Friday, October 21, 2011

The Manta – Part 10 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Right on time, the seaplane came down, throwing up rooster tails of water until it slowed, and then taxied over to the Manta.
Getting the generator unloaded an onto the Manta’s wing without dunking it was a little difficult. The gasoline tanks just floated.
“It’s a project of his,” she explained to the pilot. “He’s going to set up a home base on a tiny little island near here.” They said nothing about the Manta’s damage.
He gave the pilot instructions about her head injury and insisted he ignore anything she said about feeling fine. She had to get to a doctor.
Brenda got onto the plane with her camera and the clothes on her back.
He stared off to the northwest long after the plane had shrunk to nothing in the sky. He might have done so for days, if his repair work hadn’t been so urgent.
The trip to the island was slow going. Soon he ran out of battery and had to surface, haul out the generator onto the wing in the open air, run cables through the airlock and burn gasoline. The weather had to be perfect, so for three days he had to drift before he could get a charge. 
Finally he arrived at the island and secured the Manta for an extended stay.
He anchored her in the shallows, and he hated that. Getting well below the churning surf was rule number one in keeping the Manta safe. But he needed to access the damage in the air to make repairs.
He’d need to watch the sky very carefully.
Wednesday noon, he turned on the sat phone.
“Before you ask, Nemo, the doctor gave me some pills, and I have to go back next week for another checkup, but she says I look fine. But she did say you did the right thing getting me checked out.”
“I’m glad. I was worried.”
“Well don’t worry. I’m back on the job. The photos of the volcano and the hurricane from the underside are already on the company’s website and I’m getting emails from girls all over the place telling me how sexy you look.”
“Hmm. Don’t tell them where I am.”
“Your secret is safe with me. How are you doing?”
“I’ve disassembled the charging spool. It’ll take some work, but some parts can be salvaged.”
“That’s great. Will there be any problem, keeping the same call schedule?”
“No. Wednesday is fine.”
There was no answer. The battery had gone dead.
He turned off the phone. He went inside and put it aside, hoping to get it charged again before the next call.
I need to get back to work.
Instead, he went to the closet and opened the drawer where he’d put her washed and folded nightgown. He felt the lace and remembered the texture when she wore it.
“Enough of this.”
But in the airlock, he paused and ran the tips of his fingers over the name “Sally” written on the edge of one of the face masks hanging there.
On the shore he had built a platform above the high tide line where he was cutting the charger spool apart and separating the segments that could be salvaged from the burned and ruined ones. With luck he could splice the good parts together to make a smaller charger. It would produce less than half the power of the original, but it was enough to keep the Manta alive, if he used little artificial light, bathed infrequently, and traveled very slowly. It would also be fragile. If it broke in use, he could lose it all, far from any shore.
I’ll lose her. In spite of her best intentions, there’s nothing to bring her back.
Frank Hancock, president of Green Wavepower, in Jacksonville, Florida picked up his phone.
“Sir, there is a Ms. deMay asking to see you.”
“She’s here? With no appointment?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Hang on.”
He hit the mute button and hit the button for his Chief of Research.
“Jerry, she found us. And she’s here, now.”
They conferred. He put his secretary back on line. “Send her in.”
Brenda had learned that sometimes, pretending to know the whole story would shake out more details than she could ever ask for.
It looks like this is one of those lucky breaks.
She only came here because she found references to the company by tracking down a very sketchy list of Oscar Gerber’s work history. But from the moment she walked in the front door, it was plain that practically everyone at the small company had a guilty conscience. Without asking, she had been directed higher and higher on the org chart. Clearly no one wanted to be fall guy.
She walked into the president’s office with a confident smile and shook his hand.
“Have a seat Ms. deMay. I must say, I’ve enjoyed your work.”
She looked at his face, and the way that he was struggling to look her straight in the eye.
“My Haiti stories or my ... more recent work.”
He actually flushed. He spread his hands.
“I’m not going to try to stonewall you, Ms. deMay.”
“Brenda. Call me Brenda.”
“Ah, yes. Brenda. The thing is, from the first article showing the photo of the Manta–copies spread like wildfire around the factory–we knew that Oscar’s submersible had been found. We just weren’t sure that Nemo was Oscar.”
He went to a file cabinet and pulled out a large leather bound folder. He opened it up and handed it to her.
“The Manta was built here in the large building you passed when you arrived here.”
She flipped through photos and blueprints, progress reports and material work sheets. It looked very different, a machine up on stilts surrounded by cranes, not like the creature of the depths it seemed to her before.
There was a photo of Oscar, clean shaven and in a business suit, standing beside a woman in a white lab smock.
Mr. Hancock said, “Of course, when the photos came out, ‘Nemo’ was obviously Oscar Gerber. I suppose you wonder why we didn’t contact you?”
She looked up at him, as he hovered around where she sat. “In a bit. But first, I have a few questions about Sally.”
He nodded, sadly. “I gather she didn’t survive.”
“She’s buried under a rock cairn right beside the burned hull of the Ocean Ray, sitting on the sea bottom.”
Frank sighed. “It’s rather ironic.”
“How so?”
He gestured, pacing. “Sally was a gifted scientist. She came to us originally for custom aquarium tanks and fittings. She was a bit of an odd duck, a marine biologist who was much more comfortable in a lab coat than in a swimsuit, if you get my meaning. She loved sea life, but she didn’t like getting wet.
“When Oscar fell in love with her, he fell all the way. Marriage wasn’t enough. He sunk practically everything he owned into the Manta.”
“He told me that it had been built as a marine biologist’s platform.”
“He built to be Sally’s lab! A place she could work, in her lab coat, if you will, but out there close to the animals she loved.”
He gave up pacing and pulled another chair close where he could sit down. “It’s a small company. We all pitched in. When they sailed away with the Manta loaded aboard the Ocean Ray, everyone thought it was like the last curtain of Snow White, with the loving couple heading off to live happily ever after.”
He stared at his hands, shaking his head. “It was two months out when the word came. The cook washed up in Antigua with the story. Something in the engine room blew, starting a massive diesel fire. The Ocean Ray went down fast. He saw bodies, but he was the only one out alive.”
She nodded. It certainly matched what she’d seen. But Oscar had been spared, perhaps out in the Manta. He came out alive, but broken inside.
But it didn’t explain Frank Hancock’s guilt.
She tapped the folder. “And Oscar Gerber’s relationship with the company?”
She could tell she was close. He hesitated a moment, and then got to his feet and dug out another folder.
“Oscar was our Chief of Design. We were so supportive of the Manta because he was churning out new inventions almost daily, it seemed. He had the vision, you see. And when problems came up, he invented a solution. He invented a lot of solutions.
“We changed the name of the company because of one of them.”
She rummaged through the patents, stopping when she came to the wave charging system. She held it up. “You sell many of these.”
He nodded, solemnly, “More and more. And that’s what happened.
“Oscar left with little money. He sold his house, his car, and cashed in his life insurance policy to get the Ocean Ray launched. But he had some shares of the company and these patents. He left us a power of attorney, just until he returned. And then he never returned.
“The money?” she prompted, guessing.
He nodded. “We leased some of the patents, and manufactured some other things.” He looked out the window. “I suppose someone should have moved to declare Oscar dead, and then we would have had to turn it all over to his estate.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. We didn’t.” He sighed. “We pretended he was still sailing away, and that the power of attorney was still perfectly valid. The company needed to grow, and we were managing this fat trust fund.
“So we traded shares for cash. All legal. I think. It’s just, what with the green energy surge, Oscar now owns a controlling interest in the company.”

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