Walters sank to the bottom of the canal, as if wanting to distance himself from the outside world up there beyond the surface. It was a calming experience to be surrounded by the still clumps of green and brown algae scattered at random, stoically anchored to the thick layer of mud layering the floor of the canal.
The wall of reeds lining the farther side of the canal strengthened the darkness around Walters. Darkness equalled protection. He floated right over the mud but without disturbing the sediment. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that he could see. Maybe because he wasn’t expecting to find anything. Some delicate algal tendrils caressed his cheeks and fogged his vision, but that was fine, you didn’t confront or avoid the environmental features of the canals, you had to accept them and be one with them.
Walters swam towards the center of the canal. He looked up and could see the sun rays hitting the surface and creating sparkles in motion, and there it was, the submerged and dangling piece of the shawl, a foreign object that could however pass as a giant slug or a floating medusa. The white cloth signaled the centerpoint of his search. Walters preferred to have a definite starting point in order to better triangulate all his subsequent movements. He felt the urge to swim up, stretch his arm and grab the cloth to investigate it and perhaps learn something from it. But the two men outside the water were likely to be looking at exactly that spot, and Walters didn’t want to be perceived by them, it was better to be alone for now.
Walters turned his light on, pointing it forward and parallel but close to the floor, and then rotated his body ever so slightly, surveying a great extent of the canal around him. Still nothing out of the ordinary. Mostly broken pieces of rotting wood, glass bottles, and small objects that over the years had been camouflaged under a carpet of moss-like algae. Small fish swam near the bottom of the canal and their behavior didn’t seem to be affected by any recent events, something that Walters was convinced he was able to discern. Nothing suggested that some type of large body, as the one from the woman he was looking for, had disturbed the surroundings in any way.
To get a different perspective, Walters swam up a couple of feet and pointed his light downwards. He noticed a faint path on the floor of sediment. Something had been dragged along the bottom of the canal. And it had happened two or three days ago given the shallow groove and smooth edges of the path. In another couple of days new sediment would settle on the floor of the canal and that path would disappear.
Now that Walters knew what he was looking at, he could see that a large area of the substrate directly under the shawl had been disturbed. There was no particular pattern, as if whatever body used to muddle the sediment had been moved around in all directions for a while. Possibly a struggle. And then the path had been drawn away towards the left and along the center of the canal.
Walters followed the path. It meandered from time to time, as if the body that plowed the path had been dragged by a group of drunkards. But there was still some apparent directionality, a target somewhere.
At some undetermined point the path turned directly towards the wall of reeds, where it ended. There was some space on the wall of the canal without any reeds that accommodated a submerged tunnel opening into the canal. A dead man was pressed against the entrance to the tunnel. Three dogfrogs were trying to pull the body into the tunnel in vain, even though the tunnel was wide enough for the body to be easily hauled into it. Iron bars blocked the top half of the tunnel entrance and the head of the body was stuck between two of the bars, and the dogfrogs were only using pure force to tug the body. Their feet and side fins were an agitated frenzy of activity. They would relinquish their hold, bite at a different spot and resume their aggressive pulling. This was the most active Walters had ever seen them.
Two of the dogfrogs scattered and disappeared into the tunnel when Walters started to swim towards the body. The third dogfrog moved between the dead man and Walters, as if to protect its dear possession. It bit the left side of the man’s face and dislodged the head from between the bars, but as Walters kept approaching it also scurried away into the tunnel. The dead man drifted down a little, sitting down on the mud in a more natural position, his freed head now resting on the bottom bar.
Walters used his light to survey the area around the body. He didn’t see anything that could be associated with the dead man or the woman he was supposed to find. There was just the body of the man, sitting in front of the tunnel. To Walters the man seemed to be ready to turn around and start swimming into the tunnel. To find someplace where to hide his death. Most of his face was gone, ripped apart by the dogfrogs.
A gargoyle carved from a block of granite had a rope wrapped around its neck and wings. The other end of the rope was wrapped around the waist of the dead man. The head of the gargoyle was now resting on the man’s stomach, like a pet lamenting the demise of its owner. The man wore a white shirt, which very clearly showcased three gunshots to the chest. Most of the blood had been washed away, the now subtle stains framing and accentuating the bullet holes. Walters didn’t recall ever being so directly exposed to an assassination, so it was a little surprising for him not to be moved in the slightest. Maybe it was the serene stillness of the body, sitting between the reeds and with fish swaying around him as if he were now a rock or a decomposing log. Maybe it was the water cleansing and taking away his humanity, leaving behind just an emotionless husk.
Around the neck of the man hung a red cross. Walters unfastened the chain that had survived the repeated biting and tugging of the dogfrogs. It was an oversized and heavy cross, with red enamel coating a metallic base. Walters dropped the cheap-looking chain and pushed the cross into an elastic bag attached to his belt. Not thinking twice about it, he inspected all the pockets of the dead man, only finding a leather wallet, which he squeezed into his bag without bothering to look at its contents.
Placing his light on a shoulder of the dead man, Walters illuminated the interior of the tunnel. Green algae covered all the surfaces for the first three feet, then brown algae took over. The tunnel continued straight as far as Walters could see. The interior of the tunnel was only inhabited by floating shrimp and minuscule and slow-moving fish. No sign of the dogfrogs or any clue about where the tunnel might lead to.
Walter’s desire was to move the body of the dead man aside and start swimming along the tunnel. He could sense there was something of value to be discovered somewhere in there, going deeper into the city than he had ever gone. Even though he understood that now was not the time to survey that tunnel, which possibly would lead to a system of further interconnected tunnels and other inner spaces, it was difficult to resist the urge. Maybe he could enter the tunnel and just swim for a while, until he reached the first intersection or chamber. But he knew that once he reached that point he would be unable to go back, he would feel pressed to keep exploring.
Finally choosing not to go into the tunnel, Walters assessed where the entrance to the tunnel was in relation to the spot under the shawl and his entrypoint into the canal. He also estimated where the two men were standing on the courtyard and where he would exit the canal if he swam directly to the other side of the canal across from the tunnel.
Walters secured the light to his belt, turned around, executed several strong arm strokes to cross the width of the canal, hit the bottom of the canal with his feet and propelled himself up before hitting the wall, grabbed the rim with both hands and pushed himself into the air, landing on the courtyard and walking towards the two men in as smooth a single move as possible. Being surprising was another form of shielding yourself.
“Well, did you see anything?” Dr. Pomme asked when Walters stopped in front of him.
Walters removed the mask from his face and hung it around his neck, untied his wetsuit and pushed his hair back with both hands.
“No, I didn’t see anything of relevance,” Walters said. He judged that his answer was not too far from the truth. However, he immediately worried that the two men would see through his deception. “It was too dark, I need a more powerful torch. Also, because of the current created by the boats and such I would really need to survey a quite long stretch of the canal before I can tell you whether there is something in there or not.” Dr. Pomme seemed pleased with that explanation.
“What’s your rate?” Jameson asked. Walters was surprised by that question. He didn’t recall having a rate or ever thinking about such a thing.
“Fifteen dollars per hour plus expenses, including any gear that gets damaged during the job,” Walters said, wondering if that was a reasonable amount.
Dr. Pomme nodded. “See to it,” he said to Jameson, and then he turned around and headed towards the house.
Walters reckoned that he could have asked for more money, but he would be happy to forget about it as soon as he could get out of there.