Authors: Margaret Maron
Tags: #Knott; Deborah (Fictitious Character), #Mystery & Detective, #Women Judges, #Legal, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Missing Persons, #Fiction
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea:
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rocks and treacherous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee,
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me.
The flashlight was square, waterproof, and a bright fluorescent orange. Square, so it could sit firmly on the seat of a flounder boat, waterproof so it would float if it went over the side, Day-Glo orange so it could be easily spotted and fished out of the shallows when (not if) it did go overboard with a gill net or crab pot.
I set it atop the water tank in the small windowless pump house and held Carl’s handwritten instructions up to its strong beam.
Turn off drain-out at bottom of water tank.
Close petcock bottom left of pump.
Close valve between pump and tank.
Prime with water in jugs near tank (about 1 gal.) When primed, close gate valve and plug in pump. Should click on and off a few times.
The only jugs I could see in the shadowy recess beside the pump were some yellow ones with antifreeze labels. I had to move three wire crab baskets to get at them and—
“Need some help with that?” asked a voice from the doorway behind me.
I jumped, banged my head on a pipe that ran from the ancient pump to a fairly new water tank, and turned to see an adolescent male shape in black rubber boots.
It’d been two years since I last stepped foot on Harkers Island and he’d shot up four or five inches, but there was no mistaking that sun-bleached straw thatch. Nor the ubiquitous rubber boots he wore whenever he wasn’t barefooted or heading off to school in sneakers.
“Thanks, Guthrie,” I said, “but I believe I can figure it out myself.”
The boy elbowed aside Carl’s charcoal grill and pushed in beside me. “I help Carl all the time.”
The most distinctive feature of “Down East” speech is that every long
sound is replaced by an
. In the accent of Guthrie’s seafaring ancestors, the words came out “Oi he’p Carl ahl th’ toime.”
Some say that “hoi toider” (high tider) speech is a survival of pure Elizabethan; others say it’s a natural product of two hundred years’ isolation here near the southern end of the Outer Banks. Until a causeway and bridge were built in the forties, boats were all that connected Harkers Island to the mainland.
One of Guthrie’s great-grandmothers died in a hospital over in Morehead in the mid-seventies, and that dash across North River, through Beaufort, across the Newport River channel, was the first time she’d ever been off-island in her entire eighty-some years, never mind upstate. (Her children always swore it was the shock of leaving the island that killed her, not the stroke.)
The smell of salt air and fried fish clung to Guthrie’s white tee shirt as he hoisted a yellow jug from my hand.
“This what you’re using to prime her with?” he asked.
“If it’s clean water.” I stepped back so he could get at the pump. Hey, I’m not proud. Any male, young or old, who wants to do my dirty work, he’s more than welcome.
Water gurgled from the jug till it ran out through the open pump valve.
I still had my cousin’s instructions in my hand. “Did you close the gate valve?”
I fished out the plug end of the pump cord, he pushed it into the socket, and the pump came on with a roar.
Guthrie started to back out.
“Wait! We’re not done.” I almost had to shout to be heard above the noisy pump as I read aloud from the crumpled sheet:
“Open valve between pump and tank little by little and open valve going into hot water tank. Pressure should build to 40 lbs. on gauge and shut off.”
“Which’un’s the hot water valve?” the boy shouted back.
“I thought you said you help Carl all the time.”
“Do, but he changed ‘em around last time.” He suddenly twisted a cutoff knob on one of the many pipes. “That’s her,” he declared.
The pump continued to labor and the pressure gauge wouldn’t go beyond 15. I pointed this out to Guthrie.
“Give ‘er some more time,” he said and leaned back, prepared to make small talk above the noise. “Carl coming down?”
“No.” I eyed the pressure gauge. “Just me this trip.”
“When you going back?”
“Thursday or Friday maybe.” Today was Sunday in early April. “We’re still not getting any pressure.”
“Reckon you didn’t turn off all the spigots?” he asked, ready to disclaim any part of a malfunction.
“Everything I saw. Except for one on the outside shower so the air’ll bleed out.”
“I’ll go see if she’s putting out water,” he volunteered.
Now that he was gone and it was just me and the pump, I realized I could hear water spilling from somewhere. In fact, I could feel water oozing into my sneakers. I seemed to be standing in a puddle. Shining the flashlight at the bottom of the water tank, I saw yet another open tap through which water was gushing. Once I closed it, the gauge needle finally crept up to 40 psi and the pump shut off.
Into the silence came the cry of gulls and a lapping of gentle swells.
“She worn’t spitting air anymore and I closed her off,” Guthrie reported. He eyed the gauge complacently. “Reckon that’s all she needed.”
” ‘Preciate your help,” I told him as we both stepped out into bright sunlight.
Harkers Island lies across from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on an east-west axis, and I always have trouble getting oriented down here. When you look out over the sound to Shackleford Banks, you feel that because it’s seawater and Shackleford’s part of the Outer Banks, you must be looking east. In reality, you’re looking almost due south.
The wind was coming from the west, blowing off the land, and it was warm and spring-like. Beyond a grassy hump too low to be called a dune, the water of Back Sound lay smooth as one of my daddy’s freshwater fish ponds.
Behind us, nestled amongst three live oaks and some overgrown privet, was the small shabby clapboard cottage that had been built around 1910. Like most older houses down here, the builder had been a waterman, not a professional carpenter: the high-pitched roof originally covered four tiny rooms and shedded off over a front porch, with a hand pump and privy somewhere out behind. Even though Carl and Sue had added a bath and new kitchen across the back, brought in electricity and running water, reshingled the roof, and painted the warped clapboards a cheerful yellow, if you held your head just right, you could see daylight through some cracks and it still looked as if the first big wind ought to blow it slam across the island. Yet there it sat, despite eighty years of hurricanes and nor’easters.
Behind the cottage was a thicket of yaupon bushes and, beyond those, Clarence Willis’s mobile home faced the road and helped buffer the cottage from weekend traffic to the Shell Point ferry in the summer. The Willises, father and son, were watermen and boat builders like Guthrie’s grandfather; but they were to be away all week, according to Carl.
Carl and Sue are my distant cousins. At least, Sue is. On my mother’s Stephenson side. Their daughters are my age and I used to come down with them several times a year all through childhood and adolescence.
Between my brothers and their wives and a bunch of aunts and uncles, I can’t turn around in Colleton County without somebody telling someone else; so when Carl heard through the family grapevine that I’d been assigned to fill in at the Carteret County courthouse for an ailing judge, he insisted that I stay at their place. “We haven’t been down since February,” he said, “so all the water’s still cut off, but that’s no problem.”
Well, no, not if you don’t mind groping around up under the edge of the house for a half-dozen cutoff valves before you even tackle the pump itself. The house sits on low brick pilings, no skirting, no foundation, open to every blast of winter storms. Every time an exposed pipe freezes and bursts, Carl installs a new spigot so the pipe can be drained at that point, never mind the obstacles.
Guthrie was sucking at a bleeding knuckle where he’d knocked the scab off.
“Floor joist got me,” he said sheepishly.
I saw the other scabbed knuckles on his fist, then noticed a half-healed cut on his round chin. And although it had faded to a pale blue shadow, I could make out the remains of a bruise on the cheekbone beneath his right eye.
“Must have been quite a fight,” I observed.
“Ah, naw. Fell in my boat,” he said, sounding enough like one of my nephews to make it clear he didn’t plan to talk about it.
Fine with me. As a district court judge, I have to listen to too many stories of who took the first swing after who said what to go looking for yet another.
“When’d you get a boat?” I asked.
“November, when I turned fourteen,” said Guthrie.
“Your granddaddy give it to you?” I smiled, thinking how island kids must look forward to a first boat the way I’d looked forward to my first car.
“Naw, I worked out the money fishing and clamming.”
I forget what it was that killed his mother when he was two or three. Ruptured appendix? Or was it pneumonia? I’m pretty sure it was something that didn’t
to be fatal if she’d gotten treatment in time; but her husband was off pulling a drunk or something, and she just lay there in that trailer parked on the backside of nowhere and died.
Mickey Mantle Davis was too wild and shiftless to make a home for any child, so he dumped Guthrie on his parents and, as far as I could see, if he contributed anything to the boy’s upbringing, it was more as an older brother might than as a real father should.
As the boy and I talked, we’d been walking past wind-sculpted live oaks, across the flat grassy stretch that lay between the cottage and a knee-high ridge of sand that rose from the water’s edge. A short path had been worn through the mini-dune and we stepped through it onto the beach. Not that there’s much of a beach here. Even at dead low tide, there’s only a few feet of clear sand and that’s usually littered with kelp, an occasional boot or stray sneaker, conch shells, plastic six-pack rings or torn fishing nets. Being on the sound side of Shackleford Banks, waves here are generally just wavelets, lazy and gentle with hardly any break at all unless there’s a storm kicking up.
East of us was a wildish stretch that fronted an empty field. To the west was Mahlon Davis’s narrow landing, then another field, this one overgrown with yucca, wax myrtle and sumac. Along Mahlon’s line, and spilling over in places on that side, were an abandoned truck, a hodgepodge of raised cockerel pens and enough trash and debris to fill several dumpsters. At least the Davises had quit piling it along Carl’s line.
Sand fleas skittered away from our feet, and the terns and sandpipers that had flown up as we approached now resumed their inspection of the water’s edge a safe distance away.
Early afternoon and the tide was still low, but coming in. There was a funky smell of wet seaweed, salt water, and clumps of drying eel grass. Otherwise, the air was so crystalline that the black-and-white diamond-patterned lighthouse stood out crisply, and the sun was so dazzling that it almost cancelled the distant light that gleamed and flashed every fifteen seconds. Out in the channel, speedboats zoomed past, trailing wakes that rocked some pelicans that were floating with a few sea gulls a hundred feet offshore. Where the shoreline curved, more gulls lifted from the carcass of a rusted-out car and flew over to see if we happened to have stale bread or were dumping any fish offal. They voiced their disappointment in raucous cries when no food appeared and settled onto several small boats that were moored in close.