The sun eased its way gently into the water that lined the distant horizon, descending within a richly spreading blanket of deepening red that stained the quiet ocean the colour of blood. A slight breeze; hot and dry, ruffled the man’s shoulder-length grey hair as he stood on the bow of his vessel, idly contemplating the magnificent solitude of their position, enjoying the slight motion as his boat wallowed, engines off, in a gentle swell. The sun was going down on the eighteenth day of their voyage. The day, not that it really mattered out here, was July 21st, in the year 1916, and they were on a mission so secret that few men outside the sacred walls of Number 10 Downing Street had any knowledge of it.
The war and its evil clutches were far behind them for now, although he surmised that their cargo was something very important to the British war effort. What it was, who knew? He was a captain in the Royal Navy and it was his duty to follow the orders that came from the Admiralty without hesitation. He was not about to question higher authority and had organised the midnight loading of dozens of heavy wooden crates into the specially fitted hold of his vessel, saying nothing. But, this was not a new situation for him. In fact, his vessel had been specially refitted to serve just such a clandestine purpose and this was his third mission as her captain.
‘Captain.’ The voice that sliced through his reverie, from over his left shoulder, sounded gruff and deep as it resonated in the throat of the huge man that he knew would now be looming up behind him; hopefully bearing a tin mug filled with hot, sweet tea. ‘Tea, sir.’
Turning to acknowledge his first officer, Captain William Barret accepted the cup of steaming brown liquid and sampled a mouthful immediately, ignoring the brief sensation of burning and focusing on the familiar, friendly taste. Flicking the peak of his flat officer’s cap upwards with a jaunty movement, he found himself smiling broadly at his companion. The two men were similarly dressed in dark blue boiler suits and heavy, black duffel coats. The only indication of their military rank was in the Royal Navy, standard-issue officer’s caps that both wore.
Like the tea, Lieutenant Paul Pringle was reliable and reassuring; he had a presence that oozed confidence from every pore. Adored by the crew for his no nonsense, yet caring command style, he had joined the boat at the same time as Barret. They had learned the ropes of secret operations together and bonded the crew into a tight fighting unit within weeks.
‘Thanks,’ grinned Barret, taking another mouthful. He had not heard Pringle approaching on the new, rubber deck covering. ‘Looks like this stuff works at suppressing footsteps,’ he added, casting a glance down at the black, ridged surface.
‘Lucky I was only bringing you a cuppa then, sir.’
‘Indeed, Number One. How long before the boilers are up to steam?’
‘Should reach temperature in about another half an hour,’ Pringle explained. He had brought his own cup of tea out with him. This might have been viewed as a liberty normally, but the two men had taken to sharing a drink at dusk, while they waited for the boilers to heat.
‘Is everything ready, down below?’
‘Yes, sir. The seals on the crates have all been checked by me. None are broken and everything is in order.’
‘Good,’ nodded Barret thoughtfully. ‘It’s nice to be away from the grey of the Atlantic, but this type of run always makes me feel that we’re abandoning our fellow sailors.’
Pringle understood completely. It was a lengthy voyage from Plymouth and he wondered how many British lives were being lost in battle with the enemy, while their own boat wasted its fighting potential skulking off to warmer, safer waters.
The two men drank their tea and scanned the empty horizon as the red of sunset deepened into the darkness of night. Both men knew exactly where their vessel was, but they were the only two who did. The rest of the crew, including officers, were deliberately kept oblivious of their geographical position. In the event of a catastrophe, Barret and Pringle were under orders to scuttle their submarine, with all hands. Capture was not an option afforded to them. Should any of the crew survive, none of them would know either their current position, track or planned course. Even the submarine herself had no name – identified only by her code name; K45.
With the coming of night, the air temperature cooled dramatically and the two men returned to the inner sanctum of the hull. Barret turned the boat over to Pringle; who had first watch, and retired to his cramped cabin, one level below the conning tower.
Pringle ordered the extendable smoke stacks to be raised and received confirmation from the engine room that the boilers were ready. Unseen in the darkness, the twin stacks that now protruded from just behind the conning tower began to belch smoke as the world’s first steam-powered submarine kicked up her heels and surged across the still water like a thoroughbred racehorse suddenly released from her starting stall; leaving a vivid, foaming white wake behind her.
Although capable of an impressive twenty-five knots when running on the surface using her steam engines, Pringle ordered a cruising speed of only fifteen knots and set a slightly zigzagging course, shifting direction every thirty minutes before returning to the original bearing. Satisfied that all was well, he returned topside and settled in for a few hours of chilly, monotonous observation.
The sky was clear and a magnificent full moon helped to illuminate the ocean brightly; visibility stretching to the horizon. Using his binoculars, Pringle could see for miles but they were alone. Far from any known shipping lanes, he’d expected to see nothing. Tomorrow they were scheduled to reach their destination, when they would get rid of their mysterious cargo and collect an equally secret cargo for the return trip to England. Like Barret, Pringle felt the weight of guilt upon his shoulders, a sense of cowardice at leaving the war to be fought by others.
Down in his cabin, Barret tried to ignore an uneasy feeling that was growing in the pit of his stomach. It was unusual for him. He was a veteran of submarines from their very inception and rarely felt trepidation, even when engaging enemy ships in the heat of battle. He could not understand why his sixth sense was clamouring for his attention. After all, he thought, out here there is nothing but ocean and sky to contend with.
The K-Class submarines were huge vessels; notoriously dangerous, prone to leaking and sudden sinking, this was true, but his boat had been specially adapted by expert designers and also received more than its fair share of maintenance. He had no doubts about its ability to carry them to the rendezvous and then return them to home waters safely.
Pushing aside the rising sense of doom, he rolled over in his bunk and fell into a fitful sleep. Above him, his second-in-command kept a watchful eye upon the ocean, unaware of the danger that lurked a few feet below his heavy boots.
At a little after four o’clock the next morning, as the sun began to lighten the sky with the vaguest hints of a pink, pre-dawn, the boilers were shut down and the smoke stacks ceased to draw their wispy lines against the dark sky. The speed quickly bled away until the submarine once again rolled quietly within the soft grip of calm water.
Barret was back on the conning tower, having relieved his first officer at two o’clock. Pringle should have gone down to get some sleep but he did not feel tired. After so many days at sea, he wanted to be around to help with the final stages of the delivery leg of their mission.
Although Barret had made a half-hearted attempt to persuade him to go below, he was secretly quite pleased to have his first officer next to him. His sense of impending doom had strengthened worryingly, but it was eased just a little by Pringle’s solid presence at his shoulder.
The coastline was clearly visible now, directly in front of the submarine’s impressive bow. Flat and featureless, the yellow sand and similarly coloured scrub behind the dunes gave a sense of desolation to the picture, in stark contrast to the warm familiarity of the crystal blue ocean surrounding them.
Barret belonged to the sea and hated to be away from it. The sight of arid, featureless desert looming just a thousand yards off their bow, added to his sense of disquiet. Angry with himself for allowing his emotions to get the better of him for a second, he raised his own binoculars to his eyes and scanned the forbidding coastline carefully. They were at the right co-ordinates, at exactly the right time, and he formed a satisfied grin when he noted the small shadow heading out to towards them.
Slowly, the shadow solidified as it drew nearer and the sun crested the dark horizon; its warming rays lifting the gloom in an instant. It was a small wooden motorboat, about twenty feet in length; and carrying three people.
Barret ordered the front hatch, leading down into the cargo hold, to be opened and he watched as two seamen appeared on the gently rolling deck and made their way forward. When they were about fifteen feet from the tip of the bow, they knelt on the rubberised surface and opened two, large, hinged doors. Leaning down inside, they then opened a second set of similar doors, allowing access to the hold via the five foot wide square entrance now created.
The boat was soon alongside and the same crewmen grabbed the tether line that was cast to them and tied it to a stanchion close to the open hold. Helping the men aboard, two of the visitors disappeared down into the hold, whilst the third was escorted up to the conning tower.
Barret greeted the man with a cordial handshake; he was a civilian and did not warrant a salute. Pringle shook his hand in a similarly professional manner. For a moment, the three men eyed each other in silence, before the visitor broke the moment.
‘I hope you had a good trip, gentlemen,’ he said, in clipped tones that suggested a wealthy, upper-class upbringing. The British accent was accompanied by neatly brushed, short black hair and trimmed moustache, perfect teeth and a monocle set into the socket of the man’s left eye. He was a little under six feet tall and very slight in build – Pringle guessed him to be little more than nine stones in weight. ‘I am delighted to see you.’
‘My orders are to unload the cargo to you only upon receipt of a return cargo.’ It was a standard line he had to use. This was the third time he’d been here, and the third time that he had stood on his conning tower and addressed the same visitor. They both knew that etiquette had to be followed, however, and played out the scene yet again.
‘Of course,’ replied the visitor, smiling. ‘The cargo is in the boat and will be transferred immediately.’
With that, he turned and made his way back down to the deck. Crossing to the hatch, he leaned his head down and had a brief exchange of words with his unseen companions below. Obviously satisfied, he nodded and then headed over to the boat. Timing a nimble jump perfectly, he quickly retrieved a small, wooden crate, about the size of a briefcase and stepped back onto the deck of the submarine, carrying it carefully; like a serving tray, by two leather handles set into the ends.
Pausing again by the open hatch, he stooped down and handed the box carefully to somebody inside, straightening up a second later with his hands now empty.
Barret let out a soft sigh and nodded imperceptibly to himself. Things were moving quickly, which was good. He wanted to be away from this place as quickly as he could and had already ordered the boilers to be readied for immediate use.
Out on the deck, the man suddenly stopped, mid-stride, as he began turning back towards the conning tower. Barret watched in surprised fascination as a look of horror spread over the man’s features, barely a second before his head dissolved in an explosion of red and grey matter that sprayed high into the air; the dull crack of a gunshot sounding flat against the vast open spaces around the submarine a split-second later. Thrown backwards viciously by the force of the bullet entering his forehead, the lifeless body landed, on its back, on the polished bow of the motorboat before slipping into the water between the two vessels.
Further gunshots rang out, unaccompanied by any other sound; no screams or cries. Snapped from his stupor, Barret barked at Pringle to follow him down the hatch but stopped, almost immediately, when he noted that the hatch had been closed and dogged tightly while his attention had been distracted. Together, he and Pringle attempted to open it, but it had been secured from the inside and jammed shut.
‘Come on!’ Barret yelled, seething with sudden rage. ‘The hold!’
‘Aye, sir,’ barked Pringle. Vaulting up and over the guard rail, both men dropped the fifteen feet to the decking. Up and running, they watched with fury as, first one set of inner doors, and then the outer set, were gripped by disembodied hands and slammed closed. The outer doors clanged shut against their metal rims with a finality that echoed far beyond the physical vibration of the sound waves.
Trapped outside the hull of their own submarine, Barret knew there was no hope of survival. He had been looking for danger in the waves but the danger had either come aboard in the form of the dead man’s two companions, or it had already been aboard, manifested in a member, or members, of his own crew!
‘What should we do, sir?’ asked Pringle steadily. His voice was calm and edged with steel. His eyes blazed with barely-contained anger at the thought of a traitor having taken over one of the Royal Navy’s submarines.
‘Unless somebody kindly opens a hatch and asks us to come inside, there’s nothing we can do,’ replied Barret, regaining his composure. Now that the danger was real, and not imagined, he reverted instantly to his calm, methodical self. ‘And I do not see that happening, because as soon as I know who has dared to act against us, I will have them summarily shot on this very deck, and then fed to the sharks.’
‘At least they cannot submerge, Captain,’ Pringle added. ‘The stacks are still locked in their topside positions. If they try to dive, water will flood the pipes and the seals are not designed to stand much pressure.’
Three K-class boats had already been lost in the previous year; in accidents linked to submerging with smoke stacks out, either intentionally or accidentally. No member of the crew would take the chance – it would be suicide.
‘At least the boat would be lost, with all hands aboard, including the traitor,’
‘Or traitors,’ said Pringle. ‘I doubt one man alone could have overcome our crew.’
‘That’s true,’ agreed Barret sombrely. ‘There must be more than one. You are quite correct, Number One. And this has been well planned, so the outcome is doubtless already decided, as is our own fate.’
‘What are your orders, sir? Do we stay with K45, or should we use the motorboat to try and get help?’
Barret thought for a moment. Help would be too late in coming, here in this Godforsaken place, but word did need to reach the Admiralty. Once aware of the hijack, they could hunt for the submarine and, perhaps, sink her when she put in an appearance. As her commanding officer, his place was with his ship; his duty was to find some way of sinking her, or disabling her. He made up his mind.
‘I want you to take the motorboat and find help, Number One. There is no point in trying to return here, the submarine will be long gone before you could possibly get back with a vessel worthy of the task. The Admiralty must hear of this treachery and I charge you with the job of sending them a message; hopefully in time for them to do something about it. You must not fail,’ he finished, his voice dark and cold. ‘It is your duty to do whatever you must, to get the message through. Whatever you must,’ he reiterated.
Pringle threw Barret a smart salute, knowing that he was right. The Admiralty had to be notified and he knew that trying to convince Captain Barret to accompany him in the boat would be a fruitless waste of time. Barret was old school and mindful of his duty, both to his country and to his crew. He would not leave the K45 in the hands of an enemy, whoever they turned out to be.
‘Aye, sir. It will be done.’ He turned and eyed the desolate coastline, hoping there might be some water supplies on the boat. He had no idea of where he could go.
With the heat of the morning rising quickly to blistering proportions, so hot already that the coastline was now shimmering beneath a heat haze, his chances looked bleak. Resolved to do his duty, he sucked in a deep breath of hot air and crossed over to where the motorboat was tied up. Not looking back, he untied the mooring line, jumped in, and powered the small craft away from the huge, silent submarine.
Barret watched the boat turn and head for shore, following it for five minutes before the rapidly shrinking vessel was lost amidst some shoreline breakers.
‘Godspeed, Number One,’ he whispered, before turning upon his heels and heading back towards the conning tower. Climbing up a ladder secured to the outside of the tower, he was soon standing atop it once again. He swept the horizon with his binoculars but found nothing, not even any sign of Pringle’s little boat – it had simply vanished.
A few minutes later, the smoke stacks slowly retracted inside the submarine, much to Barret’s horror.
Normally this was an operation that was handled from both inside and outside the submarine at the same time but here they were, fast disappearing before his eyes, in a manner that had never been designed.
Leaping from the tower, he reached the stacks just as their sooty lips were vanishing inside. He tried in vain to grip them and prevent them sinking down completely but the power of the mechanical action, secretly installed in Plymouth by treacherous hands three weeks previously, was too great and he watched in total resignation as they fully retracted and the heavy cover plates snapped shut, sealing the submarine tightly.
Now there was nothing stopping her diving, he knew.
As if reading his mind, ballast tanks were blown and the K45 began to settle more deeply into the gentle swells. Her batteries kicked in and the screws began to turn; slowly swinging the submarine around; heading away from the coast. Barret knew that it would take little more than thirty seconds for the submarine to dive below the surface, which gave him no time at all. Other men, in another time, would have looked towards the shore and thought about themselves. Barret knew he was about to die and simply accepted it. His one thought was to stop the submarine and his only chance lay in the cover plates that protected the innards of the submarine from the outside water.
Standing upright, he raised one foot and slammed his boot down onto the plate as hard as he could. Nothing. Again, he tried. Nothing.
With water already washing over the rubber decking and sloshing around his ankles, he kept on trying. On the tenth stamp, he thought that he felt the plate give a little; ever so slightly.
Spurred on, he stamped down as hard as he could another half a dozen times until, suddenly, the cover plate caved inwards on its hinge. With a diameter of ten inches, hundreds of gallons of seawater eagerly gushed down inside the hull, flooding the engine room before anyone inside had time to even seal off the compartment.
Already committed to diving, K45 slipped beneath the waves, leaving Barret floating on a foaming surface. He could feel the throb of the engines beneath his body as the behemoth sank deeper and deeper, already too full of water to ever recover.
Men died a dreadful death in the sudden darkness, as the internal electric lights quickly shorted out. Traitors and loyal, imprisoned crewmen drowned together.
K45 continued to dive, completely flooded within a minute, until she settled onto an empty seabed of powder-white sand, one hundred and twenty feet below the surface. Hitting bow first, very gently as her batteries died and the propeller stopped; her stern settled soon afterwards, leaving her sitting perfectly upright upon the bottom.
Pristine, undamaged and totally salvageable should anyone ever find her, K45 had transformed her role from one of lethal military machine, to mass grave, in less time than it took to boil a kettle of water.
Drawing deep, controlled breaths, Barret gradually relaxed. Treading water, he took stock of his situation. Slowly turning a full circle on the spot, he looked for land but saw nothing. Glancing up at the sun, he quickly gauged his bearings and decided to strike out for where he knew the coastline lay, barely two thousand yards away. Maybe he could find Pringle and help get a message home, after all.
Taking the opportunity to check himself, his hands probed across his body. The reddish tinge to the nearby water registered to him only a split-second before his hands wandered clumsily across the wound. Pain lanced into his thigh as he gently felt it with his fingertips.
As far as he could make out, it was only a small superficial cut, possibly caused by edge of the cover plate scraping at his leg when the submarine went down. It was nothing too serious under normal circumstances, but deadly for a floating survivor at the mercy of the sea, and its inhabitants. A heavily bleeding wound could only succeed in attracting all of the nastier ones.
Leaking blood, he started to swim towards the coast. He knew that his chances of survival were good as long as he kept moving and did not stay around in an ever-increasing pool of blood.
Common sense told him to float on his back and to paddle slowly to save energy. In reality, he wanted to see where he was going and, instead, chose a breast-stroke, occasionally interrupted by a short burst of front crawl. The water was fairly cold but perfectly tolerable, as was the pain in his thigh; it just ached a little.
In his heart, he knew it was a possibility but when he suddenly glimpsed it, a sense of cruel acceptance filled his heart. Two fins, one large and menacing, the other smaller, suddenly broke the water about one hundred feet off to his left; a dorsal fin, followed by the tip of the tail.
A shark, and a pretty big one at that.
He guessed the distance between the two fins to be about ten feet. That made the shark at least fifteen feet long. Slowly, it began circling him, keeping its distance. Barret kept on swimming, knowing his only chance was to reach shore before the shark made up its mind to devour him.
Scenting the concentration of fresh blood, the shark; a tiger shark, became increasingly excited. Thrashing its tail strongly, it started to close its circles. Eighty feet, sixty-five, forty. The closer it got, the more blood it smelt.
Still too far from shore, Barret kept swimming although he already realised that a very unpleasant death was only moments away.
Then the fins were gone, slipping silently beneath the clear water with barely a ripple. He could still see the dark shape that represented his death, just below the surface, and he knew that it would all soon be over. Stopping dead in the water; resigned to his fate, Barret screwed himself into as tight a ball as possible.
Death wasn’t the problem. What he couldn’t handle was seeing himself being eaten, piece by agonising piece. This way, it would have to bite his body. He hoped the end would come quickly.
The shadow was now only fifteen feet away. It stopped circling and suddenly headed straight towards him with a phenomenal burst of power. A slight lightening at the front of the shadow chilled him with its finality. The shark had opened its jaws for feeding and he was the food.
When the bite came, it felt cold and hard but not painful; removing his right arm and shoulder in one clean movement. A second shark, unseen by Barret and attacking simultaneously from beneath, bit into his lower body a moment later, scything away flesh from his buttocks and thighs.
Barret remembered how shark attack survivors invariably stated that they never really felt the bite. It was too quick; almost painless. It was a strange final thought to be having, he decided.
Suddenly, death exploded into the air amidst a claret fountain and a gaping maw clamped down over his head, dragging him below the surface with an accompanying crunch of breaking bone. In the scarlet depths, the two large predators tore his lifeless body to shreds in a matter of seconds. The K-45, with the mystery of her secret cargo, hijack and final resting place, would trouble Captain William Barret no longer.
Skeleton Gold is 'work in progress'. It is the second James Pace novel and is scheduled for publication for the summer 2014. I hope you enjoy the taster of what's coming soon!