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 decades. 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 the 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 on the 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. 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 to shatter beneath his knuckles. It rang hollowly with the sound of each strike, the noise of it echoing dimly through the cavern.
“Seems to be solid. How are you at climbing ropes?” Oliver said.
“I can manage, though that wire looks a bit too thin to get a grip.”
Oliver grinned behind his faceplate and began to uncoil the wire. He handed one end to Jeanne and said, “If you drop this, we’re going to have to swim down to the bottom to retrieve it.”
Jeanne gripped the wire in one hand as she continued to tread water. Oliver loosened about fifteen feet of wire from the tight coil, allowing it to fall into a loose loop around his left elbow, then hefted the remaining line in his right hand, judging its weight. Then he gave a sudden, powerful kick with his legs and, as he surged up out of the water, heaved the small coil of wire up and over the railing of the barge. He fell back down into the water before he could see the result of his throw, but Jeanne gave an excited shout which Oliver took as confirmation that he had successfully tossed the wire over the railing.
“The other end didn’t come back down, but it’s over the rail,” Jeanne said.
Oliver remained underwater as he extracted a small climbing clamp from the pocket of his drysuit and said, “Tug on the end a bit. Pull the coil up off the deck and get it swinging, then let it drop when it swings to the outside of the rails.”
“Trying. It’s hard to be precise when I have to keep treading water.”
“You could inflate your ascension bladder slightly and float, but be careful to leave enough pressure in the tank for our final ascent. The decompression after this is going to be a long haul.”
“Ugh. I wish you hadn’t said bladder.”
Oliver grinned and kicked his way back to the surface where he found Jeanne tugging at the end of the wire. Just as he surfaced he saw the other end of the wire drop over the edge of the barge and splash into the water. Oliver swam up to the side of the barge, grasped both wires in his left hand, and connected the clamp to the wires. He pulled down on the clamp, testing the railing of the barge against his weight. The rusted metal creaked, but it held. Oliver stopped treading water and supported himself on the clamp as he removed a second clamp from his pocket. He pressed the pocket to push water out, zipped it shut, and raised the clamp to attach it to the wire.
“It’s actually easier than climbing a rope,” Oliver explained as he attached the second climbing clamp. “Pull yourself up on one of the clamps, then use it to support your weight as you raise the other. Switch back and forth a few times and you’re up the wire and on the ship.”
“Done this before?”
“Not in this situation, but I’ve used a similar system to climb ropes in caves.”
“I’ll be right behind you.”
Oliver pulled himself upwards using the first clamp, slid the second up, pulled himself a few inches higher, and slipped the first clamp higher along the wire. His muscles protested at the sudden need to strain against gravity after floating weightlessly through water for the last two hours, but he managed to shrug off the pain with a few short grunts of effort.
Oliver grasped the top rung of the railing and swung himself easily over the railing and onto the deck of the Betty D. He dropped his dive bag, released the climbing clamps so they would slide back down to Jeanne, and turned to survey the deck of the barge.
Before him stood a multicolored wall of shipping containers, which ran down most of the length of the barge, from just behind the crumpled roof of the command deck at the rear of the vessel to the raised platform at the front. Most of them appeared to be intact, though those towards the front of the barge showed signs of significant damage. The corners of the frontmost containers were battered and dented in, with a few so damaged that the holes went all the way through into their dark interiors. Oliver imagined that all of that damage had been sustained as the ship had shot through the tunnel that had once connected this cavern to the collapsed salt dome.
Jeanne clambered over the railing and stepped up beside Oliver. She whistled and said, “I can’t believe it’s all intact, especially after seeing so much rusted metal down below.”
“I know. Maybe it’s the paint? The barges, the containers, they are all designed to be used in saltwater, so I imagine that they are less susceptible to saltwater than the equipment in the mine. Or maybe it’s because they’re above water.”
“Now to find the right one,” Jeanne said. She rested her hands on her hips and turned her head from side to side, surveying the dozens of shipping containers arrayed before her. “I wish we knew where to start. This is going to be a long haul searching all these containers with only a small torch to cut the locks off and these suits slowing us down.” She pressed a hand to her chest and paused to catch her breath. “Maybe we should split up and check random containers until one of us finds the right one.”
“Not the best way to conduct a search,” Oliver replied. “We knew that there would be a lot of containers. Hell, we expected to be sifting through underwater wreckage down at the bottom of the cavern. This is a gift, Jeanne. Not only do we get to work up here on a stable surface, but we can look at how all of the containers were arranged on the barge.” Oliver slipped out of his flippers, then started walking down the length of the barge, examining the locked shipping containers.
Each container was attached to the deck by locking mechanisms at the corners. These showed more corrosion than the hull of the ship. The containers were arrayed in two rows of ten each. Each container was placed with its doors facing outwards towards the edge of the barge. Oliver assumed that this was to facilitate inspection before the containers were unloaded from the ship, but it also gave him an idea.
“Jeanne, let’s think this through.”
“Alright, what are you talking about?” Jeanne answered over the radio.
Oliver glanced around and couldn’t find her. Apparently she had gone to the far side of the barge. He shrugged, deciding that might actually prove beneficial to his explanation. “This barge is designed to haul a lot of cargo. I don’t know much about water transport, but I remember when I went on a canoe trip with my Scout troop as a kid we had to be careful how we loaded the boat or it might flip.”
“So you’re thinking of the barge as a giant canoe?”
“I know it’s not an exact comparison, but hear me out. We know that your family rented a container on the barge because it was the easiest way to transport all of their goods from the plantation down to Baton Rouge, but I can’t imagine that they had access to a cargo crane at the plantation, so they must have loaded everything into a container that was already attached to the barge. Are you following?”
“I get it, and you’re right. They had a small crane for moving crates of peanuts and tobacco,” Jeanne called back. “But I don’t see how this is going to help us find the right container. We’ve got twenty to choose from and even if our rebreathers hold out, I don’t know if I’ll have the energy to stay down here for the time it will take to cut into that many containers.”
“That’s what I’m getting to. If you were loading a barge as small as this, knowing that you have an additional load to pick up halfway down the river, and needed to keep the weight distributed evenly, you wouldn’t leave one end lighter than the other. You would probably start at the center, leaving one of the containers as close to the center as possible empty, and alternate front to back as you loaded the barge. What you’ve be left with is a weight distribution that is almost even, except that the very center is slightly lighter than either end.”
“I think I get what you’re saying,” Jeanne said, coming around the corner of the barge. “You’re suggesting that we need to begin our search with the four containers at the center of the barge.”
“Exactly…” Oliver paused, trying to think through the situation further. He had no way of knowing for certain which of these containers contained the gem, but he didn’t think that this puzzle was particularly more difficult than his efforts to track down relics. When hunting for any relic, but especially the mysterious shards that had so captivated him, Oliver relied on a combination of painstaking research, attention to details that were often dismissed as myth, and a healthy dose of going with his gut. It was an imprecise art, but after nearly fifteen years he had learned to trust his instincts. They might only be right about two-thirds of the time, but in a field that dealt primarily in rumor and supposition, that was far better than the average.
Oliver could feel his face beginning to flush and his breath coming in shorter gasps as he grew more excited at the prospect of finding the gem. “Think about it. The barge was traveling south down the river when it paused for your grandparents’ possessions to be loaded. Was there a dock at the plantation?”
“Yes. That’s why it was a better choice to ship everything rather than trying to get a heavy truck through the narrow, winding swamp road that connected the plantation to the main highway.”
“Even so, this barge is not exactly nimble. They probably would have tied up to the end of the dock, loaded all of the packed household goods, locked them up in a container, then cast off and continued down the river. That means…” Oliver strode the front of the barge and stood at the railing, looking back over the ship. “Do you remember which side is starboard and which is port?”
“The left side of the ship is port.”
“Left from the perspective of someone standing on the command deck.”
Oliver nodded stiffly in his helmet and hurried down the length of the barge to the raised superstructure that jutted up from the rear of the barge. The roof was crumpled and all of the glass windows had shattered, leaving the edges of the frames lined with razor sharp teeth that glittered in the light of his mask lamps as Oliver climbed the mangled steps to the command deck.
Jeanne hurried across the deck and caught up with him just as he reached the top of the steps. “Oliver, what are you doing? We’ve only got a few hours before we need to head back to the surface and I don’t want to waste any time.”
“You’ve got to think these things through, Jeanne. We might not be in some ancient temple filled with traps, but we are in a dangerous situation trying to solve a puzzle before we run out of time. Now think about it. The barge was traveling south down the Atchafalaya River when it stopped at the dock that your family used to load tobacco onto ships traveling downriver. The ship master, or whatever you call the person in charge of loading the containers, would have wanted to keep the ship balanced. The plantation is on the east side of the river. What does all of this add up to?”
“A whole load of supposition that is wasting our time. We could have cut into at least one container in the time you’ve been running around playing detective.”
“See, Jeanne, that’s the attitude that gets you blacklisted from working for TeciGem ever again.”
Jeanne’s face tightened in anger behind the clear mask of her helmet, but she bit her tongue and waved for Oliver to continue.
Oliver cursed himself for being so blunt. It wasn’t Jeanne’s fault that she didn’t spend her life cracking puzzles, and her hot-headedness had only been half of the reason TeciGem had blacklisted her, but he was having trouble containing his excitement. His face was burning and the pure thrill of discovery was making it difficult for him to focus on any one element of this puzzle.
“Let’s see if we can find a log book or something!” Oliver shouted as he darted through the half-crushed door frame into the bridge.
“Oliver, are you alright?” Jeanne asked.
“Just fine. Look, if we can find some sort of log book showing what containers were registered to who and where they are located on the ship then maybe… maybe…” Oliver paused, trying to remember what might happen if they managed to find the correct container. It was important, he knew that. “Maybe you’ll tell me the truth!” he tried. No, that wasn’t right. Jeanne was certainly lying to him about something, Amber’s background checks had proved that, but he wasn’t in any particular hurry to find out what as long as… “No, that’s not it. Maybe you’ll sleep with me.” Shit. No, that wasn’t what he was pushing for, though it might be nice.
“Oliver, come here,” Jeanne said, stooping to step into the bridge.
“Maybe I need to…” Oliver looked frantically around the wreck of the bridge. The roof was so low that he could hardly stand upright. There were no screens on the bridge, which made sense given the age of the ship, but all of the desks set into the walls were also bare. Oliver stepped over to the mangled remains of the control panel, then caught himself against the edge of the panel as it seemed to approach him more rapidly than it ought to. The faces of the dials were smashed. One of the throttles had snapped off just above the level of the slot where it penetrated into the console, leaving a jagged spike of silvery metal poking up from the otherwise smooth surface. Oliver shied away from the metal, suddenly afraid that it would leap out at him and cut the insulated fabric of his drysuit.
“Oliver, have you had enough to drink?” Jeanne’s voice crackled through the radio, seemingly far away.
That must be it, Oliver thought. We’ve been drinking. But how could that be? He had taken Jeanne away from the UnderTaken club nearly a week ago and he hadn’t had more than one, maybe two beers since. Or was all of that a dream?
Dreaming reminded him of the snake. There it sat, coiled atop the control panel, watching him through thinly slitted eyes.
Jeanne’s voice seemed so far away.
Oliver sank to his knees as the entire boat tilted. The bridge began to spin around him and he remembered that the barge had been pulled down into this cavern by a tremendous whirlpool.
Oliver surrendered to the whirlpool and felt himself sucked down into its depths as his body slumped sideways and his head hit the floor.
Chapter Twenty One
Jeanne raced across the deck of the wrecked bridge and reached Oliver just as his head hit the floor. She knelt beside his limp body and turned his head, checking that his faceplate had not cracked. It was still intact. That, at least, was good news, but she still didn’t know what had happened to him. Behind the clear faceplate Oliver’s eyes were closed. His cheeks were nearly white and the color in his lips had faded to a pale, sickly blue. Jeanne pressed her hand to his chest and felt that his breathing was rapid and shallow.
“Damn it, Oliver! What the hell is wrong with you?” she muttered.
Jeanne quickly checked his hands, wondering if he had torn his gloves and been exposed to some sort of toxin, but the thick insulated gloves still appeared intact. That made no sense anyway. They weren’t diving in some ocean cave where strange creatures with poisonous spines lurked in crevices. The water in this mine was saltier than the ocean, its only connections to the outside world were far from the sea, and it was completely dark, so there was virtually no chance of any aquatic ecology gaining a foothold in the years since the mine had been flooded.
It’s got to be nitrogen, Jeanne thought. But that would cause more pain than delirium. Maybe it’s carbon dioxide. She reached for the mix controls built into the tube that ran down the side of Oliver’s neck, but they all appeared to be properly balanced.
Oh god, his scrubber must have failed.
She slammed the emergency exchange valve on the side of Oliver’s oxygen scrubber, expecting to hear a sudden hiss as the unit disgorged several pounds of bad air and replaced it with fresh breathing mix from the spare bottle inserted into the side of the scrubber. She heard nothing. Jeanne frantically pressed the button several more times with the same result. She unscrewed the bottle, extracted it from the slot on the side of the scrubber, and held it up to examine in the light of her headlamp. The small pressure indicator on the neck of the bottle showed completely red, indicating that the bottle was empty.
She thought about swapping Oliver’s bottle with her own, but the rebreathers were not designed so that a diver could replace their own emergency bottle while wearing the drysuit. The bottles were intended as an emergency measure. An alarm should have sounded in Oliver’s suit as soon as the rebreather began pulling spare breathing mix from the bottle.
Jeanne looked around her at the wreck of the ship bridge. They had brought an emergency scrubber canister with them, but it was in one of the dive bags that they had left on the main deck of the barge. Oliver had collapsed nearly a minute ago. There just wasn’t time for her to run back down the rickety steps, to the far end of the barge, and back before he risked brain damage.
“This might just kill you, but it’s the only chance you’ve got,” she muttered.
Jeanne reached around the back of Oliver’s neck and unsnapped the latches that held his face mask in place. She worked her way around the hood of his suit, unsnapping the connections between his face mask and hood, then pulled the faceplate of the mask from his head. The HUD projected on the inside of his mask still showed only a warning that the reserve tank was missing, confirming Jeanne’s suspicion that the internal air quality sensors had failed.
Oliver’s chest heaved and his lips parted as he took several deep, ragged breaths of the cavern air. This was incredibly dangerous, Jeanne knew. There was no telling what chemicals had built up in the cavern in the years since it had been cut off from the outside air and there would certainly be too much oxygen, but the situation was desperate and she had suspected that there would at least be more breathable in the trapped bubble at the top of the cavern than in Oliver’s suit.
Oliver coughed violently and nearly gagged. Jeanne heaved his body over onto one side so that he would not drown in his own fluids if he vomited. She knelt in front of him, watching the color return to his face as he gulped down oxygen from the cavern air. After a minute he stopped gagging and his eyes opened. Then he froze, eyes wide and fixed on Jeanne’s face.
“What happened?” he asked. His voice was thin and rasped harshly, as much from the high pressure oxygenated air as from the temporary damage done by pulling in powerful gasps of frigid air.
“Your scrubber failed without any warning,” Jeanne said, shouting so he could hear her through the faceplate of her suit. “It must have happened a while ago, because your emergency breathing gas supply was depleted.”
Oliver grunted and tried to stand, but sank back to the deck before Jeanne could protest. He gave her a faint smile and said, “Well, so much for me running the show down here. I guess I owe you one.”
“You’re not out of the woods yet, Oliver. We need to swap you over to the emergency scrubber and do it fast. God knows what chemicals you’re breathing now. Even if the air isn’t contaminated by outgassing from the rocks or chemicals from the barge, the pressure is too great for you to keep breathing so much pressurized oxygen.”
“Great,” Oliver croaked. “From carbon dioxide poisoning to oxygen saturation in five minutes flat.”
“Exactly. I’m going to go get that spare scrubber.” Jeanne stood and started walking back towards the smashed doorway that would take her out onto the deck. “You stay here and gather your strength. Once you’re back on your feet we’ll check those containers and get out of here. We always knew that we might need to come back here a couple times.”
Jeanne climbed down the battered steps attached to the side of the bridge and hurried around the central block of shipping containers to where they had left the supply bags resting on the deck beside the wire that they had climbed up from the water. She had always known that this expedition was dangerous, but had not expected it to be undermined by a mere equipment malfunction. If anything, she had suspected that they might reach the bottom and discover that the ship was buried beneath tons of rubble, the gem hopelessly lost somewhere in a mass of twisted steel. Then there had been the risk that someone else might have tracked down Tavernier’s gem before her.
Jeanne hefted both bags and hurried back to the bridge. By the time she reached it she was short of breath, but that was to be expected carrying two heavy bags while wearing a sealed suit that clung to her uncomfortably and restricted her movements.
When she reached the bridge, Jeanne helped Oliver to his feet and carefully unscrewed the nuts holding his rebreather closed. She extracted the scrubber module and grimaced. The reactive strip embedded in the module was entirely red, indicating that the matrix of high-density carbon, which was doped to capture carbon dioxide while permitting other gasses to pass through and return to the user, was completely saturated. That should not have happened in such a short time. She hurriedly extracted the emergency unit from its plastic wrapper, noted that its indicator strip still showed as white, and slipped it into place in the rebreathing unit.
Once the unit was sealed again she said, “Go ahead and put your mask back on. You’re going to have too much oxygen in your system, but the rebreather should balance that soon.”
Oliver snapped his mask back into place, took a few experimental breaths, and nodded. The air had a sharp metallic tang imparted by the rebreathing unit which, he now realized, it had lacked for a lengthy portion of the dive.
“I think the rebreather died about the time we started going down the shaft,” Oliver said. “I didn’t really think of it then, just assumed that I had grown used to the taste of the air.”
“Maybe it had something to do with the increase in pressure. Going that deep puts a lot of strain on the body, so you might have started expelling more carbon dioxide than normal.”
“Maybe…” Oliver mused. He raised a hand and spun his finger in the air, “Turn around. Let me check your system.”
Jeanne was about to protest, but then decided that it was probably a good idea to check both suits after such a catastrophic failure of the internal regulators. She turned around and looked out past the jagged windows to the open deck of the barge. The battered tops of twenty containers glared back at her, taunting her with the promise that one might contain the gem she had sought for so long, but even now might not be able to capture.
“We’ve got a problem here,” Oliver said.
“What?” Jeanne said, turning her head to look back at him.
“Don’t move, I’ve got your unit open. It looks like your rebreather is nearly saturated also. Not as bad as mine, but you’re a good fifty pounds lighter than me so that’s to be expected.”
“How the hell could that happen Oliver? We checked both units before starting the dive. Everything was fine.”
“No idea, but our timeline just got reduced significantly. You’ve already put the one spare cartridge in my rebreather, so when yours gives out that’s it for scrubbing carbon dioxide, but I think we can give you the spare breathing mix bottle.”
Jeanne closed her eyes and did her best to take slow, calming breaths. The rebreathing units were known to be temperamental, which was why they had brought a spare cartridge, but it was unheard of to have two units fail in the same dive. “Something is seriously wrong here, Oliver.”
“I agree. Trust me, if we get out of this I’m going to have a serious conversation with Ray. The sort that involves one of us standing at the edge of a mine shaft and the other dangling over the pit until he explains what happened to our equipment.”
“So what are we going to do?”
Jeanne felt Oliver thump her rebreather with his fist and turned around to see him looking at her through the faceplate of his suit with a glint of determination in his eyes.
“We’re going to cut into the two units at the center of the port-side row. If they don’t have what we need, then I guess we’ll just have to give up this venture or try again some other time.”
“Do we have time for that?”
“I think so. We can always use our suit inflation tanks for emergency air and just shed ballast to ascend. I think getting our deposit back on this equipment is the least of our worries at the moment.”
Chapter Twenty Two
The Long Wait
After waiting three hours in the shade of the mine ramp for Oliver Lucas and Jeanne Delvare to emerge, Caleb was seriously starting to consider shooting Parker too.
The company man had spent most of that time on his phone, shuffling numbers, people, and resources around the company. Just how much of that was part of his normal job and how much was related to covering up his involvement with the Jeanne Delvare fiasco, Caleb could not be sure, but Parker certainly did seem more frantic than usual today. Or maybe it was just his rapidly diminishing phone battery, or the lack of alcohol to fuel his tirades. Here at the entrance to an abandoned mine, on the outskirts of a small town that was at least twenty years past its prime, cellular coverage was less than perfect, so the charge on Parker’s phone had drained after only two hours.
“Can you please sit down and stop making noise?” Caleb growled.
“What’s that? Are you telling me what to do now?” Parker snapped back. He continued to pace back and forth between the side walls of the ramp.
Caleb stood and stalked up the ramp to the battered old pickup truck. The body of Ray Delacroy still lay in the back, slumped over in a pool of his own blood. Caleb climbed into the bed, picked his way around the pool of blood, and extracted the dead man’s keys from his pocket. If Parker was going to continue making noise, they might as well go down into the mine and continue their vigil at the water’s edge.
He climbed into the cab, drove the truck down into the mine, and pulled to a stop beside Parker.
“Get in the truck.”
“You are kidding me,” Parker said.
“Get in the truck boss. Or did I not make it clear that I make the life and death decisions when we are in the field?”
Parker glared at Caleb for a long moment, unmoving. Caleb met his gaze and exerted all the will he had to not start swearing at the miserable little man. Finally, Parker shook his head, yanked the passenger door open, and climbed into the truck. “I assume you have a plan to dispose of this vehicle in a manner that will not leave any fingerprints or DNA behind.”
“Yeah, I thought we’d wait until we are sure that Delvare and Lucas are dead, then douse the whole truck with gas from the tank and burn it.”
“And if they aren’t dead? If they somehow make it back to the surface?”
“We’ll kill them too, like you said. Just more fuel for the fire.”
Parker laughed, his voice echoing cruelly from the dark walls around them.