Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
He never took the idea of being a “fish cop” seriously until he was still unemployed eight months after he received his master’s degree. Both of his roommates had moved out and his landlord was pressing for another year’s lease. He liked his job at the marina because he was outdoors all day, but minimum wage wasn’t going to pay the rent, the grocer, and the college loans too. So instead of peering through a microscope trying to find a way to kill the pfisteria organism, he went to Glynco, Georgia for eighteen more weeks of school. He trained to become a law enforcement officer and resolved to get a job where he could use his education as soon as possible.
While at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, FLETC, he took classes in evidence collection and case preparation, surveillance techniques and self defense and weaponry. At a lean six feet two inches tall and 210 pounds Hall easily passed the self defense classes, and four years of intramural rugby hadn’t hurt his physical conditioning at all. Carrying a gun wasn’t a big deal for him. He had grown up hunting with his father and uncles and was satisfied with his ability to defend himself, but the heavy gun on his side was a constant reminder of his unfulfilled dream.
Over the past eight weeks Jimmy had gotten very good at guessing what Hall was thinking. Today was no exception.
“I didn’t want this job when I took it twenty-five years ago. I never thought I’d retire from the service.”
Hall was surprised. After working with him for two months, he couldn’t imagine Jimmy Barnwell as anything but a game warden. He thought the man had been born to be a federal wildlife officer. From how he talked with the commercial fishermen to the way he taught a hunter safety course to teenagers, Jimmy was a professional.
“I needed a job and the wildlife service was hiring a lot of vets. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot and fly roughnecks out to the oil rigs. By the time I’d saved enough money for flight school, I finally realized I loved my job. I’m just glad I realized it before I quit.”
Hall wondered how much of the story was true and how much of it was the father in Jimmy coming out. Either way it didn’t make him feel much better. Tomorrow he would be out here by himself, with too much to remember and no one to ask for help.
“Head over to Skull Creek. I promised Gale I’d stop by today.”
Skull Creek wasn’t really a creek at all, just a sliver of water separating the northeastern end of Pinckney Island from Hilton Head Island. Pinckney Island, the whole of which was taken up by Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, existed in anonymity in comparison with the larger Hilton Head Island. The average visitor to Pinckney Island stayed less than forty-five seconds, the amount of time it took to cross the narrow island on the Highway 278 causeway at sixty-five miles an hour on the way to the resorts for golf or tennis. Over 300,000 visitors a year visited the refuge to go hiking, bird watching, and enjoy their public lands.
Hall’s job was to patrol the 4,053-acre National Wildlife Refuge and enforce federal fisheries regulations, assist the Coast Guard with search and rescue missions, oversee controlled deer hunts, and catch offenders who committed violations ranging from speeding and littering to poaching and killing endangered species, and a million other responsibilities, or so it seemed. It was far too overwhelming to consider everything at one time. But Hall was determined to do a good job because it would ensure a good recommendation when he applied for the next biologist vacancy. His boss, Susan Charles, was the refuge manager, a biologist and former refuge officer herself before she climbed the ladder and took herself out of the field and away from the lab.
They entered the no-wake zone in Skull Creek and Hall brought the boat down off plane and idled up to the old wooden docks of Low Country Seafood, ramshackle and in need of repair. Hall preferred the neat concrete docks of the new marina just a mile upriver to the smelly fish house, but the marina was too pricey for the environmentalist they were going to see. Shelby Pickens, the owner of Low Country Seafood, was sympathetic to the conservation cause and offered cheap office space and a free boat slip. It also helped that the Soundkeeper happened to be his daughter.
Jimmy Barnwell had never heard of a Soundkeeper until Gale Pickens tied her boat up to his dock one day last year and introduced herself. She had been hired as the Soundkeeper for Port Royal Sound and the surrounding watershed by a partnership of private conservation groups. As soon as she explained to him that Soundkeepers, Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers were in place across the country and around the world combating water pollution and protecting fragile wetlands, Jimmy accepted her as an ally. Rarely a week had gone by in the past year that they had not been in contact with one another. Jimmy taught her how to collect evidence that would be admissible in court and Gale passed on tips about lawbreakers that her “Coastwatchers” provided when they didn’t want to get involved. They stopped being business associates and became friends many months ago.
Hall eased up to the docks slowly, having not yet mastered the ability to approach at cruising speed and shift into reverse just in time to stop without slamming into the dock. He was looking forward to seeing Gale and was taking her to Jimmy’s retirement party tonight. They had gone out a few times, twice for dinner and once on a Saturday to pick up litter together with some of her volunteers. He didn’t know if that counted as a date but he hoped it did. Gale was a cutie, petite with toned runner’s legs and a ponytail the color of Carolina beach sand. Her tan was dark and natural and he liked the fact that she seemed like a real person, unlike so many girls he had known in college and grad school.
They walked into her small office and Hall surveyed the “foxhole,” as he’d heard Gale refer to it. A huge map of Port Royal Sound took up one wall of the small room. On another wall was a “Ten Most Wanted” list, and on it were written the top environmental offenders in the Port Royal Sound watershed. The group included golf courses, developers, and three unidentified polluters. The numbers beside their names corresponded to dots on her large map and they were spread throughout the area.
On her desk, beside the latest issue of Sierra magazine was a mason jar full of shark’s teeth, and a tube of toothpaste. The number eight blinked on her answering machine. Hall knew she lived above her office in a small apartment and thought that he caught a whiff of bacon, a thought that made his stomach growl, loud enough that Jimmy looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Gale, I filled up your tank.” Someone else was coming in the front door.
A white guy with greasy dreadlocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt with a picture of Bob Marley on it stopped when he saw the two uniforms. The bacon Hall thought that he smelled was now overpowered by the scent of incense and stale marijuana.
“I don’t think she’s here, Stanley.” Jimmy said.
“Cool, no problem Dude. I’ll leave her bill on the desk.” Stanley put a piece of brown grocery bag with some numbers written in magic marker on her desk and backed out the door, almost bowing to the two officers.
“I didn’t know there were any hippies on Hilton Head.” Hall said after he’d left.
“At least one. Stanley makes biodiesel from old cooking oil, and house sits for absentee owners. I guess they think he’s helping them reduce their carbon footprint since it’s easier to buy a clean conscience than to change your lifestyle. Let’s go get some breakfast.
Her father had named her Gale after a hurricane washed out the road to their home the day she was born, and she spent the first month of her life in a house without electricity or running water. Her dad ran the family seafood business that his grandfather had founded, and owned half a dozen shrimp boats that fished the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island. She grew up visiting him almost every day at the docks, climbing all over the boats and going out on the water before she was old enough to walk. She started racing in Sunfish regattas in the Beaufort River when she was ten years old and worked at the city marina through high school, commuting in her own little Boston Whaler. On her nineteenth birthday she sailed out of Beaufort on the Island Mercy, a volunteer on the hospital ship that took her to five of the earth’s seven seas. In her entire life she had never been more than fifty miles from the ocean.
She awoke disoriented and hurting, but comforted by the gentle rise and fall of a boat on the water. She was thirstier than she had ever been in her life. Her eyes were heavy and she felt herself slipping away again, the ache in her head pounding with every heartbeat. It was dark and hot, wherever she was. A tarp had been thrown over her and the gasoline fumes were suffocating her. She’d peed in her pants. She heard a voice she recognized and her pulse hammered even faster.
“By the time I get back, all that dirt and the bitch better be at the bottom of the ocean. Do you think you can handle that, Arnold?”
Just before she passed out again Gale heard someone sobbing, just loud enough to be heard over the clattering boat engine and the hiss of the water against the hull. It scared her even more when she realized the crying she heard was her own.
The tattooed man grunted but didn’t look up from the stubborn hydraulic pump he’d been working on for the last several hours. He hadn’t yet figured out why it refused to work properly and open the bottom of the boat like it was supposed to.
“I’ll tell our client why we can’t take any more dirt until tomorrow,” Blondie said. He eased onto the rickety dock to avoid bumping his severely bruised testicles. “Don’t screw up again, Arnold.”
Arnold didn’t make another sound until four hours later when he found a small hole in the hydraulic line that led from the pump to the cylinder that operated the opening mechanism. A clean bilge would have made the leaking fluid easy to spot, but Arnold neglected the boat even worse than he neglected his personal hygiene.
With the barge operating properly, or at least as good as it was going to, Arnold left Cole’s Landing and chugged down the Broad River and into Port Royal Sound. He turned on the VHF radio to see if anyone had found the troublemaker’s boat. So far, so good it seemed. There was no chatter on the radio about a missing boater. They had cut her boat adrift five miles out to sea and tried to dump the contaminated soil, but the hopper doors wouldn’t open and Blondie wanted to dump the girl and the dirt at the same time. Now Arnold was alone with all of the evidence, which he would blame squarely on his partner if he had the misfortune of getting stopped. The last felony he was involved with had cost him ten years of his life and he didn’t plan on a repeat engagement. The cops were always eager to bargain away a bird in hand for one in the bush which was why he had been a guest of the state of South Carolina for only ten years instead of twenty.
The old barge handled the small ocean swells poorly, giving the man at the helm the first qualms of seasickness. Two miles out was far enough, he reasoned. He didn’t know how to swim and he spent too many hours watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel to want to have anything to do with the water. Arnold undid the safety catches and was about to release ten tons of contaminated soil into the ocean when he saw the bright blue tarp that Blondie had covered the body with. He knew it wouldn’t sink and would be easy to spot in the water, so he reset the safety latches and climbed across the greasy dirt to retrieve it.
After he pulled the tarp off the body the open, hazel eyes of the dead woman were the second thing that Arnold noticed, the first being her terribly swollen jaw. Then the dead eyes blinked.
He cursed and fell backwards into the dirt, smacking his head on a railing on his way down. He scrambled back to her and her eyes were closed again. He thought that he’d imagined her eyes opening but then he watched her chest rise and fall. She was still alive. Getting rid of a body that someone else killed wasn’t a big deal for him. Neither was sticking an unloaded gun in somebody’s face for their wallet. Killing someone, especially a woman, was something else entirely. And if she was alive when he dumped her in the ocean he knew he would be the one who killed her and he couldn’t live with that. He was a thief, a robber, a liar, and an addict but he would never hurt a woman. His mother had raised him better than that.
Without any idea of what he was going to do with her, Arnold carried Gale into the pilothouse, duct-taped her arms behind her back, and tied her legs around a pipe. He didn’t even notice she’d wet her pants. Once she was tied up, he undid the safety latches again and pulled the lever. The barge shuddered and jumped several feet higher in the water as the dirt left the cargo bay. Arnold didn’t notice a dolphin surface nearby and watch him for a moment before it swam away. He didn’t see the school of mullet that was poisoned or the larval jellyfish that the tainted soil melted into the mud. Two mature cobia, swimming in formation with a large manta ray, swam through the toxic cloud and when the tainted water spread over their gills it seared their lamellae and sent them to the bottom of the sound. The slick spread out into the ocean and deeper into the water on the retreating tide and killed for miles and miles.
Halfway back to port the girl began to regain consciousness, so Arnold covered her eyes with an oily rag. He noticed how pretty she was and wondered if he could keep her, at least for a little while. Blondie never went into the old fish house. Maybe he could hide her in there, at least until his dealings with Blondie were over. Maybe by then he could show her that he wasn’t such a bad guy. After all, he’d just saved her life. A little gratitude would be in order.