GOING DOWN WITH THE SHIP, A Winthrow Key Adventure Short Story by Eric Douglas (Segments 1 thru 8)6
The conch made its way slowly across the sand – journeying from one reef outcropping to the next. The separation was no more than 20 feet, but it had probably taken the poor creature hours to make it the 15 feet it had traveled so far. Tiny marks – footprints, really – in the white sand showed his progress and the determination it had taken.
The reef itself was spectacular and the warm water was perfectly clear. The divers could see more than 80 feet in any direction as they hovered weightless five feet above the sand and reef bottom and 40 feet from the surface. The reef was alive with fish life and color. The coral itself looked healthy on this particular spot, something Jackson Pauley was glad to see. Not all of the dive sites on the United States’ only living coral reef were in as good of shape – storm water runoff with pollutants and fertilizer drainage from farms had seen to that.
The conch still had five feet to go. It would no doubt take it another several hours to make it to the relative safety of the reef structure. What had caused it to decide to move from one to the other was anybody’s guess. A predator itself, the conch was probably looking for fresh prey, but it was taking a risk crossing the open sand. Fortunately, for the conch, its large and ornately-decorated shell provided some degree of protection against larger predators, but not from the most dangerous creature in the ocean. It had nothing to protect it from that.
Jackson was leading a group of divers from the Midwest along the reef. Some of them were pretty good in the water. He could tell they took their diving seriously and were conscious of their motion and breathing. A couple of the divers in the group weren’t really paying attention, however. Jackson saw them brush against the reef and one had actually sat down on a brain coral as he adjusted his fin. Sometimes there was no getting through to people.
A diver spotted the slow moving conch and descended to the sand to get a closer look. At first, she kept a respectful distance. Then she moved closer. The little mollusk didn’t stand a chance. It attempted to retreat inside its shell, but the diver picked it up to look. Jackson guessed she wanted to see where it had gone. Not seeing anything, the diver simply dropped the shell back on the sand. It landed upside down. She swam away.
Nature and natural selection would probably have allowed the critter to survive, although it would have taken a while for the animal to work its way out of the shell and turn everything right side up again. In that time, it could have fall prey to just about anything with teeth under the water.
As soon as the divers moved on, Jackson swam over and righted the animal. He also moved it a couple feet closer to its original objective. For your trouble, he thought as he followed along with the divers.
Back on the boat, Jackson checked everyone in to make sure the entire group had made it back onboard. This was the second dive of the day on a two-tank trip and that was it. Once all the divers were accounted for, the boat crew would head the boat back to the dock – just in time to turn it around and do it again. On good days, they could offer two trips a day and a third trip for a night dive, a couple times a week.
Such was the life of a divemaster in the Florida Keys. Jackson was actually a dive instructor, but he spent most of his time working with vacationing divers, leading dives and making sure everyone enjoyed their dive experience. Many novice divers and non-divers confuse the role of a divemaster compared to that of the instructor, believing divemasters to be superior. Divemasters are the first level of dive professional, serving as dive leaders and tasked with the safety of divers in their care. They cannot, however, teach people to dive. And that was why Jackson thought of himself as a divemaster, rather than an instructor. He rarely got the opportunity to teach. It wasn’t all that bad, he reasoned, very few people he knew had an office with this nice of a view.
Jackson signaled the boat captain that everyone was on board and a deckhand raised the anchor. The captain turned the boat toward the beach and began bringing the engines up to cruising speed. The divers were busy packing away their gear and gathering up their belongings. They were all excitedly talking about the things they had seen on the dive, including several large barracuda that hovered calmly above the reef waiting for lunch to swim by. None of them even remember the conch, Jackson thought. He was a bit of sucker for underdogs. The big guys could take care of themselves.
Jackson moved forward in the boat, just behind the captain, to talk for a minute. As the captain turned the boat slightly to port, he crossed a wave awkwardly. It caused the boat to lurch down and then up sharply. One of the passengers, the woman who had picked up the conch earlier, lost her balance.
While there were rails around the boat, and the ropes were in place, she was just in the one, unlucky spot that would allow her to slip, bounce and then fall overboard. She was in the water before anyone knew what had happened. Jackson saw the entire scene in slow motion. He saw her crumple as she hit the water. The boat was going better than 20 knots. There was no way she was conscious.
Without hesitation, Jackson took three long strides, moving toward the stern. His next step was onto the seat the divers used. From there he launched himself into the air. The boat kept moving forward and by the time he hit the water, it was 10 feet away. He dove directly through the wake kicked up by the boat’s twin propellers.
Jackson was still wearing his wetsuit so he had extra buoyancy. He surfaced from the dive to get his bearings and then dived down, piking his body to get below the surface quickly. In the back of his mind, Jackson was aware the captain cut the engines back and was beginning to circle around.
If he didn’t get to the woman quickly, she would drown. He knew she was unconscious, and she was sinking. Jackson dived again, the lift his wetsuit provided working against him at the moment. He had to struggle to get down. In his reaction to rescue the woman, he had jumped into the water without his fins or mask. If he didn’t find her quickly, he knew she would be out of reach, visually and physically. There would be no way he could dive down more than 15 or 20 feet without the proper equipment.
As he turned to bolt back toward the surface, Jackson saw her. She was drifting underwater – her face toward the surface. He couldn’t see clearly through the water, but she didn’t appear to be moving. He broke the surface, rising up as high as he could, inhaling deeply and then immediately turning to swim back down.
He pulled and fought his way through the water. His lungs were beginning to burn from the exertion. He hadn’t spent enough time on the surface to clear the carbon dioxide that was building up in his body. Jackson didn’t know how much strength he was going to have left when he got to her. He could see the dark outline of her body sinking deeper. She definitely wasn’t moving. Jackson’s head began to swim from the exertion. He might just black out, although there wasn’t anything he could do about it at this point. He did his best to focus and concentrate.
It wasn’t the first time Jackson had been in a situation like this. He had been a firefighter in New York City on September 11. He had pushed himself beyond what he thought were his limits on that day – like everyone he knew. He knew fear. He knew confusion and frustration at not being able to help those who needed it. He also knew how to dig deep, deeper than he ever realized he could.
Pulling and kicking, he finally made it to the woman. As quickly as he could, he grabbed the woman, wrapping an arm around her chest and below both of her arms. He began to swim for the surface. Now the buoyancy of the wetsuit worked in his favor, but it wouldn’t be enough on its own. He had to kick. He pulled with his one free hand. And he held on with the other. He had to make it to the surface.
The feeling of the air and sun hitting his face as he broke the surface was the most welcome feeling he had had in a long time. The boat was only 20 feet away. The captain and the other passengers had been able to track his progress from above and were following along.
Within seconds, one of the passengers tossed out a life ring. Jackson grabbed hold and they all worked together to pull him and the unconscious woman to the boat. The passengers on the boat pulled so hard on the rope to get them on board, Jackson and his unconscious companion dipped below the surface and Jackson swallowed a mouthful of water. He almost lost his grip, but was able to hold on. The woman was a dead weight behind him, pulling him under.
As they reached the boat, hands stretched out and pulled the woman onboard. They immediately began providing care. Jackson climbed up on the swim step at the stern of the boat and rested for a second.
“She isn’t breathing. What do we do?” one of the divers called out.
“Remember your training. Open the airway. Give her a chance,” Jackson croaked back as he tried to stand. “And someone get the oxygen unit.”
One of the other divers stepped in and moved the woman’s head back and lifted her chin forward.
“She isn’t breathing,” the second rescuer said after 10 seconds.
“Use the mask. Start CPR,” Jackson instructed as he caught his breath and moved forward in the boat. He was trained as a medic in his past life and had worked these situations before as well.
The rescuer put the mask in place and caused the woman’s chest to rise each time he exhaled. Jackson dropped to his knees beside the woman. As he did, he glanced up at the boat captain and signaled for him to call for help and get the boat moving again.
Breath. Breath. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….28, 29, 30. Breath. Breath. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….28, 29, 30.
While the rescuer breathed for the unconscious woman, Jackson turned on the oxygen unit and connected the hose to the mask. She needed oxygen and she needed it as quickly as possible. By adding oxygen to the rescue breaths, they were giving her as much oxygen as they could at the moment.
Breath. Breath. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….28, 29, 30.
The woman began to choke and cough. Jackson reached across her body and rolled her onto her side as quickly as he could. He opened her mouth to help clear out the vomit.
They rolled her back down and checked for breathing sounds again. She started breathing on her own.
The boat continued to bounce back toward the beach, moving as quickly as the captain was able to push it, but the divers on board never noticed. They had collectively held their breath and prayed. Now they began to relax.
Within minutes, the boat pulled into the harbor and an ambulance crew was waiting at the dock. A crowd had started to gather – it included a local TV crew.
Jackson helped the medics get the woman sorted out. She was breathing normally now, and had started to regain consciousness. The medics switched her from the boat’s O2 unit to their own and loaded her onto a gurney to take her to the hospital. Jackson began to feel the inevitable let down as the emergency was over and his body stopped forcing adrenaline into his system. He suddenly felt very tired. His wiry 5’11” frame suddenly felt more like he was carrying 300 pounds, rather than the 175 he truly was.
“Jackson, Jackson,” the reporter from the TV crew called. “Can we get a comment from you? The divers on the boat said you saved this woman’s life. You’re a hero.”
“Look,” Jackson replied, as he pushed his hand through the sand-colored curls on top of his head. “I don’t want any credit. I don’t want any publicity. I just want to be left alone.” With that, Jackson jumped back on board the boat as the captain fired the boat’s engines up to move it back to the boat’s normal slip.
“What’s that all about?” the captain asked Jackson. “You could’ve had your 15 minutes there. Would’ve been good for a drink or two at the bar tonight.”
Jackson stood quietly looking out over the water for a minute. The captain thought he hadn’t heard him and started to repeat the question.
“I was in New York when the world changed. I know guys who ran into those buildings trying to help people. A bunch of them never came back. Those guys are heroes,” Jackson said quietly, with a far away look in his eyes. He was imagining a scene he would never forget. “After what we all saw, some of the guys turned to drinking or whatever. I just decided to get away. I want to guide divers and be left alone. The last thing I am is a hero.”
“Hello. I’m looking for some information about a company doing business in town,” Andrea Perez said as she walked up to the counter in the city hall building. “It’s the company doing the work on the ship they’re going to sink off shore – Seashore Engineering.”
“What are you looking for, dear?” the middle-aged clerk asked of the petite, dark-skinned Latina.
“Well, whatever you’ve got, I guess. I can’t seem to find any information about them online. I’m looking for names of parent companies or officers. I’d like to know who put up the bond for the work they are doing. Can I just see their corporate papers? I’ll know what I’m looking for when I find it.”
“So, why are you looking for all this information, sweetheart?” the woman asked as she opened a file drawer and began looking.
“I’m with an environmental group out of Ft. Lauderdale, Protect the Reefs, and there are some rumors this company is actually a different organization that’s under investigation for environmental violations in several different states and a couple countries.”
“Now, just hold on a minute here,” Glenn Downing said as he interrupted the conversation. Downing was the local organizer of the artificial reef project. Considering the money and attention he was bringing to the local community, and the amount of money the local area made off scuba diving, the city government gave him office space in city hall to work on the project. “Hold on a minute. I don’t think this young lady has the right to see what’s in those documents, Mrs. Charles.”
“I’m sorry. Just who are you?” Andrea stammered, momentarily taken aback.
“I’m Glenn Downing. I’m putting this whole project together. I’ve raised all the money from private donors and the state, and I’m the one who is going to provide this enormous attraction for the local diving community. It’ll bring millions into the local economy,” Downing said, as he slipped into his standard speech about the benefits of the project.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Downing. I believe those are public documents, just like every other contract with the city and the local citizenry has the right to look them over,” Andrea responded. She had been through similar situations before and now that she knew who she was talking to, she could handle the situation – she thought.
“You might be right, of course, but since you aren’t a citizen of this town, or county for that matter, I don’t think that applies to you. I think you’ll have to ask the city council to see that information. Mrs. Charles here just can’t give it to anyone,” Downing stonewalled. “Besides, this is an extremely reputable company. They provided us with the best references. There is nothing to suspect from them.”
“Are you kidding me?” Andrea retorted, her temper quickly getting the better or her. “What are you trying to hide, Mr. Downing?”
“I think that’s enough,” Downing said imperiously. “As I said, you’ll have to ask the city council for permission to see those records. They meet once a month, on the first Tuesday. They met last night so you’ll have to come back next month.”
Downing was on his way out of the office when he had intercepted Andrea looking for information. As it turned out, he was on his way to meet with the owners of the very company she was looking to investigate. If she had known that, she could have followed him, although they weren’t exactly working in secret. You couldn’t work in secret on a ship that large, in the middle of a small town.
The ship they were preparing as an artificial reef was the USS Beauregard, a Sumner-class Destroyer, commissioned at the end of World War II that served the US Navy through the early-90s. It had been mothballed for years. The proper pressure applied by the right US Senator had saved it from being turned into razor blades. Now it was going to be an exciting new attraction for divers visiting Withrow Key.
Withrow Key was a small, rundown town, halfway between Key Largo and Key West. At one point, before the major highway opened up and drivers could make it to Key West in a few hours, it had been a major spot along the route. Trains would stop there and passengers would hop off to stretch their legs and have dinner and drinks. More than one celebrity had spent time in Withrow Key.
Now, however, most drivers barely noticed the withering community. It was just one more wide spot in the road to stop and get a cold drink on the way to somewhere more popular. Buildings were weathered and tired, but still solid. The locals still had pride in the town, but there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. They didn’t waste it on pretty signs and decorations.
It just so happened Withrow Key had its own deepwater dock. Passing Navy ships would stop in and take on cargo, or give the crew a rest back in the 1940s and 50s. Because of this, they were able to prepare the Beauregard to become an artificial reef locally instead of having the preparation work done in Miami before towing the boat into position. This served to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy as the crew doing the work stayed in local hotels and ate their meals in local diners. Beyond that, though, the local politicians and organizers hoped this new attraction would bring divers to Withrow Key and revitalize the economy. A lot was riding on having the USS Beauregard underwater and available to divers.
To prepare a ship to be a dive site and artificial reef, the ship had to have holes cut through its hull. Divers often want to penetrate wrecks – that is, they want to swim inside. In a natural shipwreck, whatever that was (there isn’t much natural about a ship on the bottom of the ocean), divers enter through portholes and doorways. This can be dangerous, however, as it’s easy to get turned around and lost inside. No local government wants to build an attraction for divers that ends up killing them. So when ships are designated as artificial reefs, they are prepared to allow for easier access.
But even more important than work done for access, at least to Andrea, was the environmental work. Workers must thoroughly clean ships of contaminants. They have to remove diesel fuel, oils and other chemicals that are commonly on board a warship. Again, in contrast to a true shipwreck where no one chooses what ends up on the reef, no government wants to create a dive destination that ends up killing the reef itself.
The larger the artificial reef, the more work has to be done, cutting holes, cleaning contaminants and preparing the ship. There are artificial reefs all over the world. All of them provide vital fish habitats and structure for coral animals and other marine organisms to call home. But most importantly for the people of Withrow Key, it would be an exciting place for divers to dive.
“Good afternoon,” Downing said as he stepped out of the bright Florida sun into the relative shade of the Seashore Engineering work trailer, positioned on the dock beside the massive ship. The company doing the preparation work on the USS Beauregard wasn’t spending a lot of money on trappings. They were doing this job as simply as they could. “I have an appointment to see Mr. Parker.”
“Hello, Mr. Downing. Go right in. They’re expecting you,” the receptionist replied.
“Hello gentlemen,” Downing said as he walked through the door and waved to the men in the room, before he turned to address the man in charge. “Hello, Mr. Parker.”
“Mr. Downing, come on in. Have a seat. Wow, is it hot outside or what?” Parker said making small talk as he pointed to a chair in front of his desk. The other men, Parker’s assistants and key team leaders, rocked back in chairs against the far wall. “Before we get started on our weekly progress report, I just want to tell you how impressed we all are,” Parker continued.
He swept his hand toward the three men in the room, and they all nodded their heads. “You’ve done a tremendous job organizing community support, getting the dive operations involved and keeping the city people excited as well. This is as good a project as I’ve seen anywhere.”
“Thanks, Mr. Parker, I appreciate that. I’ve been thinking, actually, about hiring myself out after this all said and done to communities interested in bringing in an artificial reef of their own. This program has run so smoothly, I think other people could benefit from my expertise,” Downing said, gushing at the high praise. “You know, I really believe projects like this are important for the economy and the environment at the same time.”
“It’s a rare individual like you that understands that. And it’s great to see someone as bright and enthusiastic as yourself who sees how the needs of the environment and the economy can work hand-in-hand,” Parker said. “As for the project, I want you to know that everything is going just fine. We’re right on schedule and things are going smoothly. Nothing special to report, as a matter-of-fact.”
“That’s great to hear, Mr. Parker. That’s why I’m so pleased with your company. I just love to work with professionals like you,” Downing said.
“We’d be happy to take you on an inspection tour of our progress. The ship is pretty big, but we can probably cover all the important areas in about three hours or so. Of course, there isn’t any air conditioning inside the ship so it’ll probably be pretty hot,” Parker volunteered.
“Oh, that won’t be necessary at all. You gentlemen are the experts at this. I’m just a diver and a community organizer. I’ll leave it up to you to do your job. Besides, I have several other meetings today with the mayor and key business people in town. We’re making final arrangements for the ceremony to sink her. I just won’t have time to do the inspection tour today,” Downing explained. He really didn’t want to get hot and sweaty on a day like today. He needed to make some more plans. If this all worked out the way he expected it would, he was planning on taking his success on the road. He imagined other towns around the country would pay him very well to duplicate his accomplishments.
“Sure, I understand,” Parker said. “A busy man like you can’t worry about the details. You hire people you trust to do a job and let them do it. That’s the mark of a great administrator.”
“Thank you, Mr. Parker. I pride myself in being a good manager and being in control of the big picture,” Downing preened as he stood to leave. He didn’t realize it, but he was actually the one being dismissed. “And that’s just what I was telling that young environmentalist girl who was snooping around today at city hall. You men are the experts and you know exactly what you’re doing. Listen, I think I’ll be going now. If you gentlemen need me for anything, just let me know, but I’ll leave you to your jobs.”
“It was good to see you again, Mr. Downing,” Parker replied as he showed him to the door of the office. “We’ll be ready in three days for the final sinking. Everything will be perfect. Don’t you worry.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Parker,” Downing said as he left.
Back inside the office, Parker closed the door behind him, raised his hand to signal “Wait” and walked to the window. He watched Downing walk to his car, get in and close the door before he said anything.
He lowered his hand and chuckled to himself.
“Is he always like that?” one of the men in the room asked.
“You mean an idiot?” Parker asked, laughing fully. “Yeah, pretty much. He doesn’t have a clue who we are or what’s going on. He’s never been on the ship, other than just to glance around the upper deck. It’s simple really. You flatter him a little bit, blow a little smoke up his skirt and he goes away. It is much easier than bribing him.”
“And what he doesn’t know, or isn’t smart enough to ask, won’t hurt him” one of the other men continued.
“You got it. We clean it up, carrying barrels on board to remove contaminants, except some of them go on already full. And they don’t seem to make it off. No one will ever know where it comes from,” Parker continued. “It was a stroke of genius to take the waste from the chrome plating factory in Miami and get rid of it this way. We make tons of extra money charging to dispose of the chemicals up there and then this genius pays us to get rid of it down here. Glad I thought of it all.”
“And if it kills a few fish in the process, well that’s just too bad.”
“Not my problem. We’ll be finished up and out of here by then. The company will be dissolved and we’ll be doing this again somewhere else. Or maybe I’ll retire this time to my home in Costa Rica,” Parker laughed.
“What about the environmentalist he mentioned?”
“Check around and see if you can find out who it is. If you can, encourage the girl that it’s time to leave town,” Parker said.
The jukebox in the corner thumped out a country tune that Jackson Pauley barely heard and cared about even less. He was hungry. He wanted his food and he wanted to go home. Even though he had successfully avoided the local TV reporter who had questions about his actions on board the dive boat, he had still spent the day talking to police, the US Coast Guard and other authorities. He also had to write up an incident report for his dive training agency’s insurance company. The dive center he worked for was covered by liability insurance and they had to make sure everything was in writing in case someone decided to sue. It wasn’t unheard of that a business had been sued right out of existence for doing nothing more than trying to help someone in trouble. Jackson didn’t think they had done anything wrong, and he heard the woman was doing just fine, but he still had to make sure all bases – and his butt – were covered.
In the excitement at the dock, he had also missed out on getting tipped by the divers and he had had to skip the second trip the fill out his paperwork. While he was paid by the dive center, it wasn’t much. The tips helped out quite a bit. Not that Jackson really needed it. He had a pension from New York City for his time as a firefighter, but he tried to stay away from that money and lived on his earnings as a dive instructor. Understandably, he wasn’t getting rich, but neither his lifestyle nor his outlook indicated that was a problem.
Jackson stood at one end of the bar waiting on the waitress to bring his burger and fries out of the kitchen. His eyes scanned the neon beer signs and the mirrors that adorned the walls. It could have been any small town bar anywhere in the country. At least the view outside was nice, Jackson thought.
And the view outside the bar was nice. It faced out onto the main harbor on Withrow Key. It wrapped around a sleepy marina with dozens of boats owned by locals and travelers alike. Some saw daily duty on the water, others didn’t appear as if they had been moved in years. The sun was setting across the water and it bathed everything in a beautiful orange glow.
Walking outside with his food in hand, Jackson placed a hat on his head to cover up his distinctive sand-colored hair – just in case someone was still looking for him – and began walking across the gravel parking lot under the half-bright illumination of the pole-mounted lights. He almost made it to his worn out Jeep Cherokee when he saw something he didn’t like. There were three men harassing a woman. Jackson had hated bullies since he was a kid. He had knocked down more than his fair share over the years. And never, never did he allow a man to mistreat a woman in his presence. Call it his sense of chivalry or whatever. It didn’t matter to Jackson. He just knew he didn’t like it.
He tossed his sandwich into the open window of his jeep and walked toward the three men. He drew near just as one of the men grabbed the woman by the arm and turned her around roughly. He could see the woman was scared. And that was all it took.
“I think you three need to leave the lady alone,” Jackson said, loud enough to be heard, but without raising his voice.
“Just who do you think you are?” one of the three said as he whirled around on Jackson.
“Doesn’t matter who I am,” Jackson responded, still quiet. “I said you need to leave the lady alone.”
“Maybe the lady wants to be with us,” the second man said.
“No, I don’t,” Andrea Perez shouted.
“Sounds like the lady is tired of your company,” Jackson continued.
“What’re you going to do about it?” the biggest of the three asked, moving menacingly toward Jackson. “There’s only one of you and three of us. What’re you going to do about it?”
“If you three leave and leave the lady alone, absolutely nothing. If you don’t, then I’ll do whatever you make me do,” Jackson replied, still calm, but bracing himself for action.
The men were confused by Jackson’s calm demeanor. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t threatening. He was simply calm and speaking matter-of-factly. What the would-be attackers didn’t know was that Jackson had learned to fight growing up on the streets of the Bronx. Then, in the Navy, he had learned to channel his natural talents into boxing where he had successfully represented his ship in more than 40 bouts. He had continued boxing as an amateur in a league sponsored by the NY City Fire Department. While he hadn’t stepped into the ring since just before September 11, he had kept himself in shape, working on a speed bag and heavy bag at home on his house boat, running and exercising – not to mention swimming and diving nearly every day.
This situation, fighting three at once, harked back more to his days on the streets than in the ring, but it all came together nicely.
The first man charged at Jackson, trying to catch him off-guard. But Jackson was looking out for just such a move. He quickly side-stepped the larger man, and triple-tapped him as he passed, in the stomach, kidneys and ribs. With a loud oaf, the man hit his knees and tried to inhale, but found he couldn’t.
The second man approached Jackson more warily, but with the same result. Stepping inside of the man’s wild swings, Jackson went straight to the body and doubled the man over, quickly. Jackson had no intention of doing any serious harm, or even drawing blood for that matter. He didn’t want this situation to get out of hand. He simply wanted to discourage the men from harassing the woman.
As the last man saw his second accomplice hit the ground and fall onto his side, curled up in a ball, he let go of Andrea and began circling in toward Jackson. The two men moved cautiously. The attacker had just seen Jackson take out his two friends and neither of them had even landed a blow. He wasn’t sure how to deal with the smaller man, but he knew better than to rush in. The attacker towered over Jackson’s 5’11”, 175 pound frame, but he was still concerned.
Jackson was in a boxing crouch, preparing himself for the attack when suddenly he stopped, stood straight up and laughed.
“What do you think’s so funny?”
“You’re so worried about me, but you forgot about the other person in this fight,” Jackson said.
“What other person?” the man asked as he glanced quickly to his right and left.
Andrea didn’t go away when the man released her. She just stepped out of the way. Now she stood directly behind the last of the remaining attackers. With a swift kick, putting all of her energy and every ounce of her 110 pound frame into it, she launched a 50-yard field goal and dropped the man to his knees. He was unconscious before his head hit the ground. Jackson knew he was still alive, however, because even unconscious, he continued to groan in pain.
“Certainly looks like you can take care of yourself,” Jackson said with an admiring grin as he turned to go.
“What’s your name? I want to thank you for helping out,” Andrea called after him.
“It’s Jackson, but you don’t owe me anything, so don’t worry about it. I’d just suggest you stay away from places that get you in trouble,” Jackson continued as he opened the door to his jeep and slid inside.
“Look, I don’t know what you think I was doing, but I was just looking for someone with a boat to take me out somewhere when those three goons started harassing me. I hadn’t even gone in the bar. I was on the dock out front,” Andrea continued.
“Well I don’t know what was up, but I’d still suggest taking off before those three get vertical again,” Jackson said as he mentally reviewed the people inside the bar and was forced to concede that he hadn’t seen her inside. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, I have my own car, over there,” Andrea said, gesturing across the parking lot, toward the main entrance of the pier.
“Well then, I’ll see you around. I’ve had a busy day today and it starts early again in the morning. I’ve got another group of tourists to take diving at 8 a.m. so I need to go home and get some rest,” Jackson said.
“So you’re a dive guide around here?” Andrea asked, hopeful that she had found someone to help her. She was holding onto the door of the jeep and talking to Jackson through the window.
“I’m a dive instructor, but not much call to teach. Mostly just leading dives for visiting divers,” Jackson replied. “I work with one of the bigger operations. I’ve got my own boat tied up at the dock, but don’t get much chance to go out and dive like I’d like to. Too busy working.”
Jackson wasn’t sure why he was talking so much to this woman. He hadn’t opened up to anyone in a long time, especially a stranger he met in the parking lot a few minutes before.
“Look miss, um?” Jackson hinted, as he really looked at her for the first time and realized she was attractive.
“The name is Andrea.”
“Well look, Andrea, I really do need to go now. As I said earlier, I suggest you get out of here and fast. Those guys look like they’re stirring a bit,” Jackson said as he keyed the ignition on his jeep and turned it over. “I’ll see you around.”
“I’m sure you will, Jackson,” Andrea called after him as he pulled out.
Jackson stepped outside of his houseboat at 6 a.m. just as he did every morning. It didn’t matter what he had done the night before. He was always up with the dawn. That worked out well, because he had to be at the dive boat in an hour to prepare for the tour he would be leading that day.
The only thing he was wearing was a pair of boxer shorts. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem since he really didn’t have any neighbors. No one else actually lived on the boats they had in the harbor. He had two – the houseboat and a 28 foot Boston Whaler that he had set up as a personal dive boat. He always kept a set of personal dive gear and tanks on board, just in case he got the opportunity to make a pleasure dive, although that opportunity didn’t come very often.
Jackson lived in the main marina. It was, in fact, the only marina in the town. It served as the center of town, the main attraction and the location of the only bar and decent restaurant on the key. There were a couple diners near the deepwater dock, but they mainly served the men working on the Beauregard and didn’t offer anything very appealing. It was also the same place Jackson had stopped the previous night to get dinner. But he lived at the other end, away from the more commercial side, if there was such a thing anymore, and the main entrance to the pier.
“Good morning, Jackson,” Andrea said out of the morning gloom.
Jackson turned around with a start.
“How long have you been there?” he asked, more out of shock than anything else.
“Long enough to see you stretch and scratch, but that’s about it,” Andrea giggled. “Kind of cute.”
“How’d you find me? Did you follow me?” Jackson asked, finally getting his thoughts together and immediately becoming suspicious.
“No, I didn’t follow you, but this is a pretty small community. I just asked around and found out who you were. I frankly expected more women would be able to tell me where you lived, but most of them said you keep to yourself,” Andrea explained. Her expression changed as she said, “I’m sorry for approaching you like this, but I need your help.”
“Look, lady, I don’t know who you are, but don’t make me regret helping you out last night. I’ve got enough of my own problems. I don’t need yours,” Jackson snapped, more forcefully than he intended.
“Boy, you’re a surly one in the morning,” Andrea teased.
“What is it?” Jackson said, doing his best to moderate his voice.
“First off, here. Take this. It’s just coffee. I thought you might want some,” Andrea said, handing him a large steaming cup.
“Second, let me start over. My name is Andrea Perez. I’m an investigator with Protect the Reefs out of Ft. Lauderdale. I’m investigating some things going on around here and I need some help.”
“Ok, Miss Andrea Perez of Ft. Lauderdale. Whatever you’re investigating, how do you know I’m not part of it?” Jackson asked.
“I told you I asked around last night. Everyone said you were an upstanding guy, but that you kept to yourself. The fact that you’re not local helps quite a bit too,” Andrea explained.
“So what is it you’re investigating? And why do you need me?” Jackson asked.
“We’ve heard rumors about the group preparing the USS Beauregard for sinking as an artificial reef. Nothing I can substantiate yet, but there are some irregularities. Chemicals not being used properly. Short cuts. That sort of thing. I want to check them out, but I keep getting stonewalled by all the locals,” Andrea explained.
“What is it you need from me?” Jackson asked.
“I want to check out the place they’re planning to sink the ship,” Andrea said.
“So you just need me to take you out on a dive to the coordinates? Is that it?” Jackson asked, surprised. He had expected more.
“That’s it. I’ll even be happy to pay for a private charter. I just need someone to take me out. All the locals I’ve talked to either aren’t interested or aren’t willing.”
“All right. Fine. I’ll do it. I have to work this morning, but I have this afternoon off. Meet me back here at 2 p.m. and we’ll go out. You are a diver, aren’t you?” Jackson asked, looking Andrea up and down and wondering, for an instant, what she would look like in a swim suit. The t-shirt and shorts she was wearing weren’t all that flattering, but gave just enough of a hint to show a tanned and toned body underneath.
“If it makes you feel better, I’m a dive instructor, too. I’ve traveled all over the world diving,” Andrea replied.
“Ok, fine. Meet me back here at two o’clock and we’ll go. And bring lunch,” Jackson said over his shoulder as he walked back inside his houseboat with the coffee Andrea handed him to get ready for his day.
Andrea stared at the doorway Jackson had just passed through for a minute.
“Well, I guess I’m dismissed,” she said with a laugh and she walked back to her car.
“Mr. Parker?” the man said quietly as he poked his head in the room.
“Yes, Rolly?” Parker replied to hulking man leaning through his door. Parker had sent the man, along with a couple other workers from the cleaning crew out to scare the environmentalist the night before. He was expecting this follow up report.
“Mr. Parker, we found that environmental girl you asked us to shake up last night, just like you told us to,” Rolly began, hesitantly. He was nervous and stumbling over his words. They hadn’t done well the previous night and he didn’t want to tell the boss.
“Mr. Parker, we found that environmental girl you asked us to shake up last night, just like you told us to,” Rolly began, hesitantly. He was nervous and stumbling over his words. They hadn’t done well the previous night and he didn’t want to tell the boss.
“Why am I getting the feeling I’m not going to like the way this story goes?” Parker asked.
“Mr. Parker, we was doing just like you told us to do. We were scarin’ the woman real good, and then this guy jumps in and turns the tables on us,” Rolly began explaining.
“What do you mean, ‘turns the tables’ on you? There were three of you, weren’t there? And you said it was only one guy? Right? So what was the problem?” Parker asked, nearly spitting out his words as he grew agitated. He always spoke faster and more aggressively when he got angry.
“Well, sir, there was really two of them, because when we was dealing with the new guy, the girl got in her licks as well,” Rolly tried to explain.
“So you went out to scare off this woman and she ended up scaring you? What do I pay you men for?” Parker yelled, on the verge of losing his temper completely.
“Sir, I’m a welder and the other guys are pipe fitters and machinists. We ain’t no fighters,” Rolly said, trying to be reasonable.
“Rolly, get out of my sight and get back to work. If you don’t, I might just change my mind and you might not get paid to do anything,” Parker growled. “Now, go.”
Parker watched Rolly retreat from his office and stared at the closed door for a few moments.
“Great. I sent these guys out to scare one woman, and all they accomplished was to let her know that someone was watching her. They might have scared her, or it could have just made her mad enough to keep digging even further,” Parker said to himself, shaking his head. “We shall see.”
Two o’clock rolled around bright and clear as the sun beat down on the island. Andrea appeared right on time, something that pleased Jackson.
They quickly loaded their equipment, and the lunch Andrea brought, into Jackson’s Boston Whaler, the Daydreamer, where it was moored in the slip beside his houseboat. The Daydreamer was a fiberglass-hulled boat built for fishing and diving. Its twin diesel engines could get it moving quickly. Jackson’s houseboat on the other hand, hadn’t actually left the dock in years. As a matter-of-fact, Jackson wasn’t sure it could move. It was in its slip when he bought it and moved in. Within just a few minutes, Jackson had the Daydreamer heading for open water.
Andrea was taking a moment to sun herself on the open stern of the boat. Jackson took a moment to look her up and down. She was an attractive woman, after all. His eye caught on the choker at her throat, however, not her more obvious attributes. It was a locket in the shape of a dolphin, jumping through the air.
“That’s an interesting necklace,” Jackson said to begin the conversation.
“What’s that?” Andrea asked, as his statement drew her back from her distant thoughts.
“That’s an interesting locket?” Jackson repeated. “Is there a story to it?”
“Well, sort of. My dad gave it to me a long time ago. He loved the ocean, too, and inspired that in me. We went to the ocean every time we could. I used to love to sit with dad on the sand dunes and watch the waves,” she said as she got up and walked back to Jackson. “He would tell me stories about being a diver and exploring the ocean. He died several years ago. That’s what got me where I am, today. I feel like I’m honoring him and his work.”
“Nice story,” Jackson replied. “It’s always interesting to hear how people fell in love with the ocean. For most water people, it’s usually a better story than their first kiss.”
Changing the subject, Jackson got back to the task at hand.
“So, please tell me you have coordinates of the place where they’re going to sink the Beauregard?” Jackson half asked and half-instructed Andrea.
“I’ve got the GPS coordinates right here,” she said handing him a slip of paper.
“Great. I had heard the general vicinity of where they were planning on putting it down, but not the exact location,” Jackson said as he entered the numbers into the digital readout on his GPS guidance system and hit the button to save them, which would also allow the autopilot to steer the boat directly there. He engaged the autopilot, and relaxed in the captain’s chair, but he didn’t get up. Like most boaters, he relied heavily on the electronics that helped him drive the boat, but he didn’t trust any of it completely.
“So, where did you get these coordinates?” Jackson asked after a moment. “I thought they were supposed to be secret.”
“They are, but the local organizers had to file them with the Coast Guard to make sure they weren’t going to impede shipping channels and that sort of thing,” Andrea explained. “You would be amazed what you can find out if you know where to look.”
“Hmmm. This is interesting,” Jackson said, staring at the GPS screen.
“What is it?” Andrea asked getting up and walking over to look at the display.
“Not sure yet. How recently did you say you got these numbers?”
“Just last week.”
“Interesting. This is not exactly where I thought they were going to sink her,” Jackson said. “According to the charts and the GPS readout, this area is completely covered in reef. I thought they were going to drop her further out on open sand.”
“They’re supposed to. It isn’t supposed to be sunk on a reef at all, or really all that close to it,” Andrea replied, peering at the digital display with a troubled look on her face.
Within a few more minutes, they were on the site, as indicated by the GPS coordinates.
“We’re here,” Jackson said. “Let’s get in the water and see what we can see.”
Jackson looked over the side of the boat and stared down into the water for a moment. With the sun high in the sky, he could easily see to the bottom, nearly 100 feet of seawater away. It was covered with reef for as much as he could see. It was a perfect day for a dive.
“I have to drop an anchor somewhere or this boat might take off and leave us behind. It looks like there’s a sandy area a few hundred yards that way. Let me head over there and we can navigate back to this spot,” Jackson said.
He guided the boat until he found a place he could comfortably put down an anchor. It wasn’t just the presence of the pretty environmentalist on his boat that made him want to be careful with the anchor. He understood that people came to visit the Keys for the convenience, as compared to flying to the islands, but also the quality of the reefs. If they all looked like torn up, no one would come here and the dive industry would fall apart. It was up to him, and everyone else for that matter, to take care of it. Jackson chuckled to himself when he thought of the conch walking across the sand floor and how it would handle someone dropping an anchor directly in front of it.
Once he found a good place to drop the anchor, Jackson measured the distance and the direction using the boat’s GPS system and plotted out their dive. Then they geared up and got ready to get wet.
“OK, you’re a dive instructor, but I’ve never been in the water with you, so here’s my normal routine. I hope you take all this as seriously as I do, or we can head back in. I don’t dive with anyone I don’t trust,” Jackson began.
Then he proceeded to show Andrea several of the hand signals he used in the water, and they discussed how they would dive together, when they would turn the dive to return to the boat and the signals for problems. Even among experienced divers, there are different ways to signal the same thing, and Jackson wanted to be sure they were on the same page.
“That all looks good, and thanks for going through that with me. There’s nothing I hate worse than some diver on a boat to tell me how experienced they are and not pay attention to my dive briefing. I’ve had divers brag about making over 1000 dives and then be the worst ones in the water,” Jackson said.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Andrea agreed. “To be honest, I was relieved when you said you wanted to run through a buddy check because I was afraid you were some cowboy, going to jump in the water and run off without me.”
“Fair enough. I’m glad we agree. According to the GPS system, we are about 400 yards from the actual spot where they are planning to sink the boat. This is as close as I could get to your coordinates and find sand,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but I circled around the entire site and this was the closest bare patch I could find. And it isn’t big enough for the Beauregard. To get to the actual site, we need to swim 400 yards on a 300 degree bearing.”
“You don’t think your GPS could be off, could it?” Andrea asked.
“I just calibrated it this afternoon when I got off work,” Jackson explained. “Anything’s possible, but I doubt it.”
“Well I’m not sure what’s going on either, but let’s take a look,” Andrea said. “Shall we?”
Jackson and Andrea back-rolled into the warm clear waters off the Florida Keys. Back rolling is almost always a slightly disorienting experience as you push backwards, holding your gear up tight, and fall into the water, usually a couple feet. You flounder on your back for a few seconds until the air in your buoyancy compensator jacket pushes you back to the surface.
The pair bobbed to the surface for a moment to make sure everything was fine and then they signaled to each other and immediately began their descent.
They were both able to drop quickly through the water, equalizing their ears to the surrounding pressure every few feet. As soon as they got a few feet underwater, Jackson took a bearing and began swimming in the direction they needed to head. There was no reason to waste time dropping straight down and then swimming along the bottom when they could simply swim forward while they descended. The water was clear enough that they were able to see the bottom clearly. Instead of trying to navigate the entire distance, Jackson spotted landmarks along the heading and swam to that spot, before spotting another landmark and repeating the process. Experienced divers learn roughly how far they travel underwater for every fin-kick cycle, or for every 10 cycles. It was an easy exercise for Jackson and Andrea to count their kicks and be able to guesstimate when they had traveled 400 yards.
By the time they reached the bottom, at about 100 feet, they were half way to the spot Andrea had been given for the sinking site. They both swam along for a few minutes, simply looking at the coral formations and the reef fish. While the area wasn’t exactly pristine reef, and wasn’t perfectly healthy, there was definitely coral there. It appeared to be struggling somewhat, but it wasn’t a sand bottom.
The general area of the planned sinking was consistently 100 feet deep. That made sense considering the overall height of the ship itself. What didn’t make sense was the coral structure all around. They would never drop an artificial reef on top of an existing reef on purpose. There wouldn’t be any reason to do that.
The divers made a broad circle around the area Andrea’s coordinates indicated the dive site to be. They were looking to see if they were missing something. As they finished the circuit, they began ascending and swimming back toward the boat, reversing their path on the way out. When they were within 15 feet of the surface, they leveled off and continued swimming back to the boat. When they got to the anchor line, the divers waited a few more minutes at that depth, allowing the nitrogen built up in their systems to escape as much as practical before ascending to the surface.
Back on board the boat, Jackson and Andrea admitted to each other that they were confused.
“Well that’s the spot, but I don’t see any place where they could possibly sink a ship. I also don’t see any sign that they’ve done any site preparation, either,” Andrea said.
“I agree. I’d think there would be some flags or something marking out approximately how the boat would lie on the bottom. But that would also be on the sand,” Jackson acknowledged. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“The only way it makes any sense is if we have the wrong coordinates somehow,” Andrea said, echoing the doubts in Jackson’s mind. “But I know I copied them down correctly. Unless there was a data entry error or something in the actual report from the Coast Guard, I just don’t understand how they could have the wrong spot as well.”
“I have no idea,” Jackson said as he finished pulling up the boat’s anchor. He started the twin diesels and headed back for the shore.
“Neither do I, but I intend to find out,” Andrea said.
As soon as Andrea Perez and Jackson Pauley arrived back at the dock, Andrea took off again, heading straight for city hall. They had just discovered that the planned location for the new artificial reef, the USS Destroyer Beauregard, was not a barren patch of sand after all, but actually a living carpet of coral reef. She wanted answers.
She now knew for sure that something was going on with the artificial reef project and the preparations for the sinking. There was no reason to sink the ship right there when there were plenty of other places where it could go. Someone was either asleep at the wheel or up to no good.
Andrea’s car nearly slid to a stop in front of city hall, where she jumped out and barged into the city offices. She hadn’t stopped to change or shower. She was in a t-shirt and shorts, with her long raven-black hair tucked up under a ball cap. Andrea was looking for Glenn Downing, the man who was organizing the project to sink the ship.
Andrea didn’t even bother to speak to the receptionist at the front desk. Instead, she slipped past the counter and headed straight for Downing’s office. The middle-aged woman attempted to stop her, but wasn’t successful.
“Mr. Downing. We need to talk. I was just diving on the site where you are planning to sink the ship. Have you even been out there?” she shouted. “It’s a complete coral reef. It isn’t in the greatest shape, but it’s a reef.”
“Who do you think you are barging in here like this?” Downing reacted, ignoring her shouted question. “You have no right to come in here like this. Get out of here. Mrs. Charles, call the police,” Downing said looking past Andrea to the receptionist. Downing wasn’t physically intimidated by the petite Latina so he didn’t pay attention to what she was saying. A decision he would eventually come to regret.
“Mr. Downing, you can call the police if you want. I’m sure they’ll want to talk to you when I explain to them that you’re breaking a series of federal environmental laws with what you’re planning to do,” Andrea said as she stood toe-to-toe with the larger man. Federal and state laws protect most of the reefs around the Florida Keys in one way or another. If nothing else were deemed applicable, Andrea was willing to see him charged with littering to the largest degree for dropping a ship directly on top of a reef.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Downing replied, attempting to back-pedal a bit. “You must’ve gone to the wrong place. We aren’t planning to sink the Beauregard on top of a reef. You’re obviously mistaken.”
“I’m not mistaken. I’m very confident of what I saw,” Andrea retorted.
“And I repeat. You must be mistaken. The company we hired to work on this project is the best available. They come with the best credentials and references,” Downing explained, trying to be reasonable. “These men have come in and set up everything. They’ve guided us through the entire process, and helped us to understand how to work through the myriad federal regulations and ordinances.”
“So, what you’re telling me is that they’ve done everything for you. You’re just the community organizer. You don’t actually know what they’re doing out there. You trust them,” Andrea shouted again, in utter disbelief, her hot temper getting the best of her. “They may have these impeccable references, but did you actually check them out?”
“Yes, they’re doing all the work setting up the ship. We’ve trusted them to take care of it all,” Downing explained. “They take care of everything.”
“You know other places have used mostly volunteer labor to do exactly what you’re paying this company to do for you.”
“True, but most of those places have had problems with delays and run-ins with federal regulators. We didn’t want to deal with that,” Downing said. “But we’re planning to use some last-second volunteer help to get things ready. We’re getting community involvement.”
As Downing said that, two uniformed police officers walked through the door. They hadn’t been too far away – in a small town, they rarely are – and when Mrs. Charles called to say that a crazy woman had stormed into city hall, they had reacted quickly.
Not seeing a violent confrontation, they walked up instead of trying to tackle Andrea.
“Mr. Downing. Mrs. Charles called us to say there was a disturbance. Do you need our assistance?” the first officer said while the second one stopped 10 feet away, preparing to react if things got messy.
Andrea was the first to answer. “There’s no problem from me, officer. I was just leaving.”
“I agree, officer. This has just been a misunderstanding. This woman will be leaving. I’m sorry to disturb you gentlemen,” Downing said.
“Just what are you going to do about what I told you?” Andrea asked as she began to leave the office.
“There’s nothing to do,” Downing said, with a smug grin.
Andrea walked out under the watchful eye of the officers, but neither made a move to stop her. Andrea drove around for an hour, just debating what her next move should be. This was her first solo investigation for Protect the Reefs and she wanted it to go right. She really didn’t have any proof that Downing or the company preparing the ship planned to do anything wrong, just a lot of innuendo and suggestion. The location wasn’t right for the new artificial reef, but it could be something as simple as a typo in the report. The fact that no one had caught it seemed suspicious, but it was just that, suspicious. She needed to get inside and really see what was going on.
And that was how she found herself back at Jackson’s boat house. She couldn’t get on the Beauregard now, especially after she had let her emotions get the better of her while confronting Downing.
“Hi, Jackson,” she said, putting on her friendliest smile and the sweetest tone in her voice as she walked down the dock beside the boat. She needed his help again.
“Hi, Andrea,” Jackson replied. He was working on the upper deck of his houseboat. Any boat on the water, especially saltwater, requires nearly constant maintenance. For Jackson, the maintenance was a pleasure and a responsibility he took very seriously. “I thought I might see you again, especially after the way you tore out of here earlier.”
“Look, Jackson, I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one. I get the feeling you’re a man who prefers to hear it straight,” she said as she stepped aboard the boat and climbed to the upper deck. She liked this quiet, intense man. He wasn’t much for small talk. He would never be a brilliant conversationalist, but there was depth to him. She could tell. “I need your help again.”
“Like I said, I thought I’d see you again. Tell me what you have in mind,” Jackson said, seriously.
Andrea related her dealings with Downing to Jackson as quickly as she could. She told it as straight as possible and tried her best to keep her personal feelings out of it.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but something smells fishy,” she said as she concluded.
“And you need me to find out what it is,” Jackson said matter-of-factly.
“That’s right. Will you help me?”
“Here’s the deal. I was in the Navy. I actually served on the Beauregard. I’m proud of that and I believe she was, well, is a fine ship. If someone is using her for something wrong, I have problems with that. I also saw the same thing you saw today. I agree, there’s something fishy going on,” Jackson said. “What do you have in mind?”
“Downing said they’re using volunteers for the last couple days-worth of clean-up. I can’t do it. They would be suspicious of me. But you could do it. I just want you to get on board and see what you can see. I’ll be working on some other angles, but I need someone on the inside,” Andrea explained. “And with what you just told me, that you actually served on board, I believe they would be eager to have that string of continuity, so to speak – you know, public relations press releases including phrases like, ‘even former crew members helped to ready her for her new duties’ That’s a great connection. There’s no way they would ever turn you down.”
The Beauregard was a Sumner-class Destroyer built and commissioned at the end of World War II that saw action in Korea, Vietnam and various other places where the Navy and the US government saw fit to project naval power. Destroyers frequently work as part of a group of ships protecting aircraft carriers, but they also work alone or conduct anti-submarine warfare.
Jackson had served on board in the late 1980s and early 1990s, right out of high school. He left the Navy just before the ship was decommissioned. When he did, he went straight to the New York fire academy.
“I think my boss’ll give me a couple days off if I tell him I want to help out with the ship. We’re already planning a bunch of charters to the wreck. It’ll be a big money-maker for us,” Jackson said. “He’ll be happy to support that.”
“Then you’ll do it?” Andrea said excitedly.
“Yeah, I’ll help out on the ship for a couple days. It’ll be good to get on board her again anyway,” Jackson answered.
“Oh, thank you,” Andrea said as she leaped from the chair she was setting in and hugged Jackson’s neck. Suddenly she was embarrassed, and started to pull back. Their faces were close to each other for a moment and she flushed.
“I’m not promising I’ll find anything. I might just do a little work and help these guys sink her so I can dive on her,” Jackson said as he pulled back too, a little embarrassed himself.
“I know, but at least you’re willing to help. That means a lot,” Andrea answered.
“Hello, Mr. Parker,” Downing said over the phone to the head of the company preparing the Beauregard for sinking. “Sorry to disturb you. I know you’re busy.”
“What is it, Mr. Downing? I am right in the middle of something, but I felt I needed to take your call,” Parker answered curtly.
“Well, uh, I’m sorry. I, uh, well the reason I called is, I just had a visit from an environmentalist who has been checking up on this project. She said she had just been out to the site where we are going to place the Beauregard and that it was actually an area of reef. I told her she must be mistaken, but I just wanted to confirm things with you.”
“She is clearly mistaken, Mr. Downing. I offered to take you to the spot for the sinking, but I believe you had a meeting with someone when we were going out there. The area is a barren patch of sand,” Parker said, sounding as patronizing as he could. Downing had had an interview with a writer from a national dive magazine about the project. Parker remembered exactly where Downing was that day, because he knew about the interview before he scheduled the trip to the site. He knew Downing would never pass up the opportunity to get his name in the press.
“Yes, I remember. And I told her that you knew exactly what you were doing and would never do something like that, but I just wanted you to know what was being said,” Downing said, backpedaling.
“So, does this environmentalist have a name? Do you know if she’s working with someone? Is anyone helping her?” Parker fired off, although he knew exactly who Andrea was and what she was up to. He had already checked her out and had his men talk to her. He was interested to know, however, if she was working alone or with some help. She had received some help from a man when Parker sent some of his workers to scare her off, but he didn’t know if that was someone helping her, or just a local with a knight-in-shining armor complex.
“Well, her name is Andrea Perez. She didn’t mention anyone local, so I think she must be alone,” Downing answered.
“Well, thank you, Mr. Downing for giving me the heads up about this Andrea Perez. Since we have nothing to hide, I’m not the least bit concerned about her, but I do appreciate the information,” Parker said, with a patronizing tone to a faithful servant. “I really do need to go now and take care of what I was working on.”
“Well, yes, of course, Mr. Parker. I’ll be by tomorrow to look over your recent progress. We’re very close and I’m very excited about diving on the Beauregard.”
“Yes, of course you are, Downing. We shall see you tomorrow.”
Parker hung up without listening for any further reply from Downing.
Seashore Engineering, the company that was preparing the USS Beauregard for its next tour of duty as a home for fish, was allowing local volunteers to help clean up the ship, but they weren’t actively advertising for them. Allowing local workers with connections, or the staff of local dive shops, to come on board was much simpler and easier to control.
Jackson Pauley showed up at the work site. They were only two days away from the actual sinking, so he really didn’t expect to be given a difficult assignment. All of the heavy lifting and cutting should be done by now. When he told the foreman which dive operation he worked for, and about his previous service on board the ship, he learned his expectation – and Andrea’s intuition – was right on the money. That worked out well for two reasons. One, he really wasn’t in the mood to be hauling buckets of grease and oil. And two, he needed the ability to search throughout the ship.
The foreman asked him to survey the entire ship with a clipboard and prepare a list of everything that wasn’t complete. Jackson was given exactly the duty he needed to figure out if there was anything going on.
As he patrolled around the boat, taking his time and examining nooks and crannies, Jackson recorded everything he saw. He also looked for things that weren’t supposed to be there. He was nearly finished before he found what he was really looking for.
It was an odd experience for Jackson. Walking the decks of the Sumner-class Destroyer again, especially considering what the future held for the mighty ship, gave him an unsettled feeling. She was 376 feet long and 41 feet wide, with a draft of 14 feet – small by comparison to today’s Spruance and Burke-class destroyers, but big enough to do its job. She carried 5” guns, anti-aircraft guns, depth charge racks and projectors and 10 torpedo tubes. The full crew would have included 345 men working on board – men because in the Beauregard’s day, there were no women serving on combat ships. Jackson felt the ship seemed eerily quiet as he walked down the corridors. Her high-pressure, super-heated boilers were capable of generating 60,000 horsepower through twin screws, pushing the ship through the water at 34 knots, but now they were silent and incapable of turning a single rotation.
Today, there were only about 20 men and women on board getting her ready to sink. The engines would never turn again and there was no way to restart the boilers. The ammunition for her guns had been removed years earlier.
Jackson was checking out a compartment near the engine room when he discovered a water-tight door that had been dogged down – locked. Everything was supposed to be open and blocked with braces so it couldn’t be locked at all. They didn’t want divers to be able to get inside a compartment and get stuck. Doors had been removed. Holes had been cut in other panels.
But this one door was shut tight. Jackson searched for another access, assuming that this door was welded shut, but another hole was opened up elsewhere. He couldn’t find anything. That didn’t make sense, because they wouldn’t want to sink the ship with a compartment filled with air. It might make the ship unstable as it descended, causing it to roll over.
“Now just what’s going on here,” Jackson said out loud to no one in particular. He leaned against the opposite wall for a minute. The door was latched from inside, but he knew a way to open it anyway. While there were reasons to lock doors from inside in rooms with only one access, there was never a reason to lock one permanently from the inside. Navy safety protocols dictated that there be a way to open the door. Water tight doors are to keep water out in the event of an accident, not people.
Jackson grabbed a screwdriver from his back pocket – he was carrying some basic tools for just such an emergency – and removed a panel from the lock mechanism. From there, it was a simple step to flip the latch and release the door.
As soon as he spun the wheel and released the door, Jackson knew he had found what he was looking for. The large room was filled with crates and barrels of every description. Jackson entered the room and began to inspect them. He wasn’t a scientist and didn’t recognize the names on the panels. But what he did recognize from his days as a firefighter were the bright yellow warning panels designating everything in the room as a hazardous material. He wasn’t sure he understood the entire plan, but he had a good idea. A quick count and some educated guesses indicated the cavernous room was filled with nearly 2000 containers. And everything he could see was a dangerous chemical.
Jackson had seen enough. They obviously hadn’t cleaned everything off of the ship before sinking it. He couldn’t believe even half of this came from the ship in the first place. “They must have brought this on board,” Jackson said as he replaced the panel on the door.
The good news, Jackson thought, is with that door sealed, the chemicals can’t leak out in a hurry. It’ll all be protected from the seawater until we can get this sorted out.
Jackson picked up his clipboard, secured the panel and shut the door, then left. When he made it back topside, he realized it was nearly 4 p.m. He had spent the entire day below decks. He needed to get to Andrea and tell her what he had found. On his way out, he dropped off his clipboard showing dozens of things that remained to be finished before the ship could be sent to the bottom. It didn’t include the sealed hatch below decks.
Colin Parker, the man behind Seashore Engineering, was determined to get what he wanted and nothing was going to stand in his way. Like most men in his situation, he wanted money and power. Also, like men in his situation, he hadn’t come to realize that no matter how much he had of either, it would never be enough.
“Guys, settle down a minute,” Parker said as he called his assistants to order. Every afternoon the men sat down to discuss what else needed to be done. Nothing was off the table in these meetings. They all knew exactly what the plan was for the Beauregard.
“We just got word from our local organizer that a local environmentalist has been snooping around the ship, trying to find out what we’re up to. But you all know that,” Parker began and the room dropped to dead silence. They all knew better than to interrupt the boss. They knew he already had it worked out and would have a plan.
“We’re going to move up the timetable and take care of a couple different problems at one time. I don’t want this to go on another day and give other people a chance to ask questions,” Parker explained. “We’re going to tow the boat out tonight. We’ll tell Downing that we were ready early and wanted to move it into position to get the ship ready. We’ll make up some story about wanting everything to be right. Then I want the ship to sink. Send it to the bottom tonight. And make sure this environmentalist is on board. Set it up to look like she was snooping around and set off the charges.”
The men quickly got to work. If they were going to move the ship tonight, there were things they needed to set in motion. One of the men went to get some help – he was going to take care of the girl.
“Mrs. Charles,” Glenn Downing, the organizer of the artificial reef project, began. “Tomorrow will be a glorious day. They’ll take the Beauregard out to its place and then everything will be ready. We’re going to have bands, government officials, media. It’ll be amazing. We’ll assemble all the people on the dock for speeches and presentations and then go out for the actual sinking. I can’t believe the day has finally arrived. We’re going to pull this off, and my career will take off. I already have interviews scheduled with newspapers and magazines from all over the state and country.”
“That all sounds great, Mr. Downing,” Mrs. Charles agreed, not really caring about what Downing planned. She moved to the islands 50 years ago. She had seen climbers and schemers come and go. She had seen celebrities and politicians. This was just one more day of big shots, and then hopefully she could return to her little oceanfront home and relax. She liked to work in a little garden by her one-bedroom cottage and swim in the ocean daily.
“I just can’t wait until it all gets started. After we sink the Beauregard, I’ll be in demand all over the country. I’ve always wanted to go to California and I’ve already heard they want someone to come there and put together another artificial reef project. This is my big break,” Downing continued.
“Yes, sir. If there isn’t anything else for today, though, I need to be leaving. I have plans this evening,” Mrs. Charles said.
“What? Oh, yes, of course, Mrs. Charles,” Downing responded when she shook him from his daydreaming. “I’ll lock up shortly. Have a good evening and I’ll see you in the morning. Tomorrow will be a busy day for me.”
Women were around. In a place like the Florida Keys, with tourists coming in and out, and the other dive instructors and divemasters on the island being just about evenly split between men and women, Jackson had had his fair share of opportunities for dates. Generally, he had stayed out of the singles scene.
After 9/11, he had split up with his fiancée and hadn’t been in a relationship since. He just didn’t have the heart for it. That, and the fact that most of the women he met didn’t challenge him. He wanted – needed – someone as strong-willed and as independent as he was. He was beginning to think he might have found her.
Not wanting to discuss his discoveries onboard the Beauregard over the phone, Jackson called Andrea and invited her to dinner. He told her he had something to discuss with her. In reality, it could have been just a business meeting. But, if that was the case, why was Jackson smiling and whistling to himself as he showered and got dressed. He was excited about the dinner.
Jackson was beginning to fall for Andrea. He had always been a bit of a sucker for underdogs and the people who championed lost causes. Underneath his tough exterior, he was a bit of a bleeding heart himself. It was true that Andrea was physically attractive, but that wasn’t it. He had known beautiful women before. It was the combination of the looks, brains and spunk that got to Jackson. He began to think he could fall hard.
At least, that was the thought on his mind when he left his houseboat to meet Andrea by the dock to tell her what he knew. Jackson realized that as soon as he spilled his information this evening would effectively be over. He knew Andrea would be too excited to set and eat. He was just hoping he would get the opportunity to do it again when this whole thing was done with.
Two miles away, at her hotel, Andrea was having similar thoughts. She could tell by the sound of Jackson’s voice he was excited and wanted to tell her something. She just didn’t know what.
While she got ready, she had a brief conversation in her mind that went in a decidedly different direction then talking about the USS Beauregard. He’s a little gruff, she thought, but I could begin to like this guy.
Andrea stepped to her car and placed the key in the door.
The solid blow to the back of her neck and shoulder caused her to crumple. She literally didn’t know what hit her. Nor did it matter. She was out before she hit the ground.
Andrea was a half an hour late for dinner. Jackson was concerned, but also disappointed. It wasn’t like there was that much traffic – it was only a two-lane road running through the middle of the island – so the possibility of a car wreck was fairly remote. She could be having trouble with her rental car, but it was new. He doubted that.
Looking out over the water, Jackson’s mind began to wander. What if she was just using me for information? I thought she was interested, too, but maybe not, he thought. Oh, come on. This is ridiculous. Something must have come up. This wasn’t a date. This was a chance for me to tell her what I discovered. I know she wanted to hear that, even if she isn’t interested in me.
The internal argument raged in his mind. It wasn’t that Jackson was normally emotional, or filled with self-doubt. Typically, he was decisive and confident. It’d just been a long time since he had allowed himself to think about a relationship. He had dated women. He just hadn’t allowed himself to think about them in terms other than someone to pass a few hours with. He had already begun to make that mental leap and it was causing him problems.
As Jackson stood looking out over the water, he was startled to see two men coming at him. One of them was one of the three men from the fight in the parking lot when he met Andrea. He immediately began to brace himself for an attack. At least until he realized the man had a heavy bundle rolled up in a tarp over his shoulder. Neither man gave him a second glance, except to say, “How’ya doing” with a simple head nod in the way that men great each other as they pass on the street.
As they went by, the man carrying the bundle stopped to adjust his load. He shifted it and repositioned the roll on his shoulder, bouncing it down hard. Then he moved on. The two men made their way to a small runabout boat, painted in Seashore Engineering colors. Jackson guessed they were working on the Beauregard and had come to the dock to pick up some supplies. The first man climbed into the boat and the second man tossed the bundle to him. Once they were both onboard, the first man – the one from the fight – started the boat’s motor while the other tossed off the bow and stern lines. They pulled away from the dock – faster than they should have, but not quite fast enough to get themselves fined for violating the No Wake zone.
Jackson waited for another hour before he finally decided to go inside and get something to eat.
Sitting at the bar eating a sandwich and drinking a cold beer a few minutes later, Jackson didn’t feel like talking. He was quietly watching the television and reading the closed captioning scrolling across the screen. His mind wasn’t really registering what was on. Jackson overheard bits and pieces of the conversation going on between the only other two patrons setting at the bar.
“Did’jou hear?” one of the other bar patrons said, with mildly slurred speech. He had been drinking for a couple hours, being sent home early for the day. “They went ahead and towed the Beauregard out to the spot where they’se gonna sink her.”
“Nah. They couldn’t’ve. They was planning a big to do out at the dock tomorrow before they towed her out. They wanted all the big shots in one place,” the second man replied.
“I’m telling ya. That’s why I’m here. All the guys that was working on last-second stuff, they sent home with our final paycheck. The foreman said they wouldn’t need us tomorrow,” the first drunk said.
“Works out good for you then. Wanna go fishin’ tomorrow?”
Jackson tuned back out to his sandwich. Hearing the man mention the Beauregard had perked up his attention, but the conversation didn’t actually register with him.
As he finished his sandwich and paid his tab – not exactly the meal he had planned on – Jackson decided to walk back out on the pier one last time.
“I just don’t get it. What could have caused Andrea to do a complete no-show?” Jackson said out loud to himself as he walked across the wood boards. “I know she wanted to hear what I found out.”
Something shiny caught his eye as he walked. Moving over to pick it up, more out of instinct than interest, he lifted a gold chain and locket off the pier decking. If it had been a quarter of an inch smaller, it would have slipped through the gap between the boards, never to be seen again.
Picking it up, Jackson realized what he was holding. It was Andrea’s dolphin locket from her father. That meant she had been there. And, if she realized she had lost it, she would have moved the entire pier to find the locket. He knew it was that important to her. His mind began to spin.
As if he was actually seeing it in front of his eyes, Jackson saw the two men carrying a bundle. It was about 6 feet long – just long enough to cover the body of a small woman. The spot where he found the locket was just about where the man had adjusted his load and bounced it up and down. In his mind, he replayed the scene and realized he heard a sound, much like the sound of someone getting the wind knocked out of them – but muffled. He had just thought it was the man making the noise, but now he wasn’t so sure.
Then he heard the two men talking at the bar from a few minutes earlier. “They went ahead and towed the Beauregard out…”
His mind was in full overdrive now. What’s going on? he asked himself. It all began to come together quickly.
The locket belonged to Andrea. She had been in the load the men were carrying. The Beauregard was towed into position ahead of schedule.
Then Jackson heard the sound of muffled explosions from out on the water. Someone had set off the explosive charges to send the Beauregard to the bottom. And he was certain Andrea was on board.
The feel of the cold metal on her face was somewhat reassuring. Andrea’s world had just shaken violently. And the sound accompanying that movement was deafening. It took her mind a moment to clear. As she shook her head to remove some of the fog in front of her eyes, pain shot through her neck and head. She quickly resolved to never move her head like that again.
“Where am I?” she asked out loud to the surrounding darkness. There was some dim light coming from the hall, but the room she was in was completely dark. She could only make out the doorframe and the cold gray metal she was lying on.
And what is that noise? she thought. It was the sound of water rushing. It seemed to be getting louder as the sound of the rumbling from the explosion died away.
I’m on board the Beauregard, she realized. “And I think it’s about to sink.”
Andrea said the last out loud as she tried to stand and walk to the door. Her head swam. Then the rope on her ankle pulled taught, just as she realized it was there. She nearly fell, but caught herself against the metal wall.
“They’re trying to kill me.”
The sound of the explosive charges rippling across the quiet water propelled Jackson Pauley into motion. The flashbacks that helped him put together all the pieces and realize where Andrea was being kept took only milliseconds. He immediately turned and ran for his houseboat and the Boston Whaler tied up beside it.
Within minutes he had the power boat’s twin engines fired up and was racing across the water. When Jackson went to the proposed sinking site for the destroyer USS Beauregard with Andrea, he had taken it easy. The trip out took him 15 minutes. This time he was racing across the water with his engines wide open and the throttles all the way to the stops. He knew there was no time to waste if Andrea Perez was on board the Beauregard. She would drown in a matter of minutes without his help.
On the previous trip to the site, Jackson had recorded the locations into his GPS system. He was manually driving the boat, but using the GPS system to guide him out. As he flew, allowing the keel of the boat to touch the water occasionally, he also assembled his dive gear. He was able to struggle into a shortie wetsuit and throw his scuba unit over his back while he moved. Jackson always kept dive gear on board the boat and maintained full tanks. He had always wanted to be able to dive on a whim. He just never expected his whim would amount to this.
As soon as he pulled up next to the slowly sinking destroyer, Jackson realized that whoever set off the charges to send the ship to the bottom hadn’t done it right. The ship was slowly filling with water and had settled down 10 feet, but he guessed he had a few more minutes before the ship was completely submerged. They must have ruptured the floats attached to the hull to keep the new holes cut through the sides above the water, but they hadn’t detonated the explosives below the water line that would send water rushing in, and the ship to the bottom in a matter of seconds.
Before jumping off his boat, Jackson selected a second location on the GPS control and engaged the autopilot. The boat began to move off to a spot about 400 yards away. Jackson had entered that location on his first trip to the site when he was looking for a place to drop anchor.
He leapt from the side of the Daydreamer onto an interior deck of the massive destroyer through a hole cut in the hull. The workers had intended the hole as an access for a diver, but never one running in full dive gear while the ship was still above water.
Jackson began to search for Andrea on the second deck from the bottom. He searched down every hallway and in every room he could find. Because the ship was slowly flooding, there was no reason to search the decks that were already underwater. If Andrea were below the water, there was no way he could find her swimming through the rushing water. He had to assume she was in an upper deck that hadn’t flooded yet.
Finding nothing, Jackson moved up the stairs to the next deck. He continued his search. He was on the same deck as the room filled with toxic waste and chemicals. As Jackson passed by the room containing the chemicals, he noticed the hatch was open. Shining his light inside, he didn’t see any sign that anything had changed other than the door being open. There wasn’t much room inside, the containers were stacked high and tight, so he didn’t spend time searching it.
As Jackson ran, he called out Andrea’s name. The noise of the water rushing in, getting louder and louder, made it almost impossible for him to hear his own voice. He knew it would be difficult for Andrea to hear him, if she were still alive. Jackson played his light back and forth as he ran. He was getting tired, running in full dive gear, with his fins strapped to his BCD, but he wasn’t going to give up.
On 9/11, he learned what it was like to go beyond what he thought were his own personal limits. He didn’t talk about it, he really didn’t want to think about it, but he had run back into those buildings several times himself, trying to get people out. And after they collapsed, he spent hours searching through the rubble for survivors – especially his friends and co-workers.
He continued running, ignoring the aching in his lungs, the pounding of his heart and splitting feeling in his side. Jackson turned left down a corridor and ran to the end. The water was rising on this level, slowing his progress.
The water was only a few inches deep, but Jackson knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before the ship reached a critical level and then it would drop. He needed to find Andrea and get back out of the ship before that happened.
“Andrea! Andrea! Andrea!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, as well as he could anyway, as he gasped for breath. Doubt began to creep into his mind. Was she really on board? Had he let his imagination get the best of him? “Come on, I need to find you!”
As he turned, he heard something. Or thought he did anyway.
“Jackson,” came the faint call.
“Andrea. Where are you?”
“In here. In here. Help me, quick,” Andrea yelled back.
Jackson pushed open a door. He saw Andrea tied with a rope to a pipe at the back of the compartment. He ran into the room, sliding down onto his knees as the water level continued to rise. It was rushing in faster and faster.
“Jackson, get me out of here,” she screamed, almost hysterical, her voice hoarse from yelling for help.
“Hold on. I’ve got to try and cut this rope,” Jackson said as he handed her his light and pulled out his dive knife. He immediately began sawing on the rope. Jackson took excellent care of his equipment, a throwback to his days as a firefighter, and his dive knife was no exception. He kept the blade clean and ready to use. Its serrated edge began to cut through the rope.
“Why did they do this? What’s going on here? Did you find something?” Andrea asked as he worked.
“Yeah,” he panted. “I don’t know why, but there’s a compartment full of toxic chemicals on board. When I found it, the door was sealed, but now it’s open. I guess they are using the sinking ship to dispose of the waste.”
“Oh, that’s horrible.”
“Ok, you’re free.” Jackson stood and helped Andrea stand at the same time. She was stiff from setting, sore from the blow to the back of her neck and getting cold from the water, but other than that she was fine. And she was mad. She wanted to get back at the people who had ordered her death.
As they made it to the door, suddenly the water came rushing into the ship, flooding the deck and slamming them back inside the compartment. The ship had finally reached the critical point. It was going down. The water was rising too fast.
“There is no way we can get out past this. There’s too much pressure,” Jackson shouted over the terrible noise as the destroyer began to sink. Water rushed into open compartments, slamming doors and wrenching others off their hinges. As rooms filled with water, the ship itself buckled and the steel screamed as if it were being twisted up like a wet dish towel.
“We’ll have to ride the ship to the bottom. Take my alternate air source and hold on tight,” Jackson ordered. “We don’t want to be up in the air pockets as this thing goes down. It will be a smoother ride under the water.”
The water was up to their necks.
“Hold on to me,” he told her as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “Remember to keep clearing your ears. This thing is going to drop fast, but it won’t seem like we’re falling, until we hit bottom, that is.”
Andrea didn’t have a mask. Jackson hadn’t brought an extra so as the water covered her head, all she could see were vague shapes. The human eye needs an air pocket in front of it to focus properly. Jackson would have to lead her out. It was night, so that wouldn’t make a huge difference, but still it would be more difficult. Jackson glanced up as the remaining air in the room, exploded out into the hallway. Their compartment was completely filled with water.
Jackson could hear Andrea breathing off her regulator. He was impressed. She seemed to be calm and breathing about as normally as possible. The lack of a mask makes it even more difficult for some people to breathe underwater. It takes good breath control to breathe in and out of your mouth when there is water on your nose. Andrea was still holding his dive light so Jackson took it back. The room was totally dark except for that single beam. The only sounds they could hear were the sounds of their own breathing and the creaking and groaning of the ship as it plunged to the bottom. Jackson couldn’t tell how long they had been underwater, until he glanced at his dive computer to check their air consumption and depth. They were at 70 feet and had been underwater about two minutes.
Moments later, they felt the ship strike bottom. Jackson and Andrea had been floating up off the bottom as the boat dropped. As it made contact with the reef, they hit the floor. They were jarred around and then tossed to one side.
The bottom itself was in about 100 feet of water. However, since they were three deck levels from the bottom of the ship itself, they were in about 75 feet of water. After the briefest of seconds, Jackson signaled to Andrea that they needed to move. They needed to get out. He was concerned the ship would continue to roll and they might get trapped or crushed.
To swim together with both divers breathing off one scuba unit, they have to lock their arms together and swim, almost on top of each other. It is awkward and difficult, but necessary. They swam through the door and Jackson began leading Andrea out by his memory from years spent onboard. Wreck divers normally tie lines off outside the ship so they can find their way back out when they are finished exploring. In this case, however the Beauregard wasn’t actually a wreck when Jackson entered it. There wouldn’t have been any way for him to tie off a line and search through the decks. He was praying his memory held and he could get them both back out.
On top of trying to find their way out of a dark shipwreck at night, he had a time limit to worry about as well. They were both breathing from a single aluminum 80 cubic foot scuba cylinder. At 75 feet, and with the stress of the situation, that air supply wouldn’t last very long.
Andrea, of course, didn’t have fins, so she couldn’t move through the water very efficiently. She did her best, swimming with one arm and her legs as she held onto Jackson, trying to help them move. But then she stopped. She put a flat hand in Jackson’s face to signal him to stop as well. They both settled to the deck. As best she could, since she couldn’t see, Andrea began giving Jackson signals. She moved her hands like a closing door and then signaled to him, with one hand, making a question mark.
Jackson shook his head, at first without understanding, and then in frustration as he realized what she wanted. After shaking his head angrily twice more, Jackson gave in.
He led Andrea down a side passage until he came to an open door. Jackson pulled on the water-tight door to seal off the compartment containing the toxic waste and chemicals. It was slow to move as the water pressure held it open. The door finally swung out, meeting up with the door facing. Jackson slammed the metal door against the knee-knocker seal and then spun the wheel, sealing the hatch. That compartment was flooded, but sealed off.
Jackson continued leading Andrea back to an exit, when he felt water movement on his face. He knew where the main hatch was, but he guessed there might be a closer exit. Jackson shined the light into another compartment. Through that compartment was a hole in the back into blackness. There was a hole cut in the hull as a diver access point. He dragged Andrea to the hole and they burst out of the steel ship into the open water. Jackson immediately began swimming them both to the surface. He didn’t rush the ascent, but he didn’t dawdle either. He wasn’t panicked, but he knew their air supply was getting low. He sneaked an occasional glance at his computer and realized just how quickly the numbers on the digital pressure gauge were dropping.
Jackson was a stickler for completing safety stops after deep dives. Normally, he would insist on a five-minute pause at 15 to 20 feet just to let any built up nitrogen bleed off. But there were a lot of things he was doing on this dive that he wouldn’t normally do on a dive, so they ascended directly to the surface.
All together, the dive itself was only 15 minutes long, but the two of them had nearly breathed through the entire tank. It was down to 300 psi when Jackson’s head broke the surface.
He immediately dropped his weight belt and inflated his BCD as far as it would go. He needed to give Andrea some support in the water. He unbuckled the jacket and flattened it out so they could each hold on. They both slipped an arm through an arm hole and floated for a minute.
“I can’t believe you made me go close the hatch on the compartment with the toxic waste,” Jackson said, more in disbelief than in anger.
“I’m an environmentalist. They just landed this huge ship on a coral reef. It was the least I could do to stop the situation from getting any worse,” Andrea replied. Then she laughed. She laughed the laugh of someone who couldn’t believe what they had just been through. In some ways, it was almost surreal. But it wasn’t. Men had just tried to kill her by sending her to the bottom of the ocean with an artificial reef that they had dropped on top of a real one. Jackson joined in after a second and they both laughed hard and long. Finally, the edge gone, they began to get control of their own emotions and Andrea asked a question.
“All right, so how do we get out of here?” she asked. “Swim back?”
“You haven’t noticed, but we’ve been swimming along while you were giggling like an idiot. We’re almost to my boat. It’s slowly circling, right over there,” Jackson replied.
“Wow, you have all the bases covered, don’t you?”
“Hey, I came out here to save you, not die with you. I programmed my boat to go over here so it wouldn’t get sucked underwater when the Beauregard dropped. I didn’t want to try and swim back to shore,” Jackson replied.
He left her holding onto the floatation device and kicked the last few dozen yards to his boat. He grabbed a handhold and climbed up. Jackson turned the boat, steering it to Andrea, and then placed the engines in neutral. He quickly helped her on board and they both sat down for a minute to catch their breath and collect their thoughts.
Jackson grabbed a towel for Andrea and pulled off his wetsuit. The only lights on the boat that were illuminated were the mandatory running lights and a small dashboard light.
He looked around to get his bearings. He saw the coast and lights from town not too far away. And then he saw one of them move. There was another boat moving around, heading toward the place where the Beauregard went down.
But Andrea never got the rest of the sentence out. Jackson quickly clamped his hand over her mouth. He watched quietly as the boat slowly moved around, almost exactly over top of the sunken ship. Jackson, Andrea and the Daydreamer were about 400 yards away floating on the surface. With the engines in neutral, they were almost perfectly quiet. Bubbles continually broke the surface as air escaped from the sunken ship. It continued to cause enough background noise to keep the people on the other boat from hearing them.
There was a problem though. The other boat was between Jackson and the shore. They couldn’t run for it, if these other guys were the bad guys, without having to get past them. There was only one entrance to the harbor and the second boat was directly between them and it.
Jackson got out his binoculars, and wished he had invested in night vision goggles like a friend suggested just a few days before. He did his best to see what the people on the other boat were doing.
After a moment, he realized they were preparing to make a night dive onto the ship. He saw them test dive lights and don their dive gear. He whispered to Andrea, telling her what was going on and to hold on.
“Why’re they doing that?” Andrea asked.
“Probably going to check on you. They can’t very well have people discover you tomorrow with a rope tied to your leg. They’ll want it to look as if you were snooping around, set the charges off and died in the process,” Jackson replied.
As soon as the other men jumped in the water, Jackson quickly moved to the captain’s chair on his boat and slammed the throttle of both engines all the way forward.
His boat leapt up and forward like it was shot from a cannon. Dark and distance had made it impossible for Jackson to see the third man on board the boat. With no regard for his fellows, the man restarted his boat and took off in chase. His reaction time was a little off – he hadn’t expected another boat on the scene – and that gave Jackson a chance. Still the other boat was chasing as quickly as it could. Jackson couldn’t tell exactly what type of boat was behind him. It was smaller than the Boston Whaler, but the growl of its engines as it came up on plane behind him, told him it was running on gasoline engines and it could probably move faster than he could.
“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is Jackson Pauley on the Daydreamer, and I have an emergency. Am being chased by a man in a racing boat and I think…” Jackson was forced to duck as a bullet struck his boat, just in front of where he was standing. “Correction Coast Guard, am being fire upon by the chasing boat,” Jackson finished.
“Daydreamer, this is Coast Guard. Say again. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“Men tried to kill Andrea Perez on board the USS Beauregard tonight and are trying to kill both of us right now,” Jackson yelled into his radio microphone as he attempted to maneuver the boat toward land, while staying away from the cracks of gunfire he heard coming from the chasing boat.
“Daydreamer. This is Coast Guard. You said Andrea Perez. We have reports from Seashore Engineering that she is the one who sank the Beauregard prematurely. Local law enforcement is currently looking for her.”
“Well, she’s with me, but there’s a man in an unidentified boat chasing us and trying to kill us,” Jackson yelled. “
“Daydreamer. What is your location? We are scrambling boats to your assistance and are alerting local authorities.”
“We are five minutes out from the Nitro Landing dock. We are heading straight in on a heading of 270 degrees. I don’t want to turn on any lights, though, because I don’t want this guy to get a clear shot at us.”
As Jackson was busy driving and talking to the Coast Guard, he didn’t notice the other boat was getting close. He only saw what was about to happen as the man driving the boat surfed his way up on Jackson’s wake and tried to drop down on top of the Boston Whaler’s stern.
Jackson swerved sharply back across the other boat’s path, and then pulled back hard on his engines, cutting off the wake the other boat was riding. The chase boat overshot the Daydreamer badly. By the time he had a chance to recover, Jackson had throttled back up and pulled away. Jackson was quickly realizing that the other boat was faster than his own. He needed to do something quick or they might not make it back to the dock or reach the help of the coast guard and county sheriff. He was sure he wouldn’t be able to pull that trick again.
The pursuing boat was gaining ground quickly. Jackson heard another report from the pursuer’s gun and saw a hole appear just feet ahead of him in the center console of his boat. He was running out of time and space to maneuver. To get back to shore, Jackson had to enter the harbor through an opening in a man-made breakwater. The rocks were piled 20 feet high all along the front of the natural curvature, with an opening to one side.
The man in the other boat was herding him away from that opening. He knew Jackson would have to go that way. Any other place to make a landing was a few miles away and that would mean precious time for the chasing boat to catch him. Jackson continued to maneuver as best he could, but with each turn or twist, the other boat got that much closer. The next time would be it. He couldn’t stay out of his way forever. And obviously, the man had no concern about crashing the two boats together or shooting him. “Daydreamer. Daydreamer. This is Coast Guard. What’s your position?”
“We are almost to the opening of the breakwater, but I’m afraid we’re going to get cut off. Isn’t there anything you can do to help,” Jackson shouted over the roaring engines. “Where are you guys?”
“Hold on Daydreamer. The cavalry is coming.”
Jackson dodged to his left to get a better shot at the opening of the breakwater when the time came. As he cleared the opening, he suddenly saw the entire harbor bathed in light. Even over the noise of his own twin diesels, he heard the overwhelming sound of every boat in the marina heading out to sea with every light on board lit up. The cavalry was coming indeed.
The fastest three boats rounded the corner and headed straight for Jackson. Five more boats broke clear of the harbor in rapid succession. Seeing the oncoming boats, the man in the chase boat broke off and attempted to head south. He was trying to get away. The three fastest boats ripped past Jackson and cut off the fleeing boat. They wanted to head him north, right into the responding Coast Guard patrol boat. Within a few minutes, the chase was over.
Back on shore, everything was in chaos. Glenn Downing was threatening everyone around him – telling anyone who would listen that Andrea had sabotaged his artificial reef ceremony. Finally someone pointed out to him that it wasn’t like stealing a 30-foot cruiser. To move a destroyer into a position, any position, took heavy equipment and tug boats. Downing would have known this if he had ever actually done anything with the preparation of the boat, or asked questions of the men from Seashore Engineering. He finally realized it wasn’t something she could do on her own. And then the reality of the situation began to dawn on him.
As soon as Jackson’s feet touched the dock, he grabbed the closest deputy sheriff and asked to speak to the man’s boss. Within minutes, Sheriff Waldo Porter was standing in front of him.
“Son, I don’t know what all is going on here, but I’m a gonna get to the bottom of it,” Porter said before Jackson got a word out.
“Sheriff, I don’t have time to explain, but Andrea Perez here is an investigator with a group in Ft. Lauderdale. She uncovered evidence that the men preparing the Beauregard for sinking were actually using it to release toxic chemicals into the ocean to dispose of them. She was kidnapped and left to die on the ship. There are two divers out there right now who, I would guess, were supposed to cut her loose from the rope holding her leg and make it look like she sabotaged the ship,” Jackson said, all in one breath, trying to get as much out as possible. “You need to round up the owners of the company, Seashore Engineering, who put all this together. There is kidnapping, attempted murder and dumping toxic waste, just for a start.”
“Sounds like you got it all wrapped up, nice and neat,” Porter replied with a wry grin.
“No, Sheriff, I don’t have a clue what’s going on or why,” Jackson laughed. “I’m just glad to be back on shore. I never thought I’d say this, but that’s one dive I don’t ever want to make again – at least from the inside.”
To Be Continued…… Read Segment 8 here
Life is an adventure for Eric Douglas, above and below the water and wherever in the world he ends up. Eric received a degree in Journalism from Marshall University. After working in local newspapers, honing his skills as a story teller, and following a stint as a freelance journalist in the former Soviet Union, he became a dive instructor. The ocean and diving have factored into all of his fiction works since then.
Eric has made a career of the diving industry since 1998, working for PADI and DAN, and now writing about diving adventure and safety. He is a regular columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine, writing both the Lessons for Life and Ask an Expert columns.
He has published four dive adventure novels in the Mike Scott Adventure Series: Cayman Cowboys, Flooding Hollywood, Guardians’ Keep and Wreck of the Huron. He also has a series of dive adventure short stories set on the fictional Withrow Key in the Florida Keys. He also has two children’s books: Sea Turtle Rescue and Swimming with Sharks.
Visit his website at: www.booksbyeric.com to see all of his work, or to buy the full version of “Going Down With the Ship” if you can’t wait to find out what happens next
Be the first to read Eric’s latest Mike Scott dive adventure “Heart of the Maya”. Available late May 2014.