Tuesday, May 5, 2009

France 19 - The Lonely Sea and the Sky



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I

Next morning, early, Steve hollered for them from the shore.

Both came out and waved back.  Jumping into the water, they waded to shore and shook his hand, then went back up to his cabin. The girls were playing with the two kids and Michelle was now more satisfied.

‘John, I have to ask you one thing.  In Frankfurt, did you kill anyone?’

‘Yes.  Three special forces agents who were sent to kill me.’

‘That’s not the information Don has. His file says you murdered three men in cold blood.’

‘Michelle, Steven, I had been brought into Germany under the seat of a car.  I was left in an old house, a derelict house no one lived in.  Three armed people, in uniform, came into that house with submachine guns to kill me.  I killed them.  Then I was hidden in a café by local people.  These people knew exactly what had happened. There are lies everywhere.  The lies come to your sergeant via the system and he has no other story to compare it to.’

‘Well, I can’t go past what I read on the net last night and you don’t seem a killer.  You’re a police sergeant yourself.’

‘Inspector,’ Hugh corrected. ‘You want to know how Jean-Claude came into this?  He was investigating an attempt on my life.  He was doing a normal, bog standard investigation, saw what was going on and joined us.  This thing is like a spider’s web, Steve.’

Steve phoned Don Richards and told him in fine detail, Hugh wondering that the sergeant seemed to be back on the island quite early.  They wouldn’t have got too far if they’d run.

‘OK, guys, Don doesn’t want to meet you because he’d have to file a report.  He trusts me on this so here’s the go.  We’ll make sure you have basic things on your boat.  You need a radio for a start, flares and a few things.  If you haven’t got the readies now -’

‘We do,’ said Jean-Claude quietly. ‘We just didn’t have access to the equipment earlier.’

‘You were damned lucky, you know.  Right, so we’ll do that today and tomorrow, let the storm blow over and then you’ll be away.  The ladies will stay with us and you two will stay with the boat.  Tonight you’d best get it up on the beach – I’ll send a couple of the boys down to help, we’ll drive some pegs into the sand and tie her down.  The sand isn’t deep and there’s clay under that.  It’s about all we can do for now.  So let’s go down and enjoy the beach before the storm hits.’

Hugh moved over to where the ladies were.  'Genie, Emma and Jean-Claude - I haven't made things comfortable for you.  I was worried we had to keep moving, that everyone was our enemy.  I should have known it was no way to expect you to live.'

Michelle had been nodding on with approval but Emma spoke up. 'If I had thought you were mistreating us, I would have said so.   You know me.  I love this now but I do not think anyone was to blame.'

Genevieve knew she was expected to concur but she did blame Hugh for the discomfort and her tardiness now was noted by all.  'Well,' she concluded, 'all's well which ends well.  We'll be a floating palace when we depart.'  She laughed to defuse it.

II

The storm came, buffeting the boat something awful and then it passed, all on the same day.

There was another one likely to generate early the following week but that gave them a window of opportunity to get away. Michelle had been down to look at the accommodation and was horrified what the women had had to put up with. She went to Thompson’s and bought vinyl covered camp mattresses and sleeping bags for them; the men could do as they liked.

A couple of men brought down some dowel, some ply and two-by-one and put up a couple of shelves inside. The cabin roof was repaired and reinforced; the hull itself was acknowledged as fine. The sails were looked at and were still in good nick. Besides, it was too late to have Dacron sails made up.

So the time was spent going over all the systems and getting supplies in, to last two months at a pinch.

.o0o.

The day of the launch came and not many people knew of it. Much had been stored on Steve’s computer which would come in handy later, they thought. He was virtually trustee for them now, should anything happen and the two of them were rapt to be so busy and so needed.

Geneviève insisted they buy a present – she’d seen a crystal fruit bowl which would fit the bill and that was given, to much protestation. In the end, it was probably their manner which had won people over - that and the crazy mission they appeared to be on.

It was decided they’d sail after dusk and Steve would guide them clear of the island in his own boat, as he knew the waters like the back of his hand. Therefore, they had their last lazy day of sunbathing and swimming for a while and a slap up supper back at the cabin.

.o0o.

It was time.

Michelle stayed with the kids and Steve and a few of the boys went down to help launch. Just before they did, he asked the two men what ammo they used and Hugh said 9 mil parabellum and 45s. He handed over two boxes and told them to stay shtum. ‘There’s no 9 mil but the 45s are OK.’

‘How much do we -’ Steve brushed the question aside and said his farewell bit, then they all shook hands. They got the Sophie-Fleury into sufficient water, the ladies were lifted onboard and farewells were said.

In proper wet weather gear at last, they felt a million dollars.

Hugh and Jean-Claude hoisted the sails, retracted the anchor and checked the drogue back into its place; this had been left overboard until now to prevent drifting.

The boat turned, the sails filled and they were away on the next leg.

Steve’s motorboat led the way slowly and they followed. He took them clear of the last set of rocks strewn out into the sea and then blasted his horn. They had no horn to reply with so, in the light of the porto-lamp, they waved.

Then they doused the lights, the girls went below and Hugh went to the forward cabin to drowse. Jean-Claude was at the helm but now with a luminous compass. In the aft cabin was a pencil light over a chart table and the correct chart for these waters.

.o0o.

Morning saw the usual routine and they gathered, breakfast over with and with Genie at the helm, about 10:20.

The wind was coming from the south-west as they turned northish and the flat reach had them heeling at a fair angle, the ama deep in the water and everything secured.

Sophie-Fleury must have been making about twelve knots at this point, shooting off crests ahead, descending into troughs and climbing the next crest rapidly, not the most pleasant for the people below so Emma asked what the rush was.

‘That’s fair,’ said Jean-Claude; Hugh heard it and came to help reef to half sail. With the speed dowsed, the boat tended to ride the crest and stay there, much more comfortable for the cabin dwellers. ‘It saves the gear anyway,’ Jean-Claude concluded.

Emma now sat with Geneviève. 

Dolphins appeared again and seagulls followed the boat too, hoping for scraps, which sadly, they received too few of. 

The last gull gave them away a few kilometres further on and flew back home, wherever that was.

The dolphin’s honour guard also broke off a bit further on and now they were on their own.

.o0o.

The plan was audacious.

They would sail to Tenerife, where Steve’s business partner had a waterfront villa. From there, they’d contact Carly on Jean-Claude’s transponder and ask her to fly to meet them. The carrot would be the transponder codes and the technology which they’d guarded to that point.

The reason to bring her in to it was that she had the best strategic brain they knew and that was going to be necessary to spring Thirteen from the Seven. Section Sophie-Fleury had had the audacity but they’d lacked a sense of the double and triple cross which were going to be needed here.

Geneviève was sure Carly would come in on it, not only for the gain to her Section or even to see them again but because of the humanitarian nature of their task.

The public had become jaded by the constant stream of names of grey men who’d been corrupt and were now exposed. What the public was always ready for was an audacious rescue mission, with lots of human compassion thrown in. This would get the press in who hadn’t already been nobbled. Certainly the internet would be abuzz.

The little matter of actually getting the boat there did not seem to worry them any, any except Hugh, that was.

A double wedding at Fontainebleau was spoken of and a visit to the farmhouse one last time. One thing they agreed was that Sophie-Fleury, the Section, was moribund, had been since before the island.   What they'd find in Europe was unknown but they had no real choice but to go back - everyone felt the same on that.

Jean-Claude now outlined the need to always have a plan and gave examples.  The women knew this.

The good ship Sophie-Fleury sailed on in a fresh breeze, perhaps six weeks at sea ahead of her.

.o0o.

How to convey the sense of aloneness but never loneliness of that boat, of isolation, of the sea, the sky, the occasional wildlife to break the monotony, then the sea and the sky again? It settled over them, that atmosphere.

Hugh had been scribbling for some time on the notepad he’d bought at Lord Howe Island and now he came out with the result. ‘Timetable for our new watches, everyone.’

‘For our what?’ asked Emma.

‘Our watches – when we need to be on duty. There’s a lot to take into account.'

‘Why do we need new watches?’ Geneviève wanted to know. ‘The old ones were fine.’

‘For that situation, yes but the sailing gets harder, Genie. The wind is in front of us soon, the seas are big and the boat goes up and down, with waves crashing over us - this is wearing. The diet we’re on, the fact that we can’t get off this boat, the fatigue – we start to get in each other’s way, get irritable, say things and think others aren’t doing their work.

Then we start to make mistakes and any mistake on a boat can be death. I’m not saying that to frighten you but a timetable makes sure we get enough rest, it protects your rest and that’s going to become increasingly important. We can always blame the timetable – it stops us blaming each other.’

‘All right, so explain what’s on the paper.’

I’ve divided the watches into three hour periods, with four people. There are four states you can be in – on duty, on standby, on call if there’s an emergency and the last one – off duty. It’s vital that the person off duty is never called on duty. If we fail to respect this, each of us will never get any real rest. Don’t forget we need to be fresh and ready to go into Tenerife.

Here it is – the letters are us, in the combinations we’d be in:

G: Geneviève
J: Jean-Claude
F: Emma
H: Hugh

1st Night

21:00-24:00 HF…JG
00:00-03:00 FH…GJ
03:00-06:00 JG…HF
06:00-09:00 GJ…FH

1st Day

09:00-12:00 HF…JG
12:00-15:00 FJ…GH
15:00-18:00 JG…HF
18:00-21:00 GH…FJ

2nd Night

21:00-24:00 JG…HF
00:00-03:00 GJ…FH
03:00-06:00 HF…JG
06:00-09:00 FH…GJ

2nd day

09:00-12:00 JG…FH
12:00-15:00 GF…HJ
15:00-18:00 FH…JG
18:00-21:00 HJ…GF

3rd Night

21:00-24:00 GF...JH
00:00-03:00 FG…HJ
03:00-06:00 JH…GF
06:00-09:00 HJ…FG

3rd day

09:00-12:00 GF…HJ
12:00-15:00 FH…JG
15:00-18:00 HJ…GF
18:00-21:00 JG…FH

Then it repeats. The order of the letters is important,’ Hugh continued. ‘First letter is on duty, on the helm; second letter is on standby, making tea, just being around. Third letter is off duty but if the boat’s in trouble, he or she would have to come up on deck. The two on duty should do everything possible not to call out N3 – imagine you’re sleeping and someone calls you out, just to tie a sheet.’

‘A sheet?’ asked Geneviève.

‘A rope, a line which pulls the sail in.’

‘Ah.’

‘That fourth letter really must be completely off duty unless the boat's going down.'

‘Why so insistent?’

‘Because we're going to be very, very tired, very weary by about Africa and if you're off duty and know you can't be called, you'll relax enough to sleep.’

‘I’d agree with that,’ said Jean-Claude.

‘Me too,’ from Emma.

‘Well, I’m all for a guaranteed rest time,’ agreed Geneviève.

Hugh took up the baton again. ‘If you look at the 3rd Night, I imagine Jean-Claude and Hugh won’t sleep together but I’d assume the girls will, given the configuration of our berths. Also, everyone gets time with everyone else during the day at some point. Hope you like it.’

‘I’d like to look at it in detail,’ said Jean-Claude, ‘but it seems to cover it fine at first glance. The six hours off duty at night is nice but six hours on is hard.’

‘Ah - the people on duty are free to arrange that as they wish, taking it in turns as they see fit. For example, one might need the toilet, another will go and make tea. You might even do thirty minutes on, thirty off – whatever is most comfortable for you. Don’t forget, we sail with reduced sail at night and it’s easier.’

‘What if there’s a storm again?’ asked Emma.

‘Two people should be able to do the work but if it’s absolutely necessary, N3 will come on deck for short periods, just to take care of some job which needs three. Please observe one rule. Anytime you leave the cockpit, wear the safety line, even for a little thing like stepping a metre or two to pick something up. Many a sailor has died from just doing this or just doing that without the line. It’s inconvenient but we can’t take the chance.’

‘This talk of dying,’ sighed Emma.

‘I’m sorry. Better to know the dangers and be prepared.’

‘When do we start?’ asked Geneviève.

‘Tonight at 21:00.’

‘Do I have to sleep with Mademoiselle? asked Emma.

‘Oui,’ Hugh replied, but with a smile.

‘What if she doesn’t want to?’ she retorted.

‘She does. Thanks, Hugh.’

‘Cup of coffee, anyone?’ was Jean-Claude’s contribution.

III

They’d made their way around Cape York and were now travelling across the top of Australia, through the Timor Sea. The boat was currently on the first reef of the sail, in a wind of maybe fifteen knots over their starboard quarter and with a chop of about one metre.

Hugh couldn’t help but wonder how far Don Richards’ little entry on the computer was now assisting their free passage. Jean-Claude had found himself a place, propped up in bed, with the new pillows behind him and the hatch open.

Geneviève was at the helm, Hugh getting some eats ready for'ard and that afforded her time to think.  She went back over her post-trip situation again.

Jean-Claude was a man of some substance, they both had property and it was not too late for her to have a family. He’d done something to offend the gods in the early days and had found himself in the surete. Strange profession for one of his name.

He’d probably departed the surete at the right time – there weren’t too many places he could have gone from there. Perhaps he could do consultancies, be on boards, live the life of a retired gent. It’s all they really needed. Soon they’d be part of the local community, hopefully in Fontainebleau and would count various key people in their circle of friends.

It was not a future to be sneezed at.

Hugh was outrageous and sometimes almost lawless but she did love him. She feared for him and would try to stay as close by as possible, keeping him on the straight and narrow but the trouble with Hugh was that he was an opportunist.  

Was Emma as itinerant as he was? Not really, not as Nikki had been. Nikki and Hugh had not always been good for one another because they'd goaded each other on but they were a pretty good match all the same, she had to admit it.   They'd all had to.

And now, though Emma was vulnerable to Hugh in a big way, she also controlled him and that was no bad thing.   Emma wanted her shot at happiness for once but could this man give it to her?   If she, Genie, reined in her queenly bossiness, if she could be that feminine creature again Hugh had fallen for, she might keep him as her own.   Fly in the ointment was that he loved Emma.   Crazy thing, that feeling.  It undercut everything.

There was no point being a dog in a manger. Even if Hugh became free once more, she couldn’t see herself taking him on now – two rejections was too much for one person to bear. She wouldn’t take him on out of pity either.

IV

‘We’re getting reports of them sailing a boat near Australia. It tallies with what we could expect of them and the boat’s headed our way,’ reported Peter Jambres.

‘A sailboat?’ asked Freischutz.

‘A little boat they apparently built with native help. It’s definitely their motif.’

‘Where are they hoping to reach?’

‘That’s anyone’s guess. We have a fix on their position and we’ll monitor it. Now, the CPC pipeline and the port facilities. Turkey is being difficult.’

‘Why would that be a problem? Sarkozy has eased on their entry to the union. They could bend on this.’

'We could take out this boat.'

'No, we have a little welcome for them, we need them in custody.  Let them battle high seas and walk into our hands at the other end.'

V

Sarah Retton knocked on Carly’s office door and was bidden entry.

‘Sarah?’

‘Our source has picked up that Roget received a report that Sophie-Fleury have been tracked and are passing through the Timor Sea close to Australia … in a little boat.’

‘If you hadn’t told me the last part, I’d not have credited it. Our last report had them on an island in the South Pacific. A boat, yes. Now here’s a chance to shine, Sarah. Where are they going?’

‘To Europe.’

‘We know that. At least they think that’s where they’re going. The little matter of being monitored by every coast guard they come near, their vulnerability to pirates – they’d need a miracle to get through. If Roget knows, it could be curtains. We have people in Mumbai and Jakarta but I doubt they’re going there.

They may try for Russia, attempting to activate help from the Section there but that’s all changed now. K knew Hugh but this is a different K now - no special relationship. He’s been out too long and I'm sure he knows all this.

I think they’ll get close to Europe and contact me. If they’re going to do what I think they have in mind, they’ll need our help, as France has gone pear-shaped. Keep your ear out for any communication.’

VI

South of Madagascar, they started to hit the head winds and big seas, which blotted out the late afternoon sun and had everyone apprehensive, most of all Hugh.

He took over some watches which weren’t his own, at least for the bulk of the time and when he was off duty, he hovered around, either in the cabin or in the ama until it became impossible with the pounding.

Tales of the journey below Africa were folklore in yachting circles and he didn’t tell them the half of it.

They got the general idea though, with almost every wave expending part of itself on their deck and the bow slamming down after each crest. Emma came out to him as the night shift came around and he let her stay for thirty minutes, done up in her wet gear with some added embellishments of her own.

Then he squeezed her hand and asked her to go below and stay warm. If she wanted to help him, she could bring coffee.

His shift ended and Jean-Claude came on for the night watch. They chatted about how to keep the head forward, not to force the sails, even if they temporarily lost wind and to try not to use the rudder too much – to apply it slowly at first and build the pressure but only to a point. They had enough sea room to let the boat go the wind's way. If there was any emergency, please wake him.

Inside, Emma had been sitting with Geneviève but now he’d come in, she helped him off with his wet gear, pushed him into bed and climbed in beside him to give him body heat. Geneviève was in the other berth, inside the sleeping bag but ready to go up on deck.

There was little conversation.

It must have been about 02:00 when the thump on the front deck came, the cabin roof cracked and water started to spray in. The boat also started to veer wildly. Hugh’d been asleep so Geneviève poked her head out to see if Jean-Claude was all right and Emma woke Hugh.

Geneviève rushed back in. ‘Jean-Claude’s not there!’

Hugh stumbled into the wet gear, helped by Emma and got out inside a minute. The tiller was yawing wildly and there was no sign of Jean-Claude. Over the din, he could hear the man calling, saw the line as taut as a drum, clipped one on himself and followed the line over the stern. Jean-Claude was in the water, Hugh called for Geneviève, called for her to clip a line on and help; between them they managed to get him back on board, his own leg helping at the last.

Hugh poked his head in the cabin and asked Emma to rug up and get out on the tiller. Then he took the tiller until she got there, Geneviève and Hugh got Jean-Claude below, removed the soaking gear and got him, in his underwear, into the zippable sleeping bag. Geneviève climbed in with him and Hugh went out to Emma.

‘Can you make a hot drink for Jean-Claude?’ he shouted near her ear.

She nodded, as another wave crashed on the bow, knocking it to port. Emma went below. She re-emerged with a cognac and welcome it was. She made as if to stay but Hugh wouldn’t have it, went back in and made some soup from the dried ingredients and brought him some.

Visibility was virtually non-existent, except for the eerie glow of the compass – he knew he needed ship’s lights but only had the battery variety they’d bought on Lord Howe Island. The starboard light had stopped working, as had the stern but the other two were functioning.

There was enough light though to see the mass of spray suddenly coming at him, he turned his head and dropped to the bench. It hit him full in the back and then came another one. Turning back forward and spluttering, another hit the cockpit but missed him. This was no fun.

Emma pulled open the hatch and shouted if he was all right. He put his thumb up, just as another wave caught him, as he was turning away. She closed the hatch but emerged a minute later in her gear. ‘Geneviève is fine in there with him,’ she was shouting. ‘He’s talking to her and she’s keeping the liquid up to him. I want to stay with you.’

He didn’t argue this time but untied himself, moved across and let her squeeze in. Then he lashed them both to the bench. They’d discovered long before, with their bodies, that they only just fitted on the bench side by side. They sat arms around one another.

Now she ordered him inside for thirty minutes. ‘Go! Go! I can do this thirty minutes.’

He repeated, in her ear, what he’d told Jean-Claude and she nodded understanding. With his back to the hatch, he now tied her to the bench, kissed her and went in.

Geneviève saw him and poured a cup of hot coffee. It was like the elixir of life. A drop of cognac followed. He took off the wet outer gear and she hung it on their new pegs near the hatch. Then he changed into completely dry gear, including socks and she gave him another bowl of soup.

‘How are you, Jean-Claude?’

‘Twenty minutes.’

‘No, we can do another hour before you need to come out. Get warm please – we need you well.’

Back in the wet gear, he rejoined Emma outside, just as a wave hit her lap. She gave a yelp, untied herself and made to let him in but he shook his head and pointed to the cabin.

‘We’re doing forty-five minute, overlapping shifts until dawn,' he said to her ear, 'I’m here for forty-five minutes, you join me after thirty-five, for ten minutes, then I go in. Jean-Claude will come out thirty five minutes into your shift, stay with him for ten minutes and then Geneviève comes out.’

She nodded again, thought for a moment, gave him a big salt water kiss and then went below.

.o0o.

The dawn came, with Jean-Claude on his shift and Geneviève ready to relieve him. If anything, the seas were bigger now but the light of day made it much easier to handle.

Hugh came out and suggested they complete Geneviève’s shift and then go back, at 09:00, to their regular times. As it was Day 1 again, this meant that Emma and he would be on. Jean-Claude popped out to see how it was all going. ‘We’ve done an inventory of food stocks – there’s some good news and some bad news.’

‘What's the bad?’

‘We’ve been eating too much. During the night, we never stopped eating.’

‘And the good news?’

‘It still leaves us ahead of schedule but not by as much as before.’

‘Our food will last until Tenerife, I think.’

‘Don’t forget I have the transponder still. I could call Carly from near Capetown but that gives away our position.’

‘We’ll need an executive meeting for that decision. The ladies will have some input. Have you thought that if we do call Carly, we are perhaps temporarily saving ourselves from the enemy but we’re also putting ourselves in a dangerous position with the British?’

‘Go on.’

‘We assume that Carly is benign, that she will get behind our idea, that she is onside. How do we know that? She might lift us by air from Tenerife, saying we would not be safe the rest of the way on the boat and that might be true.

But when we get to London, we are ‘debriefed’ for what we can give. There are no niceties to observe, no protocol here. When I went to her from Russia, I was representing a Russian security section. In Paris, we were in a semi-official position. Here, now, we are renegades whom nobody acknowledges any more as theirs and yet we have information inside our heads which the British might be interested in.’

‘Oui. You’re right. The rules have changed. You might not be a vital cog for her any more. None of us are.’

‘So, can we trust her?’

‘The big question. For a start, she’s only going to act out of self-interest. My feeling last time was that she was accommodating the enemy, on the say so of someone above her. She doesn’t trust them though and I think her Section needs some kudos. They would not altogether trust her.’

‘Do you think she’s one of them?’

‘Oh of course she is, she has to be. I just don’t think she’d give us up to them. I also don’t think she’d allow a full interrogation because she might well have an agenda for us herself inside Europe, later.’

‘Is Britain not in Europe?’

‘Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?’

‘Also, why couldn’t she do a full interrogation and rule us by fear from that moment on? We could be broken down exactly the same way Geneviève was – the purpose - to create a double agent for them on the continent. Why do we assume it needs to be done nicely?’

‘The point is well made. In the end, it comes down to our reading of her, what chance they see of us ever becoming active again, maybe even how far we’d be willing to help her.’

‘Don’t forget that you’re French and technically foreigners in London. I’m going home and have some rights there still.’

‘We’ll just have to decide, that’s all.’

.o0o.

Hour followed hour, midnight came and went, food was consumed, tea, coffee and cognac too, time was spent together, with the elements throwing all they could at the pair on the bench.

The dead of night was the worst – waves ahead, waves behind, no vision beyond the compass and counting down the hours. The sails needed reefing, as the wind had picked up a notch.

04:00 …

05:00 …

06:00 …

The first light of dawn appeared behind them. Now they were no longer on one tack but were beating back and forth, not a great problem with lug sails but it still involved effort shifting round.

Soon would be their chance to land or not to land and they’d decided to pull in, at least, to more sheltered water and have a break and during that time, Jean-Claude would make the call, conceding the fact that their whereabouts were already known.

Hugh composed the message in the cabin, relying on Carly, who technically had no access to their transponder, to both have access to it somehow unbeknowns to them and also to be currently showing an interest in them. He was putting all his trust on One Above also wanting it to work out. He pressed ‘send’.

The reply came some seven minutes later.

‘Good to hear all well. Capetown not safe. Head for Rio. To be collected South Atlantic. Carly.’

Predictable really.

‘So, the die is cast, ladies and gent.'

Jean-Claude looked at Hugh. ‘How will they do it?'

'I imagine an ELF from Northwich, returning vessel, maybe a sub which will surface but they're not going to detect us. It would need a plane overhead, maybe from Tristan, message to London, relayed from there. I imagine it will be a sub, it will surface and we'll be ferried over.'

'Why not a plane?'

'Range.'

What will the winds be like?’

‘Mixed – some nice winds and some over fifty knots. We start into the wind, as we’ve been doing now for some time and then it comes across our port beam. That’s not a bad section. Then it comes round behind us even more and finally is directly behind us, making for a reasonable sail.

We don’t really want to cross the equator because we need up to date information to get through the doldrums. Also, there are sudden squalls and really nasty things there.’

‘Well,’ said Geneviève, ‘that seems more reasonable altogether. Almost civilized.’

‘Depends who gets to us first – Carly, the enemy or both.’

‘Hugh,’ said Geneviève, ‘your black humour will get you into trouble one day.’

.o0o.

Within two hours of the cape, they were sailing in seas around two to three metres only and the wind had already come round some twenty degrees. The boat settled down, good spirits returned and Hugh gave thanks … so far.

By afternoon tea time, they were in a groove, on a port tack, the wind had dropped some more, the sea was behaving and Emma was at the helm, with another hour and ten minutes to go. Jean-Claude was snoozing in the aft cabin and Hugh went forward to help Genie prepare the meal.

VIII

They were now pretty well around Africa and as their direction changed northwards, so the weather seemed to become kindlier.

Actually, they'd ceased beating to windward and were on a flat reach on half sail, angled into the waves and traversing the crests over a longer time frame - the whole thing became more stable, even though the seas were not a great deal lower.

.o0o.

Next morning, with the easterly breeze behind them, the fine weather continued until about 09:00. Then an elongated ring of fiery colours began to form round the sun. The atmosphere became sultry and a long mass of threatening clouds could be seen on the horizon behind.

Much time was being spent in running repairs on their relations, particularly in pairs and Emma was waiting patiently for the touch she'd last felt days ago before it had all happened. He knew this and yet couldn't bring himself to.

.o0o.

The cloud mass overtook them in the next few hours, covering the sky, coloured a sickly yellow and there was a thickness to the atmosphere, a dull, oppressive stillness which everyone noted. The swell had increased, water occasionally breaking on the stern and the wind had picked up.

It was at this point that Geneviève spotted a boat behind them on the horizon.

Too small for a ship, not making ground on them but seemingly keeping up all the same, the obvious question was whether it had anything to do with them. A sense of uneasiness began to descend and mouths were dry.

They looked at one another, with the same thoughts running through their minds.

Jean-Claude articulated it. ‘It might be the end of the journey, my friends. This is not the boat Carly mentioned, so we can only speculate about its mission. It appears to be a patrol boat, a long, long way from home.'

It was obvious that blowing the Sophie-Fleury out of the water was not on the agenda - they could have done that by now - which of course raised the question - what was on the agenda?

The good ship Sophie-Fleury was well up to fifteen knots, a hell of a rate in these seas and one quite difficult for a patrol boat to keep up with, so those people were hardly likely to close the gap - at least, not at this stage. Sophie-Fleury was fairly scooting off the crests and they estimated they had about four hours, which would put them very close to dusk before the patrol boat could make appreciable gains unless, of course, the wind and waves dropped.

Hugh turned away from watching the boat a long way astern but now the sea was indeed quietening down, which meant they might be in dead trouble. As they couldn't afford to be captured, which seemed to be the plan, the weapons were now brought into the cabin from the ama and checked over for signs of waterlogging or salt encrustation. They’d been wrapped carefully - so they should have been all right.

All knew that the issue of the end and how to go out now arose. All four were on the list, it would not be a pleasant end and so the final fight was really the only option.

Jean-Claude observed: 'We do have a chance. If our obliteration was the plan, we'd be dead by now. As it is our capture, then they must show themselves. Therefore we must work out how and when we can have maximum effect. We may have to pretend to surrender, go on board and kill them but that seems a remote possibility.'

'Agreed - they're far more likely to send minions over to us and hope we concede. If we kill the minions, they would probably fire, put us in the water and pick us up individually. Let's think about this for a while.'

IX

They saw it at the same time. Like a leviathan from the deep, something was surfacing about half a kilometre off their port bow and it was causing all sorts of turbulence.

They hoped against hope and then it became clear what it was.  Within just a few seconds the patrol boat had been taken out by what presumably was a stinger, a rubber dinghy had already been launched from the sub, with three sailors aboard.

.o0o.

Once he'd rounded up, the officer on the dinghy called, through a loud hailer: ‘Captain Jensen, we’re going to throw you two lines.  Attach them bow and stern - we’ll do the rest.’

This was done by Hugh and Jean-Claude, the three sailors came on board and saluted and Hugh wasn't sure of the protocol here.  They introduced themselves and it was clear they would take over the sailing of the Sophie-Fleury.  'Nice craft,' admired one of them. 

The ladies were helped into the dinghy with their bags, the men followed and the man on the outboard was ready for the sailors to cast them adrift.

.o0o.

Jean-Claude went through the hatchway in the side of the conning tower first, Geneviève second, then Emma, with Hugh the last through.

A CPO greeted him with a salute and introduced himself, their belongings were left to one side, he then took them forward to the Captain, who saluted Hugh and introduced himself as Alan Paulson.  Hugh murmured that it might be an idea if they all stood in some sort of a line, which caused them to look at him incredulously, before falling slowly into the semblance of a line, he introduced them one by one and hands were shaken.

The ladies would kip in with the Captain, Hugh and Jean-Claude would join the other officers. He grinned, ‘Well, you must be tired out after that voyage.  You’ll be met at the other end and taken to London but in the meantime, relax and try to keep your distance from the operations going on at any time.  I’d appreciate if you’d ask that of your crew as well.  It’s a small internal space for us all to move about in.  We eat in two hours.’

Hugh wondered whether he was meant to salute, so he did. The captain laughed. ‘That was a courtesy when you came on board.  There’ll be no need, unless you’re in uniform.’  He should have remembered.

Dinner was taken in a tiny mess room with a long metal table, squeezed in like sardines but the rations were adequate and the captain made desultory conversation, to which they responded in kind.

They asked him about the state of Europe, of Britain and America, in non-strategic terms, of course and Hugh was interested that the general election had been called.  Things were going downhill, economically and the country was heading for a third recession.

‘Nice to come home to, eh?’  The captain seemed cheerful enough.

‘And what of France, Paris?  Have you heard anything?’ Jean-Claude inquired.

‘Things seem the same as usual.  The EU is now in control and out of control, the CAP's been immersed in the accounts and the auditors failed to sign off yet again.  There's talk of some countries such as Greece going under yet again.  New party in Britain but don’t know – they’ve had some success and worry many.’

‘That’s not the sort of thing I was asking, Capitan,’ said Jean-Claude, quietly.

Hugh stepped in. ‘The sort of news we want, Jean-Claude, is hardly likely to be forthcoming from a serving British sailor.’  Then, to the captain, ‘We’ve been on the run from unpleasant developments on the continent.  Our Section got a little bit close to its target and things became a little hot for us.’

‘Y-e-e-s.  We saw that earlier, didn’t we?  Well, no doubt you’ll have that to discuss when you get there.  Now, as it’s time and as I have to let the ladies at the bathroom first, what say we retire and I’ll catch you in two watches.  It’s been a pleasure.  Feel free to stay a short while to chat to your crew … Hugh.’

He stood and Hugh stood up, followed by the other three.

‘Well,’ smiled Emma. ‘I’ve had some experiences in my life but this is one of the most bizarre.’

Geneviève asked, ‘What happened to that boat which was following us?’

‘It is no more.  It is an ex-boat.’

‘What!’

‘It seems that both our interests and that of the honourable Captain have coincided today.’

‘Who were they?’

‘No idea and I didn’t ask.  On this boat, people, please don’t ask questions of the Captain or crew and let’s keep out of harm’s way for the duration.  Wall’s have ears too,’ he added, pointing a thumb at the wall abutting the walkway behind them. 

‘Are we safe?’ asked Emma.

‘It’s natural suspicion, that’s all.  The Captain has accepted us under sufferance, on the say-so of someone above, probably at the request of Carly and so we’re in no danger from either him or his crew.  The danger starts in London, if at all.’

‘What’s this Captain Jensen business?’ demanded Emma.

‘Courtesy.  British boat.  If it had been the Jehanne-Pucelle, Geneviève would have been addressed.’

‘Ah,’ murmured Jean-Claude, ‘you’re aware of that name.’

‘Right, ladies, you have things to do, so enjoy your night,’ he laughed.  ‘Jean-Claude, I’m for bed.’ 

One door away, the Captain, back to the wall, nodded his satisfaction. They seemed a reasonable bunch, he thought.  Things looked as if they’d be fine – anyway, the two ladies definitely graced his ship with their presence.

He joined them in the mess room and had brought a bottle, which Jean-Claude eyed with joy.  Hugh went to the sideboard and got glasses and corkscrew.

.o0o.

‘Gentlemen,’ toasted the Captain, ‘to a safe journey.’

‘And to this ship.  What a pity the ladies are otherwise occupied in the Captain’s quarters.  Shame, we’ll have to drink their portions for them.’

‘My heart, it breaks,’ added Jean-Claude.

‘Shall I send for them?’ asked the Captain.

‘No, to hell with it, let ’em have their beauty sleep for once.  There’ll be many sailors they’ll have to deal with looking at them tomorrow – heavy work, they’ll need the stamina.  Cheers.’


‘Chin chin,’ replied the Captain, smiling.


Chapter 18 here ... Chapter 20 here

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