Read Soundkeeper Online

Authors: Michael Hervey

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick

Soundkeeper (21 page)

BOOK: Soundkeeper
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“The chemicals you found in the dead fish, could they come from some soil that had been contaminated by tar, like they use on railroad ties?”

“It’s possible. Why?”

Varnum told him about the construction site where he’d seen the suspect loading dirt into a dump truck.

“We can get a warrant and see if the compounds in the soil match what I found in the fish,” Hall said.

Varnum said, “We could do that, but there might be a better way.”

Just a rookie, Varnum thought. He remembered when the job was as exciting to him as it was to the young man sitting across from him. Some days it seemed like a long, long time ago.

They made plans to meet the next day and go back to the old warehouse together. Varnum promised to email a picture of the suspect he was investigating, so they could be certain they were both looking for the same guy. Varnum thought he knew how to get a sample of the soil from the construction site without a warrant, and Hall said he would get it tested to see if the pollutants matched. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

Chapter Thirty-four

In spite of being so excited about making good progress in the illegal dumping investigation and meeting someone who could help him with the case, Hall fell asleep on his couch not long after eating supper. He had tried to read a bulletin about caviar smuggling, but his eyes wouldn’t stay open. He had been too jacked up and sore to get any sleep the night before and hadn’t slept more than five hours in a row since he’d moved into the cottage. He never got a chance to catch up.

The telephone in his living room rang, but he slept right through it and didn’t wake up until he heard his own voice on the answering machine telling the caller to leave a message. A citizen was complaining about someone who had tied his boat to the dock at the public boat ramp all day and it was still there now. It made it hard for other people to launch and retrieve their boats, and the caller suggested that if somebody didn’t do something about it, he was going to pull the plug on the boat and let it sink. Hall checked another message he’d slept through entirely and found out another car had been burglarized in the visitor’s parking lot.

Hall stood and stretched; thankful he let the machine take the call for him. He wasn’t sure if he felt better than he had before his nap but hoped he had gotten a little closer to catching up on all the lost hours of sleep. He ate a peanut butter sandwich while he read his email and checked the long-range marine forecast. There was a cold front moving into the region from the southeast and a good chance of thunderstorms this afternoon, some of them severe.

He changed from his shorts into his uniform pants and went out on patrol in his boat. As soon as the sun slipped into the waters of Calibouge Sound, Hall took off the small, inflatable life jacket and put on a windbreaker that was also a personal flotation device. This was one of Jimmy’s rules, and Hall thought it made a lot of sense. Just as most deadly car accidents occurred at night, most boating fatalities did too. The jacket had reflective tape sewn on the front and back, and Hall kept a small waterproof VHF radio in one of the pockets.

The Intracoastal Waterway ran along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. It twisted around Beaufort and across Port Royal Sound and followed Skull Creek between Hilton Head and Pinckney Island. Situated between Savannah and Charleston, this part of the waterway saw a moderate volume of shipping traffic. Tugboats often pushed rafts of barges through the night, and yachts travelling north in the spring and south in the fall passed through Beaufort County.

Lights from houses along the water allowed Hall to navigate safely, but anything submerged in the water would be impossible to see. For safety’s sake he kept the throttle just above idle speed and motored toward the boat ramp.

Since it had been a beautiful Saturday in April, Hall had heard the sound of power skis all day long. Because of this it took him a minute to realize he was hearing them again, but personal watercraft weren’t designed to be operated after dark. They weren’t equipped with navigation lights and were approved only for daytime use.

On the southwest edge of Pinckney Island was a small beach favored by jet-skiers. Teenagers mostly, they would launch their watercraft on the other side of the island and take coolers, chairs, and blankets to the beach. Then they would race around chasing each other and jumping waves. Complaints about littering and drinking were not uncommon. Hall was certain this was where the jet-ski he heard was operating.

He approached the area near the beach and could hear the distinctive whine of a small but powerful engine. When he felt he was close enough he turned on the bright spotlight mounted on the aluminum framed T-top on his boat.

There were two skis illuminated against the beach, and each had a passenger aboard. Hall immediately used his loudspeaker to advise them to come about and prepare to be boarded. One rider obeyed, and the other did not. He opened his water bike to full throttle and shot away from the flashing blue strobe light, leaving a rooster tail of water in his wake and his passenger holding on for dear life.

The obedient boater received a citation.

“I appreciate you obeying my orders,” Hall explained, “but I can’t ignore such a dangerous violation especially when you endangered the life of someone else at the same time.”

He could tell the young man and his girlfriend were pissed off about getting the ticket but didn’t verbalize their feelings. Hall escorted them around the island to the boat ramp so they wouldn’t be a hazard to navigation in the dark. While he was there he noticed the boat that was supposed to have been docked there all day was gone.

“And don’t think your friend got away with it. He’s got to take his ski out of the water sometime,” Hall said.

Hall was prepared to wait all night, if he had to. He could anchor far enough away from shore to avoid the mosquitoes while he waited. Someone that reckless was a danger to everyone on the water. When he anchored his boat and turned off the motor, he could hear the ski when the car traffic above him on the causeway subsided. It sounded like they were over by the beach again, zipping around in the dark. His boat wasn’t fast enough to catch the speedy watercraft, and he decided he would wait until the owner began loading it onto the trailer. The cool evening breeze and the gentle rocking of his boat lulled him into a semi-conscious state, and his head began to bob up and down until his chin was resting on his chest.

The loud crashing sound of an air horn jolted Hall awake. He wondered what was making the sound when he realized the blasts were continuing in groups of three, the international distress signal.

He quickly pulled up his anchor, started his engine, and raced toward the sound of the horn. As soon as he cleared the end of the island he saw one of the ferryboats from Daufuskie Island in the middle of the channel. Every light on the boat was on, and several crewmembers were shining flashlights in the water behind the stern.

“Vessel in distress in Skull Creek, what is your emergency?” Hall asked over the VHF radio on the hailing frequency. He wanted to know how to approach if a passenger had fallen overboard and was in the water.

“Something ran into the back of us!” a voice on the radio replied.

Hall heard the Coast Guard radio operator try to raise the ferry boat again, but no one replied.

He switched on his blue strobe lights and shined the spotlight against the stern of the passenger ferry. The fifty-foot boat was constructed of steel, and Hall knew that the other party was probably on the losing end. He eased close enough to yell to a crewman.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Something slammed into the back of the boat,” he yelled back.

Several of the passengers had gathered on the deck and one of them yelled to Hall.

“I think it was a power-ski, officer,” one of them said.

Hall cursed and slammed his hand against the steering wheel of his boat. He remained stationary and swept the water with his searchlight. He looked at the back of the ferry boat near the waterline and saw only a slight smudge of yellow paint. Three-hundred pounds of plastic and fiberglass didn’t make much of an impression on six tons of iron and steel.

The Coast Guard radio operator had taken control of the frequency. She was advising all stations that a rescue helicopter was en route and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office was sending their boat as well. She put out an advisory for all vessels in the area cautioning them that subjects were in the water.

“There it is!” someone aboard the ferry shouted. Hall followed the flashlight beam and trained his more powerful light on the water. The object floating on the water was not immediately recognizable, but he knew what it had to be. Two men in a small fishing boat startled him as they pulled up alongside.

“What can we do to help?” one of them asked.

“Work toward the mouth of the sound. If they were wearing life jackets, they should be drifting that way. I’ll be along as soon as I secure the wreckage,” Hall said.

He knew the tide was falling without having to think about it. Before he secured a line to what was left of the jet-ski he dropped a weighted marker buoy into the water to fix the spot where he found the wreckage. He knew the state game warden who would investigate the accident would need to know exactly where it occurred.

The personal watercraft was mangled and shattered. Fuel was leaking from the gas tank, and the handlebars and seat were missing. Hall looped a line through an exposed portion of the engine and secured it to one of the towing eyes on the stern of his boat. He used his light to inspect the wreck one more time before he began towing and noticed blood and hair where the handlebars should have been.

When he reached the shore, a deputy sheriff who had arrived in his patrol car helped Hall drag the jet-ski onto the beach above the high tide line. Hall asked the deputy if he would go back out with him to look for the victims, and he said he would. Hall gave him a life jacket to wear, and they motored away from the shore. On the highway bridge above the accident scene, a fire truck had arrived and was illuminating the area with a bank of powerful flood lights. The ferryboat was anchored and had swung one-hundred and eighty degrees in the current.

The fishermen who volunteered to help were close to Pinckney Island so Hall decided to check on the other side of the waterway, closer to the marina and the Low Country Seafood docks.

The deputy spotted the victim first, and Hall knew by the tone of his voice they would not be rescuing anyone. Hall was thankful that he had someone aboard to help, someone who had done this kind of thing before. He had never touched a dead body. The deputy grabbed the life jacket the young woman was wearing and used his other hand to feel her neck for a pulse. After a moment he looked at Hall and shook his head.

Even with the two of them working together it was difficult to get her body onto the boat. Finally they got her over the gunwale, and she fell into the boat with a sickening thud. Blood and water began to collect on the deck.

“Do you have anything to cover her with?” the deputy asked.

Hall had a blue plastic tarp in a locker and they used it to cover her body. After the grim task was over, they began to search for the driver. Hall knew he had to be dead, too, and hoped someone else found him.

“She looked about the same age as my daughter,” the deputy said, breaking the silence that had lasted more than thirty minutes. “I wonder if we’re going to find the other one.”

Hall couldn’t think of anything to say and just shrugged his shoulders in the dark. The sheriff’s boat was on the scene now and joined in the search. Hall told them he had one of the victims in his boat, and he was instructed to take the body to the dock at the boat ramp where the coroner would meet him.

While they were waiting for the coroner to arrive, the second body was found by the fishermen. The crew of the sheriff’s boat recovered it from the water, and by the time they arrived at the boat ramp, Hall and the deputy had already unloaded their cargo.

A sergeant with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources had arrived on the scene and had assumed responsibility for the investigation. Hall met him in the gravel parking lot of the boat ramp and gave him a statement, beginning with the first time he saw the victims, hours ago when they ran from him.

After he was finished, the sergeant asked him if he would help out by trying to identify the victims. Hall agreed. He walked through the woods to the beach where he had left the jet-ski and copied the registration number in his notebook. He was walking back across the parking lot to report what he had found, when he noticed a car parked in the lot with a small empty trailer attached to it. The darkness hid the color from him but as he got closer he could tell it was bright red. He radioed in the tag to the dispatcher and confirmed what he already knew. The last time he’d seen this car the driver had been leaving the courthouse, flipping him the bird.

The coroner’s van was just about to pull away when Hall stopped him and asked to see the male victim.

“I think I can ID him,” Hall said.

The coroner stayed in the van while his assistant got out and opened the rear doors. He climbed into the back and pulled the sheet away from the young man’s face so Hall could see him. Even in death the body reeked of alcohol. He took his copy of the dead man’s arrest sheet from his clipboard and gave it to the state wildlife sergeant.

BOOK: Soundkeeper
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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