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By Ian Rankin
Little, Brown Copyright © 1993 John Rebus Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One Monday 1 June
IT WAS A PLEASURE BOAT.
At least, that's how owner and skipper George Crane would have described it. It had been bought for pleasure back in the late 1980s when business was thriving, money both plentiful and cheap. He'd bought it to indulge himself. His wife had nagged about the waste of money, but then she suffered from chronic seasickness and wouldn't set foot on it. She wouldn't set foot on it, but there were plenty of women who would. Plenty of women for George Crane and his friends. There was Liza, for example, who liked to stand on deck clad only in her bikini bottom, waving at passing vessels. God, Liza, Siren of the South Coast. Where was she now? And all the others: Gail, Tracy, Debbie, Francesca ... He smiled at the memories: of routes to France, Portugal, Spain; of trips taken around the treacherous British Isles. Trips taken with women aboard, or with women picked up en route. Wine and good food and perhaps a few lines of coke at the end of the evening. Good days, good memories. Memories of the pleasure boat Cassandra Christa.
But no pleasure tonight, the boat gliding across a calm British Channel. This was a business trip, the client below decks. Crane hadn't caught much more than a glimpse of her as she'd clambered aboard with her rucksack. Brian had gone to help her, but she hadn't needed any. She was tall, he was certain of that. Dark maybe, as in dark-haired, not dark-skinned. European? He couldn't say. Brian hadn't been able to add much either.
"Just asked if she could go below. Better down there than up here getting in the way."
"She said that?"
Brian shook his head. "All she said was 'I'm going below.' Not even a question, more like an order."
"Did she sound English?"
Brian shrugged. He was a good and honest soul, unburdened by intellect. Still, he would keep his mouth shut about tonight's work. And he came cheap, since he was already one of George Crane's employees, one of that dwindling band. The business had overextended itself, that was the problem. Too big a loan to push the business into new areas, areas drying up just as George Crane arrived. More loans to cover the earlier loan ... It was bad luck. Still, the business would weather it.
Cassandra Christa, however, might not. He'd put word out that she was for sale, and an ad had been placed in a couple of newspapers: one quality Sunday, one daily. There had been just the one phone call so far but it was early days, besides which maybe he wouldn't have to sell after all. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes short of three in the morning. Crane stifled a yawn.
"Want me to check the cargo?" Brian asked. Crane smiled.
"You stay where you are, you randy little sod. The cargo can look after itself."
Crane had been told-had been ordered-not to be interested, not to be nosy. No chitchat, no questions. It was just a delivery, that was all. He didn't know quite what he'd expected. Some chisel-chinned IRA bastard or ex-pat felon. He certainly hadn't expected a young woman. Young? Well, she moved like a young woman. He had to admit he was intrigued, despite the warning. The worst part would be coming up soon: the landing on the coast. But she spoke English, so that shouldn't pose any problem even if they were stopped. A midnight cruise, take the boat out, breathe in the ozone, that sort of thing. A nod and a wink to Customs or whoever. They understood these things. The pleasure of making love on the deck of a boat, sky above, water all around. He shivered slightly. It had been a long time. The good days seemed an awful long time ago. But maybe they'd return. A few more runs like this wouldn't go amiss. Easy money. And to think he'd worried about it for weeks. Shame, really, that he was selling the boat. But if he did a good job, a smooth job of work, they might employ his talents again. Another job or two would save the Cassandra Christa. Another couple of jobs like this one and he'd be home and dry.
"I told you I don't like 'Skip.' Skipper's okay."
Crane nodded. Brian's attributes included sharp night vision. Yes, there it was now. The coastline. Hythe and Sandgate probably. Folkestone just a little to the east, their destination. Folkestone was the drop-off, the danger point. Then they'd turn the boat back towards Sandgate, where it had its mooring. More instructions: after depositing the cargo, head back out to sea before making for final mooring. Do not hug the coastline, as this would make them more likely to be spotted.
A silly order really, but he'd been told at the start: you either follow the orders to the letter or you don't take the job.
"I'll take the job," he'd said. But the man had shaken his head.
"Don't make up your mind so quickly, Mr. Grane." That was the way he'd said it-"Grane." He had trouble with consonants. Danish? Something Scandinavian? Or Dutch maybe? "Take your time. You need to be sure for yourself. I'll telephone you next week. Meantime, happy sailing."
Happy sailing? Well, plain sailing anyway. Crane didn't expect trouble. There was no Customs activity to speak of around here these days. Cutbacks. The British coastline was like a net-full of holes through which you could push unseen anything you liked. Crane had been definite about that.
"Not if it's drugs. I won't have anything to do with drugs."
The foreigner had shaken his head slowly. "Nothing like that. It's just a body."
"A live body, Mr. Grane. Very much alive. Someone who wants to see England but finds themself stranded on the Continent without a passport."
"Ah." Crane had nodded at that. He had his ideas: missing peers, runaways, crooks from the Costa Del Sol who'd decided they'd pay anything for the pleasure of an afternoon in a British boozer. "What about a name then?"
Another shake of the head. "No names, Mr. Grane."
"So how will I know I've got the right person?"
An indulgent smile. "How many people do you think will be in the middle of the English Channel at midnight, waiting to meet a boat?"
Crane had laughed. "Not many, I suppose. Any night in particular?"
"I'll let you know. I must warn you now, you won't get much notice, a few hours at most. So make sure you are home every evening. Make sure you remain available. And Mr. Grane ...?"
"Better think up a story to tell your wife."
His wife! Least of his problems, he'd assured the man. But the man had seemed to know quite a lot about his problems, hadn't he? The way he'd approached Crane that early morning outside the office, telling him he might have some work for him. But he hadn't wanted to discuss it in Crane's office. They'd arranged to meet in a pub instead, that lunchtime.
With nothing to lose but suspecting some kind of trap, Crane had gone along. What he hadn't told the man was that one of his own men, Mike McKillip, was in the bar too. First sign of trouble, Mike's orders were to wade in. Mike liked a bit of a dustup, and Crane had slipped him a twenty as drinking money.
But there'd been no dustup, no trap, just a muted conversation, mostly one-way. A business proposition ... believe you own a boat ... financial difficulties ... would like to hire your services. That was the way he'd put it: "I would like to hire your services." Like George Crane was some tugboat skipper. But then the man had started to talk serious money. He offered £1,000 on acceptance of the contract-he'd called it that too, making it sound like "gontrag"-£2,000 on delivery, and a further and final £2,000 twelve weeks after delivery.
"Three months? How do I know you won't ... I mean, I'm not suggesting ... but all the same." Crane's head spun with thoughts of money. He gulped a mouthful of whiskey.
Cue the smile. "You are a businessman, Mr. Grane. Cautious, prudent, and suspicious. You are quite right. But the time lag is so we can assure ourselves of your silence. If we don't pay, you could go to the police with your story."
"Hardly! I'd be an accomplice."
"Nevertheless, you could tell your story. We would rather pay for your silence. Two thousand seems to me a small price to pay for the gift of silence."
George Crane still wasn't sure about that. What story could he possibly tell? Still, he'd have done the job for three grand in any case, and three grand was what he'd have by the end of tonight's little adventure. Three thousand beautiful pounds, a thousand of which had already been lodged in what he called his "Number Four Account," one of several he'd managed to keep hidden from the Inland Revenue's sniffer dogs (the same sniffer dogs he'd suspected of laying a trap for him in the first place). There was fifty quid to pay Brian, of course. It didn't seem much but anything higher and he might start to get suspicious. Fifty was just right for Brian: enough to buy his fidelity but not enough to get him excited.
There were lights along the coast, welcoming lights. He turned to Brian now. "Better tell her we're home."
"I think she already knows."
And here she was, coming in a crouch through the small doorway and onto deck, pulling her rucksack behind her. She stood up straight, stretching her back. She was tall, five-ten or thereabouts. Tall and thin. Hard to tell much more through the waterproof she was wearing. She had a package with her which she held out to Crane. He accepted it.
"Brian," he said, "take over here for a sec."
Crane made his way to the side of the boat, nearest to the land. There was enough light to see by. He didn't want Brian to see how much money was involved. He tore open the package and flipped through the wad of notes. Fifties. Looked like about forty of them. Well, he wasn't going to stand here counting them out like Shylock. He stuffed them into his inside jacket pocket, creating a comfortable bulge, and returned to the wheel. The woman was looking at him, so he nodded towards her. Only towards her, not at her. It was difficult to meet her eyes, difficult to hold their gaze. It wasn't that she was beautiful or anything (though she might be in daylight). But she was ... intense. And almost scowling, like she was spoiling for a fight.
"Around the coast a little way yet, Brian," Crane said. "Just outside the town, that's the drop."
"How much longer?" she asked. Yes, European, thought Crane. Probably British, but she looked as if she'd been away for a while.
"Five minutes," he said. He produced a hip flask from his pocket and unscrewed the top. "A drop of malt," he explained. "Care for a tot?"
She shook her head, but as he drank deep she said: "Good health."
He exhaled noisily. "Thank you. And here's to yours." Then he passed the near-depleted flask to Brian, who finished it off in a mouthful.
"We've got a dinghy." Crane announced. It was good policy to look helpful if he wanted future contracts. "We can row you ashore."
"I'll swim. Just get me close."
"The water's freezing," Brian protested. "You'll catch your death."
But she was shaking her head.
"And what about your bag?"
"It's waterproof, and so am I."
"It'll sink like a -"
She was taking off the waterproof, slipping out of her shoes, undoing her jeans. The two men watched. Underneath, she was wearing a one-piece black bathing suit.
"I must get one of those for the wife," Crane muttered.
She was stuffing her clothes into the rucksack. "I'll change back when I reach shore."
Brian, staring at her long white legs, seemed to be picturing this. Truth be told, Crane was picturing it, too. She might not be beautiful, but she had a body. Christ, she had a body.
"Thanks for the thought," she said finally with a slight twist of her lips. It was as if she'd been reading their minds.
"It's been a pleasure," said Crane. "A pleasure."
They dropped her off and watched for a few moments as she struck for shore. She swam strongly, dragging the rucksack after her. They were no more than a hundred yards from land. It looked like she'd make it with ease. Then Crane remembered his orders.
"Back out to sea with her, Brian. We'll come around to Sandgate. Home before dawn with a bit of luck."
"She was something, wasn't she, Skip?" Brian was still gazing towards shore.
"Yes, son," admitted Crane. "She was something."
She changed quickly. The rucksack contained quite a lot, including several changes of clothes and shoes. It also contained air pockets to help keep it afloat. She deflated these. The rucksack had been heavier early on in the evening. She smiled at the memory. Wrapped in polyethylene in an already waterproofed pocket was a diary, and beside it some odds and ends of makeup. The makeup was like a talisman to her. Makeup was the beginning of disguise. What else was in the rucksack? You could tell a lot about a woman from the contents of her bag. If you tried hard, this rucksack would tell you a lot too. Passport, driver's license, money. A few small tools. Some packages of what looked like plasticine. A tarot pack. A handgun. That was about it.
She didn't look out to sea, but she listened to it. The steady clash of waves, the whistling wind. Exhilarating. Her hair, pinned back, was still drying quickly, her scalp chilled by the wind. A sharp salt smell clung to her. Her eyes were closed slightly as she listened. Then, in the distance, she heard a loudish pop, there and then not there. Like the meeting of balloon and pin at a children's party. She knew she had measured the amount of the charge well, and had placed it well, too, down in the bowels of the boat. The hole blown in the hull would be a couple of yards in diameter. The vessel would sink in seconds, seconds of shock and horror for its crew. And if the explosion didn't kill the two men outright ... well, what chance of their reaching land? No chance for the older man, minimal for the younger. Minimal was as much as she liked to leave to chance. But she hung around for a while anyway, just in case anyone did reach shore. There was a certain amount of shelter, so she did not freeze. In fact, the breeze was growing almost warm. Or perhaps she was just getting used to being back.
No sign of the two men. She waited seventy-five minutes, then unpinned her long hair, letting it fall forwards over her face. A simple trick, but one which reduced her age by several years, especially when she was not wearing makeup. She thought of the boat a final time. It would be a mere oil slick now. Perhaps banknotes were floating on the tide. Useless things anyway.
She made her way to the main road and began to walk. Hitching along the south coast. Going to visit a friend in Margate. (Or Cliftonville: dare she say Cliftonville?) Didn't get a lift out of Folkestone, so spent the night there, sleeping rough by the roadside ...
That was the story she would tell to whichever motorist picked her up. Someone would pick her up. Some man, most probably. She was a single woman, young.
Excerpted from Witch Hunt by Ian Rankin Copyright © 1993 by John Rebus Limited. Excerpted by permission.
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