‘Right, I’ll be back — not too late,’ said Kerry, grabbing a bag from the kitchen work surface. ‘Have a nice time,’ said her husband, Paul. ‘What book did you say you were reading?’ ‘Oh, nothing you’d be interested in. It’s a romantic novel: Whispers in the Stream. ‘Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea,’ he agreed. ‘Still, enjoy,’ he said, giving her a quick kiss. As soon as Kerry left the house she texted Shona.
Kerry: Meet you there in 10.
Shona: Just calling for Debs. Got wine.
Kerry: Me too. Does Tamsin know where it is?
Shona: Yes. She’s just texted to say she’s there.
The reading group was the guise for the four ladies who regularly met, drank wine, read books, drank wine, discussed said books, drank wine, and occasionally changed the venue for variety. This evening’s venue was Kerry’s beach hut. Summer evenings were best enjoyed outside but
she and her family rarely used the facilities after long sunny days. This evening was a first for the group. It wouldn’t be dark for at least another two hours. Up until then, they could sit on the revetment and watch the promenaders promming, whilst drinking wine. And discussing books. Discussing books being optional.
Kerry walked along to her hut. Only a couple were open. Some of the newly retired folk liked to soak up the last of the sunset before trekking back to their telly and slippers.
‘Hi,’ said Tamsin. She was standing on the beach looking out to sea.
‘Didn’t see you there,’ said Kerry.
‘Do they do fishing round here?’ said Tamsin. ‘I think I’ve just seen a small fishing boat out there.’
‘I suppose they must. I haven’t really noticed. There are always boats around during the day,’ said Kerry. ‘Small ones, I think. Not big trawlers.’
Shona and Debs joined them just as the other two were getting some deckchairs out of the hut.
‘Do you think it’ll get cold?’ said Debs.
‘I think we’ll be alright, but if it turns a bit chilly, we can just about squeeze inside. There’s a bench at the back,’ said Kerry.
‘And wine,’ added Shona helpfully. They all laughed.
‘Down to business then, girls,’ said Kerry.
They all got their books out and did what they usually did. They shared how much they had read, which wasn’t usually much, never gave any spoilers and talked about a couple of the characters. After five minutes of that, Debs took the plastic cups from her bag and distributed them around.
‘I’ve got crackers and dips,’ said Tamsin.
‘I think I’ve got some crisps, unless someone hijacked my bag earlier,’ said Kerry.
A few cups of wine later and enough party food to make even Kerry feel a bit sick, they noticed the evening strollers had now completely disappeared. It was well beyond dusk.
‘Maybe we ought to think about getting back soon?’ said Tamsin.
‘If you’re worried about walking, we’ll all go en masse,’ said Kerry.
‘That’s not going to work, is it? One of us will be on our own at the end,’ said Shona.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll get Paul to come and collect me,’ said Kerry, although, even as she was saying that, she didn’t know how she would explain having a boozy evening in the beach hut with her friends when she was supposed to be at ‘the reading group’. As it was, there was no further time to think as a figure hurtled past the hut.
‘What the...?’ said Kerry. All four of them stood up, clattering the deckchairs and nearly knocking them over in the process. Another figure was fast approaching and made an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the melee of deckchairs. Something seemed to fall down onto the sands below. A man in a balaclava looked round at the confused and horrified women, picked himself up, stumbling away after the first figure.
‘You’re right. We’d better move!’ she said, starting to bundle the deckchairs back into the hut and packing up the remains of the impromptu picnic.
‘What’s that noise?’ said Shona.
‘Sounds like a motorbike,’ said Debs.
‘Can’t be. You’re not allowed to drive down this bit,’ said Kerry.
‘She’s right. It does sound like a motorbike,’ said Tamsin, ‘and it’s close.’
‘Helicopter!’ shouted Debs. ‘I can just see it — over the sea — there — to the left.’’ ‘Oooh, it is,’ said Tamsin.
They all looked up. There was a searchlight pointed over the sea.
‘Wonder what they’re looking for,’ said Debs.
‘Perhaps someone’s in the water,’ suggested Tamsin.
‘Perhaps they’re smugglers!’ said Debs, given to exaggeration.
‘Not round here. They haven’t done that in over two hundred years down this stretch of the coast!’ said Kerry. ‘Mind you, this used to be a smugglers’ haunt down here. Have you heard the tale of The Scarlet Mermaid and how it got lured into the bay and—.’
‘Ooh, look, the searchlight’s coming round to us!’ said Shona.
Kerry hurriedly locked up the beach hut and they hurried along to the footpath leading up to the cliff.
‘Come on, you lot, we don’t want to get involved in all that!’ said Tamsin. They got a little way up the cliff path and turned round. The searchlight was now picking up a small fishing boat. It seemed to be closer to the water’s edge.
‘Wasn’t that the one we saw?’ said Kerry.
‘I think so. It’s the same shape. Had that thing at the front,’ said Tamsin.
‘I think that light is going to shine on us any minute!’ said Debs.
They struggled along the cliff path, almost falling over each other, not assisted by the copious amounts of wine consumed earlier.
‘I’d better text Paul,’ said Kerry, ‘ask him to come and collect us.’
‘You sure?’ said Tamsin.
‘Er, maybe not. This is going to be a difficult one to explain.’ Kerry was still trying to come up with some sort of excuse or reason for her slurred speech and ruddy cheeks.
‘I suggest we get to the top and do what we said, all walk each other home,’ said Shona. ‘Good plan,’ said Debs.
The helicopter continued to hover over the sea but the noise dwindled as they managed to get more inland, finally reaching Tamsin’s house.
‘Great, we’ll have to do this again, sometime!’ she said laughing.
‘I wonder what all that was about. Don’t forget, next month it’s at mine,’ said Debs. They delivered Debs and ended up at Shona’s house.
‘Shall I call him?’ said Shona tentatively, ‘or I could get Mike to take you back?’ ‘No, it’s okay. I’ll call him now.’
Paul was quite terse on the phone. Football had been on in the evening and it was clear that he had been interrupted. He arrived in not the best of humours.
‘You’re very late. I was worried about you,’ he said.
‘Oh, sorry. You should have texted.’
‘I did.’ Kerry fiddled in her bag to find her phone. She hadn’t seen any messages earlier when she spoke to him. Suddenly a succession of three texts in a row came through.
‘Oh, forgot. Sorry. I didn’t have reception,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders. Paul looked puzzled. How could she not have reception if she was at Shona’s all evening? He started to look as though he was going to ask a question but Kerry quickly asked,
‘Anyway, can we get home now? I’m really tired.’
‘Yes, of course, dear. Did you enjoy yourself anyway?’
‘Yes. You know, the usual, with that crowd, just looked through our book and..., you know.’ ‘You missed all the excitement then?’ he said with a broad grin.
‘What’s that then?’ she said.
‘Just our little town of Somersworth-on-Sea is all over the national news. A big drug-smuggling operation has been intercepted by the local police. You never would believe that, would you? Had the police helicopter out and everything. Pictures on the news — our little town — our little beach hut, well, I think I could see it in the shadows.’
‘No, I wouldn’t believe that,’ said Kerry. She looked at Paul’s face to see if he seemed to be hiding anything.
‘Funny thing though,’ he continued.
‘What’s that?’ she said.
‘The police have put a request out for people to help with their enquiries. There were some witnesses on the prom they want to interview. In fact, it was down to them that the police caught up with the drug runners. Two criminals dropped some of their stash because one of them tripped over. Slowed them down.’
‘Oh,’ said Kerry. ‘I wonder if they have any idea who they might be,’ she added, still trying to read Paul’s expression.
‘Must be locals, wouldn’t you think?’ said Paul, raising an eyebrow.
Kerry’s ruddy face was getting ruddier.
‘Might not be,’ she said. For good measure, she added, ‘and a police helicopter always interferes with my cell reception.’