Here Be Dragons: A Short Story (5 page)

BOOK: Here Be Dragons: A Short Story
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He hears the chinking of glass, the rustling of paper, the fidgeting of chair legs. There is conversation too, but little that he can make out. He presses closer.

‘We’ll have two guys in there. Three if Rajesh can get the shift.’

‘They won’t be carrying though. No way can we get weapons through that security. It just can’t be done.’

‘No, which is why, when it all kicks off, they have to come out. It’ll look natural enough, everyone will be doing it. They meet the main team and they each get handed a weapon.’

‘Are they up to it?’ Rich asks.

‘These are good men,’ Assaf tells him. ‘They’ll do what they have to.’

‘Jackson should be here by now. Ghuf, go up top, see if there’s any sign of him.’

Joesbury sinks back into his boat as the movement of the water takes him away from the yacht. When he is sufficiently far for the sounds of London to cover his engine, when he can already see a figure on the deck of the yacht, he fires up and heads back to the
Vestal Virgin
.

 

The cabin where the men are assembled is fitted out in warm cherry wood, with pale leather lining the ceiling. The couches, around a dining table that would seat eight, are charcoal leather. There are pictures on the walls, a bookcase, elegant down-lighters. This yacht was bought for self-congratulation, to impress peers, to attract women. It was never intended to sail.

‘Nice.’ Joesbury looks around appreciatively.

‘You sail?’ Rich asks him.

Before he hit thirty, Joesbury had raced three times in Antigua Week, skippered a top-twenty boat in the Round the Island race and crewed the Southern Ocean leg of the Clipper Round the World. ‘A bit,’ he says. He wonders if he will be asked to sit down, because there are plans on the table and he wants a closer look. As he edges nearer, Malouf starts folding them away, but not before Joesbury catches a glimpse of something that reminds him of a wind turbine.

‘You came by boat?’ Rich asks.

There are no wind turbines along the Thames that he can think of. ‘I’m a regular river rat,’ he says.

‘Good. You can drive.’

As they make their way up top, Joesbury is handed keys to a RIB that is moored next to the yacht.

He pauses on the pontoon. ‘How long are we going to be out?’

‘Why?’

‘Because one Marine Unit Targa is down at Woolwich right now and the other is up at Richmond, but we can’t rely on them staying out of our way all night. If they spot us on the river at this hour, they’re going to want to know what we’re up to, at the very least.’

Rich turns to Malouf, who, Joesbury sees now, is carrying a video camera. ‘We’re a film crew,’ he explains. ‘Dragon Productions. Getting some footage for a drama we’re pitching to the networks.’

Joesbury holds the RIB steady while Rich and the others climb aboard. He steps down himself and loosens the bowline knot. ‘Dragon Productions is an actual company?’

‘Certainly. I find it comes in very handy on occasions. Ready to set sail, Ratty?’

Joesbury pulls the line aboard, then walks to the helm in the middle of the boat. He slips the kill-cord around his wrist and switches on the ignition. Instantly, the whole vessel starts to hum with the power of the twin engines. ‘You really should be wearing life jackets, guys. Nobody with any sense goes on the river without jackets. First thing the police will say if they stop us.’

At a nod from Rich, the others pull jackets from under their seats. None of them are used to being on the water. They all look uncomfortable, especially when they leave the sheltered waters of St Katherine’s dock and are upon the river.

Not that he can blame them. The river, especially at high tide, is an intimidating presence. At night it is huge and black, frighteningly unpredictable. A sizeable piece of debris will capsize them in seconds if he doesn’t see and avoid it.

‘That way.’ Rich is pointing upstream, towards London Bridge and Southwark Bridge. Away from the Barrier.

Which doesn’t surprise him. Working discreetly, officers of the Marine Unit, assisted by bomb squads from the Royal Marines and Royal Engineers, have already searched the length and breadth of the Barrier and found nothing out of place.

‘What is it we’re doing exactly?’

‘Just drive the boat.’

Joesbury drives the boat, under Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London.

‘No offence, guys, but you obviously need me for my knowledge of the river. If I’ve got no idea what we’re doing, I’m working blind.’

‘You’ll be told when you need to know.’

‘And when is that, exactly? Because I’m kind of living in limbo right now, just in case you didn’t notice. I show my face on the street, I get arrested. Charged with murder. I need to know when this is coming to an end.’

‘Not much longer.’

They pass HMS
Belfast
and draw closer to London Bridge. Joesbury wonders how far he can push it.

‘You know, if this is about transport, I don’t know that I can recommend it. I’m not sure what you guys are planning on bringing in. Drugs, guns, girls – I’m not one to judge – but there has to be a better way of getting them into the city than up the river.’

‘Noted.’ Rich’s face is dead-pan, but Haddad has just smirked round at the others. This isn’t about smuggling.

‘Can we speed this up a bit?’ Rich says.

‘Absolutely, if you want to get stopped. The Port of London Authority has had us on its radar since we left the dock.’

Rich lowers his voice as he speaks to Assaf. ‘We can work on timings when we get there. No point in unnecessary risks now.’

Well, that’s something at least. He’ll have a destination. He’ll know where it’s going down. Southwark Bridge is coming up and Haddad is peering over the side. ‘What happens if we fall in here?’

‘High tide, with life jackets on, midsummer, you’ve got a chance, especially if we can keep you in sight. So unless you seriously piss me off between now and then, I’d turn the boat round, speed up a bit, pick you up. As long as I can find you in about thirty minutes, no harm done.’

He nods over at the north bank, now about sixty yards away. ‘Without the boat, you’d need to get yourself to shore, which wouldn’t be easy because the tide might be slack but you’d soon get very tired. And scared. Even if you make it to shore, you’ve got to negotiate the mud and climb up the wall before the tide comes back and before you die of hypothermia. All things considered, I don’t recommend it.’

‘Do people swim in the river?’

‘It’s a byelaw offence in the tidal section.’

He has a sudden vision of Lacey’s shoulders, gleaming mushroom pale in the moonlight. Of the fine muscles playing just under the skin. Lacey, he knows, has been swimming in the river.

They pass under the Millennium Bridge and head towards Blackfriars. Joesbury steers them closer to the centre of the channel to avoid the floating restaurants and party boats moored to the north bank, but bringing them within the paths of bigger, faster boats.

‘My grandfather worked for the Marine Unit when the
Marchioness
went down.’ Joesbury looks round, wondering if any of them will know, or care, about this event that, a couple of decades on, still sickened most Londoners. ‘He and his colleagues pulled nearly eighty corpses from the river in the week that followed.’

‘What was that, that
Marchioness
thing?’ Haddad wants to know.

‘A pleasure steamer with a party on board was hit by a dredger,’ Joesbury tells him. ‘Early hours of the morning, round about this time. Neither vessel had proper lookouts in the wheel houses, both were using the central channel. The dredger pretty much cut the smaller boat in two. It went under in less than a minute.’

‘Eyes peeled, boys,’ says Rich, but it isn’t the large vessels they have to watch out for. It is the other things, unlit, low-lying, that will strike without warning. They travel on past Waterloo, and the lights of the London Eye soar above them.

‘I remember that thing being built,’ Joesbury says. ‘It was brought up the river on giant floating rafts, until it was time to raise it.’

‘Slow down a bit,’ Rich says.

His heartbeat picking up, Joesbury cuts the throttle. ‘County Hall on your left, gentlemen, once home of the infamous Greater London Council and the even more infamous Ken Livingstone, now the residence of a whole load of exotic fish. I recommend the London Aquarium, by the way, particularly the shark tank.’

‘Shut it,’ says Rich, and Joesbury knows that they are very close.

They are almost under Westminster Bridge. Almost at the Houses of Parliament. They pass into the bridge’s shadow and Joesbury risks a look round at each of his passengers. Something hard to define has changed. They are all a whole lot more nervous than they were fifteen minutes ago. They move into the light again and all eyes shift to the north bank.

‘Gentlemen, I give you the Palace of Westminster, first used as a royal residence by his majesty, King Canute the Great. Now the home of the mother of—’

‘Enough.’ Rich is holding up his hand. Malouf, Joesbury sees, is filming for real now. ‘Take us closer.’

‘Can’t advise that. The place is subject to an exclusion zone. Between Westminster Bridge and close to Lambeth Bridge, you can’t take a vessel within seventy metres of the north bank. As cordons go, it might be invisible, but the second you breach it, an alarm will go off somewhere and we’d pretty soon have company.’

‘What happens when the MPs want to take a trip on the river?’

‘A temporary mooring can be brought in and attached to the pier over there. See the terraces? The one on the left is the House of Lords, the other the House of Commons. Both are used for parties and receptions all the time and it’s not unheard of for visiting VIPs to arrive by river, the way they would in the old days. Sort of like Henry VIII pitching up in his gold barge, chewing on a swan drumstick.’

Nobody is taking a blind bit of notice of his rambling. They are looking at the huge Gothic building, at each other, and at something else too. Heads are switching, like spectators at a tennis match, going from the Houses of Parliament to the bridge. They are desperate to talk, he can see it in the way they repeatedly make eye contact, in their frowns when they look at him, in the way Haddad can’t keep still on his seat. This is it, and if he weren’t there, they’d be talking openly.

‘Bit further that way.’ Rich is pointing upstream.

Joesbury steers the boat another twenty yards.

‘Hold it here.’

Joesbury switches the engine into neutral. Already the tide is on the turn, starting to go back out. The others are still doing their tennis match thing, but less anxiously. They seem to have come to a collective decision.

‘Here? We’re agreed?’

Nods all round.

‘Remember this spot. Ratty, can you do it?’

Joesbury checks the north and south banks. They are almost parallel with the end of the House of Lords terrace. ‘I can, but whether I can hold it for long is another matter. In daytime, this is a very busy spot. I’m not playing chicken with a refuse barge, not in this boat.’

‘I don’t think holding your spot will be a problem.’

‘One thing you might like to consider, gents, and that’s timing.’

Rich looks interested. ‘Go on.’

‘Right now is a good time to hold a boat in position. The tide is high and moving quite slowly. Low tide, just as it’s starting to come back in, would be better. The flow of the tide, acting directly against the natural current of the river, makes it a whole lot easier to hold any craft on the water.’

Rich nods. ‘That is helpful, Mick, thank you. But I’m afraid we have no control over when this will happen. We will simply have to adapt to conditions. Can you do it?’

‘Give me a big enough engine, I can hold a boat.’

‘Good, now how far from here to Chelsea?’

Joesbury swings the boat round to face in that direction. ‘Just over six kilometres along the river. Bit longer by road, but not much.’

‘We’re not on the frigging road, jackass,’ Rich snaps. ‘How soon can you get us there? Top speed, mind, no more fucking around.’

‘Guys, you do not want to attract attention here. If we get caught—’

‘So don’t get caught. What is the shortest time you can get us from here to Chelsea?’

‘If we take law enforcement out of the equation, as well as other vessels, floating debris, and any one of you having an attack of the vapours at the speed we’ll be travelling at, and if these engines have been properly maintained, I can probably average about thirty knots between here and Chelsea, which would get us there in between six and eight minutes. You will all need a change of trousers long before we arrive and there is every chance we will be arrested if we’re lucky. If not, we’ll be killed.’

‘Do it,’ says Rich.

Joesbury doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You don’t know what you’re asking. If we’re caught—’

‘Don’t get caught.’

One way or another, there is every chance he will die in the company of these men. Well, better now and here, while he is nominally in control, than at the end of the barrel of a gun. And hasn’t he secretly always wanted to drive a high-speed RIB up the Thames?

‘Fasten your seatbelts, ladies.’ He pushes the throttle, hearing the immediate responding roar of the engines. The RIB starts to move forwards, tearing into the water like a plough through snow. Joesbury glances back to see the white trail of wash building behind them. ‘Make sure your seat back is fully upright and your tray table fastened safely away.’ He presses down further, feels the bow start to lift from the water. The sound of the engines seems to bounce back at them from the nearby buildings. They could wake half of London, never mind alert the authorities. He takes a good strong hold on the helm and pushes the throttle to maximum.

Lift-off.

7
 


I TAKE IT
that was you on the river this morning, you irresponsible pillock?’

Joesbury joins Philips on the western balustrade of Westminster Bridge and leans against the painted steel rail. A breeze seems to steal up from beneath the ironwork, cooling his burning skin. The heatwave is going on for ever.

BOOK: Here Be Dragons: A Short Story
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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