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The Vagabond

Prequel to Operation Desert Swarm

The Vagabond (Youtube)

“See you matey.”

“All the best.”

“Take care.”

It appeared that Sergeant Major Steven Blackwood couldn’t walk more than five yards before another army walla wished him the best of luck. The army had been good to him. For the last twenty-five years it had been his mother, his father and his best friend.

“So, have you got anything planned now that you’re free?” said the corporal who was carrying his bags.

Steve had almost forgotten the little corporal was there, he had been so silent as he marched alongside. Free? Strange; it wasn’t freedom that he was feeling it was a sense of loss. Out of his twenty-five-year military career; fifteen years of them had been spent as a military policeman.

They entered the guardhouse at Hendon. It was strange how guardhouses always smelt slightly musty, a bit like how your grandparent’s house smelt. The little green wooden building shuddered as the corporal dropped Steven's steel panniers on the floor. He turned to Steve with a grin then he saluted. Steve drew his six-foot frame straight and returned the gesture.

“Since you asked, Corporal, I’m off to join The Vagabond.”

Steven grabbed his panniers and walked out of Hendon and into the rest of his life. His BMW F650GS was parked in the usual spot in the car park. From this point forward he made his own fate. The army would no longer be there to tell him when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake. He was now the master.

Jumping onto his bike he paused momentarily with his hands on the handle bars. A long journey lay ahead of him. Each mile taking him farther from his old life. He started the engine enjoying the throaty growl it made. Dumping the clutch, he screeched out of the base lifting his front wheel into the air as a final salute.

He relaxed further into the saddle, he was settling in for a long ride.

The future he was planning was in Scotland aboard a boat called The Vagabond. The boat always brought back memories of his childhood. He was ten the first time he and his father went up to the Black Isle in the Highlands, across the bridge from Inverness, in a little village called Cromarty. This was where Jim McDougal lived and worked. His home and his work was the boat that he chartered. The usual charter was to small groups of tourists who wanted to go and see the dolphins or whales that could be seen in or near the Moray Firth.

Jim had been in the navy. This was where Steven’s father had met him. They had both spent a tour of duty on the same destroyer. A tour of duty that had taken them into some of the worst storms that the Arctic Circle could throw at them. Their friendship had been bonded by many nights on watch together. After leaving the navy, they had kept in touch and the yearly holidays were just one aspect of this.

In Cromarty the sun was setting on another peaceful day. Tom McInnis was returning from the ferry. He’d been working across at Nigg in a little craft shop. He used to be a fisherman, but with the new European Union quotas and rules it was hard to make a living any more. Now he made bagpipes to sell to tourists.

Walking slowly down Marine Terrace he passed rows of terraced fishermen’s cottages. The cool salty sea air smelt good. Jane was bringing out the rubbish, and she greeted him as he walked past. That was the good thing about a small village, everyone knew your business, and they looked out for each other. The Vagabond was still in the same place. It didn’t appear to have moved all day. That was unusual unless Jim was ill. Tom’s feet made a clumping noise as he climbed the gangplank. She certainly was a tidy little boat. She was a 1958 ketch, twenty metres long with a black hull and pure white sails.

“Jim! Jim, yea lazy beggar, are yea in?” Tom shouted.

No reply. Tom made his way to the cabin to see if it was locked. There was a throaty purr from down the street. Tom recognised the bike, it was Steve. He was a familiar figure about the boat. Jim had never had any kids or family of his own and had, in his own way, adopted Steve as the son he never had. They had become even closer since the lad's own dad had died of cancer twenty years ago. That had been a really rough time for Steve. He’d been back from the Falklands for about six months. He’d just about stopped having the nightmares. He’d seen and done things that he never wanted to think about again. Then his father had been diagnosed with cancer of the colon. It was untreatable and Steve had been unable to do anything for his father except to offer him some comfort in his last days. The end came slowly and totally devastated Steve. In his mind this man, his father, was a larger-than-life sailor. He just seemed so permanent. Steve withdrew to Cromarty and spent time with Jim, spreading his father’s ashes in the sea. They spent long days sailing and long nights drinking to memories.

“Hi Tom.”

While he’d been tied up with his thoughts, Steve had got off of his bike and climbed aboard.

“Hi there, Steve. I’m just trying to stir old Jim. He’s not been out all day.”

Steven walked up to the cabin door and pushed it open. Inside there were three steps leading down to the living level. He could see straight into the saloon. It was clear that there was no one on board. Tom glanced around the interior.

“Well, if I see him I’ll tell him you’re on board, Steven. There’s no point me hanging about since you’re here. Good to see you, by the way lad.” Tom squeezed Steve’s shoulder as he turned round and carried on his way home.

Steve grabbed his panniers from the bike and set the alarm. Back on the boat he started stowing his clothes away in his cabin. He wasn’t too concerned about Jim’s whereabouts, his friend was prone to having a wander every now and again.

The gentle rocking movement of the boat soothed him with its familiarity. He loved this boat. It was a home from home, only this home could move location when he needed new scenery.

This was the cabin he always stayed in. There were six in total. Four of them were quite small, with bunk beds and a small desk space. Then there was the captain’s cabin; this had a double bed and its own head. Steve’s cabin had a single bed and its own head. The boat was finished in teak below decks

Walking around to the galley he made himself a drink of strong tea, a little milk but no sugar and sat down with the ships log. Jim always filled this in without fail. It would be a chance to see where he’d been for the last few days. Steven was rather surprised to see that the last entry was for a longitude and latitude. That was strange; the last entry should have been for the port at Cromarty. Longitude and latitude were used by Jim when he was at a point at sea, or an unfamiliar landmass that had no name. Lifting up the top of one of the seats, Steven reached inside and brought out a chart of the surrounding area. Looking at the spot that corresponded with the readings showed nothing, it appeared to be empty. Why would Jim leave an empty spot as his last log reading, and why was there no entry getting back to Cromarty? It was getting late and there was nothing to be done tonight. Steven climbed into his bed determined to get to the bottom of the mystery first thing.

The new day was bright and cheerful. There was a ten-knot wind from the west, which was ideal for where he was going to go. Looking out of the harbour he could see the ferry making its way across to Nigg. Tom was waving from the deck. Steve returned the gesture.

Cromarty was waking up. A few people were making their way to the shops, to work, to school, to all the usual places. The smell of eggs and bacon came wafting up from the galley. Steve clambered below decks and made a fried egg and bacon sandwich and washed it down with a coffee. He was going to look for Jim today and wanted to have plenty of energy. He had already checked the local weather forecasts and informed the coastguard of his cruising plans. He finished off the last of his breakfast. It was time. His stomach knotted with excitement. It didn’t matter how many times he did this; he still got the old familiar buzz. He felt like one of the ancient mariners, the explorers who settled the planet. The link was there still running through every sailor’s blood.

Steve started the diesel. It was easier to manoeuvre out of the dock this way. He let slip with the stern rope, then when the boat was on the top of a swell, he released the bow rope. As the swell subsided, the boat was pulled slightly to sea. Steve kicked the engine into forward and nosed the boat away from the edge.

The engine chugged reassuringly as it propelled the boat at a reasonable five knots out of the harbour. The weather was bright. The sea was relatively calm. The Vagabond was a well-behaved boat and had expected characteristics.

Steve killed the diesel and raised the mainsail. The wind had shifted slightly to the Northwest, so he was sailing almost windward. Dragging the boom out so that the sail started to billow, Steve felt a surge as the wind started to propel him along. He trimmed the sails as his speed became steady and set the autopilot. This would keep him on course but allow him movement around the decks.

The map positions from the logbook were not too far away and so it shouldn’t be too long. Walking to the bow Steve could see the North sea laid out before him. The waves were a couple of metres from trough to tip, so relatively calm. There were a couple of oil rigs to the North of his position, distant though on the horizon. There was very little traffic

He started scanning the horizon with his binoculars looking for something significant. There didn’t appear to be much. He moved the glasses back over the same spot, he thought he’d seen something between the waves, but he couldn’t be sure. Yes. There! Something was sticking out of the sea, not very big, but it was there. It appeared to be a rocky outcrop. He made a few corrections to the autopilot to make sure he was heading for the rock. Glancing back at the protrusion he was startled to see movement. There was someone on it. Steve brought the boat alongside the rock, he couldn’t get too close, he wasn’t sure how wide it was under the waterline. Also the waves could push the boat onto it. He set the sails to keep his position and turned on the autopilot again to keep the nose of the sturdy little ship into the wind. This was not a very good idea, but with someone’s life on the line he wasn’t about to hang about.

He lowered the lifeboat that hung at the back of The Vagabond into the water, then climbed aboard. The outboard started first time, which was a testament to Jim’s good maintenance. Edging around The Vagabond Steven moved the tiny boat toward the rock. The waves, which from deck had seemed small, now from the life raft seemed like hills bearing down on him. The wind had picked up a little and was blowing spray off the top of the waves that stung his eyes. He felt rather than heard the grating of his boat on the rock, then the wave subsided and dragged his boat back with it. Steve moved closer again and when he got near to the rock he jumped out of the boat and pulled it out of the water.

Gently turning the man over Steve stopped, momentarily startled. It was Jim. He had half expected it; Jim was freezing cold and barely breathing. Steve carried him into the little boat and pushed off. His friend was suffering badly from hypothermia and it was important that he got warm. Trying to get him back on board The Vagabond, with the waves and the tiny boat seeming to work against him was a challenge. He made it with only a bruised knee.

Steve secured the boat and took Jim down to the saloon. He laid him out on the sofa and wrapped some warm blankets around him. He started rubbing him with the thick cloth trying to create warmth and get Jim’s blood moving. His lips were dry and cracking, he appeared badly dehydrated as well. Wetting the edge of a blanket he pushed the dampened edge into Jim’s mouth. He didn’t know how badly dehydrated he was and didn’t want to risk a bad reaction.

After half an hour, Jim started to stir. This was an encouraging sign. Steve turned the cabin blower onto high and started up for the deck. If Jim was starting to come round, it was time he got back to shore. He was going back into the wind, so he was going to have to tack, using his sail as a wing to get movement. Never going directly into the wind, but rather zig zagging towards it. Having raised the anchor, trimmed the main sail, he turned the boat around and started back for Cromarty. Because he needed to keep changing course, he couldn’t leave the autopilot in charge for long periods, so he couldn’t do a great deal for Jim on the way back, apart from making sure he was still breathing.

It wasn’t over yet. Jim was seventy five years old. He had endured conditions that would have killed a much younger man. It was fortunate that he had been wearing his storm suit, it had kept him warmer and drier for longer. The North sea was not a forgiving sea. It was usually cold enough to kill in minutes.

After what seemed like hours Cromarty Harbour was in view. Lowering the sails, Steve started the diesel and edged The Vagabond into its usual mooring.

“Didn’t think I’d see this site again,” Jim said. He’d come up from below decks as Steve was tying up.

“You should be lying down, Jim; we need to get you to the hospital for a check-up.” Steve wanted to make sure that Jim wasn’t going to go into shock.

“Get away with ya, laddie. I’ve been in more weather than you’ve seen. I just needed a warm and a wet, I’ve had both and now I’m fine. Just want to get my hands on those bastards that did this.” He leaned back against the safety rail as he talked. His words were full of fire, but he looked exhausted.

“Who did do this Jim?”

“It’s in the book. The Vagabond was chartered by two men. They said they’d seen whales just out to sea and wanted to go out with their cameras to get a picture. Sounded fair enough. There are plenty of whales round here and the money was good. I set off yesterday midday. The weather was good, the wind was up and the sea was calm. I got to the spot that they had indicated on the sea charts. That’s when the trouble started. They put a gun on me and made me get in the dinghy and paddle out to retrieve a box from that damn rock. I got the package and when I tried getting back aboard they told me I knew too much. They shot the bottom out of the dingy and sailed away. I managed to get back onto the rock before the dinghy went down, and I just clung on for life. Luckily as soon as they wanted me in the dinghy, I put on my storm suit and that decision saved my life.”

“What was in the box that was worth a man’s life? Was it guns or drugs? Did you get a chance to see and what did the men look like?” Steve wanted to get his hands on these buggers. Now he was here, he could make sure Jim was looked after. His friend wasn’t getting any younger, even though he would never admit it himself. Steve worried about him going to sea alone.

“Never got to see it, but from the weight of it, I’d say guns. So what are we going to do Steve? Shall we call the police?” Jim wanted this over with.

“Well, apart from trying to murder you, we haven’t got much on them, plus we don’t know where they are or who they are. I think we need to find something on them first. They spent a lot of time on board, surely there must be something here that gives the game away. Let’s go through the boat with a fine tooth comb and see what we turn up.”

Steve started below decks. From his experience as a sniper he knew that people rarely spent time in an area without altering it in some way, leaving something behind unintentionally. He was an expert at getting into places and out again with the minimum of disturbance, so he knew the signs.

Steve checked through the logs at the navigation station. This was just a fancy name for a built in desk with a chair where the ship’s log and the charts were kept. They had not been on board for too long, so he couldn’t imagine them using the whole ship. He tried to imagine in his mind that he was one of these guys using the boat. Where would he go? He fast-forwarded it in his mind. Apart from the deck, the nav station the helm, and maybe the head. Hmm, that was a good pace for things to fall out of pockets. He made his way to the front of the ship. The Vagabond had three heads, but only one was in the corridor. The head was in a small room, with the toilet itself and a wash basin. It was all clean as usual and didn’t look any different from normal. Except there was a tiny piece of paper sticking up from between the decking. Steve leaned forward and carefully grabbed the paper with the nails of his index finger and thumb. He pulled it out slowly. It was a rather large piece that had somehow got jammed between the decking. Turning it over he could see that it was a receipt, for some repairs done at Jackson’s boatyard in Nigg. He heard Jim banging about in the galley giving a good impression of an earthquake.

“Hey Jim! You had any boat repairs done in Nigg?” he called.

“No way, I always use Pop. You know that.”

That was true enough. Pop was a real character round here. He was in his sixties but he still did most of the work on boats himself. He had been in the boat repair business longer than anyone could remember, and everyone called him Pop.

“Bingo matey, we have a starting point,” Steve said to Jim as he walked into the galley. “I’m going out for a while, see you later.”

Steve went down to the bike, there were a few bits and pieces he might need. He threw some items from the top box in a kit bag, started the engine and headed for the Nigg ferry. He could have taken the boat round, but he figured that Jim could do with a rest. Besides, he hadn’t been on the ferry in years. Ferry was a bit of a fancy name, it held three cars maximum, and it was just a small craft with one man in charge.

Steve waited for the cars to get off before manoeuvring the bike onto the end. He wanted to be the first off. A small van and an old car made up the ships passengers. Steve got off the bike and stood at the side of the boat holding the guardrail. He admired the efficiency of the coxswain who manoeuvred the ferry effortlessly away from the dock and out into the firth. Steve had looked up the boat yard address on the ship's computer the night before. It was round the corner from the ferry port, not really a surprise considering that the boat yard needed easy access to the water.

The trip across to Nigg took fifteen minutes. It was only a short journey but saved an hour and a half’s drive by car. The ferry operator had kicked into reverse to slow the boat's progress towards the dock and had started the ramp. Steve moved forward as soon as the barrier had been lifted. The streets in Nigg were very similar to Cromarty itself. Both were designed two hundred years ago for a very different age, with small fishing cottages and narrow alleyways. Repeatedly he was forced to pull in to the curb to allow other road users to get past. Three cars were a traffic jam. He was growing impatient when he turned the corner and there it was! Jackson’s boatyard.

Steve killed the engine and got off his bike. There was one small sailing boat out of the water in front of the boatyard with a man patching up the hull. Steve walked across to him.

“Hi there.” Steve held out his hand to the man. “Are you Jackson?” he pointed to the sign as he spoke.

The man turned around stretching and rubbing his back. He put fresh grime on his blue one piece overall from his hands. “No man. He’s out getting parts. I’m Tim, I do most of the work round here. You need some work doing?” He shook Steve’s hand as he spoke. He had a good firm handshake.

“Not as such, I’m after information.” Steve handed the receipt over to Tim. “I believe this is one of your receipts. Could you give me the name of the men who paid you?”

Tim looked at the receipt he was shaking his head. “I dunno man. I could get into trouble for this. Why do you want to know? You could be a psychopath or something for all I know.”

Steve smiled at Tim. “You’re partly right, I’m not a psycho but I’m pissed with these people. They chartered my boat and they owe me money. Look, I just want a couple of names, or at least the boat. I’ll give you fifty quid.”

Tim glanced around him. Then he took the money. “Don’t know their names. Two of em, both blokes; but the boat,” he whistled. “She was a beauty, big motor cruiser, her rudder was broken. I guess they’d run her aground. She could still be controlled, but not very well, especially if the sea was a bit choppy. The Grey Lady she was called. Will that do you?”

“Pretty much. When did they pick her up?” Steve didn’t need to write anything down. He had a first class memory.

“They picked her up this morning, about nine.”

Steve thanked Tim and headed back to the bike. It was now fifteen hundred hours; they could be miles away. He started the engine and glanced over his shoulder ready to reverse. Knock! Knock! He glanced round and saw Tim urgently knocking on his helmet.

“Nearly forgot to tell you, they took her down to the dock. They’re probably still they're stocking up.”

Steve gave Tim a nod and set off. He wound his way back through the narrow little streets and found himself back on the dock. The vessel was still there. It stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the fishing boats. A fifty three-foot motor cruiser. A luxury boat.

Steve got his kit bag from the back of the bike and headed for the water. He found a quiet spot between two fishing boats. The crews would be in the pub at this time. There would be no more fishing till tomorrow. He stripped down to his shorts and pulled on a wet suit. He had formulated a plan of action earlier and now was going to follow through. He lowered himself into the water with his kit bag and swam under the fishing boats until he came up beside the Grey Lady. He got a heat vision scope out of his bag. These were some of his trophies from his time in the army. He had liberated them himself.

Raising the scope up to his left eye he scanned the boat. Just as he had hoped, it was occupied. Two heat signatures just in front of him. He replaced the scope and got out a listening device. He attached one end to the boat's hull and placed a speaker in his ear. Pressing record he could hear clearly what was said on board. That was the good thing about boat hulls, very easy to hear through.

“What did he say?” Voice 1.

“He was not a happy bunny. Said he might not use us again if we didn’t get a better back up plan,” voice 2.

“Well it wasn’t our fault; we’ve been doing this for three years now without any problems. He can’t stop just like that. Can he?” Voice 1.

“Naah, he’s just venting off steam. Bit worried is all,” voice 2

“Killing that man is going to cause people to start looking isn’t it?” Voice 1.

“I don’t think so; anyway the next shipment isn’t for another few weeks. It will all have blown over by then. Just make sure that we get these guns into Glasgow. Get em sold. As soon as he smells the money, he’ll be fine. We’re onto a good thing here and he knows it. Don’t sweat it, be cool and it’ll all be fine,” voice 2.

There was a click as Steve disconnected the recorder. That was all he needed. Time to call in the big guns. He swam back to the docks and got out of the water. He dialled 999.

“Which service do you require? Fire, Ambulance or Police?” The operator’s voice was almost mechanical.

“Police.”

Steve was put through to a police operator. He explained about the boat and what he discovered. He played the tape he had made. The operator sounded a bit dubious but put him through to a detective. He again played the recording but this time he gave his army number. As soon as they found out that he had been in the military they started paying attention and despatched a police unit.

Steve walked up to a wall near The Grey Lady so he could keep an eye on her until the police arrived. There was no need to keep out of their way, they had never seen him. Steve could see some movement on the boat. One of the men had come up on deck. He jumped off the boat and started walking up the dock. Steve stood up and wandered across to him.

“Mate, scuse me, Mate! You got the time?” Steve tried to get the man’s attention.

“Mate, scuse me.” He just carried on walking totally blanking Steve. This was not good; he wanted them both here when the police arrived.

“Hey you ignorant git, what’s your problem, too good to talk to me?” Steve shouted at him. That got his attention. The man came straight at him and swung a punch straight at his face. If that punch connected it would do some serious damage. Steve side stepped, grabbed the proffered arm and pulled it forward whilst at the same time raising his knee into the man's stomach. The man grunted and sagged onto the floor.

Steve aimed an axe kick at his assailant’s chest. You don’t get up from that for a while. He had spent a lot of his spare time learning Wado Ryu Karate. He was a Brown belt. He hadn’t yet achieved his black belt. That was more to do with time than ability, but he was still good.

Two police cars came around the corner. They had no sirens on. No point alerting the men. Steve pointed to the boat. Three policemen got out of the lead car, two out of the back car. The first three had pistols and headed for the boat that he had indicated. Two came up to Steve.

“Mr Blackwood? I’m detective Straw. We spoke on the phone. Is this one of them?” The detective looked at Steve.

“It is, he was going to leave, so I detained him; but he’ll be fine.” Steve took his foot from the man’s chest so that he could be picked up by the two constables. They put him in the back of the first police car. The three policemen that had gone on board the boat reappeared with the second man in cuffs.

“I’ll need that tape Sir, and I’ll need you to come to the station at some point to give a statement.” The detective held out his hand as he spoke.

Steve nodded and gave him the tape. It was over.

It had been three days since the occupants of The Grey Lady had been arrested. Jim was at home. He had claimed he was retiring and had left Steve in charge of The Vagabond. It was his to live aboard and charter. All he had to do was split the proceeds with Jim. It was a dream come true. He had the heart of a sailor, now he could sail and be paid for it. He had already got his first paying passengers, he was taking them out to look for whales, but this time whales were all they would see.

The End

Read next: Columbine
Michael Whateley
Michael Whateley

An independent author and a keen YouTube. 

I write because I love to write. A lot of what I write has tiny nuggets of my life, like little easter eggs for regular readers to spot. 

On Facebook and YouTube I am Wannabe Author. 

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