One blue eye peeked out from beneath the mass of tangled dark hair an instant before a fist unceremoniously silenced the alarm clock for the third and final time. She groaned and made herself get up. It was either that or throw the alarm across the room again.
Long legs swung over the side of the bed and Pat Ryan immediately grabbed her head, wincing at the aftermath of tequila shots the night before. Straightening her tall frame, she rubbed her still-closed eyes and walked into the bathroom without turning on any lights. She stumbled into the shower, letting the cold water bring her around.
She quickly turned the knobs before sticking her face into the warmer spray.
One of these days, she would learn. She was getting too damn old for this, she thought wryly. The local guys down at The Brown Pelican always thought they could out-drink her and she was never one to pass up a challenge. Especially when it involved money.
She usually started her day with a jog along the beach, but not this morning. And it had nothing to do with tequila shots. She had to be in Rockport before dawn. Texas Wildlife Magazine had commissioned her to photograph nesting shorebirds and she had found a nest of newly hatched Curlews the day before. She was familiar with the Long-billed Curlews, once she learned their name, but the local birders in Rockport assured her it was rare for them to nest this far south. Old Mrs. Davenport had offered her a hundred dollars to show her where the nest was located.
She shook her head. Birdwatching! What a total waste of time! She didn't doubt that the news was already on the birding hotline and she pictured a thousand Mrs. Davenports combing the area, looking for her nest.
She found her favorite baseball cap and pulled her hair through the back before grabbing two camera bags and trudging as quickly as her headache would allow, to her Jeep. The gulf breeze felt good on her face and she breathed deeply, the damp salt air bringing a smile to her face. She loved the mornings, especially before dawn, when the tourists were still tucked safely in their condos and hotels, out of her way and out of her sight. Pat Ryan hated tourists. In the summer months, the normally peaceful Mustang Island was transformed into total chaos. Bumper to bumper traffic on every street, hour long waits for the ferry, the beaches crowed and littered, not to mention the restaurants. It drove her crazy. Even the old dives that only served baskets of fried fish had long lines on the weekends. The Shrimp Shack was about the only place the locals could still go without worrying about tourists. The old building, tucked away off of the main drag, was in desperate need of a paint job. If the building didn't turn people away, the blaring country music from the jukebox would. That, and the colorful assortment of patrons who frequented the place deterred even the most eager tourists from venturing inside.
Pat knew though, without the tourists, the island would die. She depended on their dollars as much as anyone. She had photographs for sale in nearly every gallery in Port Aransas, as well as Rockport. It hadn't always been that way. When she first moved here, she'd had to beg and plead just to get a few to carry her small prints, relying mainly on her magazine credits to pay the bills. But, having finally made a name for herself as a wildlife photographer, most of the gallery owners came to her now. That was why she'd been toying with the idea of opening up her own gallery, selling only her own work.
It was ironic, really. Pat couldn't tell the difference between a Sandpiper and a Plover if her life depended on it, but she had a knack for capturing them on film. She had little patience for tourists, but, if need be, she could sit for hours waiting for that perfect shot. She remembered the "Great Blue Heron", her most famous photograph. She had found him splashing in the marshes around Copano Bay, seemingly playing in the water without a care in the world. Upon further inspection, she discovered that what the bird was actually toying with was a snake. Pat wasn't sure which one was hoping the other would be dinner, but she got a perfect shot as the heron, with feathers ruffled and eyes wide, bent low to the water just as the snake jumped vertically out and over the heron's head. The expression on the bird's face was priceless and she had made a small fortune on the reproduction of that photo alone.
But that was five years ago, she reflected, as she waited for the ferry. Nothing had really changed, except she could pay her bills without worrying now. She still lived in the same old beach house. It was pale blue, battered and in need of a fresh coat of paint, but what it lacked in beauty, it made up for in the view. She still drank the guys under the table at The Brown Pelican, still got up before dawn in search of the perfect shot, and still lived her life alone. She had thought that, at thirty-six, she might have found someone to share her life with by now, but she hadn't met anyone she could stand being around long enough to develop a relationship. Patience to wait for that perfect shot, she had plenty. Patience with people, women particularly, she had none.
She stood at the edge of the grass and watched the sun rise out of the water, flooding the sky with brilliant pinks and reds. The cool breeze lifted her short blonde hair slightly and she absently brushed it away from her face, her eyes never leaving the sunrise. Two Pelicans flew into her sight, crossing the sun, the colors bouncing off their white feathers and she watched them for a second, then slid her eyes back to the pinks and reds. Carly had missed this. It had been too many years since she'd been here.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Carly jumped as the voice startled her.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Cambridge. I didn't mean to sneak up on you."
"It's okay, Martin. I just didn't expect anyone else to be out here this early."
"I was at the site when I saw your lights."
Carly nodded. She couldn't believe the progress they had made on the Visitor's Center in just a few short months. It wasn't going to be large, not like the Visitor's Center of neighboring Aransas Wildlife Refuge, but every square foot was accounted for as usable space. Martin had pushed the contractors hard, trying to get it finished before fall, when the migration would be in full swing.
"Got some news last night," Carly said. "The Federal Grant passed. We'll have enough money to begin restoring the marshes now instead of next spring."
When Habitats For Nature had purchased the ranch last year, they found that most of the marsh land had been drained and filled in, then replanted with non-native grass for cattle. It would be a huge undertaking to try to restore it all to its natural state, but if they were going to make this preserve work, Carly had insisted that be their first priority. The migrating shore birds, ducks and especially the endangered Whooping Cranes relied on marshes for survival. Without healthy marshes, they would be hard-pressed to attract any wildlife to the preserve.
"I know that's what you've been most worried about, Dr. Cambridge. I've got contractors already lined up. We can start digging this week."
"Good. But please, stress to them again the importance of disturbing the land as little as possible. I don't want it to look like a construction site out there."
They began walking back to their vehicles and Carly turned to look back at the sunrise, the soft colors having faded already, the sun sparkling bright now, only hinting at the heat it would bring on this spring day.
Martin showed Carly the progress they had made on the Visitor's Center in the past week. She had been in Washington, lobbying for their grant and kissing up to politicians, something she absolutely detested. One reason she had quit her job with the State was to get away from the politics of it all. When she started with the Parks and Wildlife Department, she had naïve aspirations, thinking she could come in and change it all, clean up the rivers, preserve land for native species. But she quickly found that all things revolved around politics and money. That was why she had jumped at the chance to work for Habitats For Nature, a non-profit organization whose only goal was preservation. It afforded her the opportunity to come back to the Gulf Coast, where her family still lived.
"They should be through with the wiring this week, then we're ready to go full force on the interior. If the weather stays dry, another month and a half, two at the most," he assured her.
It wasn't that she was anxious to get the Visitor's Center ready for the public. It would be another year before they would open their gates for tours, but she wanted the staff in place and the field technicians out there when the fall migration started. Their bird count would determine how much of a State grant they got next year.
She knew it would be several years before the habitat was back to its native state, several years before the wildlife would return for good. Oh, they already had deer, raccoons, skunks and most of the other small mammals native to the area. Mammals didn't rely on the marshes for survival. What she really wanted was to attract the endangered Whooping Crane. The Aransas Wildlife Preserve, which was federally managed, was only a mile down the coast from them. She saw no reason why the Cranes wouldn't find the new marshes eventually. But she knew the ducks would find it first, then shorebirds and wading birds. And unlike the Aransas Preserve, they would not allow hunters to come in during the fall. She understood the need to cull the deer herd, but she also believed it put an enormous stress on the other wildlife with hunters tromping through the woods firing guns. The previous ranch owner had run day leases and the first thing Carly had done was take down the tree stands that had been put up in the big oak trees that the ranch was famous for.
The second thing she had started, even before they broke ground on the Visitor's Center, was to begin renovations on the old ranch house, making it into offices for the staff and remodeling the upper floor into an apartment for her. Eventually they would hire a manager to live full-time on the property, but for now, she would stay here while they got things underway.
"My assistant, Elsa Sanchez, is going to be moving down this weekend, Martin, to set up our computer system. I'll bring her around on Monday. I want you to show her the blueprints so she can get an idea of what we'll need. They supposedly have it all mapped out but I want her to take a look. I want the servers in the ranch house where the offices will be, but I want to network the Visitor's Center, too."
"She's the computer whiz you were telling me about?"
Carly smiled and nodded. She knew Elsa from college, but they'd lost touch soon after. Then she met Elsa again in Austin years later when they'd both worked for the Parks and Wildlife Department. Elsa was a field technician and she had been assigned to work with Carly on a project involving the Edward's Aquifer. The development boom in the Hill Country was quickly draining the aquifer and they were studying the effects on the natural springs in the area. Actually, they were watching them dry up before their very eyes. Carly's face hardened as she remembered the political pressure of that study. Development brought tax dollars and her findings were swept under the rug for nearly two years until environmental groups protested loudly enough. The development had been curbed, but it was too little too late.
Elsa had been as disenchanted by the whole process as Carly had been. That's when she decided to change careers. She went back to school, getting another degree in computer science and adding a M.C.S.E. certificate to it as well. They had remained friends and Elsa had been more than willing to give up her job as a Network Administrator in the city for a chance to work on the preserve, combining her computer and networking skills with her love of protecting the environment.
"She's wonderful, Martin. You'll love her. And it'll give you a chance to brush up on your Spanish. She's gets on a tirade sometimes and loses me when she launches into Spanish," Carly explained.
Martin chuckled. "I'll try to keep up but the only practice I get these days in when I visit my grandmother."
Carly shook her finger playfully at him. "It's sad, Martin, when an Anglo such as myself knows more Spanish than you do."
"Good God, you'd think they'd never seen a goddamned bird before," Pat muttered under her breath. She stood with hands on her hips, surveying the crowd that lined the pond. Her pond. Her Curlews. She shook her head, cursing Mrs. Davenport. The old woman had no doubt been following her.
She tossed one of her cameras on the front seat in disgust then childishly kicked at her back tire. Of all the luck, she thought. Yesterday, she had accidentally stumbled upon a nest of Long-billed Curlews and had know idea what she had found. Pat had been searching her field guide frantically for a bird that fit their description when Mrs. Davenport had ambled over, voluntarily pointing out she wasn't even in the correct category. "You've got a bird book. Why don't you learn to use it?"
Everyone told her Mrs. Davenport was the local authority on native birds. Of course, Pat had run into her numerous times while working, but she avoided her as best she could because the old bitty made her nervous, always decked out in some outrageous birding outfit and sporting not one, but two pairs of binoculars around her neck. Once she broke the ice, though, the old woman was as hard to shake off as a flea. She seemed determined to call attention to all of Pat's mistakes.
"Oh, Ms. Ryan! There you are! Come have a look! We haven't spotted the nest yet."
Pat turned, a biting retort on her lips as Mrs. Davenport walked over, dressed in all her birdwatching garb. Pat couldn't decide what part of the ensemble was the most outrageous; the scarf imprinted with every species of bird that was knotted loosely around her neck, the army surplus wading boots, or the wide-billed camouflage hat sporting yards and yards of mosquito-netting which flowed down the old woman's back like a strange bridal veil. Pat pulled the bill of her cap lower and pierced Mrs. Davenport with an icy blue stare.
"Nice crowd. Must have hit the . . . hotline, huh?" she got out through clinched teeth.
"Oh, yes. This is big news," the old woman stated importantly as she adjusted her hat over her thinning gray hair . "I'm trying to get the local paper out for a picture."
"Great. Thanks a lot."
"Well, Ms. Ryan, I assure you, in my circle, this is very good news. The Audubon Society is positively beside itself. Why, the Long-billed Curlew hasn't nested in these parts in years. My dear departed Elbert, God rest his soul, was still in his prime the last time we saw them, and that was before Carla hit."
"The hurricane, dear. Surely, you remember Carla?"
Pat Ryan drew her eyebrows together and tried another scowl on old Mrs. Davenport.
"Look, do you really think it's wise to have all these people . . . gaping at this nest? I mean, wouldn't it be tragic if the birds abandoned their nest and the poor babies were left to starve and die? All because you put it out on your hotline?"
Old Mrs. Davenport brought one hand to her chest, eyes wide.
"Do you think they're too close? I mean, we haven't even see the nest yet and the parents haven't flown."
"Oh, sure. They're just sticking around, trying to protect the young, but tonight, maybe they'll think, hey, what are we going to do when twice this many people show up? How are we going to look for food and protect them at the same time? Maybe we should just abandon the nest and head up north, like we usually do and start over. What then?"
"Oh, well I would feel horrible, of course. But these are birders. They wouldn't approach the nest."
Pat rolled her eyes. Birders.
"Look, I think you should just ask everyone to leave. I mean, is it worth it?"
But Mrs. Davenport held her ground.
"I see you have your cameras, just like us. What's the difference?"
"I'm a professional. I know how to do this," Pat said.
"Just like you knew that they were Curlews, right?"
Pat rolled her eyes again, just in time to see a brand new Cadillac skid to a halt next to her Jeep.
"Oh, I see your Aunt Rachel heard the news, too."
Pat watched her elderly Aunt jump from her car, binoculars swinging from around her neck.
"Where are they?" she called to Mrs. Davenport.
"Wait," Pat put up a warning hand. "Not you, too. This is a protected area," she said lamely.
"This is public land," Mrs. Davenport corrected.
"Why, Pat, I didn't expect to see you here. Did you hear the news on the hotline?"
"No. I found the goddamn nest. I should be the only damn person out here," she said, her voice rising with each word.
"Oh, pooh, you hate birds," her aunt said. "Come along, darling, show me the nest."
Aunt Rachel linked arms with Pat and drew her after Mrs. Davenport as they headed toward the pond
Pat took a deep breath, clutching her camera to her chest as she hurried along beside her aunt, nearly choking on the perfume that hovered around the older woman.
"You know, I'm shooting for a magazine. Maybe you could use your influence and get everyone out of here," Pat whispered to her aunt. "What do you say?"
"They're Curlews, Pat. Nesting . . . with young. We all want to see."
"And since when have you gotten into this?"
"Isn't it exciting, Pat?"
Pat rolled her eyes again. Her own aunt was decked out, head to toe, in her version of birdwatching gear, completely impractical white linen Bermuda shorts and matching boots.
"Nice hat," she murmured, sparing a wry glance for the lace and straw confection perched on her aunt's head.
"I got it at that cute little Birds and More shop on Austin Street."
"Looks great on you."
Aunt Rachel was really her only family. The rest had deserted her years ago. If truth be told, they had deserted Aunt Rachel as well. The eccentric old woman was a bit too much for her stuffy, Catholic family. Oh, the occasional Christmas card was exchanged and sometimes a phone call, but that was about it. Pat assumed they did that so they wouldn't be left out of the will.
"Come by the house for lunch, Pat," her aunt said. "I've some things I want to discuss with you. We haven't visited in ages."
Pat stood at the edge of the crowd, watching as the birders spied across the small pond with their binoculars, looking for the elusive nest. Then she grinned. Of course. They all knew there was a nest here . . . somewhere. But only she knew exactly where it was. She could either wait them out or sneak around the back side of the pond. She doubted anyone in this crowd would be inclined to follow her through the mud and tall grass.
Oh, let them fumble around a bit. The sun was already too high anyway for a decent shot. She walked back to her Jeep, mentally planning another trip tomorrow morning, well before dawn. That way, maybe she could still get a few good shots before the crowd showed up.
"Pat? Wait," her aunt called. "We don't see them. Did you?"
"No. They probably hate crowds."
"Where are you going?"
"To your place."
Her aunt nodded. "I'll be along shortly."