It was Monday around two on a painfully bright April afternoon. Overhead a flock of white ibis labored by like gorgeous aeronautical blunders. The sky was scrubbed clean of clouds, as it had been for weeks. No rain, no sign of it. What grass there was in Key Largo had yellowed and turned crisp as toast.
In the saltwater tank two of the dolphins were nosing against the scar on Thorn's arm--a glossy pockmark where several years ago a lump of lead had passed through the meat of his shoulder in a red-hot hurry. For the last few minutes the larger of the two dolphins had been bombarding the shiny, thickened flesh with her sonar. Echolocation, it was called.
"Does it tickle?" Monica asked. She was treading water beside him in the twenty-foot-square pool. So far none of the dolphins had homed in on her. Monica's short blond hair was bright in the midday sun, plastered against her head, revealing the shape of her perfect skull.
"More than a tickle," Thorn said. "Like my shoulder's a tuning fork."
"Bliss with flippers," said Roy Everly. "That's what some California idiot called them last week."
Roy sat on the edge of the dolphin tank, feet dangling in the water. He was the owner and caretaker of the dolphin center. He'd been a year behind Thorn at Coral Shores High back in medieval times. Roy had the distinction of being the first person on the island to own a computer. Built it himself; the thing filled half a room. He'd won a scholarship to Stanford in computer science, but had to turn it down because his mother was dying of cancer. That was twenty years ago and she was still dying.
These days Roy weighed well over three hundredpounds, most of it hanging over the waistband of the red thong he wore continually. He still cut his thick blond hair the same way he had his whole life--in a one-inch burr.
"Big debate these days," Roy said. "Are dolphins aliens from outer space come to enlighten us, or are they angels?"
Thorn smiled civilly.
"Bunch of California horseshit," Roy said. "Dimwits eating way too much granola and alfalfa sprouts."
The Down syndrome kids in the adjacent pool had quieted. No more screams of fright, rapturous shrieks. Now all Thorn could hear were soothing gurgles and low croons coming from over there, ten kids and their two teachers, bobbing amid the angels. And in the third tank the cancer patients and paraplegics were finished with their session and were being helped out onto the wood deck by a large black man in a white uniform.
"Now they go back to their van and do the blood tests. Doc Wilson draws a few cc's before they go in, then after the half hour in the tank he gets another sample. Looking for elevated levels of beta-endorphin, lipotropin, serum cortisol, and catecholamines. Brain chemicals, pain regulators. Trying to pin down exactly what's happening, why their intractable pain subsides. Why they suddenly start performing better on all the tests, mental and physical and psychological."
"Bean Wilson's working here?"
"Last year or two," Roy said. "Nice old man. Good doctor too. Helping out some VA clinic down in Key West. Saddest bunch of assholes I ever saw--twisted, mangled old vets. But they seem to get a kick out of the dolphins. They go home happy, anyway."
The two dolphins that had been analyzing Thorn's scar backed slowly away to the far end of the pool. They hovered there for a moment as if in serious deliberation.
"They're getting another angle on you. Sonar's so highly developed, they can spot a shark a half mile away, tell whether its stomach is empty or full. Doesn't work as well up close."
Suddenly the water surged in front of the two dolphins and they headed directly toward Thorn, twenty miles an hour in less than ten feet. His skiff with a one-fifty Evinrude couldn't accelerate that fast.
As they rushed forward, Thorn held his position, less from bravery than a lack of any other option. Then a foot from his face, the duo split apart like fighter jets passing in review, each dolphin whispering against one of Thorn's shoulders. A moment later they circled back and once again focused their pings on his gunshot wound.
"Wow," Monica said. "What the hell was that about?"
"They're trying to figure out his scar," said Roy. "Violence, guns, bullets. It upsets them; it's too weird. They don't understand it."
"Neither do I," said Thorn.
A small bottlenose had finally taken an interest in Monica and seemed to be nuzzling against the belly of her black bathing suit. Monica's smile relaxed and her head dropped back in the water. There was a rule against touching the animals. Everyone was instructed to let the dolphins determine all contact.
"Oh, my god, he's doing it," she whispered. "He's pinging me."
"I can't watch," Thorn said.
"Been verified with EEGs." Roy stood up, stretched lazily. "Half hour in the tank, brain waves are smoother, more regular. Left brain and right brain in much better harmony. Neurological functioning on a much higher level. Half hour swimming with them boosts the immune system, increases T-cell count. Even evidence it can shrink tumor mass. What I think is the sonar is causing cavitation inside the soft tissue of the body. Cavitation, as in cavities or bubbles, you know. Those echoes you feel are ripping apart your molecules, opening up spaces."
"Sounds painful," Thorn said. "But this feels good."
"You wouldn't feel molecular pain. A little buzz, that's all. It's like your molecules are being rolfed, loosened up, all the calcified masses broken apart. It's pain, but a pain you don't feel. A pain that stimulates endorphin release, which, voil, creates the deep relaxation and increased T-cell production."
"You know a lot about them," Monica said.
"Of course, on the downside," said Roy, "as the word spreads about the beneficial effects of swimming with them, every charlatan from Miami to Seattle is starting to trap dolphins, open healing centers. Angels for rent."
Roy stood there staring gloomily at Thorn and Monica, as if they were the first wave of barbarians.
Monica groaned, eyes closed, off in a euphoric cloud.
Since January, Monica Sampson had been renting a downstairs apartment next to the dolphin center and she and Roy had become friends. For weeks she'd been badgering Thorn to come swim with the dolphins, but he'd resisted. Among other things, he didn't want anyone to get wind of his connection with the place.
When Kate Truman, Thorn's adoptive mother, died a few years earlier she'd left several million dollars' worth of income-producing property to Thorn. He immediately signed it all over to Millie Oblonsky, a cranky Russian matriarch who'd practiced law down in Islamorada for the last sixty years. Nearing ninety, Millie had been Kate's closest friend and had shared her fierce dedication to preserving the Keys in as natural a state as possible. Thorn never asked what charities or environmental groups were receiving the financial help. The money was no longer legally his and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. The scant income he got from selling his bonefish flies to local tackle shops and a handful of guides was sufficient to get him through. Anything more was a burden.
Ordinarily Millie kept him out of the loop. But last December, on her Christmas card, she'd scratched a quick message: Check out Kate's dolphins. Included was a photograph of the Key Largo research center, three connecting tanks carved out of the limestone behind a conventional concrete block house that sat alongside a mangrove canal a half mile east of US 1. The eleven dolphins were penned inside the wire fences and were available as swimming partners seven days a week.
Thorn knew the place well. He'd passed by it hundreds of times over the years. Just another shabby roadside petting zoo, as far as he could tell. He'd pictured a bunch of fat, noisy Midwesterners trying to straddle the dolphins' backs, yee-ha. But he'd been wrong.
Last week when Monica finally coaxed him into going, Thorn found the place to be quiet and meditative, and even though penned in such small tanks, the dolphins seemed as amused by the humans as the other way around. Roy admitted tourists only when he didn't have sufficient sick or damaged folks to occupy the tanks.
Thorn had come back twice, though today was his first swim. It had been pleasure enough to stand with the usual gathering of onlookers and watch the sick and crippled slip into the dark pools with those powerful creatures and thirty minutes later to watch them climb out with the exhilarated expressions of the newly sanctified.
"Better than a hit of morphine," Roy said. "Dolphins discover what ails you and more often than not they set about making it right."
Thorn found himself agreeing. The two dolphins who'd been bombarding his glossy pockmark with their invisible rays seemed to be trying to ease the tension in his scar. A tension he hadn't even realized was there until now.
"Your time is up," Roy said. "I'd let you stay longer except I got a busload of schizophrenics coming in at five. I want to clear the place out before they arrive. There's only ten of them, but what with all their multiple personalities, it gets a little crowded around here."
Roy didn't smile, didn't seem to get his own joke. A lifetime of caring for his mother had sapped the humor from him. He might even have been beyond the help of dolphins.
As Thorn and Monica were toweling off, he noticed a tall, heavyset man standing at the back of the half dozen tourists gathered at the fences. He'd seen the same man on one of his other visits that week. The guy's paunch was so pronounced it looked like a German helmet beneath his shirt. He wore a red baseball hat with the brim tipped very low and a pair of gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. But what snagged Thorn's attention was the way the man wasn't watching the dolphins or the swimmers. His gaze was fixed on Roy Everly as he went about his duties, opening and closing the gates between the pens to keep the dolphins circulating among the groups, turning the pumps on and off, tinkering with the aerator. As Monica ruffled the towel across her hair, Thorn watched the man insert his thumb into his mouth and work at something that was lodged between his front teeth. When he got it free, he examined it briefly, then flicked it over his shoulder into the grass.
All that night Thorn's scar tingled. Monica came over for dinner and they talked for hours on the upstairs porch, stars flooding the sky. They laughed and held hands and shared a bottle of excellent red wine she'd brought along. If there were any mosquitoes, neither of them noticed.
"Something's wrong with me," Thorn said. "I feel too good."
"It's like we're getting the afterglow without the sex."
"You feel that good?"
"Better," she said, smiling. "Like all my knots have been untied."
They watched a twinkling sailboat motor along the distant Intracoastal. In the woods nearby an owl shrieked. A pair of bats fluttered close overhead, skimming bugs from the breeze.
"I wonder," Thorn said. "The dolphins make us feel this way, but what do we do for them? What the hell do they get out of it?"
"Maybe they're altruistic. They get pleasure from giving it."
Thorn looked over at her. Her legs were propped up on the porch railing, sleek and burnished with moonlight. She sipped her wine and stared out into the boundless dark. With her free hand she reached across and trailed her fingertips over his arm as delicately as fog. Thorn took a long drag of the sweet night air. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so good, so relaxed.
And it worried him. It worried the hell out of him.