Demon in the Depths
by William Burton McCormick
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
At this altitude, the sky turned violet and daytime starlight pierced the atmosphere from outer space. Cosmic wonders that Soviet test pilot Elita Priedite found enthralling, if not unexpected, as her experimental plane accelerated toward the speed of sound. Beneath her jet’s small triangular wings stretched an endless blanket of gray clouds, and kilometers below these, the cold Arctic Ocean with its crushing ice floes, abyssal trenches, and locked secrets. A hostile environment at all levels, yet she traversed it with ease, hurtling with her Savior towards destiny.
“Mach zero-point-eight,” reported Elita into her headset, her words steady even as the cockpit shuddered around her. “All normal.”
This last remark was in truth a lie. A woman—a Soviet woman, a Latvian woman—going this fast was far from normal. In fact, it had never been done before. The sound barrier within reach, she’d be the first Soviet pilot of either gender to break it outside the USSR’s borders, a Politburo-calculated event in international airspace for the world to see. An act of blunt intimidation for real and imagined enemies of the Soviet people. Elita herself cared nothing for war games or national posturing. Let the political chatterboxes talk of messages to America and NATO; she only wished to fly.
“Begin your acceleration dive in fifteen seconds, Captain Priedite,” in-structed a firm Russian voice through her helmet speakers. Colonel Anton Baranov sat in safety forty kilometers away on a Soviet destroyer, yet thought himself master of this experiment.
Elita knew who was in control. And if not she, then the Lord himself guided her hand.
“Beginning acceleration dive in fifteen seconds,” she answered as if a formality.
Elita took another long breath of oxygen, watched the observation plane on her right fall away, unable to keep pace. For the first time since her girlhood, when the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again invaded her Latvian homeland, she was untethered to an occupying government.
Unseen. Unobservable. Free.
Taking one hand from her control stick, Elita dug into the collar of her flight suit, pulled a simple Lutheran cross up through the sliver of exposed flesh at her neck beneath the helmet. She let it hang freely across her chest, the crucifix swinging with the vibrations of the cockpit.
The Communists had driven religion literally underground in Soviet Latvia, but the devout continued their worship clandestinely. Elita baptized her children in secret fruit-cellar services, sang hymns and exchanged homemade gifts before glowing Christmas trees in a Riga basement, lookouts at the top of the stairs to watch for KGB spies. Now, flying along the belly of Heaven, Elita was free to display her allegiance to the Lord. Let Him see whom she honored when they made history. A silent prayer from Psalm 40 as Elita returned both hands to the control stick and began her acceleration dive.
Steidzies, ak Kungs, man paliga!
Make haste, O Lord, to help me!
“Report,” interrupted Colonel Baranov, a man far from Heaven.
The airspeed climbed as fast as the altitude dropped. “Mach zero-point-nine-four,” Elita replied, wondering at Baranov’s reaction if she left the cross exposed when returning to the Soviet Union a hero. All the Pravda photographers would be horrified. Would they ban the photos or touch them up to hide the truth? So tempting to make a display of piety.
But Lord forgive her, she was not as strong as Job. She could not pay the high price for honesty. Not for her sons’ sakes.
“You’ve deviated from the flight plan,” Colonel Baranov admonished. “Correct it.”
Elita’s eyes flicked over to her instruments. Baranov was right. So intently was she focused on speed and altitude, she’d let the directional vector drift well off route. How long had she flown this path? At near supersonic speeds the plane could be kilometers off course.
“Correcting.” Elita adjusted her rudder until the directional dials realigned. Her eyes returned to the airspeed indicator: “Zero-point-nine-nine.”
So close to history . . .
Elita’s eyes never left the indicator as it crawled higher. She knew the future. There would be no jolt, no sudden turbulence that threatened to tear the plane apart when she broke through into the supersonic. Those who’d gone through before—men like Yeager and Fyodorov, women like Cochran and Auriol—said nothing unusual happened the moment the plane crossed over. There was no barrier felt inside the cockpit. Not from the pilot’s point of view. Everything dramatic happened outside. . . .
“Captain Priedite, what is your intended destination?”
She barely heard Baranov, Elita’s attention fixed on her instruments. The airspeed indicator’s last digit turned smoothly, like a simple wooden gear in some quaint old-time Cesis clock shop. The display was clear. Mach one-point-oh-one. Mach one-point-oh-two . . .
With the Lord’s assistance, Elita traveled faster than sound.
“Mach one-point-oh-five achieved!” she shouted into the headset, girlish elation in her voice.
But there was no celebration in Baranov’s reply: “Captain Priedite, divert course immediately or we assume defection!”
“Colonel, my readings show proper—”
Elita’s instruments lit up like a cellar Christmas tree.
* * *
On a bleak island beach, Norwegian lighthouse keeper Bjørn Borsheim examined the three mutilated seal carcasses washed ashore. The wounds on the animals’ bodies were unlike any he’d seen. Deep gullies of torn pink flesh wrapped around the seals’ dark forms in a corkscrew fashion, winding about the corpses like stripes on a barber’s pole.
These were adult harbor seals, abundant in the Svalbard coastal waters, animals that were well over one hundred kilograms alive. Yet, in each carcass easily half the mass was missing. Gobbled up in these gruesome, remarkably consistent injuries.
“Could it be a boating accident?” asked his wife, Ylva, kneeling next to him.
“A boat that struck three seals in a day’s time? Without us seeing anything from the house?” He shook his head, pointed to divots in the skin near the trenchlike wounds. “I believe these are teeth marks, Ylva.”
“Yes, here and here. The strangest bites I’ve ever seen, if bites these are.”
Ylva set a gloved hand on the closest seal’s snout. “The remains are warm.” She stared into the creeping tides, the sea too near. “What sort of creature leaves such wounds, Bjørn?”
“Who can say? You know the old stories. . . .”
“I still say it must be a propeller. Off a submarine, maybe.” She stood, rubbed her shoulders in the driving coastal winds. “We can ask the university on the mainland to photograph the carcasses.”
“They are too busy to fly to our little isle near the top of the world.”
Ylva started to speak, then abandoned her reply and pointed to the sky.
“Someone flies here, Bjørn.”
From the clouds far above emerged a black arrowhead-shaped projectile. Bjørn’s keen keeper’s vision, so proficient at spotting ships at sea, made it out to be a compact airplane with unusual triangular wings sloped back. It was very high but appeared to be traveling impossibly fast.
“Another marvel, Ylva. A plane like I’ve never—”
A clap a thousand times stronger than thunder struck the island, the force knocking Bjørn off his feet, shattering windows in the lighthouse tower and sending wide ripples across the ocean’s surface and through the tundra grass that stretched inland.
They were trying to recover their senses, and Bjørn his footing, when another, softer boom exploded somewhere in the skies.
Trailing white smoke, that strange plane fell into the depths of the sea.
* * *
Standing in the ship’s bow, Santa Ezerina watched the black-gray billows on the horizon as a young volcano rose inexorably above the Arctic Ocean’s surface. Every few seconds, geysers of lava erupted along the skyline, the accompanying gasses turning pinkish or purple as they mixed with a budding sunrise and remnants of aurora borealis. A mosaic of stunning colors that must be seen to be conceived. Nature’s grandeur on display, a new island being born to join its eons-older mates in the Svalbard archipelago.
Yet few eyes rested upon this amazing sight. The Norwegian authorities had warned boaters of the dangers of 1,000-degree embers and lethal toxins in the volcanic smoke, restricted access to the area for tens of kilometers around, and patrolled the region vigorously to enforce the ban.
But Santa and her shipmates had slipped inside the restricted zone, used the smoky air to camouflage their activities just eleven kilometers from the burning new island. Occasionally, they donned gas masks, kept fireproof suits and flame-retardant foam at the ready. But the winds had changed in this last half-hour and for now she could watch the volcanic panorama unprotected with minimal fear.
Though not quite an easy mind.
Another presence tickled her reporter’s instincts, repeatedly pulled her gaze from the natural majesty. Inside the haze, not two hundred meters away, sat the only other ship in view, a small scientific-looking vessel with no visible name or national markings, its heavy flood lamps searching the dark morning waters. Whoever they were, they too must be trespassers. Anyone official would have radioed the Svalbard coast guard by now and reported Santa’s own ship, the Anja.
Curious. Santa never trusted lawbreakers, even if she frequently crossed legal lines herself in her journalistic pursuits. As she did now. Hypocritical, this lack of trust? Sure. Wise tactic? Definitely. There were some ugly people out there.
“Santa!” shouted a voice from within her ship’s cabin.
She left the grimy deck and went inside. Gathered around a display monitor was the Anja’s two-man crew of old Norwegian salts, Dag and Anders. Absent were their Icelandic divers, who at this moment explored the sea below them: Daníel Rafnkelsson, a professional deep-water expert from Reykjavík, second cousin of Iceland’s prime minister, and well-known Internet blogger on all subjects aquatic and occasionally political; and Páll Erlingur, the best underwater topographer willing to work illegally, at cost, and who didn’t mind an erupting volcano or two nearby.
Santa was the only Latvian on this venture, the only journalist, the only female. And the only one under thirty, though in character she possessed maturity the others lacked. A woman among boys even if the chronological ages didn’t bear that out.
“What’s up?” she asked in English, rising to her tiptoes to peer over Dag’s and Anders’s wide Nordic shoulders. “Páll find anything?”
“Look for yourself,” said Dag, his voice charged with excitement.
On the screen was the sonar imaging feed transmitted live from the subsurface scanner mounted on Páll’s helmet, the picture a collection of white and blue lines outlining the ocean landscape below their divers. The sea floor beneath the Anja was rising, driven higher by the growing volcano nearby, a subsurface ridge carried up from abyssal depths by the new island being born in the heart of the sea.
As Páll floated in place, keeping his multibeam scanner fixed over that ridge, the sonar image clarified, sweeping scanlines tightening detail. A manmade shape rested on a jagged outcropping, the object little more than a slight yellow-orange outline on their monitor, but wing and tail sections were distinctly visible.
“Captain Priedite’s plane,” whispered Santa.
“Unseen in more than sixty years,” confirmed Anders.
“Can it be?”
“It’s what we came for!” shouted Dag, clapping hands with Anders, their motion rocking the ship and allowing Santa to squeeze between them for a closer view of the screen.
There was no doubt.
The Soviet jet lost in 1958.
She felt her pulse rising.
“Páll’s done it!” shouted one of the men, Santa’s attention too focused on the plane to notice which.
“We’ve done it!” replied the other.
Santa glanced at the iPad mounted on the monitor table, the open app showing the positions of their two divers against the topographical map taken by the sonar.
“If the sensor on Páll’s suit is correct, he’s at forty meters,” said Santa. “And that plane must rest at what? Two hundred meters down? Two hundred ten?” She glanced at the men. “Too deep for scuba gear. We’ll need ADS to get down there.”
“None to be had,” said Anders, that revelation taming the men’s euphoria. “The Russians bought every deep-water suit in the Svalbard archipelago. Shipped them off to their Barentsburg settlement.”
“Need the suits for deep-sea cable repair. That’s what my pal at the Longyearbyen dive emporium says.”
“We couldn’t afford more equipment anyway,” said Dag. “I hocked everything I owned just to help finance this expedition so far.”
“We all did,” agreed Anders. “Those deep suits cost six hundred thousand U.S. dollars each. Worth more than the Anja these days.”
“We’ll find a way,” said Santa, eyes back on the sonar-imaging feed. “We can sell the coordinates and sonar images for worldwide publication. And Daníel knows some rich people in Reykjavík. The plane waited six decades, it can wait—”
The monitor went black.
“We’ve lost the bloody feed,” cursed Dag.
“Give it a minute,’ answered Santa. She looked to the depth meter. Páll was rising. “He’s stopped scanning and coming up.”
Santa frowned. Dag was right. What had gotten into Páll? Despite having plenty of oxygen, he was shooting upwards like a missile. No decompression stops. “He’ll get the bends. That could kill him.”
“Páll knows that. The sensors gotta be broken.” Anders pulled the iPad from its mounting, glared at the readouts, shook it violently. “Daníel is rising too. Safer rate. Barely.”
Santa sprinted from cabin to deck, searching the sea for her divers. Páll broke first. Away from the Anja, within the floodlights of that peculiar, lurking ship. He flailed about at the surface briefly, then went limp with a finality that twisted Santa’s stomach.
“Su’ds,” she whispered, cursing in her native tongue as Páll began to sink. She glanced around the cluttered deck for a wetsuit. Where was Daníel?
The crew of the other vessel threw Páll a line. He clung to it as they pulled him in and lifted his spent body from the water.
“It’s okay,” Santa said to her men. “That boat’s got him.”
The other ship’s flood lamps dim-med, replaced by higher, focused headlights. They ignited their engines, turned heading, and sped away at highest speed.
“Where are they going?” asked an astonished Dag, now standing beside Santa.
She wasn’t quite sure. “Gotta be rushing Páll to the Longyearbyen hospital, right?” She turned to glance inside the cabin. “Radio and confirm that’s their plan, Anders.”
“We break radio silence, the harbor patrol’s gonna know we’re here, Santa.”
A blaring alarm erupted somewhere inside the fog.
The smoky atmosphere over the waters parted and a new ship emerged from the gloom. A Norwegian patrol boat headed their way.
“They already know, Anders.” Santa said. She raised her hands. “The jig is up, boys.”
* * *
“Santa Ezerina, your lawyer’s here,” said the guard opening the cell door.
Exhausted from sixteen hours in the Longyearbyen jail, Santa was slow to comprehend his Norwegian. They’d been arrested this morning, even Daníel when he surfaced. As the only female, Santa was imprisoned separately from the men, locked away in a small, overheated cell on the Svalbard archipelago’s largest and only permanently settled island, Spitsbergen. With virtually no crime in the dominant town of Longyearbyen, its jail and harbor-patrol station consisted only of a few offices and holding cells nestled in the back of a town hall, a small complex that turned deadly quiet at night. After hours of silent solitude, deciphering a foreign language was difficult even for a polyglot like Santa.
“The court appointed me a lawyer?” she finally asked.
“Not us. He’s an American, but says he’s your lawyer. Rather insistent about a meeting too.” The guard read her dismay. “You’re not required to see him.”
“Why would I have an American lawyer?”
The guard began to slide the door shut. “I’ll tell him to come back during official hours.”
“I’ll go,” she said, forcing her stiff body off the bench. “Anything to chat with a human being for ten minutes. The voices in my head grew stale hours ago.”
* * *
The man waiting for Santa in the nearby interview room was trim, dressed in a navy-blue suit with red power tie, and radiated calm authority. Square jawed, peach-blond hair gelled in place, he might have been thirty-five or fifty-five, his age difficult to measure with much of his face hidden behind the wide reflective lenses of aviator glasses.
He stood when Santa entered, his height slightly less than hers, but his grip firm and masculine as he shook her hand.
“I want you to know, Ms. Ezerina, that we are working diligently on your behalf,” he said in a strong mid-Atlantic American accent. “I can say with confidence you’ll be freed on Thursday at the latest.”
She took a seat at the table as the guard closed the door, giving them the illusion of privacy. The man sat across from her, elbows on the tabletop, a smartphone and dog-eared notebook resting before him.
“I’m appreciative,” said Santa in fluent English. “But who are you? Do you work for the Norwegian authorities?”
An eyebrow arched behind those glasses. “We work with foreign entities, Ms. Ezerina. Never for them. I am Hugo Sommers. I represent a private organization concerned with America’s place in the world. And we are here to assist.”
“That too is private.”
She frowned. “Are you connected to the ship that rescued Páll Erlingur?”
“Who is Páll Erlingur?” His eyebrows met above those lenses in a deep grimace. Sommers opened the notebook and ran his index finger down a list of the Anja’s crew and financial backers, Santa’s own name at the top. “I don’t believe we’ve heard of him.”
“He’s an Icelandic national. A diver of ours picked up by a ship without markings in the restricted zone. We suspect Páll may be suffering from decompression sickness and need medical care. So far, no one can tell us what became of him. We’re worried.”
Sommers withdrew a pen from his breast pocket and added Páll’s name to his list. Santa noted he matched the Icelandic spelling perfectly.
“There are only two medical facilities in the archipelago,” said Sommers. “The local hospital here in Longyearbyen and the miner’s clinic at the Russian settlement of Barentsburg.”
“The ship may have had a decompression chamber of its own.”
“What makes you think so?”
“It was . . . well, it looked . . . industrially or scientifically outfitted.”
“Let’s hope for your friend’s sake that ship remained seaworthy until he received medical attention. A patrol boat was set ablaze by shifting winds the morning of your arrest. The volcanic zone is forbidden for good reason,” he said, censure in his tone. “Anyway, I’ll look into Mr. Erlingur’s status for you.”
Santa was thankful for anyone concerned about Páll’s health and location, but the rest of this unexpected assistance was too odd for her liking.
“Why are you helping us, Mr. Sommers? We’re hardly affecting American interests.”
“When dangling from a cliff side, never ask the motivations of those throwing you a rope, Ms. Ezerina.” He shut the notebook. “Accept aid with silent, tasteful gratitude.”
“I’m a journalist. I’m never silent. And seldom tasteful, for that matter.”
“You will be out by Thursday.”
“Yes . . . you said that before. Why wait three days?”
“The Anja’s presence in the restricted zone is no trivial matter. We’ll need to prove it a navigational mistake. Assuming, of course, your proximity to the volcano was accidental, Ms. Ezerina?”
Santa had a hunch his “assistance” was a charade. “You know that’s not the case, Mr. Sommers.”
“I do,” he said flatly. “What is your interest in a Soviet-era plane?”
Santa wondered how Sommers knew. Did he interview the others? Read texts and e-mails in seized devices? So many easy avenues. It all depended on what the Longyearbyen police would allow.
She shrugged. “It’s a good story. Reporters report.”
“A journalist from a tiny European country does not mortgage her future to finance an expedition in the Arctic only to photograph a volcano and a decades-sunk plane. You’d never get a return on such an investment.” Sommers pressed his glasses higher up the narrow bridge of his nose. “There’s more to it than that, Ms. Ezerina. Do tell.”
“Maybe, I’m a bad businesswoman.”
“Or more than a businesswoman.”
She leaned forward, consciously kept her voice measured. “The plane’s pilot, Captain Elita Priedite, was a countrywoman of mine, Mr. Sommers. We believe her the first Soviet woman to break the sound barrier. There were reports of an explosive noise resembling a sonic boom all over the Svalbard Islands moments before her plane went down in nineteen fifty-eight. The USSR, embarrassed by the crash and unsettled by Christian paraphernalia found in Priedite’s Riga apartment after her death, labeled her a traitor, an attempted defector, and never confirmed the top speed. They preferred to let Marina Popovich, a loyal Russian atheist, become the official record-breaker six years later.”
“What do you care about decades-old records?”
“Priedite’s family suffered for the USSR’s embarrassment. Her relatives were disenfranchised, some sent to Siberia on trumped-up charges. The harassment was so unrelenting, one son committed suicide. The attacks subsided when the Soviet Union broke up, but the family’s shame lingers to this day. Latvia is a small country, Mr. Sommers. Only two million of us. We need our champions. I want to find out what happened to that plane. Discover if it was indeed pilot error that sent it to the bottom of the sea that day.”
“And if it wasn’t?”
“Let the chips fall where they may.”
“You hardly sound impartial.”
“The great-granddaughter of Elita Priedite cannot be impartial. The surviving son was my grandfather. But the truth does not take sides. Even in a new Cold War.”
“Truth is subjective, Ms. Ezerina. The sides are not.”
“We’ll see what we find down there, Mr. Sommers. Mother Nature is bringing the answer closer to the surface every second. And there is nothing Uncle Sam, Ivan the Bear, or anyone else can do to prevent it.”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “But it won’t be answered by Thursday. I promise you.”
* * *
Santa Ezerina did not have to wait until Thursday and American assistance for freedom. The other diver, Daníel Rafnkelsson, raised bail for the entire Anja expedition the next afternoon with a generous wire transfer from wealthy friends in Reykjavík. By the time Santa rejoined the men in the town hall’s front office, Daníel had completed his paperwork and headed over to the Longyearbyen hospital in search of Páll Erlingur.
As Santa, Anders, and Dag finished filling out their own release forms, the conversation turned to Hugo Sommers.
“He’s an odd faen,” said Dag, fiddling with the tip of his pen in a vain attempt to start the ink flowing. “Put me off using the English language for a while.”
“How many of us met with him?” asked Santa.
“We all did. One by one,” said Anders. “I saw him last. By then Daníel already had the bail money coming. Sommers was furious that we were gettin’ out of here today.”
“He didn’t care much for you, Santa,” added Dag. “Said you organized the expedition out of a family vendetta. That we’d never make a cent for our efforts and would end in jail for crimes worse than trespassing if we kept at it. He claimed Anders and I might lose our boating licenses associating with you.”
Santa felt an unexpected chill around the table.
“How could I cost you your licenses?”
“If we went back near the volcano,” answered Dag. “Come within forty kilometers of that sunken jet, Sommers told us, and we’d never captain a vessel again. Not in any sea worth sailing.”
“Is the Arctic worth sailing in?”
“For us? Yes.”
Anders leaned forward, his voice lowered in case the Longyearbyen police were listening. “Sommers said you’re known in Latvia for getting your associates in trouble. Or killed. That the newspapers in Riga call you ‘Lady Death,’ so many people die.”
“Ugly names don’t scare us,” said Dag. “But . . . thing is, Santa . . . we can’t afford to lose our licenses. Or the Anja. It’s all we got to live by.”
“Dag and me have families. I got four kids, a fifth coming. . . . You . . . you can take risks, Santa. The Communists destroyed your family. You got no one in this world.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I know exactly what you meant.” She grimaced, set her hands flat on the table between them. “Let’s postpone the mutiny for now, okay? We find Páll first. That’s most important. Then we take a vote, all five of us. Continue after the plane or go home. Fair?”
The two Norwegians glanced at each other.
“Yeah. All right,” said Dag.
“Sure,” said Anders. “But what will you do if you lose the vote, Santa?”
“What my great-grandmother did. Fly solo and trust the Lord. But for now, Lady Death has a diver to find. I want to keep another soul off my conscience.”
* * *
When Daníel called Santa’s cell phone at noon, he sounded nearly in tears. Páll Erlingur was not at the Longyearbyen hospital. No one had heard of him. No Icelander was admitted yesterday or today, nor any diver of any nationality complaining of decompression sickness symptoms. Their lodge said Páll’s bed was not slept in. The police were indifferent. Daníel was at a loss what to do next.
Santa told him to have a drink on her at the local tavern until they arrived. He agreed.
Their walk through Longyearbyen to the Amundsen Tavern was brief, uneventful, and filled with incredible vistas that might have been stirring if the mood was lighter. A town of two thousand miners, fishermen, and researchers, Longyearbyen was the most populous settlement this far north in the world. Red, blue, and green Scandinavian houses sat along snowy roads on either side of the Longyearbyen River, which flowed in warmer months into the Adventfjorden, itself a bay in the much larger Isfjorden. The rusted towers of an abandoned aerial tramway, which once carried coal from mines to harbor, crisscrossed the town, giving Longyearbyen a faded, days-gone-by industrial atmosphere. And outside the town, looming over mankind’s incursions, stood an impenetrable ring of jagged mountains, their brown-black masses walling off sheets of primordial inland glaciers. So rugged was the landscape, so quickly did the heights ascend from the water’s edge, that awe-struck, first-time arrivals at the harbor often asked Longyearbyen’s elevation.
Sea level, you idiot. You just got off a boat.
Even with her insular focus on Páll and the coming mutiny, Santa’s journalistic ear noted a varied range of dialects spoken on these icy streets. Norwegian was the dominant language in Longyearbyen, a logical enough state since Norway politically controlled the whole archipelago. But there were others present. The treaty of 1920 guaranteed the rights of forty countries to exploit the resources on these islands unimpeded. The Russians, here since the whaling days of the seventeenth century, never left, and still operated mines throughout Svalbard. This occasionally brought conflict. The whole island chain was supposedly a demilitarized zone, and during the Cold War, the Soviets and NATO frequently accused each other of storing weapons under those towering mountains or hiding spy submarines in the misty fjords of the archipelago’s re-motest isles. Accusations revived in recent years with renewed tensions between the West and Moscow.
Accusations that interested Santa Ezerina deeply.
* * *
The interior of the Amundsen Tavern reeked of male sweat, wet fur, and burnt cooking fat drifting in from the kitchen. Gangly, red-bearded Daníel Rafnkelsson waited at the back, sitting alone by a dark wooden table below paintings of whaling ships and sepia-tone photographs from Longyearbyen’s centuries of grim habitation. While Dag and Anders stopped at the bar, leaning on its whalebone rail to order drinks from a sleepy, whiskered barkeep, Santa went immediately to Daníel.
“Any new developments?” she asked, taking a seat next to him at the tiny scarred table.
“He’s still gone,” said Daníel forlornly. Santa was amazed how hard the disappearance had hit him, though she shouldn’t have been, truthfully. Páll was something of an older brother to Daníel, had mentored him from trainee to experienced dive master and eventual business partner. Though they came from different economic strata in their native Iceland, the two men found a common bond in their love of the sea.
Santa was unsure what to say. A solitary operator by nature, she was leader in this endeavor by necessity, not inclination. Questioning others was easy, a product of years of investigative journalism, but despite her shattered family, consoling the despondent remained uncomfortable guesswork.
“Páll’s only missing, Daníel. Not gone,” she finally said. Her words felt trite. Insufficient.
“Páll would call if he could. He knows my mobile number by heart. Eighteen years together. His silence means he’s sick or dead.”
She thought of Hugo Sommers spelling Icelandic surnames perfectly. “Or a prisoner.”
“Is that supposed to be better? I have to call his wife tonight.”
“Better than dead, sure.”
“None of those options suit me.” Daníel looked at her fiercely. “How about you, get anyone else arrested today? Or killed?”
“I see Sommers was at you too.”
Born of frustration, Daníel’s rage faded as quickly as it had come, replaced by a mild embarrassment. “Yeah. Sorry. He’s an ass. So am I.” He finished his beer, smiled wearily. “How does Sommers know so much about you, anyway?”
“I’m wondering that too. He seems to have a lot on all of us—except perhaps Páll.”
They said nothing for a long while. Even when Anders and Dag joined them, little alleviated the silence.
“Páll needs to be in a hospital,” Daníel said finally. “The bends can take a day or two to manifest the worst . . . the potentially fatal . . . signs.”
“Any idea why he came to the surface so quickly? Without decompression stops?”
“Something mythic, maybe. Some skrímsli . . . a terrible sæskrímsli.”
His mind returned from somewhere. “We’re a superstitious race, Santa. Ten percent of Icelandic people still believe in elves, ghosts, and fairies. That’s a fact. And old rural boys like Páll are worst of all. I think he saw something that triggered a . . . a primal reaction in him. Sent Páll hell-bent for the surface, uncaring of the repercussions other than immediate escape.”
“What could override years of training and experience?”
“I’ve been his diving partner for nearly two decades. Never seen a hint of panic in Páll. Barracuda. Moray eels. Ruptured tanks. We lost our dive boat once, treaded water for a full day and night. Nothing fazed Páll.” His eyes looked to Dag, Anders, then back to Santa. “You know . . . Look, I’m among the non-elf-believing ninety percent. . . . I’m educated . . .”
“But . . .”
“I saw something too. Not as closely as Páll, and . . . Well, I’m not sure what it was. Only a glimpse at a distance. But I know what it looked like.”
“You won’t hold it against me, boss lady?”
“A serpent, Santa. A serpent as long as a city bus with burning fire for eyes.” . . .
Copyright © 2021. Demon in the Depths by William Burton McCormick