Oct. 12: I am posting the first few pages of our second novel, Night Watch. We would love your comments and a suggestion for the first sentence. In any novel, the first sentence needs to “hook” the reader. We haven’t quite got it here, so any suggestions welcomed. Tomorrow, more pages.
By Ed and Janet Howle
There was absolutely no wind. The sea was flat. Carter McDowell dropped Moriarty’s anchor, watching the ripples interrupt the clear still water. He could see a conch on the sandy bottom and spotted a small barracuda darting away, annoyed by the splash. Walking back to the cockpit he put the engine in reverse and pulled against the anchor, digging it in. He shut down the engine and sat quietly in the cockpit, for a short time enjoying the silence and remoteness, knowing that soon the memories of a happier time would intrude, along with the heavy weight that now traveled with him. This would be his last trip to these islands and he was trying unsuccessfully to enjoy it.
A night on the banks when the winds died and the seas calmed was rare. More often the wind came up and the seas bounced his fifty foot sloop around with an uncomfortable pitch, causing him to pull up anchor and head for Chub Cay on too little sleep. He fixed a crayfish salad and popped open a beer. Eating in the cockpit, he watched the red ball sink on the horizon and the stars come out, but found no joy in it. About 11:00 pm he heard the powerful diesels of a large boat and saw the green starboard light as the boat passed in the distance, perhaps headed forNassau. Finally he turned in, hoping he would have a night without the recurring nightmares.
Carter was anchored on the Grand Bahamas Banks, a magical and mysterious expanse of water, never more than twenty feet deep. The Banks begin at Bimini, fifty miles off the coast ofFlorida. From there a sailboat can run ten hours east, with no land anywhere, and water so clear and shallow you can count starfish on the bottom. A boat is very alone there, except for an occasional freighter or sports fishing boat. Rarely there are cigarette boats, the drug runners special, but for the most part, a sailor travels over the turquoise water for hours while seeing nothing but sea and sky.
* * *
Carter was sleeping in the aft cabin, the master cabin he always occupied when he didn’t have a charter. It was warm and he had the hatches and ports open. He stirred, awakened by a voice, calling “Help.” Another nightmare, one of the many versions that robbed his sleep. Only the lonely cry of a sea-bird. Carter looked at his watch; the hands glowed 2:20 am, still a long time until daylight. He turned over, hoping he wouldn’t lie awake the remainder of the night. Then he heard the sound again; it sounded like a woman’s cry. He was holding his breath, alert, listening. Now he was sure he heard something or someone. He grabbed his spotlight and raced up the companionway stairs, shinning the light in a circle. The voice responded to his light, crying louder. Am I finally going crazy? No one could be out here. What am I doing? He’d been warned about delayed reactions but even so he aimed the spotlight toward the call. He wasn’t sure if he saw something in the water, the seas could play tricks at night. Shining the light on the compass, he guessed the voice was coming from the North. He ran forward to pull up the anchor without starting the engine. He didn’t want the noise of the diesel because he wanted to stay in touch with the voice.
“I’m coming,” he shouted, not sure if she could hear him. His heart was racing. Please, let me get there this time. He quickly pulled up the anchor chain by hand but couldn’t get the last of it that way. He dropped the chain into the old hand-powered gypsy and slipped the handle in place, slowly hauling the heavy anchor on deck while cursing himself for not being able to afford a new electric windlass. But now that would be someone else’s problem. Dashing back to the wheel, he checked the direction of the voice once more, fired up the engine and gave it full throttle without any warm-up. The old John Deer diesel protested the sudden exertion by belching so much smoke from the exhaust that he could see it in the moonlight. He knew better than to treat his engine that way. “Come on Mo, don’t throw a rod right now.”
Sweeping the area ahead with the spotlight, he saw nothing. After a couple of minutes, shut down the engine. “Where are you?” he shouted.
“Over here.” The voice called out again, now to his East. He had almost gone too far. Aiming the spotlight, he saw someone in the water. A woman? In what must have been a last burst of energy, she was struggling hard towards the boat.
“Stay there, I’ll come to you.” The started turned the engine but it wouldn’t fire. “God dammit, what’s wrong?” Then he saw it; in his panic, he had failed to push in the stop handle. The engine started and he headed toward her, shifting to neutral as he approached and coasted the last short distance. Don’t want to get her in my prop. He threw the LifeSling with its line attached to the stern and pulled her over to the boat. She was too exhausted to offer more than her outstretched arm but Carter reached over the rail and pulled here onboard. She collapsed on the cockpit seat and threw up sea water. He ran below, brought back a wet towel and blanket, turned her on her side, pushed back her dark wet hair and wiped her face. Kneeling over her, he said, “You okay?”
“Think so. Been out there since …swimming toward your anchor light. Thirsty. ”
He went into the galley and came back with a Diet Dr. Pepper, wishing for once he had sugared drinks on board. He held the can and forced her to drink slowly. “Can you sit up? Let me get you into a bunk.” He helped her below and put her in a cabin, covering her with a light-weight blanket.
“Can’t stay here,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “They’ll be back. Get moving. Keep your lights out.”
He felt her forehead and found a cold sweat, her breathing was shallow and fast. “Who’s they?”
There was no answer.
He shook her and tried again. “I need to know who’s after you. Who am I running from?” There was no response; she was totally out. The answer would have to wait.
None of this made sense. In all his years of sailing, he’d never picked up someone in the water. But for some reason, he was willing to follow her instructions. He turned off all his lights except the compass. Back on deck, he revved up Mo’s engine as fast as he dared and set a course to the southeast, head south of the shipping channel and south of the Northwest Channel Light. He knew there was a risk moving without running lights, but boats didn’t go this way because it was a dead end. Three hours in this direction and he would be in coral heads. He would have to turn back north before that, but for now, it seemed like a good place to hide if he didn’t go too far.
He was running on adrenalin but this wouldn’t last and coffee would help. It was obvious he would be up for the rest of the night. With the autopilot in control, he went below and fixed a very strong pot, the way he liked it on night watch. Pouring it into his thermos, he grabbed a mug and went back to the cockpit. He was cutting through the darkness in a flat sea, listening to the reassuring rumble of the engine. With no land anywhere, the horizon made it look as if the boat was in the middle of a shallow bowl, and infinitely small. It seemed impossible that they would encounter anyone, or that anyone could find them. He looked at the phosphorescent glow of his wake and the dim red light of the compass.
After verifying his heading and the absence of traffic, Carter decided to check on his guest. She was still out, but breathing evenly. Realizing her shorts and t-shirt were wet and soaking his upholstery, he tried harder to rouse her, shaking her shoulder and raising his voice. “Hey, wake up. You need to get out of those wet clothes.”
There was no response. He raised her arm and slapped it. When he let go, it fell limply beside her, like a rag doll. He checked her pulse and found it strong and steady. He paused, then made a decision. As much as he knew he should get her out of these wet clothes to prevent hypothermia he just couldn’t do it. Somehow it felt like rape. He turned her from side to side, tucking the blanket tightly around her. It would have to do.
Looking at her sleeping so deeply he let his imagination run, but he couldn’t come up with any scenario that would put her in the water, miles from anywhere, swimming for her life. Had she jumped overboard to avoid—what? Been thrown? That’s the stuff that bad movies are made of. He knew the Bahamashad pirates, but their thing was drugs and stealing fast boats, not tossing young women overboard. Finally he realized two hours had passed and he would soon be in coral heads, he went back on deck, checked his GPS, and headed directly for the Northwest Channel Light. All boats heading off the banks passed just north of that light, through an opening in the coral reef only a few hundred feet wide. He had to plot where he was on his chart and set the new course. “Damn, this wouldn’t be necessary if I had a chart-plotter. Wish I could have afforded one.” He muttered under his breath.
Carter hoped he had gone off course long enough to evade whoever was after the gutsy young woman. It was darker now; the moon had set but he was surrounded by stars. Then he focused on something that surprised him. For the first time in months, he wasn’t enveloped in sadness. He was clear-headed, the sluggishness gone. He was very glad to have his uninvited guest, in spite of whatever risk it posed for him, his sailing had a purpose and he knew he would do anything to keep her onboard. He had no idea how soon that resolve would be tested.
* * *