Author / Speaker
Chapter Twenty Seven
Palau’s holiday season passed, as every season did, in heat and humid torpor. Cedar experienced a happy uptick in bookings. When he wasn’t flying, Marty came along to help. He was good with repairs and the other divers loved him. While many dive guides cultivated a superior attitude, Marty was funny and non-threatening; particularly once he entered the water. It was a puzzle to Cedar how a man so balletic on dry land appeared as if he were being electrocuted beneath the water. He was improving, but he was still bad enough to make the other divers feel good about themselves.
One morning, gathering gear in the back of the dive shop, she heard a quiet voice conversing with Ernan at the counter. Her heart sprinted. Like a teenage girl, she waited until he was gone.
She tried to remain calm, but seeing him on the boat only threw open the starting gates, her heart pounding like a thoroughbred released.
“Hi,” Sean said affably, as if days had passed instead of months. “I suddenly had a few free days and I couldn’t bypass an excellent dive operator nearby.”
Her dry mouth made it sound, in her ears, like I’m fatter.
Fatter and younger. Acne-shy and tongue-tied. She saw herself, standing paralyzed beneath a makeshift elementary school spotlight.
We are not hardwired to be monogamous. We are no different from the animals. I am in a relationship. I am a schoolgirl stupefied by hormonal flushings and confusion.
What in the world am I thinking?
“Sean,” he said, extending a hand.
Her laugh was genuine and then she was stiff again.
“Right. I just hadn’t a chance to see the manifest yet.”
She knew it didn’t sound light in either of their ears.
She saw the sliver of pale forehead and her heart broke.
“Thanks for coming out with us again,” she said.
It sounded like a line from a play, badly recited.
She saw the sadness in his eyes. She would have done anything to wipe it away.
He pulled himself together gamely.
“I was just looking at your trip schedule in the shop,” he said. “You’re not doing the nautilus dives anymore?”
“No. It was a really hard decision. Too many boats on that reef. I thought I’d ease the strain.”
Life is a series of lies and truths. Sometimes they are mixed together.
Marty came up from below. He kissed her cheek and gave Sean a smile, moving off to check the tanks, jostling each one to ensure they were firmly settled in their holders.
The brown eyes held her.
“Paradise lost,” Sean said, smiling. “But I’m sure the other dives are nearly as beautiful.”
He placed his bag on the bench.
Marty was up on the bow, helping Justin coil the lines.
“I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “You don’t have to go out with us.”
“It’s okay. And honestly? Only a fool would miss your magnificent diving.”
She wanted to kiss him. Instead, on the dives, she let him wander wherever he wanted. When he left he didn’t ring the bell, but he left an overly generous tip. Part of her wanted to return it to his hotel, where she knew there was a lilac on the pillow.
When they finished rinsing down the Wendell Holmes and squaring things away, Marty came up with her deck chair and a gin and tonic.
He set up the chair and placed the drink in the cup holder. Taking her elbow, he settled her in the chair.
“My lady, you work far too hard.”
She felt her back melt into the sagging chair. She’d spent the entire day like a compressed spring. The glass felt cool against her palm.
Marty stood quietly.
“I’m drinking alone?”
“I’m flying in the morning.”
“We work too hard.”
Just looking at him made her feel warm.
“I liked him, you know. He was a gentleman and a superb diver. I also cannot fault his superb taste in women.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ms. Mahoney, you rarely lie and when you do, you do it very badly. Please show me at least a small modicum of respect. I saw how you looked at each other. I can’t dive, but I am not blind. I know how lucky I am.”
He actually stared at his feet.
She put down her drink and took him to bed. She showed him how very lucky he was.
Dawn broke cloudless and wide, bringing clarity with it. She couldn’t do this alone.
Marty often slept with a hint of a smile, like a child basking in a fairyland dream. He never remembered his dreams, as if such childish happiness dissolved in the morning light of a harsh world.
When she nudged him the smile flickered out.
Like Justin, Marty woke clear-eyed. There was no need for preliminaries.
“You need to know,” she said. “I need you to know. There were eggs on the reef where Santy and Steinman died. The explosions,” she found it surprisingly hard to say, “destroyed them.”
Marty sat up. He took his time wedging the pillow behind his back. She saw his mind working. She called it his pilot face, the way he looked as he scanned the instrument panel, absorbing everything with a concentration that was absolute.
“Eggs,” he said.
“Nautilus eggs. Eight of them on a shelf in a cavern beneath the reef. They were beautiful. When the dynamite exploded, the shelf collapsed. The eggs were crushed. They were hers.”
Marty watched her.
“Yes. They looked exactly like Nautilus eggs, only bigger. Much bigger.”
She let this settle between them. One step at a time. Outside the porthole a bird cried and someone dumped something in the water.
Marty absorbed this first offering.
“Does anyone else know?”
“Justin saw them.”
“Did he know what they were?”
“And you didn’t tell him?”
“Does Able know about them?”
“I could ask you why.”
“And would you tell me?”
She was still working out the answer to this question. It required leaps of faith even she hadn’t fully committed to yet.
A boat throbbed past. The Wendell Holmes rocked gently.
For some reason Marty redirected. She almost sagged with relief.
“You think this thing killed Santy and Alex because of the eggs?”
“Maybe. But heartbreak too.”
This was a major bite. She saw Marty working to swallow.
“It feels?” he asked.
“Yes.” It rang emphatically.
“I don’t understand how you can be so certain.”
“I know it’s female.”
“Her eggs. Yes. And you would tell me why you are certain of this too?”
Here she settled for partial disclosure. The dreams might really throw him off kilter.
This was going to be hard enough.
“It communicates with me.”
Marty turned to her. It was as if he was trying on a smile for the first time.
“You are asking for a great deal.”
“I know. I sound crazy.”
“Perhaps you greeted the dawn with a pitcher of gin and tonic.” He kissed her. “Ah. Good. Only morning breath.”
She reached up quickly before he pulled away. Cupping his face, she pulled him close so she could see every twitch.
“Please,” she said. “Just give me a chance. It’s all I ask.”
She did not release him.
“You can count on it,” he said, and because he did not smile, she knew there was hope. “However it may be something of a struggle.”
“You’re all I have. I need you to know. It feels what I feel. It understands my emotions. What I need. I think it knows what I think.” She heard her desperation. She did sound insane. What hope did she have that he would believe her?
But the face before her did not twitch. The dark eyes waited.
“It knew how lonely I was before I met you. It knows how much I miss Justin.” It knows I feel a hiss of primal warning every time I dive Long Drop Off. She had never made this connection before. It startled her, and puzzled her too; but she had to finish this.
“Please. Tell me you’re still with me.”
“I am foundering just a little bit.”
“This won’t help,” she said.
She still held his face. Perhaps she pressed too hard. Marty looked a little pained. She relaxed the pressure, but not much. She didn’t want him pulling away. She needed him close for this last puzzle piece.
“The communication isn’t one way, Marty. I know how it feels. I have dreams. I think it may plant thoughts in my head. Some kind of telepathy. I don’t know. I have this vague feeling sometimes that my thoughts aren’t mine. I’m almost certain that’s why Ted Marple swam at dusk.”
The corners of Marty’s eyes twitched. Gently, he took her hands from his face, but he kept holding them.
“This connection,” he said. “This is why you don’t think it’s dangerous?”
“Didn’t. Now I’m not so sure. I think it killed Santy and Steinman out of anger.” She paused. She was far beyond committed now. “As a mother I might even say it was justified.”
Looking down she noticed she was naked. Had they made love last night? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t seem to matter.
“It’s also possible I’m loon crazy.” She fought to keep the words light, but she knew she was going to cry. It was too much to ask of anyone. She had driven a wedge between them, a wedge Marty would never again step past. Love had abruptly ceased for far simpler reasons than a partner who was mentally unstable.
Justin was gone. Now Marty was gone.
Her heart emptied, leaving nothing. That nothing can hurt so much is an unsolvable puzzle.
She located her best mask.
“You’re free to go. I’d advise you back away slowly and put your pants on outside the cabin. You can start running…”
His finger pressed against her lips, the dark eyes close again.
“And if I told you I was the one who was crazy?” he said.
His arms slipped around her. His skin was so warm and smooth.
“I lost my heart to you with the first bagpipe solo. You played awfully, but you played to the end. I loved you from that moment. And I waited ten years to tell you. Ten years. Now that is loony.”
She began to cry. In that moment she was a child basking in a fairyland dream.
Two weeks later she received a call from Jimmy Maas. Fortunately Marty hadn’t slept over. She fumbled for her cell phone, groggily trying to locate the time. Three forty-five.
“It’s early,” Maas said.
It was his form of apology.
Her mind was still fogged. She heard Maas breathing.
“It’s not good,” he said. “You need to be completely awake.”
“I am now.”
“Okay. I just got a call from a friend. His niece was sailing around the world with her husband and their two girls. They took the girls out of school for a year to show them the world. Third and fifth grade. I met them.”
Hearing Jimmy Maas falter was like seeing yourself in a grave.
In the silence his breaths came fast.
“They disappeared two weeks ago. Their last communication was near the Mussau islands, off Papua New Guinea. The weather was fair. The radio communication was just a routine daily check between the niece and my friend. She didn’t call in the next day or the next. When he tried to reach her, he got nothing. My friend knows someone at the American Embassy in Sydney. Three days later a spotter plane found the debris. A fishing trawler in the area changed course. They found a camera tangled in some rigging, a waterproof throwaway with the niece’s name on it. My friend arrived in Sydney yesterday. They gave him the camera. He developed the film himself.”
An unseen fist reached down her throat and crushed her heart. Please no.
“He just e-mailed me the pictures. They’re on the screen in front of me. No one has seen them but him and me.” He was speaking slowly, trying to keep blame out of his voice. I met them. “My friend thought, given my interests, I might be able to offer an explanation. Which is why I’m sending them to you,” she heard the click, “now. I’ll stay on the line.”
She walked to the galley on leaden legs. She turned the computer on. The e-mail, with attachments, was waiting.
There were four shots. The first, a pale mound in the darkness, could have been almost anything, one of those grainy visages Loch Ness believers devoutly display as definitive proof. Each succeeding shot was closer. Even though it was a scanned photocopy, the last shot was infinitely clear.
She didn’t feel terror, or shock, or confirmation, or even guilt. She felt one thing and one thing only. Soul-wrenching pity.
She was a mother.
The voice came from the end of a long tunnel. It took her a moment to remember Maas.
“I don’t think anyone should dive there anymore,” he said. “And if you haven’t told anyone, now you should.”
Cedar called Marty. He was at the Wendell Holmes in ten minutes.
He sat before the computer stiffly upright, like a berated child.
He closed his eyes, but when he opened them the world remained unchanged.
“Mother of God.”
In this world innocents died all the time, but it was the one thing no one ever grew accustomed to. In a violent world, perhaps this was their last finger hold to humanity.
Marty stood so quickly she had to snatch his toppling chair.
She listened to his footfalls. He didn’t have time to shut the door. His retchings echoed in the passageway.
When he returned he said, “I’m sorry.”
She had never seen a man look so sad.
He sat at the table so he couldn’t see the screen.
“I’ve spent my whole life flying over empty water. I never really thought about it.”
“Thought about what?”
“What’s down there.”
They sat very still. The Wendell Holmes made many small noises.
Children. They had turned a corner.
It took all her energy to get out of the chair.
She returned with the folder.
Marty leafed slowly through the clippings, reading each headline.
When he put the last clipping down, she said, “I think they’re connected.”
He shook his head.
“These events,” she said. “They’re all part of the same thing.”
“It can’t be.”
“I think it is.”
She kept the last thought to herself.
We are heading for the end.
They went to the police station. Cedar waited until Able finished staring at the computer before she told him about the eggs. She said nothing about communication or the news accounts. They only muddled things. She needed Able’s help in the immediate here and now.
Marty sat beside her, holding her hand.
Able turned to them, his chair squeaking.
“Until we decide on a course of action, no one must see these photos,” he said. “There will be wholesale panic.” He fought to control his own panic. It was there. I know it. I felt it. He waited for calm. For once it did not come.
Anger is fear’s ugly step sister.
His voice was hard.
“Your waiting has proved foolish.”
He saw how Cedar winced, but her eyes did not leave his.
“I didn’t feel it was dangerous. I still don’t.”
“You don’t feel it’s dangerous.”
It sounded ridiculous in her own ears.
“No. I don’t.” As if they were two separate confirmations.
“Santy and Steinman.”
“Self defense. Panic. Maybe revenge.”
Able’s voice softened.
“A mother and father. Two helpless children.”
This she knew. It was no stretch at all. She saw again the beautiful lanterns.
“Heartbreak,” she said. “Incomprehensible grief.”
Able absorbed this with his deadpan policeman’s face.
“A snail that feels,” he said. “If I heard this from anyone else I would laugh. Except that people are dying.”
Cedar sat silent. She couldn’t begin to think of what to say.
Able turned to Marty.
“Quiet one with your head in the clouds. Do you have anything to add that might help?”
“No. She told you what we know.”
Cedar did not miss the qualifier, nor did she miss that Able saw the lie.
“You may change your mind at any time,” the policeman said. “It would behoove us all. It might behoove you.”
Able turned back to her. He regarded her as if they had never met.
I am being interrogated like any other criminal who is lying.
“I will remind you that everyone answers to the law,” Able said.
“I am reminded.”
“Willfully withholding evidence could mean prison time.”
Suddenly she was angry.
“Is that a threat?”
“Just a friendly reminder.”
The hard face held and then faltered. All the air left Able in a single exhale.
“Christ almighty Cedar, I can’t do this anymore.” It was her friend who looked at her now. “You are lying. Your squirming boyfriend is lying badly. I don’t know what possesses me to ask you, given you haven’t helped one iota up to this point and I know you’re not cooperating fully now, but what would you advise we do?”
“Wait,” said Cedar.
Surprise saw him lean so far forward he almost fell out of his chair.
“Wait to see what happens.”
“And while we wait, we tell no one else? No one else sees these photos? No one else is apprised of the danger. Because you can certainly see, whatever the motive, there is some form of danger.”
“Yes. That’s what we do. You would order boats out to kill it?”
She asked the question kindly.
Able regarded her with his sad eyes.
“Knowing really doesn’t matter, does it?” he said.
“I don’t think it does.”
That night, alone in bed, Cedar thought of the children. The children on the sailboat. Regina’s child. The children in the eggs.
It was the single thought that never left her, that never wavered no matter what the shock of unfolding. If not for the Nautilus, Justin would be dead. Justin lived because of her.
It was the one secret she kept.
The secret between them.