Authors: Michael Hervey
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #South Carolina, #Pinckney Island, #thriller, #Hall McCormick
S O U N D K E E P E R
A Hall McCormick Thriller
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a real place, located between Bluffton and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Certain other locations portrayed in the novel do exist, but are used fictionally in this book.In every other respect this book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents and places are either used fictionally or have been created by the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any electronic or printed form without the permission of the author.
Please visit michaelhervey.com for more information.
Soundkeeper Copyright 2011 by Michael Hervey
Pinckney Island map Copyright 2011 by Michael Melendez
“Greater love has no one than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
New International Version (NIV)
The clay-colored swirl stained the green water of Port Royal Sound and the falling tide made it easy to trace the ribbon of mud to its source. The developers of
had been consistent with their lack of environmental stewardship so far, and she was ready to take formal action. The modest thunderstorm that had passed through the area yesterday afternoon should not have caused properly installed erosion prevention devices to fail. Gale Pickens stood on the console of her boat in order to get a better angle and balanced her leg against the windshield while she filmed with her digital video camera. When she had finished, she dipped a plastic specimen bottle into the water and collected a sample to prove that the water had enough turbidity to be lethal to certain types of sealife.
The county inspector should have been doing this, but she knew it would take him a week to return her phone call and a week after that before he made an on-site inspection. She understood how so many irresponsible developers had gotten away with so much for so long. Nobody cared, at least no one that had the power to do anything about it. But that was her job now, doing something about it, and she always did a good job.
When she finished collecting the samples she turned her boat around and let it drift with the current into the sound while she made notes to accompany the evidence she had collected. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency could be slow to respond to her complaints, but she had learned that they appreciated a professional and well-documented allegation. She would also provide copies of her complaint to all media outlets. They loved her videos and pictures of dirty water and pollution and usually ran teasers for her stories during reruns of CSI.
She stored her notebook and video camera in a waterproof locker and started the motor on her boat, an outboard converted to run on biodiesel. Her thoughts drifted to the going-away party she was going to tonight, and while she was happy for her friend that was retiring, she would miss him and his help. She was glad the new refuge officer had asked to take her to the party and was looking forward to seeing him again. She smiled when she thought about his lopsided smile and shy demeanor.
With a tug of the wheel she corrected her course to head home, and when she rounded the point of St. Phillips Island she was surprised to see a barge anchored near the shore. The ship had more rust than paint on its hull and didn’t have a name on it, just documentation numbers sprayed on the side. Most of the boat traffic stayed in the Intracoastal Waterway, and Port Royal Sound had little commercial shipping this close to the open ocean. She angled closer and noticed that the boat was listing to its port side and the engine wasn’t running. She wondered if the boat was around and noticed a sheen on the water near the stern.
“Hello!” she called out as she pulled alongside. The deck of the barge was several feet higher than her boat. No one answered, so she called again.
She tied her boat to the railing of the barge and pulled herself aboard. The fuel leaking into the water was a major problem, but her first concern as a mariner was that everyone on board was alright. As soon as she hoisted herself over the railing she realized that she had misidentified the vessel. It was not a typical cargo barge but a hopper barge, the type of boat that usually worked in conjunction with a dredge. When a dredge was used to deepen a channel, the mud and sand that was collected from the bottom of the waterway, referred to as spoil, was loaded onto the barge and taken out in the ocean to a designated area to be unloaded. The hull of the hopper barge had massive underwater doors so the materials would fall out of the bottom of the boat when the doors were opened.
Gale noticed the cargo area was full of copper-colored dirt, not sand and mud. This soil was from inland, which was very unusual. The wind shifted and chemical fumes stung her nose.
“Hello!” she called again. The door leading from the pilothouse was open and she stepped inside.
“Is anybody here?”
“Who’s there?” The voice was gruff and unpleasant. Before she could answer, the owner of the voice climbed out onto the deck from a hatchway.
“What the hell are you doing on my boat?” he demanded.
The man was short and wide. His forearms looked like Popeye’s and were covered with so many blurry and faded tattoos that it was impossible to discern any one image. His large, thick hands were greasy, and he held a wrench in one of them. Gale noticed his stained teeth when he asked again what she was doing.
“I thought you might need some help,” she said.
“We don’t need any help.”
Whoever he was, he wasn’t local. His accent was from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Gale hadn’t seen anyone else on board, but the unseen voice of another man called out. “Who are you talking to?”
A second man climbed out of the hatch. He was wearing jeans and a plaid golf shirt hanging off his shoulders. His spiked hair was bleached blond and dark eyebrows looked mismatched above his pock-marked nose. His eyes locked onto hers.
“I just wanted to make sure that you were okay. I thought you had lost your engine and were aground.”
“That’s very considerate of you,” the blond one said. He smiled at her and she felt goosebumps rise when he leered at her legs, and she realized he knew she was alone. He wanted her to know he was looking at her.
“Soundkeeper,” he said, reading the name of her boat. “Environmental watchdog, right?”
Gale knew she was in trouble. She felt real fear for the first time in her life. Her pulse was racing and her peripheral vision narrowing. These long-bred survival instincts were pulling blood from her extremities into her core, preparing for a fight.
“People know where I am.” Gale took a step toward the nearest railing, but Blondie mirrored her motion, cutting her off. He smiled at her again, put his hand in his pocket and took a step closer to her. Another step and he was within arm’s reach. When his switchblade flicked open, she kicked him in the balls as hard as she could.
Blondie was down and groaning before Gale reached the line securing her boat. She threw one long leg over the railing when a greasy hand clamped over her mouth and she was pulled backward off of her feet. She tasted blood and grease when she bit down as hard as she could and heard the tattooed man curse. His hands dropped to her waist and he squeezed her so tightly she couldn’t breathe. She stopped struggling when she saw the blade of the knife dancing in front of her eyes.
The sick smile had disappeared from Blondie’s face. He was in obvious pain.
“Bitch,” he spat through clenched teeth and slapped her with his open palm. Gale tasted blood again, hers this time. She saw him draw back and the last thing she saw before the blackness was a rusty wrench, arcing toward her head.
“Get us out of here and head out to sea,” Blondie said to the tattooed man. He bent over, grimacing. “We’ll cut her boat loose and dump her with the dirt.”
Hall McCormick was on the water an hour before the first tangerine slices of light tickled the eastern horizon. He picked up Jimmy Barnwell at the boat landing and together they headed across Calibogue Sound to begin their last day together.
Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Hall McCormick, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had worn his uniform for only twelve weeks. The waters he was navigating were as new and unfamiliar to him as his uniform and the thought of losing his trainer and guide had kept him from sleeping most of the night. When Jimmy Barnwell retired today at the end of their shift, he would take twenty-five years of experience with the agency and fifteen years of local knowledge with him. Other than Hall, the nearest refuge officer was stationed miles away at the Savannah refuge.
In the middle of the sound Hall cut the motor on the patrol boat and plopped down on the seat. He stared out toward the placid ocean and wondered how long it would take the tide to push them back behind the island. Jimmy put a fresh plug of Red Man in his mouth and spit a stream of tobacco juice over the gunwale before he spoke.
“You’ll do alright boy,” the older man said in his quiet voice. The younger man seemed unconvinced.
“When is the next full moon?” Jimmy asked.
“A week from Tuesday,” Hall replied.
“How many bass under eighteen inches can you keep?”
Jimmy smiled and spit again.
Every day for the past two months had been a learning experience for Hall McCormick. With a graduate degree in marine biology he came to the job knowing intimate details about the life cycle of the Sciaenops ocellata, or spottail bass as the locals called them, but virtually nothing about the laws that protected them and their environment. Jimmy provided no textbooks for his course. He quizzed his student every day on matters ranging from federal fisheries regulations to South Carolina game laws. The practical courses were even tougher: boat handling, course plotting, and vessel safety checks.
Twice Hall had failed in the field. Hall ran their boat aground on Brams Point after being told the day before that the shoal there was too shallow to cross at anything less than three-quarters of the high tide. Hall’s pride was damaged but the boat was not. It was easily freed from the mud and the lesson was ingrained forever. The second failure drew much more criticism from his teacher.
Two weeks ago they stopped a small runabout for suspicion of boating while impaired. Hall failed to notice a handgun in the glove box of the boat when the young man operating the craft retrieved his registration papers. With his hand on his pistol Jimmy told the young man to keep his hands where he could see them and deftly stepped over to the other vessel. The gun was legal and the owner was just distracted, not drunk. He was sent on his way with some advice about operating his boat in a safer manner.
“Most people you run into are good folks, even the ones you have to cite or take to the magistrate. Every once in a while you’ll run into someone who’s not so nice and doesn’t think much of that uniform you’re wearing. That’s why they gave you a gun to go along with the badge,” Jimmy had told him.
It was the gun Hall hated more than anything else about his new job. After graduate school, he tried to get a job with every state fisheries agency east of the Mississippi, but with no success. No one was hiring marine biologists. There were positions open but lean budgets meant non-critical personnel who left or retired were not being replaced. The federal agencies weren’t hiring biologists either but they were hiring law enforcement officers.