Site Home

The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Watery Maze - Chapter 4

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
You are in: Home > Don Thomasson > The Watery Maze

Red line

| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |

Red line


Unnoticed in the shadows, Peter was caught in an agony of indecision. Geoff Farnfield always advised his men to go about their work unarmed, unless circumstances made gun-play inevitable, and it had seemed unnecessary to carry weapons on a simple surveillance task. Any attempt to intervene directly in these circumstances could only make matters worse, so he decided to lie low until he had a chance to slip back to the Carella and equip himself for a counter-attack.

This plan depended on Squalo failing to realise that there were two dinghies available, and it would be easier to execute if all four men went in Tooley's dinghy, leaving the one with the outboard motor.

Peter watched helplessly as Roger and Tooley were shepherded down the steps and out of sight below the edge of the quay. Then he began to move in the same direction, keeping a wary look-out for any more of Squalo's men who might be standing by. In dry weather, his rubber soles would have allowed silent progress, but he had to be careful not to reveal his presence by splashing into a puddle.

Not daring to show a light, he was concentrating on the ground ahead, looking for the slightest gleam of water, when a soft voice from somewhere behind him spoke his name, making him jump. Peering into the shadows, he made out two slightly-built figures, and risked a flash of his torch. Sam and Ted, their faces expressing mixed excitement and alarm, came forward to meet him. As usual, Sam was spokesman.

'Mr Frost? What's going on? It looked as if those men had guns.'

'They did.' Like Sam, Peter spoke very quietly. 'You'd better cut off home. It isn't healthy around here tonight.'

'Can't we help?'

The answer ought to have been an emphatic negative, but Peter hesitated and was lost. The position was desperate, and he needed all the help he could get. If the boys could stage a diversion at the critical moment, it could prove very useful indeed. In any case, he told himself, it was unlikely that the two youngsters would stay away from the danger area. Outlining his idea, he asked if they could put it into effect, and Sam's answer was scornfully confident.

'Sure. Leave it to us.'

Since he had not heard the outboard running, Peter approached the edge of the quay cautiously but hopefully, and was not disappointed. Tooley's dinghy had gone, and a faint splash and a vague smudge in the darkness told him that it was a little way down the channel. No doubt Tooley and Roger were at the oars, making progress as slowly as possible.

Launching the other dinghy, he started the engine at the first attempt, which he felt was a good omen.

The tide had been on the ebb for more than three hours, and the detour by way of Fowley Rithe that they had used on the way up might have landed him in trouble, so he compromised by running down the shallow side of the moorings on the west of the main channel. The sky was clearing, but the darkness was still intense, so he had to run slowly, flashing his torch here and there to check his course. Squalo would be unlikely to take much notice of him, for there were a few other boats on the move, even at that hour. In any case, the risk had to be taken.

Once he reached the Carella, he was able to move fast. Switching on the radio, warning the police of the situation and picking up the guns from a concealed locker, took no more than three minutes. By the time he got back into the dinghy the others were still a lot short of reaching the Caliban. The burst of activity had made Peter forget his worries, but the euphoria faded as he considered the situation. His radio call would eventually bear fruit, but the police had to get to Emsworth and then find a boat. That would take time, perhaps too much.

Meanwhile, he was on his own. If he made any mistakes, it was unlikely that the police would arrive in time to correct them, so he needed to be careful.

More accustomed to the gloom, he made good speed down the edge of the channel, still keeping outside the row of moorings until he reached the Caliban, where he throttled back and swung into the main channel.

Since there was no sign of the other dinghy coming down, he began to cruise up towards Emsworth. This was the ticklish part, calling for perfect timing. Roger, hearing the outboard, might have realised that help was on the way, but Tooley was probably trying to work out his own plans to escape, and that could cause confusion.

Further upstream, the boys should be coming down as quickly as possible, helped by the gusty breeze which had blown up, but they had had to run along the dam to the sailing club to get their boat, and then get across to the main channel. Peter began to hope they would be too late to get involved, but then he saw Tooley's dinghy, and behind it the ghostly triangle of a sail.

Anxious to reach the scene of the action before the boys, Peter opened the throttle, and his dinghy leapt forward, but he was too late. When he was still ten yards away from Tooley's dinghy, he caught sight of something dark snaking through the air across the white blur of the sail. The dinghy rocked violently, there were startled cries, and as the sail swept on, two men splashed helplessly into the water. A youthful voice rang out, excited and triumphant.

'Ride 'im, cowboy!'

The next few minutes were notably confused, but Squalo and his henchman gave no more trouble. The boys towed them to the Carella, where they were hauled unceremoniously into the cockpit, sodden and miserable, too busy gasping for breath to think about putting up a fight, or objecting when the guns they were clutching were removed.

Tooley was most amused, not to say grateful and relieved, and wanted to know how it had been done. Since Sam seemed to feel that modest reticence was appropriate, for once, Ted provided the explanation.

'Sam's been practising with a lasso, roping posts and things. It comes in handy for making temporary anchorages. He thought he could get one of the men, but he got both.'

'He did, indeed!' Tooley chuckled. 'His night vision must be superb.'

Trying not to look too pleased, Sam was about to make a comment on this when he changed his mind and held up a hand for silence. Somewhere downstream, faint but clear, there was a steady pulse that sounded very much like the motor launch that had raided Caliban the night before.

Roger looked at Sam with considerable respect.

'Your hearing's pretty good, too. I can't imagine how you could pick that out with us all milling around.'

'I didn't.' Sam pointed at Squalo. 'I saw he was listening, so I thought we should all listen.'

Squalo snarled with rage, which Sam seemed to regard as a compliment. Listening carefully, Tooley said the launch was probably some way beyond the Sweare Deep, but coming up fast.

'I'd better be going. They probably plan to call on me, and it would be easier to cope if I got there first.'

Remembering what had happened the night before, Roger doubted whether this was really necessary, but he merely said that the launch might be heading for the quay to pick up Squalo.

'He couldn't have known you were going ashore, so he was probably waiting for transport.'

'True.' Tooley weighed the question carefully. 'Then what will the men in the launch do when they find the cupboard bare? Come down here again, I suppose. Hey, where are you boys going?'

'To look at the launch.' As Sam spoke, he and Ted were already some yards from the Carella, having slipped into their dinghy without anyone seeing them. 'Don't worry. They won't take any notice of us.'

'I hope he's right.' Tooley was worried. 'We can't very well go and fetch them back, with these two on our hands. Perhaps we should get them into the cabin, so they can't signal for help.'

This was voted a good idea, though Peter remembered just in time to slip ahead of the others and drape a spare jersey over the police radio. He would have liked to let the police know that the situation was under control, but Tooley's presence ruled that out.

When the prisoners were out of sight under Roger's watchful eye, Tooley and Peter waited in the cockpit for the next move. Tooley took the opportunity to express his gratitude.

'I seem to have landed you chaps in a spot of excitement. Fortunately, you don't seem to be objecting too strongly, and I'm grateful for your help. I didn't think these beggars would be so persistent.'

He was about to add more, when the distant sound of the launch engine died away, and he stopped to listen. The engine was silent for a while, and then resumed its former beat, audibly coming nearer. Relieved that there had been no sounds of strife, Peter considered his strategy. It seemed unlikely that two boys in a dinghy could do much about the occupants of the motor launch, and he felt that he should be taking positive action, if he could only see what action to take.

The problem was solved when the launch appeared a few minutes later and headed straight for the Carella, towing the boys' boat astern.

Ted was at the wheel, while the two men sat huddled together looking apprehensively at the gun negligently held in Sam's hand. The explanation given was casual.

'They wanted to argue, and we were getting cold, so I lassoed them.'

Gently removing the gun from Sam's grasp, Peter found it had a hair trigger and a defective safety catch. It was scarcely surprising that the men had looked worried.

By common consent, the boys were sent home before they could get into more potential trouble. Peter caught a glimpse of Tooley handing them what looked suspiciously like ten pound notes, and reflected that these might be difficult to explain to inquisitive parents, but he decided that Sam would be more than equal to the task. Just before they left, he whispered in Ted's ear that they would probably find some policemen on the quay, and should tell them the whole story.

That left one problem, which Tooley stated concisely.

'Now we've got them, I can't see what to do with these blighters. If we let them go, they'll only come back and annoy me again, and they'll probably have a go at you, too, next time. On the other hand, dropping them overboard with weights attached seems a bit wholesale. I don't want to get you two involved in anything like that.'

Peter hid the fact that he had had an inspiration by looking glum.

'Can't keep them on board. Not enough room, for one thing. We'd better put them in the launch and point them at Emsworth. Tonight may have taught them a lesson. If it hasn't, we can always try the weights next time, can't we?'

With apparent reluctance, Tooley allowed himself to be persuaded that this was the best scheme, though Peter suspected that the reluctance was for the benefit of the prisoners, concealment for a confident assurance that any further visitations could be handled effectively.

Peter suggested that Roger and Tooley should follow the launch in Carella's dinghy to make sure the launch went all the way.

'Make sure they go ashore, but don't go too far and get stuck.'

This was intended as a warning to Roger, who was not yet aware that the police had been alerted.

Having secured himself the necessary privacy, Peter switched on the radio again and managed to get through to Geoff.

'I hope I've played it right. In a few minutes, if the police at Emsworth keep a sharp lookout and don't make themselves too obtrusive, they should have the pleasure of meeting four armed gentlemen, including the one that kid thought was a West Indian, bless his heart. The arms consist of three guns tucked under the seat on the port side. I know that because I put them there when no one was looking. Do you think that's going to be enough to make their bosses disclaim diplomatic immunity?'

'It should be.' Geoff was amused. 'We've already had a story from two boys which gave us an idea of what has been happening. It sounds a bit incredible, so they may have exaggerated a bit.'

'They don't need to. They are incredible, period. We'll be entertaining Tooley to coffee soon, so I'd better sign off and put on the kettle.'

'Where is he now?'

'Helping Roger to shepherd the others upstream. They should be ignored.'

'They shall be. You can tell me the whole story tomorrow. Goodnight.'

When the escort party returned, they found the coffee ready and waiting. Both had seen the reception party on the quay, but their reactions to it were different. Tooley was puzzled, while Roger was trying not to laugh. Peter said the police had probably been called in by the boys' parents.

'Which is bad luck for your friends. They'll be a bit embarrassed when the police find their guns in the boat.'

Though he spoke quietly and nonchalantly, the underlying amusement was not lost on Tooley, who looked at him hard and then laughed heartily.

'I still don't know who you fellows are, but you've obviously been around a bit. That being so, you must realise that there's a good deal that I haven't told you. I'm not going to tell you, either. It might not be good for your peace of mind, though I'm honestly tempted to invite you to join me. I reckon we'd make a good team.'

Roger said they were finding life eventful enough already.

'We even had the doubtful pleasure of bringing a corpse ashore on Monday.'

This calculated indiscretion failed to produce any strong reaction from Tooley, though he asked if somebody had been drowned. Roger took the matter a step further.

'Shot, as a matter of fact, then dumped in the water.'

Tooley sat up, and a wary expression crept over his face.

'Where was this?'

Peter decided to join in. 'Southern edge of Pilsey Sand, not far west of the Gardner buoy.'

'Get away!' Tooley's eyes widened. 'I was past there myself on Monday afternoon. What time was this?'

Roger was tempted to say that it was just after Tooley had passed the point, but that would have revealed their earlier interest in him.

'Between one and half past. Flood just beginning. We had to get some sailing lads to help, as the body was being swept over the edge of a shoal. We gathered from the police that the man was last seen at Bosham station the night before.' Peter gave these details quite casually, but his eyes were fixed on Tooley's face, which showed a rapid succession of emotions.

'Bosham! Well, now. Got a chart of that area? Good. Let's have a look. If the body came down from Bosham in the water, it would take four or five hours on the ebb. Tidal current's about one knot, average, and the distance is between four and five miles. Then it would move north again, reaching the Gardner perhaps an hour after low tide.'

Peter looked at Tooley steadily. 'So you think the body could have been dumped at Bosham around six thirty on Monday morning, give or take an hour?'

'It could have been.' Tooley looked embarrassed. 'I don't say it was. I don't want to say it was, because I was at Bosham myself on Sunday night, and out in the main channel there not long after half past six the next morning.'

His voice trailed away, and his face showed dawning enlightenment. Whatever was running through his mind failed to please him. After a while, he looked at his companions in turn, as if to assess what their reaction would be to what he was about to say.

'I've had a nasty idea. As you've no doubt gathered, I've got some rather odd enemies. I also have some rather queer friends. One of them was with me at Bosham, with some of his men. He came back with me, and we'd barely got into the channel when he remembered an urgent message for one of the people we'd left ashore, and got me to row back with it. I spent ages on what looked uncomfortably like a wild goose chase. When I got back, I thought he looked rather pleased with himself. I can't help wondering. Need I say more?'

'You should choose your friends more carefully.' Roger sounded sympathetic, and Tooley responded with a gloomy nod.

'You can't always choose. You didn't find out who the dead man was, I suppose.'

'The police called him Carrington.' Roger kept it casual, but Tooley reacted strongly.

'Carrington!' Pausing for a moment, he went on in a plain attempt to explain away his surprise. 'My father knew a man of that name. I hope it isn't the same one, I remember him as being very kind to me.'

Now really upset, Tooley soon took his leave, the others feeling that it would be unproductive to ask further questions. As he got into his dinghy, Tooley seemed to cheer up a little, and asked if they would be staying in Emsworth Channel long. Peter temporised.

'Depends on the weather, for one thing. We've no fixed plans. Might run round to Portsmouth. A gland needs packing.'

'They'll sting you. Much better do it yourself. If you do go, avoid a falling tide. With this wind, it can get pretty rough over the bar. I'll probably be missing for a couple of days myself. Business ashore. Then, all being well, I hope to take Miranda out for a spin on Friday, returning on Saturday. We might have a jug then, if I'm not too late.'

'Going far?' Peter made it a polite enquiry.

'Too far to talk about, if you get me. A visit to Prospero, as a matter of fact.'

'I thought he was supposed to live in the Bermudas.' Roger chuckled. 'I doubt if you'll get as far as that. He must be coming to meet you.'

Tooley looked at him oddly. 'You catch on, don't you. Too well for comfort. I'd better be off before I say too much.'

When Tooley was out of earshot, Roger looked at Peter.

'Kühlmann. Not Tooley, Kühlmann, for a hundred quid.'

'No takers. It almost looks as if Kühlmann has some sort of hold over Tooley.' Peter moved about the cockpit restlessly. 'That man fascinates me. Tooley, I mean. As Armin, he looked very much like the Tooley I remember, but there were subtle differences. Certainly enough to confuse descriptions of the two. Then, while we were talking about the corpse, he seemed to lose concentration, and a totally different character began to emerge. Quite a likeable one, I thought.'

'Probably the original Keston.' Roger seemed equally restless. 'I quite like him in all his characters, even if it's sometimes difficult to know which one you're talking to. I wonder how deep it goes.'

'What do you mean?'

'Is it just acting, or has he got a genuine split personality? At Bosham, he was Burbadge, master of the Caliban. Would Armin of the Miranda admit to a crime committed by Burbadge? Would he even admit it to himself?'

Peter was startled. 'You make him sound a proper nut case. Well, I suppose he must be a bit nutty to play these complicated games, but he seems basically sane. Mind you, there must have been some reason for disappearing in the first place, for giving the impression that Oliver Keston was dead.'

'If we knew what that was, we'd probably be a lot further forward. It could have been an accident followed by amnesia, which could link up with the split personality theory, but I don't find that convincing. He remembered Ecclestone, and he remembered Carrington, and he didn't forget his knowledge of local waters.'

Rolling on to his bunk, Peter lay on his back and grunted discontentedly. 'The trouble is that we both like the chap and want to find excuses for him.'

'I know what you mean.' Roger sounded sympathetic, but he found Peter's attitude a little alarming. 'All the same, we have to hold on to the fact that he's up to something, and that two men have died in circumstances that linked their murders to his activities. That may not be his fault, in direct terms, but he may have created the situation which led to the deaths, and that makes him dangerous.'

'I can't see it.' Peter was doggedly clinging to his point. 'I can't believe that man's a criminal.'

'At this rate, you'll be wanting to row down to Miranda and offer to give him a hand.'

Roger hoped this would divert Peter's train of thought, and was glad to see that the suggestion had produced the right effect. Peter sat up briskly and started to get undressed.

'I'm not that dotty! I just felt that I'd rather be on Tooley's side than on Kühlmann's or Squalo's, to put it in simple terms.'

This seemed reasonable enough, and Roger let the matter drop, though he lay awake for a long time trying to sort out his own ideas.

Until that evening, Tooley had been an enemy, a rogue to be caught, a criminal whose activities must be stopped. The image of the man had been vague, built up from occasional glimpses of him in person and a lot of circumstantial evidence arising from the things he did. That had now been overlaid by much more vivid impressions of a pleasant companion, grateful for assistance, apologetic when he needed to conceal something. Roger could not escape the impression that the earlier image had been based on a fallacy, though he was quite unable to see where the fallacy lay.

Roger slept badly, his slumbers broken by restless dreams, and he woke with the problem still in the forefront of his mind. Fortunately, the weather had cleared, and it was impossible to be depressed for long in the bright sunshine. All that was needed for a complete cure was a job of work to be done. Peter provided that by remarking that they still had to make plans for using the Congo Maiden.

'Caliban's missing. That was to be expected. The story about 'business ashore' was obviously a cover in case we noticed that Miranda was deserted. With Tooley out of the way, we can work more freely.'

'We haven't decided what to do, yet.'

'I have. Since we can't ask Tooley, the boys are the best source of information on these waters. They'll probably be able to suggest something.'

The boys were found working on their boat by the yacht harbour. As Roger and Peter approached, the youngsters looked up expectantly, and Roger felt serious misgivings. There was clearly a need to convince them that what was afoot, though it might have entertaining aspects, was also deadly dangerous.

Sam considered Peter's question for a moment, then began to think aloud.

'Moorings for Congo Maiden within reach but out of sight... She'd need reasonable depth and space to turn. Somewhere on the way down the channel, because you wouldn't want to double back... Mill Rithe?'

The question was addressed to Ted, who was content to nod. Sam filled in some detail.

'It's about three miles from here on the west side of the channel. A creek, you might call it. You could get there in a quarter of an hour at slack tide. You should be able to get a mooring. Not too far up, though, because you need depth.'

Looking at the chart he had brought, Peter expressed qualified approval.

'Not ideal, but it could be worse. We'd have a long row back to the Carella. Two and a half miles? Possible, but tedious.'

'Why row?' Sam seemed surprised. 'You could leave the outboard dinghy there in advance, and we could pick you up from the Carella. Better still, we could borrow a launch and pick you up from Congo Maiden direct. When do you plan to make the move?'

Before Roger had fully realised what was happening, it was all settled. The boys would meet them at half past seven that evening, near enough at high tide, and help to pilot Congo Maiden into the Rithe. Then all four would come back in the launch. A visit to the Harbourmaster obtained a mooring, and all was set.

As they were leaving the boys, Roger put into words a thought that had struck him during the discussion.

'You must have realised that something a bit unusual was going on, but I notice you haven't asked us any questions about what we're doing. Do you always show that kind of restraint?'

Sam scraped his foot on the gravel thoughtfully.

'It might be better if we didn't know too much.'

Taken aback, Roger hastened to explain that he and Peter were doing nothing that was illegal, and Sam seemed glad to hear this, though the suspicion remained that he would not have been dismayed to find that he was helping criminals. He then explained that he had meant something rather different.

'If we knew exactly what you were doing, and those men had found out, they might have tried to make us tell them. If we don't know, we can't give anything away.'

As Roger and Peter walked away, they were both chuckling over this worldly comment, and when they were out of earshot they began to laugh.

Peter spoke for both of them. 'If we want to understand how Tooley's mind works, it might be useful to study Sam a bit more. There's a lot of similarity between them. After all, not long ago there was a small boy called Oliver Keston who may well have been just like the Sam we know.'

'An uncomfortable thought.' Roger wondered if there was more truth in Peter's words than he realised. 'We'll have to do what we can to steer Sam towards the side of the angels.'

'Steering Sam in any direction would be a full time job, if he wanted to go another way. That young man has a mind of his own.'

This statement was made idly, but it might have been wiser to give it more thought. However, there were other matters to think about. Provisions were needed, and they had to report to Geoff. Interested to hear that Caliban had disappeared again, he said he would come over to meet them this time.

'We can have a look for her from the shore. Your search from a boat wasn't all that successful, was it?'

Searching from the shore proved to have problems of its own. Good roads encircle the harbour area, but they touch the shore in very few places. After an abortive visit to Bosham, their police driver suggested trying the path running west from Itchenor, which should give them a very broad prospect.

Despite the driver's careful directions, the path was not easy to find, and it ran for some distance between high hedges which limited the view. After crossing a shipyard slipway, however, they emerged on the shore just above the high tide mark, with a magnificent view of the whole harbour area. The path was almost deserted, so Geoff, who had been silent so far, began to review the current situation.

'That was an awkward. business last night. Squalo made a great song and dance about being assaulted, but he went quiet about that when the guns were found. That was a bright idea of yours. Squalo was even less vocal after he had been shown Ecclestone's letter. The Inspector was delighted. He's convinced that Squalo murdered Ecclestone, and I agree with him. On the other hand, I think it would be a waste of time to try to prove Squalo was at Bosham on Sunday night.'

Roger listened with a puzzled frown, feeling that Geoff was in an odd mood, but he said nothing, allowing Geoff to continue.

'All the evidence is against that, and if he had been there he'd have been too busy to shoot casual snoopers. He and Kühlmann might have shot each other, which would have been in the national interest, but I don't think either of them shot Carrington.'

The last statement was made with such confidence that Roger was on the point of asking how Geoff knew, but Peter spoke first.

'No claim for diplomatic immunity?'

'Not a whisper. No problem there. I wish I could say the same about some other aspects of the case.'

'Trouble?' Peter's question was cheerful. There was usually trouble somewhere.

'I'm not sure, but there's something I don't understand. The Inspector is still as friendly and helpful as ever, but he doesn't like talking about Tooley. He just shies off the subject. His reason may be something totally unimportant, but I don't understand what it is, and that worries me.'

'Do you think he knows something that we don't?'

'I'm almost sure of it, Roger. I don't want to ask him outright, because that might put him in a difficult position. Someone may have given him instructions to keep some item of evidence to himself, in which case I want the man who gave the instructions. Meanwhile, I'm trying to mention Tooley as little as possible, and the Inspector seems to be grateful for that.'

'Pity.' Peter had been scanning the water for Caliban and ignoring most of the conversation. 'I was going to suggest a confrontation between them. It struck me that Tooley may be wondering why the police haven't interviewed him about the Bosham business. After all, they must know that Caliban was there, and it would only be natural to ask him if he saw anything relevant. If the Inspector did the asking, he could put up a convincing story for the delay, and could also tell us for certain whether Tooley really is Keston. Quite apart from that, finding his old schoolmate on the doorstep might make Tooley think, ginger things up a bit.'

'It might ginger them up too much.' Geoff was grimly amused. 'I agree that it may have been a mistake to leave Tooley unquestioned, but sending the Inspector to do the job might be an even bigger mistake. Tooley might think he'd been recognised and take fright.'

'I can't see him being scared by anything like that.' Roger spoke quietly, almost reflectively, and something in his tone caught Geoff's attention. Aware of this, Roger coloured slightly and tried to justify his remark, but made things worse by protesting a shade too much. 'The man seems to be in a queer mood, all worked up to do great deeds, as if he thought that was his only chance of survival.'

'A dangerous state of mind.' Geoff frowned. 'And one that can be infectious. A man like that can inspire others to live as dangerously as he does himself. I hope he's sane.'

'We were talking about that last night.' Peter was still looking for the Caliban, and the unspoken content of the conversation had escaped him. 'I would say he's as sane as the next man, but in an unusual way and on an unusual plane. He seems to see things with vivid clarity, and doesn't care much for what he sees. Fundamentally, though, he gives the impression of being a good sort of chap who has got himself entangled in something and hopes to fight his way out.'

Silence greeted these remarks. It seemed that Geoff had no comment to offer, while Roger felt that anything he said could only make matters worse.

The silence persisted as they walked further along the path, which now lay on a narrow strip of land between the harbour and a tract of marshy sedge. The marsh was intersected by meandering runnels of almost stagnant water, beyond which a thick belt of trees cut off the more distant view. It was a peaceful, if slightly depressing scene, though the peace was interrupted from time to time when a large aircraft flew low overhead, circling far inland to the limit of vision before touching down briefly on Thorney Island and then rising again for another practice approach.

Still oblivious to the tension between his companions. Peter paused to stare at the further shore. Producing a pair of binoculars, Geoff used them briefly to examine the area that had caught Peter's interest, then passed them to Roger. One glance was enough to identify the Caliban, her barge-like lines more ungainly than ever as she sat high and dry on the mud, well above water level.

Spreading out a map, Geoff studied it with a frown.

'Odd. That doesn't fit the pattern at all. Tooley can scarcely be planning to land cargo there. It would have to be taken through the RAF station, which seems a rather unnecessary risk.'

'Bluff?' Peter was still blithely unaware of anything amiss. 'You don't think he's likely to put cargo ashore there, and that makes it a safer place for the job.'

Once again, Geoff made no comment, but he folded his map and led the way back towards Itchenor. After a hundred paces, he spoke over his shoulder, for the others were lagging a little.

'We may as well have a closer look. The Caliban's only a mile away as the crow flies, but it's the best part of fifteen miles away by road. If we give the Inspector a call from Itchenor, he should get there at about the same time as we do.'

'You're sending him in after all?' Peter looked pleased, but Geoff looked at him with a rather grim expression.

'Circumstances have changed. I'll explain why later, but I want the Inspector to see him at close range.'

The Inspector met them near Hermitage, where the Thorney road begins. He was alone, and Geoff immediately drew him aside for a private talk which left them looking a little strained but still good friends. When the cars moved off again, the Inspector took the road to the RAF station, but the other car branched off to the east. Geoff said they would have to walk part of the way.

'You need a pass to get into the station. That would mean delays, for us. Mike can get in easily enough, so he'll ride in comfort while we do some walking.'

Noting that the Inspector had become 'Mike', Roger felt that he and Geoff must have come to some sort of understanding, for which Geoff was grateful.

A walk of nearly a mile brought them to Stanbury Point, from which they had an excellent view of the Caliban, lying on the mud some distance to the south. Since there was little effective cover, Geoff suggested that they should lie in the grass, which was too short for concealment but long enough to make their presence less obvious.

'I hope the Inspector can get aboard.' Geoff sounded more relaxed now, but had reverted to formality, suggesting that his reference to the Inspector by name had been unintentional. 'That mud looks unpleasantly soft.'

'No problem.' Using the binoculars, Peter spoke with confidence. 'Tooley has duckboards out. For that matter, he isn't far from the West Thorney hard, and I'd say he could get some cargo ashore with no trouble at all. It might even be brought along this path.'

'I doubt that.' Geoff was relaxed, but not indulgent. 'Can you see any signs of life? There may be no one aboard.'

'I saw Tooley just now.' Peter was still peering through the binoculars. 'A head emerged briefly, and I'm sure it was his. He seemed to be talking to someone below decks. Where has the Inspector got to?'

The aircraft practising circuits and bumps came droning in overhead, and Geoff watched it pass before answering.

'He had to make himself known, and so on, and then he may have had to wait for the runway to be cleared. The road cuts right across it. He'll be along any moment.'

This prediction anticipated the Inspector's appearance by no more than ten seconds, and Peter laughed.

'He seems to be co-operating pretty well now. How did you make him change his mind?'

'By a little genteel horse-trading, as he would put it. I took the risk of pointing out that we were under no formal obligation to tell him what we found out, but would always be prepared to pass over information while I was confident that he was doing the same. This embarrassed him, as I thought it would, and he really had no basis for objecting to my request that he should talk to Tooley.'

'He didn't say what he's been keeping to himself?'

'I didn't ask. That would have been tactless. Now he knows that I believe he has some information, I think he will pass it on soon enough.'

The Inspector went on board Caliban, and Tooley came on deck to meet him, waving a courteous hand to suggest that they should sit near the bows. Geoff had taken the binoculars, and when he saw this move he chuckled quietly to himself. Then he gave a sigh.

'This gives us a chance for a much-needed talk.' Roger braced himself, feeling that the threatened storm was about to break, but Peter merely looked puzzled. 'You two worry me. What is this man Tooley? A hypnotist? It isn't like you to fall under the spell of a man you're after, but you show every sign of having done so in this instance. You, Roger, seem to admire his courage. You might once have called it recklessness. Peter seems less deeply affected, but clearly likes the man in a more than casual way. Feeling as you do, do you think you should continue with the job?'

Peter, unprepared, was speechless, but Roger had his answer ready.

'I don't see why not. Our job is to find out what he's doing. Do we have to hate him to be able to do that? Does it matter if we speculate on his reasons and. motives? How could that alter any facts we discover?'

This counter-attack pleased Geoff, rather than otherwise, and he nodded his head slowly.

'Motives can be important, providing you don't confuse them with excuses. They can look alike, on occasion. You spoke of facts, but in our work real facts are few and far between. We have to guess a good deal, and to guess well you must be open-minded. You mustn't give anyone the benefit of the doubt.'

'Is it any better to assume the worst?' Roger dared not retreat, but he saw the danger of putting his case too strongly. 'To guess well, we need all the available facts. Our view of Tooley is a part of those facts. We won't guess any better by ignoring the evidence.'

'Well argued.' Geoff actually smiled. 'All that is true, but it may not be all the truth. Suppose you conclude, on the basis of your rather scanty knowledge of Tooley, that his activities are harmless. Could you, in those circumstances, bring your enthusiasm to bear on the job in the way that you should?'

Roger shrugged his shoulders.

'It might work the other way. I might become more anxious to find out what he was doing, for his own sake. Look, we're still prepared to rush round looking busy, if that's what you want, but I doubt if it's the best way to get what we're looking for. Maybe it's because I've been learning about boats, but my mental time scale seems to have changed. It struck me when you got the Inspector to rush out here from Portsmouth. Here we are, dashing from place to place, and there's Tooley sitting on the mud waiting for us. If we want to understand him and what he's doing and why he's doing it, we've got to think like him, live at his pace, copy his outlook.'

Clearly interested, Geoff considered what Roger had said before putting a question.

'Why should learning about boats alter your mental time scale?'

Gathering together the scattered thoughts and impressions which had led to his suggestion, Roger took a deep breath.

'Almost the first thing I learned about boats was that travelling in them can lead to complications. We couldn't go to Ramsgate by car, because we might not take the boat back there. We had to leave before high tide, just to get out of the harbour. Peter's used to it all, and doesn't notice, but he has to plan everything in advance in a way that wouldn't be necessary on land. That takes time, and you just have to accept that it will. You can't slip into the village for another bottle of milk at a moment's notice, not if someone else is using the dinghy, anyway. You have to consider the tide, or you may get stuck. There are all sorts of things to think about.'

'He's right, you know.' Peter seemed surprised. 'I remember that it seemed the same way to me, at first, but now it's all part of the fun. It's a challenge, as Roger once said. You enjoy having to think about what you're doing.'

Geoff nodded understandingly, his smile easy now.

'You almost persuade me that I might enjoy it myself. Does this tell us anything useful about Tooley? He must have been very patient while he was building up a different identity - several, in fact - and preparing the way for what he's doing now.'

'It fits.' Peter nodded wonderingly. 'It fits perfectly, and I never saw it because boats are so familiar to me. You have to be patient, you have to think ahead, you have to know what you're doing.'

'Fascinating!' Geoff was using the binoculars again. 'We must go into this in more detail later. For the moment, it's time to move. The Inspector's going ashore.'

They wriggled out of the grass and sought the path by which they had come. As they walked along it, Geoff chuckled abruptly.

'You were right, Peter, when you thought there was someone else on board the Caliban. A head showed briefly as the Inspector walked away, and I recognised it as belonging to Kühlmann's opposite number from the embassy further down the same street. Another customer, I suppose. I wonder what he's buying.'

They found the Inspector sitting in his car, looking somewhat subdued. He got out as they appeared, but waited for Geoff to approach him, as if reluctant to talk within hearing range of the police driver. Supporting this view was the fact that his usually bluff voice was rather quiet.

'Time to eat. Time for some plain talking, too, I suspect. I know a place not far from here where they'll give us a room of our own. We can talk there to our heart's content. I'll tell Alf to run off home. You can come in my car, if your nerves are up to it.'

They were whisked off through a maze of country lanes to a remote village and a pub that had changed little in external appearance during the last couple of centuries. Inside, it was a haven of welcoming comfort, and they were soon settled in a small room looking out over a well-kept rose garden.

The Inspector looked at Geoff with a wry smile.

'Confession time. First of all, though, I can confirm that the man you know as Tooley was the youngster I knew as Oliver Keston. Changed, of course, but quite recognisable. He knew me, too, though he tried not to show it. Quite a lad. Received me as calmly as if his conscience was as clear as a babe's. Either he doesn't care, or he cares too much.'

'Explain that.' Geoff's eyes were alert.

'One possibility is that he has no thought of worrying about the position he's in. The other is that he's been so worried that his only hope is to fight his way clear. He seems almost drunk with danger, in the sense that a bit more won't make much difference.'

'Roger has been saying much the same thing.' Geoff seemed pleased to have confirmation. 'I'm beginning to feel I ought to meet the man. Did he tell you anything useful?'

'Not a lot. When I said I was checking up on people who were in Bosham on Sunday night, he nearly smiled, then went dead-pan and took me forward to sit in the bows.'

'There was another man in the cabin, you know.' Geoff was amused. 'Tooley probably didn't want him to hear what you were being told.'

'I did wonder.' Now that he was getting into his stride, the Inspector was cheering up, and his voice was beginning to boom again.

'He answered my questions freely enough, and didn't ask any himself until right at the end. Then he said he'd heard about a corpse being picked up on Monday, and wanted to know if it had anything to do with my visit.

'When I admitted the connection, he gave me a short lecture on local tide movements, winding up by saying that the corpse could well have been put into the water at the point where his boat was lying on Monday morning. On the strength of that, he said, I should regard him as a suspect. He also said that he was no murderer, and - damn it - I believed him, though I don't know why.'

'You too?' Geoff was astonished. 'I must certainly meet this man and sample his mysterious charm. No need to blush, Inspector. You aren't the only one to be influenced. Peter thinks he's a good chap, and Roger has been making impassioned speeches in his defence. Since I felt they weren't in the right frame of mind to question him, I had to ask you to do it, and now you express similar views. I remain unconvinced. I haven't met him, and I still think he's up to no good.'

'I didn't say he wasn't.' The Inspector sounded hurt. 'It's obvious that he's up to something. I only said that I was prepared to believe he isn't a murderer. I didn't say he was a lily-white innocent.'

'He certainly isn't that. I'll have to talk to him myself. Perhaps he can convince me, too. However, I don't think you brought us here to talk about Tooley's possible innocence or guilt. You said something about confession time.'

'Yes. That's the way I see it. There's a matter I could have talked about, but didn't like to, though I doubt if you're likely to guess the reason.'

'I thought you were embarrassed, in some way.' Geoff was being very gentle, and the Inspector grinned to show that he was aware of the fact.

'That puts it mildly. When I have trouble in believing something I'm not keen to make a fool of myself by asking someone else to believe it. I can only hope that you three are as credulous as I am.'

Smiling a little crookedly, he explained that he had wondered whether the circumstances of Oliver Keston's disappearance might have any bearing on Tooley's present behaviour.

'I wasn't much involved personally, except in the hunt for the body, so I had to dig it up from the records, then ask a lot of questions. The files didn't tell me much, so I had to rely on what people remembered.'

Keston had disappeared a few days after his twenty-first birthday. His mother had been dead for some two years, and he was living with her parents. Most people thought he was an orphan.

'He may have thought so himself. He wasn't the sort to talk about his problems very much. When the family solicitors asked him to visit them on his twenty-first birthday, he probably thought it was about financial matters. Instead of that, they told him about his father.'

Geoff gave a deep sigh and settled himself more comfortably.

'Ah! Now we're getting down to it.'

The Inspector eyed him suspiciously. 'Do you know this story already?'

'I only know what you've just told us. It provides a plausible reason for Keston's disappearance, and perhaps a reason for other things, too. Was his father a crook?'

'Far from it. Commander Simon Keston, R.N., was a respected specialist in technical gadgetry. I can't be more specific than that. When Oliver was a baby, his father was attached to a hush-hush place doing something so secret that it can't be talked about, even now. That seems cockeyed, because the security there seems to have been a bit casual. From what I heard, Fred Karno's army could have made a better job of it.'

Geoff smiled reminiscently. 'Security is always liable to be patchy. There was a case during the war that I heard about. Two men needed, for perfectly legitimate reasons, to visit a secret establishment, but had no passes allowing them to do so. Walking near the place one lunchtime, they met a man who had taught them physics at school. All three walked along, chatting happily, and when they came to the gates of the establishment they all walked in together. Their old schoolmaster worked there, and the guards assumed the other two were with him. It wouldn't do to mention names. One of the men runs a radio telescope now, and the other is a senior electronics engineer.'

'That sounds like the place where Keston worked.' The Inspector chuckled. 'Amateurish, to say the least. However, they began to get evidence of leakages, and worked up a bit of a sweat. Started making spot checks. More by luck than good judgement, it paid off. They found a man sitting in Keston's office, chatting away quite innocently about purely social matters, who had no business to be in the place at all. He did have a pass, and was quite well known about the place, but the pass belonged to a man who had been killed in a raid.'

'As you can imagine, that created quite a stir. The security man was cock-a-hoop, and arrested both the interloper and Keston on the spot. All three went off to London in a staff car, but they didn't get there. The car was found at the bottom of a flooded quarry, with the security man and the driver still in it. There was no sign of the prisoners.'

At this point, Roger noticed that Geoff's face was showing signs of surprise and relieved satisfaction, not to say growing understanding. Intent on his tale, the Inspector saw nothing of this, and went on.

'That did it, of course. Before the journey started, Keston had been under mild suspicion, but when he failed to appear the suspicion hardened, and he was branded as a murderer and a spy, if only as an accessory after the fact. Personally, I favour the unofficial view, which held that he wasn't allowed to reappear at first, and decided that it was too late to show himself when he was able to.'

Geoff smiled a smile of contentment. 'A charitable view, and one that could be sustained while there was no evidence. Was Keston ever found?'

The Inspector hesitated, then grinned. 'Not exactly. This is the incredible bit. I like it. I didn't get this part of the story until I went to see old Wilkins, who retired a couple of years ago. Not being in the force, he was a bit more forthcoming than the others. He told me that Mrs Keston was often seen in the company of a Merchant Navy man with a big black beard, who came to see her whenever he was in port. They sometimes took a holiday together.'

'This was Keston?'

'Wilkins wouldn't say so. All he would say was that if he'd known it was Keston he would have had to arrest him, and he wouldn't have wanted to do that.'

'Good heavens!' Geoff laughed heartily. 'I'm not surprised you were reluctant to tell the story. What did his colleagues have to say on the subject?'

'Nothing, apparently. One or two others could have made the identification, but none of them did. Mind you, it doesn't alter the fact that Simon Keston is still on the wanted list.'

'And his son heard the story and promptly disappeared?' Geoff was thoughtful. 'What could he hope to achieve? It wouldn't be easy to clear his father's name after all that time. His father doesn't seem to have made the attempt.'

'Perhaps he felt it wasn't worth while.' The Inspector was clearly seeing fresh aspects of the story he had told. 'Unless, of course, he was guilty. The only thing that would clear him properly would be a confession from the real spy, and he might not even know where to find the man, who hasn't been identified to this day.'

'You can't be sure of that.' Geoff seemed amused. 'Simon Keston probably knew the man's real name, but would be wary of trying to find him, in case it landed him in more trouble. Oliver Keston, on the other hand, could search for the man without any need to worry. All he would need then would be a way of making the man talk.'

'But where does that get us?' The Inspector looked at Geoff rather helplessly. 'How can what he's doing either locate the man he's looking for or make the man talk?'

'That's what I don't know. However, you've given us some very useful data, on which we now need to work. It's just possible that Oliver Keston is merely showing a rebellious reaction to the way his father was treated, but I'm more inclined to think that he's after the man who caused the trouble in the first place. Now, you two have to get the Congo Maiden moved this afternoon, so if the Inspector will give you a lift into Portsmouth you should be on your way.'

'Aren't you coming along, too?' The Inspector seemed to be wondering what plans Geoff had in mind.

'Not for the moment. The sunshine looks inviting, and I could do with some more fresh air. A walk will be good for me. However, if you should be passing Hermitage, you could drop me off there.'

Roger and Peter looked at Geoff with surprise and suspicion, for his preference for wheeled transport was legendary, but they were too well trained to comment.

Dice Divider

The task of fuelling and provisioning Congo Maiden took up the rest of the afternoon, and it was nearly six before they set out on the run round to Mill Rithe. By then, the sun was hidden, and there was a threat of rain as they followed the winding channel through Weevil Lake and out into the busy fairway near the main harbour entrance. Dodging ferryboats and other craft, they passed through to the open waters of Spithead with some relief. A destroyer came hurrying towards them, looking lean and purposeful, and a hovercraft under test was throwing up vast clouds of spray, but there was plenty of sea room, and Peter announced that he was going to try some experiments.

'I'm learning how she responds to the helm, but I don't know much about the engines yet.'

Opening the throttles to full power, he was startled by the sudden leap of acceleration, but clung firmly to the wheel until it was evident that the boat was running at nearly her full speed. Then he backed off the throttles slowly, noting with satisfaction that although the noise made by the engines was much reduced, their speed remained high.

'I thought as much. There's no proper step on the hull, so she won't plane like a real speedboat, but she lifts as she picks up speed, and that means we can hold a high speed with reduced power, which is useful. She's a noisy brute flat out, and Tooley might recognise the sound of her.'

Roger asked if throttling back would save fuel, and Peter looked at him reproachfully.

'Of course. That's another advantage. Our cruising range would be cut back sharply if we ran flat out all the time.'

By the time they rounded the Chichester buoy, running at a more sedate pace, Peter was satisfied that he understood the engines well enough, and felt much more at home with his new craft. He made for the harbour entrance confidently, recalling the sailing directions without Roger's help. As they came into open water beyond, the boys appeared from nowhere in a smart outboard launch, in which they went ahead to lead the way.

When Congo Maiden was safely moored, and they were on their way up towards the Carella, Peter expressed admiration of the launch.

'Very nice indeed. Someone must trust you a lot. I hope you don't run into any trouble.'

'We nearly did.' Sam sounded disgusted. 'That man in the Tudor Rose again. I wish he'd go away.'

Laughing, Peter said he was glad he wasn't the only one to have trouble in that quarter, and asked what had happened. Sam seemed reluctant to explain, so Ted was spokesman for once.

'He was going down the channel ahead of us, just about opposite the Carella, when he tried to stop suddenly. He slowed down, all right, but he slewed across the channel, blocking the fairway, and we had to make a fast turn between two moored boats to miss him. We were lucky not to run on to the mud beyond and get stuck.'

Sam seemed to feel that this last comment was a slur on his abilities, but all agreed that the Tudor Rose was a menace, and they amused themselves by suggesting means for driving her away. By the time they arrived at the Carella, they were all laughing so heartily that they almost failed to notice someone waving from the Thorney Island shore. Peter took a look at the distant figure and chuckled.

'I think Geoff wants to join us, but we can't pick him up there, the water's too shallow.'

'I can get to him at Little Deep.' Sam was already on his way. 'Can you signal him to meet me there?'

When he returned with Geoff, his passenger was eyeing him with amused respect. Perhaps aware of this, Sam completed the journey in a wide graceful sweep so beautifully judged that it ended with the gentlest of touches against Carella's fenders. Geoff obviously appreciated the skill involved.

'Very nicely done. I suspected you knew how to handle a boat when I saw you taking evasive action earlier this evening.'

Most of the party set about preparation of a meal, but Roger gave only part of his mind to that task. He was remembering their own encounters with the Tudor Rose. The first placed the Tudor Rose in the Emsworth Channel not long after the Caliban had left for Bosham on Sunday afternoon. The second encounter had been a short time after Caliban's return. Tooley had been watching from the Caliban's deck. Today, she had attempted a sudden stop not far from where Geoff was standing.

It was difficult to feel that the links between these events were more than tenuous, but Roger resolved to find out more about the Tudor Rose and her choleric owner. It was just possible that on the first occasion she had been returning from the task of transporting Kühlmann to the Caliban, and on the second occasion had been bringing him ashore again, but the third meeting failed to match Caliban's movements in a similar way. From what Tooley had said, he would be away two days, and had so far been away only one.

When the meal was over, the boys tactfully took themselves off for a final run down the harbour before returning their sleek launch to its owner. Geoff watched them go with benevolent amusement.

'A bright pair of young sparks. I gather they've been quite helpful, but you'll have to be careful to limit their involvement. Parents can make trouble if their children are allowed to get into danger. Well, now. I had an interesting afternoon. I walked down to West Thorney, and as I saw Tooley's visitor on his way off the island in a car, I thought I would wander down and see if Caliban was still on the mud. Tooley noticed my casual interest in his boat, and we sat side by side on the grass for quite a while, chatting about this and that.'

Smiling at the expressions on the faces of his companions, Geoff said he felt no harm had been done.

'I gave my own name, which he wouldn't be likely to recognise. I'm not that well known. He introduced himself as Dick Burbadge. I thought he looked at me rather thoughtfully when he gave the name, but he seemed satisfied by my reaction, or lack of it.'

A seagull swooped down to pick up a floating fragment, and Geoff paused to watch it, supremely relaxed and at ease. Then he looked at the others with a whimsical smile.

'I owe you both an apology. I still say Tooley's a rogue, but he's an extremely pleasant rogue. He charmed me quite as much as he charmed you. And I'm inclined to agree, Roger, that you made a very sound point this morning. It may help to know what kind of man he is. However, we should soon know the truth. It looks as if he intends to land cargo of some sort at West Thorney tonight. That I regard as a piece of supreme cheek, but it's in line with his mood and character. I propose to intercept the cargo. It shouldn't be too difficult to do that. I rang the Inspector, and he will fix the details with the RAF. We'll watch the footpath as well, just in case.'

Looking slightly depressed, for it was beginning to look as if their work in bringing the Congo Maiden over might be wasted, Roger asked what would happen when the cargo was intercepted. Geoff shrugged his shoulders.

'It depends on what we find. If it's something fairly harmless, we may be able to go on regarding Tooley in a comparatively indulgent light. However, in view of the type of person he seems to have been dealing with, I'm afraid that's unlikely, and all the charm in the world will do him no good if the cargo is what I expect it to be.'

'I suppose he'll be arrested, in any case.'

'Pulled in for questioning, perhaps. Since he'll probably still be at West Thorney in the morning, we shouldn't have any difficulty in picking him up.'

Geoff broke off to watch as the launch containing the two boys headed towards Carella at a speed that conveyed a sense of urgency. As they came alongside, Sam piped up rather breathlessly with some surprising information.

'I thought you'd like to know that Caliban's just coming up to her moorings.'

Dice Divider

Red line

Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |

| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Red line

Mail me © Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002