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The Handyman's Secret
Disaster has no excuse. Lark's new Outboard Special skimmed Hamilton Bay's velvet blue waters and was on a collision course with the drifting boat. Back at Hansen's Marina he should have accepted Captain Kendall's offer of piloting instruction. As the boat skipped over rougher water, Lark again gripped the jammed ship's wheel. On the lounger at mid deck, Flo, red kerchief flapping in the breeze, glanced up from her romance novel. He raised the binoculars and prayed she did not sense the impending doom. The old white and green boat, the only craft presently in Hamilton Bay, came into focus.
" There's no one piloting this boat!" screamed Flo from the chair.
She quickly steadied herself along the deck railing as Lark adjusted his captain's hat. " Not to worry, Snookems." He yanked the wheel one more time. " Just a little navigational glitch."
Flo covered her mouth. " The wheel is stuck!"
Lark flipped open the plywood supply chest and retrieved the bulky specification book. He thumbed through the pages, frantically trying to solve the problem. " Wheel, wheel. Must be under W. Or it could be under S for ship's wheel. Or maybe steering."
" Lark, do something!"
Lark dipped his glasses. He should have gotten new bifocals and not waited until somebody had a sale on glasses. " Let's see. Automatic Navigational Compensation: ANC. Dislodge ANC activation throttle and replace command with overdrive secondary protector ... Hmm."
Lark set the manual atop the storage bin near the railing and peered over the confusing controls. He pointed the binoculars through the salt-sprayed glass shield. Nobody was on the deck of the green trimmed boat.
" What do you see, Lark?"
" The odds are we will miss it. We have to miss it."
" Miss what?" Flo stood on her tiptoes, but probably could not see the boat without the binoculars. Lark searched for the ANC throttle until he located an orange rectangular plastic piece stamped ANC. He pushed the button without a second thought. The ship's wheel now moved freely after a sudden snap." You did it, Lark! You did it!"
" I thought we were dead ducks." Lark gripped the varnished wheel and prepared for a course change, but now the wheel, although unlocked, spun freely.
" Lark, the boat up ahead."
" Radio, radio, where's the radio?" As his boat bounced along, Lark stuck his head into the storage compartment, knocked his skull on the edge and his captain's hat fell off. Unable to find the radio, he again reached for the manual on the railing. His voice shook as he scooped up his hat. " The manual, it's gone! It must have fallen into the water!"
" Just steer back to shore!"
He planted himself in front of the wheel again, adjusted his captain's hat and squeezed the smooth wood, but the wheel rotated like a spinning top. With his clenched fist he banged the ANC button, but nothing happened. " We're stuck!"
Flo looked through the glass shield. " Lark, there is another boat out there!"
The older boat he had only seen through the binoculars, was now only a few hundred yards away. He raised his thumb to align his position with the stray boat.
" My God, we are going to crash ..."
* * *
Jones inhaled the warm May air as Tom McGill scanned the bay waters with the field glasses. Three weeks away from his summer vacation at his Aunt Mae's farm in Indiana, he longed to shed tension accumulated from another year of coaching three sports at Hamilton College. Although the bay was only a few miles from the college, he already felt farther away. To his right Captain Kendall steered their rented boat past vessels moored along the channel. Back at the bridge, along the highway, a woman next to an off road vehicle stared at the bay.
" What the hell is he doing?" asked McGill.
Jones looked back to the Captain. " Bringing the boat to the dock."
" No, Lark."
Jones was so sleepy in the hot sun he did not want to open his eyes.
" Lark is enjoying his insurance claim after the hurricane last summer."
" Matthias, he's headed for that boat out there."
Jones' eyes opened and McGill's mix of brown and gray hair came into focus. McGill handed the field glasses to him. Lark's cruiser moved at a good clip, stirred the foamy waves and headed toward another boat. " He's going to hit that boat."
" It's the only boat on the bay."
Jones gave him the field glasses and ran down the pressure treated dock planks. The white bearded Kendall threw out a long, blue nylon rope and brought the boat closer to the dock. " Captain, we've got a problem out on the bay!"
The Captain stepped onto the dock and looped the heavy rope around the pole. " You spot some passing whales, Matthias?"
" It's Lark."
The Captain squinted and raised his bushy left brow. " What about him?"
" We just saw his boat heading toward another boat out on the bay."
" I pleaded with him to let me show him how to properly pilot that boat."
They scurried toward McGill in his beige Bermuda shorts. He lowered the binoculars and handed them to the Captain. " Captain, he's going to hit."
The Captain only looked for a second. He motioned them down the dock toward the Harbormaster's orange and white fiberglass patrol boat. They climbed inside and he cranked the engine. Almost immediately they moved away from the dock. The Captain held the radio microphone. " Lark, this is the Captain. Come in Lark."
Jones leaned forward as the boat kicked to a higher speed. Lark's course toward the second boat looked like a demolition scene in a Hollywood movie.
" He drives that boat like he drives his car."
" You got that right," said McGill, eyes pressed to the binoculars.
" Lark, come in. This is Captain Kendall."
The wind pushed Jones' brown hair back as they followed the green buoys along the bay. The Captain scanned through his own binoculars. " Captain, why is he headed for that one boat?"
" Don't know."
" I see him!" shouted McGill. " He's trying to move the wheel."
Jones gazed ahead as the Harbormaster's boat moved into the bay, but Lark did not change course and was about to ram the only other boat within ten miles.
* * *
" It's broken! It's broken!" Lark raced around the wheel as if his machinations could make a difference. The white and green boat now loomed directly ahead, bobbing gently with every wave.
" You need to shut off the engine, Lark!"
" Right, right. Shut it off. Shut it off." Now he searched for the key. He remembered starting the engine but forgot the ignition location. The older boat was perilously close as he ran his hand under the panels. He felt the metal key and quickly turned it, grinding the starter. Frantic, he twisted it back and the engine shut off. The boat still moved at a high speed and through the glass he saw the faded green letters across the old boat's peeling white bow.
" My God, Lark, we're going to hit that boat!" She grabbed him and they dropped to the deck, nuzzled together against the front wall.
After dead silence and long anticipation, a loud crunch exploded into the sound of cracking wood and Lark's boat lurched upward. For a moment he thought they were airborne. Something broke apart above, raining debris over the deck. He shielded himself over Flo as his boat skidded and scraped bottom. They were now tilted upward and bobbed at an odd angle.
" Are you all right, Snookems?" He squinted in the sunlit blue sky. The boat's strong wooden mast had snapped into a twisted wood splinter.
" You saved me, Lark. You saved me!"
Lark steadied himself as he stood, not sure what he had done. He tensed his jaw. His glasses were still in place as he edged his way through the debris to the railing. His boat had careened atop the other vessel. Stairs led below the Maintenance Free's dull,varnished deck. Lark had seen this boat in the marina. Flo crossed the deck and held him as both boats continued to sway in the water.
" This is Webster Howard's boat, Flo."
" The maintenance man?"
" Sometimes he goes fishing ... I wonder if anyone is on board." He stroked his chin. " Hum, only one way to find out."
" What do you mean? You're not going down there, are you?"
He cupped his hands. " Hello down there!"
" You think he's on the boat, Lark?"
" No, sir. " He squinted his eyes. " We're dealing with a run-a-way boat."
" You make it sound like a western where the horse breaks away from the coral."
" I assure you, Snookems, no one is aboard this boat."
" Unless we knocked him out or something."
Lark nodded and raised his index finger. " You may have a point, Flo."
He waddled to the box under the panels and pulled out the emergency rope ladder. " Lark, you're in no shape to be climbing ladders."
" A man's got to do what a man's got to do."
Lark straddled the railing and lowered his bulbous body onto the unsteady rope ladder. He longed to be twenty years younger and forty pounds slimmer. Rung by shaky rung he descended the ladder and finally stepped onto the older boat's weathered deck.
" Are you all right, Lark?"
" A-OK. I'm going in!"
" Please be careful ..."
Lark heard another boat engine as he crossed the upper deck, but was uneasy as he descended the warped stairs below deck. In the dim light he nudged the faded green wood door and a fishy, filthy odor filtered outward. Light from the bay shined through the dirty window and onto Webster Howard's body, face down on the moistened carpet. Curly dark hair stuck out of his orange and green baseball cap and his glass brown eyes were frozen. Lark recoiled when he saw blood on Webster's olive shirt and jeans.
" Webster?" He resisted getting near the body, but finally inched across the musty jute rug and knelt. " Webster, are you alive?" He studied Webster's dark beard stubble and strong set jaw. His mammoth fists were clenched, but his chest was not moving and even with the blood, no wounds were visible.
" You're dead, aren't you? My God, I've killed you!"
* * *
" That's Webster Howard's boat,." said Jones, smiling. He held the railing as the Captain pulled alongside the Maintenance Free. " He was just at my house last week doing the gutters. We were joking about the baseball team. Or I should say he was needling me. He's at the games sometimes when he's not out fishing. "
McGill nodded. " Good old Web. Makes a living on things falling apart. But he can fix anything. He re-shingled the back of my house last April. Nice guy. Funny. Good sense of humor."
" Practical joker, " said Jones. " With a serious face he told me my roof was on the verge of collapse. Oh, he really enjoyed me getting upset."
" You upset?"
Jones grinned. " He must be coming in from fishing. Four days in, two days out. One day back, one for the Lord. That's his motto ... I hope Lark didn't hurt him. How the&ldots; how do you crash into the only boat on the bay?" Lark's boat was propped at an angle and both boats moved with the waves.
Flo, red kerchief tied around her hair, appeared on deck. " Lark's on Webster's boat! He killed Webster! He's below in the cabin."
" He what?" Jones climbed over the railing as the boat dipped in the water and leaped onto Webster Howard's fishing boat. He ran across the old deck boards. " Lark! It's Matthias."
" Do you see him?" asked McGill from the Captain's boat.
" I'm going under." Jones raced down the stairs, but met resistance at the door.
" He's dead! Dead, I killed him!"
Jones pushed open the door. Webster Howard lay face down in blood splattered jeans and army shirt. Lark's frantic eyes were opened wide as he hugged the cabin wall. " Web, oh my God."
" Lark, what happened?"
" My boat ... I lost control. Poor Webster."
Jones gazed across the body, but suspected something more than Lark's pleasure boat had killed Webster. " He's dead, but his body is just lying there. I don't see where he impacted on anything. This is very strange."
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