I wrote the following for an annual competion called ‘First Drafts’, run by the publisher Myriad, which requires new authors to submit the first 5000 words of a novel and a synopsis detailing how the story will progress. The prize is attendance at a writing retreat, editorial feedback on the work, and six months of mentoring by one of Myriad’s authors. In 2016 the genre was crime/thriller and one of the judges was crime-writer Peter James. With two weeks until the deadline, and with an eight-month-old baby, I hashed out the following over the course of about four sittings late at night. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Some men seek out violence. Others run from it. It is attracted to some men like electricity to a lightning rod, and others will live a lifetime without seeing so much as a spark. Roger was none of these.
He was one of those quiet men whose infinite capacity for violence lurks inside, hidden even from themselves, waiting for the right moment to unleash. By the end of the day, his enemies would know this as well as he did.
* * * * *
The midday sun sparkled on the surface of the sea, and the crisp, dry air was a relief after weeks of endless drizzle. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen it so calm. The chugging of the Daisy Jane’s engine was the only sound to break the stillness of what the weatherman had rightly predicted to be the first nice day of spring.
Roger revelled in the silence. Those who knew him best – and there were precious few who knew him at all – would have described him as unremarkable. He gave off an air of anonymity and insignificance, the sort of man who apologised for his own existence, lived without bother and died without fuss.
But there was, in Roger, a steely determination that belied his manner. When he had first arrived on the dock, quietly asserting his right to join the ranks of the fishermen despite never working a day in his life on the water, he was met with understandable derision. He was far too old to switch careers, and it took more than a boat and some lobster pots to make someone a seaman. It was a hard life, unrelenting, and someone as slight and inconsequential as Roger could never make a go of it.
That was fifteen years ago. Many of those fishermen who had treated him with such disdain had given up the sea for a cosy life ashore. Others were dead. Their lives were a litany of bankruptcy, alcoholism, domestic violence and bodily harm. And throughout, Roger had got on with it in his quiet, unassuming manner, working all seasons and all weathers as though life happened to other people. He was present but not popular, tolerated rather than respected. He existed, and that was all.
Easing the boat alongside the buoy that marked the next of his pots, Roger cut the engine and hooked on. The tide was on the slack and he listened a moment to the waves lapping the base of the cliffs half a mile away. Overhead, a gull circled, but it, too, respected his need for space.
He gave the line a tug. It was heavy – there was definitely something in the trap, but he was in no hurry to pull it up. Instead, he went into the little wheelhouse forward, poured himself a coffee from the flask, and sat on the bench to drink it.
It had been a long time since he’d had the chance to enjoy his solitude. His nephew Daniel barely shut his mouth from the moment they left the dock till the second they tied up. Roger had taken him on as a deckhand for a time as a favour to his sister. The boy had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, other than bum around for the foreseeable future, and his mother thought some time hauling pots with his uncle, earning minimum wage for a hard day’s work, might scare him straight.
As far as Roger could tell, it wasn’t working. The only thing Daniel had figured out was that he didn’t want to be a fisherman. Roger wasn’t offended. He didn’t care either way what Daniel chose to do for a living – it was none of his business. Daniel was old enough to decide for himself, and nobody had the right to dictate terms to another.
Taking another swig of his coffee, Roger watched the gull soaring high above. When he’d arrived at the dock that morning, Daniel’s beaten-up old hatchback hadn’t been there. Nor had the boy been waiting with the boat as he normally was. Daniel might have been a dreamer, might have shirked his duties when he thought he could get away with it, couldn’t be trusted on the radio and mucked about with the pressure washer every chance he got, but he hadn’t missed a day and he was never late.
Roger had given him ten minutes, no more, no less, and then headed out of the harbour alone. That suited him just fine. He could do the work equally well by himself, better even, without the incessant distraction of another person. He was comfortable in his own company as few people were, happy to exist between sea, shore and sky.
And yet, as he sat watching the lonely gull, he had to admit to feeling a little off his usual self. He was almost sixty, no children, no wife. Each day as he motored out to sea, his wake dissipated behind him to leave no trace of his passage. Having his nephew around gave him a glimpse of permanence, and, he supposed, he had liked that in spite of himself.
He took a final moment to finish his coffee and then got ready to haul. He started the engine, stepped out on deck and pulled the buoy inboard. Hooking the rope through the pulley and down into the winch, he engaged the drive and drew the lobster pot up from the bottom.
As soon as it broke the surface he saw there was something wrong. The winch drew it up onto the side of the boat and he cut the motor, dragged the wooden cage aboard, and stared through the bars. He had definitely caught something, but it wasn’t a lobster, wasn’t a crab.
It was a large waterproof bag.
Damn it, Daniel, Roger thought. What have you got us into?
* * * * *
‘There it is again,’ Daniel had said, staring through the binoculars.
Roger was leaning over the baiting station gutting a fish in the rain. The boy was meant to be doing this – getting his hands dirty – but he hadn’t so much as lifted a knife since climbing aboard.
‘It was there last week, and the week before,’ he continued. ‘Stays there two days and then it’s gone, bloody part-timers. You see it, Skipper?’
Roger didn’t look up. He didn’t need to. Considering the kid’s hair covered his eyes, he didn’t miss much.
‘Whose is it?’ Daniel persisted. ‘Uncle? Uncle Rog?’ When he saw he’d get no reply, he said, ‘We’re here at the crack of dawn and it’s already there. Couple of days later, gone. Always in the same place, always just one pot. Whose is it? Skipper? Uncle Roger? Over there, where I’m pointing. Right where I’m pointing, if you’d look.’
‘Ignore it,’ Roger said softly.
‘For God’s sake, you’re not even looking!’ Daniel cried.
‘Little black flag under the cliff,’ said Roger. He threw a fishhead into the bucket at his feet. ‘I told you to ignore it.’
‘But aren’t you curious? You know every single fisherman around here. I haven’t seen any of them use flags like that. Somebody’s dropping it at night and picking it up again after dark. You don’t think that’s weird? Why would somebody do that?’
Roger said nothing.
‘There has to be a reason why they’re so secretive,’ Daniel continued. ‘I bet there are some massive lobsters over there and they don’t want anybody else to know about it.’ He lowered his voice. ‘We should see if they’ve got something. We should pull it up.’
Roger looked up, his face like iron.
‘I’m not saying we steal his catch,’ Daniel blurted. ‘I’m saying it can’t hurt if we just –’
‘You don’t mess with another man’s pots,’ Roger interrupted. ‘Ever.’
‘Yeah, but there’s no one here to stop us,’ said Daniel. Seeing his uncle wouldn’t be moved, he threw his hands up. ‘It’s not like we’re catching gold bars out here, is it? If he’s onto a sure thing, we should put a couple of pots over there, try and catch some for ourselves.’
‘We’re not going anyway near. Put it out of your head.’ Roger stepped away from the bait board, his hands bloody. ‘Your turn to cut bait. I’m not paying you to stand around.’
‘You’re hardly paying me at all,’ Daniel grumbled. ‘This fishing lark? You can keep it. Another month and I’m done. All day in the rain soaking wet and we’re barely breaking even. Go to bed every night, my hands stink of fish. And the bed feels like it’s moving. Don’t know how you can stand it.’
But his uncle had already walked into the wheelhouse and shut the door.
The following day, as the Daisy Jane passed the same point in a light drizzle, Daniel leaned in through the wheelhouse door. ‘I got it figured out,’ he said over the noise of the engine. ‘Why you don’t want to talk about it. It’s something illegal, right? Like smuggling, right?’
Staring ahead as he gripped the wheel, Roger didn’t respond.
‘Yeah, I got it all figured out,’ Daniel continued. ‘A boat goes out and drops something down under that flag, like money or something. It sits there all day and everyone ignores it because it’s just a lobster pot, right? But next night, a boat comes over the Channel, takes the money, drops down the merchandise and buggers off back to France. Then the boat this side grabs the goods. Money going out, drugs or something coming in. Really slick.’
He braced himself as they hit a sudden heavy swell, waited until it had passed before he resumed. ‘It’s genius, if you think about it. The two halves of the operation are never in the same place at the same time. They never even have to meet. If one side gets caught, the other’s high and dry. I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Yeah, I’m right,’ said Daniel, smirking. ‘You know I’m right.’
It was a week later, adrift in a momentary lull in the weather, that Daniel brought it up again. He gazed longingly towards the little black flag that had appeared overnight, stared as though lost somewhere in time.
Eventually he said, ‘Have you ever been, you know – tempted?’
Roger followed his gaze.
‘It’s down there, right now, a bag of money. Thousands, tens of thousands. Sitting just under that flag.’ He glanced at his uncle then back out towards the cliffs. His voice, when it came, was cold. ‘You ever been tempted to skim a few notes off the top? The amount of money down there, I doubt they’d notice.’
Roger hefted a lobster pot onto the side of the boat. ‘Somebody would. And somebody would have to pay for it, one way or another.’
‘Drug dealers,’ said Daniel. ‘Smugglers. They’d think it was internal, someone over here scamming the people over there. Nobody would know it was us. Nobody would know if we took the whole damn thing.’
Roger opened his mouth to speak but Daniel cut him off. ‘I know, I know, you don’t mess with another man’s pots, and all that. But they’re not fishermen trying to make an honest living. It wouldn’t be wrong, would it? It’s dirty money. I doubt it’d even be a crime.’
Taking a breath, Roger said, ‘Never start something you can’t finish.’
‘You’re a fine one to talk.’ Daniel turned to him. ‘You’ve worked your whole life, and what have you got to show for it? A shitty car, a shitty house – if you can even call it a house – and this shitty little boat. Hardly setting the world on fire, are you? I’ve seen what you make – you’ll never be able to afford to retire. You gonna keep working the pots when you’re eighty?’ He pointed at the flag. ‘There’s your way out.’
Roger stared at the little black scrap of cloth below the cliffs. ‘I like what I do,’ he said quietly. ‘And if you mention this again, you’re off my boat.’
Without another word, he returned to his work.
* * * * *
There was no way the bag could have got inside his pot by itself – it was too big to fit through the funnel. Somebody had hauled up the cage, opened it and stuffed the bag inside. His mind was already working out the connections, the implications. None of them were good.
Damn it, Daniel, he thought again.
Tearing his eyes from the bag, Roger scanned around the bay. He was still alone on the water.
Stepping into the wheelhouse, he picked up his binoculars and studied the distant cliffs, from headland to headland. He couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being watched – there were a million places a person could hide. There was nothing he could do about that anyway.
Turning back to the pot, he wrenched it open, drew the bag out of the trap and put it on the transom. It weighed perhaps ten or eleven pounds, was roughly spherical in shape, the size of a large cauliflower. He knew what was inside even before opening it, considered dropping it back overboard. But if they were watching, he had to let them know he’d understood the message.
Unclipping the fasteners, Roger carefully opened the rubber seal. The smell that hit him was salty and metallic all at once. He’d been around blood long enough to recognise it.
Slowly, reverentially, he rolled the sides of the bag down, past hair, past ears, until he had fully exposed Daniel’s severed head.
As the Daisy Jane bumped alongside the dock, Roger clambered over the side and tied on. Hesitating only long enough to switch off the engine, he ran to his car, ignoring the waved greeting of the harbour master. Making a show of struggling with his keys, he dragged the door open, scrambled in, and pulled away in a suitably panicked fashion.
He stayed at his house under two minutes. Emerging with a large rucksack, he threw it onto the passenger seat and raced back to the dock, dumping his car diagonally across two spaces. It was only a moment’s work to cast off the moorings, start up and motor back out of the harbour.
As he drew away, Roger glanced over his shoulder back towards the dock. The grey car that had shadowed him from his house was gone, no doubt driving to the headland to watch him return what, rightly or wrongly, belonged to them.
But Roger was under no illusions that all would be forgiven. They’d kill him even if he could return the money. He and Daniel would simply disappear, a mystery that nobody but his sister would ever care about. From this moment on, his life was forfeit.
Most men, when threatened and backed into a corner, simply curled up and did what they were told. A strange fatalism overcame them, and unable to see a way out of their doom, they resigned themselves to whatever was going to happen. So Roger would drop the bag under the buoy, as he was expected to do.
But Roger wasn’t most men.
As soon as he was sure he was out of sight of the car, he spun the wheel and headed for the fuelling dock.
* * * * *
Bill started up the Midas III, switched on the navigation lights, and cast off. Normally he’d set off around midnight, but the phone call has been explicit – he had to make the pick up as soon as it was dark. He was uncomfortable setting out with so many people still milling about the dock, it being just before seven, but he knew well enough not to question it – these weren’t the kind of people you wanted to piss off. They said jump, Bill asked them how high, sir?
They were particularly angry at the moment. Bill had dropped down the package as usual a few nights back, laid out a string of pots as cover, and headed for home. The next night, when the boat came over from France and found nothing under the black flag, things had erupted.
Clearing the breakwater at the mouth of the harbour, Bill steered towards the coordinates on his nav screen. The previous night they’d handed him a bag and told him to plant it in one of Roger Turner’s pots. They didn’t tell him what was in it, and he wasn’t fool enough to ask, but he could guess, and that realisation shocked and sickened him. His own boy was almost eighteen, only a year or so younger than that boy Daniel – it was hideous to be a part of this evil.
But Turner had been asking for it if he took their money. Of all the people Bill knew, the quiet fisherman was the last he’d have expected to try something like this. What on earth had he been thinking? He wouldn’t like to be in that man’s shoes – it didn’t matter that he’d returned the money, his future prospects were looking bleak, to say the least.
Truth was, Bill empathised with him. When he’d got into this, he figured it would only be a couple of years, just long enough to pay off his debts. Fishing wasn’t what it used to be.
But then, once he was back in the black, the lure was too strong. It was easy money, just dropping a package one night and picking another one up two days later. He had plans to upgrade his boat, slap an extension on the house, send the kids off to college. How could he turn his back on such a lucrative opportunity? It was a safe bet.
The time spent strapped to a chair during the early hours of Saturday morning, trying to convince a big, bald brute that he hadn’t taken the money, had severely undermined that notion. They’d threatened to cut off his fingers, rape his wife, murder his children. For a few dreadful minutes, he thought they’d make good on their promise to put his eyes out. But eventually they believed him. Just business, they said.
Now, as Bill steered his boat towards the pick up, he fought the urge to point the bow at France and just keep going. They’d never let him leave – not now, not ever. They had too much to lose. He offered them a virtually risk-free route in and out of the country. He knew next to nothing about their organisation so if he was caught, he couldn’t do them any harm. It made no business sense to allow him to leave.
Slowing as he approached the marker, he switched on the bow lights and sought out the flag. It was easy to spot – he’d done it a couple of hundred times – and he steered closer, his mind wandering. He could take the money and do a runner, leave his life behind and start afresh somewhere new. But he had obligations, a family to take care of. He was trapped as surely as a lobster in one of his pots.
And look at what had happened to Roger Turner’s nephew.
Cutting the engine, Bill snagged the flag with the boat hook, unclipped the buoy, ran the rope through the rig and fed it into the winch. Starting it up, he stared down into the dark, waiting for the weighted bag to rise. He’d done it so many times, hauling was second nature now. But he’d be glad when tonight was over. He’d go home, crack open a bottle of wine, switch on the –
The boat jerked to one side, almost knocking him off his feet. He heard metal under strain, twisting, creaking, and then the rig tore apart and the winch screamed in protest. Swearing, he tried to wrench the bits of broken metal away, but it was too late – they tracked between the wheels, jamming the mechanism and burning out the motor, which died with a horrible clunk and a plume of blue smoke.
He stared at the ruins of his fishing equipment, could see instantly what had happened. A few metres under the surface, the rope had been tied to a chain. The chain was clearly stuck on the bottom. Because he hadn’t been paying attention, it had become caught in the rig and pulled the whole thing into the winch. And by the looks of things, it would take a lot of effort to clear it out.
Going over the side of the boat, the chain was as rigid as an iron bar. Bill gave it a couple of kicks, took hold of it and yanked for all he was worth, trying to free it from the bottom, but it was stuck fast. Whether it was tied to an anchor or caught on a rock made no difference – his boat was chained to the seabed. Until he cleared the winch or worked the chain free, he’d be going nowhere.
He heard an engine, and it was then that he was struck by the first pangs of doubt. Looking around, he spotted the navigation lights of a boat approaching, and his stomach turned to lead. He’d been set up.
Frantically rummaging through the tool locker, Bill found his crowbar, struggled to pry the twisted metal out from between the wheels of the winch. It wouldn’t budge. The boat was coming closer.
Tossing the bar aside, he grabbed his hammer and beat the winch, trying to shear off one of the wheels. Failing that, he should just start his engine and go, he thought, rip the whole unit overboard come what may.
He’d left it too late. As he was still considering this, a bright spotlight pierced the night and the other boat throttled back and came to a stop alongside.
Bill lifted a hand to shield his eyes, stared across the water at the newcomer. It was too small to be the coastguard – he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. He stood up straight, stiff, ready to face whatever came.
But nothing did. Ten seconds dragged out, twenty, while the other boat’s engine idled. Thirty seconds, and then a minute, nothing but the light and the rumble of the engine, and the night.
Unable to contain himself any longer, Bill called, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
Still the silence. And then a figure stepped out from behind the light, indistinct in the glare. ‘You got a problem with your gear, Bill?’
He recognised the voice. ‘Is that you, Roger?’
‘You look like your hauler’s got fouled up.’
‘Yeah,’ said Bill. It should have been a relief knowing it was Turner, the kind of man who’d struggle to intimidate a fly, but even so, Bill fought to keep from trembling. ‘They said you’d dropped the, erm, the package.’
‘Who’s “they”?’ Roger asked.
Bill tried to swallow, found his mouth was dry. ‘Look, we both know what’s going on. Let’s not play this game. I’m sorry about Daniel, but it’s nothing personal, okay? They tell me when to pick up, and where, and when to drop off. That’s all.’
‘Who’s “they”?’ Roger repeated.
‘The people you stole from!’ Bill shouted, his fear turning to anger. ‘You should be running for your life, not playing silly buggers like with this chain.’ He slapped it, regretted it immediately – it was like punching a steel rod. ‘What have you tied this to, a fridge?’’
Roger stooped, picked something up that Bill couldn’t make out. It looked like a gun, and Bill tasted acid in his mouth. He’d been on the wrong side of a gun already this week, and it wasn’t an experience he relished repeating.
‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ he said.
He glanced towards the dark ridge of cliffs. Could he swim that far if he had to? Before Roger ran him down? Not a chance – if it was a gun, he was at the mercy of whatever the man decided to do.
‘I want their names,’ said Roger. ‘Where I can find them.’
‘Don’t you get it?’ Bill cried. ‘These are dangerous people. They’ll kill you as soon as look at you. You’re in over your head.’ He softened his tone, all the better for getting rid of the man – there was something about the casual, unhurried delivery of Roger’s words that chilled Bill’s blood. ‘I’m giving you a chance here. As soon as I get the money back I’ll call them off. You can go back to your life as though nothing happened.’
‘You have that kind of clout?’ Roger asked.
‘Yes,’ Bill lied. ‘Is –?’
He flinched as Roger pointed the gun. Liquid leapt from the barrel, arced across the space between them and spattered across his chest, the smell of petrol strong and choking.
‘Hey!’ Bill cried in a panic, ducking down as Roger doused the Midas III and its occupant. ‘Stop it!’ It was everywhere, stinging his eyes, burning his nostrils. It was in his hair, the fumes searing down his throat. ‘What do you want?’
Abruptly, the deluge stopped as Roger switched off the pressure washer. ‘I told you what I want: their names; where to find them.’
‘I don’t know their names,’ said Bill. His clothes were soaked and he stood in a puddle that swished about the deck with the gentle motion of the sea.
‘Too bad,’ said Roger. He picked something else up off the deck, popped off the top and held it up so Bill could see it: a flare.
‘Wait!’ Bill shouted. ‘Wait! Jesus, just wait! I only ever met two of them. Just two.’
‘How do I find them?’ Roger hadn’t once raised his voice throughout.
Bill shivered as the petrol dripped from the end of his nose. ‘The one I deal with is called Roy. You know the old tin mine outside of town? The car park. As soon as I’ve got the money I’m meant to deliver it to him there.’
‘What does he look like?’
‘Dark hair. Smart shirts. He drives a silver Audi.’
‘Is he armed?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Bill. ‘I don’t think so – I never gave him cause.’
‘What about the other?’
‘You don’t find him, he finds you,’ said Bill. ‘Well over six feet, bald as a coot and built like a brick shithouse. You keep this up, he’s the one who’ll be coming for you.’
‘Is he the one who killed Daniel?’
‘I don’t know. He’s some kind of enforcer for them. He’d probably be the one.’
Roger nodded. ‘Give me your car keys.’
‘My car?’ said Bill. ‘I don’t see why –’
‘Keys,’ said Roger, as calmly and quietly as before.
‘They’re in the wheelhouse. Can I –?’
‘Slowly,’ said Roger.
Dripping petrol as he went, Bill padded into the cabin and took his key-ring from the console. For a moment he considered starting the engine and jumping on the throttle – but he was still chained to the seabed. Even if he wasn’t, he doubted he could get away before Roger turned the Midas III into an inferno.
Stepping back out onto the deck, he tossed his keys over to Roger, who caught them with one hand.
‘Now your phone,’ he said.
Knowing protest would be useless, Bill fished it out of his pocket and threw it to him, but couldn’t resist adding, ‘You want my clothes as well?’
Roger shook his head.
‘I’ve told you everything I know,’ said Bill. ‘I’ve given you everything I can. There’s nothing more.’
Roger watched him, just watched him, as though frozen in a moment. Bill had the unsettling notion that the man wasn’t all there, that there was something missing inside. He couldn’t work him out.
‘I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me,’ said Bill.
‘You have,’ said Roger. But he still held the flare ready, and sopping wet with petrol, Bill eyed it until he couldn’t bear it any longer.
‘So what happens now?’
Roger’s voice was cold as the wind. ‘That’s up to you.’
‘You either burn with your boat or you swim for it.’
Bill’s chest tightened. ‘I told you –’
His voice caught in his throat as Roger ignited the flare and tossed it across the gap between them.
The world burst into light, and heat, and pain. Bill went up like a match, the flames licking over his skin, flaying, burning. Screaming as his lips blistered, his eyelids bubbled, he threw himself over the side into the cooling darkness of the sea.
* * * * *
Roger switched off the spotlight and backed the Daisy Jane away from the conflagration. The sea glistened, a thousand burning embers dancing across the unbroken surface.
He scoured the water between the fire and the shore, but when after five minutes Bill still hadn’t reappeared, he pointed the bow towards home.
Copyright Gillan Drew, 2016