At 12:03 the sea quivered. Then it exploded. The cat, whom I’d graciously allowed to curl at my feet, flew across me, claws extended, fur flying, and hit the ground running. So much for gratitude. I wrestled with a damned tangle of sheets that held me like a mummy. Finally they set me free, and I landed beside the bunk on my ass as the Sea Bird pitched up one side of a rolling wave and slammed down the other.
I fought my way to my feet as the boat crashed down onto an ocean that seemed to have turned to concrete. I wanted out of the floating horror house before the thing sank. I clung to anything that was bolted to the floor, pulled myself out of my cabin, into the salon, and made it up the steps to the deck. I didn’t like what I saw. This was not what I considered a good start to the week.
The ocean was a confusion of flaming waves. In the middle of it all was the Caribbe, Elyse Henry’s boat—burning. Flames shot out of the roof, pointing hellish fingers to the sky. I jumped onto the dock and raced toward the heat.
The entire right side of the vessel was already consumed in fire and angry waves crashed against her hull. Where the hell was Elyse? Still inside? No one could survive long in the inferno.
“Elyse! Elyse!” I shouted, frantic and disoriented.
Sadie skirted the edge of the dock, whining, tail between her legs. Neither one of us knew what the hell to do.
The Caribbe was a clunky flat-bottomed boat with boxy living quarters perched on top. The fire was concentrated in the galley. Flames flashed out the hatches.
If Elyse were still on board, she could be back in her cabin, trapped, maybe unconscious. I had to get to her before the gas tanks exploded.
I knew better than to spend any time thinking it through. If I did, I might flinch, wait a second too long, and then it would be too late.
“Stay, Sadie,” I demanded firmly. She’d be right on my heels otherwise.
I jumped onto the aft section of the Caribbe, which was still secured to the cleat on the dock. Just about the time my feet touched the deck, the frayed line broke and the Caribbe began to drift out of her slip and away from the dock. At least the Sea Bird and the other boats in the marina might be spared the flames.
Then, kaboom! A whoosh of hot air pummeled my face, and a ball of fire roared through the Caribbe. The blast hit like a freight train, flinging me off the boat into air and space. I hit the water and was hurled toward the sea floor, tumbling. Finally, my momentum slowed and I fought my way up, arms flailing, feet kicking hard.
Miraculously, I made it to the surface, gasping for breath, but somehow still in one piece. I was surrounded by smoke and patches of flaming oil. I choked up diesel-filled salt water and sought out pockets of air in the burning liquid, trying to see past the smoke though eyes that stung and teared. I was desperate to catch sight of Elyse. I forced my arms and legs into action. Treading water, I whipped around in a circle, searching the darkness and smoky gloom. Nothing.
Then Sadie began barking furiously from the edge of the dock, her fur prickled, her snout pointing at what looked like a rag doll drifting in the water. I swam to the floating mass, my heart pounding, flames licking my arms. I feared what I would find. I knew it was Elsye. By the time I got to the place she’d floated, she had disappeared under the water.
I filled my lungs with hot acrid air and dove. What I wouldn’t do for a scuba tank, face mask, and fins now. I went down, arms sweeping, searching, eyes shut tight against the brine. I’d done this before, searched blind in water so mucky it was black. But never without my gear, never in water on fire, and never for a friend who had just gone under before my eyes.
I kicked hard, forcing my body down, hand outstretched, praying to grasp a sleeve, hair, a foot, anything. Nothing but empty water washed through my fingers.
Out of air, I surfaced back into the flames, sucked in another breath, and dove, heading for the bottom. I hit sand and fought to stay under against the powerful ocean forces determined to shoot me back to the surface.
Grasping desperately at the turtle grass that grew along the sea floor, I edged along the bottom, seeking, on automatic now. I swept my free hand back and forth, feeling my way through the water, doing what I’d been trained to do. I brushed against rocks, a conch, a sea cucumber.
God, where the hell was Elyse?
Once more I surfaced, took a hot desperate breath and dove. I knew if I didn’t find her this time, I would not find her at all—at least alive. Hell, she might already be dead. I was frantic—panic was setting in. So was exhaustion.
Could I make it to the bottom one last time?
Kicking hard, I pointed my body down. Before I’d even made it back to the sea floor, I swam right into Elyse, suspended a few feet off the bottom. I wrapped my arms tight around her chest. I was not about to lose her. I twisted in the water, anchored my feet on the bottom, and drove them into the sand. Seconds later we were on the surface.
I wrapped an arm around Elyse and side-stroked, pulling her behind me, trying to avoid the pockets of fire still flashing on the surface and at the same time keep Elyse’s head above water. I knew by the smell that flames sizzled in my hair.
Finally I made it to the dock, its underside reeking of green algae and dead fish. The owners of the marina, Calvin and Tilda, waited, ready to assist. Their two girls, Rebecca and Daisy, stood back, arms wrapped around Sadie’s neck.
Calvin slid his black, muscled arms under Elyse’s and pulled her gently out of the water and onto the dock. I climbed wearily onto a slimy wooden rung and Tilda gave me a hand up.
Calvin quickly looked away, embarrassed. It wasn’t till that moment that I realized I was topless. I hadn’t taken the time to grab a shirt when I’d raced off my boat. Even in a crisis, Calvin was modest. I didn’t have the time or luxury to worry about it. Elyse wasn’t breathing.
Frantic, I bent over her and began CPR. Calvin immediately joined me, taking over chest compressions as I began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Over and over, I forced air into Elyse’s depleted lungs as Calvin pushed on her sternum. Through a haze, I could see the tension in his face, the perspiration forming at his brow.
Time seemed to stretch out. Christ, how long had we been going now? Was it too late to bring Elyse back? Calvin’s face was marked with determination. Neither one of us was about to call it.
“Come on, Elyse, breathe, breathe, breathe,” I whispered, and then forced another breath into her.
Finally, a gasp, a shudder. Then water gurgled out of her lungs and down the side of her face, and Elyse took a breath. But she didn’t open her eyes.
Calvin and I sat back on our haunches for just an instant trying to regain equilibrium; then he picked her up and we ran toward his van. Tilda tossed me one of Calvin’s shirts and I pulled it on as I rushed ahead to open the door and climb in.
Calvin gently handed Elyse in to me. I slid across the seat, and cradled her head in my lap. Once Calvin got behind the wheel, he was a maniac, throwing gravel as he slammed his foot into the gas pedal and swerved the van onto the highway to Road Town. I glanced back to see Tilda, still in her robe, her arms around the girls, Sadie nuzzled into Rebecca’s side. Daisy sought comfort from the thumb she was sucking on, her eyes wide. I could see the fear and confusion on their faces.
I felt it too. An hour ago I’d been sleeping on the Sea Bird, my cat keeping my feet warm. Now it was after one in the morning and my best friend was lying in my lap, barely breathing. What the hell had happened?