The white reef shark was circling.
Billy knew he was in danger there near the surface, but if he tried to dive deeper he might draw the creature's attention even more. Then too, if he decided to dive, the boat would never find him. Here his blond hair stood out as a marker of his position in the water. He heard to motor start. Ed had heard his cry of "Shark!" Help was on the way. All he had to do was wait it out and hope the boat would get close enough to frighten the denizen before hunger caused it to attack.
His luck ran out. The shark lunged toward his flipper-clad foot. Pain shot up his leg as the powerful jaws made a "tasting" bite, trying to decide of the object was edible. The blood that flowed from the wounds answered that question very efficiently. Smelling the blood, the shark opened its massive jaws and clamped down on the leg mid-calf. The razor-sharp teeth sliced through the rubber wetsuit and tore into the muscled flash below.
Billy Townsend woke up, sweating. Yes, he had suffered through the dream again. His psychologist had assured him that, in time, it would go away. But, Jesus! It had been six months since that nightmare in the sea. He maneuvered to a sitting position and began to rub the stumps of his legs. They always seemed to itch a little after he had slept. He looked at them. The doctor had done a good job. They were identical: nine inch nubs extending below his knees. The shark had not actually bitten them off, and Ed had thought he was going to be OK when he had pulled his friend from the bloody ocean waters. However, the time it took to get him to the hospital ashore had been too great. The lack of blood flow had taken its toll, and there really had been little else to do.
Being only 32 and otherwise in excellent health, Billy had healed quickly. Doctor Stevens had shipped him off to rehab, where he had learned how to use artificial legs very quickly. The young lawyer had hardly missed a beat in his practice and, taking it all together, was doing well. He looked at his watch: 7:30. Too early to get up... too late to go back to sleep. He reached for his ever-present guitar at the side of the bed and softly strummed a few chords. He'd been working on "Color Rit" off the Lee Ritenour CD he'd bought last week. It was a simple piece, but deceptive in the complexity of the fingerings that it required. He started from the top again.
The phone rang.
"Speak," Billy said sleepily.
"Listen!" the voice snapped back happily.
"What do you want this time of the morning, Wilson?" Billy yawned into the phone.
Ed Wilson laughed. "You always think I want something!"
"Well, you usually do. Especially when you call this damned early in the morning."
"OK. I'll give ya that," Ed returned. "What's your day look like?"
"It's a Saturday," Billy said noncomitally. "What did you have in mind?"
"I wondered if you could drop by the shop... as soon as you can get your sorry ass out of bed! I've got something here for you... a gift, if you will!"
"Christmas in September. What a treat."
"So, are you coming?"
Billy laughed. "Sure. I'll see you in half an hour."
He hung up the phone. A gift, eh? He wondered what his best friend had up his sleeve. There was no telling. He swung around on the bed and began rolling his leg liners on. It only took a few moments to adjust the liners so the metal rods were in position, and to slip them into his prosthetics. Another 5 minutes took care of the bathroom business, sans shave. Five minutes more and he had thrown on a polo shirt and a pair of slacks. He checked the full-length mirror and decided he would pass.
The fifteen minute drive to Ed's Dive Shop was done with his mind on auto-pilot. He looked at the nubile females, still bikini-clad this time of the year out early on their roller blades. He just shook his head. Six months ago he would have been out there himself, making a play for one of these cuties. Now... He looked down at the artificial feet and just shook his head.
"Well, you're a man of your word," Ed said as his friend walked in.
"What's up, Wilson?" Billy said as he shook hands.
"These." Ed held up a pair of flippers.
"You know I can't use those things on these legs. The salt water'll eat 'em alive!"
"You need to take a closer look," Ed said, sporting a devilish grin.
Billy took the flippers in his hands. Instead of the standard foot opening, these had only a small hole at the heel end. Billy smiled crookedly and looked back at his friend.
"Now, what do you suppose might fit down in those holes?" Ed asked.
"You got these for me."
"Well," he looked around, "I don't see anyone else in the shop that they'll fit!"
Billy hugged him. Ed pooh-poohed, and added, "Well, are we going to stand around here all day or are we going to get into our gear and try those babies out?"
Like a kid with a new toy, Billy headed toward the end of the store. This would be his first time under water since... well, since. The men changed into swimming trunks in the small dressing room at the rear of Ed's shop. "We're going to the test pool for a while," he yelled over his shoulder at Sammy, his weekend clerk. Sammy just waved back and kept reading his "Heavy Metal" magazine. He nudged the volume on the radio once, and the thrash music became ever louder.
Seated on the edge of the tank, Billy pressed the release, first on one leg, and then on the other, placing the plastic outer legs beside him. Then, he slipped the rubber flippers onto the attachment rods of his liners. They snapped into place easily.
"Here's your air," Ed said, handing him a tank.
"Aren't you coming in too?" Billy asked.
"Yeah. I'll be in. But I want to watch you from here for a couple of minutes... make sure I got the angles adjusted right for those flippers. I can tell that better by watching how you move from here. Just swim end to end a couple of times."
Billy nodded and placed the respirator mouthpiece between his teeth. He adjusted the faceplate, and slipped into the water. The caress of the water was nothing less than erotic. It had always affected him thus. The silken swirl of the random currents made little stroking waves run all up and down his body. He allowed himself to sink to within four or five feet of the bottom and then began to swim.
He was really quite surprised! The flippers gave him almost as much "push" as he had been able to muster before. "They may be just as good," he thought. "I'm a little out of shape!"
He swam the length of the pool and then back to the edge where Ed was waiting. The dive instructor dove into the pool himself and dropped next to Billy. He gave him a thumbs up gesture, indicating that he thought the fins were fine. Billy returned the gesture and nodded his head.
The next 30 minutes were wonderful. Ed had Billy do a number of operations under the water, testing to see if he were able to perform them without re-training. Frankly, he was amazed. The flippers worked perfectly. Then he realized: Billy still had the upper halves of his calves. That was where all of the strength that mattered was. In fact, the angle of the flippers actually helped to make him a stronger swimmer than before. Yes, Billy was going to do just fine!
Ed climbed out of the pool first. Billy looked at the metal ladder, and thought for a moment how best to climb it.
"On your knees," Ed offered, reading his thoughts.
He did so. The rungs were a bit narrow, and it hurt a little making the climb back to dry land, but Billy made it gladly.
"They work like a dream, Ed!" Billy exclaimed as he was drying everything off. "I don't know what to say, Buddy! What do I owe ya' for 'em?"
"Not a penny! I told you, they were a gift. Besides, I got 'em wholesale!"
"So when are we going to sea to give 'em a real shake down?" Billy asked.
"Funny you should mention that," Ed returned. "Don't suppose you'd like to go on a dive this afternoon? At Clear Cave?"
Billy brightened. Clear Cave. He had explored every nook and cranny of that cave from its low, wide mouth to the tiny chimney at its far end. It was one of his favorite spots to dive with lights. He broke from his reverie and asked "You sure you want to go all the way out there just for the two of us this afternoon?"
"Well," Ed confessed, "it wouldn't be just the two of us. I've got a pair of tourists who want to make a cave dive. I told them I'd take them this afternoon. Then, when these flippers came Fed-Ex this morning, I remembered the man who knew that cave better than any other!"
"Ok, I hear ya'. I'm your slave help this afternoon."
"Cheap price for a pair of flippers," Ed volunteered. Billy popped him with his towel and nodded his agreement.
**********When Billy Townsend arrived at the marina that afternoon, he was already in his swimming trunks and a floral shirt. He had even taken the trouble to put thongs on his artificial feet. It just felt good emotionally to do it. He was glad he had paid the extra money for the life-like molded feet with their split between the big and first toes. Ed waved at him from the deck of the Amber Moon, his diving craft.
"Where are your guests?" he asked Ed as he stepped onto the yacht.
"The young ladies'll be along in a few minutes, I reckon," Ed returned.
"Young ladies?" Billy asked, suddenly panicked. He glanced down at his very obviously artificial legs.
"Yeah. You know. Like regular people, except with breasts?"
"Dammit, Ed!" he started, "Why didn't you tell me. What the hell are a couple of girls going to think when they see me here with these peg legs on!"
"They'd probably have run screaming in horror, except I told them that my diving partner used artificial legs. Didn't seem to faze either one of them."
Sometimes Ed's sense of humor was completely lost on Billy. This was one of those times. However, he didn't have much time to worry about the issue. He heard a loud "Permission to come aboard, sir!" issued by a feminine voice on the dock. Billy turned to look for the source of the sound.
Ed replied with the traditional "Permission granted," and helped the young women onto the vessel. "Billy Townsend, meet Sue Greene and Elaine Robbins." The girls offered their hands to shake Billy's.
Sue was a stunning red-head. She was long and lean and had obviously spent a lot of money on liposuction and silicone. Her breasts were at least two cup sizes too large for the rest of her, and she wore a bikini top that showed more than it covered. Just Ed's type.
Elaine was more under-stated. Blond and a bit shorter, she appeared to be "real." Six months ago Billy would have been putting the moves on her. She had a passionate mouth, and her hips had that gentle sway as she walked that puts men in love with the receding form of the female of the species!
Elaine glanced down at Billy's legs. "So you're the lawyer who met up with the shark a few months back," she purred casually. "Mr. Wilson was telling us about it on the phone this morning. Do you mind talking about your adventure?"
Billy was completely taken aback. Yes, he was to the point where he could talk about it. His therapist had gotten him there some time ago. It was a necessity... being able to tell people, at least minimally, what had happened to your legs. He looked over at Ed with a "What do I do here?" expression. Ed nodded, and mouthed "So tell her!", and went back to visually worshiping Sue.
"Not much to tell, really," Billy told her. "I was swimming near Cogan's Reef last Spring. A white reef shark decided that I looked tasty. He had a snack."
"I'm sorry," she said simply. Odd. She had said it as a statement of fact, not as pity.
"Well, life goes on," Billy returned. "At any rate, I'm ready to get back in the water! It's been a while!"
"Oh?" she asked. "Is this your first dive since..." and she gestured at his legs.
"Yep," he said. "Ed just got me some flippers for my...uh... that I can wear this morning! And this cave we're going to is one of the most beautiful in the area! You are going to be amazed!"
"I love caves," she said. "I go caving back in Missouri, where I'm from. Except all of ours are above the water."
"This one is a fairyland," Billy assured her. The two talked easily for most of the 45 minutes it took Ed to power the boat out to the island that harbored the cave. He thought that he caught her sneaking looks at his legs on the way, but he wasn't sure. Besides, it felt so good to actually talk to a girl again! He realized that he had missed having a social life. Maybe he ought to decide not to be quite so mad at Ed.
The Amber Moon dropped anchor in the bay off Loon Island. The water was as sparkling and clear as any in the Keys. Ed started his tour guide monologue about the nature of coral reefs et al, ad nauseam. Billy started strapping an aqualung tank to Elaine's back. He handed one to Ed for Sue.
After donning his own tank, Billy decided he couldn't put off the unveiling any longer, so he sat down next to the dive ladder and released his legs. Even though he did it quietly, Elaine apparently heard the soft "click" and turned to watch him. "OK," Billy thought. "She's enjoying the show. I wish she'd find something else to do." Then he mentally shrugged his shoulders and continued changing to his flippers.
It was just as Billy had remembered it. The group was underwater, and Ed was making sure the girls were breathing easily. Billy was looking at the endless beauty of the coral that lined the rocks of the bay. The fish, in every color of the rainbow, and every shape geometry could recognize, schooled to and fro. The white sands and coral reefs satisfied every desire for visual variety. It was, as he had described it to Elaine earlier, a fairyland.
Ed motioned the group to the south, and Billy took the lead. They were going to Clear Cave. The cave itself ran under the island. It's mouth was a ten foot wide by three foot high opening in the sloping wall of the bay floor. Billy shivered a moment, thinking how much it looked like a shark's mouth. He would have to rid himself of such irrational fears.
They entered into the subsea cave, and switched on the powerful underwater lanterns with which Ed had outfitted each diver. They must have spent about forty five minutes looking at features of the cave, when suddenly a shower of small rocks descended on them!
Billy looked around toward the mouth of the cave in time to see some of the rocks, still in motion! The opening of the cave had collapsed! Like a bullet, Billy and Ed headed toward the mouth. The rocks were still tumbling as they approached. Billy looked up at the ceiling. Something... an earthquake or sea erosion... something had caused a large section of the ceiling to fall away. Had it happened as they were coming in, they would have been buried by the rubble! The men surveyed the damage.
They were in real trouble. The mouth of the cave, which had been less than three feet when they entered was now all but closed by rubble that filled the passageway to within six or eight inches of the top. They couldn't get out! Ed began to try and move some of the rocks, but gave up. They were just too large.
Billy looked around at the women, still treading water where they had been left in the cavern. The two men looked at each other. Billy thumped his air tank and raised both palms. He turned around, and let Ed check the gauge on the tank. Ed looked, then held up one finger followed by three. The tanks were about 1/3 full. That meant they had about 40 minutes to find their way out of this trap, or they would... well... they wouldn't be getting out.
Billy swam the length of the now narrow opening, looking for anywhere that appeared to be wide enough for one of them to wriggle through. It just wasn't there. To make matters worse, there was coral mixed with the rock, it's razor edges ready to rip their skin and air hoses to shreds. No, they would not be leaving that way!
He turned to look back at the women. Then, it hit him. There, at the far end of the cavern was a spark of light! Billy knew what it was! He had explored this little cave from one end to the other. This was the chimney! It was an almost vertical shaft that everyone suspected opened into a small salt-water pool near the center of the small island. No one had explored it, but the light filtering in meant it led to the surface somewhere! They were saved! All that had to happen was for them to swim up the chimney, to freedom!
Billy pointed to the light, and made several gestures to Ed. The underwater man understood, and they headed toward the ladies. Taking their arms, the guys escorted them toward the tiny pool of light at the far end of the cave.
The opening was tiny. It was much smaller than Billy had remembered it. Ed tried to squeeze through, but his tanks got in the way. He took them off, pushing them through the opening first, then following with his head and shoulders. It was a tight fit. The chimney was exactly like a small fireplace. The shaft went almost straight up, but to get into it, you had first to go through a tiny "fireplace". The opening of the fireplace was a 90 degree bend. Ed could get his head and shoulders up the flue, but the length of his legs prevented him from slipping on through. He finally unstuck himself, and appeared back in the cave.
Billy had been watching, and understood the problem. He also understood that he was the only one of the group that was going to be able to make it out through this route. With no feet and lower legs to block his turn in the fireplace, he knew he could make it. He rolled off the plastic liners that held the flippers to his stumps, and entered the narrow opening.
Like Ed before him, Billy realized he would have to remove his air tank and push it ahead of him to fit into the narrow chimney. And even he skinned his knees making that sharp, 90-degree turn. Once, his air tank almost got away from him. Its buoyancy would have popped it to the surface in a few moments, leaving him to drown at the bottom. He finally worked his knees through the turn, and extended his stumps. He was in the chimney!
It took about two minutes to reach the surface. He had to work his way through several tight, rough spots, and once he even had to tug a rock out of the way, dropping in down the shaft. It was a good thing none of the others had been able to follow him. A rock that size could kill a man.
When he broke the surface, he was relieved to find that his assumption had been right! He was in the shallow salt-water pool near the center of the small island. He swam to the shore and crawled out of the water. He wanted to rest, but he knew he could not! His friends were still in the cave with about 30 minutes of air left! He had to get help. He had to get someone there to help get them out, and he had to get extra air tanks to them to keep them alive long enough for that help to arrive!
It was about 200 yards to the beach. Billy strapped the air tank to his back again, and started to crawl on his hands and knees. It was slow going. The scratches on his knees didn't help, but he knew he had to keep at it! He chose little landmarks up ahead, reaching each, and then selecting one further out to make the trip easier and more managable.
Finally he was there on the beach. He had never been so glad to see the water! Crawling into the sea at the beach's edge, he began to surface swim out to the Amber Moon. Three times he had to rest momentarily. He would simply stop swimming and go on tank air. He cursed leaving his flippers behind! Those stumps just didn't have any propulsive power to speak of! His arms would have to get him there is he was to make it.
He arrived at the boat with about 10 minutes left, by his reckoning. He crawled into the cabin and climbed into the Captain's seat. He reached up and grabbed the ship-to-shore radio microphone. Depressing the transmit button he called for help.
"SOS... SOS... this is the Amber Moon calling SOS... anyone... please come back!"
He released the switch. Static. Nothing.
"SOS... SOS... this is the Amber Moon... We have divers trapped in an underwater cave-in. Please respond."
Static crackled for a moment, and then a voice answered: "Amber Moon, this is the Coast Guard. What is your position?"
"We are in the North Cove off Loon Island, Coast Guard. Three divers trapped by a collapse in the cave beneath the island. Where are you? Over."
"We are about 30 minutes from you, Amber Moon. Can you provide air for the divers until we arrive?"
"Yes," Billy replied. "I think so. But I need to get to that. Look for the boat anchored in the cove. I'll be nearby, possibly underwater. Out!"
"Good luck," the voice wished him, and the radio was silent again.
Billy crawled as fast as he could to the rear of the boat. He tossed the emergency rubber raft into the water. It inflated automatically, still tethered to the yacht by its mooring line. Billy began to throw everything he could think of needing into the raft. There were six more tanks of air on board. Billy just hoped that they were all full. He added a rope, and a spear gun.
The fact was, Billy was not going to be able to get the air to his companions the way he had come out. He would never be able to crawl that far fast enough! He was going to have to find a way to get the air tanks in through the narrow slit at the mouth of the cave! His idea was to tie the rope to a spear, and shoot it through the crack opening at the front of the cave. Ed could then pull the air tanks through. It should work.
He dropped into the rubber raft, and started the small electric outboard attached to it. He was above the spot where the cave opened in a matter of three minutes. It was going to be close!
Billy heaved the weighted tanks over the side, grabbed the spear gun and rope and dove into the water. His own tank had maybe twenty minutes of air left. He should be OK. Reaching the now slit-like mouth of the cave, he began to flash his torch into it. His morse coded message was answered. Ed had seen it. Quickly, he told of his plan to pass the fresh air tanks in on a rope. Ed flashed back "Do it."
Ed and the girls got to one side of the opening, and Billy fired the spear into the other. The rope played out easily. Ed grabbed the end, yanking twice. Billy tied the first tank to the rope and pulled back twice. Slowly, the two men maneuvered the tank through the rough opening. It only got hung up once, and they were able to free it in just a few tries.
When the tank was inside, Billy pulled the rope back as far as he dared, and started to attach another. Ed checked the gauges on the girls' gear, and handed Elaine his breathing hose. He quickly turned her breather off, and changed out the tank. Retrieving his mouthpiece, he watched as she cleared her hoses and began breathing normally again.
Outside, Billy was tying the second tank to the rope when he saw a shadow cross over him. "It's too soon for the Coast Guard to get here," he thought, as he looked up.
The shadow had not been caused by the Coast Guard. It had not been a boat at all. Above, and slightly past him, was a white reef shark perhaps ten feet long. Billy froze. All of his nightmares were suddenly with him again. He started to bolt, but Ed, unaware of the situation, jarred him back to the present by tugging on the rope. Billy snapped out of his terror. He reached for the spear gun, and, taking the second of its three spears from the holder, reloaded it.
The shark had circled around. It was obviously hunting. Billy waited to see what would happen.
Inside, Sue Greene's air ran out. She panicked, and began to pull at Ed. With the practiced planning of a scuba professional, he put his mouthpiece in place of her own, and she calmed in a moments. He gestured a couple of times, and she nodded that she understood that they would have to share until the next tank of air arrived. He tugged the rope again, wondering where Billy had gone and what he was doing.
Outside, Billy took careful aim at the shark. It was about 50 feet away. He pulled the trigger. The spear zipped from the launcher, and missed the shark by several inches to the right. Billy silently cursed, and grabbed the third and final spear. Seeing the motion, the shark accelerated toward him. He loaded the spear, and cocked the mechanism. The shark was less than 10 feet away when he raised the weapon and pulled the trigger. At this distance, it was impossible to miss!
The spear sliced through the sea water and found its mark, entering the shark's mouth, and passing through its small brain before the tip exited through the top of the head. The behemoth coasted by Billy, its momentum carrying it some thirty feet before it slowly settled to the bottom of the cove.
Dropping the spear gun, Billy returned to his main task. He started the second tank of air through on the rope. Practice was helping. This time there were no hang-ups. He and Ed maneuvered the tank in easily.
Ed replaced the empty tank on Sue's back, and handed her own hose back. She cleared it, and Ed took his mouthpiece back. He took three breaths, and realized that his tank, too, was now out of air. He gestured at Sue again. She nodded that she understood, and they continued to share air from her new tank.
Billy sent the third tank in, and Ed quickly took his backpack off and mount the tank. Putting the aqualung back on, he began breathing normally. The crisis was over for the moment. Billy pulled on the rope again, signaling that yet another tank was ready for transfer. Ed began to reel it in.
When all of the tanks were in the cave, Billy again signaled to Ed with his light. "Coast Guard coming," he flashed. "Less than 30 minutes. Get you out."
"What was hangup on air?" Ed flashed back.
"Former shark" was Billy's answer.
**********It had taken the Coast Guard about an hour to clear an opening large enough to get the divers out of the cave. In the end, they had let Ed pull an anchor in on the rope, and then had used the powerful engine of the Coast Guard cutter to dig a trench through the rubble. They were half way back to the marina when Billy remembered his leg liners and flippers.
"Well, I'm not going back after them," Ed grinned.
"Me neither. I have another set of liners at home, and you can just owe me another pair of flippers!"
"What for?" Ed asked, playing along.
"For saving your miserable life," Billy shot back.
Elaine dropped down beside the men. "I wanted to thank you for saving us," she began. "Could I offer you dinner at my hotel tonight?"
Billy looked at Ed. "Sue's already asked me to take her to one of the clubs tonight," Ed said. "You guys are on your own!"
"I'd be delighted," Billy answered. "Just let me run back by the house to get some extra parts to replace the ones I lost on my legs."
Ed got up to go find Sue. Elaine looked at Billy's stumps. He folded them back against his thighs.
"You don't have to hide them," she said simply.
"Well, I... uh.. You know..." Billy flustered.
"You have a lot to learn, counselor," Elaine smiled. "Some women like men with scars." She put her hand on top of his. "I have a hot tub on the patio of my room. Perhaps we could take a soak there after dinner and I can explain it to you."
Billy was nervous. He volunteered: "I'll even bring my guitar to serenade you afterwards!"
"Does that guitar of yours play in the water?" She asked evilly.
"No ma'am," he answered, getting into the spirit of her verbal sex-play. "But I do!"