Dark Echo is an unlucky boat. Despite this knowledge, Martin Stannard falls under her spell and prepares to sail her across the Atlantic with his wealthy father. But his lover Suzanne begins exploring the yacht's past. What she finds is terrifying.
Because this boat isn't just unlucky, it's evil. It was built for Henry Spalding, a soldier and sorcerer who committed suicide yet still casts his malevolent spell nearly a century after his death. Suzanne must uncover his last, terrible secret before Dark Echo destroys the man she loves.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
F. G. Cottam lives in Kingston-upon-Thames, England. After a career in the magazine world, he is now a full-time novelist. He is also author of The House of Lost Souls.
F.G. Cottam was born and brought up in Southport in Lancashire, attending the University of Kent at Canterbury where he took a degree in history before embarking on a career in journalism in London. He lived for 20 years in North Lambeth and during the 1990s was prominent in the lad-mag revolution, launch editing FHM, inventing Total Sport magazine and then launching the UK edition of Men's Health. He is the father of two and lives in Kingston-upon-Thames. His fiction is thought up over daily runs along the towpath between Kingston and Hampton Court Bridges.
Read an Excerpt
By F. G. Cottam
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 F. G. Cottam
All rights reserved.
It was wholly in character for my father to buy a thing cursed. He didn't give a damn for dubious reputations. He believed in nothing he hadn't seen for himself or could not prove. Price was never a consideration either, I don't think, in determining what he chose to acquire, except when set very high. Then, his rapacious appetite for ownership could make a thing impossible to resist. Rarity tempted him. But he was a man, I think, without superstition and I'm sure, even thinking upon it now, devoid of remorse or even the subtler sentiment of regret. His famous nerve had enabled him to build his fortune. Every day that fortune swaggered and grew, his instinct gained a sort of strength and vindication. He was confident and fearless and his decisions were never reneged upon. Bidding at auction for the wreck of an unlucky boat was nothing to him and winning the auction was nothing short of what he would have expected. But what happened next surprised everyone. Perhaps it even surprised my father. I wish I had asked him. I fear I will not now ever get the opportunity. I don't know, though. When I think about what has happened subsequently, maybe that's actually a blessing.
I inherited neither my father's courage, nor his addiction to risk. And without his visceral need to make money, I have always been unproven in that accomplishment, too. By the age of seven or eight, I knew I was destined to be a disappointment to him. I did not share his reckless energy. I was a dreamy, reflective child. And so the precious hours away from business conquest that he devoted to his only son were understandably frustrating for him. In his time spent with me, he could transmit his will to compete to the arena of competitive games. He did it willingly, with relish and focus. But I never cared about who won our chess matches. He would murder me, across the board, and I would grin in goofy admiration. I can only imagine how it must have galled him.
One day, when I was about eleven or twelve, he took off his jacket after another predictable whitewash over a game of Scrabble or dominoes and rolled his sleeve and planted his bristling forearm from the elbow on the table top. I was looking at the bulging strength and sinew of the limb, wondering afresh at where a business tycoon like my dad acquired the muscle, when he said, 'Give me your hand.'
Dutifully, I clasped his palm. It was hard and calloused and dry. And it was another massacre as he slammed my knuckles against the polished oak. He fixed me with eyes of ageing emerald green and said, 'You've the strength of a butterfly, Martin. And about the commensurate will.' He rose, tiredly for my father, slowly. He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped the stain of my weakness from his palm. 'When you can defeat me, you will have earned my respect,' he said. 'And who knows? Perhaps you will have earned your own.'
My father had boxed as a boy. More accurately, he had fought. His had been the sort of childhood poverty that announces itself in shoes with composite cardboard soles and clothing sourced through charity and invigorated through flat-iron steam and repeated darning. His appearance did not wash at the educational establishments his brains and a subsequent scholarship achieved for him. He was duly picked on. He was bullied. Out of necessity, he discovered he was handy with his fists. From being jumped in school lavatories and the dark corridors of dormitories, he progressed to the crested vest and ringside cheers of organised bouts. His old trophies, cheap things of plate nickel, are now priceless treasures, holy relics of his fabled past, taken from their cabinet in the library of our family home and faithfully polished by his housekeeper every day.
When I was twelve years old, he dragged the old priest who had trained him out of his seminary and devout retirement to train me too. Had he wanted a champion pugilist for a son, he could have afforded the greatest boxing trainer who ever lived. He could have got Brendan Ingle from Sheffield or Enzo Calzaghe from Wales. He could have gone to America, lured Angelo Dundee out of Los Angeles or sent to Boston for the Petronelli brothers, for Christ's sake. But though the old man wanted me competing, it was even more imperative to him that I would do so on the same terms as he had. So by virtue of the fact that he was still alive, of course, my own coach had to be Father O'Hanlon.
The priest appeared very old and impossibly grey, cajoled by my father back into his elderly tracksuit. The collar was frayed and the elastic perished at the wrists and ankles. The canvas of his plimsolls was the same parchment grey as his complexion. He looked fraught and reluctant under his threadbare, combed-over hair. I was dutiful on the hook and jab pads, half-hearted on the heavy bag and downright sloppy on the speedball. And at the end of the floorwork he put me through I sat next to Father O'Hanlon on a bench as steam expired off my shoulders through a blanket he'd given me against the cold in the empty gym one Cumbrian night.
A wizened hand clapped me on the shoulder. Its fingers gave the meat of me a squeeze. 'If your old man had possessed a fraction of your talent, son, he'd never have earned a penny on the markets,' O'Hanlon said.
I was intrigued by this claim. 'Why, Father?'
O'Hanlon slapped me on the thigh. 'Because he wouldn't have needed to. Because he'd have earned his fucking fortune in the prize ring.'
But things are never that simple. Life is not the movie we all wish in our most ardent and secret dreams it should turn out to be. I trained hard and scrupulously under O'Hanlon. And beneath his impoverished gym attire, I still hold he was as shrewd and thorough a trainer as any fighter could wish for. Under his fastidious tutelage, I reached the national finals of the ABAs. And, modesty aside, I did it without engaging in wars. I reached the final probably the hottest favourite to take the middleweight title for a decade. My father was ringside that night of course, his arm adorned by his most recent wife. He winked and she glittered at me as the opening bell sounded. And for two rounds everything followed my script as I creamed a switch-hitter from West Ham by the name of Winston Cory.
The haymaker from Cory that broke my nose and dumped me on the canvas on my backside in the third was the first punch I never saw and the last I ever took in an honest fight. I made the count, though. I was back on steady legs at the count of four. I knew already, from all my rounds of sparring with bigger boys, I could take a decent punch. I felt far more indignant than hurt. But I was haemorrhaging blood and they had no choice but to stop the bout. So I'd lost. Cory had won. I turned to my corner, to Father O'Hanlon, who looked at me the way a saviour must look when losing a promising soul to damnation.
In the movie version of this story, I know, of course, what happens next. The old man, unable to endure the taint of loss, shuns entirely his defeated son. He leaves his gorgeous floozie shivering at the kerbside waiting for their limo while he bursts into the winner's dressing room full of bonhomie and boisterous congratulation. He slaps backs and proffers cigars. Manly and magnanimous, he is the life and soul of the sweaty little victory celebration.
But it didn't happen like that in life. In fact, my father came in to me as my corner people struggled to staunch the bleeding and splint my nose. He took off his coat and dabbed at the damage with a towel. Blood from me sprayed and flecked at the starched white of his dress shirt. He did not seem to notice, or mind. His touch was so tender and solicitous that I almost wept at the unexpected intimacy of him there.
'You did your best, son,' he said, rising to go once the bleeding had stopped. 'You did your best. You lost only because he wanted it more.'
It was a truth as plain as it was devastating.
Years later, I heard that my father had subsequently given Winston Cory a job. More accurately, he had given him the sinecure that enabled Cory to train properly when he stepped up to international competition as reigning English champion. He held this fictitious position for a couple of years, apparently. He put the fact on record, thanking my father publicly, in a profile published in The Times when he came back from the Olympic Games with the silver medal he won there. But this isn't a story about pugilism. It isn't a story about Winston Cory, who broke my nose in the years before he turned professional and made his name and his not inconsiderable fortune out of it. It's a story about a boat, the man who came to acquire it and his son. It's about other things, too, other considerations and repercussions. But even at the time of writing this, I'm rather less sure about precisely what they might turn out to be. So let's just call it the story of a boat and the man for whom that boat became an obsession.
I think my father's retirement came as a surprise to everyone except himself. When I really consider it, I think it may have come as a surprise even to Dad. From the outside, the announcement was abrupt and shocking. To me, profit and publicity and the power and attendant adulation of his business success had been his rich, boiling lifeblood. So his retirement seemed less the abdication which it was described as, and more a sort of suicide. And his explanations for it had the forlorn style and scant logic of an attendant suicide note.
The only way I can rationalise it is to compare it to when a great champion quits at the top of his game. So Bjorn Borg walks to the courtside, and tosses his racquet on to his bag and peels off his headband, and even as the sweat of spent effort dries on his twenty-six-year-old body, he knows the flames fuelling the fire of his competitive soul have somehow been doused and he's had enough, for ever, of the effort required to triumph. I remember that. I'm thirty-two years old. I was six then, and like many boys of my own age, idololised the great Swede. He lost to the French left-hander Henri Leconte in a nothing tournament and the will to win just perished in him as he walked off the court.
Except that it happened to my dad when he reached the age of fifty-five and he announced to a stunned business press that he was relinquishing all commercial commitments in order to retire and sail a vintage boat. He would sail it to America, he said. He would sail his old schooner eventually around the world. But the Atlantic would provide sufficient challenge, he said, for the maiden voyage.
You have to picture the room. The announcement was made in the gilt and leather banqueting chamber at Stannard Enterprises. My father was flanked by the men hand-picked to sustain and expand the empire. But he was already history, bought out by the same conglomerate of venture capitalists whose advances he had scorned for years. The room seethed with pinstripe and polish and bold silk neckties and testosterone and it buzzed in the pockets of the seated reporters with the incoming email on their BlackBerries. The atmosphere was odd, my father's secretary later told me. And not only because she was the one female present. My father had been generous down the years with business tips for these men, many of those tips lucratively acted upon. They were, Sheila said, like well-dressed beggars summoned one last time to the table of a king traditionally munificent with the scraps from his feast.
Eventually, the fact that he really intended to do as he said sank in. They realised that he wasn't joking. One waggish reporter, perhaps familiar with Magnus Stannard's inexperience as a sailor, suggested Southampton to Cowes might be a more appropriate challenge. Laughter ensued. But the laughter was feeble. And it stopped altogether when my father raked the room with the stony sweep of his gaze.
'So far, I've lived every one of my dreams,' he said into the silence. 'Which is why you're all scribbling notations and I'm sitting here.'
They were stilled.
He smiled. It was his humble, self-deprecating smile. 'Look,' he said, 'if I'm realistic, there's a case for starting on the Norfolk Broads.'
They laughed. They roared with laughter. He had forgiven them.
His eyes brightened and softened under their brows. 'Boys,' he said. 'Boys. Where the hell has the fun ever been, merely in being realistic?'
Sheila told me the hardened business hacks rose as one to give him a standing ovation. It was spontaneous, she said, and fierce and prolonged. And there were tears in the room.
I did not need to ask if my father was among those who shed them.
* * *
The auction where he paid too much for his folly of a wreck was held at the boatyard of Bullen and Clore, just outside Portsmouth, on a cold and misty morning in January. My father requested I attend but, of course, we didn't travel down to Portsmouth together. I drove where he flew. He didn't even ask me to meet him at the heliport, preferring to take a taxi to the sale. When he arrived, without retinue and punctually, I was already there, cold and damp and bored from my tedious vigil on the dock.
Bullen and Clore; to me the name had been suggestive, when I'd first heard it, of a firm of Victorian undertakers. But when I got there, I saw that interring was actually the reverse of what they did. They specialised in salvage. Their business was summoning to an undead state the corpses of the shipping world. They raised and reclaimed sunken craft, or they rescued abandoned boats, or they provided refuge and repair for the terminally damaged and the derelict. In their domain of piers and pilings by the sea, you could hear the sound of great and mysterious chains, moaning at the pull of stupendous tides. Amid the iron hulks and sodden timbers, you could half imagine Isambard Brunel in his stovepipe hat, slipping on leather-shod boots in the ooze in the hours before his catastrophic stroke. The mist that day bled out all light and colour, rendering the scene at Bullen and Clore in the grainy sepia of a bleaker age.
The boat concerned in the sale was in dry dock. And it was a hull, more than it was a boat. I knew from my father's description that she was a two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner. Or she had been, in her prime. Time and neglect had torn the low roof from the area where the living quarters should have risen from the deck. Of the foremast, there was nothing remaining. And a storm had snapped the main mast. Its root rose thickly from the deck, cleaved in splinters about eighteen inches above a two-foot brace of corseting iron, the whole broken column about eight feet proud in total from the point where it emerged. That this damage had been done by elemental violence and not the deliberation of a boat-breaker's chainsaw was somehow a comfort.
My father slapped me on the shoulder. 'Gets to you quickly, doesn't she?' he said. Mist was pearling like dew on the wide shoulders of his coat and his breath already stank richly from the day's inaugural cigar. As usual, though, he was right.
It was the lines of her that did it. Even out of the water, she had this sweep of imperious elegance. The timbers of her hull were stained but sound-looking, apparently intact. Her deck, with its brass rail, was a low-sung hymn to grace. She was so beautifully proportioned that, even as a wreck, she seemed somehow poised and dignified. Maybe it was also that she was redolent of the wealth and glamour of the man who had commissioned and raced her. I knew from reading the literature in the sale catalogue that Dark Echo had been Harry Spalding's boat. But really, it was her lines. Even with her brass tarnished and her portholes canted or sunk altogether, you could imagine her under full sail on a glittering sea with the whitewashed walls of Cap d'Antibes or somewhere a brilliant promise under the sun on the horizon. It was quite something to picture that, standing on wet cobblestones in the prevailing gloom of Bullen and Clore's monochrome wharf on a winter day. But even beached and wrecked, even then, suspended above the ooze from ropes and chains, Dark Echo seemed to possess the power to summon dreams.
Excerpted from Dark Echo by F. G. Cottam. Copyright © 2008 F. G. Cottam. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I very much enjoyed this story. The detail of the historical periods, the characters, the modern-day locales all combined to give depth to the good and the evil. The relationships between the characters were fascinating in their imperfection. I already have other books by this author that I have also enjoyed.
An old sailing ship restored to her former glory. But something is terribly wrong and beautiful Suzanne is determined to find out what, for the survival of her husband and his dad. Layers of stories within stories but never confusing or dull. The characters are so real and the evil they face is unspeakable. This author is a true master of the supernatural and I am so glad I discovered his writing in the last year. I highly recommend this book!