RING_O_BELLS            (11th May version)                                            

It made me wish I’d never upped sticks and moved here. I mean the whole idea was that when the Ministry granted me early retirement I would move away to the Fenlands, and quietly live on my pension accompanied by my black Labrador, Bruno. If only I hadn’t seen the signpost for the village of ‘Windrush Abbey’ and my curiosity hadn’t got the better of me and led me to drive into, and subsequently buy, that low beamed little cottage in the village, then I wouldn’t have become embroiled in these mysterious and sinister events.  

The Fens have always held a fascination for me. Steeped in legend and myth they project to the solitary observer a brooding loneliness, which after the hustle and bustle of London town and the high level of responsibility and occasional danger that went with my job, was a salve to my weary mind. However after some months in this sleepy backwater the shine had gone off the place and boredom had set in. It was out of tedium that I had stepped into the ‘Ring -O-Bells’ that night and got engaged in conversation over the art of bell ringing with Old Ned. It turned out they were looking for a new member of campanology up at the church and so thinking that I might gain a little exercise, make new friends, and ingratiate myself a little with the locals, I agreed to become their latest student, it later transpired that the reason they were seeking a new conscript was because the last incumbent had recently been fished from a branch of the Fens canal system, weighed down in his watery grave by the rope of an eel trap entwined around his neck.
 

The second murder occurred some weeks later as I learnt the ropes, so to speak, of fledgling bell ringer. We had assembled for bell ringing practise at the church tower and Mr Jennings, the bell master or ringleader, had just begun to get the largest bell swinging in its mount so it could chime in sequence to the peal we were about to perform, when to his astonishment as he cast the rope in a down stroke, the rope snaked from his hand and began to coil at his feet at an alarming rate. At that moment as he looked up he realised as we all did that the bell (which weighed over a ton) was on its way down from the belfry and the crashing sound we could hear was the bell smashing its way through the upper floors of the tower towards Mr Jennings, who horror struck, stood open mouthed, rooted to the spot directly under the bell’s downward path. With no time left for escape the bell crashed through the ceiling of the ringing chamber and in a cacophony of noise and debris crushed Mr Jennings to the ground. It was later established that this was no accident as the wooden trunnions, which the bell pivoted on, had been near sawn through thus inviting the bell to fall at the first pull of the bell rope.

Following the tragedy, taking one of my now, customary evening strolls, I stopped for a moment and gazing out beyond the waving reed beds to a poignant pink sunset, stood motionless, pondering the macabre turn of events. Gradually, my returning senses became aware of the high pitched warning trill of a soaring skylark, which seemed in the charged atmosphere to be alerting me to the approach of some impending unseen menace. From the gossip in the pub it was plain to see that we had a double murderer at hand, according to Old Ned Mr Jennings’ death had something to do with the job he’d held down; apparently his part-time coastguard position involved him in some clandestine surveillance work. Startled by the casualness of the way the information had been dropped into my lap I asked him if he had informed the police of his suspicions. “They didn’t set no store by it, “he replied.”But us we locals thought there were something going on, as he’d leave home late at night and not come back till six in a morning, but they said it was just part of his normal duties, protecting the coast and all like that.” I asked him if he knew what part of the coast he had been protecting. He was unsure but thought it was out by the disused lighthouse out on the dunes.

I was intrigued, but surely the authorities would not be so crass as to not follow up the lead? I knew I shouldn’t meddle, but I was bored, and convinced myself that I may be able to pursue what the police had discounted from the case. Out of curiosity I decided I would take Bruno for a walk up on the dunes that evening and reconnoitre the area. The defunct light was just a short drive from the village reached by single track road up through the dunes and ending in a lonely sandswept car park close to the structure. Releasing Bruno from the car I selected a suitable stick and beginning a game of “fetch” unobtrusively made my way around the tower and outbuildings looking for anything out of the ordinary, the only thing of note being the new and robust padlock affixed to the steel door which barred entry to the tower. Continuing my stroll I made my way along the headland observing on the landward side of me, protected by the sand dunes from the worst of the weather, a ruined windmill: it’s one battered sail held up to the sky as if in surrender. And to seaward, a couple of miles or so offshore, looking somewhat like a milking stool, what I presumed to be a small unmanned gas installation.      

Later, when darkness had fallen, I left home again and revisiting the steel door to the lighthouse, gained access by cutting through the shackle of the padlock with a pocket sized cordless angle grinder. Stepping inside, I switched on my flashlight and found that the interior of the tower was quite hollow except for a stone spiral staircase that corkscrewed around the inside of the walls up to the lantern room. Ascending the steps to the top floor of the structure I entered the round glassed lantern chamber where it became immediately apparent that someone had been bedding down there, with magazines, books and sleeping bag tossed to one side, and camping stove, kettle and various pieces of crockery on the other. I switched off my light as I approached the telescope on the tripod mount, and placing my eye to the eyepiece looked to see what the spyglass was trained on. My curiosity was even more aroused when I discovered that the object under observation was the unmanned gas riser platform a few miles out to sea. Puzzled, I retraced my steps down the spiral stairway and slamming the outer steel door too behind me, replaced the broken padlock with a similar one of my own.

Having slept on the mystery, I downloaded two maritime charts from the Navy’s Hydrographic department in London, one detailing the local coastal area, the other giving me a more general view of the southern sector of the North Sea. These undersea maps not only show depth, speed of current, and type of sea bottom, but accurately show underwater obstacles, wrecks, oil and gas installations, and plot the location and direction of gas and oil pipelines across the North Sea. The larger chart informed me that the undersea gas line that led to the platform originated from the Dutch mainland, and that both the pipeline and unmanned gas installation in question had been decommissioned some years previously. I needed to take a closer look at that abandoned three legged toadstool.

I had not cut all ties when I had retired from the Ministry and still had a contact or two in the building. I rang a friend and gave him a brief outline of events and then pulled in a favour by asking him if he could have some specialist equipment delivered to me that I would need to scale the offshore platform, and if he knew of any operatives down this way who might be able to help me out. He gave me the name Clem Dremmel, whom he said the Ministry used occasionally on an ad hoc freelance basis and that he would let the agent know I was seeking assistance. A couple of days later I received a text which said I was to wait at the entrance of a shopping mall in Kings Lynn at around three pm and Clem would approach me.

For a moment I was stuck for words when a slim hand was proffered and a pleasant female voice spoke by my shoulder, “Mr Tennant? I’m Clem Dremmel; I understand you need a little help on a project you’re engaged in.” Taken aback I began, “Oh! Yes, please; call me Mark.” We found seats in a nearby cafe and as I wrestled with, and tried not to show, my preconceived gender expectations, I explained what I had discovered so far, and why I needed the use of a boat to get out to the installation. Clearly enjoying my discomfort she replied that a boat could be arranged and she would be happy to skipper it for me while I investigated the structure. We agreed that I would text and meet her when all was in place. As we exchanged telephone numbers I couldn’t help but ask, if her name ‘Clem’ was short for something, “Clementine,” she replied.

The Ministry rarely entrust Royal Mail to deliver clandestine equipment to their officers: They have their own couriers for that, and next day I took delivery of the bulky parcel sent from HQ. After I’d checked the goods, I texted Clem to say, “Ready when you are,” and received a text by return that gave GPS co-ordinates for my satnav, and a message which read “Meet you in the boathouse 9 pm.” I loaded the car with my gear and obeyed the satnav instructions which unfailingly led me from a tarmac road down a rough track to a hidden boathouse amongst the reeds. As I stowed my gear aboard, Clem steered the boat through the open doors of the boathouse and then negotiating the narrow channels of the estuary, navigated a route through a maze of tributaries until we reached the open sea. Consulting the chart she took a compass bearing on the gas installation, and then competently brought the boat round to its new heading. All offshore structures, from oil rigs to reef marker buoys, are required to exhibit warning lights, and as the boat got closer to our goal a steady winking light gave us a visual fix on what to aim for. As Clem manoeuvred alongside the legs of the unmanned installation, I jacked up the lightweight telescopic ladder to its full extent, and then standing on the bow of our little cabin cruiser, reached up and located the assault ladders’ hook over the handrail of the platforms’ deck. These Special Forces carbon fibre lightweight ladders are not the conventional H shape that you might expect, but have a single central pole, the rungs of which sprout from it like the branches of a Christmas tree or spars from a mast. Quickly I assailed the ladder and on gaining the platforms’ deck, so a passing swell would not dislodge and sweep my boarding ladder into the sea, I lashed the ladders’ hook to the rail.

For a redundant gas platform a lot of the machinery onboard seemed to be well maintained, and my attention was drawn to a large bank of high pressure air cylinders which were linked to an industrial air compressor, the air intake of which was bolted to the riser of the undersea pipeline. Suddenly as I approached the equipment, the industrial compressor sprang into life, which gave me a fright until I realised that the machinery had been set up to maintain a partial vacuum within the pipe and was programmed to automatically stop and start at any slight rise in pressure.
The riser itself was also somewhat unusual in the fact that as the twenty two inch diameter pipe rose above deck level it ended in what appeared to be an airlock, an array of gauges, dials, and pressure release purge valves, which after inspection I understood to be, what’s known in the oil industry as a pig catcher/launcher. Developed for cleaning or detecting damage within the pipe, a pig is a spongy rubber ball or bullet shaped projectile that fits snugly in the internal dimensions of the pipe, and then like a shuttle, can be propelled in either direction along its length by creating a partial vacuum ahead of the pig and air pressure behind it. Further confirmation that the platform was in use came as I checked the emergency life support shelter which revealed a remote control mechanism that gave access to the installation, by (much like an automated roller blind,) unravelling a rolled up wire ladder from the deck down to the surface of the sea below. Considering I’d seen enough, I foregoed a tour of the windswept helideck, untied the bindings which held my ladder against the deck rail and took my leave, returning down the ladder and jumping the last couple of feet into the boat. I then unhooked and retracted my ladder from the handrail above. On the way back to the boathouse I related to Clem what I had discovered and of my intentions to report my findings to the police.  

Detective Chief Inspector Barnfather was a big man, and although a little out of shape and past his prime, when angered, gave a good impression of an erupting volcano as his florid mottled complexion turned a crimson apoplectic glow. Now as I sat opposite him separated only by his desk, I felt the full force of the quake as he lambasted me over my unwanted amateur incursion into his investigation, and how I had put the whole operation in jeopardy, pointing out that they’d had the installation under surveillance for weeks and were just waiting for the right moment to apprehend the gang when we turn up, possibly alerting the perpetrators to police interest in the installation. I parried that the chances were the gang already knew they were under observation otherwise why would Mr Jennings the part-time coastguard have been murdered. This seemed to check his wrath for a moment as I don’t think anyone had ever spoken back to him before, and before he could explode once more I announced that Clem and I were members of a branch of the intelligence service, and not amateurs as suggested. A slight exaggeration on my part as I was recently retired and Clem was only an occasional employee, but mistakenly thinking that my ‘intelligence’ revelation had taken the wind out of his sails I blundered on, proposing that as no one associated us with the enquiry perhaps we could be useful to him in an undercover role. Completely unimpressed, he raised himself from his chair and towering over me like a large black storm cloud conveyed to me that under no circumstances did he want my help and if we ever came to his attention again he would have us charged with obstructing an investigation: and told me now to get out of his sight so he could get on with some real detective work.

With the Chief Inspector’s admonishments ringing in my ears I took the hint, and meeting Clem later over a drink I related what had been said. Clem looked pretty crestfallen, as was I, but we had no alternative but to keep out of the way and leave the police to their own devices. And that’s the way I would have left it, except that, since the police interview I couldn’t help but think I was being watched, and my house phone had all the hallmarks of being tapped. And a few days after my last meeting with Clem I couldn’t raise her on her mobile, only being able to activate her voicemail which she never responded to. Then like a shaft of light penetrating a morass of dark cloud it dawned on me that DCI Barnfather had no knowledge of Mr Jennings’ observations from the lighthouse or else why wouldn’t  he have had Forensics swarming all over  it. Still smarting from my encounter with the DCI and perceiving that he had me under surveillance a feeling of annoyance came over me which not only made me disinclined to disclose any further information to him, but made me feel compelled to shake off my tail and return to the lighthouse to search the lantern room again.

Gone are the days when CID officers spend their time deployed in cars engaged in stake- outs. In the modern world a magnetic tracker linked to a police computer is attached to your vehicle and a webcam is trained from some innocuous point on your front door. Running my hand under the underside of the car I soon located the tracker which I placed in a flowerpot by the door. I knew that the camera focused on the front of the house would be harder to find: however there were only a few locations where it could be concealed. It had to be in a position that gave an uninterrupted view of the cottage, which meant that it was either in the trunk of the tree opposite, the garden wall, the gateposts facing the house, or somewhere hidden in the garden. Not being in possession of an electronic sweeping device, I deduced that I would have to revert to a less technological method to detect its presence. Later when night had fallen I emerged from my abode and switching on my flashlight swung the beam at the areas adjacent and opposite my cottage until I perceived a cat’s eye jewel- like reflection that led me to the lens of the tiny camera which I discovered was mounted inside a fake fibre glass rock in my garden. Leaving the rock undisturbed I denied the police surveillance team further views of my activities by strategically positioning my wheelie bin in front of the disguised webcam, and before Bruno and I left home, should they have a directional microphone monitoring sound from the premises, I selected a serious music channel on the radio and adjusting the volume down to a soft low level presented the listeners with an evening of classical entertainment.

Inserting the key and opening the padlock on the steel door to the lighthouse I led Bruno inside and without delay climbed the spiral staircase to the lantern room, which was in the same state of disarray,( it was a relief to find,) as when I’d left it. I switched on my penlight torch and began a search of the few possessions scattered around the room. Inside the sleeping bag I found a tide table almanac, the spring high water times of which had been underlined, and a notebook containing dates, a set of compass bearings, and a series of numbers which prefixed with the letters E and N, I took to be longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates. It took no time at all to persuade myself that with the wind rattling round the lantern room storm panes, and the cold dank air penetrating my bones, that this was not the ideal place to start deciphering clues from the notebook, and so thrusting the almanac and notebook into my pocket, I took my leave, returning home to a warm fireside and a stiff whisky. When I had settled, I typed the longitude and latitude co-ordinates into my computer and activated a programme that transposed and converted the numbers into a grid reference on an internet version of an ordinance survey map, revealing, according to the map, a desolate stretch of nondescript marsh and silt riddled creeks. After printing off a copy of the map and submitting the GPS reference numbers into my satnav, I contemplated the tide table almanac and the meaning of the underlined spring tide times. Later I telephoned Clem in the hope that she would accompany me on the morrow, but again all I reached was her voicemail. I had to admit I was getting concerned over her whereabouts, where was the damned girl?

In the morning I drove as close as I could to the location and then shouldering my pack and consulting my map and compass set off on foot across the bleak low lying salt flats but soon became hampered and impeded by the criss cross, twisting, muddy creeks and marsh islands that barred my way from making a direct line to my objective. I had no intention of spending all day out here deviating round obstacles that lay in my path and so on reaching the first of the exposed mudflats I delved into my pack and strapped on to my boots a pair of what are colloquially known in these parts, as mudskippers: which look and perform the same function, by spreading the weight, as snowshoes. Halfway across the saltings, I stopped to catch my breath and raising the binoculars strung around my neck scanned my intended goal and surrounding terrain for sign of any human workings or habitation. I seemed to be approaching a small jetty and to my left and right on slightly higher ground, what appeared to be a fenced off area protected by pillboxes, beyond that, further in amongst the spiny grassed sand dunes, uncertain edges and low walls led me to believe that I was advancing towards an establishment of military origin, none of which was detailed on my map, as presumably back in the sixty’s, in the middle of a cold war, the cartographers who had been charged with mapping this area had been directed to draw no attention to the facilities for chance of Russian invasion. With renewed impetus I slithered forward in my unconventional way on my mudskippers, until I eventually made contact with and grasped the rungs of the iron ladder which led me up and on to the forlorn jetty. Ahead of me a battered down wire mesh gate gave access to the abandoned military site, a rusting tinplate notice proclaiming that this was Ministry of Defence property and trespasses would be prosecuted. Passing the windowless gatehouse I proceeded up into the ruined complex, recognising that the compound had once been an ordinance depot, and the hardy beach grassed sand dunes sporting the steel blast doors, were in fact defunct munitions bunkers.

It was the recent vehicle tyre tracks that caught my attention, alerting me to the possibility that perhaps the establishment had not been totally abandoned. Giving reign to my natural curiosity I followed the tracks, which led me to the base of a dune and a bolted and padlocked steel door. Again I resorted to my tiny handheld angle grinder which reliably cut through the staple of the padlock and entered the bunker. Lighting the kerosene lamp that had been conveniently placed just inside the door, I held the light aloft and casting my eyes around the dugout found it to be clad and planked in oak, no doubt as a precaution against any spark that might have ignited the once stored munitions. As the faint smell of cordite rose in my nostrils I moved towards what I assumed to be a bundle of rags in the corner of the room but which came to life as I approached it.
‘Clem!’ Iexclaimed.’ How on earth did you get here?                                                                                                                                        
Which was a bit of a silly question really as Clem was in no position to reply due to her being bound and gagged. Quickly I untied her and when she had recovered she told me that she had been       ...


(to be continued)                                                                                 

Dear Mick,
             Much appreciate the comments, editing and punctuation of my story. I have acted on the punctuation as you have suggested and taken into account your advice and view on the way you think the story should develop, but have found it very difficult to move the two murders to a later stage in the story, as I think we may be looking at this from two different angles. The two murders are not the main thrust of the story, I have put them in at an early stage to keep the reader interested, and as a percurser and means of advancing the story, and to emphasis the ruthlessness of the smuggling gang. However I have acted on most of your other comments.
(Comment M1) I have changed the sentence so as to not inform the reader quite so early of murder.
(Comment M4) I have changed the wording 'Squashed Flat'.
(Comment M6) have tried to give more description.)
(Comment M7) have changed the word 'employee' to agent.)                                    
 
Please accept my newly revised, and further draft (continuation) of the story.   Thanks, see you Saturday   Dave.


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