I spotted the ghost of the Christina. She was pretty close to where she was supposed to be. Of course nobody else could see her, and only Yeoh knew I could. But his expression, when he glanced at me, was such a mixture of anguish and apprehension that I almost thought he could see her. That his years of yearning and waiting for his wife had given him the ability to see, in the place where she died. Then he asked me, "Is she there?" and proved me wrong.
The phantom ship, battered and dismasted, a great hole in her side showing where she'd been driven onto the reef, was about a hundred yards off, and nearing quickly. I nodded. Scratched my eyebrow. "What name do I say?"
"Her birth name," he said, his face pale. He swallowed. I saw his Adam's apple move convulsively. "Li Jing-Mei."
Calling a ghost is usually a pretty simple thing, even when they fight the summoning. You do just that, literally. Call it by name. I've no idea how it works. I wish to God it didn't. That I hadn't gained this strange talent when the rat-demon took out my eye.
Live with it, da Silva. It's not going to go away.
We closed with the ghost ship. I avoided looking too closely at what might be visible on board. Though of course here it is nothing more than a phantom.
Yeoh and I stood at the rail of the lumbering Sea Phnix. I saw Lim peering over the side as if he thought he could make something out. Admittedly the water's pretty clear here. But I should think even on the Sea Cow, if you can see the sea-bed you're in trouble.
"You ready?" I asked Yeoh. He nodded.
"Now?" he said.
"Now," I confirmed. Added softly, "Li Jing-Mei." Yeoh jabbed his penknife into the ball of his thumb and let a drop of blood fall over the side into the sea. We waited. I think Yeoh was holding his breath.
Nothing happened. I shrugged my shoulders and turned away from the rail. Yeoh let out his breath explosively. Took a handkerchief out of his pocket and balled it round his hand to stop the bleeding.
"Well, it was worth a try," he muttered. I sighed.
"Better break out the boiling suit and the lead boots, then," I said resignedly. All one hundred and seventy-five pounds of it. That's more than I weigh myself, for God's sake, I thought, and lit myself a cheroot.
Lim came bustling over, eyes gleaming, a blackened pipe clamped between his teeth. "We're on the spot, da Silva."
I squinted my eye against the sun. Put my hand up to shade it. Still could hardly make out anything more than his silhouette. "How deep is it?" I asked him.
He took the pipe out of his mouth and spat into the sea. "Sixteen, seventeen fathoms. The reef slopes up quite steeply just there--" he pointed -- "that's where she must've been driven onto it, I expect. Still we've got over a hundred foot of airline, so even if she's right on the bottom you should be all right."
All right, of course, being a relative term. In the circumstances.
I found one of Lim's crew sprinkling powder into the sea when I came back up on deck to check the diving gear. An Indian boy by the look of him. He gave me a cheerful grin and explained, "Asaftida, sahib, keeps the sea-serpents away."
Well, how am I to know it doesn't?
It's a good many years since I've done this. I think I've said that already. Getting senile, da Silva. But I soon found it's one of those things you don't forget how to do. Probably you always remember things when your life depends on them.
So here I am, descending into the blue. Smelling the well-remembered odour of sweat and rubber. Which, as I also remember, can be pretty damn nauseating after a hard night. Not that I do that sort of thing these days. The amount of drink we used to put away when I was in my twenties is staggering. Literally, I suppose. Staggering, the times we didn't pass out. However I'm pretty sure I never threw up inside a diving suit. I'd remember that.
The sound of my breathing, magnified, a rush and roar. Steady bubbling through the outlet valve. I'm always convinced I can hear my heart beating, too, my blood rushing through my veins. Always strange, though, to hear no sound of the sea at all through the helmet. And the sense of isolation, as well as insulation. Your only view through a tiny porthole, no peripheral vision at all. But I'm used to only having one eye these days, so it isn't as startling, oddly enough. Though having sight, smell, hearing, all the things you usually rely on, suddenly useless or unreliable, is unnerving. Yet there's no real sense of danger. Although I've always been careful. Even with a hangover pounding away. Ironic, really. When I think of some of the things I've had to face in the last five years, cautious isn't the first word that comes to mind for the da Silva reaction. Suicidally stupid fits the bill a lot better.
I'd forgotten about the fish. Now that sounds monumentally idiotic, doesn't it? I forgot the sea has fish in it? No, I don't mean that. I mean I'd forgotten how many there are, this close to a reef. Huge shoals of brightly-coloured things, vivid yellow, scarlet, the colours that soon disappear as you descend. Every shade of blue there could ever be. Striped, spotted, more fish than you ever imagined. Bizarre fringed things, long pointy-nosed ones, fish with silly grins on their faces. And that's before you start noticing seahorses, turtles, rays and all the other beasties. Like swimming through bouillabaisse.
Funny thing, you don't notice the pressure, even a hundred feet down. That's why people are surprised when they get the bends. They grow complacent. Bit of ear-popping can't hurt, can it? So if the fellows up top don't bring 'em up right, bang, nitrogen bubbles. Human soda-water syphon. Bad idea.
Hitting bottom, I gave a tug on the lifeline to let Lim know. White sand puffed up around my feet in great sinking clouds. I turned slowly. Made a complete rotation, three hundred and sixty degrees. Got my bearings. Visibility was good. The reef loomed about seventy feet distant, I thought, though distances underwater are deceptive.
Then I suddenly realised that the coral and sea-anemone-crusted length not far from where I was standing was what remained of a mast. My heart gave a thump, and I started to walk slowly along it, towards the reef. The remains of the Christina had turned, over the years, into something resembling a reef itself. You might miss it if you didn't know what you were looking for. And then some symmetry shows itself. There's a porthole. A broken mast. Suddenly it's a ship. Or what's left of one. It takes quite a trick of imagination to re-create it in the mind's eye.
I'm not nearly deep enough for the kind of drunken euphoria that hits at around thirty fathoms. But finding the ship made me want to cheer. Now I can keep the promise I made to Yeoh over a year ago.
Something moved inside the wreck. I jerked my head round. Something large. Or it might have been my imagination. Probably was. Da Silva, jumping at his own shadow. Except there aren't any shadows down here. Though there is darkness. In caves, under ledges, inside the rotting hulks of shipwrecks.
Transformed by into a colourful grotto by coral growth, and weed, and anything else looking for a convenient anchor, it's probably home to things I don't want to meet. Moray eels, most likely. Sharks, probably. Things with teeth. Giant squids and octopuses, less likely. Not to mention being full of shades of the dead. But I'm not down here to explore. No, wait, I am. I promised Lim I'd look for porcelain. Damn it.
First things first. I opened the oilskin bag and took out Yeoh's handkerchief. As the sea rinsed his blood from the cloth I said the name again, "Li Jing-Mei."
Oh, she heard that, all right. The wreck seemed to shudder in front of me. I saw a shock travel across the seabed like a wave. It rocked me where I stood, like being buffeted by a strong wind. Anchored by the boots, but unable to steady myself, I swayed to and fro.
And there was the ghost. But something wrong with it. With her. All the other ghosts I've had to call have looked solid. Substantial, even though they're not. Above all, alive. Except that you can't touch them, they're just like the people they were. They have most of the memories and the disagreeable personalities. And they know other things from being dead. That's why people want to talk to them.
Jing-Mei, though, looked like a drowned woman, floating upright in the water in front of me. Her long hair streamed upwards like seaweed, her flesh was corpse-white. Even with the change in the colours you see at a hundred feet, she was the colour of a fish's belly. And fraying, like a specimen in formaldehyde. Her eyes were slack pale marbles in a bloodless lax face.
I stared at her, appalled. Do all drowned people's ghosts look like this? Surely not. The ghost is what remains of the living personality, not the decaying flesh. It doesn't make sense.
*Who are you? What do you want?* The voice didn't come from her shredded lips. It echoed in my head. There was no doubt it was a dead woman's voice. She was speaking Cantonese.
Living Chinese find my accent hilarious. Perhaps, I thought rather irrelevantly, if I don't speak out loud I won't have one. Do you know who you are? I asked. She held her hands up to her face, fingertips a little way from her temples, and gave me an anguished look out of her faded milky eyes. A drop of sweat trickled down my face.
*You called my name. I had to come.* Jing-Mei's ghost thrashed her head from side to side in distress. A school of blue fish glided through her drifting hair.
I noticed she hadn't answered my question. And that was something she shouldn't be able to do. The main reason I don't like summoning ghosts is because doing it binds them to my will. They have to do what I tell them.
Yes, I did, but do you know who Li Jing-Mei is? Or was.
*Someone long gone,* the voice in my mind said. *Someone in the sea.* The ghost brought up her arms protectively as if to shield her head and I saw long bloodless lacerations in them. Some were bone-deep.
One of the drawbacks about this cumbersome suit is I can't wipe sweat off my face, or scratch my eyebrow. But I still found my hand straying to my face. Didn't realise until I hit it against the helmet.
Do you remember your husband? I asked. Your son?
*Remember?* She hunched her shoulders. *People screaming, people drowning. Blood and water. Wind and breaking timbers.*
The shipwreck must've been too much for her, I thought. Then I felt something buffet me in the back, a blow the sea robbed of force. But what the hell could've swum into me? I started to turn. But before I could a human figure swam furiously round on my blind side and began slapping at the ghost.
A human figure? She wasn't real, she couldn't be. My mouth was dry. Pearl divers can reach twenty fathoms, so they say, but this is no pearl diver. It's a naked woman, black hair drifting like weed in the water.
It's Jing-Mei. Meu Deus. There are still some things that can surprise me.
Real or not, she couldn't touch the ghost. Her hands passed through it. I could see her frustration at not being able to make contact, but she went on attacking.
Stop it. I started to move forward. Try and separate them. Not that I thought about how. Not thinking clearly at all, da Silva.
*What is it?* wailed Jing-Mei's distressed voice in my head. It came from the ghost I'd called, not the... other one. I seized her round the waist, gloves slipping on her skin. Nearly let go in astonishment. Hadn't expected her to be solid.
What are you? I echoed the ghost's question. She twisted in my grip and batted at my helmet. I had no sense that I was holding a woman. Whether that was because I was encased from head to foot in a cumbersome airtight suit or whether she just wasn't human, I don't know. I tried to grab her wrists. Managed to get hold of one. She tossed her hair away from her face and bared her teeth at me. A stream of bubbles leaked out of her mouth.
*Send me back,* shrieked Jing-Mei. I winced at the volume of her mental voice. Looked into the woman's flat black eyes. They were completely blank. There was nothing there. No awareness. No spark of intelligence.
No. It's all in her ghost. What's left of it, which isn't much. This is Jing-Mei's real body squirming in my arms, no more human than a fish. Her soul's long gone from it. But somehow she's still alive. I looked over her head at the ghost's anguished, pallid face. Wondered, of course, whether body and spirit could be reunited. Discarded the thought. However she lived, her spirit was insane. Jing-Mei was really lost.
Go back, Li Jing-Mei, I said regretfully to the ghost, and she dissolved into the water. The sea-woman slithered out of my grip and swam head over heels in a kind of somersault, then turned a baffled face to me at the ghost's absence. I thought for a moment she was going to attack me, and started to reach for my knife.
And then a man swam out from the wreck. No, not a man, I realised a second later. But something that had, instead of legs, the tail of a monstrous snake.
He came coiling out from the Christina's hulk, and the great snake-tail just kept on coming. And I just gaped at it, hand stuck in position mid-way to the hilt of the knife.
Have to remember to tell Lim's boy that the asaftida didn't work, I thought. If, that is, I ever get back to the surface.
The paralysis lasted less than a second. Then instinct took over. Unfortunately, instinct expected the wrong element.
Ever tried to move fast in water? Can't be done. I grabbed for the knife. Not the fourteen-inch blade I normally carry down my back, I didn't want to sever my air-hose by accident, but a big no-nonsense Bowie knife sort of thing that came with the diving suit. But grabbed implies a swift decisive movement. Not what I managed.
I got the thing out of its sheath without puncturing the suit, and brought it up towards the half-snake's human-looking throat. Found my wrist seized in a grip that felt as if it could've squeezed the bones till they snapped like twigs.
Looming in my small round window on the world, that suddenly seemed tremendously thin and fragile, a face bigger than human size. Diamond stud in one nostril. Brown liquid eyes with preposterously long lashes. And an expression I don't want to see on anything that big and powerful. I tried to flinch back, and my head banged against the back of the helmet. *My woman,* came an angry roaring in my mind that made me want to clap my hands over my ears, though I knew it wouldn't be any use at all. *Leave my woman alone.*
And he lifted me off my feet and flung me away through the water, lead boots and all. I grabbed for the lifeline and gave two rapid tugs. I won't say panicky, because panic underwater generally translates as dead, but I was pretty close to it. The thought of being hauled slowly up with decompression stops had lost its appeal. Suddenly the idea of the bends didn't seem so bad. Certainly in preference to being eaten by a giant snake. The English saying, between the devil and the deep blue sea, popped rather manically into my mind. Frankly, I wish it hadn't.
At last the boots pulled my feet back to the ocean floor again. I'd hardly touched bottom when I felt the line tauten as the boys up top in the old Sea Cow began to winch me up.
Dangling, I stared at the snake, sweat running down my face. Knife hanging uselessly from my hand.
*Come back to these waters and you are a dead man,* the voice bellowed. The words -- which I was hearing, if hearing is the right word -- in Portuguese, bounced off the inside of my skull like bullets ricocheting. I'm going to have one hell of a headache.
Better than being snake chow, though, da Silva. Don't you think?