The Iron Maiden
by Doug Allyn
A bell tinkled as Professor Brewer stepped into the dive shop. No one answered. There wasn’t a soul in sight, which was definitely odd. The equipment on display was—whoa! Very expensive. Diving masks in translucent colors, regulators, wet suits, complex electronic gadgets that—Brewer had no idea what most of this stuff was for.
Overhead, diving gear from earlier ages was on display. A gleaming brass helmet out of Jules Verne, canvas diving suits with Frankenstein boots. A sailing ship’s bowsprit dangled from the shop’s cathedral ceiling, scoured clean by the lake bed. From a wreck of the last century, perhaps? Or the one before that?
“Hello?” Brewer called. “Is anybody—?”
“Out here,” a woman yelled. “Back deck.”
Brewer edged his way through the shop to its rear door, swiveling carefully past the equipment, which wasn’t all that easy. He was a bit of a butterball in a summer-weight suit, five-six and two forty, much of it bulked around his middle. The suit made him overdressed for Michigan’s north shore. In Huron Harbor, judges sometimes wear golf shorts in court.
As he stepped out onto the deck, Brewer paused, stunned by the view. The sandy beach ran down to the Great Lake shore. Whitecaps were riffling in the July breeze, stretching out to the glistening horizon, and far beyond. A hundred and forty miles to the Canadian side.
A woman was hosing off an oxygen tank, barefoot, in cutoffs and a Detroit Pistons T-shirt. She stood nearly six feet tall, slim as a buggy whip. Her curly mop of chestnut hair was cropped as close as a boy’s, but there was nothing boyish about her.
“I’m looking for . . . Mr. Mitchell,” Brewer said, holding up a business card. “Mitch Mitchell? Is he about?”
“Maybe. Who’s asking?”
“I’m Dr. August Brewer, professor of marine archaeology at Marquette University. A colleague gave me Mr. Mitchell’s name—”
“Your buddy was jerking your chain, Doc.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m Michelle Mitchell, Mitch to my friends and pretty much everybody else. What can I do for you?”
“But—I was told you’re an experienced scuba diver?”
“I grew up diving the Great Lakes, spent my twenties working on oil rigs in the Texas Gulf. Marine construction, pipeline repair, demolition, deep-water welding, I’ve done it all. What do you need?”
“I wasn’t aware women did that sort of work.”
“They don’t. Neither do men. Only divers who can work deep do it. I worked the big rigs for ten years without blowing one up. Next question?”
“I understand you were part of a team that explored a wreck last summer, the Tia Christina?”
“I led that team, actually. The Christina was a schooner, lost in an ice storm in eighteen seventy-five. An honest-to-God ghost ship.”
“How do you mean?”
“No survivors, no distress flares. She just vanished in the night. A hobby diver spotted her by accident last year, but at a hundred feet, she was too dangerous for amateurs, so the Maritime Board assembled a team to check out the wreck. But as it turned out, she wasn’t a wreck.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Christina is in cherry shape. Her pumps weren’t in use, her lifeboats were still lashed down, and yet there she was, sitting peacefully on the Lake Michigan floor without a mark on her. We found no bodies aboard, no trace of her crew.”
“What happened to them?”
“The storm that took her was a freezing rain. Most likely, ice kept building up during the night until she caught a bad wave and the extra weight drove her under. Her crew was either swept overboard as the ship went down or possibly tried to hike to shore across the ice and didn’t make it. What’s your interest in the Christina?”
“Over the winter, the university used a drone to map the bay where the Tia Christina came to rest. During the project, I noted a significant magnetic anomaly north of our target area. I believe there’s a second ship out there.”
“I don’t know; that’s why I’m here. Her magnetic signature makes her modern, twentieth century. My most likely candidate is a tramp freighter that disappeared back in the mid sixties called the Iron Maiden. Another ghost ship, of a sort. She sailed out of Valhalla two weeks before Christmas, nineteen sixty-six, and—vanished. No storms, no distress calls, and apparently no survivors. The seaman’s union received a few inquiries about missing men that winter, but none were listed as being aboard the Maiden.”
“When the lakes start icing over, most freighters pull into the nearest port and cut their crews loose,” Mitch said. “The seamen have to get home as best they can. If the Maiden was headed south, away from the ice, she could easily have collected a skeleton crew off the docks.”
“Unfortunately, with no roster on file, there’s no way to track them now. The owners were a Liberian holding company that only existed on paper. She was never officially reported as missing, but there are no further references to the Iron Maiden after December sixty-six. A few years later, a new owner settled an insurance claim with Lloyds, quietly, accepting a percentage of her actual worth. She’s listed as missing and presumed lost.”
“Where is she now?”
“I can only be certain where she isn’t. The hulk is a full seventy miles off the course her captain filed with the port authority at Valhalla. The Maiden left the harbor that December without a cargo, with no crew signed aboard, on a course she didn’t take.”
“No cargo? Really?” Mitch echoed doubtfully.
“None was registered, but if her crew was off the books, her cargo could have been also.”
Mitch folded her arms, studying him. Brewer was sweating. On a shaded deck in a cool, offshore breeze, and there was an edginess about him—and then she got it.
“You think she was a smuggler, don’t you?”
He didn’t respond. Didn’t have to. Mitch shook her head.
“Even if you’re right, Doc, smugglers mostly haul dope or illegals. After sixty years on the bottom, drugs would be rubbish and dead immigrants would be worth even less.”
“But if my mystery hulk is the Iron Maiden, she lies less than forty miles off the Canadian shore, Mitch. Suppose they’d already offloaded a cargo of immigrants or whatever, and gotten paid, before she went down? In fresh water, at a hundred feet, cash wouldn’t degrade much, and smugglers often deal in untraceable valuables. Like gold bars.”
“Gold?” Mitch echoed, shaking her head. “We’re talking pirate treasure now?”
“We’re talking about a ship with an unregistered cargo lost for sixty years. It’s at least possible that she could make us both very rich indeed—”
“But not likely,” Mitch sighed. “This is the part where you tell me you can’t afford my charter fee, right? Doc, half the weekend divers that rent the gear in my shop are looking for the Griffon or some other wild goose. I’m not a treasure hunter.”
“Very little hunting will be required. With global positioning, I can pinpoint the hulk within a hundred yards, and she’ll be a big target, Miss Mitchell. Don’t tell me you haven’t read Treasure Island or Jamaica Inn and dreamt of finding stolen gold?”
Mitch opened her mouth to argue, but then stopped. Because he was right. Part of the lure of deep water is the mystery, never knowing what lies below. The Great Lakes are so vast and trackless that you can stray ten feet from a familiar spot and stumble onto something no one’s seen for a hundred years. Or a thousand.
“To be perfectly honest, Miss Mitchell, finding a lost freighter and identifying her will probably be our only reward. I’ll write an essay to improve my prospects for tenure, and the publicity may bump up your business a bit. But . . . there’s at least a chance it could be more. Much more. They’ve found treasure ships off the coast of Florida that were lost for four centuries. You and I can probably locate the Iron Maiden over the weekend.”
“I hope you don’t mean this
“Actually, I do. If I’ve located this hulk, others can find her too, Mitch. Secrets don’t keep long on the lakes. I’m afraid I need your answer. So? Are you in? Or not?”
It was a good day for seeing ghosts. Just before closing, Terry Fortier drifted into the dive shop with two tourists in tow. As usual, Terry looked dangerous—slim, hard, and handsome, his dark hair a curly mop that shaded even darker eyes. Dark as a shark’s. His left forearm was strapped up with a surgical sling, wrapped in a shiny new white plaster cast.
“Hey Mitch,” he said, leaning over the counter to buss her cheek, “what’s new?”
“I should be asking you. I heard you were diving an abandoned mine shaft in the U.P. What happened?”
“Bad luck,” he shrugged. “I was winching up an anvil that broke loose and landed on my damn wrist. The customer paid my medical tab but cancelled the charter.”
“Ouch. How long was it?”
“A month, but no problem, I’ve already scored a better deal. Hey guys, come and meet Mitch Mitchell, the lady of the lakes.” The two customers who’d followed Terry in edged their way through the gear to the counter. The taller one looked like a tennis ace, a pristine T-shirt and shorts, blond and confident, with a perfect tan.
“Alex Fitzroy, Mitch Mitchell,” Terry said with a flourish.
“One of the Lansing Fitzroys?” Mitch asked, as they shook hands. “Governor, congressmen, and all that?”
“That would be my dad, my grandfather, and a cousin or two,” Alex said coolly. “I’m nobody special yet.” The second man was an old bruiser with a gray brush cut, wearing a dark suit that didn’t conceal his shoulder holster. Clearly a bodyguard. Terry introduced him as Reuter, no first name. He gave Mitch a curt nod without a handshake, then drifted off to look over the gear while keeping his charge in sight.
“Alex has booked the Kidd through the fall,” Terry said, clapping his functional arm around Fitzroy’s shoulder. The William Kidd was Terry’s dive boat, a forty-foot Chris-Craft power launch, teak decked and named for a pirate, naturally.
“Booked you to do what?” Mitch asked. “You’re not exactly a hundred percent.”
“We’re hunting a wreck,” Alex said. “I brought up a trove of seventeenth-century artifacts on the net, some splinters and spars, part of a keel. They’re the right age, right look. I think they might be from the wreck of the Griffon, the first European ship to be lost in the Lakes.”
“Really?” Mitch said, smothering a smile. “Well, the last I heard, she’s still out there. Somewhere.” She waited for Alex to wander off before turning back to Terry.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. He’s not serious about the Griffon, is he?”
“Serious as a heart attack,” Terry said, watching his client trying on face masks. “He wants his name in the history books.”
“Fitzroys are already in the history books.”
“His family, sure, his pops and grandpops. Alex wants his own Wikipedia page, and he’s willing to pay for it.” Terry leaned in, lowering his voice. “I hit him for double my usual rate and he didn’t even blink, Mitch. The thing is, with my arm banged up, I can’t dive. I need you along.”
“No can do, Terry, I’m already booked.”
“With who? Some tourist? C’mon Mitch, I’ve bragged you up to Alex, swore you were the best. Folks in his circle book boats for the season, babe, not for a freakin’ weekend. He’ll pay you double your rate.”
“Sorry, I’ve given my word.”
“Seriously? You’re gonna kiss off a month’s charter over a handshake? Since when can you afford that?”
She looked away. Terry was right, and they both knew it. So in the end Mitch agreed to talk to Professor Brewer, to try to work something out. As to Terry’s offer? She’d sleep on it.
Only . . . she couldn’t sleep. She kept popping awake, nagged by something Terry said. A rare thing. Normally Terry was smooth as melting chocolate, an even better salesman than he was a sailor. He had a way about him that—and that was it. His offer seemed a bit too good to be true, because . . . it was. Bottom line? The money. He offered Mitch double her usual rate for a month because Alex wanted the best, and she’d felt so flattered that she’d breezed past the fact that it wasn’t quite true.
In deep water, below fifty feet? The smallest mistake can kill you. A snag, a leak, a cut? If you’re not on full alert, you won’t see sunlight again.
Mitch was totally at ease in deep water, cool and careful. If Fitzroy was looking for the very best, her name would definitely come up, but maybe not in the top five. A matter of geography more than talent. Most of her deep-water work had been in the Texas Gulf. The Great Lakes had different dangers, their own lures and risks. She could think of a half-dozen top lake divers she’d choose to work with, including Terry, before she picked herself. Terry knew them all, so why was he so eager to get her aboard?
Auld lang syne? Had to admit, that was an interesting possibility. They’d had a fling two years out of high school, too hot, too soon, for both of them. When Mitch tried to slow things down, Terry moved on, and so did Mitch. All the way to Texas. As far from the north shore and Terry as she could get. To dive and work in muddy water where the drilling platforms rise from the surf like Poseidon’s Erector Set, rigs you’d expect to see on Mars. It was years ago, but she hadn’t forgotten what they’d meant to each other that summer, and neither had Terry. First loves aren’t always forever, but they’re forever first. And she knew Terry sometimes played on those feelings, but so did she and—damn it!
Groaning, Mitch buried her face in her pillow—just as her alarm went off, snapping her upright, only half awake.
Groping for her bedside clock, she tried to make sense of the time— Hell. It was barely two a.m., what—? It wasn’t her alarm buzzing at all. Her freaking cell phone was dancing on the nightstand.
She grabbed it up. “What?”
“Mitch? It’s Sheriff Bauer. We’ve got serious trouble down at the harbor. The Sheba’s been vandalized, along with—” But he was talking to the air. Mitch was already pulling on her jeans and boots and grabbing up a flannel shirt as she sprinted out the door.
Scrambling into her Jeep, she fired it up, then raced down the shore road into Huron Harbor. Veering through the entrance gate of the small-boats parking lot, she screeched to a halt behind a fire truck that was hosing down a half-dozen crafts in the reserved berths, including her dive boat, the Sheba, a thirty-six-foot Munson monohull. Sheba was all aluminum, and at first glance, she didn’t appear to be as badly burned as the others.
Broken beer bottles were scattered along the boardwalk, indicating the source of the fire, a drunken prank. A dozen boats were damaged, including Terry’s Chris-Craft, the William Kidd. Terry was already on board, in shorts and a T-shirt, sweeping up the broken glass.
“How bad is she?” Mitch called.
“Kid stuff,” Terry said, pausing in mid stroke. “Little bastards ran along the pier splashing gas over the transoms like junior Rambos. I was sleeping aboard, came up yellin’ and scared ’em off. Not quick enough, though. Sheba looks rough, Mitch. The gas dripped onto your inboard, burned through the fuel lines, melted your wiring harness. She’s a mess, babe.”
“Ah, sweet Jesus,” Mitch groaned, as she stepped aboard the Sheba. Crouching over the engine, she brushed away the white extinguisher foam.
“Ugly, huh?” Terry said, kneeling beside her. “Your mill’s gonna need a rewire, probably take a week at least. What are you going to do?”
“I have no freaking idea.”
“I’ve got one. Ditch your charter, come with me and Alex.”
“I can’t just drop him, Terry, I gave my word—”
“Okay, okay, then,” he said, waving off her objections. “Take your charter out, do your damn duty. I’ll stall Alex till you get back.”
“Take him out how? I don’t have a boat.”
“Sure you do. Mine. Take the Kidd.”
“I’m serious. She’s already provisioned for a run, tuned up and ready to go. Even has oxygen aboard. Alex has a catamaran that’ll do to scout around for his lost wreck. How much time will you need?”
“I don’t know. A few days.”
“I can keep Alex distracted that long. I’ll dazzle him with tales of pirate gold.”
“Thank you,” she said, mussing his hair. “But you do know the Griffon wasn’t a pirate, right?”
“I know that, but I’m guessing Fitzroy doesn’t.” He grinned, tossing her his keys. “Be careful with my boat, babe. And you owe me. Big.”
“I knew there’d be a catch,” she said. “However shall I repay you, kind sir?”
He bounced his eyebrows à la Groucho Marx, which was answer enough. He left her grinning. As usual.
Mitch spent the next few hours checking over the Kidd, but Terry was right, she was totally shipshape. The vandalism was strictly superficial, broken glass and a gasoline spill that hadn’t been touched off. Beyond that, she was scrubbed, provisioned, and ready to go. So at first light Saturday morning, she met Dr. Brewer at the harbor, fitted him with a life vest, and together, they nosed the Kidd out, into a mild chop, on a northeast course, headed for the Canadian line. It’s a mark which only exists on maps, the longest undefended border in the world.
It was a good four-hour run, with Doc Brewer tracking every foot of their progress on a laptop, pacing as the readings came in, getting more antsy with every sea mile. Antsy nerves are contagious, and by the time Brewer finally called a halt, Mitch was eager to get in the water just for the peace and quiet of it.
It was a beautiful day for diving, July sun smiling down on the six-inch chop, a light westerly breeze. Dr. Brewer offered to help, but Mitch had been gearing up for deep water since she was eight years old, diving with her dad.
Brewer was useless as a gofer, but he compensated with his global positioning gear.
“My best guess is, we’re roughly sixty yards west of the Maiden, if in fact it’s her,” he said eagerly. “What’s your plan?”
“I’ll identify her first,” Mitch said, shrugging into a lightweight backpack with a forty-minute tank over cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. A pity, Brewer thought. He’d been hoping for a bikini.
Mitch’s athletic build could have graced a red carpet, but she seemed totally unaware of it. Strictly business.
She checked over her gear belt twice, a lifeline reel, flashlights, waterproof camera, and a diving knife in an ankle sheath, sharp enough for shaving. Her primary light was mounted on a headband that gave her a Wonder Woman look.
“This first dive is strictly to get oriented,” she said, frowning as she checked the edge on her blade. “I doubt I’ll be down very long, twenty to thirty minutes tops. I’ll identify her, take a few shots, and decide whether she’s safe to board.” She handed Brewer the end of her lifeline.
“Three hard tugs if I want you to haul me up. Any questions?”
“What if you’re down too long?”
“If I’m not back in an hour, head for shore and have a beer on my luck, Doc. I won’t be coming.”
He couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.
Stepping off the stern, she dropped into the water, then double-checked her regulator and inserted her mouthpiece. She gave Brewer a quick nod, then rolled and headed straight down, kicking hard toward the darkness below.
Swimming like a mermaid.
Thirty feet down, Mitch didn’t feel like a mermaid. More like a snow angel. On any given day she would spend several hours in the big lake, teaching scuba classes or testing equipment, but she hadn’t been in really deep water for several months, and at thirty feet she could already feel the temperature dropping like a luge down a water slide. At forty-five feet, she was seriously regretting that she hadn’t worn a wet suit and began picking up her pace just to keep warm.
Below fifty feet, the deep cold becomes a sly, silent enemy. It can creep up on you, slow you down just a little, especially if you get busy. And distracted. The chill seeps into your bones, takes your edge off, just a little, making you a bit clumsy and stupid. And in deep water, stupid will kill you quicker than a great white on crank.
Still, Mitch was no amateur; she’d been in much deeper water under tougher conditions and had always come through. Finding the hulk was her first problem. Long years of silt and storms had camouflaged the wreck almost perfectly. It blended into the lake bed so seamlessly that only the shadows revealed its outline against the muddy bottom.
Hovering at eighty feet, looking over the hulk from above felt like . . . ? Déjà vu. Mitch was strongly re-minded of the utter stillness of the Tia Christina when she’d first sighted her, but despite her greater age, the Tia was in better shape. She was older than the Maiden by a century, yet viewed from above she’d appeared to be more shipshape. Her sails were furled, rudder swinging free, lifeboats still in their cradles. No sign of panic or disarray. She just looked . . . abandoned. And alone. And this hulk? At first glance, the Maiden wasn’t much different.
For openers, the wreck definitely was the Iron Maiden. Her name was proudly painted across her stern. It was probably painted across her bow as well, but it was unreadable there. The freighter had slammed into the mud of the lake bed nose first, burying her prow deeply into the soft silt. She must have struck hard . . . Too hard, in fact. Much too hard.
The Maiden didn’t just take on water and sink. She was driven down from the surface like a diving submarine, still under power when she slammed into the lake bed, driven by her own engines. Something drastic had happened, something that came on so suddenly that her pilot didn’t even have time to shut down her mills.
Mitch had seen a good many wrecks, including a few that had been deliberately scuttled, sunk for the insurance, or for spite. But she’d never seen a ship driven down into the mud like this.
The Maiden had very nearly buried herself.
But if she had been scuttled, where the hell was her crew? Her lifeboats were still in their davits, lashed down. No tools were scattered about, no doors left open, no signs of disarray. Her wheelhouse was empty, but the wheel hadn’t been tied off as it should have been if there’d been any organized attempt to abandon ship. The crew’s quarters were padlocked against vandalism, perfectly normal for a ship heading in to berth for the winter . . . but the Maiden wasn’t headed into port. She was in Canadian waters out here, near the invisible border, but basically in the middle of nowhere, a six-hour run from the nearest harbor. So why was she already buttoned up? Something gray flickered past the edge of Mitch’s vision, snapping her back to the cold, murky present.
A dogfish. A deep-water scavenger. But there was no carrion this deep. Unless . . . ?
Copyright © 2023 The Iron Maiden by Doug Allyn