A whisper of a breeze barely stirred the sparkling sea as Kenshin Hamasaki slipped on his swim fins, strapped on his knife, and spit into his mask to keep it from fogging. He and his friends bobbed eighteen miles out in the Gulf of Mexico aboard the thirty-foot Miss Monica on a postcard-perfect, late-winter day, and they were about to do one of Kenshin’s favorite things besides sex.
Despite the seventy-degree temperature and a cloudless sky so vivid a blue it looked airbrushed, the Miss Monica was the only boat at Bendickson Tank Reef, a popular scuba spot off the west-central Florida coast.
Beside Kenshin on the bench seat in the stern, Evan Sanders fiddled with his camera gear and checked his tank and air hoses one final time. Meanwhile, Cosby Williams clipped the divers-down flag onto one of the vessel’s antennae and shrugged into his buoyancy compensator vest.
Cosby, co-owner of Nauti-Toys watercraft rentals, had named the jewel of his company’s fleet after his fiancée, Monica Sims. The one-carat halo diamond engagement ring he’d surprised her with on her recent birthday shot sparks of light as she zipped up her pink and black wet suit and pulled on her matching neoprene boots.
“You might want to leave that rock here,” Kenshin suggested. “Something that shiny is like a beacon to a barracuda. And you don’t want to risk losing it. Or blinding someone.”
Monica hesitated, obviously reluctant to part with her pricey symbol of Cosby’s commitment. She looked at her intended and he nodded, so Monica removed the ring and went below to stow it in a safe place.
When she reappeared, Kenshin called, “Okay everybody, listen up.” He heard a snicker and turned to see Monica mimicking him. Cosby coughed to cover his snort of laughter, and Evan made such a show of rolling his eyes it was a wonder he didn’t keel over from dizziness.
Ignoring their antics, Kenshin began his spiel.
“I know all of you except Cosby have been here before, but let’s review some basic information about today’s dives. About twenty-five feet down are ten Vietnam-era, M-60 Army tanks in a quarter-mile radius that were placed there in April 1995. They’re a key component of an artificial reef system off Hernando County that’s also made from concrete balls and culverts, plus rubble from the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
“Bendickson isn’t a difficult dive, but there is a lot to see. I’ll hang with Evan while he shoots footage for our new online reality series. Cosby and Monica, you can stay with us or explore on your own, whichever you prefer.”
“We’ll be in the general vicinity,” Cosby replied with an edge to his voice. A former scuba instructor in Ohio, he had considerably more diving experience than anyone aboard the Miss Monica.
Yet Kenshin, as usual, had pulled rank.
He turned his attention to the flybridge, where Kelsey Kramer and Evan’s bride-to-be, Danielle “Dani” Davidson, sunned themselves and sipped lemon water. Lust wasn’t Kenshin’s intent, but he couldn’t help admiring the glistening, lightly bronzed skin bared by their modest, one-piece swimsuits. Not that he’d ever admit it to them.
“Hey, Hamasaki. Quit ogling my woman,” Evan joked.
Kenshin grinned, but it came off as more of a smirk, setting the tone for his next comment.
“Dani, are you seriously planning to marry this Neanderthal?”
“So he tells me,” she replied. “Now if you boys are finished playing ‘mine’s bigger,’ Kelsey and I would like to lounge and look pretty in peace.”
Kelsey nudged her friend and Dani winked at her.
“Funny. Actually, I have a job for you two,” Kenshin told them. “People spearfish out here and sometimes forget they’re not the only ones in the water. If anyone shows up with a speargun, remind them we’re down there, would you? And keep an eye out for anything else that might be of concern.”
Kelsey snapped off a salute. “Aye, Captain Bligh. No worries.”
“We’ll hold down the fort. I mean the boat,” Dani added.
Kenshin knew his inner alpha male needed an attitude adjustment, but he’d been bossy and grumpy for so long it had become habit. Besides, this outing was his idea and he felt responsible for everyone on board. All but one worked with him at Gulf Shore Aquarium, although Kelsey and Dani were off the clock today, and Cosby volunteered on the dive team, which kept the exhibit pools pristine.
“Thank you, ladies. Are the rest of you ready to go?”
“Just waiting on you, Kenny,” Evan goaded.
Not even Kenshin’s mother called him that. Stay cool. Don’t react. “Let’s get to it then.”
The four divers waddled on flippered feet to the swim platform and, one by one, stepped off. Letting a little air out of their buoyancy compensators, they exhaled deeply to begin their controlled descent. A school of mangrove snappers scattered as the quartet sank toward the flat, sandy bottom.
Once there, Evan headed to the closest military tank and went to work, aiming his lens first at a Spanish mackerel cruising by. Kenshin pointed out a gray sea star, feather duster worms, spadefish, and a red-ribbed scallop while Monica and Cosby gauged the health of the algae, soft corals, and sponges growing in abundance on the corroded steel.
As Kenshin and Evan swam along the reef, a black grouper flitted off to hide and an inquisitive great barracuda hovered nearby for a few nervous heartbeats before coasting away. The fearsome-looking fish rarely attacked divers, but occasionally their unpredictable aggression led to nasty bites, blood in the water, and numerous stitches.
About twenty minutes into the dive, Kenshin had just released a steady stream of air bubbles when two dark shapes torpedoed toward him. Their movements identified them as dolphins, so he wasn’t alarmed. Evan swung his camera in their direction.
Tempting as it was, interacting with wild dolphins was illegal. Kenshin stayed still, expecting the animals to satisfy their abundant curiosity and glide away as quickly as they’d appeared.
Instead, the larger dolphin homed in on him and prodded his left swim fin with its rostrum before biting down on the rubber blade and tugging. He gently drew his foot away and tucked his legs to discourage the creature’s interest.
Undeterred, the dolphin prodded at Kenshin until he decided to retreat. The second he extended his legs, the animal seized his fin, wrenched it off his foot, and bolted.
The other dolphin, watching from a cautious distance, gave chase and tried to snatch the fin back, starting a tug-of-war that grew rowdier the longer it continued. The second dolphin made up for its size disadvantage with quickness and tenacity, but it appeared to be tiring.
Just when Kenshin thought the larger dolphin would prevail, the smaller one raked its sharp, conical teeth down its companion’s side to regain possession of the stolen fin. Then the triumphant hero sped back to Kenshin, stopped within arm’s length, and—there was no other way to describe it—presented him with his property.
As he accepted the unexpected gift, Kenshin locked gazes with the dolphin and was jolted by an almost magnetic pull unlike anything he’d experienced before with an animal, even his boyhood best buddy, a mutt named Morty.
Even stranger, the sense of connection was stronger than anything he’d felt for another person since his marriage had imploded four years earlier.
Kenshin wasn’t certain how long he stared into the dolphin’s unblinking, soulful eyes because nothing penetrated his preoccupation—until the fin thief rudely broke the spell by sideswiping them both.
Whirling on their attacker, the smaller animal banged its teeth together, making a threatening popping sound. Kenshin braced himself as the aggressor barreled by again, but the other dolphin shielded him and took the brunt of the blow.
Kenshin pulled out his dive knife, hoping he wouldn’t be forced to use it. Evan appeared at his side brandishing his camera and a fish billy club. Cosby and Monica waved their arms as they swam to the rescue, too. Evidently their show of force dissuaded the larger creature, which circled but kept its distance.
The smaller one rubbed its head on Kenshin’s shoulder like a cat begging for attention, and he reached out and stroked one of its pectoral fins. The dolphin nodded twice before taking off, with the larger one nipping at its tail flukes.
Worried for his new friend, Kenshin stared after them until Evan jerked his thumb toward the surface. As soon as their heads popped above water, Kenshin yanked out his mouthpiece.
“Holy crap. You’d better have gotten that on video, Sanders.”
“Hell yeah, I did. Nobody would believe this happened otherwise.”
The other two divers rose from the depths moments later, appearing just as dumbfounded.
“That’s the wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cosby exclaimed. “I thought I was hallucinating until Monica tugged on my arm and pointed.”
“Unfreakingbelievable,” she sputtered. “Sure, dolphins are incredibly intelligent, but for a wild one to retrieve Kenshin’s fin like that and then protect him…it blows me away.”
“Let’s head back to the boat,” Evan suggested, already moving in that direction. “I can’t wait to show Dani and Kelsey the video. They’ll flip.”
* * * *
“Are you kidding me?” were the first words out of Dani’s mouth. “That looks like a trained behavior, but how can it be?”
Kelsey shook her head. “Rescued dolphins with any chance of release don’t get that kind of attention. You want them to stay wild, not bond with their caretakers. And turning loose a resident dolphin from any facility is a death sentence.”
“Is it possible one escaped from a sea pen somewhere?” Monica asked.
“Hopefully we would’ve heard about it,” Kelsey replied. “Maybe one or both of them belong to the military.”
The U.S. Navy began studying dolphins’ sonar, speed swimming, and diving capabilities in 1960 and over the years trained them to deliver and retrieve objects, guard boats and submarines, locate underwater mines, and even conduct surveillance with a mouth-held camera.
“I guess we could e-mail the video to the Navy,” Evan said. “But I’m not sure they’d confirm it if any of their dolphins went missing.”
“What about the eight dolphins swept out of their pool when Hurricane Katrina destroyed that aquarium in Mississippi?” Dani asked. “Anybody remember what happened to them?”
“They stayed together out in open water, taking care of each other, until they were found,” Kenshin recalled. “Their trainers taught them to go up onto mats so they could be loaded onto a boat. They ended up at Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.”
“How about we send Evan’s video to the Dolphin Research Center in the Keys and a few other places? See if they recognize your new pal, Kenshin,” Kelsey suggested.
“Wouldn’t hurt. Cosby, when we’re done diving, would you mind if we puttered around the area? If this is their home range, we might spot one or both of them again.”
“No problem. We’ve got plenty of gas.”
During their second dive, Kenshin and crew didn’t see a single dolphin. And their search afterward aboard the Miss Monica came up empty, too.
“Tomorrow I’ll scroll through photos in the aquarium’s wild dolphin database,” Evan said. “The smaller one’s dorsal fin had two distinctive notches near the base on the back curve, while the bigger one had a scar from a healed wound. If we’re lucky, I’ll find a match.”
* * * *
He didn’t. They struck out, too, with everyone they contacted. Kenshin wanted to skip work one morning and scour that section of the gulf in a Gulf Shore Aquarium boat, but choppy seas whipped up by an approaching cold front, along with a schedule crammed with meetings, kept him in port. Frustrated and antsy, he fussed more than usual at any unfortunate soul who crossed his path.
Meanwhile, the video went viral after Evan posted it on the aquarium’s Web site. Local and national media went orgasmic over the footage, too, and he and Kenshin were swept under by a tsunami of e-mails and phone calls.
Naysayers dismissed the video as a hoax, while the metaphysical crowd called it the “otherworldly encounter in the gulf” and claimed it proved dolphins were everything from benevolent aliens to supernatural healers with superior intelligence.
Strangers approached Kenshin and Evan at the aquarium, the grocery store, the gas station, and even the men’s room to pump them for details or pester them for a plausible explanation.
Kenshin simply shrugged and said, “It’s one of life’s many mysteries, I guess.”
The tabloids were the worst, dubbing the pair “the scuba studs,” much to their chagrin and their colleagues’ delight. Women aroused by their sudden celebrity status inundated them with explicit invitations. Evan deleted his to avoid upsetting Dani, but Kenshin found them hilarious and read a sampling aloud one night to his softball teammates during their usual post-game gathering at Bikini Barb’s Bar & Grill.
“Listen to this one. ‘Do you get off on double D boobs? I’ll let you plant your flag on my twin peaks.’”
The guys guffawed, and several demanded the woman’s e-mail address.
“Yeah, right. Your wives would slice off your nuts and feed them to the squirrels.” Kenshin was only half kidding.
“Bought any mountain climbing gear yet, Ken?” shouted Paul “Flipper” O’Riley, the aquarium’s head dolphin trainer.
“These feet are planted firmly on the flatlands. Who’s ready for more?” As hands shot up, Kenshin swiped the touch screen on his phone. “Cripes, this is priceless. ‘I took gymnastics classes for years and can bend my body in ways you can’t imagine. I’d love to mount your balance beam, big boy.’”
Cosby spewed a mouthful of beer, Evan choked on his nachos, and the rest tried to outdo each other with their bawdy bantering.
“She gives new meaning to the term ‘floor exercise,’” the second baseman joked.
“Or ‘layout position,’” the pitcher quipped.
“You’ve got to tap that or turn in your man card, Hamasaki,” the catcher insisted as he hijacked Kenshin’s phone.
“Give that back or I’ll tell that pretty blonde over there eyeing you that you’re up to your ass in debt and have two paternity suits pending,” he threatened good-naturedly. Once he’d reclaimed his phone, Kenshin held up his hand in a request for silence.
“One more, and I saved the best for last.”
“Bring it on,” the third baseman shouted.
“‘I’m wet, wild, and absolutely aching for you. My cum tunnel could use a thorough cleaning from your womb broom.’”
As the table erupted again, Kenshin and his ego slapped a high five. Despite his griping, the attention from the video buoyed his self-confidence. He needed it, given the way his life had gone straight to hell in a bait bucket.
Still, as Kenshin lay alone in bed later that night, he was oddly unsettled. He couldn’t shake the affinity he felt for the smaller dolphin or the larger one’s unprovoked hostility toward him.
Because of its aggressive behavior, Kenshin had tagged the fin thief as a male, and a review of Evan’s footage showed the creature not only had it but flaunted it. During his career, Kenshin had seen plenty of prodigious penises—on dolphins and whales—and they never ceased to impress him.
How cool would it be to have a retractable, swiveling sex organ that could even pick up objects? On second thought, that might be too awkward to lug around.
No matter how much he studied the video, though, he couldn’t confirm whether the smaller animal was a female, as he suspected. The more Kenshin reviewed what happened out at the reef, the more obsessed he became with finding “her.” His subconscious teased him with strangely stimulating fantasies of a joyous reunion, of her rubbing intimately against him and towing him around by her dorsal fin.
If only you could transform into a dolphin and truly be my mate, she told him telepathically. The Bendickson reef became their secret rendezvous spot, and they spent many a blissful hour swimming, sightseeing, and basking in each other’s company.
It might’ve been a match made in his mind, but it was heaven.
And then one night, a particularly powerful dream turned tragic. His cetacean sweetheart became hopelessly entangled in monofilament fishing line that sliced her sensitive flesh with every fruitless attempt to free herself. Hearing her screams of panic and pain, he raced out into the gulf—but couldn’t find her anywhere.
The nightmare ended with Kenshin bolting up from a dead sleep. Sweat soaked his T-shirt and anxiety gnawed at his gut as he swiped at his wet cheeks. Shit. He hadn’t felt this bereft since…no, don’t go there. A shudder racked his body, and he gritted his teeth against a stab of grief so strong it took his breath away. It’s not happening again. I won’t let it. If he plunged back into that pit of darkness and despair, he might stay there forever.
Kenshin rolled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom. Standing at the sink splashing water on his face, he scolded his pasty reflection in the mirror.
“Man up. Only a frigging pussboy gets whacked out by a stupid dream.”
He cupped his hands and gulped down water, wishing it was whiskey. After drying off, he shuffled back to bed, only to toss and turn until his alarm rousted him much too soon.