BY RICK HAUTALA
Although it was often part of his job, Jeff Stewart hadn't been expecting to find a body today. It was Saturday morning, and he was doing some diving for his friend and drinking buddy, Mel 'Biz' Potter. A storm had passed through the night before, and they were looking for some of Biz's lobster pots that had broken off their buoy ropes in the rough seas. Locals called such lost traps 'ghost traps' when they lay on the bottom of the ocean, where a lobster could still scuttle inside. If more than one lobster ended up in a trap, the bigger, stronger one would kill and eat the others, but that only prolonged its captivity until, eventually, it died of starvation.
Even on the sunniest day, there was no light down as deep as Jeff was. Today, following the storm, the sky was as grey as soot, the seas choppy. Even at six or seven fathoms, Jeff could feel the powerful tug of the tide. He'd agreed to help Biz out - like he did once or twice a summer - for the comradeship and the simple pleasure that diving gave him. No matter how much Marcie, his girlfriend, bitched about him screwing around on the one day of the week they had to spend together, Jeff took advantage of any and all excuses to dive. He relished the freedom, the sense of weightlessness and total isolation.
His day job was working search, rescue, and recovery for the U.S. Coast Guard, so Jeff had seen more than his fair share of drowned bodies - 'sinkers', as he and his coworkers called them. When this one came into view, illuminated by the diffused beam of Jeff's underwater light, he couldn't help but be startled.
Most drowning victims, if you found them soon enough - say, within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, before the lobsters, crabs, and other scavengers scurrying around on the bottom of the ocean started to consume the dead meat - ended up the same way. Once they were dead, the blood pooled in their rumps and lower legs, weighing them down so they were sitting on the ocean floor with their legs splayed out in front of them. Their arms invariably would be raised and extended, like they were reaching for something to cling to, something solid so they could hoist themselves back up to the surface.
In all his years of diving, the one thing Jeff had never been able to get over - the single most fascinating thing - was the dead person's face . . . especially the eyes. Once the blood drained out of the head and upper body and settled into the lower trunk, the puckered skin turned as white and translucent as marble. Winding traces of veins stood out like faded tattoos just beneath the skin. Of course, someone with darker skin wouldn't be as white as alabaster, but the effect - at least on every body Jeff had ever recovered - was as fascinating as it was gruesome. The eyes - if some sea creatures hadn't gotten at them yet - would be wide open and staring with an expression of stunned surprise. It was as if the victim still couldn't believe he or she had actually drowned.
But it was one thing when Jeff was fifty or more feet below the surface of the ocean looking for a drowning victim. Finding one when he wasn't ready for it sent a startled rush through him, like an electric jolt to the groin. He drew back involuntarily, waving his arms and kicking his legs to keep his orientation. His heart was pounding like a drop-forge hammer, and a thick, salty pressure throbbed behind his eyes. The flashlight almost slipped from his hand, but he clutched it tightly. After the initial shock began to subside, he trained the beam back onto the drowned man. Kicking easily and still trying to force himself to calm down, he approached slowly.
Judging by the clothes on the corpse, he looked like he'd been down here quite a while. Tattered remnants of a plaid work shirt and protective yellow rubber coveralls - something all lobstermen wore when working - were covered with thick strands of green slime and were rotting away. The man was sitting with his legs out in front of him, his toes pointing upward. Jagged black shreds of rubber boots still clung to his feet and lower legs. His arms were extended and swaying from side to side like thick fronds of kelp moved by the deep-sea currents. The man's hands were extended, his fingers hooked. Long yellowed fingernails looking like chipped old porcelain stuck out from the ends of the withered, bone-white hands.
Jeff couldn't help but think the man looked like he had been waiting patiently for him . . . or someone . . . to come along and find him in the darkness seven fathoms below the surface.
Tiny pinpricks of light squiggled across Jeff's vision. He realized he was still breathing too fast for safety and consciously slowed his breathing. He willed his racing pulse to slow down while he considered who this might be . . . what might have happened . . . and how long he'd been underwater. To the best of his knowledge, no one had gone missing at sea recently. This man might have been swept overboard during the recent storm and not been reported missing yet, but the condition of his clothes and skin seemed to eliminate that as a possibility. The only people who'd been lost at sea so far this summer season had been a couple of lobstermen out of Vinalhaven, whose bodies had washed up on the Nephews, an island due east of the Cove. Jeff didn't know of anyone else who'd gone missing.
As he drew nearer, Jeff noticed something peculiar. There was something wrapped around the man's waist. It was difficult to tell what, lost as it was in the dark folds of slime and the man's rotting clothes, but it looked like the heavy links of a chain. Following it outward, Jeff found one end of the chain tied to a cement block. Barnacles encrusted the corroded iron and cement block, further evidence that whoever this was, he had been down here for a long, long time.
It finally dawned on him that what was bothering him was something about the man's eyes.
They shouldn't still be there in his head.
No matter how long or short a time someone had been underwater, the eyes were the first to go. Fish and crabs and other ocean scavengers went after the softest, juiciest parts first. After a few days or weeks, the eyeballs would be gone, leaving nothing but empty sockets.
But this man's eyes were still intact, even though he had clearly been underwater long enough for barnacles to attach to the chain and the cement block holding him down.
After swimming around the corpse, taking a last good look at it, Jeff tilted his head back, gave a few powerful kicks, and started back to the surface. He made sure he rose slowly, keeping pace with the bubbles of his exhaled breath. When he broke the surface, he swept his mask back and tore the regulator from his mouth. Biz's boat was less than fifty feet away from where Jeff's diving marker bobbed up and down in the steep swells. He raised a hand and waved while shouting until Biz saw him and started up his engine. Jeff clung to his diving marker until Biz pulled up alongside him and cut the engine.
'Toss me a rope,' Jeff said, gasping so hard it hurt his throat. He took in a mouthful of seawater and spit it out. 'I gotta go back down.'
Biz regarded him quizzically for a moment or two, but he didn't say a word before darting to the cabin and returning with a coil of rope.
'You find a ghost trap?' Biz asked, as he leaned over the side rails and handed the rope to Jeff.
'Worse 'n that,' Jeff said. He took in another mouthful of water and couldn't help but swallow some.
Biz's frown deepened.
'There's someone down there,' Jeff said.
At first, Biz reacted like he wasn't sure what Jeff meant. Then his eyes widened and he said, 'You mean you found a person?'
Jeff nodded grimly.
'I wanna mark him so's we can come back out 'n' find 'im easily. We gotta report this to the state.'
'For fuck's sake,' Biz said. He didn't look at all pleased to be involved in anything like this, but Jeff ignored him as he fumbled to get the regulator back into his mouth and pulled his mask down. After adjusting everything, he tied one end of the rope to his diving marker and uncoiled the rope. With one last look at Biz, he did a quick surface dive. As he dropped back down into the depths, his heart felt like a cold, tight fist in his chest.
'I'll betcha I know exactly who it is.'
Like most nights, Jeff was drinking with his buddies down at the Local. He had a glass of beer - his fifth so far tonight - raised halfway to his mouth when Jim 'Pappy' Sullivan spoke up. He hadn't even realized Pappy was listening as he told three of his drinking buddies - Ralph, Johnny, and Flip - about what he'd found this morning. Lowering the glass to the bar, Jeff nudged his Red Sox baseball cap back on his head and turned on his barstool to look directly at Pappy.
'You do, do yah?'
'Ay-yuh. Sure as shit.'
A wide smile of satisfaction spread across the old man's face. Pappy relished being the center of attention, even though he had a reputation for being full of shit as often as not. Now that he had Jeff and everyone else's attention, he seemed to wait for a cue to continue. When the wait got too long to bear, Jeff said, 'So . . . you wanna tell me?'
Pappy grinned from ear to ear, exposing the row of missing teeth on his bottom jaw.
'I'll bet my left nut-sack you found Old Man Crowther.'
'I don't want your fuckin' left nut-sack,' Jeff said, smirking, 'but what makes you so goddamned sure it's Old Man Crowther?'
'How long's he been missing?' Pappy said.
'Damned if I know,' Jeff said. 'I don't even know who the fuck he is.'
An unlit cigarette was stuck behind Pappy's right ear, held in place by a snarl of wiry grey hair. He'd probably bummed it from the barmaid, Shantelle. He reached up and took it, rolling it between his grease-stained fingers as he nodded toward the barroom's back door.
'Step on outside with me whilst I have a smoke,' he said, sliding off his barstool, ' 'n' I'll tell yah.' He paused, cocking his hips to one side as he fished in his jeans pocket for his lighter. 'Goddamned fucking law that won't let me smoke in a bar. Like I come here for my goddamned health!'
While this was going on, Jeff glanced back and forth between his friends. They seemed to have no opinion as to what he should do, so he picked up his beer and followed Pappy out the back door. Out behind the Local was a deck that looked out over the harbor. The screen door slammed shut behind them, sounding like a gunshot in the night. The sound made Jeff jump, and he wondered why he was so keyed up. He had enough beer in him to feel convivial, but he was still a little freaked out by what he had found this morning.
By the light of the moon, which was almost full and shining brightly, and the streetlights lining the road leading down to the wharf, Jeff could see the lobster boats at their moorings. Pappy lit up his cigarette and, leaning forward with both elbows resting on the railing, clasped his hands in front of him as though in prayer. The cigarette dangled from his lower lip, sending up a thin curl of smoke, which made him squint. Moths and June bugs buzzed around the single light by the back door, snapping and popping against the screen.
'So tell me,' Jeff said, 'who the fuck is Old Man Crowther, and why're you so sure it's him?'
Pappy inhaled and blew a billow of smoke from his nostrils without taking the cigarette from his mouth.
'Got to be 'im,' he said, the glowing tip of the cigarette bobbing up and down like a firefly in the darkness.
'This sinker I found - he had a length of chain wrapped around his waist. You're saying somebody killed Old Man Crowther and tossed him overboard?'
'Either that or he did it to himself.' Pappy puffed some more on his cigarette as though lost in thought.
'Maybe they'll be able to tell when we bring 'im up. How long's this Old Man Crowther been missing?'
Pappy tilted his head to one side and scratched the white beard stubble on his jowls. His fingernails made a loud rasping sound.
'Oh, I'd say it must'a been . . . maybe thirty years or more since he disappeared.'
'Thirty years ago . . . I was still in high school,' Jeff said. 'A body can't last that long down under.'
'May've been even longer 'n that, now that I think of it.' Pappy turned to Jeff, scowling as threads of smoke rose into his face. ' 'Twas back in the early seventies, as I recall.'
Jeff considered for a long, silent moment. Pappy finally took the cigarette from his mouth after taking another deep drag and exhaling.
Jeff pursed his lips and shook his head. 'No way,' he said. 'Can't be him. Someone been down there that long, their body'd be long gone. He'd'a been et by scavengers long ago.'
Pappy smiled and shook his head as he took one last drag of the cigarette and then snapped the butt out into the darkness. Jeff watched it fly, spinning end over end until it hit the ground in a small shower of sparks.
'I saw the body that's down there,' Jeff said, ' 'n' there's no fuckin' way anyone'd be in that good a condition after thirty years.'
'You never knew Old Man Crowther. That old cocker had a hide on him's tough as nails.'
'Sorry, Pappy, but it's gotta be someone else . . .'
Jeff finally noticed how dry his throat was and realized he was still holding on to his beer. When he raised it and took a swallow, his throat made a funny little gulping sound.
'You was a kid back when it happened,' Pappy said, 'so's probably you don't remember.'
There was something in the old man's tone of voice that caught Jeff's attention.
'What do you mean . . . "it "?'
Pappy sniffed and shook his head from side to side as though amused by some private joke or deeply saddened. He reached up to his ear as if to grab another cigarette, then started scratching his head.
'How old are you?' he asked.
'I was born in sixty-eight,' Jeff said.
'Okay, so you would'a been . . .' Pappy did some quick calculations on his fingers. 'You'd'a been maybe four or five when it happened.'
Jeff was starting to lose his patience. Pappy had a reputation for being full of shit, and he cursed himself for letting himself be suckered in. He was positive the old man was bullshitting him now just to have someone to talk to. There was no way it had been Old Man Crowther's body he'd found today.
From behind him, he could hear the faint strains of laughter from inside the Local. Even though the evening was warm and pleasant, Jeff wanted to go back inside, where there were people and laughter and aimless conversation. But as his gaze drifted down to the harbor and out to sea, he couldn't stop thinking about the corpse he had found this morning. A shiver ran up his spine, like invisible fingers.
'So you don't remember anythin' 'bout the plague we had back then?' Pappy asked.
Jeff almost asked What plague? but a faint childhood memory stirred within him.
He'd only been a kid at the time, maybe six or seven years old, but there had been a period of time - it might have been a few months, but it could have been longer or shorter, memory being the tricky thing it is - when his mother wouldn't let him play outside after dark with his friends like he usually did. As big a deal as it had been at the time, it was only a faint memory now, but Jeff recalled hearing talk about how there was something wrong . . . something weird going on in the town. He remembered his parents and maybe some other adults using words like disease and infection to describe what was going on. He had always assumed there was some type of flu bug going around they wanted to protect him from.
Against his better judgment, instead of going back into the bar, Jeff said, 'You gonna tell me about it, or are you gonna just flap your gums?'
Pappy looked at him with a long, vacant stare. His brow wrinkled. One white eyebrow was cocked so high it looked like an albino caterpillar had curled up on his forehead.
'Far's we know, Old Man Crowther was the last one to be infected,' Pappy said. His voice was edged with tension. It sounded hollow in the night. 'Them was bad times . . . bad times, but you know what folks is like 'round these parts. We ain't gonna talk about it much, and we sure as shit don't want any outsiders talkin' about it.'
'But you said Old Man Crowther was infected,' Jeff said, surprised at the impatience in his voice. 'Infected with what?'
He couldn't put out of his mind how much finding that corpse today was bothering him. It was unlike any other body he had ever found.
'You're saying Old Man Crowther got sick with . . . with somethin' so bad he wrapped a length of chain around his waist, tied it to a cement block, and heaved himself overboard?'
'We figure he did it to spare the town more misery . . . to end the situation.'
Pappy sighed and then was silent for a long moment as he stared down at the harbor. Finally, he nodded.
'Ay-yuh. That's 'bout the size of it. They found his dory washed up on Black Horse Beach, so everyone figured he must'a done somethin' like that.' He turned and looked directly at Jeff with intensity in his eyes that bordered on crazy.
'But you don't know for sure.'
Pappy snorted and said, 'If'n I was you, I'd do the smart thing and leave 'im down there. We don't need to have that whole fuckin' situation startin' up again. 'Twas hard enough containin' it back in the day. Nowadays - Keyrist! ' Pappy hocked up a wad of mucus and spit it into the darkness. 'With cell phones 'n' the Internet 'n' all, the whole friggin' world'll get involved. Who knows what'll happen then?'
Jeff was struggling to phrase a question from the cascade of thoughts that filled his head, but he drew a blank. He wanted to believe that Pappy, as always, was talking out of his ass, but thinking about that corpse's eyes made him wonder if there might not be something to what the old man was saying.
Before he could get out his first question, Pappy straightened up and said, 'Well, I'll be damned, but a powerful thirst has taken hold'a me. Nice chattin' wi'cha, boy-o.'
Without another word, he turned and walked back into the Local, the screen door slamming shut behind him. Jeff realized Pappy didn't really know if that's what Old Man Crowther had done. The old man had just been speculating.
Jeff stayed on the back deck a while longer, staring down at the harbor and trying not to let his gaze shift farther out to sea. Moonlight glittered on the dark water like splinters of silver. It was a beautiful view, but he couldn't stop picturing the dead man - whoever the hell he was - sitting on the ocean floor down there in the pitch darkness.
The moment he opened his eyes and saw the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window, Jeff winced. A hot, needle-sharp pain slipped behind his eyes as he rolled over in bed. Disengaging himself from Marcie, he moaned softly, bringing both hands to his forehead as he swung his feet from under the covers and onto the floor. Marcie's eyelids fluttered open for a moment, but then she rolled over onto her side away from him and heaved a sigh.
'Do you really have to go this early?' she said, addressing the wall.
'Gotta. I have to work.'
'On a freakin' Sunday?'
'Uh huh, even on a Sunday.'
Marcie was silent for a long stretch as Jeff leveraged himself off the bed and scooped up the jeans and socks he'd worn the day before, which were lying in a crumpled heap on the floor by the foot of the bed. After he'd finished getting dressed without a shower - he'd need one for sure after today's dive - he leaned over Marcie and kissed her on the shoulder. She didn't respond. He knew she couldn't have fallen back asleep that fast, but he wasn't going to stir things up just now. She could be mad at him all she wanted. It wasn't just that he had to dive today. He had to go back down there to find out exactly who that man was at the bottom of the sea.
By the time he arrived at the dock, the place was already a media circus. Reporters, TV camera crews, and assorted rubberneckers lined the stone wharf and dock, making it next to impossible for Jeff to make his way down the gangplank with his diving equipment to the waiting patrol boat. A couple of reporters shouted out questions to him, but he pushed past them, ignoring them.
'Word got out quick,' Jeff said, as he heaved his air tanks onto the boat.
Mark Curtis, one of the Coast Guardsmen, frowned and shook his head.
'Wouldn't be so bad,' he said, 'if someone had kept his goddamned mouth shut at the Local last night.'
Chastened, Jeff climbed aboard. The captain, a guy from Belfast named Harvey Rollins, gunned the engine. Mark and the other crewmen cast off, and the boat started out, leaving behind a heavy, curling wake that rocked the dock.
After they got to the diver's marker Jeff had left yesterday, he made one final check of his equipment in preparation for going overboard. His diving partner today, as usual, was Wesley Evans, who was married and lived in Tenants Harbor. They had dived together for more than ten years. Perhaps because they were so used to communicating with each other by hand gestures below water, they hardly ever spoke above water. But they trusted that each of them knew intuitively what the other was thinking or going to do underwater. They were a good team, even though it struck Jeff as rather peculiar that they didn't hang out together when they were off duty.
Once he and Wes were ready, after nodding to each other they plunged overboard. Even in June, the ocean water was chilly, but Jeff's dry suit protected him from the initial cold shock. A wave splashed him full in the face, sending a bracing chill through him. After making sure his regulator was working properly, he swam out to the diver's marker and grasped the rope he'd tied off yesterday. Running it through one rubber-gloved hand, he kicked and went under, sinking into the embracing darkness with Wes a short distance behind. The daylight shimmering above them quickly collapsed, plunging them into a preternatural gloom, which gradually blended into an inky darkness below. Jeff and Wes switched on their flashlights, illuminating the water below with a diffused glow.
Down . . . down they went, and the deeper they went, the more a nameless apprehension filled Jeff. He knew what he was going to see when he got to the end of the rope, and he was dreading it. He was wondering if he could handle seeing the dead man's empty gaze again. Overnight, especially after talking to Pappy, his memory of what he'd found had got magnified by his imagination. He tried to prepare himself mentally for what he was about to see, but he still wasn't ready for it when the drowned man's figure came into view.
Jeff hesitated, treading water several feet above the ocean floor. Wes stopped swimming, too, and they looked at each other for a lengthening moment, neither one of them indicating what they should do next. Jeff thought he saw a cloud of confusion in his diving partner's eyes, and he experienced a sudden, urgent desire to go back to the surface and talk to Wes before they proceeded. He felt he needed to prepare him for what he was about to see.
But the moment passed without any communication between them, and they continued on down to the ocean floor. Their movements raised silt from the seabed, causing swirls of sand to rise like dark, billowing clouds that shimmered with flakes of silica in the beams of their flashlights.
Jeff willed his pulse to slow down as he swept his light over the drowned man until it came to rest on the chain wrapped around the man's waist. He couldn't bring himself to look at the man's eyes. Not yet. With a nod and a quick hand gesture, Jeff indicated to Wes that removing the chain from the block should be their first order of business, but for some reason, Jeff couldn't force himself to move any closer to the corpse. He couldn't shake the eerie feeling that the man was staring at him through the darkness.
Jeff jerked back when he swung his flashlight around to illuminate the man's face. He told himself it had to be a trick of the light and shadow . . . or the way the man's head was moving ever so slightly in the deep currents . . . or . . . or something. Whatever it was, Jeff was convinced that as he moved, so too the dead man's eyes moved, tracking him with a dull, blank stare.
Wes had swum away from the body and was leaning over, inspecting the cement block tied to one end of the chain. It was sunk deep in the sand and draped with seaweed and slime. As he lifted the chain and shook it, the dull clanking sounds the links made was transmitted through the water. Jeff glanced at his diving partner but then looked back at the drowned man.
His fear was steadily winding up into a feeling of outright dread bordering on panic. He reminded himself that losing focus underwater was always dangerous. He had to get his shit together - now - or else both he and Wes could end up in real trouble. It didn't help to remind himself that he had a simple job to do. All he had to do was release this drowned man from the chain holding him down and bring him up to the surface. Let the authorities handle it from there. He had done this too many times to count, but never, never had he experienced such unnerving feelings as he was having now.
He was still desperate to talk to Wes, if only to calm his own irrational fears. Should he motion to his partner that they had to surface so they could plan what their next steps would be?
Jeff knew that would be foolish.
This was a simple dive and recovery. Wes and everyone on the Coast Guard boat might think he was losing his nerve. He had to get a grip on himself.
Wes's back was turned to the corpse as he fiddled with the chain, trying to release it from the cement block. The dead man's arms were still extended, waving gently from side to side in the tidal surge, but it looked for all the world like he was straining forward against his restraints, reaching out to catch hold of Wes from behind while he wasn't looking.
Jesus, stop it! Jeff cautioned himself.
He should have been helping Wes unloosen the chain, not hanging back like this, letting his imagination get carried away with such foolish fears. Once that end of the chain was free, it would be a simple matter to unwind it from the corpse's waist and then, slowly, carefully, bring him up to the surface.
It was easy, a simple, clean job a rookie could do blindfolded, but Jeff was ashamed that - for whatever reason - he was allowing his fear to take such firm hold of him. With a new determination, he moved over to Wes, who had just about worked the chain free. With Jeff's help, it was only a matter of a few more seconds before they finished untying the cement block.
While they worked together, though, Jeff hadn't been able to shake the feeling that the whole time their backs were turned to the corpse, the dead man was staring at them, watching, studying their every move. And Jeff couldn't stop wondering if the drowned man, whoever he was - whether he was Old Man Crowther or some other luckless fool who had been murdered or decided to end it all because of a broken heart or trouble with the IRS - might be angry at them for disturbing his final resting place. The chain and cement block certainly indicated how much he wanted to stay on the bottom of the ocean.
What Pappy had told him last night about the strange plague that had afflicted the town years ago came back to Jeff. He wondered if it was possible that this man had been infected by whatever the disease was and had drowned himself to end it all - for himself and, possibly, for the entire town.
Like a mummy's curse, Jeff thought, some things are best left undisturbed.
But he couldn't leave now, not once the government was involved.
He never should have told anyone - not even Biz - what he had found.
He should have left well enough alone.
If he hadn't been so startled and, yes, even scared yesterday, he might have thought it through and kept his goddamned mouth shut.
But now, no matter what else happened, he and Wes had to bring this guy back to the surface so the state medical examiner could determine what had happened to him.
With apprehension winding up in his gut like a steel spring, Jeff turned back to the body. Wes approached it as if there was nothing unusual going on, but Jeff stayed back, determined to be cautious.
The drowned man's upraised arms swung around to the left side, toward Wes. They moved like dual needles of a compass being drawn to true north. Wes seemed not to notice. He was bending down, unwinding the length of chain from around the corpse's waist. Silt swirled in thick clouds, mixing with the bubbles coming from his respirator. The heavy chain clinked as the links, long rusted into place, shifted free. Jeff could see that Wes was struggling with it, but he didn't move to help.
The beam of his flashlight was trained on the dead man's face, and he gazed steadily into the drowned man's eyes.
They were moving.
They jerked spastically from side to side, glaring with a cold, glassy stare that suddenly fixed on the back of Wes's bowed head.
'Look out!' Jeff yelled, but all that came out was an explosion of bubbles spewing out from around his regulator. As the corpse's hands reached out and grabbed Wes by the back of the neck, hooked fingers dug like hawk's talons into Wes's shoulders. They dimpled the material of the dry suit for a second or two and then ripped into it.
Wes reacted instantly, but Jeff knew it was already too late. The yellowed fingernails raked across Wes's back, shredding the dry suit and cutting it into ragged black ribbons. Bright red billows of blood spewed forth, looking like the sudden eruption of a volcano. Wes started thrashing around, flipping over as he tried to fight back. One hand went to the back of his neck, as if checking the damage; the other hand waved in front of his face as he fended off his attacker.
But Wes couldn't break free of the dead man's grasping hands. Yellowed fingernails raked across his face, sweeping away his mask and regulator. A blast of bubbles exploded from Wes's mouth, and Jeff could faintly hear the terrified screams. With another sweep of the dead man's hands, Wes's face was transformed into a tangle of shredded pink meat and exposed bone. Blood oozed from the wounds in thick, spiraling red ribbons that drifted away on the current.
Finally finding his courage, Jeff propelled himself forward. Making sure to keep a safe distance from the dead man, he grabbed Wes around the waist and yanked him back. The bubbles of escaping air mixed with swirling silt and clouds of blood, making it all but impossible for Jeff to see, but he knew which way was up. Without air, he knew he had to get Wes up to the surface as fast and as safely as he could.
Otherwise, he would die.
They would both die.
Struggling to contain his panic, Jeff clasped Wes to his chest and started swimming. He hardly noticed it when something caught hold of his left leg and held it for just a second or two. When he pulled away, a stinging sensation like a bee sting pinched his left calf muscle, but he ignored it as he swam toward the surface holding Wes.
It took effort not to surface too fast. There was no sense risking either him or Wes getting the bends. Taking the regulator from his mouth, he forced it into Wes's mouth, but Wes was either unconscious or already dead. His motionless lips were as pale as snow. They didn't move. His eyes were glazed over with a dull, milky stare.
The swim to the surface seemed to last forever, but the water gradually lightened, and before long, shimmering blue sky and a burning dot of sunlight sparkled above. Jeff could see the dark, hulking wedge of the underside of the Coast Guard boat, and he made his way toward it. When his head broke the surface, he let go a roar as he inhaled a lungful of air. It took a near superhuman effort to swim over to the side of the boat and the diving platform. Several crewmen leaned over to help him get Wes onboard.
'What the fuck?' the captain shouted, as Jeff heaved himself up out of the water and climbed over the gunwales and onto the deck. Several crewmen were already tending to Wes, but Jeff feared the worst.
'You guys run into a shark down there?' one of the crewmen asked.
'Jesus!' another crewman said. 'Looks like someone went at him with a chainsaw.'
Kneeling down on the deck, Jeff and the men rolled Wes over onto his back. Blood was flowing from the wounds on his neck and face, dripping in large splashes onto the deck.
The captain went back to the cabin and started the engine and revved it. Within seconds, the cutter was speeding across the water, heading back to harbor. Looking down at Wes's pale, motionless face, Jeff shivered and shook his head.
'No need to hurry,' he said to Mark Curtis, who was still kneeling beside Wes's motionless form. 'He's gone.'
'Christ on a crutch,' Curtis said, lowering his gaze and shaking his head from side to side. Then he turned to Jeff and pointed at Jeff's left leg.
Jeff looked and saw, through the gap in his dry suit, the flap of water-puckered skin, already looking an angry red with infection. Blood ran in a thick, single stream down to his ankle and onto the deck.
'Looks like you got cut, too,' Curtis said, frowning as he looked at Jeff's wound. 'What the fuck happened down there?'
Shock hit Jeff when a cold sting reached deep into him, striking all the way to the bone. Within seconds, the coldness radiated up his leg and into his groin and chest, where it started to squeeze his heart. His hands and feet were already growing numb.
Jeff stared blankly at the wound, barely aware, as Curtis knelt down beside him and inspected it more closely.
'Jesus,' Curtis said. 'I'll get the medical kit so we can get some antiseptic on that and bandage you up. You don't want it getting infected.'
'Infected,' Jeff said, his voice an empty echo.
'That's a helluva gash you got there. We should get you to the hospital and have someone throw a few stitches into that to close it up.'
Jeff was shaking his head from side to side as a terrible, sad knowledge filled him.
'It's already too late,' he said, as the dull heaviness spread through his body, dulling his mind.
'Huh? What do you mean, "too late"?' Curtis asked. 'It ain't nothing but a scratch.'
But Jeff lowered his head and stared at the blood running in a ruby-red stream down the slick black surface of his dry suit. Already, it felt like his guts were filled with an iciness that was eating him from the inside out. His vision was getting cloudy, and the buzzing of the boat's engine was unbearably loud.
'It's the plague,' Jeff said in a low, hollow tone. 'It's back.'
As the boat sped back to the dock, he gazed across the expanse of blue water at the approaching town. The glaring white steeple of the Congregational church stood out against the sky. The scene was gorgeous, but an immense sadness filled him. He was tormented by a question: would he be able to do what Old Man Crowther had done?
Would he have the balls to do what was necessary to protect the town?
As soon as the boat got back to the dock, he would have to find a cement block and a length of chain and head right back out to sea.