Chris Green waited as the Caribbean reef shark ignored her on its leisurely patrol across part of the decaying remains of the Santa Teresa. The Spanish galleon, once a part of the fleets that forever changed the course of the history in the lands called The New World, was now a steady source of revenue for SilverQuest, Incorporated, and a steady source of food for the shark and other marine life that occupied the artificial reef that had formed from chunks of the rotting ship. The trio of sharks that had marked the wreck as their territory seemed to feel no competition with each other or the strange, noisy creatures that occupied the site for several hours each day. At nearly five hundred tons with four masts and a wide debris field that came from more than three hundred years of being submerged, the sunken Santa Teresa had created a thriving habitat large enough for everyone to share.
As she always did, Chris took a moment to admire the sleek form of the shark, this variety not having the aggressive inclination that larger bull sharks could display. In the compatible way in which underwater ecosystems develop, these predators preferred to snatch up aging fish as easy targets, thereby helping keep the reef populations in balance. The scraps they dropped provided a handy meal for smaller animals, and since the humans focused with gleaning treasure from the wreck took little in the way of fish, they posed no threat that needed to be dealt with. At least not as far as the reef sharks were concerned. The land-based sharks that would gladly dismember everyone on the site to take over the salvage rights were a different matter altogether.
But Chris let the corporate heads of SilverQuest worry about those aspects. Granted, the crew did have weapons on board in the event that someone decided to violate the standing arrangement of SilverQuest’s government-approved contract, which gave the company site access and salvage rights to the Santa Teresa, but incidents of actual piracy in this hemisphere were rare.
Finally wresting a dagger from a jumble of rocks, Jeff Roberts triumphantly showed it to Chris and acknowledged that he was ready to ascend. With the eye of an experienced treasure hunter, he had spotted the lump that could have been either sand-covered stones or another of thousands of artifacts that lay caught amid the wreck itself or around it. In addition to the jaw-dropping tons of actual silver and gold they had transported from the wreck, the crew and its occasional passengers were allowed to keep some of the everyday items they recovered. Such items were now antiquities, usually with an extra bump in value with proper provenance of having been recovered from the bottom of the sea from a verified wreck. This dagger, somewhat plain at first appearance, was nonetheless genuine and would easily bring at least two hundred dollars depending on a variety of factors.
Chris, who had come to a small percentage ownership in SilverQuest through tragedy that still sometimes haunted her, had learned the essentials of the business mostly from listening to Jeff as he explained the intricate negotiations for the split between the company and the Bahamian government. Then there were market considerations of the release of certain items. What to sell when and to whom was like any other commodity where large sums of money could be lost in the snap of a finger if the timing was off.
Chris couldn’t deny that the thrill of descending onto the wreck in search of bountiful treasure was as strong today as it was on her first trip, but she didn’t want to be tied to the administrative baggage and complex logistics of day-to-day operations. Six to eight weeks a year doing salvage work with SilverQuest seemed to be the right mix for her. There was always at least one exciting find during her stay, most of the paying clients were interesting, and her relationship with the permanent crew was enjoyable. Not to mention, sex with Jeff still left them both sweat-sheened in the aftermath.
Chris was jostled from that last thought when she realized their ascent would put them in the path of a cluster of jellyfish—hydromedusa from the look of the translucent domes and long tentacles. Although the jellyfish were not toxic, there was no need to risk a sting. Chris twisted to alert Jeff and saw that his head was down, his attention caught by a moderate-sized stingray passing beneath them. The visibility had increased to almost seventy feet once they left the constantly stirred sand of working around the wreck. It was less than two hours to sunset though, and the intensity of the overhead brightness had faded. She exhaled a deep breath, sinking slightly to let the jellyfish float out of the way. When Jeff looked up, she pointed a warning. He gave the circled thumb and forefinger “Okay” sign and moved to her right. They spotted the anchor line and, with no surge and moderate current, leveled off at seventeen feet of depth and performed their three-minute safety stop. They hovered in the water, keeping an eye out for more jellies as well as glancing around for whatever might come within their field of vision, such as the ever-present fish that hung under the anchored boats, watchful for bits of food that were often tossed overboard.
Chris’s and Jeff’s bubbles drifted upward, each of them respectful of this step in the safety process. Even though they used a nitrox mixture instead of straight compressed air that helped provide an extra safety margin in the case of multiple days of repetitive diving, the simple, basic act of spending three to five minutes at a depth between twenty and fifteen feet before surfacing was a rule that knowledgeable divers followed rigorously. Whether one had three dives or three thousand under one’s belt, the laws of physics and physiology did not change. While submerged, nitrogen built within the blood of a diver, the level determined by the depth and duration of the dive. The safety stop was the first step in off-gassing that would continue as they waited an acceptable length of time before making another dive. Anyone who believed the rule no longer applied to them risked suffering a round of decompression sickness, commonly referred to as the bends. Chris had known a few “tough guys” who’d discovered that reality and been sidelined from diving for weeks with this painful condition. Those who chose to ignore the fundamentals and took it to the extreme could die from the bends.
Chris didn’t know if anyone on the boat was watching for them since they were the final pair in the water. John and Bobby, the other divers, had hauled the suction airlift on board half an hour prior, and Javi and Marty had surfaced just behind them. Martin Paul Gradeaux, known as simply Marty, was the only paying client this week. He’d been happily carrying a gold ring with an emerald at the center of a cross that he’d uncovered during the last ten minutes of the dive. Based on the grin she had seen through his mask, Chris assumed this was his biggest find. Even though protocols of the contract wouldn’t allow him to keep something that valuable, it wouldn’t diminish the fact that he’d scooped it up in his own hands and, at least temporarily, been in possession of it. They had already tagged a garnet rosary with a small silver crucifix for him and a pair of silver buttons that he intended to have made into cufflinks. Clients were allowed to take one or two mementos in addition to receiving a fraction of a percent of the estimated haul from the week they were diving, and Marty had been fortunate in his timing. The day before, they’d pulled up nearly three hundred gold doubloons.
When they broke the surface and paused to slip off their fins and slide them over their wrists, Jeff removed the regulator from his mouth and said, “You come up empty-handed?”
Chris clamored up the ladder to the swim platform before she answered. “Got a couple more coins in my vest pocket.” John headed toward her to help, but she waved him off, not needing assistance in getting to an open spot on the bench. She sat, feeling her tank push into the holder behind her, and unsnapped the chest strap to her buoyancy compensator vest. Jeff plopped close to her, laying the dagger on the bench between them.
“I think it might be a rondel,” he said of the single-blade weapon that had a fluted grip caked in grime. The blade looked to be about nine inches long. “The grip is probably bone, and it’s fluted, which I think means it was higher quality. Did you know that James is pretty much an expert on edged weapons?”
“I have to admit that I don’t believe I’ve had that conversation with him,” Chris said, nodding thanks to John’s offer of a chilled bottle of water.
“I’ve got these. You two go have a rinse and a cold beer,” John said in the island cadence that was difficult to distinguish from Bobby if they were speaking out of sight. They were as similar in appearance as in voice; no relation, yet both were broadly built, a head taller than Chris, a little shorter than Jeff. Their upper body strength was more noticeable than a number of dedicated body builders whom Chris knew, strength born of highly practical use around the boat instead of muscles developed for bragging rights. The primary difference between the two native crew members was Bobby’s hair was cropped so close as to give almost a shaved look, while John’s curls resembled a fuzzy cap.
Jeff hefted the dagger in the palm of his hand, and Chris extracted the two coins before relinquishing the equipment to John. They stripped off their wetsuits, hung them on the heavy hangers on the rack, and made their way forward. The Seek and Find was a working boat rather than a pleasure cruiser, and the dive deck was filled with the necessary tools of the trade for treasure hunting. A new crane was mounted on the port side, and overhead cover extended three quarters the length of the deck. Tank racks and benches with open storage underneath lined half of each side for a total of twenty tank holders, enough for a full crew plus the maximum of six paying guests they allowed. Lengths of PVC tubing and white flexible hosing were underneath one of three long stainless steel tables, part of the airlift system that was instrumental to treasure hunting. On almost every dive, a man was assigned to work the airlift and he held the tube, which sucked up the sand and shot it to the surface where a recovery basket awaited. The basket was essentially a large sieve attached to the hull of the Seek and Find. Anything of value would be left in the sieve as the sand flowed back into the water. The underwater work required concentration, a pair of strong arms to take the continuous vibration, and the ability to work enveloped in the cloud of sand stirred up by the vacuum action. A compressor to run the airlift system was on the deck in close proximity to the crane.
“Drinks, dinner, and meeting here, then later on to your boat?”
Chris hid a smile at Jeff’s question. They followed the same pattern every night, but she appreciated the fact that he didn’t take it for granted. It wasn’t that their relationship was remotely secret, and when she didn’t bring her yacht, the Maybe Tomorrow, she spent far more nights in Jeff’s stateroom than her own cabin. By tacit agreement, though, they opted for the privacy of Chris’s customized Viking Motor Yacht most evenings.
“Yeah, meet you up top in about twenty,” she said, as he took the stairs to the wheelhouse deck and she went down to the passage below where there were five cabins for the paying customers and James Montgomery, one of three Bahamian government representatives who rotated in two-week shifts. When she was staying aboard, she used the largest of these cabins. This trip, she had taken the smaller number three cabin to have a handy changing room rather than passing back and forth between boats after diving. It was fully functional with bunk beds, a narrow wardrobe, small sink, storage space under the beds, a porthole, and a cramped, but en-suite shower and toilet.
Toiletries, two sets of shorts and T-shirts, one pair of sandals, and an extra swimsuit were arrayed on the top bunk. Chris wasn’t entirely sure why she kept her curly hair cut short, but it certainly made it incredibly simple to wash and dry with no styling required. She quickly showered off the salt from the day’s swim and shampooed her hair. She applied moisturizer with sunscreen—her usual entire beauty regimen. This evening, she wore denim shorts and a royal blue polo with a turtle embroidered on the left side, no accessories.
She heard voices as she climbed to the top deck where the captain’s stateroom was adjoined to the wheelhouse. The upper lounge area where they gathered was uncovered with half a dozen sun-aged teak stackable chairs for seating. Hinged benches providing more storage were affixed on either side, but these were without padded tops. A lifeboat canister was positioned on the port side of the wheelhouse.
With the four men engaged in conversation at the stern railing, Chris took a moment to watch Jeff, clad in khaki cargo shorts and a red polo shirt. He was six feet, give or take half an inch; in his mid-thirties; and with his etched tan, obviously a man who lived his life outside. His black hair would have passed any military inspection, and his eyes were a startling blue given his complexion. His trim build was almost pure muscle, a hammerhead shark tattoo on his left forearm and an octopus on his right.
Javi, a head shorter than Jeff, dark-skinned, and compact with a smile that stretched across his face, was an indeterminate age. His crooked teeth were tobacco stained as were the tips of his blunt fingers. The eldest of seven children, son of a Bahamian mother and Puerto Rican father, Javi knew every inch of the boat like no one else. There were no tasks that he could not and had not performed, and he was the type of man who if you were stranded on a desert island with only one companion, you would be wise to select him.
James was nodding his mostly bald head at whatever Jeff was saying, his round gold-rimmed glasses reflecting the late sun. Unlike the crew, James’s body was on the shorter, pudgy side. Spending most of his time inside the salon, reading during the dives, concerned only with the end result of what was recovered each day, James lacked the tan sported by the others. His very British accent had no island lilt, and he was personable without crossing the line into friendship. He took his charge of watching out for the government’s interest seriously, and Chris thought that if asked, he could probably recite the inventory of treasure for the trip without consulting his paperwork. He had that kind of an accountant’s eye for detail.
Marty had entered the discussion with a laugh and a wave of his beer bottle. From New Orleans, he was an excellent diver as well as generally likeable, a graduate student working on a combined master’s and doctoral degree from Tulane University’s Public Health and Tropical Medicine program. Tulane was his father’s alma mater, and as much as Marty relished treasure hunting, he claimed that he had promised his father that it would only be a hobby and he would not let it distract him from a promising profession. At twenty-five, he was still working out how he was going to merge his education, skills, and love of the islands. Taller than Chris at five foot nine, his thick brown hair would tumble across his forehead if he let it grow much longer. His eyes were the green of clover fields, and he’d told Chris that when he was deprived of diving, he used tennis and golf as his athletic outlets.
Catching her eye, his smile widening, he said, “Chris, I was just explaining how I came to diving. It was all due to one seriously hot dive instructor I met on spring break when I was a freshman.”
Chris took the beer that Jeff handed her and laughed with the group. “There are many ways to learn about scuba,” she said and winked at James. “I still think we’ll win you over.”
“This work is hard to resist when you’re bringing up treasure like we’ve been doing,” Jeff said. “In fact, James confirmed that the dagger I recovered today is a rondel.”
“Oh, yes,” James said enthusiastically. “Not as ornate as some and, unfortunately, the lower guard is missing, but quite a nice specimen nonetheless.”
“This has been an even better trip than my first one,” Marty said and tapped the neck of his bottle against Javi’s. “My mom will go nuts over that rosary. Her birthday is next month.”
The light breeze shifted, and the aroma of grilling meat made Chris’s stomach rumble. She heard the collective indrawn sniff of her companions.
“Man, that smells great,” Marty said. “Pork would be my guess.”
Chris suspected that his comment was due less to a refined olfactory ability and more to a logical conclusion: they’d had chicken the previous night and freshly caught lobster before that.
Jeff grinned. “I don’t know, Javi, if Rico keeps this up, we’re likely to lose him to some restaurant.”
“He’s a good boy,” Javi said, of his oldest grandson who had joined the crew right after Christmas. “He prefers this business though—at least for now. The cooking is a bonus for us.”
Rico, the youngest on the team, made the morning dive after serving up breakfast and was done in time to lay out a simple lunch of sandwiches. Chris didn’t know in which direction he was leaning as far as a future career was concerned, and at barely eighteen, it wasn’t as if he had to make an immediate decision.
Marty waggled his empty bottle. “Do we need another round of drinks, or are we ready to go down?”
“Might as well head to the salon,” Jeff said, glancing at the lowering sun. The glare had modulated to a softer reddish orb that was tingeing nearby sparse bands of clouds with pink. Other than Chris’s boat, they were alone on the calm water. Soon the sun would sink from sight; darkness would envelop them by the end of dinner.
After dinner, there would be a short meeting about the plan for the next day, nothing unusual scheduled as far as she knew. Then Chris would say her good nights and climb into the skiff to idle to Maybe Tomorrow, where she would set out the bottle of Debonaire Rum 15 and wait until Jeff joined her for their nightly drink sitting forward topside. Impressed with the sample she’d tasted in the liquor store, she had picked up the new Panamanian rum before she left the marina in Vero Beach. As she’d rolled the taste in her mouth, the store owner had explained that a semi-bitter vanilla kept the rum from being too sweet and provided a long, dry, woody finish. Although her knowledge of fine rums had increased significantly, there was a wide body of them to explore, and she tried to remember to enter notes on the new ones she tried in a special log she kept on the computer.
“Hey, Chris, you coming with us or have you ordered up dinner under the stars?”
Marty’s teasing voice yanked her from her musing. “I’m right behind you.” After-dinner rum for later was all fine and good, but at the moment, slices of grilled pork topped with one of Rico’s tasty fruit chutneys were calling her name.
Copyright © 2001-2019, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.