Authors: Willard Price
South Sea Adventure
By Willard Price
John Hunt put down the phone. He sat for a moment, thinking, tapping his pencil nervously on his desk.
The roar of lions, scream of hyenas, cough of jaguars, came in the open window - sounds strange to hear within an hour’s journey of New York. They were nothing new to the man at the desk. He was an animal collector. It was his business to bring them back alive from the ends of the earth, keep them in his animal farm until called for, then sell them to zoos, menageries, circuses, motion-picture companies - anyone who might have use for any sort of wild creature from an African elephant to a titmouse.
But he had never had so strange a request as the one that had just come over the phone.
‘Hal!’ he called. ‘Come in - and bring Roger with you.’
When his sons entered, they found him studying a wall map of the Pacific. He turned to them.
‘Well, boys,’ he said as casually as if he were merely proposing an afternoon’s picnic, ‘how soon can you take off for the South Seas?’
‘Dad, you don’t mean it!’ exploded thirteen-year-old Roger.
His big brother, Hal, with the calm of a young man about to enter the university, managed to suppress his excitement. Hal was not going to let a little thing like the South Seas make him act like a juvenile.
After all, wasn’t he an experienced animal man? He and his kid brother had just come back from an animal hunt in the Amazon jungle - a story already told in the book Amazon Adventure. They had brought home living specimens of the jaguar, ant bear, vampire bat, anaconda, boa-constrictor, sloth, and tapir. Surely their father could not have in mind any creature of the South Seas that would be stranger or more difficult to capture than these.
John Hunt looked at his sons proudly. Roger was still too young and too full of mischief to make a first-rate animal man; but Hal was a steady fellow. He was larger and stronger than his father. Leaving him in charge of an expedition in the Amazon wilds had been a risky experiment - but it had paid off. He could be trusted now with a bigger job.
‘You know I promised you a trip to the South Seas if you made a success of the Amazon project. I didn’t expect it would come so soon. But I’ve just had an urgent call - from Henry Bassin. You’ve heard his name.’
‘He made a fortune in steel,’ remembered Hal. ‘What does he want with animals?’
‘He’s building a private aquarium on his estate. He says he wants the strangest things from the Seven Seas. He has one big pool reserved for - what do you think?’ ‘Sea lions,’ said Hal contemptuously. ‘No. A giant octopus.’ Hal forgot his poise. ‘Not one of those monsters thirty
feet across! How could we ever get it? He’s asking the impossible.’
‘But that’s not all,’ went on his father, consulting a pad on which he had pencilled his notes. ‘He wants a tiger shark, a flying gurnard, a grampus, a sea lizard, a dugong, a conger-eel, one of those huge clams that are fond of catching divers between their jaws, a manta or sea bat…’
‘Why, they grow big enough to sink a boat.’ said Hal in dismay. ‘How…’
‘A sea centipede,’ continued Hunt, ‘a sawfish, and a swordfish, and a giant squid … yes,’ he added, enjoying the startled expression on Hal’s face, ‘the squid that grows tentacles up to forty feet long, has suction cups as big as plates, and an eye fifteen inches across … the one that has earned for itself the pleasant name of ‘nightmare of the Pacific’.’
‘But how would we ever get such big specimens home?’ ‘You’ll charter a schooner with tanks big enough for two or three such specimens at a time. These can be transferred to freighters and shipped home.’
‘Oh, boy!’ Roger began to dance. ‘Well sail our own schooner?’
‘Nothing elaborate,’ warned his father. ‘No yacht Just a fishing boat You’ll fly from here to San Francisco, get a boat there, and take on a crew. Then get to work. Of course Bassin’s job is only part of it You’ll collect other specimens, large and small that are in demand by public aquariums. Perhaps I’ll send you more assignments as you go along. It depends on your performance. You’ve been wanting to skip a year of school because you’re both too young for your classes. That may be a good idea. I’ll try to give you more education in a year than you could get in a classroom. There are jobs in Japan, Alaska, Africa, waiting to be done. Whether you get to do them depends upon you’
He looked wistfully out of the window.
‘I wish I could go with you - but there’s too much here to attend to. Besides,’ he sighed, ‘I’m afraid I’m getting too old for that sort of rough-and-tumble.’
The eagerness of the boys as contrasted with the weariness of the older man showed that it was exactly the idea of rough-and-tumble that appealed to them.
‘How soon can we get off?’ asked Hal.
‘Just as soon as you can pack and get seats in a plane. By the way - before you leave, drop around to see Professor Stuyvesant. He asked me to let him know next time I sent anybody down Pacific way. He has a project out there that he wants somebody to look in on. Something to do with pearls.’
‘Close the door,’ said the professor. ‘We must not be overheard.’
Hal closed the door and resumed his seat beside Roger at the scientist’s desk. Professor Stuyvesant glanced about the room as if he feared that even the walls might have ears. They had - but all the ears were deaf. The famous zoologist was surrounded by friends he could trust not to listen and not to talk. Some were stuffed and some were pickled, but they were all alike in one way - they were all thoroughly dead. Auks, penguins, terns, moonfish, peacock fish, sea bass, tuna, mullet, hermit crabs, jellyfish, puffers, porpoises, and porcupine fish stood in rows on shelves that lined the walls from floor to ceiling.
Dr Richard Stuyvesant was a world authority on sea life. He conducted an advanced course in the university and was executive secretary of the National Oceanographic Institute. He knew the oceans. He knew fish. His researches in the employ of great commercial fishing interests of America, England, and Norway had brought him such rewards that he had been able to buy this big gloomy old mansion and convert it into a great laboratory. In nearly every room there were tanks and a fish-breeding experiment of one sort or another was going on.
The grey-haired professor lowered his head so that he could peer at his visitors sharply through the upper part of his trifocals.
‘Your father tells me that you are making an expedition to the Pacific,’ he said, and smiled. ‘You seem rather young for such a responsibility.’
‘But we have had some experience,’ said Hal, and outlined briefly the expedition to the Amazon.
‘Well,’ reflected the scientist, ‘I have known your father for many years and have the utmost confidence in him -and so must have confidence in you too. I must say at the start that this matter is highly confidential. And rather dangerous too. You see, there’s a valuable secret involved. Twice my life has been threatened if I did not divulge this secret. Three times this room has been entered by unknown persons at night and my files ransacked. They didn’t find what they wanted - because it’s not written down. It’s no place but here,’ and he tapped his forehead.
‘To do the errand I have in mind,’ went on the professor, ‘you will have to know this secret. But if you know it, you are likely to be annoyed as I have been by the person or persons who are trying to steal this information. Perhaps you would rather not run this risk?’ He looked inquiringly at Hal. Tell us more about the project,’ Hal suggested. The professor fished a map out of a drawer and opened it on the desk. Roger felt electric sparks move along his spine. Was this a pirate chart of buried treasure of the sort he had read about in tales of roving swashbucklers and Spanish galleons? But then he saw it was only a National Geographic map of the western Pacific from Hawaii to Taiwan. It was a big map and spattered with myriads of islands never shown on smaller maps.
Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, were familiar names. But the professor’s pencil circled an area littered with islands bearing such names as Ponape, Truk, Yap, Olol, Losap, Pakin, Pingelap, and many others as peculiar.
‘This is the blind spot of the Pacific,’ said the professor. ‘There are twenty-five hundred nearly unknown islands in this area. For thirty years they constituted the Japanese mandate and Japan jealously kept foreign ships out of these seas. During World War H a few, a very few, of these islands were the scene of fighting but most of them were bypassed by Allied ships on their way to Japan. Now all the islands of what was the Japanese mandate are a trusteeship placed by the United Nations under control of the United States - and on some of the islands you will find American naval stations. The boys of the navy have a pretty lonesome time out there. It’s almost like a lost world.
‘Now, the good thing about this lost World so far as you and I are concerned, is that it is the best place in the Pacific to collect marine specimens and it also happens to be the scene of my pearl farm.’
‘Pearls!’ exclaimed Roger under his breath.
Dr Stuyvesant put the point of his pencil on the island named Ponape. ‘North of this island - I won’t say just how far - there, is a small uninhabited atoll. It is too small to show on this map and since it is quite off the paths of ocean travel, it does not even appear on nautical charts. I have chosen to call it Pearl Lagoon. I am conducting an experiment in that lagoon.
‘The most beautiful pearls in the world are produced in the Persian Gulf. Five years ago I collected twenty thousand Persian Gulf oysters and transported them under natural conditions of habitat to my Pearl Lagoon. I brought also large quantities of the organisms that are the customary food of these oysters. I am trying to reproduce the Persian Gulf in Pearl Lagoon and I hope to show that it is possible to raise pearls in the American Trusteeship, as well as in adjacent British waters, equal to the finest to be found anywhere.
It is time to see how my experiment is working out. I can’t go myself, and I can’t afford to send someone for that purpose alone. But perhaps in the course of your other duties you could stop by at Pearl Lagoon and get me some specimens from my oyster beds. Of course I’ll take care of any expense involved in this side trip.’
‘It sounds like a mighty interesting assignment,’ said Hal. ‘Naturally we’d have to know the exact location of Pearl Lagoon.’
‘Exactly. And that is the secret.’ He glanced about. Then he leaned forward and fixed Hal with his penetrating gaze. ‘Do you have a curious feeling that we are being overheard?’ ‘Not particularly,’ smiled Hal.
The professor smiled back and shrugged his shoulders. T’m probably just imagining things. It’s all this trouble -threatening letters - intruders at night. And yet I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a dictograph planted somewhere in this room, and someone listening at the other end of the wire. I’ve searched, but couldn’t find a thing.
‘But I’m sure that all I have told you so far is already known to my enemies. And what I’m about to tell you now they won’t hear.’
He tore a slip of paper from a pad and wrote on it: N. Lat. 11.34. E. Long. 158.12. He pushed the paper before the boys. ‘This is the first time these figures have been written down and I hope the last time. I suggest you commit them to memory. They are the bearings of Pearl Lagoon. You must never write them down and never speak them to anyone.’
The boys concentrated on the task of memorizing the bearings - North Latitude 11 degrees 34 minutes, East Longitude 158 degrees 12 minutes.
When the professor was satisfied that the lesson had been learned he turned over the slip and drew an irregular outline. ‘The lagoon,’ he said. ‘This direction is north. The oyster bed is here,’ and he placed the point of his pencil on a cove in the northeast corner of the lagoon.
Again he paused to let this information take root in the boys’ minds.
Then he struck a match and burned the paper to a crisp. He placed the charred remains between his palms and rubbed them until there was nothing left but fine ashAs the boys came out of the house to regain their father’s car in which they had made the trip to the city, Hal noticed a man come hurriedly from the next house. The man’s face could not be seen and there was nothing noticeable about him except the slight hunch of his back. He got into a black sedan.
Hal would not have noticed these details if he had not been keyed up by the curious interview of the last half-hour with its air of secrecy and suspicion.
He drove out to the animal farm. As he entered the home driveway he saw a black sedan go by and continue down the highway.
Hal felt a sudden impulse to give chase. He began to whirl his car about.
‘Hey, what’s the idea?’ Roger protested.
Hal laughed, straightened out, and drove on to the house. He told himself that he was letting his imagination run away with him. Why should he suppose that the car he had just seen was the same as the one he had noticed in town? The world was full of black sedans.
And yet, suppose someone had seen them go into the scientist’s house and come out again. Suppose he had even heard their conversation. Suppose the professor’s enemy was now their enemy too. Suppose that by following them to the Hunt Animal Farm he now knew where they lived and that their name was Hunt. What would his next move be?