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Friday, 19 September 2014

Saturday Story - 'Two birds with one stone'


TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
 
Nik Morton
 
“Sorry, sir,” Torrence said, shaking his narrow-shaped head. He cleared his throat loudly. “The cargo's been in The Star's hold too long, Mr Grant. It's surprising what a little dock-strike can do...”
Lined face blotched with red, George Grant scowled at his shipping agent.  “And who knows about this?”  Torrence must be getting past it, he thought savagely, to make such an elementary mistake.
“Myself.” Torrence paused, grey eyes evasive.  “And the Second Engineer.”  Before Grant could react, he hastened on: “He learned of it by accident.  Came straight to me.  Seemed to think there might be something in it for him...”
“Sounds like he can be bought,” Grant remarked, stroking his thick dry lips.  Being in a position of power wasn't enough some days; it was much better when people could be manipulated, like the good old days when he first began his climb to the top.  He suddenly smiled, light blue eyes sparkling.  “Right.  Would you bring him round to my house tonight - at eight?”
            As Torrence left, suitably chastened, Grant leaned across his teak desk, his paunch ample testimony of the countless business lunches he had attended.  His wife still argued with him about the coronary he was nurturing. She still cared for him, he felt sure.
            He picked up the gilt-framed photograph of Susan. His heart turned, threatening that same thrombosis at the thought of those cupid's-bow lips kissing another man, of those wide, exquisite hazel eyes looking lovingly at another... Her auburn hair, tastefully draping her delicately boned shoulders, stroked by the hand of another man!  Moisture brimmed his eyes.
            For some time now he’d suspected that Susan's lover was employed on The Star.  Now, if he could get the Second Engineer to scuttle the ship for the insurance - which seemed why he'd approached Torrence anyway - then that would solve the rotten food problem.
            And, unbidden, a dark thought occurred to him.  He had not climbed to his successful position without treading on many people, but he'd always resisted outright violence, no matter how much he may have longed to “dispose” of a competitor.  But where Susan was concerned he was not always rational. The scuttling would also perhaps rid him of Susan's lover as well... Two birds with one stone!
***
That evening, Susan greeted him warmly enough, obviously keeping up the pretence of a loving wife.  “Busy day at the office, darling?”  Now, it sounded like a hollow cliché!  Inwardly, he went very cold at the touch of her lips on his cheek.
He never discussed his work with Susan and had even less cause to do so now. “A small crisis has cropped up,” he said, hanging up his overcoat. “I've had to invite a couple of chaps round tonight - to talk ship. You'd no other plans, I hope - ?”
            Fleetingly, her look implied that he could have telephoned to warn her, but she simply said, “No, darling.  It will make a nice change, won't it?”
            Torrence arrived punctually and Grant ushered him and the tall angular Second Engineer into the comfortable lounge. The small chandelier's lights glinted on the glasses and bottles of the drinks cabinet in an alcove; trendy tapas decorated the coffee table and chair arms.
            “May I introduce Martin Connolly?” the shipping agent said.
            Susan paled noticeably. After a slight hesitancy, she shook hands with the seaman.
            Grant glared, his heart hammering.  His whole body tensed; he was unaware that his teeth were grinding together.  The telling exchange of glances had been brief, but he’d been quick enough to detect the unspoken communication in their eyes: as if she had said to Connolly, “And why the hell didn't you phone me?”
            So... Connolly was her lover!
But what did she see in him, a grease-smelling engineer, with a take-home salary barely a fraction of mine?  His dark brown eyes, too close together, were too shifty by half, looked intense, scheming... Plans would have to be revised slightly.  He hadn't wished to get personally involved, but now he had no choice.  He wouldn't trust Torrence with the task.  A trip to Jacko in Soho would be necessary... Tactfully, Torrence vanished into the kitchen to assist Susan with the coffee.  The swing-door shut behind them.
            “I think you know why I'm here, Mr Grant,” Connolly said.  “I want to marry Susan,” he blurted out.  “Will you give her a divorce?”
            The direct, no-messing approach, so much like his own attitude in his youth, now annoyed Grant.
            They stared at each other.
            Finally, Grant replied, coldly, “Not without a fight.”
            Connolly hesitated, nervously brushed fingers through his shock of black hair.
            Grant thought of his own balding head, and his other remorseless signs of physical neglect and age, and realised what she saw in the Second Engineer.
            “What are you doing about the rotten cargo, Mr Grant?” he asked pointedly. 
“I know Torrence slipped up - it wasn't adequately insured...”
            It made sense.  Connolly would keep quiet about the perished cargo if Susan had a speedy divorce... The scheming, conniving – “That depends on you,” he heard himself saying.
            “Oh?”
            “My wife has a price: that cargo and ship.  I'd want you to open the cocks of The Star in mid-Channel.”
            The swine never even batted an eyelid!  “As ships go, she's past her prime, anyway, Mr Grant... And the divorce?”
            “As soon as possible - after.  Plus a small cash settlement of, say, £10,000 for services rendered.”  It gave him great pleasure to see his suspicions confirmed as Connolly's eyes widened greedily. “Agreed?”
Connolly nodded unhesitatingly and they shook hands on the deal just as Susan and Torrence joined them with the trolley of coffee and cakes.
***
Next day, directly after his Soho visit, Grant stepped onto The Star's gangway.  Salt-spray on the estuary's breeze sprinkled his face.
“Nice to see you, Mr Grant.”  Captain Henderson's craggy features cracked into a grin. “If you're worried about the cargo, then rest assured, the strike's over. We sail tonight at eleven and arrive New York Thursday.”
“That's fine, Captain!” Summoning a smile, Grant stammered, “Is it all right for me - to go below?”
            Captain Henderson cocked his head enquiringly.
            Grant shrugged.  “The engine-room,” he mumbled.  “An old friend's there - Martin Connolly.”  Heart throbbing, he gripped his weighty briefcase tightly, knuckles showing white.
            “Ah, Marty!” the Captain beamed.  “Along that passage, third hatch on your right.  Two decks down... Mind your step, sir...”  He turned back to supervise the loading of some additional cargo.
            Once below-decks, Grant ignored the Skipper's directions and headed aft; half-choking on the sudden overwhelming stench of diesel-oil, he descended three deck-ladders to the machinery space just for'ard of the propeller-shafts.  There was nobody about.  All busy saying their farewells, probably...
            He gingerly removed the package his old associate Jacko had constructed for him.  It looked ridiculously amateurish, like something out of a cartoon or B-movie, but Jacko had assured him that it would do the trick.  It had better, thought Grant as he hurriedly left the ship.
He returned home just after midnight, slightly the worse for celebrating the ship's sailing. Susan's lover would go down with the ship at ten sharp tomorrow... A pity about the crew, though.  Perhaps only the engine-room would have fatalities... He eyed Susan's photograph, and cried at the lengths he would go to just to keep her.
Then he saw the note, on the mantelpiece. 
George, I'm sorry, but I'm leaving you.  Martin doesn't know but I'm booked on The Star. I'm sure I can persuade him to stay with me in America.  I'm sorry. Susan.
Oh, no! Everything swayed before his eyes. He unconsciously crumpled the note into a ball and threw it viciously across the room.  Supporting his trembling frame against the mantel-shelf, he clenched and unclenched his fists. His heart felt like it was doing the clenching too... He couldn't live without her - didn't she understand that?  And now he'd murdered her... unless he confessed, alerted the ship...
            Unwelcome, a vision swam before his mind's-eye, of The Star riven by the explosion, a fountain of water gushing through the blasted deck-plates, steam gushing, oil spewing, flames cavorting, a pall of smoke, men shouting, shouting, panicking, fire-fighting, swimming... And Susan, perhaps cast into the sea, bleeding or burned or both, her beautiful features unrecognisable...
            He sobbed aloud and cursed.  Now, there was no feeling of smugness, of revenge, and no contentment.  Only a fathomless sensation of emptiness, his life stretching ahead, barren. Strange, he'd rather have shared the little he had of her than this... he hadn't wanted her dead - well, not after the first hot rage at discovering she'd been cheating on their marriage...
            It was Connolly - he'd enticed her away.
            But if I alert Henderson, I'll be as good as confessing to attempted sabotage, fraud, and murder; I'll be imprisoned, ruined, parted from her possibly for years...
            Hands trembling, fidgeting with countless chain-smoked cigarettes, he paced out the hours.
***
Unshaven, with bloodshot blue-hooded eyes, he lurched past his astounded secretary, Miss Gaskell, grabbed the office phone and rang the dockside.
            “Mrs Grant boarded The Star an hour before it sailed,” he was told.
            Hanging up, he snapped, “What's the time?”
            “N - nine, sir.”
            Grant jumped up, eyes staring wildly. Damn the consequences!  There was still time to save Susan.  “Miss Gaskell, quick - I'll dictate an e-mail!”
            Concerned eyes fixed on him, she sat with pad and pencil poised as an anxious-looking clerk dashed in, waving a message.
            Grant grabbed the sheet, scanned its contents twice, his heart quaking.
Face crumpling, he slowly sat down.
            AT 0840 GMT TODAY 'THE STAR' SANK FOLLOWING A MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSION.
Jacko's timing device must have been faulty...
TWO DEAD, FIVE MISSING.
            At that moment a tall stranger in a tweed overcoat was escorted into the office. “I'm Detective Inspector Stokes,” he said, producing credentials from a pocket.
            Susan - she was among the dead?  Or missing? Or, possibly, a survivor. Pray, God...
Grant looked up with a start, seeing the detective in front of his desk.  A strange feeling of relief seeped into him. Somehow, they knew... Dazedly, he nodded, mouth dry, and said, “I did it.”
“Pardon, sir?”
            “Sank The Star - what else - that's why you're here, isn't it?”
            “Oh... that's very interesting, sir...” said DI Stokes, taken aback.  “Actually, we were acting on information received regarding a proposed insurance fraud.  The man Torrence in your employ had apparently sold produce intended for shipment, the containers were empty.”  He checked his notebook, looked up.  “Our informants were your wife and a Mr Connolly, who jumped ship shortly before it sailed.”  He cleared his throat. “Now, about that statement you just made...”

***
Previously published in the Costa Blanca News, 2005.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
 
If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales Spanish Eye, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
 
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.

 

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