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The four-metre tiger shark glided past with swift movement. Twenty-eight-year-old marine biologist Trace Patterson felt as though someone had a stranglehold on his stomach and was squeezing it to an unbearable agony. His throat tightened and his knuckles gripped the underwater camera. No bubbles rose from his scuba gear: he had stopped breathing.
Poised vertically in the clear water of the coral reef, he dared not move. Logic told him the shark was not in an attacking mode. God knows he had seen hundreds during his adventures in the waters off the Queensland coast to know the difference. Still, the sight of the monsters also brought back memories best forgotten.
With nowhere to hide, no place to go, and only five minutes of air left in his tank, he began searching for a cave to hide in. He could see none. So the options were to drown or be torn to shreds by the shark?
The knife in his utility belt gave little comfort as protection against a shark this size. The chain-mail diving suit wasn't going to help him either. While the suit gave him protection from the reef sharks and others of smaller variety, he certainly didn't want this monster to test it.
Terror came flooding into him as a powerful flashback blazed into his mind: two teenagers swimming on the reef, enjoying themselves. He and Greg Sutcliffe, mates forever, enjoying a typical day out on the reef: diving together, frolicking with the many coloured fish of the reef, playing with a large turtle. They reach the surface laughing and joking. But the pleasant atmosphere is broken by Greg's piercing scream. A huge shark silently grabs him around his torso, pulling him under. Trace turns toward theblood staining the crystal clear water, trying to reach his friend. He looks on in horror as Greg is literally bitten in half, his flesh in the jaws of the monster. Trace feels a ripping of flesh on his calf as he tries desperately to reach their boat. The shark is looking for two meals that day. He kicks furiously and the shark turns its attention back to Greg, shaking his dismembered body from side to side and tearing off large chunks of flesh. From the safety of the boat, he watches the blood slowly disappear as the ocean returns to its natural colour. Silence follows. Surf patrol finds his boat. He is rocking back and forth, his knees pulled to his body, shaking with fear and sobbing at the loss of his friend.
That was twelve years ago. He thought he would never get in the water again, but his dreams of becoming a marine biologist prevailed. The memory of those powerful jaws and eight hundred pounds of brute power certainly exposed his terror and reinforced his father's suggestion for further protection against a future attack.
His father's words came flooding back to him now. "Listen, son, get off your arse and get over it. Face your problem. If it worries you, then get yourself a chain-mail suit. At least that's some protection. Getting attacked by a shark is a one-in-a-million chance."
When he had finally been released from hospital, his father, Norman, noted his reluctance to go out on the water. Knowing Trace's ambition of becoming a marine biologist, Norman took it upon himself to snap Trace out of his fear of ever diving again. He let it slide for a month, but then took Trace out to the reef and forced him to don his scuba gear and dive. Trace had sat on the edge of the boat, dressed in his scuba gear, his flippers, weighted belt, and mask already on. But he couldn't jump. He only stared at the water. Norman had waited for him to slide into the ocean and frowned. Instead of nagging him into jumping, he put his hand on the middle of Trace's back and gave him a shove. That did it. Then he was back in the world he loved, and cautiously he and Norman glided around the living coral, inspecting the creatures close-up. When a reef shark swam by, Trace froze, but Norman grabbed his arm to console him. It was only four feet long and completely ignored Norman and Trace. Gradually his confidence returned, enabling him to overcome the trauma--at least with the small variety of sharks--allowing him to complete his degree in marine biology.
Today, on one of his hundreds of dives since that terrible accident, he had been admiring the rich colours of the fish and their movements. Then, in an instant, they had all disappeared. There one second, gone the next. He wished now that he had followed the golden rule of scuba diving: never dive alone.
His only option was to stay perfectly still, not dare to convey panic, because the shark would sense it and that would be the end. The contraction in his throat eased as he willed himself to breathe. As a marine biologist, logic told him sharks don't normally like human flesh. Most attacks occur when a shark mistakes a human for a seal. He tried to make himself believe this, keeping his gaze trained on the predator's cruel eyes as it glided by. He thought about the flesh ripped from his leg and the long period of rehabilitation that had followed. No way did he ever want to go through that again.
The shark moved slowly, investigating a cluster of coral. In spite of the terror he felt, the sleek and efficient killer held him fascinated. Just a flick of the tail gave it the power to propel itself forward. When they wanted to, sharks moved as a blur, hitting their prey with unparalleled and savage fury. The shark turned, and so did Trace. He kept it in the scope of his vision at all times. Then, in a blur, it dived to grab a sea turtle in its jaws. This offered Trace a chance for escape. Dropping his weighted belt, he shot towards the surface. His legs kicked as fast as he could move them. With a quick glance behind, he saw the shark leave its prey and hurtle towards him. He had a start and he hoped that would be enough to get him to safety. Reaching the ladder of the boat, he tried to pull himself out of danger before it was too late. With his fingers wrapped around the rungs, he lifted himself clear as the shark reached the surface. He heard the clunk of its teeth on the steel ladder as it missed his foot by mere centimetres. He watched the shark turn and swim around the boat, still looking for its victim.
Jesus. He lay on the deck breathing deeply, allowing his nerves to settle. Opening a cupboard, he reached for a .22 automatic rifle kept for safety reasons, reasons such as this. He fired a shot and felt sure he made a hit. The shark disappeared into the depths. With no sign of it now, he replaced the rifle. Not once during his work had he felt such fury.
Jesus, away for five months in Queensland and I come back to this!
He sometimes wondered if working for the government trying to save the Barrier Reef was worth it.
When rested, he stripped off his diving gear and stood naked as he rubbed himself vigorously with a towel to help remove the tension. His hands still shook as he donned his T-shirt and shorts.
Trace looked at the sky, then his watch. Time to get back.
Night fell quickly in Queensland. Already the sky had begun changing colour to orange, then pink. He figured only an hour of daylight remained. He had his report to complete and photos to develop.
Trace's mission was to inspect the reef for damage from the crown-of-thorns starfish, which was systematically destroying the reef. His employer, the Queensland government in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department, wanted results now. He hoped he would not find dead white coral where the starfish had been and potentially killed it. Evidence had shown that the coral reef farther to the north looked to be in great danger. The pest appeared to be in plague proportions where it settled on the beautiful coral and sucked it dry, leaving only a white dead shell behind. He wanted to see if the danger had spread this far south, and he had dived with his camera looking for evidence. It appeared this reef had not been affected.
The sound of an approaching powerboat caught his attention. Fishermen out for the day were usually home by now, and tourists never came out this late in the afternoon. It had to be a local. He adjusted his sunglasses and pulled his baseball cap low, but the angle of the sun still blinded him. The boat came from the west, the shoreline visible behind it. The setting sun blinded him from a clear view.
The boat appeared to be at top speed. Trace knew it was trouble. His instincts told him to be wary. No one with friendly intentions would drive at this dangerous speed. They only had to hit one of the rocks hidden below the water at high tide, and it would be curtains for them.
Few establishments in Swordfish Bay owned powerful craft such as this. He could make out the silhouette of two men: one driving, the other standing. He recognised neither. Flames erupted from an object one seemed to be holding. The sound of continuous gunfire filled the air.
Shit. He dived to the floor of the boat. Glass shattered and the hull splintered. A shower of timber fragments erupted inside the cabin, stinging his exposed skin.
Holes appeared in the cabin walls, and the thump of bullets striking forced his head lower. He heard the boat speed past. When he glanced up, he could see the boat turn to make another run. Again, gunfire whizzed around him, causing more damage.
Bastards! What's their problem?
He braced himself for another onslaught. How the hell would he get out of this? He needed an escape before the boat came again. He had no time to don his wetsuit, but he could slip on his diving gear. He still had enough air to stay under for at least five more minutes.
He grabbed his tank, put his arms through the straps, and perched on the rail, ready to jump, when he looked down into the water. The large dorsal fin circled the craft. His four-metre nightmare was back.
Trace fell back onto the floor of the boat. He sucked in air and felt despair. Sweat began to appear on his brow, and it wasn't the humidity causing it. He had to do something, or else it was all over. He opened the cupboard again. In fact, he almost tore it open and slipped his hand on the butt of the rifle. Now that the boat was on the eastern side, he could see the shooter struggling with his weapon, trying to change its magazine.
The shooter has probably used up his clip, more like two or three, considering the number of bullets smashing into my boat.
With the position reversed, Trace stood up for a second, holding his rifle, and fired off two shots. The glass on the windshield of the powerboat shattered. The driver immediately gunned the motor and drove off at high speed. Not much chance of hitting them, but Trace fired two more shots. He then grabbed his camera and slammed his telescopic lens to full strength. He began taking photos of the retreating powerboat until it was out of range.
Then he grinned. The boat was heading straight toward Sawtooth Reef--a set of jagged rocks just below the waterline. He waited for the boat to hit the rocks and tear its bottom of out, but as it neared the rocks the boat turned at right angles and skirted around the reef. He frowned. Only a local would know about that.
The sun was back in his eyes again, so he wasn't sure of the quality of the photos. He pushed his dark glasses back on his head, frowned deeply, and tightened his lips. He had no idea who they were. However, he was going to make it his business to find out why someone wanted him dead.
Trace tried to start the engine, but found no response. He slammed his hand against the control board in frustration. With a curse, he opened the engine canopy and looked for damage. The reason for engine failure became obvious. Bullets had smashed the housing, cracking the head. Savagely, he slammed the lid closed and tried his radio. He emitted a sigh of relief when the lights came on.
Time to contact his business manager, Cliff Seabrook, and demand that he get him out of this.
"Cliff, are you there? Come in, please." No response. He tried it again. Moments later the sound of Cliff's voice rang in his ears.
"Yeah, mate. Cliff here. What's the problem?"
"I need you to come and get me. I'm at Sawtooth Reef."
"Christ, has the boat broken down? I just had it maintained a week ago." He could hear the anger in Cliff's voice. Cliff liked things to be done properly while he was in charge, and any slacking off was dealt with.
"It's something I can't tell you over the radio. I'll need a tow. How long before you get here?"
"For you, boss, twenty minutes. Do you need a mechanic?"
Better keep this in-house for the moment. Who knows how many people are involved in this attempt on my life, or why?
He thought he might have been looked at as some kind of hero for someone who had the chance to save the reef, but apparently not.
Trace sighed. "Just you, Cliff. No one else--and keep this quiet."
He switched off and waited. Trace looked in the fridge--at least it still worked--and pulled out a cold stubby, popped the top, and put his feet up to drink, giving the recent events deep thought as he nestled the small, cold bottle in his hand. As far as he knew, he had no enemies, although that theory had just been smashed. He figured at least the conservationists would be pleased by his results. Maybe it was another matter, but for the life of him, he didn't know what.
Sometime later, the sound of a boat caught his attention.
When Cliff's boat approached, Trace took the last sip of the beer. The timing was perfect. The boat pulled up alongside Trace's, and Cliff threw him a rope. Cliff always wore a cap on his head pushed back in larrikin style, as if he were the captain of the Titanic.
"Bloody hell," he said, scratching his head. "What the hell happened?"
Trace stood up and grabbed his hand as Cliff climbed aboard. He related his meeting with the shark and the attack from the powerboat.
"They made a mess. Have you been playing around with someone's wife?"
Trace grinned. "Hell no. I've been abstaining for months. Too busy to worry about that. Let's get the boat tied to yours before it gets too dark."
"Who the hell would be out in a powerboat at this time of the evening, so far away from shore? Did you recognise them?" Cliff inspected the damage as he spoke.
"Nope. I haven't a clue. Not a one, but I did get a few snaps off with my camera when they took off. I'll develop the photos when I get back and see what I've got."
"There are only two businesses who carry that sort of boat. Cameron's or Sutcliffe's. Can't see either of them doing this."
"Neither can I. I reckon someone hired the boat. Thanks for picking me up."
Trace seemed agitated as the boat came into sight of Swordfish Bay. "Can't you get any more out of this tub? I need to get home."
"I'm going as fast as I can. We're towing your boat, remember." Cliff threw him a concerned glance. It was not like Trace to snap at him.
"Sorry," said Trace, "I'm still shaking."
"I can understand that. Sit down and relax."
"Now, about this mess--I don't want anyone knowing about the shooting just yet. Can you hide the boat and have it repaired without questions being asked?"
Cliff gave him a cheeky grin. "Sure. Harry Mottram owes me a few favours. He'll keep his mouth shut while he fixes it. Once it's in his boat shed, no one will see it."
That satisfied Trace. Harry was the best boat builder in the Bay. "Good. Let's get home before it really gets dark."
He eyed the cigar between Cliff's teeth.
"I thought you'd given them up?"
"I'm not lighting it. I'm only chewing it. My wife won't let me smoke them anymore. Gives me some comfort, though. As for picking you up--you saved my sanity and my family, so I owe you big time."
Trace again gave him a grin. "I only gave you a job."
"Yeah, after I broke my leg, no one would hire me. I had a huge mortgage and three kids going to secondary school. Making me manager of the fishing fleet is a debt I can never repay."
"You did me a favour. Once Dad was admitted to the nursing home, I couldn't do my research and handle the fishing fleet at the same time. It's worked out well for both of us."
"Well, Cliff Seabrook and family are forever in your debt. My wife has a smile on her face bigger than the cool store. My kids don't have to feel embarrassed when school excursions are on. And I've never been happier than with the responsibility you've given me."
"I have to admit, you do a better job than I ever could. You know the business backwards, you don't take shit from anyone, you handle the contracts, and you make us lots of moolah. The money is really good. It certainly makes my life easier."
"By the way, how is your old man? I haven't been to see Norm for a couple of weeks. Been too busy."
Trace stared at nothing, his eyes dulling. "I don't think he'll ever recover. He doesn't even recognise me when I go to see him. That was the worst part of being away for five or six months."
Cliff nodded. "Yeah, bloody Alzheimer's is a real bastard. It's a shame for a bloke like him to go this way."
"I'll go and see him tomorrow, but it will be the same. The fact that he made a success of the business after Mum died hurt him badly. He wanted to give her more than she had."
"Must have been tough on you too. No thirteen-year-old kid should ever lose his mother at that age."
"That's the way life works, unfortunately. Nothing is fair. He had a huge mortgage like you, but then the Asian markets took off. Look at him now. He's a bloody millionaire and can't enjoy it."
"Give him my regards when you see him."
"I will, but if he doesn't recognise me, then you have no hope."