Her next stop was the pier at Sunset Beach where she was to meet with Mayor Cherri Cheek, Town Manager Linda Fluegel, and the pier’s owner, Marc Kaplan. The hurricane had effectively ruined the emergency ramp to the beach, torn out the decking around the gazebo and washed away yards of asphalt from the parking lot. In some places the parking lot had pot holes so deep and so wide that you could lose a car in them.
Cement structures beyond the dune lines were not necessarily a concern under C.A.M.A., the Coastal Area Management Act. In this case however, dunes had been compromised and it was necessary to bring in a backhoe to build them up again. This required permits, permits that were her job to recommend or deny. This one would be a no-brainer, but there were certain protocols that had to be followed and far be it from her to stand in the way of the red tape mongers. She would fill out forms, fax forms, and sign forms. She’d do her part to push everything forward from here. Still, it would probably be a few weeks before the damage could be reversed unless different channels, more direct channels, were utilized.
After seeing the breech and measuring the nearby swash, she phoned her boss and requested an immediate response. If the breech was not taken care of before the next storm surge, the town would have considerably more damage to contend with including unnecessary flooding, which in turn would cause unnecessary pollution. And since the local oyster and mussel beds hadn’t been free of runoff bacteria from the last hurricanes, more flooding certainly wouldn’t help things. At the rate the bacteria was building, without the added destruction caused by hurricanes, the local fishermen wouldn’t be able to harvest these beds for at least another decade.
Satisfied that she had done everything she could, she walked over to where a large group of people stood looking down into what appeared to be a huge pit. Linda, having finished some paperwork of her own, followed her. “That’s the Vesta. It was buried under the parking lot. In the sixties, it was visible at low tide through the slats at the end of the pier. That’s how built up our beach has become over the years, it’s way back here now, hundreds of feet from the existing pier.”
“What was it?”
“A blockade runner with an unusual history.”
A blockade runner, huh? Interesting, Shelby thought. That man at the museum said the gun I found was probably from a blockade runner. Although the gun she had found in the sand had been dug up three beaches north of Sunset Beach, it was still quite a coincidence to her way of thinking. “What’s going to happen to it?”
“It’ll be recovered when they dig all this up. The Senior Conservator has decided that they want it,” Linda said as she indicated the parking lot that reminded Shelby of craters on the moon. Where the asphalt wasn’t completely missing, it was cracked or layered on top of itself. It was as if underground volcanoes had erupted here and there but left no lava or steam.
“The force of mother nature is amazing! I sure have seen some unbelievable sights this week.” Shelby murmured.
“I’ll bet you have,” Linda commented. “We were lucky this time, this is all we lost. Thought for a while that the water tower might buy it. The guys in the fire station said it was groaning the whole night of the hurricane. Like to drove them crazy! But, the ‘amazing wonder’ made it through another one. Trees and flooding were our biggest problems this time. Water, water, everywhere. Miss Glynnis managed to hit just right on the lunar cycle, the surge was incredible. But we were still very lucky.”
“How’d the evacuating go?”
“Oh, once they announced a category four was on its way, we had no problem getting people off the island and off the mainland. Glynnis was all alone and in the dark when she arrived. Guess she didn’t appreciate the hospitality, so she left us with this big mess!”
“It’s not too bad. At least you’ll get to see the ship raised.”
“Get us those permits we need and I’ll save you a front row seat.”
“They’re in the works. I’ll bet they’ll be here before you can find yourself an idle backhoe.”
“You may be right about that. I guess I’d better go see if I can scare one up.”
“When should I come back to see the Vesta?”
“I’ll call you. Not inside of a week, I’m sure.
Probably more likely two. These things generally take years to work out, but Cherri told the historians that if they wanted the ship, it was now or never. She told ‘em we weren’t waitin’ for ‘em. If they didn’t get it out of here by the end of the month, it was going to be buried real good this time.”
“She’s a tough one, that Cherri. By the way, good job on the bridge.”
Linda beamed back at her, “It’s the reason my hair is gray. But what a party we’re going to have when it’s completed!”
Two weeks later, Shelby stood beside Linda and Police Chief Kerr as the remains of the Vesta were carefully uncovered and lifted by crane onto the back of a huge government flatbed. The area had been siphoned out; but still, the muck the ship had been mired in for many years sucked against it and held it firmly in place for one last second before releasing it from its watery crypt. With one loud, sucking slurp, it was free. Up, up, and over it went as the tall crane lifted and deposited its dripping and oozing carcass on the back of the super-sized truck. With loud, clanking and crashing sounds, it settled and tilted.
Men jumped from the cab of the truck and began securing it with heavy nautical chains. It was going to the navy shipyard in Wilmington where its fate would be determined. Everyone was hopeful that it would find its way to a museum or be set up as a memorial somewhere in the south.
Shelby watched, fascinated, as the men worked. There was hardly any wood left to speak of; but from the metal skeleton, you could tell that this had once been a very large ship. Her new friend at the Maritime Museum in Southport had provided her with a sketchy history of its past, but nothing had prepared her for the size of it.
Suddenly, a loud scream reverberated in the air behind her, and everybody turned to see what had happened. A woman holding a small boy by the hand was sucking in big breaths of air and letting them out as ear-piercing shrieks.
Chief Kerr and a few of his men, who had been watching the Vesta being loaded, ran over to where the woman and boy were. One officer, Lisa, a young mother herself, gently took her and the boy aside as the others looked into the hole the Vesta had just been taken from. The wide-eyed look of shock on their faces, along with their frantically pointing hands and their hastily-curtailed outbursts of obscenities brought everyone else to their side.
There, in the middle of the muck, flattened and colored with mud, shells and debris, was what appeared to be a man in uniform—no hat, no face, no flesh, but still identifiably a man. He wore a heavy jacket over massive shoulders, now threadbare in many places, a tattered shirt that once could possibly have been white or cream-colored, long trousers with stripes on the sides, and heavy boots where the thick-corded trousers ended. Everything was orangish-red from the clay in the mud except where it was gray from the sand. His light-colored hair was plastered to his scalp and tiny crabs were picking their way through it. His hands, clenched by his side, were missing fingers.
Shelby’s hand went to her throat as she gasped. Fascinated, she could not take her eyes from the sight. All around her, women were sobbing and men were cursing but she didn’t pay them any attention. As gruesome as the scene before her was, she was morbidly drawn to it. Who was he? And how did he get there under the ship