Cornwall, England – 1977
Stanley Higgins closed the hatch, turned off the cabin lights and fumbled his way towards his bunk. He patted his wife’s behind, as he passed her shadowy figure encased in a sleeping bag.
“Night love.” He zipped his own bag up, and let out a long, satisfied sigh. About to give himself up to the boat’s cradle-like rocking Mave’s voice startled him.
“Stan. What’s that noise?”
“What noise?” He raised his head, but could hear nothing more than the gentle, gurgling sounds of the night.
“That. Sounds like something bumping.”
“It’s just the anchor chain jerking. Go back to sleep, love.” Stan closed his eyes.
“There it is again! You’ll have to go and look. What if we’re dragging the anchor, we’ll end up on the mud flats. Or, what if it’s Beaky?”
“Beaky?” His eyes snapped open. He recalled the story in the Falmouth Packet about a wild dolphin that was hanging around the Fal Estuary. He’d become famous for playing with swimmers in the shallows, which was fine, but when it came to pranks like moving small anchors, well, that was something else again. Stan sighed and unzipped his bag. In bare feet, he edged towards the shelf where he kept the torch.
“Stay here. I’ll go and look.” He lifted out the washboards and climbed outside. A brilliant moon lit up the night and the water appeared as a moving mass of black and silver. He grasped the handholds on the cabin roof and made his way forward to check the anchor. The deck bobbed in the choppy conditions. Wind funnelled in through his pyjamas and made him wish he’d stopped for a jacket. He heard Mave step into the cockpit.
“You didn’t have to come, love. It’s cold out here.”
“I want to see what’s making that noise.”
Stan reached the foredeck and shone his torch into the water. The boat had pulled back on the anchor against the outgoing tide, but the stronger wind blowing at right angles to the river had pushed the stern out across the flow.
He turned to Mave. “See, nothing here, it’s a rough patch, that’s all.”
“Look there! Isn’t that Beaky, that white bit?”
Stan held the torch steady. A shape like the long white belly of a huge fish appeared in its beam. Caught halfway along the leeward side of the boat, it gently bumped the hull, bounced off and then pushed by the tide came on again, slowly bumping its way towards the stern.
He snapped his fingers. “Gimme the boathook.”
Mave unclipped the pole from the deck and handed it to him. Stan stabbed the water and the pale shape slewed sideways. He caught his breath as in the narrow shaft of brilliance a head broke the surface. Long tendrils of chestnut coloured hair spread like a fine seaweed around the unmistakable slope of shoulders.
“Oh, shit. Take this. Hold it still.” He handed Mave the torch and using the pole, he thrust its hook behind the neck and pulled his catch into the side of the boat.
“Get me a rope – starboard locker. Quick, before I lose it.”
Mave scuttled down the deck. When she returned with the rope, he passed her the boathook. “Hold this.” His fingers quickly formed a noose in the end of the rope. He lay flat on the side deck, and with one arm bent around a stanchion, he stretched the other down towards the body until, despite Mave’s wavering torchlight, he managed to loop the rope over the head.
“Keep the light still,” he shouted, and drew the rope taut. The body rolled and revealed a white swollen face of a woman. Naked, the form appeared to dance in the current. The water movement lifted her enough to show him a pair of hands held as though in prayer across her chest. “Oh, shit.”
Shards of light reflected off the shiny steel handcuffs that bound her wrists together.