The rhythmic sound of his own breathing through his regulator was, to Brodie McFadden, the sweetest music; there simply was nothing like diving. The light he carried, attached to his buoyancy control device, illuminated the world of darkness around him.
His dive partner for the day, Ewan Keegan, motioned to him that he was moving up to the next deck; Brodie motioned back that he would continue where they were, here, deep in the hold, where the tragic “cargo” of the ship had been “contained.”
He was getting an early peek at a historic discovery and was now in the bowels of the wreck of the Victoria Elizabeth. Even here, though, fish darted about. The Victoria Elizabeth was yet to become a fine reef home; eventually, she might well be so. Barnacles covered much of her wood, even within the ship. In the cargo hold, very little light filtered down. He was careful. He’d already discovered a moray eel had made itself a home in what had been a cupboard.
Brodie had come down to Florida for a vacation—and to mull his future. But he had wound up on this dive because his old friend Ewan Keegan, who had been a Navy SEAL, asked him to come along. Ewan was fifty, with steel-gray hair and still in rock-solid shape. Brodie was a good diver himself, but Ewan knew the waters here like few other men did. He was also one of the finest divers Brodie had ever known, but then, not many were as skilled and experienced as navy divers. Ewan had retired and gone to work for an amazing salvage company and had been part of the crew that had finally discovered the Victoria Elizabeth, a ship that had gone down in the Florida Straits, just southwest of Key West, in 1827.
The Victoria Elizabeth, out of England, had not been high on the list for most treasure-seeking divers; she had not carried gold and riches, but rather an entirely horrible and cruel cargo: she had been a slave ship. Her value was historic rather than monetary; in Brodie’s mind, she was an important monument to the concept spoken once by the great philosopher, George Santayana—Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
The ship wasn’t on any of the tourist dive books yet. Ewan’s company, Sea Life, was still charting and exploring the find. Bit by bit—and with the help of the proprietor—they intended to sponsor a room in a new museum that had just opened in the island tourist town that focused on both local history and the legends and stories that arose from that history. Ewan had told him about it before they’d gone down that day.
There would be artifacts found that would be fascinating, though not a treasure by standards set by such ships as the Mel Fisher discovery, the Atocha. Gold and jewels would likely not be discovered. They had, however, found trinkets that allowed them to trace the human cargo held so cruelly in the hold—and some owned by the crew who had manned the ship.
And the ship was not in bad shape—not considering the hundred and fifty years plus since she had gone down. The water, and therefore the seabed deep beneath her, constantly shifted. Ewan had only discovered her because a storm had shifted a huge bank that some previous storm had shifted before—the first all but covering, the second clearing a bit of the broken main mast that had led them to the hull.
The Victoria Elizabeth had once been a cargo ship with four decks; she had carried four-hundred slaves—the British Slave Trade Act of 1788 had decreed that numbers be limited. There had been a time when her decks had carried as many as six hundred. It was believed that there had been a handful of survivors from the wreck—but where those survivors had ended up, no one knew.
Iron ballast blocks and encrusted shackles had been discovered, along with the remnants of shell necklaces. The ballast blocks had been an emotional find, Ewan had told Brodie—they were the ballast to counter the moving weight of the human cargo. They hadn’t found many remains, but they had found a few partial remains along with the shackles. Ewan had told him, “Not to worry—you won’t come across any skeletons just floating at you through the water.” Ewan had given himself a shake—the discovery of the ship was disturbing. Ewan had been career military; Brodie had served four years. They’d both seen their share of very bad things. Still, it was hard to imagine the terror and misery of the men and women who had perished in the ship, shackled together, one atop of the other, trying to survive in wretched conditions—until a watery death had claimed them.
And now Brodie was working with Ewan’s company, and so he had free rein to find whatever he might—to be turned over as salvage, of course, and then taken through the maritime courts.
Something appeared before him, a dark shadow. It was quite possible that a shark had wandered in or even a massive grouper—there were plenty of gaping holes in the wrecked hull. But there was something more familiar about it. The shape looked like the shadow of a man.
The Sea Life ship Memory was high above them—where it would remain until salvage and discovery on the company’s part were complete—so he and Ewan were the only divers working now, and Ewan was working on the deck above.
Brodie followed the shadow; it seemed to float to an area of the hold blocked off by a narrow fire door.
Brodie reached the door and then checked his air; the shadow had disappeared.
He paused. The shadow, he thought, had not been part of the sea, or anything that belonged in the water. Something akin to resignation and a bit of dread filled him.
He went on.
The door was partially open, as it probably had been when the ship had gone down. Brodie doubted he’d be able to move it. Yet, he pulled on it, wondering what lay beyond.
It was something of a struggle against water and pressure, but then the door gave.
Brodie had seen a lot in his day, and was an experienced diver. Still, he committed a cardinal sin of diving. For a moment he stopped breathing. He was so stunned.
There was no skeleton coming at him, but what was there seemed quite impossible.
There was a man.
A dead man.
Eerily facing him, as if he were just suspended in time.
Barely decomposed; nibbled a bit, perhaps...
His eyes were open. The cotton of his tourist shirt drifted up a bit, displaying his abdomen. He’d been fit, but his hair, close-cropped to his head, had been graying, and his face was somewhat weathered, suggesting that his age had been mid-forties to mid-fifties.
Hard to tell precisely with such a corpse.
He might have been a space-camp participant, just floating.
Except he was not.
How the man had been killed, Brodie had no idea.
And how the hell he had gotten down into the bowels of the Victoria Elizabeth seemed impossible, and yet...there he was.
Brodie remembered to breathe.
Then he went in search of Ewan. They’d have to figure out the proper means by which to bring the very recently dead man on the very old ship up to the surface.