An unmarked gray panel van drove along a dark road heading out of a small coastal town in Maine. The driver constantly checked the piece of paper taped to his dash; a few lines and a crude map were all he had for navigation. He constantly switched between looking at the note and the small patch of tarmac lit by his headlights.
The tapping of his fingers on the steering wheel slowed as he rounded the next bend; he was getting close now, surely, or had he missed it? No, there it was, a corroded road sign, a gap in the trees and a little-used footpath. Stopping short, he turned off his main lights and then crept forward, scanning constantly for any other traffic. This time of night there shouldn’t be anyone else out here, at least, that’s what he’d been told.
The van turned into the opening and onto a gravel path. Although it was supposed to be for foot traffic and bicycles, the path was wide and the anti-vehicle fence damaged and ineffective. Trying to control his impulse to get this over with quickly, the driver rolled his van down the slope lit only by a half-moon peering through the evergreens.
Headlights would have been a big help and a lot safer, but he’d been told he mustn’t be seen by anyone. Go when it’s dark, they’d said, but not too late because that would be suspicious. They’d also told him it was easy money; a few hours of work for hard cash, who could say no when times were hard?
The sharp smell of the ocean wafted around the van, although he couldn’t yet see or hear it. The muted sound under the tires changed to a continuous crunching as he reached the gravel beach. This area of the shore was steep, levelling off as it reached the sea.
Below the high-water line they said it was sand, so stay above it. The driver had a vision of getting stuck, his wheels spinning out and throwing sand everywhere as they dug deeper. How would he explain that in the light of day?
Not being much of a beach person, he wasn’t sure what to look for. He could hear the sea now, a gentle swell hitting the beach with an off-beat rhythm. He couldn’t tell if the tide was in or out, or which direction it was going.
The vehicle’s running lights weren’t much help; but he spotted a dark line across the beach. Beyond was a lighter stretch and the low waves breaking white against moonlit sand. He stopped and turned off the engine; leaving him alone in the almost silent darkness, wondering what he was doing here when he could be safe at home watching TV. Nodding, he thought to himself, ‘oh yes, the money.’
Several times his hand went to turn the ignition key, each time he thought better of it. He was hoping for more work from these people, needed it, to be honest. So each time he resisted. The waves continued to wash up the sand, the moon riding across a cloudless sky. The man sat in the middle of it all, alone with his thoughts. At any other time, it would have been relaxing, now he just wanted it finished.
The light had flashed several times before he noticed it. An orange flicker out at sea. The driver turned on his headlights then quickly off again, repeating the action twice more. The light had briefly illuminated the scene, revealing how frighteningly close he was to the ocean. It went dark again; but a buzzing noise increased in volume and a vague shape headed straight towards him, finally resolving itself into a small boat with a tiny outboard engine puttering away at the rear. A man jumped out, dressed like a fisherman in high-waisted trousers with thick suspenders. Whether this was genuine or a disguise the driver neither knew nor cared. What looked like a lump of concrete thudded into the sand, a tattered rope wound around it, the other end attached to the boat.
The driver got out of the van and headed for the rear. As he fumbled the key into the lock he wondered if he should speak to the fisherman, who was now standing on the sand watching him closely. He decided to stay quiet, just get on with the job and leave. The doors creaked loudly open and the man cringed, but it was no louder than the boat engine. Inside was a large bundle consisting of black plastic bags wrapped tightly with brown parcel tape. As this was their first run, they were being cautious; there was plenty of room in the van for more bundles. Moving quickly now, he pulled the bundle out and dragged it easily down to the fisherman, who took it without a word, moved over to his boat and tied it to the side with more tattered rope. As he lifted the concrete anchor and began to move back out to sea, the fisherman looked at the driver and nodded once. Then he was gone and the sound of waves returned.
Wasting no time and trying desperately not to hurry and pleading with his tires to grip the wet gravel, the driver turned and headed up the beach, along the path and back onto the road. A car disappearing around a bend reminded him to turn his headlights back on, and the deed was done. He turned the radio up louder and smiled, then headed for home.
Chapter One – Flotsam and Jetsam
Cut and Run
To cut and run is an old maritime expression meaning to cut the anchor rode (line) and sail away. For a square-rigged ship, this was the quickest and easiest way to escape from danger.
The modern meaning is to leave a place or situation without thinking of the consequences.
Conner Allen picked up a discarded plastic water bottle with the long-handled grabbers and dropped it into the large white bucket he was carrying. Spread along the width of the beach in a wavy line were the other youngsters who’d volunteered for litter-picking duty. Conner was closest to the sea, mostly avoiding the gentle waves creeping towards his feet as they delivered more items for him to grab. The sea was cold but not unpleasant; a clear greenish-blue this close to shore, running over fine gray-brown sand. He left deep footprints as he walked, which were quickly erased by the next wave as if he’d never been there.
The beach ran from a high cliff in the south to the harbor wall in the north, a distance of about 500 yards. Today, for the first time this year, it was busy with tourists, but nothing like how packed it would get at high season. Behind the beach, the town of Stonehaven was visible, mostly low-rise homes and businesses running along the seafront, up the hill, down to the harbor and beyond. The high-rise buildings with sea views were reserved for the wealthy.
Higher hills rose up beyond the town to form a curving barrier between it and the wider world. This patchwork of farmland and forest was gradually being eaten away as Stonehaven expanded, creeping further every year like an invasion from the sea.
Maine wasn’t California, but it did ‘ok’ when it came to tourism. People came more for sea-based activities rather than lying on a beach. Many of the families now sunbathing, digging holes or making sand-castles were those who were too young or had no interest in boats, fishing, scuba-diving or any other maritime pursuits. It was a good day for such activities, sunny and warm, but not too hot for mid-June. A sharp sea breeze filled sails large and small, and brought the familiar smell of the ocean.
The group was known collectively as the Green Octopus Volunteers and this was their first official duty of the season. Conner suspected there would be many more. People these days didn’t seem to care what they dropped or where, he mused with all the wisdom of his fourteen years. Conner glanced to his left where his friend Ryan McNeal was trying to pick up a tiny piece of litter with his grabber.
Recently, and not too soon in his mind, Conner had hit puberty and begun to grow. Unfortunately, so had Ryan; and a competition had started on who was the tallest. Currently, Conner was 5 feet 4 and a bit. Ryan was about 5 feet 4 and a bit more. Conner was still slim, with black hair and gray eyes, whereas Ryan was wider, with light brown hair and light gray eyes. As Ryan’s dad was over six feet tall, Conner knew he wasn’t going to win the race; but he wasn’t going to admit that, even to his best friend.
They were both at that stage in their lives where most of the clothes they wore were black. Conner was wearing a black t-shirt with an anime-type robot on it and black jeans and sneakers. His socks were red, but were mostly hidden by his jeans. Ryan was almost identically dressed, including the socks, except his t-shirt featured a robot dog playing the saxophone, and he was wearing a thin leather jacket that was older than him.
“So, what did you decide in the end?” Conner asked, continuing their conversation.
Ryan admitted defeat and bent down to pick up the litter with his gloved hand and put it in his own bucket. “I was thinking meat feast, stuffed crust, and pineapple, of course.”
Conner stopped and glared at Ryan, aiming his grabber at him and clacking the jaws together. “You aren’t having pineapple on pizza, it’s not natural!”
Ryan roared with laughter, despite it being an old and often-repeated joke. “Ok, calm down, granddad. I’ll just go with the meat feast.”
Conner’s parents ran a pizzeria near the beach and would soon be hosting the hungry litter-pickers as part of the volunteer program. Both he and Ryan spent a lot of time talking about their favorite food.
“And,” Conner added, lowering his grabber, “you know very well we don’t have that on the menu.”
“I could suggest it…” Ryan began, but was interrupted by another voice.
The line had continued along the beach without them and several of the other volunteers had stopped and were pointing to various places on the beach. Dawn, the younger of Ryan’s two sisters, had grabbed a claw full of a plastic material and was examining it.
“It’s all over the place, look at it!” she said, pointing around.
All over this area of the beach, small pieces of clear plastic were blowing along in the breeze, mixing with the sand or lying in a sodden mess as waves brought in more of the stuff. Conner and Ryan went over and each grabbed a handful. Most of the pieces were clear, four-inch squares of bubble packaging, with some faded pink and yellow ‘peanut’ types mixed in.
“They’re everywhere,” Dawn said, “must have fallen off a ship or something.” Dawn was 13, with the same light gray eyes as Ryan, very long blonde hair tied in a braid, and had a thin build. She was wearing faded jeans, a t-shirt with her current favorite female singer on it, a pale yellow jacket, and red sneakers. She and Ryan were very close and were both members of the small group who gathered here during the summer. Conner and Ryan started popping the small bubbles, the other youngsters soon copying until the beach was filled with the noise and dozens of grinning teens.
Mr Rice, the volunteer coordinator, came over to look at what they were doing. Clapping his hands to get everyone’s attention, which took a while, he addressed his charges. “Come on everyone,” he announced in his bright and cheerful manner. “If we all work together we can have this lot cleared up in a few minutes!” To his credit, he did start to help, although he was very old and his back was always playing up. Officially, he was a retired police officer and still had that air of calm authority. Some of the older parents said he was once in the army, in one of those elite forces; but he never talked about it if it was true. He was about six feet tall, bald now, with deep wrinkles on his face, but his dark brown eyes were still alert. As usual he was neatly dressed in sturdy outdoor clothing in dark blue, matched for color and style and looking very much like a uniform. He was one of those people who always had a pen and notebook, a Swiss Army knife and quick access to a first-aid kit.
Conner glanced at his phone and saw it was almost twelve thirty, the time they were due to stop. He and Ryan shared a look, but the other volunteers were getting back to work with varying degrees of enthusiasm so they joined in. Their buckets were soon full and extra trash bags had to be used.
“At least this stuff is clean, not like that used diaper I found.” Conner’s face wrinkled with disgust.
“Yuk. Yeah, and this stuff pops,” Ryan answered, popping several bubbles to prove his point.
“Don’t think we should pop a diaper!”
“Poppa Diaper? That some new Anime?”
Conner laughed. “Could be, who knows what they’ll think up next.”
Further up the beach, Mr Rice called a halt and the volunteers lined up to receive their reward, stacking their buckets and bags in a neat pile and their grabbers and gloves in plastic boxes for later collection. From an inside pocket, the coordinator produced a bunch of small squares of thin cards. Each of them was printed with the volunteer logo - a green octopus - a serial number and a list of local restaurants who would accept them. The volunteers took one each as they filed past, thanking Mr Rice and then running off in different directions. Conner, Ryan and Dawn were last in line, as the boys were still giggling about the Anime joke. The three thanked Mr Rice as they took the cards and dashed off, leaving the beach pristine, or as much as it could be.
A short time later, they were sitting in a small boat moored in the harbor, pizza boxes marked ‘Allen & Allen’ in their laps. The boat wasn’t theirs, they just had use of it while the owner - a relative of Ryan and Dawn - was away, back-packing in South America apparently. The boat was made of fiberglass, 18 feet long, and had an ancient 25 horsepower outboard engine. Once, it had been white, but was now mostly gray with patches of green and several crude repairs. It was officially registered as the ‘Peggy Sue’ but the faded writing now read ‘eggy Su’. It was tied bow and stern to the wooden jetty posts with knotted and frayed rope, once blue but now bleached by the salty air and sun. It had been remarked upon by passers-by that the boat was hanging from the jetty and not actually floating in the water. This wasn’t quite true, but the jetty did provide a certain amount of assistance to the old vessel’s buoyancy.
“Your mom and dad do the best pizza in town,” Ryan said, closing his empty pizza box and dropping it at his feet, his words slightly muffled as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Like many growing teens, he ate fast and often.
“I’ll tell them you said that, but they are the only place that does pizza for miles,” Conner answered, the last quarter of his own pizza cradled in his hands.
Dawn, who had also finished, threw her smaller box on top of Ryan’s. “There’s that Italian restaurant, they do pizzas as well as pasta.”
“Yeah, they do those ‘cal zones’, but they aren’t as nice.” Ryan said, pronouncing it as two words. He leaned back on the small seat and let the sun catch his face.
“The Blue Crab used to do a seafood pizza,” Conner said, balancing his now empty box on the pile and grimacing in disapproval. “But I don’t think it was very popular, obviously.”
Ryan and Dawn laughed at Conner’s remark and expression. Then they all relaxed and enjoyed the sun in companionable silence for a while, the boat rising and falling on the slight swell. They could hear the ocean beyond the harbor wall, sea birds crying in the far distance, and the occasional human voice from one of the larger boats. Chains clanked, winches ran, engines started and then stopped again. It was a busy harbor, used by various fishing vessels, but was relatively small compared to others. Most of the leisure boats were moored in the marina further along the coast to keep them away from the dirty working ships.
The harbor wall was a simple L-shape, the shorter arm built out from the land and the entrance to the north. The whole structure was made from dark gray granite dug from the local quarry that had given the town its name. The fishing boats all moored along the wall which faced the sea. On the inside was a wide quay to allow access for crews and cargo. A two-storey building over-looked the parking lot on one side and the sea on the other. This housed the Harbormaster’s office and the various public amenities. Away from all the other structures stood a refuelling station for the ships. It consisted of a large gloss black tank with a thick hose and an ancient pump. A natural jut of rock formed a partial fourth side, the wooden jetty used by the small boats like their own was built against it.
Dawn, stirred by a sudden memory of their recent encounter with the bubble packaging, asked “so what’s the difference between flotsam and jetsam?”
Ryan looked like he’d fallen asleep, so Conner answered. “I think flotsam is stuff that fell off a ship, and jetsam was thrown off deliberately. Flotsam floated away and jetsam was jettisoned, that’s how I remember it.”
“Ok, cool. Makes sense.” Dawn was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “was that stuff we found all over the beach flotsam or jetsam? I think flotsam, people wouldn’t throw good stuff overboard.”
“Yeah, it looked like there was a lot of it, but I don’t think it was from a shipwreck or something; it would have covered the whole beach.”
Without opening his eyes, Ryan said “do you think they wrap the package in bubble wrap to protect it, you know, when they transport it?”
“What, bubble wrap? Probably, and if you got free shipping, you’d get more bubble wrap for free.” Conner replied smiling.
“When do Terry and Jenna get here?” Dawn quickly changed the subject, these two would talk about such strange things for hours if you let them.
“Jenna’s already here at her gran’s house.” Conner answered, checking his phone despite having already read her text. “But you know what she’s like with unpacking everything straight away. Terry should be here sometime tomorrow, he’ll just get out of his parent’s car and come straight over. I told them we’d meet up here so we can plan what to do.”
Dawn laughed. “Plan what to do? That never works, and we’ll only make the same plans we do every year, hang out on the boat, pretend to fix the boat, go to the beach, do some volunteer stuff, eat pizza.”
Ryan sat up and glared at his sister. “Hey! You say that like it’s a bad thing. And anyway,” he closed his eyes and leaned back, “I’ve got a feeling something different is going to happen this summer.”
“And… we went out in the boat last year, plenty of times,” Conner said, patting the side of the Peggy Sue as if to comfort it. “We went for that picnic on Moon Crescent Beach, we went fishing off Elms Rock, we, err, went to Bear Cub Island at least three times...”
“That isn’t plenty of times,” Dawn interrupted, knowing Conner had reached the end of his list. “Why can’t we just make plans and stick to them? They’re called plans for a reason. What’s the point of making plans if you aren’t going to follow them?”
Conner and Ryan shared a look, but knew better than to disagree. Instead, they both settled as comfortably as they could on the wooden seats and allowed the sun and the swell, and their full stomachs, to lull them into an afternoon nap.
Conner awoke sometime later as a trawler chugged into the harbor, it’s diesel engine roaring and the captain shouting orders to his small crew. A cloud of blue-grey fumes wafted across the water on the light breeze, covering the fishy smells for a moment, and finally dispersing as the engine was shut down. The voice continued to shout orders as a winch was swung out and white plastic boxes filled with fish were lowered onto the dock. Only a short time later, the flow of boxes stopped, and three buyers came forward to examine the catch. None of them looked happy, but a deal was made with handshakes, and the boxes were taken away on a four-wheeled handcart.
Ryan and Dawn were in soft conversation, Dawn making notes on a pizza box lid with a small pencil. It sounded like Ryan was making suggestions of possible things to do, but Dawn didn’t seem to be writing them all down.
Conner looked at his phone and found it was already after four o’clock. He worked in his parent’s pizzeria a few nights a week when there was no school, mainly slicing salami with the electric slicing machine and cleaning things. Lindsey, his little sister, also helped out, but was too young to be trusted with a sharp, motorized blade. He didn’t mind the work, but he wasn’t planning on going into the family business when he was older. He wanted to be a vet, or travel, maybe go into the music business, he hadn’t decided yet. Many times, he’d tried to think of a way to combine all three. A traveling musician was easy enough, a traveling vet worked fine, but a traveling musical animal doctor just seemed like a plot from a movie.
“I’m gonna head home, got to work tonight.” Conner slid along the seat and climbed out of the boat, one hand on the mooring post. The small boat rocked from side to side as his weight was removed, but neither of the occupants seemed to notice. After a few seconds they both stood and headed after him, Ryan leaping off the boat with effortless balance. Dawn didn’t even lift her attention from the list as she too stepped onto the wooden jetty.
All of their homes were inland from the sea and so some distance from the harbor. The fastest route home was through Stonehaven itself. Ryan and Dawn lived with their father, stepmother and older sister on a modern residential street several blocks back from the expensive properties with sea views. Conner lived opposite them, with his parents and sister. It was a small town, very quiet in the winter, but busy in the summer when the tourists and summer residents arrived. They made their way home by the shortest route, cutting through alleys and heading down lesser-used side streets. Most of the businesses at street level were small tourist outlets; souvenir stores, cafés, local goods vendors, with the more ordinary retail shops like supermarkets and clothing stores further back from the seafront. Only a few of the properties were more than a few stories high; and those were hotels and vacation apartments painted in bright colors.
Dawn had given up on creating her list but had ripped off that section of the pizza box and stuffed it in her pocket. They rounded a corner and cut through a narrow alley filled with dumpsters of various sizes and colors. Needing somewhere to dispose of the rest of her pizza box, she approached one of the less battered and odorous green ones and lifted the lid enough to slip the box inside. Her action dislodged a small scrap of plastic from the dumpster and the breeze pushed it into her face. She scrambled to get it off her, making that spitting noise that people make when they think something dirty has gone in their mouth. Although grinning at her misfortune, Conner and Ryan went over to see if she was ok.
“Yuk, dumpster juice on my face, great!” She backed away and finally managed to snare the offending article. She was about to return it to the dumpster when she stopped suddenly. “Wait. It’s the same stuff, look.” She held out the small square of bubble wrap to show it to the boys. “See, exactly the same as the ones we found on the beach.”
“How do you know? It all looks the same to me,” Conner said.
“Bubble wrap is pretty common,” Ryan agreed.
In response, dawn reached into her pocket and pulled out another square of packaging and held them side by side. “See, same size, same color, same bubbles. It’s the same stuff.”
“Did you pick that up at the beach and keep it?” Ryan smirked.
“Yes, for evidence, and now I’m glad I did. This can’t be a coincidence.”
Conner moved closer to have a better look. “Got to admit it’s very similar. Sure, it’s bubble wrap, but the size is the same, and look, the cut edges have gone through the middle of the bubbles on these two sides and between the bubbles on these two sides. That’s very precise.”
Ryan moved to the end of the alley and disappeared, returning a few minutes later. “It’s a souvenir shop, lots of little glass figures in the window, which probably came in that bubble wrap.”
Dawn wrapped the dirty piece of packaging in the one from the beach and put it back in her pocket. “Do you think the people in this store threw their garbage in the sea? Doesn’t sound like something people around here would do.”
Conner moved further down the alley and gestured for them to follow, moving off once they’d grouped up. “Best not talk about it right outside the store.” The two siblings nodded in agreement. “There could be another explanation. Maybe that stuff is made in a factory somewhere by some huge machine, which chugs out millions of them ever second, all exactly the same and they get sent around the world. They could have come from a cargo ship, or a cruise liner, they could have come from thousands of miles away, carried on the ocean currents.”
Ryan nodded. Dawn wasn’t so sure. “Maybe, but it’s not something we see every day. We don’t have this at home ,and I bet your parents don’t use it in their pizzeria. The only time I’ve seen this before is off a long roll, not in these squares.”
“So what do you want to do with it now?” Conner asked.
“Not sure, we could show it to Mr. Rice, he saw them as well.”
“Yeah, might be a good idea.”
They walked on, taking a maze-like route between the buildings until they emerged on their own street. It looked like many others, with widely-spaced houses and tall trees along the sides of the roads. Children’s bicycles and other toys lay discarded in various places; and each long driveway had at least one car, usually two, as the adults returned home at what was the end of the working day for most people. Dogs barked, parents yelled, young children played.
“You started on your homework yet?” Conner asked.
“Nope, giving it a few days, so I can chill and give my brain a rest,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, I’m not leaving mine until the last minute like someone I know.” Dawn grinned, looking straight at Ryan.
“Best to get it out of the way, I suppose,” Conner said, repeating what his dad had advised.
Ryan muttered something under his breath, but was smiling as he did it.
“What was that, Ryan?” Dawn turned and glared at her brother.
“Nothing, see you tomorrow, Con. Come on little Dant, let’s make sure you get home safe.”
Conner smiled, “see you tomorrow, Ry, Dawn.”
“Don’t call me Dant, and I don’t need an escort. You sound just like mom…”
Their conversation faded away as Conner headed across his front lawn and towards the green painted door. He didn’t understand how they could be given homework for the summer break. They were teachers; surely they knew what ‘break’ meant? Maybe his parents wouldn’t make him slice salami if he told them he had loads of school work. It was worth a try.