Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
Hall managed to make it through the shallow channel leading to his dock without getting stuck in the mud. With most of the water drained from the creek, the marsh smelled heavy, a combination of salt and decay, although the decay nurtured new life. Detritus, created by the decaying marsh plants, nourished small animals and became the foundation for the salt marsh food chain. Innumerable marine species called the marsh home for either all or part of their lives. Blue crabs, shrimp, oysters, even some of the pelagic fishes like barracuda lived through their larval stages and into adolescence in the protective haven of mud, grass, and water.
Dozens of male fiddler crabs waved their comically disproportionate white claws from the muddy shoreline, trying to get the attentions of potential mates. Hall smiled to himself as he tied up his boat and pounded across the old wooden dock toward the house.
His “new” home had been a hunting cabin back when the island was privately owned. A single-story wooden structure, it was built only seven feet above sea level, which meant that several hurricanes and a few unnamed storms had flooded it with their surging waters. It was not air-conditioned, and Jimmy and Rebecca had taken their window unit with them for their sailboat. Hall hoped he would be able to afford a replacement before summer. He was looking for some dry underwear when his telephone rang.
“There’s a fish kill on the north side of Port Royal Sound,” the caller said. Hall questioned her and found out she was one of the volunteers that worked with Gale Pickens as one of her Coastwatchers. She had tried to reach Gale on the Soundkeeper Hotline but no one had answered so she called Hall for assistance. The lady explained that she was out for a day cruise with her granddaughter when they saw several hundred dead fish floating near the mouth of a creek that fed into the sound.
“Can you describe your surroundings so I can find you?” Hall asked. He unrolled a chart on the kitchen table that doubled as his desk.
“How about the exact latitude and longitude?” the grandmother asked.
Hall wrote down the coordinates in his notebook and told her he would be there within half an hour. He stuffed a granola bar in his pocket and grabbed a bottle of water before he headed out the door.
The chain allowed Gale to move through most of the warehouse. She couldn’t reach the window or door, but could have walked over to where Arnold was sitting if she had wanted to. Her only furniture was a lawn chair with half the seat rotted out. Neither she nor her captor had spoken in several hours. Arnold seemed entranced by
Wheel of Fortune
Gale was ignoring the television, concentrating hard to manage the pain in her jaw.
“Are you hungry?” Arnold asked.
Gale nodded her head. Fear paralyzed her when Arnold walked toward her, his steps vibrating through the elevated building. To her great relief, he only checked the handcuff on her ankle and the chain it was connected to. He left without saying another word.
Outside a small outboard boat motor sputtered for a few seconds then coughed to life. She had seen it moored beside the barge and now it gave her hope. If she could get free from the chain, it was a way of escape. A small boat motor didn’t need a key to start.
Gale began to examine the rusty chain and the steel beam it was attached to, determined to find a way to escape. “Dear Lord,” she thought, “please don’t let this place catch on fire!” She reminded herself how tough she was, how she had always prided herself on her ability to overcome adversity. She soon realized that although the chain was old and rusty, it was more than adequate to keep her imprisoned. Her hands were covered with rust from the chain and ached from pulling and tugging on it. For some reason she thought of Hall and wondered if he was looking for her and wondered if anyone at all was looking for her now. Her tears trickled at first, then came in a convulsion of silent, heaving sobs.
By the time Arnold returned, Gale had regained her composure and checked her watch. He had been gone for forty-five minutes and walked in with two grocery sacks and a bag of ice. He put the ice in a cooler along with a six-pack of Budweiser. Then he handed her the grocery bags.
“I got you a few things,” he said.
Arnold opened a beer and turned the television back on. Gale investigated the contents of the bags.
The first thing she checked was the receipt, hoping that it named the store and gave its location. She was disappointed to find that it was a plain, white register tape that simply noted the price of each item and the total. She put it in the pocket of her shorts. Evidence, she hoped, for an upcoming kidnapping trial.
The bags were full of groceries, mostly canned soups and meats. She brightened when she realized that Arnold wasn’t going to kill her anytime soon, but was too scared to think about why he was keeping her alive. Maybe he would let her go eventually.
She opened a can of Spam and used the sharp edge of the lid to cut it into slices. She wondered if it was sharp enough to cut a man’s throat and then wondered if she was strong enough to go through with something like that. She wasn’t sure, but hid the lid in the bottom of the grocery sack.
It was the first food she had eaten since two slices of bacon before dawn and she didn’t stop eating until both the Spam and a pack of crackers were gone. She forced herself to drink a full liter of bottled water, knowing she had to stay strong to stay sharp. She was puzzled by some feminine items in the bottom of the sack but thought it was better not to ask.
When Arnold turned off the television as soon as she finished her water she realized he had been watching her all along. He walked toward her, and she felt strong enough to fight him if that was what she had to do.
“I’d let you have the lounge chair, but I’ve got a slipped disk in my lower back,” Arnold said. He handed her some scratchy wool blankets and went back to his side of the warehouse.
Gale arranged the blankets and tried to understand the apparent benevolence of her kidnapper. For some reason it seemed he was putting himself in danger in order to help her. He scared her, but his partner terrified her. Like every other woman and girl on the planet she had felt unwanted stares and uncomfortable glances before, but Blondie was different. The way he looked at her, leering at her and enjoying her discomfort, chilled her soul.
Soon Arnold was snoring heavily and Gale heard mice and rats scampering across the floor. She clutched the sharp lid in her hand and rolled herself into a tight cocoon with the blankets. She did not want to be bothered by mice or any other vermin while she tried to sleep.
The small creek that Hall’s GPS led him to had no name and was not much different than the hundreds of others that fed and drained Port Royal Sound. From here he could see the tops of some of the fine old houses on The Bluff and the hospital beyond. The mouth of the creek was only about forty yards wide, but the oyster beds and tide lines indicated that it was nearly twice that width at high tide. Hall slowed and began to monitor his depth finder more closely. The display showed that the water was eight feet deep right now, but he knew a sandbar or oyster rake could jump up from the bottom and snag his propeller with little warning.
Jimmy Barnwell impressed Hall the first day they were on the water together by never even turning the depth finder on. He told Hall it had taken him years to learn the waters that well and every once in a while a storm would come through and force him to learn everything all over again, occasionally at the expense of a new prop.
Even though he was worried about running aground, Hall couldn’t help but notice the beauty of his surroundings. To his left, (port, Jimmy would have corrected) the marsh was uninterrupted for miles. It stretched from the creek to the firm soil of St. Helena Island, one of the few Sea Islands that had not completely fallen prey to developers’ ambitions. Many of the island’s residents were African Americans who were descended from freed slaves. People still farmed here. Tomatoes, corn, decorative flowers. The only surviving institution of the Port Royal Experiment, the Penn School, was less than five miles away from where he now floated.
The creek halved in size as he rounded a bend, and he saw an older woman and a young girl in a boat in the middle of the creek. They were in a beautiful, old but restored Chris Craft runabout Hall guessed had been built before the Second World War. He saw hundreds of dead fish floating in the creek water and rainbow sheen danced on the wake from his boat.
Hall waved to the two ladies and took a notebook out of the waterproof compartment under his seat. Any type of fish kill had to be investigated and all fuel spills had to be reported to the Coast Guard. He asked the lady a few questions and made notes for several minutes, then snapped a few photographs before he started collecting evidence.
“Why are you wearing gloves?” a girl in the boat asked Hall. She looked to be the age of a middle-schooler.
“Just in case,” Hall said. “Whatever killed these fish may not be healthy for me.”
Hall collected six dead fish. Two striped mullet, one ladyfish, two immature redfish (spottail bass) and one pinfish. Each specimen was packaged individually in a ziplock bag. He recorded the location, date, and time of the collection on the outside of each bag and all of the samples went into a small cooler with some ice he had brought along just for this purpose. He would put them in his freezer when he got back home and tomorrow would pack them in dry ice and overnight them to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory in Oregon. Within a week he should know what specific toxin had killed these fish.
“Thanks for calling this in,” Hall told the lady.
“I’m glad to help. I hope you can catch who is responsible for this. We’ve all got to help if there is to be any beauty left for my grandchildren to enjoy. Please tell Gale that I said hello, Officer.” For a few minutes he had enjoyed playing biologist.
Hall said he would relay the message to Gale and decided to stay in the creek while he recorded his observations. Hall grabbed the chain and slipped his anchor over the side and the engine on the old Chris Craft rumbled to life behind him. When he let go of the chain and watched the anchor disappear into the water he realized that he never re-tied the anchor to the line after trying to lasso the dolphin. He hoped the good citizens hadn’t noticed his mistake, and knew he had to make a trip to the marine supply store.
After making his notes and giving Grandma a good head start Hall left the small creek at thirty—knots, cruising speed for his patrol boat. Clouds were building in the southwest sky and Hall wondered if the low-pressure system coming up from the Gulf of Mexico was a little ahead of schedule. Never in his life had he paid as much attention to the weather as he did now, since it was as important to him as the thermostat setting was for those poor souls that slaved away in cubicle farms. More important, he realized. Out here the weather could kill him. The paperwork he needed to complete gave him an excuse to head for home and he did so, adjusting his course across the sound so that he wasn’t heading directly into the small whitecaps.
Pinckney showed her best side when he came in from the sound. A back barrier island, Pinckney did not have any ocean frontage. It was sheltered from the salt spray and strong winds by Hilton Head Island which lay across Skull Creek. The National Wildlife Refuge consumed all of Pinckney Island and a few thousand acres of tidal marsh. Tall sabal palmettos whose likeness graced the state flag towered over tropical saw palmettos. The loblolly pine trees grew as straight as rails and were like adolescents towering over their elder oaks and hickories. A working plantation for over one hundred years, the Fish and Wildlife Service was restoring the maritime forest and wetlands on the island to their natural state. Drainage ditches that had drained the swampy inland areas were being filled in and agricultural fields were allowed to turn fallow. In a few years it would appear as it would have been if man had never settled there, Hall thought.
When he got to the tip of the island he saw a small animal walking along the shoreline. It was the size of a small raccoon but wasn’t acting like one. He took out his binoculars for a closer look and saw that it was a small dog. A puppy. He looked around for any human companions and didn’t see any.
Dogs were not allowed in the refuge under any circumstances. A single dog could destroy dozens of shorebird nests looking for a single meal and the birds had a tough enough time with the raccoons and the snakes. Jimmy Barnwell told him the refuge was a popular spot to drop off unwanted cats and dogs.
The puppy was barking at the water and Hall was close enough to see that it looked like a black lab. He switched off the outboard engine and tilted it out of the water, letting the momentum carry the boat until it nudged the bottom and stopped several yards from the shore.
Hall whistled and called for the dog to come to him. The pup ignored him and kept barking, splashing now in the shallow water. Hall walked to the front of his boat and looked at the water. The sandy bottom looked firm enough so he slipped off his shoes and rolled up his pants legs. The water was cool and the sand slipped between his toes. He took two steps and sank to his knees in mud that was hidden beneath the sand.
The mud created a powerful suction and each step he took was an effort. After about fifteen steps he reached the firmer sand of the beach and walked toward the dog. To his surprise the puppy ran to him and bit him playfully on his thumb when he reached to pet it. Hall picked it up and realized too late that the black dog was covered with the same ooze he had just walked through, and now his khaki shirt was covered with odiferous muck from the marsh.