Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 24th July: 1

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Sunday, 24th July: 1

Fog forms when warm moist air meets the cold surface of the sea. Droplets condense, the way water pools on the windowsills of a poorly ventilated room in winter, or windows steam up around a snogging couple in a closed car at night. So, sea fog is less frequent in the summer, when it appears mostly over the deeper, colder water well out to sea. Only rarely does it form close inshore on the warmer coastal shallows.

But, as we know, worse things happen at sea. The meadows of the south coast had baked in a heat wave all week. Then came a change of wind. It blew from the north-east, after a long track down the English Channel. That night the land cooled rapidly. The warm moist air from the east sank to the surface of the sea. Fog drifted in patches, thickening over the upwellings of cold water from the sea bottom, dispersing wherever the warm air sank to raise the surface temperature a fraction. The Amaryllis drifted in a fairy world, now swaddled in a close grey cocoon which chilled the skin, now gliding like a swan in bright moonlight on a black pool encircled by shifting white phantoms. It was an empty stage, a prologue without sound, except for the liquid moans of the sea.

On the ten-to-six inshore shipping forecast there had been no warnings of fog. The late afternoon sun streamed down on the holiday crowd on Jubilee Quay, amiable families strolling in shorts and T-shirts with plastic bags and buckets and sunburned toddlers in pushchairs licking ice cream cones from the Westowe Dairy, old couples wearing jackets and cardigans against the inevitable turn of the weather sitting on the hard benches staring out at the harbour with folded newspapers on their laps and thermoses at their feet, excited kids in swimsuits hanging their crab lines off the pontoon, knots of boisterous teenagers and a constant traffic of dinghies pushing on and off the quay. When I brought the Amaryllis alongside Angie was there. In spite of the heat, like the old folk, she was dressed for weather that would come, in jeans, trainers, and a white cable stitch jumper. She was carrying a small hold­all.

I tossed her the bow warp and we made the Amaryllis fast. I held her hand as she stepped down into the cockpit. She reached into the holdall and gave me a paper bag of ripe plums.

“Thanks.” I bit into one of the plums. I offered it to her and she took a bite. “How did you know I’d be here?”

“You’re never very far from Cromarty’s.”

“Seriously.”

“You’ve been up in London so long, you’ve forgotten that everybody knows everybody’s business in Westowe. You’re stopping by at Jackson’s to pick up a sail.”

“A new no. 1 genoa.” I had been making do with the old one, cut down for the new mast. It didn’t reach far enough aft, and it was white. The mainsail was maroon. With a white foresail the Amaryllis looked like a duck with a bandaged head. The new foresail was maroon. With her black hull the Amaryllis would be almost invisible, even in the moonlight.

Angie was inspecting the cockpit. “I thought you were going to put an engine in her. After what happened to us.”

“When my ship comes in. Anyway, it could be an advantage tonight not to make any noise.”

She took my hand in both of hers. “Be careful out there.”

“Forecast’s fine. Force two to three variable. No swell.”

“It’s not the weather. It’s whatever else is out there.”

“Spider?”

“Whoever.”

I followed her glance towards the sunny waters of the estuary, crowded with flitting white sails. The orange peels and ice cream wrappers hugging the waterline of the Amaryllis were drifting seawards; the tide was on the turn. I reached into the doghouse and picked up my wallet. “Walk me up to Jackson’s.”

She shook her head. “Sorry. I’ve got an appointment.” She brushed my cheek with her lips. She smelled of clean wind and heather. “I’ll be thinking of you.” She stepped out of the cockpit on to the pontoon. “Oh, damn, I forgot. Some post arrived for you at the castle. I meant to bring it.”

“Anything important?”

“Just a postcard. From Matty.”

“What did she say?”

She smiled. “You don’t suppose I’d read other people’s post? Rosie’s still there cleaning up. If you trot up there now she could let you have it.” She turned and strode up the wooden bridge, angling steeply now with the tide, and on to the quay and into the crowd.

The postcard was a picture of a puffin skimming the waves off the islet of Gugh in the Scilly Islands. It was addressed to ‘The Old Grouch in Westowe Castle or maybe the Mud Creek Car Park’. On it she had written. “Some day, when you least expect it, a bird may drop in to feather your nest again.” It did not have an Isles of Scilly postmark; it had been posted from Newlyn in Cornwall. She was back in Blighty. Or had been. The trouble with letters is that by the time you get them, the person who wrote it may have moved on. Or changed their mind. Or forgotten all about it.

I had put Matty’s card in the inside pocket of my oily jacket and I reached up now to feel that it was there. It was a message from another world, long ago and far away, where the sun shone and people walked and talked. Out here, in this solitary world, the fog crouched on the bow just beyond the mainmast. Astern, a white wall absorbed the ripples of the wake in the black water. A ceiling of damp wool hung in shreds just above the mizzen mast; the top of the main disappeared into it just above the spreader.

Someone coughed. Close enough to touch with a boathook. A chill that wasn’t fog ran up from the base of my spine and under my scalp. With a squeak like chalk on a blackboard the hatch cover slid back and a figure in oilies appeared in the gangway. It moved like a woman.

“I though you could use a mate,” said Angie.

A warm rush of blood flowed back from head to shoulders and down my spine. “You scared me half to death.”

“I felt like Ophelia in her coffin in the forepeak, with the water lapping around me.” She looked about her into the fog pressing around us. “It’s better up here.”

“It was getting a bit lonely.”

Angie put her arms around me and leaned her head on my shoulder. “Scared?”

“Yes.”

“So am I.”

“It’s better now you’re here,” I said.

We talked with lowered voices, as if we are at a funeral. She pressed her lips to my cheek just once, like a friend. They were warm. Our faces dripped with moisture.

“Where are we?”

“Drifting on a south-westerly current straight for the mewstone. It’s a spring tide so it’s running two to three knots.” She was blocking my view of the illuminated face of the depth gauge. “How much water is there?”

Angie took a look. “Nine metres.”

“It’s low water springs. So we’re right on the ridge. If it gets deeper we’re sliding off to port. If it gets shallow gradually, we’re drifting to starboard in towards the cliffs. If the sea floor rises suddenly, we’re coming up to the mewstone. At the five metre line you could almost reach out and touch it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on the gauge,” she said.

“I’ve set the depth alarm for seven metres.”

“What then?”

“Drop a hook. I’ll row the dinghy in. There’s that ledge we used to climb up.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No you won’t. It’s dangerous. Five people are dead or missing.”

“Accidents. Suicides.”

“Maybe.”

“Have you seen anything?”

“I thought I heard the thump of a diesel a little while ago, but in this stuff you don’t know what’s out there and what’s inside your head.”

“Eleven metres,” said Angie. Then, after a moment, “Twelve.”

“Damn, we’re slipping off it.” I put the helm over to port.

Angie kept her eyes on the green glow of the depth gauge. In the stillness we could hear the quiet whirr of the dial. “Ten,” she said. “Eight and a half. Eight.”

“We’re back on it.”

Angie pointed due west, just below the spreader. “There’s a light.” I looked and saw it too. A dull glow in the fog. It flashed three times. I shone a torch at the ship’s chronometer mounted just inside the hatch and counted off ten seconds. The light flashed three times again.

“Grise Heel,” said Angie.

“Take the tiller,” I said. Angie found my hand with hers and took the helm. I lifted the port seat, pulled out the chart in its plastic cover and shone the torch on it. I wiped the droplets of water off it with my hand and with my finger traced along the dotted line showing the northern edge of the visibility arc of the Grise Heel light until it intersected with the ten metre line on the underwater bank.

“What time is it?”

“Ten forty-five.”

“Dead low water in half an hour. So we’re right here.” I showed Angie the spot, about two cables east of the mewstone. “We’ll be there inside ten minutes.”

“Why the mewstone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they land drugs there.”

“Not easy.”

“No, that ledge is only exposed at mean low water springs.” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it. It’s the only time you can land on the stone.”

“Yes,” said Angie. “And it’s the only time you can get there from the shore. Remember The Toilet?” We both remembered. And had to laugh.

I hugged Angie. “You didn’t come out here tonight just to keep an eye on me, did you?”

“No.”

“Spider?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“You might not like the answer.”

“Bartholomew?”

“Spider found Bartholomew in Corsica. Spider said he had fallen in with a shady crowd. That man, Blake, who lent him a boat. And you told me the Customs and Excise were very interested in Corsica.”

“Bartholomew and Spider running drugs? I can’t believe it.”

“You didn’t believe he was alive. But I know he is. And you know Spider would do anything for him. They could be involved in something.”

We were both quiet for a while, straining our eyes and ears. When the mewstone emerged from the fog it would come suddenly; the lap of waves might give us some warning.

Angie spoke again. “You know he’s always resented you.”

“Spider? Whatever for?”

“Your success.”

I snorted. “What success?”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “With me.” She bent her face over the dim greenish glow of the depth gauge, but I could not make out her expression. I reached out and squeezed her hand. It was clammy. She withdrew it. “And because you got out of Westowe. Because your horizons extend beyond Grise Head.”

“And I’ve always envied Spider. Because he always knows what to do and how to do it.”

Angie nodded. “And never has any doubts about it afterwards. That’s a gift from God.”

“How far are your horizons?”

She chuckled. “At the moment, just up to the bow of the boat.” After a pause she added, “Does it matter?”

“It matters if Spider is my rival.”

She shook her head. “I went away once. I’m content here now.”

“Content doesn’t mean happy.”

“Eight metres,” sang out Angie. Then she lowered her voice again. “What did Matty’s postcard have to say?”

“They’ve returned to Cornwall.”

“I thought they were on their way to the Caribbean.”

“Lothar could be setting up another drug bust.”

“Who is that man? What is he?”

“Nobody official, as far as anyone knows. Just a guy who dropped in off a boat.”

“Highly suspicious. He gives me the creeps.”

“He’s a splendid bloke, Lothar. Ever see his smile?”

“Yes, and there’s something dead about his eyes.” We were whispering. Angie raised her voice. “Seven-and-a-half metres.”

The depth gauge pinged. “Six metres,” said Angie. I let loose the jib sheet and it spilled the little pocket of air that had been driving us forward. “Six-and-a-half. Five-and-a-half. Six.” I clipped my safety harness on to the deck safety line and moved up forward into the fog, tugging the anchor from its fastenings and creeping up on my hands and knees to hang it over the bow. “Five metres,” said Angie. The anchor slipped into the blackness with a heavy splash. I watched six ghostly white flashes run out with the tumbling chain. Six fathoms. About seventeen metres. Enough to hold on a rising tide. Not enough to swing into the mewstone, I hoped. Angie let off the jib halyard and I hauled it down, and tied the jib loosely to the pulpit rail. I left the mainsail up, hauled tight amidships, ready for a quick getaway. Angie helped me slide the inflatable dinghy off the coachroof and over the railing and into the water.

“Look.” Angie pointed up at the mainmast. I thought she meant that we could see the top of it now. And then I looked higher. Silhouetted in the moonlight was the huge prow of a ship, bearing down on us out of the mist. My heart pounded, but the ship didn’t move. It was the mewstone; you could have hit it with a stone.

“I’m going with you,” said Angie.

“I need you here. If you need help, set off a flare.” We were whispering again.

“You take one, too.” She passed me the plastic container from the lazarette and I slipped a white hand flare into a jacket pocket. I rummaged in the tool box and put a marlin spike and a hammer into another pocket. I regretted that the ice-pick had gone walkabout. It would have made a useful weapon. I hung a jackknife and a small torch on lanyards around my neck. I took off my sailing glove to squeeze her hand. When I rowed off, the Amaryllis slipped away into the fog almost at once.

I spun the dinghy around so I could face in the direction I was going and push with the oars. At once I regretted it. I had no idea which way I was facing. There was no sign of the Grise Heel light. I had drifted north of its arc of visibility, towards the cliffs, or the thickening fog had snuffed it out. I pushed the oars slowly forward into the darkness. For minutes I heard nothing but the lapping surface of the sea and saw nothing but the tattered hem of fog drifting over it.

I felt the mewstone before I saw it. The dinghy dipped with a sudden wave and when it rose again I saw a smudge of white breakers. The starboard tube grated against rocks, the wave drew back and the next surge flung the dinghy into a wall on the port side, spilling me on to its heaving rubber floor. The rubber boat wouldn’t last long at this rate. As the wave withdrew I shipped the oars, lodging them tight in the crevices on both sides where the tubes met the floor, switched on the torch which hung from my neck and waved the beam about. I had not found the ledge. To port, jagged rocks protruded from the water like sharks’ teeth under a sheer cliff. To starboard a dripping seaweed-covered ridge led up into the fog. The angle might be climbable if I could find handholds and footholds in the slippery growth. The next wave slammed the dingy into a corner of the ridge. It hung there, wedged, long enough for me to secure a foothold over the side. I grabbed the end of the painter in one hand and scrambled up the slab of rock. I had to lie flat on my belly, searching for gaps with my fingers and the inside edge of my boots. The next wave covered me to the waist, but I was clear of the one after that, and then I found a level place where I could sit. I shone the torch down where I had come. Ten metres below, the dinghy was taking a battering in a dark pool. I took out the marlin spike and hammer from my jacket pocket and forced the spike into a crevice. I tied the painter around it and hauled the dinghy partly up the slope. It would be out of reach of the waves for an hour or so. I held the torch in one hand and crawled up the ridge the way the crabs do. The sharp points of the rocks pressed through my flesh to the bone. Without the gloves my hands would have streamed blood. I saw a pinpoint of light over my head. And then a sprinkle of stars glittering in dark gaps in a broken sky. The clouds entrapping the moon shimmered at the edges, and it was light enough to see shapes. I stood up and the fog fell back beneath my feet.

The Grise Heel light flashed one, two, three times. It reflected off the peak of the mewstone. I was in the wrong place. I was standing on the summit of a small outlier separated by a moat of swirling fog from the mewstone proper. And anyone looking east from it would see my torch. I crouched and flicked it off. And like a delayed time switch, seconds later a searchlight shone down from above. I could see the bloody skin in the gaps torn in the knees of my oilies. I looked up, expecting to hear the wail of a siren from the bridge of a warship or a loudhailer from a hovering helicopter. But the sky was silent. The full moon had floated free from the clouds, bathing the jagged seascape and the retreating blanket of fog in silver. It shone on the shredded umbilical cord of rock which tethered the mewstone to the shore. A dark figure appeared on it. I watched as it clambered across this rugged causeway and merged into the black shoulder of the mewstone. And as it did, a second figure detached itself from shadows on the shore. It was more athletic, moving swiftly and nimbly. Or perhaps this wasn’t the first time it had made the night-time passage.