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 Live Oaks 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.”