Her words swallowed by the cacophony of supercharged engines howling in the aft compartment, Agent Burns gripped the sides of her bolstered seat as the turbulence from heavy chop splashed over the bow. Ride it out, she told herself with each successive motion of the boat’s modified V-hull punching through choppy seas at eighty knots. When McLeary flashed the okay signal, she gave a tentative “thumbs up” and commanded herself not to puke in front of him.
When the boat approached its destination, she heard the engines throttle back and felt the sleek vessel lose speed. The hull gradually came off plane and settled on the open water, pitching and rolling in the choppy Atlantic while one of the men dropped the hook.
Burns unbuckled her seat harness and donned her scuba gear with McLeary. “You sure you’re up for this?”
McLeary slipped his fins on and pressed the purge button to test his regulator. “The water’s calmer beneath the surface,” he told Burns.
“It’s not the water I’m afraid of.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“We’re partners. We go together, or we don’t go at all.”
* * *
Hilario scanned the open water with thermal imaging binoculars, then passed them to his crew and checked the radar for approaching vessels. “If these men are down there, what chance do you have against them?”
“Better than fifty-fifty,” said McLeary. “I hope.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Watch the water. I don’t want any uninvited guests trying to crash our party.”
“An hour, tops.”
Hilario grabbed McLeary’s arm. “And if you don’t surface? What then? I take the rap for killing two federal agents?”
McLeary unzipped a pair of duffle bags with underwater propulsion devices. “Too much worry will get you killed.”
“So will foolish stunts.”
McLeary unpacked a three-foot shark-stick with a barbed spear at one end and a waterproofed .357 Magnum cartridge used to drive it home. “Any word on the street about Abdullah?”
“The man’s a ghost. No one’s talking. Right now you’re the one with the biggest stick.”
“We’re losing time,” said Burns, holding a spear gun. She hunched forward with her scuba tank on her back and her fins on her feet, her mask and snorkel in place with her regulator in her hand.
“Swim to the anchor line and descend along it,” said McLeary. “I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Burns put her regulator in her mouth and did a backwards roll off the port side.
Hilario lowered a propulsion device to Burns who fastened her equipment lanyard to the handle and waited for McLeary to join her. “Watch your air,” he hollered to the agents bobbing up and down on the surface.
McLeary adjusted the wrist lanyard around his shark stick. “Just be here when we get back.”
* * *
McLeary kept his hand on the anchor line, sliding his fingers along the rope as he slowly descended through the seventy-two degree water with Burns an arm’s length away. He pinched his nose and blew gently through his Eustachian tubes to equalize the water pressure in his ears. Air bubbles gurgled from his regulator.
Descending to within ten feet of the sandy floor, he established neutral buoyancy and powered on his underwater light. He held the lanyard attached to the underwater propulsion device and touched his finger to the timer button on his dive watch. He checked his compass and placed a finger from each hand side by side to signal Burns: I lead, you follow.
Burns positioned herself above to the ocean floor and extended her arms with her propulsion device out in front. She followed McLeary through the water at two knots, assisting her propeller-driven scooter with long scissor kicks.
When they reached the abandoned research facility thirty meters from the base of a coral reef, McLeary noted the moonpool entrance and a wet room built in the center of the six-hundred square foot structure housing a lab facility, a small galley, and a narrow berthing compartment. Twenty-four inch portholes gave a view of the world outside the underwater housing, where a desalinization compressor produced fresh water. On the south side, a pair of cables supplied electricity from the hydroelectric generators. Near the north end, a bank of oxygen tanks and CO2 scrubbers replenished and recycled the habitat’s air supply.
McLeary abandoned his scooter and swam with his shark stick in the ready position as a school of yellow tang swam around the habitat’s massive support rails. He approached the lab from the stern and kept his eyes on the space beneath the moonpool entrance. There he unfastened his dive vest and laid his scuba gear on the ocean floor a few feet below the circular opening.
Burns did the same.
McLeary unscrewed the hatch and aimed the shark stick at the open space, kicking his feet as he pulled himself upright through the narrow tube. He pulled his gas mask on and helped Burns inside.
He panned a flashlight at the walls, reflecting shadows off the water and the artificial turf. The space felt cold and cramped.
In the adjoining room, he found a biological safety cabinet with rubber gloves and a filtered exhaust vent. He looked at Burns through his gas mask and pointed to several scuba tanks with missing first stage regulators.
Burns pointed to a set of closed doors.
McLeary nodded. He nudged the door with the tip of his shark stick.
Burns steadied her spear gun with her finger on the trigger. Instead of finding someone crouched in the corner, she came face to face with a suicide vest suspended from a hook in the wall.
“Back it up,” McLeary whispered through his mask. “Nice and slow.”
Burns lowered the barbed spear and mumbled, “Sorry” through her gas mask. She retreated with baby steps, careful to watch for wires or other impediments blocking her path.
“Don’t touch anything.”
“This place gives me the creeps.”
McLeary inspected the floors and ceiling before he entered the second room. Inside, he found canisters of chemical reagents lining a shelf along the wall. Notebooks written in Arabic depicted photos of lethal poisons with instructions for dispersing gas discretely packaged in an airtight container the size of a shaving cream can. He gathered the notebooks and zipped them in a waterproof bag. Then he panned a video camera at the room, filming symbols and equations scribbled on a white board until a flash of light caught his eye from the porthole beside him. He put his face to the dark glass and saw a scuba diver swim away. Air bubbles trailed behind him before the light extinguished and the image vanished in the sea.
McLeary checked the life support gauges on the lab’s control panel, which showed the oxygen concentration level rising above the maximum parts per million threshold, and the pressure inside the habitat increasing with it.
He adjusted the controls on the air recirculation system but couldn’t stop the flow of excess oxygen being mixed with the lab’s air supply. “Let’s go,” he said through his mask, retreating to the moonpool entrance. “Someone sabotaged the oxygen and pressure controls. I can’t back them off from here. The oxygen toxicity will kill us.”
Burns grabbed the wheel from the moonpool hatch and tried to force it open. “It’s jammed from the outside.”
McLeary put his hands on the four-spoke hatch and twisted his upper body, pushing against the floor for leverage. When the effort failed, he wedged the shark stick between the spokes and pulled, bending the aluminum shaft backwards from the force applied. “Find something stronger.”
“Could we break through the portholes?”
“They’re eight inches thick and the pressure would drown us.”
Burns stared at the ceiling and the length of pipe attached to the ventilation shaft. The air in her lungs felt pinched and tight. “I can’t reach it.”
McLeary lifted Burns and at her waist until she could reach the narrow pipe and pull with both hands, wrenching it free from the ceiling panel. Then he jammed the pipe between the wheel spokes, using the longer length of steel for more leverage. “Help me,” he said, his veins distended along his neck from the Herculean effort.
Burns pulled on the wheel. “It’s moving.”
McLeary leaned on the metal bar until he felt the hatch release mechanism give way.
Burns climbed down the circular opening and inhaled a final breath of oxygen-saturated air through her gas mask before submerging herself beneath the platform to retrieve her scuba gear. McLeary followed her to find their gear with both air hoses cut.
Burns passed her hand across her throat, giving McLeary the out of air signal. She looked up at the surface more than sixty-five feet above her, an ominous distance to cover on a single breath of air.
She dropped her weights and started a free ascent, air bubbling from her mouth as she slowly and carefully exhaled.
McLeary grabbed the back of Burns’ vest and kicked in sync with his partner’s legs, using his strength to help her rise faster.
Burns kicked hard until her oxygen-deprived muscles declined to heed the life or death command from her brain, her starving lungs begging for air as she strained to keep going despite the formidable effort required.
McLeary pulled on her vest, kicking forcefully to lift the weight of two divers, his lungs expanding slightly from the decrease in pressure as he rose toward the surface with Burns in tow. Desperate for his next breath to come, he gasped when he broke the surface, inhaling a splash of salt water while he rolled Burns on her back to keep her airway open.
He coughed several times with his arm around Burns’ chest, rolling and bouncing in the churning water, the first glint of morning sun reflecting off the waves to the east. He smiled when he heard Burns coughing, a sign her lungs were taking air. “You okay?” he shouted above the noise of a Coast Guard vessel approaching.
Burns held onto his dive vest.
McLeary eyed the vessel and watched Kriegel, standing on the starboard bow, raise a megaphone to his mouth as the ship drew closer. Then he scanned the water for Hilario’s missing boat, cursing himself for relying on someone he never should have trusted in the first place.
“McLeary!” Kriegel’s voice boomed through the amplified speaker. “We found your son!”