The day she discovered the third letter, she had of course expected nothing unusual. It was a typical midsummer day in Boston-hot, humid, with the same news that usually accompanied such weather-a few assaults brought on by aggravated tensions and two early afternoon murders by people who had taken it too far. Theresa was in the newsroom, researching a topic on autistic children. The Boston Times had an excellent database of articles published in previous years from a variety of magazines. Through her computer she could also access the library at Harvard University or Boston University, and the addition of literally hundreds of thousands of articles they had at their disposal made any search much easier and less time-consuming than it had been even a few years ago. In a couple of hours she had been able to find almost thirty articles written in the last three years that had been published in journals she had never heard of, and six of the titles looked interesting enough to possibly use. Since she would be passing by Harvard on the way home, she decided to pick them up then. As she was about to turn off her computer, a thought suddenly crossed her mind and she stopped. Why not? she asked herself. It's a long shot, but what can I lose? She sat down at her desk, accessed the database at Harvard again, and typed in the words MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE Because articles in the library system were indexed by subject or headline, she chose to scan by headlines to speed up the search. Subject searches usually produced more articles, but weeding through them was a laborious process, and she didn't have time to do it now. After hitting the return key, she leaned back and waited for the computer to retrieve the information she requested. The response surprised her-a dozen different articles had been written on the subject in the last few years. Most of those were published by scientific journals, and their titles seemed to suggest that bottles were being used in various endeavors to learn about ocean currents. Three articles seemed interesting, though, and she jotted down the titles, deciding to pick those up as well. Traffic was heavy and slow, and it took longer than she thought it would to get to the library and copy the nine articles she was looking for. She got home late, and after ordering in from the local Chinese restaurant, she sat on the couch with the three articles on messages in bottles in front of her. An article published in Yankee magazine in March of the previous year was the first one she picked up. It related some history about messages in bottles and chronicled stories about bottles that had washed up in New England over the past few years. Some of the letters that had been found were truly memorable. She especially enjoyed reading about Paolina and Ake Viking. Paolina's father had found a message in a bottle that had been sent by Ake, a young Swedish sailor. Ake, who had grown bored during one of his many trips at sea, asked for any pretty woman who found it to write back. The father gave it to Paolina, who in turn wrote to Ake. One letter led to another, and when Ake finally traveled to Sicily to meet her, they realized how much they were in love. They married soon after. Toward the end of the article, she came across two paragraphs that told of yet another message that had washed up on the beaches of Long Island: Most messages sent by bottle usually ask the finder to respond once with little hope of a lifelong correspondence. Sometimes, however, the senders do not want a response. One such letter, a moving tribute to a lost love, was discovered washed up on Long Island last year. In part it read: "Without you in my arms, I feel an emptiness in my soul. I find myself searching the crowds for your face-I know it is an impossibility, but I cannot help myself. My search for you is a never-ending quest that is doomed to fail. You and I had talked about what would happen if we were forced apart by circumstance, but I cannot keep the promise I made to you that night. I am sorry, my darling, but there will never be another to replace you. The words I whispered to you were folly, and I should have realized it then. You-and you alone-have always been the only thing I wanted, and now that you are gone, I have no desire to find another. Till death do us part, we whispered in the church, and I've come to believe that the words will ring true until the day finally comes when I, too, am taken from this world." She stopped eating and abruptly put down her fork. It can't be! She found herself staring at the words. It's simply not possible. . . . But . . . but . . . who else could it be? She wiped her brow, aware that her hands were suddenly shaking. Another letter? She flipped to the front of the article and looked at the author's name. It had been written by Arthur Shendakin, Ph.D., a professor of history at Boston College, meaning . . . he must live in the area. She jumped up and retrieved the phone book on the stand near the dining room table. She thumbed through it, looking for the name. There were fewer than a dozen Shendakins listed, although only two seemed like a possibility. Both had "A" listed as the first initial, and she checked her watch before dialing. Nine-thirty. Late, but not too late. She punched in the numbers. The first call was answered by a woman who said she had the wrong number, and when she put down the phone, she noticed her throat had gone dry. She went to the kitchen and filled a glass with water. After taking a long drink, she took a deep breath and went back to the phone. She made sure she dialed the correct number and waited as the phone started to ring. Once. Twice. Three times. On the fourth ring she began to lose hope, but on the fifth ring she heard the other line pick up. "Hello," a man said. By the sound of his voice, she thought he must be in his sixties. She cleared her throat. "Hello, this is Theresa Osborne of the Boston Times. Is this Arthur Shendakin?" "Yes, it is," he answered, sounding surprised. Keep calm, she told herself. "Oh, hi. I was just calling to find out if this is the same Arthur Shendakin who had an article published last year in Yankee magazine about messages in bottles." "Yes, I wrote that. How can I help you?" Her hands felt sweaty on the receiver. "I was curious about one of the messages you said had washed up on Long Island. Do you remember which letter I'm talking about?" "Can I ask why you're interested?" "Well," she began, "the Times is thinking of doing an article on the same topic, and we were interested in obtaining a copy of the letter." She winced at her own lie, but telling the truth seemed worse. How would that have sounded? Oh, hi, I'm infatuated with a mysterious man who sends messages in bottles, and I'm wondering if the letter that you found was written by him as well. . . . He answered slowly. "Well, I don't know. That was the letter that inspired me to write the articles . . . I'd have to think about it." Theresa's throat tightened. "So, you have the letter?" "Yes. I found it a couple of years ago." "Mr. Shendakin, I know this is an unusual request, but I can tell you that if you let us use the letter, we'd be happy to pay you a small sum. And we don't need the actual letter. A copy of it will do, so you really wouldn't be giving anything up." She could tell the request surprised him. "How much are we talking about?" I don't know, I'm making all this up on the fly. How much do you want? "We're willing to offer three hundred dollars, and of course, you'll be properly credited as the person who found it." He paused for a moment, considering. Theresa chimed back in before he could formulate a rejection. "Mr. Shendakin, I'm sure there's a part of you that's worried about the similarity between your article and what the newspaper intends to print. I can assure you that they will be very different. The article that we're doing is mainly about the direction that bottles travel-you know, ocean currents and all that. We just want some actual letters that will provide some sort of human interest to our readers." Where did that come from? "Well . . ." "Please, Mr. Shendakin. It would really mean a lot to me." He was silent for a moment. "Just a copy?" Yes! "Yes, of course. I can give you a fax number, or you can send it. Should I make the check out to you?" He paused again before answering. "I . . . I suppose so." He sounded as though he'd been somehow maneuvered into a corner and didn't know how to get out. "Thanks, Mr. Shendakin." Before he could change his mind, Theresa gave him the fax number, took his address, and made a note to pick up a money order the following day. She thought it might look suspicious if she sent one of her personal checks. *  *  * The next day, after calling the professor's office at Boston College to leave a message for him that the payment had been sent, she went to work with her head spinning. The possible existence of a third letter made it difficult to think of anything else. True, there still wasn't any guarantee that the letter was from the same person, but if it was, she didn't know what she would do. She'd thought about Garrett almost all night, trying to picture what he looked like, imagining things he liked to do. She didn't understand quite what she was feeling, but in the end she finally decided to let the letter decide things. If it wasn't from Garrett, she would end all this now. She wouldn't use her computer to search for him, she wouldn't look for evidence of any other letters. And if she found herself continuing to obsess, she would throw the two letters away. Curiosity was fine as long as it didn't take over your life-and she wouldn't let that happen. But, on the other hand, if the letter was from Garrett . . . She still didn't know what she would do then. Part of her hoped it wouldn't be, so she wouldn't have to make that decision. When she got to her desk, she purposely waited before going to the fax machine. She turned on her computer, called two physicians she needed to speak with about the column she was writing, and jotted a few notes on possible other topics. By the time she had finished her busywork, she had almost convinced herself that the letter wouldn't be from him. There are probably thousands of letters floating around in the ocean, she told herself. Odds are it's someone else. She finally went to the fax machine when she couldn't think of anything else to do and began to look through the stack. It hadn't been sorted yet, and there were a few dozen pages addressed to various people. In the middle of the stack, she found a cover letter addressed to her. With it were two more pages, and when she looked more closely at them, the first thing she noticed-as she had with the other two letters-was the sailing ship embossed in the upper right corner. But this one was shorter than the other letters, and she read it before she got back to her desk. The final paragraph was the one she had seen in Arthur Shendakin's article. September 25, 1995 Dear Catherine, A month has passed since I've written, but it has seemed to pass much more slowly. Life passes by now like the scenery outside a car window. I breathe and eat and sleep as I always did, but there seems to be no great purpose in my life that requires active participation on my part. I simply drift along like the messages I write you. I do not know where I am going or when I will get there. Even work does not take the pain away. I may be diving for my own pleasure or showing others how to do so, but when I return to the shop, it seems empty without you. I stock and order as I always did, but even now, I sometimes glance over my shoulder without thinking and call for you. As I write this note to you, I wonder when, or if, things like that will ever stop. Without you in my arms, I feel an emptiness in my soul. I find myself searching the crowds for your face-I know it is an impossibility, but I cannot help myself. My search for you is a never-ending quest that is doomed to fail. You and I had talked about what would happen if we were forced apart by circumstance, but I cannot keep the promise I made to you that night. I am sorry, my darling, but there will never be another to replace you. The words I whispered to you were folly, and I should have realized it then. You-and you alone-have always been the only thing I wanted, and now that you are gone, I have no desire to find another. Till death do us part, we whispered in the church, and I've come to believe that the words will ring true until the day finally comes when I, too, am taken from this world. Garrett "Deanna, do you have a minute? I need to talk to you." Deanna looked up from her computer and took off her reading glasses. "Of course I do. What's up?" Theresa laid the three letters on Deanna's desk without speaking. Deanna picked them up one by one, her eyes widening in surprise. "Where did you get these other two letters?" Theresa explained how she'd come across them. When she finished her story, Deanna read the letters in silence. Theresa sat in the chair opposite her. "Well," she said, putting down the last letter, "you've certainly been keeping a secret, haven't you?" Theresa shrugged, and Deanna went on. "But there's more to this than just finding the letters, isn't there?" "What do you mean?" "I mean," Deanna said with a sly smile, "you didn't come in here because you found the letters. You came in here because you're interested in this Garrett fellow." Theresa's mouth opened, and Deanna laughed. "Don't look so surprised, Theresa. I'm not complete idiot. I knew something was going on these last few days. You've been so distracted around here-it's like you've been a hundred miles away. I was going to ask you about it, but I figured you'd talk to me when you were ready." "I thought I was keeping things under control." "Perhaps for other people. But I've known you long enough to know when something's up with you." She smiled again. "So tell me, what's going on?" Theresa thought for a moment. "It's been really strange. I mean, I can't stop thinking about him, and I don't know why. It's like I'm in high school again and I have a crush on someone I've never met. Only this is worse-not only have we never spoken, but I've never even seen him. For all I know, he could be a seventy-year-old man." Deanna leaned back in her chair and nodded thoughtfully. "That's true . . . but you don't think that's the case, do you?" Theresa slowly shook her head. "No, not really." "Neither do I," Deanna said as she picked up the letters again. "He talks about how they fell in love when they were young, he hasn't mentioned any children, he teaches diving, and writes about Catherine as if he had only been married a few years. I doubt if he's that old." "That's what I thought, too." "Do you want to know what I think?" "Absolutely." Deanna spoke the words carefully. "I think you should go to Wilmington to try to find Garrett." "But it seems so . . . so ridiculous, even to me-" "Why?" "Because I don't know anything about him." "Theresa, you know a good deal more about Garrett than I did about Brian before I met him. And besides, I didn't tell you to marry him, I just told you to go find him. You may find out that you don't like him at all, but at least you'll know, won't you? I mean, what can it hurt?" "What if . . ." She paused, and Deanna finished her statement. "What if he's not what you imagine? Theresa, I can guarantee he's not what you're imagining already. No one ever is. But to my mind, that shouldn't make any difference in your decision. If you think you want to find out more, just go. The worst thing that can happen is you find out he's not the kind of man you're looking for. And what would you do then? You'd come back to Boston, but you'd come back with your answer. How bad would that be? Probably no worse than what you're going through now." "You don't think this whole thing is crazy?" Deanna shook her head thoughtfully. "Theresa, I've wanted you to start looking for another man for a long time. Like I told you when we were on vacation, you deserve to find another person to share your life with. Now, I don't know how this whole thing with Garrett will work out. If I had to bet, I'd say it's probably not going to lead to anything. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. If everyone who thought they might fail didn't even try, where would we be today?" Theresa was silent for a moment. "You're being much too logical about this whole thing. . . ." Deanna shrugged off her protests. "I'm older than you, and I've gone through a lot. One of the things I've learned in my life is that sometimes you've got to take a chance. And to me, this one isn't all that large. I mean, you're not leaving your husband and family to go find this person, you're not giving up your job and moving across the country. You're really in a wonderful situation. There's no downside for you to go, so don't blow this out of proportion. If you feel like you should go, go. If you don't want to go, don't. It's really as simple as that. Besides, Kevin isn't around and you have plenty of vacation left this year." Theresa began twisting a strand of hair around her finger. "And my column?" "Don't worry about it. We still have the one column you wrote that we didn't use because we published the letter instead. After that, we can run a couple of repeats from past years. Most papers hadn't picked up your column then, so they probably won't know the difference." "You make this sound so easy." "It is easy. The hard part is going to be finding him. But I think these letters have some information we can use to help you. What do you say we make a few phone calls and do a little hunting on the computer?" They were both silent for a long time. "Okay," Theresa said finally. "But I hope I don't end up regretting this." *  *  * "So," Theresa asked Deanna, "where do we begin?" She pulled her chair around to the other side of Deanna's desk. "First off," Deanna began, "let's begin with what we're pretty sure about. First, I think it's fair to say that his name actually is Garrett. That's how he signed all the letters, and I don't think he would have bothered using a name other than his own. He might have done so if it was only one letter, but with three letters, I'm fairly confident that it's either his first name, or even his middle name. Either way, it's the name he's called by." "And," Theresa added, "he's probably in Wilmington or Wrightsville Beach, or another community close by." Deanna nodded. "All his letters talk about the ocean or ocean themes, and of course, that's where he throws the bottles. From the tone of the letters, it sounds like he writes them when he gets lonely or when he's thinking about Catherine." "That's what I thought. He didn't seem to mention any special occasions in the letters. They talked about his day-to-day life, and what he was going through." "Okay, good," Deanna said, nodding. She was getting more excited as they went on. "There was a boat that was mentioned . . ." "Happenstance," Theresa said. "The letter said that they restored the boat and used to sail together. So, it's probably a sailboat." "Write that down," Deanna said. "We may be able to find out more about that with a couple of calls from here. Maybe there's a place that registers boats by name. I think I can call the paper down there to find out. Was there anything else in the second letter?" "Not that I can tell. But the third letter has a little bit more information. From what he writes, two things stand out." Deanna chimed in. "One, that Catherine has indeed passed away." "And also that it looks like he owns a scuba-diving shop where he and Catherine used to work." "That's another thing to write down. I think we can find out more about that from up here as well. Anything else?" "I don't think so." "Well, it's a good beginning. This might be easier than we think. Let's start making some calls." The first place Deanna called was the Wilmington Journal, the newspaper that served the area. She identified herself and asked to speak with someone who was familiar with boating. After a couple of transfers, she found herself speaking with Zack Norton, who covered sportfishing and other ocean sports. After explaining that she wanted to know if there was a place that kept a registry of boat names, she was told that there wasn't. "Boats are registered with an identification number, almost like cars," he said in a slow drawl, "but if you have the name of the person, you might be able to find out the name of the boat on the form if it's listed. It's not a required piece of information, but a lot of people put it down anyway." Deanna scribbled the words "Boats not registered by name" on the pad in front of her and showed it to Theresa. "That was a dead end," Theresa said quietly. Deanna put her hand over the receiver and whispered, "Maybe, maybe not. Don't give up so easily." After thanking Zack Norton for his time and hanging up, Deanna looked over the list of clues again. She thought for a moment, then decided to call information for the phone numbers of scuba-diving shops in the Wilmington area. Theresa watched as Deanna wrote down the names and numbers of the eleven shops that were listed. "Is there anything else I can do for you, ma'am?" the operator asked. "No, you've been more than helpful. Thank you." She hung up the phone, and Theresa looked at her curiously. "What are you going to ask them when you call?" "I'm going to ask for Garrett." Theresa's heart skipped a beat. "Just like that?" "Just like that," Deanna said, smiling as she dialed. She motioned for Theresa to pick up the other extension, "just in case it's him," and they both waited quietly for someone to answer at Atlantic Adventures, the first name they were given. When the phone finally picked up, Deanna took a deep breath and asked pleasantly if Garrett was available to teach any classes. "I'm sorry, I think you have the wrong number," the voice said quickly. Deanna apologized and hung up. They received the same answer on the next five calls. Unswayed, Deanna went down the list to the next name and dialed again. Expecting the same answer, she was surprised when the person on the line hesitated for a moment. "Are you talking about Garrett Blake?" Garrett. Theresa nearly fell from the chair at the sound of his name. Deanna said yes, and the man who answered went on. "He's with Island Diving. Are you sure we can't help you? We've got some classes starting soon." Deanna quickly excused herself. "No, I'm sorry. I really need to work with Garrett. I promised him I would." When she put the phone back in the cradle, she was smiling broadly. "So, we're getting close now." "I can't believe it was that easy. . . ." "It wasn't that easy, if you think about it, Theresa. Unless a person found more than one letter, it wouldn't have been possible." "Do you think it's the same Garrett?" She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. "Don't you?" "I don't know yet. Maybe." Deanna shrugged off the reply. "Well, we'll find out soon enough. This is getting fun." Deanna then called information again and got the number for the ship registry of Wilmington. After dialing, she told the voice on the line who she was and asked for someone who could help her verify some information. "My husband and I were vacationing down there," she told the woman who answered the phone, "when our boat broke down. This nice gentleman found us and helped us get back to shore. His name was Garrett Blake, and I think the name of his boat was Happenstance, but I want to be sure when I write the story." Deanna went on, refusing to let the woman get a word in edgewise. She told her how scared she had been and how much it had meant when Garrett had come to their rescue. Then, after flattering the woman about how nice people were in the South and Wilmington in particular and how she wanted to do a story on southern hospitality and the kindness of strangers, the woman was more than willing to help. "Since you're just verifying the information and not asking for anything you don't know, I'm sure it won't be a problem. Hold on for a second." Deanna drummed her fingers on the desk while the sounds of Barry Manilow wafted through the receiver. The woman picked up again. "Okay. Let's see now . . ." Deanna heard tapping on a keyboard, then a strange beep. After a moment, the woman said the words that both Deanna and Theresa hoped she would. "Yes, here it is. Garrett Blake. Um . . . you got the name right, at least according to the information we have. It says here that the boat is named Happenstance." Deanna thanked her profusely and asked for the lady's name, "so she could write about another person who epitomized hospitality." After spelling it back to the woman, she hung up the phone, beaming. "Garrett Blake," she said with a victorious smile. "Our mysterious writer is named Garrett Blake." "I can't believe you found him." Deanna nodded as if she'd accomplished something even she doubted she could do. "Believe it. This old woman still knows how to research information." "That you do." "Anything else that you want to know more about?" Theresa thought for a moment. "Can you find out anything about Catherine?" Deanna shrugged and readied herself for the task. "I don't know, but we can give it a try. Let's call the paper to see if anything is in their records. If the death was accidental, it may have been written up." Again, Deanna called the paper and asked for the news department. Unfortunately, after speaking with a couple of people, she was told that newspapers from a few years back were recorded on microfiche and couldn't be accessed easily without a specific date. Deanna asked for and received a name that Theresa should contact when she got down there, in case she wanted to look up the information on her own. "I think that's about all we can do from here. The rest is up to you, Theresa. But at least you know where to find him." Deanna held out the slip of paper with the name. Theresa hesitated. Deanna looked at her for a moment, then set the paper on the desk. She picked up the phone one more time. "Now who're you calling?" "My travel agency. You're going to need a flight and a place to stay." "I haven't even said I was going yet." "Oh, you're going." "How can you be so sure?" "Because I'm not going to have you sitting around the newsroom for the next year wondering what might have been. You don't work well when you're distracted." "Deanna . . ." "Don't 'Deanna' me. You know the curiosity would drive you crazy. It's already driving me crazy." "But-" "But nothing." She paused for a moment, and her words came softer. "Theresa, remember-you've got nothing to lose. The worst that could possibly happen is that you fly home in a couple of days. That's all. You're not going on a quest to search for a tribe of cannibals. You're just going to find out if your curiosity was warranted." They were both silent as they stared at each other. Deanna had a slight smirk on her face, and Theresa felt her pulse quicken as the finality of the decision hit her. My God, I'm actually going to do this. I can't believe I'm going along with this. Still, she gave one last halfhearted attempt at denial. "I don't even know what I would say if I finally met him. . . ." "I'm sure you'll think of something. Now, let me take care of this call. Go get your purse. I'm going to need a credit card number." Theresa's mind was a whirl as she started back to her desk. Garrett Blake. Wilmington. Diving. Happenstance. The words kept rolling through her head, as if she were rehearsing for a part in a play. She unlocked the bottom drawer where she kept her purse and paused for a second before going back. But something else had taken hold of her, and in the end she handed Deanna a credit card. The following evening she would leave for Wilmington, North Carolina. Deanna told her to take the rest of that day and the following off, and on her way out of the office, Theresa sort of felt as if she had been cornered into something in the same way she had cornered old Mr. Shendakin. But unlike Mr. Shendakin, deep down she was pleased about it, and when the plane touched down in Wilmington the following day, Theresa Osborne checked into a hotel, wondering where all this would lead.