Most divers perceived the sea as muffled, a world of regulated breaths and distant propellers. For Zoe Clearwater, complexity hid in the quiet. The ocean spoke a language only few understood. To the animals here, every movement was an orchestra of life, each note revealing the exact size and location of creature waiting to flee or defend its territory.
This underwater world was both Zoe’s heaven and her hell.
Hugging close to the Florida peninsula, she moved her fins ever so slightly along the sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The water caressed her face like a warm lover. It both soothed her aching heart and raised the hair on the back of her neck. Purposely, she followed the landmarks she’d detailed on her map. The freshwater caverns down the peninsula all looked similar to the tourists, but to her they were as different as the faces of her two sisters.
With an absence of the colorful fish found in the oceans, touring divers often avoided these caverns, generally preferring to explore the artificial reefs, shipwrecks, and larger caves. A number of wrecks had been sunk by Uncle Sam for this exact purpose. A few railroad cars were strategically placed and now provided habitat for fish, coral and visiting sea turtles. Some were clustered off the northern coast of Ibis Island, the place Zoe called home.
She dove alone today, something she regularly warned her scuba diving students never to do … back when she had diving students. It was a rule that would have kept her brother alive if he would have just followed it two years ago.
Swimming north, she passed one of the larger crystal springs caverns. She didn’t bother exploring its depth. Seth wouldn’t have gone in there. The smaller crevasses and openings were more his style. It was there, he’d convinced himself, that he would find Luciana Bezan’s ancient dowry.
The wreck lay several miles out and was a favorite of the deeper divers. Legend had it, Luciana’s lover ordered his best divers to escape with the jewels and trinkets just before his disapproving family sunk his ship. ‘Let them search out there,’ Seth would say. ‘Divers during that era were trained well enough to swim great distances and hold their breath for insane lengths of time. My bet is that Luciana’s Bezan’s lover ordered them to secure the dowry away from the ship.’
Zoe searched these smaller caverns just as she’d done nearly every week for the past two years. Seth had quickly learned to love the water. Who could blame him? Together, they had searched for the smallest, most hidden spots they could find, hoping to discover new, uncharted territory and possibly some ancient treasure.
As she approached a cluster of coral, she spotted an adult loggerhead. From the small tail, Zoe judged it to be female. She ached to follow her … see if she decided to break the rules and make her way up the beach to lay her eggs in broad daylight. Except Zoe had work to do, and she’d already been down here too long.
To her immediate right was the elongated cavern opening she and her siblings liked to call the palm tree, as it looked like a trunk with markings along the top mimicking palm leaves. To the south of her was the larger cave where tourists would be arriving right about then. She stopped at the smaller caverns she’d memorized, checking to see if Seth’s fluorescent orange oxygen tank had washed in with the tide or gotten stuck between crevasses. Maybe the matching sack he always wore around his waist was hung up on a protruding rock. She would recognize them anywhere, even barnacle-covered after two years in the salty water.
A small tiger shark swam carelessly near, just as curious as she was. It was around three feet long and Zoe assumed had been fed by human hands at least once before as it came closer than natural for a tiger shark. She had nothing to offer and wasn’t here to spend time with the wildlife. She was here for Seth. She owed him, and she owed her parents answers.
Thirty minutes of oxygen left. She would dive vertically, go in low, searching by sight and feel for any hidden caverns that might hide the remains of a thirty-five year old man or his gear. Then, she would get back to her boat. She may be stupid enough to dive alone, but she would at least return to the surface with air to spare. No need to risk taking another child from her mother and father.
Toward the sandy bottom was a cliff-looking structure with a breathtaking deep blue — almost black — base. Her fingers gripped the edge of the cliff just as rows of jagged teeth jutted out an inch from her hand. She froze both her feet and her fingers. Moray eel.
It came out further, this time exposing its yellow eyes and giving Zoe a once over. Instinct told her to flee, but she knew better. The mouth remained open as if it was speaking to her, its deranged eyes unreadable. Darting from its cover, the eel slithered to a crevasse below, fast enough to make her push out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.
Heart pounding, she ducked beneath the underwater mound of protruding coral. She wiggled her fingers, thankful they were still there. The opening was the shape of a large baseball cap, hollow inside. Moving her auburn hair that floated like seaweed, she read the gauge that displayed the air level in her tank. Twenty minutes. Just one quick peek. After all, she had her reserve tank if needed. Then, she would record the spot and call it a day.
Inside was tight, no air pockets, and dark as night. She clicked on her flashlight, then moved the beam along the bumpy walls. There was no such cavern on any map she owned or had created. It must be hidden on regular days when the current churned particles and created underwater waves. A familiar tingle of excitement fizzled up her back. Seth would have understood. She might be the first to discover this spot.
There were no signs of visible life. No fish, no plants. The walls looked like gray cumulous clouds scattered with deep juts every few inches. Since it was only about the size of a small kitchen table, she let her legs dangle from the opening below. Taking out her inadequate camera, she grinned, hoping Seth was playfully scoffing at the pitiful thing from somewhere above. She checked the settings, then clicked the first few shots.
Lifeless, empty eye sockets stared back at her on the digital screen.
She kicked and squirmed and screamed loud enough to nearly thrust the mouthpiece from her face. Her camera fell from her hands as she frantically worked to escape the tight area she shared with a human skull. She was stuck. No matter which way she jerked, her air tank wouldn’t move. Keep your head. Keep your head. The more she panicked the more air she used.
Think. Be smart. She had thirty feet to rise. Releasing the buckle that secured her air tank and reserve, she abandoned both and slipped away. With her breathing apparatus still in her mouth, she took one last breath before letting her diving weights fall to the floor below.
Maintaining a controlled ascent was nearly impossible. Calm. She forced her mind to the meditation her parents taught her from the time she was a little girl. She skipped both decompression stop zones, the image of a barnacle-crusted human skull burning holes in her mind.
It stared at her from the backs of her eyelids. Half a skull; she could see it clearly. Wait, her camera. She looked down and noticed it dangling from her forearm. She wouldn’t look at the picture again. No need. It was etched in her mind regardless. Forehead, eye sockets. The complete top half of skull and cheekbones. And a sea-battered knife sticking through one of the empty eyes.
Air. Her lungs demanded air. The ascent picked up speed as she neared the surface. It wasn’t fast enough. Just one quick breath. She told her lungs to wait just another minute, but they wouldn’t obey.
On the water’s surface, Dane tried to ignore Zoe’s boat, bobbing unmanned fifty yards from his own. Keeping an eye on Zoe was a nasty habit he could never quite break. Why the hell did she dive alone like this? The woman was like damned clockwork. Every Saturday. Walk her section of the beach on the west side of Ibis Island for signs of new sea turtle nests. Call in and mark any she found. Then, come out to this spot to search for her brother.
Damn it, she’d been down there too long. He paced back and forth, his feet moving faster with each turn.
As the Sun Trips Touring captain, he was responsible for three pairs of divers that day. June tourist traffic was picking up. Considering his distraction with Zoe, it was fortunate all but one diver was experienced, and that one had a solid partner. The water was still that morning, and he could see them directly below through the emerald green.
He looked at his watch. “Damn it,” he said out loud this time, then called out to his assistant as he toed off his shoes, “You’re on, dude. I’ll be starboard.” He hoped the pitch of his voice didn’t give away his concern. In one quick sweep, he both pulled his shirt over his head and threw on his air tank. Sitting on the edge of his mini-pier, he flipped backward, then swam as fast as he could.
College swim team felt longer than five years ago, and the flippers on his feet didn’t make up for the drag from the tank on his back. He scanned the water top to bottom as he pumped his arms and legs. He spotted her just as she surfaced. Damned woman. He left his diving assistant alone with his tour group for this.
Lifting his head above water, he prepared to give her hell. But, something was wrong. She wasn’t swimming toward the side of her boat. Instead, her body lifted awkwardly. She sucked in a gulp of air then choked out a lung full of water. Sprinting the last few yards, he grabbed her waist. Where the hell was her air tank?
She screamed and swung her open hand toward his head, kicking her legs wildly.
“Shit, Zoe. What the hell’s the matter with you? It’s me.”
Her eyes were wild as she turned to him. He saw cold fear in them just before she rotated her head and vomited in the water. Ducking behind her, he crooned in her ear as he tucked an arm around her chest and swam both of them toward her boat. “Hey, hey. Babe. It’s me. It’s going to be all right.” He suspected what she’d done. As soon as she was better, he would strangle her.
This wasn’t his first rodeo. He’d owned his scuba business for years as a way to pay for his treasure hunting trips. He’d pulled in his share of stunned, dehydrated, and exhausted divers. Slipping off his tank, he plopped it on her pitiful protruding pier, then pushed it into her boat.
She was conscious but in shock. Too bad she wasn’t the stick figure she’d been back in high school. It would have been easier to maneuver himself onto her pier and pull her in. The muscles in his body reflexively tensed as he recognized the faint shade of dark blue that tinted her fingers and lips.
“Hey.” His hair dripped water on her face as he maneuvered over her and gave her a shake. “Zoe. What the hell? Are you okay?”
Her eyes rolled in his direction. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. “Don’t call me Babe,” she croaked.
An unwanted smile spread across his face and, despite himself, he brushed the strands of hair from her smooth cheek. Checking the area, he spotted her pure oxygen tank under the boat dash. As he crawled to it, he noticed the expiration date was months away. At least she followed some rules. Her hand swatted him as he maneuvered the nosepiece under her nostrils.
“I feel fine,” she whined.
“You won’t soon. You ascended too quickly. I can tell. Breathe this, or you’re going to feel it.”
Of all things, she lifted her arm like she was checking for her frigging camera. Her lids closed when she spotted it on her arm. He hoped it was a sign of defeat as he slipped the oxygen tube around her head.
He checked over his shoulder at his boat, then searched for her cell in her bag. He couldn’t leave his divers, and he couldn’t leave Zoe. Knowing what he was doing, she grabbed his hand and shook her head. Cats’ eyes the color of the green water pleaded with him.
“I’ve got a boat out, Zoe. How do you think I found you? I have six divers in the water. I can’t leave them there with only my assistant.”
She let go and her eyes drifted closed again. Life was much easier before she talked him into buying out her business, before she started working for him.