Chapter 11 -- Down the River
Ding! He opened his eyes to early dawn. A light woke him fully. He was on his feet before he blinked, and saw what the light was attached to.
The Chicago skyline was close. Much closer than he’d realized. Skyscrapers were lit, still brighter than the pre-morning sky. Sears Tower. No, that’s the Hancock Building. There were several other buildings as well, many of them with characteristic twin peaks.
The dog crept out of his sleeping place.
“No problem. We’ve just drifted too close to the shore. I’ll take care of it.”
The helm station was covered in dew. Tommy wiped the GPS screen clear and pushed the throttle just a bit. The shiny 32-inch wheel was cool to the touch, but turned easily as he steered the Marissa in a wide loop and pointed the bow back north.
The wind in his face shook the last of the sleep out of him. With the days getting hot, a fresh morning breeze was welcome. The scent of the open water and the rhythmic splash of the waves on the hull made it a good morning.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the dog jump up onto the side, near the rail. Tommy made very sure he held the wheel steady. If the dog fell over....
But the animal seemed to have a plan. He leaned his shoulder against the railing, raised his hind leg and let a yellow stream arc out into the lake. It was over quickly, and he hopped back into the protected tub and went back under the bench.
That’s amazing. Was the dog house, or rather boat, broken? Did his previous owner teach him that? How would you teach a dog to pee into the water? Did he squat to the lake side as well? Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t noticed any mess. The dog ate. He had to defecate as well.
Tommy checked the GPS. They were doing just two knots, and the way was clear.
“Dog, I’ve gotta go below to use the head myself. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Bark if you see anything.”
The cell phone was blinking. Tommy dried his hands and unplugged it from the charger and put Slab’s phone on charge. It had gone dead overnight.
A text message! It had to be from Nick.
C: M50500C12M90C1 5:44a
“What is this mess?”
He glanced at the morning light streaming in the hatchway. Decode it topside.
Dog watched him as he came up and scowled at the little screen.
“Cax garbled one or more messages from Nick,” he explained, irritated. “Cax is this really big guy. I’m not sure he’s quite as smart as you are.”
Okay. Cax woke up and saw that there were several messages and sent them all to me at once.
Not an easy thing to do. He doubted Cax noted them down with pencil and paper. So, he’d have to remember them all from their sequential screens and then code them all in at once. Bad call. Don’t be prejudiced. Just because he’s big and black doesn’t make him stupid.
Sorry Cax. I probably wouldn’t have done any better. Though I would have used a notepad!
He shook away his mistake and concentrated on the puzzle.
“M50500 -- That’s one or more copies of ‘go to the boat’. Has to be. C12? That’s C1, go offline. For two hours.
“Of course it would help to know when Nick sent that!”
Should I go offline now? Frustrated, he looked at the water to clear his head. “No. Nick doesn’t know I’ve got a different phone ID. Cax won’t go offline because he doesn’t know the code. No help for it.
“M90C1 -- Location 90?” He struggled to remember. There were about two dozen locations. He was supposed to have memorized them all, but what was 90?
“Or is it location 9, and come immediately?”
90 is a city, I think. Milwaukee or Racine. 9 is Wollensky’s Grill.
Nick was playing a serious game. He wouldn’t take any unnecessary chances. They’d met for lunch there at the restaurant above the marina at State Street Bridge before. Location 90 had never been used.
“That makes sense. Come meet me at Wollensky’s and stay off the air.”
Nick worked near there -- somewhere. Even his office location was a secret. But they’d met near the Chicago River several times. Would he hide out near his office?
“Chicago is a big place. You could hide in any one of those skyscrapers for a long time. Nick wants to meet me by the river. Does he know I’d bring the boat? There’s no code for that.”
But he’d texted M50 so many times, and he knows I can sail.
“Okay, dog. We’re going to go for a little river ride.” He killed the throttle and headed down into the cabin.
The navigation station had a set of charts. Tommy hadn’t thought about them before -- their GPS had built in maps, complete with depth information. But for this, he wanted the big picture. He could spread paper charts out over the table. The GPS screen was just a few inches wide.
The Chicago River doesn’t empty into Lake Michigan -- just the opposite. Without the locks at the entrance, the waters of Lake Michigan would flow continually into the river. The river’s flow was reversed in 1900 by cutting a canal a short distance to the Mississippi River drainage basin. They had to do it. Chicago pulled its water supply from the lake, but had been pouring its sewage down the river causing massive typhoid outbreaks. Thus, the Sanitary Canal was dug.
Tommy had taken the Chicago Architecture River Tour with his class last year, and the boat’s tour guide had covered the history of the river, in between comments on the various skyscrapers that made a canyon for the waters. Come to think of it, Kati had been especially excited that day. Had she been thinking of becoming an architect all that time?
There! That’s Navy Pier. The line of buildings sticking out into the lake with a Ferris Wheel was distinctive. He’d been there a number of times. The boat tour had started there.
He turned the wheel slightly. He had to line up the approach correctly. There was a breakwater protecting the shoreline, and he had to find the entrance. He was still a half-mile from shore and he’d have to be careful.
He tuned the radio to port operations. He’d have to go through the lock, and he didn’t have any experience doing that.
There was the gap in the breakwater. He checked for other boat traffic and entered the protected waters. The Chicago Harbor Lock was nearly dead ahead. He resisted the urge to speed up.
It was a destination, but he didn’t really want to go into the river. He was hiding! The lake was wide open space, he could make any course, head for any destination. The river was a narrow channel, and he’d be a sitting duck if Nick’s pursuers knew what he was planning.
The Navy Pier slid by to starboard. He cut his speed another notch. There were a number of boats waiting to enter ahead of him, clustered around what looked to be a traffic light.
He took a deep breath and picked up the microphone.
“Sailboat Good Dog approaching, requesting passage through the lock.” He didn’t know the real procedure, and the fake name for the boat was on impulse. Nick had gone to great effort to remove Marissa from the hull. He had to have had a good reason.
The reply came back a few seconds later, with directions to follow the Fancy Pants when the light went green.
Tommy crept up to the other boats, almost all of them recreational powerboats. It looked like a group. People were shouting -- talking boat to boat. The helmsman on the Fancy Pants gave him a wave. Tommy smiled and waved back. If they thought he was part of their party, he’d go along with it.
There was a whiff of cinnamon in the air, and he knew what it was -- funnel cakes from Navy Pier, just a few hundred yards off to the north. The place was a maze of restaurants, museums and rides. It was a shame he hadn’t gone there more often.
The lock gates opened and after a barge moved out onto the lake, the string of waiting boats began moving in.
The process was over quickly. There was only a foot’s difference in the level of the lake and the river. During a rain, the levels could even swap, with the narrow channels filling with runoff. During storms, they had to keep the locks open to keep the city from flooding.
The other boats were together. It was obvious now. Someone on the lead boat had a bullhorn and reminded everyone to keep single file and not to get too close to the boat in front of them.
They moved onto the river, and quickly reached the first bridge. Chicago had more drawbridges, actually, tilt-bridges, than any other city in the world, three or four dozen of them, but his mast was down and all the others were powerboats, so there was no need to stop the eight lanes of traffic on the highway.
Nick should be at State Street Bridge, I guess. Which bridge is that? He hoped he’d be able to recognize it from the water level.
They passed a construction barge tied up at the shore.
At first, there was plenty of room, but the channel narrowed. Still room for lots of boat traffic, but Tommy’s grip on the wheel began to tighten up.
Columbus Drive Bridge. They were marked. Good.
Should he call Nick and warn him he was coming?
“No, ‘C1’. He said stay off line.”
The dog made a low growl. It was almost a question.
Tommy looked at him. “Be on the lookout for Nick. You do know who Nick is, right?”
He must have understood. The dog climbed up near the railing and pointed his muzzle to the shore.
They passed under the bridge. Michigan Avenue Bridge was up next, with its row of flags. With the skyscrapers looming on both sides, especially with the morning shadows, it felt like he was in a very deep canyon.
Tommy watched the shore for any hint of Nick. His car was distinctive, but he doubted he’d see it. There were plenty of pedestrians on the sidewalks. He looked at everyone.
What’ll I do if I see him? Will there be a place to tie up?
And what would he do if he reached State Street and there was no sign of him? Should he try to dock at the marina, and go the Wollensky’s Grill to look for him? Leave the dog to guard the boat?
He saw a van pass over the double-decker Michigan Avenue Bridge. It wasn’t the Cleaners, but it was close enough to stop him breathing for an instant.
I need to stay with the group, if I can. But if the Cleaners recognize me, what then?
He pulled up the collar on his jacket.
“Dog.” The muzzle turned toward him. “Can you go below and get the yellow rain hat? It’s on an open shelf across from the table?”
Instantly, he bounded down through the hatchway.
“Can dogs even see yellow?” Well, if he succeeded, chalk up another amazing thing the dog could do. If not, no harm. He just couldn’t leave the wheel now.
Just ahead, the river made a bend to the left and a sign declared Wabash Avenue on the bridge. He recognized it. State Street was just on the other side.
The sounds coming from the hatchway turned his head. Dog was struggling with the steep steps, a whole yellow rain slicker in his jaws. He could barely find a place to put his feet.
“Good dog.” It wasn’t what he’d asked for, but it was close.
The dog dropped the slicker and began barking. He dashed over to the railing.
Tommy saw him too. Nick was walking on the shoreline, up on the top of the vine-covered wall. As the Marissa came out from the shadow of the bridge, Nick jumped down onto the top a double-decker tour boat boat tied up to the side. He ran across to the opposite side.
A black pair of binoculars swung from his neck.
Nick’s been watching me the whole time. He’d been up in one of those buildings.
Feeling an overwhelming sense that he’d done good, Tommy steered the Marissa much closer to the tour boat than the others of the group he’d been following. If he did it right, Nick could just step aboard.
Well, maybe jump aboard. Nick was still on the roof, a lot higher than the deck of the Marissa.
Nick vanished from sight, as the other boat blocked his view. The dog kept on barking. He was excited. He knew Nick. That much was clear.
Okay, now or never. He was alongside, with just a foot separation. He throttled down to nothing, watching the clearance carefully.
Nick came over the edge and landed hard. He grabbed for the railing to keep from falling off.
A second figure jumped from the tour boat, landing beside Nick. It was a woman. She turned to face him. Wide eyes framed with dark reddish hair, she looked panicked.
“Get us out of here! They’ve shot Nick!”