The Wreck of The Margherita 2018-04-02T08:45:47+00:00

THE WRECK OF THE MARGHERITA


"A good dose of gritty realism and strong dialogue"

"A dark, sexy and intelligent novel"

Boredom’s dangerous. The shipwreck is all over the TV news. And Danny Lancaster is pretty sure anything washed ashore is fair game.

So when the giant cargo ship Margherita sheds her containers in a Channel storm Danny and his mates go beachcombing.

Down on a storm-lashed beach it’s like Aladdin’s cave. The stuff is only going to get ruined so, what the hell, finders-keepers. Insurance pays out, no one dies.

But among the mangled containers they find more than they bargained for.

The discovery draws Danny to a network of gangsters and dodgy politicians.

A lap dancer goes missing, Ambrose and Everard are plotting and crime boss Big Eddie Archer wants a word.

Then Danny remembers one bloody day in Afghanistan and calls in a debt from his old platoon commander to track down a secret factory.

And once Danny gets angry, that’s it. His training is all about speed and ferocity behind enemy lines.

The fuse is lit for a bonfire night confrontation.

That’s when the real storm breaks. People start to die.

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THE WRECK OF THE MARGHERITA

He’d been surprised at the sound his father’s skull made when he split it with the axe.

He wasn’t sure what he expected, maybe something wet, squashy. There wasn’t much mess, at least not until he yanked out the blade. That had taken a bit of pulling and twisting.

He’d never seen brains before. They glistened at him through the ugly mouth that had opened up in the bald pink scalp, almost as if they were winking at some conspiracy.

The body made a dull thump as it hit the carpet, like a heavy sleeper rolling out of bed.

And he never saw it coming, not till the last second. He’d outwitted the old bastard, shown who was the cleverer. Total surprise, and the old man’s easy certainties had drained away with his own blood.

He had hefted the weapon in his hand, held it up for a better look. The silver curl of the blade stood out against the jet black of the axe head.

A thick teardrop of blood crawled down the curve, slowing as it climbed lumps of jelly in its path, then speeding up until it gathered at the heel of the blade and dripped onto the floor.

Sometimes, when he was on his own, he thought back to that night, replayed it in his mind. And every time he could hear that sound of the axe going in, feel the jolt of the impact run up his arm.

It wouldn’t have happened if the old bastard had just listened. But he was like the rest. Why could no one see it? He had skills. He had ambitions. Deserved respect.

He was going to be something, the strongest, the biggest, the most feared. He was going to be a big noise. And If they were all too stupid to realise then they deserved everything they got.

And the best bit was, they never found out it was him. Never found out about the others either. Granted, most coppers, most people, were thick as shit but it just goes to show. He really was cleverer than the rest.

And now, after all this time, it was going to happen, the beginning of something special. Granted, that posh twat could talk for England but his plan sounded good, bloody good.

It made sense, sort of. A mix of politics on one hand and organised crime on the other, fingers in pies above and below the waterline. Takeovers, like big business. Get into the organisation and grab it from inside, take what you wanted, cash, power, and guns too.

Something like that, anyway. The posh twat could talk the hind leg off a donkey but his plan all made sense, sort of.

He didn’t like the guy and, to be frank, didn’t understand half of what he said.

But he recognised someone else who wanted power and respect and that was good enough.

And Digby, bloody stupid name, needed skills, skills he could provide. He’d work with him while it suited, until he had what he wanted.

His time was coming.

CHAPTER 1

BRIGHTON

There were only a few of them now, a few hundred left among the millions that had started.

They were tiring after the long journey. Their ranks thinned constantly but the leaders had crossed the cervix, travelled the length of the uterus and were now in the fallopian tube.

The leaders surrounded the egg and began bunting its jelly-like surface as they released enzymes to break down its outer layer.

Then a single sperm penetrated and the child was conceived.

At the exact moment it happened the mother was in the tinned goods aisle at the Brighton Marina branch of Asda holding two cans of soup.

She would usually pick the economy version without thinking but the labels told her the more expensive one contained less salt. And the picture on the label, with its curling wisps of steam, made its contents look tastier than the alternative.

She weighed up the tins, as if that might give her a better idea of their flavours, before dropping the economy version into her wire basket and returning the more expensive soup to the shelf.

Unaware of what was happening inside of her, the woman studied the contents of her basket, wondering how much more shopping she could manage in her backpack and the two reusable bags-for-life she had brought with her.

It was a long journey home that would be made more difficult trying to manoeuvre everything if the bus was crowded. Unsure what to do, she consulted the list she had written on a scrap of paper and weighed up what she still had to get.

***

As the new mother considered her options, the husband was stretched out on his sofa two miles away, his hand hovering over the crutch of his tracksuit bottoms.

If he was honest, the film was crap, some butt-ugly fat bird smothered in tattoos on all fours in the back of a transit van getting rogered by some guy with a beard and a beer gut.

The woman was making a lot of noise and tried to look keen but couldn’t hide the fact she was bored shitless. Every time she lifted a slack breast in a half-hearted effort to suck her own nipple you could see her cheap implant scars.

Added to that, the picture kept breaking up and he’d had to crank the volume almost up to the max. Sod the neighbours.

He looked at the box the DVD had come in, something about nympho housewives. You’d have more fun cracking one off to the Hollyoaks omnibus.

Still, he shouldn’t be ungrateful. The half dozen DVDs had been given to him by one of Eddie’s guys, a “thank you”. He had to hide them in his old tool box in the utility cupboard. The wife would go mental if she found them.

And, to be fair, he had to do something to pass the day. Repeats of The Sweeney and Minder were okay the first half dozen times, and all the Nazi history stuff was good, but you could only watch so many repeats.

Still, a “thank you” from Eddie was worth a lot, even if the films were crap. Like cash in the bank. Well, the next best thing anyway.

It meant Eddie knew who you were. Eddie was grateful for something you’d done. Eddie was a good friend to have. You certainly wouldn’t want him as an enemy.

The husband scratched his half-hearted crotch with one hand and hit “eject” on the remote control with the other. The DVD wheezed out of the machine and the picture switched to an old cowboy film, lots of shooting in a canyon, the whine of ricochets off rock. This looked promising. As the husband stretched out and wriggled to get comfortable, the lover was lying on his sofa a mile away.

***

When Danny Lancaster woke, Sky News was still on and somewhere an elderly Russian-built airliner had crashed killing more than forty people.

You have a quick kip, forty die, the TV news loop goes on and the world keeps turning. One day it’s your turn, random, arbitrary. A tiny ripple, then nothing, and the world goes on turning without you.

The curtains were half drawn but even in the gloom he couldn’t stop himself looking at the swathes of yellow brown nicotine that stained the white stippled paper on the ceiling.

The colour and the shape reminded him of smoke rising from burning vehicles. If he looked too long he could hear gunfire and screaming. He looked away but knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself looking back again soon.

He moved his foot and felt something fall. He looked down and saw the half bottle of vodka on the carpet. Didn’t matter. It was empty.

Danny sat back low on the sofa, remembering the bayonet going in, the resistance, the blade grating against ribs. He remembered the eyes of the tall talib in the black turban, knowledge exchanged in a look.

Remembered the smell of garlic on his breath. Remembered a flipflop falling from the man’s foot as he pitched backwards.

Killing wasn’t good or bad, it was the job, stopping them hurting a mate, getting in first. Not good or bad, but intense.

You only survived by working as a unit, one organism, like bacteria or bees, each with a place, all with the same aim, alone together.

Success depends on the completed Rubik’s cube, everything planned, everything slotted into place. And when the plan fell apart, usually early on, it was down to order, instinct, training. It was down to the intensity of shared experience, the pooled adrenalin. And it was down to love.

The tall talib’s eyes had bulged as he felt the blade, pink spittle at the corner of his mouth.

For Danny there was victory but no hate. Blood chemicals pumping, it was the victory of a world class athlete crossing the line. If the talib had broken the tape it would have been Tyler dead and the Pashtun with the gold medal.

He wasn’t Danny’s only one. He had seen men drop through the tunnel of his rifle sight. But the talib had been special, the only one close and personal.

It’s what you did. What you volunteered for. What you were good at. All the training prepared you for the job they paid you for and that job was war.

It was a world apart. Different country, different culture, different everything. A world apart. No petty rules, just rules of engagement. No tick-box targets, real flesh-and-bone ones. The only performance-related bonus was staying alive, save someone else the trouble of packing your bags for the journey home.

Danny smiled up at the ceiling. And two feet of sand to stop a bullet, five feet for an RPG. God bless Jimi Heselden.

It was worth having a leg smashed to have been there, cross the line, climb the podium, know as solid fact that you were the best.

His hand fell to his leg. Danny had loved every bloody minute of it.

Since he left he’d had more jobs than he could remember. He enjoyed the physical side of working on a road crew. He liked the slick footwork needed to sell used cars, always look on the positive side, “no” is not an option.

Even his brief experiment with burglary had produced a few memorable adrenalin highs. Danny was always absolutely certain that something would turn up but even his glass-half-full philosophy could take a beating at times.

He missed the feeling of doing something the best way it could be done. And he missed the adrenalin.

Now he was out. He missed Pogo, Si and Dave.  He was bored and broke. He was lonely.

Making a fist, Danny hit himself hard in the stomach twice. The six-pack was still firm but he could feel a thin layer of fat creeping across the contoured muscle.

He knew his mind was softening as well, felt the absence of that total certainty and determination that had been hard-wired into his brain not so long ago. He was a blunted knife.

Danny knew he had to get back into his training routine. He needed to cling to his fitness, it was what he knew, what he used to be. The future was enemy territory. And he had to try harder to find some work, seize the initiative.

He was not good at doing nothing. Hard choices had to be made but at that moment he couldn’t be bothered to get off the sofa. Too much effort.

Civilian life was hard, so much time frittered away on crap, no focus. Danny was mystified by TV shows and newspaper articles of people banging on about their problems. People who didn’t think they’d had their fair share.

People who didn’t think they’d been treated right. Men drinking themselves into an early grave because everything they’d been taught was redundant and all the TV ads made them look like fools. Women unhappy because they had their careers and their babies and it wasn’t the dream they had been promised.

People fretting over the designer logos on their clothes when the most important ones he’d ever worn were his para wings and his blood group.

There’s nothing on the birth certificate that promises you anything. You get up and face each day the best way you can. Not being dead at the end of it is a result.

He had seen people living in crap, in mud huts, drinking bad water. Kids cried for lack of food, not lack of PlayStation.

Just keep it simple, expect nothing and give it your best shot. A day without being shot at is a good one. A day without pain is even better.

He hadn’t slept properly since he couldn’t remember when. Usually it wasn’t a problem, head down for a catnap whenever the chance presented.

But for the last week or more he’d only dozed. It was the noises, the sounds of static and shouting. It might be easier if he could hear what the shouting was about but it was urgent and garbled.

Then there was the twitch. The corner of his left eye would suddenly start. It drove him mad. He’d tried pressing down on it with his finger but he could still feel the muscle beneath tapping out some random message he couldn’t read.

A gull screeched outside. Danny took a packet of cigarettes from the arm of the sofa and lit one, watching the smoke rise to deepen the stains above him. He had to get back into running again, maybe lift a few weights. If he didn’t, he’d end up as some lardy housebound wreck, shouting the odds, putting the world to rights from an armchair, boring people with war stories.

For some reason, the thought flashed up an image of his grandad. Danny didn’t know how old he had been when he’d last seen him but it was a long time ago.

The old man had seemed strange and exotic in the small Edmonton tower block flat, like some sort of alien or minor deity.

Old Stan always sat in the same armchair, the one with elbow indentations in the arms that had worn through the fabric.

His forearms were dotted with tattoos. The loose leathery skin made them look as if they were melting.

He spoke in short gasps and his belly quivered when he laughed. The table by his chair was always laid out the same, big old valve radio, that week’s Radio Times, Capstan Full Strength and a bottle of Mackeson that Nan always insisted sat on a coaster so it didn’t mark the wood.

His breath smelled of tobacco and old age and he kept his dentures in the tray from a large household match box behind the radio.

Sometimes Danny would visit after school. OnNan’s baking days the smells made his head swim. It was a sort of game they’d play where Danny would dip his fingers into the thick cake mixes for a taste. Nan would cuff him round the head and tick him off, then when she had filled her baking trays she would leave him the empty bowls to scrape clean.

On other days he would sit cross-legged on the rug in front of the flame-effect gas fire listening to the old man’s stories.

He didn’t understand much but somehow he knew it was important to sit still and listen. Grandad’s watery eyes would shine with a strange light when he told his war stories. Danny never tired of them, no matter how many times he heard them.

Stan talked of battles and comrades and seemed to be driven by a new energy as he groped around the small shelf beneath his table where his campaign medals were kept in an old biscuit tin painted silver.

Grandad talked a lot about the family, an uncle who had emigrated to Canada and cousins who’d gone to Australia in the 1920s. Others had spent years at sea, the earliest of them sailing under canvas, times that Grandad spoke of as “wooden ships and iron men.”

There were photographs too, yellowy brown images on thick card with cracks across them and chunks missing around the edges.

As Grandad held them out Danny was fascinated by the whirls and folds of his weathered, aged skin.

The pictures were of serious-looking people in tight clothes all buttoned up. Some stood bolt upright in studio portraits that always seemed to include a potted plant. Others showed seaside outings with the family dressed in beachwear that was more substantial than the clothes most people wore to go shopping now.

Grandad reeled off the names and they meant nothing to Danny but sometimes a nose, eyes or a smile would remind him of someone.

Still, he knew it was important. Different lives, different people all linked down the centuries by an invisible steel thread of kinship. He was being watched. There were expectations to be fulfilled.

Danny drew on his cigarette and exhaled hard at the ceiling. The screen of rising smoke made the nicotine stains look as if they were billowing. He pictured the whorls and loops of wrinkles that had covered Grandad’s hands. They were the intricate, natural patterns that you saw in the texture of wilderness viewed from a helicopter.

Danny looked at the ceiling again. He was broke, the only money coming in was from that Chinese business. It wasn’t really worth the effort but people in need of a detective were not exactly fighting to get through his front door.

He stubbed out the dying cigarette in the saucer on the floor and picked up the vodka. A last trickle burned his throat and he swallowed hard before dropping the bottle back on the carpet.

Danny levered himself up off the sofa with a grunt and padded into the kitchen. The fridge was almost bare, a couple of foil trays and a yellowing lump of old cheese in a fold of plastic. He pared away the mould with a knife and slapped what remained between two slices of dry bread.

He bit into the sandwich and chewed. A bit stale but it filled a hole.

There were still two large cans of lager in the fridge. He took one out, popped the ring pull and wandered back into the living room. It was growing dark as the weak daylight faded but the TV was still on, still illuminating the furniture with the flicker of Sky News. Danny dropped onto the sofa and watched as the ticker at the bottom of the screen announced breaking news. He glanced towards the sound of rain lashing at the window.

Gripping his lager, Danny sat forward in the sofa to watch.

***

The axe was curved, balanced, perfectly weighted. It was a beauty but it was a tool, a tool for a job. First link in the chain. It would help him towards the guns. Guns were good, precision tools. Just the sight of them could have people shitting themselves. And that was before they whacked bits of metal out at the speed of a jet fighter. No one could argue with that, no matter how hard they thought they were. Guns were sexy. Not like the axe, that was personal, you could see the result, right up close, hear the noise, feel the vibration. The axe was a fucking work of art but guns gave you range. A second step. And they would be his. He couldn’t wait.

***

MITTE DISTRICT,BERLIN
Lunch had been excellent, really excellent. For all his faults, Clive was always a wonderful host, always did you proud.

The cream of Bavarian smoked trout was delicious, the Brandenburg beef had been done to perfection and the wines were superb.

Sir Charles prided himself on being something of a trencherman but he had eaten so well that the dessert trolley had beaten him.

And it wasn’t just the food. The setting had been quite breathtaking with panoramic views across the city taking in its classical buildings, extensive woodland and the forest of cranes hard at work rebuilding and renewing.

Afterwards, they had stepped outside for a cigar. Beside them stood Norman Foster’s glass dome, a hemisphere of shining crystal standing on the thick, dark stones of a building from another age. Inside, beneath its spiral walkway, you could look down into the parliament chamber below.

It really was hard to credit that a building drenched in so much dark history could be transformed into a place that drew millions of visitors to queue for hours in all weathers.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable day. Still, there was much to think about. He wasn’t sure about Clive, not at all sure. The man was always pleasant but there was something about him. Not sure what, just something.

Still, their discussions had opened doors he hadn’t seriously considered before. European politics had always appeared rather sordid, a conspiracy of bureaucrats in support of failed national politicians whose sole interest was seeing themselves commemorated in statues from Cardiff to Sofia.

Sir Charles was confident he had led a full and interesting life, made a contribution, even if he said so himself. The old bones were getting a bit creaky now but that was no reason not to take on a new challenge.

Some of our greatest leaders had combined vision with maturity and a certain wisdom born of experience. If he was called to serve in some capacity it would be wrong not to do so. The liberal, social model had its place but now it was everywhere, affecting every aspect of life. There was no alternative, no counterbalance.

Not that he would represent a right wing agenda in any nasty sense, if he was asked to step forward. No, his interest lay in respect for national traditions and achievements, judging by what a people had done and who they were, not according to some airy fairy cocktail of rights under an ever-expanding central control fuelled by ridiculously high taxes.

He was ever mindful of what Margaret had said about the contributions of the English speaking nations to the security and prosperity of the world. It was a real tragedy our greatest prime minister since Churchill had been betrayed and driven out by lesser men.

In his mind’s eye ideas began to take shape. He had money and contacts and the experience to mould events. Sir Charles considered himself a modest, sensible man but, perhaps, his time had come. Someone had to step up and stop the rot before it was too late, before cherished institutions and a way of life drowned in a sea of consensus politics and red tape. He could be that man.

He had conquered the world of business, politics would be new and challenging territory. Sir Charles considered the idea and smiled.

There was much to think about. He didn’t usually like walking but today was a special day. When they parted outside the Bundestag Sir Charles had declined Clive’s offer of a lift and set off on foot through the Brandenburg Gate and into Pariser Platz. Despite the biting Russian wind there were still crowds of tourists and a few street performers dressed as clowns or Vopo guards painted silver.

Ahead was the vast and solid shape of his hotel, the Adlon Kempinski. Clive had mentioned that its guests had included Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler and some singer who had swung his small child from the balcony. That alone said a lot about the world we live in now.

He had passed the dull fortress of the American embassy and was approaching the glass fronted building that was once the offices of Albert Speer when a thought occurred to him. What harm could it do, in a spirit of historical inquiry? Decision made, he turned south and cut through to Behrenstrasse.

Filling the view in front of him was a field of huge cubes criss-crossed with paths, undulating across an entire city block.

He paused for a moment, catching the occasional colourful flash of a tourist’s anorak within the uniform grey of the memorial as they explored its grid.

Of course it was necessary to commemorate such an event as the Holocaust. If you did not remember the mistakes of the past you were destined to repeat them.

That said, not everyone seemed to support the idea of something so large in the city centre. He had heard the memorial was plagued by graffiti and even a few lunatics who sneaked in to have a barbecue.

That sort of behaviour was clearly grotesque. Such a memorial was absolutely necessary but perhaps it didn’t need to occupy quite such valuable real estate.

He pulled his coat tightly around him and set off through the centre of the maze, puffing as the pathway rose. Still, a little afternoon exercise would aid the digestion.

In the south east corner of the block the obelisks thinned out. Wheezing slightly, he reached the pavement and crossed the junction into Gertrud-Kolmar Strasse. A block further on he stopped, collar turned up against the biting wind. He lifted a hand to smooth his hair back down across his scalp. A few people passed by, bent forward against the elements. A small group stood on the corner, looking around.

On his left was an unattractive grey block of apartments with a red roof. Between the building and the road was a half empty car park fronted by patches of grass worn to bare earth in places.

To one side was a sign board fronted with plastic. It looked as though it might contain detail of parking charges or perhaps council notices on refuse and recycling collections but he knew it didn’t.

He walked up to the board and felt strange at the knowledge of what lay where he trod. He waited until a Dutch family moved on before stepping up to study the diagrams and descriptions of the Fuhrerbunker beneath his feet.

***

Axe to guns, guns to money. And money would bring him the stuff he wanted, expensive stuff, and respect as well. Maybe he’d rent a yacht, one of those big ones, all smooth curves, bit like the axe. He could get a really decent tan. Maybe he’d hire a private jet, cruise in deep leather seats miles above all those tossers jammed in their package holiday jets. While they were counting their leftover Euros to pay for a tin of beer he’d be served expensive fizz by some bird with a posh accent in a tight uniform and one of those daft hats.

***

FOUR YEARS AGO

IF this was dying, it wasn’t so bad. He didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

The night sky was fantastic, bloody fantastic.

A rich river of the deepest black carried a cascade of silver that swirled and sparkled and pulsed.

He didn’t know much about God, just the usual Sunday school stuff when he was a kid, although somehow he still knew the words to the hymns when he heard them. But if God was real then up there was where he’d be living.

Just the sheer bloody size of it all made you feel small, so alive, so peaceful. He could lie there and watch it forever if it wasn’t for the voices and the hissing in his head.

A shooting star flashed over, a brilliant thread of silver. He was almost sure he could hear it fizzing. A second and a third followed the same gentle arc. Bloody fantastic.

Then a spray of green streaks, luminous against the night, chased by a cluster of red ones, racing after each other at tremendous speed. He felt the ground tremble.

A voice called out, it seemed a long way away. Then he heard a series of rattles and taps, like someone trying to find a beat. Something spattered the ground nearby. The earth was shuddering now. Coloured slashes split the darkness.

The voice called again. Something zipped into the dirt to his left. Then two bulky heads were blocking his view of the sky.

“Jesus, look at the state of him.”

“Fuck sake, Dave, grab his weapon and let’s move.” The second head moved close. “Can you hear me, mate? It’s Si. Just stay with us, okay, mate?” Si looked back over his shoulder into the blackness. “Pogo! Cover!”

Machine gun fire ripped the night. Si grabbed the wounded man’s chest rig and hauled him off the hard earth, began to run at a crouch. “Go! Go!”

After thirty feet they dropped to the ground. An ugly noise swirled around them. The coarse, high-pitched sound grew louder, its frantic, serrated edge slicing through them.

It went on and on until Si stabbed a morphine autojet into the thigh of the screaming man. The darkness crumbled and collapsed on him, swamping the lights and the noise.

***

Women weren’t a problem, never had been. Some were drawn, like moths, getting their kick off the danger. Others were afraid of him but just as afraid to say no. He did okay but money would make a difference, big time. You could get classy birds, fit birds, not just the usual slags. They’d do anything you wanted, anything, like the stuff in the DVDs. And they’d like it. And they’d smile.

CHAPTER 2

THE ENGLISH CHANNEL

It had been a busy night. The high over the Azores was pushing a low pressure front towards theEnglish Channel.

The severe south-westerly gale began to reach Force Nine with winds of more than 50mph and swells rising up to 30 feet.

Pressed from behind by relentless force, the Atlantic storm resented being squeezed between the English and French coasts.

Driven forward into narrowing seas, billions of tonnes of water formed a tidal stream through the world’s busiest shipping lanes, hunting for somewhere to escape, lashing out to show its disapproval.

Water driven forward by the wind pushed long swells up the Channel to the north east. The flood tide drove on relentlessly until two hours after high water at Dover. Then it turned.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I’ve spent most of my working life as a journalist and was pleased and surprised to win an award for my travel writing. Before that I tried all sorts of jobs including furniture removals, photography, teaching and running a magazine group.

Travel writing is not all cocktails under the palm trees but it’s a fantastic job that has taken me to more than 40 countries, from the pure white wastes of Arctic Finland to the ancient deserts of Namibia.

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