Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath (9 page)

by the time Hitch and Ruby turned the corner into Cedarwood Drive.

The discussion had gone on well into the early hours, and it was almost time for Ruby to be up and ready for school. The two of them sat at the table and, over eggs and toast and maple syrup, discussed the Spectrum briefing.

“So what thoughts are jangling in that teenage mind of yours, kid?” asked Hitch, pouring coffee, his fifth cup this morning.

Ruby sucked hard on the curly straw that stuck out of her peach-and-cranberry juice blend. When the glass was emptied and the straw had begun to make an ill-mannered gurgling sound, she looked up.

“Huh? You say something?”

“You clean your ears out lately, kid? I was saying, do you believe Trilby’s death was accidental?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said Ruby. “The question is, do I think the marine activity and the confused shipping are connected to his death?”

“That’s the question?” said Hitch.

“Yes. I think it could be a mistake to assume that they are, but on the other hand, one thing could be triggering the other. What if there is one thing going on, which is man-made, and another that is a consequence of the man-made?”

“So . . . connected but not intentionally?” said Hitch.

“Yeah, let’s say someone is interfering with the shipping radar and signals somehow, perhaps with a low-frequency signal, a sound to block sound. The idea being to disrupt the shipping, I guess, but I don’t know why. Anyway, this in turn is making the sea life crazy, which results in Trilby getting killed. The seagulls coming inland en masse, dolphins swimming into the harbor — all because of sound.”

Hitch nodded. “It’s certainly a theory. I have no idea if it’s a good one, but it’s a theory.”

“It could mean that Trilby’s death, though accidental, was actually the consequence of something bigger,” said Ruby. “Something sinister. So I guess what I am suggesting is, yes, in a way his death could be an accident, nothing sinister. But in a way it perhaps wasn’t and is.”

Hitch raised an eyebrow. “I’m barely following.”

Ruby looked at him like he was a few blocks short of a load.

“Maybe you need another cup of coffee or three,” she said.

“Maybe.” He took another slurp. “And the whispering?”

“I don’t know.” She was thinking, trying to tunnel down to some lost thought, but whatever it was, was lurking deep in the furthest depths of her mind, and she could not reach it. So she just said, “Could be entirely imagined, of course.”

“Yes,” said Hitch. “One person says they’ve heard something — then a whole lot more people imagine that they’ve heard the same thing.”

“Yeah, happens all the time,” said Ruby, nodding. “People are very suggestible.”

“It’s true,” said Hitch. “I mean, if I start mentioning the words
do you find yourself kind of yearning for one?”

Ruby gave him a look. “You got one?”

He shook his head. “So what do you think — did those people hear the whispering or not?” asked Hitch. “That little Redfort brain must be thinking something. You have any kind of gut feeling on this?”

Ruby looked at him straight in the eye. “My brain is telling me I should be asleep, but my stomach is telling me that I sure could do with a jelly donut and a glass of banana milk.”

“Well, let’s make it happen, kid.”



In fact, he had been barking for quite some time, but everyone aboard had chosen to ignore him, it being 5:46 a.m.

“Probably seagulls,” murmured Mr. Gruemeister, pulling the blankets over his head. “That dog will bark at any little thing.”

“I’ve tried my darnedest to train him,” sighed Mrs. Gruemeister. “Only bark at intruders. That’s what I taught him, but he doesn’t listen.”

In cabin 4A, Brant Redfort sat up in bed, yawned, and rubbed his eyes. He switched on the radio, but to his great disappointment the only station he could get any reception for was one playing the most awful music. In fact, he wondered if it was music at all.

“What is that dreadful noise?” moaned Sabina. “Sounds like violins having the most vivid of disagreements.”

Brant switched it off in disgust. He had been looking for a pleasant sound to block out the barking dog, but it wasn’t going to happen.

“I can’t take much more of this yapping,” he said. “How about an early breakfast up on deck, honey?”

“Good idea, Brant. That bow-wow is beginning to give me the most dreadful headache. Honestly, you’d think they would have raised him better. Can you imagine if Ruby yelped like that?”

“Well, no, honey. But then, she isn’t a dog.”

“But you know what I mean, Brant.”

“Sure I do, honey; Ruby is a far better daughter than Pookie would ever be.”

At that moment there was a large thud on deck, followed by more thuds, a yelp, and a heavy splash. The barking stopped. Sabina and Brant looked at each other for a split second before struggling into clothes and hurrying toward the noise.

That’s when the screaming began.

If only he had known what was in store for him that day, he doubtless wouldn’t have made it out of bed. Morning class was interrupted by an in-person announcement from Coach Newhart.

It seemed that the whole of the ninth-grade swim team had come down with mollusk poisoning at last night’s clambake — except for Denning Minkle, who was allergic to seafood. The doctor had advised that no one take part in the swimathon for fear of weak limbs and consequent drowning.

Coach Newhart wasn’t to be defeated by this alarming news. Coach Newhart was rarely defeated by anything. To Coach Newhart, this was a challenge, and a coach’s job was about nothing if not challenges. So what if grade nine was all getting up close and personal with their latrines — he still had grade eight, and they looked to be fighting fit; a bit weedy perhaps, but no one was throwing up.

“So can I count on all o’ yous for the Twinford swimathon?” bellowed Coach Newhart. “I am determined that this year we will beat Branwell Junior High.”

Clancy tried to make himself very small and very invisible, but it didn’t work.

“Crew! I’m including you in this. I want you out in that bay, front and center, swimming as if your life depended on it.”

Clancy had a premonition that it probably would. The idea of getting in that ocean scared the living daylights out of him — but then at this precise moment, so did Coach Newhart. Coach Newhart was not a man one said no to. No siree.

“So, Crew, you gonna be there?”

Clancy nodded. But that wasn’t good enough for Coach Newhart.

“I can’t hear you, sonny.”

“Sir, yes sir,” shouted Clancy, like he was on a parade ground.

“That’s more like it,” said the coach, nodding. Then he turned to Ruby. “And you, Redfort. I won’t be accepting a note from the governor this time. Everyone swims. And that includes you.”

“OK,” said Ruby, shrugging. She really didn’t mind — she was a good swimmer. In fact, so was Clancy; it was a curse for him that despite appearances he was actually very athletic and surprisingly fast in water. For someone who hated water as much as he did, this was a real problem.

Once Coach Newhart had finally stopped barking, Twinford’s very own chief lifeguard, the implausibly named Slicker Dawn, gave a little briefing about bay safety. Slicker delivered all information at top volume, probably because he had spent much of his time shouting instructions at swimmers; he liked to repeat things too, so what should have been a five-minute briefing took a good half hour.

“Anyway,” concluded the lifeguard, “Twinford Bay is one of the safest in the county. I repeat, one of the safest in the county. So long as you stay between the flags, you will not get sucked out to sea by the riptides and you will not get dragged down by the undertow.”

“Oh, boy,” muttered Clancy. “I don’t stand a chance.”

“Just to reassure you,” shouted Slicker Dawn, “we haven’t had one Mayday call or rescue in three weeks, not one! That’s a record right there.”

To Clancy this just made it all the more likely that there would be one soon. According to probability, a rescue was surely due.

The announcement over, Clancy tried to go back to concentrating on class, but however much he tried to engage with the subject at hand, he found that right now the life cycle of the Peruvian tree frog didn’t really have too much to do with the life prospects of a shrimpy boy from Twinford City.

When the bell rang, he slowly pushed his chair away from the desk, picked up his bag, and walked out into the corridor. He was so lost in thought that he didn’t see his longtime enemy lumbering toward him.

“Crew, you look like you’re about to pee your pants,” sneered Bugwart, blocking his path.

“No, I’m about to throw up, actually. So if you don’t want to get puked on, I’d get outta the way.” As soon as he had uttered these words, he realized that he
about to throw up. Looking at him, Vapona could
see that this was in fact
than likely and immediately stepped to one side as Clancy made a dash for the restroom.

When Clancy finally made it to music class, everyone else was already in their places. Ruby, who was on xylophone, was sitting on the other side of the room from Clancy, who was to be on kettledrum. She could see his face, all scrunched up with anxiety, and it was pretty obvious what he was thinking about.

Ruby tapped out a message in Morse code*:

Clancy looked up. He knew right away what she was saying, and his reply was this:

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