"That's the eighth time you've asked. He'll be here when that business of his is over."
The telephone rang. Rick jumped to his feet and beat Scotty to the phone only because he was four steps nearer. "Hello?"
An unfamiliar voice spoke. "Stay away from the creek, and stay away from the house. If you don't, your crab-catching buddy is going to be turned into crab food." The line went dead.
Rick turned, eyes wide. Suddenly he was no longer sleepy. "Did you hear that? He said to stay away from the creek and the house, or our crab-catching buddy would be turned into crab food!"
"He must have meant Orvil Harris!" Scotty exclaimed. "Rick, let's get going!"
The boys started for the door at a run, but Rick stopped as his eye caught the rocket. "Check the gas," he told Scotty. "Steve has a spare can in the workshop. The runabout tank must be getting low. I'm going to hide the rocket."
Scotty left at a run. Rick picked up the rocket and surveyed the scene. Where could he hide it? He hurried into the kitchen and examined the cabinets, then shook his head. Too obvious.
The refrigerator caught his eye. An apron at the bottom concealed the motor unit. He knelt and pulled the apron free from its fastenings. There was room next to the motor—unless the heat of the motor caused the rocket fuel to burn. He opened the refrigerator and examined the control, then turned it to "defrost." It wouldn't go on until they got back. Hurriedly he put the small rocket in at a slight angle. It just fit. He snapped the cover back in place and ran to join Scotty, who was already in the boat.
"Gas okay," Scotty called. "Let's go."
Rick cast off and jumped aboard. Scotty started the motor and backed into the stream, then turned sharply and headed toward the river. Neither boy spoke. Their sleepiness was gone now, forgotten in their fear for Orvil.
Scotty held the runabout wide open, at its top speed of nearly twenty miles an hour. They sped across the Little Choptank River straight for Swamp Creek, with no effort at concealment.
Rick saw a low, white boat some distance down the river and grabbed Scotty's arm. "Isn't that Orvil's boat?"
Scotty looked for a long moment. "It looks like it. Let's go see."
They swung onto a new course, in pursuit of the white boat. It might not be Orvil's, but it was like it. Both boys could now recognize the design characteristic of boats built on the Chesapeake Bay. The boats were known as "bay builts," and distinguished by their straight bows—almost vertical to the water line—square sterns, and flaring sides. The design was ideal for the shallow, choppy waters of the bay, and the boats could take a heavy bay storm with greater comfort and safety than most deep-water models.
As they came closer both boys looked for the boat's occupant, but there was no one in sight. Worried, Scotty held top speed until they were nearly alongside, then he throttled down and put his gunwale next to that of the crab boat.
"It's Orvil's," Rick said. "But where is he?"
"Get aboard," Scotty suggested.
"Okay." Rick stood up and timed his motion with the slight roll of both boats, then stepped into the crabber. Orvil's crab lines were coiled neatly in their barrels, the stone crab-line anchors and floats were stacked along the side of the boat. There were three covered bushel baskets of crabs, and extra baskets stacked in place. One open basket held a dozen jumbo crabs. Orvil's net was in its rack on the engine box, but there was no sign of Orvil himself.
Wait—there was a sign. Rick knelt by a small brown patch on the deck. He touched it, and a chill lanced through him. Blood, and only recently dried. Orvil's?
Rick straightened. Someone had turned the boat loose, idled down to its lowest speed. The stable crab boat had continued on course, heading out the mouth of the Little Choptank into the wide bay. Only a bloodstain showed that there had been violence aboard.
The flying stingaree had claimed another victim!
Steve Waits It Out
The two-boat procession moved down Martins Creek at slow speed, Scotty leading in the runabout and Rick following in Orvil's boat. The boys had decided to take the crab boat back to Steve's, because it could not be left adrift, and they did not know where Orvil berthed it.
Both agreed it was senseless to return to Swamp Creek. That wouldn't help Orvil, at least for now, and they might possibly be picked off by the riflemen.
As they neared the pier, Scotty moved out of the way while Rick backed the big crab boat into the runabout's place. Before he had finished, Steve was coming down the walk at a run.
The agent took the line Rick tossed and made it fast, then caught another line and secured the bow. Scotty backed in with the runabout and Rick helped him secure the smaller boat to the side of the crabber.
"Bumpers on the houseboat," Rick called. "Under the cockpit deck."
Steve hurried to get them, and they were placed between the crab boat and the runabout to prevent rubbing.
The boys climbed to the pier and faced their friend.
"We found the boat headed into the bay," Rick said grimly. "Bloodstain on the deck, but no other sign of violence. We had a phone call telling us to keep away from the creek and the house, or Orvil would be fed to the crabs. There's no doubt about it. They have Orvil."
Strangely, Steve replied, "Yes, I know. Come on in the house."
The three walked up the path to the farmhouse, with Rick and Scotty staring incredulously at the agent. How had he known?
"Did you get a phone call after we left?" Rick asked.
Steve shook his head.
"Then how did you know?" Scotty demanded.
Steve held up a hand. "Easy, kids. I'm trying to get my thoughts straightened out a little and make some plans. We'll talk it over shortly."
Inside the house, Rick went at once to the refrigerator. As the others watched, he pulled the bottom panel loose, took out the small rocket, and replaced the panel. Then he turned the refrigerator control back to normal and handed the rocket to Steve.
The agent examined it wordlessly, his forehead wrinkled in thought. Then he put it down on the kitchen table and investigated the state of the coffeepot while Rick and Scotty stood first on one foot, then the other, and fumed quietly.
Steve decided more coffee was needed and proceeded to make it. Not until the pot was heating did he motion the boys to sit down at the kitchen table. He joined them, turning a chair around and straddling it, his chin resting on his hands on the back, his eyes alert.
"Testing our patience again?" Rick asked acidly.
Steve's warm grin flashed. "Sorry, kids. I was working over a few facts in my head, trying to make them add up. Okay, let's talk. Start by telling me about last night."
The boys reported, taking turns. "At first we thought Orvil might have told the riflemen guards we were on the bottom," Rick said finally, "but that's out. He's a victim, not a member of the gang. I saw his boat just before Scotty picked me up, but I couldn't see him."
Scotty picked up the tale. "After Rick dropped off, I made a high-speed run out into the river, then turned and headed for a spot on the north bank opposite where I thought the guards were. I got in close to shore and throttled down, deliberately giving them a chance at me if they wanted to take it. There weren't any shots, but I saw one of the guards. The visibility wasn't very good, so I propped the extra tank up in the seat and put my headpiece and mask on it, hoping any watchers would think there were two of us. I don't know whether they were fooled or not."
"Pretty smart," Steve approved.
"Thanks. I ran back out into the river and fished around in the locker under the seat. You had a few old wrenches there, and some rags. Well, I owe you a wrench. It was the biggest one, which means it isn't used very often on an outboard, anyway."
"Just so long as it wasn't my size seven-sixteenths wrench," Steve said with a grin. "Go on."
"It wasn't. I wrapped rags around it and tied them with a hunk of line, then searched for matches. I finally found a paper folder in the glove compartment. I had to open the gas tank and let out pressure to get any gas on the rags, and it wasn't easy, standing on my head in the cockpit. What I really needed was a Coke bottle. I could have made a Molotov cocktail by filling it with gas and using the rag for a fuse. Well, I made another run inshore and watched for the boys with rifles. They didn't show up. I got as close as I could without grounding, touched a match to my bomb, and heaved it into the marsh grass. My eyebrows took a beating." Scotty rubbed the slightly scorched areas.
"I wanted to set the marsh on fire, but the blaze was only a small one. I figured if the grass would burn, the riflemen would have to run upstream to safety. But the stuff only charred in a circle. Anyway, it scared them. They came running to stamp it out, and one of them took a shot at me. But I was nearly a mile out from the creek by then, and he didn't even come close."
"Let's hope I never have you two for enemies," Steve said fervently.
Scotty concluded, "I decided Rick probably had been in and out of the cove by that time, so I moved to where I could watch with binoculars, putting the sunrise behind where I thought he would appear. I knew I could see him better against the light. Finally up he popped, and away I went, and here we are."
Rick ended their recital. "We got back and took off our diving suits, then went for a swim with a bar of soap. When we were clean, except for my hands, which got stained by the mud, we dressed and came into the house. We were sitting down enjoying coffee and trying to keep awake when the phone rang. How did those hoods get the number, anyway?"
"That's not hard," Steve said. "It's probable that Camillion's boys started checking up on you the moment you showed interest. My car is known at the local gas stations. It would be just a matter of asking who owns a convertible of that description. Name and telephone directory add up to the right number. Watching you enter Martins Creek would cap the information. You could be seen easily with glasses from the river shore opposite the cove."
The agent got up and turned down the stove as the coffee began to percolate. "My tale is pretty short."
"Wag it, anyway," Rick suggested.
Steve put a hand to his forehead. "Gags like that at this time of day cause shooting pains. Please be attentive, and not waggish."
"Ouch!" Scotty exclaimed.
Steve sat down again. "After you were safely on your way I changed to dark clothes, smeared a little black goo on my face, and took off for Calvert's Favor. I drove to within a half mile and parked the car in the woods, then hiked. The first thing I came to was a chain-link fence. It took some time to see if it was wired for an alarm—and it was. So I had to find a tree with a limb that overhung the fence. I'd taken the precaution of carrying a rope. I found the tree, fixed the rope to an overhanging limb, and down I went."
"We could have postponed recovering the payload and helped you," Scotty said reproachfully.
"Sure you could. But I'm used to operating alone, and I was interested in what you might find in the cove. Anyway, I approached from behind the barn and had to take cover when two men went by. They had rifles. They headed down the peninsula toward the cove. I scouted around, but no other guards were in sight, so I started with the barn."
Steve paused. "That is quite a barn. No hay, no oats, no horses. But it has the loveliest dish antenna in it you've ever seen."
"A microwave dish?" Rick gasped.
"Exactly. It's mounted on a truck, and I suspect the electronic gear is inside. I couldn't get a good look. There are also little cubicles inside the barn, probably horse stalls, and I could hear a man snoring in one of them. There wasn't much light, and I couldn't use my little flashlight beam too freely, but I did get a look at several gas bottles racked along one wall. They were big ones, of the kind used for commercial gases like propane or oxygen."
"Or hydrogen?" Scotty asked quickly.
"Or hydrogen," Steve agreed. "And that's probably what they contain, for inflating the balloons."
He got up, turned off the coffee, and poured three cups. "Along about that time, I heard rifleshots. You can imagine what I thought. I had a vision of two bodies sinking slowly into the mud. If I'd had a weapon, I think I'd have run down to see what was going on. But common sense got the better of me, and I figured it was highly unlikely that a pair of divers could be picked off with rifles if they were underwater. I was sure you had sense enough to stay down. So I left the barn and went to the house."
"You actually went in?" Rick asked, his eyes wide.
"Sure. It was safe enough. The gang was sleeping upstairs and the two guards were interested in you and Orvil. No papers were left where I could get them. There's a built-in safe, but I'm no Jimmy Valentine who sandpapers his fingers and opens boxes by touch. I couldn't do anything with it. Finally, I figured all had been seen that could be seen, and left the house. I could hear a motor racing, and I recognized the runabout, so I knew you were still alive. I retired to the woods behind the barn and headed for the riverbank. I saw Scotty hurl his homemade bomb."
Scotty shook his head. "I didn't see you."
"You weren't supposed to. I decided Scotty must be creating a diversion, and that meant you, Rick, were still diving in the cove. I took off for the cove, keeping a weather eye out for the guards. There was plenty of cover along the bank, so it wasn't hard. I got a good view of the festivities. After the fire was stamped out, the two guards walked up to the bank of the cove and waited until Orvil got close, then they pointed their rifles at him and invited him to come closer still. He didn't have much choice."
Rick thought that was an understatement.
"They questioned him for a while. Who were the divers and what were they after? Orvil played dumb. He said he knew nothing about divers and of course he had seen bubbles. He always saw bubbles. Marsh gas was rising all the time. He couldn't understand what all the shooting was about."
"Good for Orvil," Scotty muttered.
"He put on a pretty good act, saying he didn't know what they were shooting at, but the guards weren't having any. They finally made him pull up his lines, throw his bait overboard, and get everything shipshape. Then one of the guards invited him to step ashore. Orvil balked and took a swing at the nearest one and got a rifle across the head. He dropped to the deck. That must be how the stain got there. They slapped him back into consciousness and made him get out. One guard held a rifle on him while the other put his weapon down and got in the boat. He took the boat out into the middle of the cove, aimed it toward the river, and put it in gear, then dove over the side and swam ashore. The boat headed out and the guards walked Orvil back."
"So he's alive," Rick said with relief.
"Probably. I waited until the parade went by, then fell in line. They took Orvil into the barn, and I managed to get a look through a window. They tossed him into one of the horse stalls and locked the barn door. I decided it was time to leave."
Steve sipped his coffee and made a face as it burned his tongue. "You can imagine how I felt. If one had gone away, I could have jumped the other. But two with guns, and me with not even a rock—I was dead certain to end up with Orvil. Besides, I couldn't take the chance."
Rick stared. If Steve felt he couldn't take a chance on rescuing Orvil, there had to be a good reason. The only reason Rick could think of was that Steve had decided there was more at stake than Orvil himself.
"We know where Orvil is," Scotty pointed out. "We can go after him. This time we'll be armed."
Steve shook his head. "Sorry. I wish it could be like that, but we're not engaged in a personal vendetta. Orvil may be out of there by tonight, or he may not. He'll have to take his chances."
One thing had been bothering Rick, aside from Steve's untypical attitude about rescuing Orvil. "You haven't accounted for all your time. You could have reached here before we did if you had started back right away."
Steve shook his head. "I didn't. I went to the airport and used a public phone booth by the side of the road to call Patuxent Naval Air Station. In twenty minutes I had a Navy jet fighter on the Cambridge field. I handed the pilot the pictures you took and told him what to do with them, then I made another call to my office in Washington to tell them the pictures were on the way and to look them over and take action accordingly. We'll be seeing the results pretty soon."
The young agent stopped smiling. "Your little mystery has turned into a case for JANIG, kids. I'm pretty sure of my facts, but I'll know definitely before noon. Right now, you'd better finish your coffee and get into bed. You'll need sleep if things start to pop. That rockoon idea of yours about cinches things."
Rick blurted, "If it's a case for JANIG, there must be security involved somewhere. Is Wallops Island involved somehow?"
"Go to bed," Steve said sternly. "By the time you wake up, I'll have a lot more than guesses, and I'll give you the details then."
Crowd at Martins Creek
Rick and Scotty awoke to find four newcomers at Steve's house. Steve introduced them to Dave Cobb, electronics specialist; Joe Vitalli and Chuck Howard, JANIG agents; and Roy McDevitt from Wallops Island.
McDevitt, who had just driven over from the rocket range, was a tall, lean engineer dressed in slacks and a spectacular sport shirt emblazoned with tropical flowers. He shook hands cordially. "You're Hartson Brant's boys. We've certainly enjoyed having your family over at the island. When Barby and Jan leave, the whole base will go into mourning."
Rick grinned. "Somebody loses, somebody wins. We're anxious to have them back with us again."
Vitalli and Howard greeted the boys as old comrades. Although they had had no chance to become well acquainted, the two agents had been part of the JANIG team during the case of The Whispering Box Mystery.
Dave Cobb, who was scarcely older than the boys, had been hastily borrowed from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. He spared no time for greetings other than a cordial wave, and immediately got to work on the rocket Rick had found in the cove.
The group pulled chairs up to the kitchen table on which Cobb was working, and watched.
Cobb studied the rocket for a few minutes, then took a pointed tool and pressed it into a spot five inches below the rounded nose. He rotated the cylinder and pressed a similar spot on the other side. Rick saw a thin line appear around the rocket below where Cobb had pressed.
The electronics specialist gripped the cylinder above and below the thin line and twisted. The nose of the rocket came off. Cobb pointed to a pair of metal prongs that extended out of the nose into the rocket casing. "Contacts," he said. "They press against strips inside the rocket casing. The whole assembly acts as a dipole antenna."
No one commented. Cobb took a tiny screwdriver and removed two screws from a metal plate in the bottom of the nose cone. The screws were long ones, holding the entire nose assembly in place. With the screws laid carefully aside, Cobb tapped the cone and the assembly dropped into his hand.
"A terrific job of miniaturization," he commented. "First-rate design." He pointed with a screwdriver to a segment about the size of two silver dollars stacked together. "Tape recorder. It accumulates data, then plays it back in a single high-speed burst."
Rick watched, fascinated, as the electronics expert identified components and circuits. The whole unit, scarcely larger than a common soup can, contained receiver, tape recorder, transmitter, batteries, and command circuits that could be triggered from the ground. It was a highly complex and beautifully engineered package for receiving data, storing it, then retransmitting it.
"But why?" Rick demanded. "Why send up a rockoon at all? What data does it receive and transmit, and what do the people at the mansion do with it?"
"What Rick is asking," Scotty observed, "is the question that has puzzled us since we got here. Why do the stingarees fly?"
Steve waved a hand. "Patience for just a few more minutes. Anything else, Cobb?"
The electronics expert shook his head. "Not unless you have specific questions. In summary, this is a very elegant little assembly of receiver, data recorder, transmitter, and command circuits."
"Fine. McDevitt, what about the rocket?"
The man from Wallops Island shrugged. "Nothing very complex about it. It's a simple solid-fuel rocket with star grain, fired by a squib that is commanded from the ground. A squib is simply an igniter to start the fuel burning. Battery power makes it glow red hot when turned on."
"How high an altitude would the rocket reach?" Steve asked.
"It's difficult to be precise, but I'd estimate the balloon carries it to ten thousand feet, then it is fired by signal from the ground at the proper time. The rocket would go to about one hundred thousand feet, plus or minus twenty thousand. In other words, I'd guess its maximum altitude at nearly twenty-three miles."
"Did you say fired at the proper time, or proper altitude?" Rick asked quickly. He wanted clarification of the point, although he was sure McDevitt had said "time."
"The altitude isn't important. I'd say time was the principal factor."
"But if altitude isn't important, why use a rockoon? Why not use a rocket launched directly from the ground?" Scotty demanded. He looked puzzled.
Rick looked at Steve expectantly. The young agent smiled. "Got the answer, Rick?"
"Maybe. It's a matter of secrecy, isn't it? The folks around here were puzzled by the flying stingarees, but they would have been more puzzled by rocket firing. They'd have been curious enough to want to know why the rockets were being fired, and it's certain that an investigation would have resulted. By using rockoons, with balloons that didn't look like balloons, Camillion confused the issue. People who reported seeing things got laughed at, mostly because they call any unidentified flying object a flying saucer. The rockets fired only when high in the air, where people wouldn't notice."
"Two did," Scotty reminded him. "Remember? We had two interviews where the people saw spurts of flame."
"Sure," Rick agreed, "but they had no idea it was a rocket taking off from a balloon. And only two out of the whole bunch even noticed flame at all."
Steve nodded. "You've hit it, Rick. It's the only answer that makes sense."
"Not until we know what data were collected by the rockoons," Rick said stubbornly. "That's the whole key. Nothing will really make sense until we know that."
"We ran the dates and times of sightings through the computer with a lot of other dates and times for various things," Steve explained. "I had a hunch, but the computer turned it into good comparative data."
"What data?" Scotty demanded.
"Every single sighting you collected coincided with the launching of a research rocket from Wallops Island!"
The boys sat back, openmouthed. Rick said, "So that's why the glow from Wallops Island in the south-eastern sky was so significant. That's what put you on the trail!"
"Right," Steve agreed. "The yellow glow is from sodium vapor rockets fired from Wallops. The rockets allow visual measurement of meteorological data. People around here are used to seeing them to the southeast, over Wallops. When I saw that sightings had been made over Swamp Creek at the time of sodium shots, I got an idea. It wasn't much to go on, but it was at least a good clue. The computer did the rest."
"Then Lefty Camillion and his friends have been intercepting data from our rocket launchings at Wallops," Scotty said unbelievingly. "But why? How could Lefty use data like that? It's all straight, unclassified scientific and meteorological stuff. He's no scientist."
Steve grinned. "I doubt that he even knows what the data are. He and his friends are a bunch of chuckleheads of the very worst kind. But about what he does with the data—Joe Vitalli has been doing some investigating along that line."
Vitalli nodded. "With the FBI. They put agents on the case and found out Lefty had been in touch with the Soviet Embassy in Washington, through a third secretary whose function it is to gather various kinds of scientific intelligence. We're not absolutely certain, but it looks very much as though Lefty plans to sell his data tapes to the Soviets."
"So that's why JANIG has moved into the case," Scotty concluded.
"On the nose," Steve agreed. "Now it's time to move in on our foolish friends at Calvert's Favor. Do you boys want to take a hand?"
"Try and leave us out," Rick said with a grin. "JANIG is welcome to assist us, but the flying stingarees are our babies. Scotty's and mine, that is."
"Be glad to have you help," Scotty echoed.
The JANIG men laughed. "You've got a point," Chuck Howard conceded.
"Want to plan the operation?" Steve asked with a twinkle.
Rick held up his hand. "Whoa! We didn't say that. You've got information we don't have."
"Only one piece of information," Steve replied. "The time of the next launching from Wallops Island."
"When?" Rick asked eagerly.
"At dusk tonight."
The Stingaree's Tail
"This is the plan," Steve Ames said. "Joe and Chuck will approach from upriver and go around the mansion fence by wading downstream. They'll stay under cover somewhere at the edge of the mansion grounds until they hear my signal on the radio to close in—or until they see the balloon launched. I'll go in the way I did before."
The two JANIG agents nodded, and bent over the chart borrowed from the houseboat.
"Cobb will set up his equipment here at my house," Steve continued, "and try to intercept all signals from the mansion. McDevitt will set up here too, and track the balloon through my telescope—if it rises—watching until the rocket fires. McDevitt also will keep in touch with Wallops Island by radio, and notify me on the walkie-talkie when the countdown reaches thirty minutes."
Steve turned to Rick and Scotty. "Before I go to my post, I'll take you two to the creek mouth in the runabout. Then you will swim up the creek, underwater, and take up stations in the weeds directly in front of the house."
Rick's pulse stopped. "They'll see our bubbles," he protested. "It would give the whole show away!"
Steve motioned to Joe Vitalli. "Show 'em."
Joe walked to the car in which he and Chuck had driven from Washington, and opened the trunk. He brought out a pair of riot guns, automatic shotguns, which he handed to Chuck, then he reached into the trunk and brought out a pair of small cylinders with full face masks attached.
"Rebreathers!" Rick exclaimed. He grinned at Steve. "You planned this before you ever told us what was on your mind!"
"I thought it was best to be prepared," Steve said. "You know how these work?"
Rick nodded. "We both do." The rebreathers, unlike Scubas, which were filled with compressed air, used oxygen which was recycled through a canister of chemicals that removed water vapor and carbon dioxide. They were completely self-contained; no bubbles were emitted.
Cobb was already opening a pair of leather-covered cases, exposing electronic gear. He had also brought a portable antenna, which he began setting up. McDevitt had a radio in his car with which to talk to Wallops, and Steve handed him one unit of a walkie-talkie radio network. Another unit went to Chuck, and Steve retained one.
Steve glanced at his watch. "Let's get going. Time your travel so you will be in place at eight o'clock on the nose." He looked at the boys. "Get into your gear, and take spear guns with you. When we move into action, I want you to bring that balloon down if you can."
The boys ran to the houseboat. Rick was excited, and he knew Scotty was feeling the same way. It was the first time they had been in on a JANIG operation as full partners. Their previous adventures had either been as accidental participants or as observers.
They got into full gear, including their skin-tight neoprene helmets and footgear. Then, leaving their fins and rebreathers, they hurried back to the others. Joe and Chuck were in their own car, the riot guns and walkie-talkie out of sight. McDevitt had the telescope set up next to his car and was practicing with it by tracking a high-flying osprey. Cobb was finishing work on his electronic setup. His antenna was in place, the dish on top of the collapsible pole aligned on the compass direction to Calvert's Favor.
Steve shook hands with Joe and Chuck. "On your way. See you when the balloon goes up." He motioned to the boys. "Got spear guns?"
"We left that till last," Rick said. "Ready to go?"
The three hurried down the pier to the houseboat, where the boys took guns from their spear box. Each chose a high-powered gas gun, operated by a carbon dioxide cartridge, and selected the spears that would cut the biggest holes. There would be time for only one shot.
"Get on the floor in the runabout when we cast off," Steve directed. "If there are any watchers, I want them to see only one man."
The boys cast off, then climbed in as Steve backed into the creek. They crouched on the floor and adjusted the straps on their face masks until the fit was tight. There was no conversation. Rick was so excited it was hard to sit still. As they began the crossing of the Little Choptank River, Steve gave them instructions. "When we get opposite the creek mouth, the engine is going to stutter and kick up a lot of smoke. The boat will drift into the smoke and out again. You'll have a few seconds to go over. I'll pretend to work on the motor, and finally get it started, but running rough. Then I'll take off and pretend I'm heading home. Okay?"
"How are you going to make smoke?" Rick asked.
Steve reached into his breast pocket and produced a small bottle. "These are chemicals that smoke when they touch water. Got your plans all made?"
Rick looked at Scotty. "We'll have to stick our heads up once in a while. I'll lead, since I know the creek as far as the cove. When I think I'm lost, I'll head for the north bank, making a sharp turn. That will be your signal to stay put, while I look. What I'd like to do is bring us out in back of the duck blind. We can pick our spots then and cross the creek when we're ready."
"Got it," Scotty agreed.
Steve reached down a hand and squeezed their hands in turn. "Good luck, kids. And no unnecessary chances. If shooting starts, get underwater again. We'll have guns, but you'll have only single-shot spear guns."
"Good luck," the boys said in unison. They put on the masks and turned the valves that started the oxygen cycles. Rick grinned at Scotty through the glass, and knew that his grin was strained. Scotty grinned back and held up his hand with thumb and forefinger making the signal for "Okay."
"Be ready," Steve said.
Rick checked himself once again to be sure all was in order. Weight belt, knife, compass, spear gun with safety cap on, mask fitting tightly, and the pack in place. He got ready to jump on Steve's command.
The outboard slowed, raced, slowed, raced, back-fired, slowed. Steve's hand went over and trailed chemical in the water. The boat turned, and Rick saw the smoke cloud rising. The boat went into it, and the motor cut out.
"Go," Steve said.
Rick stood upright and went over the gunwale in a dive, knifing toward the bottom. He felt the pressure wave as Scotty followed and reached a hand upward to meet his pal. His hand touched Scotty's arm, found the hand, and gave it a squeeze. Then, with a glance at his compass to orient him, Rick started the long swim.
It was odd to be wearing the oxygen lung. The sound of bubbles from the customary compressed-air Scubas was missing, and the silence was strange. Then Steve started the motor of the runabout and Rick heard the broken rhythm as the motor skipped. He knew that Steve probably had turned the carburetor mixture to too lean or too rich. Either would cause the motor to run rough. He kept moving, his fins keeping a steady stroke. The motor sound grew distant, and finally faded entirely.
Rick usually depended on pressure to tell him location, but the creek was too shallow for any strong indication on his ears. He kept going until the visibility and brightness told him he was in the shallows, then steered out into the middle of the stream again.
He thought they must be halfway to the mansion, but wasn't sure. He gave a pair of swift kicks to alert Scotty, then turned sharp left, rolling over on his back. He could see the water surface clearly. Rising a little, he lifted his face above the water for a brief second, then went back under.
Now was the time to get behind the duck blind. Rick swam back to where Scotty waited, and plucked at his shoulder. This time he started off close to the north shore, heading directly for the duck blind. His course was straight. In a few moments he found himself among the pilings and turned to put the blind between himself and the mansion on the opposite shore. Scotty followed.
Rick lifted his head cautiously. He saw only the marsh grass and the back of the blind. He tapped Scotty, who rose until his head was level with Rick's, his face only a few inches away. They pulled off their masks.
"We can swim under the blind and look out the front," Rick whispered. "There's enough brush to give us cover. We'll each pick our own spot and go to it. Sound all right?"
"Okay. Better fix our guns right here, though."
It was good advice. Rick removed the safety cap from his spear, making sure the barbed shaft was properly seated. Now he needed only to flick off the safety catch and fire. Scotty did the same.
"You go right and I'll go left," Scotty suggested softly. "Be better if there's a little spread between us. We'll also want to find places where we can look out. There's some weed along the shore, and I think I remember a brush pile around a stake near the right-hand edge of the lawn. One piling is there. There's a bunch of old pilings off to the left where the original pier was. I can see if there's cover there. If not, I'll find something."
Scotty had worn his waterproof watch. It was just four minutes to eight. Time to get going.
The boys shook hands, grinned at each other, and pulled their masks back on. They ducked under the blind, side by side, and swam to the front of the structure where brush from last year's cover remained.
Cautiously Rick peered out, then sucked in his breath. A truck had been wheeled out of the barn. It had a dish antenna on top. And next to the truck, a mass of black plastic was slowly inflating. A flying stingaree!
Rick looked quickly for a spot to which he could swim. Near the edge of the cut lawn was the piling Scotty had mentioned. It was tall, with a light on it for night navigation. Rick realized he had seen it on earlier trips, but had not noticed it particularly because his attention had been on the house and its occupants. Slightly upstream from the tall piling were a series of stakes, saplings pushed into the bottom to indicate the limits of water deep enough for a boat. Around three of the pilings brush and grass had gathered, picked up from the current. The middle pile was highest. Rick decided to head for it.
Scotty was also searching for a hiding place. Apparently he found one that was satisfactory, because he gripped Rick's shoulder for a moment, then submerged. Rick saw him as a shadow, hugging the bottom.
Now was the time. Rick took a deep breath to quiet his taut and shaky nerves, then sank to the bottom and began the last leg of the trip. It was only a few dozen yards to the sapling he had chosen. He reached it and glanced upward. The mass of debris made a black blotch on the bright surface of the water. Moving with infinite caution and using the sapling as a guide, he swung his legs under him and rose to a sitting position. The debris was still above the level of his eyes, so he swung his legs back again and knelt. The kneeling position brought his head to just the right level. He lifted his face and looked at the debris. Working cautiously, he brought a hand up and poked a hole through. His fingers enlarged the hole until he could see sufficiently.
The flying stingaree was tugging at the rope that held it! The shape was almost perfect, Rick thought, but he doubted that it had been designed to look like a sting ray. More likely it had been picked to look as little like a conventional balloon as possible. Well, it had served its purpose.
Merlin, alias Lefty Camillion, and his electronics wizard were fitting a rocket into a loop on a plastic strap that dangled from the balloon. Rick couldn't see it clearly, but thought it was a replica of the one he had recovered.
There was sound from the truck containing the dish antenna. Rick pulled his mask away to hear a little better and heard a loudspeaker, rebroadcasting something.
"... reports no aircraft within range limits. We are now at thirty-one minutes and counting. On my mark the time will be zero minus thirty exactly."
There was only the crackle of the loudspeaker. The set was tuned in on the Wallops Island command frequency, Rick realized. That was how Camillion and company knew when to release the balloon, and when to trigger the rocket!
Camillion's bodyguard was manning the rope holding the balloon. It was attached to a ring on the truck. As Rick watched, the bodyguard let out more line and the balloon rose slightly, tugging at the rope, and moving toward Rick. The tail hung down almost to the ground, the rocket hanging at an angle at its end.
The loudspeaker voice said, "Stand by. Mark! Zero minus thirty."
The bodyguard reached up and cut the rope!
Rick saw the flying stingaree heading directly toward him, rising slowly, caught by the ground wind. He brought his spear gun into position and rose to his full height, snapping off the safety catch. Oblivious to the yells from the lawn, he aimed and fired. With a sharp hiss, the spear flashed through the air—into the balloon and right through it!
The balloon didn't even falter. It would take time to lose sufficient gas to bring it down. The wind swept it right toward Rick, still rising. As it passed over him, the dangling rocket would be almost within reach.
Rick didn't hesitate. He saw the track of the balloon curving, as the wind shifted direction downstream over the water. He threw himself to one side and forward, dropping the spear gun, one hand outstretched. The rocket slapped into his palm and his fingers closed around it. The jerk pulled him forward and he grabbed with his other hand, missed, and grabbed again. This time he caught the rocket, and both hands gripped tight.
The flying stingaree lifted him, dragging him through the water. Rick spun around at the end of the line, and caught a glimpse of the bodyguard raising a pistol to shoot at him! Then the scene whirled and he saw Scotty, standing in water to his waist, spear gun lifted to fire.
Rick saw the spear leave his pal's gun, and he whirled his head in time to see the bodyguard looking down with horror at the shaft protruding from his side.
The boy didn't see the piling. His last quick impression was of the bodyguard falling forward, then there was a stunning impact as the side of his head met creosoted wood and darkness flooded in.
Rick awoke to fiery agony. His face was burning, the flames searing his flesh. He tried to reach a hand up to ease the pain and found the hand gripped firmly. He struggled, and Steve's voice said, "Take it easy, Rick. We'll be through in a minute."
The boy subsided and gritted his teeth. If Steve was there, it was okay. But why didn't Steve put out the fire?
"Don't move," Steve said sharply. "I don't want to hurt you any more than I can help."
Rick closed his eyes and fought the pain. He heard Steve say, "Give me the spray can." Then something cool and soothing spread over his face.
An arm circled his shoulder and raised him to a sitting position. He opened his eyes and looked into Scotty's worried face. Rick managed a grin. "It's okay," he said hoarsely.
"If being alive is okay, then it's okay," Scotty said with relief. "But you're a mess, boy."
Rick looked up dazedly. Steve was smiling at him, and next to Steve, Orvil Harris! "Glad you're all right," the boy murmured.
"Thanks, Rick. I'm glad you finally came around. You had us worried for a bit. And, Rick, meet my cousin Link."
A tall, gaunt man stepped forward. "Howdy, Rick? How do you feel?"
"Woozy," Rick said honestly. "Help me up, somebody."
Scotty lifted him, then guided him to a lawn chair. "Sit down. You're too weak to stand."
Rick subsided gratefully. He could see better now, although it was nearly dark. There were other people seated in chairs on the Calvert's Favor lawn. Camillion, his electronics expert, and two others. At full length, covered by a blanket, was the guard. He looked up at Rick, his eyes dull and malevolent, but he said nothing.
"What happened?" Rick asked.
Joe Vitalli stood behind Camillion and company, his riot gun ready. The JANIG agent was wet up to his armpits. Chuck Howard came into sight from behind Rick, and he carried an open first-aid kit.
"You jumped for the balloon," Steve reminded him. He motioned to the bodyguard. "This one tried a pot-shot at you and Scotty nailed him with a spear. Then you smashed into the piling and got knocked out. The piling was rough. Your mask was ripped off and your face dragged along the wood just enough to take the skin off and leave you full of splinters. We were taking the biggest splinters out when you came to. How does your face feel?"
"Awful," Rick said. The soothing effect of the antiseptic spray was wearing off and the pain was returning. "Where's the balloon?"
"On the ground behind you. Scotty got to you first, and with his weight on it, the thing finally came down." The young agent grinned admiringly. "We had to pry your hands off the rocket. Never saw such a stubborn cuss in my life. Out cold, and still holding on."
"Persistent," Rick said weakly. "Not stubborn. Did you round up the whole gang?"
"The whole lot."
Lefty Camillion glared at Rick from a chair on the other side of the small circle.
"Why did you do it?" Rick asked. "What did you hope to gain?"
The syndicate chief shrugged, but kept his silence.
"I can shed a little light," Steve said. "Some of it is speculation, but it stands up. Lefty knew his appeal against the deportation order was almost certain to be turned down. Within a few weeks he'd be on his way out of the country. The FBI has been trying to get the full dope on Lefty, and one thing they found was that expensive living had taken most of his money. He needed cash, in other words. This was the way he chose to get it, collecting the data transmitted by the research rockets from Wallops and selling it."
Rick shook his head, then winced. "It's a crazy idea," he said. "I don't know why. I just know it is. I could tell you, but I can't seem to think."
There were sirens far away, but getting closer. Scotty put a hand on Rick's shoulder. "Don't try to think now, old buddy. The ambulance is coming. Plenty of time to talk when you're feeling better."
Rick nodded weakly. It was getting very dark. He closed his eyes and leaned back. Scotty kept a hand on his shoulder.
The ambulance, led by a state trooper, pulled into the grounds. An attendant and an intern jumped out. "Who's hurt?" the intern asked.
"This one first," Steve said. "Then the one on the ground."
Rick felt a hand grip his chin and opened his eyes. The intern was examining his face with a strong flashlight beam.
"Messy but superficial," the intern said calmly. "I'll bet it hurts."
"You win," Rick muttered.
"How did it happen?"
Steve described Rick's accident briefly. The intern nodded. He shined the light into Rick's eyes and watched the pupils contract. "Possible concussion. We'll check at the hospital." He knelt and took a roll of cloth from his bag and unwrapped it to disclose hypodermic needles in a sterile inner wrapper. He fitted a needle to a syringe and found a bottle of alcohol and a vial of sedative. Working swiftly, he wiped the vial top and Rick's arm with alcohol, then drew fluid into the syringe. "This will help the pain," he said, and pressed the needle into Rick's arm.
"Now," the doctor said briskly, "let's look at the next one. What happened to him?"
"Fish spear in the side," Steve replied.
Scotty and the attendant helped Rick to the ambulance. He lay down on the stretcher gratefully and closed his eyes. Scotty stayed with him while the attendant went to help with the bodyguard.
"Quite a party," Rick said faintly.
Scotty covered him with a blanket. "You missed most of it, but I'll give you the details tomorrow. How are you feeling?"
"Groggy." Rick's eyes were closed. He was never sure at what point he drifted off into deep slumber. He knew only that he had no recollection of the bodyguard being placed next to him or of the ambulance leaving Calvert's Favor.
Rick awoke to bright daylight. The pain in his face had subsided to a faintly aching stiffness and he felt fine. He knew from the surroundings that he must be in a hospital, probably at Cambridge. He groped for the call bell and found it wound around the bedpost. He pushed it. In a few moments a nurse came in.
"Well," she greeted him, "how are you this morning?"
"Hungry," Rick replied promptly.
The nurse, a pleasant-faced woman of middle age, smiled. "That's a good sign. Let's see what we can do. Ready for visitors?"
"Send them in," Rick said cheerfully. "Or is it just one?"
"Two." The nurse went to the door and beckoned. "I'll send in some breakfast," she said, and left.
Rick's hand touched his head gingerly. The right side of his face was bandaged, the pad held in place by tape that crossed his forehead and circled down under his chin. He probed gently and discovered that the sorest places were his temple and an area just in front of his ear.
Steve Ames and Scotty came in and greeted him with wide smiles. "The nurse says you're hungry," Steve said. "Sounds like the old Rick."
Scotty asked, "How about crab cakes for breakfast?"
"Bring 'em on, followed by a dozen steamed clams and an order of fritters," Rick replied. "How's the bodyguard?"
"Well enough so his disposition is pretty nasty," Steve reported. "He'll be here for at least a week before the jail cell opens wide. Seriously, Rick, are you all right? Apparently there was no concussion."
"I'm fine," Rick assured him. "But I'll bet this bandage makes me look like a survivor of Custer's Last Stand."
Steve and Scotty drew chairs up to the bed. "One last look by the doctor and we'll take you home," Steve told him. "If you feel up to it."
"What'll I do for clothes?" Rick asked.
"They're in your closet," Scotty replied. "We brought them with us. Last night we took your gear home after the hospital folks peeled you out of it."
"Good." Rick looked at his two friends. "Now suppose you tell me what happened last night? I must have been out like a light while the excitement was running high."
Scotty nodded. "I'll start. I was behind one of the pier piles when the bodyguard cut the balloon loose. I jumped out for a clear shot, but by then you had put your spear through the thing. I was going to add mine for good luck when I saw the bodyguard reach for the old equalizer and draw a bead on you, so I shifted targets. I looked back at you just in time to see you dangling from the stingaree like an extra tail. And right then you went boom into the piling. But would Brant ever let go of evidence? Not you, ol' buddy. There you dangled, limp as a wilted banana while the balloon drifted along with you. I started toward you as fast as I could go, which wasn't very fast with water up to my waist."
"Wish I could have seen it," Rick said with a grin.
"So do I," Scotty assured him. "Camillion and his friends were also somewhat interested in you. They started down the lawn, and I was sure they'd get to you before I could. Only then Joe and Chuck stepped out of the bushes not ten yards from where I'd been hiding, and yelled to the lads to hold fast and get their hands high. Steve stepped around the corner of the barn with a .45 in his mitt and emphasized the point. Lefty and company got the idea and skidded to a stop with all brakes locked. I put on more speed, and Steve joined the chase."
"I didn't see you hit the piling." Steve picked up the story. "But I heard it. When I saw that the boys had things under control with their shotguns, I stepped on it and got to you a few seconds after Scotty had grabbed you by the waist. When I saw your face, I had a few bad moments until I could take a closer look. You were a bloody mess, to put it mildly, with more than a few splinters adding color. But I could see your manly beauty wasn't gone forever. We pried you loose from the rocket and stretched you out on the lawn. Your pulse was pretty good and you were breathing steadily, so we gave you a few whiffs of oxygen from Scotty's tank for good luck."
Rick could appreciate how worried his friends must have been in spite of their half-humorous report.
"Lefty spoke up," Steve continued. "It was the only time he spoke. He's said nothing since. He said, 'There's a first-aid kit in the kitchen.' We got it, and went to work on you. Of course we put in a call to the police, and asked for an ambulance. Joe Vitalli kept a watch on the crowd and Chuck went into the barn while we pulled splinters out of you. He found Orvil, and he also found Lincoln Harris."
"I remember meeting him," Rick nodded. "I was too groggy to be surprised."
"He was okay. They hadn't mistreated him. Link said he had gone up the creek just in time to see them launch a balloon with a rocket on it, and they got the drop on him with rifles, then grabbed him. His curiosity got the better of him. He'd heard about the people at Calvert's Favor and decided to take a look, the waterways being free to all navigators. Orvil had a bump on his head, but otherwise was all right. Lefty hasn't talked, but I suspect he had plans for their release, once he was safely out of the country."
"Where is Lefty?" Rick asked.
"He and his friends are in the local jail. You know, Lefty is a chump. But he's also an excellent example of what happens to people when they start operating in unfamiliar fields."
"Why is he a chump?" Rick demanded.
"Because every bit of data he went to so much trouble to collect was his for the asking, if he'd only waited until it was processed."
The light dawned. Rick knew at once what Steve meant. "That's what was trying to get to the surface in this addled brain of mine last night. Of course! Wallops Island is an unclassified launch site. Everything about the launchings is reported in scientific publications! But, Steve, the Soviet Embassy was interested in buying the stuff!"
Steve chuckled. "Sure, but not for a very high price, I suspect. The Reds are so suspicious they can't believe that a country like the United States can afford to give away data. They'd buy the tapes just to make sure we weren't holding back information they could use."
"Even a casual investigation would have told Lefty the data from Wallops firings is published by scientific publications," Scotty pointed out. "How could he have been so stupid?"
"He fell into a natural trap," Steve answered. "Most people think there is military secrecy connected with rocket firings. They don't make a distinction between the civilian space agency and the military services. But the law does. It says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is required to report on its scientific findings."
"And it does," Rick concluded. "Dad has already written a report on the instruments for measuring solar X rays. The scientists who actually use the instruments will also write a report on the data they obtained."
"That's it," Steve agreed. "What's a little more puzzling is why the electronics expert didn't know. I suspect he has been concerned only with the design of telemetry equipment and not with any actual launchings or space experiments."
"Maybe he did know," Scotty offered. "He might have kept quiet just to get money from Lefty for doing the work on intercepting the data. You know we had the clues, but it never occurred to us there might be a connection between Wallops Island and the stingarees, because who could imagine going to all that trouble to intercept open, unclassified data you can get by asking for it?"
Rick had to laugh. "Whether he knew or not, it's still a joke on Lefty, and on us for not suspecting the connection. And poor Lefty won't have a nest egg to take back to Europe with him."
"He won't need a nest egg," Steve corrected. "Lefty violated the law by kidnaping Link and Orvil. I don't know whether we can make a federal espionage rap stick or not, since the data he was collecting was unclassified. But we'll try. Anyway, he won't be going back to Europe. He'll end up in a Maryland prison, or a Federal one. Either way, it'll be some years before he has to worry about money."
"Lucky Lefty," Rick said. "A cell of his own, plenty of food, and no worries about money. We did him a favor."
Steve grinned. "Just don't expect any gratitude for a favor like that!"
Hunt the Wide Waters
The cruising houseboat Spindrift moved sedately across Eastern Bay, off the main Chesapeake Bay, toward the town of Claiborne. It was a lovely day with a blue sky dotted with occasional fair-weather clouds. The temperature was in the low eighties, the wind gentle, and the water warm.
Rick Brant sat on the bow of the houseboat, with his feet dangling over. Next to him sat Jan Miller. His sister Barby, with their mother and father, were relaxing in deck chairs on the sun deck, while Scotty piloted the boat.
Now and then the bow dipped, and the spray splashed up in a cooling shower. Rick enjoyed the feeling of the cool spray, and the taste of salt on his tongue. Jan did, too. Rick thought she made quite a picture with her white bathing suit and golden tan contrasting with her dark hair. His one regret was that he couldn't swim with Jan, Scotty, and the family. Both Jan and Barby were expert Scuba divers, and he had looked forward to spearfishing with them in the bay. The girls had brought their own Scuba equipment in the luggage compartment of Hartson Brant's car.
Rick's bandages had been reduced to a single jumbo-size gauze patch, but his folks would not allow him to go swimming until his face was entirely healed. He knew they were right, though he chafed under the restriction. Even so, swimming was really only a small part of the fun of houseboating, and the ban on swimming wouldn't last long.
Jan had put on a fresh bandage for him after breakfast that morning, and remarked in her soft voice, "It will be completely healed in another day or two, Rick. You can go swimming then."
Meanwhile, he had found an acceptable substitute. Steve Ames was a subscriber to Bowhunting Magazine, and in a back issue Rick had found an article on fishing for sting rays with bow and arrow. Steve had loaned a bow, and Rick had invested in fishing arrows and a reel for the bow. So far, he had found only one sting ray, and in his excitement he had failed to take into account the refraction of the water. He aimed where the ray seemed to be—but wasn't.
Rick's pretty, blond sister called down to him. "Rick! There's a sand bar at the tip of that point."
He looked to where Barby was pointing and saw a good-sized sand bar extending out under the water. "I see it, Sis. Thanks. It will be a while before we get there."
Jan smiled at him. "Going to try again?"
"You bet I am. Got to catch up with you somehow."
Jan had bagged a ten-pound rockfish underwater on the day before, and they had baked it in a driftwood fire on a beach at Poplar Island. Rick was as proud as though the catch had been his own. He had been Jan's diving instructor and had taught her how to stalk a fish.
"You can catch up day after tomorrow when the folks will let you dive," Jan assured him.
"Can't wait that long," Rick replied. "I'm going to find a fifty-pound ray right now."
"Go get your bow," Jan said. "I'll join the others and we'll all spot for you."
Rick got to his feet and gave Jan a hand up. He went down the catwalk to the cabin while she went up the ladder to the top deck.
The bow was in the closet. Rick checked the string, then strung the bow and selected two arrows. He went out on deck and stopped at Scotty's side. "Looks like a good place. Cruise slow and easy and be ready to maneuver. If there's a ray there, I want it."
"Okay. Go for broke, Robin Hood. What I can't understand is why you don't shoot for something edible."
"Can't," Rick said cheerfully. "Edible-type fish don't hang around waiting for boats to bring bowmen close."
He climbed the rear ladder to the upper deck and joined his family. Hartson Brant smiled at his son. "Next time we let you go off by yourself don't get involved in mysteries. Then you won't have to bowhunt inedible sea animals."
"It's fun," Rick returned. "I'd want to do it even if I could spear fish. Want to take a shot?"
"I'll take a shot after you've boated your first ray."
"Fair enough," Rick agreed.
Mrs. Brant asked, "Where are we going, Rick?"
He pointed to the peninsula. "Around that land. There's a creek on the other side called Tilghman Creek. The cruising guide says there's a good anchorage just inside. If it looks all right, well spend the night there. If not, we'll go across to the Wye River. Tomorrow we'll go down the Miles River to the town of St. Michaels and put in supplies."
The scientist smiled at his wife. "It's nice to relax and have our children do the work and the thinking, isn't it?"
"It's too good to last," Mrs. Brant returned.
Barby and Jan were standing far forward, close to where the cabin top curved downward to the forward deck. Rick joined them.
"This is fun!" Barby exclaimed. "Rick this houseboat was the best idea you ever had!"
"We all should have traveled down together," Jan said. "Then the whole family could have been in on the case of the flying stingaree."
"That will be the day," Barby replied. "When Rick Brant lets us in on any real adventures, I'll know the world is coming to an end." Her tone changed suddenly. "Look, we're getting into shallow water. Keep a sharp lookout!"
Rick went down the ladder to the foredeck and tied his arrowhead to the fish line wound in the reel on his bow. He nocked the arrow and got ready to shoot. He looked up at the two pretty girls standing above him. "Let out a yell if you see a dark blot."
Barby gave him a scornful look. "Of course we'll yell. Did you think we were standing here waiting for flying saucers to land?"
The houseboat plowed through a patch of sea grass and emerged over sandy bottom. Rick kept careful watch, but he knew the girls would see the first sign of a ray before he did, because of their higher vantage point.
Steve would enjoy this, he thought. The JANIG agent was back in Washington, his vacation interrupted again because of the work that remained on the case of Lefty Camillion. Lefty was in jail, too, along with his friends.
Rick shook his head. He was still amazed at the mobster's stupidity in creating such an elaborate setup to get data that was his for the asking. Apparently it just hadn't occurred to Lefty that a rocket range could be without secrets.
If there had been secrets, though, the system was a good one. By using the combination of a balloon and a rocket, Lefty got his equipment high enough to intercept Wallops Island telemetry, and he did it without anyone suspecting he was launching rockets. The rockets and balloons dropped into the ocean, unseen—or, if seen, the first thought would be that they had come from Wallops. The shape of the balloons also kept anyone from suspecting that the theft of data was the real purpose. It was a fine scheme, even though it had all been unnecessary.
The girls let out a yell that startled Rick from his reverie. Scotty immediately throttled back, and the boat's momentum carried it forward. Rick watched the water, and finally saw a dark blur on the sandy bottom ahead and to the left. He drew, then waited until he saw the dark patch move. This time he allowed for the water's refraction. He loosed the arrow.
The stingaree felt the impact and reacted violently. Its tail lashed up to strike with sharp barbs at the intruder. The tail lashed the arrow shaft without effect. The ray's wings moved in a rippling motion like that of some weird flying carpet. It flashed upward, and into the air, then crashed back on the surface of the water again. It dived, heading for the bottom.
Rick kept the drag on his reel, letting the ray fight against the braking action. The fish didn't give up easily. It had the primitive nervous system and great vitality of its relatives, the sharks, and it fought long after an edible fish, like a rockfish, would have given up.
When the ray moved toward the now stationary boat, Rick reeled in line. When the ray showed a new burst of energy and started away, Rick let it fight against the drag, pulling out line.
The girls were down on the foredeck with him now, and Scotty had joined the Brants on the upper deck in order to get a better view of the fight.
Finally, the ray tired. Rick drew it in close to the hull and waited while the vicious tail lashed futilely. Jan took the gaff that Scotty handed down to her and gave it to Rick. He hooked the sea beast and lifted it from the water.
"Stand clear!" he warned. "I don't want either of you getting hit with that tail!"
The girls hurried up the ladder to safety, and Rick lifted the stingaree to the deck.
It was a small one, weighing about fifteen pounds. The wet, leathery body glistened, and the kite-shaped wings flapped like those of some fantastic bird.
Scotty looked down at the ray. "You caught a cripple," he said. "There's something wrong with it."
Rick looked up. He knew the answer, but he asked the question anyway, grinning. "Yes? What's wrong with it?"
"It can't fly," Scotty said.
* * * * *
RICK BRANT SCIENCE STORIES
Rick Brant is the boy who with his pal Scotty lives on an island called Spindrift and takes part in so many thrilling adventures and baffling mysteries involving science and electronics. You can share every one of these adventures in the pages of Rick's books. They are available at your book store in handsome, low-priced editions.
THE ROCKET'S SHADOW THE LOST CITY SEA GOLD 100 FATHOMS UNDER THE WHISPERING BOX MYSTERY THE PHANTOM SHARK SMUGGLERS' REEF THE CAVES OF FEAR STAIRWAY TO DANGER THE GOLDEN SKULL THE WAILING OCTOPUS THE ELECTRONIC MIND READER THE SCARLET LAKE MYSTERY THE PIRATES OF SHAN THE BLUE GHOST MYSTERY THE EGYPTIAN CAT MYSTERY THE FLAMING MOUNTAIN THE FLYING STINGAREE THE RUBY RAY MYSTERY THE VEILED RAIDERS RICK BRANT'S SCIENCE PROJECTS