When the waves grew still, he knew he was in the right place.
The early morning waves, small and listless, lapped the sides of the little boat as it slid through the fog. They did not touch the fog itself, which hovered a scant few inches above the water’s surface, held at bay by the difference in temperature. Until it wasn’t anymore.
The man in the boat stopped rowing. The fog was sitting on the surface of the water, seemingly joined to it, and the little waves had become a restless undulation that moved them both but left the boat becalmed. Fog curtains flowed over the fore and aft of the small wooden vessel and then stopped, unable to intrude upon the bubble of living warmth emanating from her pilot. Who wasn’t paying attention to it anymore, being more concerned with locking down his oars and adjusting his gear.
Something thumped against the bottom of the boat, and then again. He ignored that too, fussing with the straps on his dive mask before opening up a valve on the tank at his back. Satisfied that everything was working correctly, he tipped himself out of the boat and into the cold black water.
Below the boat was nothing but emptiness. The diver checked the boat’s bottom, gloved fingers trailing over the thick wood, then dove away from it. The lamp at the top of his mask illuminated nothing, then more nothing, and then pale shadows stretching up toward him that gradually resolved into the decaying corpse of a much larger boat than his own. Sea plants had begun to paint themselves over the boat’s white hull, and tall, soft fingers of the same sprouted from the hole that had fatally ruptured the bow.
He swam past it, his lamp probing the darkness beyond and just barely touching the rough, rocky wall the wreck had fallen at the edge of. Down he went, feeling the water pushing in on him as the pressure increased, in the back of his mind gauging the depth and keeping a running calculation of how long it would take him to return to the surface again. More shadows began to appear, darker and larger. Boats, some with splintered, listing masts, others with warped, rusting propellers. Here and there random pieces of wreckage, presumably the remains of vessels which had not been able to descend to their watery grave intact. And then finally, looming into view like a leviathan emerging from the darkness, the massive bow of a huge, broken ship.
He stopped swimming and just hovered, hanging suspended over the giant corpse. His tiny lamp couldn’t even begin to pierce far enough through the dark water to illuminate more than a small fraction of it. A corroded rail here, an unbroken window there, the barest edge of twisted metal opening onto an even blacker maw farther on. All around it lay more wreckage, the remains of other, smaller vessels it had crushed when it fell from above – ‘sank’ was, to his mind, far too gentle a word for the descent this pierced metal beast had made from the surface to the sandy slope below.
His watch beeped twice, and he acknowledged the warning by taking one last look and then swimming to the left and up. There was another slope here, dotted with boats and wreckage, corroded antennae reaching up from larger wrecks below like the bare branches of winter-stripped trees. A red stripe caught his eye, and he grimaced behind the mask. He didn’t have to go closer to know that the fading gilt letters on that stripe said Adora, his own pretty lady which had been claimed by this dark, cold burial plot beneath the water like so many, many others both before and since.
Something brushed against his leg. He looked down, seeing nothing. The next touch was a phantom slap to his thigh, and he felt something tug at his flippers. He rolled his eyes, then reached up and turned off the lamp.
And the water filled with dark shapes limned in pale blue-green light. One was close enough to make him start, and it laughed through rotted teeth. If you came looking for ghosts, here we are.
“I can see that,” he told it. The others were circling like sharks, and he kicked against another tug at his flipper – the flippers were part of his wetsuit and wouldn’t come off, but the sensation of someone pulling on them was disturbing, not to mention it might make him drift lower in the water. “What do you want?”
A flat, eyeless smile. Company.
“No thanks, not interested – I just came down to get in my hours for the month.”
The smile didn’t waver. Who said you had a choice? This time the tug was at one of his air hoses, hard enough to pull him backwards. The ghost followed. You came. You’ll stay. The circling ghosts began to close in. You’ll stay. The air hose came off, and bubbles flowed upward slowly through the dense black water. Forever.
He kicked his feet to start making his way back up, but slapping hands kept him from getting any momentum. “Is it the water that did this to you?” he asked. “Or were you just assholes to begin with?”
The smile widened, echoed around the circle. The water here is soooo good. So still. You’ll see. Tick-tock…
“Both of the above, then? Good to know.” The bubbles were still wending their way upward, almost casually. He let a little bit of panic show, and the ghosts laughed.
The second ring of ghosts that appeared behind the first, however, did not. He thought he saw one or two of them roll their eyes – apparently at the stupidity of the first set – and then they attacked. In less than two minutes the first set of ghosts had been sent packing, and the others had taken their place. One of them pointed at the loose hose with its steady stream of bubbles. Not nearly enough bubbles to have been coming from his actual air hose. Cute trick, Doc.
He shrugged. “Someone designed that feature to use in an action movie, actually – it let their actor stay down for multiple takes.” He peered at the surrounding ghosts, spotted a face he’d committed to memory and sighed. Dammit. “Hi Barry.”
The ghost so addressed, who seemed to have once been a lanky young man with short curly dark hair, raised an eyebrow. I know you?
“No. Wish you had, though.” He turned his attention back to the ghost who’d first spoken to him. “Anything new I should hear about, Tim?”
‘Tim’ shook his head. The two silver bars on his dark blue collar said he’d held the rank of lieutenant once. Everything’s quiet. The expression on the ghost’s face wasn’t quite a smile. It’s always quiet here. Still. Very…peaceful.
There was the barest hint of threat in that. He ignored it. “I know, Tim. I’ll let you get back to it now.”
He kicked his feet, felt a restraining hand and raised an eyebrow behind his mask. This time the ghost did smile, revealing sharp teeth. We could keep you. Someday, we will.
“Not today, though?” The ghost’s response was a shrug. “See you later, then.”
He flipped his light back on, and the ghosts vanished; a worrisome second later so did the feel of the restraining hand, and he kicked his feet and started the long, slow ascent back to the surface.
His little boat was nowhere to be seen when he finally surfaced, but he used the watch to check his bearings and then swam until a much larger boat with a pristine white paint job emerged from the still-thick fog. A shout went up when someone on deck saw him, and he latched onto the available ladder and hauled himself up onto the deck. His little boat was there, hanging off the port side, and he took off the dive mask and gratefully accepted the towel he was handed to dry his face and short-cropped graying hair while two men in dark blue shirts and pants started working on detaching his air tanks. He locked eyes with the man who’d handed him the towel, a man who also had two silver bars on his collar. “He’s down there, Lieutenant Jackson. I’m sorry.”
Jackson nodded. “Could you tell…”
“No marks that I could see. And it wasn’t safe to question him, much less get closer.” That got both of Jackson’s eyebrows up. “The water gets to them, Lieutenant, you know that. Lieutenant Brown…can’t be trusted anymore.”
Immediate alarm. “He tried to keep you down?”
“One of them did. On his order, I think.” He grimaced, remembering the touch of a hand on his back as he’d ascended, feeling over the bumps made by the embedded air hoses. Remembering the sharp, predatory smile. He shivered in spite of himself. Maybe it was better that Barry hadn’t known him. Tim had, once. “The water gets to them.”