The diver was 190 feet down and had less than two minutes to figure it out. His tanks should’ve had enough air to last him ten more minutes at the sunken wreck site, plus enough to decompress and surface with air to spare. But he was hard sucking and only a pint or two away from dead empty.
The man’s eyes darted in all directions searching for his dive buddies, but they were nowhere in sight. He looked up. There were tanks he could use stationed on the anchor line running to the dive boat above, but they hung ninety feet up the line. He’d never be able to swim up and tap into one before he passed out or, worse, be forced by his brain to involuntarily inhale seawater. Every movement was costing him precious oxygen and his life clock was ticking off its last seconds.
The diver had to do the unthinkable. Inflate his heavy-duty lift bag and shoot upward to the tanks. If he missed the tanks and popped to the surface, the bends would likely kill him, but he might at least die with his lungs full of air. He yanked the release on the bright orange inflatable, which burst to full size and jerked him toward the surface like a dangling marionette. His lungs began to burn and he strained to draw the last cubic centimeters of air from his exhausted tanks. At 110 feet he stopping sucking on his collapsed mouthpiece and held his breath. He tightened his lips to resist inhaling. His chest ached and he knew in seconds he’d reach the inevitable point where he’d have to breathe. The fresh tanks were directly above him and approaching fast. He grabbed at the anchor line and pulled one of the reserve tanks to his chest. He tried to turn his fear into a determined anger and fought to hold on to get the fresh mouthpiece to his lips took and drew in hard. But no air came in.
The tank can’t be empty, his mind screamed.
The man shook the tank and sucked again on the mouthpiece. His grip on the anchor line weakened and he floated upward on the lift bag. He lost the standoff with his brain and drew in water, choking and flailing. His blinking eyes caught flashes of the sunlight as he drifted upward on the lift bag. The day shone dazzling bright as he breached the surface, then faded into darkness, silence … nothingness.
* * *
Tuesday, July 12 – 3:45 PM
Detective Frank Dugan waited on the dock just as the U.S. Coast Guard boat arrived and tied up. A young lieutenant stepped onto the weathered planks of the low pier and approached Frank.
“We were on our regular shark-spotting run and saw the orange lift bag floating over ten miles out off north Hutchinson Island,” the lieutenant said. “Closer look and we saw the diver. Guy can’t be more than thirty.”
“Best COD guess?”
“Coroner’ll be here shortly,” Frank said. “Is the body where he can examine it?”
“On the stern deck. We tried to resuscitate him, but …”
Henry O’Dell, a man who could double for a beardless Abraham Lincoln, marched up the pier toward the rescue boat, his kit bag clutched in his latex-gloved hand.
Frank pointed to the boat’s aft section.
“On the stern, doc,” Frank said and followed the coroner onboard.
Henry stared at the young body lying on the deck for several seconds.
“Prime of life,” Henry said and knelt next to the lifeless body. “Always a shame.”
While Frank was certain the diver was dead, he watched as Henry checked the body for any sign of life, a perfunctory procedure the law required him to perform. He examined the young man’s eyes and looked into his mouth.
“The Coast Guard tried CPR,” Frank said. “Nothing.”
“Let’s get him to the morgue,” Henry said. “We’ll know more there.”
* * *
The autopsy at the morgue that night confirmed that the diver had died from drowning, but the nitrogen level in his blood was so high that he likely would have died from that, even if he’d made it to the surface alive. It appeared so simple; cut and dried. But Frank Dugan had an instinct for anything out of place, like a well-equipped diver who drowns on a perfect weather day, attached to a substantial floatation device, with no dive boat, no other divers, and empty scuba tanks. Even if he’d over-stayed his time deep below, his fellow divers would’ve been the ones to either help him or, at minimum, find him and get him medical assistance. To abandon him bobbing on the Atlantic’s summer currents was unimaginable. Frank’s thoughts moved from outrageous negligence to something much more purposeful, something planned. Something like murder.
Frank stepped into the Medical Examiner’s office where Henry O’Dell shuffled through papers on his cluttered desk. Henry was a 65-year-old country doctor who turned to the forensic science of the dead after tiring of years trying to fix the living. He drawled like the rural North Carolinian he was and, ever since he arrived in Stuart to take over the duties of the county coroner, he picked up the nickname “Digger O’Dell.” Frank later discovered “Digger” was a character who portrayed an undertaker in a popular radio show back in the ’40s. Henry took the good-natured ribbing in stride, but regardless of the demeaning moniker, the simple fact remained that Henry Bedford O’Dell was the finest man behind a scalpel and rotary saw Frank had ever seen. Even the hard core kidders had to throw in on that score.
“Henry, I have a friend who’s a certified diver that I want to take a look at this man before we go much further than IDing him and finding next of kin.”
“He can stay where he is for now,” Henry said.
Frank got on his cell phone and called his sheriff, Roland Brand.
“Chief, I’m over at Henry’s. I want every dive shop canvassed for any recently rented deep dive equipment, and I want all charter boats checked for any contact with a dive boat seen today in waters off Martin and St. Lucie Counties. If anything positive turns up, I’ll provide the serial numbers I took from the dive gear. Get Rumbaugh to start on that right away. I’m going to see the Coast Guard to get statements and have the guy’s dive equipment brought to the station. Then I’ll be in.”
Frank ended his call and turned to Henry.
“What’s your take?” Frank asked.
“Not sure,” Henry said and tilted back in his desk chair. “Could go either way. People do make mistakes, even smart people. And making them in deep water is never going to turn out good. Coast Guard says he just had air in his tanks. Might’ve got oxygen poisoning, lost focus.”
“Wasn’t he supposed to have air in his tanks?”
“At the depth where he was judged to be when he died, he should’ve been using a mix of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen, not just air alone. Compressed air below 180 feet can make your mind play tricks, make you hallucinate. Can be deadly.”
“So you think he could’ve just run out of air, or thought he was out of air, shot to the top and drowned on the way up?”
“You figure I’m over-thinking this?”
“For a man who deals in exact science, you sure give out a shitload of maybes.”
“And I’ll keep giving them out until I can say some fer-sures.”
Frank moved to the doorway of the office and stared into the morgue.
“It can go several ways, Frank. Right now we need more information. Right now we don’t even know who this poor boy is.”
“You’re right. But my crap meter is way over on suspicious. You know, if someone murdered this guy, but afterward brought him ashore, or called the Coast Guard, I wouldn’t be thinking so much in the direction of foul play. But just leaving him out there? That has the hackles on my neck bristling high and stiff.”
“We’ll know more by and by,” Henry said and rose from his chair.
“One thing’s for damn sure. That fella wasn’t diving alone out there.”
Henry stepped over to Frank and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“I know you want by and by to be soon.” Henry said. “Like you, I don’t want the truth to drown with that young man.”