A sharp crack sounded somewhere distant but growing as it bounced and echoed along dark intangible corridors, a thing of unseen substance pushing aside flimsy curtains and summoning him to consciousness; only the intruder remained unaware that his presence had been announced.
The boat creaked again, seeming to tense and stiffen with the pressure of each silent step, every slight movement on deck unwittingly confessed in small creaks and stresses below yet the exact location camouflaged by their dislocated nature; the most likely area being just aft of the wheelhouse, next to the quay ladder, Jeremy guessed.
He reached up into the blackness above and found the Grabrail, pulling himself up to one of the small portholes overlooking the side deck, his cheek then pressed hard to the glass, blooming it, eyes straining to penetrate the darkness the other side.
It was almost impossible to distinguish between the top of the quayside and the smudge of warehouse roofs beyond, nothing other than a winged shape hovering eerily opposite the wheelhouse. He drew back sharply, chest thumping, then remembered the anchor swung aloft from the mizzen and breathed again, yet now with a new tightening of his stomach, suddenly aware that his face, pale against the black porthole, might easily have made a perfect target.
He lay back listening, fingers pressed to the sidedeck two feet above his head, its inch and half planking of good solid pitchpine surely sufficient to stop any bullet? Or were such ideas just the evidence for an inflamed imagination, the insanity of recent events finally effecting his mind?
He slid off the berth, feet apart, legs sprung, avoiding any sudden pressures to the floor, gathering his clothes as he moved swiftly from the saloon and out into the passageway leading forward.
On his left was a long workbench, to his right a small cabin next to the shower and toilet compartment, while at the end of the passageway he could just make out the forehatch, open to the sky, a faint murmur of light coming down to pervade the otherwise total blackness. Beyond that was the door to the forepeak.
He moved forward, his concentration switching between the open hatch before him and the ghostly glow of fluorescence filtering down from navigation instruments in the wheelhouse behind him.
His hand crept along the bench top, gingerly feeling the razor sharp tools cluttering its length, his mind simaltaneously recoiling from the thought of using a chisle on anyone, particularly when there was an alternative: he could simply hide in the small cabin opposite; any sensible intruder would surely think twice about looking for him in there... in the dark... always assuming the man didn't have a torch as well as a gun!
But, of course, he was simply imagining things, it was just the boat settling: water was still rubbing her belly, he could hear it. But his watch assured him she would remain hard down on her keel for some time yet, so that eliminated that. Then perhaps it was the girl looking for somewhere to spend the night. She wasn't supposed to return until the next day but something may have happened? Except there could be no mistaking the tread and pressure of a heavy man; perhaps even two of them! One of them could be intending to come down after him through the wheelhouse while the other was already waiting above by the forehatch!
Jeremy caught his breath, the blood surging through his temples — or was it panic! Maybe he should make a dash back through the saloon and hide in the engine room? From there he could get up into the wheelhouse from either the aft cabin or come back into the saloon again and go up that way. He might then return through the saloon and into the passage where he was now? A laugh almost escaped him: perhaps he should just simply run around in small circles shouting hysterically for help!
The boat creaked again, loud in the stillness below yet lost in the breath of night above. A thief perhaps, hoping to find something? No, forget that. He lifted another chisel but again winced at the thought of using one and carefully laid it back down. In any case, surely it was not possible for the big man to have turned the van round and followed him without being seen? Jeremy had looked back often enough from the top of the bus and couldn't have missed spotting the van.
But the man had found him somehow, there was not even the smallest doubt in his mind about that.
He crept from the passageway and skirted the open hatch, trying to view the surrounding deck without going too close to the opening. But only the mainmast moved past his vision, a faint silhouette rising against the sky three feet away in the direction of the wheelhouse, nothing more. He straightened onto his toes and slid his fingers up the sides of the hatch opening, steadying himself, one foot then lifting to the first of three treads widely spaced on the nearby bulkhead. Then his fingers were over the rim of the coaming and his other foot finding the second tread, high enough for him to straighten and raise his head above the deck level whenever he felt confident enough to do so.
That moment never came. The move was frozen, his head bent to the sudden penetration of three implausible but distinct taps. Could it be that his hearing was beginning to play tricks on him as well! Could trauma do that? Then they came again, three more but louder this time: so either the old boat was haunted or somebody was back by the wheelhouse trying to attract his attention!
Jeremy hardly knew whether to feel relieved or foolish, skulking there, the victim of an inflamed imagination. Yet it was odd for someone to be knocking on the wheelhouse when both its doors were wide open. The normal thing would be for them to poke their head in and call out. He suffered a fresh urge to go and hide in the forepeak. Instead, he cautiously raised his head up through the opening, trying simultaneously to appear as natural as possible.
Both sidedecks were empty. Nor would it be possible for anyone to be standing on either of them without being seen from where he was, particularly alongside the wheelhouse where they would have been clearly defined against the lighter sky down river. He twisted about sharply, peering into the impenetrable darkness of the foredeck where the high bulkheads skirted its edge. Crouched against their inky blackness, any number might be invisible, himself included if the need should arrive! Then his stomach tightened: what if the tapping had come from inside the wheelhouse! The man could already be half way through the saloon! His stomach clenched even further, cramping his breath, the whole of his body then flexing to heave itself out onto the deck just as three more raps suddenly froze him again, his shoulders bunched above the edge of the hatch.
Once again they had come from the direction of the wheelhouse, only twenty feet away yet still nothing there to be seen. A restless spirit, maybe: such sounds were common on a boat, particularly at night, the inevitably flogging of loose gear from the smallest change of wind. But the night was calm and the boat hard down and solid against the quayside.
He shifted his position slightly, leaning to one side, a feeling of irritation beginning to rise as he peered along the boat's centre line, no longer hidden by the mainmast. He could see all the wheelhouse now and make out the mizzenmast beyond its roof, seeming to rise out of the irregular shapes of tarpaulins and other gear that had been stowed up there out of the way; nothing unusual other than the fleeting undulation of an outline, a trick of the darkness or his imagination.
His pulse quickened again: the darkness had not confused him, nor had his imagination! A shoulder had lifted followed by a splash of bright light and a familiar muffled explosion as a bullet buzzed past his ear, hard pressed by another, this one thudding nastily into the mast directly in front of his head. Jeremy's fingers slipped and he plummeted back down into the darkness below.
* * * * *
Hogbin swung his legs over the front of the wheelhouse and dropped almost casually down onto the saloon roof three feet below. Then he became more cautious, keeping close to the centre of the coachroof, next to the mainsail boom, so as to keep the mast between himself and the forehatch — just in case!
He was feeling good. Both shots had probably gone wild but he was still enjoying himself. It had been a bit public last time; this was much better! He hadn't intended killing the stupid bastard outright anyway, he'd earned a better settlement than that after what he'd done to Sammy! Strange how he'd never realised before how much the little bugger had meant to him; how much he'd be missing him already. It would be easier to replace a wife! How many of them could do all the essentials like washing and cooking and help out in the business and yet still stay out of his personal affairs... Sammy was the only reason he'd missed with both shots, assuming he had.
"Where are yer Sweetheart!" he murmured. "It's no good you hiding from me now... should'ave done that in the first place, the first time we met... when we all wanted yer to!"
It was just a pity he hadn't come up through the wheelhouse like he was supposed to. He could have clobbered the arsehole properly then, been sure of giving his a proper education later on as planned. Not too late yet, though, it could still be managed... with a little patience!
"It'll go much easier if yer come out now, otherwise you'll just gunna make things 'arder... get me really angry with yer sonny, that's all!"
Hogbin had stood outside of the open door of the wheelhouse for some minutes, warily eyeing the two dark companionways inside, one at the front and one at the back. But the prospect of standing exposed at the top of either one of them, in that faint light, to someone waiting in the pitch black below, had not appealed to him. Now, as he peered forward at the dark hole beyond the mainmast, this prospect appeared no more encouraging. Obviously, the bastard could be laying dead or wounded below somewhere; on the other hand, and just as likely, he could be waiting there for someone to stick his head nicely in the vicinity of the opening.
But he wasn't going to be doing anything so stupid, not without some light — he wasn't born yesterday! But, he had to admit now that even though it had been deliberate not to lumber himself before, not wishing to expose himself sooner than his target, it might have been a mistake leaving the touch behind like that. As it had turned out, he needed it from the van after all.
"All right precious," he whispered; "that's the way yer wannit, that's the way it'll be. Now you're gunna be double sorry — you see!"
He backed away along the coachroof to the front of the wheelhouse again, here crouching a moment to peer in through the forward windows.
The faint light inside revealed the dark companionway opening at the far end, leading below to the aft cabin. Also the seats and low cupboards arranged along the walls; the folding table down the centre; the doors on either side that led out onto the sidedecks, both wide open for the cooling night air; so he was reasonably satisfied that his target hadn't run back through the boat and taken up an offensive position in there. Below the window was the chart table with the red note book on it, open and in a position where anyone could have reached in and taken it. But Hogbin's eye passed over it without interest. The other companionway vanished almost directly beneath his feet, down to the saloon. Next to it was the steering wheel and instruments along with the rest of the paraphernalia; altogether, no good place for anyone to hide and get the jump on him.
The windows continued round the wheelhouse almost without interruption, so that as he stepped down off the saloon to make his way cautiously along past the open door, he was still convinced that no-one could have come up either of the companionways unseen by him. Nonetheless, it was with some gratitude that he reached the back corner unscathed, groped opposite it for the iron ladder buried against the quayside and found it almost at once.
As soon as he was up the dozen or so metal rungs he felt good again, enjoying the business, all his usual confidence flooding back while anticipating the inevitable outcome, the imminent reunion. Plus, of course, the nice little earner he was engaged in which, after all, was what it was all about in the first place. From now on he’d be looking after number one, fuck the rest of them, Filey included. They could go and handle their own shit for a change! He’d always fancied a little trip to the Bahamas himself..!
He was smiling at the thought as he reached the van fifty yards away in front of the warehouses and wrenched open the door. Peter was the only one he might include in the package, a replacement for little Sammy. He'd do as he was told and wouldn't expect too much, thick as elephant's arse but always there ready and anxious to please... that was the main thing.
He found the torch and gave it the benefit of a couple of hard knocks and some muttered threats, its powerful beam then splitting the darkness in a wide arc around him just to make sure the rabbit wasn't doing a bunk from its hole. Satisfied, he headed back towards the boat, across hard ground broken by scruffy grass and weed, the torch held ready but switched off rather than spoil his night vision.
He made for a point a short way ahead of the bow in case Jeremy had decided to hide himself somewhere along the face of the quayside. But this turned out disappointing, the torch revealing only one likely hole and that turned out to be empty. He turned the torch off and moved on, now working slowly along the side of the boat until opposite the fore hatch. Here he squatted for a moment, a bleak eye probing it, looking for anything that might allow some interesting target practice by torchlight. But nothing moved or showed any signs of life. Everything was deadly still.
He turned up the collar of his jacket for comfort and decided to use the torch anyway, continuing slowly along the quayside while again trying to recover some a sense of well- being and purpose he always enjoyed on these occasions. But as the beam danced over the decks and onto the wheelhouse and then down the granite face of the quayside, searching between the rotting piles again, it began growing on him that to winkle this one out was going to take more than a bit of patience.
He reached the ladder and after another sweep with the torch, swung himself down the first rungs nearly nonchalant, the torch tucked in his belt now so that he could have the gun in one hand and the other free for the ladder. Half way down he switched the gun to his left and continued more warily, his body twisted to cover the major portion of the boat and in particular the near side wheelhouse door, the most likely place he would find trouble if trouble existed.
As soon as his foot found the top of the boat's six inch wide gunwale he felt secure again; anything coming, he would take care of it, after all, it was him who had the gun. His other foot was down and the weapon back in his right hand when in the same instant some small object rolled across the deck somewhere up by the forehatch. It drew a wry grin from him but none of his attention from the wheelhouse; he'd been around much too long to be hoodwinked by anything that corny: no doubt the clown, right then, was sneaking back inside through the other doorway, having just thrown him a booby.
Hogbin had to move fast. He knew that if he could reach the open door on his side in time, he might just catch the bastard before he could get back downstairs. He released the ladder and dropped to the deck but in the same instant an unearthly squeal sounded from the mizzenmast opposite along with a soft groan from somewhere above.
It was obvious that something was happening but in that instant, frozen and in a half crouch, Hogbin was welded to the spot, his responses fused by indecision, his instincts shouting at him to move but without direction. Then a brutal glancing blow drove him sideways as the seventy pound anchor crunched down against his left shoulder, its stock delivering another punishing blow to his thigh as it also continued on its way to the deck.
He followed it down, slumping heavily against the side of the boat, squeezing the trigger at shadows; one on the far side of the mizzenmast, the other at the front end of saloon coachroof. But with so much pain blurring his vision he knew there wasn't much hope he'd hit anything even if they were real. But the game had begun now, in earnest, no holds barred. After what this fucker had done, no more justification was needed for the things he was going to do to this one. Even the lights exploding in front of his eyes couldn't prevent his face from twisting even further into a nasty grin: after all, it was still him who held the ultimate administrator, and that was absolutely rock steady in his hand, detached like, as if handled by some inner and distant cousin of his. This geezer might be fast and tricky when he's got the advantage but he wouldn't be outrunning a Sam Brown!
He stayed down, grinning back the pain until it stopped threatening to black him out, then struggled to his feet and backed away from the wheelhouse, going most of the way around the stern. Here he dropped heavily onto the gunwale, glowering malevolently along the length of the boat, the whole of him aching for something to materialize and shoot at in the gloom ahead.
The trouble was, he was on unfamiliar ground... that was the trouble; in fact, he was even beginning to feel more like the prey than the hunter! He breathed a silent oath up at the black sky, seeing in his mind all the tackle of a square rigged sailing ship waiting to drop on him. And that wasn't the only factor needing to be considered: unlike some of them, this monkey wasn't too particular about maiming and killing someone!
"But I'll get yer, smart arse!" he murmured; "I'm adding it all up and you'll pay for it... you'n me's got a lot to sort out... yer gunna be wishin you'd never bin born when I get hold of yer... beat some of the shit out of yer!"
He had to admit, though, things weren't going quite as they ought to. But he couldn't stop now even if it was the right thing to do. The business had to be done, as early as possible since he might not get the chance again. The fucker was bound to be away soon. He might even wake up and realize what was going on... he'd have to be pretty fuckin daft not to really... couldn't rely on it... now was the time.
He tried to distinguish the quay ladder lost somewhere beyond the aft coachroof but gave up. It would be stupid to try it anyway, or to go stumbling around the boat again for a while yet. He pressed the torch button back and forth a few times then discovered the glass and bulb were missing! It was almost the final straw, his outrage all but tempting him to stand up and charge along the sidedeck, firing as he went.
He fought the urge and tossed the torch over the side in disgust. It wouldn't have been much use, anyway, until he was inside and knew roughly where the danger was. Until then it was better to be able to see properly all round. Besides, what he really needed most just now, was rest; definitely no more heroics!
"Yer'd like that wouldn't yer, ars'ol..!"
It was in the midst of a few more muttered obscenities that he heard a faint rustling overhead. It sent him ducking off the gunwale in alarm, crying out as new pain stabbed his shoulder. But nothing came down. And there was little to be seen until a small flag flapped lazily again, played with by a whisper of air high up on the mizzenshroud. He muttered another stream of curses, longing to send a bullet aloft with each oath but controlled this new urge; better to save them for their proper purpose! And at least there was something to be grateful for: the rag was fairly visible against the sky, it was definitely getting lighter now.
He rested a few more minutes against the side, muttering to himself and eyeing the gun fondly, checking the silencer and steadying himself. Finally, he could contain himself no longer and began edging towards the wheelhouse, the need for revenge irresistibly mingled with a powerful desire to get inside and find a comfortable seat. Even facing further possible ambush, he was totally committed now — how many anchors could a boat have!
He approached cautiously, keeping the full width of the sidedeck between himself and the doorway, his back to the gunwale and steadied by it, confidence in himself returning now that action was in progress. He was even more heartened when he glanced sideways and was able to make out the sweep of the sidedecks all the way up to where they met at the bow. And glancing up at the sky again, even in that short time it had grown noticably lighter, the masts and rigging now clearly sketched against it, surprising him just how little there was up there to worry about.
It was in that split second that he caught a small movement between himself and the open doorway, a fleeting darker tone below his vision, just the merest impression but just too late.
This time it was not the objects weight or speed but its smallness and the sensitive point of contact where it stuck him viciously in the centre of his chest, his heart and lungs cramping in a helpless spasm of agony, his vision blackening again as he toppled backwards over the side, the length of the broom handle still thrusting relentlessly after him.
His head hit the water first, his mouth gaping wide like in a silent shout from purgatory. Yet moments later, brushing the bottom, he was still conscious, turning over and over in the powerful stream, the river racing at its fastest ebb. He kicked feebly, his left arm attempting to stroke, but it was only the shallow depth that allowed his head to break the surface again against the irresistible undertow.
It was as if he had been raised up for a last look at the boat, now a surprising length away but directly in his line of sight, the two figures aboard like frozen images in his mind: Jeremy standing by the side gazing after him, as if in fascination, the other just behind with his arm raised and about to strike. Then the blackness closed over Hogbin again.