Manchester, 2002. The Commonwealth Games are coming to town and the city is alive with possibilities.
‘A dark under-current of intrigue… I was drawn in relentlessly. Simms is at the forefront of new British crime fiction.’
DI Jon Spicer’s investigation into the vicious slaying of a Russian asylum-seeker grinds to a halt when the man’s identity turns out to be false. It seems the only truth to his story was the fact he was found drifting off the British coast in a small boat.
Before the man’s true identity can be discovered, more asylum-seekers start to die – each murdered in the same horrific way. By the time Spicer realises what links the men, he knows there’s a trained assassin at large who’s desperate to guard a secret of enormous magnitude. And when he ignores MI5’s warnings to back-off, he also becomes the target of a man whose sole purpose is to kill.
And all the while, a series of heartbreaking and enigmatic messages are being found drifting in from the sea – slowly revealing the appalling plight of a group of refugees trapped on a raft.
Graceful and white, the sheet of seawater rose above the bow of the ship and was shredded by the wind. Instants later the haze of droplets struck the windscreen of the bridge, filling it with a sound like wet cement hitting the inside of a mixer. All visibility momentarily lost, the vessel continued its sickening lurch and the man gripping the metal railing felt the same fear as when his torturers’ footsteps used to halt outside his cell.
Then the wiper swept the sliding layer of liquid from the glass and he glimpsed sky again. Looking about, the man lifted his fingers to the network of thin scars that encircled his throat. The skin had been left to heal badly, the tissue so heavily puckered in places it seemed to drag the corners of his mouth down to expose a jagged row of lower teeth. ‘How far west do you intend to go?’
Keeping both hands on the ship’s wheel, the Master glanced at the radar screen. ‘As far as I need to avoid that whore of a storm.’
To their right, a black anvil of cloud pressed down on the horizon. Snakes of foam had begun to streak the sea around the ship and every time a crest formed, its tip appeared to smoke in the gathering gale.
The man’s fingers lowered from his ruined throat. ‘And we’re already six hours outside the shipping lane?’
‘So this will cost us a full day, maybe more?’
‘Better that,’ the Master replied, ‘than we sail into the vicious bitch over there. See? There is already movement on the containers up on deck. I can’t afford to have any go over the side.’
Cursing, the man braced himself as the ship now began to roll sideways. They’d been delayed by almost two days getting through the Suez Canal. Now this. The people in America who awaited their arrival would not be happy.
A chair, broken free of its restraining clips, rolled across the gleaming floor to bump into the backs of his legs. He kicked at it with a heel, sending it crashing over on its side.
Below them, sea-water that had been sloshing aimlessly around the deck began streaming to starboard as the heel of the vessel increased. But, before it could pour from the ship’s deck, another wave hit. Vapour exploded up then was whipped towards the bridge as if being sucked into the vent of a monstrous machine. Their view of the forty-foot metal containers lined up across the deck disappeared. Then, as the wiper swept back across the glass, the man blinked with astonishment. He could see two women. Wearing jeans and thin tops, they clung to the corner of a container, hair whipping about as they waved frantically at the bridge with their free hands.
The man’s thick eyebrows bunched, forming a solid line across his brow. ‘What?’
Beside him, the Master’s face turned white.
A mass of cardboard boxes appeared from nowhere and began washing about the deck. A third woman appeared from one of the narrow gaps running between the rows of containers, this one clutching a suitcase. Several of the wooden pallets which were used to place freight on inside the containers glided into view, followed by a mass of yellow objects. Ducks. Hundreds and hundreds of grinning plastic ducks.
‘The doors to one of the containers must have come loose.’
‘Come loose?’ The man turned to the Master, fury thickening his voice. ‘How many people have you got down there?’
‘Me? They’re not mine.’
‘Mykosowski. He gave the instructions.’
‘Mykosowski?’ The man thought about the ship’s owner, probably sitting in his London office and contemplating how much money he’d make this month. The stupid, greedy bastard. ‘How many?’
The Master’s cheeks puffed out momentarily, air escaping from his lips with a fleshy pop. ‘Just under fifty.’
‘In one container?’
‘Two. About twenty women in one, all the men in another.’
‘This was to be a clean ship. That was the condition. No risks, nothing illegal.’ He shook his head, cursing under his breath. ‘Where did you pick them up?’
‘Pakistan? They were already onboard when you docked at Umm Qasr?’
The Master nodded. ‘Once we were clear of Iraqi waters, they were moved to a pair of containers up on deck.’
‘Where are they going?’
‘The deal is to drop them off the British coast before we dock at Felixstowe.’
Bottom teeth exposed in a silent snarl, the man glanced down once more. The deck was now completely covered in a bright yellow layer of ducks, dozens cascading into the sea, boxes and wooden pallets following them. More heads were now peeping from between the rows of containers. Arabs. Possibly Chinese. A man wearing a Pakastani shalwar stepped forward, waving a lit distress flare above his head.
Nervously, the Master of the ship ran a hand over his mouth. ‘They’ve opened the other container. Shit.’
Several cardboard boxes had split open, leaking bunches of skipping ropes. They washed about among the ducks like the tentacles of ocean creatures seeking prey.
The man slammed a fist against the side of an angle-poise lamp, sending it swinging on its hinge into the console. The bulb inside shattered and shards of glass fell onto the Master’s chart. ‘Drop them off in what?’
‘There’s a lifeboat in each container. No markings, nothing to link them to this ship once we set them down. After we were well clear, they were meant to light those distress flares –’
‘That’s not going to happen.’
‘Are there any other ships nearby?’
The Master examined the radar once again. ‘No. We’re on our own out here.’
‘Slow the ship down and bring her round.’ He turned to a shaven-headed man who had, until that moment, been standing silently by the door to the bridge, back pressed against the wall, knees slightly flexed in readiness for the ship’s roll. The top of one of his ears was missing. ‘Marat, get the others. Put your wet-weather gear on and meet me on the forward deck.’
The Master raised a hand. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Getting rid of them,’ the man with throat-scars replied.
‘We lock them back in their containers and dump them overboard.’
Still looking at his colleague, the man motioned with his chin. ‘Marat, go.’
‘Wait,’ the Master blustered. ‘I am in charge here. I will not let you do this.’
The edges of his charts began to furiously flap as Marat stepped out into the gale. Once the door had clicked shut, the man turned to the Master, eyes sliding contemptuously over the insignia on the shoulders of his white shirt. ‘Your rank means nothing to me.’
‘I am Master of this ship!’
The man took a step closer and the open collar of his khaki shirt parted slightly, showing more of the ugly lattice-work of scars that enmeshed his throat. ‘You answer to Mykosowski, same as me. My orders are to ensure that nothing puts the delivery of that container below deck at risk. Nothing.’ He glanced down at the huddles of people clinging to whatever they could find on the deck below. ‘Not them. Not any pirate ship off the African coast. Not even you.’
‘But, you can’t just throw them overboard,’ the Master whispered.
The man stepped closer, his bottom teeth showing like points. ‘You want maybe to join them?’
The Master’s eyes dropped and he turned away without another word.
Who’d have thought a freight ship losing its cargo of rubber ducks during a storm out in the Atlantic would result in this novel? But that’s the truth – reading about how the flotilla of bath toys was slowly carried by ocean currents to be eventually deposited on the British coast got me thinking.
What if, contained within the ducks, there was a series of notes written by a refugee who’d also been washed from the ship? What if the notes were pieced together and the person’s plight gradually revealed?
So there I had the basis of my story. Other questions quickly followed on. Who was the refugee? Where had the person come from? What was the intended destination?
As the plot took shape, it led me into the controversial area of immigrants and asylum seekers. As luck would have it, Liverpool (an hour’s train journey from Manchester) is home to one of the UK’s two screening centres – Border Agency facilities where every person entering the UK to claim asylum has to report.
The story started taking on a momentum of its own. I certainly had no idea that, in time, I would be writing about MI5 surveillance operations, CIA agents and a fearsome ex-member of Russia’s special forces who is very handy with a garrotte.
And all because those grinning ducks slowly bobbed their way to Britain across thousands of miles of open sea.