Tom Williamson emerged from his office looking stressed and haggard, as had been usual over the past few months. He carried a briefcase and a bundle of rolled-up papers under one arm, all of which he plonked on the floor beside his team’s assistant as he removed his long, white lab technician’s coat.
“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks,” he self-consciously declared to nobody in particular. His team were all watching him. For a confirmed workaholic who had never taken more than five days holiday in one go before, this was a momentous occasion. He was leaving far later than intended. It had taken forty-five minutes, sitting in his office, to summon the courage and willpower to walk out as though everything were normal, when it was blatantly evident it had not been for months – the powers that be had essentially ordered him to take this time out. Little did they know how conveniently timed it was!
“Have a good one,” commented a bright-eyed lady dressed in a white lab coat as she emerged from a smaller, adjacent office. “Surely, you’re not taking work with you?” she asked, knowing that he always took work away with him. However, along with the entire team, she was concerned that in recent months he had not been his usual self – they all agreed a holiday and true break was what he needed.
“Particularly on a sailing holiday, Tom.” Then, taking on a more serious and questioning tone, “Anyway, I didn’t think we had any pressing deadlines? Anything I can do to help?” She stepped towards the papers as though to have a look.
Hurriedly, Tom snatched up the papers before she could look at them. Sounding somewhat dejected, and looking a little sheepish, he smiled weakly, “That’s kind, but sadly no. Needs must and all that. This has to be me, a review of some old stuff to answer a few questions – you know the drill.” With that and a flurry of cheery waves, Tom scurried out amid a chorus of well wishes from his colleagues.
A few minutes later, Tom emerged from the Yaw Tech Solutions office situated on the spacious, Asian side of Istanbul. The modern building, with its glazed cladding that reflected the clouds racing across the sky, suitably portrayed the cutting-edge image of a niche technology company specialising in the design of telecommunications equipment. With a bleep, he unlocked his car and drove out of the secure compound.
Fiddling with the radio, Tom was oblivious to the yellow taxi that pulled out from the nearby taxi queue into the busy, late afternoon traffic. Tom’s mind was far from work and further from his supposed holiday. His once full head of brown hair had, recently, become heavily streaked with grey, which, given that he was only forty-six, he was not at all happy about.
Despite the cool spring weather, Tom was sweating as he navigated towards the European side of the city. He soon adopted the local custom of hooting and gesticulating wildly to express his frustration with the reckless driving of other motorists. An exhausting hour’s drive later, he turned into a marina and parked, just as the same yellow taxi cruised slowly passed. The passenger watched Tom intently while speaking rapidly on a mobile phone.
Having got out, Tom ambled across the car park towards the multitude of boats. “Hello there,” he called as he approached a sleek sailing yacht called the Great Presence, his footsteps clattering on the metal jetty. He shook his head sadly, recalling the egocentric way in which his wife had decided upon the name. He had loved her once, but now he just did not know. That he had not divorced her was a testament to something, but what he wasn’t sure – there were certainly plenty of reasons why he should hate her.
“Thought you’d never make it,” came a voice from behind him. Tom spun around, startled. “Oh, sorry, darling, did I give you a shock?” said an elegant, athletic, slim, blonde lady in her early forties with a slight American accent, as a faint smile played across her lips. She was dressed in stylish, yet functional sailing clothes of various shades of blue, with matching soft-soled sailing shoes.
“Yes, you bloody well did – as you well know!” retorted Tom angrily, the mounting stress of the past few weeks immediately spilling over. “Now you need to start being civil and pull your lousy weight; otherwise, we’ll never get out of this mess!”
The makings of yet another full-blown argument were swept away when a far younger version of the lady emerged on deck, also fully kitted out in quality sailing gear. “Dad! I was worried!” Moments later, the couple were entreated to get on board so they could get going. Once on board, the young woman begged, “And Mum, Dad, please no bickering. This is supposed to be a holiday and I really won’t be able to cope in this confined space if you are constantly arguing. We used to love our sailing holidays. Please let that be part of our lives again.”
A short while later, the Great Presence headed off along the Bosphorus, passing the grand palaces and hotels that line its northern bank.
“What on earth am I doing?” wondered Rob Krane three days later as he gazed out over a cold, grey stormy sea. He was standing at the window of his office-cum-business-centre on the upper deck of his luxury motor yacht, the Liberation. Fully crewed with a team of former officers and soldiers from the Special Boat Services of the British Armed Forces, this was the vessel’s maiden voyage. They had left Istanbul the previous day in overcast and blustery conditions. However, that had deteriorated after just a few hours, dampening Rob’s typical enthusiasm and excitement for travel.
Now, in late afternoon, the dark grey clouds skimmed across the sky and the wind whipped the waters of the Black Sea into high, white-topped foaming waves. As each wave slammed against the boat’s hull with an echoing boom, it sent shudders throughout the superstructure. Rob steadied himself by placing his hands firmly at the base of the window to brace against the onslaught of yet another wave. Long ago, he had accepted that it would be pointless to try to work or even do anything but stare out to sea.
Rob knew that he was where he should be, where he wanted to be and that he was doing what was right. But the situation and circumstances were still very surreal, and the storm was not helping his perspective. He was still adapting to his new life as a paper billionaire and owner of the private equity company, Zouches, that managed his growing portfolio of diverse businesses and assets. This was why he was heading off to Bulgaria – there was business to be conducted there, but not any old business.
Burak Demir, the former billionaire criminal mastermind who was now in custody in Britain, had informed Rob and the authorities that some of his Bulgarian operations were thriving far beyond even the most optimistic of expectations. Previously, Burak would not have blinked twice at this, but that had changed. Firstly, his broad business empire had effectively transferred to Rob, and secondly, because Burak had two far more personal reasons to help the authorities dismantle his far-reaching empire.
Much of Burak’s wealth, and all of his legitimate assets, had transferred to Zouches following Rob’s daring rescue of Burak and his daughter the previous year. Since then, as Burak started to cooperate with the authorities, he had learned that he was ignorant about some of what went on across his network. That some elements had become inextricably linked with terrorism appalled Burak and had become a motivating factor for him to help the authorities. With hindsight, he knew that his overall attitude had started to change some years earlier when he fell deeply in love with a wonderful French woman, Evelyne Dubois, who had given birth to his daughter, Anja.
Eight months earlier, while Burak holidayed in Slovenia with Evelyne and Anja, Evelyne had been executed in front of Anja and himself – all upon the orders of one of his lieutenants, Emilio Arroz. Emilio wanted control of Burak’s vast empire to further his own ambitions, and to placate the terrorist leaders with whom he had become entangled. Now, as revenge, Burak wanted his former empire dismantled and legitimate businesses created wherever possible for those who deserved it. As far as he was concerned, the rest should either be sent to prison or, ideally, be killed during the process.
While Rob was standing at the window in absentminded contemplation, he caught sight of what appeared to be a thin stick wobbling about in the waves and a bit of cloth flapping wildly. His curiosity piqued, he picked up a pair of binoculars and focused on what he had seen. Immediately, he knew that it was the tattered remnants of a sail and the broken mast of a yacht. Mentally marking the position, Rob part ran and part weaved his way to the bridge.
“Richard!” he called to the yacht’s captain upon entering the bridge. “I may have seen a yacht in distress over on the starboard side.”
“Freddie, please validate the sighting and respond,” Richard asked in a very level and calm voice, without giving even a fleeting sign of being distracted from the job at hand – commanding the yacht in extremely tough conditions.
“Sir!” Then, as though the yacht were motionless, Freddie moved effortlessly over to where Rob stood swaying and clinging to the doorpost. “Right, young man, let’s find out what you’ve seen.”
Together, they moved over to the windows, Rob supported by an amused Freddie who was untroubled by the vessel’s movement. Rob peered in roughly the right direction for a few moments before spying the apparent broken mast and tattered sail once more. “Over there,” he pointed.
Freddie followed the direction of Rob’s finger as he looked through his own binoculars.
“Hmm… difficult to tell. Hold on, I’ll pop upstairs for a better view.”
A few minutes later, Freddie was back from the sun deck, soaked from the spray kicked up by the wind and waves. “Captain, there is a yacht in distress. Approximate bearings due east. Good spot, Rob.”
“Guy, take control and change course due east,” Richard said, changing places with a third crewman. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got.” Freddie then accompanied Richard back to the sun deck. Rob waited nervously, concerned that there was nothing and that his new crew would think he had overreacted – he so wanted to make a good impression on these guys because of their special forces background.
Shortly afterwards they were back, Richard as soaked as Freddie. “Guy, I’ll retake control, thank you. Place all hands on standby for a rescue. I want a couple of the lads armed; recreational yachts shouldn’t be out in these waters in this weather. Rob, well spotted. Please return to your cabin and stay clear of the rescue activities.”
Richard, who was generally very amiable, didn’t give Rob an opportunity to respond. Instead, he retook control and directed Liberation towards the stricken vessel. They were soon circling a battered sailing yacht that was being tossed around like a piece of worthless driftwood. Rob estimated it was about fifteen metres in length, so a good-size yacht in most respects, but just not able to cope with this full-on storm. Little was left of the mast, which had been snapped halfway up. The remnants of the foresail flapped wildly around the bow, while someone, their features obscured by wet weather sailing gear, struggled desperately at the helm to keep the yacht pointed into the wind and waves.
Waves poured over the vessel and cascaded down into the cabin through the damaged, open hatch. That explains why the yacht is lying so low in the water! Rob decided. As he continued to cast his eyes over the stricken vessel, Rob made out another individual lying in the cockpit under the collapsed boom. Ouch! That must have happened when the mast broke. Then, out loud, he muttered, “Come on, Richard, get a move on. Even I can see that boat is going to sink if we don’t act fast!” Okay, you need to assess the situation, but we’re running out of time! Yes, this will be extremely difficult, potentially dangerous, but even so! Mind you, I couldn’t hope for a better trained crew – not that those poor folk realise it!
The Liberation gradually drew closer to the yacht as Richard controlled the boat’s thrusters and main propellers – all of his skills were stretched to the limit. While Rob looked on, he realised that it was far too dangerous to pull up alongside; the sailing yacht was being tossed all over the place and threatened to smash against the side of the Liberation. That would be the end of the yacht, and could potentially cause severe damage to the Liberation as well.
Watching his crew move around the deck attempting various manoeuvres to get a line attached, Rob easily discerned that there was no safe way to help – mainly because the helmsman was in no position to assist. Neither, from their position, were they able to cross over. Natural instinct then kicked in and Rob was inspired to act. Putting on his own wet weather gear and yet-to-be-inflated life jacket, Rob walked calmly out onto the balcony area. There he studiously regarded the stricken vessel before him as it swayed to and fro while also being tossed up and down. Then, taking care of his own balance, Rob stood atop a lashed-down cabinet that contained the deck’s movable items. He judged the movement of both vessels, and then leaped from the Liberation and down to the yacht below.
Landing on the cabin’s roof with both feet and a resounding thud, Rob grabbed for the mast and held tight, mightily relieved that the unbroken remnant remained solid, a matter he had not considered when he leaped! Stage one of his plan had been successful.
Rob could not hear the yelled calls for his attention from the Liberation over the roar and horrendous crashing of the waves as they hurled down upon the sailing yacht and now himself. However, he sensed them, instinctively aware of the surprise and frustration the crew felt by him taking matters into his own hands. They’ll get used to me soon enough! he thought. Now to help!
As Rob looked around for handholds and safe places to step, he suddenly felt incredibly vulnerable. Previously, from his high perch on board Liberation, he had felt strangely invincible. Now on the deck of this comparatively tiny craft, fear threatened to overwhelm him as massive waves towered over him. Instinctively, he tightened his grip to avoid being cast overboard to almost certain death. Whoa! I don’t like this one bit! Pushing those thoughts to one side, he resolved to complete the rescue and signalled for the guys to throw him a line. Upon catching the well-aimed throw, he tied it securely to his life jacket. He then called for another rope, which he tied securely to the mast. Then, holding the rail that ran along the cabin roof, he made his way gingerly to the cockpit to find that the helmsman was a youngish lady. Her soft features from a good, city life were etched with fear.
“Are you okay?” he called over the roar of the heaving sea. Upon receiving a nod, he then queried, still yelling to be heard over the noise of the waves, wind, clattering lanyards and flapping sail, “Other than him, is there anyone else?”
“Yes, my mother, below deck.”
Without saying more, Rob turned to the man trapped beneath the boom, conscious that a dozen pairs of eyes from the Liberation were burning holes into his back. The man was barely conscious, so there was no real point in talking to him other than to provide a semblance of assurance. Somewhere in his past Rob had heard that unconscious people could still hear and appreciate someone’s presence. So, bending close to the man’s ear, he called, “I’ve come aboard from another vessel. We’re here to help.”
Upon examining the man, Rob found a nasty gash across the forehead. Blood oozed from a couple of areas but was rapidly washed away by the spray. There was no way of knowing how much blood the man had lost. The man’s eyes were closed. Moving his attention down to the man’s chest, and where the boom was resting, Rob carefully felt the ribs and was not surprised to hear a soft grunt of pain as the broken ribs gave no resistance to his gentle pressure. Further checks also revealed that one arm was also broken.
Thus far the omens weren’t good, so very hesitantly Rob lifted the boom from the man and, swaying awkwardly, dumped it on the other side of the cockpit. Suddenly freed, the man rolled over onto the floor of the cockpit, groaning with pain. Rob cursed his stupidity for not realising the inevitability of that happening, but was relieved that the man then moved slightly to straighten his body and head. Phew, no serious back or neck injuries. Rob then turned and yelled to the woman, “I’ll leave him there while I go for your mother.” Fortunately, the incoming water was draining away from the cockpit – so there was no danger of drowning, or at least not yet. “How long have you been like this?”
The woman gave an imperceptible shrug as she continued to wrestle with the wheel.
Rob checked his line and removed a tangle to ensure that it was clear and would not hinder his movement. Looking down through the hatch, he descended into the cabin, shocked at the huge volume of water slopping around inside with innumerable items sloshed about on the surface. Oh, my word! Careful, Rob, there’s likely to be an equal amount of stuff on the floor as well!
He gingerly stepped down into the half-light and the waist-deep, freezing water. Immediately aware that his left foot had settled on some indeterminable and movable object, he carefully flicked it away. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Rob realised just how spacious and glorious this yacht had once been. Blast, why didn’t I ask where the woman is? I hope that she was left well above water level!
Using one hand as a brace against whatever solid surface he could find, Rob started to wade through the cabin, sliding his feet along the floor so that he would not step on anything else. He headed towards the bow and the berths where any injured person would presumably be lying, all the while keeping his line free of the many objects that threatened to ensnare it. The first door he came to was the ‘head’, barely discernible as the toilet was submersed. When he opened the opposite door a cascade of items from the yacht’s store fell out, adding to the general chaos. “Damn it!” he yelled in surprise, recoiling backwards.
Taking a deep breath after that shock, Rob edged his way forward once again. He suppressed the urge to hurry, as with speed came danger in such an environment. When yet another gush of water came flooding through the hatch, he glanced through the portholes and saw just how close they were to sinking. Heart pounding, he pressed on, determined not to panic, but desperately aware that he had very little time.
To Rob’s vast relief, the next door was open revealing a small cabin with bunk beds. On the top bunk, strapped down securely, was another woman, who turned her head towards him as he entered. Pushing the lower bunk’s floating mattress out of his way, Rob waded over to her. The woman said nothing as he undid the straps, but the look of relief in her eyes was telling – she had resigned herself to drowning. Rob did not check for injuries; there was insufficient time. Pulling the woman off the bunk and over his shoulder into a fireman’s lift, he said, “Sorry if this hurts, but we need to get out of here.” Rob then turned, bumping the lady’s shoulder on the side of the bed. Ignoring her yelp of pain, he made a rapid exit, bumping her head on the door frame in the process. “Sorry!” Rob muttered and staggered back through the mayhem of the cabin and shakily up the steps towards the cockpit.
As Rob emerged from below decks, the woman was suddenly wrenched from his shoulders as yet another wave hit him squarely in the face. “No!” he screamed. “Not after all that!” He lifted a forearm to wipe the stinging saltwater from his eyes to look around in hopes of finding her again. He could not believe that all his efforts would go to waste – he simply refused to be beaten.
“Stop whingeing and be glad of a helping hand!” Freddie beamed down at Rob from the cabin roof. While Rob had been below decks, Freddie had crossed on the line Rob had secured earlier and now had the woman in his strong arms. “Let’s go! Here’s a harness, get it on, then go wait at the line. The girl may require help. I will take the helm until she and you are safely across, then I’ll join you.”
While Rob was doing as instructed, Freddie slung the woman into another harness and the guys on the Liberation hauled her across. The man was nowhere to be seen. They’ve got him over already, Rob realised, relieved that the crew had been active while he was below decks.
As the girl set out across the wobbly line between both boats, she soon lost her strength and could not pull herself up the incline and through the mountainous waves that pummelled her. She then remained dangling about a third of the way across.
“Oh, good grief: so close, yet so far,” Rob muttered to himself as he clipped his karabiner to the line and headed off to her aid. If only they had thought to have a line fixed to her as well.
The going was tough and, as Rob pushed the girl onwards towards the Liberation, he could feel the coarse rope ripping flesh from his hands. He needed gloves, but it was far too late for that. Blood started to flow, dripping down on to his face, only to be washed away immediately by the next wave. The saltwater stung his eyes adding to the excruciating pain, regardless of how often he blinked. With no need to see where he was going, Rob closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and pressed on. After what seemed an absolute age, the girl’s dead weight disappeared as helping hands hauled her to safety. Moments later, the same eager hands pulled Rob up and detached him from the line.
A few minutes later Freddie joined him on deck. Another crewman produced a knife and sliced the rope, setting the stricken yacht free. As Richard powered the Liberation away, Rob remained with a small group on deck, watching the yacht being tossed and spun by the waves until it rolled, capsized and slid below the surface of the raging sea.
“Come on, young man,” Freddie said, draping an arm around Rob’s shoulders to guide him inside. “We need to see to your hands. Richard’s not best pleased with you, although he is mightily impressed, as we all are. We were warned of your daring deeds, but did not expect to witness any quite so soon!”
The primary reception room of the main deck had been turned into a first-aid centre, as the crew were unwilling to take either the mother or father down to the lower-deck bedrooms at risk of exacerbating their injuries. Sheets and other bedding were spread about in an orderly fashion with all of the ship’s medical supplies laid out on coffee tables. Consequently, the young woman and Rob were also treated there. Aside from a few minor abrasions, the woman, who appeared to be in her early to mid-twenties, was suffering from cold, bordering on hypothermia, and extreme exhaustion – so much so that she was barely conscious. Once treated, two of the crew half supported, half carried her down to one of the bedrooms, removed her outer sailing clothes, covered her warmly and left her to sleep.
After only a short respite, Guy approached Rob who sat, collapsed on a sofa. “Rob, the Captain wants a word. He’s on the bridge.”
“What joy. How much grief is he going to give me?”
“Oh, a fair amount I expect!” came the grinning reply. “We all had a real jolt seeing you jump between boats. That said, Captain is usually pretty cool when it comes to ticking people off when they’ve used initiative. For what it’s worth, that was mighty impressive action back there.”
Rob looked over at the couple, exhaustion and concern plastered across his face. “How are they doing?”
“Hard to say. He’s in a coma after a heavy and nasty blow to the head. Whether there’s any internal bleeding is unknown. The woman should be okay.”
Rob looked about him. The man and woman were lying on mattresses that had been brought up from downstairs and placed on the floor, one on either side of the large table in the centre of the room. Sofas and chairs had been pushed to the sides to make space.
“Okay, thanks. Keep me informed, would you?” With that, Rob turned and headed to the bridge. On reaching the stairs he eyed the lift, tempted to be lazy just this once. He was tired and ached and the lift would provide that little bit of respite he so desperately wanted. However, as he reached out to touch the call button, he realised that to do so with either of his heavily bandaged hands could prove awkward once actually in the lift. The last thing he wanted was for the doors to close with him unable to press the button for the upper deck necessitating that he be rescued – again. The consequent embarrassment would be way too much, especially after what the crew had just been through. He sighed and trudged wearily up the stairs. Richard was already there, sitting in the waiting area outside of Rob’s office and private suite.
“Rob, a great result. Let’s have a drink; you look like you need one.” Richard paused for dramatic effect. “Although I am of two minds whether you deserve one, but overall I suspect you do.”
Rob led the way into the reception-room-cum-lounge and slumped exhausted on a sofa. “You’ll have to pour. My hands aren’t really up to it,” he said, holding his hands up.
“Not a problem, but don’t expect me to start feeding you come dinnertime! What’ll you have?”
“How about some warming red wine in a beer glass? Won’t slop around so much!”
“Deal,” Rob replied in a tired voice while smiling at the practical, but incongruous combination of beverage and glass.
After they had settled in their seats, Richard raised his glass. “Cheers and good job, well done.” He paused briefly to study Rob’s face carefully. “I’d prefer you not to be taking such risks, though. Somehow I doubt you’ll heed the request, so can we have some sort of agreement that, whenever possible, we talk beforehand? Seriously, that was extremely high risk back there during a staggeringly dangerous situation. The thing is, together with the guys, I’m responsible for looking after you and carrying on like that won’t help us one bit. I can assure you we have no intention of getting in your way – quite the opposite, in fact. We’re all ready to get involved with whatever you get up to. Your reputation precedes you, which is exactly why we all signed up.”
“Understood. I’ll try to remember, but it may take a bit of getting used to.”
“Fair enough. I can’t ask more than that. Now, changing subjects, do you know anything about electronics?”
“Only a small change then!” commented Rob curiously, furrowing his brow. “Not a lot, why?”
“The girl had these papers stuffed in her jacket.” Richard passed over some crumpled pieces of paper. “As you can see, a lot is totally illegible because of water damage, but a couple of pages appear to be some sort of electrical layout plan with ‘Confidential’ stamped all over. One appears to show the components in greater detail, but with a lot washed out. Unfortunately, the information boxes are illegible, so we have no way of knowing what these are, nor where they come from.”
Rob spent a few moments scanning the papers. “All I can add is that the indecipherable handwritten scribbles are too dreadful to be female. Could they be her father’s?”
“That’s a good point. It’s possible, but why try and protect them amid a ferocious storm? We’ll have to wait until she wakes up. So you know, I’ve sent scanned copies to MI5 for their analysis.”