Caribbean Crisis

by Desmond Reid

7. deep sea mystery

Blake's mind was reeling as he walked away from the Police Headquarters in the blaze of the Caribbean noon.

Was Tarratona right?

Had the man really been killed?

Had Jules Harben, alias Jakob Kraski, Soviet Master-Spy actually departed this life?

It seemed incredible. Beyond all belief.

Could one of Craille's arch-enemies actually have perished so easily?

If true it represented an ironic twist of fate -- and a tremendous stroke of fortune.

Of all the bizarre ways for a Soviet Master-Spy to die -- in a bathysphere!

And yet, beneath the sudden elation Blake felt a strange uneasiness ... a puzzling insecurity ...

Another hand had intervened somewhere; an unknown quantity was at work; either that or the long arm of coincidence.

If the Harben who had died in the bathysphere was the Harben he was looking for, how had he come to die in such intriguing circumstances?

How had he been killed?

Who had murdered him?

And above all, why had he been murdered?

Blake didn't know the answers to these strange and disturbing questions. But one thing hje did know: he had to find out!

The questions were burning relentlessly in his mind as he strode swiftly away from the city's main plaza, heading for the waterfront in search of a boat that would take him where he wanted to go -- the offshore anchorage of the research ship Gorgon...

*            *            *

The harbour of Carabanos had been built of granite by the Spaniards, two hundred years before. Slave labour had constructed it and Spanish soldiers had garrisoned it.

It was the harbour that Sir Henry Morgan had taken with three small English frigates.

When the Conqueror of Panama had taken Carabanos the port had become the haunt of every freebooter on the Spanish Main. The harbour district was rich with legends concerning Blackbeard, Kidd and Morgan himself.

But now a different kind of pirate had taken over the port -- pirates who called themselves boatmen and hired out motor-vessels to the tourists.

Blake's mind boggled as he saw the prices of hiring. But eventually he got hold of a motor-boat which looked seaworthy, and inquired as to the position of the Gorgon.

Minutes later he was steering the craft out to sea at a steady twelve knots.

The deep waters of the Caribbean were an unusually beautiful turquoise in the noonday sunshine.

Soon, Carabanos lost its appearance of squalor, dirt and disease; from a distance it began to look like a fairy city as Blake's boat throbbed away from the shore.

The sun flashed on white walls and roofs. It was mirrored in the blue-green ocean.

Soon too, the squat, solid ship which was Hoddard Curtis's deep-sea laboratory, came into sight. Lines dangled from derricks over the bow, and the deck-space was littered with diving equipment of all kinds.

A few men dozed among the gear, taking their siesta, but Blake could make out the figure of one man who was hard at work -- a man in white shirt and trousers who was carrying a clip-board and pencil and moving towards the stern.

As Blake drew near he saw that the man was tall and quite young. He had sandy-blond hair and his skin was flayed brown by the wind and sun.

Blake cupped his hands to form a megaphone and shouted over the water: "Ahoy there! Can I come aboard?"

The man stopped and stared at the newcomer for a moment before shouting back: "No reporters allowed!"

Blake drew alongside before replying.

"My name's Blake! I'm not a reporter -- I want to see Professor Curtis!"

The man shrugged. "I'm Curtis -- all right, come aboard."

Blake brought his motor-boat alongside a steel ladder which ran up to the ship's deck. He moored it to one of the rungs and climbed dexterously up the ladder to be greeted by the biologist.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your work professor," he held out a hand to the tall man. "How d'you do?"

"What can I do for you, Mr. Blake?" Curtis inquired. He was not smiling. His mouth was set in a grim, tense line and he was obviously under a great deal of strain.

"I'm interested in a man who signed up with you in Brazil some weeks ago," said Blake. "The name's Harben. I understand from the police that he met with an accident--"

"The police told you?" Curtis frowned. "You must have powerful friends! No-one else has been allowed anywhere near the ship. The information's under censorship and I've been forbidden to talk to the press..."

"Why?" Blake interrupted.

"Search me!" Curtis gave an exasperated shrug. "But it's all so secret no-one knows what's happening. There are two other men here now, searching Harben's cabin -- FBI detectives. Are you from the British police?"

"No," Blake denied. "I'm an insurance claims investigator. I was trying to find Harben because we need him as a witness in a case of arson that happened months ago."

"Well you're too late now," Curtis said grimly. "Harben's dead. And he took all my money with him -- my efforts of years. If you want to see him you'll have to dive a thousand feet down. That's where he is -- in my bathysphere somewhere in the Tarangas Trench... with a knife in his back!"

"How did it happen?" Blake wanted to know.

Curtis told him of the incident and related in bitter terms how he had gone down and found the sphere.

"Maybe I sound callous about Harben's death, but it was his own fault. I wouldn't have minded him killing himself or getting himself killed -- but he had to do it with my sphere!"

"Who was the other man?" Blake demanded.

"A man called Linwood -- Jim Linwood. I never met him. He was an assistant Harben hired while I was away. Some bum mechanic who used to hang around the waterfront cafés."

"That's all you know about him?"

"That's all I want to know. All I want to do is get my sphere back before the water rusts too much of the equipment away."

"You're going to bring her up?"

"As soon as the salvage equipment arrives from the States."

"When will that be?"

"Tomorrow, I hope."

"You mentioned water damaging the sphere -- was the sphere holed?"

Curtis nodded. "Yes -- a small, jagged hole near where the cable was. It looks as though some explosive caused it -- blew the cable apart and sunk the sphere."

"You're sure it was explosive?"

"I'm not sure of anything. For all I know the men may be right. They say it was a sea monster, for Pete's sake."

"A sea monster?" Blake frowned. "That's a bit far-fetched, isn't it?"

Curtis eyed him evenly and shrugged. "Who knows? Strange things have been found in the lower ocean. Dead fins and tentacles, five hundred times bigger than any known beast have been washed up on the beaches before now. Fragments of bone and scales the size of dinner plates... We don't know what lives at the bottom of the Tanangas Trench, Mr. Blake. I've spent years of my life and thousands of dollars trying to find out!"

*            *            *

As Blake frowned throughtfully at this theory, Curtis went on: "Listen -- I'm not saying it was a prehistoric monster but stranger things have happened. All the evidence suggests that even well-known sea-creatures -- whales and dophins -- may have brains not so different from our own. It's not impossible that some form of higher intelligence lurks down there unknown -- the point is we really don't know!"

Blake said thoughtfully: "And if it were true--"

"If it were true it would explain what otherwise remains insoluble -- who killed Harben and how did Linwood disappear!"

"You're sure there's no way Linwood could have killed Harben -- and then got out of the bathysphere?" Blake asked.

"Impossible!" said Curtis. "Harben was more than seven hundred feet down before he suddenly started screaming for help. No man could have got out at that depth. It isn't just a question of surviving -- he could never have got the hatch of the sphere closed again!"

Curtis glanced towards two nearby Indians who were members of his crew. He lowered his voice.

"In any case, Harben's cries for help gave no indication he'd been stabbed. He screamed out because he'd seen something -- something uncanny and terrifying, something he called horrible and disgusting -- outside the sphere! Then contact was severed and the sphere sank."

Blake nodded grimly as he digested these facts. Whatever the ultimate explanation of the mystery, it seemed an inescapable certainty that both Harben and Linwood were dead.

Just then two men came up on deck and walked towards the detective and biologist.

They both wore fedora hats and highly-polished tan shoes; light-weight grey suits and pastel coloured ties.

They were obviously the two FBI men Curtis had mentioned earlier.

One was lean and looked as though he had been carved out of rock. There wasn't an ounce of surplus fat on him. His skin was swarthy and he was obviously an emigré from the south of the US border -- a Mexican. He walked delicately, like a girl, but there was nothing feminine about him for all that.

Probably the FBI had recruited him because he spoke Spanish. His companion was taller, beefier, with cynical grey eyes.

As they approached, the Mexican confronted the biologist and jerked a thumb at Blake. "Who's this?"

"My name's Blake," the detective spoke up with an edge on his voice.

"Didn't the local cops tell you this ship's off limits to the Press?"

"Mr. Blake isn't a newsman," Professor Curtis put in. "He's an insurance investigator."

"Okay, we'll handle this," the Mexican told him.

To Blake's surprise, Curtis merely nodded to the FBI man and moved off! He went about his work leaving Blake to face the questioners alone.

"I think we'll maybe ask you some questions, Mr. Blake," said the Mexican.

Blake smiled easily. "By all means, Mr. --"

"Navarro. Lieutenant Navarro. This is my colleague, Lieutenant Kellaher, FBI."

"How can I help you?" Blake inquired.

"What are you doing aboard this ship?" demanded the beefy man, Kellaher.

"I'm a private investigator," Blake produced one of his professional cards. "I'm here to represent a client in London."

The two men examined the card suspiciously. "British, huh?" Kellaher looked at him. "Investigating what?"

"Trying to trace a seaman who's needed as a witness in an arson case. We heard he'd signed on with the Gorgon..."

"What name?"

"Harben," Blake said evenly. "Jules Harben."

The two men looked at each other. They both looked at Blake.

The Mexican said grimley: "Come into the cabin."

*            *            *

Inside the cabin, stacked high with electronic equipment, diving gear, winch meters and air regulators, and Sonar, the underwater radar, Blake realised what the loss of the sphere really meant to Curtis. Without it, most of the other equipment was useless.

He seated himself casually upon a small table and said: "Very well, Lieutenant Navarro, what do you want to know?"

"Who you're working for?" demanded the Mexican.

Blake paused. He studied the coal-black eyes of the fierce Mexican and said slowly: "I'd like to see your means of identification."

The Mexican glowered. "We'll ask the questions!" He snarled. "We're agents of the Federal Government and this is a United States ship!"

Blake said slowly: "This ship is moored in Maliban territorial waters -- and outside the American jurisdiction. I'm not obliged to answer your questions."

The Mexican's face turned ugly but the man called Kellaher intervened smoothly. "The man's right. Mr. Blake is not obliged to answer us..." He addressed Blake. "All we are asking for is a little friendly co-operation, Mr. Blake. We have reason to believe that Jules Harben was murdered by communist agents who are plotting to overthrow the Maliban Government. If you know something about Harben we may be able to exchange information ... as between friendly allies, huh..."

Blake thought grimly that it would be a poor exchange. The suggestion was also an unorthodox one, to say the least. Craille's security regulations did not permit him to do arbitrary deals with foreign agents -- even FBI agents; but in any case the detective wasn't convinced that these two men were actually from the FBI.

He said: "I know nothing about that. I'm just a private detective visiting Maliba to represent various clients in London. I was trying to find Harben for the Amethyst Insurance Company."

Kellaher turned to Navarro with a shrug. "Could be true, Navarro."

The Mexican looked suspicious. "Who else are you working for?"

"Sir Gordon Sellingham, the sugar magnate. I've been commissioned to trace his son Peter."

"Peter Sellingham?" Kellaher frowned.

"You've heard of him?" Blake asked.

"Sure. He used to hang around the skid-row area. Tried to look the part of a hobo, but it didn't come off. Stuck a pair of shades on his nose and played at Secret Agent X. Sure, I hard of him."

"Do you know where he is now?"

"Nope. Maybe the Maliba Government had him bumped off -- he was pretty free with his dough and gave a lot to the rebel riff-raff around the waterfront. I wouldn't know. He may have gone into hiding... we're not interested in Sellingham."

Kellaher turned to the Mexican. "I think this guy's straight, Navarro."

The Mexican still looked suspicious but he said: "Okay, Blake, you can go. But keep your nose clean, huh?"

Blake rose. He nodded to Kellaher then turned without a word and left the cabin.

On deck he found Curtis leaning over the ship's rail. The Professor turned with a faint smile.

"So you're in the clear?"

"Yes -- some misunderstanding." Blake hesitated. "Just so there's no mistale about the dead man's identity -- do you think I could be here tomorrow when you salvage the sphere?"

Curtis shrugged. "Why not?"

Blake smiled and thanked him.

"Okay," Curtis said, "I'll see you." His face was grim as he watched Blake go.

Blake was deep in thought as he climbed down the ladder into his motor boat and began his return journey to the harbour.

If Professor Curtis's account of the bathysphere incident was true, there could no longer be any doubt about Harben's fate.

Jules Harbem alias Jakob Kraski, Soviet Master-Spy, was dead. In twenty-four hours, all being well, Blake would even be able to see him buried!

That would be good news for Craille.

But meanwhile, other problems remained.

Blake had still to locate Peter Sellingham; he had still to get the list of Soviet agents Craille had asked for; he had still to learn exactly how Harben had died; and he had still to learn why the Maliba police had imposed censorship on the bathysphere incident.

Had Captain Tarratona censored news of the bathysphere at the request of Navarro and Kellaher? Where did the two FBI men fit in -- if indeed they were FBI men?

The business of the censorship was puzzling.

But even more puzzling was something else:

If Captain Tarratona was so anxious to suppress all details of the bathysphere incident, wht had be been so ready to reveal the name of the murdered man -- Jules Harben?

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