The wind blew all night, wailing and moaning in the boat’s rigging, and swinging the Naika around in the face of the tide. At times I heard Tom on deck, and the sound of ropes sliding through cleats as he adjusted our position on the mooring. When I did sleep it was like I was back under a green hutchie with the butt of an SLR against my thigh, and the thump of falling mortars out in the night. Strange war dreams mingled with thoughts of the old bronze relic that sat in a small box stuffed with paper in my bag.
After midnight I woke to the sound of a diesel engine out across the water. Still half asleep I headed out on deck, avoiding the wheelhouse where the skipper was awake – the light was on, and the air tainted with smoke from his cigarette.
Leaning my hands on the gunnel, the breeze raised goosebumps on my bare chest and arms. The engine sound was louder and closer now, and I saw the white boat moving over the water nearby. At first it seemed to be heading towards us, but then it turned north to clear the entrance. It looked like the Steber from the Wild Dog camp, but I couldn’t be sure in the dark. By Christ, I hoped it was. They had me rattled. I wanted them gone.
Before returning to my bunk, I rummaged in my bag, took the medallion out of its box and traced the shape of the dragon with my finger. Again, I reflected that Tom was right. I should have thrown it overboard. Was it too late?
In the morning, I decided, I would take the thing out and chuck it into the water. I didn’t want the kind of trouble and stress it was causing following me back to Cairns.
Two hours after dawn I was watching outcrops of reef pass to our port side while Owen coiled and stowed the ropes we had used in Cooktown. I recalled the promise I’d made, but ridding myself of the relic no longer seemed so urgent. My mouth was dry, and I felt a little heavy in the gut from too much beer, but otherwise I was none the worse for wear.
The southerly had dropped to five or six knots overnight, and the Naika’s bows cleaved the ocean like a knife. I set my lures out, letting the sun and blue sea burn away the restless anxieties of the night before. I settled down to watch my lines, when Tom called Owen into the wheelhouse, and I followed out of curiosity.
Tom pointed out across to one of several outcrops a nautical mile to starboard – the nearest was a type of sand island called a shingle cay, formed of coral rubble piled up by storms. It was thick with mangrove and Chinese lantern trees, and patches of white sand. I was pretty sure that I remembered this group from the trip north. ‘The Hope Islands?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ said Tom. He pointed with his forefinger. ‘But look at that.’
I saw it then, a bright reflection, dynamic and strange. Three long flashes followed by three short ones. I didn’t understand the significance of what I was seeing. Wasn’t it just the sun glinting from a boat’s glass windscreen?
‘It’s an SOS,’ Tom explained. He picked up the HF radio mike and squeezed the transmit button. ‘QF9 Cairns. This is Naika. Over.
‘Go ahead, Naika.’
Tom pushed the throttle forward and swung the wheel towards the flashing light. ‘Possible mayday off Hope Island. Investigating, over.’
At length a reply came back. ‘Thanks Naika, keep us posted. Out.’
As we neared the island, the signalling vessel came into focus. I’ve relived these moments so many times in my head I can hardly separate fact from fiction. The SOS, I realised, was coming from the same Steber boat that I had seen moored at the Wild Dog. The one that slipped past us in the early hours of the morning.
‘No,’ I groaned.
‘What’s wrong?’ Tom asked.
‘It’s them – some kind of trick.’
The skipper reached for his pack of smokes and lit one. ‘I won’t steam away from a mayday call. We have to check it out.’
Eyes stinging from the smoke of Tom’s ciggie and not wanting to look like a fool in front of him I shut my trap. I was like a passenger in an out-of-control vehicle heading for a tree, too stupid to grab the wheel and steer away.
Tom dropped the engine into neutral so the Naika wallowed in its own wake beside the Steber. At this point a man appeared on the vessel’s deck. I did not recognise him at first. He was clean shaven, and dressed in yachtsman’s gear – a towelling hat, white trousers and smart canvas deck shoes. He waved and motioned us closer.
‘We’ve got a badly injured bloke down below,’ he called out, ‘and the engine’s blown a gasket. We can fix it, but it’ll take a while, can you take him in to port?’
‘Why didn’t you use the radio?’ Tom asked.
‘That’s on the blink too.’
Tom allowed the man, with Owen’s assistance, to lash the two hulls together, using three or four fenders to protect the paint. There was still no sign of the injured crew member.
What happened next was the stuff of nightmares.
The man from the Steber jumped up onto the gunnel of his boat, then across into ours. I turned in surprise, though Tom was fiddling with the radio, presumably to call back in about developments.
Reaching the wheelhouse, the bloke pulled a handgun from the back waistband of his trousers. My soldier’s brain recognised the Chinese-manufactured Type-59 automatic. I’d seen plenty of these, captured from VC officers, tunnel-caches or in buried ammo boxes under huts.
Not giving us a moment to react, the man with the handgun shot Tom in the back as he was in the process of turning around, then fired twice into Owen as he strolled down the side deck after lashing the front cleat to the Steber. I watched both men fall, saw the dark stains spread across their clothing.
The killer turned to me, tearing the towelling hat from his head as if wearing it offended him. ‘Kneel,’ he screamed.
I recognised him then. Last night he’d worn a beard, and now he was clean-shaven. With the muzzle of the handgun moving closer I obeyed him. I fell to my knees, trembling from the shock of what I had seen, looking down and seeing the killer’s shadow moving on the tarred boards of the Naika’s deck.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday
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