Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
The phone on his desk rang, and he made the mistake of answering it. One of his victims was on the phone, complaining that her son had run away again. He pulled up an old report on the computer and changed the date of occurrence, saving himself the trouble of starting from scratch.
“Can you assist us with a search and rescue mission?” Hall acknowledged the Coast Guard radio operator and switched the VHF base station in his kitchen to a channel that was restricted to use by emergency service agencies.
“We need you to search the area north and west of 32 degrees, 16’31.75 North and 80 degrees, 39’03.19 West. We are looking for a missing boat and boater. The boat is a twenty-two foot center console with a white hull and pictures of dolphins and sea turtles painted on it. The operator is a white female, twenty-six-years old. Missing since yesterday afternoon. Report back when you arrive in your search area and monitor this frequency for further information.”
He acknowledged the request and confirmed the area he was assigned to search. Gale was missing? He couldn’t believe someone hadn’t called him earlier. He was supposed to take her to Jimmy’s retirement party tonight. He guessed she’d gotten stuck on an oyster bar or had mechanical trouble. She was an old salt compared to him, and he knew he’d tease her about spending the night in her boat when he saw her this evening.
He’d gotten into the habit of starting his work day the same way that Jimmy used to, listening to the marine radio in the kitchen while he ate breakfast and checked the weather reports. He was not expecting the call from the Coast Guard this morning. His route to his search area would take him past Low Country Seafood, and he decided to stop there on the way. The first thing Hall noticed was that none of the shrimp boats were tied to the pier, which was unusual for this time of the day. The second thing he noticed was the Native Son sitting at the dock.
After tying his boat to the dock he went inside and saw the bearded dolphin rescuer hunched over a chart with an older man who Hall knew to be Gale’s father. Both men looked up when he walked in.
“Can you help with the search?” Silas Pickens asked Hall.
“The Coast Guard wants me to check Cowen Creek and the marsh behind Distant Island.”
“Alright,” Silas said. “I’ll check Capers Creek towards Frogmore. Maybe the storm blew her up on an oyster bed in there.”
“I’ll listen up on the radio,” the older man said to them.
“By the way, I’m Gale’s brother.” Hall learned that Silas was the one who reported Gale missing.
“I didn’t have a charter this morning, but I came in early to catch some bait for this afternoon. It isn’t unusual for Gale to be out early, but I saw the lights on in her office and came in to say hello. She wasn’t in her apartment upstairs, and I’m pretty sure she never came back last night.”
“Do you know where she went yesterday? Hall asked.
“No. She usually stays inshore, but the outgoing tide was late afternoon yesterday and the thunderstorm came from the west. Either one could have blown her out to sea if the boat was disabled.”
The older man answered a shrimper who was on the radio, reporting that he had not located anything yet. He had a cup full of steaming coffee in one hand and a mind full of concern.
Silas said, “We’ll find her Pop. Don’t worry.”
Hall started his patrol boat, and Silas pushed his skiff away from the dock and drifted next to him.
“Dad’s got his boats checking the ocean side of the islands with the Coasties.”
“Are all of the shrimp boats out looking?” Hall asked. He thought that Low Country Seafood owned close to a dozen boats.
“Yeah. I’m going upriver. There’s a couple of developments Gale was keeping an eye on up there. If she ran hard aground she’d be up there, maybe even out of radio contact.”
The chances of Gale’s boat being stuck and her radio and cell phone not working were pretty slim, Hall guessed. He hoped the ocean that she loved and worked so hard to protect returned her affection. By the time Hall was under way in his own boat, Silas and the Native Son were a small speck on the water speeding across Port Royal sound. Hall checked his chart and found the area he was supposed to search. He prayed he didn’t find a body.
Hall slowed to avoid the wake of a rusty old barge as he crossed the sound. It was riding high in the water, telling Hall that it was empty. He waved to the captain and the captain waved back.
Easing the throttle back to idle speed, he nosed his patrol boat into Cowen Creek. It had taken Hall a while to realize that these “creeks”, as they were called, were not the same type of creek he had grown up around in the piedmont of South Carolina. These bodies of water were tidal creeks, small fingers of water that filled with the rising tide and emptied with the ebb. Some were completely dry at low tide, while others were deep enough for a shrimp trawler at all stages of the tidal cycle. They created islands and inlets and brought life into the salt marsh. No two were the same and only the larger creeks or the ones where something significant happened had a name. Hall briefly wondered what or who Cowen Creek was named for.
A dolphin surfaced next to his boat and exhaled loudly, startling him. The large mammal paced him for several hundred yards until she disappeared underneath the water. Far ahead Hall saw another dolphin, or perhaps the same one, chasing a school of fish. With his binoculars, Hall saw two dolphins and they were working together, herding mullet against the muddy shoreline. The dolphins swam into the tightly packed school of baitfish and chased them onto on the muddy shore coming almost completely out of the water. Hall thought that one of the dolphins had a scar near its blowhole and wondered if this was the dolphin he met yesterday. He watched them work for a while, impressed with their predatory skills. The water was too muddy for them to be able to see the mullet they were feeding on, and Hall knew they were using echolocation to track their prey and it was more precise than any man made sonar could ever hope to be. They moved with grace and precision and caught more fish in a few minutes than Hall caught in a year.
The creek twisted and turned but maintained a broad width and good depth. He rounded a bend and caught sight of a boat and his heart beat faster, but only for a second. The two fishermen he spoke with had not heard about the missing boat but promised to keep an eye out for it. Hall continued back into the marsh, reasoning that Gale could have been at the terminus of the creek before the fishermen arrived.
The end of Cowen Creek came into view, and Hall radioed his report to the Coast Guard. He checked the other creeks in his search area, and in the late afternoon he called the Coast Guard to see if there was somewhere else they wanted him to search. After he received his new instructions, someone else called him on the radio.
“Hall, pick me up at the marina.” It was Jimmy Barnwell.
Thankfully, Hall was able to pull into an empty boat slip next to Jimmy’s pristine sailboat. Jimmy hopped aboard in civilian clothes, and they left the marina before he spoke. Hall noticed he had his pistol in a holster underneath his life jacket.
“I didn’t hear about Gale until this afternoon. Rebecca and I had to pick up a few more things for dinner tonight.” Jimmy finally said.
Hall only nodded. They were in one of the smaller creeks near Parris Island when they heard the bad news on the radio.
A Coast Guard helicopter crew found Gale’s boat adrift, seven miles offshore from Fripp Inlet. The helicopter crew didn’t see anyone aboard, but a state wildlife officer was close by and was en-route to recover the boat. Both Jimmy and Hall knew that Gale’s boat didn’t have a cabin. If she were on board, they would have seen her from the air. They rode back to the Beaufort Municipal Marina in silence.
“Hell of a way to start retirement,” Jimmy said when he stepped out of his old patrol boat. Rebecca was surprised to see them back so soon and knew without asking. Hall wondered how many times this scene had been repeated during Jimmy’s career.
Hall felt compelled to do more but didn’t know what he could do. As much as he wanted to help, his boat wasn’t designed to take on the open ocean. The state wildlife agency and the Coast Guard were responsible for investigating boating accidents and for continuing the search for the body. Hall hated even to think it, but the water temperature was in the low sixties, and it didn’t take hypothermia long to overpower the hardiest of souls. He feared he’d lost a friend and that possibly something more precious had been lost. He couldn’t go home if there was a chance she was still out there, alive and in need of help. He filled the tank on his patrol boat at the marina and headed back out into the sound.
Most of the shrimp boats had returned to Low Country Seafood when he passed by after midnight on his way home. After securing his boat at his dock, he took the shrimp out of his cooler and carried it inside. A newcomer to the coast, shrimp were still an extravagance to him, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat. Would he ever see Gale again? Belker seemed to sense his mood and was content to quietly follow him around the house.
He’d forgotten about the turtle until he heard Belker barking and went outside to investigate. Hall found a guidebook on a shelf in the den, and in a few minutes he’d identified it as an olive ridley turtle, not rare but still listed as an endangered species. He’d never cleaned a turtle before, and after an hour he looked like he’d been on the losing end of a knife fight. He dumped the meat and entrails into the water, put the shell on top of an ant hill in his back yard and looked at his watch. After eighteen hours Uncle Sam had gotten his money’s worth. Soon he and Belker were snoring together on the couch.
Gale woke in a panic, unable to remember where she was and why she was there, and her panic did not subside when she remembered. She rolled out of her cocoon, and looked over at Arnold who was lying motionless on the chaise lounge chair. There was just enough light spilling through the lone window for her to see everything in her cell. Her bladder was so full it hurt, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it.
She said, “I have to use the bathroom.”
The lumpy form under the covers did not move.
“I need to use the BATHROOM!”
Arnold kicked his legs until he was free of his blanket and sat on the edge of his makeshift bed with his head in his hands. Then he walked over toward her, and Gale pulled the blanket tight around her shoulders, but Arnold walked right past her and stopped at a piece of plywood that was lying on the floor. He gripped the edge and pulled it up, revealing a jagged hole, walked back to his side of the room and returned with a roll of toilet paper. He handed it to her, went back to his lounge chair and covered himself with the blanket.
The handcuff on her ankle had rubbed her raw, and the rusty chain clanked as she walked across the floor. Her toilet was a hole in the floor, about eighteen inches across. The marsh mud was visible though the opening. Low tide. She thought she could squeeze through the hole if she ever got free from the chain. She waited until she was certain that Arnold had gone back to sleep before she squatted and hovered over the hole.
The horrible odor she smelled was her own body. She stunk from getting sick on herself, from the tainted mud in the barge, from fear. Maybe smelling like a horse rode hard and put up wet was a good thing in her current situation. She couldn’t bathe, check her email, or brush her teeth, but she was able to perform one of her morning rituals. She started with Downward Facing Dog stretches and finished her yoga session thirty minutes later in the Warrior position feeling physically and mentally refreshed from her workout.
An hour after she finished her exercises Arnold rose again, and walked out the door. Gale heard him pee off of the dock into the water, then he came back inside. He opened a soda and a box of Pop Tarts and tossed her one of the packages. She avoided junk food under normal circumstances, but she knew that she had to eat. She washed them down with a bottle of water and brushed her teeth with one of the few clean spots on her shirt. Arnold turned on the small black and white television.
He was soon riveted to a talk show featuring a woman who was waiting on a paternity test to see which of her cousins was the father of her unborn child. Members of the studio audience egged on the participants, and two of the possible fathers got into a fist fight and had to be restrained. During a commercial break a news update flashed on the screen, and she saw an aerial view of her boat being towed in from the ocean. Snow white with a mural of fish and turtles painted on the hull, there wasn’t another boat like it on the east coast. A Coast Guard officer was talking about hypothermia and how quickly someone would succumb to the elements, even in mild weather. The commentator said the search for the missing boater had been suspended and a picture of her, from the press packet that was distributed when she became Soundkeeper, flashed across the screen. She recognized several of her Coastwatchers who were keeping vigil at a local church.
After the news broadcast ended the station returned to the train wreck already in progress. Gale turned away from the television, and bit the inside of her cheek so she wouldn’t cry. She did not want to show any weakness or vulnerability, but she was terrified. She knew that there could only be one reason why Arnold was keeping her, and it made her sick to her stomach. She had to control her breathing to keep from hyperventilating.