As much as I wanted to celebrate my quick thinking and unlikely victory, there wasn't any time for it. Kemp might have still been below the surface but he had men patrolling the surface already and somehow they had been on the watch for me and if that wasn't bad enough a quick glance around revealed my Chinese friends were waiting as well. The wide selection of boats along with a half dozen guys on jet skis was making my day a little too interesting considering what it had already been like, but nobody seemed to care.
Two of the jet skis came right up to me, making sure to splash plenty of cold, salty water in my face. Just about then I was absolutely convince chivalry was dead, buried, forgotten, and buried again, but then out of nowhere one of the men smiled down at me and offered me his hand. Who was I to argue with a helping under the circumstances? I reached out and firmly grasped his hand, expecting to be pulled out of the water and carried away to safety. I should have known better, because I think I mentioned it before, this isn't a fairytale and knights don't show up on white horses, jet skis, boats, cars, airplanes, or any other mode of transportation I neglected to mention. No, it's always the bad guys who show up when you are in distress like they've got some kind of radar pointing them in the direction of any woman in need of assistance and they're just more than happy to ride on in and distress her as much more as humanly possible. That's chivalry in the 21st century, it isn't dead, its just not what it used to be.
"The crystal." He demanded, while keeping a too firm grasp on my arm.
I bit back the obvious responses floating to the tip of my tongue and settled on negotiating. It was probably a long shot but before things got nasty I figured it was worth a try at least. I mean wouldn't you figure his mother might have mentioned a little story about honey and bees? Apparently only my mother remembers these silly tales that teach common sense, common decency, and common goodwill.
"Help me up and its all yours." I suggested.
A good man would have taken me up on the offer and simply thrown me back in if I tried to back out of the deal. A bad man pulls out a semi-automatic pistol, points it at your head and threatens you with bad breath and words that should have had his mother washing his mouth out with an industrial sized bar of soap.
"Give me the fucking crystal now, bitch." He said.
It was right about then that Alex Kemp and his two goons from the cavern surfaced only a few feet away. Alex was smiling like a canary-fed cat and returned my little shrug that I'd had the bad sense to give him in the cavern when things had been going my way. I suppose it was fair enough, but that was all that was fair. He was just playing plain dirty to have an armada waiting for me on the way out. The facts seemed to even indicate he had been behind all the things that had happened right down to my entire team being captured because the Chinese weren't doing anything more than backing up his own men.
"You set this whole thing up?" I asked.
"I did. Not everything of course, the legends and such were always there, I just made use of them." Alex replied. "Now if you don't mind, and even if you do, I'll take the crystal now."
The man on the jet ski still had a solid hold of my right hand and his gun was inconveniently pointed at my head. On the other hand, and in fact, in my other hand, I still had hold of the strap connected to the tank that had so kindly pulled me to the surface. While I had little doubt the man pointing his gun at me was willing to pull the trigger, I had even less doubt that I'd live much passed handing over the crystal. All things being equal I was a dead woman floating, but like Alex, I'm not much for losing and if I have to cheat a little to win, I can live with that.
I was exhausted but I found the energy for one big push or rather a pull, but that's just semantics. I tightened my grip on the bad boy which caused his brow to crinkle, but I didn't give his birdbrain the chance to put one and one together, and even if I had I bet he'd come up with four anyway. All muscle, no brain and more importantly, no balance. I yanked hard, lifting myself up out of the water and at the same time I swung the tank into air where it met bad boy's face with a hollow clunk. His grip on my hand loosened and then completely let go as he grabbed at his head. What really amazed me, was he massaged his aching face with both his hands, while still holding the gun in one of them. I wasn't quite lucky enough for him to accidentally squeeze the trigger and blow another whole in his head, but he was off balance and paying no attention to anything that mattered which was good enough for me.
I grabbed the jet ski, tipping it toward me, and birdbrained bad boy went for a swim. Two and a half seconds later, I was sitting on a jet ski heading anywhere but where I was. The beach looked like a good idea especially since it appeared Tom and the others were already waiting there. Although unless I did something to even the odds, even Tom's gusto for shooting everything remotely antagonistic wasn't going to keep us safe. I still had my gun from inside the vault but considering I'd just given it a saltwater bath, I was doubtful it would do anything more than look mean.
It might not have been the best of ideas, but I threw the useless weapon at the man on the other jet ski. The gun bounced off his thick skull before taking a dive for the bottom of the ocean. I turned my jet ski spewed a stream of water to at him as well but he'd already reacted enough to get his own vehicle moving and neatly avoided the water stream. From the corner of my eye I could see him taking aim at me with a handgun that looked nothing like the squirt gun I wished it was.
I had just enough time to realize I had nowhere to go before the sound of gunfire announced my impending death. All my life I've had this incredible misconception that dying, especially violently, would hurt. Instead, when the final moment came, I felt nothing at all. There was the gentle rocking of the waves, the smell of saltwater and seaweed and gasoline, and there was the tickling warmth of sunlight reflecting off the water onto my unprotected skin. My damp clothes were still cold like ice and stuck to my body like peanut butter on bread, but there wasn't any burning pain, no piercing pain, no shooting pain; There was nothing, nothing at all, nothing but a twinge of unidentifiable regrets for the life I wouldn't get to live.
Then he fell into the water. Him and not me, but I hadn't done anything. The sudden roar of boat engines interrupted the eerie silence which had fallen over me in the time since the gun had fired. Commotion in the water told me I was far from alone in my confusion as to what was happening, from where and why. The look on Kemp's face was one of unadulterated hatred and it was then I understood he had truly lost this time because it was written across his bloodshot eyes. I followed that angry gaze to the bow of the approaching boat and all my doubts and fears about Jack Barker faded away. There he stood with a smoking gun pointed out over the water and a cocky smile on his lips, that said more than any words ever could.
Jack winked at me over the water. I smiled, giddy with the realization that I was once again alive, never having died at all, yet there remained a memory from the touch of death's hand on my soul. There will be a time and a place to ponder the lessons learned in that fraction of a moment when all was lost, but it is not this time or place and so I pushed the somber thoughts away, saving them for a rainy day. I breathed in deeply, relishing the smell of life and the sea and everything else that was making my bad day, good.
"This isn't over." Alex Kemp said.
He wasn't talking to me, he wasn't even looking at me. His eyes were on Jack and his words were meant as a threat and a warning to him. Jack didn't falter in his confidence though and if he considered the threat serious, you would never know it from seeing the man. He was king and whether it was for a minute, a day, a year, or a lifetime, the command of it suited him well, as if he was exactly what he was supposed to be, where he was supposed to be and he knew it.
"It is today." Jack replied.
Looking out of the ocean I could see he was right. There was no doubting the finality of the battle for the day because Jack was far from alone. He'd brought an armada with him rather than the calvary but then I don't think a bunch of armed men on seahorses would have been much help. The US Navy was already boarding most of the ship within sight and pursuing a few others heading off into the horizon. Jack was accompanied by a large compliment of navy men and they weren't wasting any time, pulling Kemp and his men out of the water or in securing their hands with plastic tie wraps. I could have looked on with a smug grin on my face and I probably did for a couple of minutes but then my attention was captured by a little girl standing on the water right next to me.
"You did it." She said.
"Don't sound so surprised." I replied.
"I'm not, but I admit I was worried for a little bit there." She said.
"Your crystal is safe, don't worry, I'll get it to Mr. Candle." I said.
"I know. Please tell him I'm still waiting." She said.
"Is there a name to go with that?" I asked.
"He'll know." She said, there was a twinkle in her eyes as she spoke, like she enjoyed knowing I would be annoyed by her answer.
"You might walk on water right now, but someday you'll have to answer my questions." I said.
She stared down at her feet and then a big bright smile settled onto her face and once again, I couldn't decide if she was a child, a woman, or something else entirely.
"If only my father could see me now." She said. "He always told me I walked on water."
It all made sense. I hadn't been able to put it together before but her innocent comment made it all click together and finally I understood things like never before. Mr. Candle had said I reminded him of her and I knew he had lost her somehow, in someway that had never quite healed, but I didn't know who she was until that moment; She was his daughter. It was obvious in all the little things and I kicked myself for not having put it together sooner, but then who would have thought he could have possibly lost his daughter in such a way that she was not lost at all but trapped. I didn't pretend to understand all the complexities, but I understood the underlying emotions and whatever faults Joseph Candle has, I will not fault him for loving his daughter.
"Did you say something?" Jack asked, startling me from my thoughts and the girl who occupied them.
"The others are there on the beach." I said, pointing in their general direction, and thinking fast to cover what probably looked liked me insanely talking to the ocean.
"Are they alright?" Jack asked.
"Dr. Michaels is injured I know but I've been separated from them for a bit so I don't know if anything else has happened." I said.
"I'll meet you there in a few minutes with a first aid team." Jack said. "Just have to drop these guys off first."
Sometime during my conversation with Jack, the girl disappeared again, but I finally understood she was never truly gone. There were still a hundred questions to be asked and answered but for the moment I knew what I needed to know, one way or another, everything was going to be alright. I headed for the beach on my jet ski, this time enjoying the ride and feeling alive with the sea spray in my face and the wind in my tangled hair.
***NOTE: Epilogue is posted below this post on the main page or click here to go directly to it.***