Curran Hunter looked into the grey water and thought about drowning.
Not here, close to the pier. Too shallow. Out there, where the grey turned to deep-sea blue like the ocean abyss that had so nearly claimed him six months before. Except this time he would go willingly, just let go and sink to the bottom with no struggle. At peace. At peace for the first time in so very long.
The walk on the pier had become a daily habit: a therapeutic slice of mundane sanity, his heels ringing hollow drumbeats on the worn timbers of the pier. It was a comforting sound, like a heartbeat in silence. The tang of salt air always revived him, although the bright morning sun flashing off the water was punishing to his hangovers. The noises of industry were helpfully muted by distance and masked by the soft slap of choppy waves against concrete pilings.
Most often he came here looking for oblivion. This time he needed his capricious brain to come up with some answers. Sea King Drilling had notified him that they were suspending his compensation payments pending yet another legal opinion on his case. It was just the latest move in the game they’d played for six months. He’d spend another day pleading with legal aid, another waiting in a stagnant courtroom waiting for a scant minute or two of judicial wisdom. So far, the judgments had gone his way; but that wouldn’t put a badly needed check in his mailbox tomorrow. He’d be spending a few days with an empty belly, and his landlady was quickly losing patience waiting for her rent. He’d already dodged her twice that week. What if the checks never came again?
Could he return to northern Michigan with the jagged rock-cuts and stunted pines that had framed his youth? With both his parents dead and the old house sold to pay debts, there was little point. His dad had sold sports equipment to turn the end of his NFL career into a second livelihood, but those were the days before multi-million-dollar contracts for endorsements. When the old homestead went on the market, Hunter hadn’t been able to buy it.
Hunter's underwater work paid well, but it was seasonal and sporadic. It was only the last few years on the big oil rigs that he’d had a steady income. Too much of that had gone to booze and bullshit, but at least he’d been making something of himself. Then, even that had come to an end.
His attention was drawn to a stooped figure near one of the big wharves. It was an older man fiddling with something—a fishing rod, maybe. Yeah, that was a tackle box beside him. Not many fish worth catching this close to the docks, and you wouldn’t want to eat them. Or maybe the man had nothing better to do than throw a line into the water, and let his bobber count the passing of days.
“Mostly garbage fish, this close in,” Hunter said. “They like the crap from the sugar refinery, I think.”
The older man looked up. His face and hair seemed a little too well-tended for his slightly shabby tan jacket and khaki slacks, but the battered Tilley hat had the fit of repeated wearing.
“Oh, I’m after bigger fish,” the man replied in a cultured voice. “And I know where to find them.” He plucked his tackle box from the ground with practiced ease and fell into step with Hunter. They didn’t speak for a moment, then the older man asked, “Do you fish?”
“Not much anymore,” Hunter admitted. “I’m a scuba diver, and when you actually see the fish down there, in their own environment, it changes your thinking about them.” He’d wanted to be a diver for as long as he could remember; captivated by old Jacques Cousteau TV specials and the TV adventure show called Sea Hunt. He looked up at gulls wheeling above a sailboat and thought about the world that tugged at him from beneath the surface. Then he realized that he’d stopped walking. He gave an embarrassed shrug and held out his hand. “Curran Hunter. My friends don’t use my first name. Neither does anybody else.”
“Johnson.” The grip had the firmness of sincerity. They began to move again. “Scuba diving. For work or for pleasure?”
“Both. Submersibles, too, although . . . I’m out of work at the moment.”
“I might just be able to help with that.”
Hunter snapped his head around, not sure he’d heard correctly. “You might be able to what?”
“Help you. Find a job.” There was a hint of a smile on the man’s lips. Then it faded. He’d enjoyed his little surprise, but business was business.
“Who said I wanted one?”
“What would it take?” The inscrutable eyes narrowed slightly, focused on the middle distance.
“You mean for me to get back into submersibles? I don’t know—I haven’t really thought about it.” That was a lie. “I . . . something really challenging, I guess. Interesting. Worth doing.” Safe was the word that came to mind, but he didn’t want to say it. “And a helluva lot of money!” He gave a grin to lighten the exchange. The other man’s smile was more genuine.
“I can’t promise that. But interesting? Challenging? Oh God, yes.”
A flock of gulls had begun to raise a ruckus out to sea, fluttering chaotically around a spot on the surface and occasionally plunging down to pluck at something. Water was both the lifeblood of the planet, and the depository for the dead.
Hunter suddenly stopped walking again as the conversation triggered a memory. He felt heat rise into his face.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Let me guess. Actually, you know about my background. You know almost everything about me. Right?” The startled look on the other’s face made Hunter press on. “You’re working for Sea King Drilling, trying to find out if I’m just faking it.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You guys already tried this once before, OK? I’m not claiming anything—it was the company shrinks who said I had a problem, not me.”
“So you’re saying you’re ready to go back to work?”
“I’m . . . ” The words stalled. Was that true? He felt a chill down his spine.
Johnson took advantage of the hesitation. “I know who you are, yes. But I have nothing to do with your former employers or anyone else who might have approached you. I need someone with your special skills.”
Hunter wanted to escape. And he wanted to hear more.
“Look,” the older man said finally. “Here’s a number where you can reach me.” He gave Hunter a card. “But I can’t wait long for your decision.”
Hunter looked at the card and gave a slow shake of his head.
“And all of this . . . ” A sweep of his hand took in the shabby clothing and fishing gear. “Was just to check me over?”
The man looked bemused. “Not only that. This might be my last chance to go fishing for a very long time.”
They’d stopped in front of a medium-sized pier. About halfway along the right side, a boat rose and fell in the light chop. It was small for a yacht, but too large for a cabin cruiser, and it gave off an aura of age.
His companion turned and walked toward it.
Hunter traveled the rest of the wharf with his eyes wide, seeing nothing.
# # #
Back at his apartment, a ragged fan of unpaid bills stared up at Hunter from the top of the battered dresser, their typefaces bold and accusing. Overlooking the pages with expressions of weary patience were the faces of his mother and father in a frame held together with scotch tape. Their smiles now seemed only pixels deep. He must have been a disappointment to them—his grades at school only average; his ambitions lukewarm. For a time he’d appeared to be following in his father’s footsteps toward a pro ball career, but a series of ill-considered drunken escapades washed him out of college; and not long after that, his parents were gone, taken in a flash of tortured plastic and steel. They never saw him return to school to train for underwater work and finally find the calling that had eluded him so long. Underwater was the only place he’d ever excelled, the only place that ever felt like home.
Now it was home to his greatest fears.
Maybe if he faced those fears, it would free him from their power. What other choice did he have? He had to eat.
Could his sanity tolerate a return to the cramped quarters of a submersible, a potential tomb at the bottom of the sea? A cold hand clamped onto his guts.
The darkness was all encompassing and stifling. His chest tightened in anticipation of each breath, fearful that the next would be thick with carbon dioxide, and the next after that . . . empty.
He felt sick. Numbed. It was the pressure. The pressure of having to choose—the terrible weight of a mistake. He curled into a ball and tried to hide.
Sensations bled away. He was drifting. Floating.
He was flotsam on the surface of a grey sea, buoyed up but also paralyzed. Helpless to keep scavenging gulls from tearing chunks of his flesh, only to rise and wheel and tear at him again. He tried to cry out, but could not. His head was all he could move; and as he turned it to the side, he saw a nearby fishing boat with two men at the gunwales. One was the man from the pier. He was crying: salt tears splashing into the salt sea. The other man was one of the phonies who had come from Sea King to trick him. His mouth was open like one of the taunting gulls.
Hunter flung out an arm and sent the empty tumbler from the bedside table skittering to the floor in a spray of broken shards. He cursed and sat up. Motes of dust sparkled in a shaft of weak sunlight, daring him to focus on them. He couldn’t, not right away. He waved a hand through the air, as if shooing a cloud of fireflies, then rubbed his eyes and slowly lay back down making the bed springs protest. He stared at the ceiling, but the pre-dawn half-light obscured in its shadows more than it revealed.
Lately, the dream had taken on bizarre elements: noises, apparitions, and the sense of an unseen presence. Things that couldn’t have been part of the real event. How could he even distinguish between reality and dream anymore after the way the shrinks had torn his psyche apart and shoe-horned it back together? How could anything ever feel normal again after something like that? Ever feel truly real?
Death had nearly taken him. He’d insisted all these months, to himself and everyone else, that he’d done nothing wrong; but the truth was that he just didn’t know. The memory of it was as mutable as a kaleidoscope. And what about those final moments? Had he simply lost his nerve and gone batshit crazy, like they said?
He rolled sideways in a practiced motion and pulled open the door of the bar fridge beside the bed, hoping that he’d remembered to refill the ice cube tray. The only bourbon he could afford required lots of ice to be drinkable. Especially for breakfast.
He tipped two shrunken nuggets of ice into a mug that was waiting to be washed, then floated them with the amber liquid and placed the empty tray on top of the fridge. His first gulp was a large one. So were the ones that followed.
Finally, he snapped on the small lamp beside him, picked up the plain-looking business card he’d left leaning against its base, and reached for the phone.
# # #
The man who’d called himself Johnson sat in front of a screen propped up on a kitchen table.
“Well, what do you think now?” He’d made the video link to his headquarters only moments after finishing the call with Hunter, his new recruit. It was still just after dawn. The face looking back at him from the iPad was as rumpled as the bed sheets behind it.
“We’ve talked about this before,” the other man said, his ebony forehead creasing in a frown. “This . . . Hunter definitely has a gift for handling submersibles, but he’s also been through hell. His psyche is fragile. What you’re about to ask from him could be more than he can handle. It caused a complete mental breakdown in your first pilot.”
“Travis Li has recovered.”
“That’s not true. He’s returned to society, but I’m not sure he’ll ever recover.”
“You’re a psychologist, Truman, and you don’t deal in absolutes. We’ve learned a great deal since our failure with Li.”
“And yet this whole thing smacks of déjà vu—the government is forcing your hand, just like before. Trashing the schedule. Pushing your equipment beyond its tested limits. That ended badly last time, yet here you go again, throwing this man Hunter into the pool at the deep end.”
“The file says he’s a good swimmer.”
“Joke if you like, Devon, but with equipment this exotic and those new techniques you’re insisting upon . . . I can’t be sure what will happen.”
“What would you have me do? It’s a matter of life and death.”
“Yes. And perhaps for your pilot as much as for your patient. I wonder if you’ll tell him that?”