Dark Water Dive
Last night I’d stood on a rickety chair in the Blue Note, one hand over my heart, the other lifting a shot glass filled with tequila. I had taken an oath over the golden liquid.
“I, Hannah Sampson, recently retired homicide detective and team leader of the police scuba team, Denver PD, will never, ever again pull on a goddamned dry suit and dive into icy black water with any of you guys.”
The scuba team had thrown the going away party of all going away parties in my honor. I’d really rubbed it in, celebrating the fact that I would never again dive in water so thick with sediment and contamination that visibility was nonexistent. Never have to swallow the terror of imaginary monsters coming at me out of the muck.
I was thrilled to be leaving it behind. I was headed for sunnier climes, where the only diving I’d do was in crystal-clear, azure salt water. My flight was leaving at 3:12 P.M.
So why the hell, at nine o’clock that morning, did I find myself bouncing around in the back of the dive team van with White, my line tender, and Compton, my relief diver, pulling on the thermals, and getting into that watertight suit? So much for oaths. I was struggling into the right leg of the body-sized rubber glove when Crown, the van’s driver, took one sharp corner too many. I landed on my ass, one leg still up on the bench and tangled in dive gear. Not the first time. Compton thought it was funny.
“Remember, Compton, this is the last time I’m doing this. Think about that the next time you’re the one suiting up in this damned van.”
I finished pulling on the dry suit while sitting safely on the floor. Once I was zipped in, not a drop of foreign water would contaminate my being, but that didn’t mean I’d stay dry. By the time we got to the site, my entire body was clammy from the heat that had built up inside the suit. I’d actually be relieved to step into icy water.
The call had come in a half hour before. A fisherman, invisible in the willows, had seen two people out in a motorboat on Marston Reservoir. They’d been arguing. A shot; then someone went into the water. The other man had sped away.
After last night, the entire dive team had one killer hangover. Damned if Stu Lopez, who was taking my place as dive team leader, didn’t have the tequila flu. He and Mack, my partner in Homicide, had been matching each other shot for shot. Compton and I were the only two who were in any shape to dive. Crown, the driver and in charge of communication, was looking kind of green, but he’d made it in.
Last night none of us had imagined we’d be in demand today. There hadn’t been a call for divers in weeks. The team had insisted on last night’s debacle to send me off. Everyone was paying for it this morning, including me–the one who was retiring.
“Come on, Sampson,” Compton said as he zipped up the back of my suit. “One more for old times’ sake.”
“Yeah, dammit, one more time. This is definitely the last.”
The day was a monochrome gray, and icy. The sky was heavy with the promise of snow, a March storm that threatened to drop a foot of the white stuff. Out at the reservoir I couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky began. The place was deserted except for the guy standing on the water’s edge in waders, holding a fishing pole, talking to a couple of street cops. We got out and joined them.
“Detectives Sampson and Compton,” I said then turned to the cops. “You guys get the call?”
“Yeah. Just about fifteen minutes ago. This is the guy who phoned in.”
“Hardly ever anyone out here this time of the year,” the fisherman said turning our way. He was so typecast, I’d have placed him in one of those ads for Cabelas. He wore a pair of brown wool trousers that were tucked into the waders and a plaid wool shirt under a heavy vest covered with pockets. A couple of flies jutted from a red-and-black checkered cap, like bugs stuck in flypaper. The built-in earmuffs were pulled tightly over his ears. He was an old guy, beard flecked in white, one side of his face bulging with a wad of chewing tobacco.
“Place is real quiet. Me, I like it that way,” he said, turning and ejecting a stream of brown liquid into the water. “Name’s Earl, Earl Cripps. Come out and stand in the water with my rod and think. Sometimes I actually catch something. Those guys probably thought they were the only ones out here. I was over there in the willows.”
“Where did you see the man go into the water, Earl?” I asked. We needed to pinpoint the location as accurately as possible or it would take days to find the victim. On the remote chance that the guy was still alive, we intended to find him fast. By my calculations he’d probably been in the water about forty-five minutes. The water temperature meant it was possible that he could survive if we got him out.
I knew of victims who had been submerged up to sixty minutes, even longer, and completely recovered. Some say hypothermia, the drastic lowering of body temperature, reduces the body’s need for oxygen. Blood circulation slows and is channeled to essential organs of heart, lungs, and brain. It’s the same mechanism that occurs in whales and porpoises when they dive. Their physiology changes, breathing stops, and blood is shunted away from nonessential organs and directed to vital ones. Whatever the explanation, I wanted to find the guy fast.
While Crown and White got set up, Compton and I hurried Earl back along the shore to the place he’d stood when he saw the victim dumped into the water. From there, he’d have a better chance of identifying the location precisely, using landmarks as guides. As it turned out, Earl was a good witness. He remembered that when he’d seen the boat, he’d just waded out to a clear spot at the edge of the willows from which he’d cast his line.
“Fish always bitin’ here. Boat was right out there,” he said pointing. “About halfway to the other side and about thirty feet from that stump sticking out of the water.”
Earl followed us back to the van, rambling on about how he’d been in the war, was used to seeing this kind of thing. “You need any help, I’ll be right here.” He settled himself on a rock at the water’s edge, took out his chewing tobacco, and gnawed on it as he watched us.
I pulled on my gloves and secured my hood. Compton helped me into my vest and tank. Then I snugged my AGA–a full face mask with regulator–in place. Also attached to my tank was a spare regulator, the depth gauge, and the submersible pressure gauge that measured my air supply. I was now encapsulated in watertight rubber. If there were no leaks, I would not be exposed to the cold and pollution in the water. Stuff like the brown goop that Earl periodically ejected into the lake.
My mask was equipped with a communication module, speaker and headphones, so that I could stay in touch with Crown on shore. I also carried two knives in case I got caught in debris. Lakes like these were filled with an assortment of junk-–wire, tree limbs, fishing line, old ropes, car batteries, washing machines. I’d once swum right into a damned dumping ground for someone’s trash, gotten my leg caught in the mesh of a lawn chair. It had taken me a good ten minutes to cut myself out.
As primary diver, I would be the first one in. Compton would stand at the water’s edge, suited up, ready to relieve me or to assist if I had trouble. I was attached to a line and would start about thirty feet out, sweeping the area that Earl had identified. I’d do a standard arcing pattern. Since I would be diving almost blind, White would be guiding me from shore with the line. When he had determined that I’d completed a sweep on the arc, he would tug twice on the line and let out another twelve inches of rope. At that point, I would turn out until the line was again taut and sweep back the way I’d come in another, wider arc. We would continue in the pattern until I found the victim or my air got low, at which point Compton would take up the search where I’d left off.
I started in, walking backward, fins getting sucked into the muck. My equipment weighed me down and balance was almost impossible. I was nervous. Always was. I’d gotten into police diving because no one else was willing to fill the slot when one of the divers had drowned. And because of Jake. He’d been the team leader back then, and I’d felt relatively safe. The day he died, we’d spent the morning lying in bed, a square of sun reflecting on the covers. Then we went into the water and he didn’t come out. After that I never felt safe again, diving or sleeping. That was four years ago. I took over as team leader and kept diving. What else was I supposed to do?
Now I swore to myself that this was the absolute last time I would ever do this kind of diving. Lopez owed me in a big way.
At about four feet, I pulled my fins off the bottom, turned, splashed into the brown liquid, and slipped under the surface. I was too nervous to notice the cold. As the water pushed in on me, my dive suit turned into a cold, clammy body glove pasted against my skin. Visibility was about a foot from the tip of my nose. I checked to make sure the tether was securely attached to my vest. Reassured that a meager line existed between me and life on shore, I swam deeper out into the lake, into the no-man’s-land of opaque liquid that the dive team called goose crap. When the line was taut, I began my search, arm outstretched, sweeping back and forth in front of me.
I fell into a half-conscious rhythm of movement: Kick fins, sweep hand across bottom, kick fins, sweep hand. I kept from thinking too much about what my hand might encounter in the goop.
“Air check.” It was Crown, the radio operator. His voice crackled through the line and into my receiver.
“Twenty-eight hundred,” I responded. “Depth is forty feet.” I knew that Crown was recording this information on his clipboard. This interaction served as much to keep the diver grounded in reality and the shore crew reassured that the diver was doing okay as to provide any data.
I could hardly see my hands reaching out as I swam into the gloom. An occasional tree limb protruding from the bottom brushed against my tank; sediment floated like spots in my vision. This was a place of complete isolation. In spite of the voice that periodically broke though the static on my radio, I felt utterly alone and confined by my suit, unable to move quickly or freely. More than likely I was the only person alive in this entire body of water. It was only sheer will and the fear that my team members would know I was scared shitless that kept me going in these times.
I stopped, breathed, and talked myself back from the brink. We all did it. Learned to bury the fear. I reminded myself that in about twenty minutes, I’d be out, breathing real air and sipping hot coffee.
I focused on simply moving forward and feeling ahead of me as I went. White gave me two tugs, indicating I had reached the end of the prescribed arc. I made the turn and headed back, sweeping another arc deeper out into the lake. The bottom was rocky and strewn with litter. I ran into the inevitable shopping cart. In my years of diving, I’d come across enough to supply an entire store. God knows how or why they ended up in these places. Another ten feet and I bumped up against a tire tangled in branches and fishing line. I stopped and shone my underwater light into the sediment-filled water, trying to pick out anything in the gloom.
“Okay, Hannah, what’s your air?” Crown’s voice crackled through the receiver.
“One thousand,” I said.
“Time to come out.”
Shit. I’d hoped to make the recovery quickly. Get in, find the victim, and get out. Not this time. I didn’t argue with Crown. As leader on this rescue, he had the authority. The diver never called the shots. Too often judgment became impaired under the duress of the dive. I’d insisted that every one of the team members follow procedure. I was no exception.
I surfaced and gave the okay signal, then waited for White, the line tender, to tie a knot in the line and take a compass reading so that the next diver in could start exactly where I had left off.
When I got to shore, Compton was suited up and ready to go.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I told him as he snugged his AGA in place. “Same old black water and muck.”
He nodded and headed out.
I unsnapped my vest and leaned my tank against a tree, pulled off my AGA, hood, and gloves, and walked over to the staging area. Crown poured coffee from a thermos, steam wafting into the frigid air.
Earl was still perched on a nearby rock. I went over and sat next to him.
“You see anything out there?” he asked.
“Not much,” I said, cradling the coffee in both hands, warming fingers that were numb with the cold.
“You sure about the location?” With good witnesses, it wasn’t unusual to locate the victim on the first sweep. But often that meant several witnesses who had seen the victim go under from different vantage points. That allowed the team to determine where their lines of sight intersected and establish the last seen point more precisely. Today it was just one witness–-Earl.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Earl said, defensive. “I’m used to paying attention. Kept me alive when I was in the damned jungles of Vietnam. See movement, better damned well keep track of where it’s coming from. Maybe you swam right past that guy out there.”
“Yeah.” I stood and headed back over to shore. Compton would be getting low on air and about ready to come out. Usually there would have been a third diver to replace him. Not today.
“Damn, gonna be one of those days,” Crown said, watching me suit up. “You sure you want to go back in? Maybe we should call it. Let the second team pick it up when they get out here.”
“I’m fine. We’ll find him and be out long before the other team gets here.”
“What about your flight?” Crown asked.
“Plenty of time. Let’s just get this done,” I said.
Crown pulled a fresh tank out of the van, hefted it over his shoulder, and came back to where I stood. As I pulled on my hood and gloves, he hooked up the fresh tank and then helped me into the BC. He noticed me shiver. I’d gotten cold sitting on shore. I dreaded stepping back into the water.
“You sure you’re okay?” Crown asked. “Don’t need another body out there, for chrissake.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “I’ll find him on this sweep.”
“I know you, Hannah–never know when to quit. But you’re the one always harping on the procedures. Any doubts about diving, you don’t dive,” Crown warned.
“I have no doubts, Crown. I’m fine,” I assured him. I wanted to resolve this thing and do it now, successfully complete the job. Especially this one, which would be, as I had promised, my last for the team.
“Seems like we shoulda snagged him by now,” White said as I stepped back into the water and pulled on my fins. “Think we should start in a few feet closer to shore and sweep the area again.”
“Okay,” I said. “How about I move six feet in and start the sweep there?”
“Yeah, sounds good,” White said. “I’ll make the adjustment on the line.”
Compton gave me a thumbs-up as he came out and I headed back in. I plunged beneath the surface, trying hard to ignore the cold that seemed to be pumping through my bloodstream. This time the arcs were tighter and shallower. White gave two tugs. I turned out and started the arc back. The bottom in this area was strewn with boulders, and I had to move slowly. I could easily miss the body if it were wedged under a rocky outcropping.
“Air check.” Crown again.
“Jeez. I just started. It’s two thousand for chrissake.”
“Don’t be cranky, Hannah.” I knew Crown was worried. He wanted to make sure I was doing okay. Not losing reason on my second dive in dark, frigid water.
I kept moving, encountering one boulder after another, running my hand along the rough surface, searching blindly, expecting at any moment to encounter the soft texture of flesh. I knew I’d about reached my limit in both air supply and endurance. I was having more and more difficulty keeping my fins moving and my arm out. Every muscle was tightening, and my right calf was beginning to spasm and on the verge of a major cramp.
I was swimming over yet another boulder when I saw it: the characteristic greenish white glow. I knew what it was–-light reflecting on skin. I knew the guy was dead. His eyes, open and empty, glared at me through the viscous liquid, as if blaming me for his fate. Blood still seeped from the hole in his chest, tingeing the water pink. I gave the line three sharp tugs, indicating that I had found the body. Again White would tie off the line and take a compass reading, pinpointing the location. I tied the line around a nearby rock and radioed Crown.
“Victim is dead. I’ve tied off the line. Will do a preliminary search of the area.”
“What’s your air?”
I checked my gauge. “Twelve hundred psi.”
“Okay, two minutes; then you’re out,” Crown commanded.
Three feet from the body was a handgun. The killer probably believed that neither the body nor the gun would ever be found. But even if Earl hadn’t seen the whole thing, the body would have eventually surfaced when gases accumulated. Sometimes it was just a matter of days. It all depended on the condition of the victim, such as body mass and the last meal, and on water temperature and depth.
I left the scene untouched and swam back to shore. By the time I got there the second dive team had arrived, along with several cops and an ambulance crew. Earl was in the middle of it all, telling his story to whomever would listen.
Crown was filling in the second team, and a fresh diver was already suited up. He headed into the water with the underwater camera to begin documenting the scene. Once he finished, a team would recover the victim and any evidence. It would all be done by the book, carefully recorded, evidence painstakingly preserved so that it could be used if the case came to trial. I was more than willing to leave it in my colleagues’ capable hands. My job was done. And I had a plane to catch.
By the time I got back to my apartment, Mack was there, sitting on the stoop with Sadie, my golden retriever.
“Jesus, Sampson, where the hell you been? You’ve got less than an hour to make your flight.”
“On a dive,” I said, “thanks to your drinking contest with Lopez. He would have been upchucking in his regulator.”
Next to Sadie, Mack was probably the best friend I’d ever had. He was my partner in Homicide. The only time we didn’t work together was when I went out on a dive recovery. In landlocked Denver, that involved maybe one call every couple of months. There was no way Mack would have ever strapped an air tank on his back.
Mack helped me load one overstuffed suitcase and Sadie into his car and we headed for the airport.
“I’m telling you, Sampson,” Mack said, one hand on the wheel, one in a bag of chips, as he drove out to DIA, “this move to the islands is not going to cut it. Ain’t no such thing as paradise, and a damn good thing. You’ll be bored stiff.”
“I want out of this rat race, Mack. I’m sick of the phone ringing at two in the morning, of seeing kids bleeding on the sidewalk or sitting in alleys shooting up. Life’s too short.”
“Evil is just the other side of the coin,” he said. “Can’t have good without the bad. Kind of an essential part of the whole.”
Mack was a damned philosopher. But I knew his point of view kept him going. He’d been in the department for twenty-eight years, seen it all and accepted it. Not me. I needed out. We argued about it all the time. He’d been angry when I said I was quitting, but he hadn’t been surprised.
“You’re kidding yourself if you think you can escape,” he said. “You only escape when you’re dead. Besides, you love the chase. You’ll be happy in that back-to-simplicity dream of yours for about a week and then you’ll be climbing the walls.”
He dropped me off at Departures. “I give you a month, Sampson. Then you’ll be back here after your old job.”
“Wrong,” I said. “You and Sue need to come down for a visit.” I could just see Mack lounging on the beach in Bermuda shorts. I gave him a hug, which he returned in his quick, awkward manner. I knew he’d miss me. I left him standing at the curb, hands in the pockets of his Rockies jacket, shaking his head.