Dawn had only just begun to color the sky when Kelly Robinson presented his diving certificate at Rum Grove's marina rental shop. He was,in fact, a graduate of the Navy's SEAL school, but there was no point in bringing that up -- the certificate was sufficient. He signed out for the SCUBA gear and loaded it into a Boston Whaler hired for the day. Scott saw him off, then returned to Rum Grove to wait for Will Ives and the new car, intent on spending the day trying to get a line on the mosquito plane.
The Boston Whaler wasn't as sleek as a Magnum or as fast as a Cigarette, but it was a sturdy and reliable boat. Robinson took it due north from Spanish Bay to a place called Tarpon Alley, a channel between the reef and an old submarine wall west of North Sound. It was in this vicinity that Sheila St. Cyr had been diving every day. But at this hour he saw no other boats around.
Dropping anchor, Robinson cut the motor and allowed the Whaler to drift until a fluke caught fast on the reef. He stood near the stern and breathed deeply the crisp, salt-tinged air. Blue sky above, blue sea below, green-cloaked island to port, a towering bank of cumulus gathering in puffy white splendor to the north. Too early yet for the swarm of tourists that would flock like lemmings to the water. For a moment Robinson had a poignant sense of what Ives and other Caymanians lamented as lost forever.
He prepared to dive, donning the neoprene reef vest, attaching the regulator to the air tank valve and turning the knob to open the valve. Air hissed into the regulator. He did likewise with the second tank, then purged his mouthpiece and checked the tank harness. Dipping the flippers into the drink, he pulled them on. He rinsed the Pirelli mask after spitting onto the faceplate, shrugged on the tanks and secured the harness. Sitting on the gunwale, he strapped a sheathed diving knife to his right calf, fitted the mouthpiece and made sure he had good air before rolling backwards into the briny deep.
Ten feet below the surface he paused to let the air bubbles dissipate, then performed an unhurried 360-degree scan. The water was as clear as good gin; he had visibility of a hundred meters. Nearby, the face of the outer reef descended, steep and rugged, to the white sand of the channel floor fifteen fathoms below. Fish darted in and out of fissures in this blue-black escarpment of coral.
With strong scissoring kicks, Robinson angled deeper along the coral face. The reef was a haven for an astonishing assortment of marine life. Dark-striped sergeant-majors accompanied him. A yellowhead jarfish vanished into its sandy lair near the base of the reef. He reminded himself to stay alert for the green moray eels common to these waters. A moment later, a school of small silversides exploded from a dark crevice, many colliding against him as they fled into open water, and he was relieved to see that it was only a big jack that had flushed them.
Swimming near the bottom, he crossed the channel and approached the submarine wall. Here the sea currents had gouged huge tunnels in the manmade edifice, providing tarpon with a perfect breeding ground. Robinson saw swarms of these feisty game fish, which could grow to two hundred pounds in the open sea.
By this time he'd been down thirty minutes, half the dive time with two tanks, so he returned to the Whaler, having decided to do the rest of his waiting aboard. But as he climbed over the transom he saw that he would not have to wait. Another Whaler lay at anchor a hundred and fifty meters west. By its markings it, too, was a rental from the Rum Grove marina. It had to be Sheila.
He saw no sign of her -- she had already dived. But was she in Tarpon Alley, or had she crossed the reef to the far side? He had to choose right the first time; he didn't have sufficient air to check both sides thoroughly. He chose beyond the reef. This was the most likely place to find wreckage, assuming there was any wreckage to be found. Until last night he hadn't thought it likely there would be. But somebody had wanted to stop Sheila St. Cyr's daily diving excursions.
Robinson dived again, this time traversing the crest of the reef. a few feet below the surface. He could feel the cold surge of the vast depths beyond. Strong currents pushed and pulled madly over the jagged coral fans and ridges. He wondered how many vessels, through the centuries had ripped their bellies open on savage crests like this, spilling crew and cargo into the deep. Did a diver ever go down in the Caribbean without entertaining fancies of finding a trove of ancient pieces-of-eight or bars of Spanish bullion?
On the far side of the reef he paused, experiencing that primal chill man feels when confronted by the great unknown. The uncharted depths stretched before him, the unfathomed inner space, the limitless abode of untold marvels and unknown peril. Out here, beyond the shelter of the reef, the sea remained undisputed master, and a lone diver was subject to its whim.
Below, Robinson could see the outer face of the reef descend in tiers into the murky depths. Shafts of sunlight played like misty spotlights on the multicolored coral of the uppermost tiers. Large tarpon and black grouper lazed in and out of pockets. At the limit of his vision, straight ahead, a stingray appeared, sensed him, banked sharply away and sought the shelter of the undersea umbrage.
To his left, an outcrop jutted like the prow of a ship from the reef, cut through by a narrow tunnel. Through this he swam, admiring a colony of rainbow-hued anemones bigger than basketballs. Emerging from the tunnel, he pulled up short, catching his breath as a long, gray, bullet-shaped barracuda flashed briefly across his line of sight. A moment later it reappeared, further away along the face of the reef, circling back. Over five feet in length, the big predator was agitated, opening and closing its massive jaws. Robinson wondered why -- and at that moment saw a surge of bubbles drifting up not five meters in front of him. He ventured out of the tunnel and looked down. Sheila was about ten meters below him -- and one glance told him that she was in trouble.
The barracuda was circling above her, hungry but wary. Robinson's sudden appearance caused it to break out of its pattern and torpedo away into the gloom, but it probably wasn't gone for good. The 'cuda was an aggressive sea predator with a very large gape, so it could feed on big prey. Attacks on humans were fairly common, and occasionally fatal. They were very fast -- attaining speeds of up to 60 kph -- and could lighten or darken their lateral blotches, a form of camouflage.
Robinson left the tunnel and angled down toward Sheila, kicking as hard as he could. Closer, he saw that her right foot was tightly lodged in the coral. Her frantic struggle to free herself had done more harm than good, lacerating her ankle. The wisps of blood looked green -- red was the first color filtered from the spectrum underwater. She saw him coming, and as he drew near her arms shot out and she groped for his mouthpiece with startling urgency. Only then did Robinson comprehend the full measure of her predicament. She was out of air. He took a deep breath and gave her the mouthpiece. For a minute or two they buddy-breathed, and he saw the panic fade from her eyes.
Then the barracuda returned, a sleek silver missile out of the gloom.
Robinson tugged at his harness and, slipping free, left the tanks with her as he kicked away from the reef. She grasped one of his legs, perhaps fearing that he meant to abandon her, but he shook loose and swam straight at the barracuda. More aggressive than sharks, barracudas were generally more difficult to intimidate. But Robinson's gamble paid big dividends -- the predator rolled gracefully away and swam back into the womb of the sea.
Returning to the reef, Robinson took air and then tugged on her harness, making a throwaway gesture. Sheila nodded and began to work on the fastenings. He drew his diving knife and started chipping away at the coral projection that held her foot like a bear trap. Then he saw, glancing around to see if the barracuda was coming back, what had brought her to this spot.
There was a torpedo ensconced in the coral below them, no more than five meters away.
It looked to be of World War II vintage. Very faintly he could make out a swastika on the tail assembly, just forward of the twin propellers. The torpedo lay nose down at a 45-degree angle in a cradle of coral that had grown around its midsection, clasping it fast to the reef. It was, Robinson thought, an interesting relic. But it had nothing to do with the Bright Hope, as far as he knew. He returned to his work. Caution slowed him -- he didn't want the blade to slip and add to Sheila's injuries. Twice he had to turn and take the mouthpiece from her. The second time he had to suck hard for air. Sheila clutched at her throat, signaling what he already knew. They were almost out of oxygen. The surface was fifty feet above. He could make it easily. But there was no way he could go without her.
Throwing caution to the wind he struck with the knife, again and again. It was ironic -- marine ecologists were so damned worried about careless divers damaging brittle coral formations that took centuries to construct, and here he was unable to succeed in the most strenuous vandalism.
He felt his lungs constricting, the muscles in his arms beginning to ache from oxygen deprivation. And then the knife plunged down and the coral broke apart. Robinson dropped the blade, hooked Sheila under the arms, and kicked for the surface. She wouldn't let go of the tanks -- they banged painfully against his legs -- and she drew convulsively on a mouthpiece that was no longer supplying her with air. Her eyes reflecting a growing panic, were locked onto his. He forced a reassuring smile. Dizzily he wondered if they weren't actually sinking. Where the hell was the surface? He didn't look. Eye contact was Sheila's lifeline now, and he wasn't going to break it.
Then they broke the surface, separated, gasped for air. The empty tanks floated away. The current was strong, the tide coming in, and it swept them like so much flotsam across the top of the reef. Robinson tried to swim. His arms and legs felt like lead weights. A sharp pain lanced through his leg -- he had gasped open his calf on a crest of coral. He yelled at Sheila to swim hard for shore. They had to reach the deep water of Tarpon Alley or the ebb and flow of the tide would drag them back and forth across the reef until they were slashed to bloody ribbons.
A dorsal fin broke the foaming surface fifteen meters beyond her. She didn't see it, but Robinson did. The barracuda was back, perhaps drawn by the blood in the water. Robinson changed directions, clumsily raking his legs across the coral. A half dozen strokes closed the distance between them. "Barracuda," he gasped and, locking an arm around her, rolled onto his side and began to swim. The weight of her body and feeble kicks repeatedly drove his legs down against the reef, and they left a filmy cloud of blood in their wake. He heard the big predator thrash into it but didn't stop swimming until they were in deep water. There he paused, treading water with one hand, still holding on to her with the other, and looked back. Would the barracuda cross the reef? If so they would surely be attacked.
Luck dealt them not one, but two aces. The dorsal circled away from the reef and disappeared. And when Robinson turned to seek out the nearest haven, he saw the Boston Whaler lying doggo not fifty meters away. It was her boat -- his lay well beyond fifty meters -- not far for two good swimmers, but by the time they'd covered that distance Robinson barely had enough strength to help her over the gunwale and then drag himself over. They lay side by side on the deck for a long time, heaving air into aching lungs. He was grateful for the hot sun that soaked his body with healing warmth.
Through the thunder of the blood in his ears, Robinson thought he heard her speak. He turned his head and smiled apologetically. "Beg pardon?"
"I said thank you. You saved my life. Again."
"My pleasure. Hope you don't mind if I lie here for a while and quietly bleed all over your deck."
"I don't mind. In fact, I'll join you."
Robinson nodded, closed his eyes, and turned his face to the sun, waiting for the adrenaline in his bloodstream to forsake its hold on him, and letting the gentle rocking motion of the Whaler sooth his nerves.
Only the pain kept him from dozing off. He raised himself up on his elbows and saw the deck beneath his lacerated legs awash with salt water and blood. He glanced at Sheila. She seemed to be sleeping. He didn't like the looks of her mangled ankle. He managed to get up, and after a brief search found a first aid kit in a seat locker. He set right to work. A sliver of razor-sharp coral had to be removed, and as he probed with a pair of tweezers Sheila groaned and rolled over on her side. No, she wasn't asleep -- she was unconscious. The wound cleaned, Robinson applied an antiseptic gel, then used gauze and adhesive tape to make a dressing. He had no doubt she would carry the scars for the rest of her life.
It was while he was attempting to tend to his own injuries that she rolled over on her back again, moaning softly, and saw the coin she had been laying on.
Fetching it, Robinson sat on a seat locker and turned it over and over in his hand. He knew what it was -- he and Scotty had been thoroughly briefed before leaving Washington. It was a Crown Sovereign King, a George V minted in 1925, no doubt at the South African Mint in Pretoria, which had issued Sovereigns from 1923 until 1935. King George V was in profile on the front, with Pestrucci's St. George slaying his dragon on the back. The coin weighed eight grams, and was 91.7 percent pure.
Robinson was so wrapped up in his examination of the coin and the meaning of its presence that he didn't know Sheila was conscious until she spoke.
"Are you going to give it back to me?"
She held out a hand, and he dropped the sovereign into her palm.
"Do you know what it is?"
"Crown sovereign. The British Empire's coin of the realm. I don't believe they have minted any, except as commemoratives, since the 1930s. Almost a quarter of an ounce of gold. The coin is worth about eighty dollars based on current gold prices. Unless it's counterfeit; I hear there are a lot of counterfeit sovereigns floating around."
"You know a lot. I didn't think it was a coincidence that you happened to be around twice when I was in trouble."
"I'm a marine biologist. I do a lot of diving. So I know something about buried treasure. But I'm not hunting for it." Robinson grinned, trying his best to look sheepish. "To be perfectly honest with you I, well, I find you very attractive. I saw you in the Rum Grove restaurant last night, and I followed you when you left. I figured that if there was someone else you were probably going off to meet him, and I wanted to survey the field, see what the competition was like. I checked with some of the hotel employees and found out you come out here every day to dive. So I decided to do a little diving myself."
"Why didn't you tell me last night that you were staying at Rum Grove?"
"I didn't want you to think I was stalking you, or anything." He shook his head ruefully. "I never have much luck where women are concerned."
She looked him straight in the eye and said, in a low voice: "Now I know you're lying. Who are you, really?"