By William David Baker
Now come here me little Jackie
Now I’ve smoked me baccy
Let’s have some cracky
When the boat comes in
‘When the boat comes in,’ Northumberland. Trad, Unknown
Forget all the glamour that you see on TV and in movies, obbos are not everything they are cracked out to be. Right now, Detective Constable John Barleycorn would much prefer to have somewhere to piss, where he wouldn’t be breaking the kind of bylaws he was paid to protect. And nobody – not even him – was going to piss in his car, bottle or not. A nice warm bed would be good, too. Some company, real company, even better. Much better way to spend an early Monday morning in October.
Bob Fossett was his partner for this shift. They’d been coppering together, on and off, since he’d moved, five years ago, from the Met. to the Northumbria Police Force. John served the first three of those years in the Newcastle area, working the docks mainly, and the last two years in Northumberland, specialising in nothing much out of the ordinary. He and Bob didn’t always get on, though John knew there were worse partners he could have pulled. Still, it meant that they didn’t have to work at keeping a conversation going, for which John was mostly grateful.
Bob was born and bred a Northumberlandman, and lived just outside Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. He was married to Jenny, who just happened to be John’s bridge partner. Though he was a local, John was grateful that Bob at least spoke enough English to make communication with John just possible.
“You see that, Bob?” John asked, pointing into the bay below the church. Bob stirred noisily from his sleep.
“Howay man! I was having a good kip then. What you gotta disturb me for? Nowts gonna happen in Newbiggin the neet.” He paused. “Not iver, if you bloody well ask me,” he added, leaning forward, his considerable bulk, shoehorned into a groaning stab vest, stalling his locked seat belt, whipping him backwards. Bob cursed and, unclipping his belt, took an ineffectual swipe at the cold condensation on his side of the windscreen.
“Look, there it goes again. That light over there on the left. Shouldn’t be. Something’s going on.” John tensed. Adrenaline rush? Was that really it? He could hardly remember what that felt like, it had been so long. But it felt good whatever it was. As did the memory of how much he used to enjoy working a decent case. Was this to be a decent case? Few of his informants ever came up with anything decent any more. In fact, Bob had laughed at John when he told him he’d had a tip-off about contraband coming ashore at Newbiggin. Bob had even suggested that the tip could only have come from Narky Marky, a local nobody grass, who was trusted by no one, if they had any sense. The fact that the tip had come from Marky, John thought best kept to himself. But now, maybe John would be able to wipe the proverbial smile off Bob’s face. It actually looked like Marky was about to come up trumps.
“It’s just a lobster boat, man. Let me go back to kip. It was just getting juicy.”
“Yeah, it’s only ever in your dreams. Jenny’s told me.”
“Fuck you, ya wazzack. When did Jenny ever gob to you anyway?”
“We don’t just play Bridge, you know. We do talk from time to time. Anyway, what’s a lobster boat doing out at this time of night? Early mornings, yes.” Briefly, moonshine lit the bay as a cold easterly opened a curtain in the cloudy Northumberland night.
“Mebbe you’re right, John.” Bob was fully awake. “That’s no cobbler out there.”
“Coble, Bob. The boat’s a bloody Coble. Christ, it’s your own town! Don’t you know your own history?”
“Cobbler? Coble? Cobblers! That’s a launch, man. Let’s go check it out.”
“Check your gear first. Risk assessment.”
Bob gave John a withering look, but reached into his raincoat and pulled out a pepper spray and baton like he was pulling rabbits from a top hat.
“Beatcha,” John said,”I got the Taser,” he added, patting the holster on his belt.
“Course you got the bloody Taser, man. You got the firearms training, divinn ya?”
It was at moments like these that John thought that maybe all police officers should carry firearms, real ones, but, on balance, he decided they were better off without. There’d been times, a few years back, when he was under cover in the ports, when a gun might have gotten him killed. A quick wit, and a lot of luck had proved much more reliable weapons. When did the luck run out?
On John’s instruction, they slipped out of the estate car, and using the still shiny-as-new concrete sea wall as cover, they moved towards the top of the headland. The small launch could be seen more clearly now, fighting a strong swell. Two darkened figures stood knee deep in the black water, waving to the launch.
“Marky was right,” John said. “He said something was coming in. Drugs or tobacco, probably. Not people. Who’d want to migrate to this bloody place? Too many people trying to escape it!” John waited for Bob to take the bait but though John could almost feel Bob thinking about it, the bait remained un-chewed. “They’ll get as close as they can to the shore, then toss the gear to those two in the water.”
“Do you think mebbe you should have notified the Coasties?”
“I did mention it to the Inspector. He said we could cope with anything Marky might come up with. Anyway, how much manpower do you reckon the Coast Guard has nowadays?
They reached the gap in he sea wall and stopped. They would need to break cover to cross the open sand which was at the end of the slipway, where the lifeboat gets tractored down to the water.
U”Why don’t they land, man?”
“They’ll want to keep offshore in case they get spotted. They’ll gun it if anything spooks them, and leave those two behind to carry the can.”
“Honour among thieves, eh?”
“These are bootleggers, Bob. Don’t count. Anyway, what thieves do you know with any honour?”
“Good point. What’s that now, man?” Something was thrown from the boat and one of the figures struggled forward and grabbed it, floundering back to the sand with his prize.
“I think we’ll have to risk losing the boat and just go for those two. I’ll go first. I’ll be quicker than you.”
Bob looked like he was about to protest that he might have been the heavier of the two, but that he could still give John a race anytime, and that brawn beats tall always, and that anyway, what did John mean, when he’s the fucking oldest, even though he doesn’t look fifty – when a second parcel splashed into the water and was also soon retrieved. The other figure sloshed his way back towards the boat.
“Now’s our chance.” And suddenly John was off, leaving Bob surprised, still stranded in his starting block, but only for a brief moment. Bob was surprisingly fast for his size.
They had less than a hundred yards to go, but the going was difficult in the soft sand. They kept running, and by keeping quiet and staying low they avoided being spotted straight away. The sand hardened and they took advantage of the firmer footing to sprint the last few yards. John’s plan to cheat at the start gate, so that he could take the lead role, was, however, soon scuppered as he found himself spun around by Bob, who went crashing past him.
“Let the forward do his work, man,” he laughed, as he struck the first smuggler with the dirtiest rugby tackle John had seen in a long time, and in police rugby matches you got to see more than your share.
John winced long enough to remember to pull out his warrant card and wheeze “Stop, Police. You’re under arrest.” It seemed the polite thing to do, even if a little belated. He reached the edge of the water and came to a stop, as the other figure splashed nearer the boat, shouting the alarm. He was going to make it it, too. John knew he was not going to reach him in time. “Stop. Police,” he called again. The man turned round. Just a kid. A kid in a soaking wet hoody and faded jeans. The boy laughed as he reached up for a rope ladder, just thrown down the side of the boat, and gave John the vees. It occurred to John that maybe he was wrong about thieves and their honour, and he didn’t like to be proved wrong, and he didn’t like kids giving him the vees, either. John remembered the Taser.
The kid now had a hand on the ladder. John thought quickly about his Taser training. Did water and electricity mix? Not really, he knew that much, anyway, training or not. Electric heaters in the bathroom and all that shit. When he was a Beat Bobby, in Birmingham, he had seen it in the flesh. Frazzled flesh. And more than once. Concentrate. How far away, now? No – need to get nearer. Bloody Tasers are an in-your-face response, almost. Bloody useless sometimes, specially if you’ve forgotten to clip in a fresh power pack. Had he clipped in a charged power pack? Sure he had. No time to do anything about it now, anyway. The kid had another hand on the ladder. Think. Assess. No danger to me, the electricity is at the pointy ends, and if I miss the kid the volume of water in the sea will dissipate the charge to a tickle. No one gets hurt. The kid pulled himself up, his torso now almost clear of the water. A good, clean target, Never easy to hit what you’re aiming at though with the bloody thing. Twenty yards now, almost in range.
John took a few more strides and then unclipped the holster. He pulled out the red and yellow boxy looking Taser. Charged? Check. Thank god! Hands came down to grab at the kid’s wet shoulders. This kid must be important to them, John thought briefly, or they’d have legged it by now. He took aim.
“Police. I’m armed. Stop, or I shoot.” Sort of true, and supposed to be effective enough, fib or not.The kid was almost out of the water, being hurriedly dragged aboard. John took aim, anticipating the arc at the end of the flight. He fired at about the same time he remembered that a Taser has to drop from its initial fifty thousand volts down to ten thousand before it becomes effective and that if there was no voltage drop then the shock could prove fatal to the target. Water might interfere with the voltage drop. The remembering induced a tremor in his hand, slight, but enough of a tremor to misdirect the pair of scudding filaments, arcing them well over the kid’s head to then land ineffectually on the boat.
The kid brayed like a donkey at John, but before he could flash the farewell vees that were plainly on his mind, flames erupted from the front of the boat. Screams of panic came from inside the vessel. Curiosity overcame sense and the kid peered up and over the deck just as a massive explosion claimed the world. John got a fleeting glimpse of something sharp, big and ugly hitting the kid somewhere in the upper body. The kid had no time to shout as his upper body parted from the lower, leaving one arm still attached to the ladder. More explosions competed with the initial blast. John dived for cover as the upper deck of the boat splintered into spinning whizzing missiles.
Point of least resistance, the air, John thought. That’s why the rest of it still floats. John’s next thoughts were of Bob. He looked to see if he was OK, and was pleased to see Bob spread-eagled over his poleaxed victim. John liked to think Bob was protecting the guy, but he suspected he’d gone in for a second tackle. Bob did like to make sure that once they were down, they stayed down. John checked himself and was pleased to find he was uninjured too. A number of large objects, some sickeningly recognisable, began to appear around the wreck, and then jostle and bob towards the shore. Who’d be a SOCO at a time like this? They can have it. Another jumbled memory, again he suspected from the Taser training, started to untangle. Some concern about mixing electricity and fuel. Fuel source. Ignition source. No! The memory then bumped into the question of just how sloppy a bunch of smugglers might be with their boat housekeeping. Maybe they should have done a risk assessment? He pulled at the Taser wires and they were loose in the water, so he reeled them in and twisted them around the gun. He then threw the gun into the sea, as far as he could manage. He didn’t have to tell anyone he’d fired one off. No one saw it, still alive anyway. Not the two, having fun and games in the beach. They were too busy. Yes, best keep schtum. Must have dropped it in the struggle. The Inspector will go ballistic. Did Bob know how much a top line piece of police equipment like that cost? John did. He chuckled. About one week of an Inspector’s pay.
John got up and brushed the sand from his front, all the while questioning the wisdom of wearing his favourite suit on an obbo. But, it was kind of his work suit too. A reminder of a past secondment in Australia; the McFarland kidnap. The groovy blue of the Colmar Sharkskin denim suit suited the job too. It was his little joke. The boys in blue. The real joke, which he mainly kept to himself, was that there was no denim and no sharkskin in the suit, either. Just one hundred percent pure superfine bona fide Oz wool. It felt good. Made him feel good. He looked across the water to the burning pontoon which was now all that was left of the launch. He headed over to Bob to see if he’d had enough yet. It seemed the rugby had turned into all-in wrestling so he helped, as Bob got the deflated prisoner sitting up. John pulled the guy’s arms behind his back and secured his wrists with the quick-cuffs. It started to rain.
“What the fuck happened there?” Bob asked. “Betcha got worried abut yer wig blowing off yer nappa?”
John had a few moments of second thoughts. Should he come clean with Bob? “Don’t know. I wasn’t on the boat. Some sort of accident. Shame.”
His breathing still laboured, Bob pointed skywards. “Whazzat?” he coughed, his recent exertions briefly robbing him of wind, wishing now he’d thrown the race with John. The rain turned heavy. Real heavy, as cigarettes began to fall from the sky. Single cigarettes at first, then packet after packet slapped into the water and sand. then sleeves of the damned things, some whole in their packs of two hundred. Some split sleeves too, the ragged paper edges of their wrappers burning black and red like molten lava. Tobacco pouches too. Bob and John covered their prisoner and themselves as best they could, using their coats as umbrellas against the bombardment.
Bob left his prisoner to pick up two undamaged sleeves of Benson and Hedges, which he managed to stuff in the near cavernous pockets of his raincoat. He looked at John guiltily.
“Tabs. For Jenny.”
John shrugged his shoulders. He’d tried to encourage Bob’s wife to give up smoking. She was the last lone smoker in the Bridge club. But she couldn’t. Not even after Sarah, John’s partner had died. If seeing her best friend succumb to emphysema wasn’t going to do it, then the threat of his finding another bridge partner seemed a bit lame. So, John gave up pressuring her a while ago.
Lights began to appear in the terraced cottages along the sea front.
“Best ring this in quick,” Bob said. People began to gather in their back yards, pointing, and getting noisier.
“Yeah,” John said, looking around the beach. “Better had, or the local tobacconists will be on our backs. We’ll need a cordon throwing round this lot.” He could see onlookers already scooping up armfuls of booty nearest their feet and scurrying back indoors with it. At least, he thought, they hadn’t set false beacons to lure their booty ashore. Let them have it. Nobody gets much round here.
John called up the station on his mobile. Got them to do the ball breaking stuff. The Coastguard, lifeboat, fire, ambulance and forensics services were all alerted, and a crew arranged to come and take over the aftermath, to start securing the scene. Waste of time for most of them, John thought, but it had to be done.
Volunteers were soon on site to man the lifeboat, and John let them through the beach to do their job, whether it was pointless or not. Everyone had their job to do. He didn’t need a fight with them. Didn’t want one either. These people were good people, mostly. He’d read in the museum that stood behind him, that during the war, local women and kids manned the lifeboats while the men were away fighting. One night, the swell was so bad, they couldn’t launch the lifeboat from its slipway, to go rescue sailors torpedoed out of their ship. They manhandled this bloody great lifeboat up the hill, over the road, over the heath, down the dunes, down to a more sheltered bay where they could get the lifeboat away. No, he didn’t want to pick a fight with these good people.
A local councillor also got wind of what had happened on the beach and soon got involved too, and being very protective of her well-kept beach had many questions and a burning desire to get a band of volunteers to start cleaning up. John drew the line there, wanting to keep at least some semblance of a crime scene intact. Two vans of sleepy-eyed uniformed officers soon arrived, and some of them were put to taping off the beach area. It’s a massive long beach, so they kept the cordon to where the bulk of the debris remained. Others dispersed where they thought they might be needed, or where they could get a hot drink. There had been deaths, so John knew senior officers would be on their way to take over. John could do no more than wait.
A young looking copper stood by the two parcels that had been successfully offloaded by the gang before the boat blew up.
“What do you want done with these, Sir?” he asked.
John had almost forgotten in all the melee. “Let’s have a look,” he said, lifting the first parcel carefully by its corners to examine it more closely “And it’s not Sir. You know that. I might have out-ranked you once, but not now, Constable.” Let it pass. Memories. Let it pass. The parcel had been double wrapped in that sort of plastic sheeting that hermetically seals all over, but a corner was split open. Should be good for fingermarks, John thought. If the salt water doesn’t get at them. Misshapen lumps had begun to spill from the tear, almost invisible as they plopped into the sand, and looking like old fashioned sugar lumps, not the uniform white cubes you used to get, more like the ones used in expensive coffee shops. Only smoother. Crystals. Crystal meth. John had seen enough of it to know. SOCO would have to confirm, of course.
“Gonna taste it?” asked the young constable.
“What – like on the telly?”
“Yeah, that’s it. CSI.”
“Piss off,” John spat, with instant regret. He’s just a rookie. Cut him some slack.
“Sorry, Son,” John mellowed. “It’s been a long night. I’m a bit concerned about this evidence, with all this sea water, and if it comes on to rain we could lose some forensics. Help me get these boxes locked in the car.” He returned a few minutes later, having lectured the rookie on the inadvisability of putting strange things or substances in your mouth, and leaving him to guard his Volvo, with a promise that he’d get one of the locals to get him a nice hot cup of tea, which he did.
The senior team arrived and took over from John. The Crime Scene Manager was Sandra Cambridge. John had worked with her on two other occasions, and knew she was good at her job – a bloody good manager, in fact. Not necessarily a good copper, but that was OK. Each to her own. She was buddied with Inspector Franks, the appointed Serious Crime Scene Officer. John knew little about Franks, as he’d only recently parachuted in, and straight into the thick of it, but he seemed competent enough. They took John’s report first, then spoke to Bob, then after a quick conference seemed happy enough with what had been done, though Sandra said she would also contact Revenue and Customs, as she thought they’d have a strong interest in the case, and maybe some intelligence to share. The Senior Team left John and Bob to process their prisoner, and said they’d convene a case conference as soon as appropriate.
“Not a bad nights work, me marra¡” John said to Bob, suddenly stopping dead in his tracks at his own words. He heard Bob snigger, but said nothing. It took both of them to lift and then guide their still semi-conscious prisoner to the car. The short walk seemed to revive the smuggler a little, and he started to kick off as Jahn opened the rear door. The young policeman he’d left guarding the car knew his job well, and stepped in with some enthusiasm, Bob making sure the prisoner did not bang his head, the other pushing the reluctant prisoner into his seat. John was more than happy to leave them to it. With the car now fully loaded, and Bob guarding the prisoner, John thanked the young policeman for his help and after a few final words with the Sandra Cambridge as she walked up from the beach, they drove off and headed for the Police Station at Bedlington.