FICTION: Murky Waters by John Hardy

From the Eastern Daily Press Wednesday 18th November 2015:

……police are linking the discovery of two bodies in a remote spot near Thurne Mouth to the death of Heng Lin, the Chinese man found shot several days ago……

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It was nearly dark when Alistair reached the old windmill at the side of the reed-filled cut. He’d had to ship the oars of the rowboat, a small dinghy really, and use only one of the oars as a paddle to push the craft up the narrow channel to reach the rotting wooden pier. Then pushing hard into the shallow muddy water, he stirred up black mud as he forced the boat sideways towards the structure. The air was filled with the fetid smell of long undisturbed sludge and a cloud of midges. When the dinghy was still about a foot away from the staithe, it stuck fast and he had to contemplate a final leap to reach it.

As he sat lost in thought, the water settled into calmness and the rustling of the reeds quietened, and all was silent. No breeze stirred and the dusk of a moonless night deepened. The bulk of the nearby windmill was black against the grey of the sky. Alistair looked at his watch, the dial luminous in the half light, half past five on a cold November day. He was well over an hour early, just as he had planned. He’d been instructed to come at seven, by car, up the narrow cart track from the Salhouse Road. Instead, he’d approached silently by water down the long narrow overgrown dyke from the river. It had been hard finding the reed blocked entrance to the cut, but it had been marked on his large scale OS map and by arriving early, he’d managed it. Now, all that remained was to jump on to the old rotting jetty as quietly as he could, hope the decking would bear his weight and that Foster,  if that was his name, had not already arrived. Or, if he had, that he was unaware of his own approach from the opposite direction.

Time to move. Standing, he paused before leaping over the gap between boat and pier, landing quietly and safely on his trainer clad feet. Moving quickly, he reached the wall of the windmill and edged round it to the doorway. Peering into the building, he could see or hear nothing then, making sure no light could be seen from outside, he quickly shone his torch round the inside. Nothing.

His heart was thumping inside his chest as he switched off the light and went inside. I’m too old for all this exertion and excitement, he thought, too old and too staid, too long living a respectable life. Not of course that he’d ever done anything like this before, but he had been more active when he was younger. Now all he did by way of exercise was the occasional game of golf and the even more infrequent country walk, which couldn’t be described as a hike, unlike those he used to go on. Since the death of his wife he hadn’t even sailed his racing dinghies. But he couldn’t let Leticia down. Leticia Rainbow Weeks, who he’d only met two weeks ago at the start of his holiday. When they’d met, his first thought had been, ‘who on earth called their daughter Rainbow?’ quickly followed by another that he’d rarely seen a more striking woman. Well, girl had been his first thought, then stifled as he realised that if he called her that out loud, she might resent it as being not very PC. But then he wasn’t very PC and at 32 to his 46, and a young looking 32 at that, that was how he’d thought of her. She was shortish, thinnish with smallish but well formed breasts. That was how he would have described her, did in fact to himself, ‘shortish’, ‘thinnish’ and ‘smallish’. Her face was oval with her hair cut short in a sort of mob cap, and her almond-shaped eyes were black. She wasn’t beautiful or even pretty but rather striking and to him a lovely girl, or rather woman. And standing in the gloom of the old windmill, he knew he couldn’t let her down.

The mill, like many of the ones scattered around the Norfolk Broads, was just a short stubby tower with the wooden top long gone. This one had part of the main beam and wheel left leaning at a crazy angle across the top of it, but was otherwise open to the sky.

It was quite quiet here some way from the river and road. A breeze had sprung up, rustling the nearby reeds and trees, but otherwise nothing disturbed the night. When he had first come into the mill, he had disturbed some bats and twice an owl had hooted from a distant clump of trees. A short while ago, he had heard the distant sound of a motorbike and thought that perhaps Foster was coming on that, but the sound had receded and peace once more returned.

Alistair peered at his watch. Still just under an hour to go before the time Foster had told him to get here, nothing to do but wait and see if and when he got here, then decide what to do himself. He fingered the homemade cosh he’d made that afternoon, a sock filled tight with wet sand. Not a violent person or one used to violence of any sort, it had taken him a good while to think of how to acquire a weapon of any sort. In the end, he’d driven from the Swan Hotel in Horning where he was staying to the coast near Horsey Mere, and filled one of his socks with wet sand, feeling foolish, self conscious and even guilty as he did so. Even though the only other people on the beach that November afternoon were a couple walking their dog, who in any case took no notice at all of him or his antics.

Alistair leaned back on the rough brick sides of the windmill, peering into the gloom outside. He looked at his watch again; just 35 minutes to go, surely, he thought, Foster would arrive soon, wanting to be here before the time he’d told him to arrive.

Alistair Slingsby had never seen this sort of windmill before he was 16 and first came on holiday to the Broads, just thirty years ago. He’d seen pictures of course and once, when walking in the Pennines a year earlier, he had seen a line of modern ones on a nearby ridge, tall slender masts with their blades idly rotating in the breeze, and thought them elegant and stylish, and wondered why some people hated them so much. But it wasn’t until a year later, and he came on a sailing holiday with several friends, that he had seen ones like the one he was hiding in now. Some, like this one, had been just round tapering towers with no or little roof on their tops. But there had been two complete with sails and a top that resembled an upturned boat. One by the river near Thurne Mouth and the other owned by the National Trust at the end of Horsey Mere. It was this vacation, the first of several, which inspired in him a love of boats, especially sailing boats. It was to be one of two loves that began on that week’s yachting holiday, both of which were to decide his future life. The second was his meeting with Patricia, a friend of one of the other girls in the group, who he was to marry when he was twenty-two.

His love of boats led to his career as a yacht designer and owner of a chandlers business near Robin Hood’s Bay, not far from his then home. A business he still owned and which kept him busy every summer, resulting in him taking his holidays between November and January, normally somewhere warm and sunny. His marriage to Pat had lasted twenty-four years, until two years ago when she had died of a stroke. Both their children, David now twenty-three, and Ruby who had celebrated her twenty-first birthday a few weeks ago, now led their own lives away from home, and he was left on his own. Since the death of Patricia he hadn’t wanted to holiday abroad alone, hence this year’s holiday in Norfolk, supposedly to revisit some of the places where they had spent time together on several sailing trips before their marriage.

Alistair heard a low buzzing and felt a vibration against this side. His mobile, muted so as not to give his presence away to Foster if he was nearby, was ringing. He saw by the screen that it was seven o’clock and when he answered the call in a low murmur, Foster’s voice came hard and angry in reply. “Where are you? I told you to come at seven. Why aren’t you here? You know what will happen to Miss Weeks if you don’t come. And bring the parcel.” His rasping voice carried a menace.

“I’m here at the windmill, where are you?” Alistair said in reply, keeping his voice low.

“I’ve been at the end of the track for an hour waiting, and you’ve not come past. So cut the crap, where are you? And I know your car’s still in the car park at The Swan. I warn you, Slingsby, if you don’t want any harm to come to Miss Weeks, get here. And quickly.”

“I’m here, I tell you,” Alistair repeated. “I  … er… walked over the fields. Drive down the lane to the mill. I have the packet. But come alone, just you and Leticia. I want to see she’s unharmed before I give it to you. And come alone,” he stressed again. “No tricks. I’m waiting but not for long.”

“Damn you. She’s here and still alive. I’m on my way,” Foster said.

The phone went dead and far away, probably over half a mile, at the end of the track, came the sound of a car starting. Headlights swept round in a circle and came slowly down the rough track towards the waiting man. He moved out of the shelter of the building and went back towards the cut and crouched down behind a clump of reeds. As he waited for the car to arrive, he thought back over the events of the past few days.

Alistair Slingsby had closed his chandlers shop, as he usually did in November or early December, and sent his two assistants off on holiday. He put a message on his shop window and the firm’s email that his business was closed until after Christmas and set out for Norfolk.

He booked into a bed and breakfast in Norwich and spent two days mooching round the city. It was, he had thought, no fun on his own without Pat. Last year he hadn’t gone anywhere, her death was too recent and raw. He’d kept the business open, but had had few customers and no heart to do much design work. The only break from the dreary winter period had been at Christmas, when David and Ruby had come home. So this year he had decided to go away and visit Norfolk, to see if he could re-experience some of the time they had spent together. Using Norwich as a base, he’d driven round some of the places they’d sailed through all those years ago. Potter Heigham, Ludham, Barton, Hickling, amongst other places. He’d brought a small fibreglass dinghy with him on the roof rack, and spent some time rowing and sailing around the rivers and broads they’d visited together. The same boat he’d used to reach the windmill this evening.

It was three days after he arrived at the B&B that Leticia arrived. It was only a small house and there was a family of four there as well, so the landlady, Mrs Burrell, asked if they’d mind sharing a table at breakfast. Neither of them had, so on that first morning they’d introduced themselves.

She had said, “I’m Leticia Rainbow Weeks,” and he had thought, ‘Who would call their daughter Rainbow?’ and then that he’d rarely seen such a lovely, no striking, girl.

Holding out his hand, he’d said, “Alistair Slingsby, glad to meet you.”

He had seen a slim shapely woman in her early twenties, with jet black hair and narrow slit eyes, set in an oval face. She looked almost oriental, he thought.

She had for her part seen a capable, if perhaps sad looking man in his forties, broad shouldered with a pleasant weather-beaten face capped with an unruly mass of light brown greying hair. When he smiled, she saw his grey eyes light up and shed their sadness. Over breakfast, they both found the other reserved, as if they had a hidden secret, but likeable.

His reserve was of course due to the loneliness he felt on his wife’s death. He was not to find the reason for her constraint, almost taciturnity, until much later. Long after they had become close and attached to each other.

After breakfast on the first day they shared the table, Leticia had seemed at a loss, as if not knowing what to do, and so Alistair had suggested she join him on his drive around the area. In the car, she had told him she had come to Norwich to wait for a friend who would probably not arrive for a few days. She had, apparently, a parcel that she had to hand over to this friend, and then she was free to either return home or stay on for a holiday. She was reluctant to say more, and he was content not to enquire any further.

Over the next few days, which they spent together, he showing her the places he had come to Norfolk to visit, he began to tell her of his life. For some reason, he felt comfortable talking to her about his time spent here as a teenager and then of his life with Patricia. She was content just to listen as he rambled on. He started by showing her where he had first hired a boat as a sixteen year old. It had been a twenty-seven foot long sailing boat, the Wandering Breeze, and was Bermuda rigged. This, he explained, seeing her baffled look, was a boat with a triangular sail. He went on talking about booms, gaffs and jibs. These were, he explained, the poles at the bottom and top of the mainsail and the foresail. He lost her completely when explaining that a jib was not a jib unless there were two of them, but as the yachts on the Broads only had one sail, it was not a jib but a foresail. However, everyone referred to them as jibs. He was unable to show her one, as in November there were no sailing boats on the water. Although she didn’t understand what he was talking about most of the time, she was happy just to listen. As she was when he went on to talk about ‘tacking’, ‘reefing’, ‘gybing’ and much more. The more time they spent together and the more he chatted to her, the more relaxed they both became. He then went on to say how he had first met Patricia on that first sailing holiday and how they had grown close and in the end become lovers, then in time had married and had two children. He told her of Pat’s death and his feelings of loss since then. She was a good listener and by the end of three days together, he realised that he had revealed more to her than he had to anyone else, even David and Ruby who he hadn’t been able to talk to about his feelings at all. When they returned to Mrs Burrell’s that evening, he realised that his sense of loss and despair had lifted somewhat and he was now ready to move on.

That evening he took her out to dinner as a thank you for her listening to him. He explained that this had enabled him to reach a decision about his business. He and Pat had run it together with a chandlers shop and a design office which had become a success, but that they had resisted expanding. This was why they had always shut it down over at least two months in the winter. When David had come into the firm just before Patricia’s death, they had allowed him to open another shop in London, and now Ruby also wanted to join the business. She wanted to start selling on line but still he had resisted expansion, not able to cope whilst still being unhappy and depressed after his wife’s death. But now he had come through this period of gloom and stagnation. He would allow them to run the whole thing and he would just concentrate on what he did best, designing boats for the steady stream of clients he had.

The following day was to be one that changed their lives forever. In the morning, they drove to Ludham Bridge, where Alistair launched the small dinghy into the river Ant, stepped a mast and hoisted a lugsail. They sailed upstream towards Barton Broad. The morning was warm for November and Leticia took off her poncho under which she had a grey woollen dress. Alistair was as usual in corduroy trousers slightly worn on the knees, and a roll neck sweater which seemed to her to be the usual way he dressed. He took off his windcheater and laid it next to her cape.

His mood was now much lighter and relaxed, and as they sailed he told her of his two sailing dinghies at Robin Hood’s Bay and Scaling Dam, a Dart and a Laser, and of the sea going yacht he had designed and kept at Maldon in Essex. His plan had been to sail with Pat and the children to Holland and spend some time on the canals there. But it had never happened; the business had always been busy during the summer. Since his wife’s death he had not been to visit the boat at Maldon or use his two racing dinghies at all. Now, he said, with a new sparkle in his eyes, he felt ready to sail again.

They moved the boat next to a small clump of tress and sat chatting on the bank. There were no craft on the river and apart from a solitary fisherman they hadn’t seen anyone at all.

Leticia looked at him and felt her own fears and apprehension recede. She looked at this big bear of a man with his untidy shock of hair, feeling a sudden surge of attraction. He finished by telling her that now his summers would be freer once his children had taken over running the firm he would sail to the continent as he and Pat had planned.

“And it’s all down to you, Letti,” he said, turning to her with a smile. The first real smile she had seen since their meeting three days ago.

As one they moved closer and their lips met. Hungrily, each with their own need, they kissed long and fierce, and as he came even close she felt him hard against her leg. Their hands explored each other and soon they were both lying naked on her poncho which she had spread on to the river bank to sit on. Their coupling was urgent, quick and a release for both of them. Later they made love again, slowly, each rousing the other with both hands and mouths. He cupped her small firm breasts with their erect nipples whilst she stroked and sucked him once more erect.

It was when they got back to Mrs Burrell’s that the two other events occurred. First, Leticia picked up the Eastern Daily Press on the hall table and gave a cry of shock and clutched at Alistair’s arm.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“It’s Heng Lin,” she said, pointing to the main headline. “He’s been killed, shot. He was the man I was supposed to meet. To give the package to.”

The second shock came when they went up to his room and, looking out of the window, she froze and backed away.

“Now what?” he asked.

“It’s Foster, the man I was warned against. He’s watching the house with another man. He must know I’m here. It must have been him who killed Heng Lin.”

Alistair looked out at the two men standing on the other side of the road. He saw the fear and distress in her and came to a quick decision.

“Right. We’ll pack and leave by the back door, the way we came in where the car’s parked. I’ll go down and pay Mrs Burrell, for tonight as well, so she won’t object.”

That was how they came to be staying at The Swan in Horning, booked in as Mr and Mrs Slingsby. Once there, Leticia told him all about her part in the story.

Her father had been an English banker in Hong Kong for many years, and had married her mother, a Chinese woman. Then when Chris Patten, the then Governor, had handed the colony back to China nearly twenty years ago, they had come back to England with their very young daughter. Three years ago her father had died, and Leticia and her mother had returned to Hong Kong. But she hadn’t stayed, not liking the place or her mother’s family. It was, she explained, why she was called Rainbow, Chó Nào in Chinese. She had returned to her father’s house in Bicknacre in Essex, “not far from the windmill, just like the ones here.”

Last month she had gone to visit her mother, and on her return she had agreed to carry a small package back to England to hand over to a man, Heng Lin, in Norwich. Her mother had assured her that it was not drugs, but told her to be on the lookout for a man called Foster, who would try to take it off her. He had come to her house in Essex, but although she had glimpsed him, he had not seen her. Now he was obviously on her trail.

It took two days for Foster to trace them to The Swan. Two days which they had lived as man and wife, with her anxiety once more slowly receding.

Then, this morning, she had gone out to the local shop and not returned. At ten, Alistair’s mobile rang and when he answered heard a stranger at the other end.

“Mr Slingsby, my name is Foster, now listen closely. No, don’t interrupt. Just listen. If you want to see Miss Weeks again, alive that is, you will do exactly as I say. Tonight at precisely 7 pm, you will drive down the track to an old windmill at the map reference I will give you. You will bring the packet with you. It is in Miss Weeks’ suitcase, wrapped in Christmas paper. No tricks, no police, come alone. Now, here is the reference.” After giving it he had rung off.

Thinking hard, Alistair then went into action. He found the packet and studied it. It was about six inches long, a tube he thought, and heavy. Next he found the old mill on his large scale OS map and noted the dyke running up to it, off the river not far from Thurne Mouth. In desperation to have a weapon, he drove down to the coast and made his ‘cosh’. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Then, on impulse, he went out and bought a sharp six inch kitchen knife.

So now here he was, crouched in the reeds watching the lights of the car come down the track. It stopped a short way from the mill and Foster climbed out, leaving the lights on to illuminate the door to the building. He had a gun in his hand.

“Right, come out, Mr Slingsby.”

Silence, apart from the rustle of the wind in the reeds; he called again, angrier this time. Far up the track a torch could be seen coming towards them. Alistair hoped that this was the second man, and that there were no others.

“Let me see Leticia,” he called in a low voice. Foster, unsure where the voice had come from, said something low and she climbed out of the car. Fortunately, she was on his side of the vehicle whilst Foster was on the other.

“Walk forward, Leticia,” he said.

“Stop or I’ll shoot her. I want the package.”

“I’ll throw it towards you,” he replied. “So long as you let her come to me.”

“Ok,” Foster said. Once he’d got it, he could kill them both, they couldn’t get away. And Billy boy was almost here now.

Things then happened fast. Alistair threw the package towards the car as Leticia joined him. Then they both jumped into the dinghy which he pushed away from the jetty into the reeds on the other side of the narrow channel. As the water and rushes he’d stirred up settled, silence returned. Not for long, as Foster gave an angry shout when he opened the package.

“Billy. Get here quickly, the bastard’s swapped the contents for stones. They’re in those reeds, kill the girl but I want him alive to tell us where the proper packet is.
“Ok, boss,” and Billy plunged into the reeds opposite them, and slipped into the water, cursing as he did. The fall made him pull the trigger and a bullet whined off into the night sky.

He was waist deep in muddy water next to the boat, and Alistair stood and brought the blade of an oar hard on to his neck before he could recover and fire again. He sunk into the water with a cry, and then lay face down unmoving.

Foster walked warily forward, calling, “Billy, Billy boy,” over and over again. Only the far off cry of a barn owl answered.

Leticia lay silently in the bottom of the boat, whilst Alistair waited crouched. But Foster was too near, alert and with his gun ready. In desperation, Alistair felt in his jacket pocket and pulled out his homemade cosh. Useless. Then his hands closed on the knife handle.

He threw the sand-filled sock behind the advancing man, who whirled around at the sound of the splash it made, firing twice towards where the splash had come from. Wasting no time, Alistair threw himself across the narrow cut and plunged the knife into his side. It was all over.

They set alight to the car as it contained Leticia’s fingerprints, and then rowed back in the dark to The Swan.

Two days later, they read the sensational newspaper reports.

Two bodies and a burnt out car had been found near an old windmill in Norfolk. A box containing pebbles from a nearby beach had also been at the scene. From guns retrieved there, the police were linking the deaths to a shooting some days earlier of a Chinese man. They thought it was likely that it was a revenge killing linked to drug smuggling. No further progress was ever made in their enquiries.

Eighteen months later, in the summer of 2017, Alistair and Leticia sailed from Maldon to Holland in his boat. It had taken that long for David and Ruby to take over the expanding chandlers business, and for Alistair to complete his latest design.

When in Amsterdam, they sold six big diamonds. The ones Alistair had removed from the packet, replacing them with pebbles from Horsey beach.

John Hardy

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John Hardy was born in North Yorkshire in 1934.

He has lived in rural Spain, near Málaga, for 22 years.

He has published 4 books of short stories of crime and mystery, and one history book about his village.

Details of all these can be found at www.johnhardybooks.com

If you enjoyed Murky Waters, leave a comment and let John know.

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