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24: Undercover uncovered



They who would try
Like the cat to sneak
Had better take care
Their boots don’t squeak


charm dancingLEGER DE MAIN, listening intently to the people who had gathered on board her, felt a little thrill of the good old days when she had been a casino. Just a flutter of—j’ n’ c’est quoi—a touch of ‘if we don’t watch it someone will catch us at it’ kind of feeling. A bit of excitement—maybe even a tiger tail pinching type of tingle. She had to admit she missed that sort of living. True, it had been just that kind of thing which had brought her to the point of disaster, but she’d survived and was pretty happy with what the results of her collision with the real world had brought—great people, a laid back lifestyle, laughter and liveliness and now—well, who could tell where this latest ripple of interest might lead.

     Sun, Sea and Breeze, sensing something was afoot, gathered warmly around the barge and decided to find out just what, forgetting the contest which was in progress with Fog and Company for possession of Beach and Bay.

     Charm, not the least bit interested, and always somewhat disdainful of such serious gatherings, sailed silently up the stairs to the spire, danced around its railings chasing bugs and, tiring of that, went for a stroll around the outside perimeter of the barge, taking turrets and handrails in stride as she went, finally settling on the corner of one, gazing over the edge and down at a gull paddling in the water below.

     People, she decided, were too caught up in uninteresting projects all day long. They made too much noise all the time, even when they thought they were being quiet. They never seemed to have time for fun. It was much more engaging to chase butterflies, stalk silently through the grass looking for a mouse, have a nap in a sunny space, or just relax as she was doing now, high up overlooking everything, contemplating and enjoying things. There was no need for hurry and flurry. Her world could get along without all that nonsense,

     The world of people, it seemed, could not.

     After permission from Dancing Water to explain a little of the situation to the others Rose sketched things out, then started looking for a remedy. Having begun with the simple idea of ‘Let’s get this skiff back where it came from, quietly and quickly,’ the lawyer found herself involved in details she hadn’t imagined existed when she’d called the meeting.

     “Dancing Water has to return the skiff,” she summed up, “So we need someone to tow it back to her village, and I thought one of you might do that for us.”

     “I’ll do it,” said every skipper at once and in much the same words.

     “I’m impressed,” laughed Rose, “But we need only one. Which one’s best suited for the job?”

     The debate which followed left Rose’s plan in total disarray. She glanced out the window as the discussion raged and saw clouds on the horizon—real ones.

     “Stop!” She pleaded at last. “You all seem to be the best. Now let’s narrow it down to which one please. Try to think of it objectively. The idea is to return the skiff to its owner without giving away our location , and to do it with the least possible risk of being spotted with it too soon while hauling it back. The farther away it gets from here before that the better. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”

     There was a quiet, contemplative silence as everyone there tried to get their heads around that one.

     She wasn’t prepared for what came out of it. What she had been regarding as ordinary, reasonable people doing a simple thing suddenly turned into a gathering of unexpectedly wily and willing plotters of covert operations.

     The first hint of this came when Armand mentioned, as he worked on Dancing Waters’ hands,

     “Well then Rose, you and the Kamisakis are definitely not candidates for active participation in this.”

     A startled Rose asked immediately,

     “Why not—not that I was planning to.”

     “You’re much too visible,” came the reply.

     The three so fingered looked at him, shocked, until he continued,

     “Since we’re trying to let Dancing Water and Heron stay here without a problem, there’ll be questions if someone even resembling friends of hers turn up with the skiff. You three certainly look like you could be. They’ll expect answers. I can’t go either. My accent would attract immediate attention and someone would remember me from somewhere—most likely from Shalisa Creek Village.”

     Realising her hasty judgement of his first remark, Rose quickly stuck her dignity and self-respect back together again as she understood, with that reasoning, no offence had been intended .

     “All we need to do,” she repeated, “Is just haul the skiff back to Dancing Water’s village and leave it there.”

     “Not so simple,” demurred Bud, who had quickly found the bay to be a safe and convenient hideout for a quiet day or two, away from the constant attention needed for wife, kids, dog, cat, chickens, house, garden, various family members, neighbours and business, because he was the one always called upon to solve everybody’s problems. “First we have to get it past cops, nosy people on boats and those who are around when we just ‘leave it there’ at the wharf.”

     Dancing Water, listening to this exchange was smitten with guilt.

     “I am so sorry I have caused all this trouble,” she interjected.

     There was a chorus of dissent to that remark.

     “It’s no trouble,” Rose assured her. “Just a little matter of the best way to do this so you can stay here the way you planned it.”

     <Flawed plan. Boat goes one way it had better go back the way it came if it isn’t yours—and the faster the better if you haven’t told anyone you took it.>

     “Best if we can avoid giving them any idea where it came from,” agreed Tashakawa.

     “Well that” said Armand glumly, facing facts, “Would eliminate three of our boats and crew. METHUSELAH has been all up and down the coast delivering freight and HAI SO and WESTMAN WILL are well known fixtures too. Everybody knows our home port is Shalisa Creek Village—or was. Apart from the fact that we ourselves are well known, it will be obvious where we came from. Somewhere around this area.”

     “You’re that well known?” asked Rose, startled.

     Three boat skippers began to grin conspiratorially at each other until Bud admitted,

     “Yuh—’fraid so. Been in this area for a long time.”

     Rose began to get a feeling that the people around her, whom she had invited to share her home ground, were on more than just speaking terms with the local constabulary and that their conversations had been about something other than fishing and the weather.

     “Well, looking at it that way,” added Fitz, “That eliminates JOLLY ROSE too. I’ve just been to Dancing Water’s village. They’ll know where my boat came from if they’re not stupid and I don’t expect they are. It’s in the wharfinger’s daily traffic list. We’ll all have to contribute brains instead of brawn.”

     “We have no boat!” said Rose with sinking finality.

     “Yes we have,” announced Harry with a happy grin. “There’s me’n Bettina and CRUSTY LADY LILY. We haven’t been anywhere.”

     There was a sudden reserved silence after this unanticipated declaration, nobody even having considered that possibility. Each mind thumbed over Harry’s qualifications, coming up with their own assessment of such an outcome.

Armand— <Harry? That honest big mouth of his would blow the scene immediately.>

Bud— <That old boat? Think David said it wasn’t safe for fish nor fool except with a convoy along to keep it out of trouble.>

Fitz— <I don’t think he can navigate his way out of a pub—maybe into one. Told us it was easy to get to the village when they came here for good. Just kept asking passing boaters along the route, ‘Which way to Shalisa Creek’.>

Shiro— <I know we’re friendly rivals, but I don’t want to see him drown himself and Bettina with his silliness. That old sponge of his won’t take any weather if it blows up a storm along the way and it’s clouding up out there.>

Tashakawa— <Oh my! Talk about visible. Their boat’s an antique which will attract attention>

Rose— <I’m not sure where this is going—but I hope to hell it finally gets headed out of the bay before the police arrive. I don’t need trouble—I’m already sitting on a volcano with the kids.>

Bettina— <Wonderful! We’ll do a good job.>

     “You’ll be spotted right away—hauling a stolen skiff,” argued Shiro at last trying to think of excuses to exclude this suggestion.

     “We’ll just take the tent and lower it below the boom so it covers the registration number and no one will see it,” said Harry.

     “No one will see it?” snorted Bud. “That’s a fishing skiff you’ll be hauling and that’s what people will be looking for.”

     “Lots of people probably haul skiffs,” retorted Harry.

     “Motor sailers?” queried Shiro.

     “Who says they’re looking for it this far down the coast?” persisted Harry.

     “My dear friend,” replied Armand, laughing. “Around here the gendarmerie look everywhere when something goes missing—not that they want to. It’s boring routine for them. They look at everything. They pester people. Information travels fast. They have computers, telephones, boats, helicopters, eyes, brains which operate like palm pilots.”

     “Whether anything registers in their consciousness or not is something else,” was Bud’s assessment of those words.

     “Think we’ve had enough socialising with them to know that it sometimes does,” returned Shiro with a laugh.

     “Only because of that zealot they call a sergeant,” returned Armand.

     Rose, hearing their words and reading the body language and facial expressions which went with it, did a bit of conjecturing.

     <Those three old devils have probably kicked every pub along the coast into splinters if that tale David told me has any credibility. If the law saw them with the skiff they probably would get hauled in just on suspicion, never mind their excuses.>

     “Will you all please get back to the subject?” she suggested, not yet fully aware of what source of wits she had tapped into.

     There was silence for a moment and then Harry challenged,

     “Well—what do you think Rose?”

     Rose, fast on her feet—or on her seat at this moment, tried her best.

     “First, get it straight. This skiff was not stonelike was borrowed. We’re taking back borrowed property.”

     “Convince the cops of that,” said Shiro.

     “we’d better be able to if we’re caught with it and the ‘found it’ excuse is inappropriate at that moment. we’d better have a second line of defence. Dancing Watered-down we get away with that?”

     “It is that I know the owner,” replied the older woman, “But much rests on what he has said and done since we left. It may be that he is worried, not only about his skiff but about Heron and myself and has reported not only backbit people.”

     “Why didn’t you tell him you were taking it?” asked Rose, thinking it would have been an obvious solution to the problem at the time.

     “He was not there,” came the reminder. “It was in haste we left. I also did not want interference. His was the best choice. No one knew we had gone.”

     “Well, do you think he’d report it?” came the next question.

     There was a nod from Dancing Water.

     “He is a good man. He worries.”

     “That complicates things if you want to stay here anonymously. If he’s reported you missing they’ll start looking for you. Missing people get slightly more attention than missing property. We’ll have to stick with ‘borrowed’ if I’m going to take this on. We don’t want to lie, just obscure the issue a little. Is that good for you?”

     “It will be as you say,” agreed Dancing Water, setting her mind firmly. “I did not mean to steal. It was necessity which made me take it.”

     “Borrow it,” corrected Rose.

     “I do hope I do not have to go back,” continued Dancing Water fervently. “It is Heron I worry for. If the skiff is returned I am sure my friend will know we are safe and that it was not stolen—only borrowed.”

     “Good. I think we can drop the theft problem if we get it back as fast as we can,” Rose told her. “Seems there’s just one boat here whose home port isn’t known—yet—and that’s CRUSTY, so we have the boat for the job. How about this? We’ll take it out at night, which will at least get it away from here if we’re found with it. You should be able to make some distance with it by morning, Harry. If anyone hails you, you’ll say you came across it floating around—which you will once we push it off the skids. You were just taking it in tow and were going to haul it to the nearest village and turn it in to the wharfinger. Maybe once the skiff is back you can call somebody there, Dancing Water, and let them know you’re safe and visiting with friends somewhere or something.”

     “Don’t worry,” stated Harry confidently. “We’ll get it there.”

     There was another silence as the thought processes went to work again.

Armand— <Can we change Harry into a scam artist overnight?>

Bud— <Well, if that derelict of his sinks at least they can use the skiff as a lifeboat.>

Fitz— <He can’t even find his way in the daylight, never mind at night.>

Shiro— <He will kill them. He’ll probably have to be taken in tow.>

Tashakawa— <Any cop would take a look at that outfit just from curiosity, and especially if it’s hauling a skiff.>

Rose— <Damn! Is that fog coming in? Hope the weather isn’t going to break right about now, just when we don’t need that.>

Bettina— <Anyone who can face down an angry camel driver with a smile can certainly handle this.>

fog, cloud and rainThe silence lengthened until Rose tried to organise the scrimmage, saying,

     “It’s the best way if not the only one unless someone can come up with something else, which appears to be unlikely at the moment.”

     There were reluctant nods of agreement since there seemed to be no other choice.

     “Okay,” Rose told them then, “CRUSTY goes. If anyone challenges them it’s a boat they found drifting—close to where they’re pulled over, if and when—and they took it in tow. Good?”

     There was such a long silence this time that Rose began to wonder what was wrong with her proposal, not quite aware of what the others had in mind about the ability of boat and owner, although David’s description of his trip with CRUSTY and crew had given her a slight indication.

Armand— <It’ll work—if people keep their mouths shut and don’t say too much but—Harry’s such an honest, gabby guy.>

Shiro— <Guess the motor’s in good shape—if there aren’t any loose fuel line connections around.>

Bud— <If CRUSTY doesn’t sink first.>

Fitz— <I don’t think they should go alone. They’re unfamiliar with the coast.>

Shiro— <Maybe I should sneak along behind them.>

Tashakawa— <Maybe I should try talking everybody out of this.>

Rose— <I don’t have to look for clients—they find me.>

Bettina— <This sounds like fun.>

     At last Fitz broke the impasse with,

     “Since I’ve been to the village and know the way, I’ll go along as navigator. Maybe someone there might remember JOLLY ROSE, but I don’t believe anyone there saw much of me because I actually just walked on the wharf and rowed around a bit.”

     He didn’t look at Harry, but everyone knew why he’d made the offer, except perhaps Bettina and Harry, as the skipper who’d landed the job said,

     “Hey, that’ll be great to have someone along for company.”

     “Guess CRUSTYs got the power,” commented Bud, not remarking about any other aspect of the proposed tow craft.

     Fitz sat wondering just exactly what shape that boat was in, deciding he’d take his own charts, navigating instruments and hand compass along in case Fog decided to chase them up the coast.

     “How many knots can CRUSTY make?” he asked.

     “She’s good for eight miles per. Why?”

     “Wondering about the time element,” replied Fitz.

     He toted up, thinking of how long it might have taken if he’d motored with JOLLY ROSE.

     “It took me three full days, mostly sailing. Motoring should take a lot less, since CRUSTY has a larger engine than JOLLY ROSE. If it took Dancing Water three days with that outboard motor on the skiff our ETA should probably be late the next day if we travel overnight and don’t stop along the way. Maybe then we can just sneak it in under darkness and go away quickly. That would be the ideal finish.”

     Rose didn’t like to tell Fitz that ideal situations seldom if ever appear when required so she said instead,

     “Okay, let’s all get our stories straight and then start things moving. You three are on a holiday. You found this skiff floating loose and you’re taking it to the nearest village. All we ask is that you get it as far away from here as you can before being picked up. If you get it to Dancing Water’s village—terrific.”

     “Is that rain I hear?” asked Fitz suddenly, as he saw Charm come running down the stairs looking annoyed.

     Fog had at last found a crack in the wall of defence which surrounded Beach at Shalisa Creek Bay—the lax attention of the opposition caused by the meeting aboard the barge regarding the return of the skiff—and was quick to slip through it.

     Spirits and elements, eavesdropping on the proceedings, had become so involved in somebody else’s business that they forgot their own, which had been to guard their sunny precinct, and while they were absent from that duty, Fog, Cloud and Rain, rolled quietly and quickly up with their artillery. The first hint that sunny Weather was about to be overcome was given when Cloud was sent in to scout out the ground.

     None of the nosy eavesdroppers nor those on the barge immediately involved in the discussion had paid much attention except for the casual noting of Cloud.

     At that point Fog had decided it was a clear field over which could be thrown a blurry screen to hide the ongoing tactics. Moving stealthily, drawing cool Air along, there was a cautious wait to anticipate whether Sun or Breeze would object. They did not. Having infiltrated the territory, big Wind was recruited to join forces, marching boldly in carrying Cloud and clearing the way for Rain who did the rest. The invasion was complete. Had anyone listened to something other than the onset of the rain they might have heard the exultant shout from Fog—Yea Team!

     The sound of rain certainly brought up heads in the barge.

     “Looks like our good weather’s taken off,” murmured Fitz.

     “Better get the tarp lowered on the skiff before we have to do it in a pouring rain,” suggested Armand.

     There was a hasty exodus as those who had taken the good weather for granted remembered that which they might have left out in the open and shouldn’t have, and they headed off to attend to things they should have looked after when the weather was fine. Sun and blue Sky, shamefaced at their inexcusable lapse of watchfulness, hid behind Cloud and hoped everyone at the bay would figure this was normal procedure for Weather. After all, Sun can’t hold on forever.

- - -

The early evening quiet of Shalisa Creek Bay was broken by the sound of CRUSTY LADY LILY warming up. Critical eyes from the group of watchers on shore assessed the problem craft, now covered with the tied down tent, and the consensus was that a casual observer wouldn’t be able to identify the aluminum skiff Dancing Water and Heron had arrived in—it was just another skiff.

     Fitz arrived, duffle bag in hand. Harry opened the railing to allow him to come aboard. He took hold of a stanchion, set his foot on the hull, gave a hefty pull to swing himself up and found himself back on the wharf, stanchion in hand with life lines attached and dangling fasteners which had pulled out of the deck.

     “Ooops!” exclaimed Harry. “Guess that needs fixing.”

     “Looks like it,” murmured Fitz with great composure. “Sorry about that.”

     He handed the detached stanchion and his duffle bag up, then carefully got aboard by yanking himself over the coaming—which wiggled a little as he did so.

     “Seems like you have some work to do.”

     “Yeah, there’s always something,” laughed Harry and was about to dump the duffle bag down the companionway with a carefree swing, but Fitz managed to grab it with the warning,

     “Careful, my navigating instruments are in there.”

     As he started down the companionway himself he hit the first step and stumbled, made a grab for a hand rail, felt it give in his hand, let go of it and jumped down onto the cabin sole.

     He had just come aboard that nightmare which every careful and knowledgeable seaman hopes he never has to encounter for a voyage—a boat which has been driven to the point of her final plunge by age, neglect and ignorance, which has recently been purchased by a man who knows nothing about boats—and he had offered to sail on her.

     They had started off before Fitz realised the navigating lights didn’t work. It seemed that Harry hadn’t been too concerned about that because he hadn’t figured on doing any night travelling. That meant they’d have to wing it, keeping careful watch for other vessels themselves and hoping they didn’t meet another one in the same condition. He stood behind Harry as they took the boat out through the Gap, restraining himself from grabbing the helm, and saw them through with what he hoped seemed like a minimum of interference.

     The good weather being routed, Rain delighted in searching out every deck and coachroof flaw. The foot of the mast was loose. On the other hand, the lockers were stuck from moisture swelling. Leaks were everywhere. The bilges were constantly being pumped. The bunk he was to occupy had a drip over it. It was given to him because Bettina figured it was the driest and she wanted Fitz to be comfortable. The plumbing sometimes worked. He was afraid to take hold of anything in case he found himself holding it, detached from its place.

     What kept him going was the amazingly cheerful acceptance of both Bettina and Harry. They didn’t seem to be aware of CRUSTYs failings. After he’d set Harry on the course he’d chosen he sat by, more tense than he wanted to be, making sure Harry didn’t deviate.

     The saving grace was Bettina’s cooking. She made a midnight supper and it was delicious. Fitz had seconds. The never failing good temper of the two raised his own spirits after he got over his first thoughts about the whole venture which had been,

     <May I never put myself in the position of mate ever again. Especially under a happy-go-lucky character like Harry for skipper and a boat which ought to be in drydock.>

     He took the first leg of the night, knowing that he wasn’t going to sleep anyway, and was astounded when both Bettina and Harry were quickly down and out in their cabin, trusting and unconcerned, accepting leaks and creaks, balky plumbing and loose everything as though they expected a boat to be that way.

     <Either they’re very brave or very foolish—or both—or maybe I worry too much.>

     As the night progressed he eventually got around to revising his inward comments.

     <Well, David said his boatyard had made the hull tight, and Harry has certainly shown he knows diesels so—it’s only for a couple of days. Hope breakfast’s as good as supper was.>

     He decided he’d let Harry sleep as long as possible, and that he would take the boat through until dawn when navigating would be visual.

     Working her way through the darkness, CRUSTY LADY LILY at last felt the hand of a knowledgeable seaman at her controls again. It was such a delight to know that she would be guided through the night with care and skill, and by someone she had once known so well. Long years ago that same hand had taken her on many a voyage before. Remembering this, she felt sure she could carry out her part in this undertaking, even if she did leak and creak and groan with age. Age has wisdom and strength beyond the material, she told herself, and together they could do it. She put her bow determinedly into the chop and plunged forward.

     Sitting in the darkness which was relieved only by the dim red night light, Fitz and this old friend sloshed lumpily through the sea together. Working at the steering station with its tarnished, badly treated and mostly inoperative instruments, the military paint peeling from the varnish, the loose steering mechanism needing constant correcting, Fitz found it was not only the helm which drifted with time.

     He recalled the beginning of this vessel he was operating, remembering the launching as he’d stood with his younger brother who had brought his girlfriend, and the three had watched this elegant boat slide down the ways into the water.

launching lady lily<You and Owen stand in front of me Margaret, so you’ll both see better, that’s the ticket.

I christen thee LADY LILY... .

Oh—what a splash!

Well done Mother!

Isn’t she beautiful?

They both are. Dad certainly got himself quite a little ship.

I’m talking about Margaret.

Fitz, will you ask to borrow the LILY for the weekend? Margaret and I want to go somewhere by ourselves, but her father is such a prude. If you were along he’d think it was all right.

Well—wouldn’t it be?

Come on—you know what I mean.

You want to stick me with a lover’s weekend?!

No, you’ll just be our cover. You can drop us off at the Cove, we’ll book into the ‘Peacock’ and you can pick us up on the way back.

Way back from where?

Wherever it is you go when you sail off by yourself.

Margaret and I are thinking of emigrating to Canada.

What?! You’ve gone mad. You can’t do that. What would Mum and Dad do without you two? They’re looking forward to the grandchildren.

Well, there’s nothing here for me. You’ll inherit one day, and you’ll be going into politics. All I can do is sit around being useless, always in your shadow. I envy you. I’d love to be in parliament, making speeches and rocking the country.

Wish to hell it were you. Besides, you’re taking law. Isn’t that enough? I’ll suffocate from boredom among all those old relics.

I think it’s all historically beautiful.

I meant the people.

I want you and Margaret to have it Owen. You belong here. I can’t stand all the pomp and ceremony and musty traditions and—it all seems so empty to me, always arguing and listening to tirades which mean nothing except another session out of the way without getting thrown from office, but you know how to get along with it. I want to see some of the world while I’m young enough to do it. You want to change it. We’ll both get what we want.

First voyages always broaden the mind. It’s a fine boat you’ve chosen. Not quite like the LILY but—when you get back you’ll be a different man.

Quite possibly. Don’t get the lines Dad—I’ll shove off myself.

Bon voyage FitzRanulf—and do take care and—let us know where you are all the time.

I will Mother. Take care of Margaret and Owen.>

Sea—darkness and the rain—and the helm of a boat. It was the way he had chosen to live his life and he still enjoyed it all. He smiled at the memories and ran his hand over some of the tarnished brass.

     <She was so lovely and lively once. Weren’t we all. She doesn’t deserve to go down this way. Maybe Bettina and Harry will let me help them restore her. No harm in asking.>

- - -

By morning light Bettina and Harry were up and busy. Rain fell steadily but the accompanying wind had slackened and now was not too threatening. There were signs that the weather was clearing up and getting more quiet, so that CRUSTY forged ahead, met the swells, swallowed them, regurgitated them through the pump and kept going. They had breakfast, which was as appetising as the late supper had been, and at this point Fitz decided that it was safe to get a bit of sleep after the long night.

     Telling Harry to keep on the compass heading he had set, he hit his bunk. Taking the precaution of spreading his waterproofs over most of himself he fell asleep fully clothed.

     When he awoke three hours later he went into the wheelhouse, automatically took a glance at the array of instruments, which he didn’t trust at all, and checked his own compass for the heading. They were off course by some few degrees. Startled, he asked,

     “Did you change course Harry?”

     “Nope,” came the cheerfully confident reply. “Compass has been as accurate as anything. Needle’s right on the point you left it at.”

     A horrible thought banged Fitz.

     “You been using this one?” he asked, indicating the old compass.

     Yeah. It’s as steady as a rock.”

     “Sure is,” he agreed, reaching out and giving it a couple of brisk taps which didn’t budge it in the least. “Maybe you should get it fixed or get a new one.”

     “Is there something wrong with it?” was the surprised question.

     “Yes. Mainly, it doesn’t work,” replied Fitz. “I meant you to use mine. I had us on a line which would keep us away from the main traffic route. Most GPSers punch that in, put their boat on pilot and sit down below drinking and paying no attention. I thought we’d keep out of the busy lane since we have no navigating lights, and we’d also avoid being seen too much. Better get us back where we came from.”

     Fitz went to his bunk, got his charts and instruments and replotted from what he remembered of his own trip to their destination village.

     Back on course again, Bettina was trying out some recipes which she thought might be quick and easy for on board use, when the stove quit.

     “Never mind,” she told them. “We’ll have soup and sandwiches for lunch.”

     “Cold consommé?” came Fitz’s question.

     “Oh no. We’ll stick the pot on the manifold and get it hot there.”

     Fitz was now wondering if he should go to sleep at all on this passage, but he was tired so he took a cat nap on the pilot berth and was awakened by the sound of a powerful motor approaching. Glancing out a port he saw a Coast Guard cutter coming alongside. Rubbing his hands vigorously over his face to wake himself up, he heard Harry shouting,

     “Which way to Sweet Water Village? Are we heading the right way?”

     <What the hell does he think he’s doing, the bloody fool?!>

     “You’re right on with your heading. Are you having trouble?”

     “Compass quit that’s all.”

     “You have charts aboard?” came the question as the coastguardsman regarded the old vessel.

     “Oh sure. Fitz is taking care of that.”

     “Navigator is he?”

     “The best,” was the happy reply, accompanied by a smile to match. “Just thought we’d better check with you.”

     “Good thinking,” returned the young man with a sardonic grin. “Okay. Have a safe journey.”

     The cutter pulled away, Fitz relaxed a little, and waited as Harry came below.

     “Yeah, we’re going in the right direction,” he announced.

     “Harry,” Fitz began, restraining himself from giving the round man a blast, “Didn’t you think that maybe they might have asked you about the skiff?”

     “Nah,” grinned Harry. “Told you no one would pay any attention. Saw them coming so I thought—like the old game-plays—attack is the best defence. Throws ’em off guard. So I hailed them as they came by.”

     He went to the galley for a cup of coffee from a thermos.

     Fitz gave himself a lecture, which included the precaution that he would not let Harry out of his sight for the rest of the trip, and which involved a few words of amazement that anyone could be so naïve, and that they had been fortunate to get away from the cutter without trouble. It seemed the public was indeed an incurious lot.

- - -

As the day settled down and they motored along, the crew reminisced about the places they’d been and the things they’d done, and among the trio there was no lack of material for that pastime while Harry fiddled with the stove, but coffee had to be made on the manifold again until Fitz politely suggested that maybe he knew what was wrong with the thing, since his own was rather like that—which it wasn’t.

     He got it operating. Bettina was delighted. She could get cooking again.

     The rest of the trip passed so quietly without incident that they almost forgot its original purpose. Rain retreated later that day, and a little blue sky began to appear between shredding clouds as evening began to shadow sea and sky. Sun, encouraged to make a move for taking over once more, used her winning wiles and sank with delight into the amorous embrace of apricot and lavender Cloud who was taken in completely by the tactic and Moon, on an early shift this evening , having observed that outrageous behaviour on his way up, smiled, turned his face aside to show his fine profile, and took over care of Sky, waiting for his own Venus to show herself and stroll with him.

     Fitz, consulting his charts and his memory a little later as dusk began to come on, announced that they’d be getting into the wharf at Dancing Water’s village in about an hour unless they slowed their pace down.

     “Better get the tarp off the skiff,” said Harry.

     Fitz, busy with putting his charts away, didn’t pay too much attention to that remark until Harry had accomplished the job. They jokingly rehearsed their story, remarking to each other that the human race certainly hadn’t displayed much curiosity about the skiff as it had passed them by, near and far. Weather too had actually been a plus participator in the venture, with Rain making visibility poor and keeping much of the boating public in home port so that what traffic they had seen had been minimal.

     Harry remarked on their good luck. They wondered if it might have been because the people in the various water craft which passed them were too busy looking at CRUSTY LADY LILY. Maybe the skiff had just been taken for their lifeboat, trailing along on its painter, wagging its outboard behind it, even though the motor sailer’s own tender was plainly snugged up on its davits, but these days large pleasure craft took all sorts of playthings along, including helicopters on their stern decks, so who would be surprised about two lifeboats.

     They decided to dawdle along, waiting for darkness, because water traffic was picking up in the vicinity of their destination, the Coast Guard cutter Harry had hailed passed them at a distance, apparently on it’s return journey, and they were being scanned with binocular-aided eyes. That didn’t please Fitz. They didn’t want questions if they could avoid them. He slowed their progress even more.

     The darkness he had anticipated was not what they got. The wharf and its environs were well lit with sodium lights, and to make things worse, Fitz spotted a man who walked along the boards and leaned on the red railing of the government wharf, plainly regarding boat and skiff as they set their anchor.

     “I don’t like this,” he told Harry.

     “Maybe he’s the wharfinger,” suggested Harry.

     Fitz pondered. Plainly they were seen. Unless they just sat and hoped the man would go away Harry’s suggestion seemed to be reasonable. Who else would be around this late looking at boats coming in?

     “Let’s go find out. I’d like to get this over with fast and without too much questioning. Let’s not take the skiff in yet. Maybe he’s just one of those people who hang around wharves looking for something to do.”

     “You two go,” laughed Bettina. “I’ll stay here for emergency backup.”

     “We’re just returning it,” grinned Harry. “We didn’t rustle it. There won’t be a shootout.”

     As the two motored over to the wharf, trailing liquid light reflection for a wake, the man leaning on the railing pushed away from it and began to walk down toward them. While Fitz tied up he came within hailing distance.

     “Hi there,” called Harry “Are you the wharfinger?”

     “Nope,” came the reply.

     “Do you happen to know where we can find him?”

     “Not here right now. Probably in the pub.”

     “Oh.”

     The two arrivals, standing on the finger of the wharf, looked at each other, and Fitz was about to suggest quietly to Harry that they just leave when Harry asked with a smile,

     “Know when he’ll be back? You see, we found this skiff floating out there, and since we were coming in anyway we wondered if it had floated out of here.”

     Fitz wished dearly that Harry would shut up and let him do the talking.

     The man doffed his peaked cap, looked each man in the eye, then ran his hand over his thick black hair as he gazed over toward the skiff, looked back at the two and replaced his cap.

     “Yep. She’s from here,” he replied, put his hands in the pockets of his jeans, looked back out at motor sailer and skiff, shifted his weight from one rubber-booted foot to the other and turned his eyes back to the visitors. “Belongs to me’n my partner.”

     Two men regarded one in startled silence. It was a totally unexpected reply.

     Finally, taking their silence for doubt, the claimant offered,

     “Ours all right. He’s not here right now but I can identify her ’cause I rigged that boom myself. She’s got yellow paint spilled in her, an’ a patch on her bottom under the bow, an’ the motor’s got my name scratched inside. My motor. We go fishin’ together. Got the registration right here.”

     He took out his wallet, fingered through a collection of necessary miscellania of the kind which everyone carries and came up with what he was searching for.

     “See. Right here.”

     He held the document out to be examined, which the two did, noting mostly the name of the owner on it, while a couple of curious onlookers came to lean on the red railing of the ramp above them, their shadows looming down onto the wharf where the three stood.

     “Guess so,” declared Harry at last.

     “We seem to have reached the right person,” said Fitz, deciding to try taking over. “We didn’t make a thorough assessment of things when she crossed our path. Figured she was a stray. We thought we’d just look after her before she got into trouble.”

     The man regarded him keenly for a moment, then threw a glance up to where the shadows were being projected from before he replied softly, almost as though speaking to himself,

 at the wharf    “Afraid she’s already done that. Was worried maybe she’d sunk out there or something.”

     He threw another glance toward where the two curious observers now stood, leaning on the railing where he himself had been before, then nodded his head.

     “Thought maybe she’d sunk on ’em rocks out there, maybe,” he explained in a louder voice. “Not so good for a boat to get bashed on ’em rocks. Too deep to see her if she did go down there. Was gettin’ worried. Told the cops she was missin’ a couple of days ago. Been gone five days or so, I was told. Went while we were away, but nobody thought much of it till I got back.”

     Fitz, noticing the way the man kept glancing up, casually sent his own eyes toward the wharf ramp and brought his gaze quickly back down again.

     There was a man in a police uniform leaning alongside the other one, cap well back on his head, one foot crossed over the other—just leaning.

     Fitz definitely did not want to get involved with that, so he said, to bolster their innocent mission concerning the skiff,

     “Glad that didn’t happen. It seems to have had a safe passage.”

     It was plain to him by the conversation that the claimant of the skiff was obviously worried about the fate of Dancing Water and Heron, but was hesitating to ask anything in public. Fitz himself didn’t want to be questioned about the safety of the two fugitives. He hadn’t expected the partner of Dancing Water’s friend to turn up on the wharf. They’d planned on just leaving the skiff there under cover of darkness. Now he became very aware of listening ears.

     Wanting to get away from the curiosity of the men above before they came down below, Fitz suggested quickly,

     “Well, hop in and we’ll take you out there, and if it has yellow paint in it and a patch on her bow we’ll be glad to hand over the responsibility to you. It has your registration number on it anyway.”

     The three men got into the dinghy and motored back out to CRUSTY who was holding the truant skiff in check astern, pulled alongside of it and let the owner climb aboard.

     “Yellow paint all right,” laughed Harry, leaning over the gunwale and having a look as though to check out the man’s identification of the skiff.

     The two saw the him pause, put his hand on the folded canvas tent which was under the seat, shake off the moisture from his fingers, then run his hand over the bottom of the skiff. Regarding the dryness there, he gave a nod.

     “Lotta rain this past couple of days. Glad she got out all right without hitting any rocks on her way out. Punch a hole in the bottom pretty fast. Bad trouble that way. Sure do want to thank you fellows for bringing this back.”

     He reached into his hip pocket and brought out his wallet again.

     “How much do I owe you for it?”

     “Oh hey—nothing,” Harry assured him, taken by surprise.

     “Certainly not!” echoed Fitz. “Glad we found the owner.”

     “Sure do want to thank you,” the man repeated, looking intently at Fitz. “I’ll go tell the cops right away she’s found. Don’t need to worry no more. Guess you don’t need the wharfinger either? That’s him up there on the wharf.”

     “No,” agreed Fitz, “Not anymore.”

     “Is there a store in town?” asked Harry “I’d like to pick up a few supplies, then we’re pulling out.”

     This caught Fitz by surprise. He’d had no intentions of going ashore, much less telling anyone they were leaving.

     “Yep, just up the road there on your right. Goin’ far?”

     Before Fitz could field the dangerous question Harry replied,

     “Oh we’re just heading back south again.”

     Had Fitz been closer he surely would have dumped Harry into the saltchuck before he’d have let him speak, but now he interjected,

     “Been up north fishing. We plan to head farther south across the border. Nice cruising grounds there.”

     “Uh huh,” came the thoughtful comment, then, “Say, if there’s anything I can do for you while you’re here, you let me know,” came the offer. “I’m Tom Fisher. Live in that brown house over there. Thanks again.”

     They knew his name. They’d seen it on the registration. They thanked him for his offer but Fitz didn’t return the introductive courtesy. He figured anonymity was best. What wasn’t known wouldn’t have to be lied about.

     Harry though had no such misgivings.

     “I’m Harry Currie,” he returned with his usual big smile, putting out his hand immediately, “And this is Fitz Jolly.”

     The unjolly Jolly had no recourse himself but to smile and acknowledge with his own hand, while telling himself that he would dearly love to dump Harry in the saltchuck, as he shoved their dinghy away from the skiff.

     With a quick, strong pull Tom started the skiff’s outboard and, giving them a wave, he took it back to the wharf where he tied it up securely.

     Fitz watched while appearing not to as Tom stepped onto the wharf and went up the ramp. There he was joined by the uniform and the wharfinger, and the three walked away together.

     “Easy as pie,” grinned Harry, heading the dinghy back to the wharf. “Guess we didn’t have to worry any.”

     “Where the hell are you going?” asked Fitz, startled.

     “Going for groceries. We’re kind of short of a few things Bettina wanted.”

     “I think we should get back to CRUSTY,” returned Fitz uneasily. “Somebody might start asking where we’re from and we don’t really want to meet up with that cop. He might want to know where we found the skiff, or ask about the two who took it. We don’t want to blow the whole thing now.”

     “Won’t take too long,” returned Harry as he banged the dinghy against the wharf. “They’re gone.”

     The two walked up the road to the general store, where Harry lingered over this and that and something else which caught his attention, while Fitz followed, constantly looking out the window a little anxiously. Harry finally decided he’d found everything he was after, paid for his purchases and they headed back to the wharf, Fitz setting a brisk pace.

     They found Tom Fisher standing there holding a large parcel wrapped in brown paper.

     “Thought you people might like some smoked salmon,” he smiled. “Unwrap it right away an’ put it in the cooler so it don’t spoil. You ever get back this way, come have dinner at my place. My wife’s a real good cook. At least me an’ the kids sure think so.”

     The invitation was accepted with enthusiasm by Harry, with a more quiet acceptance from Fitz, accompanied by thanks for the bulky preview they were being given of what good food they might be served at a future meal.

     Then Tom asked, looking at Fitz,

     “You been here before, I think?”

     <Damn! I’ve been fingered.>

     “I was by this way some time ago,” he admitted.

     “You got a nice boat,” remarked Tom. “Kids around here like to look at nice boats.”

     Although the man’s eyes were on CRUSTY Fitz felt he knew which boat was being referred to.

     “You have a good trip,” Tom concluded, “And thanks again.”

     As the skiff owner turned and started walking away Fitz caught sight of a uniformed figure moving toward the wharf—at which point Harry decided on something else.

     “Think we need some lemons and parsley for this,” he told Fitz. “Bet that’ll taste great.”

     “Not now Harry,” said Fitz quietly. “Just get in the dinghy.”

     “Just the same, I think we’d better get the lemons and parsley while we’re here,” persisted Harry, imagining a butter and lemon sauce to go with the fish.

     “Get—in—the—dinghy!” enunciated Fitz in the same quiet voice, being well aware of how sounds carry and not wanting to mention the word ‘cop’ because the one owning that title was fast approaching the ramp.

     “Don’t you think that would taste great?” asked Harry, surprised at Fitz’s obtuse demand.

     Fitz, having always been in charge, alone and in total control, unused to being questioned or having anyone remand his edicts, and now having found himself in a position of secondary aboard CRUSTY, because he was deferring to the idea that the skipper was in command, finally lost it.

     “Get the hell into the boat,” he ordered through his teeth in a still quiet but no uncertain tone of voice.

     Harry, startled, saw the ‘That will do for now!’ look of Big Ranulf in his companion’s eyes—and got into the dinghy. Fitz started the motor without looking toward the wharf and took off at an unseemly pace.

     As soon as they were aboard CRUSTY Fitz headed below for the controls and hit the switch for the anchor windlass. It didn’t work.

     “We’ll have to do it by hand,” he growled to Harry. “Come forward.”

     Harry, a bit bewildered by Fitz’s gruff manner, totally oblivious of the fact that the command protocol his companion had been operating with was being abruptly breached, did that.

     They worked the windlass by hand until Fitz said,

     “We’ve broken it loose. Keep hauling.”

     He went swiftly below, started the motor, thankful that it didn’t argue the point, and moved CRUSTY LADY LILY slowly away, seeing the uniform standing on the wharf now, where the dinghy had been tied up.

     “Damn!” he exploded.

     “What’s wrong Fitz?” asked Bettina, seeing his concern.

     “That bloody cop has seen us. We’d better get the hell out of here fast before we turn into celebrities of the kind we don’t want to be. I just hope we’re far enough away from the wharf and the light is bad enough so that he can’t read our name.”

     By the time Harry had managed to get the anchor up and stowed, Fitz had wrestled his temper down enough to allow him to tell the other man,

     “Sorry for the rush but there was a cop coming down the wharf and I was afraid If I said anything to you about it he’d hear.”

     “Oh? Gee, I didn’t see him!” exclaimed Harry, glad to assume that the sudden unhappy change in Fitz’s countenance hadn’t been his fault.

     “You had your back turned,” offered Fitz in a conciliatory manner, while thinking that if Harry had been facing the officer he probably would have gone over and introduced himself.

     “Good thing we left then,” agreed Harry, his spirits heading up since he didn’t feel that Fitz was angry with him—just the uniform and the anchor. “Here Bettina, I’ll help you put things away. Got room for the salmon in the fridge? Guess we better put it away fast, like Tom said. Sure smells good.”

     “That must have been a big one,” remarked Fitz, looking at the big bundle on the table.

     “Like the one that always gets away from Harry,” twigged Bettina.

     “Mine’s bigger than that,” came the prompt laughing reply. “He’s still out there.”

     “Mmmm. Maybe we’ll have to cut it up so we can fit it in,” decided Bettina assessing the size of the gift.

     As she began to unwrap it to carry out her decision an envelope fell out from the first layer of paper.

     “What’s this? A card of thanks?”

     Harry stooped and picked it up, then read aloud what was written on the outside of the envelope.

     “Please give the inside letter to Dancing Water. I am glad they have found good people. I am glad they did not drown. I have told the cops they are visiting with friends in the city and I forgot she said she might take the skiff for a holiday while I was away. They can believe it or not. Thanks again. Tom.”

     The three looked at each other and Harry remarked,

     “Guess we’re not the only thinkers in the world.”

     “Easy as pie huh? As undercover agents we’re the greatest,” remarked Fitz ironically.

     Deflated by their own transparency, they laughed sheepishly together.

     “How come he saw through us?” asked Harry, “Good thing he was the first person we met, or we might have been in trouble.”

     “I’m sure that was no accident,” replied Fitz with conviction as he considered what had taken place. “He lives right there overlooking the harbour entrance. He’s probably been watching everything coming into the wharf like an osprey looking for a fish ever since he got back from wherever he was and found the skiff and those two gone. Probably saw us coming a mile out. He very likely figured Dancing Water would try to get the boat back somehow if she were safe, or perhaps come back herself, and when it took so long I imagine people were getting really worried in case something had happened to her and Heron. Her drunken relatives obviously didn’t report them missing. Scared stiff I guess.”

     “I imagine what they didn’t figure on was how far and how fast she’d go,” suggested Bettina. “They probably expected her to return in a day or two.”

     “Now I think about it,” said Fitz, “Tom would of course figure the boat was not picked up just outside the harbour. Anyone who knows the tides could tell that. If the skiff had just drifted away from the wharf in the night she would have been picked up sooner. She’s been gone too long for that. I should have thought of that. If she’d been drifting she probably would have wound up closer to that village farther south than this one, where the outgoing tide would have carried her—but he seems pretty able to take care of awkward questions, so maybe we don’t need to worry that way. Another thing—it’s been raining a lot. If we’d just found the skiff it would have had a lot of rainwater in it. Was wondering why he ran his hands over everything and made that remark about the weather.”

     “You sure know a lot about the tides and things,” said Harry admiringly, “But maybe your way of speaking probably helped too. You kept saying ‘she’, meaning the boat. He probably thought you meant Dancing Water and Heron. He must have figured we were giving him information in code or something. Boy, he sure was good at not letting on. Guess he thought we wanted him to play along in public as though we really didn’t know anything.”

     “He must have seen me on the wharf when I was here before, and it sounds as though he and Heron talked about JOLLY ROSE, but anyway,” said Fitz with a little sigh of relief that they were on their way out of the harbour without having been questioned, “I’m sure Dancing Water and Heron won’t be followed unless someone’s really determined. Everyone must have known what a tough time she and the boy were having, so probably nobody will be anxious to cause them any more problems. I’m sure if it’s up to Tom Fisher no one else gets to know much. I think maybe you should call Rose in a little while, Bettina, and get Dancing Water to phone Tom. It’ll set his mind at ease. She won’t have to tell him where she is, just that they’re safe.”

     CRUSTY LADY LILY, pulling steadily away, headed out into deeper water, pleased that at least her part in the undertaking hadn’t been so obvious, even if she did happen to be a big, attention getting antique.

- - -

There was an air of relaxation at dinner that evening as they rode to anchor in a small bay where the trees dipped their branches into the high tide, and an interested harbour seal circled nearby, blowing out his breath noisily into the darkness, leaving a trail of phosphorescence to mark his route.

     Fitz, a little ashamed of himself for having lost his temper, decided that he didn’t care what Harry did on the way home—he himself was going to enjoy the return trip now there was no reason to be so watchful.

     < Harry can take it from here. If we get lost I’ll point the way home. If something falls apart I’ll fix it. If the motor quits we’ll sail. If the boat sinks we’ll get off in the dinghy. What the hell—I worry too much these days! Never used to be like that. Careful okay—paranoid—forget it.>

     Harry’s attitude of seeing the world as a wonderful, benign, kind place filled with people of the same ilk seemed to be infectious.

     Smoked salmon and a salad were the main dishes for the table which Bettina set that evening as she told the men,

salmon dinner with lemon     “Okay, dinner’s ready.”

     Fitz couldn’t help remarking, as he watched fresh bread being put beside the other things, and a bottle of Bettina’s wine was added as a finishing touch,

     “This looks like an occasion to remember.”

     “Yum,” agreed Harry, “But I think it would have been even better with parsley and lemon.”

     As the three enjoyed their meal, relieved of their responsibilities, Moon reached out to Venus, anticipating a serene and delightful evening.