Something boomed and scraped on the concrete below his window and warm soapy water gurgled down the drain. He heard a murmur of voices and his mother's soft laugh, whilst, at the foot of his bed, the late evening sun glowed orange and mysterious on the drawn curtains, fascinating him.
The big tin bath clattered again, returned to its rusty nail under the lean-to, then the front door clicked softly and the house fell silent. Somewhere distant, a lonely dog barked and as the night drew around him, Jeremy shrank tiny and motionless beneath the suffocating blankets for hours and hours. But not this time. Suddenly, he was plunged into an even greater fear, his eyelids clamped against a source of terror lying on the other side of them trying to drag them open, his whole body peculiarly taut and bent so that he was hardly able to breath.
"I wouldn't think about trying anything mischievous if I was you, friend, you'd only end up hurting yourself!"
The source was human! Jeremy rose to the surface with a great flood of gratitude and squinted at the man through one half open eye. With a hand carefully exploring the top of his head, he began easing his body from its cramped position.
"I think you may have beaten me to it!" he murmured, half thankfully.
The man smiled; "Be grateful, you could just as easily've gone swimming with your friend Hogbin!"
They were down in the galley section where Jeremy was lying half on his back along the dining table seat, his head and shoulders brought up awkwardly against the outboard end where the man had dumped him. He levered himself up, resting one leg along the seat, his eyes closed again while he hastily sifted options and continued delicately to feel the back of his head.
Measured against the coach roof, the man was about three inches shorter than him and not much older but definitely a lot heavier. He had wide cheekbones, deep set black eyes, and a wide nose. In fact, everything looked wide: something of the features of an American Indian; one whose obvious iron-pumping had forever deprived him of any benefits from wearing the expensive suit he had on. Dangerous as well, and not restricted by the boat's fixed furniture as Jeremy was.
The man seemed to be reading his thoughts and casually lifted a small automatic from his jacket pocket:
"You really oughtn't to think about trying anything brave pal... I'd just shoot you."
Jeremy nodded agreeably, convinced that it was academic anyway, violence definitely the last resort:
"You can rely on it," he murmured,
"I mean it..!"
The man squeezed himself into the seat opposite, his arms resting on the table, the gun cradled almost carelessly in both hands but inclined just sufficiently in the right direction to be discouraging.
"Now that you've woken up from your little sleep, let's get down to the funny business that’s been going on between you and the rest of the choir lately... a lot of discord; what’s it been all about?"
Jeremy opened his mouth but no sentences would form. He was carrying a giant bubble full of responses all kicking to escape but none able to organise sufficiently to break the skin. The question was totally unreasonable: like a doctor asking it of a patient who had recently trodden on a landmine. He shook his head helplessly:
"The choir..? No, doesn't ring any bells! Yep, I'm pretty certain I've never belonged to one... or a circus." He frowned at the man: "No zoos either!"
The man nodded, as though conducting an experiment in tolerance, then spoke slowly:
"I'm interested in knowing what's been going on between you and your friends lately," he said, each word emphasised for the benefit of a moron; "what’s all the quarrelling been about?"
The explanation was no less grotesque in translation but it helped Jeremy get his brain functioning again:
"Maybe it was my voice they didn't like... too many missed rehearsals I suppose!"
There was hardly any reaction; he was simply a specimen being studied, then a final thoughtful nod:
"Well, let’s suppose we try again! Here's the situation: the arsehole you just helped over the side won't be missed by anyone... no-one, that is, except me… and if it wasn't for that, he'd probably have moved house long ago!" He paused, preparing to go deeper into his subject. "You, on the other hand, don't have that same advantage. You’re just more trouble, another complication — more irritation!"
Jeremy eased himself higher on the bench, his head beginning to ache.
"That could be solved easily enough!" he murmured.
"Oh, I know it can," the man assured him; "maybe nobody would miss you either! But go ahead, I'm always ready to be entertained... we'll listen to your suggestion first."
Jeremy strained to think of something that might sound reasonable. The obvious sprang to mind:
"Let's suppose..." he paused, taking a breath; "supposing you were just to get up and leave, wouldn’t that do it..?"
There was no comfort to be drawn from the man's expression, he had probably heard similar things many times before! Jeremy pressed on:
"The problem would disappear… you'd carry on enjoying your way of life, the same with mine."
The man nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Jeremy. He reached down into his jacket pocket and pulled out a tube of sweets, levering one loose with his thumbnail. Jeremy looked on vaguely fascinated; such drama reminding him of certain Loony Tunes productions. The man continued to study him, quite certain that a proper appreciation of what was being said often depended on good timing
"Your appearance on stage a couple of days ago seems to have had a grave effect on the lives of three people..!" He grinned broadly at his choice of words; "none of them a great loss but let's say inconvenient for me. Now you may not mind that too much but in the case of Hogbin, the most recent, it could make things a bit more difficult for me and therefore a lot more unpleasant for you… unless you can substitute for him in some way… like coming up with some meaningful answers. If not, then the thing you just mentioned could be exactly what's going to happen to you – life might definitely become a lot quieter than you'd ever imagined!"
He flicked the sweet into his mouth and waited. Jeremy gazed back at him in wonder, remaining dismissive of the performance but none the less impressed by the man: few people had ever inspired awe in him before; that even a modest degree of charm and magnetism had survived such a barrage of destructive elements was in itself remarkable. Nevertheless, his admiration remained flexible:
"Well, allowing I'd never willingly agree to substitute for the likes Hogbin, you can trust me, if I come across anything that might be of the slightest interest to you or your, um, enterprise, just leave me a phone number, or something, and I’ll be in touch immediately… only to willing to cooperate if that’s what it takes to keep you away from my boat; and I'm still in a condition to appreciate it!"
The man chewed and nodded with measured gravity:
"So, what’s the deal you and Hogbin had going between you, making it necessary to rubbish the girl like that so suddenly?"
Jeremy felt his mind chilled, the girl's eyes pleading with him again. But there was nothing he could have done to prevent her death, he knew that. The problem was, she had involved him in it.
"The only thing I know about that Hogbin has going with him," he said, softly, “is the tide!"
Fissures in the granite heaved and split, the mint captured between the slabs of the man's front teeth a moment before he grinned ghoulishly and flushed it back:
"And he should be arriving in Gravesend somewhere about now, just in time for breakfast!"
He spent a moment unloading the grin then looked dangerous again:
"What about the girl?"
"Chaos is in all things," Jeremy murmured; "in some more than others; Hogbin was obviously a particularly nasty example, a very sick man."
The man nodded thoughtfully:
"You knew him pretty well then?"
Jeremy offered a bleak smile:
"We'd met twice — you were there on both occasions!"
"Was I! You must'ave been keeping an eye open for me!"
Jeremy rubbed the top of his head:
"Only the first time..!"
He might briefly have imagined himself the favourite son from the pleasure that strolled in the man's eyes, then the gaze was predatory again:
"How'd you even manage it that time? You wouldn't without you was looking out for me… and I’d have known!"
"The girl knew you were following her, that's why she came over to me... she imagined it would help!"
The man almost purred, drawing loudly on the mint:
"She never knew I was there. Either she was kidding you or you're trying one on me."
"She's dead, so who's kidding!"
"That's right, and hardly knew what hit her. Then you nearly got yours as well in the panic — wouldn't they wait for you! Is that why you chased the other little arsehole under a lorry! It’s a shame I missed that but you were gone faster than Harry."
"I was trying to catch them." Jeremy emphasized, speaking quietly. "So… if it wasn’t you then, pretty obviously, it must have been one of them she saw following her."
The man was smiling and shaking his head:
"She'd only just left them a few moments before, just before she came and sat with you. They'd had their heads together most of the afternoon, all good pals..!"
Jeremy's gaze drifted up to the wheelhouse, to daylight and sanity, the sun just rising above the warehouses down river and now spreading a golden haze over the dusty windows. Through the open doors he could hear the sporadic buzz of morning traffic now beginning its first assaults across the bridge. The man smiled crookedly and continued:
"And then he knows exactly where to come and find you..!"
He allowed the implication to mature whilst slowly crushing the last of the mint then continued:
"And yet he couldn't have followed you back here, he was back at his own place even before I got there!"
Jeremy nodded agreement, equally certain that no-one had followed him back to the boat. Which meant that the girl had certainly not involved him by chance, it had all been arranged. The man's eyebrows were raised, questioning him, his lips clamped forward while he lifted his palms in resignation:
"So where are we now?"
"Well, for one thing, they weren't all good pals... they must have been using her. And its also obvious they knew me even though I didn't know them."
The man nodded derisively:
"And there was I thinking you were sitting there in the rain just patiently waiting for her..." He grinned broadly and jerked his head towards the wheelhouse; "to come along and hand you that little book up there so that the pair of you could go off and start prospecting together!"
"You could be right..."
Similar ideas already taken shape in Jeremy's own mind and if this man was telling the truth then obviously the girl had been lying. That meant that she must either have been in it with Hogbin, or working on her own, perhaps with the intention of making use of the boat in some way:
"Except I wasn't aware of it at the time…" he added; "and I wasn't there waiting for her either, or anyone else for that matter. The rest of it might be close enough."
That Hogbin had known where to come and find him seemed to confirm that the pair of them had been on the same side. But then:
"Why kill her..?"
The grin collapsed:
"Maybe he was jealous!"
"Mmmm..." Jeremy mused, "I suppose that idea's no less intelligent than any other."
The man never moved but seemed to grow, as if his frame enclosed some great engine of destruction, its ruthlessness washing his insides and rising to the deeps of his eyes; an endless sea of black vipers, Jeremy thought, his stomach drawing tighter.
"You questioning my intelligence now pal?"
"I wouldn't dare," Jeremy assured him, lowering his leg and easing himself into a more defensive position. "Not yours, anyway... my own maybe!"
Something like eager anticipation crept into the man's eyes as Jeremy rearranged himself. He was wondering where best to put a bullet should it become necessary: anywhere vital would postpone things indefinitely; even one in the shoulder, for too long. He would have to be clubbed.
Jeremy's gaze dropped to the dark muzzle and he suddenly felt more compliant:
"Maybe we’d have a better understanding of things if we knew each others situation better..? For one thing, neither of us was a pal of Hogbin’s, so, to some extent, we must both be on the same side!"
The huge frame subsided, a sympathetic smile returning again for his newly acquired one and only lead:
"Why don't you just admit that the pair of you were meaning to dump Hogbin and branch out on your own, it's nothing to me?"
Jeremy considered it for a moment, then:
"He only shot the girl, why not me as well, he had more than enough chances to do so?"
The man shook his head, smiling disdainfully:
"And who would have handled the boat and gone looking for the treasure if he had?"
"That didn't appear to be worrying him just now!"
The vipers stirred again:
"Then he did try to shoot you as well didn't he! Perhaps he met somebody else with a boat! I'm not really interested in any of that or even the gold. My interest is in finding the man behind it who Hogbin was working for, not anything you and the girl may have been up to. Sooner or later he'd have led me to him if you hadn't got yourself involved. Now it's you who's going to have to do it instead, that's if you want to stay healthy..!" He settled back reaching into his jacket pocket again; "that'll keep him off your back as well!"
"Him..? You mean, there are still more of you! And how many more after this one?"
"He's the only one you need worry about."
Jeremy gave a doubtful smile and shrugged:
"What's the difference: what can I possibly know that would be of any use... that you don't already know? The boat was obviously the reason why they chose me. Hogbin probably had his own warped reason for killing the girl. Who knows, maybe he just wanted to make her unlikely story sound a bit more convincing?"
"That thought occurred to me about ten minutes ago... and you can believe it!"
He squeezed another mint from the tube and started on it noisily.
"Just the sort of thing he would do... add a touch of colour; that's all it would'ave meant to him. I'm surprised, he couldn't find a better use for her, though, knowing him; she was something better than excess baggage! You, on the other hand, are a very different story: definitely one for the left-luggage department unless I decide otherwise. Then again, it's just faintly possible there's some good in this for both of us."
Jeremy was now finding it difficult to concentrate, his head beginning to throb and his throat dry, the only 'good' uppermost in his mind was located opposite them in the galley, The man noticed:
"Go ahead, you can get yourself something; me to, we've both had a busy night..."
Jeremy slid from behind the seat and into the galley opposite; the man to a safer distance away, nearer the side of the boat where he adopted his paternal look again, his jaw wearing away remorselessly on the mint.
"Yep, you could do alright if you played your cards the right way. There's the reward and I'd make sure there was no comebacks for your antics the last few days. I could even say that it was me that removed Hogbin... would make things simpler; not that it makes any difference which one of us did it if you were working for me."
Jeremy stopped pumping water into the saucepan and looked round in surprised:
"No comebacks from where? Who are we talking about?"
The man smirked, nodding:
"Them as well."
Jeremy turned back to the job in hand, wry-faced at the prospect of a greater relationship flowering between them.
"Why bother, it was self defence? I can explain the rest easily enough."
"Sure, you'd get it all sorted out in time... it's just there'd be a lot of unpleasantness while you were doing it. Then there's your boat. What's going to happen to that while you're away? Even if you're only gone for a few days, that's long enough for it to fall over one night when the tides out... or catch fire... somebody might even try to steal it!"
Jeremy pretended to be indifferent: nothing in the world was lasting; one should simply observe. He continued making the coffee without looking round.
"Just give me the bowl."
Jeremy gave it to him, along with a mug, then watched in faint wonder as three heaped teaspoons sank purposefully beneath the waves. He leaned on the draining board, sipping his own, contemplating the man and eyeing the gun that was still pointing in his direction. The man smiled knowingly:
"All you have to do is go on quietly with your life as if we'd never met, get the gold, claim the reward, and I'll see to it that you're not bothered by anyone... you've been working for me all along."
He laid down the spoon and was just about to taste the coffee when something thumped on the deck overhead. Jeremy relaxed instantly:
The man's eyes narrowed menacingly as he glanced sideways at the wheelhouse steps:
"Or maybe the one just recently departed trying to climb back aboard!"
Jeremy tried to settle him again:
"How can it possibly help me for the police to believe I was working for you?"
There was more scuffling on the coach-roof followed by the sound of something sliding along it.
The man put down his mug and jerked the gun in the direction of the companionway, inviting Jeremy to lead the way. Jeremy took his coffee and casually climbed the steps, turning when almost at the top to look forward over the saloon coach-roof. He shrugged:
"Gulls it is..."
The man waved him to the back of the wheelhouse and came up the steps, the gun menacing again, his lips curling:
"Or maybe some more of your buddies!" he breathed. Jeremy grinned as the man gingerly raised his head above the companionway steps, peeping forward just as the bird lifted itself lazily into the clear morning air. He turned and waved the gun again:
Jeremy did as he was told while the man disappeared below
again, returning a moment later with his drink, the gun now out of sight in his pocket. He leaned against the chart table, studying Jeremy as they both drank. After a moment he said:
"Okay, this is the way it is. My job, primarily, is finding certain people who's particular interests don't coincide with the good of the realm... gives me plenty of freedom to work, without which I couldn't begin to do the job properly. Now, naturally, that freedom and discretion has to extend to anyone who happens to be helping me, you for instance, just so long as nobody innocent or very important gets hurt, and that naturally excludes crap like Hogbin; everyone'll just be glad to see the back of him... that's even supposing they ever notice he's gone!"
"Then you are connected with the police in some way?"
The man shook his head:
"Better than that... who, doesn't matter."
Jeremy continued to look unimpressed:
"Surely not Her Majesty's Secr—!"
"Never mind! I just said, it doesn't concern you. If you want confirmation, make a phone call to the local blues, or anywhere you choose for that matter, I'll have a message left for you. Go and see them as well if you've still got some doubts."
Jeremy pretended to consider the matter, finishing his coffee. He was ready to agree with anything that would get the man off the boat. He would decide what to do afterwards:
"Alright," he said, "I'll go along... choices being as restricted as they are!"
The man grinned confidently:
"Who needs choices when you've already had the best offer you're ever likely to get!"
Jeremy nodded, resignedly:
"Work for you rather than have my boat stolen or sunk by persons unknown..!"
"Most likely the latter..." the man grinned; "what do I know about sailing them!"
Jeremy could visualise the man's back to the quayside, feet on Capella's gunwale, straining to topple her over: a difficult enough task at twenty four tons but nevertheless he could still hear her ribs cracking and splintering as she fell onto the rock ballast he had recently discarded over the side in favour of pig iron.
"How do you know that this man you're looking for won't be
sending someone else in Hogbin's place?"
"I don't think he even sent Hogbin — that was a move of his own."
Jeremy was sceptical:
"You don't know that."
"Wasn't it you who was supposed to be going after the gold while your buddy Hogbin jerked off in the background? Wasn't that the story… or maybe you’ve forgotten that and decided to change it now?"
Jeremy barely shook his head, allowing a faint look of disdain. The man easily matched it, growling:
"What's your name, I'll need it?"
Jeremy told him but had to repeat it with emphasis. The man nodded gravely:
"Okay Sir Francis... you can't help that! But don't go getting any ideas about letting me down. I'm Smith — you can call me Walter."
Jeremy stood up and went to the wheelhouse door, smiling down on him cheerfully before stepping out onto the side-deck that was now warming in the early sunshine.
"Alright, Walter, so I'm to find the gold and be the decoy whi- "
Walter interrupted him:
"Don't fret, I'll look after you... you'll get your reward! Me too so long as he's still got someone to stick on us. We might need to give him a day or two to fix that."
"Sure... how else am I gonna protect you!"