Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
A few people were fishing from the dock, and they made a half-hearted attempt to hide their breakfast beers when they saw the patrol boat. Hall pretended not to notice and waved. Two boats were anchored near the cement pilings of the highway bridge, the anglers were fishing for the sheepshead that were attracted to the barnacles and other marine life. He eased up to them and checked their fishing licenses. All the fishermen had a license, and each boat had the proper floatation devices, fire extinguishers, and signaling equipment. They said the fishing had been slow so far and had the empty coolers to prove it.
Just as he was untying from the second boat, a speedboat came under the causeway at full throttle, oblivious to the no-wake zone. The waves from the speeding boat slammed the fishermen against the bridge, and when Hall started his motor to go after the speedboat the fishermen cheered. The speedboat roared past the boat landing, infuriating the couple who just managed to get their new boat under way, and almost knocked the woman out of the boat with its huge wake. The rouge continued south into Calibogue Sound without slowing.
His patrol boat was equipped with blue strobe lights and a siren, but Hall knew it was futile to activate them. With any luck the operator didn’t know he was being pursued, and Hall might catch up with him when he stopped. Hall had his boat at full speed, and the speedboat continued to pull away from him. The boat was nearly a mile in front of him when he heard the noise from its motors change pitch. The boat dropped off plane, and Hall saw it pull into the Harbour Town Marina.
The red and white lighthouse at the Harbour Town yacht basin was the most recognizable landmark on Hilton Head Island. It was built by the developers of Sea Pines resort to serve as a reference for cruising boaters and it was the backdrop for the eighteenth hole of their signature golf course. Tourists used it more than mariners, climbing the steps to enjoy the beautiful sunsets on Calibouge Sound and the view across the water to Daufuskie Island.
By the time Hall entered the yacht basin, the captain of the speeding boat had already secured his dock lines and was preparing to go ashore. Harbour Town was crowded with people. Shoppers, tourists, and golfers waiting for their tee time filled the restaurants and shops. The open-air ice cream stand was busy and so were the gas docks. Someone was parasailing above Calibouge Sound. Hall felt a thousand pairs of eyes on him as he idled up to the offender.
He was better prepared this time. After being humiliated in court, he knew what to expect from someone who could afford a boat like this.
“Sir, I need to see some identification and your vessel documentation, please.”
The operator of the speedboat quickly handed over the information.
“Officer, do you mind my asking what I’ve done?” he asked.
Prepared for an attack, Hall was surprised by the man’s respectful tone.
“You sped through a no-wake zone when you went under the causeway,” Hall answered.
Hall stopped speaking and began writing the citation. Speeding tickets for boaters didn’t carry the same weight as a ticket for motorists. When a cop wrote a speeding ticket it was the increase in insurance rates that kept the driver honest, at least for a little while. Only a few states required boaters to be licensed and South Carolina wasn’t one of them. The fifty-dollar fine for the violation was less than the owner spent to fill his gas tanks for a day on the water.
The man accepted his ticket and asked Hall if he could pay the fine without going to court. Hall told him that he could, got back into his boat and prepared to leave, when the man spoke again.
“Officer, I’m sorry about that. I usually go around Pinckney Island on the other side. For what its worth, it won’t happen again,” he said.
Hall said, “It’s worth a lot. Thanks for understanding.”
Hall left the harbor without looking at anyone else. He felt bad for giving a ticket to someone who seemed to be a pretty nice guy. Especially when he knew there were more deserving people. He decided to go to Beaufort to search for the old barge he had seen yesterday.
“Take it easy son. Let the drag work for you.”
From his perch on the poling platform of his fishing skiff, Silas York offered the words of advice to the nine-year-old boy who was tied to a good redfish. The boy and his father were his charter for the day and they had already caught some nice fish. This one, however, was the best by far.
Just when the fish was close to the boat it made another sizzling run, pulling out thirty yards of line against the drag and bouncing the rod in the young boy’s hands.
The father echoed Silas’s advice, and soon the fish was at the side of the boat again, tired and ready to land. The guide netted the big fish head-first and dislodged the treble hook from its lower lip. After showing the boy how to hold it without hurting the fish, he handed him his trophy and took a few pictures for the happy father and son. Silas took a picture of them with his camera because he wanted to remember too. After taking the fish back he laid it on top of the cooler against the ruler that was molded into the plastic.
“Twenty-seven and one-half inches,” Silas announced. “A half an inch longer and we’d have to let her go.”
For the first time since he’d hooked the big fish, the young boy lost his smile. When Silas opened the cooler the boy spoke.
“Dad, do we have to keep it? We’ve got plenty of fish to eat,” the boy said.
The father and the guide looked at each other and both were pleased.
“Of course not, son.”
The boy’s smile returned and Silas knelt over the edge of the boat to release the fish back into its world. Then he stopped.
“Would you like to do it?” Silas asked.
The boy cradled the fish in his hands and worked it back and forth in the water until it swam freely from his grasp. The young man stared at the water for a while, and Silas thought about the contrast between these people and clients that wanted him to keep fish that were smaller than the legal length or take more fish than the law allowed.
“That’s a fine son you’ve got there,” he told the father.
A few minutes later the Native Son was grounded on the point of Dawes Island where Silas knew the sea breeze always kept the mosquitoes and no-see-ums away. He built a small fire from a stash of driftwood he kept there and filleted two of the trout they had caught. They washed down the fish and some potato chips with some cold sodas, and everyone agreed it was the best meal they’d had in quite a while.
After lunch they explored a few creeks on the northern side of Port Royal Sound, riding the rising tide into the marsh grass. They caught a few more reds and trout and ran into a school of ladyfish that spent more time in the air than the water when they were hooked. No good to eat, the small acrobatic fish provided the best entertainment of the afternoon.
Just as the day was about to end, Silas looked across the marsh grass and saw something unusual. Tied up to an abandoned fishouse on the creek that led to the Penn Center was some type of large boat. He polled his boat a few yards further and took a pair of binoculars from underneath the console.
The superstructure of the boat had been blue at one time but was now heavily streaked with rust. This was the barge Hall was looking for. Before Silas could think of anything else the father grunted and Silas heard the drag on his spinning reel begin to sing.
“Holy smokes, this is a lot bigger than anything I’ve hooked so far,” the father said.
Silas agreed. The fish, still taking line, headed for deeper water, and Silas started the engine on the boat in order to follow it. He didn’t want the fish to drag the fragile fishing line against the sharp oyster shells, and when the boat was in deeper water he turned the engine off. The fish was stronger than the one the boy had caught earlier, but the father was stronger than the son. Both speculated aloud about what was attached to the other end of the line. Silas felt he knew but didn’t want to break the spell.
“Shark!” the boy yelled as soon as the ghost-gray outline was visible in the water.
“Is it a hammerhead?” the boy asked the guide.
“Bonnet-head shark,” Silas answered. “See how his head protrudes from his body, but his eyes are still above his mouth?” Silas asked.
The two anglers studied the fish in the water and admired the way Silas removed the hook with the gaff, without causing harm to the fish or risking his fingers.
“Pretty good way to end the day,” Silas said.
Both of the fishermen agreed.
Silas cleaned the fish for his clients as he always did and didn’t neglect Gale’s bird. It came swooping in from the marsh as soon as he tied up to the dock and didn’t leave until it had devoured the remains of two trout. The boy seemed to enjoy throwing the fish carcasses to the bird almost as much as he enjoyed catching the fish.
“Thank-you for a wonderful day,” the father said as he paid Silas and included a nice tip. “We’ll see you next year.”
Silas washed down his skiff and thought about how nice it would be when he had a collection of clients who returned year after year. A year or two of hard work, he reasoned, and he would have a business that actually paid for itself.
When the boat was clean he made a sandwich out of some cold boiled shrimp, French bread, and homemade mayonnaise. In Gale’s office he found the phone number he was looking for and called his friend.
Hall didn’t receive the voicemail from Silas until he was back at home and had washed his boat down. He’d spent the entire afternoon looking in all the wrong places. He’d found creeks that weren’t on the navigational charts and couldn’t find ones that were supposed to be there. He checked dozens of fishermen during his search and issued eight citations, but he didn’t find the barge he was looking for.
Now he was home and he didn’t feel like going back out on the water. Hall wasn’t comfortable yet on the water after dark, especially somewhere he hadn’t been before. Silas’s message said that he saw the barge in a creek that led to the Penn Center which was one of the few areas he didn’t check today. He changed out of his uniform and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and went out to his boat and turned on his GPS unit. He cycled through the menu and located the route he’d taken when he dropped the confiscated fish off at the Penn Center. He was able to determine the latitude and longitude of the area that Silas had described and entered the coordinates into a hand-held satellite receiver. He put the unit, which was not much bigger than a cell phone, in his pocket and got the keys to his work truck.
Even with guidance from millions of dollars of satellite technology, and a five dollar map from a convenience store, it took Hall longer than he expected to find the road he was looking for. He turned off the blacktop and onto a sandy road that didn’t seem to get much traffic. All of the lights on the truck went out when he flipped a switch on his dashboard except for a pair of small lights mounted under his bumper that cast a dull beam of light just a few feet in front of the truck. Trees and brush towered over both sides of his truck and closed in on him. Five minutes later the drainage ditch on one side of the road leveled out, and he pulled his truck twenty yards off of the road. The handheld GPS unit indicated it was less than half a mile to the water from here. He used a military surplus camouflage parachute to cover his truck, a trick he’d learned from Jimmy when they had conducted a fruitless stake-out for deer poachers one lonely light.
Back on the road on foot he held his flashlight parallel to the ground just a few inches from the dusty surface. There were several sets of tire tracks, but eventually he was able to determine that a heavy truck with dual rear wheels had driven up and down this road several times since the last rain. Hall turned off his flashlight, waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and started walking.
A symphony of cicadas and tree crickets, katydids, and a tree frog seemed as loud as a rowdy crowd at a baseball game. A junebug buzzed past him and he was listening so intently to the concert that it took him a moment to notice ahead of him was a patch of night that seemed darker than everything else, like a black hole. He slowed his pace but his heartbeat increased. He felt the trees give way to open space and saw stars above him. He froze when he heard someone talking.
The faded wood exterior of the aging building blended into the surrounding darkness, and the flickering glow from a television was the first thing he saw. Instinctively, he ducked behind a bush. After watching for a while, he was satisfied no one was watching from the single window he saw. He forced himself to watch for a few minutes longer and just as he was ready to move again, a shadow moved across a window.
Now that he knew for certain that someone was inside Hall changed his strategy. He walked to his right through an open field and along the edge of the water, hoping that by taking the least expected approach he was less likely to be spotted. He walked like he did when he was still hunting through the woods; toe-heel, pause, toe-heel, pause. The wet mud along the edge of the water allowed him to progress without making a sound, and when he was still a good distance from the building he could tell there was a game show on the television.
Closer to the building he smelled chemicals and saw the silhouette of the barge. It was larger than he first suspected and listed just a bit to starboard. Even in this poor light he could tell how dilapidated it was. He did not believe it could be seaworthy. Headlights swept across the marsh, and he was silhouetted against the blackness. He heard someone yell inside the building and sprinted to the old dock.