Mer peeked around Amber’s shoulder at the first safety stop. She still hadn’t opened her eyes, as if she could block out the whole dark ocean. Mer’s anger with Ishmael grew. She’d bet her next research job that Amber would never dive again. All because Ishmael wanted a photograph of himself sticking a listening device to a ship to record specters that didn’t exist.
She and Amber eased up to the second safety stop. They hung on the line, allowing their bodies to shake off some of the negative effects of depth and pressure. Amber’s breaths had slowed. The LunaSea bobbed fifteen feet above them, her lights welcoming them home.
Mer allowed herself a tiny moment of relief. As angry as she was with Ishmael, she was angrier with herself. She had the final say. She’d been the one to let Amber dive. She’d known from the start that Amber didn’t have the experience for this kind of dive.
The final seconds counted down, and Mer brought Amber to the surface.
Leroy stood on the bow. He leaned over the railing. “Everything okay?”
Mer spit out her regulator. “Panic attack. We did a safe ascent, but I’m going to need some help getting her back on the boat.”
Mer swam Amber to the platform. Leroy and Echo each hooked her under the arm and on the count of three lifted her onto the boat, tank and all.
“Whee,” Amber whispered.
Echo helped her shrug out of her vest and took the tank. Rabbit draped a towel around her, but Echo bumped him aside and helped Amber to the bench.
Leroy took Mer’s fins from her as she settled on the opposite bench to take off her gear. “Where’s Ishmael?”
“Very funny.” She leaned forward to look around the portly captain. She stood up with a jerk. “Where’s Ishmael?”
“He’s not aboard, Mer. What’s going on?”
Oh, God. She couldn’t breathe. She grabbed Leroy’s forearm. “Don’t mess with me.”
“Mer.” He looked deep into her eyes. “Ishmael’s not here.”
Mer swallowed her rising panic. No time for that now. “Echo. Watch Amber. Keep her warm. Rabbit. Suit up.”
Mer grabbed a recreational dive planner. “Leroy, I have to go back down.”
His straw spun crooked circles. “Not without a surface interval.”
“I saw him. He was heading for the line.” She traced her fingers across the tiny numbers to determine her dive profile and calculate how long she had to remain topside before returning to depth.
“How did you get separated?” Leroy asked.
“Wait.” Rabbit grabbed Mer’s arm and spun her around. “You left Ishmael down there?”
Mer shrugged out of his grip. “Not intentionally.”
“Where’s Ishie?” Amber wailed. “It was the ghost, wasn’t it?”
Rabbit jumped to the other side of the boat. “You saw a ghost?”
Amber shrank against the bench. “I don’t know what I saw.”
“That’s because you got disoriented by your strobe.” Mer turned the dive planner over, not liking the numbers. “Ishmael must’ve gotten turned around. We all did.”
“Did you see it?” Rabbit asked her.
She glanced up from her calculations to see if he was kidding, then went back to the chart. “He’s wearing a rebreather. If I wait fifteen minutes…” She threw down the plastic card. “Screw waiting. I’m going back in. We’ll only have about seven minutes of bottom time to find him.”
She disconnected her gear and dropped it onto a fresh tank.
Rabbit tore off his beanie and grabbed his camera. “This is awesome.”
“Put down the camera. We’re looking for Ishmael, not ghosts.”
Rabbit and Mer descended the mooring line quickly. Mer turned in circles the entire way down, shining her light into the darkness, hoping to glimpse the fluorescence of the glow stick attached to Ishmael’s tank.
Recrimination filled her mind and adrenaline electrified her body. The crush of water no longer cradled her; instead, it pressed against her, made it difficult to draw a steady breath. She checked her gauges. Tried to calm herself. There was little enough time to search for Ishmael without blowing through her air.
Mer signaled to Rabbit and they swam along the deck, retracing the path of the first dive. She dipped along the side of the vessel, found the hatch where everything had changed. Her mind jumped to the worst-case scenario: Ishmael trapped somewhere on the wreck, aware that each breath he drew was one breath closer to drowning.
Think. Ishmael had made it to the mooring line, she thought. But now, in the darkness, her doubts grew.
The hatch was the last place she’d definitely seen him. She poked her head into the hallway. The silt had settled and the beam of her light illuminated the coral and sponges that encrusted the walls of the wreck. Nothing. No sign of Ishmael.
Rabbit tapped her shoulder, and she hooded her flashlight with her free hand. He shined his own light at his hand, fluttering two fingers up and down, and then pointed toward the bow, signaling that they should move on.
A chill crept up Mer’s spine and she spun to face the hatch, certain that something was there. Watching her. Beckoning. Her flashlight exposed the same coral, the same sponges. But something was different. She didn’t know how she knew it, but the feeling pervaded her cells, multiplied. She turned off her light.
Rabbit swept his light across the hatch opening, but in the passageway Mer saw only a black so deep it seemed to have texture. Her eyes widened, trying to differentiate the shades of darkness. A faint glow caught the edge of her vision. She closed her eyes, then popped them open again, focusing higher than the shimmer. Yes. Definitely something.
Her pulse accelerated. Penetrating a wreck beyond visible light required extra training, specialized equipment, redundancies, plans. She had a reel, the layout of the passage in her mind, and Rabbit.
Mer backed out of the passage and signaled Rabbit with her light, then unhooked her reel and tied the line off on a protruding hinge. She locked eyes with Rabbit. He’d trained as a cave diver. He understood her actions and nodded.
Entering the passage, Mer unspooled the reel as she swam. During the day, she wouldn’t need to set a line. The way out would be illuminated by light. Even though she knew the path, she wouldn’t risk becoming disoriented, wouldn’t risk the safety of another man who swam behind her.