Authors: Lee Mims
Tags: #mystery, #murder, #humor, #family, #soft-boiled, #regional, #North Carolina, #fiction, #Cleo Cooper, #geologist, #greedy, #soft boiled, #geology, #family member
Trusting Viktor: A Cleo Cooper Mystery
© 2014 by Lee Mims.
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First e-book edition © 2013
E-book ISBN: 9780738738888
Book format by Bob Gaul
Cover design by Ellen Lawson
Cover illustration by Ken Joudrey
Editing by Nicole Nugent
Map by Bob Murray
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This book is dedicated to the real Bud.
If I was lucky
and aimed true, my shot would penetrate deep behind his left eye. If I was
lucky, his brain stem would be severed. The thought of struggling with a not-quite-dead brute like the one in my sights wasn’t pleasant. And having to shove a knife deep in his skull cavity, then hear that grisly crunch … even less so.
Suddenly, my prey—a nice-sized amberjack—nosed forward in the current as a number of smaller fish darted past him. Stern-lipped and flashing bronze and silver, he finned through rays of sunlight and slipped from view behind one of the massive legs on the oil rig I was diving forty miles off the coast of Louisiana. Taking shallow breaths, my left hand and legs moving only enough to stabilize my position, I waited, my finger on the trigger. Visibility wasn’t perfect and the current was growing stronger as the tide changed, but the wary fish, as if sensing danger, barely inched forward.
Mindful that I, too, could become a tasty lunch, I scanned my surroundings for predators. Behind me ancient fishing lines and snagged ropes undulated like mermaid tresses. Cautiously, I let myself drift a few inches. Then some internal all-clear signal must have chimed for the amberjack and he glided from cover.
I squeezed the trigger.
In that nanosecond between having flexed my finger and feeling it touch the back of the grip, I realized my mistake. The amberjack my spear sank into wasn’t the same one I’d been aiming at. This fish was way bigger. The line snapped taunt and my body lurched for
ward as the fish bolted for the open water beyond the rig. A
250-horsepower Yamaha couldn’t have done a better job of towing me through the water. To make matters worse, just as the monster fish shot over the first support beam, he did a quick one-eighty.
The line between my speargun and the spear lodged in the fish’s side flipped over his back, and suddenly I was being dragged sideways into the leg of the rig. I slammed into the gigantic pillar, taking the brunt of the blow mid-body. Thankful I’d adhered to my rule of always wearing a full-body wet suit when diving oil rigs, I grabbed for the beam with my left hand, but my captor made like a submarine and pulled me straight down, wedging me between the beam and the leg. Having me as a human anchor was doing nothing to calm Mr. Amberjack’s nerves.
Bits of coral, barnacles, and my Neoprene gloves clouded the water. The strain on my arm was unbearable. I’d already hit the line-release mechanism, but it must have jammed in the crash because nothing was happening. I had two choices: hang on and risk my arm being wrung from the socket or let go of my expensive speargun. I went with the latter.
Within seconds, both Mr. Amberjack and my gun disappeared into the cobalt blue depths of the Gulf.
I waited a few moments, hoping the sea gods would show mercy and I’d catch a glimpse of my weapon on its return trip to the surface. Once the fish either worked free of the shaft or the line was severed, the gun would float to the surface. The only trick then would be to find it before the current took it away. My position was awkward, however, so I gave up and casually made to push myself from the rig. That’s when I realized I was stuck.
The situation wasn’t looking good.
I looked left, right, and below me for my two diving buddies. They were nowhere to be seen. I began trying to push free, but succeeded only in sending an enormous stream of bubbles spewing to the surface.
Admittedly, I had very limited options. But then, thinking it could be a simple matter of pulling rather than pushing, I looked for a spot on the beam with relatively little sea growth where I could get some purchase. That’s when I noticed how badly I’d punctured my dive glove. A little blood was seeping from one of the holes.
Great. Blood in the water. Just a little icing for my shit cake
. Banishing images of sharks in a feeding frenzy, I took a firm hold of the beam and pulled until dark spots bloomed before my eyes. I wasn’t budging an iota.
A pan-sized red snapper stopped a few inches from my mask as though considering my predicament. It wasn’t complicated: I was 37 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, hanging at a 45-degree angle, and quickly losing touch with rational thought. I recognized this last fact because I’d just had the brilliant idea of using my iPhone to call for help.
I glanced at my air gauge. Holy crap. All my struggling had left me with only about ten more minutes! The few grains of logic I still possessed insisted that I couldn’t have actually wedged myself so tight I couldn’t get loose. Then an unpleasant thought occurred: maybe something was jamming me in place.
While I could move my right arm out and down, I couldn’t move it back or up between my tank and the leg of the rig; using my left hand, I felt around behind my head near the top of my tank. Open water. Bending my arm backward, I felt along the bottom of the tank with the back of my hand, stretching my arm as far as I could. Then my heart sank.
I’d fallen prey to one of the most common hazards of rig
diving: falling debris. It felt like a large piece of metal caging. Probably cut away from a long-forgotten piece of equipment by a long-forgotten welder and dropped overboard only to hang up in the rig for years, just waiting to trap me here in this moment. My fight with the amberjack had no doubt jarred it loose to pin me down like a butterfly on a corkboard.
I checked my air gauge again. Six minutes left. Only one option remained in my bag of tricks. Somehow I had to wiggle out of my tank harness. One lungful of compressed air would expand and last me until I reached the surface. But that wasn’t the problem—unharnessing myself, that was the problem. The latch was now nearly unreachable, mashed as it was between my chest and the cross bar, which was encrusted with barnacles, sea squirts, and I didn’t want to think of what else. I dug at the growth with my gloved fingers.
You know how it is when you’re out of ideas and know what you’re about to do won’t work—like trying to talk your way out of a traffic ticket—but you feel compelled to try?
I began to struggle furiously.
And where were my diving buddies? Why hadn’t they come back looking for me? Since we’d had no success finding the lobsters this rig is known for, they’d signaled they were going up. Not wanting to quit, I’d held up five fingers—five more minutes. They’d nodded and gone on. That’s when I’d seen the amberjack and my fate had been sealed.
Tears started to sting my eyes; I thought of my family, of my sweet dog. Then my bottom timer went off. Two minutes of air left. I began to flail, trying to dislocate my right shoulder and slip free of the harness. I knew I was sucking air, but I couldn’t stop myself. Why hadn’t I brought my emergency backup cylinder? Stupid!
Suddenly, I felt a calm hand on the small of my back, patting me in soothing circles, like a mother comforting a hysterical child. The hand went away and I heard clanging overhead. Rust and coral debris clouded the water. Then, in the blink of an eye, I was free! The calm hands gently pushed me away from the confines of the rig toward the open water. I didn’t need any further encouragement.
Rocketing to the surface, I ripped off my face mask and sucked in a lungful of delicious air. My rescuer popped to the surface beside me. He spit out his regulator, pushed up his mask … and damned if I wasn’t staring into the face of Ashton Kutcher. Well, at least he
at lot like the actor. Probably about his age too. Several good ways to adequately thank him for saving my dumb ass immediately came to mind as I bobbed about in the choppy Gulf. Then a wave slapped me in the face. I coughed and spit. Lovely.
Ashton shot me a smile that would have baked pizzas and motioned for me to follow him. He took a few strong strokes and turned to make sure I understood. I snapped out of my daze and sprang into action, falling in the wake he churned to a nearby catamaran.
Upon reaching the swim platform of the 27-foot Glacier Bay, he propelled himself smoothly from the water like a porpoise and sat, all in one move, dangling his long legs in the water. I considered the same maneuver, but wobbly as I was after my ordeal, it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. Instead, I slipped out of my tank—so easy when you’re not pinned to an oil rig—and handed it up to him followed by my fins and mask. Before boarding, however, I made a quick scan of the horizon for the boat I’d dived from.
Looking past the port engine, I saw it. It was still floating where the three of us had left it, down current off the landward leg of the rig. Both my friends were visible on the swim platform. They were still suited up and chatting.
I felt my rescuer’s eyes drift over me as I climbed aboard his boat, and I tried to control my shakiness. Taking a cue from him, I dangled
long legs in the water.
“Thanks,” I said simply.
“You are entirely welcome. I am glad I could help and that you seem all right.” His expression was concerned, and his accent definitely not local. A Slav of some variety was my guess.
I looked at him curiously. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No,” he laughed. A great laugh, by the way, sincere and easy. “I should introduce myself. Afanasy Viktor Kozlov, at your service.”
“And they call you?”
He seemed puzzled by this. “Afanasy Viktor Kozlov,” he repeated politely.
“Okay. Umm, what does your mother call you?”
He slipped from his tank and shoved it through the open transom into the cockpit. Then he peeled off the top of his wet suit, leaned toward me and, in quite possibly the sexiest voice on the planet, said, “Maybe a little later I will tell you. When I know you better. Much better.”
Now, I’m not that easy. This kid, albeit gorgeous and obviously hot as hell, was way too young for me. If I put my age at forty-six—which may or may not be correct, depending on my mood—and his in his early thirties, he’d be off limits. In my rulebook of proper dating etiquette, anyone ten or more years younger is to be thrown back, like fish under a certain size. Therefore, I gave him my best in-your-dreams smile and tried my damndest to remember how he pronounced his name. I tried picturing its spelling. “A-fan-asy …”
“No,” he interrupted. “Not a fantasy. I’m not a fantasy. In Russian one says Ah-fah-
I could have argued the point but didn’t. “Sorry,” I said. “How about I just call you Viktor?”
I was definitely still recovering from my close call. And I was distracted enough by my rescuer to not be thinking about my errant diving companions. At least for the moment. “
ktor,” I said, trying again.
“Perfect!” Another brilliant smile. “There is no need to introduce yourself, Mrs. Cleo Cooper.”
. Cleo Cooper,” I corrected him, perhaps a little too quickly. “How on earth do you know my name?”
“I attended your lecture on Sequence-Stratigraphic Similarities in Subbasins, Nova Scotia to the Yucat
he paused, taking in the surprised look on my face, then continued—“o
n the last night of the conference.
Very interesting. Also, I read your theory about plutonic emplacement in regard to the granite deposit you’d discovered in North Carolina farther east than previously believed. Also very interesting.”
“Oh, okay. So you were in New Orleans for the USGS conference?”
“Yes, but I have a summer job here in Port Fourchon, as well, that fits in nicely with my PhD work on faulted subbasins and their chronostratigraphic relationships. On my time off, I like to dive the rigs.”
“Wonderful,” I was excited not only that he was a fellow geologist, but that he was interested in economic geology. Being a geologist is a calling, but being an economic geologist, someone engaged in the study of earth materials that fuel the modern world … well, we’re a breed apart. “Where are you doing your dissertation?”
“I will be starting in the fall at Duke University,” he said proudly.
“Well, you’ll practically be my neighbor. I’m right down the road in Raleigh.”
“I can’t believe my luck at meeting you way out here. I tried to … intercept you … at the conference, but somehow, I was always a step behind. When it ended, I thought I’d missed my chance to speak with you. Then, voil
! Who do I find wiggling like a worm on a hook thirty feet down on an oil rig in the Gulf? Go figure, as you Americans say.”
“I’m the lucky one,” I said sincerely. “Any particular reason you were looking for me?”
“Yes. I understand you are involved in a drilling operation off—”
Viktor was interrupted by a shout from my boat. “Hey! Cleo! We were wondering where you went,” shouted Julia, my old friend from UNC who now worked for the USGS, the United States Geological Survey.
“Yeah, we were getting worried,” snapped Kathy, also a pal since my old graduate school days there. She tapped her dive watch, “You shouldn’t push your time so short. We were just getting ready to go back for you.”
Good to know, since by my calculations I’d be knocking back rum shooters with Davy Jones by now. Still, it’s the thought that counts. “No problem,” I said. “It’s all good.”
Both women had come to New Orleans for the USGS Conference and were recreational divers like me. We’d been planning this trip all winter, studying the different rigs on the BOEMRE (Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement) website and mapping out the ones that interested us. Oil rigs, like shipwrecks, become home to large concentrations of pelagic life almost immediately upon immersion into the sea. Fortunately, Julia had friends who kept a vacation fish camp in Port Fourchon, only two hours from the city. Even better, it was right smack on the southernmost tip of Louisiana, where all the oil rigs you could ever want to dive sat offshore. Her friends had been generous enough to offer the camp to us, along with full use of their 24-foot Grady White boat.