Blackwater (DI Nick Lowry #1) - James Henry

PROLOGUE

10.45 p.m., Friday, New Year’s Eve, 31st December, 1982 Blackwater Estuary, Essex

Though they couldn’t have been travelling at more than six knots, the din when they unexpectedly beached the boat was horrific. The older man’s panic subsided once the racket of the small outboard motor was silenced and he realized they weren’t going to sink; that they had in fact run aground. Now all was quiet. And eerily dark.

‘Jesus, weren’t expecting that,’ his younger companion said, shaken.

Boyd grunted. He flashed the torch uncertainly around them. He couldn’t see a thing in this fog. The boat gave unsteadily as he moved to the stern, water lapping gently at the hull. They must have hit a sandbank.

‘Right, Felix, you go first,’ he said. The boat rocked as his companion hauled one of the two rucksacks on to his back.

The late-night tide, being a high one, must have drained quickly, as if a plug had been pulled. He sensed they were far from their planned destination and cursed quietly. He should have known the boat was too small to hold its own against a strong ebb tide. They had been travelling for what felt like hours; a more powerful engine would have had them here quicker, before the tide had run. But where was ‘here’, exactly? There were no lights visible on the shore. He had thought originally the foul weather would give them extra cover under which to land, but he had not foreseen the possibility of getting lost.

‘You comin’, Jace?’ Felix called, already ashore and invisible in the icy darkness, though he couldn’t have been more than a few feet away.

Boyd hauled the second army rucksack on to his back, making the waist straps secure, almost toppling with the weight. He let out a groan. Fifty kilos was, unsurprisingly, fifty kilos.

‘Come on!’ Felix called again, his footsteps crunching over what must be oyster shells.

‘Right, here goes.’ He drew in a breath that was pure sea mist before clambering off the tender and – Christ! – into freezing-cold water up to his waist. The boat had swung with the tide and he’d misjudged which side to jump. The sudden ice-chill caused a wave of panic; he waded desperately towards his companion’s torch, fearing for his cargo, which, though vacuum-packed, he couldn’t risk getting damp.

‘Fucking ’ell, mate! What you doin’, garn swimmin’?’ The small torch beam bounced erratically in his direction.

‘Piss off!’ Boyd spat breathlessly, infuriated at the piercing cold numbing his groin. Regaining his composure, he looked desperately around him, but could see nothing. ‘Where the fuck . . . ?’ he muttered. Turning to the right, he could just make out faint lights twinkling in the mist, like dimmed Christmas-tree lights, but that was . . . too far away? He’d anticipated lights to the west, not to the east. This wasn’t good – they must be way off course. He reached into his snorkel-jacket pocket for the compass, his numb fingers unable to differentiate the various objects: lighter, knife, keys – there, he had it. But he’d left his torch behind. Fuck. It was only a torch, though, and he wasn’t going back.

‘Give me that!’ he snapped quietly, though the caution was unnecessary – he could have screamed and nobody would have heard. He flashed the torch beam on the compass, the sudden brightness off the glass hurting his eyes and causing him to blink rapidly. ‘Brightlingsea? Must be . . .’

‘We lost, skipper?’ He felt his accomplice’s warm breath at his ear.

‘No. Just further east than I thought. And very, very late. The tide must have carried us. Poxy boat. We’re off East Mersea – on the mudflats, at least half a mile from the beach and two miles east of where we should be. We haven’t a hope of making the meet tonight – or seeing anyone else, for that matter.’ He turned sharply, directing the torch into the young man’s brown eyes, the pupils shrinking in alarm. ‘There’s only you, me and one hundred kilos of high-class party powder.’

Saturday, New Year’s Day, 1983

-1-

1 a.m., Saturday, Colchester CID, Queen Street

The telephone’s sudden ring jolted DI Nick Lowry awake and he knocked over a mug of coffee. Lowry, thirty-nine, ex-Divisional athletic and boxing champion, was too big for the 1950s wooden desk he’d slumped asleep on, and he started as the cold liquid reached his prone elbow. Realizing where he was, he yawned and scratched his dark brown hair, glancing sheepishly at his younger colleague, opposite, who was scribbling