Down to the Waterline
by Keith R. A. DeCandido
Synopsis: Down to the Waterline is an urban fantasy story. The idyllic life of a scuba instructor/underwater photographer is interrupted by murder, a dragon and a sea monster. All the while an old fashioned maritime ghost has plenty to say about about well…everything.
“Honey, I’m home!” I said as I entered my room at the Bottroff House Bed & Breakfast.
The ghost of Captain Jeremiah Bottroff responded in his usual clipped tone. “Ah, you’ve arrived. Good. I seem to recall you promising to straighten up the floor.”
“It wasn’t so much a promise as a hope.” I dropped my dive bag on the white-carpeted floor amidst the other detritus of my life that I had semi-promised the captain I’d clean up. As I started to pull down the straps of my bathing suit, I headed to the small bathroom in the back. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I just finished two dives, and I need to wash the ocean off me.”
“Please! At least shut the door before you do that!”
I turned on the shower, then yanked down my bathing suit and stepped out of it. “Oh, come on, Cap. You were married with four kids. I don’t have anything you haven’t seen before. And if you do see something you don’t recognize, feel free to throw a rock at it.”
“That would be rather difficult, given my insubstantial nature.”
“It’s a joke, Cap. You must have had humor in the nineteenth century.”
“Oh, we surely did. However, it had the benefit of actually being humorous, a state of affairs that cannot be said for what passes for drollery in this era.”
The Bottroff House used to be the captain’s home, back when he was alive and getting rich as a wrecker captain in the eighteen hundreds. His shade continued to haunt the place now that it was a B&B in the twenty-first century—one of many ghosts wandering around Key West, Florida. I was the only one who could see or hear him.
That was why he generally hung out in my room. I was the only conversation he’d had in a hundred and fifty years.
It wasn’t always ideal. The first three months were me being all freaked out over a ghost invading my privacy, and he had issues with female nudity. But by now, six months in, I’d given up on being modest in my own damn home and settled into my role as his Mrs. Muir.
This hadn’t been what I’d planned. After receiving my master’s in English literature back home in San Diego, I had decided to celebrate by hopping into my pickup truck and driving across the bottom of the country. Once I’d arrived in Key West, my plan had been to stay for a week here at the Bottroff House, from where I would spend my days scuba diving and my nights bar-hopping on Duval Street.
After a month, during which I had completely revamped the B&B’s website and decorated it with my underwater photography, the owner, Debbie Dellamonica, had offered me free room and board in exchange for part-time work helping out at the B&B as needed—desk work, reservations, airport pickups, more Web work, whatever.
My parents still emailed me every day asking when I was coming home.
I stepped under the blessed hot water as it sluiced the salt off. While Debbie offered me a place to stay, I still needed something that paid. Luckily, Seaclipse, the place where I’d been doing my diving, needed a part-time dive master, so six weeks into my one-week stay, I went from burning through my savings paying them to take me on dives to them paying me to take other people on dives.
Once I’d rinsed completely off, I came out of the shower stall and toweled myself down.
The captain stayed in the main room. “I see you managed to once again avoid drowning.”
“Yes, Cap—scuba diving is actually safe.”
“So you insist. I beheld with my own eyes the damage that the undersea did to boats made of wood and iron. I cannot imagine why you would willingly expose yourself to such dangers on a daily basis.”
I went into the room and yanked a bra and a pair of panties—which almost matched, insofar as they both could theoretically be described as white—off the floor. “Cap, if you could see what I see down there …” Then my eyes widened in mock amazement. “Oh, wait! You can see, because my pictures of it are all over the place!”
“I’ve seen your photographs taken under the ocean, of course, and they are quite grand.”
“But I still consider you mad. It’s not fitting for a girl to willingly expose herself to such dangers.”
I rolled my eyes and grabbed a red T-shirt with the word expendable across the chest in the Star Trek font. The sexism was something else I had had to get used to.
After putting on the shirt and climbing into shorts, I tried and failed to run a brush through the rat’s nest I laughingly referred to as my hair, then tossed the brush back onto the dresser in disgust. Sliding into flip-flops, I said to the captain, “I’m off to Mayor Fred’s. It’s Thursday, so 1812’s playing.” 1812 was the house band at Mayor Fred’s Saloon, my favorite of the many bars on Key West. All four band members had become friends over the past half year. Well, okay, Bobbi, Jana, and Zeke had become friends. Chet was the bass player, and, well, bass players are weird.
“The forewarning is appreciated.” The captain was willing to look at me now that I had a T-shirt and shorts on. “The sight of you inebriated is one that discomfits, to say the least, so I will retire to another section of the estate until morning.”
“Oh, come on, I don’t get that drunk.”
“You are welcome to that opinion. I do not share it.”
I shook my head and slid open the glass door. “Feh.”
Mayor Fred’s was located on Greene Street, a couple of blocks up Duval Street from where the B&B was located on Eaton Street. When I got to the open-air saloon, I noticed three things.
The first was that 1812 had a different drummer, and I wondered what happened to Zeke.
The second was that Rance Demitrijian was sitting at our usual table near the massive ficus tree that the bar was built around. That surprised me, since Rance rarely got down here from Miami on Thursday nights.
The third was that two strangers were sharing the table with Rance. That wasn’t all that unusual. This was Key West, after all, one of the friendliest places in the world, and seats were at a premium in Mayor Fred’s when 1812 was rocking the place, so it wasn’t all that much of a surprise if Rance offered this couple seats at our table.
And they were definitely a couple, based on the goo-goo eyes they were making at each other and the hand-holding, especially since those hands had matching gold rings on the left ring fingers.
I got to the table and said, “Hey, Rance,” over the noise made by 1812 playing Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.”
“Oh, hi, Cass—I was just telling, uh …”
The male half of the couple quickly said, “Jon. And this is my wife, Wendy.”
I sat down in the fourth seat at the small round table. “I’m Cassie Zukav.”
“Pleasure.” Wendy reached out her hand with a bright smile. I returned both handshake and smile.
Rance said, “I was telling Jon and Wendy here about Mel Fisher and his whole thing with trying to find gold in the sunken ships for all those years and the entire ‘today is the day’ bit—in fact, I was about to tell them about his museum, which is great, you really have to go, you can heft a bar of gold there, and you would not believe how heavy the thing is, I mean it almost fell out of my hand the first time, which would’ve been pretty bad, since I probably would’ve dropped it on my foot.”
I grinned. “Yeah, and you’re already a flatfoot.” Looking over at the couple, I added, “Rance here’s a federal agent.”
Jon and Wendy exchanged surprised glances at that.
Quickly, Rance said, “It really isn’t that big a deal, honestly, I just don’t like to talk shop outside the office. And I keep telling you, Cass, a flatfoot’s a policeman, the proper old-fashioned slang for a federal agent is a G-man.”
“I sit corrected,” I said contritely.
“In any event, yes, I’m a federal agent—I’ve been working in the Miami Field Office for about six years now, and I like to come down here to relax and forget about all the paperwork and the other stuff I have to deal with. Besides, everyone asks me if it’s just like TV, and it never is, and I kinda get tired of that.”
Jon laughed. “Hey, least you get to tell people something cool. We’re both accountants. Don’t nothin’ kill a conversation faster than sayin’ you’re a CPA.”
Wendy looked at me. “What do you do, Cassie?”
Rance spoke before I could answer. “It’s funny you should ask that, Wendy. Cassie’s actually with Seaclipse, the dive shop I was telling you guys about, and she—”
I interrupted, since he went and answered the question directed at me. “You guys dive?”
“Yeah, but the place we went yesterday sucked.” Wendy made a face and immediately sipped her pink drink.
I put on my sales-pitch voice. “Seaclipse isn’t the most hard-core place—but it’s not one of those shitty tourist traps that throw you into the water, wait an hour, and haul you out after taking too much money, either. It’s good for casual divers just looking for a fun dive.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jon said emphatically after gulping some beer.
“Seaclipse is where the two of us met, actually,” Rance said with a small smile.
“So how long the two of you been dating?” Wendy asked.
I squirmed in my seat. “We’re not dating. We just like to dive and see cool bands.”
Gena came over to take my drink order, and the conversation went on from there. Mostly it was Rance talking, of course. He was a babbler, but he usually knew what he was talking about, so it was okay. Besides, he had the cutest cleft in his chin …
Okay, yes, I might’ve been interested in him. We certainly spent a lot of time together. But we’d never made any kind of move on each other.
Jon and Wendy left right after 1812 did their traditional midnight rendition of The Band’s “The Weight.” However, before they departed, I’d made a reservation for them to take my Friday-afternoon dive. Rance had signed up for that, too—turned out he was down here because his boss gave him a day off Friday. “Remember all that overtime I worked last month? It turns out that it wasn’t authorized and our ASAC got reamed for approving it, so in lieu of actually getting paid for that overtime, we’re getting regular days off.”
At one point, between sets, I chatted with Bobbi and Jana, and asked them where Zeke was.
“Fucked if we know,” Jana said with a snort. “We ain’t seen ’im since Sunday. Didn’t come to rehearsals, ain’t answerin’ his phone or texts or nothin’.”
Indicating the currently empty drum kit, Bobbi said, “We were lucky that L. J. was able to fill in, but he’s heading back to Fort Lauderdale after this weekend.”
I had a lot of beers that night, and a vague recollection of Rance walking me back to the Bottroff House at about four, but I couldn’t swear to it. I also may have heard Bottroff muttering something about how I was inebriated as usual when I collapsed on my bed, but I couldn’t swear to that, either.
I got up at eleven Friday morning, like usual, and climbed into my bathing suit. After I had some of Debbie’s magnificent Kona coffee, I hopped in my truck and drove to Stock Island—the next island over from Key West—to Seaclipse to run my afternoon dive.
“Hey, Cass, I’m glad you’re here,” Cara Zimmerman, one of the two owners, said when I pulled in. “Seymour hasn’t shown up today, and Andy’s already out with Groucho.” Cara’s husband, Andy Wasserstein, was the other owner. “I’ve tried getting in touch with him every way possible—I even loaded that stupid chat app onto my phone, ’cause I know he uses that, but he didn’t reply to that, either.”
“Did you try Jerri?” Seymour Harris was another dive master. He and a young woman named Jerri Nicks had been dating for a while now, and they were totally all over each other.
Cara nodded. “She said she hasn’t seen him in a couple days—says her brother’s visiting. Anyhow, Seymour only had two for his eleven o’clock dive, can you take them with? You’ve only got three anyhow.”
I frowned. “I’ve got four.”
That got me to roll my eyes. Nadir was one of my regulars, but he was the king of the last-minute cancellation. “Okay, no problem.”
“Thanks, you’re a goddess.”
I looked over to see two pissed-off-looking tourists. It wasn’t like Seymour to just not show up. I took out my smartphone and fired off a snotty text, hoping he’d reply to it and at least feel guilty. Not that it mattered much to me. I got paid the same, either way, and Harpo wasn’t at capacity even with five paying customers, so it all worked out, but it was mean to make those two wait.
Jon and Wendy had said last night that they wanted to do a wreck dive, so after verifying that Seymour’s couple was okay with it, I took the group out to the Duane, a Coast Guard cutter that had been deliberately sunk back in the eighties to create an artificial reef.
Since we had an odd number of customers, I put on my wet suit, attached my regulator and mask, put on my fins, and shrugged into my air tank. You always dove with a buddy, so I went down with Rance, leaving the couples to go with each other. I wasn’t as thrilled by wreck diving as the newlyweds—I preferred the natural beauty of the fish and the coral reefs to the artificial crap—but I got the appeal intellectually.
At one point, as Rance and I were swimming around by the radar mast, I saw a huge mess of bubbles all at once. Rance and I exchanged a quick, worried glance through our masks—that was usually a bad sign—and swam down to the stern to see Jon and Wendy flailing about like crazy.
When I looked past them, I realized why. There was a body floating over the deck of the Duane. It was a white male, completely naked, and pretty far gone from water damage and decomposition.
Even with that, though, I recognized the long chin-beard and the ugly-ass mole on his cheek. This was Zeke Bremlinger, 1812’s drummer.
Rance and I took Jon and Wendy topside. Rance tried to calm them down. Wendy was just staring blankly ahead while Jon was just going a mile a minute, “Oh my God what was that that was a body holy shit I can’t believe this is happening was that really a body Jesus Christ I’ve never seen anything like that …”
I grabbed the radio to call the Coast Guard.
The rest of the day was just a huge blur. Rance went into full FBI mode, coordinating with the Coasties and calling in the local cops and the Monroe County Medical Examiner. He also went down with the Coastie diver to photograph the scene before they brought the body up.
Wendy didn’t say a word the entire time. When one of the detectives asked them questions, Jon did all the talking.
As for the other couple, they just looked at each other and said, “We’re gonna fucking kill Seymour.”
When we finally took Harpo back to Seaclipse, Rance asked me, “Are you doing okay, Cassie?”
I shook my head. “I gotta tell Bobbi, Jana, and Chet. They’re gonna be devastated. Well, Bobbi and Jana are. Chet might blink twice.”
Honestly, it wasn’t just that Friday: the whole next week was a blur. Bobbi and Jana were pretty torn up—they’d gone to high school with Zeke—and Chet actually blinked three times. 1812 dedicated the entire weekend to Zeke, closing each and every set with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Rance told me in a text on Tuesday that, according to the ME, Zeke had been dead for about a week when we found him, which tracked with how long he’d been missing.
On top of that, Seymour still hadn’t turned up, so I wound up taking most of his dives in addition to my own. I didn’t mind the extra work too much, but it was kinda annoying, especially since he usually ran night dives, which I didn’t like as much.
Zeke’s funeral was held on Marathon Key that Thursday morning, and then I had to run Seymour’s dives that evening and Friday as well. I missed 1812’s sets both nights; I didn’t even know who they were using as a drummer. (I didn’t really think it would’ve been right to ask at the old drummer’s funeral.) Even my usual arguments with Captain Bottroff were more subdued, especially once I told him what happened.
And then the real cherry on top of the shitty week was being woken up out of a sound sleep Saturday by my smartphone, which was buzzing with a phone call at nine thirty in the morning.
I had to encounter only one nine thirty on a usual day, and this wasn’t it. To make matters worse, the call came from Rance, who knew me well enough to know that I was normally comatose at this hour.
“Mfginer?” Which was about all I could manage when I answered the phone.
“Cass, I’m sorry, I need to talk to you right now. I’m waiting downstairs, and I’ve got coffee for you.”
“Fngzl,” was all I could say in reply, and then I rolled out of bed, grabbed the first T-shirt my hand could find, somehow managed to get into a pair of shorts that I’m fairly certain I put on backward, and then stumbled down the wooden stairs in my bare feet to the tree-festooned area between the B&B’s two houses.
Not a morning person, okay?
Rance was sitting at one of the outside tables. He was wearing a white linen jacket, a button-down shirt, and cotton slacks. This meant he was there on business. Normally when we met at Mayor Fred’s or Seaclipse, he wore the usual Key West “uniform” of T-shirt, shorts, and either flip-flops or moccasins.
The smell of Debbie’s Kona wiped out the disorientation, at least for a moment. As promised, a cup of same sat at the place opposite Rance. I fell more than sat into the chair, clutched the cup for dear life, and gulped down as much as I could without burning myself.
“Look, Cassie, I’m sorry to’ve woken you up so early, but I’ve got some not-very-good news that I figured you’d want to hear sooner rather than later, so I thought it was worth dragging you out of bed.”
Uh-oh. Taking another sip, thus allowing an advance to one-syllable words, I prompted, “Well?”
“We, ah, we found Seymour. Actually, to be specific, we found his body.”
Suddenly, I was wide-awake. “What?”
He nodded. “His body. They found it in Louisiana. Well, under it. Just like Zeke. This was out at an oil rig in the Gulf, which is a federal facility, so it wound up in our lap. Since I was on the scene when Zeke’s body was found, I caught the case.”
“How—how’d he die?”
“Pretty much the way you’d expect someone to die underwater. He drowned.”
“Did his regulator fail, the tank blow, what?”
Rance tilted his head. “Cassie, I told you this was just like Zeke. Seymour wasn’t wearing any of those things because he wasn’t wearing anything. He was in the buff, too.”
I blinked, then took another sip of coffee, hoping that then it would all make sense. Spoiler warning: it didn’t. “I couldn’t’ve heard that right. Rance, I’ve been diving since I was a kid, and I’ve never met a diver as conscientious as Seymour. He wouldn’t take a bath without a regulator he’d double-checked five times.”
“And if he was diving, that would be an issue, but we have no idea how he got into the water in the first place. Anyhow, I saw the photos they took when they found the body. Trust me, it was all birthday suit all the time. Just like at the Duane.” He sighed and took a pad and pen out of his jacket pocket. “I, ah, need to ask you some questions about Seymour. You up to it?”
I wasn’t especially, but the alternative was to go back to bed. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to sleep now. Problem was, I didn’t really know much beyond what he already knew, as Seymour wasn’t the most open person when it came to his personal life. All he talked about was diving.
“What about his girlfriend?” Rance asked.
“Jerri?” I shrugged. Rance hadn’t shaved since I saw him last week, and the little hairs were covering the cute cleft in his chin. C’mon, Cassie, focus. “Another hard-core diver. I don’t really know her that well. It’s funny, Seymour spends—” My voice caught. “Spent most of his time with her. They dove together a lot. She probably isn’t taking it very well.”
Duh, Cass, he wouldn’t be talking to you before he talked to the girlfriend. “What was he doing in Louisiana?”
Rance scratched the back of his neck. “That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question right now. They found the body the day he went missing, as it happens. It just took this long to identify him.”
“Waitasec, the day he went missing? That doesn’t make sense.”
He frowned. “I don’t see why not—doesn’t take long to get from Key West to Louisiana in this day and age.” Rance got up. “Well, if you can think of anything else, Cass, let me know, okay?”
I nodded. “Definitely.” As he turned to leave, I asked, “Will you be at Mayor Fred’s tonight?”
“Normally I wouldn’t, but I had to pull teeth to get working today approved, and there’s absolutely no way they’ll approve overtime for me working Sunday, and I’m already in Key West for the case, so I should be there, yeah.” As he started to walk away, he added, “By the way, I like the T-shirt.”
I blinked. Rance never made remarks about my appearance. Why the hell did he make one now of all times?
I went and got some more coffee before stumbling back up the wooden stairs to my room. As I entered, I caught a glimpse of myself in the small mirror that was attached to the dresser. “Fuck,” I muttered. I hadn’t realized that the T-shirt I’d grabbed was my white Schooner Wharf T-shirt that was a bit too small on me, and I hadn’t actually put on a bra.
No wonder Rance commented.
I showered and dressed more properly this time. Captain Bottroff was nowhere to be seen, but he probably didn’t expect me to be up this early. When I got out of the shower, there was a text from Cara, asking me to take the eleven o’clock dive. I texted her back with a yes, hopped into my truck, and headed over.
There were three people signed up. Two were a couple from Boston who had just arrived in Key West to celebrate their anniversary. Seymour had told me about them when they made their reservations. He’d also said he liked them, which meant it was gonna be real awkward when they asked where he was.
The third name on the list, though, was Jerri Nicks, Seymour’s girlfriend.
Maybe it was just me, but I thought it was damn strange that she was going diving the day she found out her boyfriend died.
When Jerri walked in, I was even more confused. Like most female divers who aren’t me, Jerri was real small, about five foot three. She had jet-black hair and a sort of elfin look to her, and the most amazing eyes—a deep sea green. Seymour said once that staring into her eyes reminded him of diving. She was wearing a bathing suit that showed off how disgustingly thin her thighs were, and carrying her gear.
In other words, she looked just like she always did, not like someone whose boyfriend was just found drowned hundreds of miles from home.
I walked up to her. “Hey, Jerri.”
“I was, uh, kinda surprised to see your name on the list.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Yeah, I know, helluva way to act bereaved. But I didn’t want to sit around moping. So I thought: diving. That’s the way to remember Seymour.”
It all made perfect sense, the way she said it. So why did it make me suspicious?
Then the couple from Boston walked in: a Latino guy around my height and an Asian man even shorter than Jerri. “Hi,” said the former. “I’m Marty. This is my husband, Anthony. We’re supposed to be diving today.”
I put on my public face, and made a mental note to talk to Jerri more later. “Hi, I’m Cassie Zukav. I’ll be handling the dive.”
Anthony frowned, and Marty said, “Oh, okay. We were kinda expecting Seymour again. He, ah, he does still work here, right?”
I grimaced. Well, I’d better get used to it. “I’m afraid that Seymour—he passed away.”
“Oh my God,” Anthony said.
Marty added, “That’s terrible. What happened?”
Before I could say anything, Jerri said, “He drowned. Nasty accident. Cass, I’m gonna take the number-four tank, okay?”
“Uh, sure,” I said, flabbergasted—and pissed. The last thing you want to tell a customer is that one of your dive masters drowned. Marty and Anthony looked like someone had kicked them in the head. I felt pretty much the same.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to talk to Jerri failed to materialize. The dive itself went fairly well, though Anthony and Marty were understandably subdued. Marty was, like me, an underwater photographer, though he was just starting out, and I got to give him some pointers. While I did that, Jerri sat off on her own and stared quietly at the ocean. She was always doing that, even when Seymour was alive and on the dive with her. It was weird, like she was trying to find something just past the horizon.
Once we got back to shore, I was busy helping Marty out with the camera, and by the time I was done, Jerri had long since left. Apparently, she left so fast that she forgot her regulator.
Afterward, I went home, changed, bantered with Captain Bottroff, and headed out to Mayor Fred’s. I sat at the same table by the ficus where Rance and I had last sat with Jon and Wendy (who, unsurprisingly, hadn’t booked any more dives with us in the past week).
Rance was sitting at the bar with Jerri.
This did not annoy me. Really. After all, she was part of the investigation. It made sense that he’d be talking to her. And, this being Key West, holding an inquiry at a bar was hardly unusual. Hell, it was to be expected.
Jerri was wearing a leather miniskirt, heels, a low-cut blouse, and one of those bras that can give an A cup cleavage. I’d say she was trying too hard, but she actually hadn’t overdone anything. Still, only tourists dressed like that in Key West. For the locals—and Jerri was one; she rented a house on Whitehead—dressing up meant you wore a T-shirt that didn’t have lettering or a picture on it.
“Hey, Cass,” shouted a voice in my ear over the din of 1812 pounding through Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” It was Gena, the waitress. “The usual?”
I just nodded, but Gena didn’t walk away.
“Your other half’s two-timin’ you,” she said with a smile.
Gena always called Rance that. “He’s not my other half. He’s probably just talking to her about Seymour.”
“Whatever you say,” she said with a feral grin, then walked off before I could say anything else.
I looked over at Rance and Jerri. They were laughing.
Alarm bells went off in my head. Rance didn’t laugh. I mean, he’d chuckle, he’d smirk, he’d make smart-ass remarks, he’d even chortle occasionally, but I’d never in six months ever seen him out-and-out laugh.
When “Pride and Joy” ended, Rance took Jerri’s hand and kissed it.
In six months, he never once kissed my hand. Hell, he hardly ever touched my hand.
Okay, this was silly. It wasn’t a big deal. Really.
So why did I get up and walk over to them?
“Hey, Rance. Jerri.” I noticed that they were both drinking margaritas. Rance always drank beer with me.
“Hey, Cassie, how are you?” Jerri asked. I noticed her hand was still in his.
“Okay. Uh, listen, you left your regulator at the shop.”
She actually looked relieved at that. “Is that where it is? I was looking all over. I was going to get Rance here to start an investigation for it.”
For some reason, Rance laughed at that. It was the first reaction he’d made since I walked over. He still hadn’t said a word to me.
“Well, uh, come on by whenever you want to pick it up.”
“Sure,” she said, turning on her stool so she was facing Rance.
For his part, Rance hadn’t taken his eyes off her.
“You alive in there, Rance?” I prompted.
“Hm?” he said. “Oh, uh, sorry. I’m fine.”
An awkward pause followed, as the pair of them stared at each other, and I just stood next to them being ignored.
“Well, I’ll see you guys later,” I said lamely.
“Seeya,” Jerri said without looking at me, instead leaning forward to give Rance the full faux-cleavage effect.
Rance said nothing.
Something was seriously wrong here. Rance’s sentences could go on for days once he got going. And he’d never ever been so rude to me, or anyone else for that matter. I’d seen him talk to dozens of people, even seen him flirt a few times, and he was always babbling. This was new—and very odd.
Not to mention Jerri going into hound mode a week after her boyfriend died.
The hell with it. I went back to my table and listened to the band and didn’t think about it.
Mercifully, Jerri didn’t show up at Seaclipse on Sunday for the dive I was running, though Marty and Anthony did, along with a couple of locals. But when I got back to the shop after the dive, I thought I saw Jerri, except when I got closer, it turned out to be a guy. I swear, he was a male version of Jerri: same height, same black hair, same eyes.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“I’m Theo, Jerri’s brother. She said she left her regulator.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, walking around behind the counter, remembering Cara mentioning something about Jerri’s brother being in town. The regulator was hanging on a peg in the back room.
I called out as I went into the back, “Shame about Seymour, huh?” I don’t know why I said it, but I just felt the need to gauge his reaction.
“Yeah. Dunno what the hell he was doin’ in New Orleans. Jerri was with me when it happened.”
As I took the regulator off the peg and walked back out, I said, “Really?” He sounded oddly defensive. Weird.
I had intended to run a night dive as well, but a cold snap with nasty winds hit as the sun started to go down, and the water was way too choppy. So we cancelled the night dive and I went back home to the Bottroff House.
I farted around on my laptop for a while, not even bothering to change out of my bathing suit, and then I got an error message when I checked my email.
“You spend an inordinate amount of time staring at that device and frowning,” the captain said.
“It’s a tool, Cap. Tools don’t always work right.”
“I cannot deny the truth of that,” he said wryly.
“And in this case, I haven’t cleaned out my spam folder, so it’s overloaded the email queue.”
“There was not a single word in that sentence that I comprehended.”
I laughed. “The electronic version of junk mail.” I always forgot to clean the stupid thing out, which was dumb, because there was always something important that got inexplicably sent to the spam folder. Of course, so did some of the emails from my parents and my little sister, so it wasn’t always bad …
The folder had hundreds of messages, most of which were garbage promising me various prizes, sexual enhancements, special beverages, moderately entertaining pornography, and financial transactions involving royalty from Third World nations.
And one email from Seymour, dated last Thursday night, around eleven thirty—the night before he died.
As usual with Seymour, he never used punctuation except for periods. It read: “Cass something weirds going on with Jerri. Im not sure what yet but I think its pretty bad. She and me going to New Orleans tomorrow and Im scared Im not coming back. If something happens talk to her brother Theo about nixies. Trust me on this OK?”
Several things occurred to me at once. One was that Jerri was supposed to have been with her brother Theo the day Seymour died. The second was that Seymour didn’t die in New Orleans, he died under an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Rance never mentioned New Orleans—but Theo did today, and now so had Seymour, last week.
The third was that I really needed to fix the spam settings on my email.
I tried calling Rance and got his voicemail. “Rance, it’s Cassie, I need to talk to you now. I got an email from Seymour the night before he died, and he knew he might be in trouble. Plus he was with Jerri in New Orleans last week, apparently. Call me back the nanosecond you get this.” I decided not to leave the bit about nixies on a federal agent’s voicemail. I’d told Rance before that I was a kind of weirdness magnet, but he’d always been skeptical. Of course, he couldn’t see or hear the captain, and he wasn’t there when I stopped the dragon in the B&B’s garden—not to mention that sea monster back in San Diego.
“May I ask a question?”
I turned to see that Bottroff was now staring at the laptop screen. It was the first time he’d looked at the laptop with anything other than confusion or disdain in six months.
“Your comrades who perished—they were both discovered beneath the sea bereft of clothing precisely one week apart, yes?”
“The spectral lettering on this device mentions the term nixies.”
I was starting to get what my uncle Harry used to call a queasy feeling in his gizzard. “Yeah, he did. What do you know about nixies?”
“Quite a bit, I’m sad to say. I was murdered by one.”
I opened my mouth, closed it, opened it again, closed it again. “Excuse me?”
Bottroff smirked. “You do recall that I am deceased, yes?”
“Very funny. But you never did tell me how you became deceased. I just figured you died alone in your sleep in the big house.”
“Would that it were so.” He sighed. You wouldn’t think a ghost could sigh, but there it was. “It was after my wife passed on. Our children were grown and had lives of their own. I had been considering retirement, but when Esmerelda grew ill, I continued to captain my vessel, rescuing boats from the reefs and taking a percentage of their cargo as bounty in order to pay for her medicine. When the consumption at last claimed her, still I did not retire, for I truly had no other purpose in life.
“One afternoon, we rescued a fishing boat. Most of the passengers were men, but there was one girl aboard, named Geraldine. I never did ascertain her family name, but I took a shine to her, and she to me. By that time, it had been almost a decade since I’d buried Esmerelda, and I’d not known the love of a good woman, nor even a bad one, in all that time. I found Geraldine’s affections to be …” He sighed again. “Intoxicating.
“We saw quite a bit of each other. At the same time as our courtship, two bodies were found underneath the water. Men who had been stripped of all clothing and found drowned. It baffled the populace of the island.
“Then, one week after the second death, Geraldine asked me to walk along the beach. To this day, I could not tell you why I agreed, nor why I also agreed to swim without a bathing suit.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “You went skinny-dipping?”
This third sigh was shorter and nastier. “I believe that is the vulgarism your generation has coined.”
“Way predates my generation, but whatever. What happened once you got into the water?”
“Somehow, I was able to continue to breathe, and Geraldine and I made love. I had not intended to do so outside the marriage bed, but I was caught in the moment. But then …” He hesitated. “When our lovemaking ceased, she swam away, and I could no longer draw breath. I’ve haunted my home ever since.” He looked away from me with a faraway look that reminded me way too much of the way Jerri looked out at the ocean on dives. “Geraldine disappeared from the island after that, and there were no more suspicious deaths until the turn of the century—the twentieth century, I should say. Again, three men were found bereft of clothing under the sea, with a span of a week between each death. And I saw Geraldine again walking down the thoroughfare. It had been more than two-score years, but she had not aged a day.
“I heard of other deaths in the ensuing years, including once not long after the so-called Labor Day Hurricane, and another only a decade ago—though I never again saw her. In each instance, the same events transpired.” He stared right at me. “I believe that Geraldine was a nixie.”
I frowned. “If I remember my Grimm’s fairy tales right, from Professor Cocev’s folklore seminar, nixies are underwater sprites. One promised a destitute miller wealth and prosperity, but he’d have to give over his firstborn. When the kid was all grown up and married, the nixie took him. The kid’s wife tried to get him back, and eventually succeeded, but it took decades.”
“Stories of nixies are contradictory, and the brothers who composed the fairy tales you cite chronicled only some of the legends.”
“But if your Geraldine didn’t age, she could pretty easily be Seymour’s Jerri. Great. I gotta talk to the brother.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I said as I pulled on a pair of shorts, slid into my flip-flops, and ran out the door. Now that I had a plan of action, I wasn’t about to give it up, and I couldn’t just sit around and wait for Rance to call me back. Given how he and Jerri had been acting in Mayor Fred’s, he might well be the next target. It had been a week since Seymour died, who died a week after Zeke did.
The Nicks residence was a modest, one-story, white shingled house a few blocks up from the lighthouse and the Hemingway House on Whitehead. There wasn’t a doorbell, so I knocked on the wooden front door, the window of which was covered by a white lace curtain.
Theo shoved the curtain aside and peered out. “What do you want?”
“Let me in, Theo. We need to talk about your sister and Seymour and nixies.”
All right, it was a dorky thing to say, but Seymour did ask me to ask Jerri’s brother about nixies. It was kinda his dying wish.
To my amazement, Theo’s eyes went wide. “Aw, fuck.” Then he opened the door. “What do you know about nixies?”
“Just what I read in Grimm,” I said, putting on the know-it-all voice I used when I was a teaching assistant back in La Jolla. Combined with my height, it never failed to intimidate the undergrads. And since I had eight inches on Theo, I made sure to loom. “But there’s obviously more, and you’re going to tell me what it is.”
Theo held up his hands and backed off. “Easy there. I don’t want any trouble.”
“All right, look, ol’ Jake and Willie knew their shit. ’Cept, they left out the sex.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“That’s the big thing with us: the sex.”
I blinked again. This was getting to be too much for one night. “Hang on, ‘us’?”
“What, you think we’re just women? How the hell do you think we make more nixies if we’re all female?”
To be honest, I hadn’t given it that much thought. In fact, I hadn’t given any of this any thought.
“Course,” he went on, “Jerri’s got a thing for doin’ it with humans underwater. Problem is, there’s this whole breathing thing that gets in the way, so the guy always dies. It’s a pain in the ass, lemme tell you. Don’t worry, though, she only needs to fuck three times every few decades or so. S’how we stay immortal.”
“Where is she now?”
“How the fuck should I know? Tryin’a find her next victim, probably.”
I turned and ran up Whitehead toward Greene. I needed to find them and find them now.
I could do this. I communed with ghosts. I’d stopped a dragon and a sea monster. I could totally rescue a trained federal agent from a supernatural creature that had murdered two of my friends. All I had to do was figure out where she’d take him underwater. On an island full of beaches and piers. Piece of cake.
When I got to Mayor Fred’s, I didn’t see either of them. It was too early for 1812 to have started, as the sun had only set an hour and a half ago. I grabbed Gena. “Hey, you seen Rance or Jerri?”
“Yeah, they were here for a while. She was puttin’ the moves on your other half again. First she pulled that shit on Zeke two weeks ago, then this. The girl’s a skank, you ask me.”
“You do not know the half of it. Where’d they go?”
“They said they were going to the pier, even though sunset was a while ago.”
“Thanks, Gena,” I said and ran out.
Then I stopped.
They were going underwater, if they weren’t there already. She could probably breathe underwater, but he couldn’t, and neither could I—
At least, not without equipment.
I ran back to the Bottroff House, nearly knocking down several teenagers on the Duval Street sidewalk. I generally left my gear in the truck, which saved me several minutes, as all I had to do was hop in the truck and pull out. I was even still wearing my bathing suit.
Thank God it wasn’t Saturday night, as the traffic would’ve been miserable. Even so, Key West was really for pedestrians once the sun set, so it took forever to get to the pier parking lot without actually running anyone over.
I had 1,500 psi of air in the tank—that’s about half full—which would probably do me for an hour or so. I didn’t have time to go to Seaclipse to fill it all the way. Hell, I had no idea how much time I had, but I had to at least check. For all I knew, I was too late, and just because they went to the pier didn’t mean I knew where they went in the water, or where in the water they went, and argh!
To say I got funny looks from the few people left on the pier as I put on my gear would be understating the case, but nobody actually tried to stop me or get in my way. Eccentric behavior was normal in Key West, after all.
I hadn’t bothered putting my wet suit on, just the regulator, mask, and tank. The water temperature was under seventy, so the locals would probably think I was crazy for diving without at least a wet suit, but they’re all a bunch of weenies. They wouldn’t last two seconds in the fifty-degree temps in the Pacific that I cut my diving teeth on.
I also attached the sheath with my dive-knife to my ankle. I had a feeling I was going to need some kind of weapon before the night was out.
“Shee-it, least you got brains,” someone said.
I turned to see a balding guy who hadn’t bathed any time this decade, wearing a ripped T-shirt and shorts, and with a silver beard that obscured his face. “Excuse me?” I said, regulator hanging below my jaw.
“Other two that jumped didn’t have nothin’.”
Jackpot! “What other two?”
“This guy inna ugly suit and some short chick in a leather mini. They was kissin’ an’ shit, then took they clothes off an’ jump in.” He pointed at the far end of the pier. “’Ey, lady, you gotnee money f’r beer?”
I ran to the end of the pier without answering, but promised myself that if I came back alive, I’d get him a case.
Sure enough, there was a pile of clothes, along with a shoulder holster and gun. The wallet in the pants had Rance’s badge. Jerri was probably planning to ditch the clothes and leave him to be found nude like she did Zeke and Seymour.
I considered taking the gun with me, then decided against it. I didn’t even know how to take the safety off, and what the hell good would it do me underwater? Besides, I had the knife.
I dove in.
Normally, diving is like being covered in the world’s biggest flannel blanket in zero gravity. Tonight, thanks to the lack of a wet suit and the choppy current, it was more like having ice water dumped all over you.
I tried very hard not to think about how unutterably stupid this whole thing was. I also tried not to think about the fact that it had taken four months for Rance to make even an oblique comment about my appearance, but it took Jerri less than three days to get him to jump naked into the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, she obviously had some kind of hypnotic whozidingitzes. I mean, that had to be it. Why else would Rance have been so nontalkative last night? Why else would Captain Bottroff, who still couldn’t handle me in my underwear after six months, have gone skinny-dipping with a woman he’d only known for a few days?
The current was even more brutal than I expected, and I was reminded why I wasn’t running a night dive right now. Swimming around took twice as much effort as it should have.
I had been down for almost half an hour when I found them, which was damn good timing. Between running all over the island and swimming in the nasty current, I was exhausted, and breathing very hard. The air supply, which normally would’ve lasted over an hour, was running out. But there they were, completely naked, doing the deed.
Well, Jerri was, anyhow. She was gyrating to beat the band, water bubbles shooting out of her mouth like machine-gun fire. Rance, though, didn’t seem to be doing much of anything—including breathing.
Fighting down a wave of nausea, I hit the catch on my knife holster, grabbed it in my right hand, then swam right at them.
Jerri was so engrossed in giving new meaning to leaving a wet spot that she didn’t hear me coming. In fact, as I got closer, I could actually hear her screaming in a full orgasmic frenzy—the water muffled it, but it was definitely audible. I had to admit to being impressed. If Rance could manage that while drowning …
Just as she stopped screaming and said, “Woo!” I reached out and slashed her in the arm with the knife.
She bled green. That kinda threw me for a loop. So did the knife slash, the momentum from which had me tumbling in the water.
“Bitch!” she cried, and took a swing at me—and she didn’t tumble. Her fist hit my bare right shoulder and hurt like a sonofabitch.
Then she grabbed her arm where I’d stabbed her. The blood was pooling around her, making the water a very strange turquoise color. Turning, she kicked at me, her foot slamming into my stomach, forcing me to inhale a deep breath that I really couldn’t afford to swipe from my diminishing air tank.
I tried to get my bearings, but it turned out that she used the kick to start swimming away. I guess she needed to stop the bleeding—besides, it was kinda obvious that she was done with Rance.
For his part, Rance started drifting toward the surface. I wasted about half a second trying to figure out who to go after, but it wasn’t really much of a choice. I didn’t have that much air left, even armed I was kinda getting my ass kicked anyhow, and chances were Rance was drowning—or drowned, since he wasn’t flailing, just floating upward.
My regulator had an octopus—a second mouthpiece with its own hose, meant for emergencies just like this. (Well, okay, not just like this.) I swam up to where Rance was floating and put the octopus in his mouth. Then I kept going upward, hugging Rance close, hoping there was enough air to get us to the surface.
We resurfaced at the pier. It was now two hours after sunset, and there was nobody in sight. I removed the octopus from his mouth and somehow managed to roll him up onto the wooden surface. I clambered up after him to see that he still wasn’t breathing.
Ripping off my mask, I started to resuscitate him. Dimly, I noticed that after a few minutes, we started to attract a small crowd, including my beer-loving friend. This wasn’t too surprising. I mean, women in bathing suits and scuba gear giving CPR to naked men on a darkened pier wasn’t exactly a commonplace occurrence—not even on Key West.
My arms felt like wet spaghetti even before I started doing compressions, and my right shoulder had a massive shooting pain every time I moved it that kept getting worse and worse. Somebody had yelled out to call for an ambulance—it might even have been me—but who knew when they’d get here?
I focused on Rance’s hairy wet chest, pumping his heart, then giving him mouth-to-mouth. His mouth tasted like salt. Actually, it tasted like a margarita with salt.
I hated margaritas.
Just when I thought I would collapse, he coughed up water and started breathing. The crowd cheered. I let out a long breath.
Rance’s eyes flickered open. He whispered, “J-Jerri?”
Somehow, I managed not to punch him.
Of all the news stories that chronicled the event, my favorite headline had to be “Diver Saves FBI Nudist.” It was also fun to see how many different ways the various papers and websites misspelled Demitrijian.
I didn’t see Rance much for the next week. He was back at his office, and then up in Washington, as they investigated the whole shebang. Jerri and Theo had both disappeared. I gave statements to both the feds and the local cops, but I left out the part about the Nicks siblings being nixie siblings. (My email was part of the evidence, but when asked, I chalked the nixie line up to typical diver eccentricities, which the law was more than happy to buy.)
Things settled down to something approaching normal. Cara and Andy hired a new dive master. I had my fifteen minutes of fame while assorted news folks interviewed me and asked me a hundred variations on the same stupid question. (“What was going through your mind when you rescued Agent Demitasse?”) And Captain Bottroff actually was nice to me for most of a day.
But most people here treated it with the same yeah-whatever-can-I-have-another-beer attitude that they treated everything else. The only thing that really caused comment was the fact that I actually used my dive-knife. In all my years of diving, that was the first time I’d ever wielded the thing. Most divers never even unsheathed it except maybe to get a can open.
Once the news crews went away, I was back to being Cassie Zukav, part-time dive instructor, part-time help at the Bottroff House, underwater photographer—
—and regular at Mayor Fred’s. Including Friday night. Where, sure enough, Rance showed up.
“So, you still got a job, or did they clip your FBI cuff links for flirting with a suspect?”
Rance smiled his small-yet-adorable smile. “Nah, I still have a job. Actually, I got a reprimand, but that was it. Turns out Jerri put something in my drink to make me, uh, susceptible.”
Well, color me disappointed. Here I was expecting fancy-schmancy hypnotic powers from a strange mythical creature, and all I got was a sex-starved immortal bimbo with access to good drugs.
But I was grateful, too. At least my instincts about Rance’s behavior were right.
He continued, “That’s actually why I was acting so weird last week. And I’m really sorry about that, Cass—the acting weird part, I mean. Believe me, I wouldn’t have treated you like that normally. In any case, every law-enforcement agency in the country’s looking for her and her brother.”
I sipped my beer. Somehow, I had a feeling that the Nickses weren’t going to be found. I’d gone to the local library and looked up some nixie legends, and one thing they all had in common: no one ever stopped the nixies or defeated them or killed them. The best anyone could do was take their prize away from them.
And hey, any time you can do as well as a Grimm’s fairy-tale hero or heroine, you’re doing pretty damn good.
Rance started to say something, then 1812 came back out and started their set with an old Dire Straits song off their first album called “Down to the Waterline.” Gena brought over Rance’s beer.
Just as the band finished the lengthy intro to the song, I held up my beer. “To men who can give a nixie an orgasm underwater.”
It wasn’t every day I could surprise Rance, but I figured I managed it this time—he snarfed his beer all over the table.
ENDIf you liked
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