Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
When he began to walk back to his boat the puppy started barking again and tried to jump out of his arms. Hall looked back over his shoulder and thought a log he had seen at the edge of the water was now moving toward him. The he realized it was a large alligator following him and it was making much better progress through the mud. He looked at the distance between him and the gator and how much farther it was to the boat and knew it was going to be close.
By the time he was five feet from the boat the water was deep enough that the alligator was swimming, and was swimming much faster than Hall could walk. He threw the puppy into the boat and grabbed for the boat railing as the water exploded behind him. He felt the rough skin of the gator against his leg as he pulled himself onto the bow and plunged headfirst onto the deck.
On shaky legs he stood and peered into the water which was cloudy from the silt and sediment that had been stirred up. The alligator was nowhere to be seen. The puppy was standing quietly next to him and there was blood mixed with the mud that was covering the bottom of the boat.
After confirming he still had two feet and ten toes, Hall sat down and checked the bottom of his feet. A knife—sharp oyster shell was stuck in the instep of his left foot. There was a gallon jug of fresh water under the console and he used it to clean his wound and hoped that he wouldn’t have to get any stitches. He wondered if the alligator knew it was one of the endangered species he was sworn to protect.
The puppy bounded out of the boat without any help when they reached the dock at the cottage. It scampered ahead of him and he limped behind, leaving alternate bloody and muddy footprints on the weathered wood. After hosing off his feet he turned the water on the puppy and sprayed all the mud off of him. When he reached down to pet him the pup nipped at his hand again.
“I think I’ll call you Belker,” he said.
For Hall McCormick the day started at four-thirty in the morning when Belker whined to go outside. Last night’s thunderstorm had left everything smelling fresh and new, and while the dog took care of urgent business, Hall dressed and planned his day. He wanted to call Jimmy and ask him about the monthly reports, then pick up some lumber in the afternoon. The puppy followed him out onto the dock and jumped into the boat when he stepped aboard to start the engine. Belker barked at the dark water, and Hall looked to make sure no more logs were swimming toward his boat.
The boat engine idled down a few hundred RPM’s when it was warm, and Hall took the puppy back to the cottage and locked him in the kitchen. He would need to take him to the vet if he planned on keeping him.
“Try not to get eaten today,” he whispered.
There was just a hint of pink on the horizon as he ran with the tide out of Calibogue Sound and into the Atlantic Ocean. He and Jimmy had been right here less than twenty-four hours ago, but it felt like a week had gone by. The black-white-black pattern of the Tybee Island lighthouse came into view as he hugged the shoreline of Dafauskie Island and continued south. He was closer to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge than he was to his home refuge, but the Savannah Refuge was over twenty-nine thousand acres so the refuge officer assigned to Pinckney Island worked the water. This agreement spread the workload between the officers in both refuges, although they both had the same boss and helped each other out on occasion.
Several shrimp trawlers were coming in from their night’s work and Hall was going to check their catch. Last winter was mild and Hall knew the fishermen were hopeful for a good “roe” shrimp season. The spring season lasted only a month, and in a good year statewide harvests could exceed half a million pounds. Hall was required to make a certain number of commercial boardings every month to ensure the fishermen were adhering to federal regulations. Unlike a dolphin rescue, it was something he had done before. He and Jimmy boarded enough shrimp boats while he was in training for Hall to realize there was no way for him to know how he would be received. They had been cursed by a captain who had no violations and apologized to by a skipper who received a citation.
Calibouge Lady had had a good night’s fishing and the attitude of the crew reflected it. Hall secured his boat by the bow line and was helped aboard by a crewman, letting the trawler tow his patrol boat behind. He heard and felt the boat speed up once he was safely aboard.
“Show ’em the TED’s, boys,” the captain ordered.
The crew lowered the nets onto the deck so Hall could inspect and measure the Turtle Exclusion Devices, a small tunnel in the net that was supposed to let endangered sea turtles escape. Jimmy told Hall that the devices were loathed by the shrimpers who knew that valuable shrimp also escaped and that the turtles rarely survived after tumbling along through the net and out the “Ted.”
The three men on the shrimp boat were black, as were most of the shrimpers that Hall and Jimmy stopped together. Sometimes their thick accents made them hard for Hall to understand. Other times, when they didn’t want to be understood by outsiders, they spoke in Gullah-a beautiful, almost extinct language of many of the lowcountry natives. Many of the words they spoke were borrowed from African dialects, Caribbean islanders and Jamaican Creoles and represented the heritage of the speakers.
Jimmy schooled Hall not only in the lay of the land and the depth of the waters but in the history of the region as well. Hall felt sorry for many of the residents of Dafauskie Island and other coastal areas who had lived in blissful indifference to progress for generations until developers raped their homeland. Folks who never knew they were poor and underprivileged sold their invaluable sea islands for the chance at a better life and watched their children grow up, move away, and take the future with them. Most realized too late that happiness couldn’t be bought, but it could be sold. Golf resorts and million dollar waterfront estates erased a century and a half of heritage in a few short years. Perhaps statutory rape was a better definition.
“Take some home for supper, Cap’n.” The old sailor offered a plastic grocery sack full of large shrimp, so fresh they were still snapping and popping inside the bag.
Hall hesitated. He knew how important it was to gain the trust of the people, especially the fishermen. Ethics were just as important.
“Ain’t done nothing wrong, so it can’t be no graft,” the wise old waterman reasoned.
Hall took the heavy bag of tasty shellfish and wished the crew luck on their next trip before he departed. He checked three more boats before eight a.m., citing one captain for a vessel with no fire extinguisher. All of the boats had Turtle Exclusion Devices on board, but when he was on the last boat a juvenile loggerhead turtle fell from the net when it was brought in. It thudded onto the deck with the shrimp and other bycatch-fish that would be thrown overboard, dead or alive. When one of the crewmen went to shovel the turtle up with what looked like a grain scoop, Hall stopped him.
He was wrong, it was not a loggerhead turtle. Hall flipped the dead reptile onto its stomach for a closer look. The head of the turtle was small and the carapace was a pale green, as if it were trying to mimic the green ocean it had been plucked from. The shells of loggerhead turtles were reddish-brown, almost coppery unless they were covered with barnacles and other epibionts. He lifted it and it was heavy. The size of a trashcan lid and thirty-five pounds, he guessed. Sad, lifeless eyes looked up at him.
“Ain’t my fault,” the shrimper said. Hall gave him a hard look.
Hall said “You didn’t break any laws, but it would still be alive if you hadn’t snagged it.”
“Yeah, and who’s gonna feed my kids?”
Hall quit the skirmish he could never win. He transferred the dead turtle to his boat and cast off.
He couldn’t help but notice the girl was pretty, but Detective Carl Varnum knew that would soon fade. The girls who started out at the White Pony were young and attractive with clear eyes and a plan for the future. Most of them could have passed for one of his daughter’s classmates in her senior year of high school. Within eight months to a year they would be at Sarge’s or Twins, across the Jasper County line, better living through chemistry having taken its toll on their assets. Some would be prostitutes well before they were of legal drinking age.
Varnum had known a lot of strippers. The one sitting across from him in the booth at Waffle House was the latest one that owed him a favor. She was all blonde hair and silicone. Distracting. They were both smoking his cigarettes and she had ordered the All-Star Special with a side of hash browns since he was paying. She was drinking a Diet Coke with her breakfast, just like his daughter would have done. He waited for her to begin.
“I don’t know if it means anything, but one of my customers said that he was getting ready to come into a big score.”
She lost some of her beauty when she blew the cigarette smoke out of her nose. Varnum thought he noticed the beginning of tooth decay on one of her back teeth. Meth stripped the enamel off of teeth quicker than sugar ever could.
“Dope?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. He buys from one of the guys at the club, so he must not have his own source. This is something else. Sometimes he meets another guy there, looks like he has money.” She shoveled smothered and covered hash browns into her mouth with one hand and kept the lit cigarette in the other, taking puffs in between swallows.
“Nuh-uh,” she said with a mouthful of eggs. She swallowed and took another drag. “I got a license plate.”
He wrote down the tag number she gave to him in his notebook and put it in his shirt pocket. He took a fifty from his wallet and put it on the table next to her plate.
Varnum asked “Why do you think he’s not legit?”
“He’s slimy,” she said. Varnum didn’t ask for specifics.
He handed her two business cards, his and one from a local church that had a ministry for girls in trouble.
“I don’t need any help,” she said. “I’m just doing this to get enough money to go back to nursing school. As soon as I get my boobs paid off I can start saving for college. Will you tell the judge I helped you?”
“Sure, if this turns into anything, I will. Not much to tell so far. Call me if you find out anything else. Better yet, call Reverend Phil. He can help you more than I ever could. What bank gave you a loan for a boob job?”
She had a mouthful of food and her cigarette had burned down to the filter. She gave him a look he was accustomed to with two children of his own.
“Bobby, the owner of the Pony. He loaned me the money. I’m paying them off while I dance at his place.”
His unmarked patrol car was parked at the grocery store next door. When he walked over to it he ran his hand across the stubble of his crew cut, two days away from his weekly trip to the barber. The humidity was already making him feel sticky in his long sleeved dress shirt and neck tie. He remembered his first day as a detective when his wife told him that he could never, ever wear a tie with a short sleeved shirt unless he was selling appliances at Sears. She used to lay his clothes out for him the night before so he wouldn’t wear anything that clashed.
He stood next to his car for a minute and finished his cigarette. A younger guy in a hooded sweatshirt came out of the restaurant and walked over to him.
“Anything worthwhile?” he asked. Varnum never met with a snitch alone. The plainclothes officer that was his close cover worked in narcotics.
“Who knows?” Varnum said. “She gave me a few tag numbers from some guy that has ‘something big’ going down. I probably wasted fifty bucks of the sheriff’s money.”
The younger cop shrugged. Every cop that ever had a snitch knew how the game was played.
Varnum watched him go. His son called him “Dude”. Once. Now he was in Iraq, choking on the same dust that his father had eaten twenty years ago. The empty nest wasn’t all it was cracked up to be when there was no one to share it with.
When he was back in his cubicle he typed up a Contact Report and logged it into the system. He ran the tag numbers the girl had given him and then ran criminal histories on the owners. The first tag was assigned to an Audi, last year’s model. The registered owner had no criminal history. He Googled the name and found out that he was a local real estate broker and developer. His web site claimed he had sold over ten million dollars in real estate every year for the past five years. Varnum did the math and decided this must be the guy who looked like he had money. His picture was superimposed over a drawing of his latest proposed development and Varnum printed it and started a new file.
The second tag belonged to a ten year old Trans Am registered to a woman who lived in Port Royal. A driver’s license check under the same name and address indicated that the owner was a seventy year old woman. Mom. He ran the address through the state arrestee database and found that a subject that had just been released on parole listed that address as his home. He’d been released four months ago after serving a stretch for aggravated assault, forgery, and sexual assault. He seemed to be an interesting companion for a respected real estate developer. Varnum put the printouts of the parolee in the file with the other information.
Before he logged off he looked around to make sure that no one else was nearby and went to another website where he entered his user name and password. Hearts and hokey music greeted him but not a single private message. Twenty-three views, but no messages. There were two more days left in his month-long trial membership, but at this rate he didn’t think he wanted to pay for the rejection he was getting for free.