Chapter 20

Just a Puzzle

Oliver’s head broke the surface of the water and his eyes widened as the light atop his helmet spilled across the side of the nearest barge. Streaks of rust ran down the railings and sides of the low slung boat, but the thick layers of marine paint had seemingly protected the hull from the worst of the damage. As Jeanne surfaced a few feet away, Oliver swam around to the rear of the barge and read the name stenciled in blocky white letters across the stern. Old Lady.

“Well, the bad news is that this isn’t the boat we’re looking for,” Oliver said.

“It must be the other then,” Jeanne replied. “All the other barges were accounted for within a few days of the sinkhole.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Oliver swam around the rear of the Old Lady and headed for the other barge. It also appeared to be in stunningly good condition for a boat that had been sucked underground by a sinkhole, traversed an underwater tunnel, and remained trapped in a flooded salt cavern for thirty years. Even if they did not find Jeanne’s family jewel, Oliver would still count this expedition a success for the opportunity to photograph these boats. He had captured thousands of images of long forgotten temples, decaying cities, and hidden oases, but he had never imagined that he would find a life-sized time capsule quite like this. If only he had been able to bring one of his good cameras instead of a simple pressure-hardened point and shoot model.

He approached the second barge and, moving around to the rear, smiled to see the name stenciled on the hull: Betty D.

“We’ve got it, Jeanne. We’ve actually got the barge that carried your family’s possessions down river.”

Jeanne let out a whoop of excitement and swam towards the barge. She circled it twice, swimming so quickly, and breathing so hard over the radio, Oliver nearly called to her to calm down and conserve her air, but he could understand her excitement.

She stopped suddenly and started to tread water beside Oliver. “How are we going to get aboard? There’s no ladder. I can’t stand to think that we’ve come this far only to be stopped because the boat is still floating.”

“That’s why you hired a professional relic hunter for this job,” Oliver said with a grin. He stopped treading water and allowed himself to sink beneath the surface again, as he opened a pouch in side of his suit and extracted a tightly coiled spool of cable. He surfaced and said, “Never go into a cavern without some sort of rope.”

“I knew you would come in handy,” Jeanne replied.

“Ray, can you hear us?” Oliver said.

No reply came.

“I haven’t heard from him since we went down the shaft,” Jeanne said. “Maybe the rocks are just too thick here.”

“Maybe. We’re close to the surface though. Well, let’s get to work, shall we?”

They swam up to the side of the barge and Oliver knocked experimentally on the hull, half expecting the metal the shatter beneath his knuckles. The metal rang hollowly with the sound of each strike, the noise of it echoing dimly through the cavern.