Author / Speaker
Cedar was watching the sunrise from the bridge of the Wendell Holmes when her cell phone rang. Rummaging in the pocket of her windbreaker, she found her glasses. It was annoying. She didn’t know when they had started making digital readouts so small.
Five-thirty. She pressed the button.
“We want to see the dinosaur freak show.”
It was a voice she knew, a voice from her high society Chicago days, a voice of power and quite certain expectations. Men who never heard the word ‘no’, even when it was spoken, blunt and harsh, followed by a fist to the throat, leaving one of Wyatt’s former business partners gawping on the den floor.
Her impulse was to hang up. But yesterday on the fuel dock the dollars had spun away impossibly fast, and in less than two years Justin would be going to college and, though Wyatt had offered to cover everything, she was paying half. To do that, she would have to repair Santy’s engine and swallow her pride.
“You mean the nautilus dive.”
“Dress it up however you like.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not at the dock.”
“How soon can you be there?”
It was a gauzy orange dawn, the smell of brine light on the water. Suddenly she wasn’t sure if she wanted to swallow her pride.
“Are you swimming back? See you at seven.”
She imagined bringing her knee up into the speaker’s crotch. It gave her some small satisfaction.
“How many in your party?”
She had always told Justin to accept people as they are. People didn’t always meet your standards, but your standards aren’t the only measuring stick. But she hadn’t liked this man from his first words and she was growing tired of being open-minded.
“I’m sorry,” she said, working to sound like she meant it. “I have a five person minimum. Anything less and it costs me to go out.”
“What’s a full boat?”
The question wasn’t a surprise. Nor was her shame in answering it.
“Don’t be noble. The other dive boats take at least twenty.”
“I’m not the other dive boats.”
“That’s why we’re going with you.”
“I still need two more divers.”
“We’ll pay for ten.”
She thought, I should say that’s not necessary. Tomorrow is Tuesday. The weekly flight from Paris will bring in a new batch of divers. Come out tomorrow and save yourself a bucket of cash.
“If you insist.”
“That includes beer.”
“I don’t allow alcohol on my boat.”
“I said I’d pay for ten.”
“And I’ll say I have rules I won’t break.”
There was a long silence.
“Safety first,” the man said.
“I’m glad we agree. You’re experienced divers?”
The man laughed and hung up just as she’d known he would.
She rigged the chickens and sank the cages before waking Justin. She kept a box of whole chickens in the galley freezer. Failing to prepare was preparing to fail. She didn’t follow basketball anymore, college or professional – too many paternity suits and selfish egomaniacs - but she still admired UCLA coaching legend John Wooden.
It was odd watching the grease slick spread across dawn waters. It didn’t look right. It was a rush job. Already she had a bad feeling.
The men were worse in person, but they were punctual. She saw them as she passed the breakwater, standing at the dock, the tallest man in front.
Justin was sleepily making his way to the bow line when the tall man surprised her by hopping nimbly on board before she bumped against the dock. He had the line in his hand before she could speak.
Justin looked up at her.
“My son does that.”
She did not miss the easy throw, or how the red-headed man on the dock deftly caught the line but did not fix it to the cleat.
The tall man produced an arctic smile.
“Touch and go,” he said.
“I do my dive briefing here at the dock. Tie us off,” she said to the red-headed man.
The man hesitated and then did as he was told.
The two men on the dock boarded. The men were all in their forties, lean, with faces roughened by wind and sun. The lettering on their dive bags was faded, but the tag on the tall man’s bag showed his name in clear precise letters.
“Coffee part of this rig?” the tall man asked.
Justin was already below.
“My son is fixing it.”
“Boy’s a quick study.”
I want to toss you and that smug smile over the railing. I need the money.
She placed the folder on the camera table.
“As you know, there’s paperwork to sign,” she said.
The red-head laughed.
“What’s with the fucking Halloween decoration?” he said.
Jonathan was perched on the closest piling. He leaned forward slightly. She knew what he was doing.
“He’s a fruit bat,” Cedar said. “Testing the breeze.”
“A fucking weather vane.”
“In a fashion.”
The red-head regarded Jonathan curiously.
“I hear the locals eat them in pies,” he said.
“They’re a local delicacy,” Cedar said. “I haven’t tried them.”
The man nodded to Jonathan.
“When in Rome. I think I’ll eat your sister tonight.”
“If they’re not prepared correctly, you can die,” Cedar said.
The red-haired man had the same white smile as the tall man, attractive until it was set in the face of an asshole.
“No, poison. There’s a gland in their throat. It contains a digestive enzyme that breaks down the simple carbohydrates in fruit. Good for the bat, deadly for humans.” She made it up as she went along, shuffling the dive waivers to keep from looking at the man. Liars knew liars. “If the chef doesn’t remove the gland cleanly, gives it the slightest prick,” she gave the word prick a slight emphasis, “the poison floods the bat’s system. It’s tasteless. A neurotoxin.” She nodded at Jonathan. “A bat that size will kill all three of you. There’s some mild discomfort first.”
She gave the man her best poker face.
He regarded her.
“Maybe I’ll order the meatloaf,” he said.
Cedar hoped someone had neglected to shower, but Jonathan stayed where he was, watching the men fill out the paperwork and set up their gear. With the start of the engines, he lifted off with a chaotic whopping. Cedar noted, with satisfaction, that the red head nearly dropped his dive computer.
She watched Jonathan fly toward the jungle. No worthy scent today, but Nature adjusted. She was sure Jonathan had a ready supply of bananas and a harem of smelly beauties waiting for him.
On the way out, Cedar and Justin stayed up on the bridge. Cedar stayed because she piloted the Wendell Holmes. They hadn’t planned on a charter. Ernan had the day off.
They didn’t speak, warm wind rushing past their ears. Now and again they heard laughter below. The tall man had paid in cash, the fat envelope tucked in the strong box wedged beneath the console. Before accepting the money Cedar had explained there was a better than even chance the cages would be empty. By the time they returned to the reef the cages would have been down for only two hours, and that at the very end of night’s feeding.
Handing her the money, the tall man had said, “Who likes a sure thing?”
She had Justin bring the boat up to the reef. She dove in to fix the line to the mooring. She didn’t know why, but she wanted to look around. The morning was bleak and overcast. Below her the reef was a dusky blue-gray smear. The three lines affixed to the cages disappeared down into the darkness. The cool water gave her a chill.
She always wore a one-piece Speedo around clients. She saw how the men watched her as she stepped back on board. She slipped her baggy gym shorts on without toweling off and followed Justin to the bow to winch up the lines.
Her son was subdued.
“I hope the catch of the day is strictly chicken,” she said, but it didn’t sound funny.
“They’ll just come out again,” said Justin flatly. He stared at the line as it emerged, dripping, from the water. “I know you’re doing this for me.”
“A half day is gone in a wink. We’ll go out to an early dinner before your movie, you, me and Issy.”
“I don’t like them.”
Accept people for who they are.
“I don’t either.”
Cedar dove with the men, leaving Justin with the boat. She kicked herself for not calling Ernan. He would have come without protest. She was only one set of eyes. She knew the men were more than competent. No one would flood a mask; no one would have trouble with their buoyancy; no one would drift down past the edge of the reef, at least not mistakenly.
She told herself there would be none of the traditional trouble she usually watched for, but it wasn’t traditional trouble that worried her. She hadn’t trusted the men from the outset. The feeling had only grown stronger.
They handled themselves like the experienced divers they were. There were three nautili, one in each cage. The men waited patiently while Cedar extricated them carefully, demonstrating how to handle them. The men did exactly as they were told, gently prodding the shells up as the nautili tried to make for the bottom. After thirty minutes they hadn’t lost interest. When Cedar signaled them for a gauge check, they had more air than she did.
The morning overcast had burned away. Shafts of sunlight slanted prettily through the water, flickering in the foggy blue. Her bubbles made a hypnotic burble. She began to relax. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe the past had wound her tight.
The bull shark simply appeared. One moment the water column was empty. The next it contained eight feet of shark. A female, like all bulls she was wine cask thick. Her sudden appearance startled Cedar, but there was no cause for alarm. Bulls rarely came to this reef, but when they did the clear waters ensured both sides recognized each other and kept their respective distance. She was relieved the men were experienced. She looked quickly to see if they had seen the shark. The tall man still juggled his nautilus, his head down. He had descended deeper than Cedar liked. She could barely see the shell in his hand.
The bull was beautiful, a rare treat. She swam with casual disinterest, sunlight making wavering ripples along her sides.
The tall man looked up.
Cedar froze while her brain, a stutter-step behind, tried frantically to sort things out. The tall man gave off an explosion of bubbles. In the same instant, he pulled the knife from the strap on his leg and finned directly for the bull.
The bull had jerked slightly with the bubble burst. Now she jerked again. Cedar heard the sharp sound of metal on metal. Turning she saw the red-headed man sprinting for the shark, banging his knife against his dive tank as he went.
The bull convulsed, a dog readying to leap, and was gone.
When Cedar turned back to the tall man, the third man was floating beside him, holding both his arms.
By the time Cedar reached the men, the tall man’s bubbles were rising easily. The other man partially blocked her, but the tall man gave her the okay signal and when she turned her thumb up the two men slowly rose together.
Back on the boat no one spoke. The tall man sat staring out at the sea. His friends fiddled with their gear.
“We don’t see many bull sharks on this reef,” she said. “That was a rare treat.”
Something passed across the tall man’s face. It wasn’t anger, but he was angry.
“Give me another chance and I’ll kill that fucking garbage can with my bare hands.”
It should have sounded ridiculous, but it didn’t sound ridiculous at all.
“Get us the fuck out of here,” he said.
She did. By the time they reached the dock, the ringleader had regained his nauseating smile and swagger. His friends disembarked without a word. He stayed on board long enough to make a show of folding the hundred dollar bill and putting it in the tip jar.
He paused before stepping off the Wendell Holmes.
“Well then, thanks for the lack of memories.”
Scooping up his gear, he stepped off the boat without a backward glance.
Cedar was just relieved it was over. If he had lingered another minute, she would have paid him a hundred dollars to leave.
She saw it as he walked down the dock, a flash of white in his mesh dive bag.
She was on him before he heard her, grabbing his arm and jerking him around with more strength than she knew she had.
“You shit-for-brains prick.”
Even in the haze of her rage it sounded silly in her ears, like she was fifteen, but she was so furious it was all she could say. Her head pounded and the world swam around her.
The mocking smile didn’t ease her fury
He turned his hands out, palms up.
“Change your mind about tonight?”
She struck his hand with a fist, knocking it down. She was as surprised as he was, but he recovered first.
The words were a monotone.
“Touch me again and I’ll ruin your life.”
She was shaking with anger and fear. She knew he could smell the difference. The realization made her shake even more.
She remembered how the other man had blocked her view.
The word itself shook.
He stood, relaxed and victorious.
“Well for starters, they’re not protected,” he said. “I can buy you a shell or crappy pair of earrings on any corner of this third world shithole, but I’m the kind of guy who likes to collect things himself. Plus your poor showing and greedy fee justified a little something extra.”
“You don’t know anything about the laws here. By law the local people are allowed a limited take. You’re not. It’s a $10,000 fine, with the good possibility of a jail term. The jail here is not pleasant.”
It was another lie, but fury stamped it with credibility.
His eyes said he believed her, but the mocking smile didn’t falter.
Reaching into the bag, he removed the nautilus. The tiny tentacles, like pale noodles, sagged, defeated.
He held the nautilus up between them.
“Escargot. Maybe I’ll have it with fruit bat soup.”
She heard someone running. Ice flooded her veins. The same ice poured into the man’s face.
Justin held the wrench away from his body.
The world froze.
Softly the man said, “I hope you know how to shit stainless steel.”
Now Cedar knew only fear.
She mustered all the authority she had.
“Go back to the boat, Justin. Call the police.”
Justin was wise beyond his years. Justin was sixteen.
His white knuckles turned whiter.
“You asshole,” he said.
“Strike two. One more and you’re out.”
“Justin. Give me the wrench. Now.”
It seemed to Cedar that she could hear everything; the thudding vein in her temple, her son’s raspy breathing, the cry of a bird from the far end of the lagoon, the plea in her voice as all the anger left her.
His hand shook as he handed her the wrench.
“Now go call the police.”
To his credit, the man waited until her son left.
“I like strong women. It’s sexier when they beg for it.”
“You always win, don’t you?”
“Sexy and smart. The two of us could have some fun. How about a fresh start?”
He threw the shell. It sailed far out over the water, landing with a hollow plunk.
“I didn’t know they could fly,” he said. “I doubt this backwater has the funds to drag the harbor.”
“I’m keeping the tip.”
This produced a venomous smile.
“Any whore would.”
She nodded to the skiffs lining the dock, nets spread and drying in the sun.
“The island’s best fisherman doesn’t make a hundred dollars in a week,” she said. “They’ll scour every inch of this harbor for your tip, although I don’t think they’ll have to. My guess is five minutes.”
“Dumb bitch. Anyone could have dropped it there.”
“Tentacles. On average, a nautilus has ninety tentacles.”
The phone was in her hand. She bent, taking care to frame the name tag. She took three pictures to be sure.
“Not your average dive bag, lined with tentacle bits.”
He stepped so close she could see where he had missed a patch of hair below his lip.
She forced herself to stare up past the quivering patch of hair.
“Is this the part where you make me beg? I’d hoped for some place more private.”
The muscles in his jaw worked.
“This is the part you’ll wish you could take back,” he said.
He was right. Watching him walk away, she wished him dead.
I have only myself to blame. I have grown complacent. I let my guard down. There were only three divers and she was in charge so I stayed deep, though when they first entered the water I rose a bit without thinking, for the tall man’s heart beat rapidly, a strange alchemy of anger and fear. Instinct is almost always right, but lassitude is a formidable adversary. The bull shark distracted me too. She was a beauty and bold, though wise enough to keep her distance from me. Sharks are not the mindless cretins you take them for. The tall man’s reaction to the shark was equally puzzling; all fury and no fear.
But it is the final moment that weights me with despair. I was already descending, drifting down like an old man settling into an easy chair, when the smallest of all the heartbeats reached out to me, pleading and panicked and -- here my imagination may be running away with me -- crying betrayal. Like a stunned child set adrift. Even then I knew it was too late. Ascending -- to do what I don’t know -- I heard the chime of a tank against the swim ladder and the heartbeat was gone.
I stayed down in the dark waters, but my anger continued to rise. I imagined it rising to the surface and vaulting on to the boat. What would anger look like if it took form? I imagined my anger with claws. It buried those claws deep in the man’s eyes, slicing cleanly on the entry and not so cleanly in the retrieval.
I made surgical precision my templar when we met later. I wanted him to taste his own panic and despair. I knew he would swim and, when his scent first shot through water, I waited. My will against his, he bent like grass in the wind, though he swam hesitantly away from shore, as if he were just learning how. I should have waited longer; farther out his screams would have reached only indifferent sky. But vengeance makes for oversight. I rushed in, but I allowed him a long, clear look.
Oh yes, he was a different man with his hubris stripped away. I let him scream before I took him carefully apart, as if I might put him together again. He lay upon the sea, conscious of the jigsaw pieces floating about him.
I did not enjoy it after the fact. Revenge does nothing. There is a little sweetness, yes, but that quickly dissipates in the face of things you cannot change.
He tasted foul, as I knew he would.
Cedar was called in. The deceased had been on her boat that morning.
She knew everyone at the station. Behind the front desk Bella waved her through, pointing unnecessarily toward the left of the two back rooms. The door on the right was the unisex bathroom.
The small office reeked of nervous sweat. Half of Koror’s police force was inside. Two of the three policemen were standing, gazing glumly at their clasped hands.
Only the man seated at the desk looked at her. Able had terrible acne, a simian brow and a rapier mind. During his twenty year tenure as chief of police he had solved every crime that had crossed his desk, though most of them involved petty crimes like the pilfering of fruit from a neighbor’s garden or a bit too much marijuana grown in too obvious a place. This track record kept Koror’s smarter criminal element in check. Everyone knew Able’s talents were wasted on the island, but only a handful of residents ever left Palau and Able was not among them.
Cedar played poker with Able on Wednesday nights, a group of five men and one woman. When Able drank a little too much, which was rare, they persuaded him to play his ukulele. He played the ukulele well enough, but he had a voice like a mother’s lullaby. On several occasions Cedar had sung with him. They sounded a little like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
Now there was.
Bull and tiger sharks were not uncommon in Palau’s waters. Over the years there had been a handful of attacks on local spear fishermen, but this was the first attack on a tourist. Everyone in the room had relatives employed by tourism. If they lost their jobs, those relatives would turn to their relatives who still had paychecks.
Cedar knew most of the details already, provided unsolicited by the dozen people who stopped her as she walked to the station. Inconsequential news spread like the Bubonic Plague and this was not inconsequential news. Cedar knew her client had gone swimming off the hotel beach at dusk. His screams had halted the Polynesian dance show in mid-jiggle. By the time the hotel ski boat made it out to where the man had flogged the water nothing was left but scatterings of flesh and stained water. Tomorrow before dawn locals and tourists would depart the docks to dispatch the killer. The tourists were hungry to avenge their own. The Palauans would set out reluctantly. The shark remained a deity, but money was a now a powerful god. The dead man’s friends had offered a reward. It was the biggest news of all. Ten thousand dollars for a shark with a man in its stomach.
Able gestured to the only empty chair. She saw he had taken down the calendar with the women mechanics in unbuttoned overalls.
“Thank you for coming, Ms. Mahoney. I thought it best you be here. We are just beginning our questioning.”
His tone was formal. His eyes said you can help me.
The red-headed man sat before the desk, slouched and utterly defeated. He had looked at her blankly when she stepped in. She wondered if he even recognized her.
She listened as Able asked questions. The men were from Pensacola, Florida. They were here on an annual fishing and diving getaway. The red head’s name was Mark Knowlton. The dead man’s name was Ted Marple. With a mild jolt of surprise, Cedar realized she hadn’t once used their names. The third man was back at the hotel, ostensibly incapacitated by shock.
Able asked the questions softly but firmly. They needed to know everything they could to possibly prevent a second attack, he said. What he didn’t say was a second attack would destroy the island’s economy.
The questioning lasted twenty minutes. When it was done, there was silence.
Able stared at the wall as if he wished the calendar was there.
He gave a cough.
“Ms. Mahoney? Do you have any thoughts or questions?”
The red headed man turned to her slowly. Mark Knowlton. The pain on his face made him look like a little boy. He sat forward in their chair, fingers gripping the edge.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
Mark Knowlton’s face remained blank.
“Jesus,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
“Mr. Knowlton,” the name sounded awkward in her ears, “why did he chase after the bull shark we saw?”
Both of the policemen against the wall straightened. Able did not move.
Mark Knowlton watched her as if he had asked the question.
“I know you didn’t like him,” he said. “You had good reason not to. I’m sorry he took that thing. It was wrong.”
She wondered if Able knew about the nautilus. None of it mattered now.
“He could be a prick.”
She recognized her own infantile insult, but she knew the man before her was long past irony.
He seemed to have forgotten the question.
Mark Knowlton massaged the edge of the chair. When he looked up, he consulted the cinderblock wall too.
“None of you know him. He was the most loving father I knew. He couldn’t stand to be away from his daughter. You wouldn’t believe the begging it took to get him to come on these trips. Until it didn’t matter.”
Cedar saw Able’s bland face tic. He was an awful poker player, but an excellent detective.
The man stared at the wall.
“Strange shit,” he said.
Politely Able said, “What is strange?”
“No fucking way Ted swims at dusk.”
“Why is that?” Able asked.
Mark Knowlton turned to Cedar.
“He wasn’t scared of that bull,” he said. “He really did want to kill it.”
Cedar felt some terrible realization forming just outside her consciousness.
“His little girl was killed by a bull shark. She was swimming right off their dock in Pensacola. He and his wife were on the dock drinking cocktails and watching the sunset. He jumped in the water. The bull kept coming around him, hitting his daughter. She was seven. The shark finally dragged her away.” He let out a slow breath. “His only child. Ruined his marriage; ruined his life. I didn’t think it could get any worse. There’s a fucking joke.”
It was more like a cough than a laugh and then Mark Knowlton began to cry.
He has paid, but I am still racked with fury. Your short-sightedness and greed have caused the slights, large and small, to collect until even someone as far-sighted as me struggles to see beyond the moment. I float, trying to extract wisdom from the unbiased darkness, but I want only to lash out. Your wrongs, your self-absorption, your ignorance, they pile insults, one on top of the next, until there remains a great teetering tower ready to be tipped by a breath. What do you call it? Yes. The straw that breaks the camel’s back. Fitting that even your aphorisms see animals suffer. The lesser beasts. Ha. Another grand joke.
I must gather myself, remind myself. You lose your head and act on impulse. I do not. That is why I will be here long after you are gone. I’m just not sure it will be a world worth inheriting.
I try, but I cannot contain myself. I send the message, reaching across the seas. It is an easy matter now, as simple as your breaths. It not so much a command as it is a powerful suggestion.
And they are all too ready to take up the cause.