Terrors of the High Seas
Dar looked up as she heard Kerry climb the ladder, her motions slower and a touch more hesitant than usual. “Kerry!” She grabbed for the throttles, slowing the boat down as she watched her lover balancing an armful as she attempted to get up onto the upper deck. “You’re gonna kill yourself!”
“Shh. I’m fine.” Kerry managed to get her footing. “Relax and keep your eyes on the road, honey.”
Dar increased her speed again, but couldn’t resist keeping one eye on Kerry as she made her way over and settled next to her. “What’s that?”
“Well.” Kerry set a big covered plate down. “We don’t have time for me to make what I wanted, so I compromised.” She uncovered the plate. Resting on it were two neatly made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and some cookies.
“Mm.” Dar went, typically, right for the cookies, her eyes widening when she felt them. “They’re warm!”
“Well, yeah.” Kerry slid an arm around her. “I just made them. Thank goodness for Pillsbury.” She put a thermos on the console. “I figured we’d just have time to have lunch before we pulled back into dock.”
Dar agreeably selected a half a sandwich and bit into it. “Wonder what the hell’s going on?” She mumbled. “Bud just being a jerk, or…”
“With our luck, on this trip?” Kerry laughed wryly. “Or. Definitely Or. Maybe he tangled with that nasty shark we paid off this morning. They sure didn’t seem friendly, and he seemed like the type to hold a grudge for no real reason.”
Possible. Dar nodded as she chewed. “Might be. Or maybe he’s checking on Rufus, and his damn battery died on the cell.”
They looked at each other. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” Kerry sighed.
Dar shrugged, and took a cookie. It was a nicely browned chocolate chip cookie, Dar’s favorite despite having Kerry experiment with many other exotic types. “Guess we’ll just have to find out the hard way.”
Her phone buzzed, making them both jump a little. Dar frowned, put the cookie down and picked up the phone. The caller ID showed a private number, making Dar’s eyebrows hike up. She opened the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello, Roberts.” Desallier’s voice sounded cold and smug, not a good combination at any time.
“What the hell do yo...?”
“SHUT UP!” The man bellowed at her. “You just shut up, and you listen to me, you bitch, if you want to see your little fag friend again.”
Dar felt Kerry move closer, as she heard the words even over the rumble of the engines. A sick feeling washed over her and her nostrils twitched, but she carefully bit her tongue and didn’t respond. Her heart rate picked up as she waited, making a faint thunder in her ears.
Kerry slid an arm around Dar’s waist and pressed her ear against the other side of the phone.
“You said to shut up and listen.” Dar heard the icy clip in her own tone. Her voice had dropped to almost its lowest register.
“All right.” DeSalliers replied, with a verbal smirk. “This is very simple. I kept it very simple so you’ll understand it.”
Dar’s eyes narrowed, but she remained silent. Beside her, Kerry made a noise halfway between a spit and a growl.
“You will give me what you found. When you do that, I will give you your friend.” The man said. “If you call the police, I will kill this piece of trash. If you mess with me, I will kill this piece of trash. If you do anything that makes me think you’re crossing me, I will not only kill him, I will drag him over the reef to kill him. Do you understand me?”
“No.” Dar said. “That would require a scientific degree in animal psychology I don’t possess. Where do you want to make the trade?”
“Just for that, bitch; he gets two smacks with a pipe.” DeSalliers told her. “I’ll let you know where to bring my property.”
The phone clicked off. Dar licked her lips and put the phone down on the console, gazing at it in honest consternation. Kerry slowly let out a breath, her head still resting against Dar’s shoulder. The sound of the boat filled the air for several very long moments as neither spoke.
“Oh boy.” Kerry finally exhaled. “We are so…”
“Fucked.” Dar completed the thought succinctly. “Oh yeah. Big time.” She slowly released a breath and concentrated for a moment on driving the boat. Her stomach was clenched in knots and she struggled to catch hold of the thoughts whirling inside her mind.
“You…” Kerry paused. “You think he was serious?”
Dar replayed the conversation in her head. Desallier’s voice had been very different than she remembered previously. It had held an edge that was making Dar very nervous. “He might be, yeah.” She answered softly. “I think we may have pushed too hard.”
Kerry exhaled. “Dar.”
“Yeah, I know. I feel like shit.” Dar said, in a small voice. “I didn’t think this through at all.”
Kerry rested her head against Dar’s shoulder as the island’s marina grew ahead of them. “My god, what are we going to do?” She asked. “Dar, we don’t have anything to give him!”
Dar didn’t answer.
“He won’t believe us if we tell him that.” Kerry went on, her tone rising. “Jesus!”
“Okay.” Dar said. “Freaking out is not going to help.”
“I’m not freaking out.” Kerry objected. “I’m just…” She paused. “Okay, maybe I am freaking out. But I think it’s justified.”
The buoy approached, and Dar steered past it, aiming for their slip. Her hands were trembling on the throttles, but she focused on what she was doing. The last thing she needed to do was take the dock out and have that to worry about on top of everything.
Kerry seemed to realize that, and she kept quiet while Dar maneuvered the boat into its place. “I’ll go tie us up.” She muttered softly, using that as an excuse to burn off the churn of nervous energy in her belly. As she climbed down the ladder, a thousand screaming thoughts fighting to gain possession of her mind.
Horrified pity for Bud was uppermost. Despite the fact that she’d started out not liking him, seeing him talking to Charlie at the hospital had softened her attitude. The thought that they’d put him in mortal danger mortified her.
How could they have been so damn irresponsible? Couldn’t they see how strung out DeSalliers was getting? How desperate? What made them think he’d just go running away if they challenged him?
With a sigh, she climbed onto the dock and secured their lines, glancing up to the flying bridge as she did so. Dar was still seated at the console, with her head buried in her hands.
Her heart lurching, Kerry finished her task and jumped back on board, scaling the ladder and approaching the still figure.
“Dar?” She put her hands on her partner’s shoulders. Dar had been right. Freaking out wouldn’t help. “Hey.” Slamming themselves or each other wouldn’t either.
“Yeah?” Dar lifted her head and rested her chin against her clasped hands.
“We’ll figure out what to do.” Kerry leaned against her back. “C’mon. Let’s go meet Charlie, and then we’ll all come back here and just talk this out.”
Dar straightened and let her head rest against Kerry’s chest. “How could I have been that stupid? That wrong?” She asked in a soft, plaintive voice. “What’s wrong with me?”
Kerry put her arms around Dar’s neck, and kissed the top of her head. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” She said. “We’re just way out of our league, Dar.”
Dar blinked a few times. “Are we?”
“Well, I can’t speak for you, but they never taught megalomaniacal fruitcake avoidance in my IT classes in Michigan.” Kerry said, taking a deep breath. “Sorry I freaked out.”
The dark head tipped back and pale blue eyes searched her face. “Don’t be. You were right. It’s justified.” Dar said. “I just put someone’s life in danger by my own arrogant stupidity.”
“Hey.” Kerry slid around the console and sat down next to Dar. “Someone I know once told me when you make mistake, know it, then move on and get it fixed.” She took Dar’s hand. “We made a mistake. So let’s just go figure out how to fix it.”
“What if we can’t?” Dar stared at the console morosely.
“Dar, if anyone can, it’d be you.” Kerry murmured. “We’ll find a way, somehow.” She rubbed Dar’s shoulder, worried at the pained, lost expression on her lover’s face. “C’mon.”
Dar visibly pulled herself together, rubbing her face with one hand and straightening. “Okay.” She sighed. “We’ll see what we can come up with to fix this cluster.” A shake of her head. “God knows it could have been worse.” She moved to stand up.
Kerry moved with her. “How’s that?”
Dar paused, one hand on the console, and then she looked at Kerry. “It could have been you.” She eased past her lover and pulled her head close as she did, kissing it. “Let’s go.”
Jesus. Kerry sucked in a shocked breath, as she turned to follow Dar mechanically. She’s right. She stopped me from coming down here alone.
She tried to imagine what that would have been like, a flash of her time in the mental hospital appearing stark and vivid in her mind’s eye. How angry she’d been. How ashamed at being taken like that, by her own father.
What would Dar have done if it had been her? Kerry watched Dar carefully lock the cabin door. “Hey, Dar?”
“Yes?” Dar turned, apparently having recovered her composure for the time being.
Kerry took her arm as they crossed onto the dock and started the long uphill walk to where the hospital was. “I was just thinking about what you said.” She folded her fingers around Dar’s. “I was thinking about what I would have done, if it’d been you DeSalliers took instead of poor Bud.”
Dar looked at her. “And?”
“And I think I would have gone after his ugly ass with that shotgun.” Kerry admitted, with a wry, brief smile. “I can see me doing a Rambo and getting my fool head blown off.”
“Nah.” Dar squeezed her hand.
“Yeah.” Kerry said, seriously. “So, I know this really sucks, and it’s going to be tough on both of us, but I’m selfish enough to be glad I don’t have to be thinking about you locked up someplace in that guy’s clutches.”
“Well.” Dar kicked a pebble out of the way, watching it skitter down the docks past two men working near one of the boats. “I think you know that goes double for me.” She squared her shoulders a trifle. “I guess we need to figure out what our assets are what advantages we have, and figure out what to do.”
“Right.” Kerry felt a tiny sense of relief.
They walked along in silence, passing the other boats and collecting a few curious glances from the men working on them. The left the dock and headed up the road.
“Kerry?” Dar finally said when they’d passed the marina and mounted the first of the steps up the hill.
Dar paused, and put a hand on Kerry’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t have gone after him with that shotgun.”
Green eyes searched her face. “Oh.”
“I would have just used my bare hands.” Dar spoke the words with eerie calm. “And ripped his heart out of his chest.”
They resumed walking.
“We’ll find a way to fix this.” Kerry stated firmly. “I know we will.”
Dar grunted softly in response, her eyes fastened on the hospital on the slope above.
Charlie remained silent for a while after Kerry finished speaking, a look of stunned shock on his face. His eyes slowly went from her to Dar, who was sitting in the chair on one side of the hospital room.
The dark haired woman had her elbows resting on her knees, her clasped hands resting against her chin. She lowered her gaze to the floor, tacitly accepting responsibility for the situation they found themselves in. “So, our plan was to get you out of here, then figure out what the hell we’re going to do.”
Charlie sighed deeply. “Son of a bitch.”
Dar’s shoulders hunched, just slightly. This was a failure of self that was eating a hole inside her, and she knew it. There had been very few times in her life when she’d known down deep that she’d committed an unfixable error, but this seemed surely to be one of them. Even Kerry’s gentle reassurance wasn’t helping.
She heard Kerry’s footsteps approach, and then felt a hand come to rest on her back. Between her shoulder blades, Kerry’s thumb moved slightly, giving her a comforting rub.
Dar could hear Kerry continuing to speak, but the words just seemed to slip past her and without really realizing it, she rested her head against Kerry’s hip and let her eyes close in pain.
“I know this is pretty tough to hear.” Kerry said. “Believe me, I wish I wasn’t here saying it.”
Charlie glanced at the silent figure next to her. His lips twitched slightly. “Y’know, I told that damn fool he shoulda listened to you in the first place, Dar.” He said, with a sigh. “Too damn stubborn, that’s what his problem is, always was.”
Kerry could feel Dar’s breath warm against the skin of her leg. “About the loan, you mean?”
Charlie nodded. “Don’t blame yourself, Dar. We got ourselves into this mess. We went after that kid’s offer instead of doing the smart thing and accepting the hand of a friend.” He said. “We never’d been here otherwise.”
Kerry scratched Dar’s back, running her fingertips over the tense surface. She could almost feel how upset Dar was, it was like a gray baseball sitting in the pit of her stomach, and she really wanted her lover to shake off the cloud so obviously over her head. “Honey?”
The truth was too much to shrug off. Dar looked up reluctantly and inhaled. “I know.” She muttered. “What ifs, what ifs. What if Kerry and I had just gone to another island, or picked a different damn wreck to dive…”
“Look.” Charlie collected himself, easing off the edge of the bed onto his newly restored prosthesis. “Bud’s a big boy. I ain’t sure they don’t have themselves a bigger problem than they started out with grabbing him.”
“Mm.” Dar straightened up a little. “They ready to cut you loose?” She asked. “We figured we’d head on back to the boat, and regroup.”
“Good idea.’ Charlie nodded. “After what you told me about what happened at that Inn, I don’t trust them people more than I can pitch em off the cliff.”
Dar stood up, feeling very tired. “All right. I’ll go downstairs and get us a cab.” She gave Kerry a simple, brief hug, then left them to collect Charlie’s things.
“Dar’s taking it pretty hard, huh?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah.” Kerry glanced at him, a little shyly. “She hates being caught by surprise.” Her eyebrows contracted together. “So do I, actually.”
“Life does that.” Charlie stuffed the last shirt into the small, battered canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. “She done all right. Guy’s nutters.” He limped slowly towards the door. “Whole thing’s nutters.”
“Well, I thought so.” Kerry opened the door for him and followed him out. “But Dar’s pretty big into situational responsibility.”
Charlie grunted. “Just like her daddy.”
Kerry thought about that. “That’s true.” She mused. “Dad does like to make sure everything’s just so.” She looked up to see Charlie glancing back at her. “I appreciate that about him. I’m glad Dar inherited it.”
“He put up with you calling him that?” The ex sailor seemed amused.
“What?” Kerry asked. “Dad?”
“Sure.” Kerry walked slowly next to him. “I don’t have a very good relationship with my own family. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts treat me more like a daughter than my parents ever did, and they know I love them for that.” She found a surprising lump in her throat, and had to take a moment to swallow it. “Besides, I never got the feeling he minded being a daddy.”
“No.” The older man smiled briefly. “Andy wore one of Dar’s nappy pins on his gear for years, and nobody dared say boo to him about it.”
Kerry had to smile at the vision. “She’ll be all right.” She told him. “She just has to finish kicking herself, and then we can figure out what the heck we’re going to do about this mess.” Her hand curled around the door handle at the end of the corridor and she pulled it open. “I’ll feel a lot better when we’re back on the boat, though.”
“You and me both, Kerry.” Charlie limped towards the hospital’s front door. Through the half glass, Dar’s distinctive form was visible. “We got some friends out here. Maybe we can get some help from them.”
They emerged into the warmth. Dar was standing with her hands in her pockets, her sunglasses effectively hiding her eyes. A somewhat battered cab was waiting nearby.
Kerry followed Dar over to the cab and got in, while Dar held the door open so Charlie could ease gingerly into the front seat. Dar joined Kerry in the back and they drove off, each mired briefly in private thoughts.
Dar went behind the galley counter and poured herself a glass of milk, then went into the bathroom and took a couple of aspirin from the bottle in the medicine chest. She swallowed them as she emerged, to rejoin Kerry and Charlie in the living space of the boat.
Kerry patted the seat next to her on the couch, and Dar detoured from the chair she’d been aiming for and settled next to her partner instead. Now that the shock had worn off a bit, and despite the headache she’d developed, her problem solving instincts were beginning to kick in again. Facts were starting to sort themselves out from the chaos.
“Okay.” Dar took a sip of milk. “First off, he’s got no home base here in the islands, right?”
“Not that we know of, no.” Kerry had been doing some quick data searches. “Not that he couldn’t be anywhere.” She added.
“True.” Dar agreed. “But if he’s on the islands somewhere, we should be able to find record of him doing business.” She looked over Kerry’s shoulder. “See who has the telecom contract for St. Thomas.”
Kerry’s fingers moved. “There.” She pointed.
“Do we have a reciprocal with them?”
Dar’s voice had started sounding more normal and Kerry took a moment to be grateful as she searched out the information her lover was asking for. “Better.” She suppressed a smile. “We’re the outsource.”
“Okay.” Dar nodded. “Give me the laptop.”
She traded her milk for the machine and settled it onto her lap. “All right. Let’s start using our heads instead of our asses to solve this problem for a change.” She started up her programming language and began constructing a script. “I’ll capture traffic to Wharton’s area code and match it against his telco’s records database.”
“What’ll that tell you?” Charlie asked curiously. “We don’t much care, do we? They ain’t sent Bud all the way over there, did they?”
“Probably not.” Dar shook her head. “But if we get a hit on his number, coming from this island, chances are the originating number is DeSalliers.”
“He probably has a cell.” Kerry stated quietly.
“If he does, it’s probably a sat cell like ours.” Dar finished her task, then opened a connection to the managed switches and inserted the program into place. “Pretty simple.” She muttered. “I’ll just have it dump to a log, and email me with it every hour.”
“Is that all legal?” Charlie inquired.
Dar glanced up at him. “What, data parsing? Technically it’s all part of the internetwork I’m paid to manage, so if you mean do I legitimately have access, yes. Should I be dipping into that datastream for my own purposes? No.”
Dar continued to type. “The cops can request this, with a court order. But we can’t call the cops, and we’re not in a position to petition the courts so I’m just doing what I have to do anyway.” She opened another window and considered it, drumming her fingers lightly on the keys.
“What are we going to do with the information, assuming we find it?” Kerry asked. “Chances are, when he calls back he’ll tell us where to meet him anyway.”
“True.” Dar agreed absently. “But we’ve been waiting for someone to make the next move the entire week. I’m over it. I want control back.” She opened her cell phone and typed in a number off the back into the new script she was building. “When he calls me, this’ll locate him to his nearest relay point station.” She linked the script to a mapping module.
“Won’t do no good to call the cops anyhow.” Charlie remarked. “He’ll just buy em.”
“Like the pirates have?” Dar asked, without missing a beat. “Bud was fixing to tell us about your friends just before he left.” She felt Kerry stiffen in surprise next to her, and heard the faint indrawn breath.
Charlie turned red, and directed his eyes to the deck of the boat. ‘Damn.” He muttered softly. “I know you ain’t understanding that at all, huh?”
Dar felt very little satisfaction in her on the mark guess. She finished her program and compiled it, finding just the act of doing something she was comfortably competent in very soothing to her jangled nerves. She had a brief, incongruous memory of her mother retreating to her easel after a stressful bout, losing herself in the canvas where she alone had control of what happened.
“Understanding?” Kerry spoke up. “So you do know those pirates?”
Charlie didn’t answer for a bit. He flexed his hands, then rested them on his knees. “It’s not what you think.” He started off. “Things are tough down here.”
Kerry tore her eyes off the coding Dar was doing and concentrated on their guest. “And?” She answered. “So… that makes what they’re doing okay?”
Charlie shrugged. “Survival is what counts.” He said. “Bunch of folks got together, and kind of worked out a deal, so if you had a little extra, you’d toss it in the kitty, and if you needed a little, you’d take.” He shifted, still gazing at the floor. “Worked out okay.”
“Okay?” Kerry could hardly believe what she was hearing. “That’s not what those pirates do. I know. I saw them.” She said. “They weren’t Robin Hood.”
He gave her a guilty look. “Didn’t start out that way. It was just… one day this guy who was in with us, his cousin came in from the states. Slick guy.”
“Bet we know who that is.” Dar muttered, her eyes fastened on the screen.
“Mm.” Kerry grunted agreement.
“They’d just been doing little stuff. Salvage. Selling bits of wood and stuff to the shops, that kinda thing.” Charlie explained. “A little smuggling, just bullshit stuff. But this guy talked them into a deal where he said he could get them big money, he said, if they could get him abandoned boats.”
“Abandoned?” Kerry said. “You’re not seriously saying anyone believed that, are you?”
Another shrug. “Anyway, they got him one, nothing big, just a little skiff, and he sold it off for them, worked out pretty good. Made it nice. Helped out a lot of folks.” Charlie still couldn’t meet Kerry’s eyes. “Nobody got hurt.”
“Except the guy who lost his boat.” Kerry said.
“They got their money back.” Charlie argued. “Them insurance companies pay off but good. Probably went out and got him a brand new one, like the rest of them did.” He said. “He gets a new boat; we get what we need… who gets hurt?”
“The insurance company.” Dar said.
“They can afford it.” Charlie said, his voice going a little harder. “All these folks out here, not the big shots who stay in them hotels, but the rest of us, just trying to scrape out a living can’t.” He finally lifted his head. “They never went after little people. Just the big rollers with more money than sense. The fat cats.”
Dar looked up at him. “People like me.” She glanced at Kerry. “Like us.”
Charlie took a breath. “No, that ain’t’ true.”
Dar cocked her head. “Of course it’s true.” She replied, lifting a hand and gesturing around at the boat. “I’ve got a five million dollar condo to go with it, and four times that in the bank, Charlie.” She told him. “I run one of the biggest computer companies in the damn world. Hell, they came after me the other day, remember?”
Charlie sighed. “Jackasses.” He muttered. “Bud told em to steer clear of you.”
“Gee. Thanks.” Kerry murmured.
“You don’t understand.” Charlie told her.
“You’re right. I don’t.” Kerry readily agreed. “So let me ask you this. If these guys are so wonderful, how come you had to get a loan from the greasy bastard we paid off this morning?”
Dar’s eyebrow inched up at Kerry’s tone. She set the laptop down on the table, all its programs busily running, and leaned back. “Good question.”
Charlie sucked his lower lip for a moment, and then shrugged one more time. “Same old story.” He said quietly. “After they started this all up, they’d put up with us taking a few bananas. But when it came to hard cash, it was just say no to the dirty fags.” His eyes held theirs steadily. “They tolerate us, now. Took a while. Bud just refused to ask em to pay down the loan, though.”
Dar just shook her head.
“Like I said. You don’t understand.” Charlie said. “You got it all.” He got up and walked to the door, going out onto the back deck and closing the portal after him.
“Whoo.” Kerry murmured. “This is getting really icky.”
Dar found herself relaxing, despite the truth of that statement. She took Kerry’s hand in hers and clasped it, then brought it up to her lips. “He’s right, though.”
“Huh?” Kerry’s blond eyebrows hiked up almost to her hairline.
“I do have it all.” Dar looked steadily into Kerry’s eyes, watching the expression on her face soften as warmth crept into the green orbs. “I don’t agree with what they did, but I understand what drove it.” She added. “It’s been tough for them out here, and I think they were looking for survival more than anything else.”
Kerry nodded briefly. “I know. It’s not like they got rich off it.” She admitted. “But I can’t go along with the fact they think no one gets hurt. Someone does, Dar. People could get hurt – they could even get hurt themselves.”
“Like they almost did the other day.” Dar sighed. “Let’s save that problem for after we solve this one.”
Dar had a point, Kerry acknowledged. “Okay.” She concurred. “Let me go talk to him. I know he’s under a lot of stress. I can imagine how I’d be acting if I were in his place.” She got up, leaned over and brushed Dar’s lips with her own, then eased past her partner’s outstretched legs and headed for the door.
Dar exhaled heavily, the air puffing her dark locks up off her forehead as she slumped back into the couch and regarded her laptop. She still felt like an idiot for getting into the situation, but her more practical side had taken over and put itself in charge at least for the moment.
Logic made a lot better platform for problem solving than hysteria.
Dar let her head drop back against the couch, easing a hand behind her neck and rubbing the tense muscles just at the base of her skull. “What next?” She asked the ceiling. Her instincts were urging her to action, but aside from the digital searching her programs were doing on her behalf, she wasn’t sure if there was anything else she could do until DeSalliers called again.
Calling the police captain crossed her mind, but Dar rejected that idea out of hand. Even if she thought he might be on the up and up, and would keep the contact under wraps she had no such confidence in anyone else he worked with. Besides, she wasn’t sure he was honest, and she wasn’t about to risk Bud’s life on that.
That brought up the question of whether DeSalliers would make good on his threat. He’d avoided using brutal force in their first encounters, but as things had progressed, she’d gotten a sense that he was getting closer to crossing the line.
Okay, Dar. She lectured herself. Let’s think of this in more familiar terms. She got up and picked up her milk glass, carrying it back to the galley. “DeSalliers has a contract he’s got to execute. He makes good on it, and he wins. He stays in business, he’s got the money to keep going, life is good.” She poured another glass and stood there sipping it. “He probably figured this to be a no brainer. He’s got power, he’s got people, just head down here and rope the wreck off, dive it, destroy it, bring back proof and he’s home free.”
She poked in the basket, and retrieved one of the cookies Kerry had made earlier, dunking it into her milk and taking a bite of it.
“Think of it from his perspective, Dar. You think you’re frustrated? Picture how he has to feel – he’s got Bob to deal with , then he runs into you and you wreck his boat, then you keep him from Bob again, then your friends enlist with Bob to mess him up, then you call his contract holder and tell them he’s a loser.” Dar finished the cookie and fished around for another one. “Bet he’s got a stuffed Rottweiler with my name pinned to it that he’s using for target practice.”
The thought put her in a slightly better mood. “Okay – so now I’ve got to convince him I’ve really got something he’s looking for, long enough to trade it for Bud or at least find out where he’s got him.” She licked her lips. “Just like bluffing out a competitor, Dar. You can do that.”
What was DeSalliers expecting? He was expecting her to run scared. Back off. Wait for him to make all the moves.
All right. Dar took the basket and brought it back to the couch, then sat down cross legged and retrieved the laptop. She opened her mail, and started typing.
Kerry eased out of the cabin, spotting Charlie sitting on the stern bench they used to gear up on. She walked over and took a seat next to him, leaning her arm on the back of the boat and gazing out across the marina.
“Y’know.” Charlie spoke first. “That’s why Bud never could stand Andy, I’m guessing.”
“What do you mean?” Kerry asked.
“He had everything. Everybody liked him, he was real good at what he done, he had a good marriage, had a kid he was proud of… he made it seem like everybody should be just like him.” He glanced at the door. ‘She’s just like him.”
Kerry thought about that. “I wish more people were like him.” She remarked. “I wish my father had been.”
Charlie shifted and looked at her.
“When I first met Dar, and we were getting to know each other, every time she talked about her father I found it hard to believe, deep down in my heart, what she was saying.” Kerry spoke softly. “Because my own experience had been so different.”
“Dar got off lucky.” Charlie said. “Most of us don’t.”
“True.” Kerry agreed. “But then I met him.” She turned her head and met Charlie’s eyes. “He gave me something my family never had and I cherish that, and him, more than I can tell you.”
The ex sailor leaned back and rested his arm on the stern railing. “I’m not gonna apologize for us doing what we had to do to keep our heads up.” He said. “I got a kid to take care of.”
Kerry regarded him. “I’m not into judging people. I’ve been on the receiving end of that too many times myself.” She said. “I think the important thing right now is just to resolve this, and get Bud out of that nutball’s clutches.”
One of Charlie’s eyebrows twitched. “Thought you weren’t inta judging.” He drawled. “Calling that sonofabitch a nutball like that.”
Kerry produced a faint grin.
“Anyhoo.” Charlie shook his head. “Dar’s just like Andy. Just got that same attitude. Reminded me of him real strong there for a minute. I know she’s right, a little, but sometimes you just ain’t’ got no choices in life except the bad ones.”
“That’s true.” Kerry cocked her head, hearing footsteps approaching down the dock. She got up and leaned over the side of the stern, spotting a familiar figure moving towards him. “Ah.” She exhaled. “Bob.”
Charlie got up and came over. “That little asshole.”
“Mm.” Kerry climbed up onto the side deck and jumped to the dock, just as Bob trotted up to the boat. “Hi.”
“Oh! Hey!” Bob seemed a little out of breath. “Glad I found you. Listen, the cops are after me. Can I hide out in there for a while?” He glanced behind Kerry and spotted Charlie’s glare. “Oh. Ah…okay, maybe not.”
Kerry sighed. “C’mon. We need all the help we can get.” She paused. “Even yours.”
Kerry took hold of his shirt and pulled him after her as she jumped back onto the boat. Left with a choice of following or losing his clothing. Bob joined her. “Our friend DeSalliers has been busier than you think.” Kerry told him.
“Um.” Bob hid behind Kerry as they moved onto the stern. “Listen, Kerry did explain to you what happened the other night, didn’t she?” He asked Charlie hopefully.
“I know what happened the other night, you pissant.” Charlie told him. “You ran out and left us. C’mon over here and let me pop your damn little…” Charlie limped towards them.
“Uh… uh…” Bob started going backwards.
“Hold it.!” Kerry, between the two of them, held up her hand. “C’mon guys. We don’t have time for this.” She raised her voice when Charlie kept coming. “Stop it!!!”
One, two, three, four….
The door to the cabin slammed open and Dar bounded out onto the deck, her eyes taking in the situation immediately. She pounced on Charlie, grabbing his shirt and hauling him back unceremoniously. “Hey!” She barked. “Cool it!”
“Let go of me!” Charlie yanked against her grip. “I owe that bastard a big right one.”
Dar got in front of him and blocked his way. “I said, cool it.” She bristled. “We don’t have time for this crap. Like you said at the hospital – you made the choice to trust him. No one forced you.”
“Dar, get out of my way.” Charlie tried to brush by her.
“No.” Dar didn’t budge. “Don’t even think about trying to move me.”
He stopped and stared at her. “You think you’re Andrew? Get your ass out of my way, girl.” He put his hand against Dar’s shoulder and pushed.
Dar didn’t budge. She lifted her hand and closed her fingers around Charlie’s wrist, tightening her grip with sudden explosiveness. “Charlie.” She gazed steadily at him. “This is my boat, and you’re on it.” She said. “Stop it.”
Their eyes locked.
“I’m *not* my father.” Dar warned him softly.
Charlie examined the glittering blue eyes, cold as ice, that were fastened on him. Then he stepped back. Dar released his arm and he took a seat on the stern bench again. “When we get off this boat.” He told Dar. “You ain’t stopping me.”
Dar turned, satisfied with the answer. “All right.” She looked at Bob. “This got a lot more serious. You can stick around, but keep your mouth shut, and if we need you do to something, don’t make me have to explain it in words of less than a syllable.”
“Uh.” Bob took a step backwards. “Maybe I should just go hang out somewhere else.”
Kerry turned. “DeSalliers kidnapped our friend Bud, and he’s threatening to kill him.” She said. “Sure you want to go out wandering around?”
Bob looked honestly shocked. “No kidding? I didn’t think he… I mean, yeah, he’s famous for all this salvage crap, but I never thought he’d get all serious like that.”
“Let’s go inside.” Dar opened the door. “Hopefully, he’ll call soon and we’ll know where we stand.”
Kerry led Bob inside, taking a moment to give Dar a wry look and a pat on the side as she passed her. “How about some coffee?”
Dar made a tiny, moaning noise in response. She turned and waited for Charlie to get up and limp over, standing back to let him enter. He paused as he came even with her and their eyes met again. After a minute, Charlie shook his head and walked past her.
Dar turned and surveyed their surroundings briefly. She scanned the nearby boats, evaluating their occupants. Nothing jumped out at her, and of course, DeSalliers yacht was nowhere to be seen. Her eyes spotted two policemen, however. One was standing near the beginning of the wooden dock, and the other was walking up and down near the beach.
She heard the sound of engines behind her, and she walked to the other side of the boat, looking out over the water. A racing boat was idling into the marina, big, throaty engines rumbling as it moved past them. There was a man behind the controls, with what Dar could only describe to herself as a babe next to him. The man looked around and caught Dar’s eye, producing a smile and a wave in her direction.
“Nice boat!” The man yelled out.
“Same to you.” Dar responded with wry civility. She watched the boat move past, making note of the boat name, and seeing the Miami Beach home port under it. The racer pulled into a slip two past theirs, and disgorged it’s occupants onto the dock. The man gave the woman a slap on the butt, and pointed up to a nearby restaurant. He turned and walked the other way, towards Dar’s boat.
“Figures.” Dar stuck her head inside the door. “Got company. Ker, watch my phone, willya?”
Kerry had artfully positioned Bob and Charlie as far away from each other as she could in the living area, and was preparing coffee behind the galley. “Aye aye, Cap’n Dar.”
Dar shut the door and walked to the side of the boat to meet their visitor.
“Anyway, since you’re a neighbor, I thought I’d pass the word.” The man said, with a wry grin. “It was a hell of a weather system, and since it’s headed this way, you might want to check your float plan.”
Dar exhaled. “We had a bad storm here the other day.” She said. “I thought we’d finished with the tropical weather this year.”
The other boater shook his head. He was a relatively good looking man, of medium height and the type of build that indicated he guilted himself into a gym a few times a week. “Yeah, and you know I just heard we’re up for an El Nino again this year. Weather’s been real weird.”
Dar glanced up. “Well, if what they say about global warming is true, better enjoy the islands now.” She said. “We’ll be diving them as reefs some day.” Her hand extended over the water. “Thanks for the warning, Roger. I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” The man clasped her hand. “Hey, you said your name is Roberts?”
Uh oh. “Yeah.” Dar nodded warily.
His head tilted and he looked at her. “You’re not any relation to Andrew and Cecilia Roberts, are you? They’re my slip neighbors over at the South Beach Marina.”
Oh. Dar managed a relieved smile. “Yeah, they’re my parents.”
“Had a feeling.” Roger pointed at her. “You look like Andy. He’s a trip. Well, good to meet you, Dar. Have a safe trip back, and watch out for that storm.” He lifted a hand and started back down the docks.
“Small world.” Dar murmured in bemusement. “Small, small world.”
“So that’s what happened.” Kerry put the thermos of coffee on the tray, and added some cream and sugar. She picked it up and brought it over to the table. “Whatever it is you’re looking for, Bob – it must really be there.”
Bob exhaled. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too when the cops came after me. No smoke without cigarettes, right?”
Kerry looked up. “Right.” She set the tray down, and then jumped as Dar’s cell phone rang. With a quick glance towards the laptop she picked it up and opened it. “Hello?”
Kerry considered lying, but discarded the idea. “No.” She answered.
“Put the bitch on the phone right now.”
The door opened, and Dar entered. Kerry held the phone up, and then directed a rude gesture to it. Dar’s eyes narrowed as she crossed the deck and took the instrument. “Yeah?”
Kerry dropped to the couch and pulled the laptop over, clicking on the window Dar had running for the cell phone. The program had activated. She noticed Charlie had moved to the edge of his chair, listening to Dar’s conversation intently.
“Write this down, Roberts. If you fuck it up, your little buddy’s toast.”
Dar took a breath for patience. “Go ahead.”
“I’ll give you two coordinates. You be there at midnight tonight. Bring what you’ve got, plus twenty five thousand dollars.” DeSalliers said. “That’s to cover the cost of fixing my boat.”
Dar considered, pulling her new pocket watch from her shorts pocket and opening it. “Forget it.” She told DeSalliers crisply. “Try again.”
Momentary silence. “You’re not really understanding the situation, are you? You don’t tell me what to do, Roberts. You do what I tell you to do.”
“Listen, moron. The bank’s closed.” Dar said. “So if you want to recoup your hull breach, gimme the bill, or rethink your plan.”
“That’s not my problem, Roberts. It’s yours. Bring the cash, and the relic, or I’ll chop this piece of shit up and use it for bait.”
The phone went dead. Dar closed it. “Shit.”
Kerry studied the screen. “Looks like he’s out on the water, Dar.” She said. “Nearest coordinates are just west of St. John.” She tapped a few more keys. “Jesus, you captured the digitized output?”
“I never do things halfway.” Dar sat down. “We’ve got a problem. He wants twenty five grand.” She studied the phone. “So, now in addition to a relic I don’t have, I also have to turn over a suitcase of cash I don’t have. This is getting better and better every damn minute.” Her look of disgust was evident. “And to top it all off, a damn tropical weather system’s headed this way and it might be developing circulation.”
Kerry frowned. “At this time of year? Dar, it’s December!”
“No kidding.” Dar rubbed her eyes. “All right. Let’s see where these coordinates are.”
Charlie got up and walked over, leaning on the couch arm to see what Dar was doing. “Weather means trouble.” He commented. “But not till after this damn thing’s over.”
Dar typed in the two coordinates DeSalliers had given her, and waited for the program to plot them on a map. The grid drew in, then a sketchy outline of the islands, then a blinking crosshair. It was set in the middle of the water as she’d expected it to be, in a lonely stretch of water south of the islands.
“No man’s land.” Charlie grunted. “Bout two hours run out there. Not much but a hole in the ocean.”
“So he has to get from here...” Kerry put her fingertip on the place where the cell signal had been tracked to. “To here. And we have to get from here…” She moved to where they were in St. Thomas. “To here. Much shorter.”
“We could get there first.” Bob commented. “You think they’ll have your friend in the boat with them? I guess they’d have to, huh?”
Dar studied the screen. “If they intend on making the swap, yeah.” She heard Charlie suck in a breath. “I figure I need to make him show me he’s got Bud before I agree to anything.”
“You think he’d double cross… oh, what a stupid question.” Kerry rubbed her face with one hand. “Dar, if we don’t really have anything to give him, what are we going to do?” She asked. “You can bluff him only so far.”
Dar folded her hands together and rested her chin against them. “I know that.” Her pale eyes went hooded, the lids narrowing slightly. “If it takes us two hours to get out there, we’ve got until around nine thirty before we have to leave the dock. We’ve got until then to get something to turn over to him that’ll seem real enough to pass.”
“What about the money?” Charlie asked. “Got some people I can call.”
“Not that creep from this morning!” Kerry blurted out. “Christ, I’d rather hock the boat than see his face again.” She reached forward and pulled the coffee tray over, setting up two cups and starting to prepare them.
“No.” Charlie cleared his throat gently. “Somebody else.” He stood up and took out the cell phone. “Damn things gonna cost me an arm this month.” He limped towards the door and went outside, closing it behind him.
Kerry and Dar exchanged glances. Dar pulled the laptop over and opened yet another program. “I’ll get a wire transfer through, but it won’t clear until tomorrow. Maybe if he can get something temporary until then.”
“Expensive vacation.” Kerry leaned against her lover’s shoulder. “Next time, how about we just go do something traditional, like visit Niagara Falls?”
“It’d probably stop while we were there and we’d have to fix that too.” Dar finished her request, and hit enter with an annoyed click. “Okay.” She examined her other running programs. “Nothing else, yet.”
“You think there will be?” Kerry asked.
Dar shrugged, and shook her head. “I don’t know. And you know something? I’m getting pretty tired of saying that I don’t know.” She rested her head against her hands again, banging her forehead against her fists lightly as she rocked back and forth.
Kerry put an arm around her, rubbing her back with light fingertips. “Okay. Bob, what specifically did you think you’d find here? Really, I mean.”
Bob had been staring at Dar in fascination. Now he looked at Kerry with startled eyes. “Um… I dunno, really. I kinda expected... um… well, Tanya thought the old man would maybe work a deal with us if he knew we were trying to rake something up.”
“No, huh?” Kerry’s brow creased. “Somehow, a guy who would steal from his own mother doesn’t seem to me to be the type to deal.” She gently moved the laptop away from Dar and cracked her knuckles, then she opened a database request and started typing. “Now, if we assume Grandpa Wharton wasn’t nuts, then he was here for a reason, right?”
“Mm.” Dar grunted.
“Okay. I’m going to search the exports from here during that time period, and see what I can find. If he was here, it must have been for something worth his while. Since he was a fisherman, I doubt it was timber.” Kerry typed quickly and accurately. She looked up when she felt warmth on her shoulder, to find Dar’s chin resting on it.
Her hand stopped moving for an instant, then started up again. She was very aware of Bob’s watching eyes, but the comfort of Dar’s cheek pressed against her jaw overwhelmed the mild embarrassment at the intimacy and she leaned her head against Dar’s.
“Hey.” Dar breathed into her ear. “While you’re there, do a search in the public archives for smuggling busts during that time period.”
Kerry turned her head slightly and looked into Dar’s eyes at very, very close range. “Smuggling?”
“Smuggling?” Bob asked.
“And do a public records search on him in Maine.” Dar said. “We’re assuming he’s here for a reason. Nothing says it had to be a legal one.”
“Hey!” Bob protested. “He was a good guy!”
Kerry nodded slightly as she typed.
Charlie came back in, his face visibly red. He limped over and sat down, juggling the cell phone as though he wanted to chuck it against the cabin wall. “Waste of a phone call.”
Dar looked up from a conversation on her own cell and shook her head.
Kerry motioned him over to the galley, which she was standing inside. “Want a beer?” She offered sympathetically.
Charlie sat down on the stool bolted to the deck and rested his arms on the galley counter. He played with the phone, still visibly upset. “All we done for them, and they tell me to get lost.” He rested his fist against his jaw. “Thought after all this time, things changed. Guess I was wrong. Wait till the next time those bastards show up with a busted head wanting Bud…” He stopped talking, and his eyes blinked a few times. “Damn, I hope he’s all right.”
Kerry set a bottle of opened beer in front of him, and leaned on the counter. “I’m sure he will be, Charlie. We’ll do our best to make sure of that.” She told him in a gentle tone.
Charlie looked at her. “I feel like a first rate fool. Thinking them people’d gotten to be our friends.”
Dar walked over and leaned next to him. “All right. I arranged for a draft for tomorrow. When I talk to DeSalliers tonight, I’ll have to work a deal with him. I can’t get it any sooner. There isn’t a big enough supply of cash on the damn island – the nearest place I could get it from was one of the cruise ships, and the closest one isn’t due in until tomorrow night.”
Charlie looked at her. “He ain’t gonna buy that. He wants to get the hell out of here.”
“I know.” Dar agreed. “So I have to make what I’m gonna give him good enough for him to forget about the cash.”
Kerry tapped her on the arm. “Dar, we don’t have anything.”
“He doesn’t know that.” Dar said.
“You can’t risk it.” Kerry protested quietly.
“Kerry, what choice do we have?” Dar asked, just as quietly. “The searches came up with zilch. We’ve got no clue why he was here. We have no proof he was nuts, no proof he wasn’t. What we have is a damn wooden cigar box and my ability to lie through my teeth.”
Kerry closed her eyes. “Christ.” She exhaled, staring at the counter. Then she looked up. “DeSalliers is probably going to head around St. Thomas and head to meet point around the east part of the island, right?”
“Why don’t we go dive the site? What do we have to lose? Maybe we can find something.” Kerry said. “We’ve got a couple of hours.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea!” Bob had joined them. “He won’t even be paying attention to the site now!” He sounded excited for the first time since he’d joined them. “Let’s do it!”
Dar calculated the times, then turned and headed for the door without a word. Maybe they would find something, maybe they wouldn’t, but it was something physical she could do that sure as hell beat the crap out of sitting around the boat for four hours pulling her hair out.
And sometimes, she acknowledged, she got lucky.
Dar only hoped this was one of those times.
It was very quiet at the wreck site. The sun was gliding seaward, and there was just a very light chop on the water. The air was cool and dry, and Kerry tipped her head back to see a cloudless sky above her. “Nice.” She was dressed in her shortie wetsuit for the evening dive, the neoprene compressing her body with a slightly annoying snugness that would relax once she was under water.
Dar was standing by their gear, also in her wetsuit. She put a bootied foot up on the bench and strapped a dive knife to her leg, then turned and sat down, getting into her BC and strapping it across her chest.
“Are you sure I can’t go down too?” Bob asked, for the fourth time. “Honest, I think I’d know better what to look for.”
“No.” Dar stood up and cinched her straps tighter. She tied an extra dive light to her belt. “You said you didn’t have any clue what you were looking for. Don’t change your story now.” She motioned Kerry over to get her tank. “We don’t have that much time.”
Kerry didn’t deny the feeling of half excitement, half nervousness that tickled her guts. She walked over and sat down, putting her arms through her BC and standing up. The tank felt heavy, and she had to take a breath before she shrugged it into place and fastened the inner belly strap.
She wasn’t really used to wearing the wetsuit, and she flexed her arms, running a finger inside the sleeve constricting her biceps. It seemed snugger than she remembered, but then, the last time she’d worn it had been last year and all those curls at the gym probably had something to do with that.
Dar stepped over to her and tightened the front clasp, then patted her on the side. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Kerry checked the fastenings holding her various hoses down, and tapped the inflation valve on her BC. She picked up her mask and followed Dar to the stern gate, already pulled back to give them access to the sea.
“Charlie, if anything’s going on up here, use this.” Dar handed him a ball peen hammer. “Smack it on the ladder, not the hull, huh?”
The ex sailor took the hammer and nodded tensely. “If that phone rings, I’ll answer it.” He said. “See if I can get that asshole to let me talk to Bud.”
Dar patted him on the shoulder.
“Good luck.” Bob stuck his hands in his pockets, looking spectacularly useless. “Anything I can do while you’re down there?”
“You any good at heating up soup?” Dar paused, adjusting her mask. “There’s some in the cabinet. Give us forty five minutes, and we’ll be back up here, whether we find something or not.”
“Okay. Sure!” Bob agreed readily. “It’s kinda chilly up here. Good idea!”
“Thank you, honey.” Kerry murmured under her breath.
Dar smiled, then stepped off the stern and dropped into the water with a light splash, disappearing under the surface almost immediately.
Kerry made a last minute adjustment to her dive knife, and then followed, committing herself to the sea.
This dive was different. Kerry felt it as soon as she entered the water and traded the warm sunset for the dim cool of the water. She could see Dar waiting for her, one hand lightly resting on the anchor line and she headed over towards her as her body adjusted to the change.
The wetsuit really did help keep the chill off. It was only a shortie, but it kept the core part of her body a lot warmer than it would have been in just a swimsuit and once the neoprene got wet and loosened up, it became a lot more comfortable.
She caught up to Dar, and they started downward. It was faster than they usually went, and Kerry had to equalize the pressure in her ears a few times as it built up during her descent. She could see the wreck dimly below – Dar had anchored the boat a lot closer this time than on their previous dive. The sun was already dimming above, and as they got closer Dar turned her dive light on. Kerry did likewise.
On the bottom, they paused to regroup. Dar clipped her light onto her vest, and then spread her hands out to encompass the wreck. She then indicated a point halfway, and swept her hand out again. She pointed at Kerry.
Kerry nodded, understanding that they would split up and each take half the wreck. Dar then pointed to the interior of the ship and closed her fist, shaking it. She pointed at herself, then at Kerry, and then clasped her hands together before pointing at the interior again.
Another nod. Kerry agreed that she didn’t want to explore inside the vessel without Dar there. Dar held up a thumb and forefinger in an okay sign.
They separated, and headed off in opposite directions. Kerry took a moment to do a complete 360 degree turn, just to place herself inside the ocean. She fixed the location of the anchor rope in her mind just in case, then went to the very front of the wreck debris and started looking around.
The wreck wasn’t really all in one piece. Dribbles of it were spread out a little, pieces of wood and iron half buried in the soft, white sand. Kerry swam slowly over them, letting the tips of her gloved hands brush their encrusted surface lightly. Nothing out of the ordinary that she could see – the pieces of metal were cleats and other marine hardware she recognized readily.
Kerry drifted a few feet further, and then she stopped and turned, looking back at the debris. Wait a minute, her brow creased. I do recognize all of it. She scanned the wreckage again, and then looked further. Anchor chains, railings, braces… it was all there.
What was bothering her was what wasn’t there. She’d never been on a fishing vessel before, and that was the point. There should be a lot of junk she had no clue about lying around in pieces, even after all this time. Things like nets, and winches and whatever the heck fishermen used when they did it on a commercial basis. Kerry paused and thought about what she’d seen inside the hold of the vessel.
Crates. Boxes. Bunks.
She flipped over onto her back and studied the wreck as a whole, spotting Dar’s light down around the stern area. The sunlight was fading, and the boat was settling into a morose gloom – blending in with the reef surrounding it.
With a soft grunt, Kerry went vertical again and continued her search. She spotted a tumbled piece of wreckage off to one side and swam over to it, settling to the sand on her knees as she let the buoyancy out of her BC. She carefully eased the old wood aside, then lifted the piece and examined it. The wood was covered in sea growth, which she gently eased off one part of it. She could see darker markings underneath, and she worked at it until she’d cleared a small space of the wood. Her light revealed a partial word, or something that might be a word. It didn’t mean anything to her, however. She put the piece of wood into her catch bag, and continued exploring.
Dar found herself at the back end of the boat, finding nothing remarkable in the debris trail leading out from it. She drifted down to the bottom and looked at the half buried stern, where there were still faint traces of the boat’s name on the encrusted metal. She ran her hands along the slanted deck, jerking back when an eel squiggled out of what had once been the engine exhaust.
Diesel inboards, Dar noted, not that different than what powered her own craft now eighty feet above her head. She eased up over the stern and onto the deck, startling a grouper. A small school of gorgeous blue and yellow angels swarmed around her as she swam slowly along; looking for any signs of something she knew she wouldn’t know if she spotted it.
A cleat on the deck drew her interest, and she descended, touching the round, heavy iron circle with her hand. Meant to hold down a vertical piece of equipment, she found the center of it coral encrusted wood indicating it hadn’t been in use when the vessel went down. Her eyes tracked to a second cleat, and then a third, much larger one.
Dar frowned, thinking about the fishing vessels she’d seen in the marina. The net winches would have been bolted down here, she realized, along with the heavy motors to draw in the thick nets so their contents could be dumped into the open hold.
The hold doors were there, cracked open and granting the access to the ship’s interior that she and Kerry had used the last time, but as she circled around the deck, she realized that nothing else was. No cranes, no winches, no mechanism the fishermen would use to retrieve their catch.
She felt something approaching, and her head jerked up, only to find Kerry soaring up over the wheelhouse headed towards her. Her partner slowed to a halt, then pulled out her small slate and grease pencil and started to scribble. Dar let her write, as she drifted off into the wheel house.
It was fairly dark inside. She flicked her light on and examined the dim, silent place where surely the captain had spent his last moments. For a moment, her skin prickled and she looked around, sternly telling her imagination to pick a better time to wake up. The inside of the structure was covered in coral, and she had to move cautiously so as not to get her gear tangled or snagged.
The chair bolted to the floor had come mostly loose. Dar ducked around it, and examined the console that held the ship’s wheel. The old fashioned nubbed wood was surprisingly intact, and she curled her hand around one of the spokes. The wheel had a brass inset, and she leaned closed, shining her light on it. The sea had corroded it too badly, but she could see the plate was loose, and she pulled her dive knife out and pried gently at it.
It came loose and floated down. Dar ducked around the wheel after it, and snagged it in one hand near the floor of the wheel house. She was just turning to come back up when she spotted an odd profile under the front console.
Curiously, she flipped over onto her back and wriggled underneath the metal shelf, shining her light on her find. It was covered in growth, but Dar could just make out something clamped there and she got closer, clearing some of the coral away.
The outline was sinister. Dar felt a chill down her spine, and she glanced behind her in pure reflex. Shaking her head in annoyance, she moved in closer, and worked carefully at the clamp, trying to pry it free.
A hand grabbed her ankle. With a surprised burst of bubbles, Dar lurched upward, slamming her head against the console and knocking herself silly. Disoriented, she lashed out with an arm, then felt a familiar grip on her and realized it was Kerry.
She went limp with relief, and rubbed her head where it had impacted the metal. Kerry pulled her closer and removed her regulator, then kissed the spot.
Dar rolled onto her back and gazed up at her partner reproachfully. Kerry gave her an apologetic look, but handed her the slate for her to read. Dar scanned the message and nodded vigorously, giving Kerry a thumbs up. Then she pointed under the console to her prize.
Kerry floated over her, going belly to belly with her in the small space. She directed her light to the item, then jerked back in surprise, looking at Dar in question.
Dar, trapped comfortably under Kerry’s body, spread both hands in an attitude of questioning. Kerry pointed at the item, and then made a tugging motion. Dar nodded agreement, and then gave her a gentle poke in the side.
Kerry pushed back out of the way, allowing Dar to roll over and take hold of the encrusted relic. She braced herself, and then pulled. The item didn’t budge. With a scowl, Dar got a better grip, pressing her fins against the console and hauling backwards with all the strength of her powerful shoulders and thighs.
There was a sound they could hear even under water as the metal ripped loose abruptly, sending Dar shooting backwards into Kerry, and both of them into the wheel in a clash of bodies, tanks, and a scattering of dislodged coral.
Kerry rolled out of the way, but her hose caught on one of the wheel spokes, and yanked her around. She twisted in surprise, and with a pop, the hose ruptured and pulled loose from her second stage.
Air stopped. Kerry’s eyes snapped open wide and she reached back, her other hand grabbing for Dar’s arm nearby. She spit out her regulator and stuck it into her pocket, reaching down for her secondary. The broken line was spewing bubbles, however, and she realized it was her life running out and gathering up along the ceiling.
Dar whirled at the sound of air releasing, and looked over, spotting the problem immediately. She dropped her hard won relic and pounced on Kerry, pulling her around to get at her second stage. In an instant, she grabbed Kerry’s hand, then she pulled out her own reserve regulator and handed it to her.
Kerry grabbed her own computer and showed it to Dar. Dar just pushed the regulator at her, as she turned the valve on the top of Kerry’s tank to shut her air down. Kerry took the regulator and exchanged it, now breathing off the same tank Dar was. She picked up Dar’s computer and looked at it, clutching Dar’s arm in alarm.
Dar patted her cheek comfortingly, but kept working.
It was getting dark. Dar propped her light up and grabbed Kerry’s broken hose, examining the end of it. Discarding the hose a moment later, she pulled a small packet out of her BC and unwrapped it, disclosing a multipurpose tool and some small, shiny things that looked like foreshortened bullets.
Kerry waited tensely, unable to see what Dar was doing, and very conscious of the air they both were expending. On Dar’s tank, they would not both have enough to get to the surface with a safety stop, exposing them both to the danger of the bends.
She tried to be calm, breathing very slowly, and very evenly. The water closed in around her, now dense and dark, flickers of unknown life visible at the perimeter of her vision.
Dar closed the end of her pliers on the bit of hose stuck in the second stage, twisting it hard and unscrewing the end of the broken part. It jammed a little, but she coaxed it out finally and let it drop to the ground. From the selection of small bullets, she picked up one and inserted it into the hole, gently working it in and screwing the threaded plug into place. She tightened it down, and then slowly opened the valve again, watching carefully for any bubbles.
None. She tapped Kerry on the shoulder, and motioned for her to exchange regulators again. Her lover readily did so, sucking in air on her own reserve with a look of utter relief. Dar put her tools away, and then checked her watch. They were down too long, she realized, and from the look in Kerry’s eyes, Kerry realized that too. Dar pointed towards the wheelhouse entrance, knowing they didn’t have time to even glance into the ship’s hold.
But there wasn’t anything she could do about that. She followed Kerry out into the dark ocean. Almost no light was coming down now, and the wreck had receded into a mysterious shadow. Dar hefted her bit of metal in one hand and got her bearings, moving slowly away from the boat towards their anchor line.
Kerry checked her compass, shining her light ahead of her until it reflected off a silvery chain reaching up towards the surface. She took hold of the anchor line gratefully, glad for its security as they began to inch their way upward.
It was the first time she’d ever had an equipment failure, and she had to admit it had rattled her badly. She knew that if she hadn’t had Dar with her, and Dar hadn’t been prepared as she always was, she’d have been facing an emergency ascent and the very real possibility of a diver’s nightmare. The bends meant the trapping of nitrogen bubbles inside her bloodstream, growing bigger as she shot for the surface and potentially cutting off her circulation. Normal ascent gave the gas plenty of time to be gradually reabsorbed, but doing anything else opened you up to the risk of a heart attack, a stroke, paralysis, or death.
Kerry wasn’t ready to die yet, and just the thought of a stroke like her father had suffered made her blood run ice cold.
But she had been lucky, and Dar had been there. Kerry felt a lump in her throat, as they paused for a safety stop. Dar circled her leg with an arm and squeezed it, watching her from behind her mask. With the dark water around them, it was an oddly intimate moment. Kerry leaned forward and pressed her mask against Dar’s, just looking into her eyes.
She forgot about their mission. She forgot where they were, and for just that moment Kerry was simply glad to be alive.
Dar brushed her fingertips against Kerry’s jaw. Her eyes smiled.
Kerry caught her hand and clasped it. She could feel the powerful emotion running between them so strongly; words would just have been window dressing.
Above them, their conjoined bubbles twirled lazily for the surface.
Dar broke the surface first, pulling off her mask and shaking the hair out of her eyes. She spotted the boat, Charlie and Bob waiting anxiously on its deck, and headed for it. Kerry emerged just behind her, surprised at the chop that the water had developed.
She kept her regulator in her mouth as she followed Dar through the waves, glad their dive was over. She hung onto the ladder while her partner hauled herself up on board, Dar’s catch bag heavy with the relic she’d recovered as it banged against her knee.
As Dar cleared the ladder, Kerry tossed her fins onboard, then grabbed the metal rungs and with a surge of energy, pulled herself and her gear up out of the water. She was already stepping in the deck by the time Dar turned, and she gave her lover a tiny wave as she made her way over to the bench and sat down on it.
So, Kerry. Her mind gently mocked her. Wanted to look macha in front of the boys, hm? She hooked her tanks up the holder and unfastened her BC, sitting back and relaxing as the weight came off her shoulders.
“Find anything?” Bob asked. “Looks like you did!”
Dar shed her catch bag, which clattered onto the deck. “Found a couple things.” She said. “How are we doing on time?”
“All right.” Charlie told her. “Wind’s come up.”
“So I noticed.” Dar shucked her gear and stood up straight, pulling her hair back and wringing the water from it. “We found some things I can’t really explain, but I’ll tell you what we didn’t find.” She put her hands on neoprene covered hips. “We didn’t find fishing gear.”
Charlie and Bob looked at each other. “Huh?” Bob said. “What d’you mean… it was a fishing boat.”
“Yeah.” Kerry stood and went to the cabinet, pulling out two towels. The night air was cool, and she was starting to chill. “But Dar’s right. There wasn’t any fishing gear on it. No nets, no whatever those things are they use to pull the nets up, nothing.” She tossed Dar one of the towels. “I found a part of a crate I brought up.” She wrapped the other towel around her, closing her jaw to prevent it from chattering. “I need to go put something dry on.”
“Go.” Dar pushed her gently towards the cabin. “Where’s that soup?” She asked Bob, giving him a direct stare.
“Oh. Um... inside!” Bob pointed. “I’ll go get it.” He opened the door and let Kerry enter ahead of him, the closed it behind them both.
Dar went to her catch bag and opened it.
“If he wasn’t fishing, what was he doing here?” Charlie asked, curiously.
“Good question.” Dar lifted the relic she’d retrieved and handed it over to him. “Found that clamped under the bridge console.”
Charlie’s eyes opened wide as he handled the big, coral encrusted item. “Sonofabitch, Dar. That’s an M-16!”
“Mm.” Dar fished in the bag and pulled out the brass piece. “I need to clean this off.” She sighed. “So we know he wasn’t fishing, but we’re not any closer to figuring out what he was doing.”
“Chances are, it wasn’t somethin legit.” Charlie said. “Not with this on board. You think he was running dope?”
Dar shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me.” She toweled her hair a little drier and exhaled. “Not a fun dive. Kerry lost one of her hoses in the wreck.” She walked over and examined the tank. “Thank god my father pounded into me about carrying a quick kit all those years back.”
Charlie was at her shoulder, looking at the hose. “Sonofabitch.” He touched the plug. “Damn straight that’s lucky.” He put a hand on Dar’s shoulder. “Tell you what, Dar. Why don’t you go on inside and get some java in you. I’ll start the crate up and head us over down south.”
Dar blew out a breath. “All right.” She gave him a grateful grin. “Careful going up that ladder.”
Charlie snorted. “Swab.” He gave her a gentle push, much as Dar had given Kerry earlier, towards the door. “G’wan. Put those brain cells to figuring out what to tell that whack job when we get there.”
Dar picked up the brass plate, and collected Kerry’s bag and headed for the door. Something hot and dry clothes sounded like a great idea. Off in the distance, she heard the faintest hint of a rumble, and reminded herself to turn on the marine radio.
With their luck, the damn storm was coming.
She had, at best five hours to figure out what the hell she was going to bait DeSalliers with. Dar shook her head as she entered the cabin, glad to be out of the cool breeze and inside the well lit space. Bob was behind the galley stirring something in a pot, and Kerry was presumably in their bedroom getting changed.
Dar gave Bob a brief smile, and walked right past him, towards the closed door beyond. She dropped the bag on the deck near the bathroom and continued on, knocking lightly on the bedroom door before she opened it.
Kerry was reclined on the bed, her head propped up on one fist, completely naked. She lifted her other hand and motioned Dar forward.
Who the hell, Dar wondered suddenly. Needed any damn soup? She quickly went inside and closed the door behind her. “Hi.”
“I need your help.” Kerry drawled softly. “But take your wetsuit off first. I don’t want you to drip all over the bed.”
Caught just a trifle off guard, Dar felt her eyes widen as she looked at her lover. “Um… okay.” She reached behind her and caught the zipper strap, tugging it down and releasing the wetsuit. She peeled it off her arms, and then stripped out of it, leaving her in her swimsuit. “Something wrong?”
Kerry cocked her head to one side. “Not with you.” She said. “C’mon, c’mon.”
Dar got out of her suit and toweled herself off, and then she sat down on the bed next to Kerry. “You know we’ve got guests outside.” She told her lover wryly.
“Yes, I know.” Kerry sighed, and rolled over, laying her head down on Dar’s thigh. “But when I fell over in the ship, I got something stuck in the back of my neck. It’s sharp, and I can’t reach it, and it’s driving me crazy.”
Dar blinked. “Oh.” She stifled a tiny laugh. “Hang on.” She gently probed the soft skin on Kerry’s back, seeing a red spot near where her spine entered her skull.
“Mm.” Kerry exhaled. “You’re nice and warm, Dar. How did you do that so fast?”
“Sweetheart.” Dar murmured her eyes on her task. “Y you’re lying here in front of me naked. If I was even slightly chilly, we’d have a problem.”
Kerry’s low, rich laugh surprised both of them.
“Ah. Got it.” Dar gently grasped the metal splinter and eased it out of Kerry’s skin. A tiny bead of blood followed, and she pressed the spot carefully, squeezing out a little more to make sure she’d gotten everything out. “Bad boat. Sticking my Kerry.” She felt Kerry exhale, a flutter of warm breath along her thigh. “Better?”
“Much. Thanks.” Kerry said as she rolled back over. She rubbed her hand along Dar’s leg, and gazed up at her with deep affection. “And thank you for being there, and knowing what to do today.”
Dar disposed of the sliver, and eased down next to Kerry. “Thank Dad. He beat dive safety into me within an inch of my life.” She put her hand on Kerry’s knee. “Are you okay? I know that was scary.”
Kerry nodded. “I’m okay.” She said. “I was kind of nervous when it was happening, because going to the surface fast wasn’t something I really wanted to do. To risk.”
“No.” Dar murmured. “Lousy place to risk a case of the bends.” She admitted. “I had a mild hit once, and it’s not something I ever want to repeat.” She flexed her hand in front of her face. “Lost feeling to my arm for a week.”
Kerry eased over and curled up against Dar. “I thought about my father.” She said softly. “About what that must have felt like.” A breath. “Yeah, I was scared.”
Dar put her arms around Kerry’s body. “I wouldn’t let anything like that happen to you.” She told her. “Believe that, Ker. It’s my job to keep you safe down there.”
Kerry felt herself cradled in Dar’s embrace, her body now warmed through and through as the lingering fears evaporated. “I believe it.” She whispered. “I know I’m safe with you.”
They rocked together in silence for a few minutes, listening to the engines rumble to life and the anchor retract.
“Do we have anything to give DeSalliers, Dar?”
“I don’t know.” Dar said. “I just don’t know.”