Words cannot describe the fear that one experiences when all senses are submerged in fifteen to twenty feet of water. Otis had thick bits of wool stuffed into his nostrils and ears, but the sting of salt water still crept in. The darkness pressed against his eyelids while the taste of moist, salty sea air coming from the top of his tether was nearly enough to make him gag. He could barely hear his own thoughts over an overworked heart, and he couldn’t feel the water through the trepidation wrapping his skin.
Weighed down by a cannonball, Otis unwound his coil as he slowly stepped through the decades-old shipwreck and explored, using his left hand as a guide for vision while his right handled the loop. He went from room to room, experiencing chills more related to the locale than the water keeping him cocooned. He wondered how many ghosts were down there with him, watching.
Upon entry of a new room, he would start along the outside walls and work his way in. Then he’d follow the coil back to where he’d entered the ship’s massive wound and move on to the next room. At first, he didn’t entirely trust the coil or the mask wrapped around his mouth. But after the first hour or so, both were distant concerns.
Up on deck, Captain James and those who could get a view watched through the glass they had placed on the surface. No one could see Otis, but they all knew he was still down there, somewhere inside the ship.
The captain glanced at his pocket watch and then over his shoulder in the direction of the coiled tether resting on the deck. He began to walk toward it with a sad pace, drawing the attention of his comrades.
“What’s the matter, Captain?” one of the men asked.
The men slowly and collectively turned their attention toward Captain James and gathered around him. None of them had ever seen him look so somber.
“What is it, Captain?” another man asked.
Captain James looked down at the coil and made eye contact with each and every member of the crew before letting out a sigh. “Right before Riley died, he asked me what my intentions were with Nobe. And he asked why I hadn’t killed him yet. But the way he asked, the attitude…it made me question his loyalty.
“Now, since then, I have heard that some of you aren’t very happy with the way I handled that situation. Some of you—and I know who you are—some of you think that I chose Nobe over Riley. But the fact of the matter is this: Riley chose himself over this crew. He wasn’t loyal. And if you must know, I have killed Nobe. I’ve killed him several times. No human I’ve ever met has been able to withstand what I’ve thrown at him. He should have starved to death, froze to death, and died from dehydration dozens of times by now. But he won’t. Nobe is a specimen.
“And, not that it’s any of your concern, he also took something from me a long time ago that I never told any of you about. So don’t jump to conclusions before the story’s even started.”
Captain James let the words rest on his men for a moment to let them catch up. “Does anyone know how long he’s been down there?”
No one answered. Too many times in the past, they had suffered the humiliation that followed a verbal response to one of the captain’s rhetorical questions.
“He’s been down there for five hours now,” the captain said. “Five. Hours. This is a man that I’ve had in a cage for almost four years of his life. And he’s down there right now, looking for something that he’s not going to find.”
Puzzled glances sliced through the air so fast the captain could almost hear them.
“What I told him was down there—it isn’t really down there. And he’s looked for it—for five hours—without coming up and complaining, or asking for anything, or telling me that he can’t find it. How many men here would have done that for their captain? Even just one hour?”
He ran his frustrated palms over his face and let out another sigh. “And yet I keep hearing this groveling. When we get to port, I’m gonna find another crew. When we get to port, I’m gonna find another captain. I’m just gonna put in my time and do my job until we get to port, and I’m done…bunch of bawl babies.
“Any of you can be replaced at the drop of a hat. None of you are necessary. The hardest worker I have on this ship is at the bottom of the ocean right now…but I’ll never have his loyalty. Without that—he’s useless.”
In a move that would shock the crew for years to come, Captain James picked up the sizable coiled tether, walked it to the side of the ship, and tossed it overboard. He turned back to face his crew and lowered his eyebrows. “I don’t care how good of a worker you are. If I have to question your loyalty, you’re no more good to me than Nobe was. Now let’s get going.”
The Jolly Roger sailed off toward the setting sun, leaving Otis behind in the belly of the wreckage. By some miracle, on the water’s surface, the coil remained wrapped in such a way that it kept afloat. Despite the opening’s vulnerability to the surrounding water eagerly waiting to fill it up, Otis was given a stay of execution.
Down in the frigid confines of a room he had searched twice before, Otis was growing frustrated. Hungry, thirsty, and tired, he sent a scream from his mask to the surface. He hadn’t found anything even remotely resembling a chest filled with doubloons. He’d stumbled across plenty of tables, chairs, and bottles. He also thought he’d found a wooden serving bowl until his thumb slithered through the opening of an eye cavity, revealing the bowl to be a human skull.
Otis knew he couldn’t go up empty handed, as his potential freedom hung in the balance. But he also knew that his potential freedom was precisely that—potential. What if it was all a trick and Captain James had no intention of living up to his end of the deal? Otis thought and wondered as to whether or not he would be better off just to take the mask off right there. At the very least, he could take satisfaction knowing that he controlled his own fate.
He raised both palms to either side of the mask and let them rest on it. But no matter how appealing the quick breath of water sounded versus another four years—or more—stuffed in that cage, a stern voice echoed in his mind. “You can’t do it. You can’t take that mask off down here.”
Otis gathered what was left of the day’s mental strength and carried his coil back toward the ship’s opening. He used the mossy walls to guide him back. They were the same walls he’d been using all day, but somehow, on this rotation, his coil got snagged beneath the blade of an ill-placed sword. He could feel the resistance and began to pull the tether, causing the blade to apply more pressure to his lifeline.
Through the continued guidance of the coil, he inched his way closer to the snag. By the time he realized the obstruction was a sword, however, his right hand had been gashed, and a painful jerk caused the sword to lift upward. As his left hand instinctively covered his right palm and he felt the hot sting of salt water, the sword sank back down to the floor and sliced his tether.
Water instantly filled his mouth and throat, causing him to cough and remove any air he had stowed away. Having no idea where he was in the ship or how much farther it was to the opening, Otis dropped the cannonball and began to swim with what little might he had left.
Nearly a minute went by as he scanned his palms over the ship, looking for any way out. His lungs had almost reached their breaking point, and he could feel himself beginning to go unconscious. Then, out of nowhere, three beautiful mermaids swarmed him. Otis thought he had died, but the crushing pressure of water trying to extract what little breath he had left told him he wasn’t gone just yet.
Two of the mermaids began to swim around him, creating a wormhole that increased in size with the speed of their circling. The third mermaid whispered into his ear, “Take my hand.”
Otis reached out. She grabbed his hand and whipped him into the cyclone before joining the other two mermaids, who were sustaining its shape and size. Guided by the intense stream, Otis went along for the ride. The spiraling mermaids escorted him out of the ship and up toward the water’s surface. He was going to make it.
Suddenly, the cyclone stopped, and Otis lost momentum. The mermaids vanished just as quickly as they’d arrived, and the shadow of a large fishing net began to swallow Otis whole. It was at this point that he finally went unconscious.
Several hundred feet away, the three mermaids rose to the surface and watched the fishing boat reel in its net. The alpha mermaid glared at the boat. She combed her fingers through thick brunette locks, wringing out the water they had collected. “Dammit.”
“We had him too,” the second mermaid said, shaking the water out of her hair.
“Do either of you know who that was?” the alpha asked, before receiving an empty response. “That was Otis Seehus. King of Ithaca.”
“How do you know?” the second mermaid asked.
“He’s on the Sea Witch’s list. She’s got a painting of him. He looks like shit now, but that was him. I’m going to follow that boat. You two go home, and don’t say anything about this to anyone. She’ll kill us if she finds out we let him get away.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” the youngest mermaid said.
“She won’t feel that way. But it doesn’t matter. Because he’s not getting away.”
The alpha’s words struck confidence in the youngest before the mermaids went their separate ways.
Having no memory of the mermaids or fishnet, Otis felt his eyes jolt open as water burst from his throat. He coughed himself back to life and was soon happy to discover that this boat was most certainly too small, too shabby, and much too filthy to be the Jolly Roger. His joy was short lived, however, as one of the three men staring down from a silhouette smiled and smacked him in the face with an oar, rendering him unconscious once again. He woke up with the same violent jolt that had accompanied his near drowning. The only difference now was that he had been gagged, had his hands tied behind his back, and been stuffed in a wooden crate. He was being moved smoothly, as if on wheels. He could hear many different sounds: the muffled banter of negotiators, the clucking of market chickens, and a variety of other click-clacking metropolitan noises. But only tiny slivers of sunlight were able to sneak through the crevices of the crate boards, and they were far too bright for him to see through.
“We snagged him in one of the nets. Thought we saw some dolphins, but he’s all we pulled up.” The man speaking had a deep, rugged, raspy voice, and had no concern about anyone overhearing him. “We thought he was dead, but he started spitting up water. Charlie knocked him out before he could say or see anything. Now. You’re sure she’ll buy him?”
“Oh yeah,” a second voice answered. This voice was much more high pitched, with a dishonest, weasel-like quality. Otis couldn’t hear well enough to know if it was coming from a man or a woman. Nor could he decipher the words being exchanged. “She’ll buy him all right. I’ve got a great relationship with the lady who handles these kinds of transactions for the queen.”
“Good to know.”
“Let me know if you get any more about his size.” The joyful weasel man was about to burst with villainous laughter as if he’d made the deal of a lifetime.
“I thought she paid per pound,” the rough voice replied.
“She does pay per pound. But she prefers ’em lean. Like the one you got in there.” The crate shook with the light tap of the man’s foot. “So if you get any more about his size, you know where to find me.”