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It was hot, the way it gets in the Gulf Stream during mid-July. Since sunup, Hooker had been stretched out in the ancient canvas deck chair, letting the sun bake him even darker, enjoying the strange feeling that the intense solar radiation was squeezing out all the aches and pains he had ever had in his life.
For the past hour he had been going through his ritual of forgetting, letting the present take hold. It was another nice day, almost too hot for people. Every so often the birds would circle overhead and squawk, but they didn't dive, so he knew there were no baitfish surfacing yet.
He was totally awake, even though his eyes were closed, and he could sense Billy Bright looking at him. Old Billy was one of the few real Caribs left around the islands, and even though his skin was a bare two shades darker than Hooker's, white men were white men and damn well were supposed to stay that way, and when nature turned them toward his color something was very funny indeed.
Hooker felt a grin pull at his mouth and let his eyes come open. For a second they met Billy's, then the Carib jerked his head away. Self-consciously he straightened the captain's hat his new boss had given him and lifted the lid on the bait box to check the dozen blue runners swimming around inside.
"When you going to catch me a fish, Billy?"
Not looking up, Billy said, "We do not catch the fish, Mr. Hooker sar, the fish, she catch us."
"Better be soon, then," Hooker told him. "We got nothing on the table tonight."
Billy let the cover slam down and turned around, a puzzled scowl on his face. "Mr. Hooker, sar, in my life, many men I have taken to the fish. Some want them for the excitement, some want them for the wall, some want them for the money. But you want them for the stomach."
"I like fish."
"All the time?"
Hooker nodded. "Know anything better?"
"Perhaps the wife..."
"I like women too, but not when I'm fishing."
For a moment Billy looked thoughtful, then he said, "On the other side of Peolle Island, sar...a very pretty lady, she lives there. Once I worked for her and..."
"Come on, don't line me up any dolls. Catch me a fish."
Idly, Billy Bright looked up at the sky. "It will not be too long, sar."
The breeze freshened then and the beat-up old forty-footer rolled gently. Hooker grinned and reached for another beer, wiped the ice off the sides, then dropped it in the Styrofoam cup and popped the top. Yeah, it was another nice day. He was the owner of a boat he had paid cash for, two thousand gallons of high octane in a buried storage tank on shore, and now he could enjoy his retirement.
Back on the mainland they could go scratch themselves, except everybody hated each other too much to bother. Good luck to them all. Hooker had retired and had gone fishing. He had never fished for a living before and he had never expected to do it now, but by golly, here he was.
The reel only made a few fast clicks, but Billy looked over quickly. So did Hooker. In a few weeks he had learned what the sound could mean. There was a heavy drag on the eighty-pound test line and anything that could move it had to be big. Hooker got up slowly and pulled the rod out of the socket, getting ready to set the hook when the time came.
Once again the line ran out, but Hooker didn't move. "It's playing with me, Billy."
"They do that, sar."
"How deep is the planer?"
"Fifty, maybe sixty feet down."
Hooker nodded and reset the drag a fraction. "Hand me my beer, will ya?"
Billy reached for the can just as the fish hit. The initial strike was hard and Hooker set the hook in without waiting for any further action. Billy was about to tell him he was nothing but a hell-to-gone dumb mainlander even if he was a white man and his boss to boot, then he saw the line tighten and run and kept his mouth shut, because even hell-to-gone dumb mainlanders can get lucky once in a while.
Hooker read the expression on Billy's face. "He's on there, buddy. I can feel his mouth lapping right over the bait. That baby is on there right up to his nostrils."
With a shrug, Billy stepped back and watched his new friend handle the line. He has lost weight, he thought. There was little fat left and it was easy to see that he was a powerful man. In a short time the sun had made him almost black until he took his shorts off, but while his skin had turned darker, his hair had bleached almost white. Even his eyebrows and the hair on his arms were an odd yellow color. For a moment he wondered why it didn't happen to him that way, losing himself in an age-old problem of genetics, then he saw that Hooker was winning the fight against their supper and he picked up the gaff to drag it aboard.
Hooker staggered and almost fell on his tail. He said, "Damn!" and winched in his line furiously.
"You didn't loose he, sar," Billy said.
"He sure went someplace," Hooker said. "I hope you like eating blue runners for supper."
"They are not so bad, sar." He grinned at his friend, watching him closely as the leader cleared the water.
"Damn," Hooker said again. On the end of the line, the blue runner bait still sticking out of its mouth, was only the head of what would have been a fifty-pound wahoo.
"Mr. Shark got you, sar. He like to eat your fish supper too."
"That baby I'd like to eat."
Billy shook his head. "He be too big, sar. Look down," he pointed, "see, thar he go and what a big mister he is."
It looked more like a shadow than a real thing, but there was no mistaking what it was. For a moment it circled out of sight, then came back and rose slowly until the full length was visible, turning on its side so the enormous black eye seemed to be looking straight into Hooker's.
"I'd like to catch that sucker," he said.
"But why for, sar? Mr. Shark, he must eat too."
"Not my fish, Billy."
"There is still plenty for all of us. Tonight I take the head of your fish and make a fine stew."
"You must be kidding!"
Billy's face looked hurt. "My cooking is no good for you?"
"Hey...your cooking's great. You hear me yell about it yet?"
"Then you will like my stew."
"Take out the eyes first, okay?"
"Sar...that is the best part."
"Do it for me, please?" Hooker asked.
"For you sar," Billy told him reluctantly.
It was a good deckside supper, he had to admit, even if Billy wouldn't let him look in the old chipped enamel pot. He wiped up the last of the gravy with the sourdough bread and wondered if the crazy Carib had really taken the eyes out of the wahoo head or not. When he thought about it again it hardly bothered him at all. When he first got to the islands he'd no more eat out of a native pot when he saw what they were cooking than dive into a septic tank. Now he could handle almost anything. Except the eyes. Somehow that just plain got him. Eyes were not for eating.
Billy took his plate and handed him a fresh beer just as the raucous blare of a carrier wave erupted over the radio speaker. The talk came on fast, a rapid staccato of garbled tones that sounded like nothing more than human static. Hooker knew what it was even if he couldn't understand. It was some islander, probably in a frenzy offshore because he ran out of gas. He looked at his watch. It was an hour and a half from dark.
Superstition alley, Hooker thought. No way you were going to get a native to be out on the sea after sundown, no way at all. Two hours ago Billy had turned the Clamdip on a heading toward Peolle; they were only forty-five minutes out now and Billy was happy. Tonight he wouldn't get "et" by the thing that "et" boats.
The radio ceased for a moment and Hooker asked, "Who was it, Billy?"
An odd tone was in Billy's voice. The subtle expression on his face was plain. His mouth was drawn tight and inwardly he was thinking about other boats and people dying in them and a terrifying eater in the ocean.
"His boat, the Soucan, has just been hit."
Hooker stood up quickly. "Where is he?"
Billy pointed to the northwest. "Twelve miles...there."
"How bad is he?"
"He is taking water fast, sar."
"What hit him?"
"Something came up from the bottom, Peter said."
"Billy, he's in over four thousand feet of water out there...no reefs, no nothing!"
"Something hit him, sar. He thinks his bottom has been bitten out."
"Billy, damn it..."
But the Carib had turned around and pushed the throttles forward. His face was a subtle mask of concern for his friend out there, yet touched by the anxiety of time itself. Billy didn't own a watch, but he could compute hours and minutes nearly to the seconds themselves, and now he was hoping they could make contact with the Soucan and get out of the area before the darkness owned the ocean.
Hooker could only shrug and get the binoculars out of the locker. For all he cared they could stay out here all night and he'd see what he could drag up on a deep line, but Billy would be a raving lunatic by sunup, so he'd just have to play by local rules. It really didn't matter anyway. There was nothing else to do.
Billy spotted the dot on the horizon before he did and said, "There's the Soucan, Mr. Hooker, sar."
Following his direction, Hooker zeroed in on the boat. It was another one of the oldies, a Matthews made back in the thirties. Probably about thirty-five feet, he figured. It was listing badly to port, its bow headed for home and a thin tendril of smoke from one exhaust tube showing that it still had some power.
Even as he watched, the Soucan seemed to lurch and the exhaust smoke stopped. A figure came out of the cabin, waved in their direction, then disappeared back into the wheelhouse again. Once more the radio blared on and the staccato rattle lasted for a full minute.
Billy half turned and said, "He is going down, sar. All power lost."
"How long has he got?"
"Ten minutes, sar. There is a mattress stuffed in the hole, but it will not last."
"We going to make it?"
"Yes, we will make it, sar."
Hooker grinned and glanced up at the sky. "But we'll never make it back before dark, will we?"
Billy Bright wanted to hate his boss man right then. He wanted to hate him very hard for that easy way he had when death could be only moments away. He wanted to hate him for not respecting the strange wild things that lived in the vast waters of the world, for not fearing them at all. But he really couldn't hate him because Hooker was a good man. On the mainland he could have been a tough man, for the scars he carried showed he had met others in the deadly way and won because he was here. Yet he was good. An islander could tell if he was not good, and he was not so very bad.
"We will not make it back before dark," Billy said.
"You scared of getting 'et'?"
"I do not look forward to it," Billy said, hoping Hooker would change the subject.
"What's going to eat a boat, Billy?"
"Something 'et' five, sar. Peter will be the number six."
Hooker could see the Soucan plainly now and put the glasses away. "He probably blew an engine rod right through his bottom."
"Peter would have said."
"Would he know?"
Billy nodded. "He is an engine builder. Not good, but he makes them go. He said something hit him. It bit a hole in his bottom."
They closed in on the old Matthews, throttled back and headed into the breeze. The boat was going down fast, keeling far over on its port side. A tall, skinny native with a chubby kid beside him was braced against the rail that was nearly awash, and when the Clamdip edged in they both jumped; Hooker took them in over the rails, one in each arm, and deposited them on the deck. Almost formally, Peter-from-the-market bowed, shook Hooker's hand and went to stand beside Billy.
Very slowly, the Clamdip circled the Soucan until they were looking at the bottom. Something inside the sinking boat made a loud, screeching noise, ripping at wood and metal, then the hulk turned completely over and exposed her barnacled underside for three long seconds before dropping into the total oblivion of the gulf, almost as if it were being sucked down a giant straw.
Hooker had seen it.
He wished he hadn't seen it at all.
There, sure as the sun sets, was a big hunk taken out of the bottom of the boat, and where it looked like it was regurgitating steel springs and cotton out of its maw, Peter had jammed the mattress. But it wasn't the mess of garbage that was sliding into the water that made the impact on Hooker.
It was those beautifully regular six-inch sawtooth marks on the top break of the wood that were clearly visible in those few instants that made Hooker feel as though a cold wind had just blown down on him from some northern ice field.
Quickly, he turned to see if any of the others had spotted it, but their eyes were studying the setting sun and the distant horizon. Under his breath Hooker muttered his disbelief, then opened another beer. He looked at the chart and saw that they were coming into the two-thousand-foot level.
It could have been his imagination, he thought, or the way old, water-soaked boards broke off around their supports. He tried to reconstruct his short visual sighting but found the image getting obscure. He took a sip of the cold beer and shook his head.
Man, he was getting as creepy as these crazy islanders.
Luckily, Hooker got the old tires over the side before Billy hit the dock. Usually, he was pretty adept at sliding the Clamdip into its berth, but this time he came in too fast, the reverse didn't engage quickly enough in the ancient gearbox and when it did the boat was all out of position. The old hull slammed into the pilings with one hell of a jolt that could have been disastrous if the Firestone fenders hadn't cushioned the shock.
Hooker saw it coming, sat on the beer box to keep it from spilling and let everything else go to pot. Tomorrow Billy would see what kind of mess he had made and would clean up without a word, the way he made everybody else do who pulled something stupid.
Crazy, he thought. Everybody was afraid of getting "et," as they said here. He looked at the boats on each side of the Clamdip and finished the rest of the beer. They were all rotted hulks, held together with driftwood and rusty nails. Some of them sunk right there at their moorings in calm weather and sometimes they just plain came apart out at sea like a woolen sweater in a washing machine. And these people thought because they lost six of them there was something out there eating them up.
He threw the can in the trash box and reached for a fresh one.
Those damn tooth marks in the Soucan were still there in his mind like a bad dream.
The first half hour on the beach was a solemn time. There was the loss of a boat and a near loss of a friend, but most solemn of all was the story that had to be told, retold and embellished with every telling. The fifth time around, the solemnity was gone and the excitement had crept in, and if Hooker hadn't made inroads into the cold beer, he would have sworn it was all a dull dream.
Somebody poked at the driftwood fire and it flared up enough to show the anxiety on the faces of the listeners. They looked like wooden statues.
Before, it had been bad enough. The eater had come always at night, and by simply sailing during the daylight hours they could be sure of safety. Now all that had changed. The hunger of the thing had forced it to select a meal in broad daylight.
Under questioning, Peter-from-the-market gave his answers as honestly as he could, being deliberate about every word. They were on the way home, the day fair, the sea calm. There was no activity at all to indicate that the eater was there below. Yes, the birds were squealing and dipping overhead but that was because the Soucan had a good catch of fish and the boy was emptying the dead bait in the wake of the boat.
There had been little warning at all, no ruffling of the sea's surface, no sound like the others had heard during the night attacks, a strange, foul smell, then that one powerful grab at the bottom, making the Soucan heel violently, and the eater was gone. One quick look below told him he had been badly holed; he dragged a mattress on deck, tied a line to the rail and the other end to the mattress, and got it under the stern and pulled it into position to cover the gaping rent in the bottom. At first it stymied the water's onslaught, but the bedding was too old and began fraying, spitting its entrails into the hull. Peter tied the other end of the line to the opposite rail, then stood in the stern with his son. All he could do was radio for help and hope somebody would hear. Luckily, the Clamdip was not too far off.
Hooker squashed the empty can in his hand and tossed it into the fire, then got up off his haunches and nodded for Billy to follow him. He was getting that edgy feeling again, the kind he had known for too many years in the past when something was happening and all you knew about it was the bits and pieces. No doubt about it, there were six local boats down in the area, all sunk in the last few months. There was no insurance scam involved because nobody could afford it anyway, and there wasn't one islander about to scuttle his only means of livelihood.
"What is it you wish to ask me, sar?"
"I think you know, Billy."
He felt, rather than saw, Billy shrug.
"Why didn't you tell me what everybody else seems to know about those sinkings?"
"They were 'et,' sar. There is an eater in the sea..."
"Come off it, Billy."
"On the mainland, the white men call it the Bermuda Triangle," Billy finally said. "They say there are many, many more ships than our poor six."
They had reached the glow of the kerosene lamps hanging from the porch roof of their cottage and Hooker stopped and looked at his friend. "Let me tell you something, buddy. That ocean out there is a very busy place with traffic going by day and night and in good weather or bad, so you're going to get a lot more accidents than you would in some inland lake. You understand that?"
Billy looked skeptical, but he nodded.
"A few unexplained things have happened, all right, then some story-hungry reporter came up with that Bermuda Triangle deal and it was good enough to start all kinds of yarns going. You think we believe it?"
"Your papers and the radio..."
"Baloney. You see all that ship traffic out there? You see the planes go overhead? You think Esso and Shell and all the banana boats and thousands of sports fishermen are going to risk their hulls if that story was real?"
This time Billy frowned uncertainly. His boss did make sense, for sure, for real sure. Even now he could see the lights of five ships on the horizon, not one of them worried at all about the eater. But his mind went back to his first question. "You were going to ask me something, sar."
"Yeah. Why didn't you tell me about the sound your friends heard when their boats were hit?"
"You would not have been to believe."
"Because it was the breathing they hear. It breathed on them and the smell was foul with rottenness like the dead fish on the shore from the red tide."
"Everybody heard this?"
Billy shook his head slowly. "There were four who did." He paused and his face went tight. "My friends Poca and Lule both...saw it."
"What did 'it' look like?"
Again, he shook his head. "It was...just a darkness. A very big darkness. Much darker than the night. It made the stars wink out."
Sure, Hooker thought, there's always got to be some romancing of the unexplainable and nothing could beat foul breathing and big darkness. But six hulls were gone, two people were missing and he had seen that toothlike rent in the bottom of the Soucan.
Damn it, there had to be a why. He said, "Come on inside, Billy. Let's get out the maps."
Two hours later Hooker had studied every detail of Peolle and Ara, the island to their north, his attention riveted on everything Billy told him. There was not one cove or inlet, not even a hill or rock outcropping Billy wasn't intimately familiar with, and now he rolled up the charts and stuffed them back into their plastic tubes.
"What was it we were looking for, Mr. Hooker, sar."
"You know what sabotage is, Billy?"
"If any of those boat captains could have known something...even something they weren't aware of...and someone wanted them eliminated..."
"Sar," Billy broke in, "we have thought of that. No pirate ships have ever made this their landing. There is no buried treasure. Even now, every summer the students from Miami come with their funny machines to search for metal. They find beer cans, an old wrench, maybe, but no treasure."
"You know, friend, you're one hell of a lot smarter than I gave you credit for."
"I still will not sail at night."
"How about daytimes?"
"That I must do, sar. Starving is not my pleasure." A faint smile touched his weathered face. "And there was no sabotage, sar."
Hooker grinned back and nodded. "Saboteurs don't put on an act with breathing and big black shapes, do they?"
"You really believe that stuff, Billy?"
Seriously, he said, "My friends said it, therefore I do believe it, sar."
"Uh-huh." Hooker looked at his watch. It was almost midnight. "How about doing me a favor, Billy."
With a big grin making his teeth flash in the lamplight, Billy said happily, "Yes, sar. Anything you ask, sar."
"Quit calling me sar, will you?"
For a moment, Billy studied his boss. White mainlanders' ways were very perplexing, he thought. "Mr. Hooker, sa...Mr. Hooker, I..."
"And forget the Mr., too. We're friends."
"That would not be polite. And I do not know your front name."
Hooker felt the laugh rumble out of him. "Believe it or not, my front name is Mako."
"But...that is the name for Mr. Shark, the wild one the boats from Miami come to catch..."
"Billy, it was my mother's last name before she got married and she liked it so much she gave it to me up front, like you say. Here it can belong to Mr. Shark, but in the old country it was a plain old Irish name. So take your pick...Hooker or Mako, just don't..."
Billy held up his hand. "I know, call you late to eat."
"Sure. Now I sleep."
Hooker nodded and went to the radio. All of the clocks on the island were hand-wound, and if you didn't set yours with a time hack from Miami every night, you'd never know what the hour was. Not that it mattered much. He flipped the switch, waited a moment, then dialed to his frequency. When he got the time he set his watch ahead eight minutes, then went through his ritual of turning the channel selector just to see what was happening on the night traffic.
When he hit the emergency channel he felt the icy-cold chill of sudden dread blow down his back again, because the voice he was listening to was cool and professional, but so quietly urgent he knew it was happening again. The Arico Queen was giving its position at fourteen miles off Peolle Island and was going down fast. Something had reached up out of the sea with a terrible vengeance and shook the ship like a dog does a bone, ripping the bottom right out of it. The crew was taking to the boats and the operator was signing off.
On the ship-to-ship channel he caught the interchange between the nearest vessels. Both would be at the site within thirty minutes. The United States Coast Guard ship Ponteroy was an hour away, heading toward the scene at flank speed.
Hooker closed the set down and went outside and stared toward the darkness of the ocean. The waters were so calm he could hear no surf sounds at all. The rescue should be routine, he thought. For a change nature was on the side of the stricken.
Momentarily, he wondered what it would be like sitting out there in a small boat, knowing that you weren't really alone at all, that you were just on top and underneath you was a vast wildness...and something was down there.
He didn't realize he was holding his breath and let it hiss out between his clenched teeth. He was getting more like Billy every day. Almost silently he whispered something unintelligible again, and shook his head.
Copyright © 2003 by Mickey Spillane
Posted February 10, 2010
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