French Cap swelled closer across the deep blue, loomed jagged over us, and fell away behind. Manden pulled into a slow circle, our foamy wake smoothing out. Dark sapphire gave way to light turquoise and brownish shapes of submerged reef.
“We’re close.” He took bearings from land and swerved, slowing over an apparently empty stretch of deep water. “To starboard. There’s a ridge and a trough. Climb up on the bow, would you, drop the anchor when we get over the ridge?”
When I dropped it, he cut the motor. We drifted back and then held.
“All right, it’s a deep dive, about a hundred feet, so we’ll have to watch our bottom time. All you have to do is stand backup from the upper salon while I go below.” He reached into a storage niche for a piece of nylon line and briskly coiled it. “Yesterday I cleared most of the junk away from the hatchway and braced it where the roof had caved in, so I can get down below to look for the jewelry box in the hidey-hole Caviness told me about.”
He tossed a set of coveralls at me. “They aren’t glamorous, but they’ll save you scraping yourself up.”
I zipped the suit over my shorty wetsuit and tied my hair back. “Why did you want me to come along?”
He turned from the tanks, glittering lenses fixing on me. “Maybe I need to find out some things, too.”
Shadows and the weight of depth pressed in on me, breaths echoing to the hiss of sharply-etched rising bubbles. I felt as hollow and fragile, the world of sunlight and air unreachably remote. The dark sea pulsed in my veins, singing, calling me deeper.
I shook my head and pulled in a slow breath. Nitrogen narcosis. Rapture of the deep.
My light jittered over the wreckage of the yacht’s main salon, a disintegrating couch, a smashed television set, what must have been a built-in bar. Shattered glass gleamed among the rubble and the squat shape of a bottle furred in silt. I finned over to pull it free. The paper label was gone, but the distinctive shape was still intact and full of amber brandy.
Already tipsy with the nitrogen effect, I held up the bottle and raised two fingers for victory. Manden’s eyes crinkled behind his mask. I stuck the bottle inside my coveralls, weight belt holding it in place.
He beckoned me toward the top of a descending spiral staircase. Broken pieces of cabin roofing and remnants of crushed furniture were piled to one side of a narrow, cleared opening. He pointed out the beam he’d placed the day before to support the crushed ceiling.
Indicating his watch, he flashed fingers for “fifteen.” He pointed at me, held out his palm in the “stay here” sign, gave me the end of his coiled line. I signed “OK,” and he squirmed headfirst down the opening, tank barely clearing.
Hovering with the line in my grip, lightheaded, I swept my flash around the salon, caught a flicker of movement across an empty picture frame hanging askew on one buckled wall. A tiny octopus, crawling across it, froze in the light.
Bubbles oozed up from below, through cracks in the flooring. Manden’s air trail moved beneath the rubble of the wrecked bar and stayed there. It seemed like a long time. I chewed edgily on my mouthpiece, remembering the limit on bottom time at this depth.
Hovering over the cleared stair, I flashed my light down into the wrecked spiral. I couldn’t see much through the cleared gap. Shining the beam over the salon, I saw bubbles moving back toward me. I let out a relieved lungful of air.
In the next moment, it was all turned inside-out. Dimness swirled over my eyes, and I was the diver at the bottom of the spiral staircase. I was drowning, claws of the bête noir tightening around my throat, my lifeline snapped.
I took a shaky breath and shook my head, staring in confusion at Vic’s cord still intact and slack in my grip.
Then the shadows exploded around me. A muffled whump, and trapped water surged, tumbling me back in the wrecked salon. I scrambled, hit something spinning past, groped blindly. A cloud of silt billowed, pressure like a giant hand swatting. Air boiled up from the stairwell. Flailing upright, I grabbed my flash on its wrist cord. All I could see was swirling silt. I kicked forward, knocking my shins against a hard edge. The spill of air finally carried off the silt. The cleared stairwell had caved in.
I dropped the useless line. Clawed at the rubble blocking the stair, ripping out pieces and throwing them behind me, oblivious to the tangled mass shifting above me with each piece I grabbed. Air gushed up through the debris. His tank valve must have been knocked off. Even if it was only a broken hose, he couldn’t last long at the rate his air was pouring past.
I tore at a twisted metal bar, slicing my hand through the glove. Yanked the bar free. Flung it away. Blood drifted, swirled by the rush of air from below. Sharp metal taste in my mouth. Would I clear an opening only to find him dead? Not again. Glassy eyes staring up at me, blank windows onto nothing.
I couldn’t let him drown. Vic. John. Not that horror, again, staring into the abyss through his eyes while his air ran out, and he was trapped and screaming.
Air hissed, pulse pounding in my ears, terror echoing me to him, he to me. I could feel his useless struggles twitching in my own muscles. I ripped my way through. Almost there. The stream of air trailed off. A few stray bubbles. None.
I tore aside a thin sheet of plastic. His eyes stared, glazed, through a cracked mask. Too late. They’d gone blank, empty.
I stared at his glassy eyes, despair settling in my gut. Was this what I’d wanted?
Vic blinked, and I gasped. He focused on me, and his eyes crinkled in a strange smile.
I grinned back, weak with relief. Then I saw his arms and body were pinned by the supporting beam fallen onto his back.
I yanked the useless regulator from his mouth and pressed mine into his lips. Somewhere a pedantic voice recited passages from my diver’s training manual: “When buddy-breathing, always purge the regulator and allow your partner two breaths . . . .”
The voice didn’t tell me how to free him. I pushed and tugged at the beam. It wouldn’t move. Vic grimaced. His shoulders strained, but he couldn’t free his arms. I wrenched at the stubborn beam.
A high-pitched sound caught me up short. Vic spat out the regulator, giving me a pale imitation of his cocky grin. I dragged in a couple of breaths and stuck the regulator back into his mouth. He jerked his head and spat it out, mouthing words, gesturing with his head.
Finally it penetrated. I took another shot of air and gave the mouthpiece back to him, pulling off my buoyancy vest with its tank. I positioned it under the beam where it wouldn’t slip free. Pressed the inflator button.
The beam shifted a little as the vest ballooned with air. It stuck again. I made a despairing gesture. Vic only nodded. I added more, then stopped, afraid the vest would rupture. The beam shifted slightly. I tried to pull him free by his shoulders. He shook his head.
We were running out of air. Out of time. I gave the beam a furious shove. It slipped to the side, rose slowly above the vest.
I gripped it, afraid to move. Holding the wobbling beam, I braced my legs apart in front of him. He squirmed and pulled. Yanked at a strap. I couldn’t hold my breath much longer. He worked his arm out of his trapped vest and tank, pulled himself free with a heave. I couldn’t let go of the unstable beam.
My lungs screamed for air. Biting back a desperate urge to gulp water, I hung on as Vic eased himself up against me. He pushed the regulator into my mouth.
I gasped in a breath, nearly choking on seawater. He raised his hand to hold the beam and vest in place, jerked his head upward. I hesitated, suddenly terrified to leave the mouthpiece. I sucked in a last breath and shot up through the stairwell.
I waited forever. No air, dark depths crushing down. A faint thump below, more felt than heard. Silt cloud bursting up. Hands appeared, clutching the ballooned vest and tank flying up as the beam and debris crashed in to close the passage. The freed vest flew upward, nearly past me before I grabbed the hose and hit the deflate button, releasing air. Vic floated beside me, grasping the tank. He passed me the mouthpiece. Hands shaking, I pressed it into my mouth and breathed deeply.
Vic gave my shoulder a squeeze, flashed his watch, pulled the vest over my arms. He beckoned, swimming out the broken cabin roof. I swam after him, shooting up toward the gleam of light at the far surface.
He grabbed my hand, slowing me down, pointing at the glistening stream of bubbles drifting toward the surface. The diver’s manual was droning again: Air embolisms. The bends. Vic gripped my wrist as we drifted slowly upward, staying safely behind the slowest air bubble. My pulse drummed in my ears.
As I passed Vic the mouthpiece, he grabbed my wrist, pulling my hand in front of his cracked mask. I’d forgotten my gashed palm, haze of blood drifting.
Worried frown in his eyes. I shook my head, made the OK sign. He grasped my shoulder and pointed past me. I turned and saw the shark.
Big. Ten, twelve feet long. Dark stripes. A picture from my fish guidebook leaped alive in sinuous threat and rows of teeth. Tiger shark. Known man-eater.
It circled, testing for the blood that had drawn it.
Vic pressed his hand against my cut palm. He pulled me toward the boat, keeping submerged and close to the ridge. The shark followed, swimming faster now, circling us with sinister grace.
It whipped by, eyes flat, dead-looking. No spark of intelligence, only the raw instinct to kill and feed.
We reached the shadow beneath the stern of the boat. Vic gave me a hasty ascent sign. The shark made another quick pass. In a flash of gleaming stripes, it whipped around to circle back. Vic grabbed my arm and shot for the surface.
The last of my air escaped as I raced upward for the boat. A gray streak shot past. The shark darted in again.
Blur of bubbles and glinting teeth. Vic kicking his fin at its nose. Long sinuous shape twisting, barreling back at us. Silent scream ringing. Surface breaking over us, sunshine, air, blessed blue sky. Water heaving, boiling beneath me as the monster hurtled up from the depths. Bobbing stern platform. And the weight on my back, holding me down.
A splash. Something heavy, rough, slamming against me. I scrabbled for the platform. The waves jerked it out of my grip. I screamed.
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