Monday, October 31, 2011

The Manta – Part 14 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The Manta’s new batteries went flat right when he’d expected. It was so nice to have a power system at the peak of its performance.
But right now, he had to keep from tumbling.
With the water pumped out of the ballast tank, the Manta was rising from the dark depths at an uncomfortable pace. He made tiny adjustments to the ailerons to dampen out some instability.
He dared not shift his own position either. Climbing so fast air bubbles were created from nothing in his wake, he had to stay right on the edge of stability. Those vertical fins had been an extra, when he designed the Manta. They distracted from the elegant look of the wing. Certainly the real manta ray had no little fins sprouting from its back. But without them, he’d never be able to climb at this speed.
The darkness was dropping away like a sunrise in fast-forward. He gripped the railing tighter.
Like a whale breaching, the Manta popped through the surface, and even cleared air for a heart-pounding instant, before slapping the surface and skidding along like an unmanned surfboard.
Finally, the slush and sway told him that he’d come to a stop. The windows were still seeing spray splash down.
Nemo dashed to deploy a sea anchor so he could extend the tail.
He was dead in the water until the batteries recharged.
Residual juice was enough to give him a GPS reading. Over two hundred and eighty miles on that last charge. It was still going to be a very slow crossing from the East Caribbean to the West, but he couldn’t go any faster.
He’s considered all options.
He had no money, and even if he could talk resources out of Frank as he suspected he could, his passport was long gone. Likely he’d dropped totally off the radar–a dead man. He had no visas, no official presence. Other than swimming ashore like he did last time, he’d be lucky if they let him on any of the islands.
But suppose he could cross that legal barrier. Taking an airplane, without the Manta, would mean he was just a homeless traveler. He could never air-ship the Manta without disassembly, it was too wide.
Much the same applied to catching a ride on a ship. The Ocean Ray had a special rig to handle the Manta. That didn’t exist any more.
Besides a commercial liner wasn’t all that much faster than the Manta.
He smiled.
No, making his own way across let him arrive unannounced, like he did on Antigua. With clothes, he could move around incognito. With the Manta, he could investigate off-shore locations, hoping the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service would do all they could on land.
Like Brenda said, the Manta was his freedom. And he had to have freedom to act.
“I should never have let this happen.”
“What do you mean?” he asked the editor.
“I sent her into a potential active crime scene, and she’d not a crime reporter. Science and human-interest. That’s her job, not dealing directly with people who might pull a gun on her. And I let her go alone.”
“Is that usual? A reporter on assignment as an individual?”
He hesitated, “Well, actually yes. I mean, it’s not uncommon for a photographer and an investigator to work as a team, but normally, a reporter works alone.”
“Karl, if you made Brenda take a bodyguard, she’d freak on you.”
He sighed. “I know. It’s second guessing. It’s an editor’s hazard. But she was always right on top of everything, and I fell down on my side of the job. We should have had a solid check-in schedule, and I should have acted the instant she went silent.”
“I did have a phone schedule with her, and I got distracted. My fault as much as yours.”
The editor didn’t let himself wallow more than a couple of minutes. In spite of everything, and Brenda’s priority, he had dozens of other tasks demanding his time.
Nemo claimed his charging was done and he had to go.
But some of the details the man revealed were disturbing. The RCIPS were not hopeful they would find her. There were a huge number of people leaving Grand Cayman every day–air liners, cruise ships, private charters and just individual travelers. It was a small island with a large tourist presence.
There were regular missing persons reports, not all of them unplanned. It was a usual story for someone to drop out of sight, and Grand Cayman was nice place to do it.
But there was a hint that there were more women going missing than was usual.
A hundred gallons of fish guts came splattering down into the trough, and Brenda immediately stuck her hands to the elbows in it. With wooden paddles, she pushed the stinking, gagging mess down the metal channel, trying to keep the feeding channels from clogging. There were a dozen large tanks filled with all sizes of sea turtles, and she had to do her best to see that all were fed, and none were poisoned by an over abundance.
It was a nightmare sweatshop version of the feeding tanks she’d seen in the official turtle farms. Theirs were bright and sunny, these were dark and dank. Theirs were spacious and had plenty of room to walk about and see all stages of the turtles’ development in clean water ponds, she had to wedge herself between the wall and the tanks, with barely room to breathe. Theirs fed the turtles a carefully designed food in tidy dried pellets, Brenda recalled them fondly as she shoveled the fish guts. 
The official turtle farm was right next to a lovely restaurant where she’d watched the sunset. Brenda was so hungry the fish guts were tempting. Almost. And she collapsed between feedings on a metal bench.
But there was one advantage. None of the other crew were the least bit interested in feeling her up. They couldn’t get close enough without gagging.
She sagged on the bench. The turtles’ future was bleak. Grow big enough to harvest for meat or shell in the dark tanks, and then face the knife.
Hers wasn’t much better. She’d overheard their plans. When her face healed, they’d rinse her off, paint some cosmetics on her, and put her on a plane to meet her new owner. She suspected she’d be learning a new language soon, if her owner allowed her to talk.
Nemo circled Grand Cayman at a respectful distance. Close to shore, the waters were full of scuba divers and snorkelers, and kayakers. And around the Georgetown port, there were even tourist submarines to look out for.
But one thing he had discovered as he recharged off the coast of Jamaica, with an appropriate antenna on the spine, he could pull WiFi signals from the land. It took some hunting to find ones with no password, but he could hover about three feet below the surface with the spine up like a periscope and browse the net.
He pulled detailed maps and identified places Brenda’s article mentioned. He’d be retracing her steps.
At least that was the plan.
But the first step was to find a place to hide the Manta close enough so he could get ashore. That was going to be a tough one.
Rounding West End, he saw a southern stingray bury itself in the sand. It was an idea. The problem was to avoid all the enticing dive spots he saw marked on the chart he’d downloaded.
Waiting until dark, he found a particularly dull stretch of sand ‘downhill’ from the inner bay and settled in. The hull color and the white coral sand weren’t too different, but he spent some time shoveling sand all over the wing area. He couldn’t risk the snorkel this time, as it was practically identical to a dive buoy and would likely attract others to see what was interesting below.
He swam ashore with nothing but his change of clothes, snorkel, mask and fins. For all the bad things that could be said about his hermit lifestyle, he was an excellent swimmer.
Taking advantage of a tourist shower on a pole, he found a changing booth and was soon walking the road toward the restaurant Brenda had mentioned.
No one thought it odd when a man in a white suit and carrying snorkel gear came in for dinner. His server was friendly, and when he mentioned coming because of the article by Brenda deMay, he found out that he wasn’t the only one.
“Is it true that she’s gone missing?” asked his waiter.
“So I’ve heard. The police are looking for her. So is her newspaper. I hope she didn’t get caught up in the turtle scandal.”
At first the waiter disclaimed any idea that there was a problem with the turtles. But it was after sunset, and the crowd had thinned out considerably. When Nemo appeared to be content to let his prime rib settle until the place closed, the man dropped by again and pulled up a chair.
“You talked like you knew her.”
“Oh yes, I do. She’s a friend. And she’s done me a big favor. I’m looking for her.”
“Are you a reporter too?”
“Not a reporter, not a policeman, not anything official. I’m just a friend, seriously worried about her.”
The waiter leaned a little closer. “I liked her too, and I’d hate to think she was caught up in anything seedy.”
“If you know anything, I’d treat it as a personal favor if you’d tell me.”

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