Well, when we were planning First Monday Crime back in January, we had no idea what was coming. Considering we all have something to do with publishing in various ways – author, editor, publicity, blogger etc. – to find ourselves in a real-life dystopian novel is a bit surreal. But that isn’t going to stop us shouting out about the authors and novels that were due to feature in April’s event. One of the authors booked to come was Fiona Erskine. Her new novel is The Chemical Reaction, a follow-up to The Chemical Detective. Margot Weale at Oneworld has kindly sent an extract for you all to read. But first the blurb.
As Jaq is pulled further into a murky underworld of deceit and corruption, things take an explosive turn…
After escaping almost certain death amidst the ruins of Chernobyl, Jaq finds herself in even hotter water. Deep in debt, she decides to take on a risky contract in China. But when her former student and the chemical factory she was meant to be investigating both mysteriously disappear, she realises nothing is as it seems.
From fraudulent art auctions in London to a troupe of male strippers in Shanghai, the mystery of the vanishing factory begins to look ever more complicated as the days pass. Can Jaq work out what happened – and whether it has anything to do with her nemesis Frank Good – before time runs out?
Twenty nautical miles from the Crimean coast, Black Sea
Dark clouds raced in from the east, the yacht creaking and sighing as it sped towards land in a desperate attempt to outrun the approaching storm.
Jaq grasped the wheel, the varnished wood smooth and warm under her hands, staying the course, filling the sails, running for shelter. The yacht was a living thing beneath her bare feet, bucking and twisting, stretching and straining, rolling and slewing.
A crimson glow lingered above the hills as the sun dipped below the wine-dark sea. Calm water lay ahead. Chaos and darkness, behind.
The rendezvous had gone smoothly, the ‘cargo’ picked up in the Crimea, delivered at the appointed time and place, twelve nautical miles from shore.
A flash of silver lightning split the sky, illuminating the deck. One . . . and . . . two . . . and . . .
Giovanni worked around her, trimming the spinnaker sheet, keeping the huge sail filled as the boat rolled, wrenching every ounce of speed from the Frankium.
Five . . . and . . . six . . . and . . .
She looked up at the sails, perfectly set like the wings of a massive bird, propelling them over the ocean.
Ten . . . and . . . eleven . . . and . . .
They worked well together, just the two of them. Jaq setting the course, both hands on the wheel, keeping the wind behind them, optimising their speed. Maximising tension, minimising resistance. Constant small adjustments. Watching and listening, sensing, anticipating.
In contrast to Jaq’s pool of stillness at the helm, Giovanni darted from side to side, a lithe dynamo in constant motion. Synchronised motion. Perfectly attuned to each other’s needs. In and out of bed.
His dark curls blew about his face in the wind, eyes glinting in the gleam of the running lights, brown irises merging with dilated black pupils as he adjusted his vision to the gathering darkness. His skin was tanned by sunshine, weather-darkened by a life lived in the open air. He wore a striped T-shirt, the fabric plastered to his broad chest, damp with sweat and sea spray, the long sleeves rolled back to reveal muscled forearms. His blue chinos ended above bare ankles. Rubber soles squeaked as his white plimsolls scooted across the teak planking of the foredeck, his compact, wiry frame twisting and turning, bending and stretching.
They couldn’t carry this much sail if the gusts increased. At her signal, Giovanni clipped his harness to the jackstay and started forward to drop the spinnaker. The symbol on the billowing white nylon – a black box containing the letters Fr, the chemical symbol for the eighty-seventh element in the periodic table – wrinkled and folded as the nylon sail spooled onto the deck. Giovanni bagged the sail and dropped it down the forehatch.
Fifteen . . . and . . . sixteen . . . and . . .
A massive wave lifted the stern and the boat rolled. The wind snuck behind the mainsail and forced it hard against the preventer. It rattled, straining to break free.
Jaq spun the wheel, trying to stop the boat from broaching, but it wasn’t responding.
‘Gybe!’ Jaq bellowed.
Giovanni ducked as the preventer snapped and the boom scythed across the deck, the mainsail rattling like machine gun fire before billowing out on the other side. The boat righted and steadied itself as she brought it back on course. Giovanni waved a fist in mock anger.
That was close. Too close. The boat was answering the helm again but it felt sluggish, no longer smoothly responsive and finely tuned. What had changed?
Giovanni must have sensed something too. ‘Troppo scuro!’ he hollered. ‘Troppo agitato!’ Too dark. Too risky. She mimed her reluctant agreement to reduce sail. He put a reef in the main and rolled in some of the staysail.
Twenty-five . . . and . . . twenty-six . . . and . . .
The yacht pitched and yawed, the waves rolling past the hull as it barrelled downwind. A shudder ran through the craft from prow to stern.
Twenty-eight . . . and . . . twenty-nine . . . and . . .
Thunder cracked and boomed, the roar of an angry sky dragon, threatening from on high.
Twenty-nine and a half seconds. Jaq did the mental calculation. Thunder and lightning happen at the same time, both caused by an electrical discharge from heaven to earth. Or cloud to sea, in this case. The delay in perception is only due to the different speeds at which light and sound travel. Speed of light 299,792,458 metres per second: instantaneous to all intents and purposes. Speed of sound 343 metres per second. Twenty-nine and a half seconds between the light and sound reaching them meant the storm was ten kilometres away and closing. It would hit the boat long before they made land. And hit them hard. With winds approaching 100 km/hr, 50 knots, they had less than six minutes. All around was darkness; only the rasp of sea spray on her skin, the shrieking wind howling across the Black Sea.
Had she been wrong to release the crew? Essential to the rendition, but after capturing The Spider – the criminal mastermind behind a chemical weapons factory – and rescuing his prisoner, double agent Camilla Hatton, Interpol had taken over. Sending the crew away with Interpol had seemed the obvious thing to do. More than obvious – necessary. The crew were mercenaries, soldiers not sailors, the right men for a dirty job. Task complete, Jaq wanted nothing more than to forget the mission, forget the bloodshed and forget her own part in it all.
After the lightning, then the thunder, came the scent, borne on gusts of wind, the familiar metallic smell of ozone, the telltale chemistry of the sky.
And another scent. Testosterone and sandalwood. Giovanni appeared beside her. ‘It’s getting wild.’
Jaq cocked her head and appraised him. ‘Shall I tie you to the mast?’
A shadow passed over his face as he handed her a life jacket. ‘Put this on.’
She pulled it over her head and tightened the buckle. ‘When this storm is over, let’s find a quiet bay somewhere and—’
She stopped as his expression darkened. What did she see there? Something new. Was it fear? No; Gio was in his element out here in the storm. Something had changed between them. Gone was the easy intimacy, replaced by a new reserve.
He put a finger to her lips.
‘I need to check something.’ He turned away and dropped through the hatch.
Jaq stood alone on the deck, fighting the untrammelled forces of nature. No time to think about Gio right now. The yacht was increasingly hard to handle. Even with reduced sail she was struggling to maintain course, to keep the wind in the sails, to stop the boat broaching again.
Giovanni popped his head up from the hatch, his eyebrows meeting in a frown.
‘Water in the cabin,’ he shouted. ‘I’m going down to investigate.’
Lightning split the dark sky, fingers and tongues of silver all around. The shriek of wind in the rigging vied with the crash of the sea against the hull of the yacht. The waves were getting bigger and stronger, foaming salt water sluicing down the deck.
The boat vibrated from the aftershock of another thunderclap. And kept on quivering. Jaq stood still. The juddering beneath her feet felt different. Not the familiar tremors of the craft yielding and rebounding. Something less elastic, something tearing and wrenching. Something below the waterline, dampened by the sea and yet violent enough to be sensed on deck.
A sudden screech, louder than the wind, than the waves, louder than thunder. The boat itself was crying out. Rebelling. Out of control.
The boom heaved across and then back, the yacht pitched and yawed. She was falling, sliding across the sea-drenched deck, halting her slide by grabbing the jackstay. Jaq lay panting, opening her eyes wide to make sense of the dark shape that rose up in front of her.
No time for panic, or for despair – the boat was going over.
Hand over hand, she hauled herself up the tilting deck away from the water.
The boat continued to heel as another massive wave caught her broadside.
Merda! One choice, two options.
Option one was to use the motion of the boat, dive under the starboard rail as the boat turned upside down, use the swell from the capsize to throw herself clear, facing the full fury of the sea.
Option two was to stay where she was. Easier for a rescue vessel to find. Remain in the boat. Allow it to roll over her. Swim to an air pocket, pull herself out of the water into a cave protected from the waves. Hope that it would not sink, rely on the inherent buoyancy, trust in a well-maintained compartmentalised design to ensure that the Frankium remained afloat.
Trust. Could she trust anything connected to Frank Good, the owner of this wretched craft? Given the evidence so far? Was there even a choice?
Jaq took a deep breath. As the deck thundered overhead, she plunged into the water. The shock of immersion gave her new strength. She swam down, kicking wildly, scooping the water in mad, desperate strokes as the wounded boat completed its death roll. As she emerged a huge wave crashed over her. Tumbling and turning, she surfaced, only to be buffeted by a new wave, at the mercy of the angry sea.
Something rose beneath her, erupted from the water and arced through the air. The life raft had launched itself and inflated. By the time she reached it, she no longer possessed the strength to haul herself on board, but she caught a tether and clung to the side.
A flash of lightning lit the upturned hull of the Frankium, bobbing on the waves, a pale sea creature.
No sign of Giovanni. She had to get the raft to the upturned boat and send him a signal.
She started to swim back towards the yacht, towing the raft behind her, but the currents were against her, arms aching as the distance only increased.
How to get out of the water and into the raft? It was no use fighting the waves. Could she use them? She positioned herself between the next wave and the raft, hoping to surf above it. Bad idea. The force of the wave slammed her into the side, knocking her breath away so that she almost lost hold of the rope. Burra! If at first you don’t succeed, try something different.
Many years ago, she had learned how to right a kayak. Johan, then her instructor, now her best friend, had superb upper body strength, but she always beat him in the timed drills. Brains over brawn. Use the buoyancy as your friend; let physics do the work. Time to apply that here. Once her breathing was almost back to normal, she repositioned the raft between her and the next wave, tipping the side towards her until it was almost perpendicular, grabbing the ropes inside. As the wave passed underneath, the raft scooped her up and she collapsed, like a flapping fish, into the bottom of the vessel.
She lay on the rubber floor for a few minutes, gathering what was left of her wits, then scrabbled around for the paddles and a waterproof pouch of survival gear: flares, water, energy bars, first aid kit, compass, rope, a handy-billy block and tackle, knife.
Where were they? She checked the compass. North led back to Crimea, east to Russia, west to Bulgaria, south to Turkey, the direction they had been heading. There was no sign of land – black ocean pitched and heaved in all directions – and no sign of her captain.
The worst of the storm had passed, the intervals between lightning and thunder extending, the intensity decreasing, the wind dropping, the waves subsiding.
She let off a flare. If Giovanni was already in the water, then he’d soon find her. She unwrapped an energy bar and washed it down with a swig of fresh water. Then she wrapped herself in a blanket, took up the oar and paddled towards the upturned boat.
As she drew closer, she could see the rudder and skeg, but where was the keel? The huge underwater fin stuffed with five tonnes of lead had only one job – to keep the boat upright. Nothing remained but a tear in the hull and jagged holes where the keel bolts should be.
‘Giovanni Fantucci!’ she yelled as loud as she could. She brought the life raft alongside the stricken, upturned yacht to where the cabin should be, and struck the side with an oar. Was it her imagination, or was there a faint noise in return? She knocked again, twice this time.
Then listened. Nothing.
She tried again, smashing harder, scanning the water, expecting him to emerge: his flashing white teeth and dark brown eyes. And then came the reply. Three faint taps, three scratches, then the taps again. Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. SOS. Giovanni was under the wrecked boat and needed help.
Heart racing, cold hands fumbling, she threaded the life raft’s painter around the rudder shaft and tied a bowline. She set off another distress flare before diving into the dark water. Her life jacket fought against her, pulling her back. She surfaced and removed it, tossing it back into the life raft before diving again, using her hands to pull herself under the boat, jackknifing under the rail and swimming up through the companionway into the cabin. If she didn’t find air soon, she was not sure she could make it out again. Her lungs were bursting, close to the point of no return. She took a gamble, let go of the rope and kicked upwards.
A hand came down and caught hers, guiding her into an air pocket. She took a breath. Deus. He was alive. She took another breath. And another. Bolas, it was worse than she thought. There was barely enough room for Giovanni, and the water was up to his shoulders. The air, what little of it there was, was stale. No: worse than stale. Oxygen-depleted.
‘Lucia?’ he whispered.
Who was Lucia? No time for that now.
‘It’s Jaq. I’ve got the life raft. Can you swim out with me?’
‘Trapped,’ he gasped. ‘Can’t move.’ He was panting hard.
Merda. Alive, but only just. And her presence was using up his oxygen supply. She felt around his body. One arm was wedged at a strange angle between a loose floorboard and the base of the mast. She tried to yank the fallen board free, but even before he screamed, she knew his arm was trapped and broken.
‘I’m going to get you some air. Then I’m going to get you out of here.’
‘Gio. Don’t leave me. Don’t give up. I need you.’
‘Lucia needs you.’ Whoever she was.
‘Lucia.’ He sighed.
How could she get air to him? There was nothing in the life raft: no oxygen tank, no scuba mask, no tubing. Even the life rings were foam-filled.
Could she open an air hole from the top? The knife would never pierce the hull. She had no drill, no saw, no blowtorch.
A plastic bowl floated past, followed by an empty Tupperware box. Tupperware. Suddenly she knew what to do.
‘Gio!’ she whispered. ‘I’m going to get you out of here.’ Jaq kissed his cold cheek. The stubble rasped against her lips. She took a shallow breath and dived down.
She used the position of the mast to guide her to the locker. She yanked it open and scrabbled around until she found it: the little Tupperware box confiscated from a man who’d tried to kill her. She stuffed the box into the waistband of her shorts. You never knew when a kilo of Semtex might come in handy.
There was only one way to free him. It might kill Giovanni. Deus perdoa-me. But if she did nothing, he would die anyway. Alone in a cold, dark cave, suffocating in his own exhalations. She was out of other options. Better a bang than a whimper.
Jaq was going to blast what remained of the Frankium to smithereens.
And pray that she didn’t kill her lover.
Wow! Will Gio survive? There’s only one way to find out! The Chemical Reaction is currently out in e-book and the hardback will be published 16th April. You can buy/pre order here
Or if you want to support an independent bookshop then check out hive.co.uk
Engineer by day, writer by night.
Fiona was born in Edinburgh, and grew up playing guitar, riding motorbikes and jumping into cold water. After studying Chemical Engineering at University she leaned to weld, cast and machine with apprentices in Paisley. She is now based in Teesside and travels internationally as a professional engineer.
Her debut novel The Chemical Detective, the first in a series, was published in April 2019.