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Authors: Bill Knox

Stormtide

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STORMTIDE

A WEBB CARRICK MURDER MYSTERY

BILL KNOX

Constable • London

For Tara

First there was the flat, heavy bang of the gun, then what seemed like a million seabirds rose from the island’s cliffs in a protesting cloud. A vast flurry of water appeared beside the shark-boat and a massive, black-backed shape lunged briefly to the surface before it dived deep. The fresh explosion of spray still gave a momentary glimpse of a great, lashing tail, then as the shape vanished, the harpoon line sang out and quivered taut while the shark-boat took the strain.

It had captured a giant. But it still had to kill – and even an average basking shark is larger than any elephant.

Half a mile of open water separated Her Majesty’s Fishery Protection cruiser
Marlin
from the drama being enacted off the island. But what the men on her bridge could see was enough for them to sense the rest.

‘Gawd, he’s got a big’un there,’ muttered the duty helmsman, a tall, horse-faced individual with permanent catarrh. He sniffed hard, hands balanced assuredly on the wheel-spokes. ‘There’s more on the end of that harpoon than I’d want to know.’

‘It’s money,’ said Webb Carrick absently, moving over to the bridge wing for a better view. Chief Officer Carrick knew the boat out there and the man certain
to be in her wheelhouse. ‘He’ll manage. That’s Dave Rother and the
Seapearl
, out of Portcoig on Skye.’

Using the bridge glasses, he brought the scene into close-up. A bulky figure was dancing excitedly at the catcher’s bow gun and Carrick chuckled. Big Yogi Dunlop, always Rother’s gunner, drunk or sober, recognized a bonus on the end of that straining nylon line.

But the great fish below was far from finished. Suddenly the black triangle of its sail-like back-fin cut into sight above the waves, heading in a new direction. Another moment and it vanished again as the basking shark dived in search of deep water.

It was a fight for survival, and on the fishery cruiser’s deck an audience was growing. Any diversion was welcome.

Four hundred tons of slim, purposeful power with a crew of twenty-five,
Marlin
was on the second week of a routine Hebridean patrol and so far things had been uniformly dull. Even her big twin diesels throbbed in a bored murmur. The rest was overcast sky, a light but chill northerly wind and a choppy steel-blue sea. On the Scottish West Coast early afternoon in the month of June didn’t always mean sunshine and rising temperatures.

The little shark-catcher, a converted Admiralty MFV, began to fall astern. Slowly, Carrick lowered the glasses and glanced ahead.
Marlin
was rounding the westerly point of the island with a long stretch of open sea before the next blob of land broke the horizon.

‘Well, mister?’ A familiar voice rasped surprisingly close to his ear and he turned. Small and stout, bearded moon-like face set in a peevish scowl, Captain James Shannon had obviously padded up from his day-cabin in a trouble-seeking mood.
Hauling himself up into the bridge command chair, legs dangling,
Marlin
’s master sniffed heavily. ‘Finished enjoying the scenery?’

‘Watching the
Seapearl
to port, sir,’ answered Carrick, unperturbed. ‘She’s caught herself another shark – a big one.’

‘The biggest shark around is the crook who owns that tub,’ grunted Shannon, then caught a sideways glimpse of the grin which crossed the helmsman’s face. ‘You. Watch that course, damn you. We’re not on a picnic.’

Flushing, the helmsman ironed all expression from his face, quickly eased the wheel, and stared ahead.

Shannon scowled at him for a moment. Senior captain in the Fishery Protection squadron, the bearded sixty-year-old could always make up in wrath what he lacked in size.

‘I’ll take over, mister,’ he announced unexpectedly. ‘Extra look-outs on the bridge in fifteen minutes. Until then we’ll maintain course and speed.’

‘Sir?’ Carrick raised a mildly questioning eyebrow.

‘Some damned aeroplane pilot flying out to Barra reported seeing what he thought was an oil-slick a few miles north of us.’ Shannon hunched deeper into the command chair. ‘Probably the sun broke through and caught some oily bilge that’ll have vanished long before we get there. But there’s a signal from Department saying take a look. I’ve told Wills to get the sprays ready for rigging, so make sure he isn’t making a mess of it.’

‘Aye aye, sir.’ Carrick left him, grimacing once he was past the little chartroom behind the bridge.

The detergent sprays, large hose-booms, had been added to
Marlin
’s equipment at the end of her last patrol. Ever since, Shannon had regarded them as a
personal insult for what they did to the trim, destroyer-like lines of his 180-foot charge.

Reaching the main deck, Carrick headed aft. The shark-boat and her quarry had vanished behind the island, but there was plenty of activity getting under way at
Marlin
’s stern, where the distinctive Blue Ensign of the Fishery Protection squadron flapped lazily.

More or less aided by a couple of deckhands, a young, fair-haired figure in overalls and an ancient, dirtied shirt was struggling with one of the clumsy hose-booms. As Carrick arrived, a wave larger than the rest broke against
Marlin
’s side. She rolled, a light curtain of spray drenched across her stern – and the boom clattered loose with a swinging, drunken suddenness which almost swept both deckhands over the side.

Springing forward, Carrick helped the trio secure it again.

‘Look …’ The fair-haired youngster pointed helplessly while the deckhands stood back. ‘Look at it, Webb – who’ll tell the Old Man?’

The hose-boom’s swivel mounting had cracked across the metal. Carrick sighed and shook his head. Jumbo Wills,
Marlin
’s second mate, owed his nickname to his build and, like now, to an unhappy genius for stumbling into trouble.

‘It wasn’t my fault,’ declared Wills indignantly, flushing under the deckhands’ grins.

‘No.’ Carrick fought down a chuckle of his own. ‘But other people might not see it that way. Leave it – I’ll get something rigged to hold it for a spell. And watch how you handle the other one.’ He glanced at the deckhands. ‘Move. You’ve had a long enough rest.’

Leaving them, Carrick headed for the shelter of the open stern companionway and made his way along to the scuba gear storeroom. As usual, the door was hooked open. Inside, sprawled back in comfort on a couple of equipment boxes, a bull-like figure looked up, nodded a greeting, and swung to his feet, all without disturbing the long ash on the cigarette dangling from his lips.

‘Like a mug o’ coffee, sir?’ Petty Officer William ‘Clapper’ Bell, their bo’sun, thumbed towards the pot steaming gently on a hot-plate in one corner. Ex-Royal Navy, six feet of solid, muscular Glasgow-Irishman, Clapper Bell used the tiny scuba room as his unofficial headquarters. ‘I was thinkin’ about having some.’

‘It can keep,’ said Carrick dryly. ‘Jumbo Wills needs some help.’

‘Again?’ Bell scratched his close-cropped red hair, his rugged face twisting in a grin. ‘What’s it this time? If he’s set fire to the paint store again …’

‘No.’ That had been a famous occasion. ‘One of the detergent booms has come unstuck.’

‘Those things?’ The bo’sun grimaced, dropped his cigarette on the deck, and stamped a foot on it. ‘All right, I’ll take a look. But one of those days the Old Man will drown our Mr Wills in a bucket – an’ I’ll bring the water.’

‘You’ll get in the queue,’ said Carrick dryly. Neither of them worried much about formal discipline when they were alone. Together they formed
Marlin
’s underwater diving team when needed and that kind of partnership developed its own personal code. ‘Another thing, Clapper. Send two men to the bridge – look-out duty. We’re trying to find an oil-slick.’

‘I hadn’t heard we’d flamin’ lost one,’ said Bell gloomily. Starting for the door, he thumbed again at the coffee-pot on the way. ‘Help yourself.’

Carrick found a mug and did, then perched himself on the compressor unit they used to recharge the aqualung cylinders. Sipping the coffee, he grimaced. Nobody liked the hose-booms or the stack of detergent drums piled below. But somebody had to do the job. Tug-owners needed only one experience of what an oil-dispersing detergent could do to decks and paintwork then fought shy of getting involved again.

So it had been handed to Fishery Protection. Webb Carrick grimaced down at the brass-buttoned naval uniform he wore over a thick white roll-necked sweater. He’d be in overalls for that caper. Overalls made him think of Jumbo Wills again and the grimace faded, his broad-boned face splitting in a brief grin which suddenly made him look considerably younger than his thirty-one years.

A stocky five-foot-ten in height, skin weather-bronzed and dark brown hair cut short, Carrick carried most things with an easy-going if slightly sardonic humour. Most, but not all. A strong nose and dark brown eyes gave additional strength to lips which were a little too thin and which could offer a warning.

Even Captain Shannon had learned there were times when his chief officer could be pushed too far.

Gulping more of the coffee, Carrick glanced out of the storeroom’s porthole. He’d been away from the bridge longer than he’d thought and the little island that had previously been on the horizon was now drawing near on the starboard bow. Its name on the charts was Moorach Island. What it amounted to was an ugly chunk of cliffs and rock, topped by grass, inhabited only by seabirds and seals.

Far behind it was another faint smudge of land. That was the sprawling island of Skye, mountains
reaching up to the clouds, townships usually bustling with tourist traffic from the mainland. There’d be hell to pay if an oil-slick reached those beaches.

Setting down the mug, he headed back towards the bridge. Halfway there he stopped, frowning, as
Marlin
’s engine beat took a sudden drop in revolutions and the deck lurched under an equally sudden turn to starboard.

Carrick covered the rest of the distance in a hurry.

When he got there,
Marlin
was creeping in towards Moorach Island with speed down to little more than steerage way. Captain Shannon had quit the command chair and was over at the starboard bridge wing, beside one of the recently arrived look-outs. Both had glasses focussed on the shore ahead.

Hearing Carrick arrive, Shannon lowered his glasses.

‘Take a look,’ he invited curtly, passing them over.

Carrick used the glasses and winced. Stranded by the receding tide and lying half-over on her side, a fishing boat was jammed against a jagged ridge of rock. Planking had been ripped open below the waterline near her bow. She had part of a torn net still trailing in the sea which lapped against her exposed stern. But there was no sign of life aboard.

Shannon crossed over and jabbed the siren button.
Marlin
bellowed a long, inquiring blast, then another as he pressed again.

Carrick saw a seal make a panic-stricken dive from a ledge and the splash as it hit the sea. Gulls and terns rose by the score from their nests along the cliffs and circled angrily. But no one answered from the boat or appeared along the desolate shore.

‘Take the Z-boat,’ said Shannon soberly. ‘Check her over, mister.’

* * *

Carrick took two men with him, Clapper Bell and a lanky East Coast deckhand named Harry Roberts. The Z-boat, a rubber inflatable with a powerful outboard motor, foamed on her way as soon as the Fishery cruiser had anchored. But as they came nearer the island Carrick had to throttle back to thread through the scatter of low-tide rocks which guarded the shore.

‘She’ll drift the rest,’ called Clapper Bell at last, perched watchfully at the bow.

Cutting the engine, Carrick swung the propeller clear. Moments later the Z-boat nudged its way past a barely submerged reef, then, lifted by a breaking wave, touched the pebbled beach. They dragged the boat high and dry and Roberts secured the bow-line to a rock while Carrick and the bo’sun looked around.

They’d landed about fifty yards from the fishing boat, separated from her by a tangle of rock and seaweed. A fifty-foot seine-netter, she had the name
Harvest Lass
painted on her bow in faded gold lettering. Where the planking had been ripped, the interior of her fo’c’sle was exposed – a confused litter, including mattresses and bedding. The rest of the boat seemed relatively intact, but the deck area was still hidden by the angle at which she lay.

‘I’d hate like hell to have to refloat her out o’ there,’ mused Bell with a professional interest. ‘Even after that hole’s patched it’s goin’ to be a job to get her clear.’

‘That’s somebody else’s worry,’ said Carrick neutrally, collecting the lightweight radio he’d brought along and slinging its strap over one shoulder. ‘You and I will check the boat. Roberts, you take a prowl along the shore.’

Clapper Bell at his heels, he set off over the slippery weed and rocks. Reaching the stranded hull, they
scrambled round towards her bow, then had their first clear view of the deck.

‘God Almighty,’ said Bell with a startled intake of breath.

For a moment Carrick stayed where he was, just staring.

The
Harvest Lass
had a motionless figure sprawled over her midships winch gear. His bald head was pressed oddly against the metal and he was dressed in an old blue work-jacket, serge trousers and heavy seaboots. Ropes still led over the side from the winch to the tattered fragments of net and the fish hatch lay open, awaiting a catch that would never come.

Pulling themselves up, they quickly crossed the slanting, already bone-dry deck and reached the dead man. He’d been middle-aged, with a small, dark moustache and light blue eyes which stared lifelessly from a tanned, thin face still twisted in a final horror.

The rest was easy enough to understand. Both ends of a grey woollen scarf were trapped in the winch, which was still in gear. When the scarf had been pulled in it had tightened round the fisherman’s neck, dragging him down, strangling him before he could escape.

There were scratches on his neck where he’d tried to claw the scarf loose. One hand still lay outstretched in a final, desperate effort to reach the winch controls. But the winch had tightened on until it finally jammed.

BOOK: Stormtide
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