The Veil of Light

Anyone looking at Marlowe’s Pride had to think that Marlowe was either short- sighted or very forgiving. With a battered hull only a mother could love, the little trawler cowered low behind the flagstones of Owenstown harbour, sneaking a random peek over the harbour wall as it bobbed gently in the shallow waters. Most of the larger vessels had been grounded for the down season, while the lighter craft like the Marlowe touted their wares for the sightseeing crowd.

Not that Owenstown was a hotspot for tourists. Besides the fishing trade, the town had little going for it. When the fish moved on, so did every body else. Mary Lesalle – ‘Marley’ to the other fisherfolk – liked it that way. She spent most of her time at sea or around the port. Like most residents of Owenstown, she wasn’t one for socialising, preferring to keep herself to herself. The town only came together when needed, like during the frenzy of the fishing season.

It was this rather standoffish attitude that unnerved most visitors. Like the couple now stood huddling together against the cold on the dockside, tourists stood out a mile with their big smiles and sunday-best clothes. They certainly didn’t leave the town that way. These two weren’t the usual slack-jawed sort though, Marley observed, as she watched them from her perch in the little fore cabin. For one thing, he was already frowning, his gaze lancing against the Marlowe’s windshield, probing for a response. Meanwhile the poor woman cowered against his side, barely able to stand, whilst chewing off her lipstick.

Marley watched them with mild amusement a while longer, meeting the man’s gaze several times. Reluctantly she unwrapped her limbs and clambered off her seat. Ducking outside under the door frame, she called out to the man. Her harsh Northern bark must’ve taken him by surprise since he swayed backwards slightly, blinking at her, with his mouth slightly gaping. “I said: where ya heading?” She called again. He quickly recovered his composure and fumbled a Guide To the North pamphlet into her hand, with the Odesay strait circled on one of the pages, his voice arriving with a hoarse whisper.

“Cost ya.” Marley said, her eyebrows questioning. The man grunted his assent, patting the breast pocket of his duffel coat. Marley nodded and led the way back across the gang plank onto the deck. She didn’t bother checking to see if they needed any help, though the familiar scuffle of feet and muttered curses suggested they did. She settled them in the small cabin and cast off the lines before coaxing the Marlowe out to sea.

After a time she considered that she might as well earn some of the big bucks she was going to charge them and began pointing out the famous landmarks along the coast, real or otherwise. The man paid little attention, his face twisted in concentration, resolutely staring out to sea. The woman, however, had recovered considerably after a shot of Marley’s special brew. She seemed to latch onto Marley’s words, no matter how mundane, her eyes dancing around the ‘sights’, desperate for the human contact. Marley noticed she had a navy blue sweater bundled in her lap, gripped tightly in her hands. Child’s size.

The man grew more intense as they neared the strait. The sky had darkened considerably with the first shafts of moonlight peeking through the clouds overhead. Marley let the engine idle as they came under the shadow of the old lighthouse. Clinging precariously to its rocky outcrop, the ageing relic had been abandoned for years: folks round here were a hardy sort, but no-one really stuck at the light-keeper’s job. Only shallow boats came up the strait now anyway. The larger fishing vessels took the long way round by the deep sea; the easier to barter with the ports dotted along the mainland coast.

Marley was just about to announce the end of the tour when a blinding light seared across the face of the cabin. The lighthouse. Marley frowned, blinking, confused by the new light. She was just about to reach for the ship’s comm when she heard a rustle behind her and felt the hard snub of a pistol in the small of her back. The woman gave a little yelp. “We’re getting off here. Wait for us.” The man’s words were strained; the pistol’s snout twitching nervously against her spine. He clearly wasn’t the gun-wielding type. Marley was more than double his weight in muscle alone – years of hauling in her catch and scrapping with the other fishermen had seen to that – but in the cramped space of the cabin, even a nervous character like this guy wouldn’t miss.

Marley brought the motor to a stop by the wooden landing platform as instructed and watched as the pair of them clambered off the Marlowe. The woman did her best not to meet Marley’s eyes, though she kept muttering apologies under her breath. When they reached the rocky ground, the man hastily hid the pistol from sight. Marley knew full well she could have left them there, and was sure the man knew it too, but if all they’d wanted was a return trip, the pistol was unnecessary. Something else was going on here. She retrieved her rifle from it’s cubbyhole under her bunk and took up a position near the door of the cabin where she could watch the pair of them. She killed the onboard lights.

She watched as the pair waited, drowning in the lamplight from the tower, clearly terrified. Marley saw now that it wasn’t the old lighthouse that was working, but a modern searchlight rigged up on the platform just outside the glass. It’s range was limited, but enough to make a fix on the Marlowe and her passengers. Growing more accustomed to the blaze of light, Marlowe picked out several figures waiting in the darkness beyond: one operating the searchlight and three at the foot of the lighthouse, approaching the waiting couple. Clearly, they were armed.

The newcomers stopped just short of the circle of light, just close enough to make the man aware of their presence. The man started before recovering himself and reaching into his duffel. He pulled out a parcel wrapped in brown paper, and tossed it to the ground, just a few feet from the shadows. Marley grimaced. Drugs. Several anxious seconds passed before the middle of the three strangers gave a slight nod. At his command, a fourth figure was loosed from the shadows: A child, wailing and careening forward in terrified blindness. The woman, dropped to her knees and caught the frightened child, rocking back and forth with heavy sobs. The man joined them, clearly forgetting their situation, and focused only on the return of their child.

Marley glanced back at the strangers, seeing the middle man smirk and his companions ready their rifles. But Marley was ready for them. Still unnoticed, she propped herself against the door jamb and took aim at the searchlight. The crack from her rifle paralysed the figures on the ground, giving her enough time to switch positions as the darkness seized the stunned group. The boy’s father, now realising the danger they were in, reached for his pistol but bungled the piece to the ground, cursing. Marley swore at him to get his family on board as she fired several shots at the feet of the drug dealers, just enough to spook them.

They were now recovering themselves and clearly saw the Marlowe as the immediate threat as they fired several rounds into the cabin. Marley crouched behind the command console, pinned, as glass from the cabin’s windows shattered around her. As the family bundled onto the deck, Marley hit the running lights to cover their escape before gunning the engine. They made it to the middle of the strait before Marley heard the sound of powerboats coming from the other side of the lighthouse island. Clearly, their pursuers meant to finish the job.

She killed all the lights, and barked into her radio for anyone that might hear. As the only gun on board, they were running out of options. She navigated the strait by moonlight, avoiding the shallower sections that she was pleased to find slowed the powerboats’ progress. She considered dumping her nets but that would take too long without other seafarers on-board. She managed to stay just beyond their reach, though the Marlowe’s stern felt the thud of several shots, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before they were completely overrun.

The family cowered on the floor of the cabin, whimpering at the ricochets, as they rounded the headland. A sudden piercing light filled the cabin and Marlowe bawled with laughter. All of Owenstoun had turned out to their aid and a wall of ships, blazing like Christmas trees, raced towards them. Reluctantly their pursuers peeled off as the Marlowe slipped beyond the veil of light, her cargo safe.

copyright © 2011 Daniel Mclaughlan