THE MERLIN EFFECT EXCERPT
Farther from shore, nearer to death.
With every pull of her paddle, Kate recalled the much-repeated warning about these waters. Yet today felt different. Today the sea looked tranquil, even inviting.
Her arms, brown after almost a month in the Baja California sun, churned rhythmically. The kayak cut through the water, slicing the glassy green walls that rose and fell like a heaving chest. As the protected lagoon receded behind her, open ocean stretched before her. The swollen sun drifted low on the horizon, glowing like a lump of melting gold.
A wave slapped the kayak, drenching her. She shook herself, pulled a piece of kelp off her forearm, then resumed paddling.
She glided past the forest of mangroves lining the mouth of the lagoon. Despite the low tide, she skirted within a few feet of their long, spindly roots. Planted in the mud, they resembled a family of long-legged waders. An immature heron resting on a branch watched her slide by, but Kate’s attention had turned to a copper-stained mound at the end of the bay. The last dune. And beyond it, the breakers.
Never been out this far before, she thought. What a place to see the sunset! Too bad she had waited so long to venture out. Now only a few more days remained before she would have to leave all this for good.
She lay the paddle across her lap, licking the salt from her sunburned lips. As the vessel coasted quietly with the current, she listened to the trickle of water running down the ends of the paddle. Slowly, the sun ignited sea and sky with streaks of crimson. Just beneath the waves, a web of golden light shimmered.
A plover swooped past, barely a foot above her head, searching for a crab-meat supper. Meanwhile, two sandpipers, standing one legged in the shadow of the dune, chittered noisily next to the hissing, rushing waves. Kate drew in a deep breath, feeling the warmth of the fading sun on her face. At midday, it had struck with brutal force, yet now it soothed like a gentle massage.
As the current pulled her past the last dune, she scanned the line of whitecaps ahead. The breakers splashed and sucked, a stark barrier of volcanic rock. Yet the ocean beyond looked calm, serene, almost deserving of the Pacific. At this moment, it was hard to believe all those tales of sudden squalls, murderous shoals, and swelling tides that had made this stretch of Mexican coast a sailor’s nightmare for centuries. Not to mention the legendary Remolino de la Muerté, the Whirlpool of Death, discussed by the local people only in whispers.
True or not, those tales — along with the harshness of the desert landscape — had kept the population of this area to a few scattered fishing villages. Almost nobody came here by choice. That is, until her father plunked his research team at San Lazaro Lagoon.
With a flick of her paddle, she spun the kayak around to face the lagoon. At the far end sat the research camp, its white canvas tents washed in the rich colors of sunset. Behind them rose the flagpole, still sporting the purple T-shirt hoisted by her father when the official colors blew away, and the wind generator, its steel propeller spinning lazily. Close to the beach, the converted trawler Skimmer lay anchored. Not far away bobbed the silver-colored submersible, awaiting its next deep-water dive.
She shook her head. Dad was still working on the boat. Though she could not see him, she could hear the familiar sputtering of the aging trawler’s engine. It didn’t make any difference that the ship was almost beyond repair, that the project’s days were numbered, or that a spectacular sunset was about to happen. He probably wouldn’t budge to see a sea monster taking a bubble bath in the lagoon. Or the lost ship Resurreccíon , laden with treasure, rising out of the waves as the old legend predicted.
And the others on his team were no better. Terry constantly fiddled with his scientific equipment, whether in his tent, on the Skimmer, or on the team’s two buoys. Isabella, for her part, divided her time between her makeshift laboratory and the submersible, which she pampered as if it were her own baby. She would be down inside its hatch right now, doing her evening maintenance, if she had not agreed yesterday to work the camp’s radio constantly in a last-ditch attempt to get the project’s permit extended.
During the past few weeks, Kate’s job as cook and dishwasher for the team had allowed her plenty of time for exploring the beach, snorkeling, scaling dunes, or taking sunset kayak rides. None of the others had ever joined her, not even her father. So much for her high hopes of spending lots of time with him in this isolated lagoon. She had seen only a little more of him than she had of her mother, who was thousands of miles away at their home in New England.
For a while, she had at least been able to share supper with him when the group assembled in the main tent at the end of each day. Lately, though, even that tradition had suffered, as everyone worked later and later into the night. The specter of the project’s permit expiring, with no results to show for the entire month, hung like a dark cloud over them. Especially her father. He had given up trying to learn anything useful from the villagers, and had spent the last twenty-four hours on the Skimmer, trying to adapt Terry’s precious equipment to his own purposes. Outside of his increasingly tense arguments with Terry, his conversations had shrunk to a distracted thank-you to Kate whenever she brought him some food.
Not that this so-called team had much in common to talk about anyway. Isabella was a marine biologist, Terry a graduate student in undersea geology, Kate’s father a historian. He was leader of the group in name only. About the only thing they managed to do cooperatively was to tow the submersible out to sea for Isabella’s deep-water dives.
Kate dipped her paddle and heaved. The kayak spun like a leaf on the water. Once more she was facing the sinking sun. Its color had gone from gold to crimson, and it seemed squashed, as if a great boot were stepping on it. With a start, she realized she had drifted out and was almost on top of the breakers. Rough water boiled just ahead. Quickly, she paddled a few furious strokes in reverse, then started to turn the craft around. Better to watch the sunset from inside the lagoon. That way she would be sure to get back in plenty of time to prepare supper.
Suddenly she halted. The breakers didn’t really look so bad. Not nearly as dangerous as the rapids at Devil’s Canyon where she had kayaked last summer. Sure, Dad had firmly cautioned her never to cross them. Yet he and Terry did it every day in the Skimmer to check the buoys. The white water would make a thrilling ride. She might not get another chance. And besides, she was thirteen now, old enough to make her own decisions.
Surveying the line of turbulence, she picked the best point to cross. Farther out, in the calmer waters of the sea, the team’s two buoys floated, decorated with brightly colored equipment. The first buoy seemed surprisingly close; the second, much farther out. In the distance, beyond the second buoy, a spiraling tower of mist hovered over the sea, swirling slowly. For an instant, the mist thinned just enough to reveal an ominous pursing of the waves, rising out of the water like an undersea volcano.
Farther from shore, nearer to…
Kate bit her lip. It was probably nothing more than a reef. And even if it were something more dangerous, it was too far away to pose any risk. Whatever, it seemed to taunt her, daring her to cross the breakers.
She glanced over her shoulder at the research camp. No one would miss her. Absorbed as he was, her father wouldn’t even notice if supper came a little late tonight.
Just as she raised her paddle, a lone gull screeched overhead. She hesitated, looked again out to sea. The distant mist had thickened once more, concealing whatever she had seen. Sucking in her breath, she propelled herself at the breakers.
The wind gusted slightly, playing with her braid, as she drove the kayak forward. Effortless as a frigate bird soaring on the swells, she raced across the water.
“Hooeeee!” she shouted aloud as the craft plunged into the whitecaps. She paddled even faster. The narrow boat almost seemed to lift above the waves.
With a final splash, she cleared the breakers completely. The waters grew calm again. Breathing hard, she placed the paddle across her lap and glided toward the sunset.
It was nearly time. Rays of peach and purple mingled with the sky’s brighter flames. The rippling crests around her quivered with scarlet light. Water birds fell silent. The sun pressed lower and lower, flattening against the sea. Then, in the blink of an eye, it dropped below the horizon.
She shifted her gaze to the strange spiral of mist beyond the second buoy. Was it only her imagination, or could she hear a distant humming sound from that direction?
Absently, she drummed the shaft of the paddle. A trick of the ocean air, perhaps? The local villagers claimed to have seen and heard many bizarre things off this coast. Isabella, who had grown up not far from here, had told Kate many of their tales during lulls in her lab work.
Too many, probably. One night last week, while paddling in the lagoon, Kate had heard what sounded like wispy voices, wailing and moaning in the distance. What was she to think? That she had heard the ghosts of the Resurreccíon’s sailors, swallowed by the whirlpool nearly five centuries ago? She was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it, or about how poorly she had slept that night. She was too old for that kind of thing.
Yet…her father didn’t seem to be. He had spent his whole career as a historian trying to prove that some pretty far-fetched stories could actually be true. Jim Gordon had a reputation as an accessible man, one of the most approachable people at the university. People rarely bothered to call him professor. Just Jim would do. No matter that he was one of the world’s leading scholars on the legend of King Arthur, that he had done more than anyone to prove that Merlin was not merely a fictional wizard but a real person, a Druid prophet who lived long ago in what is now Wales. His book The Life of Merlin had become not only a classic study of the links between myth and history but a popular best-seller as well.
Many, including Kate, wondered why a Spanish galleon wrecked off Baja California should be of any interest to him, a professor of early English history. But on that subject, he kept silent. Even to his colleagues. Even to his daughter.
Kate slapped the water angrily with her paddle. Jim this. Jim that. If he were so approachable, how come she found it so hard to get any time with him? Something had happened to the father she used to know, the father who used to enjoy nothing more than leaning back in his chair and telling a good story about ancient heroes and gallant quests.
A briny breeze blew over the water. Feeling a bit chilly, she reached under the kayak’s spray skirt and took out a crumpled blue cotton shirt. As she unsnapped her life jacket to slip into the shirt, she looked back toward the camp. A band of pink shone in the sky above the tents. Although it was still light, a sprinkling of stars had started to appear overhead.
Then she saw the moon, rising out of the eastern horizon like an evening sun. At first only a wispy halo lifted above the desert hills, then a slice of gold, then a disc of dazzling orange. Higher the moon rose, climbing slowly into the twilight sky. It cast a fiery path across the water, a path that burned its way to her tiny vessel, flooding her with amber light.
Turning again out to sea, she followed the rippled path to the buoys and beyond. The waves glittered, as if paved with gold.
She took up her paddle. There was just enough time, if she hurried, for a brief sprint to the first buoy before dark. Kitchen duty could wait for once. She grinned, picturing the amazed look on her father’s face when she would tell him what she had done.
She began to paddle toward the open ocean.