For a moment, Nicki's blood had frozen up in shock and horror. Often Claudia dealt with dead bodies in her series, but to see one up close and personal, knowing the person was truly dead...it was far more abrupt and shocking than simply reading a description on a page.
"Move, move, what's going on here!?" came a hyper new voice. The squat figure of lifeguard in chief Larry Smarr rushed through the crowd. Nicki could still remember sitting in his office on the edge of the beach right after she'd come to Coronado Beach to interview for a job with the lifeguards over the summer. Her strong record as a varsity swimmer had quickly won him over, and she'd gotten the job with few questions asked. A natural leader in his profession, Smarr spent much of his time in his office communicating back and forth with the lifeguards for an up-to-the-minute update each day on his radio, usually coming out only for emergencies-as certainly was the case now. "Oh my God," he breathlessly echoed Nicki's own assessment, "How...how did this happen!?"
"I heard Joey scream, I turned to look, and he was floating there in the surf!" a pale woman spoke up clutching her equally petrified son close, "Is he...!?"
"Yeah, he's long dead," Smarr was shaking his head as he felt for a pulse, "He's been dead for hours. Well folks, don't let this bother you," he assured the swimmers gathered around the body, "This is just a freak accident of some kind; this almost certainly can't happen again here. This man, whoever he is, was probably swept overboard and landed on some rough rocks near..."
"HELP!" came a sudden cry from out in the ocean. Nicki's head spun. There was someone flailing around out there, waving their arms. Immediately she made a dash for the lifeguard tower before Samantha had moved at all and grabbed a life preserver. "Hold on!" she called out to the figure in the water, rushing into the surf and paddling furiously through the waves towards the victim. Three years on the varsity swimming team were paying off, as it took Nicki only about a minute and a half of strong strokes to reach the woman. She looked weak and was barely clinging to a barely still inflated life preserver of her own. "Coronado Beach lifeguards; come with me!" Nicki took the woman's hand and pulled her onto her own more stable life preserver, "Kick with me here; we're get you to shore and help!"
She put an arm around the woman and kicked back towards the beach herself. Jessie and Samantha were waiting in the shallows to help drag the victim onto the sand. "Are you hurt at all, miss?" the former asked, looking with concern at a nasty slash mark on her wrist, "Do you need anything that...?"
"JOHN, NO!" she screamed at the sight of the man's corpse and broke down into hysterics. "It's all right, it's all right," Smarr assured her, "We're going to get you to a hospital A.S.A.P.; Samantha, make the call, now."
"Right," Samantha dashed for the tower. "I'll need some help here, anyone who can help, move her further up on the sand," Smarr directed the crowd. A half dozen people joined him, Nicki, and Jessie in moving the woman, who tried to pull away towards the dead man as she was towed past him. Nicki felt sorry for her; clearly she had lost someone precious to her. Something was also clicking in the back of her mind, though; logical as Mr. Smarr's theory of an accident at sea might be, somehow she had the feeling it wasn't quite that simple, that there was something more sinister to it than that. Something she just had to find out...
"You OK there, Nicki?" Samantha asked her as she swung shut the door to the tower at the end of the day, "You've been quiet since everything went crazy this afternoon."
"Yeah, well, that tends to stick with you, something that intense," Nicki admitted as the three of them bustled across the sand, silhouetted by the setting sun to the west, "And just looking how bad shape she was in. If you two don't mind," she turned to her friends, "I'd actually like to visit her while there's still time tonight, to make her feel better and see what happened."
"I don't know if that's the best idea, Nicki," Jessie looked skeptical, "She's taken a pretty nasty shock seeing the dead body and going through the whole ordeal..."
"And company might do her good," Nicki insisted, "I'm not going to be gone too long, just enough to make sure she's OK and can get out whatever happened to her."
"So you're going to try your hand at being like Claudia then, huh?" Samantha half-joked.
"Well..." Nicki had intended to rebuff this, but realized there was a point in her friend's statement. They passed lifeguard central tower, passing Smarr on his way out as well. "Good night, girls," he told them, "Good work earlier today bringing the woman in, Nicki."
"Thanks, Mr. Smarr," she told him, "It's always a good feeling to bring someone in alive."
"I clearly made a good decision hiring you; you're one of the best lifeguards on staff this summer even for a comparative amateur," he commended her, "See you tomorrow."
He walked off in the opposite direction. The girls were largely quiet for the rest of the trip over the dunes to the squat beach house the Koppels now owned. It was all theirs for the week, since Samantha's parents were in the middle of a two week cruise in the Caribbean. The phone was ringing as they went inside. Nicki knew exactly who it was and reached for the receiver once she entered the kitchen. "Good evening, Mom," she greeted her mother warmly.
"Good evening, honey," Mrs. Price told her warmly in return, "Everything go OK down there today?"
"Um," Nicki debated whether or not to say anything about the dead body. She decided it wasn't dire enough to make her parents worry about it. "Yeah, it was another great day today, Mom. I helped pull a woman out of the ocean; looks like she'd been floating around for a while."
"Very good," her mother commended her, "You should feel proud."
"I do," Nicki blushed, "So, the big question is, are you and Dad still holding up without me?"
"Oh, we're managing, but it'll still make us happy when the summer's over and we can have you back again. Before I go, though, Nicki, I might want to keep an eye on the weather down there if I were you. That hurricane that formed at the base of the Bahamas looks like it's heading your way."
"Yeah, I saw that this morning, Mom, but right now it looks like it'll curve out to sea before it gets near us. Thanks for the concern, though. Well, I'd better get going; there's something I'd like to take care of tonight."
"All right, go on and take care of it. Your father and I love you so much and miss you."
"I love you too, Mom," Nicki smiled as she hung up. Too many people today her age seemed to hate their parents with a passion; she took pride in knowing hers cared enough to want to call her every night. "OK, I'm going to get dressed and head on over to the hospital," she told her friends.
"Just so you know, that party on the beach'll start without you," Jessie pointed out for her benefit.
"I'll be back for the party, Jessie, don't you worry about it," Nicki strode towards the bathroom, "It doesn't take too long for a good deed, I always say."
"I don't know her name," Nicki explained to the receptionist on duty at the hospital's lobby check-in, "She was the one found swimming in the ocean earlier today."
"Let me check," the receptionist typed some information into her computer. "Oh yeah, dehydration and sharp cuts. Room 234. Better hurry, though; visiting hours are almost over for the night."
"I will," Nicki bustled towards the elevator. A quick ride up to the second floor and a brief walk down the hall brought her to Room 234. She slowly entered the room. The woman was lying in bed, covered with a thick blanket, but at least no longer looking hypothermically blue. "Hello," she casually greeted the woman, who turned slowly to face her, "You might remember me from earlier; I'm Nicki, I pulled you out of the ocean. I was a little worried about you; feeling any better?"
"I think so, Nicki," the woman managed a smile, "It's nice that you care. I'm Lynn; Lynn Snyder. Or I was..."
She broke down into tears. "That was your husband who washed up then before you did, I guess?" Nicki asked as gently as she could manage; a burst of intense grief from Lynn all but confirmed this. "I'm so sorry," she took the woman's hand, "I wish we'd heard of whatever had happened earlier; maybe we could have done something..."
"Oh don't hold yourself to that, honey," Lynn tried to force a smile, "I don't think anything could have made a difference."
"Oh," was all Nicki could think of to say. "So, if it's not too hard for you, what actually happened?" she asked, "Maybe you'll feel better if you get it out of your system, you know."
"Well," Lynn seemed rather hesitant, "You're not going to laugh if I tell you, are you? That's what the medics, the doctors, the police all did when I told them-although it was a bit bizarre."
"Promise to God I won't laugh no matter what," Nicki raised her hand as if under oath, "Go on."
Lynn sighed uncomfortably. "Last night was our tenth anniversary," she related, "John had proposed in a boat in the middle of the ocean under the stars. He suggested we do the same this year. So we rented a boat up in St. Catherine and prepared to spend our anniversary at sea. Everything was great at first; we dined, we danced on the deck, we watched the sun set and the stars glowing above. Then it all happened."
She took a deep breath, pain and embarrassment on her face. "There was a bump underneath the ship," she said slowly, "We looked over the railing, but we couldn't see anything. We went back to watching the stars, and for about five minutes we did. Then I heard the splashing from the railing. I turned, and there they were: those horrible creatures..."
"Creatures?" Nicki frowned.
"Terrible things from the ocean depths; I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it myself," the woman told her, hesitant, as if expect Nicki to break up in laughter, "Glowing green in the darkness, and with razor sharp claws a foot long. They jumped the two of us and tried to stab us to death with their claws. John managed to pull me free from them just long enough to push me overboard to safety. I pleaded with him not to, that I didn't want to leave him, but he begged me back just to keep swimming and not to stop or look back. So I did, even though I heard him screaming back on the boat. I was soon completely tired and drained, and so I basically drifted along on the tides for fifteen, sixteen hours until you found me. The thought John might have survived kept me going, kept me from giving up. Now what am I going to do that he's...!?" she broke down again, "He was my life as much as I was his; how can I go on without...!?"
"I'm sorry," Nicki told her again, trying to hold it together herself, "But you'll pull through, Mrs. Snyder, I promise you that. No one should feel miserable their whole lives. If you remember your husband fondly, he'll never really leave you. You'll be all right in the end, I promise. And the police will find out whatever exactly happened and put a stop to it somehow."
There came a creaking at the door before Lynn could answer to this. "Visiting hours are over now," a nurse informed her.
"Right," Nicki nodded and turned to leave. "I, uh, hope everything goes well for you from here on," she told the woman in parting, "Don't forget what I said."
"I won't, Nicki," Lynn smiled at her, "You're a very kindhearted young woman, and I hope nothing that but the best befalls you. Come around again if you'd like."
"We'll see what I can manage. Good night," Nicki walked out the door. It felt good to have made Lynn's life a little happier in the face of her grave tragedy.
With that in mind, she tried to wrap sense around Lynn's story as she rode the elevator down to the lobby and then strolled out of the hospital into the twilight streets of Coronado Beach. Terrible glowing green creatures from the ocean's depths? It admittedly sounded like the grim hallucinations of a woman who'd been stranded at sea too long. But then again, why would Lynn lie about something as dire as whatever had taken her husband's life? Certainly not if she seemed so overly concerned Nicki wouldn't believe her. But if it was true, what were these creatures she'd spoken of? Someone playing a prank, or something real through and through?
These thoughts swam rapidly through her head as she approached the crosswalk over Tropical Avenue. Traffic in both directions was moderate, so she waited patiently after pushing the button. It took about a minute and a half, but eventually the Walk light went on. Nicki bustled across the street, eager to get back to the beach and the party...
...hearing only when she was halfway across the squealing of tires behind her. She turned and gasped: a dark car was coldly accelerating right at her...!