Saturday, July 3, 2010

Those who are at sea

Those of you close to me know that I have been working on a manuscript with a former submariner named D.T. Rhysing and that I have been out of touch with him for many months. While this is not out of the ordinary I have been concerned because of requests I have received for information about him from several government organizations. I am quite sure my e-mail has been compromised and that my phones are tapped, but because I was told to expect this if I came on board with the project, I've soldiered on. As my source notes are from extensive interviews conducted at various locations around the Hawaiian Islands during the past two years I know that nothing in my communications will shed any light on Mr. Rhysing's present wherabouts.

Three days ago, on June 31st, I had my first contact with him in a long time. When I asked him where he was he replied only that he was at sea and that he wanted to begin sharing the story with the outside world. To that end, here in this simple blog, I will be posting chapters while searching for a better outlet.

I thought at first that I knew what D.T. Rhysing intended when he set out to make this story known, but I'm no longer sure. I thought I knew how it ended, but that, too, is in doubt. Though this book does have an ending, I think D.T.'s story is just beginning and the only thing I'm sure of is that it will end, as it started, at sea.

Douglas M. MacIlroy


D. T. Rhysing owned Manta Ray Submarines, a small business that took passengers on one hour long submerged tours through the seascape of the Puako reefs. On occasion their services were chartered by corporations or by individuals able to pay for custom tours to anywhere along the coast of West Hawaii, but, Monday through Friday, their bread and butter was regular dives for regular people. On Saturday mornings they ran a half-day of short duration dives just outside of Anaeho’omalu Bay, their base of operations. The Saturday dives were for children selected through a program of scholastic achievement or specific need as decided by teachers of every school on the island. On Saturday the company made no money but was paid in good will and reaped the dual benefits of publicity and a great deal of hands on contact with people on the beach. Some of them were usually interested enough to schedule a dive during the week and D.T. figured it all came out even somewhere along the line. The Saturdays were shorter than the weekdays, long on fun, and the entire crew got a lot of satisfaction from them.

Today’s dive off the coast south of Kealakekua and two days of imaging the bottom from their surface craft were something like the Saturday dives in that they were being donated for free to the Hawaii County Police Department. Normally D.T. would have made them pay like everyone else, but this once he had been persuaded to do otherwise by a good man in a tight spot.
D.T.’s persuader and sole passenger was quiet; taking in details and checking the alignment of the video camera he was aiming through the starboard view port. Most passengers became effusive beneath the surface, wanting to share their amazement at the view, but not this man. He was working a crime scene and D.T. was doing his best to help him.
The somber convergence of his passenger’s job and D.T.’s had begun at Anaeho’omalu Bay two weeks earlier at the end of the last dive of the day. The night technicians were mating the sub to its transporter when D.T. noticed a man standing off to the side watching the ballet and checking out the operation as the crew worked. They got a lot of that and mostly just let people watch without pushing information on them. If they wanted to know what was going on, they usually asked.

Their observer was a tall man with broad shoulders and a trim waist, strawberry blonde hair and a hint of freckles. An old pair of Vuarnet sunglasses hid eyes that nonetheless seemed to take in every detail. He wore a bamboo print aloha shirt, khaki slacks and held his shoes with the socks tucked neatly into them in his left hand while the right stayed in his pocket. He looked like a tourist just down from the hotel to check out the beach, but something about him told D.T. different. D.T. waited; content to watch the crew perform their well-practiced duties. After a while the man walked over and got right to the point.

“Evening,” he said as D.T. turned to face him. “My name’s Mike McCoy.” D.T. shook the proffered hand and then read the no frills business card McCoy handed to him. Under McCoy’s name were the words ‘Detective - Hawaii County Police Department’.

“How can I help you, Detective?” D.T. said as he pocketed the card.

“Mike, please,” McCoy said.

“Okay, Mike,” D.T. replied. “What's up? You don’t actually want a submarine ride, do you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he said, with a grim little laugh, “but there’s more to it than that.”

“There usually is,” D.T. said. “Tell you what, Detective, let us get this baby put to bed for the night and we’ll scare up some cold ones and you can tell me your sea story. I haven’t heard a good one in quite a while.”

“You got it,” McCoy said, “But, I’m buying. Where should I meet you?”

D.T. looked out past the mouth of the bay to where the breakers were being stripped of foam by the rising wind. Tomorrow was probably going to be a wash. The sea was too rough for passenger transfer and thus all dives would most likely be cancelled, which meant they could perform a thruster change out and still have time to clean up shop and go play golf in the wind. Most people he knew hated that last part, but high winds usually meant peace of mind for him because none of his gear or crew was on or under the water. As a result, he played some of his best golf in bad weather.

“Wait for me at the pool bar,” said D.T. “It’ll take us about half an hour to tuck her in.” Then he thought about which waitresses were working the pool and added, “Detective McCoy, are you married?”

“Ten years now. Four kids, two cars, one house and a mortgage through the roof. My wife works for Cameron Real Estate. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” D.T. said, smiling. “If I send you over to the pool bar you’ll get asked that and more. I don’t want to be the one to have steered you in that direction if you didn’t want to be there. We’ve got some beers back at the barn. Why don’t you walk along with us?”

McCoy did a little deduction on his own and laughed. “Maybe I should be mad at you for steering me away from the pool bar.”

“There is that possibility,” D.T. replied. “You can let me know which is which if you get that sub ride you’re going to try to wheedle me out of.”

They set off for the access road at the southern end of the beach, following the shallow impressions made by the huge balloon tires of the transporter as it wended its way through the tall coconut palms, headed unerringly toward the distant maintenance facility.

“We’d like you to help us find a body.”
They were sitting beneath the open night sky, watching the stars come out as the last red glow of the day faded in the west. Behind them, suspended from the overhead crane by four nylon slings, the Hot Runner gleamed, freshly washed and polished, illuminated by a bank of high intensity halogen lights. The battery pods had been removed and were charging in their racks. A lone high-pressure air hose and a small systems monitoring cable connected her to the maintenance suite computer and the air storage tanks buried deep beneath their feet. In the offices the lights burned brightly as Bob Knowltonn and Noah Spencer downloaded data from the onboard sensors.

D.T. remained quiet. Detective McCoy could not know it, but his opening sentence had brought D.T. up short. Like breathing at depth on a regulator that suddenly stops feeding air, it had gotten his attention and stirred memories. Images from not so long ago and always close at hand played out in his mind. A sun shot sea filled with light. D.T. descending, knowing all along that the sea would reveal only tangled metal and debris swaying in the gentle currents far below, wreckage once a triumph of engineering.

McCoy spoke again and D.T. surfaced from his reverie as the detective described the events that had led him to the bay that afternoon.
“Her name is Charlotte Gerber and she is thirty years old. Born in Naalehu, the only daughter of the town doctor. Married once here on the Big Island and then divorced a few years later. No children, thank God.” McCoy seemed to be telling this tale from long experience, as though he had briefed others in his search, or had lived with the information until it had become a part of him.

“Two years after her divorce she met the man we think killed her and began to date him.” McCoy pulled an object from his pocket and tossed it over. It was a USB memory storage device. He would download its contents to their computer system later. “That contains everything the papers have published on this case. The parts of the articles where their reporters have to think for themselves are mostly bullshit, but we supplied the chronology of events and pertinent facts. Keep that because if you do decide to help us you’ll need to know what you’re getting into.”

“Thanks,” D.T. said.

“Our suspects name is Sidney Hart. He used to live on the coast south of Kona in a house he built on family land. He’s a tropical fisherman, but from what we’ve gathered he doesn’t need to work. He’s inherited enough from his folks, including the twenty-two acres he lives on, to keep himself in food and beer money. Seems to be a loner. The house used to get electricity from a diesel generator he ran a couple of times a week. There were several neighbors, but only one really close by and their house is over a quarter mile away. Hart dabbled in martial arts and drives an older model Humvee. He probably grew a little dope for himself, maybe sold a little, but we’re not sure. Some days he would tinker in his shop that was next door to his house. Says he’s an inventor, and he may be, but he hasn’t got any patents and there’s no income that we know of associated with that claim.”

“You said the house used to get electricity from a generator and that his shop was next door to his house. Why the past tense? D.T. asked.

“I’m getting to that,” McCoy said

“How often does he fish?”

“Maybe twice a week as far as the neighbor can tell.”

Tropical fishermen collected reef fish for sale to local distributors who in turn shipped them to wholesalers. Ultimately, if they survived the journey, the fish ended up in aquariums around the world. A productive tropical fisherman could make a nice living and, if done responsibly, there was minimal effect on the environment. But D.T. had only met two who fit that bill. Most of the ‘trops’ he had experience with were reef rapers who destroyed habitat and fish to make a profit and were little better than a mongoose crawling around inside a road kill carcass in search of an easy meal.

“Hart and Gerber hit it off pretty well. They were engaged for a while but something soured the relationship. Two weeks prior to the appointed day Charlotte decided to call off the wedding. Hart, who had apparently been a less than ideal prospective partner, further demonstrated that fact by threatening both Charlotte and her father with bodily harm. This behavior called a lot of attention to Hart and Miss Gerber had a TRO placed on him. Hart eventually violated it and landed in Hilo jail for three months.”

“How did he violate it?” D.T. asked. Temporary restraining orders were virtually useless when it came to protecting someone from abusers. It was like using a jellyfish to ward off a barracuda. They might look effective to someone who didn’t know any better and might even work half of the time. But it wouldn’t stop a barracuda and the barracudas knew it.

“Hart visited their house one night.” McCoy finished his beer and absently began to crimp the sides of the can with his thumbnails. “Charlotte had gone to live with her father while she figured out her next move. Hart was caught leaving their property by an off duty cop who happened to be driving by at the time. The boys in Naalehu know everybody and everything that happens there and they were on the lookout. It was a lucky break.”

“How so?” D.T. asked.

“The officers who picked up Hart called Dr. Gerber and his daughter to come down to the station and verify Hart’s identity and possibly press charges for trespassing. While the Gerbers were there a fire totally razed their home. Investigators suspected arson because of the speed of involvement. A search of the site yielded a very stylish little timing device attached to the inside of what used to be a can of accelerant. Gasoline, to you and me. The can had been placed on the upwind side of the house and was split wide open. There had been a small explosive charge inside. When it detonated the entire side of the house was engulfed in flame. The wind took it from there. Two neighbors tried to get some garden hoses on it but that was a lost cause. House was a total loss. If Hart hadn’t been caught, the Gerbers might easily have been killed and Hart would probably have gone to Kulani Prison for murder. So there was good luck all around, it seems.” McCoy stood and stretched. “You got anymore of these?” he asked, holding his thoroughly crushed beer can.

“Coming up.” D.T. said.

D.T. walked into the maintenance bay and over to the offices. Noah looked up as he entered.

“What’s McCoy want with you?”

“You know him?” D.T. asked?

“We went to school together at Punahou.” Noah Spencer was young and athletic, five feet ten inches of lean muscle and Polynesian good looks. He had straight dark hair that he kept trimmed short, high cheekbones and piercing brown eyes and mouth full of dazzling white teeth. He looked like the Cheshire cat sitting there in his chair and D.T. suddenly realized that Noah knew perfectly well what the detective and he were talking about.
“He talked to you first?”

“Only to see if it was possible. I figured it was but told him he had to talk to you. It’s your kuleana.”

His responsibility. D.T. should not have been surprised that Noah knew the detective. Since he had met Noah and made him a partner in Manta Ray Submarines D.T. had never known him to be more that three phone calls away from the man who could get the job done in the islands. Noah pushed back from the desk where he sat and laced his hands behind his head.

“You have a say in this, Noah,” D.T. said, slightly irritated that his partner felt he did not.

“I know, D.T., but this is something you’ve got to decide on your own.” Noah gestured with his arms to include the building and its contents and, D.T. felt sure, the bay and the entire entity they had given life to. “When you first showed up here,” Noah continued, “drawing blueprints in the sand and talking a blue streak, I thought you were lolo, really nuts. But you sold me and I decided to give it a chance, and I have to tell you that your ideas made real have totally blown me away.” Noah stood and put both hands on D.T.’s shoulders and looked into his eyes, making sure he connected. “You asked me to be your partner and I appreciate it and have busted my okole to make you believe you did the right thing.” And he had. Noah was a hard worker and a true believer in their vision for the company. He never stopped when there was a project in progress and his tremendous energy had carried the day many times. D.T. was disturbed that he would not include himself in the decision the detective was asking them to make.
“D.T.,” Noah said gravely, “I am your partner. But this,” he gestured around them again, “this is all yours.” Noah could see D.T. was about to object and shook his head.

“This is your heart and soul. Look, I know what Mike’s been telling you, okay? He told me the whole sad story. That man, Doctor Gerber? His house is gone. You thought about that? It’s gone. All his life, his things, the works. Gone. And now, after all this time, maybe his daughter is gone, too. There’s a lot at stake. I’m on board either way and I’m pretty sure what you’re going to say, but on this one the call is yours.”

D.T. understood only too well what might be involved but the possibility of danger, other than the type they encountered each time they went to sea, seemed remote. On the flip side, D.T. knew what Noah was talking about and appreciated his candor. It confirmed that D.T. had made the right choice in making him partner. Noah was the salt of the earth and D.T. was glad they were in things together.

Noah smiled. He had seen the understanding register with D.T. and knew he had gotten his point across.

“Okay, Noah,” D.T. replied, “I understand. And now that you know that, why don’t you find Knowltonn and come over and join us in this pow-wow. Sounds like we’ve got some interesting days coming up.”

“You got it, D.T.”

D.T. took two beers from the reefer and rejoined Detective McCoy who was running his hand over the sleek lines of the Hot Runner. He popped the tab and handed the detective one, then opened his and knocked back a few swallows. There was nothing quite like a good beer at the end of a long day.

“I talked to Noah,” D.T. said. “He tells me you guys went to school together. Are you still friends?”

McCoy took a drink and replied. “We did and we are, Mr. Rhysing. I’ve known about you and this outfit for a while. Watched you get started and take on Noah. When he told me he was going to be a partner in some submarine company I did a little digging to see who you were, and whether you were on the up and up. What I found at first was a lot of nothing, but I’ve got access to a few lines of inquiry that most people don’t so I dug a little deeper. There are a lot of holes in the records but there was enough to convince me you’re a stand up guy. And you’ve shown it by what you’ve built.” McCoy tapped the wing of the sub and looked around. “I’m glad you and Noah hooked up. He’s really happy here.”

Mike,” D.T. said, “Noah had a big hand in all of this and I’m glad he’s on board. I’ve gotten more out of our partnership than he has. Now, why don’t you finish the story and we’ll see whether you get that sub ride.”

They walked back to the chairs and sat and sipped thoughtfully on their beers. Bob Knowltonn and Noah joined them and after a moment of reflection, Detective McCoy continued his tale.
“After the fire Charlotte Gerber moved to the mainland and worked as a physical therapist for a sports medicine clinic in San Diego. She never remarried. Doctor Gerber rebuilt his home and office and continued his practice until his death in a traffic accident two years ago.”

“Was it really an accident?” asked Noah.

“It happened on Oahu while Dr. Gerber was attending a convention. His rental car hydroplaned on H-1 freeway near Pearl City in a sudden rainsquall. He was caught broadside between a truck that had managed to slow down and one that couldn’t. Hart’s neighbors said Hart was home at the time so I don’t think there was a connection.

“Gerber was a decorated veteran. Riverine patrol boats. He was buried at Punchbowl with full military honors. Charlotte Gerber attended the funeral, visited friends and relatives for a week then returned to California.

“Four months ago she moved back to the Big Island to work at The Four Seasons as their resident physical therapist. She bought a small condo in Kona and joined the Kai Opua Canoe Club. Seemed to be settling in nicely and then one day, out of the blue, she failed to show up at work. Her supervisor tried to phone her for two days but got no answer so she went to talk to her building manager. They tried to open the condo but couldn’t. Someone had broken a key off in the lock. The manager thought he saw blood on the concrete near the door and that’s when we got the call.”

Bob Knowltonn got up and detached the air hose from the subs air charge manifold. D.T. found himself mentally checking off the security measures they had in place and wondering how he would breach them if he were on the outside looking in.

“Was it blood?” Noah asked.

“O positive, which matches Miss Gerber’s but leaves us right where we started,” Mike replied. “We don’t know how it got there or when.

“Our initial investigation into her disappearance introduced us to Mr. Hart and the history between them. We found that he still had the same address and as a matter of course we went out to his residence to look around and ask him a few questions. Hart wasn’t home so we walked the property line and took some pictures.

“The house sits on the northwestern corner of his land, smack up against the ocean on the top of an old a’a flow. His shop is closest to the boundary and there's a bunch of junk all over the area between the shop and the sea. Looks like he’s even got a homemade boat ramp.

“The next day he was home and volunteered to come in for questioning. The results were troubling but inconclusive. Mr. Hart had a deep gash on the back of his left thumb that he claimed to have inflicted while working in his shop the day before. He denied even knowing that Charlotte was back on the island. He was helpful and cooperative to the point of letting us to take a blood sample for testing. Turns out his blood type is the same as hers, but the blood at the scene was not his.

“We questioned Charlotte Gerber’s neighbors and one of them reported hearing a scuffle outside her door around seven thirty in the evening the day before Miss Gerber failed to show up for work. The neighbor said she saw a man fitting Hart’s description in a Blue Ford pickup with a white camper top leaving the parking lot at high speed shortly after seven-thirty. No license plate number was recorded. On the strength of the witnesses report we set up an observation team in the living room of Mr. Hart’s nearest neighbor, a retired sugar plantation worker by the name of Clyde Togawa. Three days later Hart’s house suddenly burst into flames. It was totally engulfed within minutes, and completely razed long before the fire department could get there. Hart was out fishing at the time and has since moved to Hilo where he lives to this day. He’s trying to collect insurance money on the house and he’ll probably get it, but I’m sure he set the fire himself to destroy evidence.”

D.T. thought there were too many loose ends in the detective’s story. Nothing was clicking. How did he know there was a body to be found, why did he need a submarine to find it and why was he so sure it was recoverable at all after all this time?

“Evidence of what?” D.T. asked.

In reply, the detective pulled out two photographs and handed them to D.T.. “One of these pictures was taken the day after Charlotte Gerber went missing. The other was taken two days later during the stakeout, after we had questioned Hart about her disappearance and one day before his house went up in smoke.”

The first picture was a view of the makai, or seaward, edge of the house and included the back of the shop structure and a low knoll of lava. Two rails extended down toward the sea from the shop area. They stopped just short of the water and appeared to be rusted and derelict. Other unidentified machinery parts were scattered around helter-skelter and a dozen or so fifty-five gallon drums were stacked next to the shop building, which was made of tin roofing crudely bolted to a metal framework.

The second picture had been taken at almost the same angle, but apparently from much farther away. The same details were visible as well as the knoll of lava that formed the base for the house pad and shop foundation. The house was a ramshackle single story post and pier box with a tin roof, tiny windows and a large lanai that commanded a sweeping view out over the cobalt blue Pacific.

Detective McCoy had obviously found his answer in the pictures so D.T. knuckled down and started studying them carefully. A life at sea and not a little beneath it had taught him that God really was in the details. You just had to keep looking until you saw them.

The boat ramp told him that Hart was resourceful and not afraid to try to figure a way to put a boat into the ocean from his backyard. He probably realized very early that the angle of his ramp required a serious winch and that the sea would not be cooperating as he tried to guide his vessel onto the parallel rails. It was a ramp that you would only be able to use once in a blue moon, but it existed, and that alone was evidence of Sid Hart’s inventiveness. The shop would have been a place to putter and fabricate, a haven from the stuffy house and whatever life he had had there.
The photos showed only the metal walls but all D.T. had to do was look around their maintenance facility to see a sampling of the type of equipment Hart would have had in his shop. What was in the pictures that he wasn’t seeing? It was a puzzle and the solution was in his hands, but he couldn’t find the missing piece.

And then, like the dim outline of a sunken vessel slowly appearing out of the gloom, D.T. saw the answer. There was just a ghost of it at first, but with every second the outlines became increasingly substantial. In the end it was as though floodlights had been turned on to illuminate the scene. The missing details snapped into bold relief and with them in place he knew without a doubt why the detective had sought them out.

McCoy must have sensed D.T. had crossed over to his side because when D.T. put the photos down and looked up, the detective was smiling knowingly. Knowltonn and Noah immediately reached for the photos, aware that D.T. had seen something in them that had made all the difference.

For his part, D.T. knew with a cold certainty that Charlotte Gerber was dead. Nothing was going to change that, but what they could do for her in the here and now was recover her body and help bring her killer to justice. The prospect of the search excited him. D.T. felt sure they would find Charlotte's remains and the evidence needed to prosecute and ultimately, convict and incarcerate Sidney Hart.

“Mike,” D.T. said with a wry grin, as the detective sipped his beer contentedly, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a submarine ride.”

1 comment:

  1. Ah-ha. I didn't realize this was going to be a mystery. Now I have to know where it leads.

    Even though I thought I'd subscribed to your blog, I didn't get a notice that this post was made. So I'll just have to stop in and visit more often.

    I hope you'll post the link to this excerpt tomorrow, too :)