Swimming With the Dead
The British Virgin Islands
On the last day that he would live, he sat in the dark on the bow of the Lucky Lady, legs dangling over the side. He’d left the marina early, in light still muted pastel. Now the sky was saturated with intensity. The horizon brilliant with reds, oranges, and yellows, spread across the glassy surface up to the water beneath his feet.
He’d had no trouble locating the wreck and tying up to the mooring. After a year exploring the waters of the British Virgins, he knew them like the rooms of his childhood. Now he sat waiting and enjoying the fleeting solitude. The sea was silent except for the gentle splashing of the boat rocking in the water and an occasional bar jack breaking the surface as it darted after its prey.
Finally he rose. He’d waited long enough. He’d left word to meet him out at the site, an old ship resting at the bottom, right below his boat. Though not a reckless man, he was impatient. Ever since he was a kid he’d been a solver of riddles, determined to be the first to arrive at a logical and correct conclusion. He would dive the wreck, find what he came for, and be waiting on deck, prize in hand, when the others finally arrived.
For a moment he hesitated. Realized that if he were really smart, he’d keep his nose out of it. But it was too late now. Besides, he’d never been known to keep his nose out of anything.
He made his way to the back of the boat, where he struggled into his wet suit. He attached his air tank and breathing regulator to his dive vest and turned the valve to check the airflow. Good. His gauge indicated a full tank; 3200 pounds of pressure.
He scanned the horizon. Still no one in sight. Just miles of dark, empty water. He never dove alone if he could help it, but conditions here were not difficult, maximum depth seventy feet, no current.
He knew that swimming into a wreck was dangerous, and that he would need to watch himself, avoid catching a hose and cutting it on jagged metal or getting lost in the maze of passageways. But he had dived the wreck dozens of times, even diving alone when he’d found no partner. He was more than a competent diver, he was an expert, having logged hundreds of hours under the water. He would make his way into the wreck, find what he was looking for, and get out. It would take less than 45 minutes.
He hauled his equipment to the back of the boat, put on his fins, tank, and mask, took one more look around, and rolled into the water. He adjusted his face mask, pushed the valve that expelled air from his vest, and went under.
This was the world he loved — serene, slow-moving, mysterious. In moments he was surrounded by hundreds of fish, huge schools of cobia, amberjack, and yellow-tailed snapper. They brushed up against his fins and stayed just out of reach of his fingertips. Every once in a while, he reached out and touched one. As he swam toward the wreck, they trailed behind, a stream of yellow, silver, and blue.
He could barely make out the shape of the old refrigeration ship in the distance. Visibility was poor after the wind and rain of the night before. As he approached, fear caught in his throat for an instant. Every time he dove a wreck, he felt death hovering in the cavernous, skeletal remains. The hollow structure, black against the blue sea, lay tilted on its side. The crows nest pointed an accusing finger out to sea, condemning whatever force destined the ship to this final resting place. Rigging lines, laden with barnacles, hung in eerie drapes from the mast, coming to rest on sea floor.
The wreck was actually teeming with life, an entire ecosystem that had begun years before with just a few tiny larvae. Coral and sponges had transformed the ugly steel hull into a tapestry of color. Angelfish, sergeant majors, wrasse, and damselfish swam through portholes and around cables and beams.
Off the bow, a school of hammerheads suddenly appeared in the dim light. Their ghostly silhouettes with characteristic snouts seemed one of Mother Nature’s bizarre jokes. But these sharks were no joke. He’d seen one consume a huge Southern Ray using its head as a weapon. The hammerheads were gone before he’d had a chance to react. They never gave him a second look.
He knew there was more to fear above the water than below, but he was nervous as he hovered at the entry to the black void. Then he heard the distant whine of a boat engine. Good, he thought, some of the tension easing, the others had made it and would be waiting when he surfaced.
He swam into the first compartment, a huge area that had been one of the refrigeration holds. It was like swimming into a bottle of indigo ink. He switched on his flashlight, illuminating a tunnel of yellow ahead of him. A turtle scurried across the beam and disappeared. Things moved in the shadows, recoiling, retracting, retreating. A moray eel slithered through the water into a hole. Anemones snapped shut as he brushed against them.
His light found the entry way. He checked his gauge. At 70 feet, he had enough air in his tank for at least another forty minutes. Plenty of time.
He knew the route that would take him to his destination in the deepest recesses of the ship. He’d memorized the maze of companionways, crew’s quarters, and compartments from the old diagram. He swam to the opening and shone his light into the passageway. Empty and dark. He could not see to the end, but he knew that there was another passage twenty feet ahead on the left; from there he would make his way farther into the interior of the ship. He knew exactly where to find what he was looking for. Another half hour and he’d be on his way back to the surface.
He was one of those divers who was completely in tune to his surroundings when he dove. He had just made his way into the next compartment when he felt it. Something out of sync. The slightest movement of water, then the flitting of a shape in the shadows. He turned and caught sight of a squirrel fish as it vanished into the gloom. Something had frightened it. He swam back into the passageway and knew immediately that another diver had entered the ship. He recognized the sound–raspy, bubbly breaths bouncing off the steel hull.
Then he saw the diver, coming down the passageway toward him. At first he thought it was someone sent down to help him. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.
Before he could get his dive knife from his ankle strap, the diver was on him, wrenching his regulator from his mouth and enveloping him in fish netting. He grabbed for his air supply. Without it, he didn’t stand a chance of fighting off his attacker. He twisted, straining to reach the mouthpiece floating just beyond his grasp. Finally, he managed to grab it. He had it in his mouth long enough to take one precious breath.
Then the other diver was back on him, pulling the net tighter, tangling him in a mass of rope. His attacker was strong and fast, even in dive gear. Again the diver ripped the regulator from his mouth.
The more he struggled, the more tangled he became, the netting caught on his tank and wrapped in his fins. He could see the air bubbling out of his regulator above his head, just out of reach. His chest was on fire. His lungs screamed for air. His body starved for oxygen. He was hopelessly trapped.
He could see the other diver, the eyes glinting behind the face mask. He knew who it was. They had actually dived together once, only once. He wasn’t surprised as he watched his killer move off into the shadows, waiting for the inevitable.
It wouldn’t be much longer. He could feel things slipping away. His vision blurred, darkened around the edges. He damned himself for being so stupid. He had so much living yet to do. So many more sunrises. He tried to hold on. But reflexes took over. He inhaled, filling his lungs with salt water.
I’m Hannah Sampson, Denver Homicide. Once, seems like a lifetime ago, I’d studied women’s literature at the University of Chicago. That ended the day I held a six-year-old kid as she bled to death on the sidewalk a block away from campus. After that, a degree in literature seemed a farce. I became a cop and never looked back. But every now and then I regret the fact that my life is not my own. Like now.
I was almost asleep, an orchestra playing behind me. Waves lapped the shore between notes. The distant call of gulls, the occasional song of a whale blended with violins, cellos, and flutes. I was naked under soft flannel, drifting on that warm sea.
I was into the body thing, feeling the hurt-so-good pain that Jenny inflicted with precision. Her steel fingers plied the cabled muscle in my injured shoulder as I lay on the massage table.
I’d been lucky. The bullet that had ripped through my flesh had caused no long-term damage. Except to my ego. Plain stupidity, a failure in judgment had almost gotten me killed. Thank God Mack had been there to back me up. He’d put a bullet through the guy, just as he was taking aim at a spot between my eyes.
“Jesus, Sampson,” he’d said, “you oughta know, for chrissakes. Never turn your back on an informer who happens to be hooked on heroin.” Mack was scared though. I could see it in his eyes as he held his hand over the hole in my shoulder, trying to stem the blood that was leaking all over my down parka. A piece of goose down was stuck right on the tip of Mack’s nose. If it hadn’t hurt so much, I would have laughed. The last thing I remembered was reaching up to brush it away.
After three months of Jenny’s kneading and stretching, I was almost a hundred percent again. I kept my appointments religiously– every Friday at four o’clock. I threatened death to anyone who interfered. Mack was the only one who knew where I was. Which brings me back to why, at that moment, I regretted the career choice. My cell phone screamed at me.
“This better be important, Mack!”
“Get up, Sampson. We got trouble at the commissioner’s office. Pick you up out front. Two minutes.”
“No way! Damn cell phones,” I muttered, wrapping the sheets around me. The massage would have to wait.
Mack was sitting in the cruiser at the curb when I emerged, tucking my half-buttoned shirt into my jeans. Boot laces dragged behind me in the snow. He was trying not to laugh.
“You think it’s funny?” I asked.
I had tied my dark hair into a haphazard knot and pushed it under my baseball cap. My face was a road map, lined from lying in the face cradle.
My mother says that I’m willowy. That means 5’8″, 125 pounds, long legs, no breasts. At thirty-seven, I’ve learned to live with it. She says I have classic good looks–high cheekbones, straight Roman nose, mysterious brown eyes. I’m not sure about the Roman nose but I like the mysterious eyes part. Nothing like a mother to put the right spin on things. At the moment she’d be calling me anything but classic.
“I thought I looked like hell after a massage,” Mack said. “Compared to you I look like Mel Gibson.”
“Mack, let me set you straight once and for all. You will never, ever look like Mel Gibson,” I said. “So what’s the big emergency?”
“Don’t know nothin’ excepting to get our asses down to the commissioner’s office and get ‘em there now,” he said.
He put the bubble light on the top and screeched around the corner onto Speer Boulevard. By the time we got downtown, the light snow that had been falling all day had turned into a blizzard. Traffic was heavy, people making the weekend escape to the slopes. Tomorrow they’d be skiing on hills drenched with sunlight and deep powder. But they’d be courting frostbite. It hadn’t made it above zero for a week. And that was in Denver. The high country would be at least twenty-five below and with the wind chill, it would probably drop to minus forty.
We skidded to a halt in front of one of the high rises near Capitol Hill. Once the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Molly Brown had lived in this area. During the 1860′s gold rush, Horace Greeley reported that more pistol fire echoed through the “queen city of the plains” than anywhere else on earth. Now, just down the street, the Denver Art Museum was advertising for an upcoming Matisse exhibit. Some things change. Some don’t. There was still plenty of gun play on the streets of Denver.
“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a polar bear,” Mack complained, as he stepped out of the cruiser and pulled on his Rockies jacket. He’d been wearing the same jacket in rain and snow since I’d known him.
I was looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, a new down jacket, stocking cap, and mittens. I resisted the temptation to pull my snow pants out of the trunk. I hate being cold.
“Jesus, Sampson, you look like a marshmallow. Come on! We’re just going across the street for chrissake,” Mack insisted.
We had just stepped in out of the cold when the coroner’s car pulled up in front.
“Bad sign,” Mack said.
Up on the third floor, we were intercepted by Tom Kane, the police commissioner’s right-hand man. Tom was a dresser, garbed now in a camel’s hair coat that was dying to be touched. He was an ambitious guy, scratching his way to the top. I’d actually dated him once for about a month.
He was doing a nervous monologue as he walked us to the office. He stopped short at the door. “I found her,” he whispered. “Came back to the office for my notebook. Greta was always the last to leave on Fridays. Everyone else starts the weekend early. Man, I can’t believe this. She was supposed to finish compiling some data for me this weekend.” I remembered now why I had quit dating Kane.
The office was a mess. Papers carpeted the floor and spilled out of file cabinets. Desks had been ransacked, drawers dumped. Pens, paper clips, and rubber bands were scattered everywhere. In the middle of it all lay Greta, high heels askew. Pink. Pink damned high heels. The last time I’d seen pink, pointy heels they were attached to my niece’s Barbie. I’d given my sister hell for reinforcing such stupidity. Admittedly the woman on the floor looked like an aging Barbie. Colored blond hair, straw-like and teased, a pink suit to match the heels. Clearly not an up-and-coming CEO of the female persuasion. No self-respecting woman pushing against the glass ceiling would be caught, even dead, wearing pink. Except maybe Hilary Clinton.
Red stained Greta’s blouse. She had been shot once, point blank in the chest, from five, maybe six feet away. Surprise and confusion marked her face. It looked like she had probably died quickly, but not quickly enough. She lay on her side, her fingers buried in the carpet. The red polished nail on her right index finger had snapped. A splotch of blood pooled at the tip.
We would be questioning Greta’s family and co-workers, but it was pretty obvious that she had taken the intruder by surprise. She was positioned just past the doorway to the file room. File folders were strewn around her, and it looked as though she had walked in on the murderer.
I carefully stepped past the body and into the file room. Several cardboard boxes were opened, old photos, books, and papers littering the floor. I bent to examine one of the photographs distorted by the shattered glass in a broken frame. In it, a young man, maybe 23, strikingly handsome and smiling, stood between two other people, arms around one another. I recognized Police Commissioner George Duvall and his wife. They were standing on a dock, rows of boats in the background, tropical flowers bursting from every visible tree and shrub. An idyllic place from the looks of it, surreal behind shards of glass.
“That’s Michael.” Duvall had come up behind me so quietly I had not heard him. The Commissioner was a distinguished man of about 65, gray hair, thinning on top, still attractive. Cops respected him. He was known to be honest. He backed his people and was tough on the bad guys. The man who stood in front of me now hardly looked tough.
“That picture was taken at Christmas,” he said. “His mother and I spent the holidays with him in the Caribbean. A week later he was dead.”
I didn’t ask for details. I’d read about it in the papers. I was uncomfortable with his grief. What the hell could I say? Nothing. I handed him the picture, and we walked back into the front office.
“Commissioner,” Mack said, “any ideas about why someone would break into your office or what they might be looking for?”
“No,” said Duvall, shaking his head. “There’s nothing of value in this particular office. Mostly statistical profiles, demographics about crime patterns.”
“Anyone who could profit from these studies?” I asked. “Someone who might want a record erased?”
“Unlikely,” he said. “None of this is classified information. Any john q. citizen can get access by asking, and it’s all backed up on computer these days.”
“What about Greta? Any problems there? Jealous husband or boyfriend? Someone who knew she would be here alone on a Friday evening?” Mack asked.
“Greta? I seriously doubt it,” Duvall said. “I’d find it very hard to believe that she and Carl were having any kind of marital problems. She was devoted to her family, baked for her grandkids every week. She was always tempting the office staff with her homemade brownies and peanut butter cookies. It looks like whoever broke in was searching for something. I wonder if they found it.”
I was wondering the same thing.
“Would you ask your staff to do an inventory? See what might be missing?” I asked, though it could take weeks to determine whether a file or slip of paper was missing from this mess. Every inch appeared to have been gone through.
“What about all those boxes?” I asked.
“All Michael’s belongings. After he died, I went down to the islands and packed up his apartment, his research material, some of his personal effects. Gave a lot away. I had the rest shipped here to my office. My wife’s just not ready to be confronted with it. She’s devastated by his death and she’ll be hurt to find that his possessions have been violated. And now Greta,” he said, voice trailing off to a whisper.
By the time Mack and I left, Greta had been taken to the morgue. Only the bloodstained carpet marked her place. The office was covered with fingerprint dust.
We’d talked with the few people who had been in the building between four o’clock and the time Kane returned around six-thirty. No one had heard the shot. The janitor reported seeing a man heading down the stairs in a big hurry around five-thirty. Said he looked like everyone else that worked in the building, suit, tie, briefcase. Tall, in his thirties, dark hair. He hadn’t given the man a second look. Figured it was just another guy in a hurry to start his weekend.
“Old bag lady ran right into him when she came out of the women’s rest room,” he said. “I’d told her more than once that the bathroom was not for her private use. She would curse me up one side and down the other and keep using it. She ran right into that fella. He was sure mad. Both of ‘em went out the door at the same time swearing at each other.”
I gave him my card and told him to call if he thought of anything else.
Outside, it was cold, dark, and still snowing. “Let’s head out,” Mack said. “There’s nothing else to find here.” Everyone else had left. The street was deserted.
“Let’s just take a quick look around the street. Maybe that bag lady’s still around,” I said.
“Jesus, Sampson, you’re never ready to call it,” Mack complained as he followed me into the alley.
We almost tripped over two guys, huddled against the concrete wall wrapped in blankets that reeked of vomit and alcohol. They were guzzling tequila from a bottle in a brown paper sack.
They weren’t in the mood to talk. Didn’t see anything. Didn’t hear anything. Sure they knew the bag lady. She’d been hanging around the door at the front of the building panhandling all week. Probably went over to the shelter with this cold. Called herself Josephine.
We offered them a ride to the shelter. No way they’d go. Just happy to stay where they were sipping the gold nectar. God knows how they’d manage to survive. I hoped they’d find an unlocked window, make their way inside for the night.
We’d have the cops check the shelter for Josephine and keep an eye out on the streets. Maybe she’d seen something. The janitor would be spending his Saturday looking through mug shots for the guy he saw on the stairs. Every one of the fifty some employees in Duvall’s building would be questioned. Someone had to have seen something. Someone always did.
It was almost midnight when Mack dropped me off back at my car at Jenny’s office. God, I could use a massage now.
A layer of snow blanketed the streets, muffling sound. A dusty glow encircled street lights. I loved this time of night after a snow. Tonight though, the streets felt ghostly, haunted.
Once I would have headed straight to one of the singles bars to shake off the emptiness. Try to fill the hollow spot that Jake had left with alcohol and sex.
It never worked. Sleeping or awake, numbed by gin or a good lay, the vision remained. I saw Jake sinking into the icy water of Marston Reservoir. In dreams, I swam after him, reached out, trying to grasp his outstretched hand. He just kept going down, down into the murky depth, then faded into the void.
With time, the vision had blurred. I’d eventually learned to like being alone. I’m one of those people who can be. Sometimes I worry about it-–see that I’m isolated. That’s when I turn to my dog. She greeted me as I walked in my front door.
“Sweet Sadie,” I said, scratching her ears. “Sorry I’m late.” She couldn’t decide whether she was more anxious to be pet, fed, or let outside to pee. She opted for a quick pat, then bounded out into the snow.
Sadie is an Irish setter, golden lab mix, with the temperament of a teddy bear. At three she has finally advanced from the sheer recklessness and irresponsibility of a child to a more subdued adolescent. No longer does she rifle through my bedroom for anything soft and cuddly, strewing pillows across the floor and chewing my slippers to shreds. Now, like any respectable teenager, she sleeps late, lounges on her overstuffed pillow, snacks all day and generally considers the whole place hers.
I live in a carriage house behind a towering Victorian near the Denver Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. It’s a perfect place for Sadie and me, a one bedroom, with a sunny kitchen and living room. The ceilings slant in all directions, somehow still managing to come to a point in the middle. I’d furnished it in overstuffed, used.
I let Sadie in and rummaged through the fridge looking for the leftover lasagne that I’d made the night before. I’m no chef, but I like sitting down to a decent meal after a day of eating on the run at one of Mack’s favorite greasy spoons. Even at midnight, I needed to sit in front of good food and shift gears. I filled Sadie’s dish, poured a glass of Cabernet, and thumbed through my mail as I ate.
I found myself thinking about Duvall. The guy seemed kind of distracted, not really in touch with the destruction in his office or the dead woman in the corner. People say there’s nothing worse than losing a child. By the looks of Duvall, I’d guess it was true.
But there wasn’t anything I could do about his loss. The only thing I could do was track down Greta’s killer. It seemed pretty straightforward. I should have known better.