Authors: Stuart Harrison
Still Waters by Stuart Harrison
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Snow Falcon
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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The HarperCollins website address is: www.fireandwater.com
Published by HarperCollins Publish
Copyright Stuart Harrison 2000
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 0 00 226153 7 (TPB) ISBN 0 00 710751 x (HB)
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Printed and bound in Great Britain by Omnia Books Limited, Glasgow
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,
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For Dale, Mac and Robbie
Ella cut the motor, and her boat drifted silently towards the shore. With no running lights to guide her there was only the pale moonlight to illuminate the rocks that lay ahead. She was tense, her grip tight on the wheel. Tall trees loomed above throwing her into deep shadow as she searched for a safe spot to tie up. Not for the first time that night she questioned what she was doing. A mixture of remorse and the fear of being discovered threatened to overwhelm her, but she pushed her doubts and misgivings aside. They were a luxury she couldn’t afford. With a quick gesture she wiped her eyes as unbidden tears blurred her vision.
“Not now Ella. Don’t lose it now,” she told herself quietly.
Ahead of her loomed the large outcrop of rock she’d been looking for. She spun the wheel quickly to avoid running aground, and the boat glided quietly broadside. Ella stepped out of the wheel-house, and rope in hand, she judged the moment to jump ashore, landing on a soft carpet of pine needles. Quickly she tied off around the trunk of a tree, and then, in the dark shelter beneath its branches, she paused to get her bearings before setting off back through the woods.
A group of killer whales swam in from the deep slope waters at the edge of the shelf, moving towards an unwary prey ahead of them. The moon vanished behind drifting cloud and the water was, for a moment, as black as pitch.
Overhead the sky was lit with faintly pulsing stars, and as the cloud passed, the moon once again cast its silvery grey light on the waves. The gulf air off the coast of Maine was thick and humid. The orcas maintained a loose formation, arching their powerful, glistening bodies through the troughs created by the three-foot swell. There were ten in all, adult males and females with several juveniles. The pod was led by an old bull who measured thirty-two feet in length and weighed eight and a half tons. He had the heavy set, thick build of male orcas, and his six-foot dorsal fin was characterized by a wavy pattern along the inner edge, like a double-toothed notch. The rest of the pod, including the females whose dorsal fins were about a third as big, bore similar patterns which spoke of a common genetic ancestry.
The sounds reaching the bull from a source that was still some distance ahead were at first faint and irregular. The swish and hiss of movement bore the signature of some warm blooded creature. The bull made clicking sounds that travelled through the water, and from the returning echoes he formed a map of the surrounding area which he compared to the storehouse of knowledge he’d built up over many visits to this part of the gulf in previous years. The ocean was relatively shallow, the seabed marked by fissures and valleys, and a deep channel ahead that ran from north to south off the coast of a large island. It was from this direction that the sounds originated.
The bull slowed and swam back to join the matriarch of the pod. She was smaller than he, perhaps twenty-six feet in length, but like him she bore the scars and marks of her advancing years. To keep up with the pod she was being partially supported by two females as they swam alongside. The bull gently sonared her body and the returning echoes told him that the rattling, watery sound of her breathing had become worse. She was growing weaker. She had been sick for many weeks now, and during that time her blubber had become dangerously thin. He stroked her with his flipper, and she responded by rubbing gently against him, but only briefly as even that minimal effort was too much for her. He remained with her for a short time before resuming his position at the front of the pod.
The faint swishing grew louder and more distinct. The bull stopped, and raising his head out of the water he looked towards the dark mass of an island silhouetted against the sky.
He dipped beneath the surface again, and turned towards a cove that was separated from a harbour at the southern end of the island by a broad, forested headland. The cove was partially protected by a submerged reef that curved out like a long crooked finger from the base of sheer cliffs on the northern side of the mouth. Here the heaving mass of the sea was made treacherous by conflicting currents that swirled about the underwater rocks. In the darkness, on a receding tide, the surface was marked with a brush stroke of white foam, while at the cliffs the sea pounded the rocks relentlessly and flung spray eighty feet into the air. Amid the sucking and churning water, another sound lured the orcas forward. It was the hiss made by a mixed school of bluefin tuna speeding through the water as they hunted mackerel. The tuna were of differing sizes, mostly twenty pounders, but there were also a good number of four-year-old fish weighing around sixty pounds and even some eight-or nine-year-olds that weighed up to three hundred pounds. It was for the rich succulent flesh of these migrating predators that the orcas had travelled inshore.
They approached in a line. It was a hunting formation they used often, with each animal having its allotted place. The smallest, a young female, took centre position, with successively larger animals on either side. Only the sick matriarch, with one female remaining at her side, stayed back, unable to take part. The bull took his position at the extreme left flank and with great sweeping motions of their powerful flukes the orcas rapidly picked up speed. As they gathered pace the larger animals at each end of the line were faster, which had the effect of creating a natural double-sided pincer movement. Travelling at almost thirty knots they bore down on the bluefin that were feeding around the mouth of the cove, still unaware of the approaching danger.
The bull was the first to utter a piercing scream, which was immediately taken up by the rest of the pod. The tuna reacted as if a bomb had burst among them, scattering in terror. Many tried to escape by fleeing in the opposite direction, and so found themselves unwittingly herded inside the cove, just as the orcas had intended. The water reverberated with a loud series of staccato clicks interspersed with solid booms, and the range of the orca vocal sounds further panicked the tuna. Only some of the older, more experienced fish understood what was happening and tried to escape towards the open sea.
One of them, a hundred pounder, flashed past the bull, but he changed direction with amazing speed and agility and with a single bite severed its tail. As the hapless fish spiralled down he seized it and shared it with the female closest to him, leaving only the head to sink to the depths. Other tuna tried to go deep, but along the line they were intercepted, until eventually there remained only those that had fled into the cove. The orcas patrolled the entrance, continuing to make their terrifying clicks and screams, and banging their flukes on the surface of the water to deter any of the fish from trying to escape. Then taking turns, they swam into the cove in pairs to feed.
At its widest point the cove was a mile across and the water was deep. On one side steep rocky cliffs fringed the shore and it was from here that the reef extended more than halfway around the entrance. On the other side the woods reached to the water line. A thin strip of beach marked the inner shore, and a small wooden jetty protruded like a gnarled finger into the bay. The beach reflected back the pale light of the moon, appearing as a whitish ribbon stretched along the edge of the dark water.
The bull and one of the females were the last to enter the cove. Swimming towards each other from opposite sides they herded the tuna into an ever tightening mass in the middle of the bay. Then they turned towards shore and drove their prey into shallower water to prevent them from diving deep. The female chased a three hundred pound fish that broke the surface in a flash of silver. The bluefin twisted in mid-air as it tried to escape, but it was intercepted by the bull, who took a chunk from its belly. The mortally wounded fish crashed to the sea again and was finished off by the female. All around them tuna were fleeing in blind terror. The orcas manoeuvred with incredible agility, disabling as many as they could, severing tails and caudal fins with swift bites before leaving their victims to sink. Only when the water was calm again did they seek out the wounded fish.
When their hunger was satisfied, they returned to the entrance to the cove and together they escorted in the sick matriarch. Her breathing was laboured now, and she swam with weak motions of her flukes. The bull led her into the shallows, and seizing a tuna as it flew past him he bit off its tail and took it to her, feeding her half the fish which she managed to swallow. A moment later, however, she brought it up again, as she had everything that she’d eaten over the last few days. The bull swam alongside her, gently rubbing her sides and listening to the increasingly distressed sound of her breathing. He patted her with his flipper, and she responded with a half-hearted gesture. They were both half in, half out of the water in the shallows, the bull’s massive notched fin completely clear. He backed up a little and encouraged the cow to do likewise.
Just then a loud report shattered the quiet of the night, and the bull turned and spied towards the shore where the sound had come from.
Ella put her hand to her forehead and felt the warm stickiness of blood. The pain was sharp, like tiny needles repeatedly stabbing her and it brought her round quickly. She sat up, trying to figure out what had happened. Her foot had snagged on a tangled root near the foot of a live oak, and she’d fallen, striking her head against the trunk. The rough bark had grazed her skin enough to make it bleed. She figured she’d been unconscious for maybe half a minute. A dull ache inhabited her skull. When she moved it felt like something sliding around in there, squeezing her brain, and for several minutes she had to rest with her head in her hands, leaning forward with her elbows resting against her knees.
Her gaze fell to the bundle beside her, and she looked away suddenly feeling that she would be ill. The scents of the warm,
thick night air were oppressive. The soft, sweet loamy smell of earth and rotting leaves mingled with something even earthier, something corrupt. The smell of death.
“Jesus,” she said quietly, her voice desolate.
She sat still for a moment longer, trying to muster the strength of will to go on. Blood trickled down her face but she recalled from somewhere that head wounds always bleed heavily and look worse than they are. Shakily she got to her feet. She took a deep breath or two, then bending down, she grasped the bundle at her feet, and slowly resumed dragging it backwards a step at a time.
It took her another ten minutes to reach the path that led through the woods to the point. The houses out that way belonged mainly to summer people. She was sweating now, and her breathing was laboured. Her arms and shoulders were aching, and while she rubbed her sore muscles she stared upwards through the leafy canopy to the sky. It was a clear night, and though the forecast had promised thickening cloud and squalls later on, neither had materialized. Ella peered along the path, which was deeply shadowed but lit here and there with patches of pale moonlight. She didn’t expect anybody else to be out at this time of night. An owl hooted somewhere close by, and a deer shrieked way back in the woods.
The nape of Ella’s neck prickled uncomfortably. The deer had sounded eerie, like a cry from beyond the grave. A shuddering breath escaped her. She half expected to see a pale visage, a silent accusing face hovering in the trees, but there was nothing there. Then she heard the snap of a twig, and the unmistakable sound of a footfall from along the path. Ella froze. She was close to a tree, her outline broken and absorbed in its shadow. Her heart pounded and her mouth was dry. She waited, wondering who else besides herself would be out there this late, but there was only the soft rustlings of some creature among the undergrowth, and the barest tremor of leaves caressed by the breeze. She counted to thirty, then another thirty, her senses straining. Finally, no longer sure of what she’d heard she cautiously peered around the tree.