Monday, July 30, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 15 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 15 -- The Jetty
Bert climbed up the steps. Ruff.
“I’ll go check on him.” Ruth gave the dog a rub on the head as she headed down.
Tommy checked his GPS position again. Bert came to sit by the bench. It was clear that whatever he meant by his bark, it wasn’t serious.
I think Bert’s the smartest animal I’ve ever seen.
Back in Evansville, they had a dog and two cats. Patches the dog died of old age, and one of the cats, Lucifer, escaped during the move and was never found. They had neighbors on the lookout, but after a couple of months, everyone gave up hope. Darlington, the calico, took the move to Chicago in stride, but she was Mom’s cat, and with the hospital time and Nick’s efforts to support her and keep his job at the same time, Darlington was handed over to a church friend, Mrs. Kirkenell. Somehow, after Mom’s death, there was never any effort to retrieve the cat.
That’s something I should have taken care of. What would Mom think of that?
Of course, Tommy had no doubt Darlington was happier where she was. And I don’t think she’d like sailing.
But Bert was in a class by himself. Tommy had never met an animal that could hold up his end of the conversation. He’d talked to Patches many times, but there was only cheerful incomprehension between those ears. Patches liked the attention, but any commands more complicated than “go” and “stay” were lost on him.
Bert was a doggy genius, no doubt about it.
The lights of Racine were visible in the distance when Ruth came back up.
“Nick lost a bit of what I fed him. He may be a little seasick.”
Tommy shook his head. “Not seasick. Not Nick. It has to be something else. How is his fever?”
“It comes and goes. He’s got some chills now. Do you have a fever thermometer anywhere?”
Tommy tried to think. “If there is one, it’ll be with the first-aid kit.”
“Not that I saw.”
“Maybe we should get some medical supplies in town.”
She looked off in the distance. They were headed straight toward the harbor.
“I’d like to do that some place where company security isn’t waiting.”
“They’re in Racine?”
She nodded.
“Marvin signed the memo, but had bad feelings about the setup well before the rest of us. He wanted to go get his family in Racine and move them to safety.
“We all thought he was paranoid. It was just a business memo, after all. It wasn’t like we were in another country with Political Officers to see that we all towed the company line.” Her voice reeked with sarcasm.
“They must have thought leaving in the middle of a workday was suspicious, because he called us on the phone and reported that he’d barely gotten his wife and daughter away before they showed up at his house.
“Nick promised to come get him. He’d get us all to safety, he said. Then, he’d go back and confront upper management himself.
“Of course, that was before guns were brought into the argument.”
Tommy could make out more details on shore. He could see a blinking light -- probably a marker for the harbor. Reluctantly, he flipped on his navigation lights. Right now, a boat without lights was more conspicuous than one with them.
“How do we contact them?”
She shook her head. “It’ll be difficult. The security team, we know, has the ability to track cell phones. But I have a number that isn’t on Marvin’s official records. It’s a convenience store cell phone he confiscated from his daughter just last Wednesday. If he still has it on him, we could go ashore and call it from a pay phone.
“I just hope they’re still free of the security team.”
Tommy felt the cell phones in his pocket.
“You know, I have a clean phone on me. We could use that and streamline the process.”
“Are you sure it’s clean? I wouldn’t put it past them to have searched all our private records by now.”
He chuckled. “Oh, this one is clean. There’s no record anywhere.” Except in Slab’s phone. Could they have kidnapped him?
With George and Cax watching over him? Not likely.
Ruth hesitated. “Okay. Everything’s risky now.”
He pulled out the phones and made sure he handed over the right one. His phone with the swapped SIM was probably clean as well, but it was one step closer to a database. If they managed to track the relayed traffic Cax sent to him, then they might have the number it contacted.
She pulled out a little leather-bound notepad and keyed in the number. He could see the tension drop away from her face as she made contact.
“Oh Marvin! I’m so glad to hear your voice.”
She relayed the specifics with a minimum of words. Nick had been shot. The rest of the group had scattered, and may have been picked up already.
They set a pick-up point.
“Near the harbor!” Tommy prompted.
She closed the connection and handed the phone back. He removed the battery.
“The jetty at Sixth and Pershing at 8:30. Do you think we can make it?”
“Hang on.” He played with the GPS until he zoomed into the street map. “Festival Park. I can find it, but I don’t like jetties.”
“Yeah. Lots of rocks to bang up the boat.” He looked at the little boat strapped to the upper deck. “Take the wheel. I’ve got some preparation to do.”
The dinghy was fairly lightweight. Totally fiberglass, it had hard sides and a flat bottom. He had no trouble untying it and dropping it over the side. He secured it to port, near the stern, even though it made the Marissa’s steering more difficult. He wanted to be able to get in and out while underway.
“I could go ashore.” She sounded a little uncertain. “I know what Marvin looks like.”
“Do you know how to handle a boat?”
Ruth’s face twisted into a grimace. “No, but I don’t see any help for it. Someone has to drive the big boat and the other has to drive the little one.”
He nodded. “Yeah, but the Marissa is big and stable. You have a steering wheel and a throttle. The dinghy bounces on the waves and one bad move would put you in the drink.
“I’ll take the dinghy in. Your job will be to keep the Marissa from drifting off into the traffic.”
Luckily, the wind had died down. He coached her on the controls and explained what she had to do. He put a marker on the GPS when they got close enough to the shore.
“Circle this marker. It’ll do no good to park on it. Just keep the Marissa under two knots and stay close.
“When I come back, I’ll throw you a rope. You’ll need to wrap it around the horns of this cleat.” He showed her how it was done, and had her go through the motions for practice.
She headed down below to check on Nick. He checked his pockets. He had Slab’s cell phone in case of emergency and a few dollars cash. He stashed his wallet and the other phone with his cards in the navigation station desk. Better not be identified. A pair of binoculars, in rubberized waterproof housing, was hanging beside the wheel. He slipped the strap over his head.
Ruth reported in. “He’s still asleep.”
It was getting close to time. “I’ll go in and back. If you don’t hear from me in an hour, head for another town. Find a marina and when you dock, just get close and drift in. Yell for help if you have to.”
The idea that she’d be responsible for the boat didn’t sit well with her. “You just come back. Nick wouldn’t like it if I left you behind.”
He cast off and started the electric trolling motor. There was a little gas outboard as well, but paranoia ruled supreme. Besides, the electric was surprisingly peppy. It must have been recently charged.
The binoculars revealed the jetty, and it was as bad as he’d feared. The whole shoreline was boulders, piled up as protection against the waves. It’d be very difficult to keep the little dinghy stable enough to load people, without knocking a hole in its fiberglass hull.
As he hunted for the best place to pull up, he saw a man up on the jetty, watching him with binoculars.
Is that Marvin Valente? Where were his wife and daughter? It could be someone else. He looked at his watch. He was a couple of minutes early.
Aware that the man was watching his every move, he set down his binoculars and raised his watch arm and tapped it.
The man with the binoculars set his down, checked his watch and held out his hand, two fingers like a ‘V’.
Good enough. Tommy motored straight toward him. He began climbing down the rocks, heading toward the water.
“Valente?” Tommy yelled.
“Yes! There’s a loading ramp on the other side of the jetty.” The man pointed back behind him.
“Okay!” He turned the tiller. The map, if he remembered it, showed a small, protected area behind the jetty, the perfect place for a launching ramp.
But it would also be a perfect place for an ambush, if the Valente family had been captured and the Cleaners were just waiting to add him to their collection.
Still, he had no choice.
Waves on the lake had been a little bouncy, but he hadn’t really noticed until he entered the flat protected waters.
A small fishing boat was being guided onto its trailer on one of the ramps. It’s owners were chatting loudly and flashing their lights. That was comforting.
Standing next to the water were two women and two men. One was the man who’d answered to his call.
Four. There were supposed to be three. And there was also a stack of suitcases. There was no way he’d be able to haul everyone back in one trip. Luggage. I hadn’t thought of that.
He brought the bow of the dinghy to a gentle, scraping stop on the concrete ramp.
“I’m Tommy. Who are you?” He looked them over suspiciously.
He didn’t move, his hand was still on the throttle, ready to back away in a flash if there was any false move. No way he was going to get out and greet them.
The man with the binoculars nodded. “I’m Marvin Valente. This is my wife, Marilu and my daughter Bree.”
The other man, younger, in his twenties, said, “I’m Dek.”
“I was expecting three people.”
Marvin glanced around, and said, “Yes. Dek showed up after the call. He’s computer tech support, at the company.”
The younger man nodded. “Yeah, I barely got out of the building in time. But I knew where Marvin lived.” He laughed. “I saw him on the road. Can we get out of here now? They’ll come search the harbor any time now. We’re sitting ducks.”
Tommy nodded. The stories sounded okay, but he was still nervous.
“It’ll take two trips. Two people, and half the luggage. I don’t want to dunk anyone in the lake.”
Marvin turned to his family. “You go first.” He waded into the water to hold the side steady as he helped them in. Mrs. Valente suggested she wait with Marvin for the second trip, but he’d have none of it. Marvin chose the larger bags. Dek just stood and stewed. He obviously wanted to be gone in a hurry.
“It’ll take a few minutes. Just stay out of sight until I get back.” 
“Right.” Marvin pushed him off and Tommy turned the tiller.
Tommy warned his passengers as they started off, “Hold on. When we reach the breakwater, the waves will get rougher.”
Marilu nodded and put her hand on the side of the boat. Bree, clearly her mother’s daughter, but with black tinted spikes in her short cropped blond hair, just glared and crossed her arms. 
Tommy was having his reservations grow. These people weren’t dressed for the water. The girl’s outfit was just a frilly blouse and shorts. It was too cold out on the water for that. Her mother was more sensibly outfitted for the night air, except for the leather dress shoes. They’d be useless on a slippery deck, and likely to be ruined in the next ten minutes if the waves splashed much higher into the dinghy.
Tommy pulled away from the ramp and shook his head, keeping his thoughts to himself. It wasn’t going to be a pleasure cruise.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 14 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 14 -- Dangerous Ideas
Ruth looked up as Tommy came down the steps. She was sitting on the bench, at Nick’s head. He was still asleep.
Tommy just put his finger to his lips and turned his back to her as he went into the aft berth.
The flooring in the cabin area rested on a collection of storage tanks, batteries and engines. There was a hatch to get to that area between the bed and the door. He closed the door and pulled up the ring.
He’d stashed the mess left by Nick in the tool bin, but he hadn’t given the rest of the place an in-depth inspection.
I didn’t know we were heading out so soon.
The Sterling engine was turning away, clearly spinning the shaft to the generator. Not totally silent. Of course, no moving parts would be, but still, the only sound was the bearing noise from the spinning generator.
Not even the rumble of the burners.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He’d turned the diesel burners off, and the generator was still spinning!
The Sterling’s pistons were being driven by a heat difference, supposedly between the hot burner and the cold water of the lake. It wasn’t a perpetual motion machine. It couldn’t generate energy from nothing.
And that was what his readings hinted. Yesterday, he’d logged the fuel gauge at 75% full. Since then, he’d gone to Chicago, up and down the river, and half way to Racine.
He remembered the fuel consumption before the upgrade. That 44-gallon tank could run the engine for a day and a half. 44 gallons for 36 hours, or round to 1.2 gallons per hour.
If the gauge was correct, he’d started with 33 gallons. If the Sterling/electric hybrid was no better than the diesel it replaced, then he should have burned at least a dozen gallons. It should read about half full.
But it was still only a whisker below the 3/4 mark. He’d seen that, but kept ignoring it as first he marveled at the Sterling’s efficiency, then worried that the gauge was stuck.
But when he’d turned the burners off, and the battery gauge stayed at 100% while propelling the Marissa through the lake’s chop, he couldn’t ignore it any more.
Rummaging through the toolbox produced a flashlight. He slipped down into the tight quarters and aimed the spot of light at the plumbing.
There was the fuel line, clamped a few inches away from the burner exhaust. Both came from the stern. He followed them forward several feet until he found the burner.
It was a tiny little thing, handcrafted. He imagined Nick made the thing himself. It was no bigger than a cup of coffee. There was a sprayer, and an electric sparker to start it burning.
He tugged on the cable, certainly the one that ran up to the little burner throttle topside. There were a couple of blue sparks, and then a yellow flame popped on, producing more smoke than heat. And that heat was vented straight to the exhaust. None of the diesel flame went anywhere close to the Sterling engine.
It was a dummy. Something to make people think the Marissa was burning diesel to move. Just like the Harley sounds on the motorcycle -- a hoax.
“Nick, what have you done here?”
Tommy traced the fuel line. The whole diesel tank had been replaced. The new one was only a few quarts, stacked on top of a metal cabinet. There were twist fasteners he could open with his hands.
Inside was a maze of equipment he couldn’t begin to understand -- not in the time he had for this. There were pipes, and lots of electronics.
The feeling of driving with his eyes closed resurged on his doubts. He’d left a dog in control of the ship.
I need to get back to the wheel. He would demand that Nick explain this, once he woke up.
It was a welcome splash of cold water in the face when he needed it the most. Running on too little sleep, he had been asleep at the wheel, eyes open and standing up, but dozed off. Until the rain started. It was just a sprinkle. By the time he’d tightened the hood and wiped the water out of his eyes, it was already a spotty drizzle.
He checked the course. He’d drifted too far to the east. Glad that no one saw he’d let the ship drift off course, Tommy put the Marissa back the right compass bearing and set the autopilot. There was no reason to hold the wheel the whole trip -- not if he couldn’t do a better job than the simple gadget.
Shadows in the hatchway announced Ruth before she appeared. He straightened and resolved to be civil. 
His dream, before the rude awakening, had something to do with being scolded by Mom for not sharing with his friends. She was a stickler for hospitality.
Frowning, he realized neither Nick nor he had invited anyone over to the house, not since her death. He met his friends at the mall or at school. Apparently, Nick had his friends at work as well. But when she’d been alive, they would have been invited to the house.
Will I ever see the house again?
The thought itself was startling. Was this permanent? Was he on the run forever? What about Kati? What about his finals?
Somehow, he couldn’t imagine going back to school now. Not unless this... thing was resolved.
Ruth smiled. “Ah. Nick is awake. He asked to see you. Should I steer?”
Tommy moved aside. “It’s on autopilot. Give me a yell if we’re heading for another boat, or there’s a another rain line.”
He brushed by her, heading down the steps. Nick could talk, at last.
Bert was lying in front of the bench. If he could read the dog’s expression, he’d have to describe it as mournful. Nick was staring at the ceiling.
He blinked and turned slowly to look at him. “Tommy. Get to Marvin.”
“What’s going on? Who’s chasing us?”
He was slow to respond. “It’s all my fault. I talked them into it. I didn’t know it would be like this.”
Tommy put his hand on his arm. Nick looked at him again. “Tommy?”
Is his arm hot? It could just be me. He’d been out in the rain.
He looked back up to the hatchway, but she wasn’t in sight. “Nick, I checked the diesel. What have you done to the power system?”
Nick’s blank stare revealed a lot. He was still out of it, no matter what Ruth said. It had to be more than just a broken leg. Just how serious was it? Should he be turning towards shore -- get to the nearest hospital? He could call for help on channel 16.
But that would be turning themselves over to the Cleaners, at best. And they were the ones who shot him.
“Nick, we need to get you to the hospital.”
“No,” he was firm. “Get to Marvin. Rescue Marvin.”
“We need to get you help.”
“’Sokay. Marissa’ll take care of me.”
He blinked. “Oh, right. Ruth.”
He patted Tommy’s hand. “Good sailor. You’ll get us there.” He closed his eyes, and Tommy knew it would be a lost cause to get any more out of him.
“Bert. Watch him for me, okay?”
The dog nodded in his slow deliberate fashion.
Tommy went back up the steps, and when Ruth saw his face, her hopeful expression dropped.
“You have to tell me.” He was firm.
“I don’t know.” She looked aside.
He shook his head. “No. He’s got a fever and I’ve got to have a good reason why I shouldn’t call the Coast Guard right now.
“Nick would have told me, if he could. He can’t. So, it’s up to you. Explain just what kind of crazy mess we’re in, or I’ll take the Marissa and my father to the nearest town. Forget this Marvin. I won’t risk Nick for him.”
She sighed and nodded. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
“Who are you, and what is this company Nick works for? I’ve had it up to here with corporate secrecy. What is this project he’s been working on?”
She moved to the side bench as Tommy took up his position behind the wheel. He glanced at the GPS, but put his full attention on her.
“It’s an old company, and you wouldn’t know the name. It’s closely held; the bastard child of a dozen or so of the big names of American industry. It’s sole purpose was to buy and hold ideas.”
She nodded. “Dangerous ideas. Ideas that could cost the big names big dollars.”
“What do you mean? Patents and such?”
“Most of these were never patented. Most never got that far. You’ve heard of some of them. There was the carburetor that’d let a stock Chevy get 200 miles per gallon. There is the filter that’ll extract gold from seawater. Room temperature superconductors. Medical processes. New alloys. The list goes on and on.”
“But why?”
“Economics. A company or industry makes a predictable stream of cash from their products. If someone comes along with a discovery that undercuts or obsoletes their existing line, then it makes sense to buy out or even sabotage the new invention before it can be ‘born’. If they don’t they could be out of business before they could turn their factories around to embrace the new technology.
“It’s been done forever.” She laughed. “You should see the files! The company must have been a going concern back in the steam engine age. Can you image a steam rocket powered locomotive? You’d never believe the diagrams.”
Tommy frowned. “Nick mentioned the carburetor, but I thought it was just one of those things like perpetual motion machines. Something for nothing. You have anything like that in your files?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. They haven’t repealed the laws of physics.”
Tommy tasted the thought. He couldn’t imagine sitting on a new discovery.
“How could Nick have agreed to work for a company like that? I know my father. There isn’t a gadget he hasn’t fallen in love with.”
She nodded, “Right! That’s the thing. The company had a change in upper management, and they decided to ‘monetize’ some of their assets.
“The patent landscape changed. Patent holding companies cropped up, not really making anything. They just held patents, waiting for a real inventor to try to make something, and then they would sue for patent infringement. ‘Patent trolls’ is what they’re called.
“The company saw some of their hidden ideas rediscovered, and then patented. People were making money off of ‘their’ ideas. 
“They hired Nick, and he hired us -- all to unearth those files and turn them into viable, public inventions.” Her face took on a contemplative glow. “He was so happy. I think the hardest struggle was to keep things secret from you. Time and time he said, ‘Tommy would love this!’”
Tommy looked out on the horizon. The light was fading. Somewhere on the other side of the clouds, the sun was going down. It had taken longer to get to Racine than he’d thought.
“What went wrong?”
The glow faded from her face. “Management changed their minds. I think our reports scared them. The order came to shut everything down. Nick fought it. He thought they would listen to reason.
“And we stood with him. Some of us. We wrote and signed a memo that outlined the money to be made, the public responsibility to share the discoveries, and the moral obligations we felt.
“That’s when they sent in the security troops to shut us down. We had all signed NDA’s -- non-disclosure agreements -- but it was clear they thought it was going to take more than legal documents to keep our mouths closed.”
Tommy’s face went hard. “Nick tried to evade them, and they shot him.”
She blinked her eyes, and he realized she was fighting tears. “And they shot him,” she agreed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 13 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 13 -- To Racine
“I’m Ruth Clarke. I’m... I was your father’s assistant.” She talked in low tones, glancing at Nick’s face.
“It was the security team. They’ve been hunting for us.”
“Not the police?”
She shook her head, with a bitter smile. “No, the company wouldn’t dare bring them in.”
“Why? What’s happened?” Tommy couldn’t take his gaze away from the slow breathing. He’d never imagined that Nick would let himself get involved in anything like this. What if he died?
A cold wave chilled his spine. He clenched his teeth. How dare he take that risk!
“Ah...I think maybe Nick should tell you that himself.”
Typical. Always the secrets! Not just Nick, but everyone around him. I’m sick of it!
“What’s in Racine?” His voice must have betrayed his anger, because she looked up at him as if he’d hit her.
“Marvin. Marvin Valente. He’s part of our group. When... when things went bad, he left to get his family.”
“Tommy.” Nick stirred. They both turned to hear his faint voice. “Tommy, can you get us to Racine?”
He nodded. “Yes. I can.”
Nick nodded. “Good. Go get Marvin. Can’t leave him hanging.” 
It was clear that either the blood loss, or something else, had taken a lot out of him. He moved and sounded like an old man.
“Don’t worry, Nick. I’ll get us there.”
Nick nodded, and closed his eyes.
Tommy looked at Ruth. “Go up on deck. We’re on autopilot, but I have to check the charts. Don’t do anything. Just yell if we’re gonna hit something.”
She nodded, using the towel to rub the blood from her hands. Without a word, she went up.
Now wasn’t the time to talk to Nick, but he would need more answers. Had Nick really done something illegal? Some conspiracy, it looked like.
What a mess!
He tried to ignore the other mess, stepping around the blood, pulling the charts and looking at what he needed to do.
Ruth had been looking out to the west, but stepped back once he came up on deck.
“How is he?”
“Still asleep.” He folded his notes and put them into his shirt pocket.
She backed out of the way, as he moved to the wheel. He flipped the autopilot off and began a slow turn to the new heading.
“I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance to meet before. Nick talks about you often.”
Tommy just said, “Umm.” He flipped the scale on the GPS to a 75-mile radius and located the dot that marked Racine. He set a Go To marker and looked at the computed distance. Sixty miles -- matches the chart.
“Is there any way I can help?”
“I know Nick intended to do this himself....”
He cut her off. “Do you sail?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well, if Nick were healthy, I’d turn everything over to him in a heartbeat. But right now, I know the Marissa better than anyone. I’m trained and experienced, and I don’t trust anyone else to get us where we need to go. There’s too much to keep track of.
“If the wind stays mild, we should reach Racine in seven or eight hours. I’ll be right here most of the time. You should be below, in case he wakes up.”
“Okay, but if you need a break....”
“Just send Bert up. He’s good at watching for hazards.”
She nodded, and went below.
Maybe he’d exaggerated his sailing skills a bit, but if Nick was incapacitated, he was the expert now, and she needed to know that.
His hands were stiff on the wheel. Too much tension. He checked his course again, and turned on the autopilot. That’s what it’s there for.
He’d trust the dumb gadget more than he’d trust a strange woman. Who is she really? What kind of assistant?
Bert came up and sat beside him.
“So, you know Nick and Ruth. I’m glad to know your real name. I was calling you ‘Dog’ because I didn’t know any better.”
He lowered himself to the deck, his muzzle resting on his fore paws.
“You’re worried about Nick, aren’t you?”
The dog’s eyes looked up at him, but he made no other movement.
“I’m worried, too. But he’ll probably be okay. He just needs to rest.
“And I need you up here with me for now. I’ll need to run down below from time to time and someone has to stay on watch, to make sure we don’t run into another boat.
“So it’s okay for you to go check on Nick, but don’t stay long and come back up to help me watch for trouble.
“Do you understand?”
“Good dog.”
It was a little after noon when Ruth came up, bearing a thermos bottle.
“Tomato soup. It’s the best I could do with what’s in the pantry. I’m not a good cook.”
Hesitantly, he unscrewed the lid, and smelled the rich aroma. He sipped.
“Warm.” He was surprised.
“Yeah. The stove doesn’t work, so I had to use the microwave.”
“Uh, thanks.” The microwave works? He’d avoided it. He hadn’t expected the inverter to be able to handle the load. It might make a difference in the batteries, and in the fuel needed to keep them charged, but right now, a hot meal was more important.
But he wasn’t about to admit his confusion to her.
“I’ve inventoried all the food. Be sure to note down everything you use, so I can update the lists.”
The soup tasted really good. He hadn’t managed breakfast.
“You’ve fed Nick?”
“When he wakes up.”
“Bert gets a can of vienna sausages, okay?”
She smiled. “Will do. Bert, want to come below for lunch?”
He was up on all fours quickly, although he gave Tommy a look for approval before he left.
Tommy shook his head after they went below.
He hadn’t tried the microwave once he’d disconnected shore power. Nick and he had talked about it when they were designing the Sterling upgrade.
The Marissa didn’t have a 110 VAC generator. They used a 1500-watt inverter to supply everything that needed house current. Unfortunately, a few items, like his mother’s hair drier, the portable electric room heater and the microwave, were all heavy current users, and the inverter couldn’t handle them. Those items were restricted to when the boat was docked, and the thirty-amp shore power cable was connected to the marina’s electrical system.
Nick had toyed with the idea of installing a 110 volt system in tandem with the heavy dc generator powered by the Sterling engine, but had given up on it when they calculated how much space it would take.
Did he change his mind again, after all?
He was going to have to take a serious look at the electrical system when he got the chance.
But when that would be, he had no idea.
Mid-afternoon, clouds moved in, and the wind picked up. Coming from the north, nearly a direct head wind, it cut their velocity. Tommy adjusted the prop speed a little to compensate. He hesitated to run it full throttle.
Various settings seemed to have little effect on the main battery levels. The generator seems to be working fine.
There were still hours to go. If the juice begins to sag, I need to know instantly. What is the new system’s performance?
When he’d first arrived, the boat was disorganized. Nick would never have gone out without securing all those loose tools. 
So this is her trial run. No one knows how well the new engine will hold up.
If anything broke down, they could be stranded out here on the open water with no engine, and no sails.
He backed the little throttle all the way down. With burners off, that would let the batteries start to drain and ease their diesel consumption. Only then should I turn up the burners. He needed to find the point where the charge would match the drain. Anything more would be just a waste of fuel.
He looked for the wisp of exhaust coming from the stern, but it had stopped. He checked his watch. Time it for fifteen minutes and see what changes.
The clouds brought a slight chill to the air. He tuned the radio to the weather broadcast and let the repeating reports run. Part of his mind checked the wind directions and imagined how he’d set the sails, if the mast were up.
Heading into the wind would mean tacking back and forth and slow progress. Even with the sails, he might have been forced to use the engine.
Whatever plans Nick had worked out, they probably were worthless now, with his injury. However professional an assistant Ruth might be, her first aid skills were not enough to handle his wounds.
Not that I know what to do either.
Fifteen minutes with the burner off, he checked the instruments.
“This can’t be right.” The readings were impossible.
Ruff. Brown eyes looked up at him.
“Bert, watch for other ships. I need to go below.”
The dog scrambled up onto the bench, where he could see in all directions.
Tommy headed for the hatchway. He had to see the engine for himself.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 12 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 12 -- Under the Bridges
Nick’s shot! Tommy pushed the throttle and guided the Marissa into the shadow of the State Street Bridge. His mind churned at high speed.
Nick had been moving normally, just seconds ago. He’d been shot just now! That meant the shooters were nearby, maybe with sniper scopes from the buildings overhead.
He slapped the autopilot on, and rushed to his father’s side. The woman was lifting him from the other side.
“Ruth, get me below -- out of sight.” Nick was in pain, but still alert.
She nodded. Her focus was on the bleeding wound in his right thigh.
“Hurry,” Tommy urged. “We’re hidden by the bridge, but just for a few seconds.”
Ruth put her arm under Nick, and lifting together, they got him to the main hatchway. “Bert! Get back,” she yelled. The dog moved out of the way. They headed down.
Tommy had to abandon Nick to the woman. He had to get back to the wheel.
Autopilot off. He eased back on the throttle, trying to avoid slamming a support pillar. He was too close to the edge. The entrance to the marina under the towering circular Marina City towers was just a few feet away.
And he’d let too big a gap open up between the powerboats and the Marissa.
The yellow slicker was lying on the deck, where the dog -- Bert? -- had dropped it. Tommy shed his jacket and put on the slicker. It had a hood, and if the Cleaners didn’t already know Nick was on the Marissa, he’d better keep his face obscured.
As he eased back into the convoy, he tried to make sense of the last minute.
Someone was chasing Nick, and wanted him bad enough to shoot him. That woman, Ruth. She’s the one on the voicemail at home. They were co-workers.
He remembered the voices at the pool hall. “He’s taken something that doesn’t belong to him.”
I don’t believe it. Tommy shook his head, and adjusted the hood so he could scan the people on shore. Would he recognize the Cleaners if he saw them?
They won’t be guys in black, carrying rifles. There’d been no sound of a gunshot. They were keeping a low profile. Whoever was after Nick was trying to keep it secret.
He felt the cell phones in his pocket and pulled the batteries from both of them. Just in case. 
The bridges were coming like clockwork, once a city block. He looked for any sign of anyone trying to pace him. He was moving too fast for a pedestrian to walk, but too slow for the auto and truck traffic. The bridges worried him. Not only did it give him a moment of hiding, but it could also shield the actions of a sniper.
Stay in the convoy. Be normal. Don’t make any strange moves, and hope that this is too public for the Cleaners to try anything.
Of course, they shot Nick. Did they see what happened when he fell? The Marissa was out of sight if the snipers were on the north side of the river. He’d slipped up behind that big boat. Nick had come in from the north side.
Just stay in line and act innocent.
As he passed under the Franklin Street Bridge, he suddenly realized they’d reached the branch in the river.
Where are we going? 
Just as he formed that thought, the lead boat took the north branch. The second one began its turn.
I could head south.
The Sanitary and Ship Canal kept on going, connecting to the Mississippi. With the mast down, I could go that way and completely leave the area. 
But what does Nick want? 
And besides, it was close quarters all the way. Once the Cleaners identified him, it would just be a matter of waiting out on a bridge or a lock, and picking him off. The only safety was out on the lake.
When it came his time, he turned north with the others. Almost immediately, he could smell chocolate in the air from a factory somewhere. 
First funnel cakes, and now this. His stomach rumbled.
The dog appeared at his side. He held a folded note in his jaws. Tommy picked it up.
“Where are we going? We need to be out on the lake.”
It wasn’t Nick’s handwriting. It had to be from Ruth.
Who was she?
“Wait a minute, Bert. That’s your name, isn’t it?”
The dog nodded, it wasn’t a natural action for him, but he’d learned the human gesture.
“You are a smart dog. I’m going to write a reply. Hang on a moment so you can take it down below.”
There was a pen on a little writing ledge next to the radio and the GPS. He turned the paper over and wrote.
“I’m staying with a convoy of tourist boats, so we don’t attract attention. We’re currently on the North Branch.
“How is Nick doing?
“Where are we supposed to go?
“Why are people hunting us?”
He hesitated, wishing he could rewrite that, but this wasn’t a computer screen. What was written was written.
He folded the sheet and handed it to Bert.
The dog went below.
They were moving out of the downtown area. Instead of skyscrapers, there were warehouses and large parking areas for trucks.
What if they take the North Branch all the way to Wilmette? They’re powerboats. I’ve got a keel. What’s the depth here?
The northern passage was smaller, he knew that. But he hadn’t checked these channels. His charts were all below, and the GPS wasn’t really set up for that kind of research. It could tell you the chart depth where you were located, but he couldn’t steer and play with the gadget at the same time.
He was a sailboat out of its native element. Channels were temporary things, not routes you take for miles and miles.
Bert arrived with another sheet of paper.
It started out in Nick’s handwriting.
“Good work, Tommy. But we need to meet up with people in Racine as soon as we can manage. I’m sorry I got you into this. It was just supposed to be a company policy dispute. I didn’t know they’d...” 
His handwriting grew sloppy. Ruth had finished it.
“Your father has a broken leg. The bullet may have done it -- maybe the fall. I don’t know. But he’s in a lot of pain. Please hurry.”
He folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket.
“I can’t hurry. It’d make us stand out.”
Racine? The only way to get there, other than risking the small channel, was to go back the way they came.
Maybe I made a mistake... No. It’s important to stay hidden. Nick’s hurting, but a broken leg isn’t immediately life threatening, is it?
He closed his eyes for a few second. What a mess!
The GPS showed distance traveled. Only a couple of miles back to the lock. Why had it seemed so much farther?
The channel opened up. It was the Turning Basin, a place where larger ships could turn around.
I don’t go any farther. The small channel led north.
The convoy began slowing, and the lead boat headed toward the dock. They were stopping here.
Not me. I can’t afford to.
He turned away from the group and then shut down the engine. The GPS gave him some details. The north branch of the Chicago River had two channels, and there was a straighter one than they’d taken. He turned to starboard.
The sides were tree lined, and he didn’t like the implication. He kept checking the depth soundings. If the place had been lined in docks, he’d have felt better. A business route would be constantly dredged. He had a keel to worry about.
Still, he made better time. There was no boat to follow and he left a wake that would get him in trouble if he didn’t watch it. As he reached the junction where the branches joined, there was a tug going almost as fast as he was. Tommy dropped in behind it -- close enough that the noise of its engine might mask the fact that his was silent.
They both turned toward the lake when the South Branch appeared.
Maybe someday, I’ll take that trip to the Mississippi. I wonder if I could get to Kentucky Lake that way.
As the State Street Bridge approached, Tommy steered the Marissa slightly to starboard and adjusted the hood of the slicker again. It was getting warm, but just a few more bridges, and he’d be out on the lake.
There was a little speedboat moored next to the tour boat where Nick had been shot. He tried not to turn his head. He shifted into a crouch, where the mast would hide his face.
As they approached, he could see three people on deck, watching the water. Divers. They have divers looking for Nick’s body.
He stared straight ahead at the tug’s stern. His ears perked up, listening for a shout. He didn’t breathe until he passed under the next bridge.
Hesitantly, he turned to look, but there was no chase.
On the shore was a dull red van. He imagined the face of the driver. He was the one who could identify him in an instant.
Don’t blow it. You’re just a white sailboat like a million others. 
But another voice nagged. How many sailboats have their mast down? How many are missing the boat name? They can identify you. If Bert comes up on deck, the Cleaners know him.
One bridge after another passed overhead. And then there was the queue of boats waiting by the red light for the lock to open.
As they passed through the gap in the breakwater, Tommy pulled off the slicker.
Racine is north of here. But he didn’t know how far. He glanced at the fuel gauge. It looked good. Maybe the Sterling really was as efficient as the hype. He’d been under power for hours now.
I’ll need to make some calculations. Temporarily, he set a course north-northeast into the open lake to the east, then turned on the autopilot.
No one appeared on the horizon. No one was following.
It was time to talk to Nick. He’s got to explain this.
One more look around the deck. Nothing unsecured. He picked up the slicker and his jacket and started down the hatchway.
It was dark. His eyes had to adjust.
And then he saw the blood. Just a drop or two topside; the lower steps were smeared with dark stains.
“Dad?” He hadn’t called him that in years.
Nick was stretched out on the settee berth, against the side of the cabin. The woman sat across from him, holding a towel that was soaked in red. Bert was stretched out on the floor, waiting.
His father was motionless.
Ruth put her finger to her lips. She whispered, “He’s asleep.” She folded the towel and rubbed at the floor. “He lost a lot of blood, but I’ve got it bandaged for now.”
Tommy ignored her, moving to his side and taking his hand. Until he felt his warmth and the pulse, he couldn’t breathe.
Not wanting to look at her, he asked, “Who are you? What’s going on? Who shot Nick?”