipment missing. They could spot the location where the boys were diving easily enough, first by the floats, then by the bubbles of their exhausts.

Scotty hooted suddenly, four times. Rick turned quickly in time to see a six-foot shark speed past. The tips of the pectoral fins and the second dorsal were darker than the rest of the fish, and Rick identified it as a black-tipped shark. Obviously, the shark was on business of its own, not particularly interested in them. Still, it was curious. The shark was rushing almost straight up.

Rick turned in time to see a six-foot shark speed past

Scotty gripped his arm and pointed. More sharks! Another black tip. And a ten-foot leopard shark! All rushing upward.

The boys watched tensely, and then out of the dimness above something sped down at them, followed by the sharks. It landed in the clear sand just beyond the marine growth. Rick saw a black tip go for it, then the black tip was struck from the side by the big leopard. In spite of his sudden apprehension, Rick couldn't help wishing for his camera.

The sharks rushed again, and the falling object was lifted from the sand by the disturbed water. This time, Rick recognized it. A chicken! It was tied to a length of string from which dangled a lead sinker. The bird was dead, but apparently freshly so. He knew that it was the chicken blood that had brought the sharks--and a giant barracuda! The great fish, a full six feet in length, slashed past the sharks and tore a chunk out of the bird.

The leopard shark made a fast pass at the barracuda, then turned and snapped at a black tip. Rick gulped. A hole suddenly appeared in the black's side, as smooth as though scooped out of ice cream. And then the other sharks hit the wounded black tip.

There were many sharks now, worrying the chicken and the wounded black tip like fierce dogs over scraps of meat. Rick thought, "We'd better get out of here!" He hooted twice at Scotty, the signal to ascend. Scotty motioned to him to retreat. Rick picked up the dumbbell-shaped object. It was heavy, but not too heavy to handle, and he started a slow retreat along the sand.

The sharks were paying no attention to the boys, but Rick wasn't at all sure that they wouldn't, once the supply of chicken and wounded shark were exhausted. His mind raced. Where had the chicken come from? Whoever had tossed it into the water would have known that the blood would bring sharks. It wasn't a casual toss, either. Not when the chicken had been weighted with a fishing sinker big enough to carry it to the bottom. Tony and Zircon would never do such a thing. Besides, they had no chickens.

Rick and Scotty backed far enough away so that the sharks could no longer be seen. Then, heading toward the reef, they started for the surface. Scotty was slightly in the lead, and Rick kept glancing back in case one of the big fish decided to follow. But they reached the surface without incident and broke water about two hundred feet from their floats. There was no boat in sight.

Replacing aqualung tubes with snorkels, they swam on the surface, faces down, alert for sharks. When they reached the floats, Scotty kept watch from the surface while Rick dove to untie the lines.

As they climbed on the floats and lifted masks, Scotty and Rick pointed and yelled "Hey!" simultaneously.

But they had seen different things. Rick had seen the Water Witch pass through the reef and head for them. Scotty had seen another boat, a big cabin cruiser, tied up at the pier in front of the house occupied by the fancy frogmen!

Rick turned and looked at the cruiser, then at the house. He was in time to see the front door close. There would have been plenty of time for someone to drop the chicken from the cruiser and then cross the reef and tie up at the dock.

"I'll bet that's where the chicken came from," Rick said harshly.

"That's a bet I won't take," Scotty returned. "But you can bet we'll find out!"