Short story XVII

The last light of the day showed the reflection of the sky in the water. The train driver gave a perfunctory hoot as he trundled through a request stop that nobody required that afternoon. Headlights flashed back and forth on the main road, which ran close to the railway line. Presently, after a few tunnels, the train began to slow down and lights from houses moved into view. It was not long after six when the last service of the day pulled up alongside the platform. At the end of the platform lay the sea. Kyle.

The platform was deserted. A thin drizzle blew in on the stiff breeze, leaving a strange aura around the yellow lights in the station. Some cars rumbled across the bridge, and the one single passenger who had alighted from the Inverness train could be seen walking down the road towards the old ferry slipway. The village was quiet, nobody stirring abroad in the cold evening air. The man walked past the slipway and disappeared into the darkness of the Skye Bridge beyond.

The lights twinkled on either side of the Kyle, and currents eddied around the island in the middle of the narrow strait. The villages appeared to be tranquil in the late autumn evening. Stars blinked aloft, before mists drew a veil over the sky above. A bus rumbled across the bridge and turned left at the roundabout, into Kyleakin village. The man crossing the bridge stood at the apex, quietly observing the scene before proceeding west himself. He did not notice the gate from the Eilean Ban lighthouse opening, with a furtive figure issuing into the gathering mist onto the bridge. It was too dark.

A cold, blue sky arced over the southern sea. The outline of ragged black mountains marched to the west, blocking out the horizon. More distant hills floated to the east, above low hills closer by. Remains of walls squared off bits of ground where people once lived, eking out an existence. Long ago, they had been marched off their miserable patches. The sheep that took their place remained, as one solitary figure came down the old track from the north. As he entered the area where Boreraig once stood, another walker approached down the hillside from the west. Beyond, another township had lain bereft of its people for many years. The two met in the middle, and a cup of tea was made to warm them both. "Did you bring it?"

The fishing boat dropped anchor a little way offshore from Boreraig, and a small rigid-inflatable was seen speeding ashore. The buzz of the outboard attracted the attention of the two men, who each were retracing their steps, to the north and to the west. Binoculars revealed two others, wading ashore from the RIB. As arranged. They headed for the derelict cottage where the meeting had taken place, and removed the box that had been left there. A few minutes later, the RIB returned to the fishing boat, which quickly weighed anchor and headed south, out of the loch and into the sunshine. Not as arranged, the grey shape of a fishery patrol vessel appeared round the headland, to the southwest, and made straight for the fishing boat.

That was obviously a no-brainer, the two men concluded, sitting in the vehicle. Someone must have tipped off the authorities, and it was just as well it was only a dummy run. A message on their mobile phones confirmed that the fishery cruiser had concluded its checks aboard the fishing boat that had taken the empty box on board. The driver put the small car into first gear, and pulled away from the Kilbride cemetery, heading south. A police vehicle, blue lights flashing, came haring down the single track road from Broadford, further increasing the suspicions of the occupants. "What the heck is going on today?" they wondered, but as they passed through the first village, Torrin, the object of the police quickly became apparent: a vehicle had left the road after skidding through a patch of mud.

An ankle-breaker, that's what it was. And who had suggested you didn't need hiking boots on that trail from Kilmarie? Slowly, the two men threaded their way along the rock-strewn path, finally cresting the hill before starting the descent towards the beach. They weren't interested in the view, particularly. Unlike those mentioned on the memorial cairn, a little way down the hill. Unlike the hillwalker, who was watching proceedings from the summit of Bla Bheinn, some way off to the north. Another hour later, the two reached the little bothy, set a little way inland from the beach. Overshadowed by the craggy mountains of the Cuillins, the edifice looked south out to sea, a different stretch, but not that far from Boreraig. Nothing moved, apart from the swells, languidly running into the shore from the distant ocean.

Gingerly, the little boat inched closer to the shore. Care was certainly needed, the wreck of the fishing boat clear testimony to the hazards around. With the aid of a hook and rope, one crewman managed to gain the wreck. He didn’t find it easy to move around, as the Jack Abry II lay at a 45 degree angle. But that didn’t matter. It was the box, left in the wheelhouse he was after. And find it he did. A few minutes later, the Jack Abry was once more rusting in peace on the Isle of Rum. The Small Isles ferry chugged by, on its way from the island of Canna to Mallaig.

Morning dawned over Elgol. The Cuillins, frowning from under their cloudy canopies, sternly stood sentinel over the breaking day. Little waves lapped at the slipway along which creels were stacked for use by the local fishermen. Odd bits and pieces, bait, ropes and other detritus associated with the fishing industry lay scattered along the seawall. None would notice the yellow box, lying at an angle behind the last creel.

Four miles to the north, the rays of the rising sun were obscured by the cloud which had congregated around the nearby tops of the Cuillins. The splendour of the Skye mountain range was completely lost on the two men in Camusunary Bothy. They were more interested in cooking up their breakfast on the makeshift stove. No mobile phone signal penetrated the valley, but that had been anticipated. Soon, the two had packed up and were heading west to cross the river and proceed to the landing stage at Coruisk. Not an easy walk, even less so with two hefty rucksacks. The path led high above the sea and deteriorated into a precarious scramble along the infamous Bad Step, a slab of rock barely 3 inches wide along one had to balance for a little distance. There was no possible diversion - to the left lay a steep drop into the sea, and to the right was a steep slope up. As the two made their way along the final few hundred yards, a small boat approached the landing stage. Glancing briefly right, the men were relieved to discern the familiar shape of a friend’s craft. “It’s just as well that I realise that we’re risking our hides for this venture”, one of the men grumbled to the skipper. “I did most definitely not enjoy hiking all those miles, sleeping in that awful shack and nearly going in the drink there”. He was sharply told to stop moaning. Furtive glances were cast out to sea as the two rucksacks were put down below. “I’ll drop you two off in Elgol”, the skipper said. “You’ll have to walk back to Kilmarie, but that’s only 3 miles.” As the boat headed south from the jetty, and back into Loch Scavaig, the tourist boat came the other way out of Elgol. Full of daytrippers, out to see the Cuillins at close quarters. Just one of them paid more than average attention to the craft with the three men on board.

The long swell from the Atlantic was perceptible on board the ferry, but was not high enough to cause discomfort. The Lord of the Isles was making its steady way west out of Mallaig, leaving the Small Isles to port, and the lofty peaks of Skye to starboard. Not many were making the crossing to Lochboisdale in South Uist, although it was a perfectly nice day. “This is so funny”, said one of the three men out on deck. “We have them at every turn. Eishort, Scavaig, and - what’s their next planned point?” The ship’s engines droned out the reply, each of them knew what it was. ”Rarely, in all my years in the customs service have I seen such a bunch of inept fools as this lot.” His mobile phone beeped, and the man walked over to starboard, to gaze out into Loch Scavaig. Sure as pie, a small craft emerged from the channel between Skye and Soay. “Why bother?” he mockingly said to the boat. The others, on the other side of the ferry, were looking at the Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel Polaris, which was tasked to go to the lighthouse at Hyskeir. It carried a small helicopter for accessing otherwise remote and inaccessible lighthouses. Meanwhile, another, larger helicopter appeared above the Cuillins. Its distinctive red and white markings declared it to be the Coastguard chopper, in this case from Stornoway, a hundred miles to the north. “I’m enjoying this”, another of the three customs men said with a wide grin. “Fancy being airlifted off a ferry, it’s almost like James Bond”. “Except that his villains had brains,” retorted another. “This lot would be outsmarted by a louse.”

“He’s on board the Lord of the Isles”, observed the skipper, pocketing his mobile phone. “They’re going to be picked up from the ferry, look!” The brightly coloured Coastguard helicopter could be seen emerging to the west of the Cuillins. Opening the throttle further, the rigid inflatable powered through the slow swell, taking a heading southwest, towards Hyskeir, and towards their own rendez-vous with the Polaris near that island. Glancing to starboard, the three men on the RIB watched as three others were winched up from the Lord of the Isles. “Listen guys, are the boxes ready for transfer?” the skipper presently asked. A few minutes later, one yellow and one white box were wrapped up in ropes, all converging into a large hook. The Coastguard helicopter slowly manoeuvered in the general direction of the Polaris, from where its own chopper took to the skies, and headed for the RIB. A few minutes later, it was overhead - at which time radio-communication from the Coastguard helicopter stopped abruptly. A rope dangled down from the smaller helicopter, and the hook with the boxes was quickly attached to it. Events then unfolded at lightning speed.

The Coastguard chopper veered sharply left, and down, at one point flying under the other helicopter. The rotor-blades of the larger aircraft slammed into the boxes as they were carried on the turbulence around both helicopters. A large white cloud erupted from the boxes, which was carried away on the southwesterly breeze, in the direction of Canna and Rum. The remains of the containers dropped into the water, not far from the RIB. Its occupants stood, mouths agape and ashenfaced, rooted to the spot. The Coastguard helicopter had by that time landed on the helipad of the Polaris. Some sort of commotion appeared to be going on inside, which ended when one man was bundled out of the side door, restrained by the crew. It was at this point that the Customs cutter appeared from the east, having hidden between the islands of Rum and Eigg. Two air force jets came screaming in from the northeast and overflew the area at low altitude.

“So, we have them all?” the captain of the cutter asked. “Aye, cap’n, all four of them in the brig!” The master nodded contentedly. “Nearly had a ruddy accident with the Coastguard helicopter, what on earth did that idiot hope to achieve by hi-jacking it?” The master of the Polaris put his head round the door of the wheelhouse. “Am I free to go? I’m glad to be rid of that pilot, never thought he was implicated in this racket until he took off without authorisation”. The captain of the cutter shook his head. “It isn’t written on their lapels, is it now? Like “I’m involved in a drug smuggling racket, arrest me now”.” The two men laughed. “Did you retrieve those boxes?” The master of the cutter nodded. “Aye, there was sufficient cocaine left in them to make a prosecution. Estimates were about 20 kilos. Nicely done, thank you for your cooperation”. At that point, the captain of the Polaris saluted his counterpart and returned to his vessel.

“A major drug smuggling operation was foiled this morning in the Sea of the Hebrides. Intelligence suggested that about 20 kilograms of cocaine had been hidden on board a wrecked trawler, which had run aground on the Isle of Rum in 2011. Planting operatives among Customs and Excise as well as on board the Northern Lighthouse Board vessel Polaris, the gang had hoped to spirit the drugs to users on the mainland. However, swift intervention by Customs & Excise, Coastguards and RAF jets, prevented the successful conclusion of the operation”.

No comments:

Post a Comment