Prologue

Her name was Nicola. It was her debut at London Fashion Week. She had just finished her show, and she was still buzzing from the experience. And if he gave her another of those glasses of Moët, she wouldn’t come down to earth at all, but what did that matter, this was the greatest night of her life, and the best party she had been to during the whole week.

Nicola had to shout to tell him all this, such was the noise of the party, which was in a cavernous wine bar on the Embankment formed out of several railway arches.

“Tell me your name again – I didn’t catch it?” shouted Nicola.

 “Dah - veed,” said the smooth tall foreigner, at least that was how it sounded to Nicola.

“Is that Italian?”

“No, Russian.” He spelled it for her.

“Oh, David! Why didn’t you say so!” Half of her felt like she was still on the catwalk. We looked good, and we knew it, she thought. For this party, she’d been able to borrow her favourite outfit from the collection. That wasn’t really allowed, but Marcel had waved his hand to say ‘OK’, and she had skipped backstage to change into the black silk-crêpe wrap dress cut high on the neck with the single button on one hip.

A burly man elbowed his way through the throng towards them. He was definitely a Brit, and not a fashionista either. He wore his suit as if it was a uniform, and big nerdy dark glasses, and he had no drink.

David glanced up at the newcomer, nodded once and carried on. “So is your work at London Fashion Week done, Nicola? Can you relax and enjoy life now? If you have a day off, I could get you into the B-Rude show tomorrow. As my guest.”

He reached into his jacket and produced two long glittery tickets with curly edges, each with a golden star stuck on one side. “Front row. And the party after.”

Nicola felt her eyes widen in surprise. She had only just met this guy, and already he had invited her out! And to the B-Rude premiere, of all things – the highlight of the week, which all the girls were talking about!

The big guy was still standing around. Was he a friend of David’s? Nicola wished he would bug off.

As if sensing her thoughts, David said, “How rude of me. This is my driver George. He’ll take us home when we’re ready. That’s if you’d like to see my place, of course.”

This was all happening too fast. And Nicola suddenly felt tipsy. “I don’t know ... Mum is waiting for me,” she said. “In Hendon.”

 “In Hendon. North London. Why, my place is on the way! Gorgeous Nicola, give Mum a call, say you are going for a post-party drink with a friend. My housekeeper will run us up a burger, or a pizza, or some blinis or anything. You can have a swim, watch a movie. No pressure. No – how do you say it – ‘fancy stuff’? Then George will drive you home to Mum in Hendon. With your ticket to B-Rude clutched in your very elegant fist.”

Have a swim? What sort of place did this man have? It was all very tempting. Nicola had suddenly had enough of the party. She didn’t want another drink, at least not here. The noise was deafening and getting worse by the minute. And on top of the shouted conversations that bounced off the brick cellar walls, a DJ had now started up in the next room. You couldn’t talk. And it would certainly be nice to get to know David a little better, somewhere quiet. Presumably the driver guy would be around. And David seemed a real gentleman. Not like the English boys.

She glanced at her watch. She could easily be home by midnight, which her Mum still insisted on, what with her being still a teenager and rather new to the world of glamour. She would need to find the Ladies’ room and tape herself up a bit more. With no bra, she was relying on sticky tape, the model’s secret weapon, but it did tend to let her down in hot places.

“OK! David, give me your address please, so I can tell Mum.”

David leaned forward and spoke in her ear. He gave an address in Hamilton Terrace, St John’s Wood. Nicola knew that was a posh part of town. She hurried to the Ladies’. She actually had to push her way in, like getting on to a rush hour Tube, there were so many girls inside.

It was even louder inside the cloakroom than in the main party rooms. She saw her friend Rachel applying some fresh lipstick and told her where she was going. Rachel told her to be careful. Nicola said she would. Then she checked her own makeup, and that she wasn’t going to come out of her dress. Then she phoned her mother, gave her David’s address and said she would be home by midnight.

It was quite chilly outside, but that was a relief after the heat and noise of the party. Over his arm, David carried a charcoal cashmere overcoat with fur detail on the collar. He placed this gently around Nicola’s shoulders. It was like the Oscars. She almost swooned with the glamour of it all, and looked around to see if anyone she knew was noticing.

Then a big black Mercedes appeared, with beefy George at the wheel.

It was suddenly and almost totally quiet inside the luxury car. Nicola’s ears rang slightly from the party. They cruised smoothly over Vauxhall Bridge to Victoria and then up Park Lane. Nicola settled back on the squishy leather seat and closed her eyes for a moment in bliss.

David made no attempt to touch her up. She wasn’t sure if she was pleased about that or not. She had loved the brush of his lips on her ear.

What she did know for certain was that she was enjoying the ride so much she was almost sorry when the car slowed.

They drew up outside a large white-painted mansion block. A black iron gate slid aside and they turned into the driveway, and went down into an underground parking area.

“Nice,” said Nicola. “Which floor are you on?”

David turned his head. He had a kind, pale face, and it was smiling with amusement. “Not an apartment. This is our home.”

“What, the whole thing?” Nicola felt her mouth drop open. “All this is yours?”

“It’s the family’s London base. You’ll like it.”

“Bloody hell.” Nicola couldn’t help it. This was a seriously rich man she had snagged. Could she handle it?

David laughed and now he did briefly touch her cheek once more. Then he leaned forward and said softly to the driver George, “Why were the security lights out on the gates and entrance?”

George killed the engine, turned and replied, “I don’t know, Sir. I’ll go and check the breakers now and get Raoul in immediately if there’s any fault.”

David grunted. He got out without waiting for George to open the door and then he helped Nicola out. He scooped up the hem of the coat so it didn’t touch the ground.

From the garage there was a lift! And not like you normally got in an underground car park. This one had a little corner table in it, for heaven’s sake, with a crystal bowl of early spring flowers. And the back wall was all mirror. Nicola quickly checked herself out.

The driver did not come up with them. He went off some other way, presumably to fix the lights. Nicola clutched her bag with both hands. David smiled reassuringly.

The lift doors hissed open and they stepped straight into a huge living room. The lights were on. There were lots of flowers everywhere in vases and bowls. It was more like a hotel than a home. Everything was white leather or antique. Nicola counted four huge sofas. And there was a big picture window with no curtains across it. She stepped over and took in the panorama of London by night.

“Pretty, no?” said David. “Now what would you like to eat and drink?”

Nicola wanted a burger but she said, “A bagel or a blini would be great. And another glass of champagne would be nice.”

There was a bar just like in a hotel, with a high counter and stools. David went to a glass-fronted cooler and took out a bottle of expensive-looking bubbly. He popped the cork and poured for both of them.

Budem zdorovy - Let's stay healthy,” he said, and raised his glass.

“Cheers,” she said.

He picked up a telephone from the bar and pressed a button. A light winked on the receiver and Nicola heard the warble of the ring tone.

No one answered, however. A look of obvious annoyance crossed David’s face. He said, “Excuse me, I will go find Ursula my housekeeper. I’ll be back in a small minute. Turn on the TV if you like, and let’s watch the coverage of Fashion Week on FTV. It’s in the cinema room over there.” He marched off, pulled open a big door padded with quilted red leather, and was gone.

Nicola slithered off her bar stool. She crossed to the glass coffee table that formed the centrepiece for one of the sofa arrangements. There were magazines: an American Vogue, and a Time, and one with an oil tanker on the cover. She sat on the edge of a sofa and sipped her champagne.

Minutes went by. Perhaps David was making the snacks himself. She got up, went across to the TV room, opened the padded door and went in.

It was indeed a cinema, with the most enormous leather chairs with footrests like you got in Business Class on the plane. She found a remote on a little antique side table. It was a chunky thing in polished steel with an LCD screen and a little knurled wheel. She pressed the ON button. ‘Function?’ asked the screen. She selected TV. She jumped as the sound came on together with a picture from an unseen projector. The picture filled the wall. It must have been fifteen feet across. She found FTV and yes, there was coverage of Fashion Week. Nicola slid into one of the big chairs.

The ads came on. And then they were back with the coverage and the presenter announced – her show! And immediately there it was, with the Arctic Monkeys belting out I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.

She reached in her bag for her phone and thumbed a text to her Mum, ‘FTV NOW CHANNEL 261 WATCH ME.’

But it was only going to be a clip. Keep going! Don’t stop! There was Rachel. Nicola was next! She held her breath. Don’t cut away, show me, she whispered to herself.

Pretty please.

Rachel did her twirls on screen. And there was Nicola!

Where was David? He was missing her big moment! She gawped at her image on the huge screen. The camera was supposed to add five pounds but it was OK, she didn’t look fat. But her boobs seemed a bit OTT, especially from the side. Were they really that big?

The door behind her opened. She hadn’t heard anything, but she could tell because a little light spilled into the room. She half-twisted in her seat but she couldn’t take her eyes off the images of herself on the screen. “It’s me!” she squealed with excitement. “Look! In this actual dress!”

The next thing she knew, a gentle hand was on her hair.

But something was wrong.

Nicola had no time to register what happened next. An arm slid around her neck and then she felt a sudden sharp pain as if a bee had stung her. No – worse than that. Then for some reason there was a red mist squirting into the projector beam like a freaky perfume spray. A red haze partially obscured her image on the giant screen. She tried to speak but nothing came out. She tried to breathe in but tasted blood. Her neck felt wet and warm. She dropped her champagne and the glass exploded on the floor. And then a wave of excruciating pain arrived.

Must breathe.

Nicola’s vision blurred. In the few seconds of life that remained to her, before she fell forward into the gap between her chair and the one in front of her, she didn’t even realise that her throat had been cut.

Chapter 1

“Goodbye, Sir,” said the sole flight attendant on the little island hopper aircraft.

Toby Robinson flashed his trademark smile and said, “Thank you – I enjoyed the ride!”

The flight attendant tilted her head and looked down her long eyelashes. “You have a nice day now.”

Toby clattered down the steps. The Caribbean sun reflected heat off the concrete. He had fallen in love with the stewardess during the very short hop from Antilla. She had café-au-lait skin and a sassy attitude. His flirting had got him precisely nothing except three extra packets of pretzels, but it had helped make the flight enjoyable.

“Welcome to St Helen’s, the Great Small Island,” announced a large but rather homemade sign above the terminal building ahead of him. Toby swung his backpack on to one shoulder and fished his shades out of his shirt breast pocket.

He was going to make a success of this job, and enjoy it too. No more flaky Toby, running out of cash, getting fired from menial jobs, bumming around Europe or Asia. Apart from anything else, his parents would not fund any more drifting and had said so. “You’re twenty-two now Toby, you didn’t finish Uni, you can’t get through life on looks and charm alone ...” And so on and so forth.

“Reason for visit?” demanded the Immigration Officer inside the terminal. The man sat in full police uniform on a folding chair too small for him in front of a square wooden table.

“Joining a yacht as crew,” Toby said. He tried not to sound too cocky. “The Amelia V.”

The Immigration officer looked up sharply. “That the Russian man ship?”

“Yes, Mr Krigov is the owner. But he’s not technically Russian. His ship flies a Russian flag, but he is Tsazakhstani.”

“Where?”

Toby puffed out his chest, delighted to be able to share his new geographical knowledge, culled entirely from Wikipedia. “Tsazakhstan is a landlocked independent republic in Eurasia, bordering Afghanistan and Kazakhstan among others, newly wealthy thanks to its reserves of—”

“A’right, man, I get it. They all Russkies once. Was easier for us that way.”

“Mr Krigov has owned several mega yachts. Amelia I was his first, then—”

“T’ank you, Suh, I does know de fella. They say he like to collect countries and prime ministers too, from what I hear.” The man rocked a rubber stamp from side to side on a red ink pad, raised his hand high and brought the stamp down with a thump on to Toby’s passport. “Take care how you go around the town now.”

Was this some sort of warning? Toby decided to say nothing further. Maybe there was some tension between the islanders and the big yachts that floated in and out of their harbours. Perhaps he wasn’t going to be swaggering around town in his Amelia V uniform gathering admiring glances, as he had imagined. That would be a bummer. He had counted on the uniform to help him pull.

He found a taxi, asked for the marina and politely deflected the driver’s enquiries to avoid any further local disapproval.

He pulled out his new phone. It was a brand-new smart phone, a Christmas present from his parents only a few days old. It was already his pride and joy. It had a cool touch screen, multi-tasking apps, GPS – the works. The only thing it was short of was credit. It had come with £25 loaded but Toby had spent much of that on Christmas Day morning on apps, ringtones and calls.

He had written his new number on a scrap of paper and taped it to the back of the phone. Toby found it hard to memorise numbers. And many other things, if he was honest with himself, except pub trivia. For some reason he was good at that. Totally useless facts seemed to crowd more useful information out of Toby’s mind. But he was good at mixing cocktails. Those he could remember.

While he was admiring his phone he remembered with a jolt that he had promised to phone his mother on arrival. Better do it. He scrolled through his contacts and dialled his home number. It connected right away and he heard the reassuring burr-burr of the British double ring tone.

“Hello?”

“It’s me, Mum!”

“Toby darling! Are you at the ship?”

“Nearly there. Flight was great. I’ll be on board soon. Just checking in as per instructions.”

His mother’s voice echoed slightly on the line. “Toby, remember what we said. Make this job work out. We don’t want you back home with your tail between your legs again. Keep your wits about you. Forget about the girls for a bit. Try and make a good impression. And stick at it. Not just the first day.”

Toby held the phone away from his ear until his mother’s voice stopped. “You don’t need to keep saying it, Mum. I’m cool. I know exactly what I’m doing and my career is on course. I’ll have stripes on my shoulders within weeks. So stop worrying, right? And thanks again for the phone – it’s just the best. But I’m not supposed to use it on the ship, do don’t be surprised if I don’t call, and don’t try to call me. I don’t even know if phones work at sea. I’ve got to go, Mum – credit low.”

He was almost at his destination anyway.

The taxi slowed and turned off the main road and drew to a halt. He got out, paid and turned to walk up to the marina security hut.

“Don’ you want you backpack?” called the driver.

“Oh, gosh, wow, yes, thanks.” Toby turned back, opened the rear door and retrieved his rucksack. Almost a Toby cock-up and he hadn’t even arrived. Keep your wits about you! His mother’s words seemed to echo in his head.

He approached the security hut, where a guard slept soundly, his head lolling forward on his chest. On a shelf beside him, a small radio blared a tinny Reggae beat.

“Don’ mind him – come on in, brother!”

The voice came from a young local man about Toby’s age, who wore a garish knitted Rasta cap and was pushing a trolley containing bits of scrap plumbing and half-used reels of electrical wire along the main jetty.

Toby sauntered through the gates.

The marina was large but somewhat tired-looking. He walked past a row of little boutiques selling souvenirs, books and swimsuits. Some of the windows had been decorated with spray-on snow and garish plastic Santas. He passed by a group of local men who sat in a shady corner on upended concrete blocks, playing dominoes on a piece of plywood balanced between them. They looked up and nodded at Toby as he passed. Everyone was friendly enough so far, apart from the officious Immigration officer.

There was no need to ask directions to the Amelia V. It was hard to miss 160 feet of luxury private mega yacht. There she was, alongside the pier nearest the harbour mouth. Toby felt his heart rate pick up with excitement. Were they really going to let him walk up the gangway and join this high-speed floating hotel? It was almost as big as a cruise liner. Then his mouth went suddenly dry. Would he be able to handle this? Was six weeks’ training really all it took to get you aboard and working on a vessel worth so many millions of dollars or pounds or roubles?

As he approached the yacht he realised that it – no, get it right, Toby, she – was even bigger than she had seemed at a distance. While he was still some way away, the low afternoon sun disappeared behind some large piece of superstructure carrying satellite comms and spinning radar transmitters, and he was in shade. The ship rose above him. How many decks were there? Three or four? He couldn’t remember. How much else had he forgotten? They had spent a lot of time on COLREGS – the international maritime collision avoidance regulations. But surely as a junior steward and deckhand he wouldn’t actually be tested on this knowledge – or need to put it into practice? For a moment he couldn’t even remember whether the port side was left or right and what its colour code was, and his heart seemed to skip a beat. Then the mnemonic came back to him: ‘There’s no red port left.’

Steady as you go, Toby lad. You’ll be fine.

He walked past a big opening in the hull of the ship just above sea level. A huge hatch like you got at the back end of a cargo plane was open, and a ramp led from the dock up to the inside. Toby walked halfway up and peered in. He saw a pair of cool Yamaha jet skis in iridescent colours. Next to them were two identical rigid inflatable boats in pure white, with matching white leather seats and white steering wheels. The yacht’s tenders. Just behind was a Hobie Cat sailing catamaran, lashed down with wide webbing straps. Wet suits hung limply on a rail like black animal pelts, and diving tanks lined the wall to one side, next to a submarine-style door with a wheel labelled Emergency Exit.

This was where the water toys lived. It was all too exciting. Toby felt a thrill of anticipation. With any luck, he would be out and about in these craft before long, showing the guests how to do it, maybe even doing some SCUBA diving.

He retreated back to the pontoon and carried on towards the ship’s gangway, which sported varnished handrails and stainless steel railings. Toby remembered his instructor Jock’s warning. “This business isn’t about lying back with a drink in the sun, young man. The owner and his guests do that. You just scrub decks, varnish wood and polish stainless steel. Scrub, varnish, polish, scrub, varnish, polish, day after day. That’s the deckhand’s lot. And the guests won’t even see you. They’ll look right through you like you don’t exist, even a pretty thing like you.”

Toby hesitated at the bottom of the steps. He looked up and around. He saw a cleaning cradle suspended way up. Bet I’ll be in that before long, he thought.

There was no sign of any life. Should he just go up? They were expecting him, surely? He tried to remember the crew etiquette lecture.

“Don’t just stand there, come up, you silly bastard!”

The voice issued from a loudspeaker mounted on a post at the end of the gangway. Toby looked around again, but still no one was visible. He stood up straight, gripped the handrail and stepped up.

In a moment he was inside a sort of receiving area inside the hull of the yacht. More varnish, more stainless steel. There was red spongy carpet beneath his feet with a repeating pattern in gold, and in front of him was a lift, or elevator as they called it out here. The doors chimed and parted. Toby stepped inside.

This was it. Lift-off for his new career.

The elevator car was air-conditioned and didn’t seem to move. However after a moment the doors opened silently to reveal a brightly lit service area. A shortish, stocky and unsmiling white man in officer’s tropical uniform stood just outside the doors. Before Toby could say a word, the officer said, “Come with me,” in a heavy South African accent, spun on his heel and marched off.

The officer led him to a small office with a desk in gunmetal grey, fluorescent strip lighting and no porthole. “Sit,” he commanded, and shuffled his way behind the desk to sit heavily on a swivelling typist’s chair.

As if Toby didn’t exist, the officer surveyed the desk in front of him. It was covered with papers, some of them in bundles with rubber bands around them. Two filing trays overflowed with more paper. He shuffled some stacks around. He found what he was looking for, a packet of cigarettes, a South American brand as far as Toby could tell. The man took a cigarette and put it between his lips, bent down, opened a drawer with a metallic clang and retrieved a disposable lighter. He lit the cigarette, inhaled and blew smoke pretty much straight at Toby, who sat rigid.

Toby was gasping for a ciggie himself.

“Passport.”

Toby unzipped a pocket on his backpack and handed over his passport.

“Robinson, Toby Charles. Age twenty-two. Height 1.8 metres, which I calculate is a little under six foot. Blond hair, blue eyes. Distinguishing marks? Do they put that on these flimsy Brit passports any more? Seems not.” He looked up at Toby. “Anyway, you clearly have none. Distinguishing marks, that is.” He gave a dramatic sigh. “What were the Captain and the Boss thinking of?” Then, under his breath but clearly audible to Toby, he muttered, “They send me a teenage milk-skinned moffie boy when I need a crew of experienced men.”

Toby didn’t know what a ‘moffie boy’ was but he was sure it was unflattering. He felt the colour rise in his cheeks. “I have a certificate as Deckhand. I’m keen and willing to learn and I’m sure I’ll be a credit to the Amelia V, Sir.”

“Lit me see your peepers from the Sea School.” At least, this is what it sounded like to Toby, who said after a moment, “Sorry, come again?” Perhaps the man had addressed him in Afrikaans as an initiative test.

The man sighed histrionically a second time. “Peepers. P-A-P-E-R-S. Do you not have Ee-nglish as your first language?”

“Oh, papers! Papers. Right you are, yes Sir, OK, not a problem Sir.” He reached into his backpack and handed over a sheaf of reports in a plastic wallet.

The officer leafed through them. “ENG-1 fitness certificate ... Deckhand certificate of incompetence ... STCW-95 seafarer’s basic course ... elementary First Aid ... fire fighting ... personal survival techniques. God knows you’ll need those. Average to poor marks all round. Let’s see what they really thought of you.” He turned to the tutor’s report at the back. “A willing student who found the practical aspects of the course easier than the paperwork and theory. Toby had to work hard to master COLREGS. He is frankly not of academic bent, and this showed in all his written papers. However he more than compensated with his positive attitude and versatility. Toby will make a useful addition to any yacht crew. His people skills make him ideal for work involving guests. He is an accomplished angler and can teach fishing. He is also an excellent swimmer and snorkeller, holds PADI Open Water Diver certificate and is keen to go on to instructor level. Personable, reliable, well-groomed, well-spoken, polite, blah, blah, yada yada.”

“Is it all in order, Sir?” asked Toby brightly.

The officer sighed. “I guess. I still can’t believe they chose you. Do you have a cell phone?”

Toby hesitated.

Best to be honest.

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’ll have it. Give it over.”

Reluctantly, Toby reached into his backpack and handed over the phone.

The officer raised his hand and smashed the smart phone down on the corner of his metal desk. The touch screen shattered and bits of glass sprayed out. The man raised his hand again and smashed down another three times until the casing split. He ripped out the battery. He unclipped the SIM card and flicked it over the desk towards Toby like a tiddlywink. He then tossed the phone and battery into his waste paper bin and swept the bits of glass in after it with a sheet of paper.

Toby sat with his mouth open in horror.

“Didn’t they tell you, no cell phones?”

“Yes, but I assumed it meant you couldn’t use them, not that you couldn’t have one.”

“If they said ‘No guns allowed’, I guess you’d think it was all right to pack a revolver and ammo as long as you didn’t pull it out and shoot the owner?”

“Yes Sir. I mean, No Sir. I understand. I apologise. But really—”

“Shut it. Never assume anything on this vessel except that you’re in the wrong and in the shit, which will be most of the time. You’ve certainly started badly.”

Toby willed himself not to react. This was clearly some sort of initiation, a strutting officer asserting his authority, upset by the promise and eagerness of Toby’s youth, jealous of his good looks, probably a man with a string of failed relationships behind him. Such men often ended up at sea. But his new phone! Trashed within minutes! It had cost hundreds.

Triple mega bummer.

“OK, so you can’t follow simple written instructions. Let’s find out what you can do. If you see two white lights, one directly above the other, and below them a green on the left and a red on the right, what’s happening?”

Hell! COLREGS! Toby grappled with his memory. Two whites … anchor lights? No, not with the red and green. They must be steaming lights. Why two? Oh yes …

“Time’s up and you’ve been run down by the Aurora or some other bloody large thing headed point-blank straight towards you. So I can’t put you on watch even for ten minutes and go take a shit. There must be some use I can put you to.” The officer shuffled through Toby’s papers. “Unimpressive CV. Three months at Sainsbury’s on the meat counter. ‘Work experience’ of two weeks at an insurance company as renewals documentation clerk. Don’t tell me, you got the sack.”

“It wasn’t quite my forte, documentation. But I did OK at the Snooty Goose. And check out my diving record.”

The man scanned down the page. “We won’t need you to SCUBA. Let’s stick to the bar. Can you mix a Screwdriver?”

Toby breathed a sigh of relief. “Highball glass, cubed ice, one shot of vodka, three of orange juice, decorate.”

“Hallelujah. What’s in a Tom Collins?”

“Gin, lemon juice, sugar, club soda, decorate.”

“OK, we’re on a roll. What’s a White Russian?”

“Vodka, Tia Maria, cream, ice.”

“No.”

“But surely … I mean I’ve always made it that way …”

“Son, a White Russian on this ship is not a drink, it’s a miserable 250 pounds of mega yacht owner called Ivan Nikolaevich Krigov who will personally break your finger off if you put a foot wrong when he’s in that frame of mind, because he lost a billion on some oil scam, or because his haemorrhoids are itching, or he didn’t get laid for twenty minutes. Alternatively he will bump you a thousand US tip just for mixing his cocktail nicely. Do you have any idea of what an oligarch” – he pronounced it ‘oily-garch’ – “is like on his own yacht? Think of the Emperor Caligula crossed with Attila the Hun with a hangover. You should study the Roman emperors. I do. The madder the better. It will teach you how to survive this sorry business.”

“I like history. I studied the Cold War for A-level. I got a ‘C’, too. And surely Mr Krigov can’t be that bad.”

“He’s certainly as mad as Mussolini. Robinson, are you sure you can handle this? I’m Scott, by the way. First Officer, Mate, whatever.” He picked up his cigarette and dropped it into a plastic mug half-full of water.

Toby was really itching for a cigarette himself now. However, he felt his pulse slow. He seemed to have passed at least this first test, if only with his knowledge of cocktails, gleaned in regular stints at the posh Snooty Goose hotel where a group of wealthy and heavily Botoxed women would gather for lunch every Monday. “I’m there,” he said.

“You see Robinson, let me lay it out for you. We have just five crew on board at this moment. Not counting you because I can’t count on you. That’s not really enough to go to sea. Even in this thing, which practically flies itself. The Captain and the Chief Engineer are in Miami taking delivery of a new generator because it was quicker to buy a new one and fly it down here than get the parts from Japan to fix the old one. So once we leave the dock we’re running on the No. 2 genny only. If that goes, all I have is the emergency generator to power the boat systems and that won’t run the air conditioning. So far, so bad. But that’s not all. My second steward has appendicitis and is at the mercy of St Helen’s General Hospital. He’ll be there a week, unless they kill him in the meantime, and even if they don’t he won’t be fit for another three weeks. Even so, no problem, Krigov assured me he wouldn’t want the yacht until the end of January, so everyone is cool. Then this very morning he phones in to say get the old tub ready for tonight and the New Year’s holiday. Twelve hours’ notice of arrival! I tell him, Sir, no Captain, no Chief Engineer, no Second Steward, one generator, and he goes, ‘Scotty, don’t give me your problems, I pay you to have my yacht ready at all times to go anywhere.’ And he’s certain to bring girls because his wife is in New York. He’ll drink like a fish and get evil. And he won’t want to sit on the dock. So you see, I need crew, not trainees.”

Toby said, “I’m your man. Anyone who has served behind the bar in a Surrey golf club knows how to deal with that sort of behaviour.”

“Don’t kid yourself. If someone throws a punch landside, they call the cops and by the time they come everything’s quieted down. A yacht like this is detached from civilisation. The owner is the dictator of his own floating country. He can get away with anything and those like our esteemed owner soon realise that. And you can’t quit the job unless Krigov says so.”

“Who do I report to, Sir? I’m ready. I can be respectful under duress and I’m sure I can take care of any guests including any lady guests.”

Scott snorted. “If you want to leave, go now. If you’re ready to ditch your principles and your pride, be treated like a white kaffir boy, on call 24/7, watch all kinds of stuff going on that you don’t understand and don’t want to, all just for a load of tax-free US dollars, a pair of tailored shorts and a polo shirt with an embroidered logo, then stay.”

Toby felt his head start to spin a little. Perhaps he was in over his head here. He didn’t want his finger broken.

Then he thought about the tailored shorts and the polo shirt. And the promise of a thousand-dollar tip. That all sounded cool.

He took a deep breath. “I’m in,” he said. “I’ll prove myself to you on this voyage. Throw it at me and I’ll catch it. I’ve just got one question.”

“Yes?” Scott looked Toby in the eyes. In those slightly watery eyes Toby saw resignation, disillusionment, even pain. He started to feel a bit sorry for poor old Scotty.

He said it anyway. “Why did you destroy my cell phone, Sir?”

Scott sighed again. “You asked who you would report to. The answer of course is the Bosun. Except we don’t have one of those either, because Krigov damn near killed him, not two weeks ago, when he found him on deck at two in the morning texting his wife in New Zealand. He punched him so hard he laid him out and ruptured the man’s spleen. Poor old Davis lay there for at least half an hour until I found him. We got him lifted off and helicoptered over to the Queen Mary II which thank God was steaming down the Anegada Passage with us, and he lived, minus the spleen, of course. Krigov hauled the Captain in the next day and threatened to stop his wages for a month for organising the rescue. Said he should have left the man to die and thrown him overboard. Captain thought he meant it.”

“No kidding,” Toby said.

“There’s no kidding on this vessel when the owner is aboard and not much any other time. So you see, I did you a service by removing that little object of temptation from your sticky fingers. If all goes well, and God knows that’s unlikely, you’ll get enough tips to buy a shed load of new phones. Come on, let’s take you down to Julia who is our Chief Stewardess and will take you off my hands, which will be a merciful release.”

Toby’s mind whirled. He picked up his SIM card from the desk and put it carefully in a pocket of his backpack. He reversed out of the tiny office, waited for Scott and followed him. Scott’s leather-soled shoes rang on the metal deck. Toby’s trainers made no sound. That’s the way to go, he thought – others can make all kinds of noise, I’ll pad around like a cat and keep in the shadows and be invisible until I’ve learned the ropes.

He wondered how much of this wayward briefing had been true, and how much had been improved upon for his benefit. Toby had heard tales of a similar nature from foremen on building sites about tyrant bosses who would tear out your throat for cracking a tile. It had always been a wind-up. However Scott certainly looked and sounded like a man under duress. Maybe he was not quite up to his job, and was panicking because the Captain and Chief Engineer were away?

Whatever, Toby thought. I’m going to be polishing stainless steel and serving cocktails. I can do those things. But forewarned is forearmed – I’ll keep my head down and speak only when addressed. And Krigov will know I’m a British subject with a well-off family and a First World legal system behind me. He won’t pick a serious fight with me.

And if he does, I’m out of here!

His sense of unease lifted a little when Scott introduced him to the Chief Stewardess, Julia Simons. They’d found her counting silverware in a storeroom near the galley. She looked a good few years older than Toby. With her small but curvy physique, blonde hair tied back and minimal makeup she exuded an air of quiet control. The way she moved and the way she spoke – with a faint American accent, or maybe Canadian – suggested professionalism, self-discipline and an even temperament – the exact opposite of Scott, the First Officer.

Plus she was a looker.

Toby was disappointed to note the wedding ring on her left hand, but cheered himself up with the thought that many attractive single women wore one simply for deterrent effect. He would soon find out either way and looked forward to getting to know his immediate superior better, and impressing her in any way he could.

She took him to another storeroom and heaved out a pile of brand-new uniform shirts, shorts and the latest Nike trainers. “There you go, Toby. Find your size. Try them on. You’ll need three of everything to start. Plus a steward’s kit for tonight, on that rack there.” She eyed him up and down. “Tall, slim fit, I should say. I’ll be in the stillroom. When you’re ready, change back into mufti. I’ll show you your cabin and you’ll have fifteen minutes to shower and trim those fingernails down to a sensible length so the Boss doesn’t mistake you for a girl and try to screw you on your first night aboard. Well, don’t just stand there! Get with it!”

“Aye aye, M’am!” Toby said.