TITLE FIGHTS

The Valleys Of Neptune

I hit the water hard. Rather, the two-hundred-fifty pound concrete block I was attached to hit the water hard. I was just along for the ride. Down and down and down we went, me and the block. I didn’t resist, just made my body as limp and loose as I could. Down and down and down, until at two-hundred and fifty feet, the block and me hit the bottom of the ocean with a muffled thump. The pressure was squeezing my chest flat, but for a moment I had a clear view of an infinite sandy plain, dimly lit by ghost-blue phosphorescence. I looked out over the vast distance with Jimi’s voice murmuring in my ear . . . The valley of sunsets green and blue . . .The ocean swaying me . . . Washing away all my pain . . . Valleys of Neptune is a’risin . . . Rising, yeah, rising. My hand found the small cold steel cylinder and cranked the valve open. I got the mouthpiece in and took a short breath. Not too much, I thought as the air cleared my brain, Not too much. You got a job to do.

*

It was a quiet night and the channel was calm. A slight swell rocked the old boat and made her mutter to herself in creaks and groans. I lit a cigar and watched Micky slap him awake. When he came around, I waited for him to quit whuffing and huffing and trying to get free of the iron manacle clamped around his ankle. I took a long pull off the Havana Grande and stepped out of the shadow of the cabin. His piggy little eyes found me and got wide, real wide.

“Hello, Johnny,” I said.

“The fuck? What the fuck? You? How did–“

I held up my hand to stop him before he started frothing and drooling.

“Seal,” I said. “Told you that when we teamed up, you and me. Remember?”

He shook his head wildly, spraying the deck with sweat and Old Spice.

He remembered, all right.

I squatted down beside him and tilted his head up gently with my fingertips. He tensed then went quiet. I laughed, soft. “Relax, Johnny, relax. Nothing bad going to happen here. No knife. No gun.” I smiled into his eyes. In fact I’m going to tell you exactly how I did what I did. No tricks. I’m going to tell you how to get through this. Alive.”

He got a look on his puss I knew well. I’d seen it many times over the years we’d been partnered up. It’s the one he’d use when he wanted the mark to go gently into the long, long night. It said, None of this has to happen if we all stay calm. I called it the “let’s make a deal” look. It was always followed by a bullet or a blade. Surprise.

“Now why would you do that?” he said. “Especially after . . .”

He inclined his head toward the dark water. His eyes had gone as flat black as a shark’s.

“I’m giving you the same break you gave me. I mean, you did give me that small air tank, after all.”

He barked a laugh.

“C’mon. You know why I gave you that, right? So–“

“Yeah, I know what you had in mind. Me, standing on the bottom of the ocean, sipping a tiny breath at a time. Thinking about why you’d put me there. Thinking I shouldn’t have taken Katie away from you.” I kept my eyes on his, level and steady. “Believe it or not, I did stand there for a minute or two thinking if I just let go and took a really deep breath of salt water . . . well, maybe I’d feel better dead than I do alive.”

I shook my head hard, clearing away the memory of the water and Jimi singing and that ghostly, phosphorescent plain.

“And, that’s what almost killed me. Wasted air. You only gave me five minutes of gas in the bottle. I shouldn’t have wasted what was in my lungs. I should have started in right off with the hard part and then gone for the air.”

“Okay,” he said. “Save air, I got it. What’s the hard part?” The shark eyes were like obsidian in the moonlight.

“I know you’re not a diver, so I’ll keep it simple.” I jerked my thumb at the sea. “It’s not summer, so the water’s going to be cold. Very cold when you first hit it and freezing at the bottom. That’s not a bad thing, ’cause it’ll come in handy later.”

He nodded.

“With two-hundred-fifty pounds taking you down it’ll be like you’re falling off a cliff. Your eardrums will be screaming from the sudden pressure changes. Just ignore them, if they blow you can get them fixed later.” I pointed at him. “I mean it. Keep your body limp as a rag. If you try to fight a two-hundred-fifty pound rock snatching you to the bottom of the ocean, you’ll use up every bit of air in your lungs and all your strength to boot.”

“Got it. Stay loose. Don’t fight.”

I nodded.

“Okay, when you hit the bottom the pressure will be raising hell with your chest. At two-hundred-fifty feet you’re gonna have about seven and a half atmospheres of pressure sitting on your head. You can take it, but you gotta work fast.”

His ringleted, greasy hair swung from side to side as the deck rocked under us.

“I take it this is where the hard part starts,” he said.

“Yeah, it is,” I said.

I pointed at him again. “I know you look like just another fat-ass Mafia gumball, but we both know you’re not. So pay attention and don’t interrupt.”

I watched him for a moment. He was stock still, head cocked to one side. Hearing everything, remembering everything. His shark eyes planning, planning, planning.

“Okay, you’re there. You’ll probably have a bit of luminescence from the silt and algae the concrete stirred up, so you’ll be able to see. First you’re going to have to shatter your ankle, probably twice. Micky here will show you how.”

His head had snapped up when I said “shatter.” He watched Micky approach and shifted his position subtly. The double click of my forty-five cocking spun his head back around to me.

“Nah, Johnny,” I said, grinning. “He’d snap your neck like a stick and you don’t want to take this ride dead, now do ya?”

He relaxed and didn’t resist when Micky showed him how to make the quick, sharp motions that would pulverize his ankle.

“How is the pain gonna be?” He asked.

“The water temp will help dull most of it,” I said. “The cold’ll also help keep blood loss down while you get the tourniquet in place.”

He opened his mouth once, then closed it.

“Tourniquet?”

“Yeah,” I said. “See, even with your ankle gone–what with your heel and all– you still won’t be able to get your foot through the manacle. So . . .” I put a thoughtful look on. “You do have your own teeth, don’t you?” I said.

He bobbed his head “yes”.

“Good. Then it shouldn’t be problem for you to chew through your Achilles tendon and pull your foot off. Then you hit the air bottle. Push the purge button,” I held the mouthpiece up so he could see me when I tapped the small button in the center. “Hold this all the way in, shove it into your mouth, and suck hard. Fill your lungs and that’ll give you time to get the airline from the bottle wrapped good and tight around your stump. From there on it gets easy.”

He stiffened all over.

“You want me to gnaw my foot off?

“Why not,” I said, pulling up my jeans so he could see my carbon fiber leg. “It’s what I had to do.”

I glanced at the luminous face of my dive watch.

“Anything you want to say?”

“Nah. Well . . . thanks for the advice.”

He looked down at the water and back at me.

“Maybe I’ll come see you sometime.”

“Good luck, partner,” I said and nodded at Micky.

The step dropped with a rattle of chains.

The last of him I saw were his obsidian eyes burning into mine.

*

I was draped over an orange and pink striped beach chair watching a volleyball game and wondering if the tall girl’s bikini top was going to stay in place for the whole match. Probably not, I decided.

“You’re kinda hard to find, Master Chief,” somebody behind me growled.

I didn’t need to look around to tell who the owner of that voice was.

“That’s either Sam Elliot or Micky Cooper,” I said. “And Sam knows better than to sneak up on me.”

I swung around and slapped him on the shoulder.

“How are you, Coop?”

He puffed out a breath through his walrus mustache.

“Been better,” he said. “Picked a couple nails last month. Some little guy in a big shit pile tenement got a little lucky with his AK, ‘fore I aced him.” He tugged his Padres cap lower over his eyes. “I do so hate Somalia,” he said. “Food sucks, women are too short and everybody’s got a fucking machine gun.”

There was a commotion of whoops, wolf-whistles and applause behind us. Cooper pushed his brim up a bit and squinted down the beach.

“The tall girl?” I asked.

“Nope. Short redhead.” Cooper said. “Let’s grab a brew. Got some news you might not have.”

We walked over to the thatch-roof, sand-floored bar and slid onto a couple of stools. A short, brown man in a polar-white jacket brought us our beers, took our money and got busy washing glasses at the far end of the bar.

I clinked my long-neck bottle against his.

“Absent friends,” I said.

“Fuck the Army,” he said.

“That’s a fine thing to hear from an Army Ranger,” I said.

“Hooah,” he grinned.

“What you got, Coop?”

He took a sip of beer. “Got word from one of my guys that L.A.P.D found what was left of a big fat guy on the beach few months ago.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Coroner’s Office drew a blank. Sharks had him pretty good. Ripped his chest out. Took his lungs and ribcage. No way to ID the body.”

I sipped some Dos Equis. It went down cold and good.

“Found him, when . . . last January, maybe?”

“That’s right. Coroner figured he hadn’t been in the water that long; maybe one or two days.”

“Be about right, way the current runs out there.” I said.

“Funny thing ’bout that corpse,” Cooper said. “A footnote on the Coroner’s report states: Subject’s left ankle severely shattered and left foot is missing completely. No evidence of shark bite. The foot seems to have been torn or ripped off, though body is in advanced decomposition making these findings inconclusive.

He downed his beer and signaled the bar-man for two more.

“So,” he said, “Looks like you can quit lookin’ over your shoulder.”

I smiled.

“Never was, buddy. I just came down here to sort some things out in my head.”

His eyes found mine. Puzzled expression on his face.

“Seems to me you told him what to do and he did it. You must have worried a little that he if he did everything you told him to . . .”

“No. In fact I was counting on him being tough enough to do everything I told him, exactly the way I told him to do it.”

I took a long pull on the beer.

“He shouldn’t have killed Katie. Not the way he did. Not like that. They needed dental records to find out who she was. He needed killin’ for that.” I took a deep breath. Let it out slow.

“So I only lied to him about one thing. Just one little thing.”

I was lost for a moment. Jimi singing in my ears and the Valleys of Neptune glowing into infinity. And a pair of blue eyes and red hair and a scatter-smatter of freckles across the bridge of an upturned nose, waiting for me there.

The big Ranger waited silently for me to go on.

“Been only me and him, that might’a been just business. But Katie?” I shrugged. “That’s why I filled the air tank with cyanide gas.”

He looked at me for a long time with no expression. Then he picked up his beer and clinked the neck of the bottle against mine.

“Hooah,” he said softly.

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