She kicked steadily, evenly, careful to avoid stirring the silt on the bottom. Periodically she looped her reel around a rail to set a waypoint, and then spooled out more line as they swam deeper into the ship.
Ahead. Something. Mer held up her hand and they both stopped. The beam of her light bounced around the passage. Nothing. She turned it off and signaled for Rabbit to do the same. Her eyes adjusted to the blackness. There it was. Closer. Rabbit grabbed her shoulder.
He snapped his light on first and pointed it at the hallway. Mer recognized the passage. The one with Snoopy. The reel portioned out more line as she and Rabbit swam closer. Their bubbles collected on the ceiling of the hallway, mercurial beads that reflected their progress. They didn’t have much time.
Mer’s light penetrated the passage first, and she sucked in her breath. A glow stick illuminated the painting, casting a ghoulish shade around Snoopy. All the glow sticks had been accounted for—except Ishmael’s. In a few hours, it would fade, then die completely.
Mer pushed the thought from her mind. Ishmael had been here. Now she had to figure out where he went.
At the edge of the light, she saw another object and she finned over to it. For a few seconds she could only stare. Tears blurred her vision, and she blinked several times until she could refocus on the mask. Ishmael’s mask.
Rabbit darted forward and grabbed it off the deck, his eyes wide. He tried to push past her, go deeper into the hallway. She blocked the path and held up her gauge.
Time had run out. They were too late.
It was after midnight when the LunaSea left the dive site. Mer sat alone on the bow. The crew of the paranormal dive team kept their distance. She didn’t blame them.
Leroy had alerted the Coast Guard, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and the medics while Mer was still on the second dive. Rescue operations would have to wait for daylight. By that time, it would be a recovery operation. Bile rose in her throat. She stood and leaned against the rail.
During her time as a divemaster, Mer had rescued seventeen people. Almost all the incidents involved divers who had overestimated their fitness level. They had surfaced and needed assistance swimming back to the boat. Two rescues involved heart attacks. One woman went into anaphylactic shock after being stung by a jellyfish. But, regardless of the cause, every rescue had one thing in common: she had returned the diver to the dock.
Tonight was different. Every minute took her farther from the person she’d been hired to safeguard. Intellectually, she understood that there was nothing to be done in the darkness. Emotionally, it took every ounce of control she had to refrain from ordering Leroy to turn the boat around. Let her sit vigil until dawn.
But she and Leroy had a boatload of people who needed support, and, no matter how much she wanted otherwise, she couldn’t offer it to them. Amber had lost her fiancé. The others had lost their boss and friend. They’d all been confronted with their own mortality.
It was cold solace knowing that she and Leroy had done all they could. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
More awaited them: incident reports, interviews, alcohol and drug tests. It seemed daunting, but not as daunting as planning a funeral.
The lights at the entrance to Port Largo looked like accusatory eyes, growing larger as they neared, and marking the LunaSea’s entry into the canal.
She would have to answer for her actions. Leroy had told her not to worry, but he was also a man who didn’t know the differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic—and they were literally polar opposites.
When they neared the shop, Leroy spun the boat in the narrow waterway and brought it alongside their dock. Despite the hour, several people waited for the LunaSea’s arrival. Bijoux stood next to two paramedics, her bright tunic contrasting with their dark uniforms. A couple wearing “Spirited Diver” T-shirts clutched each other’s hands. But it was the last man who captured Mer’s attention. Everyone else was in motion, but he remained still, watchful, with his back against the retaining wall that separated the dock from the parking lot. One of Mer’s two brothers was a cop. He had that same vigilance.
The man stepped forward, into the circle of light brightening the dock. Close-cropped hair crowned latte-colored skin. He wore an untucked button-down shirt that hid the waist of his khakis. He must be law enforcement. No one wore long pants in the Keys unless he was on official business.
He handed Mer the bowline.
Her hands shook and she dropped it. He retrieved it and again passed it to her.
“Thank you.” She wrapped the line around the cleat, then secured the spring and stern lines.
The medics boarded. Mer pointed to Amber and outlined what had happened and how she’d been cared for since coming up from the dive.
One medic knelt by Amber. The other asked Mer, “How are you? I understand you went back down.”
“I stayed within limits.” Almost. “No tingling, no joint pain. I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t.
“Anyone else have any issues?” the medic asked.
Leroy came down the ladder and answered, “Only one other diver splashed. He was with Mer the whole time.”
Rabbit lifted his hand. “I’m okay. At least physically.” He snapped a Pelican case shut, then held it out to Echo.
Echo ignored him and knelt beside Amber.
Rabbit rolled his eyes and slid the case by Echo’s feet. “I’m pretty sure the medics can handle it from here.”
“Here.” Echo shoved the camera case back toward Rabbit. He stood, then stomped off the boat and disappeared into the shadows at the far end of the dock.
Bijoux approached the stern. She signaled Mer, and the stack of bracelets on her arm jangled. “When you’re finished, Deputy Talbot needs to speak with you.”
Leroy shoulder-bumped Mer. “Worrying gives small things big shadows.”
“He wants to speak to you next,” Bijoux added.
“Well, then, make sure you put in a good word for me,” Leroy said to Mer.
The medic hefted his bag. “We’re done. If anything develops, just call.”
“Thanks,” Mer said. She drew a full breath and faced the man standing behind Bijoux on the dock.
The deputy studied her, not bothering to hide his scrutiny. “You look tired,” he said.
“That’s because I am,” she replied. Nothing like stating the obvious.