Author / Speaker
Chapter Twenty Three
Lime Green and Blue
Word flew across the island; Santy’s panga was gone and he was not at the dock. Santy’s wailing sister burst into the police station, divulging her son’s illegal escapades and his empty bed in a hysterical frenzy. At the fuel dock, Able broke the lock to the shed filled with ammonium nitrate, fuses and detonator caps. Standing on the dock, nearly sinking beneath the weight of Santy’s friends and relatives, he thought, It is a small miracle the explosion didn’t occur here.
Able phoned Marty and two expat pilots. He asked Marty to phone Cedar.
At noon Able, the two pilots and Marty and Cedar were wedged into Marty’s office. They all stood looking at the nautical chart spread across the desk. It was still and unbearably hot. The air conditioner had rattled its last rattle that morning.
Outside of the criminal activity, Santy’s hysterical sister knew nothing. No one had any idea where Santy and Steinman had gone.
“Thoughts?” asked Able.
Although he addressed everyone, he was speaking only to Cedar.
One of the expats said, “It’s a big ocean?”
Were these people born stupid, or did the tropical sun turn them that way?
Able held his tongue.
Turning to the expats he said, “We need to push off. If they are still alive, we need to find them quickly. You take the easterly heading,” he said to the fat, florid-faced man, “and you,” to the skinny fellow with the ample forehead, “take the westerly course. Pay attention as soon as you lift off. They wouldn’t have gone far,” he said, although he wasn’t so sure.
The men scurried out like schoolboys, anxious to please.
When the door shut, Able said, “Good. Now we can get something accomplished. Ms. Mahoney, have you any idea where they might have gone?”
She had been consumed with that question since Marty’s call. She went to the window. The lock on the shed. Steinman veering into the brush. The panga puttering out of the harbor at night. They had all but screamed in her face.
Now she required a far less obvious answer.
Outside, the two planes throttled along the runway.
Patience, Cedar thought. Rushing off serves no purpose. Think. It is a big ocean.
Able and Marty waited.
Fish bombing was nothing new. On a poor island, it was too much to resist. It was common knowledge that at least a dozen fishermen participated in the illegal activity, but they were smarter than Santy about where they kept their explosives, and the blue expanse of nautical chart underscored the difficulty of catching them in the act. Occasionally when Cedar ferried the rare group of experienced divers to the more remote reefs, they heard the bombs underwater, detonating in the distance with a telltale thump. Her divers were always outraged, but they all took their outrage back to five star hotel rooms and 1200 thread count sheets and, soon enough, forgot.
Santy trusted no one. He would avoid the other fish bombers, seeking out reefs where few, if any, boats went. For once, Able was wrong. He would have gone far.
“There’s hope,” Able said. “Seas are calm.”
They all knew what he meant. Hope of finding debris.
The two planes lifted off. They left behind a deeper silence.
Marty pushed at the chart, the sound like a whisper.
Cedar jerked upright. It was more than a hunch.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Plane or boat?” asked Able.
Cedar called Ernan from Marty’s office. She knew she was in no condition to deal with the mundane details of the trip to Water Whispers.
Marty drove from the airstrip to the dock. Able was at the dock when they arrived. Cedar saw he had traded his aloha shirt for a somber green military-style shirt. It was nearly ninety degrees, but he wore a green jacket too. He looked like a park ranger starting a tour. He was surrounded by several dozen locals, everyone shouting at him at once. Cedar recognized a slew of Santy’s relatives and several fishermen who knew plenty about fish bombing. Some were one in the same.
Ernan was on the bridge. The lines were off, the engines rumbling. The boy was worth his weight in gold.
Able looked desperate.
“Permission to come aboard?” he asked as she walked quickly by.
“Yes,” she said, and then louder, “This applies only to Able.”
She had seen the weathered swim fins and rusted tanks.
This unleashed an uproar of upset.
Cedar spotted Steinman’s mother, a skinny woman lost in a mumu. Pushing through the crowd, she took the limp woman gently by the arm, trying to remember her name.
“Please,” said Cedar. “You can come with us.”
As she helped the woman step on to the boat, Able bowed his head.
“Miss Regina,” he said.
Regina Whitby. A quiet woman who worked as an aide at the preschool.
Regina regarded Able as if she had never seen him.
“My Steinman,” she said.
It sounded slightly like a question but Able did not answer it.
A man pushed to the front of the crowd. His eyes were rheumy and his voice was threatening. Cedar knew him as a failed fisherman turned drunk. She knew how he paid for his liquor.
“I am coming!” he shouted, looking about for encouragement. “Santy was my friend!”
This got everyone excited again. Everyone was now Santy’s friend. The crowd started to push forward.
Able’s voice cut through the clamor.
“No one is coming aboard.”
The crowd faltered, undecided. The drunk lowered his head as if he was going to charge the boat.
“Man, who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?”
“The chief of police, although I shouldn’t waste my breath explaining this to a drunk. Who are you to claim to be Santy’s friend? You barely knew him. You will stay on the dock.”
“You will stop me?” The fisherman looked at the crowd. “You will stop us?”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“If need be,” said Able.
Cedar saw now why Able was wearing the jacket. He had pulled it aside just enough for the crowd to see the holstered gun.
Up on the bridge, the shouting crowd on the dock receding behind them, she gave Able a grateful nod.
“I’ve never seen you carry a firearm,” she said.
“Firearm, the device. Not firearm, the weapon. The firing mechanism is a corroded mess. You are not the only master of the bluff.”
“You really should be a detective in New York.”
“I do not know how to hail a cab,” Able said, but he did not smile.
It was the perfect afternoon for making haste. The entire ocean held its breath. The Wendell Holmes flew over the slick water.
As Ernan took them southeast, Cedar checked her dive gear. Able talked quietly to Regina Whitby. Marty stayed up on the bridge with Ernan.
When Cedar finished checking her gear, Able came over.
“You are planning on diving?”
“May we scout the surface first?”
Able tapped her tank.
“You suspect something beyond an explosion?”
“I don’t know what to suspect. It was likely an explosion.”
“Likely,” said Able. “Bigger is also a possible suspect.”
“Our conversation in the town square. You said none of the sharks were big enough to leave nothing behind. I agree.” He watched her with his rutted poker face. “May I be honest with you, Cedar?”
“Of course,” she said, although she wasn’t certain she meant it.
“I feel you are hiding something.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, but she saw he didn’t think so. You should be in New York, she thought. Maybe it would be better for all of us. She feigned resignation. “I should be offended, but I suppose it’s your job to be suspicious of everyone.”
Able held her gaze a tick longer than convention warranted.
He glanced back at Regina Whitby.
Leaning close he said, “Ted Marple. Santy. Steinman. People are dying, Cedar.”
He had the same pleading look on his face that he’d had in his office.
It probably had been an explosion. The homemade fish bombs were as stable as Middle Eastern politics. The right amount of ammonium nitrate would obliterate the Wendell Holmes, much less a tinderbox panga.
She wanted it to be a fish bomb. Santy and Steinman did not deserve Ted Marple’s fate.
“I trust you, Able. Do you trust me?”
He didn’t answer right away. Maybe all good policemen were like that.
“Then you’ll have to wait.”
The waters above the reef were ink-well still, as if the ocean was waiting for them before it cleaned up the mess. The ebbing tide had strung the debris out in a sinuous line.
When Regina spotted Santy’s baby blue cooler bobbing in the sun she went to her knees and began to wail.
“Jesus,” whispered Marty. “They probably didn’t even know what hit them.”
“That is likely so,” said Able.
Cedar heard their words but they did not mean anything. Sorrow poured into her heart. She had seen enough to know.
Able had Ernan pilot the Wendell Holmes at a jogger’s pace, making a widening grid, beginning at the western edge of the reef where most of the debris floated. Santy’s panga had been lime green and blue. Bright chunks of wood and unpainted slats, probably the wood crates that had housed the fish bombs, drifted on the surface. Bits of plastic were everywhere. For some reason Santy had favored purple plastic bags for housing his specimens. The purple bags rode on the surface like an army of Portuguese man o’war.
Cedar saw that Able no longer looked at the debris. He knew. His parents had named him Able because they wanted him to feel he was capable of anything. It had worked brilliantly.
Regina Whitby had fallen silent. She sat on a bench. The way she stared out at the water broke Cedar’s heart. For a moment Cedar forgot about the thoughts pulling at her from every direction.
Pouring a lemonade from the cooler, she took it to the tiny woman.
She didn’t know what to say.
Regina Whitby took the cup, but she did not drink out of it.
“My brother became a grouchy old man but he still favored childish colors,” she said.
Her eyes remained on the water.
Ernan had cut the engines. They drifted quietly. There was nothing more to search for.
They watched a fragment of lime green wood float past.
“I always enjoyed his company,” Cedar said.
“He bragged without stop about how you introduced him to Heidi Klum. Men are all the same.”
“Steinman was a fine boy, Mrs. Whitby.”
The passing water made a gurgling sound. Regina Whitby looked as if she were struggling to remember something.
“He was a brave boy,” she said. “And a fine storyteller.”
Cedar wanted to say something more, but suddenly she could only think of Justin.
“He would have made quite the story of this,” Regina Whitby said and she began to cry.
Able came down the ladder from the bridge.
“I’ve seen all I need to see,” he said. “You’ve had a good look?”
Cedar recognized it as accusation, not question.
“You are still going in the water?”
“I won’t be long.”
“You don’t think it foolish?”
Was it the detective in him that made nearly everything a question?
“No. I don’t.”
“You are going in alone?”
“Ernan has to stay with the boat. Marty…”
Marty would only slow me down. She pretended to concentrate on rummaging through her dive bag.
Able’s face softened and he sighed.
“You brought only one tank,” he said.
No need to mention the spare down below.
“I guess I did.”
“Not an oversight, although you surely have a spare below. I could order you to stay on board.”
“Please don’t do that. We will both end up being embarrassed.”
“You are a pig-headed woman.” She was surprised when he put a hand on her arm.
“Please,” he said. “Be very careful. This is not our world.”
The instant she descended she knew her instincts were right. The top of the reef, at the tunnel entrances, had collapsed. The depression wasn’t large, maybe the size of a community swimming pool. It looked like a sinkhole that had quickly lost interest.
But it was enough to tell her the damage inside the cavern was greater.
Both openings appeared clear, although there was no telling how the collapse had affected the tunnels where they disappeared from sight. Cedar chose the northern tunnel: it had been the larger of the two before this seismic shifting. She finned down cautiously. The walls stayed at arm’s length. She exited into the cavern.
Her eyes swung about. It was still and infinitely quiet. Like a morgue. A spread of dead angelfish floated against the ceiling.
Her bubbles blasted, raucous and invasive in her ears.
She swam slowly along the wall until she found the spot. She ran her finger along the fractured scar in the rock, a jagged line where the shelf had been.
She floated, a circus acrobat balanced vertically on a finger. Her body buzzed. She was acutely aware of being wholly alone, cut off from the world. Her heart executed reluctant beats, each one like a shout in her ears. To her surprise, she was holding breath. Exhaling softly, she took an equally timid inhale. Her gaze ran along the distant cavern wall. Many of the fissures were wider now. Several clearly revealed blue ocean beyond.
She waited for a shadow to pass.
Finally she turned back to the uninterrupted basalt in front of her. She recalled her dream, the lantern flames wiggling. Life was fragile; one moment here, gone the next. It was the darkest certainty, the shadow we all turned away from.
She wondered what would happen next.
Back up on the reef she swam her own grid, looking for what, she didn’t know. A creeping unease saw her rush. The waters were bright. The tropical sun poured down. Away from the spots where the fish bombs had detonated, healthy hard and soft corals stood unblemished. But the silence screamed. Not one gnawing, not one crackling. There were no fish. Everything that could swim was gone.
She was alone, but she was not alone.
She swam for the ladder faster than she liked. Aboard the Wendell Holmes her heart kept racing.
Before they left, Regina Whitby removed the rosary from her neck and said a prayer. When she finished, she dropped the rosary in the water.
She swayed back and forth.
“I know it was wrong what he did, but he was a good boy with a good heart. That foot was an awful burden. Few could bear it as he did.”
She spoke solemnly, a teacher imparting a critical lesson upon small children, and then she hiccoughed and began to sob.
Cedar held her, a frail form forever changed.
As Ernan slowed outside the breakwater, Able stepped up beside Cedar.
“I am not sure where I stand,” he said.
“That makes two of us.”
“You must have very good reasons for keeping your secrets.”
“I think I do. I’m not sure.”
“Perhaps this is bigger than a police investigation,” Able said.
“Yes.” She turned to face him. “You’re remarkable, you know.”
He gave a slight smile
“All I know is I will get nothing from you until you are ready.”
This time she put her hand on his arm.
“I know this isn’t easy for you. You’re an equally fine friend, Able.”
The dock swung into view. Most of the island’s populace waited.
“And so I will lie to them,” Able said wearily.
“It’s the best thing to do.”
A cool breeze riffled the water.
“I wish I could be certain of that,” Able said, zipping up his jacket.
As the full moon lifted above the jungle, Marty leaned on the railing and said, “I can stay.”
“I’d prefer to be alone.” Cedar kissed him. “You know I couldn’t do this without you.”
“I’m certain you could.” He hesitated. She saw how his fingers kneaded the railing. “Do you think they died quickly?”
She had been asking herself that very question from the moment she first laid eyes on the debris. She had seen the same question in Able’s face, and Marty’s and Ernan’s. Only the grief stricken Regina Whitby had missed the obvious.
“Yes,” she said. “I think it was sudden. And quick.”
“I would have stopped you from diving if I thought I could.”
The way he looked at her almost made her ask him to stay.
“Able told me he asked you not to dive either,” he added.
“So neither one of us is sure if you’re impossibly brave or insanely foolish.”
She was lucky to have one ally like this, much less two. She felt like a swimmer in a rip, being swept away from shore. Her secrets were distancing her from everyone, even this gentle man she had come to love.
Why not tell him about the eggs? Part of her said that now it couldn’t matter. But another voice, a stronger voice, told her it was all that mattered. She felt queerly protective. Possessive. Even a trifle angry.
Santy and Steinman’s greed had destroyed a mother’s dreams. She knew it dreamed because she dreamed. The wavering flames danced in her mind.
The vision made her abrupt.
“I’ll call you in the morning,” she said, turning away.
Late that night she sat out on the deck.
Just off the bow a pair of white-tailed tropicbirds wheeled about each other. The full moon turned them brighter.
Cedar saw neither birds nor moon. In her mind, the debris slid past the Wendell Holmes, not a stitch of wood or plastic marked by flame.
She dreamed a terrible dream. At first the scene before her was idyllic, like creation itself, the ocean spread, gem clear and sparkling, to a horizon of equally pure blue. The dark slash appeared slowly, razor-thin and almost imperceptible, along the horizon’s rim. She sat silent, mesmerized by the shocking beauty of the panorama and the thin slash she already knew would spoil it all. Along the horizon the dark slash swelled, rising up like a great wave. Spilling forward, it raced toward her, staining the ocean black, suffocating everything in its path.
The darkness did not stop at the ocean’s edge. Reaching shore, it continued on across the flats, up the rise and over the knoll on which she sat, pouring into her lungs, smothering her last breath, before it moved on.