Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings Chapter 14

Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings Chapter 14

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Down to the Harbor

Down to the harbor they went – past the condos, the cane fields, the golf course, the Burger King, the Buddhist cemetery with its great green Buddha blissed out by the sea, past the steak houses, the tourist traps, the old guy riding down Front Street on a girl’s bike with a macaw perched on his head – down to the harbor they went. They waved to the researchers at the fuel dock, nodded to the haglets at the charter booths, shakaed the divemasters and the captains, and schlepped science stuff down the dock to start their day.

Tako Man stood in the back of his boat eating a breakfast of rice and octopus as the Maui Whale crew – Clay, Quinn, Kona, and Amy – passed by. He was a strong, compact Malaysian with long hair and a stringy soul-patch beard that, along with the bone fishhooks he wore in his ears, gave him the distinct aspect of a pirate. He was one of the black-coral divers who lived in the harbor, and this morning, as always, he wore his wet suit.

“Hey, Tako,” Clay said. The diver glanced up from his bowl. His eyes looked as if someone had poured shots of blood into them. Kona noticed that the small octopus in the diver’s bowl was still moving, and he scampered down the dock feeling a case of the creeps fluttering to life in his spinal cord.

“Nightwalkers, gray ones, on your boat last night. I seen them,” said Tako Man. “Not the first time.”

“Good to know,” said Clay, patronizing the diver and moving down the dock. You had to keep peace with anyone who lived in the harbor, especially the black-coral divers, who lived far over the edge of what most people would consider normal life. They shot heroin, drank heavily, spent all day doing bounce dives to two hundred feet looking for the gemstone-valuable black coral, then spent their money on weeklong parties that had, more than once, ended with one of them dead on the dock. They lived on their boats and ate rice and whatever they could pull out of the sea. Tako Man had gotten his name because on any given afternoon, after the divers came in for the day, you’d see the grizzled Malaysian carrying a net bag full of tako (octopus) that he had speared on the reef for their supper.

“Hi,” Amy said sheepishly to Tako Man as they passed. He glared at her through his bloody haze, and his head bobbed as he almost nodded out into his breakfast. Amy quickened her pace and ran a Pelican case she was carrying into the back of Quinn’s thigh.

“Jeez, Amy,” Quinn said, having almost lost his footing.

“Do those guys dive in that condition?” Amy whispered, still sticking to Quinn like a shadow.

“Worse than that. Would you back up a little?”

“He’s scary. You’re supposed to protect me, ya mook. How do they keep from getting into trouble?”

“They lose one or two a year. Ironically, it’s usually an overdose that gets them.”

“Tough job.”

“They’re tough guys.”

Tako Man shouted, “Fuck you, whale people! You’ll see. Fucking nightwalker fuckers. Fucking fuck you, haole motherfuckers!” He tossed the remains of his breakfast at them. It landed overboard, and tiny fish broke the water fighting for the scraps.

“Rum,” said Kona. “Too much hostility in dat buzz. Rum come from da cane, and cane come from slavin’ the people, and dat oppression all distilled in de bottle and come out a man mean as cat shit on a day.”

“Yeah,” said Clay to Quinn. “Didn’t you know that about rum?”

“Where’s your boat?” asked Quinn.

“My boat?”

“Your boat, Clay,” said Amy.

“No,” said Clay. He stopped and dropped two cases of camera equipment on the dock. The Always Confused, the spiny and powerful twenty-two-foot Grady White center-console fisherman, Clay’s pride and joy, was gone. A life jacket, a water bottle, and various other familiar flotsam bobbed gently in a rainbow slick of gasoline where the boat had once been.

Everyone thought someone else should say something, but for a full minute no one did. They just stood there, staring at what should have been Clay’s boat but instead was a big, boatless gob of tropical air.

“Poop,” Amy finally said, saying it for all of them.

“We should check with the harbormaster,” said Nate.

“My boat,” said Clay, who stood over the empty slip as if it were his recently run-over boyhood dog. He would have nuzzled it and stroked its little dead doggy ears if he could have, but instead he fished the oily life jacket out of the water and sat on the dock rocking it.

“He really liked that boat,” Amy said.

“Can I get a duh for the sistah?” exclaimed the dreaded blond kid.

“I paid the insurance,” Nate said as he moved away, headed for the harbormaster.

Tako Man had come down the dock from his own boat to stare at the empty water. Somber now. Amy backed up into Kona for protection, but Kona had backed up into the next person behind him, which turned out to be Captain Tarwater, resplendent in his navy whites and newly Kona-scuffed shoes.

“Irie, ice cream man.”

“You’re on my shoes.”

“What happened?” asked Cliff Hyland, coming down the dock behind the captain.

“Clay’s boat’s gone,” said Amy.

Cliff moved up and put his hand on Clay’s shoulder. “Maybe someone just borrowed it.” Clay nodded, acknowledging that Cliff was trying to comfort him, but comfort fell like sandwiches on the recently bombed.

By the time Quinn returned from the harbormaster’s office with a Maui cop in tow, there were a half dozen biologists, three black-coral divers, and a couple from Minnesota who were taking pictures of the whole thing, thinking that this would be something they would want to remember if they ever found out what was happening. As the cop approached, the black-coral divers faded to the edges of the crowd and away.

Jon Thomas Fuller, the scientist/entrepreneur who was accompanied by three of his cute female naturalists, stepped up beside Quinn. “This is just horrible, Nate. Just horrible. That boat represented a major capital investment for you guys, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, but mainly we liked to think of it as something that floated and moved us around on the water.” Nate actually had a great capacity for sarcasm, but he usually reserved it for those things and people he found truly irritating. Jon Thomas Fuller was truly irritating.

“Going to be tough to replace it.”

“We’ll manage. It was insured.”

“You might want to get something bigger this time. I know there’s a measure of safety working off of these sixty-five-footers we have, but also with the cabin you can set up computers, bow cameras, a lot of things that aren’t really possible on little speedboats. A good-size boat would add a lot of legitimacy to your operation.”

“We sort of decided to go with the legitimacy we get from doing credible research, Jon Thomas.”

“We didn’t make those figures up.” Fuller caught himself raising his voice. The cop interviewing Clay looked over his shoulder, and Fuller lowered his tone. “That was just professional jealousy on the part of our detractors.”

“Your detractors were the facts. What did you expect when your paper concluded that humpbacks actually enjoyed being struck by Jet Skis?”

“Some do.” Fuller pushed back his pith helmet and ventured a smile of sincerity, which collapsed under its own weight.

“What’s your angle, Jon Thomas?”

“Nate, I can get you a boat like ours, with all the trimmings, and an operating budget, and you’d just have to do one little project for me. One season of work, maximum. And your operation can keep the boat, sell it, do whatever you want.”

Unless Fuller was about to ask him to shove him off the dock into the oily water, Quinn pretty much knew he was going to turn down the offer, but he had to ask. Those were really nice boats. “Make your proposal.”

“I need you to put your name on a study that says that human-dolphin interaction facilities are not harmful to the animals, and do a study that says that building one at La Perouse Bay wouldn’t have a negative impact on the environment. Then I’d need you to stand up at the appropriate meetings and make the case.”

“I’m not your guy, Jon Thomas. First, I’m not a dolphin guy, and you know that.” Nate avoided adding what he wanted to say, which was Second, you are a feckless weasel out to make a buck without any consideration for science or the animals you study. Instead he said, “There are dozens of people doing studies on captive dolphins. Why don’t you go to them?”

“I have the animal study. You don’t have to do the study. I just want your name on it.”

“Won’t the people who actually did the study have some objection to that?”

“No. They’ll be fine with it. I need your name and your presence, Nate.”

“I don’t think so. I can’t see myself testifying before impact committees and county planning boards.”

“Okay, fair enough. Clay or Amy can do the stand-ups. Just put your name on the paper and do the environmental impact study. I need the credibility of your name.”

“Which I won’t have as soon as I let you use me. I’m sorry, but my name is all I really have to show for twenty-five years of work. I can’t sell it out, even for a really nice boat.”

“Oh, right, the nobility of starvation. Fuck that, Nate, and fuck your high ideals. I’m doing more for these animals by exposing the public to them than you’ll do in a lifetime of graphing out songs and recording behavior. And before you retire to your ivory tower on the ethical high ground, you’d better take a good look at your people. That kid is a common thief, and no one has ever heard of your precious new assistant.” Fuller turned and signaled to his chorus line of whalettes that they were going to their boat.

Quinn looked for Amy, saw her on the other side of the cop who was talking to Clay, helping him fill in details. He ran up behind Fuller, grabbed the smaller man’s arm, and spun him around. “What are you talking about? Amy studied at Woods Hole, with Tyack and Loughten.”

“That right? Well, maybe you’d better give them a call and ask them. Because they’ve never heard of her. Despite what you think, I do my research, Nate. Do you? Now, get back to your one-boat operation, would you.”

“If I find out you had anything to do with this…”

Fuller wrenched his arm out of Quinn’s grip and grinned. “Right, you’ll what? Become more irrelevant? Screw you, Nate.”

“What did you say?”

But Fuller ignored him and boarded his million-dollar research vessel, while Quinn skulked back down the dock to his friends. Oily flotsam seemed to be losing its allure, however, and the crowd had dispersed somewhat, leaving only Amy, Clay, the cop, and the couple from Minnesota.

“You. You’re somebody aren’t you?” asked the woman as Nate walked up. “Honey, this guy is someone. I remember seeing him on the Discovery Channel. Get my picture with him.”

“Who is he?” said «honey» as his wife took Nate by the arm and posed like he’d just handed her a check.

“I don’t know, one of those ocean guys,” she said through a grin, acting as if she were posing with one of the carved statues that decorated doorways around Lahaina. “Just take the picture.”

“Are you one of those Cousteau fellas?”

“Oui,” said Nate. “Now I muss speak with my good fren’ Sylvia Earle,” he continued in his French-by-way-of-British-Columbia-and-Northern-California fake accent as he went over to Amy. “I need to talk to you.”

“Sylvia Earle! She’s a National Geographic person. Get their picture together, honey.”

“He’s lying, Nathan,” Amy said. “You can check if you want. It was all on the resume I gave to Clay.” She didn’t appear angry, just hurt, betrayed perhaps. Her eyes were huge and teary, and she was starting to look vaguely like one of those creepy Keane sad-eyed-kid pictures. Quinn felt like he’d just smacked a bag of kittens against a truck bumper.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just… well, Jon Thomas is an asshole. I let him get to me.”

“It’s okay,” Amy sniffed. “It’s just… just… I’ve worked so hard.”

“I don’t need to check, Amy. You do good work. My fault for doubting you. Let’s get Clay squared away and get to work.”

He tentatively put his arm around her and walked her back to where Clay was finishing up his interview with the cop. Clay saw the tear tracks down Amy’s face and immediately took her in his arms and pressed her head to his shoulder. “I know, honey. I know. It was a great boat, but it was just a boat. We’ll get another one.”

“Where’s Kona?” Nate asked.

“He was around here a second ago,” said Clay.

Just then Nate’s cell phone rang. He worked it out of his shirt pocket and answered it. “Nathan, it’s me,” said the Old Broad. Nate covered the mouthpiece. “It’s the Old Broad,” Nate said to Clay.

“Amy, you go round up Kona while I finish up with the officer, okay?” Clay said.

Amy nodded and was off down the dock. Clay turned back to the officer.

The Old Broad went on, “Nathan, I spoke to that big male again today, and he definitely wants you to take a hot pastrami on rye with you when you go out. He said it’s very important.”

“I’m sure it is, Elizabeth, but I’m not sure we’re even going out today. Something’s happened to Clay’s boat. It’s gone.”

“Oh, my, he must be distraught. I’ll come down and look after him, but you have to get out in the channel today. I just feel it’s very important.”

“I don’t think you’ll need to come down, Elizabeth. Clay will manage.”

“Well, if you say so, but you have to promise me you’ll go out today.”

“I promise.”

“And you’ll take a pastrami on rye for that big male.”

“I’ll try, Elizabeth. I have to go now, Clay needs me for something.”

“With Swiss cheese and hot mustard!” the Old Broad said as Nate disconnected.

Clay thanked the policeman, who nodded to Quinn as he walked off. Even the couple from Minnesota had moved on, and only Clay and Quinn were left on the dock. “Where are the kids?” asked Nate, cringing at the whole idea: he and Clay, the middle-aged couple being responsible and boring while the kids went off to play and have adventures.

“I asked Amy to find Kona. They could be anywhere.”

“Clay, I need to ask you something before they get back.”

“Shoot.”

“Did you check any of Amy’s references before you hired her? I mean, did you call anyone? Woods Hole? Her undergrad school – what was it?”

“Cornell. Nope. She was smart, she was cute, she seemed to know what she was talking about, and she said she’d work for free. The bona fides looked good on paper. Gift horse, Nate.”

“Jon Thomas Fuller said that he checked and that no one at Woods Hole has heard of her.”

“Fuller’s an asshole. Look, I don’t really care if she finished high school. The kid has proven herself. She’s got balls.”

“Still, maybe I should call Tyack. Just in case.”

“If you need to. Call him this afternoon when you get back in.”

“I’m sure Fuller was just yanking my chain. He tried to offer us a boat like his if we backed his dolphin-park project.”

“And you turned him down?”

“Of course.”

“But those are really nice boats. Our armada has been reduced by fifty percent. Our nautical resources have declined by more than one-half. Our boatage is deficient by point five.”

“What’s up?” Amy said. She’d come back down the dock and seemed to have shaken off her earlier melancholy.

“Clay’s being scientific. Fuller offered us a sixty-foot research vessel like his, with operating budget, if we back his dolphin project.”

“Do I have to sleep with him?”

“We haven’t put that on the table,” Clay said, “but I’ll bet we could get a sonar array if you’re enthusiastic.”

“Hell, Nate, take it,” Amy said.

“It would mean selling out my credibility,” said Quinn, appalled at what total whores his colleagues had become. “We’d be going over to the dark side.”

Amy shrugged. “Those are really nice boats.” The corner of her mouth twitched as if she was trying not to grin, and Nate realized that she was probably goofing on him.

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Nice.” Clay was goofing, too. He’d be all right. Nate shook his head, looking as if he were fighting disbelief, but actually he was trying to shake the memory of his dream of driving a big cabin cruiser through the streets of Seattle with Amy displayed as the bikinied figurehead. “If you’re okay, Clay, we really should get out before the wind comes up.”

“Go,” Clay said. “I’ll get the police report for the insurance company.” To Amy he said, “You find Kona?”

“He’s down there with that Tako guy.”

“What’s he doing down there?”

“It looked like he was building a saxophone. I didn’t go close.”

Quinn strode down the dock and looked to where Kona was talking with Tako Man. “No, that’s his bong. It breaks down for easy portage.”

“What’s a bong?”

“Cute, Amy. Help me get the equipment in the boat.”

Suddenly Kona started shouting and running down the dock toward them. “Bwanas! I found the boat!”

Clay perked up. “Where?”

“Right there. Tako Man says it’s right there. He dove down there this morning.”

Kona was pointing to a patch of murky jade green water in the center of the harbor. Jade green because of all the waste flushed from the live-aboards, as well as the bait, fish guts, seasickness, and bird poop that went into the water faster than the scavengers could clean it out, and so it caused a perpetual algae bloom.

“My boat,” said Clay, looking forlornly at the empty water.

Amy stepped up and put her arm around Clay’s shoulders to resume stage-two comfort. “He dove in that water?”

“The nightwalkers sank it, Bwana Clay. Tako Man saw them. Skinny blue-gray guys. He called them nightwalkers. I think aliens.”

“Aliens are always gray, aren’t they?” inquired Quinn.

“That’s what I say to him,” said Kona. “But he say no, not with the lightbulb head. He say they tall and froggy.”

“You’re high,” said Clay.

“Tako Man got dank mystical buds, brah. Was a spiritual duty.”

“He’s not criticizing you, Kona,” Quinn explained. “We just assume that you’re high. Clay’s just doubting the credibility of your story.”

“You don’t believe I? Give a man a mask, I’ll dive down and get a ting off da boat for proof.”

“Hepatitis, that’s what you’ll bring up,” said Amy.

“I’m going to work,” said Nate.

“My boat,” said Clay.

Nate decided that perhaps he should offer a measure of solace. “Look at the bright side, Clay. At least whales are big.”

“How is that the bright side?”

“We could be studying viruses. You have any idea what it costs to replace a scanning electron microscope?”

“My boat,” said Clay.