It was a pleasure boat.
At least, that's how owner and skipper George Crane would have described it. It had been bought for pleasure back in the late-1980's when business was thriving, money both plentiful and cheap. He'd bought it to indulge himself. His wife had nagged about the waste of money, but then she suffered from chronic sea-sickness and wouldn't set foot on it. She wouldn't set foot on it, but there were plenty of woman who would.
Plenty of women for George Crane and his friends. There was Liza, for example, who liked to stand on deck clad only in her bikini bottom, waving at passing vessels. God, Liza, Siren of the South Coast. Where was she now? And all the others: Gail, Tracy, Debbie, Francesca…He smiled at the memories: of routes to France, Portugal, Spain; of trips taken around the treacherous British Isles. Trips taken with women aboard, or with women picked up en route. Wine and good food and perhaps a few lines of coke at the end of the evening. Good days, good memories. Memories of the pleasure boat Cassandra Christa.
But no pleasure tonight, the boat gliding across a calm British Channel. This was a business trip, the client below decks. Crane hadn't caught much more than a glimpse of her as she'd clambered aboard with her rucksack. Brian had gone to help her, but she hadn't needed any. She was tall, he was certain of that. Dark maybe, as in dark-haired, not dark-skinned. European? He couldn't say. Brian hadn't been able to add much either.
'Just asked if she could go below. Better down there than up here getting in the way.'
'She said that?'
Brian shook his head. 'All she said was "I'm going below". Not even a question, more like an order.'
'Did she sound English?'
Brian shrugged. He was a good honest soul, unburdened by intellect. Still, he would keep his mouth shut about tonight's work. And he came cheap, since he was already one of George Crane's employees, one of that dwindling band. The business had overextended itself, that was the problem. Too big a loan to push the business into new areas, areas drying up just as George Crane arrived. More loans to cover the earlier loan…It was bad luck. Still, the business would weather it.
Cassandra Christa, however, might not. He'd put word out that she was for sale, and an ad had been placed in a couple of newspapers: one quality Sunday, one daily. There had been just the one phone call so far but it was early days, besides which maybe he wouldn't have to sell after all. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes short of three in the morning. Crane stifled a yawn.
'Want me to check the cargo?' Brian asked. Crane smiled.
'You stay where you are, you randy little sod. The cargo can look after itself.'
Crane had been told - had been ordered - not to be interested, not to be nosy. No chit-chat, no questions. It was just a delivery, that was all. He didn't quite know what he'd expected. Some chisel-chinned IRA bastard or ex-pat felon. He certainly hadn't expected a young woman. Young? Well, she moved like a young woman.
He had to admit he was intrigued, despite the warning. The worst part would be coming up soon: the landing on the coast. But she spoke English, so that shouldn't pose any problem even if they were stopped. A midnight cruise, take the boat out, breathe in the ozone, that sort of thing. A nod and a wink to customs or whoever. They understood these things. The pleasure of making love on the deck of a boat, sky above, water all around. He shivered slightly. It had been a long time. The good days seemed an awful long time ago. But maybe they'd return. A few more runs like this wouldn't go amiss. Money for old rope. And to think he'd worried about it for weeks. Shame really that he was selling the boat. But if he did a good job, a smooth job of work, they might employ his talents again. Another job or two would save the Cassandra Christa. Another couple of jobs like this one and he'd be home and dry.
'I told you I don't like "Skip". Skipper's okay.'
Crane nodded. Brian's attributes included sharp night vision. Yes, there it was now. The coastline. Hythe and Sandgate probably. Folkestone just a little to the east, their destination. Folkestone was their drop-off, the danger point. Then they'd turn the boat back towards Sandgate where it had its mooring. More instructions: after depositing the cargo, head back out to sea before making for final mooring. Do not hug the coastline as this would make them more likely to be spotted.
A silly order really, but he'd been told at the start: you either follow the orders to the letter or you don't take the job.
'I'll take the job,' he'd said. But the man had shaken his head.
'Don't make up your mind so quickly, Mr Grane.' That was the way he'd said it - Grane. He had trouble with consonants. Danish? Something Scandinavian? Or Dutch maybe? 'Take your time. You need to be sure for yourself. I'll telephone you next week. Meantime, happy sailing.'
Happy sailing? Well, plain sailing anyway. Crane didn't expect trouble. There was no Customs activity to speak of round here these days. Cutbacks. The British coastline was like a net - full of holes through which you could push through unseen anything you liked. Crane had been definite about that.
'Not if it's drugs. I won't have anything to do with drugs.'
The foreigner had shaken his head slowly. 'Nothing like that. It's just a body.'
'A live body, Mr Grane. Very much alive. Someone who wants to see England but finds themselves stranded on the Continent without a passport.'
'Ah.' Crane had nodded at that. He had his ideas: missing peers, runaways, crooks from the Costa Del Sol who'd decided they'd pay anything for the pleasure of an afternoon in a British boozer. 'What about a name then?'
Another shake of the head. 'No names, Mr Grane.'
'So how will I know if I've got the right person?'
An indulgent smile. 'How many people do you think will be in the middle of the English Channel at midnight, waiting to meet a boat?'
Crane had laughed. 'Not many, I suppose. Any night in particular?'
'I'll let you know. I must warn you now, you won't get much notice, a few hours at most. So make sure you are home every evening. Make sure you remain available. And Mr Grane…?'
'Better think up a story to tell your wife.'
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