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«By Stealth», Colin Forbes

PROLOGUE

Paula Grey didn't notice anything sinister. At first…'

A November sea mist trailed damp fingers across her face. She stood at the edge of the Lymington marina on the south coast of Britain, facing the invisible Isle of Wight. She was quite alone at eight in the dark of the evening. The atmosphere was creepy as the mist became fog. The only sounds were the slithering lap of waves against the stone wall below her, the muffled chug-chug of the small powerboat carrying her close friend, Harvey Boyd, further away, out into the Solent, the sea.

She calculated he was not yet a hundred yards from the marina, full of private yachts swathed in blue plastic for winter. The powerboat was moving into the main channel, no longer even a blur.

They'd had an argument over their last drink at the Ship Inn. Paula had first wanted to stop him embarking on a dangerous voyage. She had then tried to persuade him to take her with him.

`Not on your life,' Harvey had snapped.

`But you've just said there's no risk.'

'I don't know what's out there. A "ghost" ship? My pal, George, disappeared crossing to the island.'

Boyd, well built, six feet tall, dark haired, clean shaven, ex-SAS, had shaken his head. Paula persisted.

`You're contradicting yourself. No risk. Now you hint something strange is out there on the Solent.'

`I'll be back in an hour or less. Meet you here. Then a slap-up meal with Tweed at Passford House…'

Boyd was not only an ex-soldier of the elite force: he was an expert technician. He had erected sophisticated radar in the powerboat. So he should be all right, Paula tried to convince herself as she perched at the edge of the sea wall, pulling her windcheater closer at the neck, adjusting the scarf tied over her head. But she couldn't rid herself of some awful premonition.

Her hands touched the night binoculars looped round her neck. It was almost high tide. Larger waves slapped the base of the wall, throwing up spray. Harvey would give me hell if he knew I was standing here all alone, she mused. Then she frowned.

The swirling fog was creating nightmare shapes out over the water. She could have sworn she'd seen something large moving slowly. As the raw cold began penetrating her windcheater she raised the glasses with her gloved hands. She took off the right-hand glove to adjust the focus, heard a sound like padding footsteps behind her. Glancing round, she saw only fog. She listened. Her imagination running riot. She concentrated on focusing the binoculars.

Clouds of fog shifted, assumed weird patterns. Nothing substantial. No other vessel would be out on a night like this. Somewhere in the distance a foghorn droned its mournful dirge. The lighthouse. She could still hear the gentle chug-chug of Harvey's powerboat, moving slowly, threading a course down the channel. Then she had the first real premonition of disaster.

A muffled grinding, tearing noise. Like a steel hull bursting through wood – through the hull of a powerboat. A rending, crushing sound. She swung the glasses in the direction she thought the sound had come from, knowing the fog would distort the location of what sounded like a frightful collision. She forced herself to hold the glasses steady.

`Oh, God! No! Not Harvey…'

It took her seconds to realize the absence of something.

The chug-chug of the powerboat's engine had vanished. She breathed heavily, taking in gasps of ice-cold air. A fearful silence descended, punctuated by the crash of even larger waves hitting the sea wall. She waited.

It had seemed hours. But it was only fifteen minutes later – she had automatically checked her watch. Tweed's training jogged her even as she fought down the terror. It was only fifteen minutes later when the swift incoming tide carried a blurred shape along the wall below her. A body. She knew it was a corpse even though she couldn't see it clearly.

Her booted feet carried her slowly back along the edge of the wall, keeping pace with the floating object. Paula moved like a robot. The tide was forcing the corpse up the channel against the wall. Then a new horror gripped her. The tide was starting to go out.

But some quirk of the current continued to float the body shoreward. Beyond the end of the wall a cobbled ramp descended into the river – a ramp where craft were shoved into the water. If only the current continued to carry its hideous cargo a short distance further Paula was confident she could haul it ashore.

She quickened her pace to reach the ramp first. Stuffing the binoculars into her windcheater pocket, she ran, bent down at the foot of the ramp. Waves broke, water slushed over her boots. The corpse floated over the ramp below the waterline. She grabbed, caught hold of an arm swathed in a familiar, now sodden, pea-jacket.


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