There was a gap between the next two stones. It was a tempting distance. Almost stepping distance but just an inch out of comfort range. The stone I was on was flat, low to the water, but solid underfoot. The next one was sort of curved on one side with a point.
"Afraid you're going to get your feet wet?" Aikensen flashed a smile that was more a baring of white teeth in the dark.
"Jealous that you're wet and I'm not?"
"I could get you wet," he said.
"Only in my nightmares," I said. I had to leap for it and hope some miracle of balance kept me safe. I glanced back at the bank. I thought about asking the divers if they had an extra dry suit for me, but it seemed cowardly with Aikensen shivering on the rocks. Besides, I could probably make the jump. Probably.
I backed to the edge of the rock I was standing on, and jumped. There was a second of being airborne, then my foot hit the rock. My foot slid off to one side. I collapsed onto the rock hugging it with both hands and one leg. The other leg ended up thigh deep in ice cold water. The shock of it left me cursing.
I struggled back up on the rock, water streaming from the jean's pants leg. My foot hadn't touched bottom. The water on either side of the rocks would come up to my waist, if Aikensen's little wading show was a good indication. I'd found a sinkhole deep enough to have doused every inch of me. Lucky it was just my leg.
Aikensen was laughing at me. If it had been anyone else, we might have laughed together at how ridiculous all this was, but it was him, and he laughed at me.
"At least I didn't drop my flashlight," I said. It sounded childish even to me, but he stopped laughing. Sometimes childish will get you what you want.
I was beside the skin now. Up close, it was even more impressive. I'd known it was reptilian from the bank. Standing next to it, I could see it was definitely a snake. The largest scales were the size of my palm. The empty eye sockets were the size of golf balls. I reached out to touch it. Something swirled against my arm as I reached for it. I screamed before I realized it was the undulating snakeskin spreading out in the water. When I could breathe again, I touched the skin. I expected it to be light, a sloughed skin. It was heavy, meaty.
I turned the edge of it to the light. It wasn't a sloughed skin. The snake had been skinned. Whether it had been alive when the skinning started was a moot point. It was dead now. Very few creatures can survive being skinned alive.
There was something about the scales and shape of the head that reminded me of a cobra, but the scales, even in the light of a flashlight, gleamed with opalescence. The snake wasn't any one color. It was like a rainbow or an oil slick. The color changed depending on the angle of the light.
"You going to play with it, or can the divers come and get it?" Aikensen asked.
I ignored him for the moment. There was something on the snake's forehead, almost between the eyes. Something smooth and round and white. I ran my fingers over it. It was a pearl. A pearl the size of a golf ball. What the hell was a giant pearl doing embedded in the head of a snake? And why hadn't whoever skinned the creature taken the pearl with him?
Aikensen leaned forward running a hand over the skin. "Yuck. What the hell is it?"
"Giant snake," I said.
He jerked back with a yell. He started scraping at his arms as if he could wipe off the feel of it.
"Afraid of snakes, Aikensen?"
He glared at me. "No."
It was a lie, and we both knew it.
"The two of you enjoy being out on those rocks?" Titus asked. "Get a move on."
"You see anything significant about the placement of the skin, Anita?" Dolph asked.
"Not really. The thing might have just gotten hooked on the rocks. I don't think it was purposefully placed here."
"We can move it then?"
I nodded. "Yeah, the divers can come in. Aikensen's already tested the water for predators."
Aikensen looked at me. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means there might have been creepy-crawlies in the water, but nothing tried to eat you, so it's safe."
"You used me for bait."
"You fell in."
"Ms. Blake say we can move the thing?" Titus asked.
"Yes," Dolph said.
"Go to it, boys."
The divers all looked at each other. "Can we have the spotlight now?" MacAdam asked.
"Sure," I said.
The light smashed into me. I put a hand up to shield my eyes and nearly slipped off the rock. Jesus it was bright. The water was still opaque, black, and choppy, but the rocks glistened and Aikensen and I were suddenly center stage. The bright light washed all the color from the snakeskin.
MacAdam slipped his face mask on, regulator secure in his mouth. Only one other diver followed his lead. Guess they didn't need four to go in after the skin.
"Why're they putting on tanks just to wade out here?" Aikensen asked.
"Insurance in case the current gets them, or they find a sinkhole."
"Current's not that bad."
"Bad enough that if it catches the skin, the skin's gone. With tanks you can follow something in the water all the way down, wherever it goes."
"You sound like you've done it."
"Well, aren't you multitalented," he said.
The divers were almost out to us. Their tanks looked like the backs of whales sticking out of the water. MacAdam raised his face mask out of the water, and put a gloved hand on the rocks. He took the regulator out of his mouth, hugging the rock and paddling with his legs to keep free of the current. The other diver moved over by Aikensen.
"There a problem if we tear the skin?" MacAdam asked.
"I'll unhook it from this side of the rock."
"You'll get your arm wet."
"I'll live, right?"
I couldn't see his face well enough under all the equipment, but I'd bet he was frowning at me.
"Yeah, you'll live."
I moved my hand down the front of the skin until I hit water. The cold made me hesitate, but only for a heartbeat. I reached down, soaking myself to the shoulder to untangle it. My hand touched something slick and solid that wasn't skin. I gave a small yip and jerked back, nearly falling. I got my balance and went for my gun.
I had time to say, "Something's down there." It surfaced.
A round face, with a screaming lipless mouth, shot upward, hands reaching for MacAdam. I had a glimpse of dark eyes before it fell back into the water.
The divers got the hell out of there, swimming with strong sure strokes for shore.
Aikensen had stumbled back, falling into the water. He came up sputtering, gun in hand.
"Don't shoot it," I said. The thing surfaced again. I slid in beside it. It shrieked, its human-shaped hand groping for me. It grabbed a handful of jacket and pulled itself to me. My gun was in my hand, but I didn't shoot.
Aikensen was aiming at it. Shouts from the shore. The other cops coming, but there was no time. There was just Aikensen and me in the river.
The creature clung to me, not screaming now, just clinging as if I were the last thing in the world. It buried its earless face into my chest. I pointed my gun at Aikensen's chest.
That seemed to get his attention. He blinked, focusing on me. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Point it somewhere else, Aikensen."
'I'm tired of looking down the barrel of your gun, bitch."