The Swimmer

Photo by Michael Grant on Unsplash

It was a cold day by the beach. Piha’s black sand was empty, calm — a rare day when only the smallest of ripples made it into shore. No hint of the usual south wester’s that came roaring in from across the Tasman. Matt reached into a backpack and pulled out a set of white cotton gloves, smiling to himself as he did so. He thought of how he’d look on the beach as he slid one onto each hand — probably a lot like Marcelle Marceau.He placed an old Vogel’s bread bag over his right foot before sliding it into the leg of his Blue Seventy swimming suit. These things were tight; they acted like a seal, so you had to ensure the suits’ skin wasn’t pierced — toe and fingernails were the biggest culprits. He took his time putting it on, working it up his legs, then across his arms, unrolling it like pastry. He reached around with his good hand, took hold of the zip, then snapped his wrist inside of itself before pulling it up below his neck.

The sea was cold in his hands. He ran it through his hair, flattened down thick brown curls before hiding them under a black swimming cap. Then, with goggles on, he swung his arms in unison before sending them off in different directions as he entered the water. It always took him at least half a kilometre before his back opened up.

Matt launched himself into the surf, relishing the cool of the ocean sweeping over his head, trickling down his back. It was near high tide, so he swam out to the low tide line. He stood upright in the waves with the seafloor several meters below him — a superhero without a cape. These suits were a marvel. He surveyed the beach from where he floated, looked to the rocks at the southern tip before staring north at the massive back of Lion Rock. There was no one on the beach, just a flash of colour in the bush on its way up towards the lookout. It was beautiful up there. The tourists could never say no.

Matt struck out on his first lap, arms bent as they entered the water, head slightly raised to limit resistance. His body remained flat, swivelling from one stroke to the next, breathing on every third turn. He felt great, could feel the week being left behind, just falling away in his wake. His mind, like his body, floated; just seemed to open and let go of the things that had weighed him down. In the water, he could choose what to let in; he’d rotate between streams of thought so as not to be too invested in anyone one thing.
Carla could have the house — the kids needed it. They’d both be at Uni in less than a year — probably Victoria, so they could sell then. It was always going to happen; he hadn’t been around, had just gotten busy with stuff. It had been her decision. Matt knew the guy that was in the picture; a workmate had seen her out while he’d been away on business. Carla had told him when he’d confronted her. He hadn’t been angry, just disappointed. Shit happens.

They both hated lawyers, had seen a few from their own close circle go through the process and get chewed up on the other side. That wasn’t for them. The girls first and all of that. His back relaxed as tension left it. He had so much to look forward to now that it was in the open. He stretched out, picked up the pace as he made the first turn and headed back towards the southern tip. The water was so clear, he could see white-marbled streaks running through the black sand, the shape of the bottom cut away by its crazy currents.
He wouldn’t be the father that disappeared; just upped and left to hook up with the first young thing that paid him attention. He had time — wasn’t even fifty. They’d started young, too young in retrospect. Well, he’d make his own way. The decision had been made. Enough of that, he thought; how good did it feel to be out here? Just himself and the ocean. Most of Auckland was probably still in bed. Was she? He told himself off, ducked beneath the waves to let it all wash over him and froze mid-stroke.

There was something on the bottom. A corner of white and black plastic poking up through the sand. He stopped his watch, circled around to check his bearings, then swam a couple of metres down. He had to fight the buoyancy of the suit to stay there. It took a second go and a few gulps of air before he managed to pry it free. It was a square package of plastic, wrapped black duct tape. Matt held it above the water; it looked to be waterproof.

Were they drugs? He dropped it below the surface, pulled it into his chest and swam his line, eyes flicking to the left and right. He saw another one twenty metres on, swam to the bottom to pick that up and pressed it into the other. A couple of kilos, he thought. Jesus. This isn’t happening. He kept going, finding a third, a fourth before he could no longer carry what he held.

His eyes surveyed the beach once more — still empty. He looked to the horizon, no one there either. Matt swam the first cache in just below the high tide mark, stacking them near a rocky outcrop a few metres right of the surf club. His mind was racing. What had happened? The weather had only broken last night; there was kelp all over the beach. Maybe something had happened further out? Had it come from Australia?

Numbers started to flow through his mind as he swam back out; the distance between countries, the price of a kilo of coke — if that’s what it was? The metres he’d need to cover to get to the car. The number of people he’d seen on the way here. The tourist he’d seen on top of the cliff.

He found two more packs, then saw a pile of them in deeper water. He swam towards it before he dropped them both. A body lay on the bottom of the ocean. It was a guy in a white tee in an open leather jacket with its sides floating behind him. He wore camo pants and a single white Nike shoe with its lace undone, a trail of blood drifting upwards from the side of his head. Matt watched it collect in droplets, in bubbles and rise towards the surface. He threw up; a cloud of the green smoothie and apple erupted from his mouth before he clawed his way to the surface, gasping for air.

Panic set in. It can’t have happened that long ago. He tried to slow his breathing; pushed his cap up over his ears; there was something — a vibration. Oh, shit — an engine! He looked out to the horizon. There, a few kilometres offshore, was an approaching boat. A small white thing spitting up sea spray from either side of its bow. It was travelling fast. He put his head down and swam hard for the shore, arms clawing at the water, breathing whenever he could. His feet hit the sand, numb with the cold but functioning. He turned towards the car park before gunshots sent up clouds of sand, forcing him sideways. He ran for the cliff at the southern end; another crack of shots pushed him onto the track.

There were two of them. It was a hundred metres from the beach and wasn’t slowing. Matt stretched out in his suit, pushed up the steps, through the bush, climbing the side of the cliff. His feet were sliding on the mud, hitting stone, cutting his feet as he rose higher. He looked down at the beach and was rewarded with a gunshot slamming into the rock behind him. One of them was chasing; the other stayed with the boat, gun trained in his direction.

He reached the Tasman lookout, poked his head over the side, saw the inlet and the Blue Pool below. The tourist was wearing a bright orange shirt, jeans, and a pair of crocs, shaking in a bush to the left of the track. He was holding a camera with a thick black strap around his neck. Matt made his way, crab-like, across to where he was hiding.

‘Are you okay?’ he whispered.

The guy couldn’t speak, froze where he was hiding.

‘You need to listen carefully. You heard the gunshots?’

He nodded.

‘There are men here that mean to kill us. One of them is following me. I need your help,’ said Matt.

The man licked his lips, said nothing, just stared at him with wide eyes.

‘I need you to go further down the track. Have you got a watch?’

The tourist pushed back his sleeve to reveal one.

‘Good. In three minutes, I want you to call out — anything loud enough for him to hear. Stay out of sight. When he reaches the lookout, I’ll hit him. Okay?’

The tourist shook his head. ‘I can’t … can’t do that.’

He was French. Trembling.

‘You can. You have to. If we can get the gun, we can get past this. Go, now.’

Matt watched him leave, Crocs flying down the path before disappearing around the corner. He heard footsteps approaching a few minutes later. He was hiding amongst the long flax opposite the low rock wall when he appeared. Tall, with black hair and pale skin — a foreigner, gun held tightly in his hands. It seemed strange to look at this guy, who wanted to kill him, to take his life without a second thought.

It had been more than three minutes. Had the tourist fled? The guy was about to move on. It had to be now. Then he heard it, a call from a distance. Matt saw his assailant flinch, look sideways before he was up, heart in his mouth breaking free of the flax. He saw surprise on the gunman’s face, his attempt to turn. to face him before Matt was driving his forearm hard into his chest. The impact sent him backwards into the rock wall, tumbling over the side of it, a spinning wheel on currents of wind, plummeting towards the rocks below. The gun had gone with him. He could hear shots as he fell, then nothing. His partner would know.

Matt followed the track down to the inlet and the Blue Pool. The tourist held his camera, shaking, though taking pictures of the body at the foot of the cliff. He joined him at the base, clambered over the rocks to check the body — it was still. He could hear the boat moving in the distance; it was turning, heading their way.

‘Quick, move, head for that tunnel.’

‘But it’s … it’s filled with water?’

‘Just go, run!’

Shots peppered the sand behind them as the boat approached the shore. The tourist fell as he was struck in the side of his chest. Matt wrapped an arm around him as he stumbled, dragging him into the tunnel.

‘’You’ve been hit. Are you okay?’

Colour drained from his face; he looked sick, in pain as he tried to keep going. They were knee-deep, wading further out, seawater slapping the sides as they pressed themselves against the tunnel’s walls. The tourist was moaning, struggling to stay up as he clutched the side of his chest.

‘Hang in there, buddy, you’ll be okay. Keep pushing.’

‘Oui. Yes, yes.’

André had seen them on the beach, running across the inlet. Felix was dead. He could just make out his body on the side of the cliff through the bino’s he held. Fuck! This whole thing was turning to shit. There was an opening in the rock he’d seen earlier from the water, some sort of tunnel. They had to be in there. He circled around to the far side of it, hovering just north of its mouth.
There was something orange in the water, floating face-down on the surface. It was one of them. He knew he’d shot him on the beach. Was he dead or just foxing? André waited for the body to drift free of the tunnel. It was still, didn’t seem to be breathing. The current had turned and was pushing it in his direction.

He reached for his gaff as it drew near. There was no sign of the other guy — the one in the suit. He looked up; people were arriving on the beach, dogs were barking. He had to hide it quickly. It was drifting closer; he stretched out to pull it in on the leeward side of the boat; he rolled the body over and gasped — his throat had been cut.
A hand reached up from beneath the body, pulled on the gaff catching André off-balance, he tumbled into the water. Pain exploded in his chest as a knife plunged into it, stealing life with each thrust. Matt rolled him over, tied them both to the side of the boat and started the engine.

He looked to shore; people were staring though kept walking; he was confident they hadn’t seen anything yet. Someone would find the body soon. He switched on the radio, scrolled through different frequencies, found the one he needed.
‘ZMX Swimming Patrol, ZMX Swimming, ZMX Swimming Patrol. Two POB’s on board. One — on land. South Piha Beach. Require urgent pick-up. Send Coastguard 2. Over.’

‘This is Coastguard 2, ZMX Swimming Patrol. We are on approach, approximately five minutes from your position. Over.’
‘Proceed with caution Coastguard 2. Four packages near the high tide mark, tide turning. Divers required. Rendezvous Mercer Bay. Over.’

‘Rendevous Mercer Bay confirmed. Over.’

Matt flew from the beach, entering open water, bodies dragging beside him, though secured. He veered left, could see Coastguard 2 through his bino’s in the distance. He smiled to himself. It looked like the real thing.

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Scott Butler

I’m a writer of blogs, original short stories, and novels. Here is a clutch of short stories written on Fridays. Visit me for more at scottbutler.co.nz