TAMPA BAY, FLORIDA
* * *
The engine powered off and I knew I was in trouble. I kicked at the battery…nothing. The heavy Lexan nose cone of the Abyss Glider sank, bobbing upside-down along the surface like a cork. Staring into the depths of the Monterey Bay Canyon, I saw the female’s conical head appear from the shadows, her ghostly albino glow paralyzing me in fear as she charged.
Her hideous mouth yawned open, anticipating her next meal—me!
The thought of this enraged me. Reaching forward, I grabbed the emergency lever and turned it counterclockwise, then yanked it back, igniting the mini-sub’s fuel. Instantly, my body was slammed backward within the pod’s safety harness as the mini-sub rocketed downward like a torpedo into the awaiting gullet of my worst nightmare—
* * *
The telephone rings, shattering his concentration. Jonas Taylor grabs the cursed instrument off its cradle, strangling the receiver in his grip. “What?”
“Sir, this is Ross Colombo.”
“I don’t know any Ross Colombo.”
“With American Express. We spoke last week.”
“Sir, we still haven’t received the payment, the one you assured me you had mailed.”
Jonas’s blood pressure ticks a few notches higher. “Look, Russ—”
“Ross. Sir, did you send the check?”
“Sure, I sent it. Can’t believe you haven’t gotten it yet. Tell you what, call me next week if it still hasn’t arrived.”
“Could you tell me the check number?”
“My wife handles all that stuff and she’s not home. Why don’t you call her next week.”
Jonas slams the phone on its receiver, causing the taser-like star pattern of his screen saver to evaporate back into text. Damn bill collectors…
He takes a deep breath. Stares at his computer monitor.
Writing his memoirs had been Terry’s idea. To Jonas, it seemed like a waste of time, a last desperate attempt to regain lost years of fame. Still, he had to make a living, and his once overflowing well of requests for speaking engagements had run dry long ago.
Face it, Jonas, you’re a has-been—yesterday’s news. You were never a real scientist and you’re way too old to be a submersible pilot. At your age, with your limited background, you’d be lucky to get a job as an assistant manager in a fast-food joint.
He commands himself to reread the last passage on screen, but the text refuses to sink in.
Reviewing his life on paper had forced Jonas to come to grips with the shortcomings of his existence. Almost sixty-four, he was at an age when most men were thinking about retirement, yet here he was, still struggling to make ends meet.
He glances at the stack of bills, becoming more depressed.
Snap out of it, you big baby. So you’re over the hill, at least you’re still near the summit. So what if you’ve grayed a bit, so what if your lower back feels like somebody ran over it with a pickup truck and every joint is wracked with arthritis. And who really cares if you can’t run or keep up with the younger guys on the basketball court or pump as much iron? Hey, at least you’re still active. Most guys my age would—
He stops himself.
You’re not old, Jonas…you’re just not young anymore.
The truth was, the more Jonas wrote, the older he felt, and the more he came to realize how much of his life was based on illusions.
The illusion of fame, of being important.
The illusion of being a good provider.
Jonas twists his head from one side to the other, his neck crackling like gravel beneath a tire. Health insurance, car insurance, mortgage payments, phone bills, electric bills…every month the mountain of debt gets higher, every waking moment dominated by stress. He has borrowed against the house, maxed out his credit cards, dipped into the kids’ college funds…and still the mountain grows, along with his pessimism about the future and his constant fear of poverty.
Jonas Taylor can’t remember the last time he has laughed out loud. Or even smiled.
His eyes focus upon the top statement in the stack, his annual life insurance bill—the irony of his life. Bankrupt in life, rich in death. At least you married a younger woman. Yep, Terry will be well taken care of after you croak.
He tosses the bill aside, then massages his temples, praying the spot in his vision is just the sun’s glare on his monitor and not another migraine.
Stay focused. Finish the book. Terry will sell it, and the rest will take care of itself.
He returns to the keyboard.
* * *
Darkness rushed at me, but before I could comprehend the consequences of my actions, I was jolted into unconsciousness. When I awoke, I was startled to be alive. The pod, miraculously, was still intact, but was now rolling in horrible darkness, the nose cone’s exterior light occasionally illuminating refuse from the monster’s last meal. A dolphin. Molten blubber. The upper torso of my former Naval commander—
* * *
The heavy bass of gangsta rap pounds through the ceiling above his head.
Jonas stops typing. Looks up.
Jonas gets up from his desk. Walks to the staircase. “Danielle Kaye Taylor!”
Jonas’s blood pressure creeps up another notch. Cursing beneath his breath, he climbs the worn beige-carpeted steps two at a time, turns right at the landing, then trudges down the hall to his daughter’s room. Tries the handle. Locked, of course. Pounds on the door. Pounds again.
The door opens.
“What?” The blond-haired seventeen-year-old stares back at her father, her indigo-blue eyes furious.
“I’m trying to work.”
“So? I live here, too.”
“Can you just turn it down a bit?”
She lowers the volume, just enough so Jonas can comprehend the lyrics. “Geez, Dani, do you have to listen to that crap?”
“Dad, don’t start—”
“A song about three brothers gang-raping their mother?”
“It’s just a song.”
“Well I don’t like it. Turn it off.”
“Excuse me, but you can’t tell me what to listen to. This happens to be a free country.”
“The only thing free is what you’re paying in rent. As long as you’re living under my roof, you’ll listen. Now turn it off.”
She slaps at the CD player, shutting it off. “Another seven weeks and I’ll turn eighteen, then I am so out of here.”
“Better hope financial aid comes through, or you’ll be commuting.”
“News flash: I’m not going to college.”
His blood pressure tweaks again, his daughter’s expression fueling his rage. “And exactly what’re you going to do to make a living? Waitress? Flip burgers?”
“Maybe I’ll write my memoirs!” She slams the door in her father’s face.
Okay, good comeback. He pauses. Hears her crying. So much for my Father-of-the-Year Award…
Seeking absolution, he turns and knocks on his son’s door. Opens it.
The fourteen-year-old with the mop of brownish-red hair poking out from beneath the Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap never looks up, too absorbed in his video game.
“I already did my homework.”
He kneels beside his son. Watches the boy’s hands adeptly work the controls—a replica of his old mini-sub.
On screen, the blunt ivory nose of the Megalodon rises, its jaws chomping down upon the fluke of a fleeing Killer Whale. Crimson blood pours from the wound, dispersing across the animation like smoke from a chimney.
ORCA. MORTAL WOUND: 250 POINTS. CONTINUE FEEDING.
“Why do you always control the Meg? Why not the mini-sub?”
“Angel’s more fun.”
The image of a torpedo-shaped mini-sub soars by. David manipulates the controls, sending the Megalodon after it.
“You like stalking your old man, huh?”
“It’s a thousand points.”
“A thousand points. Be sure to engrave that on my tombstone, will you?”
Jonas ignores the impulse to shut off the cursed video game, a reminder of a life that could have been. Endorsements, merchandising…all gone.
Gone with his youth.
He turns and leaves. Pauses again at Dani’s door. Hears her talking on the phone, complaining about her life in some adolescent code.
The illusion of parenthood…
The front door opens. “Jonas?”
He heads downstairs. Greets his wife with, “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get you on your cell phone for hours.”
“I told you, the phone company disconnected me yesterday.” Terry Taylor’s long onyx hair is pulled up in a tight bun, accenting her Asian features. In her mid-forties, she is still quite the beauty. “How come you’re not working?”
“I can’t work in this house, all I get is constant interruptions.”
“Since you’re not working, can you get the groceries out of the car?”
Jonas sighs. Heads outside to the SUV in his stocking feet. Gathers as many plastic bags from the open rear hatch as he can handle, then glances at the car parked next to his wife’s.
Notices the dent in the hood.
Registers the twinge in his left arm.
Jonas drops the groceries and examines the hood, which no longer seals shut.
Just keeps getting better and better.
She pokes her head out the front door. “What’re you screaming about?”
“Did you see the hood of the Chrysler?”
“I saw it. She said it happened last night while she was parked.”
“Where did she park? A demolition derby? Damn car costs us two-fifty a month, plus another three grand a year for insurance. You’d think she could be a little more careful—”
“Jonas, calm down.”
“A little appreciation, a little respect, that’s all I ask.” Blood boiling, he opens the front door of his daughter’s car. Snarls at the heavy scent of tobacco. Reaches down to pop the hood and spots the bag of marijuana, hidden beneath the seat.
—as the migraine squeezes tighter behind his eyeball.
TANAKA OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTE
The deep blue hill of water rolls toward shore, its weight rumbling over the shoals as it crests, its bulk split in two as it kisses the submerged concrete walls of the man-made canal. Half the wave crashes into foam and races to a quick death upon the beach, the other half rushes into the channel, picking up speed as it is redirected into the main tank of the Tanaka Lagoon.
The old man’s almond eyes follow another wave in, his soul soothed by its crushing thunder, his mind as restless as the undulating splashes that echo throughout the deserted arena like crackling paper. From his vantage—a cold aluminum bench in the upper deck of the western bleachers—he can see everything: the incoming Pacific, the ocean-access canal, the lake-size man-made aquarium, the western horizon’s dying afternoon sun.
Eighty-two-year-old Masao Tanaka fixes his collar against the harsh ocean breeze that howls inside his empty concrete fish bowl. Weathered eyes squint against reflections coming off the lagoon’s surface. The once azure waters have stagnated olive-green, algae growth surpassing maintenance. The once-shiny A-frame, perched at the southern end of the arena like a giant steel scarecrow, is caked with layers of rust, as are the bleachers, the rest rooms, food court, and souvenir stands.
Masao shakes his head at the irony of his existence. The lagoon had been more than the marine biologist’s dream, it had been his life, and now he is dying with it. Thirty years have passed since he first designed the facility and risked everything to build it. He had depleted his family’s estate and mortgaged his children’s future, and when those funds ran dry, he had accepted a high-risk contract with the Japanese Marine Science Technology Center, selling JAMSTEC twenty-five of the Institute’s Unmanned Nautical Information Submersibles. The UNIS drones were to be part of Japan’s Early Warning Earthquake Detection System. The catch: Masao’s team would be responsible for deploying the array seven miles down in the Mariana Trench, the deepest, most unexplored realm on the planet.
Masao’s son, D.J., had escorted each UNIS into position, piloting an Abyss Glider-II, the Institute’s one-man deep-sea submersible. For weeks the detection system worked flawlessly, and then one by one, the drones stopped transmitting data. With the Japanese threatening to hold back payment, Masao had been forced to call in a favor from an old friend.
Jonas Taylor had been the best deep-sea submersible pilot ever to wear the Navy uniform—until something happened to him on his last dive in the Mariana Trench. Working in 33,000 feet of water, Jonas had suddenly panicked, launching his vessel into an emergency ascent. The duress of the maneuver had caused a malfunction in the sub’s pressurization system and the two scientists on board had died. Diagnosed with psychosis of the deep, Jonas had been forced to spend three months in a psychiatric ward. His naval career over, his confidence shot, Jonas reinvented himself, going back to school to study paleobiology, intent on convincing the world that he was not crazy, that the unexplored sevenmile-deep gorge was inhabited by sixty-foot prehistoric sharks, long thought extinct.
Masao cared little about Jonas’s theories; what he needed was a second deep-sea pilot to accompany his son on a salvage operation. Jonas accepted the old man’s invitation, more focused on locating an unfossilized Megalodon tooth, proof that the creatures were still alive.
What he found instead was his own personal Hell.
Jonas Taylor was right, members of the Megalodon species had survived extinction in the hydrothermally-warmed bottom layer of the trench.
Upon entering the abyss, the two mini-subs’ engines had attracted a male. D.J. was attacked and devoured, the Meg entwining itself in his sub’s cable. As Masao’s surface ship unwittingly hauled the entrapped beast topside, a larger female attacked the male, following it to the surface.
Having summoned the devil from its purgatory, it was left to Jonas and his team to stop it.
More death would follow as the Tanaka Institute attempted to capture the female, which birthed three pups in the deep waters off Monterey, California. Jonas was eventually forced to kill the creature, with the lone surviving pup captured and raised in Masao’s whale lagoon.
Come see Angel: the Angel of Death. Two shows daily.
The captive female would attract millions of visitors and even more dollars. But a series of devastating lawsuits would cripple the Institute, forcing Masao to sell the majority of his company to energy mogul Benedict Singer. Losing control of his beloved Institute was bad enough, the undue stress on his family even worse. Terry’s first pregnancy was stillborn, and Jonas was not there for her, too preoccupied with his concerns over keeping Angel secured in the lagoon. Eventually the female did escape, nearly taking the lives of Masao’s daughter and son-in-law in the process.
Benedict Singer’s demise would return the Institute to its rightful owner. Three years after Angel’s escape, the lagoon’s new canal doors were reopened, this time for the advancement of cetacean science, as had always been intended.
Masao had a new lease on life. Each winter day, as tens of thousands of the behemoths migrated south from the Bering Sea, the biologist would wait by the open canal doors, hoping to lure a pregnant cow into his protected cove to birth her young.
“Spooked” by the Megalodon’s lingering presence, the whales refused to enter.
Hoping to remove Angel’s “scent,” Masao accepted a huge loan from his son-in-law to drain and scrub the main tank…all to no avail.
Deep in debt, Masao finally agreed to lease the facility to Sea World. A half dozen orcas, all born in captivity, were transported from their cramped tanks to the much larger ocean-accessible lagoon. Immediately upon entering the water, the Killer Whales panicked, circling the tank in a frenzied state. With nowhere to beach, they began bashing their heads against the canal doors, desperate to get out.
Two of the animals died, along with the Sea World contract.
As time passed, so too did the public’s interest in Jonas Taylor. His speaking career over, Jonas was forced to sell his home in California and move his family to Tampa, where he accepted a public relations job at a new marine park. Masao stayed behind, hiring Jonas’s best friend, Mac, to maintain the facility while he attempted to sell it.
The eventual collapse of the stock market wiped out Masao’s pension and the savings of several potential buyers, sealing the old man’s fate. The lagoon was his albatross, and, like it or not, he was stuck with it.
* * *
Masao stretches, his arthritic joints creaking with the effort. Across the lagoon, his eyes catch movement.
Atti…The old man waves.
Athena Holman waves back, then continues sweeping the empty eastern bleachers. Cerebral palsy has affected the young African-American woman’s right hand and legs, causing her to walk with a heavy gait. Despite her challenges, the nineteen-year-old has been the Institute’s hardest worker, her dark brown eyes and quick wit stealing Masao’s heart years ago, making it impossible for him to let her go with the rest of his maintenance workers.
The arena turns gold, the sun setting at his back. It is the old man’s favorite time of day, yet all he feels is remorse. Once the driving force behind his family’s business, life’s mishaps have reduced him to a shadow of his former self, a burden to his children.
He waits until the horizon bleeds scarlet and magenta, then stands, his back and knees aching. Like his facility, Masao is breaking down, yet his soul is still too restless to move on.
He hobbles down the bleachers to the concrete walkway.
Two men step out of the shadows, both in their late thirties, well-built, wearing lumberjack shirts and worn jeans.
The older of the two flashes a false smile. “Afternoon, Mr. Tanaka. You remember my younger brother, Devin.”
The second man, dark-haired and ponytailed, offers a cold stare.
Masao nods uncomfortably. “I assume you received the reply from my attorney?”
Drew Dietsch gazes at the lagoon. “Received it in triplicate. Can’t say I was happy with it, but I guess you already know that, seeing as how you haven’t returned any of our calls.”
“Sorry?” Devin’s green eyes squint in anger. “Listen, old man, we sank over half a million in site surveys and soil samples, not to mention the money it cost us to grease the zoning commissioner’s office. And that personal loan.”
“Easy, Devin.” Drew steps in between his younger brother and the old man. “Let’s keep everything civil…for now. Mr. Tanaka, I’m sure you can understand why my brother and I are a little upset about the way things played out.”
“Hai. The money I borrowed will be paid back with interest, you have my word.”
“We’re not a bank,” Devin spits.
“My brother’s right. We had a deal to turn this entire beachfront area and lagoon into million-dollar condos and a high-end shopping marina.”
“We had a deal in principle only. Your final offer was too low. Not enough cash up front.”
“We had an agreement, Tanaka, which is why we agreed to that personal loan. You’d receive your share of the profits on the back-end with the rest of our investors.”
“Profits based on trust. I don’t trust you. Neither does my attorney. Too many loopholes. Put more money up front and we’ll talk, otherwise I think I’ll wait. Dietsch Brothers is not the only fish in the sea, you know.”
Masao pushes past them and hobbles for the exit.
Devin goes after him.
Drew grabs his brother by the arm. “Okay, Tanaka, hey, if that’s the way you want to play it, fine by us. Our lawyers are on retainer, how about yours? Can you afford to keep paying a mouthpiece to prevent us from getting a judgment? I doubt it. And what about your daughter and her loser husband?”
“Yeah, I hear Terry and Jonas are hurting for money, just like you. Bad investment them sinking their life savings into this zoo, huh? Face it, old man, pennies on the dollar is the best you’re ever gonna see. So why don’t we settle this like men, before the judge does it for us.”
“A better offer, gentlemen,” Masao grimaces, “preferably before I die.”
Copyright © 2004 by Steve Alten