A breaking wave thumped into the sandbank a few feet from where he stood and a fine cool mist of spray washed over him. He tightened his low-slung board shorts and shifted his six-footer from under his left arm to his right. The surf was pumping. It was shaping up as a solid day and he was itching to get amongst it.
But a man like Russell Carter knew when someone intended doing him serious bodily harm. Something about those three guys who’d pulled up next to him in the parking lot a few minutes earlier had triggered his internal alarm. It rarely let him down.
And it wouldn’t shut up.
Full light was five to ten minutes away. The rising sun sat just below the ocean’s horizon, hovering between the darkness and the light, the past and the future. He was standing alone on the jagged rocks, studying the break he’d been surfing since he was a kid, trying to get a read on it.
He took a deep breath and exhaled. The surf was his church, the one place where he found solace and the world made sense.
Since returning to his childhood home, more than a year ago now, he’d surfed this break every morning. Life was good. His past had stayed where it belonged.
He glanced over his shoulder. From where he stood, he couldn’t see the parking lot. But nobody was coming down the dirt track toward him.
He was hung-over and hadn’t had much sleep, and he’d been out of the game for over a year – perhaps there was nothing more to it than that. There was no reason to suspect trouble.
A huge wave boomed out to sea. He pushed his long black hair out of his eyes and watched the bubbling foam surge over the rocks below before retreating.
Then the ocean went quiet, as if holding its breath.
The lull between sets presented the window of calm he was waiting for.
He launched himself board first off the rocks and hit the water with a thud. He started stroking hard and deep, heading for the still-water channel that ran to the left of the break. The cool of the ocean and the feel of his board ploughing through the water helped to clear his head.
It took him five minutes to fight his way through the oncoming walls of surging foam and reach calm water. When he was halfway toward the take-off zone where the other surfers sat in a pack, he stopped paddling and looked toward the shore.
The three guys were already in the water, powering their boards through the first set of broken waves. They were heading toward him, negotiating the challenging surf like pros.
He lay back down and started stroking out to sea at a steady pace. He’d find out soon enough whether his instincts about them were on the mark or if it was just his hangover talking.
Carter paddled into the line-up, where a dozen local surfers straddled their boards in the gathering light. The dawn patrol bobbed up and down with the incoming swell, staring out to sea like naked buddhas, giving nothing away.
He glided to a halt and sat upright, sinking the tail of his board into the water. His height and weight made him large for a surfer, even though he carried little body fat. At thirty-seven he was over a decade older than any of the other hardcore locals. They respected his ability but most of them gave him a wide berth.
In a few moments the feeling of calm surrounding the pack would evaporate and the dogfight for the first wave of the morning would begin. He ran his right hand unhurriedly along the smooth curved edges of his board, watching the three strangers approach the take-off zone.
As they came closer and the light improved, he pegged them as Indonesian. Before returning to Lennox, he’d spent the last twenty years living and working in South-East Asia.
They were in their early twenties, lean and compact with wispy goatees, and looked like typical surf rats from any of the legendary breaks in Indonesia, which possessed some of the best, most powerful and consistent waves on the planet.
Each wore a sleeveless wetsuit, which made them stand out; the locals wore only board shorts. The water was warm and, even at this early hour, the high level of humidity suggested a midsummer stinker of a day.
He turned his board in a one hundred and eighty degree arc and saw a familiar figure paddling in his direction.
Knowlsie, a scrawny fourteen-year-old grommet with sun-bleached hair and a face full of freckles, was one of the few people in Lennox with whom Carter felt any real connection.
He was a young daredevil who’d take off on anything and thought he was bulletproof in the surf. Carter had been the same at his age.
Knowlsie pulled up beside him on a shiny cherry-colored five-footer and grinned.
“Like your new board,” Carter said.
“Mum gave it to me last night for Chrissy. Can’t wait to get me first wave.”
Carter gave him a half-smile. “Merry Christmas, Knowlsie.”
“Yeah, you too,” the boy said. “What did you get?”
“A few decent waves will do me.”
“I reckon Hughie’s delivered on that.”
“He sure has.”
Hughie was the imaginary god of the ocean who surfers called upon to bring them good waves.
Knowlsie looked at the strangers and laughed. “What about those dickheads all wearing the same wetties? You reckon they got ’em for Christmas?”
Carter didn’t answer but nodded in the direction of the take-off zone. “Go jag yourself a few. I’ll join you in a sec. And if you hook into a big mother, charge.”
Knowlsie lay down on his board and paddled away. Carter bobbed up and down, wondering whether he should warn Knowlsie to back off until he figured out what the three guys were up to.
He decided to stay put. After all, they wouldn’t be after the kid.
To Carter’s left, two seagulls squawked and dived beside a brown mat of seaweed that rose and fell as the first wave of the set passed underneath. It hit the sandbank and jacked up near vertical, creating a perfect clean wall of fast-moving water.
The pack sprung to life and converged on the critical take-off point, angling for pole position.
As Carter watched, one of the Indonesians paddled hard for the wave. So did two of the locals, who had the inside running. One of them, Knowlsie, got into the wave and leaped to his feet.
The stranger took off in front of him, gunning his board forward and ignoring Knowlsie’s right of way.
“Oi, dickhead! My wave!” Knowlsie screamed.
His board charged across the steep wave toward the Indonesian, who cut up and down the face.
The Indonesian shouted something back at him.
It was hard to hear from that distance, but it sounded to Carter like Javanese.
There was only room for one surfer on the hollow, breaking wave. The edge of the Indonesian’s board caught the lip and stalled. Knowlsie kept charging like Carter had told him to and Carter swore under his breath.
The sharp crack of two boards colliding cut through the still air.
Both surfers were sent flying.
Knowlsie dropped straight down the face and ploughed into the foaming trough.
At the exact same moment the lip of the wave hit the stranger from behind, throwing him forward.
The force of the water swept Knowlsie into no man’s land, the one place a surfer didn’t want to get caught.
In a war, “no man’s land” was the desolate and deadly zone that existed between enemy lines. In the surf, it was the wasteland between the rocks and where the waves broke, a washing machine of turbulent white water that drove you deeper and deeper toward the bottom.
If you kept your head and went with the flow of the ocean, you eventually rose to the surface and could paddle toward clear water. But inexperienced surfers often lost their center, panicked and got into serious trouble.
Knowlsie could handle it under normal circumstances. But he’d been caught by surprise and might even have been knocked out by his board.
The Javanese guy had fared better. The angle of the hit had propelled him in the direction of the deepwater channel running alongside the break.
The second wave of the set, bigger and more powerful than the first, smashed hard into Knowlsie, pushing him closer to the rocky shoreline. Carter started paddling at full throttle straight for him.
The third wave, the biggest of the set, crashed onto the shallow bank. It created a six-foot wall of boiling foam, thrusting Knowlsie even deeper into the churn of violent water.
Carter just hoped the kid had managed to gulp down some air before getting chundered.
Carter stroked hard across the strong rip sweeping toward the headland, focusing on the point where he expected Knowlsie to surface. The sharp nose of his board sliced through the chop.
Twenty yards in front of him, the ocean spat out three-quarters of a cherry board, minus the nose.
He slowed his paddle, just before Knowlsie’s head popped up next to the busted board.
“Thank Christ,” Carter muttered under his breath.
Knowlsie shook his head and gasped for air.
Carter took four powerful strokes toward him and sat upright. “You okay?”
Knowlsie, too out of breath to speak, nodded. He used his leg-rope to pull what was left of his broken board toward him and scrambled onto it.
Carter glanced back over his shoulder.
The Indonesian had surfaced much closer to the open water and was climbing back onto his undamaged board. His two mates paddled along the channel toward him.
“Shit, man!” Knowlsie said, still panting hard. “Look at my stick!”
“Mate, it’s only a board.”
“Mum’s gonna kill me.”
“The point is you’re okay. She’ll get over it.”
“You don’t know my mum.”
Carter smiled to himself and thought back to his own mother, who’d certainly ripped into him often enough over very little.
Knowlsie pointed at the three strangers sitting in a huddle forty yards away. “What the hell is the story with those arseholes?”
“The world’s full of them. Just worry about your own game.”
The comment didn’t seem to register with Knowlsie. “Bloody selfish drop-in artists,” he said. “Disrespecting the local rules. They need to be taught a lesson.”
“That’s how wars get started.”
Carter looked over at the Indonesians, who were discussing something. One of them pointed at him.
He needed to get Knowlsie out of there.
Besides the potential threat of violence, the rip was carrying the two of them at a steady rate back into the heart of no man’s land. The next set was already building out to sea, rolling toward them.
“You need to head in,” Carter said.
Knowlsie scrunched up his freckled nose. “Not before I tell those dickheads off.”
“Forget about ’em. They’re not worth it.”
Knowlsie ignored him and started paddling across the rip toward the channel.
“Hey,” Carter said in a stronger tone.
Knowlsie stopped, turned his head and gave him a defiant stare.
Carter’s gaze remained calm and steady.
After a few moments Knowlsie looked away, silently admitting defeat.
He turned his busted board toward the headland and started paddling toward it, managing to catch a small wave that carried him on his belly toward one of the few safe exit points on the rock-lined shore.
Knowlsie would be okay.
Carter turned out to sea. Another wave rushed toward him. He duck-dived through a wall of foam and popped out the other side.
When he’d negotiated the next two waves of the set, he slowed his paddle, looked up and scoped the three strangers. They sat astride their boards at twenty-yard intervals along the still waters of the channel, watching him.
He was starting to get a handle on what this was about.
At first he’d thought it unlikely anyone would choose to attack him in the surf. It would have been easier to take him out on dry land.
But now he understood. They were intending to attack him in no man’s land and make his death look like an accident.
It wouldn’t be hard on a day like this.
In theory, anyway.
One thing was for sure – they weren’t there for a friendly chat.
If nothing else, the unexpected threat had shaken off the remnants of his hangover.