The black, Arctic 28 Rigid Inflatable Boat loomed out of the darkness to nudge alongside the bottom step, it’s powerful, twin 250hp outboards grumbling, churning the water to be off. Guy stepped gingerly over the green slime weed on the stone to reach the rib. It had ten saddle seats arranged in pairs, filled by Special Boat Services Maritime Counter-Terrorism men in wetsuits and blackout balaclavas. All wore helmets and goggles against the spray. Guy slipped into the free seat. The Royal Marine coxwain at the helm swivelled a finger in the air and the 28 foot inflatable took off downstream, breasting the incoming tide, the murky waters slapping the rubber pontoons in angry, phosphorescent curls.
“You Royce?” The M Squadron Captain shifted to let Guy settle beside him. “I’m Maxwell. We spoke?”
“Yes, Captain. Wapping radar tells me there’s a rib heading for the Woolwich Barrier.”
“Where is it now?”
“Half an hour ahead of us.”
Captain Maxwell spoke into his headset intercom to the coxwain and the rib’s prow lifted. The boat swayed, straining against the tide then shot forward, pinning them to their seat backs. Guy knew the rib was capable of 50 knots and didn’t want to guess at their speed, or what might be in their path in the water.
“Hostage situation?” Maxwell shouted. “Armed men?” The roar of the outboards reduced conversations to bellowed out single phrases. Guy replied as loud as he could.
“Yes, female. Imminent danger.”
“Got a chopper over it?”
“Too dangerous. They might kill her and dump her overboard.”
“So, it’s us then?”
“Yes. Down to you, Captain.”
Maxwell spoke again into the headset and each man lifted an MP5SD sub-machine gun to show him. He said to Guy. “The SD’s silent. No muzzle flash. You can hardly hear it.”
“You won’t hit the girl?”
“Nine mil rounds. Won’t pass through a body into someone else.”
“Hope you’re right, Captain.”
Maxwell gave him a look. “Let’s hope she’s alive when we get there. That’s down to you, Detective Inspector.”
The Iron Barges
Carlos searched over Henrietta’s shoulder. She wanted to see what he saw and swivelled to look down river. She watched the wide hull of a cargo carrier nosing around the bend in the river, coming up on the tide on the port side, now visible in the molten dawn. She guessed it had just navigated the Thames Barrier.
To the starboard side were moored a line of ten iron refuse barges, linked together by rusted steel chains. They were tethered to a buoy that strained with their weight, bucking against the tide. Each floating barge was heaped with the rotting refuse of a hundred garbage trucks that serviced the city. Once filled, the carriers would move in long processions of waste, chained like iron elephants for the journey to the incinerators. She wondered. Was this her fate, too? Carlos guessed at her fears.
“Your cruise line awaits, Miss Fox. Just another item cast away by the greedy people of this foul city. You will never be found, I assure you.”
She watched the hulks draw closer. She could hear them now as they crashed together, bobbing on the water. Her mind swirled and eddied like the river. What if her sister, Grace, and her mother, Siobhan, never knew what happened to her? She felt the keen cut of the river’s wind and tasted the new day on it in her mouth. It felt like ice on her tongue. A day that would be her last.
She heard the clanking of iron chains as they closed on the bulk carriers. Now she smelled the rot from their cargoes across the waves. She felt nauseous. Her mind screamed out at her.
Decide! Decide! Jump and hope, fight and die, simper and cry.
Stark, simple choices. She wanted none of them.
Carlos studied the cargo ship as it closed at speed on their port bow with the tide at her stern. The huge, red oxide hull grew taller with every moment, the throb of its twin diesel engines filling the river at this narrow point. Carlos waved a hand to Marko, calling loudly. “Marko, let it go by! Keep well away. Wait till it passes by. We want no witnesses now.” He turned to Henrietta. “Are you ready, Miss Fox? You will feel nothing. I will kill you quickly. You are lucky I do not let Marko do it, eh?”
She could hear the regular rhythm of the mammoth ship’s engines, beating like a heart deep in the body of the carrier. She craned up to look at the cargo ship that towered above them as it glided upstream and saw the timber, stacked neatly across the decks, the sawn-and-cut-ends hanging over the side rails. The ship sat low in the water. She instinctively looked to the bow, looking for the name, but she knew it already. It was the EKA LOD, plowing her way up river to Lenantons Timber Yard. She heard the crisp bell sound twice as the helmsman pulled the lever, signalling the engine room. In the silence of the new morning the leviathan 20,800 ton ship, laden with wood, let blast one long, nasal hoot from its funnel, followed by three short. The sound deafened them, echoing back and forth between the riverside buildings.
Henrietta braced herself. No witnesses, he had said! Someone on the ship might see her. Why wait to die, slaughtered like an animal under his knife? Carlos would have to come after her and surely the ship would respond? She knew their rib must make an about turn with the rest of the river traffic. With her bound hands she held onto the pontoon grab rope behind her back - but her helmsman did nothing. She looked up sharply. Marko was idly staring downstream.
Then she saw Carlos pulling a stiletto from an inside pocket. He held it as though it were a loved ones’ hand and she thought he caressed it. In that moment she realised their ignorance of the rules of the river. The warning blasts from the EKA LOD had meant nothing to them.
A flurry of foam erupted from the giant’s bow, followed by a widening circle of eddies that formed on the surface of the river. The ship’s bow thrusters, set either side of the prow beneath the waterline, were wildly churning the black Thames, cavitating for grip to swing her about.
In the stern, the twin screws now worked against each other, one full ahead forward, one full astern aft. The timber ship began to spin like a top within its own length to maneuver into the centre of the river, preparing to dock. She knew exactly what was happening and she knew also that, in their ignorance, her tormentors did not.
Time and Tide
Guy checked his watch. Already the black velvet sky was turning to grey. The SBS boat had a searchlight but Captain Maxwell wouldn’t use it. Why tell the enemy you were coming? The coxwain wore night vision goggles. The rib skimmed the tops of the waves like a flat pebble hurled by a giant, the darkness exaggerating their flight downstream in a frenzy of spray. He clung to his seat, hoping it would soon be over. Maxwell had been silent, staring ahead, his troop the same. He wondered what these men thought about. Was it just another task to them, facing danger every day? Perhaps their minds were on what to choose for lunch? Or the girl they would be kissing that night? He was pleased his job kept him on land. He needed that grounding. One step over the side and down you went, surrounded by the fishes. Guy shuddered at the thought. Men for all seasons and this wasn’t his. He touched the scar on his cheek. He wondered if they had already raced over the girl’s body, abandoned upstream by Tolman and his thugs? Wapping River Police would be plodding along behind in their conventional craft watching out for debris in the water. If she was there he hoped they found her, for her parents’ sake.
He really needed daylight. This soft dawn gloom wasn’t enough to see by. Ahead the blast of a steam funnel hooter rent the air, followed by three shorter toots.
Maxwell turned, shouting a reply. “Timber ship, up ahead. We’ll need to slow.”
Guy cursed into the wind and called back. “Don’t let it detain us too much. She might still be alive.”
The EKA LOD
Henrietta was already standing, rocking to keep her balance as the craft bucked and rolled. A voice cried out in her head, cajoling her, commanding her. Don’t be afraid! Jump! Jump! Don’t stay here to die!
She performed a racing dive. Head first, she strained every muscle in her legs to power herself as far away from the rib as possible.
The water struck her like a tomb, icy and engulfing. In the instant silence that followed she saw clouds of bubbles, like silver fish, surrounding her face. Holding her breath as long as she could she struck out, kicking wildly to propel herself away. She couldn’t use her arms but pulled and twisted at the bindings with all her strength. As long as her feet could kick then she had a chance and she thanked God for her hours in the communal pool.
The river’s currents tugged and harried at her; insistent, invisible hands, wanting her to follow them down to the depths and the eels. She kicked out strongly again and again. Desperate for breath, her head broke the surface with a rush of sounds and smells. She tried to tread water, turning herself on her back as she did so.
She heard Carlos cry out to Marko on the wind. He was pointing her out in the water. The inflatable stopped abruptly against the tide, its outboard idling as Marko turned its prow toward her in the water. Losing way, the rib was now directly under the swinging stern of the EKA LOD. The timber ship was performing an instant turn to starboard behind them.
Carlos shot to his feet, yelling. “Marko! Turn, you fool, turn! Full power, get to her! Za Spasavanje!”
Marko dragged at the helm, the outboard now screaming. Its propeller was already lifted clear of the water by the bow wave from the timber ship as it reached the rib. “Marko! Run her down! Do it!”
Carlos gripped the ropes on the inflatable’s pontoons, swearing in his mother tongue. The maelstrom of churning, black water from the EKA LOD’s steel stern spun the rib into the foaming eddies boiling all around it. Henrietta stared horrified from the water, only able to swim backstroke with her hands bound. She was waiting to die at their hands but their craft was held in the swell as the EKA LOD, untroubled by the small boat, slid through the water. Above the throb of its engines she heard the surreal strains of music playing on a radio, high above, somewhere on board.
Henrietta let her body fall backwards and pumped violently with her legs to perform the backstroke, her hands useless. Behind the ship was a whirlpool of currents. She knew she must get as far away as possible before the rib escaped the grip of the timber ship’s swell.
She had not escaped the butcher Carlos only to die under the EKA LOD!
Redemption on the river.
The SBS Arctic 28 powered over the wave tops in a sweep around the EKA LOD. Guy hung on to his seat with one hand and gripped the pontoon grab handle with the other. The servicemen all swayed in unison, perfectly balanced, as though they all rode the same motor bike, which, he thought, they probably could. Swooping out from under the giant ship’s bow Guy spotted their quarry. The paparazzo was in the water, two men in a rigid inflatable maneuvering to get alongside her. She was fighting them, kicking off from their hull as they attempted to drag her out of the river. Guy pointed.
“There, Captain! In the water!”
Maxwell needed no assistance. He was already talking to his squad on his comms unit.
“Three o’clock. Two targets. Watch the hostage. Single shot mode.”
The SBS rib turned, slowing in the water, its prow lowering so that Guy was able to see the deadly struggle ahead of them. The man, Marko, was at the helm, his conspirator, Carlos, stood grabbing at the girl in the water, trying to haul her aboard. He wondered how long she had been in the freezing river? How long could she survive? At least, he thought, her leathers acted as a makeshift wetsuit.
Maxwell was insistent. “Only two men, Detective. You said three?”
“Yes. The main man, Tolman, is missing.”
At the helm of their target, Marko, spotted them zooming out of the darkness toward him. Guy watched him shouting at Carlos who turned to see them. The maritime anti-terror boat was closing quickly, heading for the port side where the struggling girl battled with her assailant. Carlos cried out to Marko at the helm for help but he was gone, disappeared over the side. Guy watched the Serbian killer towering over Henrietta Fox in the surging Thames. Any threatening movement would be enough for him but he couldn’t see a weapon. He wanted to take him alive, to tell him about Ibrahim Tolman’s crimes.
“Capture him, Captain.”
Maxwell was short and not assuring. “Up to him, Royce.”
The Arctic rib closed on the fight in the dark water, Henrietta Fox splashing out with her powerful leg thrusts.
Then Carlos slipped his hand inside his jacket.
Guy tapped Maxwell’s shoulder, crying out a warning above the roar of the engines. “Captain!”
He needn’t have bothered. Maxwell’s arm was in the air.
Carlos pulled the stiletto from his inside pocket. He flicked it open, the blade flashing in the first rays of the burgeoning morning. Henrietta Fox now strained at the leather leash holding her wrists. Soaked from the river it gave a little. She tried to lever her arms apart against the wet bindings, crying out with the pain as she watched the blade in the air, struggling to escape the blade. Carlos was staring down into her eyes, cold, insane fury firing him. She kicked out once more, connecting with the rubber hull, trying to propel herself away from the madman threatening her in the silver cold water.
Guy screamed again. “CAPTAIN!”
Carlos raised the blade up high, preparing to strike down on the helpless girl in the river. She froze, turning away in the water from the strike she knew was coming.
In the still of the silent, leaden dawn eight single shots rang out, echoing between the wharfs and apartment blocks lining the River Thames, the cracks ricocheting across the empty water. Carlos jerked like a marionette and tumbled backwards, the knife flying into the night wind to splash down and disappear. The body shots propelled him backwards across the rib, a bundle of rags as the bullets tore through his suit and his body in an instant. His lifeless form overbalanced and crashed into the icy tideway, the rip tide sweeping him away upstream. Guy shouted out. “Let him go! Wapping will get him. Get me to the girl!”
Pulling alongside, Guy dragged at Henrietta, pulling her up by the shoulders into the Arctic 28. She lay over the rubber pontoon, retching up lungfuls of Thames water as Guy cut the leather leash at her wrists. She looked up at him, her soaked, red fringe flattened over her eyes and spluttered.
“This is my story, Royce. You tell anyone I’ll sue you for incompetence.”
Guy’s laughter rocked across the quiet waterway. “Yeah, Henri. Of course you will.”