Bulletproof

CHAPTER 1

 

Early morning sunlight danced on the waters of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, and a light breeze caressed Eldrid’s sails as she slipped through the gentle swell. Gulls soared overhead, adding their plaintive cry to the gentle whisper of water lapping against the boat’s hull.
    Sadly, even an idyllic July morning such this can take a turn for the worse.
    For one thing, like most summer days on the bay, that light breeze would become a stiff southerly by afternoon, whipping up the short, steep chop for which Buzzards Bay was famous.
    Eldrid was a 32-foot double-ended cutter, which could trace her lineage back to the Norwegian sailing lifeboats whose seaworthiness was legendary. From a distance, Eldrid’s varnished spruce mast, snow-white sails, and shiny black hull made the boat appear a lot newer than she really was. Anyone who chose to look more closely, however, could detect tell-tale irregularities in the planking and worn areas on the teak deck.
    Out of sight, in the dark corners of the bilge, rot slowly ate away at the sixty-year-old fabric of the vessel.
    Frank Carlson, sitting at Eldrid’s helm in the early morning sun, was in his early sixties, with thinning gray hair, an open, jovial face, and just enough extra weight to elicit mild lectures from his doctor.
    Frank was well aware of the decay’s stealthy progress beneath his feet. But there was another, more pernicious rot that worried him more. Eldrid could wait until fall to be repaired, some new planks and perhaps a frame or two would probably be enough. Pearly Gates, in his Maine boatyard, could be counted on to do the job.
    No, the decay that preyed on Frank’s mind was more urgent and harder to ignore.
    He tried forcing himself to think about more pleasant things: the morning sun warming his back and painting the sail a dazzling white, Eldrid’s gentle motion, the faint creak of her gaff against the mast. Yet try as he might, doubts and questions kept rising up from the subconscious murk like dark specters. Had he done the right thing? Could he have handled the matter differently? He had gone to Bob and Harry with his discovery, and had been assured they would take care of the situation and he had nothing to worry about. “Be patient, we’re working on it,” they had said.
    The whispering, the innuendo, the feeling of being watched, had begun almost immediately, along with the subtle pressure and friendly advice, all building, day by day. The security breach came a week later, turning innuendo into accusation and threats, and suddenly he had become the villain. Was it always this way for whistle-blowers?
    Three weeks had passed since it all began and there were still no answers. Indeed, an eerie, ominous silence had descended over the last few days.
    How much longer could he stand it?
    Frank sighed and once again forced his mind onto happier thoughts. Eldrid might be a bit long in the tooth and a little punky in spots but she was still a solid, seaworthy vessel.
    This Saturday, like many others, found him sailing alone on an overnight cruise down the length of Buzzards Bay. Eldrid wasn’t fast, but she comfortable, solid, and small enough for him to sail single-handed on short trips like this one.
    Frank had left Fairhaven, located at the southern end of Buzzards Bay, right after breakfast and planned to arrive in Onset at the northern end by early afternoon.
    He felt something vibrating in the pocket of his windbreaker. Startled—he’d certainly been on edge lately—and surprised that it was seven o’clock already, he extracted a round pill box that Diana gave him yesterday. His wife wasn’t normally a gadget person, but she had found the thing, discovered it could be set to vibrate or beep like a cell phone, and gave it to him, knowing he was likely to forget his heart medicine otherwise.
    Frank opened the container and found a slip of paper with the words, “Don’t forget, ♡ D” on it. Smiling, he made his way down to the galley where he had left the pill bottle on a shelf over one of the cabin seats. Filling his new pill box, he swallowed a tablet and swilled it down with lukewarm coffee from an insulated mug. The day was already turning warm, so he hung up his windbreaker before returning to the cockpit.
    Eldrid had an autopilot, a desirable addition for someone who sailed alone. Frank could have bought an autopilot had he wished, but being an engineer, he couldn’t resist the temptation of making his own.
    Frank was a software designer, some said a genius, so naturally he wrote the programming. He turned his baby on, and listened contentedly to the faint whirring as the autopilot made a minor adjustment.
    He had already entered the GPS coordinates for Onset, and the wind was fair, so theoretically the boat could sail herself right into the harbor, though he would take the helm long before then, of course. For now, Frank was content to sit and enjoy the morning and think about the various improvements he planned to make on his autopilot.
    It would be nice if Eldrid could sail herself to windward, tacking at the right time, and making the most of each puff of wind. More sensors would be required for that. He’d have to persuade Oliver Wendell to add some more circuit boards, get young Eldon Tupper to install more machinery, and sweet-talk Sarah Cassidy into doing the added woodwork.
    It would be great fun.
    Of course, he’d already started to write some interesting software algorithms using the autopilot’s computer. He’d play with that some more this evening.
    Frank daydreamed happily about adaptive algorithms, Bayes’ theorem, and other programming arcana while the autopilot whirred reassuringly every now and then, and seagulls soared hungrily overhead.
    A sudden pang roiled Frank’s stomach, and he wondered briefly about the early breakfast he’d eaten at the local greasy spoon before setting out. It had been one of those fat-heavy meals that often sat badly in his stomach, now that he was of a certain age.
    He made his way down the companionway steps in search of something for the indigestion. He stumbled once, his vision blurry.
    He put the first-aid box on the galley counter and fumbled it open. He was seeing double now, making it hard to focus. Frank became aware of his heart racing. A heart attack? He pulled the cell phone from his pocket, managed to open it, couldn’t get his fingers to punch in 911, dropped the phone, slumped down himself, groped for it in the growing darkness, knowing that help wouldn’t come in time anyway.
    Eldrid sailed on placidly in the slowly building wind, as gulls wheeled overhead and sunlight danced on the water. The casual observer would have been oblivious to the agony, death, and hidden rot that Eldrid carried as the summer wind swept her along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Lawrence Rotch