Nicki recovered from the shock quickly enough to realize it would do no good to just stand there with the car speeding right at her. Quickly she dove back towards the curb, landing on the hood of a car parked nearby. Fortunately, it was enough; the car missed her and continued zooming off into the night. Nicki turned to try and see the license plate, but it was already too far out of range.
She took a deep breath, her heart rate slowly returning to normal as she slid back to her feet and bustled across the street as fast as she could. Had what just happened been just an accident, or had the driver had something more sinister in mind for her, she had to wonder?
No, she shook her head, that was just being paranoid. It couldn't possibly be related to her conversation with Lynn in the hospital. Who else would have known she was in there if it was that dire? The incident wouldn't even be in the papers until tomorrow morning anyway. Yes, it was likely just some drunk in a hurry, she decided firmly.
Still, she reasoned, the sooner she got to the party on the beach, the better. She quickly threaded her way down a few side streets until she reached the harbor. She walked briskly along the sea wall, her eyes already catching sight of the campfires blazing on the sand about a quarter mile ahead.
Something else caught her eye, though, in the glow of the lights alongside the wall in an inlet near the beginning of the beach, a section not watched all that thoroughly by the lifeguards due to it's extremity on the beach, she knew. She came to a stop and squinted hard at the object, which glistened white in the lights. It was a small, smashed section of a boat hull floating against the rocks listlessly, a somber testament to a boat's painful demise. "Contrail," she read off the shattered hull. The name didn't ring any bells for her, and yet somehow she thought it was familiar. She thought hard. Should she contact the authorities about it?
What for, she shook her head? Just because it was floating here broken didn't mean the boat had been the victim of foul play. It could well have been a natural accident for all she knew. Better wait and find out more before jumping the gun.
Shrugging, she continued onward down the beach. Loud music filled the air as she got closer. Young people her age were dancing and eating around the campfires-not to mention doing a couple of other things that made Nicki rather uncomfortable. "Hey Nicki, over here," she heard Jessie call to her. Her friend was on a blanket near a large dune, hot dog in hand. "The lady feeling any better?" the redhead asked her as she sat down next to her on the blanket.
"She's sad that her husband's dead, but she'll be all right," Nicki told her, "Say, I have to ask, did you or Sam ever hear about a boat called the Contrail wrecking lately? I may have just found the wreckage at the end of the beach."
"Contrail?" Jessie's brow furled, "Nope, can't say I have. Sam," she called to Samantha, walking towards them as well, "Hear anything about a Contrail?"
"You know, I kind of remember something, but I don't think it was that important. Hi Nicki," Samantha sat down next to her, "Have a hot dog; Greg Vetter cooked them up pretty good."
"Sure," Nicki took it from her and took a bite. "Not bad at all," she agreed, "In fact, I might ask..."
She trailed off as she heard the sound of scuffling coming from beyond the dune. "What's going on here?" she mused, rising up again and walking towards the shouting. She came to a stop when she saw what was going on: a half dozen or so large boys were surrounding none other than Adam. The largest was pulling his arm behind his back while the others were taunting him on. "Too scared to fight back, Marshton?" the largest boy was snickering, "I told you never to come around this beach again while I'm here, and..."
"STOP!" Nicki's voice rang out loudly. The bullies all turned to face her in surprise. "Coronado Beach Lifeguard's Department," she said strongly, stomping forward, "Let him go right now!"
The bullies broke into laughter. "You think we're scared of a girl!?" the largest one was in hysterics, "Oh this night keeps getting...!"
Livid, Nicki grabbed his arm and twisted it hard much like he himself was twisting Adam's. "OOWWW!" he howled, shocked.
"Not so nice when you have to put up with it yourself, is it!?" she snapped in his ear. Sensing another was coming up behind her, she swung and decked him hard in the chest with her free hand, then sent first him and then another sprawling with sharp kicks. The others stayed in place, too shocked by what had happened to their associates. "Now, all of you off this beach, right now, or I'm reporting all over you to the police!" she barked at them.
"You be sorry for this someday!" the leader warned as he slipped out of her hold, but she could see the fear in his face as well. He and the boys ran off. Adam turned to her with a smile. "My hero," he half-joked.
"Are you all right?" she asked him, taking a look at his arm, which didn't seem to be broken or injured openly at all, "You want me to call the cops on them anyway?"
"Nah, they're cowards underneath; they won't come back here if they think they'll get a thrashing," Adam told her, "I am glad you showed up, Nicki."
"Well, I have a duty to protect this beach and all on it," she said.
"I appreciate a woman with a strong sense of responsibility," he smiled warmly at her, making her blush deeply. "And I glad you showed up for this too," he glanced back to the knots of his friends on the sand below, "For a while I thought you weren't going to make it."
"Oh I was coming; I just had to take care of something first; you know the woman from earlier today who..."
"Oh THERE you are, Adam," came a most unpleasant voice. Nicki grimaced to see Heather Rundle climbing up to the top of the dunes. While many boys may have thought Heather beautiful, Nicki knew from experience it was only skin-deep. Heather in fact shot her a very harsh glare when she saw her standing next to Adam. "I've been looking all over for you," she told him, "Come on, we're going to limbo now; you don't want to miss that, do you?"
"I thought so. Come on Adam, don't be shy now," she took his hand and tugged him back down towards the waterline, turning to mouth nastily back at Nicki, "He's mine, so stay away if you know what's good for you!" Nicki sighed and shook her head. She knew she had no chance with Adam, but it would have preferred Heather not be so overprotective of her claim on him. That wasn't the way she thought a real relationship should work.
With another sigh, she trudged back to the beach herself. "Everything under control now, Nicki?" Samantha asked her as she plopped back down next to her and Jessie.
"Yep, everything's under control now; just a fight that I got stopped," Nicki took a sip of soda, not willing to go too in-depth about the circumstances.
"So what else happened there when you visited the lady?" the brunette inquired.
"Well,..." Nicki laid out everything she hadn't already said to the two of them, leaving out her encounter with the car, which may have been irrelevant anyway. "But the funny thing was," she finished, "She mentioned something about glowing creatures from the deep that came on board. Does that make any sense to either of you?"
"Green creatures?" Samantha frowned, "That sounds crazy to me. Jessie?"
"Well," Jessie seemed a bit surprised, "There IS the old legend of the underwater guardians..."
"What legend?" Nicki asked, intrigued.
"Well, Jessie sighed, skeptical, "The story around these parts is that when some old conquistador whose name I forget was sailing around here back in the 1500s, he found some gold on the beach in an old iron chest covered in seaweed, as if it had washed ashore. Being greedy for gold, he and his crew took it and shoved off. But apparently, it belonged to some underwater race that lives in the ocean, or so the story goes, and they have a pet sea monster at their disposal. That night, while sailing back to Spain, the creatures and their pet attacked the ship, which went down with all hands lost. Since then, some people have claimed to have been attacked over the centuries by the creatures, or seen the monster in the ocean. But of course, Nicki, it's all just a legend. I mean, who would ever believe in something so silly being out there? Surely if there were something that big or that strange out there, we would have found positive proof at some point by now, wouldn't we?"
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than from the dark horizon over the sea came a tremendous splashing sound that made the girls' heads turn in unison-as well, Nicki noticed, as everyone else on the beach. What sounded vaguely like cracking followed before everything died down. Nicki squinted hard into the darkness, but nothing could be seen. "That didn't sound normal," she mused.
"Come on Nicki, don't start just because I told you that legend!" Jessie protested, "That was probably just a whale or something surfacing and calling; I'll bet you a hundred bucks on it; am I right, Sam!?"
"It might have been a whale," Samantha nodded somewhat uncertainly, "Although I can't remember any of them being that loud."
Nicki thought the same as well. While it might have been a whale, something didn't quite seem right. She needed to check a few things out once they went back to the beach house for the night.
"Contrail," Nicki mused out loud as she typed the name into the search engine of Samantha's laptop later that night. Surely there would have to be something online about the boat, she reasoned. Sure enough, the first title to pop up was from the local paper. SEARCH CALLED OFF FOR AREA YOUTH AFTER NO TRACE OF BOAT FOUND, read the logline. Nicki clicked on the link to read the whole article, dated three months ago:
Rescue teams have called off the hunt for the son of a local businessman after a thorough search of the surrounding coastline turned up nothing. Tim Reilly, 17, was last seen piloting the family yacht, the Contrail, out of dock in the St. Catherine port for an afternoon on the ocean, heading due east. When he was not heard from by nightfall, his family called the authorities, but intense searching have turned up no body or trace of the ship. While a storm did form later in the afternoon, experts don't think weather could have played a part in the disappearance.
Tim's father, Alexander Reilly, was too emotionally distraught over what was likely his son's death to give an interview with this reporter. He later released a statement to this paper that he is refusing to give up hope until Tim's body is found.
Nicki felt a pang in her chest. Tim Reilly was the exact same age as her. To think that something like this could have happened to someone she'd know on a day-to-day basis had she lived in Coronado Beach full time...
But there was more she had to know, so she buried her emotions and turned back to the computer to read the rest:
...authorities are saying there's probably no connection to the recent disappearance last month of another boat in the Surf County area. The boat of Arnold and Edna Cochrane vanished off Point Lawrence in March without a trace, and nothing has been heard from the couple since then, although it is believed they went down in a storm that had sprung up the previous night. Authorities are nonetheless asking anyone going boating in the near future to exercise caution in the event this is more than just a series of unrelated accidents.
Nicki's brow furled. It had rained the night before when Lynn and her husband's boat had been attacked as well, which would be a pattern of some kind if extended to the Cochranes and Tim Reilly. What did it mean, if anything? And had there been any other suspicious shipwrecks since then?
She typed in SURF COUNTY SHIPWRECKS in the search bar. Only references to the Cochrane and Reilly disappearance could be found, however, so apparently Lynn's boat had been the most recent incident after the Reilly disappearance. Her mind thus shifted back to Jessie's relating of the local legend of sea creatures. It seemed absurd, but was it true, she had to wonder? Had all these boaters somehow angered creatures of the deep?
Regardless, she had information the authorities might need, she she bustled over to the phone and dialed the police station. "Coronado Beach Police Department, how may we help you?" asked the receptionist.
"Hello, I may have some information relating to the Tim Reilly case up in St. Catherine," Nicki said softly so not to wake Jessie, sound asleep on the sofa nearby, "Earlier tonight, I saw part of his boat floating around in the inlets near the sea wall, around the Eighth Avenue terminus. It may have gone out with the tide by now, but you can tell the St. Catherine authorities that Tim Reilly's boat was wrecked one way or another."
"OK, and who can we saying is phoning this in?"
"Um," Nicki's mind flashed back to the car almost running her down, "Actually, I'd prefer to remain anonymous, if it's OK."
"All right, we'll look into it and see what comes to light. Thank you for your cooperation."
"Thank you," Nicki returned the favor as she hung up. Her brow furled. Had she done the right thing remaining anonymous?
Well, she thought as she closed the laptop's Internet screen out and hit the shutdown button, that was a problem to solve another day; at the moment she was too tired out to look any further. She pushed the laptop closed and walked briskly towards the bedroom she was sharing with Samantha, who was also sound asleep herself by now. Nicki climbed up onto the hammock in the corner that was hers for the summer. She rocked gently in it from side to side as she stared out the window into the night sky, barely illuminated by a setting first quarter moon, and listened to the waves gently crashing against the shore. Was there really something supernatural out there in the surf, she wondered as her eyes started closing, or was it all just in her mystery-eager mind?
The first rays of the rising sun shone warmly on her face as she woke up in the morning. She stretched and hopped to the floor. Six thirty, she noticed on her watch; right on time. She and her friends started their shift at eight. Plenty of time for breakfast and the usual morning jog they were in the habit of doing. Indeed, the rest of the beach house was deserted, so it was clear Jessie and Samantha were already up and out on their own jogs. No matter, Nicki thought to herself as she walked towards the front door to get the mail, which would have been delivered about five minutes ago, she could easily go on her own jog after breakfast.
The mailbox was fairly full when she reached into it. Carrying all the letters inside, she set them on the table and looked them over one at a time. Bills, more bills, a magazine subscription, some sweepstakes wanting Samantha's parents to sign up for the grand prize...
And one last envelope that didn't have a return address. Nicki frowned at this one; who could have sent this? carefully she tore it open and lifted out the letter inside...
...and she almost immediately dropped the letter from shock. For the letter was covered in seaweed and featured a single word, written clearly in blood: BEWARE.