Chapter 6 - Rigging screws, size 1⅜, galvanised by A.J. Hall
“You might at least have given me time to finish my coffee.” Her hands tightened on the wheel. She edged the car out onto the main road, hyper-aware, this time, of oncoming traffic.
“Hardly.” Sherlock didn’t look up; his thumbs flickered across the keypad of this phone, texting continuously. “It’s not going to take him long to load the bags into the Landrover. What’s your yacht called?”
“Why does it matter?”
“The bag I lifted was heavier than it ought to have been, even given its contents. I heard it clink when I dropped it on the metal floor. He’s weighted the bags and there’s the Solent virtually on his doorstep. What do you thinkhe’s planning to do with them?”
His voice curled with disdain; the unspoken comment Why does fate force me to explain myself continually to idiots? might as well have been shouted across the tight confines of the car.
Exhilaration bubbled, incongruously, in her chest.
Not quite as much of a know-it-all as he thinks he is.
It almost made up for his having suspected her of murder for most of the day.
“Not from our yacht, he isn’t.”
Sherlock’s head jerked up; his fingers ceased pattering on his phone. “Why not?”
“I told you. The reason I was in Southampton was picking up a part for the forestay.”
“And you told me the charter company had assured you the repair would be done today and that they knew you’d sue them to hell and back if it wasn’t.”
The very phrase she’d used, too. She wondered, for a second, if he’d recorded the telephone conversation and then rejected the idea; he plainly had an almost superhuman memory.
But he obviously wasn’t brought up on the story of Noah & Sons, the only boatyard in history who ever finished a job against the clock.
“What are you smiling about?”
What, indeed? She’d woken that morning in an empty bed; an aging woman in a bad marriage. That woman’s life might have been irksome but had, at least, certainty. Things to do, errands to run, places to go - a routine to fall back on.
All that had been swept away in one second at the Town Quay hi-speed terminal.
But – she was still afloat, dammit. Making headway, even. And Christ knew that when the pressures driving her forwards let up for a second she was going to crash-jibe all standing, but until then –
He may know everything there is to know about murder. But I know boats. And Julian.
“Our boat’s still out of the water – it was in the crane at the yard. I never thought they’d do the job today. I thought if I made the threats sound impressive enough I might get it back for tomorrow. That’s when we need – needed it.”
He nodded. “That’s a known trait of the yard? One your husband would have known?”
“It’s a known trait of all yards. Of course he would.”
“Assumptions. In an area outside my expertise. Stupid. I should have known better.” He sounded ruefully amused. “So. Enlighten me. Your husband discovers this morning your boat’s been hauled out for repairs. He can’t keep the bodies in the store another day – I checked the sailing club site when I was reading his PC. Irrespective of your holiday plans, there’s racing at the weekend; someone will access the store tomorrow. He has to get rid of the bodies tonight. Where’s he going to get another boat?”
She thought of Harry, shining a glass to a diamond-brightness and refusing to meet her eyes. The answer came automatically. “Matilda Briggs.”
“What. The sailing club committee boat. We’ve had seven in total, but they’re always named after the wife of the first commodore. She left money for the original one in her will.”
“The way this club seems to be run, next time I speak to the Home Secretary I’m going to ask him to have her exhumed, on spec.”
His deadpan tone forced a hiccup of hysterical laughter out of her. She thought he flicked her the ghost of a wink in response.
“Right. Take us to the Matilda Briggs, and leave the rest to me.”
Wind had followed the rain, kicking up an ugly little sea, even in the shelter of the marina. The pontoon lifted and dropped erratically beneath their feet, its wooden decking slick with rain. Marjorie picked her way with care, thanking her stars for sensible shoes. God only knew what grip her companion had, in those elegant, hand-lasted, leather-soled jobbies (Ducker & Sons, in the Turl, or I’m a Dutchman.).
Not that she expected Sherlock was in any danger. He, too, was born to be hanged. If he did fall in, he’d float. Any right-thinking era would certainly have swum him as a warlock.
“There.” She gestured towards the familiar, ugly white shape moored against the very end of the pontoon. “That one.”
“Hm. Open, apart from that shelter thing protecting the steering wheel. No chance of hiding aboard that.”
Her guts clenched; this was the first hint he’d given that he’d intended to go to sea at all. Still less that he’d thought they should stow away aboard a boat helmed by a murderer hell bent on getting rid of the dismembered corpses of his victims.
Beside her, Sherlock’s voice continued. “Who owns that yacht moored in the berth next to the committee boat? And are they likely to be using it tonight?”
“I’m not bloody well committing piracy!” Her voice rose to a shriek. Fortunately there was no-one to overhear. The appalling weather had driven the usual evening potterers indoors; they were presumably sitting before warm fires, drinks in hand, looking smugly at the windows every time the wind drove rain against the glass.
Not like her, standing in a marina in a rising gale, keyed up for a confrontation between the lunatic she’d married and the one she’d just hired for the occasion.
Sherlock shook his head. “No – irrespective of my knowledge of boats, I’m extremely sound on physics. There’s nothing here that could outpace a boat with such powerful engines relative to its bulk.”
Marjorie thought of the safety-boat for the cadets’ section, still tied up next to the Wayfarers on the innermost pontoon, and of the ignition key in her handbag, which she’d forgotten to replace after Tuesday evening’s training session. The rising gale whipped her hair round her face, sliced through the fabric of her jacket as if it were tissue paper. She kept her mouth shut.
Sherlock, in any event, was already climbing onto the yacht. “We’re out of time. Only possible hiding place. We’ll have to rely on the Marine Police after all.”
She grabbed for the shrouds, using their support to scramble aboard just as he bent to the lock on the main hatch.
“Wait,” she said, moving aft past him. She flipped up the lid of the gas-locker, fumbled behind the spare propane bottle, and gave a quick hiss of triumph.
He turned at the sound; she held the boat key out to him.
“Odds-on bet. People do usually keep their spare keys in the cockpit gas-locker.”
He unlocked the boat, dropped down into the cabin and – finger on lips – gestured to her to follow. Once inside, she dropped the washboards into place and slid the hatch-cover across. It rendered the cabin almost completely dark, apart from the little light which filtered through the line of portholes which ran along above the saloon berths, giving an odd, knee-high angle of view of the wet pontoon and the side of the committee boat beyond.
“Out of time. Why?” Her whisper was a bare breath.
“Did you not see the headlights? Top of the ramp. Who else could it be?”
She opened her mouth to say something more, but he put his finger to his lips. And then she heard it; a sound she had heard dozens of times in her life; the protesting screeches of an overloaded marina trolley being pushed along a pontoon.
Horror gripped her. As a child she’d been overly imaginative; Mummy had always reproved her for it. Despite everything, she’d not managed to shed the trait completely. To this day the sound of someone knocking on the door after dark summoned up the dry-mouthed dread of reading The Monkey’s Paw, torchlit under the bedclothes.
She cowered like a wounded animal, curled up on the saloon berth of a stranger’s yacht, hands pressed into her eyes, while the man she had married walked past, unknowing, three feet away, two feet above her head, pushing the dismembered bodies of their friends before him on a marina trolley.
For a moment the words made no sense. Then a large, strong hand enveloped hers and pulled her to her feet. She blinked as her eyes opened, though the only light in the cabin was the chart-table light, shaded to the red which protected night-vision.
“He’s headed out to sea. But he’ll not get far. The Marine police have been on stand-by for some time and I texted as soon as he cast off. But just in case – ”
He waved her towards the chart-table.
By way of emphasis, he leant over and pressed down the “on” button on the VHF radio set. A crackle of static sounded through the microphone.
“Tell me, who’s going to be on the Solent on a night like this?” His voice sounded as it had earlier, at the spa, when she’d reacted to his saying “bodies”.
Abruptly, her mind made a connection. The massage, she thought, must have lasted about half an hour by that time. Her appointment had been for 4.30pm.
I’ve known you didn’t do it since 16.55.
“You really want to know.”
“Why would I ask, if I didn’t?”
Plenty of come-backs to that. She stuck with the straight truth.
“I’m not used to my opinions being asked for.”
“Most people are idiots. And this sailing club seems to attract a special breed of idiot.”
She felt an absurd, warm glow at the implied compliment. She thrust it resolutely down, to be attended to later. “It’ll only be the training school boats out tonight. And not many of them. Perhaps just the Services yacht club; they go out in everything. Maybe the odd person on passage. ”
“So Matilda Briggs will probably be the only open white motorboat for miles. And it doesn’t have a VHF.”
“We take one of the portables, for races.”
“Highly unlikely your husband will have bothered. In the circumstances.”
She snorted. “Julian’s never switched on a VHF in his life if he hasn’t had me nagging him.”
And not even then, often. He was fond of parading his contempt for yachtsmen who “use modern communications as a crutch for poor seamanship.” It played to the prejudices of the older members and had gone down tremendously well with that reporter from Yachting Monthly who’d written the club up a couple of months ago.
“Excellent.” Sherlock’s smile made her think, briefly, of the fate of the young lady of Riga. “In that case, do the honours. I think the coastguard needs to be alerted that your sailing club is missing its committee boat, don’t you?”
Marjorie took a deep breath and slid into the navigator’s seat. She picked up the hand-held mike, and depressed the “transmit” button.
“Solent coastguard, Solent coastguard, Solent coastguard. Over.”
The coastguard answered instantly; assured and calming. Where was madam calling from? How could they assist?
She was broadcasting on Channel 16; every nosy-parker in the Solent could hear her, if they happened to be listening out, from the Ocean Princess to couples in houseboats far up the Test. But not Julian.
She gave the name of the sailing-club, switched to the calling frequency they instructed her, and then, very slowly and deliberately, went on.
“Someone has just taken our committee boat from its moorings. M.V. Matilda Briggs. Open white motor boat; twin outboards. Half-shelter over the wheel position. Headed out towards the Solent. Over.”
“Could you confirm your reason for believing this is not a club officer using the boat legitimately? Over.”
Her hand clenched on the microphone handset. God. What magic did those people have, who could make smooth, disembodied official voices take them seriously?
“Does this look like the sort of weather in which we’d be legitimately dropping race marks? From an open boat?” she enquired frostily, and then, belatedly, added, “over.” There came a cold blast of wind on her cheeks; the harsh screech of the hatch cover being pushed back. She glanced up to see Sherlock half-way up the companionway steps.
A new voice broke in. “This is Hampshire Marine Police, over.”
Sherlock turned at the sound. His face blazed with exultation; his hand punched the air. “Go on,” he hissed at her. She floundered for a moment, then with a supreme effort made her voice sound as matter-of-fact as if she were discussing sandwich fillings.
“Hampshire Marine Police, did you note particulars of our missing vessel, over?”
The voice radiated calm assurance. “Roger. Have boat fitting the description on visual now. Boat in question is proceeding without navigation lights, seems to have limited freeboard and may be taking on water. Proceeding to intercept. Solent coastguard, stand by. Over.”
Frustratingly, the VHF went silent, which Marjorie hoped translated to “Coastguard and police having a slanging match with each other on one of the restricted frequencies.”
“Come on,” Sherlock said, heading up the companionway.
The rain was still driving down; bouncing off the surface of the water. Out at the mole at the seaward side of the entry to the marina nothing existed to shelter them from the weather. Rain shut off visibility on all directions. Faint, blurred shapes and the occasional dim glimpse of a navigation light were the only indications even of the largest ships proceeding down the Solent.
A white blaze exploded across her vision, as if God had switched on floodlights.
Two boat shapes – Matilda Briggs, unmistakeable with that half-shelter, and the smaller outline of a RIB, presumably the police – bounced at close quarters on the rough sea, much nearer inshore than she’d expected, illuminated by that fierce, unnatural glow.
“Army pyrotechnics. Should get about forty-five seconds out of that flare, if they’re lucky. If your husband ditches the bodies now, at least it should give the police diver a chance.”
Sherlock’s voice sounded rough, with a kind of yearning tension.
Not used to standing on the sidelines while the action happens to someone else? Well, welcome to my point of view.
She found her hand straying into her handbag, touching the safety-boat key as if it were a talisman.
Someone shouted through a megaphone, the words distorted by wind and distance, the sense instantly recognisable: “Cut your engines; we’re coming alongside.”
Without even a pretence of obeying, Matilda Briggs swerved, violently. The RIB slammed into her starboard bow. For one second the committee boat rocked up on her ear, half her underside visible. As she came down again, one of the men in the RIB sprang forward, grabbed the committee boat’s gunwales and half-vaulted, half scrambled across the gap before the boats could drift apart.
“Christ!” Sherlock’s voice wasn’t loud but its intensity made her jump. “Get over there and support him, for God’s sake! Oh, you’re useless!”
Julian spun the committee boat away from the RIB before anyone else could follow the first intruder. He dropped the wheel; the boarder grabbed him round the chest and they both went down fighting.
The flare died to nothing. Someone on the RIB had switched on a search-light, but it illuminated only erratic glimpses of the action – the RIB turning, closing to board, the committee boat swinging round again – one of the men on board must have grabbed the wheel – and then, in slow motion, especially horrible for that, the two vessels colliding, a flash of orange as the RIB rolled, the white hull of the committee boat showing for one endless second as it went up on its ear again and then – with appalling slowness – continued on over, apparently on top of the RIB. The searchlight went out.
“John!” Sherlock’s shout seemed torn out of his guts. For a moment he poised on the edge of the mole, then started wrestling out of his coat.
Marjorie grabbed his arm, hanging on for grim death.
“No!” she gasped. “If you’re planning on doing something bloody stupid, you’re doing it sensibly, dammit.”
He shook off her grip; she landed an open-handed slap on the side of his face which left her hand stinging. He fell back a step, his expression furious. As if she could be intimidated by an expression.
She cleared her throat. Let him hear for himself how much power her voice had.
“You idiot. What good’s swimming going to do, in that? Follow me.”
His expression cleared. “You have a boat?”
“Come on.” She jerked her thumb towards the ramp.
He drove a punishing pace. It wasn’t far to the safety boat, but Marjorie thought she would die before they got there. She collapsed into the driver’s seat; heart pounding, throat raw. She gestured, weakly, at the safety locker aft and thrust her keys at him.
“Flares. In there.”
While he wrestled with the locker, she forced herself to go through the pre-checks. Fuel – yes – lifejackets – no, but no help for it – VHF, ditto. She switched on the engine, put it in neutral, flicked on the navigation lights, started to wrestle with the mooring warps. The bow one yielded easily; she set it to slip. The aft line – what blithering idiot had tied that? Bowline, round the leg of the cleat, jammed. Her numb hands seemed twice the size of normal, no nails to speak of and the knot iron hard, immoveable.
The first red flare went up in a roar of propellant and hissing magnesium.
She twisted her head back over her shoulder, to where Sherlock was still crouched over the safety locker, and gestured at the rope.
The opened clasp knife seemed to appear in his hand from nowhere. He slashed down and the taut rope parted like string. The boat started to swing out from the pontoon; she slipped the bow warp, and reversed out of the berth at a speed she’d have given any of the cadets an earful for trying.
At sea level, the conditions were even nastier than she’d expected. If she’d fancied herself soaked to the skin before, the difference made itself felt the moment the first wave hit them. She gritted her teeth and concentrated on steering up the waves, blinking as another flare went up.
“You could try phoning,” she grunted.
“Have. Dead. It didn’t like salt water. Ah.”
He pulled the portable searchlight from its swathes of plastic sheeting, found the attachment to plug it in without her saying a word, and moved to kneel in the bows, scanning forwards with the beam.
Matilda Briggs had turned turtle; the shallow chine of her hull glimmered, dully, in the searchlight. There was a dark shape in the water, clinging to the bow. Each wave that hit the committee boat left it a little lower, clinging a little more precariously.
“In there. Now.”
She cut her speed, edging the boat in closer on a shallow angle. Sherlock reached out to grab the casualty just as the largest wave yet smashed into the safety boat and the upturned hull of Matilda Briggs.
“Got him!” Sherlock sounded incandescent with triumph.
Marjorie swung the wheel hard over and gave the boat a sudden burst of power, throttling back only once they were clear of the capsized hull.
It was only then that she steeled herself to look at the black figure collapsed on the bottom of the safety boat. Julian had no power to hurt her now. The balance of power was all the other way.
She leant forward to see the face of a complete stranger blinking up at her from the bottom boards.