Without a Trace… Chapter 37

“I’m good to go,” Steve announced to the group of enlisted men on deck. The men gathered around the coils of hoses extending from the surface-supplied air control center.

Steve took the helmet and the rubber drysuit from the top of the steel cabinet mounted beside a crane and pulley system. Recognizing the familiar gear, he put the dive helmet on and adjusted the air supply, checking it out. Made of woven fiberglass, the lightweight helmet offered the latest in deep-sea diving technology with a streamlined design, interchangeable fittings, upgraded valves, and a shatterproof visor.

“Sir, I wouldn’t do that,” said Yeoman Tate, a young recruit who manned the supply station controlling the oxygen content in the mixed gas system.

Steve pulled the helmet off and placed it on the metal cabinet. “Why not?”

“Sir,” Yeoman Tate replied, “the helmet fails under pressure. I tested it myself less than an hour ago. I wouldn’t wear it at any depth unless you’re expecting your next dive to be your last.”

Steve turned away from the Yeoman with a flat-top haircut and a high forehead. “Are you shittin’ me?” he said to Agent Smythe. “I thought you said this ship was well-equipped?”

Smythe lit a cigarette. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t vote for Obama.”

He had the look. Steve recognized it at once and secretly smirked as he watched the agent trying to ignore his queasy stomach. But it was obvious the unsettled sickness he’d have endured after breakfast was intensified from the rolling motion of the ship. He brought his attention back to more important matters. “There must be another option.”

Steve examined the helmet’s valve assembly. “What’s the problem?” he asked Yeoman Tate.

“A leak via the umbilical connector, Sir. If we had a spare I could swap out the old one and replace the seal—”

“There’s no spare on board?”

“None to fit this type of helmet.”

“Then we’re dead in the water.”

“Not quite,” the Yeoman answered, unlocking a storage trunk to retrieve a black canvas bag from the bottom of the locker. “Give me a hand with this,” he shouted to another Yeoman on deck.

Steve helped the crewmen unload the canvas dive suit and its box-shaped copper helmet. He recognized the clunky rig as part of the Mark V souvenir helmet he had on his desk at home, complete with a metal breastplate used to secure the helmet to the suit.

“What the hell?” Smythe asked, staring at the antique contraption. “I think I saw one of those in a movie once.”

Steve took the helmet in his hands. “It’s a collector’s item now, but it served as the U.S. Navy’s standard diving rig until they decommissioned it in ’79.” He examined the helmet and the seams on the canvas-rubber suit.

“It’s a proven design,” Yeoman Tate added. “A lot of companies still use these rigs for off-shore drilling repair.”

Steve set the helmet down and coughed when Smythe blew smoke in his direction. “How deep is the wreck?” he asked Tate.

“Her bow sits at just under three hundred feet below.”

“Do you understand the decompression requirements for that depth?”

“Yes sir, and I’ll be keeping a log of the dive and planning for the decompression schedule.”

“Is there a recompression chamber on board this vessel?”

“No sir, but Aruba’s medical facility has one.”

Steve looked out across the water at the island of Aruba, more than three miles out from the Coast Guard’s position. He’d read the FBI reports Smythe and Riker shared with him at breakfast—reports describing how the Coast Guard found the sunken ship and why the FBI wanted so desperately to identify it. “You ever worked a mixed gas rig before?” He put one leg inside the suit and pressed his foot in the integrated boot.

“Yes sir.”

“How many?”

“Two. Counting today.”

Steve forced his other leg inside the suit. As with any dive operation, he’d spent the night before planning for the unexpected by reviewing time and depth requirements, bottom contour plots, water conditions, and emergency procedures. With hundreds of dives to his credit, he knew the risks of underwater exploration, especially at triple digit depths. “Let’s do this.”

“You look like crap,” Agent Riker told Steve when she came on deck to see her partner headed in the opposite direction. She cupped her hand over her mouth and yawned. “Where’s he going?”

Steve shrugged.

Riker stretched her arms above her head. Her legs were tired from her workout the day before; her face sore from the sunburn on her cheeks and forehead. The sausage and biscuits she had for breakfast in the galley dropped another notch in her stomach. She scratched her scalp. She hadn’t showered in two days until she’d boarded the Cutter. It had been a quick salt-water spray, and now her hair felt greasy. As the only female on board the ship, she could sense the stares when she sauntered toward the group of men surrounding Steve. A certified scuba diver, she’d logged her share of time underwater, though mostly in lakes and quarries, with the exception of a two-week vacation in the Keys. She knew the basics of underwater breathing apparatus, but she’d never used surface-supplied equipment before.

Steve pushed his arms in the dive suit’s stiff rubber sleeves.

Yeoman Tate stepped up with the helmet, which bristled with valves at the sides and back.

Steve balanced himself as the weight of the bulky device was carefully guided over his head and onto the breastplate designed to fasten up and over both shoulders. More cumbersome than any dive rig he’d used before, the Mark V conjured memories of dive gear he’d read about in technical training classes but never dreamed of actually using. “She’s a dinosaur,” he said through the faceplate opening. When he sensed the weight was positioned squarely on his shoulders, he sat down while another crewman fitted him with heavy lead overboots.

Steve moved his arm for a crewman to fasten the helmet to the base of the metal breastplate. The weight of the suit’s components tugged on his back and shoulders. Even sitting still took effort to support his skeletal structure.

“What about your air supply?” asked Riker.

Steve pointed to a clump of hoses with metal sheaving woven around the outside. “The umbilical has my breathing gas delivery and recovery, fathometer, and communications lines. Once the faceplate’s screwed on to the front of the helmet I’ve only got seven minutes of breathing gas left before I hit the water.”

“Why?”

“Because they can’t turn the gas on until the suit’s fully submerged. Without the water pressure pushing against it, I’d inflate like the Michelin Man.”

“You don’t breathe regular air?”

Steve stood with the help of two crewmen. He walked with a robotic motion toward the crane and pulley assembly prepared to hoist him overboard. “It’s a gas mixture. Air blended with helium to avoid nitrogen toxicity.”

With the dive suit prepped and ready, Steve gave the thumbs up signal for Yeoman Tate to secure the faceplate to the helmet.

Steve watched the condensation from his breath forming on the glass two inches in front of his face.

A metallic voice said, “Okay, sir?” It was Yeoman Tate checking the comms system.

“Sure. Ready when you are.” Steve felt a tug on his shoulder harness as he was winched up and gently lowered into the sea.

“Good luck.” Inside the clunky helmet, the Yeoman’s words echoed like the voice of God.

Suspended by a strand of steel cable, Steve sank beneath the surface of the water a few feet. And then his descent was halted. He knew they were watching for gas leaks from his equipment. With his visibility restricted by the faceplate’s small porthole, he had a limited view in front of him, though he could look right, left and upwards through other ports.

“No leaks,” said Tate, and the descent resumed.

Gradually, the color spectrum faded. Red disappeared first, followed by shades of orange—and finally yellow at eighty feet. At one hundred and fifty feet below the surface, patches of green seaweed on underwater ledges looked gray in the absence of most of the light.

“Holding steady,” Yeoman Tate’s voice echoed inside Steve’s dive helmet. “Approaching depth of one-seven-five feet.”

“Roger that,” Steve replied. At well beyond the maximum depth for recreational diving, he used the underwater strobe affixed to a lanyard on his breastplate. His throat itched from the dry gas pumped inside the helmet via the surface-supplied umbilical. Hearing nothing but the gentle sigh as his breathing gas entered and was then recovered via the umbilical, he waited patiently for the crane to pay out cable and set him on the ocean floor. He closed his eyes and imagined Leslie’s skin against his body; her breasts against his chest; her lips against his own. He longed to hold her again and tell her everything would be all right.

At two hundred and fifty feet, sandwiched between millions of tons of water, he gained a new perspective on his family’s disappearance. If he hadn’t left them at the dive boat, Sarah and Leslie would be at home recovering from a week of sun and fun in Cozumel. Sarah would be back in school complaining about how the world mistreated her. Leslie would be returning from work complaining about rush-hour traffic. Dinner would be on fire. Sarah would argue for pizza. The neighbor’s new Mustang would taunt him from the driveway.

At three hundred feet below the surface, his view of the underwater world took on a new perspective as the flashlight beam cut a swath through the murky water. “I’m down,” he said when he felt his boots touch bottom. Blinded momentarily by the floating sediment, he slogged in the general direction of the wreckage. “I have visual contact,” he told the surface.

“How far from your position?”

Steve reached for a chunk of metal partially embedded in the sand. He touched his gloved fingers to the surface of the rusted fluke anchor from which a rusty chain snaked its way to the bow of the sunken boat. “About thirty feet.”

From the condition of the fiberglass hull he could tell the wreckage was fairly recent. “How long ago was this yacht reported missing?”

A moment of static was followed by a short reply. “Say again?”

“When was the yacht reported missing?”

This time Riker’s voice replaced Yeoman Tate’s. “About two weeks ago.”

Steve continued along the starboard side. The hull appeared much shorter than that of the yacht he’d expected to find. “This boat’s been down a lot longer.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Steve followed the hull until he came to the point where the boat had broken in half over a large rock formation. A grouper emerged from a hole in the splintered fiberglass and swam out of view. Smaller, bullet-size holes appeared in random patterns near the boat’s stern. Evidence of fire damage appeared from the remnants of charred wood panels. Finding no name inscribed on the transom or anywhere else along the hull, he moved slowly to examine a shattered porthole. Shards of broken glass deflected the flashlight beam at a life preserver suspended above the forward cockpit.

“You still with us?”

“Roger that,” said Steve. “This boat’s definitely not the one you’re looking for.”

“Watch your umbilical.”

Steve made his way through the open hatch and aimed the light to view the remains of the empty cabin. He stepped back, enduring a mild bout of vertigo until his breathing caught up with the oxygen demand from his lungs. Aware of something in his peripheral vision, he craned his neck inside the helmet, turning his upper body to pan the light at the floating debris.

He saw nothing unusual at first, until a shadow moved against the hull. He blinked several times to refocus his vision. Trying to view the underwater world through the tiny portholes in his faceplate proved as difficult as watching television through a straw.

His heartbeat accelerated. His breathing came in ragged spurts. Whatever he thought he saw, it was large enough to cast a sizable shadow. “Take it up,” he said into the helmet’s microphone.

“Negative, sir.”

“Say again?”

“Sir, we have an issue with the crane assembly.”

“What kind of issue?”

“We’re working on it…”

* * *

Yeoman Tate stared at the hydraulic control assembly, baffled by the high pressure readings and the lack of positive feedback when he engaged the crane motor. From his vantage point above deck, he could see the cable spool stuck in the forward position.

He followed the protocol for troubleshooting the hydraulic system, stepping quickly through the list of probable malfunctions and the short term work-around required to ensure he could hoist his diver back on board before he exceeded the maximum bottom time limit.

* * *

Steve drew a deep breath. The effort to move about while in the heavy suit was taking its toll. Whatever he saw, or thought he saw, had given him reason to leave. Hallucination from bad gas mixture or dumb paranoia? He didn’t care which, only that he felt uneasy about standing at the bottom of the Caribbean in a dive suit from Grandma’s attic. “Tate? Come in, Tate…”

Static crackled from the speaker by his ear. Bitter for having agreed to help the bumbling idiots in the FBI, he contemplated what he’d say to them when he reached the surface. He was wasting time and energy, two commodities he had little to spare. By leaving Cozumel, he’d abandoned his family—or at least their last known location.

When the shadow reappeared in his peripheral vision, he let the door to his imagination swing open. Whatever he’d seen several minutes ago appeared larger than it had at first, and now moved through the water with ease. Sharks came to mind. Then legends of giant squid capable of sinking small boats and dispensing with the terrified crew. Sea monsters he’d read about in novels suddenly seemed plausible. So did his own mortality.

Until now, he’d been cavalier about his attitude toward the mission. His let’s-get-this-shit-over-with routine had snagged him by the balls. And in his haste to assist Smythe and Riker, he’d neglected to analyze the situation on all fronts.

“Hold tight.” Tate’s voice echoed inside the copper helmet.

Steve rose up from the ocean floor, defeated by his own fatigue and an inability to come to terms with why he had to be the one with the missing wife and daughter.

Why not a rich bastard who beats his kids and sleeps around on his wife? Why not a family of dopers who deserved to die?

Steve knew it would be a slow lift, and that there would be stages where he’d be stopped, suspended in the water column, and left to breathe off the gases he’d accumulated in his body after minutes at a three hundred foot depth. Alone in the underwater world, his fate rested with the skilled men on deck who kept the breathing gas flowing and carefully managed his gradual ascent.

After around forty-five minutes, at sixty feet from the surface, he noticed a plethora of marine life swimming around him. At ten feet from the surface, the sun’s rays cut through the turquoise water.

He was sweaty and cramped inside the canvas suit, and the exertion from the dive had sapped more of his energy reserves than he anticipated. The ocean swim the day before had worked his muscles close to the point of exhaustion, and now his upper body ached from the weight of the heavy dive suit.

When he finally broke the surface, he dangled from the crane-controlled cable, inhaling slowly to conserve the few remaining minutes of gas in his helmet. Water dripped from the canvas pants as he faced the massive hull of the Coast Guard Cutter.

Suspended above the deck, he watched the crane operator work a series of levers behind a glass-enclosed panel. Sweat drooled down his chest and back. Swaying from the cable, he sensed a hint of motion sickness stalking him. A subtle hint, almost imperceptible at first, then more pronounced as the seconds passed. He knew he was existing on the remaining oxygen in the gas mix in his suit.

“Almost there,” said Tate.

Steve hung helpless. I’m going to be anoxic in a minute. He’d breath off the oxygen and simply go to sleep and die. “Tate! Get this faceplate open or blow some oxygen into the suit!”

“We’ll have your faceplate off in a second,” said Tate, his voice tinged with a note of panic.

Steve touched the manual inflation valve on his suit in an effort to force more gas into his helmet. Nothing happened. He was breathing a little faster.

When his boots touched the deck, his body bore the full brunt from the suit’s heft, causing additional strain on his already exhausted muscles, muscles demanding more oxygen than his bloodstream could supply.

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