The Shell – An African Adventure, by Tony Riches
Mombasa beach: The dream holiday of a lifetime turns into a nightmare for a young couple. Brutally attacked and kidnapped, she has to battle for survival in one of the remotest and most dangerous areas of north east Kenya. He has to find and rescue her – before it is too late. Palm trees line an idyllic beach of white coral sand. An Arabian dhow sails on the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Two lovers are ruthlessly torn apart, perhaps forever. Lucy is bound and helpless, taken far from the safety of the world she knows. Unconscious and bleeding, nothing has prepared Steve for what he needs to do.
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The storm that ravaged the coast had completely passed. A stranded boat and a few damaged palm trees were the only sign it had ever happened. They had come to the beach to see the boat, lying wrecked on its side, several hundred yards from where it had been moored.
A hermit crab dragged the heavy conical shell it had borrowed across the white sand, leaving a meandering trail to mark its progress. Steve picked it up to show to Lucy.
She looked at it and smiled. ‘It needs a bigger shell, there’s no room for its claws.’
The little crab waved a pinkish orange claw in the air defensively. Lucy handed it carefully back to Steve and he placed it back on the sand. They watched as it continued stubbornly on its path.
The sea looked so calm and inviting it was difficult to believe that it was the same ocean they had watched smashing onto the beach last night. Lucy kicked off her sandals and stepped into the water. It was warm and crystal clear, gently lapping round her toes.
‘This is how I always imagined Mombasa.’
‘I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had meant to read up more about it on the Internet but never got round to it.’
‘I checked the hotel website but they didn’t say anything about tropical storms.’
Lucy slipped her hand into his as they walked and pulled him close to her. She felt happier now they had decided to start a family.
‘We must ring Dad to let him know we’re O.K.’
Steve nodded. ‘He does worry about you.’
She looked out across the deep blue of the Indian Ocean to the white breakers on the distant reef, absent mindedly brushing her blonde hair out of her eyes. Nothing seemed to worry Steve. He was a risk taker. Even when they broke down on a dusty, potholed road in the middle of the African bush and their driver started making frantic calls for assistance on an ancient mobile phone. He made her feel safe.
That was a big part of what had attracted her to him, as well as his rugged good looks and their shared sense of humour. He was the first man other than her father who really cared about her. She liked his dark hair, cut shorter for the holiday and the way his stubble shadow meant he always looked like he needed a shave.
They walked on in silence on the warm white sand. Lucy felt she should defend her father.
‘Dad paid for everything before I had my first teaching job. I took it for granted at the time. And he’s accepted you!’
‘I had to marry you first!’
Lucy kissed him. ‘No regrets?’
‘You like him really?’
Steve pretended to consider. ‘He would make a really good grandfather.’
Steve’s words hung in the humid air for a moment, they still hadn’t really talked about what starting a family would mean.
Lucy smiled. ‘I think he will.’
They reached the boat. A tangle of ropes lay next to it and there were a few bottles and bits of broken fishing equipment strewn around. Steve could see that the wooden hull had taken quite a hammering. Parts of the planking were broken and some had come loose.
Lucy stood looking at it. ‘This is someone’s life. I doubt they would have any insurance?’
Steve shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t think so. People here seem quite resourceful. I bet we’ll see it back on the water before we leave.’
They walked around the boat and could see the beach north of the hotel. Lucy recognised the leaning palm tree, bent over towards the sand, where Steve had taken her photo on their first night in Mombasa. It was only three days ago but seemed much longer. The rocky headland, jutting out into the sand, was as far as they had walked that night but she could make out the beach continuing on the other side.
Lucy walked towards it and spun round on the sand to call to Steve. ‘Want to explore? It looks like it’s going to be another nice day.’
Steve followed her and climbed up on the rocks. ‘It’s a great beach. No seaweed.’
Lucy smiled. ‘The man we saw with the rake when we were kayaking must have been here before us.’
He reached out to pull her up and she climbed next to him. The pristine white beach went on for as far as she could see, in a long slow curve until it disappeared into the early morning haze. A line of tall palm trees fringed the sand. It was completely deserted.
Steve helped her down the other side. He picked up Lucy’s abandoned sandals and looked back towards the hotel. He was surprised at how far they had already walked. The boat was out of sight and the rocky headland hid the hotel from view.
Lucy pointed to a dark spot the horizon. ‘It’s a dhow. I had a dream about one of those the other night. It was in a storm though, not like today.’
They stood and watched its steady progress, the sail bent over.
Lucy pointed to the dhow. ‘‘There must be more wind at sea. There’s hardly any breeze here today.’
‘I think it’s coming closer.’
Lucy pulled her camera from her pocket. ‘Good. I was hoping to get some pictures of one before we left.’ She held up the camera but the dhow was still too far off.
‘Let’s keep on walking to where it’s headed’
Steve took her hand again and they carried on along the beach, Lucy glancing out to the ocean to see if the dhow was any closer.
She bent and picked up a shell from the sand and showed it to Steve. It was a type of scallop shell, bleached even whiter than the sand, the inside perfectly smooth. He handed it back to her and she slipped it into the pocket of her shorts. It was her special souvenir of a wonderful morning in Mombasa.
Steve checked his watch, a habit he was finding hard to break, after so many years in a job when time was money and he was responsible for deadlines being met. Lucy tried to persuade him to leave it at the hotel but he liked the feel of it on his wrist.
He was about to suggest they should turn back when Lucy pointed. ‘It’s coming in.’
Steve could see the dhow had changed its slow but steady course and was going to pull up on the beach a little way ahead of them. It looked a bigger boat than they had seen before, built for long voyages on the open ocean. As it came closer he could see the dark silhouettes of two men, one at the helm and the other bracing the huge triangular sail.
‘Do you think they will mind me taking their picture?’ Lucy remembered the safari guide had warned them about the Maasai not liking tourists taking photos, although they’d seemed happy enough when Steve gave them a five hundred shilling note though.
‘We can ask if they come close enough.’
Lucy looked at the dhow using the viewing screen on her camera. ‘That scene hasn’t changed for centuries!’ It was still too far out to sea but she used the zoom.
They watched the dhow come closer to the beach. It was a sturdily built boat with a long bowsprit and a single curved mast that towered into the clear blue sky. The coffee coloured lateen sail was an impressive piece of engineering, perfectly evolved for the conditions and easily handled in a stiff breeze. The man at the helm had brought the boat round so that it was skimming effortlessly through the water, as fast as any modern sailing racer.
Lucy was standing at the water’s edge taking pictures while Steve carried her sandals and watched it approach. Everything happened very quickly. The dhow beached and both men leapt out. Steve realised they were in real danger. One of the men was carrying a rifle. He rushed at Steve and smashed him hard in the head with the butt. He heard Lucy scream his name as he passed out.
Lucy fought for her life. She fought for Steve, although she didn’t know if he was alive or dead. The men were too strong. One bent her arms hard behind her back while the other placed his rifle back in the dhow and returned with a length of rope. As he bent to tie her legs she kicked him in the face as hard as she could. There was a satisfying thump as she split his lip and he fell over backwards onto the sand. She knew if she’d been wearing shoes, even sandals, it would have really hurt, but she was barefooted so he easily took the blow and slapped her hard across the face with his hand. Her head spun.
The two men were arguing in a language she couldn’t understand. The one with the rope scowled at her, putting his hand to his bleeding mouth. He said something threatening to her and took the rope, expertly tying her legs together. He pulled the end of the rope round her back and bound her wrists so tightly she could hardly move. The man who was holding her dropped her on the sand. Quickly searching through Steve’s pockets, they gave him one final kick before carrying her to the dhow.
As they threw her on board her head struck the rough wooden planking, opening up a cut that started bleeding down her face. The men shoved the heavy boat back into the waves and leapt aboard, hoisting the brown canvas sail and catching the light breeze. The boat turned to windward and they swiftly headed back out to sea.
Lucy realised the whole attack had probably taken less than five minutes. Five minutes that had turned one of the happiest days she could ever remember into a living hell. She lay in the bottom of the dhow, her mind racing with the surge of adrenalin from the attack. The sides of the boat were fairly low and she could glimpse the sea as it dipped between waves. Lucy tested the rope binding her wrists but the men had made sure if she tried to escape overboard she would drown, as she could hardly move her arms or legs.
One of the men noticed the cut on her head and shouted at the other. She didn’t need to understand the language to know he was angry. The other man yelled back but his tone sounded defensive, apologetic. Lucy decided she had to store every scrap of knowledge about the men in the hope that something would be of use. She knew the man’s anger was significant but she still felt dizzy and couldn’t work out how.
She could only see the angry man from where she lay but studied him carefully. He looked different from most of the Kenyans she had met. Tall and wiry, he was bare chested, with bare feet, wearing a pair of faded army combat style camouflage trousers with a bright metal buckle on the belt that flashed in the sun. He was also wearing an expensive digital watch that looked out of place on the ancient dhow. It was Steve’s watch.
The angry man glanced down at her. His eyes had a dark and humourless intelligence. She had felt his strength as she struggled to break free from his grip. He had not hurt her though. He had just held her firmly, confident in his power over her. She watched him scanning the horizon. He was keeping a lookout for something. She thought there had been no witnesses to the attack, but perhaps someone had seen them. A flicker of hope. Perhaps they were raising the alarm and at any moment the man would shout that they were being chased by her rescuers. Lucy realised she had been disorientated. He was of course not looking behind but ahead of them. The flicker of hope vanished as quickly as it had come.
The angry man made fine adjustments to a rope that changed the shape of the huge brown canvas sail. He sat on the deck and began searching through something. It looked familiar to Lucy but strangely out of context. She realised it was Steve’s wallet. The man pulled out each item and examined it for a moment then put it back carefully. He looked pleased to see Steve’s bank debit card. She watched as he studied the picture on Steve’s driving licence and a photo of Lucy wearing her favourite summer dress. Steve loved that picture and always carried it with him. He would miss it more than anything else in his wallet. The man pulled out a wad of thousand Kenyan shilling notes and counted them, then found the blue plastic key card with the name of their hotel and room number in gold lettering. He looked across at Lucy and saw her watching him.
Tony Riches is a UK historical fiction author living in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can find out more on Tony’s blog ‘The Writing Desk’ at www.tonyriches.co.uk and find him on Twitter @tonyriches. The Shell is available in eBook and paperback on Amazon and there is a short video trailer for the book on YouTube