The story so far:
Alex had been on the bottom for nearly twelve minutes when he hit the jackpot. Having filled two of his totes with smallish crabs from the upper levels of the slope, he’d sent their float lines to the surface for Jack to recover and then descended below to the sea grass.
The going proved rough most of the way down. As he had noted when leaving the marina, the changeable winds had produced fairly strong currents, thus forcing him to waste a lot of energy fighting the drag.
There was so much stirring of sand and debris that he’d been unable to see further than five or six feet most of the way.
Although conditions improved as he reached the bottom and began to move with the drift, his outer field of vision had remained limited to about a dozen yards. It was making him wonder if he was going to have to cut his dive short without bagging any prize specimens.
Then a recess revealed itself to him by chance. Hidden from above by a ledge, its entrance shielded over with sea grass, it would have gone unnoticed had not the current disturbed the grass as he had been swimming by.
He glided with the current closer to investigate, sweeping the area with his flashlight, using his free hand to part the long, strands of grass ribboning up toward the surface. Schools of silvery trout and other fish Alex couldn’t name, moving into and out of the light as he shone it into the opening.
The penetrating beam revealed the opening to be rather small, cutting no more that twelve to fifteen feet into the slope, its entrance barely wide enough to admit Alex in his scuba outfit and tank. It would be a tight squeeze.
Still, he felt an unusual strange surge of excitement over his find and began to go to work.
The interior of the cavity was filled with mature, whoppingly big soft-shell crabs. Soft-shells galore - they were everywhere, clinging three and four deep to every vertical and horizontal surface, wall to frenziedly moving wall as it were. The incredible concentration would allow him to stuff his goody bag to the brim. By harvesting just the ones nearest the opening, he would be leaving the rest to do what ever it was they did when not intruded upon by foraging predators, human or otherwise.
He knew he would have to work fast; he only had a little more oxygen than what he would need in his double tanks to get him to the surface.
He reached down to his thigh, pulling his oyster knife to remove some oysters from around the opening of the hole, allowing him free access to the crabs within.
Before getting started, Alex checked his watch and gauge console, and did some quick mental computations based on the scuba instruction he had received in the military. Though his psi dial showed an ample reserve of air, he knew he didn’t want to trust a mechanical devise to the last square inch of air.
He swam into the recess, legs scissoring behind him, taking pains not to scrape his air tanks on the overhead crag.
He hadn’t told anyone yet, but given his imminent plans to kiss his crab hunting career good-bye, he found his excitement over the score puzzling, and maybe a little bit funny.
Me in a nutshell, he thought.
Never a natural at anything, but bent on giving the job his dogged best to the end, balls to the wall.
He had learned the hard way that a job well done could just as soon bring on problems as much as any sort of credit or reward -and worse, that you occasionally wound up getting screwed for your diligence.
Alex went at his newfound bounty, the tote in his left hand, the knife in his right. The crabs crawling slowly over the backs of those on the rocks were easy pickings, and so plentiful that it took him just a few minutes to fill the mesh bag to a third of its capacity.
Pleased with his rapid progress, he got down to collecting the others.
A slower task than the first, it needed to be preformed with some delicacy if he was to avoid cracking their shells - which would be an unfortunate waste, since they were worth bunk to him unless brought up alive.
Alex had been absorbed in his task for several minutes when his thoughts wandered back to the twinkle of brightness he’d seen from the boat.
Might have been something left behind by an ecologically challenged sailor, or a bit of shiny flotsam tossed up onto the shore by the surf.
Maybe his long years of soldiering and police work had lent some undue weight to what ought to have seemed an overly imaginative notion, but why discount it offhand?
And it wasn’t just his experience that had to be considered; everyone knew Carrone was dirty and he couldn’t put it past him to be there, watching him. Hell, entrapment hadn’t worked and Alex wondered what, if anything, Carrone might have up his sleeve.
Peter, after all, had nailed Carrone’s personality type right on the head.
Alex had humiliated him, shaken up his confined little world as if it had been one of those little snow globes people bought at souvenir shops. Carrone would be stewing in his own juices until he regained some of his pride.
Word spread fast in a small town, and he’d want to be sure he got even with Alex before the tale of his **** kicking found its way into the local folklore.
It might be that he’d take some time to plot out his reprisal, but Carrone was a hothead, and sort of crazy. The far greater likelihood was that he’d act while he was still worked up, and try something as extreme as it would be rash.
Alex dropped a crab in his tote sack and lifted another on top with the blade of his knife.
In the water, Alex was a highly vulnerable target. Carrone could wait until he was surfacing, then zoom up in his motorboat and clip him like a duck in a shooting gallery.
After mulling all of this over in his mind, Alex had grown convinced that Carrone would be looking to come at him when he was out on a dive. If not this time then certainly the next.
And where did Jack Thibodeaux fit into all of this?
There were textbook signs of deception Alex had recognized from the countless suspect interrogations he conducted during his years as a detective.
But there were betrayals, and then again, there were betrayals.
Alex didn’t believe Jack had it in him to become actively involved in helping Carrone settle his grudge. Unless, of course, he didn’t know Carrone had anything too drastic in mind.
Or felt pressed into it.
Jack led a difficult hand-to-mouth existence, and Carrone and his buddies in badly soiled blue could make it even more difficult if they wanted to.
Whether suckered or squeezed, Jack could be persuaded to stay mum about anything he witnessed.
Whatever the break, Alex saw it was now time to soon ascend and he would need to be on his reserve O2
Alex heard the throb of a motor somewhere above him, and paused for a second to listen. It seemed diffuse, coming from all sides at once-which was how the human ear perceived most sounds from under water, but was recognizable to him as the boat’s engine being cranked.
Nothing out of the ordinary, he thought without really thinking too much of it. Depending on the windage up top, Jack would occasionally open the throttle to keep apace with his drift.
Alex glanced at his instruments again, noted that he had air left in his cylinder, and went back to filling the tote, now in a hurry to be done.
Jack had planned to wait until Alex’s exhaust stopped bubbling at the surface before turning the boat hard about. No more bubbles meant no more breathing, and a dead man underwater.
But it had got to where the tenseness in him was making his stomach hurt as if he’d swallowed a handful of nails, and he just couldn’t stand there watching anymore.
Beside, what did it matter?, he thought? He’d fixed the needle of Alex’s air gauge to read like his tank was filled higher than it really was, higher by more than a thousand psi, a quarter of it’s total hold.
He then figured the outside time Alex could stay at the bottom an’ make it back up alive, bein’ generous about the amount of air he’d have used by now, under the best dive conditions. Which was anything but what the water was offerin’ today, given them funnels and crosscurrents Jack had been seein’ from the get-go.
Takin’ in all things combined, Alex didn’t stand a chance.
It was pitiful thinkin’ how he was gonna check out, his insides goin’ to jelly and all.
But there was nothin’ to do about it, an’ Jack guessed that by havin’ kept from getting’ the shakes, he should count himself as holdin’ together okay.
Better than okay, under the circumstances.
That standin’an’watchin’though; the waitin’ for no more bubbles on the top - Jesus, that was just too much.
His hands clenched tightly around the stick, his long hair whipping back from under his knit cap, Jack kept on at full throttle, as if by doing so he could leave his guilt behind him, washed away in the white wake of foam trailing behind the boat as it planed upwind towards his meeting point with Carrone.