Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 4 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 4 -- Visitors
Everyone was in black. A funeral was a solemn occasion -- quiet and subdued. But who was making that noise? It seemed to go on and on. Tommy looked around to see who was whimpering. Who was disturbing them all? But Kati was frowning at him. All around, the other mourners were also staring at him. He was the one!
He jerked awake. Just a dream. Then he tensed. The whimper was real.
Cautiously, he pulled off the cover and stared into the blackness. There was a little light spilling down from the open hatch and through the windows, but not much.
There it was again -- a whimper and a scratching noise. This time he could locate it. It was close, down on the floor.
Feeling the wall, he found the light switch. Click. Yellow light flooded the tight little cabin.
Sleeping with his head on his paws, the dog shook awake.
Tommy grumbled, “What are you doing here?”
For a young dog, he was surprisingly self-assured. He just blinked at Tommy and waited.
“Shoo!” He waved. “Go on, get out of here.” Tommy had to push him on the rump. The forepeak was very tight quarters, and he couldn’t even get out of bed without moving the dog out of the way. “Move.”
His visitor slowly backed out into the central section, and tried to duck under the table. Tommy reached down and grabbed a fold of skin. The dog wore no collar. “You’re going out. Come on.” He tugged, and abruptly, the animal gave up his resistance. He went over to the stairs and began climbing the steep grade. The shallow steps were almost like a ladder, but he made it up. Tommy was up after him.
His neighbor was up, watching the action.
“Hey! Your dog snuck into my cabin.”
The man in plaid shook his head. “Not my dog.” Then as if satisfied the show was over, he went back into his own cabin.
Tommy’s watch showed two in the morning, and the reflection from the unceasing Chicago lights gave the sky a sickly yellow glow. A few of the braver stars were out, but it wasn’t at all like the brilliant display he remembered back on Kentucky Lake, those nights they spent on the water.
City people never see the real sky, do they?
He glared down at the dog, waiting patiently at his feet.
“Who are you, and what are you doing out here on the docks?” Could a stray live out among the boats? Living off begged food and sleeping where he could find shelter.
And what were you dreaming? It sounded like a nightmare.
“Go home.” The dog stayed put, just watching him.
Tommy had no desire to throw the mutt off the boat, but he didn’t want him to get any ideas either. He went back below and closed the door after him.
Scratch. Scratch. And then nothing.
At least, he’s polite about it.
Two A.M., and I’m wide awake. He checked for messages.
There was one new message.
Nick: 1:00a
What did that mean? A totally blank message -- just the caller and timestamp.
“I hate these games, Nick.” He never knew what Nick was up to. Go there. Do this. “Pop Quiz!”
He stewed for a few seconds, but that was all he could muster. Sometimes the games were fun. And Nick never called a pop quiz unless he was trying to teach him something. And the quizzes worked. Dozens of times he’d find that he knew some fact or some calculation that no one else did, all because Nick had taught it to him years earlier.
“Pop Quiz!” Nick called, just as a commercial started. They were watching a spy movie where the cipher was being decoded when the agent realized that the numbers referred to the pages, lines, and words from a battered paperback novel he’d found in the traitor’s luggage.
“What’s the best secret message?”
Tommy made some lame guess. Nick pointed out that the spy had been able to crack the code because the traitor had used the same codebook over and over. And now that the agent knew the book and the technique, he could crack every future code easily.
“That’s the danger of repetition. That’s why they invented the ‘one time pad’.” 
He explained the idea behind it -- a fresh codebook for each and every message. Of course, people using the code would have to know, in advance, which ‘code book’ to use. In fact, the more shared information the two people on each side of code had, the shorter and more secure the code could be.
“So, my question: What’s the best secret message?”
“A really short one?”
“How short?”
They laughed. “The shortest possible message has to be no message at all. If two people knew an enormous amount of shared information, then when no message arrived, couldn’t the other guy know what that meant? It would be the most secure secret message ever. No one could even know it had been sent.”
Tommy sat at the table and stared at the interior of the Marissa, not really seeing it.
“You just sent me another pop quiz, didn’t you Nick?”
Okay, what would an empty message mean, just between Tommy Dorie and Nick Dorie?
He tapped his fingers on the table. Talking it out, just as if Nick were there with him.
“You know I’m waiting anxiously for a message, so this couldn’t be just pressing the wrong key. If there’d been an error, you’d correct it. You wouldn’t send a joke message at one A.M., on a school night. So, it has to be important.
“What’s so important about an empty message?”
Don’t get stuck in a circle. “If you find you’re thinking in a circle, stop and take a step upward.”
“Okay. Forget that the message has no ‘message’. What’s so important that you would send it, now? It’s a code. A cute secret code only I would know. But we always use codes, just for shorthand. So why change from the usual?
“To emphasize that we’re using a code, a cipher?”
The boat rocked gently in the night. There were no sounds but the creaks of the docks and an occasional bump.
Tommy pulled out his phone and opened the battery compartment. He slipped the battery into his shirt pocket and the dead phone into his pants pocket.
“So. If we’re using codes for hiding messages, not just as a shorthand, then that means someone is listening in.”
Suddenly, any remaining drowsiness was gone.
The dog looked up from his sleeping place under the bench seat next to the wheel. Tommy opened the hatch and set out a small dish.
“Okay, you can stay. But would you do me a favor? If you see a stranger approaching the boat, could you bark? I’d appreciate it.”
The dog would have answered, but he had his mouth full of the little vienna sausages he’d just been offered.
The navigation station down in the cabin was a tiny little office, a narrow table and chair across from the galley, next to the steps. There was a radio, and bookshelves, and a place for rolled charts. Of course, Nick had added a second GPS unit (the first was up on deck by the wheel) and there was also a place for a satellite phone that he’d never gotten around to adding. There was a bay for radar, but they’d never gotten around to buying that either.
Tommy was leafing through the logbook when a small white envelope fell out. It was addressed: Tommy
He unsealed it. There was a single sheet.
This is no game. Follow the rules.
He folded it back up. “Yeah, Nick. I got that.” I just wish I’d found this before I tried to call you.
Cell phones could be tracked. Just being turned on was enough to track them. They didn’t have to be making calls. Cell towers exchange silent messages with every phone in their range, just so the system knows which tower to use to call each phone. The E911 system is supposed to be able to identify a phone’s location within 300 feet or so.
When I tried to call Nick and it instantly went to voicemail. That was a message, too. Nick was keeping his phone turned off. He might not have even sent those messages using his phone. It was easy enough to send a SMS text message from a web browser. The only safe thing to do was take out the battery to make sure his cell phone was absolutely turned off.
He stuffed the envelope back into the log and secured it behind the elastic cord that kept all the books on the shelves, even in rough weather.
His eyes were burning, from lack of sleep. It was all too much to comprehend. Only one thing was clear -- he wasn’t going to school tomorrow. How would he explain it all to Kati?
Dawn was chilly, with enough fog in the air to wet every exterior surface. At least his storm gear was in the closets. He put on a jacket and went topside.
The dog was curled up in a furry bundle under the bench, out of the air and the dew.
The marina was starting to come alive. Even the fisherman with the ice chest had returned. He loaded his 25-foot powerboat and was off for another day’s fishing before the sun had cleared the trees.
The sun gave a little warmth. Tommy stretched out on the bench and enjoyed the gentle rocking as passing boats began to stir the protected harbor.
“Wha!” The shake on the shoulder sent his arms flying, as if he were falling.
Above him, in the glare of the noonday sun, was the old man in the plaid shirt. He put his finger to his lips and waved for Tommy to follow.
He struggled to get his bearings. Noon? He was sweating in his jacket. He must have slept out on the bench for hours. Where was the dog?
The old man, bent low, slipped over into his own boat. Hesitantly, Tommy followed, keeping low. He was uncomfortable and grumpy. If the old guy tried anything, he’d be in for a surprise.
The inside of the old powerboat was tidy, better kept than he’d found the Marissa. It looked more like a small cramped apartment than the cabin of a boat. The man obviously lived here.
“Stay low!”
Tommy sat on a bench while the guy pulled aside the little ruffled curtain and looked out the short, wide window. From the looks of things, he’d just pulled all of them closed. It was dark inside, having just come in from the sunlight.
The dog walked in. The man looked up from the windows and asked the dog, “Are they still here?”
The dog yipped and raised his nose, scrambling up on the table and nosing aside the curtain on another window.
“What’s going on?”
“Them’s that’re looking for your father are here. Dog tried to wake you, then came to me.”
Tommy joined them at the window. There were two men in identical blue denim jackets walking the next row over, giving a close eyeball scan to every boat they passed.
“Who are they? And what do you know about my father? And who are you?”

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