Five people were sitting around a table on the promenade outside the local cafe on a quiet part of the north Kent coast. This was a convenient meeting place for the 'think-tank' of wisdom, wit and knowledge that talked over, but never fully resolved, a great many issues.
"Where's Jack?" asked Martin who had just arrived.
"He went off on one of his dangerous adventures," said Rita. "I am not sure where. Yemen I think. You know, to the south of Saudi Arabia."
"Yemen? Yes. I remember now. Sitting round the campfire slurping camel soup, wasn't it? And eating camel tongue while dodging bullets," joked Martin as he recalled the amusing scene that had taken place only two weeks before. "Still sounds like real fun!"
Jack Williamson was about 50 years old, stood over 6 feet tall and was slim in build. He was a somewhat mysterious character, but gave the air of 'establishment'. Very British. Jack was a regular member of the group when he wasn't away on one of his trips that usually lasted three-to-four weeks at a time. Jack was well travelled and very knowledgeable about many things. His manner, although charming, was also very disarming. Quite deceptive. As a 'consultant', Jack often did work for the UK Government. An obscure line of work for obscure government departments, which took him to various countries where most people would never consider going: Afghanistan, Iraq, the more unstable parts of Africa and now Yemen. This had resulted in a couple of planned absences already this season.
Len appeared carrying a tray of teas and biscuits.
"Oh, hello, Martin," Len greeted warmly."You're late on parade. Again."
Len put the tray down on the table and offered to get Martin a drink. As he turned to return to the cafe, Len added
"Or would you like the money instead?"
It was asked in such a way as to clearly be meant as a light-hearted comment.
"The tea will be fine, thanks, Len. And don't forget the sugar this time. Or the spoon," said Martin trying unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, but continuing the banter that had been taking place for several weeks now.
Although the afternoon meeting at the 'freehold', as this particular place had become known, was a regular occurrence throughout the summer months, the group changed daily as different people were always sitting in. Sometimes the group was as few as three or as many as ten. Today it was just six.
The lady known as 'Runner Bean' due to her fondness of vegetables, raised her hands and pushed her palms forwards. She then proceeded to draw her hands apart in an attempt to demonstrate some abstract point, revealing slender fingers. Finally, she picked up a half-eaten cheese sandwich and discarded it, throwing it onto the sandy beach causing a flurry of activity amongst the ubiquitous seagulls as they scuttled across the beach.
It would be necessary to move over to the promenade railings in a few days' time to avoid the shade cast by the cafe as the sun noticeably slid further down the sky by the same time every day. The afternoon temperature was dropping very quickly now as the autumn approached.
A sinister looking vessel glided quietly and slowly into the bay. It was not a large vessel. Not a ship, but it still looked very menacing. White stencilled lettering painted on the drab grey port side bow of the vessel announced simply "H.M. Customs", though the small cannon positioned on the foredeck made the vessel look military and very warlike. Amidships was positioned a tall tower sporting all sorts of aerials and dishes suggesting a sophisticated communications capability.
"What is that ship doing here?" asked Martin as he replaced his binoculars on the circular table in front of him next to his mug of hot tea. "Any ideas?"
A brief silence was broken by Sonia who said:
"Nobody seems to know, but it has been seen several times before and it always appears around the time of a high-tide in the late afternoon. Maybe it's looking out for terrorist activity. Something like that. And they don't come round for a cup of tea or a chat either!"
"When the ship has stopped, watch the activity on the water," advocated Bruno, Sonia's husband. "A speedboat and a jet-ski will be lowered from a derrick at the stern of the vessel and they will head off towards the shore and remain moored there for a couple of hours or so. The ship stays anchored and waits off the coast. By morning the vessel is always gone, so the two small craft must return under cover of darkness. It's a real mystery. Quite scary really to know this is happening right here in our neighbourhood."
"How do you know all this?" asked Martin.
"We've been watching them over a period of a few weeks, but it's the same pattern every time. The speedboat and jet-ski stay moored just out in the bay, but we've never seen where the occupants go. However long or hard we watch they seem to just vanish. We've called these craft F.A.S.T vessels: Furtive Activities of Surface Traffic. It fits the behaviour very well."
"Did you know that Her Majesty's Customs and the Inland Revenue are now connected? They could be looking for smuggled goods or illegal immigrants."
"That's a good point, Rita," said Len.
"Aren't they the same thing?" asked Runner Bean as she waved her arms frantically. "You know - people smuggling."
"That's a good point, too, Zelda."
This wasn't her real name, but Len liked to give people nicknames. Len had one too, though he had never heard it.
"Do you think there could be any connection between Jack's absences and the appearance of this customs boat? I know it sounds a bit wacky," admitted Martin, "but it is a possibility."
"Oh, Martin. You and your conspiracy theories!" said Rita.
"I know it sounds far-fetched, but we don't actually know where Jack is right now," continued Martin.
"We've had a postcard. From Yemen," said Len.
"So?" asked Martin. "Anyone can arrange for a card to be sent from anywhere. The card only suggests the writer is in that place. It could have been written sometime beforehand and posted from that country by anyone. After all, to get hold of a genuine postcard should present no problem for a government agency, should it? You see, it doesn't mean Jack posted it and it only suggests he is in Yemen."
This resulted in a few raised eyebrows and unsettled looks.
"Jack has a residence nearby, doesn't he?" asked Martin.
"Yes. Around the coast in the next bay, I believe," said Sonia.
"This could even involve Jack," persisted Martin. "We don't actually know he is in Yemen. We are only assuming that much."
"Are you suggesting Jack is somehow in league with this vessel?" mused Len.
"Well," continued Martin, "I am only connecting the facts that we have a person working in some capacity for the Government and lives right along this coast. It's only a few minutes walk around the bay from where the two boats are moored. It does make an interesting coincidence. And remember, the writing on the side of the boat only suggests it's Her Majesty's Customs. Ask yourself if you think it actually looks like a customs vessel. I really don't know what such a vessel should look like, but with that mid-deck tower and its array of aerials and dishes..."
Martin's voice trailed off and then he added:
"And that cannon! It looks a lot more than just an innocent inshore customs outfit to me. And Jack isn't here is he!"
Silence. The tension in the atmosphere was almost palpable.
"Look. There are the two boats," declared Sonia.
As if on cue, the speedboat and the jet-ski appeared from around the far side of the mysterious vessel and gave chase to each other for a brief while before speeding off towards shallower water, the speedboat leading the way with the jet-ski in hot pursuit. The two small craft seemed to have appeared from nowhere, but they could not have come from anywhere else but the customs boat. Each was crewed by a solitary occupant and the tall jet-ski rider was dressed in a black full body wet-suit with a mask completely covering his face.
Both boats disappeared around the point towards the next bay.
The bay where Jack had his residence.
© Louis Brothnias (2005)