Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
A RICK BRANT SCIENCE-ADVENTURE STORY
BY JOHN BLAINE
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK, N. Y.
COPYRIGHT, 1950, BY
GROSSET & DUNLAP, INC.
* * * * *
I NIGHT ASSIGNMENT 1
II CAP'N MIKE 11
III THE REDHEADED KELSOS 22
IV A WARNING 33
V THE MYSTERIOUS PHONE CALL 43
VI THE Albatross 53
VII SEARCH FOR A CLUE 63
VIII THE OLD TOWER 70
IX NIGHT WATCH 82
X CAPTURED 93
XI THE HEARING 100
XII THE MISSING FISHERMAN 107
XIII THE TRACKER 118
XIV CAPTAIN KILLIAN 125
XV PLIMSOLL MARKS 137
XVI NIGHT FLIGHT 151
XVII ENTER THE POLICE 162
XVIII BRENDAN'S MARSH 172
XIX THE FIGHT AT CREEK HOUSE 188
XX READ ALL ABOUT IT! 201
* * * * *
"Adventure," Rick Brant said, "is kind of hard to define, because what may be adventure to one person may be commonplace to another." He took a bite of cake and stretched his long legs comfortably. "Now, you take flying with Scotty. That's the most adventurous thing I do."
Mr. and Mrs. Brant and Jerry Webster looked at Don Scott, the object of Rick's jibe, and waited for his reply. Verbal warfare between the two boys was a usual feature of the evening discussions on the big front porch of the Brant home on Spindrift Island.
Scotty, a husky, dark-haired boy, grinned lazily. "You've proved your own point," he returned. "Flying with me is adventure to you but safe travel to anyone else. I'd say the most adventurous thing you do is drive a car."
Mrs. Brant, an attractive, motherly woman, poured another cup of coffee for Jerry Webster. The young reporter had started the discussion by stating wistfully that he wished he could share in some of the Brant adventures. "Why do you call Rick's driving adventurous?" she asked.
"The dictionary says so," Scotty replied. "One definition of adventure is 'a remarkable experience.'"
Hartson Brant, Rick's scientist father, grinned companionably at his son. "I agree with Scotty. Not only is Rick's driving a remarkable experience, but it fits the rest of the definition: 'The encountering of risks; hazardous enterprise.'"
Jerry Webster rose to Rick's defense. "Oh, I don't know. Rick always gets there."
"Sure he does," Scotty agreed. "Of course his passengers always have nervous breakdowns, but he gets there."
Rick just grinned. He felt wonderful tonight. When you came right down to it, there was nothing that matched being at home with the family in the big house on Spindrift Island. The famous island off the New Jersey coast was home for the scientific foundation that his father headed, and for the scientist members. It was home for Scotty, too, and had been since the day he had rescued Rick from danger, as told in The Rocket's Shadow. As junior members of the foundation, Rick and Scotty had been included in a number of experiments and expeditions. Rick wouldn't have missed a one of them, and if opportunity offered he would go again with just as much eagerness. But it was nice to return to familiar surroundings between trips. More than once, during lonely nights in far places, his thoughts had turned to evenings just like this one with the family and perhaps a close friend like Jerry gathered on the porch after dinner.
Rick, Scotty, and Barbara Brant had only recently returned from the South Pacific where they had vacationed aboard the trawler Tarpon and had solved the mystery of The Phantom Shark. Barby had gone off to summer boarding school in Connecticut a few days later. Chahda, the Hindu boy who had been with the Brants since the Tibetan radar relay expedition described in The Lost City, had said good-bye to the group at New Caledonia and had returned to India. The scientists, Zircon, Weiss, and Gordon, were away doing research.
Suddenly Rick chuckled. "Speaking of adventure, I'll bet the biggest adventure Barby had on our whole trip to the Pacific was eating rosette saute at the governor's in Noumea."
"What's that?" Jerry asked.
"Bat," Scotty replied. "A very large kind of fruit bat. Barby thought it was wonderful until she found out what it was."
"I should think so!" Mrs. Brant exclaimed.
"It tasted good," Rick said. "Something like chicken livers." He grinned. "Anyway, I sympathized with Barby. I felt kind of funny myself when I found out what it was."
Hartson Brant, an older edition of his athletic son, looked at the boy reflectively. He knocked ashes from his pipe. "Seems to me you've been pretty quiet since you got back, Rick. Lost your taste for excitement? Or are you working on something?"
"Working," Rick said. "We scientists must never rest. We must labor always to push back the frontiers of ignorance." He put a hand on his heart and bowed with proper dramatic modesty. "I am working on an invention that will startle the civilized world."
"We will now bow our heads in reverent silence while the master tells all," Scotty intoned.
"I know," Jerry guessed. "You're working on a radar-controlled lawn mower so you can cut the grass while you sit on the porch."
"That's too trivial for a junior genius like Rick," Scotty objected. "He's probably working on a self-energizing hot dog that lathers itself with mustard, climbs into a bun, and then holds a napkin under your chin while you eat it."
"Not a bad idea," Rick said soberly. "But that isn't it."
"Of course not," Hartson Brant put in. "You see, I happen to know what it is, due to a little invention of my own—an electronic mind reader."
Scotty gulped. "You didn't tell Mom what happened to those two pieces of butterscotch pie, did you? I wanted her to blame it on Rick."
Rick asked unbelievingly, "An electronic mind reader? All right, Dad, what am I working on?"
"A device to penetrate the darkness."
Rick stared. His father had scored a hit. He demanded, "How did you know?"
"My new invention," Hartson Brant said seriously. "Oh, and one other clue. Yesterday morning the mail brought me a bill for a thousand feet of 16-millimeter infrared motion-picture film."
So that was it. Rick grinned. "I hope your new invention told you I asked the film company to send the bill to me and not to you."
"It did. The bill actually was addressed to the Spindrift Foundation, attention Mr. Brant. Since I didn't know which Mr. Brant was meant, I opened it. Don't worry, Rick. I'll let you pay it."
"Thanks, Dad," Rick said. "But don't make any sacrifices. You can pay it if you want to."
"Don't want to," Hartson Brant replied. "I haven't the slightest use for motion-picture film."
"Because Rick has the only motion-picture camera on the island," Scotty finished. He frowned at his friend. "Keeping secrets, huh?"
"I'm not sure it will work," Rick explained. He hated to brag about an idea and then have it turn out to be a dud. Consequently, he seldom mentioned that he was working on anything until he knew it would be successful.
"What does the film have to do with penetrating the darkness?" Jerry Webster inquired.
Rick caught the look of interest on his father's face. "Ask Dad," he said. "The electronic mind reader probably has told him all about it."
"Of course." The scientist chuckled. "Rick is planning to take movies at night without lights."
Jerry looked skeptical. "How?"
Rick stood up. "Long as we've started talking about it, I may as well show you."
The others rose, too. As they did so, a shaggy little dog crawled from under Rick's chair where he had been napping.
"Dismal and I will put the cake away," Mrs. Brant said.
At the sound of his name the pup rolled over on his back and played dead, his only trick. Rick bent and scratched his ribs in the way the pup liked best. "Go with Mom," he commanded. "Come on, the rest of you. Maybe I can get some free advice from the director of the Spindrift Foundation."
Hartson Brant smiled. "If you're looking for a technical consultant, Rick, my price is very reasonable."
"It would have to be," Rick admitted ruefully. "I've spent my entire fortune on this thing."
"The whole dollar," Scotty added.
The boys' rooms were on the second floor in the north wing of the big house. But where Scotty's was usually neat as a barracks squad room, the result of his service in the Marines, Rick's was usually a clutter of apparatus. Living on Spindrift Island with the example of his father and the other scientists to follow, it was natural that he should be interested in science. He was more fortunate than most boys with such an interest, because he was permitted to use the laboratory apparatus freely and his part-time work as a junior technician gave him spending money with which to buy equipment. Another source of revenue was his little two-seater plane. He was the island's fast ferry service to the mainland.
His room was neater than usual at the moment because he had not bothered to connect most of his apparatus after returning from the South Pacific. The induction heater that he used for midnight snacks was in a closet. His automatic window opener was not in use, nor was his amateur radio transmitter.
He opened a workbench built into one wall and brought out a motion-picture camera. It was a popular make with a type of lens mount that permitted fast switching of lenses. It used one-hundred-foot rolls of 16-millimeter film. He put the camera on the table, then from a cupboard he brought out what appeared to be a searchlight mounted on top of a small telescope.
"That's a sniperscope!" Scotty exclaimed.
"No reason why it shouldn't work very well, Rick," Hartson Brant said.
Jerry Webster sighed. "Excuse my ignorance. What's a sniperscope?"
"They were used during the last war," Scotty explained. He picked up the unit and pointed to the light, which was about the size and shape of a bicycle head lamp. "This searchlight throws a beam of black light. Rick would call it infrared. Anyway, it's invisible. The telescope is actually a special telescopic rifle sight which will pick up infrared. You can use the thing in total darkness. Mount it on a rifle and then go looking for the enemy. Since he can't see the infrared, he thinks he's safe. But you can see him through the 'scope just as though he had a beam of white light on him."
"I see," Jerry said. "Where are the batteries?"
Rick brought out a canvas-covered case that looked like a knapsack. It had a crank on one side and a pair of electrical connections. "It's not a battery," he explained. "It's a small, spring-driven dynamo."
Jerry nodded. "I get it now. You rig this thing on the camera, which is loaded with infrared film. The film registers whatever the infrared searchlight illuminates. Right?"
"That's the idea," Hartson Brant agreed. "But it isn't as simple as that, is it, Rick?"
"Far from it. I have to determine the effective range, then I have to run a couple of tests to find out what exposure I have to use, and then I have to find the field of vision of the telescope as compared with the field of the lens. A lot depends on the speed of the film emulsion. That will limit the range. The searchlight is effective at eight hundred yards, but I'll be lucky if I can get a picture at a quarter of that."
"Where did you get the sniperscope?" Scotty wanted to know.
"By mail. I read an ad in a magazine that advertised a lot of surplus war equipment, including this."
"You might have said something about it," Scotty reproached.
Rick grinned. "You were too busy working on the motorboats. I knew you couldn't have two things on your mind at once."
Since the boys returned from vacation, Scotty had been overhauling the engines on the two motorboats which were used, along with Rick's plane, for communication with Whiteside, the nearest town on the mainland.
"I have a book downstairs that you'll find useful, Rick," Hartson Brant said. "It gives the comparative data on lenses. It may save you some figuring."
"Thanks, Dad," Rick replied. "I may have to ask your help in working out the mathematics, too. Anyway...." He stopped as the phone rang.
In a moment Mrs. Brant called. "Jerry, it's your paper."
"Something must have popped!" Jerry ran for the door.
Rick hurried after him, Scotty and the scientist following. The Whiteside Morning Record, for which Jerry worked, must have had something important come up to phone Jerry on his night off.
In the library, Jerry picked up the phone. "Webster. Oh, hello, Duke. Where? Well, why can't one of the other guys cover it? Okay, I'll be on my way in a minute. How about a photographer? Hold the phone. I'll ask him." He turned to Rick. "Duke wants to know if you can take your camera and cover a story with me. A trawler went ashore down at Seaford."
Rick nodded quick assent. The little daily paper had only one photographer, who evidently wasn't available. It wouldn't be the first time he had taken pictures for Duke Barrows, the paper's editor.
"He'll do it. We're on our way." Jerry hung up. "Have to work fast," he said. "We start printing the paper at midnight."
"It's nine now," Scotty said.
Rick ran upstairs and opened the case containing his speed graphic, checking to be sure he had film packs and bulbs, then he snapped the case shut and hurried downstairs with it. Jerry and Scotty were waiting at the door.
"Don't stay out too late," Mrs. Brant admonished.
Dismal whined to be taken along.
"Sorry, boy." Rick patted the pup. "We'll be home early, Mom. Want to come along, Dad?"
"Not tonight, thanks," the scientist replied. "I'll take advantage of the quiet to catch up on my reading."
In a moment the three boys were hurrying toward the hook-shaped cove in which the motorboats were tied up. Although Spindrift Island was connected to the mainland at low tide by a rocky tidal flat, there was no way for a car to cross. The cove was reached by a flight of stairs leading down from the north side of the island. Elsewhere, the island dropped away in cliffs of varying heights and steepness to the Atlantic.
They ran down the stairs and got into the fastest of the two boats, a slim speedboat built for eight passengers. Rick handed Scotty his camera case and slid in behind the wheel. While Jerry cast off, he started the engine and warmed it for a moment. Then as Jerry pushed the craft away from the pier, he backed out expertly, spun the boat around, and roared off in the direction of the Whiteside landing.
"Let's have the story," Scotty shouted above the engine's roar.
"A fishing trawler from Seaford ran aground," Jerry shouted in reply. "Duke figures it's an unusual story because those skippers have been going out of Seaford for a hundred years without an accident. There's no reason why one of them should run onto well-charted ground in clear weather."
Scotty squinted at the sky. "It's not exactly clear weather. There's a moon just coming up, but it's kind of hazy out."
"Yes, but you couldn't call it bad weather, either," Jerry pointed out. "Not from a seaman's viewpoint, anyway."
"Where did this trawler run aground?" Rick asked.
"Arm of land that extends out into the sea above Seaford," Jerry replied. "It's called Smugglers' Reef."
Jerry's car was an old sedan that had seen better days, but it could still cover ground at a good speed. The macadam highway unrolled before the bright head lamps at a steady rate while the beams illumined alternate patches of woods and small settlements.
There were no major towns between Whiteside and Seaford, but there were a number of summer beach colonies, most of them in an area about halfway between the two towns. The highway was little used. Most tourists and all through traffic preferred the main trunk highway leading southward from Newark. They saw only two other cars during the short drive.
Many months had passed since Rick's last visit to Seaford. He had gone there on a Sunday afternoon to try his hand at surf casting off Million Dollar Row, a stretch of beach noted for its huge, abandoned hotels. It was a good place to cast for striped bass during the right season.
"Smugglers' Reef," he said aloud. "Funny that a Seaford trawler should go ashore there. It's the best-known reef on the coast."
"Maybe the skipper was a greenhorn," Scotty remarked.
"Not likely," Jerry said. "In Seaford the custom is to pass fishing ships down from father to son. There hasn't been a new fishing family there for the past half century."
"You seem to know a lot about the place," Rick remarked.
"I go down pretty often. Fish makes news in this part of the country."
Scotty pointed to a sign as they sped over a wooden bridge. "Salt Creek."
Rick remembered. Salt Creek emptied into the sea on the north side of Smugglers' Reef. It was called Salt Creek because the tide backed up into it beyond the bridge they had just crossed. He had caught crabs just above the bridge. But between the road and the sea there was over a quarter mile of tidal swamp, filled with rushes and salt-marsh grasses through which the creek ran. At the edge of the swamp where Salt Creek met Smugglers' Reef stood the old Creek House, once a leading hotel, now an abandoned relic.
A short distance farther on, a road turned off to the left. A weathered sign pointed toward Seaford. In a few moments the first houses came into view. They were small, and well kept for the most part. Then the sedan rolled into the town itself, down the single business street which led to the fish piers.
A crowd waited in front of the red-brick town hall. Jerry swung into the curb. "Let's see what's going on."
Rick got his camera from the case, inserted a film pack, and stuffed a few flash bulbs into his pocket. Then he hurried up the steps of City Hall after Jerry and Scotty. Men, a number of them with the weathered faces of professional fishermen, were talking in low tones. A few looked at the boys with curiosity.
An old man with white hair and a strong, lined face was seated by the door, whittling on an elm twig. Jerry spoke to him.
"Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me what's going on?"
Keen eyes took in the three boys. "I can. Any reason why I should?" The old man's voice held the twang peculiar to that part of the New Jersey coast.
"I'm a reporter," Jerry said. "Whiteside Morning Record."
The old man spat into the shrubbery. "Going to put in your paper that Tom Tyler ran aground on Smugglers' Reef, hey? Well, you can put it in, boy, because it's true. But don't make the mistake of calling Tom Tyler a fool, a drunkard, or a poor seaman, because he ain't any of those things."
"How did it happen?" Jerry asked.
"Reckon you better ask Tom Tyler."
"I will," Jerry said. "Where will I find him?"
"Inside. Surrounded by fools."
Jerry pushed through the door, Rick and Scotty following. Rick's quick glance took in the people waiting in the corridor, then shifted to a young woman and a little girl. The woman's face was strained and white, and she stared straight ahead with unseeing eyes. The little girl, a tiny blonde perhaps four years old, held tightly to her mother's hand.
Rick had a hunch. He stopped as Jerry and Scotty hurried down the corridor to where voices were loud through an open door. "Mrs. Tyler?" he asked.
The woman's head lifted sharply. Her eyes went dark with fear. "I can't tell you anything," she said in a rush. "I don't know anything." She dropped her head again and her hand tightened convulsively on the little girl's.
"Sorry," Rick said gently. He moved along the corridor, very thoughtful, and saw that Jerry and Scotty were turning into the room from which voices came. Mrs. Tyler might have been angry, upset, tearful, despondent, or defiant over the loss of her husband's trawler. Instead, she had been afraid in a situation that did not appear to call for fear.
He turned into the room. There were about a dozen men in it. Two were Coast Guardsmen, one a lieutenant and the other a chief petty officer. Two others were state highway patrolmen. Another, in a blue uniform, was evidently the local policeman. The rest were in civilian clothes. All of them were watching a lean, youthful man who sat ramrod straight in a chair.
A stocky man in a brown suit said impatiently, "There's more to it than that, Tom. Man, you've spent thirty years off Smugglers'. You'd no more crack up on it than I'd fall over my own front porch."
"I told you how it was," the fisherman said tonelessly.
Rick searched his face and liked it. Tom Tyler was perhaps forty, but he looked ten years younger. His face was burned from wind and sun, but it was not yet heavily lined. His eyes, gray in color, were clear and direct as he faced his questioners. He was a tall man; that was apparent even when he was seated. He had a lean, trim look that reminded Rick of a clean, seaworthy schooner.
The boy lifted his camera and took a picture. The group turned briefly as the flash bulb went off. They glared, then turned back to the fisherman again.
The town policeman spoke. "You know what this means, Tom? You not only lost your ship, but you're apt to lose your license, too. And you'll be lucky if the insurance company doesn't charge you with barratry."
"I've told you how it was," Captain Tyler repeated.
The man in the brown suit exploded. "Stop being a dadblasted fool, Tom! You expect us to swallow a yarn like that? We know you don't drink. How can you expect us to believe you ran the Sea Belle ashore while drunk?"
"I got no more to say," Tyler replied woodenly.
Jerry turned to Rick and Scotty and motioned toward the door. Rick led the way back into the corridor. "Getting anything out of this?" he asked.
"A little," Jerry said. "Let's go out and talk to that old man."
"Lead on," Scotty said. "I've always wanted to see a real news hound in action."
Rick dropped the used flash bulb into a convenient ash tray, replaced it with a new one, and reset the camera. At least he had one good picture. Tom Tyler, framed by his questioners, had looked somehow like a thoroughbred animal at bay.
Outside the door, the old man was still whittling. "Get a real scoop, sonny?" he asked Jerry.
"Sure did," Jerry returned. He leaned against the doorjamb. "I didn't get your name."
"Didn't give it."
"Sure. I ain't ashamed. I'm Captain Michael Aloysius Kevin O'Shannon. Call me Cap'n Mike."
"All right, Cap'n Mike. Is it true Captain Tyler stands to lose his master's license and may be even charged with deliberately wrecking the ship?"
"He says he was drunk."
"How do you know?"
"I know Tom Tyler."
"Then how did it happen?"
Cap'n Mike rose and clicked his jackknife shut. He tossed away the elm twig. "You got a car?"
"Let's take a ride. You'll want to see the wreck, and I do, too. We can talk on the way."
The boys accepted with alacrity. Rick and Scotty sat in the back seat; the captain rode up front with Jerry. At the old man's direction, Jerry drove to the water front and then turned left.
"I'll start at the beginning," Cap'n Mike said. "I've had experience with reporters in my day. Best to tell 'em everything, otherwise they start leaping at conclusions and get everything backwards. Can't credit a reporter with too many brains."
"You're right there," Jerry said amiably.
Rick grinned. He had seen Jerry in operation before. The young reporter didn't mind any kind of insult if there were a story in the offing. Rick guessed the newspaper trade wasn't a place for thin skins.
"Well, here're the facts," the captain continued. "Tom Tyler, master and owner of the Sea Belle, was coming back from a day's run. He'd had a good day. The trawler was practically awash with a load of menhaden. In case you don't know, menhaden are fish. Not eating fish, but commercial. They get oil and chicken and cattle feed from 'em, and the trawlers out of this port collect 'em by the millions of tons every year."
"We know," Jerry said.
"Uhuh. As I said, the trawler was full up with menhaden. Tom was at the wheel himself. The rest of the crew, five of them, was making snug. There was a little weather making up, but not much, and not enough to interfere with Tom seeing the light at the tip of Smugglers' Reef. He saw it clear. Admits it. Now! All you need do is give the light a few fathoms clearance to starboard. But Tom Tyler didn't. And what happened?"
"He ran smack onto the reef," Scotty put in.
"He surely did. The crew, all of 'em being aft, didn't see a thing. First they knew they were flying through the air like a bunch of hooked mackerel and banging into the net gear. One broken arm and a lot of cuts and bruises among 'em. The trawler tore her bottom out and rested high and dry, scattering fish like a fertilizer spreader. Tom Tyler said he took one drink and it went to his head."
The old man snorted. "Bilge! Sheer bilge! He said hitting the reef sobered him up."
"Maybe it did," Jerry ventured.
"Hogwash. There wasn't a mite of drink on his breath. And what did he drink? There ain't nothing could make an old hand like Tom forget where a light was supposed to be. No, the whole thing is fishy as a bin of herring."
The boys were silent for a moment after the recital, then Rick blurted out the question in his mind. "What's his wife afraid of?"
The captain stiffened. "Who says she's afraid?"
"I do," Rick returned positively. "I saw her."
"You did? Well, I reckon you saw right."
"Maybe she's afraid of Tyler's losing his way of making a living," Scotty guessed.
Rick shook his head. "It wasn't that kind of fear."
The sedan had left the town proper and was rolling along the sea front on a wide highway. This was Million Dollar Row. In a moment Rick saw the first of the huge hotels that had given the road its name. It was called Sandy Shores. Once it had been landscaped, and probably beautiful. Now, he saw in the dim moonlight, the windows were shuttered and the grounds had gone back to bunch grass. The paint had peeled in the salt air and there was an air of decay and loneliness around the dark old place.
Extending up the drive were the Sea Girt, the Atlantic View, Shore Mansions, and finally, the Creek House. All were in similar condition. These hotels had been built in the booming twenties when the traditional sleepiness of Seaford had been disturbed by a rush of tourists. Then had come the business depression of the thirties and the tourists had stopped coming. They had never started again. The hotels, too expensive to operate and useless as anything but hotels, had been left to rot. Briefly, during World War II, they had served as barracks for a Coast Guard shore patrol base, but that activity was long past now, and they had been left to decay once more.
There were a number of cars on the road, going both ways. Captain Mike remarked on the fact. "They're curious about the wreck. Usually not a car moves on this road."
As they approached Smugglers' Reef, the cars got thicker. Then Rick saw lights in the massive Creek House. It was one of the biggest of the hotels, and it had been the most exclusive. It had its own dock on Salt Creek, and it was protected from prying eyes by a high board fence. Two rooms on the second floor were lit up.
"It's occupied," Cap'n Mike affirmed. "Family name of Kelso is renting it. Claim they need the salt air and water for their boy. He's ailing."
"Must be a big family," Scotty said.
"Oh, they don't use all of it. Just a couple of bedrooms and the kitchen. No one knows much about 'em and they don't seem to work at anything. City folks. Keep to themselves."
Rick guessed from the note of irritation in Cap'n Mike's voice that he resented the Kelsos' evident desire for privacy. Probably he had tried to satisfy his curiosity about them and had been rebuffed.
Jerry pulled up in front of the hotel and stopped the car. The boys piled out, anxious for a glimpse of the trawler. Rick crossed the road and looked out to sea.
Smugglers' Reef was a gradually narrowing arm of land that extended over a quarter mile out into the sea. In front of the hotel it was perhaps two hundred yards wide. Then it narrowed gradually until it was little more than a wall of piled boulders. On its north side, Salt Creek emptied into the sea. Beyond the creek was the marsh with its high grasses.
At the far tip of the reef, a light blinked intermittently. That was the light Tyler had failed to keep on his starboard beam. A few hundred feet this side of it was a moving cluster of flashlights. It was too dark to make out details, but Rick guessed the lights were at the wrecked trawler.
"Got your camera?" Jerry asked.
Rick held it up.
"Then let's go. Time is getting short and I have to get the story back."
With Cap'n Mike leading the way, surprisingly light on his feet for his age, the boys made their way out along the reef. A short distance before they reached the wreck they passed a rusted steel framework.
"Used to be a light tower," Cap'n Mike explained briefly. "They put up the new light on the point a few years back and put in an automatic system. This light had to be tended."
At the wreck they found almost two dozen people. Flashlights picked out the trawler. It had driven with force right up on the reef, ripping out the bottom and dumping thousands of dead menhaden into the water. They lay in clusters around the wreck, floating on the water in silvery shoals. The air was heavy with the reek of fish and spilled Diesel fuel.
There was little conversation among those who had come to visit the wreck. When they did talk, it was in low tones. Rick thought that was strange, because anything like this was usually a field day for self-appointed experts who discussed it in loud tones and offered opinions to all who would listen. Then, as he lifted his camera for a picture, he saw the men look up, startled at the flash. He saw them turn their backs quickly so their faces would not be seen if he were to take another picture.
He sensed tension in the air, and his lively curiosity quickened. This was no ordinary wreck. Something about it had brought fear. Or was it that the fear had brought the wreck?
"Let's go," Jerry said. "Got a deadline to make."
* * * * *
Rick lay awake and stared through the window at the darkness. Jerry had the pictures and story and there seemed to be nothing else to do except to cover the hearing that would follow. The results were a foregone conclusion. Trawler skipper admits he ran ship aground while drunk. Case closed.
Again Rick saw the fear written on Mrs. Tyler's face. Again he sensed the tension among the men who gathered at the wreck. And he believed Cap'n Mike had left some things unsaid in spite of his apparent frankness.
"Scotty?" he whispered.
Scotty's voice came low through the connecting door. "I'm asleep."
"Same here. Let's go fishing tomorrow."
"Okay. I know where the blackfish will be running."
"Do you? Where?"
Rick grinned sleepily as Scotty's whisper came back.
"Off Smugglers' Reef."
The Redheaded Kelsos
The Spindrift motor launch rolled gently in the offshore swell as the New Jersey coast slid by off the starboard beam. Behind the wheel, Rick steered easily, following the shore line. In the aft cockpit, Scotty prepared hand lines for the fishing they planned to do to keep up appearances.
Their decision to revisit Smugglers' Reef had been made on the spur of the moment. The case of the wrecked trawler was none of their business, and Rick had learned in the past that it was a good idea to keep his nose out of things that didn't concern him. But he could no more resist a mystery than he could resist a piece of Mrs. Brant's best chocolate cake. He watched the shore line as the launch sped along and tried to assure himself that a little look around wasn't really sticking his nose into the case. After all, it wouldn't hurt to satisfy his curiosity, would it?
Scotty came forward and joined him. "All set. We ought to find some fish right off the tip of the reef. If you intend to do any fishing, that is."
"Of course we'll fish," Rick said. "What else did we come here for?"
"Nothing," Scotty agreed. "This is a fishing expedition in the truest sense of the word."
Rick looked at his pal suspiciously. "What was behind that remark?"
Scotty chuckled. "Are you fooling yourself? Or are you trying to fool me?"
Rick had to laugh, too. "Okay. Let's admit it. We're so used to excitement that we have to go fishing for it if none comes our way. But seriously, Scotty, this is none of our business. The local officials can handle it without any help from us. So let's not get too involved."
Scotty leaned back against the seat and grinned lazily. "Think you can take your own advice?"
"I think so," Rick said, with his fingers crossed.
Scotty pointed to a low line ahead. "There's the reef. See the light on the tip?"
"Couldn't very well miss it," Rick said. The light was painted with red and white stripes and it stood out sharply against the sky. He gave Scotty a side glance. "What did you make out of all that talk last night? Think Captain Tyler ran on the reef purposely?"
Scotty shook his head. "He didn't strike me as a thief, and that's what he'd have to be to wreck his trawler on purpose."
"I liked his looks, too. Then Cap'n Mike said he didn't drink, so his statement that he was under the influence of liquor wouldn't hold water, either. What's the answer?"
"If we knew, would we be here?" Scotty waved at the shore. "How far does this stuff extend?"
The water ended in an almost solid wall of rushes and salt-marsh growth that would be far above even a tall man's head if he stood at sea level. Now and then a small inlet appeared where the water flowed too rapidly for plant life to grow.
"There's about a mile of the stuff," Rick said. "It stops at the reef. I'm not sure how wide it is, but I'd guess it averages a quarter of a mile. It's called Brendan's Marsh, after an old man who got lost in it once. It was over a week before he was found."
They were approaching the reef at a good clip.
"What do we do first?" Scotty asked.
Rick shrugged. He had no plan of action. "Guess we just sort of wander around and wait for a bright idea to hit us."
"Lot of other people with the same idea, I guess." Scotty nodded toward the reef.
Rick saw a number of figures moving around the wreck of the trawler. "Wonder who they are?"
"Probably a lot of folks who are just curious—like two in this boat. And I wouldn't be surprised if the law was doing a little looking around by daylight, too."
"We'll soon see." Rick turned the launch inshore as they approached the reef. "Let's tie up at the Creek House dock. Then we can walk down the reef and join the rest."
Rick rounded the corner of the salt marsh and steered the launch into the creek, reducing speed as he did so. On their right, the marsh stretched inland along the sluggish creek bank. On their left, the high old bulk of the Creek House rose from a yard that was strewn with rubble and years' accumulation of weeds and litter. A hundred yards up the creek was the gray, rickety piling of the hotel dock.
"That's it," Rick said.
Scotty went up to the bow and took the bow line, ready to drop it over a piling.
Rick started a wide turn that would bring him into the dock, then cut the engine. The launch slowed as it lost momentum and drifted into place perfectly.
"Hey! Get out of there!"
Both boys looked up.
Coming from the hotel's side door on a dead run was a stocky youth of about their own age. He was between Rick and Scotty in height, and he had hair the color of a ripe carrot. Swinging from one hand was a rifle.
"Is that hair real or has he got a wig on?" Scotty asked.
"It's real," Rick returned. His forehead creased. The dock had never been considered private property—at least not since the hotel was abandoned. He waited to see what the redhead wanted.
The boy ran down the loose wooden surface toward them, his face red and angry. "Get that boat out of here!"
Rick looked into a pair of furious eyes the color of seaweed, set above a wide nose and thin mouth.
"Why?" he asked.
"This is private property. Cast off."
"Where's your sign?" Scotty asked.
The boy grinned unpleasantly. "Don't need a sign." He patted the stock of his rifle. "Got this."
"Plan to use it?" Scotty asked calmly.
"If I have to. Now cast off those lines and get out."
Rick's temper began to fray a little. "You're using the wrong tone of voice," he said gently. "You should say 'I'm terribly sorry, fellows, but this is private property. Do you mind tying up somewhere else?' Ask us nicely like that and we'll do it."
The redhead half lifted the rifle. "Wise guy, huh? I warned you. Now cast off those lines and get out." He dropped his hand to the lever of the rifle as though to pump a cartridge into place.
Scotty tensed. He said softly, "Get gay with that rifle and I'll climb up there and feed it to you breech first."
Rick saw the color rise to the boy's face and the muscles in his throat tighten. "Easy, Scotty," he said warningly. He knew, as Scotty did, that no normal person would wave a rifle at anyone for mere daytime accidental trespassing, but he had a hunch the young carrot-top would not react normally.
The three of them looked to the hotel as the hail came. A big man with red hair several shades darker than the boy's was waving from the side door of the Creek House. He walked toward them rapidly.
"Okay, Pop," Carrottop called. "I told 'em to get out."
As the man approached, Rick saw that there was a strong resemblance between the man and the boy. Evidently they were father and son. The man had the same thin lips, the same seaweed-green eyes. His face was almost square. It was a tough face, Rick thought.
The newcomer looked at his son and jerked his thumb toward the hotel. "Okay, Jimmy, get into the house."
The boy turned and walked off without a word.
The man surveyed Rick and Scotty briefly. "Don't mind Jimmy. He was probably rude, and I'm sorry for it. But this is private property and I can't allow you to tie up here." He motioned to the high board fence along the front of the hotel. The fence ran down to the edge of the creek. "Anywhere this side of the fence is private."
Rick nodded. "It didn't use to be. That's why we tied up here. I'm sorry, Mr...."
"Kelso. I rented the place a few weeks ago. Haven't had time to get signs up yet."
"We'll shove off right away, Mr. Kelso. Sorry we intruded."
Rick started the engine, threw the launch into reverse, and backed out.
Scotty sat down beside him. "How about that?"
"Funny," Rick said. "Didn't Cap'n Mike say a family named Kelso had taken the hotel because their little boy was sick and needed fresh air?"
"That's what he said," Scotty affirmed. "Do you suppose that was the sick little boy?"
"If he's sick," Rick said grimly, "it's trigger fever. I think he'd like to take a shot at someone."
"It would sure be an effective way of discouraging trespassers. Why do you suppose they crave privacy so much?"
"Beats me," Rick said. "We'll have to ask Cap'n Mike."
The launch passed the edge of the Creek House fence and came to a strip of sandy beach. The road ended a few feet from the beach. A number of cars were parked in the area, and along Smugglers' Reef were the occupants, most of them standing around the wreck.
"I'll run the launch in as far as I can," Risk directed, "then you jump ashore with the anchor."
"Okay." Scotty went forward and took the small anchor from its lashings, making sure he had plenty of line. As Rick pushed the bow of the launch into shallow water until it grated on the sand, Scotty jumped across the six feet of open water to the beach.
Rick took the keys from the ignition and joined him. Together they pulled the launch in a foot or two more, then dug the anchor into the sand. It would hold until the tide changed.
"Let's go look at the wreck," Scotty said.
Rick nodded. "Afterward, I think we'd better go look up Cap'n Mike. I have some questions I want to ask him."
"Something he said last night. And about the Kelsos."
They reached the old light tower and paused to examine it. Salt air had etched the steel of the frame badly. The tower was almost forty feet high, about twice as tall as the present light. At its top had been a wooden platform where the lightkeeper had once stood to care for the light. A rusty metal ladder led up one side of the tower to where the platform had been.
Rick wondered why the authorities had abandoned the tower in favor of the smaller light at the very tip of the reef and decided it probably was because having the warning signal at the very point was more practical. That way, a ship needed only to clear the light without worrying about how far away from the light it had to pass.
"Let's go," Scotty said. "Nothing interesting about this relic."
They joined the group of men at the wreck of the Sea Belle and saw that the wreck was being inspected, probably by the insurance people. A question to one of the watchers affirmed the guess. Rick asked, "What do they expect to find?"
Scotty nudged Rick. "We won't have to look far for Cap'n Mike. There he is."
The old man was seated on a rock, whittling at a twig. Seemingly, he paid no attention to anything going on. Now and then he looked out to sea, but mostly he paid attention to his whittling.
Rick walked over, Scotty behind him. "Good morning, Cap'n Mike."
"Sure do. Where's the reporter?"
"He's not with us. We came down to do a little fishing."
Bright eyes twinkled at them. "Fishing, eh? What kind?"
"We thought we might get some blackfish at the end of the reef," Scotty replied.
"You might at that," Cap'n Mike said. "You might gets crabs off the end of the Creek House pier, too, if Red Kelso would let you try. Did you ask him?"
Rick grinned. Cap'n Mike might not seem to be paying attention, but evidently he didn't miss much.
"We didn't ask him," he said. "Maybe we didn't even see him." He knew Cap'n Mike could have seen the boat vanish upcreek and return, but he wouldn't have been able to see past the fence.
"Maybe you didn't," the old captain conceded. "But you sure saw somebody, and it had to be Kelso or that boy of his."
"Why do they want so much privacy?" Scotty demanded.
Cap'n Mike ignored the question. "You really got any fishing gear in that launch?"
"Hand lines," Rick said.
"That's good as anything. Now, I always say a man can't think proper in a mob like this. Too distracting. So let's go fishing and do some thinking. What say?"
Rick's glance met Scotty's. Cap'n Mike had his own way of doing things. They had nothing to lose by humoring him.
"Let's go," Scotty said.
As they passed the wreck, Rick stopped for a moment to look at it again. The air was even heavier than the night before with the reek of dead fish. They were scattered along the reef in shoals ten feet wide. By daylight he could see that the trawler was finished. She had broken her back and torn out a good part of her bottom. She must have been really making knots to hit like that.
"Cap'n, exactly what was the weather like when Tom Tyler hit?" Rick asked.
"Not bad. Visibility might have been less than real perfect, but it wouldn't have interfered with him seeing the light."
"Would it have interfered with him seeing the reef if the light had been out?"
"I reckon it would. Until he was right on it, anyway."
Rick turned the information over in his mind. "Were any other trawlers out last night?"
"Plenty. The Sea Belle was first in, but the rest were right behind. The light was burning, all right. I thought of that, too, son."
"My name is Rick Brant. This is Don Scott. We call him Scotty."
"Knew you both," Cap'n Mike said. "I subscribe to the paper your friend writes for. Seen your pictures couple of times. Didn't you just get back from somewhere?"
"The South Pacific," Scotty said.
"Used to sail those waters. Reckon things have changed some."
"The war changed the islands," Scotty told him. "Especially...." he stopped suddenly and took Rick's arm. "Look."
The elder Kelso was standing in front of the launch.
"What do you suppose he's after?" Rick asked.
Before Scotty or Cap'n Mike could think up an answer, Kelso turned and walked back along the beach. There was a foot or two of space between the water of the creek and the hotel fence. The redheaded man slipped through it and vanished from sight.
"I'll bet he came out just to look the boat over," Scotty guessed, "and there's only one reason I can think of why he'd do that. He wanted to see if he could find out more about us."
"Unless he admired the launch and wanted a closer look at it," Rick added.
Cap'n Mike snorted. "Red Kelso's got no eye for beauty, in boats, anyway."
"Then my guess must have been right," Scotty said.
"Right or wrong," Cap'n Mike retorted, "I can't say's I like it. I wish you boys had talked to me before you decided to invade Salt Creek!"
Cap'n Mike tested his line, then gave a sharp tug. He hauled rapidly and lifted a three-pound blackfish into the boat.
"Practically a minnow," he said.
"Did we come out here to fish or to talk?" Rick asked. They were anchored a few hundred yards off the reef tip and had been for almost an hour. In that time Cap'n Mike had made a good haul of four blacks, one flounder and a porgy. Rick and Scotty had caught two blacks apiece.
There was a definite twinkle in Cap'n Mike's eyes. "Came to talk," he said. "But the fish are biting too good. Better fish while the fishing's good. Time enough to talk later."
"Time enough for fishing later, you mean," Rick retorted. "Hauling in blackfish isn't going to find out why the Sea Belle was wrecked."
"Got the answer to that already," Cap'n Mike said.
Rick and Scotty stared. "You have?" Rick asked incredulously.
"Stands to reason. Didn't you tell me you knew Mrs. Tyler was scared?"
"Yes, but what...."
"Well, Tom is scared, too. He wasn't, until the Sea Belle was wrecked, but he sure is now. That's why he's sticking to that story of his instead of telling the truth."
"What is the truth?" Scotty demanded.
"Don't know that. Yet. Reckon I'll find out, though. Only I'll need some help."
Keen eyes surveyed the two boys.
Rick worked his hand line absently. "You mean you want us to help?"
"Seems I've read about you boys solving a mystery or two, haven't I?"
"We've had a couple of lucky breaks," Scotty said. "We're not real detectives."
Cap'n Mike tried his line and muttered, "Feels like a cunner is stealing my bait. Well, boys, I wouldn't be surprised none if a little luck like yours is what we need. Can't pretend, though, that you might not be walking right into something you wouldn't like. Anything that scares Tom Tyler is something anyone with sense would be afraid of."
Rick hauled in his line and saw that his bait was gone. He rebaited, his mind on what he already knew of the case. "I've been wanting to ask you," he said. "That answer you gave to Jerry when he asked where Tom Tyler was. You said 'Inside. Surrounded by fools.' What did you mean?"
Cap'n Mike sniffed. "Just what I said. If the constable and the rest hadn't been fools they would have known that Tom Tyler was afraid to talk. Just like plenty of others are afraid."
Rick picked up his ears. "Others? Cap'n, I think you know a few things you haven't told us."
The old seaman hauled in his line and grunted when he saw that his bait had been stolen. "Reckon we got too many bait stealers down below now. Either of you boys hungry?"
"I am," Scotty said promptly.
"I could eat," Rick admitted. He looked at his watch. It was almost noon.
"Then let's haul anchor and get out of here."
In a moment the hand lines were wound on driers and the anchor stowed. At Cap'n Mike's direction, Rick pointed the launch to the south, toward the town. The old man took out his pocketknife, whetted it briefly on the sole of his shoe, and commenced to clean and fillet the fish they had caught. Scotty slipped into the seat beside Rick.
"What do you think about trying to solve this one?"
Rick shrugged. There was nothing he enjoyed as much as a mystery, but he wanted more information from Captain Michael O'Shannon before he agreed to anything. He had suspected that the old seaman knew more than he was saying. "We'll wait and see what develops," he said. "Okay with you?"
"Suits me," Scotty agreed.
The launch sped past Million Dollar Row, leaving behind a string of fishy waste as Cap'n Mike went on with his cleaning. By the time they were even with the town he had a handsome stack of white boneless fillets all ready for the pan. He brought them forward and took a seat next to Scotty. "Guess these'll taste mighty good. Got a little fresh bread and plenty of butter to go with 'em."
Rick pointed to a large barnlike structure on the biggest pier in front of the town. "What's that?"
"Fish market. That's where most of the trawlers load and unload. It's quiet now, because the fleet is out, but after dark when they come in, and early in the morning before they leave—that's the busiest place in these parts. I'll take you down there one of these times. Might be we'll find a couple of answers there."
He pointed to an old windmill on the shore just below the town. "Steer for that."
"Do you live there?" Scotty asked.
"I live in a shack behind it. But there's a place to tie up. You'll see it in a minute."
As the captain had said, there was a small dock in front of the windmill. Rick headed the launch for it and in a short time they were tied up. Behind the mill, which was an old ruin that had been used a half century before for grinding meal, was the road leading south from Seaford. Across the road was a weather-beaten fisherman's shack.
Cap'n Mike pushed the door open. "It ain't no palace," he said, "but it's home and I'm proud to welcome you. Come on in."
Inside, Rick stared around him with appreciative surprise. The little shanty was as neat and efficient as a ship's cabin. On one side was a tiny galley with everything neatly stowed. On the other was a built-in bunk. The walls had been papered with old charts, and he saw that most of them were of the New York-New Jersey area. A ship's lantern, wired for electricity, hung so low that it almost brushed Scotty's head. Ship models lined the mantel.
Cap'n Mike was already at work in the galley. With no waste motion he produced a coffeepot, filled it with water, dumped in a handful of coffee and put it on the stove. He whisked a match across the seat of his pants and lit the kerosene. Then he produced a paper bag, shook in flour, salt and pepper, dumped in the fish and closed the bag, shaking it violently a few times with one hand while he produced a frying pan with the other. In a moment the pan was full of frying fish. A breadbox yielded a loaf of homemade bread.
Before Rick and Scotty quite realized that lunch was ready, he had them seated at a table that folded down from the wall, with a smoking platter of fillets in front of them.
"Eat," he commanded.
Rick was no fish fancier, but he had to admit that this was delicious. And the coffee, in spite of the apparent carelessness with which it had been made, was the best ever.
When the last drop had been consumed, Cap'n Mike pushed back his chair. "Let's get down to brass tacks," he said. "Do you go along with me or not?"
Rick dropped into the idiom of the sea. "I like to know the course before I haul anchor."
Cap'n Mike chuckled. "Didn't expect caution or wisdom from you."
Scotty grinned. "Don't worry. He's neither cautious nor wise. He can't wait to get started and neither can I. But Rick's right. We have to know the whole story."
"Right. Well, there isn't much. Something's been going on in Seaford. Don't ask me what, because I don't know. I think Tom Tyler does, and I think his finding out is what led to the wreck of the Sea Belle." He held up his hand as Rick's lips framed a question. "You're going to ask me how I know that. Well, I don't know it. I just suspect it. I was a mite too positive when I said I knew. All I know is Tom Tyler told me one day that he had an idea that something strange was going on at the Creek House, and that he intended to find out what it was. Now! He must have had a good idea that whatever was going on was crooked, because Tom isn't the kind of man to pry into folks' business without a good purpose."
"Do you think he found out?" Rick asked.
"I do. I think he found out four nights ago. I was sitting in my dory jigging for eels a little distance down from the Creek House fence right at the mouth of Salt Creek. I saw Tom. He didn't know I saw him. He came around the corner of the fence and for a minute he was silhouetted against a light. I didn't see his face, but I'm sure. Known him since he was a shaver. Next morning I bumped into him at the pier, getting ready to go out on the Sea Belle. He said to see him at his house that night, because he had something to talk to me about. Well, I saw him that night, but not at his house. He was sitting at a corner table in Sam's Lobster House, and can you guess who was with him?"
Cap'n Mike nodded at Rick. "It was Kelso. He was doing the talking, too, and from the expression on Tom's face, he wasn't saying anything Tom liked a whole lot. After a while he left, and I went over to Tom. I asked casual-like what it was he wanted to talk with me about and he froze up like a clam. He was scared, at first. Then he seemed to get sort of mad, too, because he said, 'I'm going to call his bluff. Wait and see.'"
"Meaning Kelso," Scotty said.
"I reckon, but Tom wouldn't talk. He said it was better that I didn't know what he was talking about. He got up and left and I didn't see him again until last night at City Hall after he wrecked the Sea Belle."
Rick thought it over. The logical deduction was that Tom Tyler had somehow gotten suspicious of the Kelsos and what they were doing at Creek House and had gone spying. Kelso had found out Tyler had spied on him and had warned him, although Rick couldn't imagine what club he had held over Tyler's head. Tyler had ignored the warning and somehow Kelso had contrived to wreck the trawler. But how?
"Was the regular crew aboard the Sea Belle?" he asked.
"Yes. Just the regulars. All good men who've sailed with Tom Tyler for more'n ten years."
"You said Mrs. Tyler was afraid, too," Scotty remembered.
Cap'n Mike shrugged. "Probably Tom talked the whole thing over with her."
There had been an air of tension at the wreck last night, Rick thought. Maybe other fishermen were in it, too. He put the question to Cap'n Mike.
"I don't think so," the old man said. "The whole town knows something's up. They know Tom Tyler doesn't wince at shadows. If he's afraid, and they know he is, he's got reasons. That makes 'em all uneasy. But there is one gang that I'm sure is mixed up in this, and that's the bunch on the Albatross. She's a fishing craft just like Tom's, only her skipper isn't much like Tom. Name's Brad Marbek."
Rick stretched his legs. "Why do you think he and his crew are mixed up in it?"
"Eel fishing is a good business for them as wants information," Cap'n Mike said.
Rick hid a smile. The old seaman was bursting with curiosity about the Creek House and its new inhabitants. He had a picture of him sitting patiently at the mouth of Salt Creek, ostensibly fishing but actually watching to see what he could find out.
"I've seen the Albatross tied up at Salt Creek pier three times," the captain went on. "Now! Why would a trawler, loaded to the gunwales with menhaden, stop at the hotel before coming in to the fish wharves to unload?"
"Not for social purposes, that's certain," Rick said.
"Find out why and we're a lot closer to the solution," Cap'n Mike stated.
Rick had the germ of an idea. "How far out do the trawlers go?"
"Few miles. Fishing grounds start a couple of miles out. Why?"
"Just an idea."
Scotty's eyes met Rick's. "Thinking about going to take a look?"
"Could be. What time do they leave here, and what time do they get back?"
"They leave about four in the morning at this time of year. Mostly they don't get back until around nine. They like to get to the grounds by daylight and fish until dark. If they get a full load before dark, of course they come in earlier."
Rick grinned at Scotty. "Ever wanted to be a reporter?"
"Nope. My spelling isn't that good."
"Well, you're going to be one. Let's get home. I want to make a call to the Whiteside Morning Record."
Cap'n Mike's eyes brightened. "So you'll work along with me, hey? Knew you would. What happens now?"
"First thing is to interview Captain Tyler and his crew," Rick said.
Cap'n Mike shook his head. "You'd be wasting time. I've already tried. Tom's not saying a word, even to his old friends, and the crew has orders from him not to talk. They're loyal. You'll get nothing out of 'em."
"All right," Rick said, disappointed. If the fishermen wouldn't talk to Cap'n Mike they certainly wouldn't talk to him and Scotty. "Then we'll go back to Spindrift and do a couple of chores. We'll come back to Seaford tonight. I'd like to get a look at the Albatross, if you can fix it."
"Easy." Cap'n Mike rubbed his hands together gleefully. "I'm betting we can get Tom Tyler out of this."
Rick scratched his head thoughtfully. "Don't get your hopes too high, Cap'n Mike. We're only a couple of amateurs, remember."
"Some amateurs are better than some professionals, no matter what the business. I'm not worried any more."
Cap'n Mike walked down to the boat landing in front of the old windmill with them. "How will you come down tonight?"
"I'll try to borrow a car," Rick said. "Think Jerry will lend us his, Scotty?"
"If he isn't using it. If he is, maybe we can borrow Gus's."
Scotty walked to the stern of the launch and untied the line that held it to the pier. Rick loosed the bow line, then jumped into the pilot's seat. As he did so, he sat on a sheet of paper. He had left no paper on the seat. He rescued it and turned it over. There was a message on the back, printed in pencil in huge block letters. Its content sent a sudden shiver through him. He beckoned to Scotty and handed it to him. "Looks like someone can read enough to get our home port off the stern of the launch."
Scotty scanned it rapidly, then whistled softly. For Cap'n Mike's benefit, he read it aloud.
KEEP OUT OF THIS. KEEP OUT OF SEAFORD AND STAY AWAY FROM SHANNON. STAY AT SPINDRIFT WHERE YOU BELONG. YOU'LL GET HURT IF YOU DON'T.
Scotty's face took on an injured expression. "To read that," he complained, "you'd think we weren't wanted here!"
The Mysterious Phone Call
Rick hung up the phone in the Spindrift library and turned to Scotty. "Jerry is using his car tonight. But Duke says okay. He'll make out a reporter's identity card for you and a photographer's card for me. Only if anything interesting turns up, we have to give him a story."
"Good thing papers have rewrite men," Scotty said, grinning. "It's all I can do to write a readable letter. A news story would be way beyond me."
Rick picked up the phone again. "I'll see if Gus is using his car."
Gus, owner, chief mechanic, and general factotum of the Whiteside Airport, had loaned his car to Rick on several occasions. His hope, he explained every time, was that Rick would drive it to pieces so he could collect the insurance and get a better one.
In a moment Gus answered. "It's Gus."
"Rick here, Gus. That ancient clunk of yours still running?"
Gus's voice assumed wounded dignity. "Are you speaking of my airplane or my automobile?"
"Your limousine. Using it tonight?"
"Nope. Don't drive it any more than I have to. When do you want it?"
"About eight, if that's all right."
"Okay. I'll drop it off at the dock. Don't bother bringing it back. Just let me know where it is so I can tell the insurance company."
"I'm a safe driver, Gus," Rick said with a grin.
"If I believed that I wouldn't lend you the car. Leave it in my back yard when you get through, huh?"
"Thanks a million, Gus. I'll take good care of it."
"Don't. You'll spoil it."
Rick rang off. "What time is it?"
"About half past three," Scotty said. "Why?"
"Let's take the Cub up for a little spin."
Scotty chuckled. "You're never as happy as when you're trying to unravel a mystery. Any mystery."
"You don't like it," Rick scoffed. "You like a peaceful, quiet life. A book and a hammock. That's for you. Why don't you go get one of your Oat Operas to read and leave the mystery to me?"
"Got to keep you out of trouble," Scotty said amiably. "It isn't because I'm interested."
They walked from the house into the orchard that separated the low, gray stone laboratory buildings from the house and headed toward the air strip. The strip was grass-covered and just big enough for a small plane like Rick's. It ran along the seaward side of the island, with the orchard on one side and the sea cliff on the other.
"Just thought," Scotty said suddenly. "We'd better have some binoculars if we're going out to take a look at the fleet."
"I'll warm up while you get them," Rick agreed. He started the engine and warmed the plane until Scotty arrived with a pair of ten-power binoculars.
Scotty untied the parking ropes and pulled out the wheel chocks, then got into his seat. "Let's go," he said.
Rick nodded and advanced the throttle. In a moment the Cub lifted easily from the grass.
Rick settled down to the business of flying. He looked at the sea below and estimated the wind force. Mentally he figured his probable drift, then decided on south-southeast as his compass heading, and swung the little plane on course.
"Checked the equipment recently?" Scotty asked.
He referred to the two-man life raft and signaling pistol Rick had purchased from Navy surplus for just such overwater flights as this.
"Went through it Saturday," Rick said. "But don't worry. We won't get your feet wet."
"You hadn't better," Scotty retorted. "These are new shoes I have on." He paused. "What do you think about that warning?"
They had discussed it thoroughly on the way home from Seaford, examining all possibilities. "I haven't changed my mind," Rick said. "I think it was Carrots Kelso."
He reasoned that Red Kelso, the boy's father, had too much sense to try warning them away. The only purpose the warning would serve would be to arouse their curiosity even more—which it had certainly done.
"That Carrots is a queer one," Scotty said. He had to raise his voice slightly because of the engine's drone. "Did you notice the rifle he carried?"
"And how! It looked like a .30-30."
Rick looked at Scotty in surprise. "No?"
"Nope. It looked like one because of the lever. Sport carbines have those to lever cartridges into the chamber. But this one had a lever for pumping air. I've only seen one like it before, and a professional hunter in Australia had that one. He used it for collecting specimens when he didn't want to make noise. Sometimes he found several wallabies or Tasmanian wolves together and he could get two or three before they knew what was up."
"You mean an air gun has enough power to use for hunting?" Rick knew modern air guns had high penetrating power, but he had never heard of one powerful enough to use on animals as big as wolves.
"This model has," Scotty told him. "It was made by the Breda Gun Company in Czechoslovakia before the war. The slug is about .25 caliber, but heavier than the kind we have in America."
"Wonder where he got it," Rick mused.
"Hard to tell. They're expensive guns, believe me."
The Cub had been flying only a few hundred feet above the water. Behind them, the New Jersey coast was still in sight. Rick climbed to a thousand feet and told Scotty to start looking for the fishing fleet.
"How many shots can you get out of that air rifle?" Rick asked.
"Just one. It's automatic loading, but it has to be pumped up each time. That's not as hard as it sounds, though, because the pump is made so that two strokes will give it a full air charge. It's about as fast firing as a single-shot .22 rifle."
Rick's eyes scanned the horizon. "How do you suppose Carrots tracked us to Cap'n Mike's shack?"
"Easy enough. He could hike along the shore and keep us in sight."
"He was risking being seen when he put that warning on the seat. Suppose one of us had looked out the window?"
"Then he would have pretended to be just hiking, or looking at the boat or something. It wasn't really much of a risk."
"I suppose not," Rick agreed. Small specks on the horizon caught his eye suddenly and he pointed. "There's the fleet!"
Scotty held the binoculars to his eyes. "Sure enough. About eight trawlers so far, pretty well scattered."
In a few moments they could see clouds of gulls and petrels around the boats, a sure sign of plenty of fish. Then they made out the details of the big nets used by the fishermen for catching the menhaden.
"See if you can spot the Albatross," Rick said.
"You'll have to go down and pass each boat, then. I couldn't make out the names from this height."
"Okay. Here we go."
On each of the craft, fishermen waved as the Cub sped past. Scotty read the names aloud. None of the trawlers was the Albatross.
Rick put the Cub into a climb. "There must be other trawlers around. Let's go up and take a look."
Scotty shook his head. "I have a better idea. We'll see the Albatross tonight, anyway. Why not go into shore and fly over Creek House? Sometimes you can see things from the air you can't see from the ground."
Rick considered. Flying out to the fleet had been only an impulse anyway; he hadn't expected to see anything. He was quite sure the Albatross would look and act just like the rest of the Seaford fleet.
"Good idea," he said finally, and banked the Cub around. He pointed the little plane south of west to compensate for the wind, then settled back.
Rick kept an eye out for landmarks as the coast approached and presently he made out the steel towers of an antenna field. That would be the Loran radio range south of Seaford. He had compensated a little too much for drift. He banked north and in a few moments Scotty spotted Seaford.
Rick dropped down, but kept out to sea so that he wouldn't violate the law about flying too low over towns. He saw the windmill and Cap'n Mike's shack behind it.
"Go past Smugglers' Reef and then turn and come back over Creek House," Scotty suggested.
Rick nodded. Dead ahead he could see the curving arm of the reef and the wreck of Tyler's trawler. He saw that the fishing craft had piled up just about midway between the navigation light on the reef's tip and the old tower where the light formerly had been. Men were working about the trawler. Then, as the Cub flashed overhead, he saw a large truck that had backed down the reef toward the wreck as far as it was safe to go.
Scotty had been watching through the glasses. As Rick swung wide out to sea and banked around to go south again, he said, "Know what they're doing down there? They're stripping the wreck."
"That makes sense," Rick said. "Probably the insurance company wants to salvage what it can. They'd have to act fast before sea water ruined the engines."
He banked sharply over Brendan's Marsh. To the right was the highway leading from Whiteside to Seaford. Between the highway and the sea was the marsh. Although the marsh looked like solid growth from the ground, it could be seen that it was cut up by narrow waterways, most of which wandered aimlessly through the rushes and then vanished. Salt Creek was sharply defined, however, indicating that it was much deeper than the surrounding water.
The Creek House was fenced in on only two sides, he saw. The high boards separated it from the next hotel on the south, and from the road on the sea front. But inland, a continuation of the marsh served as a dividing line. Salt Creek made the fourth side. The old mansion was set in the middle of the square with a big combination garage and boathouse behind it, almost against the marsh on the creek side. The doors were open and he could make out a black car, probably a coupe or two-door model, in one of the stalls.
"See anyone?" Scotty asked.
"Not a soul." Evidently the Kelsos were indoors.
Rick climbed as the Cub passed over Seaford, then turned out to sea and went northward again. Scotty kept the glasses on Smugglers' Reef. As they flashed past, he swiveled sharply. "Rick, make another run, right over the wreck."
"You won't be able to see it if I go right over it," Rick objected.
"I don't want to see the wreck, I want a closer look at the old tower."
Rick shot a glance at his pal. "See something?"
"I'm not sure."
"I'll throttle down so you can get a better look." He made a slow bank, lined up the wreck and throttled down, dropping the nose to a shallow glide in order to maintain flying speed. As the Cub passed the old tower, he looked curiously. He couldn't imagine what had attracted Scotty's interest. The thing was only a steel framework, red with rust. Not even the top platform was left.
Off Seaford, he banked out to sea again.
Scotty dropped the binoculars to his lap. "I saw bright metal on the lowest cross girder. I couldn't tell much, but it looked like a deep scratch. And some of the rust had been flaked off around the spot, too. I could tell because it was a redder color than the rest."
Rick thought it over. "I can't make anything out of that," he said finally. "What's your guess?"
Scotty shrugged. "I don't have one. But it's a cinch someone has been up there, and within the past couple of days, too. Raw metal rusts fast right over the sea like that, and this spot was bright enough to attract my attention. Maybe we'd better have a closer look from the ground."
"It wouldn't hurt," Rick agreed. "Well, what now?"
"Might as well go home," Scotty said. "We can take it easy until after dinner, and then go to Whiteside, pick up those cards from Duke and get the car from Gus."
They had been flying steadily north. A moment later Spindrift loomed on the horizon. Rick saw the gray lab building and, to its left, Pirate's Field where the rocket launcher had once stood. He waited until the Cub was abreast of the old oak on the mainland that he used as a landmark, then cut the throttle. The plane lost altitude rapidly, passed a few feet over the radar antenna on the lab building and settled to the grass strip. Rick gunned the tail around and rolled to the parking place.
They staked down the Cub and walked through the orchard to the house. In the kitchen, Mrs. Brant was rolling out piecrust. She smiled at the boys. "Been riding?"
"We went out to watch the fishing fleet," Rick said, "then swung down over Seaford for another look at that wrecked trawler. What kind of pie, Mom?"
Scotty smacked his lips. "We should have waited a little while, then we could have had a sample when we got in."
"No samples," Mrs. Brant said. "It would spoil your supper."
"Not mine," Scotty replied. "Nothing spoils my supper. Got any doughnuts handy, Mom?"
Mrs. Brant sighed. "In the stone crock. And there's milk in the refrigerator. But only one doughnut!"
"Only one," Scotty agreed. "How about you, Rick?"
"I'm not hungry. I think I'll go up and work on the camera for a while." He would have over an hour to work on it before it was time to eat. He started for the stairs, then paused as the telephone rang.
Hartson Brant, who was working in the library, answered it and called, "Rick? It's for you."
"I'll take it upstairs, Dad." He hurried to the top of the stairs and picked up the hall phone.
Rick stiffened. It was a man's voice, but obviously disguised as though the man spoke through a handkerchief held over the mouthpiece.
"Yes. Who is it?"
"A friend," the disguised voice answered. "You're a nice kid and I don't like to see you getting into trouble. Keep out of Seaford. Remember that! Keep out of Seaford and stop flying over in your airplane or you're going to get hurt. You won't be warned again. Next time, you'll wake up in a hospital!"
There was a click as the speaker hung up.
"Know what I like about you?" Scotty said.
"My charm," Rick answered. "Or is it that I like food as much as you do?"
"Neither. What I like about you is your caution. The very soul of prudence, that's what you are. Your instinct for self-preservation is exceeded by only one thing."
"My," Rick said. "That's almost poetic. What's the one thing?"
"Your instinct for getting into trouble," Scotty stated. "You get a warning to stay away from Seaford, so what happens next?" He waved at the scenery as they sped past in Gus's old car. "Naturally we head for Seaford at ninety miles an hour, not even stopping to pick up our press cards."
Rick laughed. "Be accurate. This old heap can't go ninety miles an hour. Besides, it's only my never-ending search for the truth that leads me to Seaford. I want to find out if the warning is true."
Scotty sighed. "Whoever it was that phoned should know you as I do. If we needed anything to sharpen the famous Brant nose for trouble, it was that phone call. I suppose now we'll spend all our waking hours commuting back and forth to Seaford."
"Not all," Rick corrected. "Some of the time we'll be in Seaford."
"Any idea who it was that phoned?"
"It could have been anyone. But I don't think it was Carrots Kelso. The voice was an older man's. Maybe it was his father, but I didn't hear enough of his voice to recognize it."
"Why should anyone worry about us looking into things?"
"Respect," Rick said, wincing as the car bounced across Salt Creek Bridge. "Respect for the genius of Spindrift's two leading detectives. Can't think of any other reason."
"Unless whatever is going on would be so obvious to anyone who took the trouble to investigate that the party concerned doesn't even want two simple-minded souls like us poking around."
"Such modesty," Rick clucked.
"Okay, Hawkshaw," Scotty said resignedly. "On to Seaford. We'll probably find the answer just as the villain lowers the boom on us."
Rick swung into the Seaford turnoff and slowed for the main street. He went straight ahead to the water front and then turned right. In a few moments the car drew up in front of Cap'n Mike's shack.
The captain opened the door and peered out. "Be with you in a minute." In much less than a minute he was out again, clad in a jacket and officer's cap.
"Howdy," he greeted them. "See much from your airplane?"
"How did you know it was our airplane?" Rick asked curiously.
"Pshaw! You don't give people credit for knowing much, do you? I'll bet everyone in Seaford knows about your airplane. Everyone who reads the Whiteside Morning Record, anyway."
"But all Cubs look alike," Rick protested, "and most of them are painted yellow."
Cap'n Mike snorted. "What of it? No other yellow planes in this area, and you been seen on the ground in Seaford twice already. What would anyone think? Especially when you're on a direct bearing for Spindrift when you leave?"
"He's got something there," Scotty said. "It's a logical conclusion."
Rick had to agree. "Well, you're the guide, Cap'n. Where to?"
"The pier." Cap'n Mike looked at the fast-fading light in the west. "It's time for the trawlers to be coming in. Reckon we'll talk to a couple of folks and get a look at the Albatross and her crew."
Rick turned the car around and headed for town. "Why don't you tell us all you know about the Albatross visiting Creek House?"
"I intended to. First off, the Albatross has been there three times that I know of. And each time she has put in on her way back from the fishing grounds. Now, that's mighty strange. First thing a captain thinks of is getting his fish into port. But not Brad Marbek. Instead, he lays at the Creek House pier until nigh onto midnight. Then he puts into the wharf and unloads his fish. What do you make out of that?"
Rick could make nothing out of it. The Albatross certainly wouldn't be calling at Creek House just to be sociable. "Were these calls made at regular intervals?" he asked.
"Nope. One was two weeks ago, one was four nights ago, and the last time was night before last."
"Wasn't four nights ago the night you saw Tom Tyler at Creek House?" Scotty recalled.
"It was. That's one reason why I'm sure the Albatross is tied up with the wreck of the Sea Belle."
Rick searched for possible reasons why the trawler should tie up at Creek House and rejected all but one. He had the beginnings of an idea, but he needed to think about it a little more before he broached it.
"Cap'n, you've been keeping an eye on the Kelsos for quite a while, sounds like," Rick said. "Do they ever have any visitors?"
"Haven't seen any."
"No trucks?" Rick asked.
"Haven't seen any."
They were approaching the big, shedlike fish pier. It was brilliantly lighted. At Cap'n Mike's direction, Rick pulled off the street and parked.
"What happens to the menhaden after they're unloaded?" Scotty wanted to know.
"Ever notice that one-story building next to the pier? Well, they go into that on conveyer belts. Then the oil is cooked out of them and what's left is turned into feed or fertilizer. You'd know if you'd ever been here while the plant was processing and the wind was inshore. Dangdest smell you ever smelled. Like to ruin your nose."
Rick sniffed the fishy air. "I believe it," he said.
Cap'n Mike had been leading the way toward the big pier. Now he turned onto the pier itself. Some trawlers already were tied up and were being unloaded by bucket cranes. The reek of fish was strong enough to make Rick wish for a gas mask. He saw Scotty's nose wrinkle and knew his pal wasn't enjoying it, either.
The captain stopped at the first trawler and hailed the bridge. A big man in an officer's cap answered the hail.
"Let's go aboard," Cap'n Mike said. "This here is the Jennie Lake. We'll talk with Bill Lake for a minute."
Bill Lake was the skipper, and the man they had seen directing the unloading from the bridge. He greeted Cap'n Mike cordially. The captain introduced the two boys and Lake shook hands without taking his eyes from the unloading operation. Rick saw a scoop drop into the hold and come up with a slippery half-ton of menhaden. Then it sped along a beam track into the big shed, paused over a wide conveyer belt, lowered to within a few feet of the belt and dumped its load. A clerk just inside the door marked the load on a board. Rick looked for the winch operator and found him opposite the clerk.
The scoop came back rapidly, sped out the track extension above the hold, and paused. Bill Lake signaled and the big bucket dropped slowly. At a further signal, it opened its jaws and plunged into the mass of fish, then slowly crunched closed and lifted again. There was certainly no waste motion here, Rick thought.
Cap'n Mike asked, too casually, "What'd you think of Tom Tyler running on Smugglers' Reef, Bill?"
Bill's cordiality seemed to freeze up. "None of my business," he said shortly. "Can't pass judgment on a fellow skipper."
Cap'n Mike nodded. "Reckon that's right. Bill, how did you find visibility last night?"
"None too good. There was a heavy current running, too."
"That's interesting. How'd you know that?"
"Patch of mist drifted in. Anyway, I lost the light for a bit. When the mist cleared, the current had set us two points off course." Captain Lake's forehead wrinkled as he watched the scoop return for another load. "Mighty funny, too. Usually there's no current to speak of off Brendan's Marsh. But I've said for quite a while that the currents hereabouts are changing and it looks like this proves it."
"Was Captain Tyler directly ahead of you, sir?" Rick asked.
"Not directly. He was three ahead, the way I figure. Brad Marbek was right behind him, then came Jim Killian."
"How far apart were you?" Rick inquired.
"Quite a ways. Jim was pretty close in front of me, but Brad was almost out of my sight. Don't know how close he followed Tom."
Cap'n Mike spat over the side. "Sad business, anyway," he said. "Well, Bill, I'm taking these lads on a little tour of the pier. Reckon we'll be pushing along. Looks like you'll be busy unloading for an hour or so."
The boys shook hands with Captain Lake again, then followed their guide to the pier once more. Cap'n Mike waited until a scoopful of menhaden had passed overhead then led the way down the pier.
"I wonder if Captain Killian got set off course by that current," Rick mused. "I'd like to talk to him."
Cap'n Mike shot a glance at him. "Might be interesting at that. You thinking the same as I am?"
"We all are," Scotty replied. "That business about losing the light and having the current set him off course sounded kind of strange."
"Is he a good guy?" Rick queried.
"Best there is. If he says it, it happened. But it's mighty funny just the same. Reckon we'll have to find Jim Killian."
They passed three trawlers, all unloading, and Rick recognized names that Scotty had read aloud during their brief flight over the fleet. Many of the men they passed hailed Cap'n Mike. Evidently he was well known to the fisherman and pier workers.
Suddenly the old man stopped. "There's Brad Marbek's craft."
The next trawler in line was the Albatross.
Rick looked it over critically. It was indistinguishable from the others. There was the same cabin, set well forward, the same large working space aft, the same net booms. It was no dirtier nor cleaner than the others. Evidently it was filled with fish, because only the top Plimsoll number was showing. But the skipper was far from average. Brad Marbek, as Rick saw him on the deck overhead, was a bull of a man. He was about six feet tall, but his width made him look shorter. His shoulder span would have done credit to a Percheron horse, and from his shoulders his torso dropped in almost a straight line. His waist lacked only an inch or two of being as wide as his shoulders. His legs were short and thick and planted wide on the deck. His head was massive and set squarely on his shoulders with hardly any neck. He was hatless and his coarse black hair, cropped short, stood straight up like a vegetable brush. His face was weathered to a dark mahogany color.