Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Manta – Part 15 of 17

2011 by Henry Melton

“The Caymans have a good thing going with the sea turtles. We thumb our noses at the endangered species requirements, within our own island. We grow them like a domestic animal, and turn a large number of them back to the wild. We harvest some–you’ve seen the braised turtle on our menu. With the local sales and the tourists able to see them at the farm, it’s enough to keep it going. It’s good for the turtles, it’s good for us. It’s crazy the rest of the world doesn’t get on board and let us export.
“But there are rumors, just rumors, that some drug dealers or someone like that has set up an operation somewhere offshore that traps the turtles we release and harvest them for the shells, outside the export controls we have in place at the harbor and the airport.”
He shrugged. “If you have something valuable that’s illegal, someone will try to find a way.”
“Did you tell this to Brenda?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Maybe. A bit of it.” He shrugged. “She’s pretty.”
“I know.”
A clue in hand was worth more than a day’s walking aimlessly around the island, hunting tips the police had already discovered.
But I’ll have to wait until morning. I won’t be able to find the Manta in the dark.
He found a secluded spot on the beach where he could hear the waves. He made a pillow of his suit and watched the occasional cloud move past the stars.
It had hurt, every time the waiter mentioned Brenda in the past tense. It was like he knew something even worse, but feared to tell him.
Of course I could just be imagining it.
I lost Sally. I don’t want to lose Brenda.
The two women were not much alike. Brenda was a red-haired adventurer, not like gentle dark-haired Sally, always quiet, always ready to retreat behind her clipboard.
He dozed off, dreaming of better times.
Gulls and itchy skin woke him. It was already later than he’d planned. The morning sun was a couple of hours high.
He brushed the sand off and took his bundle of clothes down to the water and tied the water-tight bundle around a rock, testing it to make sure it would sink. He’d hate to lose his new clothes because he couldn’t pull the bag down with him.
The water was crystal clear, and that certainly was one of the magnets that drew the divers out in droves.
But as he approached the place where he expected to find the Manta, he was worried to find a boat anchored nearby. He took a deep cleansing breath, and went straight down.
There were two divers in tanks circling around the ship. One was brushing sand away from the window to peer inside. He was nearly at the airlock before they saw him.
Not attackers. Just divers.
One of them saw him fumble with his package and moved closer and pulled his regulator from his mouth and offered him air.
Nemo shook his head and did the OK hand sign before he pulled out the little cylinder that worked for him as a key. He fitted it into the hole and opened the airlock outer door.
The friendly one obviously wanted to be invited in, but he had no time. He grabbed his own snorkel line mouthpiece for air as the airlock purged the water.
Inside, the divers watched him through the window as he set down his package and went to the control console.
Tap, tap, tap.
He looked. One was holding a slate board. On it was written NEMO?
He smiled and nodded with a thumbs up. He opened the laptop and typed in huge letters, STAND BACK, TAKING OFF. He showed it to them.
They moved back a few feet. He carefully blew some air into the ballast tanks and the Manta lurched up in a haze of sand. He moved off, banking toward deeper water.
If I thought I could remain secret, this kills it. They’ve got a story for their buddies now.
It made it even more urgent that he find Brenda fast.
An offshore place to collect turtles–that meant somewhere off the West End. If they were still there, they’d probably be far enough from the shoal waters to avoid divers for the same reason–to keep their actions secret.
He began moving in widening arcs. He tried to keep low, so surface boaters wouldn’t see him. He also tried to steer wide of divers, but there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t notice. The Manta was never designed to be hidden. No camouflage. Brenda had mentioned that.
He didn’t really think the small dive boats were likely worth a look, but what did constitute a likely place to collect turtles?
He walked over to the book shelf and pulled out one of the marine biology texts.
Sally wrote this. How did I keep myself from thinking about her all the times I read it? The name was plain to see on the cover. She had rejected the idea of putting an author’s photo on the cover.
He quickly found the section on sea turtles. She had sections on diet and behavior, and many photos. He’d read it like a robot, how many times? This time he couldn’t read the words without hearing her voice.
Setting it down, he went back and turned on the hydrophones and turned up the sensitivity until the system was on the verge of feedback. He adjusted the frequency shift.
Parrot fish were clattering away, eating algae from the coral. Motors from boats rumbled. The cabin was alive with the sounds of the sea.
While cruising five miles out, he heard a metallic thumping, and under it, the clicking of hundreds or thousands of turtle beaks.
He crept in slowly, staying deep. It was them, he was sure of it. Secured in three hundred foot waters were a pair of aqua scooters and a large folded net. When the turtles were released to the wild, divers could sweep the area and snag hundreds. This was likely the best turtle netting area in the world.
What do I do now?
He could move off, and call in their location on sat phone.
But could the local police do anything. Was this in their jurisdiction? And what were the chances they had a local contact with the police? Could he risk it?
Even if the police moved, the turtle-nappers likely had some kind of early warning system. They could move off, or dump the turtles well before a ship could arrive.
What are the chances Brenda is aboard?
She couldn’t be shut up. If police were coming, her fate was a bullet and a weighted chain over the side.
So, first order of business–find out if she was there.
The criminals had divers, but they weren’t in the water. If they had some kind of detection system below, he hadn’t triggered it.
He drifted higher. He cranked the hydrophone system up higher, listening for any other sounds among the turtles.
There were footsteps, even the sounds that had to be voices, but muffled and distorted by the system, he couldn’t make out any words.
What if I put a microphone directly in contact with the hull?
It would be risky.
He moved gently under the hull of the ship. He went outside and attached a fishing line between their anchor chain and the Manta. He could snap it easily if he had to make a dash for it, but it would keep the Manta from drifting away.
He found a diver’s headset gathering dust in the closet–a project he’d been working on for Sally years ago. With a hydrophone microphone, he had a system he could use manually. 
He drifted to the hull and like a doctor with a stethoscope, he listened. He moved a few feet and listened again.
Near the waterline he heard men talking, mostly English, but with a heavy island patois. They were talking food, and cards. He listened as well as he could.
It took him a moment to realize one of them had mentioned ‘da stinky girl’ and her scar. His heartbeat was so loud the hydrophone was picking it up.
In a little bit, he was sure she was on board. Now, how to find her.
With a little more guessing and a little more listening, he identified the hold where they said she was hiding and feeding the turtles.
There was a shifting noise. Someone was moving.
Brenda is right on the other side of this metal.
His heart pounded.

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