By late October every year, the tourists left Nyemouth to holiday in the warmer climate of the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. Making a living wasn’t easy in the winter months for the locals who relied on seasonal summer trade. From the start of autumn to the dying days of spring, Harry Renner was grateful for every private charter that came his way. Today was no exception. When the man had called to say he wanted to hire Harry and his boat for two full days of sightseeing, he didn’t care why. He took the booking.
Even better, this guy, Christian, wanted to take the boat on Monday and Tuesday. Harry had weekend bookings until the end of November, private fishing parties and afternoon seal-watching trips, but the weekday work was sparse this time of year.
They had spent the morning sailing north. Unlike most of the men who chartered The North Star, Christian wasn’t interested in fishing. He’d asked Harry to show him the rugged coastline all the way up to Bamburgh Castle, more fascinated by the shore than any of the birds and wildlife Harry had pointed out. Harry had brought his cousin Tom along to crew the boat, but there had been almost nothing for him to do besides make tea and set out their lunches. All their client seemed interested in was taking photos of the land.
“We might have to put in an hour earlier than planned,” Harry shouted from his position in the wheelhouse.
Christian raised his eyes from his camera, a questioning expression on his face.
Harry pointed east at the heavy grey clouds, low on the horizon. “There’s bad weather coming.” The sky to their shore side was clear, but it wouldn’t last. He’d hoped the low-pressure front would hold off until the end of the day, but it looked to be coming faster than expected. If they were lucky, they would have another two hours. That would be enough time to turn the boat around and make it to the shelter of Nyemouth Harbour, but he doubted they had that long. The wind was already picking up, and he guessed things would get lumpy in the next sixty to ninety minutes. “The forecast for tomorrow is a lot better. We can make up for the time we lose today then—if that’s all right with you.”
Christian gave a curt nod.
He wasn’t much of a talker. He’d asked a lot of questions but had little to say for himself. When he’d turned up at the dock that morning, Christian Costner was not what Harry had expected. A lot of the men who booked private charters were of a type…arseholes. They would usually turn up with expensive fishing equipment, often brand new, in designer waterproofs and wearing their Rolex and TAG watches. They invariably brought along an entourage—the beta males to their alpha—guys beneath them they could show off to and lord it over. Harry wasn’t proud. If they had money to spend, he would take it—anything to put away for winter. For some reason, that was exactly what he’d expected of this guy.
Christian had turned up alone, which had been the first surprise. He wore jeans, a thick sweater and a regular jacket with no obvious designer label. Harry guessed he was in his early forties. There were lines around his eyes and more than a hint of grey in his short blond hair. His stubble was all grey. He was tall with a strong build and Nordic good-looks with pale eyes, a long, straight nose, sharp jawline and a wide, humourless mouth. There was something quite stern about him. He was handsome, no doubt, if Harry were into older guys, which he really wasn’t. His last boyfriend, at thirty-six, had been the oldest man Harry had ever been with. Still, Christian looked good for his age.
“You’re the captain,” Christian said, turning his camera back to the shore. “You know what’s best.”
Another surprise. Most private charters would bitch and moan the entire way home if Harry told them he’d have to cut the trip short because of bad weather—the same dudes who then turned green and threw up the beer they’d been drinking as soon as the sea turned choppy.
Well, he thought, whatever happens tomorrow, Christian is proving himself to be a near-perfect client.
Harry put the boat into a measured turn and headed south.
Christian had drunk nothing but bottled water or tea all day, and he didn’t look like the type who’d get sick in a swell, but it was better to be safe. Harry wanted to get him ashore before things turned ugly.
Tom climbed out of the tiny galley, where he’d been clearing away the lunch supplies. “Are we heading in already?”
Harry nodded. “Looks like it’s cutting in faster than forecasted. We’ll get a better shot tomorrow.”
Tom glanced to seaward and nodded before walking out onto the back deck. “Yeah, you can feel the swell is getting up.”
“We’ll get home before the worst of it,” Harry said, with more confidence than he felt.
At thirty-three, Tom was four years older than him, but for as long as he could remember, Harry had always been the more mature and level-headed of them.
Tom sauntered over to Christian, who put down his camera.
“So, what’s all this in aid of?” Tom asked. “Most people who hire the boat want to catch fish, not take pictures.
“Tom,” Harry warned, “that’s none of our business.” And to Christian, “Sorry.”
The older man gave a slight grin. “It’s fine. I don’t mind. I’m doing research.”
“Research. What? You mean, for like, TV or something?”
Harry smiled. His cousin had never been the sharpest of men. Christian apparently took it in good nature.
“It’s for a book.”
“Oh, I don’t read much.” He shuffled his feet. “So, what’s your book about? Fishing?”
Christian shook his head. “No, not fishing. I’m not sure what it’s about. That’s why I’m here. I’m thinking about setting a story somewhere along this coast. Maybe in a town like Nyemouth. I don’t know yet.”
Tom looked at Harry, a goofy grin plastered across his face. “You hear that? He wants to write a book about Nyemouth.”
“Set in Nyemouth,” Christian corrected. “Maybe. Like I said, I’m not sure. I’m looking for inspiration. Just trying to get ideas for now.”
“You’ve come to the right place,” Harry told him.
“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “We’ve got it all going on here.”
Christian smiled. It crinkled his eyes even further and revealed good white teeth. It was a very attractive smile.
For an older man, Harry reminded himself.
“Is that so?”
“Hell, yeah.” Tom bounced with excitement. “If I tell you about it, will you put me in your book? Like, as a character.”
Christian chuckled, humouring him in a good-natured way. “We’ll see. I can give you an acknowledgement…if your information is good.”
Harry listened as his cousin ran his mouth, content to steer the boat without contributing.
“For a little town, we’ve had so much shit going on that most people wouldn’t believe it—murders, attempted murders, drowning. Whatever you can think of, it’s happened here. Just this summer, the UK Border Forces intercepted a fishing boat coming into the harbour. They found sixty-nine migrants hidden in the hold. The boat had come over from Belgium. They must have figured it was easier to smuggle people onto the quieter north coast than down south, where everyone is watching for them. That caused quite a stir. And just last year, a local businessman tried to murder his husband on a yacht just outside the harbour. And before that, someone tried to kill Arnie Walker, you know, the actor, on the north shore beach. You should put all that in your book.”
Christian nodded, zipping his jacket. The wind had increased. “I know Arnie Walker—and his husband, Dominic. They are the main reason I’m here. When I told Dominic I was thinking about setting a book in Northumberland, he suggested I check out this area.”
“Oh, that’s right. Dominic’s a writer, too. I always forget that. He doesn’t use his own name.” Harry looked at Christian in a new light. Dominic Melton was one of the nicest men he knew, brave and dependable. If Christian was a friend of his, there had to be something good about him.
“That’s how we met,” Christian said, turning his cool grey eyes towards him. “At a literary festival about three years ago. We’ve kept in touch, though this is my first time in Nyemouth.”
“So, are you staying with Dominic and Arnie?” Tom asked.
“No. I’ve got a room at Quay House. Nothing against the guys and their lovely home, but I like my privacy at the end of the day. I can never relax when I’m in someone else’s place.”
Harry understood that well enough. He’d lived on his own since leaving his parents and couldn’t imagine the compromise involved in sharing with someone else. “What kind of books do you write? The same kind of stuff as Dominic?”
He shook his head. “Dominic’s novels are more action-oriented. I write crime stories, murder mysteries—that kind of thing.”
“What did I say?” Tom blurted excitedly. “You’ve definitely come to the right place.”
“Not from what I’ve seen so far. Nyemouth seems a quiet, laid-back kind of town.”
“It’s really not,” Tom said.
“When did you arrive?” Harry asked.
“I got here on Saturday afternoon.”
“Give it time,” Tom told him. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Give it a rest, Tom,” Harry admonished. “It’s not that bad, honestly. There have been a few incidents over the years, but no more than any other place. I bet if you scratch the surface of any small town, you’ll find plenty of similar stories.”
“I know,” Christian said with a knowing smile.
The winds increased, and the boat swayed farther in the swell. The weather was changing much faster than he’d expected. A few heavy splats of rain landed on the deck.
“Things are about to get choppy,” Harry told Christian. “Come into the wheelhouse. You’ll be sheltered from the worst of it.” He told Tom to brew another round of tea.
As Christian stepped inside, the rain started in full and was soon bouncing several inches off the wooden decking.
“Is it always so unpredictable?” he asked.
“Yep. The only thing you should expect at sea is the unexpected. I’m going to have to pick the speed up a bit if we’re going to outrun the worst of it. That means it’s going to get bumpy. Hold on to something and watch your footing.”
Harry pushed the throttle. The front and back pitch of the boat increased as it ploughed through the strengthening waves. He estimated they were forty minutes out from Nyemouth Harbour. The North Star was an old vessel, but she was sturdy. She could handle a lot worse than this and had done so many times, but when people chartered the boat, he had a responsibility to them. Though some captains might take a different attitude, Harry wasn’t in business to make his clients sick or frighten them in high seas. He would get Christian back to shore before the worst struck, even if the ride was a little uncomfortable.
He glanced over his shoulder at the older man. He looked to be bearing up okay. Christian stared at the worsening conditions with seeming curiosity. There was no sign of anxiety.
Tom returned with three mugs of tea, distributing them without spilling a drop.
“There’s a bottle of whisky below,” Harry said to Christian, “if you fancy a tot to keep the cold out.”
“This is fine. Thank you.”
Satisfied that the client wasn’t about to freak out on him or fall over and break something, Harry gave all his concentration to the boat and route ahead. The wind blew hard against the port side, but they were far enough from shore that he didn’t have to worry about it blowing them off course or onto the rocks. When he reached the entrance to the harbour, the force of it would be behind them and shouldn’t cause much trouble.
“What do you do when you’re not running private charters?” Christian asked.
“Sightseeing mostly,” Harry answered. “During the summer, I run a variety of different excursions along the coast. Bird watching, half-day fishing trips, twilight cocktail parties…anything to get the tourists on board. I have a few private charters to keep me going over the coming weeks, but once we get into deep winter, I’ll spend my time maintaining the boat and getting ready for next spring.”
“Have you been out here long? Working on the boat, I mean?”
“My whole life. It used to belong to my dad. He was a fisherman, and I grew up on this thing, going out most weekends and every day during the holidays. He retired four years ago, due to his health. Fishing full-time isn’t for me, so I repurposed the boat for the tourist market. I’ve been running these trips ever since.” He glanced over his shoulder at Christian. “You’re not going to use me in one of your books, are you?”
Tom laughed. “You wish he would.”
Christian gave another of his cracking smiles. It completely changed the appearance of his otherwise down-turned features. “I don’t know what I’m going to write about yet—or whom. I’ll let you know. So, with all these exciting things happening around Nyemouth, have you ever been caught up in any of them yourself?”
He turned back to the view ahead. “I crewed on the lifeboat when I was younger, but not as much as I wanted to. I was at sea so much myself that I was rarely available when they had a call out. It was also a struggle to keep up with the training demands. We had some hairy rescues, all the same. We once evacuated the entire crew of a trawler just minutes before she sank.” He pointed ahead. “They were so close to the shore when they went down, about a mile from the harbour. They had taken on so much water there was nothing we could do. We might not have saved the boat, but we got the crew home safely to their families that night.”
“That’s what really matters.”
“I think maybe there is a book here. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to have an interesting story to tell.”
Harry shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think about it that way. It’s all part of life.”
The boat took a sudden lurch to starboard as a heavy wave struck them, side on. Christian crashed against the wall of the wheelhouse and hissed as he spilt his tea.
“Sorry,” Harry said, getting the boat under control. “Are you both okay?”
“I’m fine,” Christian said, “though it’s maybe more excitement than I bargained for.”
“It won’t be long now. If you look ahead and to the right, you can make out the harbour walls and the lighthouse. We’re almost home.”
They carried on in silence for the rest of the journey. Harry hoped the freak wave hadn’t startled Christian enough for him to cancel tomorrow’s trip. This shitty front was forecast to blow over during the night, and the outlook for the morning was good. He’d take him to The Fisherman’s Arms when they got back to make up for the shortened trip and persuade him to stick to his plan.
There was now less than half a mile to the harbour entrance. Almost there.
“Wait!” Christian shouted, stepping forward. He came up beside Harry and stared through the rain-lashed window.
“What is it?” Harry tried to follow his eyeline.
“I’m not sure. I thought I saw something.”
Harry eased back on the throttle. “What kind of something?”
Christian chewed his thumbnail. “I’m not sure. I thought for a second it was…a person in the water. I don’t know. Maybe…”
Harry’s pulse quickened in an instant. “Where?”
Christian pointed. The surface of the sea was a turbulent mass of dark-grey waves and deep swells. Harry reduced their speed even further, causing the boat to pitch and roll dramatically. Tom went onto the deck and scrabbled around the wheelhouse to the bow for a better view.
“When the sea is like this, it can play tricks on the eyes,” Harry said. “Are you sure?”
Christian narrowed his eyes, straining to see. “No. I’m not sure. It’s just—there.” He lurched forward, pointing.
Harry saw it at the exact same time on the upward sweep of a wave, the unmistakable shape of someone’s head and shoulders. The waves crashed, and they vanished from sight in the next second. He altered course.
If there was someone in the water this far out, they were already in big trouble.