Authors: Des Hunt
Stuart Weston’s departure wasn’t the end to the drama on that day. There was more to come in the afternoon, but not from Scatworm—the second lot came from a different, yet equally infuriating sort of animal.
Magpies have lived in our macrocarpa trees for as long as anyone can remember. Most of the time they’re just a nuisance with their yodelling call waking us in the morning. However, in the breeding season they become a real pest. They attack anything that comes within twenty metres of their nests.
The most dangerous place is in the top corner, alongside the road to the beach. The tree there is their favourite nesting spot. Go anywhere near that and you’re sure to get attacked.
Steph had been watching me work on an old tractor when she wandered off, singing to herself as she so often did. I thought nothing of it until I heard the magpies screeching. I looked up and saw them dancing up and down on a branch. This was their warning cry; if it was ignored, they would start attacking.
Realizing that Steph must be the object of their attention, I dropped my tools and headed towards the trees, where I could see her dawdling alongside the tree, singing ‘Laughter in the air’, oblivious to the racket coming from above. I was about thirty metres back when she moved into the red zone. The magpies left the tree and
went into a bombing dive. I knew from past experience that their first dive was always to test the opposition. If you stood your ground or slowly walked away, they would continue to make a lot of noise, without making contact. However if you ran, or tried to scare them away, they’d go into full attack and that could be dangerous.
Unfortunately, Steph didn’t notice them until they zoomed over her head, screeching noisily. She looked up, screamed, and then started running.
‘Don’t run!’ I yelled, but either she didn’t hear or she was too frightened to stop.
The magpies immediately wheeled, getting ready for the real attack. I sprinted forward, yelling and waving my arms, hoping to direct them towards me.
It had no effect. They dived and this time made contact, driving their beaks into the back of her head. Steph screamed again, and kept on screaming.
‘Stop, Steph!’ I yelled, even though I knew it was unlikely she would hear. She was too terrified to register anything.
Again they dived, and again they made contact. One of them used its claws, and pulled away with a clump of hair trailing behind. They were now in a frenzy. It didn’t matter that she had moved well away from the tree; they sensed a kill, and would keep at her until they had it or were somehow forced to stop.
On the third dive they approached face-on, aiming for the eyes. At the last moment, Steph saw them coming and ducked. Even so, one still managed to scrape across her forehead. Then she tripped over some of our junk and sprawled onto the ground. For a moment the magpies were
unsure of what had happened, and in that time I caught up with her and I threw myself over her.
It was enough. The magpies made one last pass before flying back to the tree, where they perched, cackling away in victory.
I was crawling off her when Dad and Vicky arrived on the scene. The screaming had been replaced by loud sobbing. Steph’s eyes were wide open and darting all over the place as if she expected the magpies to come back.
We soon had her inside and lying on the sofa. Blood was beginning to stain her hair, with some running down her forehead. She reached up to wipe it away without knowing what it was. Then she saw her hand was red and stared at it in shock. I understood then how fragile she was. I wanted to reach out and help her, but I didn’t know how.
As it turned out, her injuries were relatively minor: there was a lot of blood flowing out of quite small wounds, which soon sealed over. After everything had calmed down, we had a discussion about the magpies.
‘Do they do that often?’ asked Vicky.
Dad nodded. ‘Yeah, every now and again. We mostly keep away, but at times they’ll attack people going along the road.’
‘I want them killed,’ said Steph. ‘I want them killed now.’
‘I agree,’ added Vicky.
‘OK,’ said Dad.
‘I’ll do it,’ I offered, at last seeing something I could do to help.
However, saying you’ll kill magpies and actually killing them are two different things. They’re wily birds, and not
easily tricked. Shooting them would not be easy, especially when the only weapon I was allowed to use was an air rifle. To kill them, I’d have to coax them down from the top of the tree by offering them food, such as mutton fat, and then put a pellet through the head or the heart. Any other shot would just maim them.
Within the hour Dad and I had set pots of bait out on the grass near the tree, and arranged some of our junk to form a hide. Dad then inspected the angles to make sure that I wasn’t going to shoot some passing motorist, or hit some poor, unsuspecting farm animal. With everything in place, he went back to the house while I climbed into the hide and waited. This was going to be my big day.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end up that way. I didn’t even fire a shot. This was not because the magpies didn’t like mutton fat—they loved the stuff. It was just that every time I took aim, a car would go past, a bull would bellow, or some other noise would spook them. Then they’d retreat to the treetops and I’d have to wait another half hour for them to come down again.
In the end it got too dark to see them clearly. I returned to the house, disappointed that I didn’t have at least one corpse to show off. Yet I was no less determined to get them. I’d given my promise to Steph, and I would keep that promise. Those magpies would die, no matter what I had to do to make it happen.
The women made Christmas Day different to any we’d had before. Some of it was good, but a lot was bad. The good part was the food—much better than Dad, Grandad or I ever prepared. The bad parts were Steph’s never-ending Christmas carols, the stupid, paper hats at dinnertime, and the hug Vicki tried to give me when thanking me for her present. Plus, the magpies ate all of their Christmas dinner without waiting for me, so I never got a shot at them.
Boxing Day was a much better day. We went to Whale Pot Bay for a picnic. The surf was good enough for Dad and me to take the boards out. For two hours we surfed together, just as we had before the women came into our lives. I got the feeling that Dad was trying to reassure me that, even though big changes were happening, some things were going to stay the same. I was thankful for that.
When I picked up my board after lunch, Steph asked, ‘Can I have a try?’
‘At surfing?’ queried her mother, obviously surprised.
‘Yeah,’ Steph replied. ‘I might not be able to stand up, but I should be able to ride it lying down.’
I shook my head. I didn’t want to take the responsibility for her in what was reasonably heavy surf.
Dad said, ‘Swap boards, Jake. You take mine and let Steph have yours. It’s closer to her size.’
There was little I could do but accept that. Anyway, the opportunity to try Dad’s board was too good to miss.
The tide was unsuitable to access the sea using the rocks, so we had to paddle out. Straight away I could see that she knew how to do it. Her legs might have been next to useless, but she could paddle faster than I could. I’d almost forgotten that she’d once been a champion swimmer. When her father was alive, she’d probably spent a lot of time in the water. She was expert enough to beat me out past the breakline.
‘You’re pretty good,’ I said as I pulled up alongside her.
She beamed. ‘This feels so good. It’s almost better than swimming.’ To demonstrate, she paddled furiously, heading out to sea for a while, before returning with a huge smile. ‘OK,’ she ordered, ‘teach me how to surf.’
So I did. She quickly learnt how to judge which wave to try and when to start paddling. I took the same waves so that I was alongside her and could be there if she tipped over. But she never did. While she couldn’t get out of a wave after she’d caught it, she was happy to ride it all the way into the shallow water. Then she’d paddle back out again and wait for the next one.
It was on the fifth ride that she tried something different. Instead of lying down for the entire ride, she got up onto her knees and rode it that way.
Two hours later we’d had enough. As we walked up the beach, she skipped in front of me so that I had to stop. ‘Thank you, Jake,’ she said, her sparkling eyes looking into mine. ‘That was so cool.’ Then after a pause
she added, ‘I’ve now officially forgiven you for what you did that first day we met.’
I nodded, unsure that I’d be able to say anything sensible. For a moment I thought she was going to touch me. She must have thought better of it, because she turned and continued up the beach, leaving me feeling strangely disappointed that it had ended like that.
From then on, Steph and I went surfing every day. We would go out whether the waves were big enough or not—she was rapidly becoming a fanatic. It was on one of these days that we saw the elevator come down from Tarquins, the first indication that there were people back in the house. When it reached the bottom, Melanie and Colin came out with their arms full of equipment: the dig was about to begin.
On that first day, tents were raised and lots of equipment brought down from the house. Only then did any digging happen—we dug out the weeds so that we had a clean site ready for the serious work.
The next day was just as boring, coming up with nothing more than some rusty bottle tops and a coil of barbed wire. I stayed around only so I could keep an eye out for Scatworm—nothing much was happening there either. A couple of visits to the gulley revealed no changes since I’d found the pills. Maybe he was waiting for Milt to return, or perhaps he’d given up on the whole thing.
On the third day, a posthole borer was put to work. It could have dug a deep hole very quickly, but that was not the intention. After digging for ten centimetres, it was
stopped so that the dirt could be studied. The top layer was all sand. Then we got into broken mudstone identical to the cliffs on that side of the bay.
Eventually the borer got through the mudstone and down to the sand of the original beach. It was there that we made the first important find—a thick layer of shells below the mudstone. These were mostly horse mussels, which normally live out past the wave-break; the only time they get washed up on the beach is after a big storm. No storm I’d seen had ever come anywhere near the boats—so in the past some mighty big waves must’ve rolled into the bay and pounded against the cliffs. Melanie’s idea was that these waves had caused the cliff to collapse. There was even the possibility that there had been a disaster and that people might have been trapped underneath. If that were so, maybe we would be digging up skeletons.
When I told Grandad and Dad about the big waves, they wouldn’t believe it. Grandad had known the bay for nearly sixty years, and he said that no storm had ever washed up as far as the boats. He didn’t think it was possible. But possible it was—the shells were proof of that.
On NewYear’s Day, Milt returned and once again the Union Jack was flying over Tarquins. Soon after arriving, he came down to inspect the dig. By then the borer had been put away and we were using shovels and spades. When it looked like something had been found, we’d change to smaller implements, such as trowels and knives.
Not that we were finding much that was interesting. We were digging at the back of the mound where a metal-detector had located something. So far, we were still working through fallen mudstone and the only finds were small fossil shells.
At least twice a day Steph and I would take to the water for some surfing. As soon as she saw Milt, she had to show off her skills. He made appropriate noises, but declined an invitation to join her, saying he’d go by himself later when it was cooler. It was a lame excuse: he was scared of being photographed. He need not have worried. My surveillance for Scatworm and other parasites had revealed nothing around Whale Pot Bay.
However, there was something I was keeping a close eye on, and that was a green car that cruised up and down Hauruanui Valley. I kept seeing it when I went out to shoot the magpies. Yes, they were still alive, and looked like they’d stay that way unless I tried something different. By then I was no longer trying to kill them to please Steph; it was a matter of them versus me. I wasn’t going to be
beaten by any magpie—somehow or other they were going to die.
When the others went to Masterton to take Grandad back, I volunteered to stay at home to serve petrol if needed; I wanted to try a new approach with the magpies. If they wouldn’t come out of the tree when I was around, then I’d go up into the tree to meet them.
My idea was to put the bait up the tree near their nest. I would then climb the hill behind the tree so that I was at the same level as the bait. There was a place close to the road where I could hide in some bullrushes and still be in range.
Getting the bait into the tree was exciting. Macrocarpas are reasonably easy to climb, but not if you’re being dive-bombed by magpies. They were determined that I was not getting up into their tree, and I was just as determined that I was. In the end I won, and the bait was in place on a branch halfway between the ground and the nest.
Next, I settled myself into the bullrushes and waited. The birds eyed me suspiciously from higher in the tree, working out the odds. Eventually, one was prepared to take the risk. It alighted on the branch with the bait. This was my chance. I took aim and fired—and missed.
Of course the magpie took off, flying back to the top of the tree. It would be hours before it would come back again. I climbed out of my hide for a stretch and a look around. That was when I noticed the green car parked alongside the road, no more than fifty metres away: someone was in the driver’s seat, watching me.
I watched back. After a while the door opened and a man climbed out. He was dressed in the same drab
green colour as the car. But the most noticeable feature about him was his shaven head: that and the gun he was carrying.
It was not pointed at me, but when someone walks towards you with a gun it’s frightening, no matter where it’s pointed. The idea of running away crossed my mind, and then I thought that he might be able to help me with the magpies: the rifle looked powerful enough to blast anything out of the top of the tree.
However, the closer he got, the more concerned I became. By then I could see that the drab green clothes were in fact camouflage gear. He was dressed up as if he was going into battle. Not the normal sort of person you see walking along a country road.
‘Been hunting?’ I asked when he was a few steps away, thinking that a friendly approach was probably the best.
His eyes locked onto mine. They were wild, unsettling eyes—this guy was far from normal.
After a while he said, ‘Yesss,’ dragging the S out into a hissy whistle. ‘Vermin,’ he added, still staring me in the eyes. ‘I’ve been shooting vermin. There’s lots of it around here.’
‘Rabbits?’ I asked, more calmly than I felt.
‘Rabbitsss, posssumsss, haresss, stoatsss,’ he hissed, continuing to stare at me until I had to look away. ‘All vermin.’ He looked up into the tree. ‘I see you’ve got vermin as well.’
‘Then we’d better do something about them.’ He started climbing the fence before stopping at the top and asking, ‘Can I come onto your property?’
After some thought I said, ‘Yeah, that’s OK.’ Although I did wonder what might’ve happened if I’d said no.
A moment later he was standing beside me staring up at the magpies, who were now staring back at us.
‘I’ve seen you. You’ve been after them for daysss and daysss, haven’t you?’
‘Off and on,’ I admitted. So, he had been keeping an eye on me. Was that the reason he’d been driving up and down the road? Something wasn’t right here at all. A shiver of fear passed through my body.
Then without any warning, he raised the rifle and fired. There was no explosive sound. Just a
noise, followed by a half-squawk as a magpie fell out of the tree and thumped to the ground below us.
‘That’s one down,’ he said, smiling and lowering the rifle. ‘One more to go.’
‘Has that got a silencer?’
‘Supressor,’ he said, patting the barrel. ‘This little baby’s got everything. Perfect for vermin. They don’t know what’s hit them, and neither do their mates. See.’ He pointed up to the nest.
I looked up and saw the other magpie gazing around searching for its partner—it didn’t have a clue what had happened.
He didn’t leave it looking for long before lifting the rifle and shooting again. This bird fell backwards and halfway down got caught in a branch. Again he fired; this time three shots into the body in rapid succession, dislodging the corpse so that it fell to the ground.
‘Good shooting,’ I said, trying to act casual.
‘Yesss,’ he admitted. ‘It helps if you’ve got a good
rifle.’ Then after a moment he held the gun out to me and asked, ‘Do you want a go? You could shoot the nest, just in case there’re some chicks in there.’
‘No!’ I said, almost too quickly.
‘No!’ I cried. But I was.
‘All right. Pleassse yourself,’ he said, before lifting the rifle and firing five bullets into the nest. ‘That should kill them.’ Then he moved back to the fence. ‘Anyway, I’d better be going.’ When he was over the other side, he turned back to me. ‘If you’ve got any other vermin you need killing, give me a shout. I’ll be around the place a lot from now on.’
I watched as he marched back to his car and then drove off towards the pub. I was about to move away when I sensed that the car had stopped. Moving to the fence, I saw that it had pulled in by the junction. Then a figure appeared by the passenger door and climbed in. Soon the car was back on the road and lost in a cloud of dust.
My heart was pounding in my chest as I ran back to the house. The passenger must have been snooping around the garage or the house. I felt that I would soon know which. If it were the person I thought it was, then a telltale odour would be left wherever he went.
I found the smell in the house. The stink of cigarettes was in every room, but was strongest around the computer. When I’d left the house earlier that morning, the screen had been showing a screensaver. Now it was displaying Pimi’s tracking map. Steph checked it every morning and must have forgotten to close it before she left.
Everything was there on the screen: Pimi’s current
location; where she’d been; the name of the website; and most worrying, the all-important ID number. I knew then that Scatworm had seen the sheet of paper on his previous visit to the house. He’d seen it, but hadn’t got the details—so he’d come back and now had it all.
I sat on the sofa with my head in my hands. What a fool I’d been. I should have known something was up when I saw the camouflage gear and the shaven head. I’d been too intent on killing the magpies to recognize the man for who he was. He was the guy from the sports shop who’d first told Scatworm about Milt’s surfing. Scott Grey—the man the shopkeeper considered dangerous. Having met him, I couldn’t help but agree. I had the feeling that if you crossed Scott Grey, you would quickly find out just how dangerous he could be.