Richard and Robin Mariner’s quest to rescue a kidnapped girl leads them into the perilous heart of the Sinai desert.
Richard and Robin Mariner, relaxing in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, suddenly find themselves saving the lives of several refugees when their boat flounders on Shaab Ruhr Siyoul, known as the Blind Reef.
One of the survivors, Nahom, is of particular interest to the Mariners. His twin sister, Tsibekti, has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom by smugglers. Shocked by Nahom’s story, Richard and Robin soon become dangerously involved, travelling into the heart of the Sinai in their quest to find the lost girl.
But they will need to tread a perilous path, steering clear of Egyptian police, Bedouin smugglers and militant Islamists to have any hope of rescuing Tsibekti and getting out of the desert alive . . .
About the Author
Peter Tonkin was born in Ulster, son of an RAF officer. He spent much of his youth travelling the world from one posting to another. He went to school at Portora Royal, Enniskillen and Palmer's, Grays. He sang, acted, and published poetry, winning the Jan Palac Memorial Prize in 1968. He studied English with Seamus Heaney at Queen's Belfast. In his year were Paul Muldoon, Bernard MacLaverty and Ciaran Hinds.
Read an Excerpt
A Richard Mariner Nautical Adventure
By Peter Tonkin
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Peter Tonkin
All rights reserved.
The reef's name in Egyptian Arabic is Sha'abrur Siyul and that's what the Red Sea sailors call it. But the divers call it Blind Reef. It is located near the heart of that dangerous little archipelago of reefs and islands strewn across the mouth of the Gulf of Suez close to the African shore. The divers call it Blind Reef because in most conditions it is completely submerged, invisible to the watch-keepers of the passing vessels and unknown to any except the local fishermen and the divers themselves.
Under normal circumstances Blind Reef is too far below the surface to be a hazard to shipping. But now it is approaching low water, and the sea level in the Gulf is as low as it ever gets. Tonight, in fact, the tide is so low that the ship-killing tip of the coral head can just be seen gleaming in the moonlight, steely in the shadowed troughs between the great, silver-backed waves that roll relentlessly out of Suez and into the Red Sea south along the mountainous coasts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia towards Sudan, Eritrea and the horn of Somalia. And these neap tides will last, perhaps, for a week or so.
Blind Reef is a popular dive destination because it offers a range of experiences. At every level there are caves and tunnels in the rocks of the reef, as well as colourful and bustling outcrops of coral on its flanks, upper reaches and all the way up the sturdy spire that, tonight, just reaches to the surface itself. At any time of day or night, in any season and at any depth, it is like diving in a colossal, beautifully stocked aquarium. At almost every time of year, boats, dive tenders and RIBs sail out of El Gouna and Hurgada on the African shore to the south of it. They pick their way carefully through the lethal maze of reefs to surround Blind Reef. From dawn to dusk, men and women of all nationalities and every level of experience explore the beautiful environment.
Which is why, on this particular midsummer night, Richard and Robin Mariner have chosen to sail the hazard-free open waters across from Sharm el-Sheikh at the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula and are planning a night dive which will allow them to explore Blind Reef in the certain knowledge that only they and Ahmed, their dive master, will be there, and that the only dangers their dive boat Katerina will face come from the massive tankers and container vessels running north and south to and from Suez. They feel secure in the knowledge that, unlike the reefs, the massive ships will give plenty of warning of their presence, even though the only source of natural light is the low, fat desert moon that is rising above the distant glow of Sharm, away back along their wake. And therefore, except for their torches, they will effectively be diving blind.
The Blind Reef's grey sharks do not need sharp eyesight. They have a range of senses that allow them to feed off the shoals of tuna running past the islands, following the great ships to and from the Suez Canal no matter whether they can actually see them or not. They sometimes work in groups to trap big jackfish and giant trevally against the reef walls before tearing into them with fourteen rows of self-renewing teeth. Tonight, however, the social group of half-a-dozen males and females which has been lazily hunting parrotfish, napoleonfish and warlike goliath triggerfish during the day splits up into individuals and settles to the serious business of feeding in the stygian, lightless water. Below them, away in the icy depths to the south, the first of the deep-water tiger sharks come cruising inquisitively upwards, the smallest of them a metre longer than the largest grey shark. In the darkness, it is the squid, cuttlefish and octopi which are most at risk – especially those that move erratically and come too far out from the safety of the sparkling phosphorescence of the reef. Or those which give off a phosphorescent signal themselves.
For tonight, under the huge desert moon, Blind Reef and the waters all around it seem to catch phosphorescent fire and burn in silent majesty. All is silent – except for the throb of the Mariners' dive boat's motors as the sleek Katerina sails up to the reef and drops the dive RIB which powers onward, with Richard, Robin, dive master Ahmed and Katerina's first officer, Mahmood, aboard. While the three divers are below, Mahmood will keep a lookout in the RIB and Captain Husan will keep watch from Katerina's bridge where the beautiful vessel's topflight electronic equipment can scan the environment almost as effectively as the sharks' extraordinary senses, which are so much more acute than those of the people who are about to swim down among them.
'The blind diving the blind, eh?' joked Richard, raising his voice over the buzz of the RIB's outboard as they powered away from Katerina.
'Oh, very funny,' answered Robin, rolling her eyes and shaking her head so that the moonlight glittered off her hair, turning the curls to silver gilt. She finished zipping up the dive vest over the high-cut Speedo one-piece she was wearing without a rash vest. The action presented the vanishing spectacle of a cleavage that might have flattered a turn of the millennium Baywatch star. Apparently unaware of her husband's ardent gaze, she reached down to make sure her dive boots were ready for her to slip on her long, black fins.
Richard dragged his eyes away from her, scanning their surroundings, surprised at how swiftly the powerful, elegant and dazzlingly illuminated Katerina had fallen behind the RIB's phosphorescent wake. A breath of wind that seemed to be coming from a furnace stirred Robin's curls further, and brought the smell of fuel from the outboard together with a fine dusting of sand. Hot winds had been coming and going across the Sinai Peninsula for days because the shamaal was blowing strongly down the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia to the east. Richard looked back at his wife and smiled. The moonlight that was already making her hair a distraction gleamed off the length of her bare legs, turning them into a life-sized erotic Cellini sculpture in silver.
Where Robin was all black and silver, Richard was mostly midnight blue from the top of his blue-black hair to the tip of his blue-patterned fins. He was wearing a blue-panelled wetsuit top over a blue rash vest – in spite of Robin's teasing about his sensitive skin – and blue Speedo shorts. Like the rash vest, these were a source of amusement for his wife, but he consoled himself with the thought that while she looked like a swimwear advert, he looked like a proper diver. Though, to be fair, not as much of a professional as the slim, swift-moving dive master Ahmed in his well-worn O'Neill one-piece.
Richard glanced back at Robin, who was now strapping a Maniago Shark 9 dive knife and sheath to her calf, looking like a character in a James Bond film. Even in the moonlight, the blue eyes set deep beneath the black curves of his brows glittered like shards of ice. Then he looked down, mimicking her actions in his own way. He preferred his Aropec K1 quick-release knife, and strapped that immediately below his knee within easy reach of his right hand. He shrugged his twelve-litre tank more comfortably into place and pulled the regulator over his head, making sure the pipes to the mouthpiece were clear and his octopus emergency oxygen tube was also clear. He closed the straps and clipped on the quick-releases before adjusting the fit. He didn't need to cinch a weight belt around his trim waist, as Ahmed was doing, because his wet suit top was the new design with quick-release buckshot weight built in. He did have a belt, though, from which hung a pair of scuba emergency diving shears and a big Beaver Alu underwater torch with a powerful white light beam capable of an impressively lengthy reach. Richard reckoned he would need to be a juggler to use everything he was carrying at once. Or an octopus. On that thought, he leaned forward, slipping his fins over his dive boots, working on another witticism.
Before he came up with one, however, the need to keep up with the others meant he had to put his regulator in his mouth and take a breath or two of cold compressed air. It tasted of stale rubber, as usual. He checked his octopus line again, blowing a burst of cool air against his cheek, just beneath the long white scar that ran along the sharp crest of his cheekbone like the duelling trophy of a nineteenth-century Prussian aristocrat. He took out his regulator before it made his mouth too dry and spat into his face mask. He swirled the spittle round before rinsing it over the side, sparking a cloud of phosphorescence, and easing it over his head and face to hang round his neck. He reached for the head torch that matched his big Beaver dive torch and slid it into place just above where his face mask would sit on his forehead. When everything was in place the torch and face mask would clip securely together and give him light across a sixty-degree angle with a range of up to ten metres, depending on water clarity. Twice the range of a grey shark's day vision, but less than a third of the big Beaver's reach. Maybe not so blind after all.
'Ready?' asked Ahmed, his English perfect and his voice surprisingly deep and resonant for such a slight man. What he lacked in chest-size was more than compensated for by the proud jut of his nose, Richard reasoned.
'Ready,' answered Robin and Richard at the same time.
'One last thing,' said the dive master forcefully. 'Remember we are in the deep ocean here and night time is feeding time. There is very little danger but there is some. If you see sharks, don't panic. Just take care around them and don't trap them against a reef wall. We have discussed the threat display of the sharks we might meet, especially the grey reef sharks and, on the off-chance, tigers. Be aware of barracuda also. They can grow to two metres long and you will most likely see them hanging out at the edge of the light, keeping an eye on things. They won't attack unless provoked. Moray eels won't come out of their tunnels, but be careful if you are close to a reef wall. The biggest ones can be three metres long, but we don't have many that size here. Remember the simple rule: open mouth means no danger. Closed mouth is attack mode – keep clear. We're not going deep enough to come across the big bottom-dwellers like mantas and stingrays. That only leaves the also-rans. Spiny fish – don't touch. Lionfish sting worse than jellyfish and scorpions. You know what fire coral looks like from our reef dives at and around the Blue Hole up in Dahab. But remember, there isn't anything that's likely to attack you unless you provoke it. If we stay together and move slowly we'll be fine. And ...' He held up his left forearm. There was a waterproof whiteboard strapped there. 'Write a message if you can't remember the signal. OK?'
'OK,' said Richard and Robin in unison.
'Check dive computers, then,' ordered Ahmed.
The three of them looked down at their wrists. They were all wearing new top-of-the range Suunto systems that Richard had brought out with him. It was the first time in ages that he had worn anything on his left wrist other than his Rolex Oyster Perpetual in its battered but still waterproof steel casing. The Suunto dive computers were designed to monitor depth, time and tank pressure; dive time remaining, compass heading and orientation. They also told the time. The systems had been pre-programmed on a laptop and fed to the wrist computers. All they needed to do was switch them on together as their last act before rolling back off the inflatable RIB's side and into the stygian, moon-silvered water. The systems would sound alarms if they dived too deep, spent too long or came up too fast; they would monitor – several times a second if necessary – their breathing rate, calculating with depth and pressure, how much air they had in their tanks and how long it would last for.
'OK. Throttle back, Mahmood,' said Ahmed. 'Masks on ... OK? Regulators in. And over we go. As we discussed and rehearsed. Robin first ...'
Richard pressed the start button on his dive computer as he watched Robin curl into a foetal position, holding her mask and rolling backwards to enter the water with the back of her head and her shoulders in the lead. A spray of eerily glowing droplets soared out like a skyrocket exploding. No sooner had the silver-foaming surface closed over her than her torch came on, shining through the water like the blade of a Jedi Knight's lightsabre. For a moment she was framed against the diffused green-yellow brightness. Black torso silhouetted in utter darkness, head and legs lighter, brighter, heart-stoppingly delicate and vulnerable.
'Right,' said Ahmed. 'You're next, Richard.'
The water hit Richard on the back of his head as he rolled back out of the RIB, and there was that inevitable moment of disorientation which came through sensory overload combined with the sensation of falling slowly, upside down. The water was cool but not cold. It chilled his scalp and filled his ears in an instant as he looked up through the bubbles towards his knees and his flippers above them. It slid beneath his wetsuit and covered his legs with goosebumps. It tugged at his face mask, tried to loosen his grip on his regulator and twisted the flexible length of his fins. The sound of it thundering into the channels of his ears stopped abruptly, at about the same time as the roaring of bubbles that he seemed to have pulled down from the surface along with himself. Then there was only the steady beating of his heart and the rhythmic suck-hiss of his breathing. He blinked, seeing the tiny maelstrom that had filled his mask with silver and phosphorescence suddenly go gold as his head-torch was automatically switched on by contact with the water. His knees and fins gleamed.
He stretched out, flipped over, pushed his mask against his nose, cleared his ears and sank towards Robin, who was waiting just below him, already hanging vertically in the water as agreed. He joined her, circled his right index finger and thumb in the sign for OK and looked up for Ahmed. No sooner did he do so than he found himself surrounded by inquisitive zebra-striped fish that all seemed to be about the size of his palm. As far as he remembered, these were sergeant majors – though he had no idea how they came by the name. Out of nowhere, an icy current closed around him, cold enough to make him catch his breath. It required a conscious effort of will to keep control of his breathing. He blinked, shaking his head, and found himself at the heart of a shoal of tiny glassfish like a sparrow lost in a raincloud. He pulled the big Beaver torch off his belt and switched it on. The beam shot out like the beam of a lighthouse, reaching the better part of ten metres, thirty five feet, ahead.
Above the bewildering kaleidoscope of movement, Ahmed sank gracefully to join them. No sooner did he do so than the glassfish vanished. The warm water returned, like a tepid bath. Richard felt his body relaxing again. The dive master gestured with his torch and there, in the distance, framed against the shadows at the farthest edge of the light was the steely silver glint of a barracuda's flank. Richard also zeroed the big Beaver's one hundred lumens on it and it lazily sank back towards the shadows it had come from. It was impossible to tell how far away it was, however, and therefore how big. But the simple fact of its presence was sinister enough.
Ahmed pointed below, apparently unconcerned, and the three of them levelled out, side by side, then angled downwards and began to fin gently through the seven metres – twenty feet or so – that separated them from the top of the reef. As they descended, their torches and Richard's wide-beamed head light began to pick details out of the gloom. Clouds of fish swam around the reef itself. Almost at once, like the glassfish and the zebra-striped sergeant majors, they began to catch the light whirling against the glimmering gloom like shooting stars. Anthias and damselfish, seemingly in their thousands, looking exactly like the goldfish their twins, William and Mary, had kept in their big aquarium as children – right up until they left for university a few years ago, in fact. Then, amongst them, flashes of darker but still iridescent colour. The purple and indigo, gold-tipped bodies of tangs, and Arabian angelfish, the same colours striped with white across Red Sea bannerfish; all of them still seemingly the perfect size for a child's aquarium.
Excerpted from Blind Reef by Peter Tonkin. Copyright © 2015 Peter Tonkin. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Recent Titles in the Mariners Series From Peter Tonkin,
Chapter One: Blind,
Chapter Two: Pressure,
Chapter Three: Sharm,
Chapter Four: Market,
Chapter Five: Sahaari,
Chapter Six: Sin,
Chapter Seven: Nekhel,
Chapter Eight: Dune,
Chapter Nine: Taba,
Chapter Ten: Shamaal,