The sun never shines beneath the Devil's Ear.
FBI Special Agent Andie Henning must have heard that warning a
dozen times on her way to Ginnie Springs, Florida. The Devil's Ear
was one of the more spectacular openings to the watery underworld
of the north Florida aquifer, a dark and dangerous limestone
labyrinth of interconnecting caves and caverns that discharged 7.7
billion gallons of crystal clear drinking water every day.
"How much farther?" Andie shouted over the roar of the single
outboard engine. The boat was at full throttle, throwing a V-shaped
wake against the inky black riverbanks. The Santa Fe was a
relatively shallow river, better suited to canoes and kayaks than
to large motorboats. Only an experienced driver could head
downstream at this speed, especially in the dead of night.
Somewhere in the darkness were egrets and alligators, but at
midnight the forest slept. The tall cypress trees were mere
silhouettes, their moss-clad limbs barely visible against the
starlit sky. A thin blanket of fog stretched across the river,
waist deep to those onboard. The speedboat cut through it like a
laser on cotton candy. Andie zipped up her FBI jacket, staving off
the wind chill.
"About two more minutes," shouted the boat driver.
Andie checked her watch. She hoped they had two minutes.
The kidnapper's late-night call had confirmed the family's payment
of a ransom, contrary to FBI advice. One million dollars in cash
seemed like a lot of money to the average person, but it was hardly
a hit to Drew Thornton, one of Ocala's richest horse breeders. The
clipped phone message advised that Mrs. Thornton could be found
beneath the Devil's Ear. It took only a minute to decipher what
that meant. The sheriff's office deployed emergency/rescue divers
immediately. Andie and two agents from the Jacksonville field
office went with them. They were part of the FBI team assigned to
the Thornton case, and Andie was the only negotiator staying
on-site in Ocala throughout the three-week ordeal.
The engine went quiet, the anchor dropped overboard, and the boat
came to a stop. Immediately, the team moved into position.
"Bottoms up!" shouted the rescue team leader.
Three scuba divers splashed into the river. With the flip of a
switch, handheld dive lights turned the black water into a clear,
glistening pool. The driver of the boat was Sheriff Buddy McClean,
a bulky man in his fifties. He and a deputy remained onboard with
Andie and the two FBI tech agents. The deputy controlled the
lifeline, a long synthetic rope that tethered each diver to the
boat. It was their road map back from the cave network. One of the
techies helped feed a transmission wire as the divers descended
with an underwater video camera. The other agent fiddled with the
monitor, trying to bring up an image.
Hundreds of air bubbles boiled to the surface. The lights grew dim
beneath the boat, and suddenly the river returned to black. It was
as if someone had pulled the geologic plug, but the monitor screen
glowing brightly in the darkness told a different story.
"There it is," said Sheriff McClean. "Devil's Ear."
Andie checked the monitor. The lights and underwater camera allowed
her to see exactly what the divers saw. The team was inside the
cavern, somewhere below the riverbed. Andie asked, "How well do
your divers know these caves, Sheriff?"
"All too well," said McClean. "Since I first swam here as a
teenager, there's been over three hundred scuba divers gone down in
Florida's caves and never come up. Devil's Ear has claimed its fair
share of unwilling souls. Pulled two out myself in my younger
"What's the chances Mrs. Thornton's actually alive?" asked the
Andie didn't answer right away. "We've had cases where kidnap
victims were buried alive and came out okay."
"Yeah, but underwater?"
"Can't say that I've heard of it," she said. "But there's a first
time for everything."
There was silence onboard, as if they all feared that this was more
likely to be the recovery of a body than the rescue of a victim.
But that didn't mean they'd given up hope.
What if she is alive? thought Andie. Did that poor woman
have any idea where she was? Somewhere beneath this black riverbed,
beneath God only knew how many feet of sand and solid limestone,
lay a living, breathing wife and mother. Perhaps she was trapped in
some pressurized tank or capsule, a dark and silent cocoon, enough
air for an hour or two. Or worse, maybe her kidnapper had turned
her loose down there with nothing but a mask, tank, and regulator.
Either way, she'd be in total darkness, unable to find -- no,
feel -- her way out of this aquatic honeycomb. Perhaps she
could hear or possibly even feel the strong currents rushing past
her, cool springwater flowing as fast as a hundred cubic feet per
second. She might decide to go with the flow, or try to fight it,
no way of knowing which way was up. Jagged rocks could cut like
knives. A sudden change in ceiling height could damage her
breathing equipment or knock her unconscious. But not even in her
most harrowing moment of panic could she even begin to imagine that
some of these cave systems stretched as long as seventeen miles,
that she could be carried hundreds or thousands of feet below the
surface, that the average liter of drinking water drawn from
Florida's aquifer percolated and circulated around and around for
twenty years before reaching the surface.
Unconscious, thought Andie. Alive but unconscious. That was
by far the best-case scenario.
"Where are they now?" asked Andie.
Sheriff McClean took a closer look at the screen. The divers had
long since passed the point where it mattered if it was night or
day. "I'd say about two hundred feet into the cave."
"How can you tell?"
Excerpted from GOT THE LOOK © Copyright 2011 by James
Grippando. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights