A novel about the frightening ambivalence of justice
Early on New Years day 1998, after celebrating in the Marlborough Sounds, a young couple accepted the invitation of a stranger to sleep on his yacht. By dawn the boat had disappeared and the couple was never seen again. There were no clues, no bodies, no apparent suspects. In the wake of a lengthy investigation under immense pressure from the public, Police arrested the skipper of a sloop, despite claims by witnesses that the couple had boarded a ketch. The man was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The novel shows the frightening perspectives of a possible error of justice. The action stays close to the actual police investigation and the court case to emphasise the reality of the problem. Anything not essential for the legal aspects is imaginary. This is important not only because of inadvertent inaccuracies when portraying actual people, but also because we all could find ourselves in predicaments similar to those shown, presupposing our backgrounds fit.
The young man propped himself up on an elbow, trying to pierce the musty darkness. He fingered the mattress under him and then brushed his head, groaning. The girl next to him stirred. He reached out to her, touching her warm body.
"Vivian, wake up! Something's wrong!" His throat felt painfully dry.
The girl wriggled a little. "What?" she moaned, still half asleep.
"Can you hear this hum? I thought I'm woozy, because I had too much to drink; but it’s because we're moving!"
Vivian sat up abruptly, listening to the sloshing and rushing of water and the purring of a motor.
"Yeah Brent, we're sailing! That's not the idea, is it? This boat was rafted on to others - why is it moving now?"
Brent tried to hold down his rising alarm.
"We've crashed on the boat of this stranger," he croaked. Groping for an exit he discovered a hatch; it was locked. He pounded on it with his fists.
"What's going on? Let us out! Let us out!" he shouted.
There was silence, but when he kept on banging, not far outside a gruff voice snapped: "Stop that f....n racket. Go to sleep."
Now Vivian was fully awake: "Where are you going? Let us off," she screamed. "Let us get off, right now!"
"Shut up, you bitch! Or else I'll blow your friend's head off and then I'll deal with you. D'you f....n understand?"
A wave of terror rushed through Brent's body. It was a feeling like falling down a cliff in icy weightlessness. Mixed in was disbelief about their predicament. He peered through the porthole. The low hill ranges of the fiord floated past like shadows, sheathed in a milky glow of dawn.
"We're leaving the Sounds," he muttered, downcast.
"This is not real; it's a nightmare,” the girl wailed, “isn't it, Brent? It's New Year's Day. We were supposed to sleep on our boat, the Swamp Larch!"
"That’s right, but when Mike took us there in his dinghy, there was no room for us. Too many hangers-on had gate crashed."
"These cheeks! I'd paid for my berth on the boat!"
"Then we were sitting on the deck waiting for Mike to return and he didn’t. He probably stayed with the girl he wanted to drop off."
"Then Debbie and her boyfriend came on the water taxi."
"It was nice of them to swap places with us to let us go back to shore."
"Yeh, and that's what we should've done and not let a stranger put us up!”
The young couple pressed their heads together, noses on the glass of the porthole. The skyline of the hills had vanished. The rolling of the boat sharpened.
"We're running into Cook Straight," Brent stated, agitated. They slipped down on the mattress that took up much of the tiny room. Around them curled the blankets they had covered themselves with. Slowly, daylight crept through the porthole.
Vivian cuddled into Brent's arms. "Together we'll get out of this, won’t we?"
"We've got to. First I’ve got to break the lock of the hatch, but I don’t know how," Brent remarked dryly.
"You may think of something...!"
"This guy may be a psychopath with a gun. Shouting doesn't help. I'll have to talk him out of whatever he's up to."
"Do your medical studies include psychiatry? Why did we trust this weirdo? We only met him on the water taxi.”
"If you're a bit drunk, you're careless. He looked all right. His yacht had room. We were two, he was on his own. It looked safe. We didn't think that our lodgings would move, did we?" Brent whispered. Then he raised his voice: "Skipper, don't you want to talk to us? I'm Brent and my friend's called Vivian. What's your name?"
The man outside grunted: "Shut your trap and go to sleep."
"How can we sleep when you frighten us?"
There was no answer.
Vivian sobbed: "Will our friends miss us? Will they be looking for us?"
"After a New Year's Eve party? They were all more or less pissed. They'll sleep in."
"See, what they've done to us! Debbie and her friend might worry about us; they were on the taxi together with this stranger.”
"Your sister and her friend? Vivian! They think we're on land. How would they know that we’ve boarded the stranger's yacht.”
"The water taxi driver would remember where he dropped us off."
"Yes, he might, but who'd know where we've gone."
"Nobody knows! Nobody knows!" Vivian started crying clawing into Brent's arms.
Brent had tears rolling down his cheeks. "It all started off so great...!" Vivian gasped with panic. Yesterday and the days before seemed far away, cut off cruelly.....
A breeze drove dark green waves past the Swamp Larch. Vivian let her feet dangle from the deck and gazed into the sparkling coolness.
"As if we were sailing," she thought, but then, the odd whiff from pines spiced the smell of the sea. Lifting her head a little, she glimpsed their shadows flung onto the water licking a tiny beach with a jetty stuck on. The cove looked abandoned, though a cottage exposed itself a little behind branches, just enough to tease: I don't really want you to see me.
Twisting continental plates still shape New Zealand. A deep trench, Cook Straight, separates the two main islands. While the southern end of the North Island lifts, the northern crests and valleys of the South Island drown, creating a stupendously beautiful landscape where land and sea interlock tightly. Hilly spurs have turned into islands, lower tops into rocky shoals or razorback reefs. Ancient valleys and ravines have been charmed into deep bays and narrow coves. While denuded ridges alternately shiver in frequent winds and burn in cruel spells of sunshine, here and there pines march skyward in orderly ranks and native forest clothes gullies and dells, keeping them moist and snug.
Vivian stretched her arms with the sensual feeling of being young, healthy, and full of anticipation of fun and pleasure.
"Are you going to dive in before we leave?"
Vivian recognised the voice behind her. "I sure will, but not from up here, Richard," she chuckled without turning.
"Isn't it a great day?" he asked sitting down close to her. He found Vivian very attractive. She was short, had a fine figure, a pretty face and was pleasant to talk to.
"A great start to a raging New Year's party! I think it's cool that my sister has arranged this trip to go there, with this boat and everything," Vivian babbled happily.
"Yeah, Deborah is a great organiser, but most of us are friends of hers. Where are yours?"
Vivian smiled at Richard; she enjoyed his company. "I'll meet up with some of them at the party. Also, I'm not tied up in any relationship - which is nice for a while. Don't we feel degrees of physical and spiritual attraction with various people and can't they be all different and special in their own ways?"
Richard nodded. "I know what you're talking about. Now, watch this!”
He stood up and dived into the sea. When he resurfaced he laughed.
“Try the water, it’s nice! When we leave, will you help me set the sails, Vivian?"
The girl moped: "You know I'm not good at it.”
At that moment, Deborah called from below deck: "Vivian, Mum's on the phone."
"I'm getting it." Vivian grabbed the mobile from an arm stuck out towards her from the cockpit.
"Hi, Mum, where are you?"
"I've just filled my shopping bag. Dad and I are going to have a little New Years Eve party ourselves. Are you and Debbie going to stay together tonight?"
Vivian laughed. "I hope not all the time. It's a great way of saying goodbye to my friends, before I'm off to Europe."
"There're always lots of people and alcohol at New Years Eve celebrations."
"That's part of the fun. At least, I can't get lost. We're going to sleep on board of the yacht we've hired. Mum, the Sounds are at their best today. The blue sky and the green hills just about scuffle to paint the sea each its own colour."
"I'm glad you're so happy! I suppose the worst that can happen to you is getting sunburnt. You've got fair skin. You're wearing a hat, aren't you?"
Vivian scowled, drawing a strand of her long golden hair across her face. "Will you worry as much about me when I'm off travelling?"
"I suppose, all mums are the same. To me, you're still so young!"
"Mum, I'm almost 18." Aware of the concern in her mother's voice, she added affectionately: "I love you very much."
"I love you too!!"
"Dad, there's a New Year's party on in Endeavour Inlet," Brent beamed. "There's a new lodge, called the Hideaway. The owners want to put it on the map in a big way."
Brent was a self-confident young man of 21, well-built, with short dark hair and dark-brown eyes. He smashed the feathered ball past his father and walked towards the net of the Badminton court that was bathing in the sun and in lavish garden scents. Brent's father, a tall big man, looked at his son affectionately.
"Sounds good, Brent. Get some fun. Any of your mates going with you?"
"Since I've been away studying in Dunedin, I've lost touch a little, but I'm sure to meet up with people I know. I think there'll be about 2000 people celebrating."
"I think, Vivian also wants to go to something like that; must be the same thing."
Brent twisted a finger round a flower. "Ah, yeh? It's a long time since we saw each other last. How d'you know?"
"Remember, we buy our plants from the garden centre Vivian's mum runs. D'you like Vivian?” Brent got a knowing smile.
"We get on, Dad."
"Hallo, Jim, I thought I'll find you at home in Havelock." A man Brent did not know had emerged from behind the bushes. “What lovely garden you’ve created around your house!”
Brent saw his father's face light up.
"Brent, meet my friend Alistair. He's the one who's bought my business and is carrying on capably."
"Pleased to meet you, Brent. Sorry for having taken your place in the business. But since you've made up your mind to become a doctor..."
Brent smiled: "Father has been really successful and deserves early retirement, but sons don't have to follow in their fathers' footsteps."
Jim nodded at his son. "Brent's been working hard. For a few days he wants to shrug off everything he's been stuck in. He's going to the New Years party in the Marlborough Sounds," he explained. Turning to Brent, he asked: "Are you going to stay in our bach?"
"I might as well, since it's so close to the venue."
"Be careful on the road. It's gravel, narrow, with lots of bends."
"I know, Dad!" Brent sounded a bit put off. "OK, I better go and let you two talk shop."
"Don't get too drunk, will you."
Alistair laughed. "Jim, you sound like me when I talk to my grown-up children. We don't think they can look after themselves."
"I can't see any land!" Vivian cried. It was full daylight by now. The motor had stopped and the yacht keeled into billowing swell.
"He's put the sails up," Brent remarked.
"What are you looking for?"
"Still looking for something to break open the hatch, but I might have to use my pocket knife. It'll take a while to cut through around the lock."
"And what then?"
"It's me against him."
"Hasn't he got a gun or else a knife or something?"
Even in the muffled light from the porthole Vivian noticed how ashen her friend's face was.
"If I can't talk sense into him, we've had it," he muttered. Then, trying to sound composed, he shouted: "Hey, skipper, can we talk now? D'you need any help?"
A coarse chuckle came as an answer.
"D'you want us to do something? Can you tell us your name?"
"Call me Glen. I don't f....n need you, mate. I want the girl."
"Glen, we don't know what you've got in mind, but you could get yourself into trouble by taking us away."
Glen cackled. "Don't you worry about me, mate. I can sail across the Tasman in this boat. Who'd recognise me anyway. There were f....n two thousand people at the party."
"Somebody would remember your boat."
"Huh, huh! It was dark while I was tied up there."
"Why did you leave so soon?"
"I'd finished my business. You're f...n nosy. When we get to where I want to be, we'll have another yarn." Glen cackled again and it sounded ugly.
"If he wants to get at you, he's got to kill me first," Brent murmured.
Vivian shrieked. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she flung her arms around him. "I'll shield you. He'd want me alive, so he won't shoot at me."
"Vivian, no! No! If I can get the hatch open, I may be able to surprise him."
"And what then?"
"I don't want to think about it."
"Brent, I'd rather be here with you than with any other guy. It was our fate to get into this together."
"Would we be in this situation, if we hadn't met last night???" He wondered with agony as memories came flooding back.
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