Welcome to a preview of the first three chapters of Distress Signals.
DID SHE LEAVE OR WAS SHE TAKEN?
The day Adam Dunne’s girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads ‘I’m sorry – S’ sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.
Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate – and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before.
To get answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground…
* * *
* * *
I jump before I decide that I’m going to.
Air whistles past my ears as I plummet towards the sea, dark but for the panes of moonlight breaking into shards on its surface. At first I’m moving in slow-motion and the surface seems miles away. Then it’s rushing up to meet me faster than my mind can follow.
A blurry memory elbows its way to the forefront of my thoughts. Something about how hitting a body of water from this height is just like hitting concrete. I try to straighten my legs and grip the back of my thighs, but it’s a moment too late. I hit the water at an angle and every nerve ending on the right side of my body is suddenly ablaze with white-hot pain.
I close my eyes.
When I open them again, I’m underwater.
It’s nowhere near as dark as I expected it to be. Beyond my feet, yes, there is a blackness down deep, but here, just beneath the surface, it’s brighter than it was above.
It’s clear too. I can see no dirt or fish. I twist and turn, but I can see no one else either.
Looking up through the water, the hull of the Celebrate looms to my right, the lights of its open decks twinkling. I have a vague idea where in the rows of identical balconies my cabin is, and I wonder if it’s possible for two people to leave the same spot on such an enormous ship, fall eight storeys and land in completely different places.
It must be because I seem to be alone.
I drift down, towards the darkness. Pressure builds in my chest.
I need to get to the surface so I can take a breath. So I can call out and listen for the sounds of legs and arms splashing, or for someone else calling out to me.
I move to stretch both arms out—
A hot poker burns deep inside my shoulder. The pain makes me gasp, pulling water into my throat.
Now all I want to do is to take a breath. I must take one. I can’t wait any longer.
But the surface is at least ten or twelve feet above me, I think.
I start to kick furiously. My lungs scream.
I’m not a strong swimmer; I go nowhere fast. My efforts just keep me at this depth, neither sinking nor ascending.
The surface gets no closer.
The urge to open my mouth and breathe in is only a flicker away from overwhelming. I start to panic, flailing my left arm and legs.
I lift my face to the light as if oxygen can reach me through the water the same way the moon’s rays can, and that’s when I see a shadow on the surface.
A familiar shape: a lifebuoy.
Someone must have thrown it in.
I wonder what that someone saw.
The edges of my vision are growing dark. Everything is cold except for the spot where my right arm meets my torso; a fire burns in there. The pressure in my chest is pushing my lungs to rupture and burst.
I tell myself I can do this.
All I need to do is get to the lifebuoy.
I kick, harder and stronger and quicker now, somehow. Soon the Celebrate starts to grow bigger. I keep kicking. Then the moon gets bigger too, the water around me brighter still. I keep kicking. And just before I am sure that my lungs will burst, when they are already straining and ripping and preparing to explode—
I break the surface, gasping, sucking down air while my body tries to expel it, coughing and choking and retching and spluttering.
I can breathe.
I’m close enough to the lifebuoy to reach out and touch it. I grip it with my right arm and throw my left – hanging limp, the elbow at a disconcerting angle – over, but now all my weight is on one side of the buoy and it starts to flip.
I realise it’s only assistance, not rescue, and that even though I’m utterly exhausted I’ll have to keep my legs moving just to keep my head above water.
I’m not sure how long I can do this for.
One thing at a time. Don’t panic. One thing at a time.
I’m panting, hyperventilating, so my first task is to slow my breathing down. Breathe in. The right side of my face is stinging. Breathe out. My teeth are chattering. Breathe in.
I can’t see anyone else in the water.
In the distance off to my left are the lights of Nice, emerging from behind the Celebrate’s bow, the amber streetlights following the curve of the promenade first and then, crowded into every available space beyond, hotels and office buildings and apartment blocks. Behind me I know there is nothing but sea for hundreds of miles.
The Celebrate is towering over me, a gargantuan monster jutting out of the water and rising to two hundred feet above my head. I think perhaps I can hear tinkling music drifting down from her decks. The only other sounds are my breaths and the splashes I make in the water.
I try to be quiet, to be still, and listen for someone else making the same noises, or someone calling out—
I hear it then, faint and in the distance.
Whump. Whump. Whump.
I know the sound but I can’t remember what makes it. I’m trying to when I see something maybe fifteen or twenty feet beyond my left arm: a dark shape bobbing on the surface.
Whump, whump, whump.
The noise is getting louder.
As I stare at the shape, the gentle rippling of the water and the moon conspire to throw a spotlight on it, just for a second, and I catch a glimpse of short brown hair.
Hair I know looks a lighter colour when it isn’t soaking wet.
The body it belongs to is facedown in the water and, as far as I can tell, moving only because of the gentle waves beneath it.
There’s a blinding glare as a helicopter bursts into the sky above the Celebrate, the noise of its motor so loud now that I can feel the sound thundering through my chest.
Its search beam begins sweeping back and forth across the water.
They’ve come for me.
My time’s almost up. I wonder how they could’ve possibly got here so fast. Didn’t I just hit the water a minute or two ago? Have I been here for longer than I think? Or have they come for someone else?
Above me now, the helicopter dips to hover close to the surface, kicking up waves that push me off course and splash cold, salty water in my face. I kick harder. The body disappears from view and undulating waves takes its place. I blink away a splash. The body reappears. A wave crashes over me. When I open my eyes a second time, the body is gone again.
The sound is tunnelling a hole in my brain. It’s not above me any more but in me. I feel like it’s coming from inside my head.
Then, the grip of a hand on my arm.
Everything is bright with white light now. Am I hallucinating? Is that what happens when you go into the water from several storeys up, possibly dislocate your shoulder, nearly drown and then exhaust yourself trying to stay afloat in open sea?
But no, there really is someone by my side, a man in a wetsuit with an oxygen tank on his back. All I can see of his face are his eyes through the foggy plastic of his mask. He lifts it up over his nose and says something to me, but the words are lost in the helicopter’s deafening roar.
I turn away from him and try to find the body again. I scan the surface but I can’t see it now.
A bright red basket is dropping on a rope. The wetsuit man grips me under the arms and pulls me towards it.
He speaks again, this time shouting right into my ear from directly behind me.
This time, I hear him.
‘Is there anybody else in the water? Did you see anybody else in the water?’
I say nothing.
I focus on the belly of the helicopter. It’s navy blue and glossy. I think I see a small French flag painted on the underside of its tail.
‘Was it just you?’ he shouts. ‘Did you go in alone?’
We reach the basket and another wetsuit man. Together they lift me into it.
I am now looking up at the night sky. It seems filled with stars.
The man’s face appears above mine, blocking my view of them.
‘Can you hear me?’ he asks. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Were you alone in the water? Did you see anyone else?’
Above me the helicopter’s blades spin. Whump-whump-whump-whump-whump. Out of the water, the pain in my shoulder is sharper. I start to shake.
All I wanted was to find Sarah.
How has it come to this?
‘No,’ I say finally. ‘It was only me in the water. There is no one else.’
– PART 1: LOVE IS BLINDNESS –
Even at 5:45 a.m. the Celebrate’s crew deck wasn’t empty.
Something fleshy and pink and snoring was splayed on an inflatable chair bobbing at one end of the swimming pool. A young stewardess reclined on a sun-lounger, smoking, her red and yellow uniform revealing that she worked the breakfast buffet and either slept in her clothes or stored them in a ball on the floor of her crew cabin. Huddled around one of the plastic tables, three security guards argued in English about a soccer match and some goal that should never have been allowed.
Shifts ran constantly and around the clock; the midnight buffet clear-up finishing only minutes before the breakfast prep had to start. It was always someone’s spare moment before work or smoke break or post-shift crash. With the crew quarters impossibly cramped, below the water line and always smelling faintly of seawater and sewage (and, sometimes, not so faintly), everyone dashed outside to the crew deck whenever they could.
Blinking in the sunshine, Corinne stepped out onto it now and paused for a moment while her eyes adjusted to the light. There was an unoccupied table and chairs on the portside. Careful not to spill either of the two coffees she was carrying, she headed for it.
As she passed the table of security guards, Corinne felt the gaze of one of them crawling up her cabin attendant’s uniform to her face. The flash of him she’d caught with her peripheral vision left a vague impression of youth, broad shoulders and closely cut blonde hair. The man’s eyes, she felt sure, stayed on her all the way to the table and lingered after she sat down.
She didn’t entertain for a second the notion that this attention was down to admiration or attraction. He was at least three decades her junior and Corinne’s face wore many more years than she’d lived. On top of that her hair was grey, her body weak and painfully thin. That left mild interest (What is a woman of her age doing working on a cruise ship?), which was fine, but also suspicion (What is she really doing here?) and recognition (Don’t I know her from somewhere?), which were not.
The table was unsteady on its legs and Corinne had to lean her elbows on it to keep it from rocking. It was also missing its parasol and one off-white plastic leg was pockmarked with cigarette burns – ‘crew grade’, in company-speak. Everything the crew had was second-hand, from the flat, stained pillows on their bunks to the chipped crockery in their mess, all of it already used and abused by paying passengers until Blue Wave deemed it no longer good enough for them.
Corinne sipped her coffee until she felt the guard’s attention fade and a quick glance confirmed his focus was back on the football debate. Then she checked her watch. She had about five minutes before Lydia arrived, tired and wired after her overnight shift.
Lydia was her cabin-mate and, over the past week – the first for both of them aboard the Celebrate – they had fallen into a pleasant routine. They met for coffee on the crew deck just after Lydia finished her shift and before Corinne started hers, and again in the mess just as Corinne was ending her work day and Lydia was gearing up for another one. Lydia was very young – only twenty-one – and had never been away from her home in the north of England before. Corinne suspected the girl found comfort in the company of a woman her mother’s age. Not that Corinne minded in the least. Lydia was a warm, cheerful girl, and it was nice to have someone to talk to about normal, everyday things. The world outside the shadow.
There was just enough time. Corinne pulled a small notebook from a pocket in her uniform skirt and laid it on the table beside her coffee cup, angling her body so that nobody else would be able to read what was on its pages.
The bridge towered into the sky behind her. All the crew’s outdoor space was sunk into the bow, another cabin attendant had told her, because there was nothing else a cruise ship could do with the open deck immediately below the bridge. You couldn’t put bright lights there for safety reasons, and paying passengers needed bright lights. So with the curved white walls of the bow rising up around them, the crew had the only swimming pool on board that didn’t offer a view of the sea.
For all Corinne knew, he could be one of the officers at the Celebrate’s helm right now, boring holes into her back. From what she’d seen on TV and in movies, officers on the bridge had access to binoculars. She couldn’t take any chances.
The sea breeze blew the notebook open, flipping a few pages with rapid-fire speed. Corinne pressed a hand to it to stop it from blowing away. It was a small diary, the week-to-a-view kind, with her own small, neat handwriting filling the spaces for the last four days with short notations.
Cabine 1002: lit parfait?
Cabine 1017: Valises, mais pas des passagers…
Cabine 1021: Ne peut pas entrer – le mari dit la femme est malade.
Sunday: the bed in 1002 hadn’t been slept in. She’d found nothing out of the ordinary on Monday. Tuesday: belongings in 1017, but no passengers for them to belong to. Then on Wednesday, a request through the door of 1021 that she not disturb them, from a male passenger who said his silent wife was sick in bed.
All these incidents; they’d all come to nothing.
She’d keep looking.
In the little pocket at the back of the notebook, there was a single sheet of folded paper. Corinne retrieved it now. She glanced over her shoulder. No sign of Lydia yet. No one else on deck appeared to be paying any attention to her. She unfolded the page. Laid it flat on the table in front of her, smoothed out the creases with the palm of her hand.
Then, as she did every morning, she looked at the black and white photograph printed on the lower half of it, studying the man’s features. She closed her eyes, recalled the face from memory. Repeated this a few times until she could remember every last detail.
Looked at him and said, silently, I will find you.
Maybe today will be the day.
Then she carefully refolded the page and placed it back in the notebook, and put the notebook back in the pocket of her uniform.
Lydia would arrive any second.
Corinne couldn’t afford to get caught.
The night before Sarah left was only unusual in that we didn’t spend it at home.
We nearly always stayed in on a Saturday, taking up our established positions on the couch for a relaxed evening of pizza, bad-singing-competition-TV and good subtitled Scandinavian dramas.
I didn’t much like Going Out Out, as the kids called it, the kids being what I called everyone under twenty-five since I’d turned thirty six months ago.
Officially my stance was that Ireland’s binge-drinking culture should not be a cultural claim to fame we were proud to promote, but an embarrassing problem we were desperate to solve. Our newly graduated youth, blinking in the harsh light of the real world, were faced with just two options: join the queue for the dole or join the queue for Canadian work visas. It would drive anyone to drink.
That had to be why they did it, right? To numb their pain? Because it couldn’t be for fun, could it? A typical Saturday night’s going out out, as far as I could tell, started with you being sad you were sober, ended with you wishing you weren’t so drunk and, in between, all you did was queue for things: for service at the bar, to get into the club, to use the toilets, for a box of greasy fried chicken, for a taxi home.
That’s what I said, anyway.
The real reason I didn’t like it was because Cork felt like an ever-shrinking city where a run-in with an old school-friend or former college classmate was never more than a corner away. There was a limit on how many ‘What are you up to these days?’ a guy could take when he wasn’t up to very much.
‘I’m writing,’ I would say. ‘I’m a writer.’
Me: hating myself for how sheepishly I said it.
Them: confused frown.
‘Screenplays,’ I’d add. ‘Movies?’
‘Oh, right.’ The enquirer would nod. ‘Nice. But I meant, like, for work. What do you do?’
Sometimes I skipped the writing thing altogether and confessed immediately to whatever temp job I’d taken that week, stapling things together in some generic office or answering phones in a call centre. The spotty teens I’d left behind me when I’d dropped out of university were now young professionals collecting good salaries from investment banks, legal firms and software giants. They’d graduated during the Boom and avoided the landmines of the Bust, mostly. Their news was about promotions and bonuses and company cars, while I was still excited about the fact that scrawled across the top of my latest rejection letter had been my name. My name! Personalisation: progress, at last.
But it proved difficult to explain the concept of failing upwards to a casual acquaintance who really only wanted to know whether or not you’d gone back on the Dole.
‘God, so bloody what?’ Sarah used to say in the cab on the way home, ducking underneath my arm so she could lean her head against my chest, the degree of her exasperation in direct proportion to how many drinks she’d had. ‘I don’t know why you let them get to you. You still have your dreams.’
‘Ah, yes,’ I’d say. ‘My dreams. What’s the current exchange rate on those, do you think? My phone bill is due.’
‘Well, you also have a gorgeous girlfriend. Who believes in you. Who knows you’re going to make this happen. Who has no doubt.’
‘None at all?’
‘None whatsoever. Can we get take-away? I’m starving.’
‘But you’ve no evidence. And I think the take-away is closed.’
‘That’s what belief means, Ad. I mean, really.’ A poke in the ribs. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be a writer or something?’
I joked about it, yes, but the truth was it got to me. I’d been trying to make this writing thing happen for years. Fantastical dreams were fine in your twenties, but I was thirty now. When even I had started to wonder if I should let my fanciful notions go, talking about them with people who had already moved to the Real World made it harder to convince myself that, no, I shouldn’t. Not yet.
I started making excuses, coming up with reasons to stay in on Saturday nights. I was tired. I was broke. We were broke because of me. Whatever my story, Sarah would nod, understanding, and our conversation would move on to deciding between a box-set re-watch or tackling our Netflix queue. Sometimes she went out with the girls and I was glad she did, because I wanted her to do what she wanted and those nights typically won me a few weeks’ reprieve. We still went out together every now and then, but eventually our go-to pub had a new name and our go-to club had closed down. I no longer recognised the songs that won especially loud cheers from crowd when the DJ played them, and had no clue as to why we were all suddenly drinking out of jam jars with handles on.
But that was before. Now, things were changing.
‘I bet it’s like turning eighteen,’ Sarah said as we manoeuvred around each other in the bathroom, getting ready. I was already dressed; she was wrapped in a bath towel. ‘From the moment you can produce ID, nobody bothers to ask for it.’
‘So tonight no one’s going to go “But what do you actually do?” because for once I actually want them to?’
Oh, me? I’m a writer. Screenplays. Yeah, not doing too bad, actually. Just made a sale. Major Hollywood studio, six-figures. For a script I wrote in a month.
‘Exactly.’ Sarah was putting on an earring, fiddling with the back of it. ‘They all know already anyway. You were on the cover of the Examiner, remember?’
I moved behind her, met her eyes in the mirror over the sink.
‘And,’ I said, ‘the back page of the Douglas Community Fortnightly.’
‘And that advertiser thing you get free in shopping centres.’
‘That was the one with the very good picture.’
‘That wasn’t of you.’
‘It was still a very good picture.’
‘So who’ll be at this thing?’ I asked. ‘Anyone I know?’
We were going to a going-away party. If the pubs and clubs of Ireland had worried that austerity would damage their trade they needn’t have; there were enough pre-emigration shindigs these days to keep the industry afloat all by themselves. That night it was the turn of Sarah’s colleague, Mike, who was heading to New Zealand for a year.
‘Susan will be there. James – you met him before, didn’t you? And Caroline. She’s the girl we ran into the night of Rose’s birthday. You know Mike, right? Don’t think you’ve met the rest of them…’
While Sarah was saying this, I wrapped my arms around her waist and rested my chin on her shoulder, savouring the fruity smell of some lotion or potion as I did.
There was no long fall of blonde hair to move out of the way. Just that afternoon Sarah had walked into a hairdresser’s and asked for it all to be chopped off. That morning, the ends of it had been tickling the small of her back. Now it was clear off her neck. The cut had exposed more of her natural warm-brown colour, and I think it was this that made her eyes appear bigger and bluer than they had before. She also seemed more grown-up to me, somehow, and there was something incredibly distracting about all that exposed skin…
I pressed my lips against the spot where her neck met her left shoulder.
Sarah said she’d decided to get the haircut on a whim, that she’d just decided to do it after seeing a picture in the salon’s window as she walked by. But a week from now, I’d learn that she’d made an appointment with the salon a week earlier.
‘Just don’t abandon me, okay?’ I murmured.
I was expecting one of Sarah’s trademark eye-rolls and a sarcastic remark. Maybe a reminder that I was now, technically speaking, a big-shot Hollywood screenwriter and could surely hold my own in conversations about Things Adults Do instead of standing on the periphery, smiling at the right moments but otherwise only moving the ice-cubes in my drink around with a straw. Or perhaps Sarah would point out that I didn’t need to go to this thing, that it was a work night out, that she’d been going by herself until I’d moaned about spending the night before she left for nearly a week home alone, prompting her to – eventually – say fine, tag along.
But instead she turned to face me, wrapped her arms around my neck and said: ‘I would never abandon you.’
‘Well, good. Oscar night will be stressful enough without having to find a date for it.’
I kissed her, expecting to feel her lips stretched into a smile against mine. They weren’t. I moved my mouth to her jawline, down her neck. There was a faint taste of something powdery, some make-up thing she must have just dusted on her skin. I brought my hands to her waist and went to un-tuck the towel.
‘Ad,’ Sarah said, wriggling out of my arms. ‘I booked a cab for eight. We don’t have time.’
I looked at my watch. ‘I suppose I should take it as a compliment that you think that.’
‘Funny.’ An eye-roll. (There it was). ‘Can you grab Mike’s card? I think I left it on the coffee table. I’m nearly done here. I just have to get dressed.’
I turned to leave.
I stopped in the doorway.
Sarah was in front of the mirror, twisting to check her hair. Without looking at me she said, ‘I meant to tell you: the others aren’t exactly delighted about me being the one to get to go to Barcelona. They’ve all been milking it with their honeymoons and their maternity leave but God forbid I get to have a week out of the office. I mean, it’s not like I’m off. I’m there to work. Anyway, I’ve been trying not to go on about it, so…’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I won’t bring it up.’
I smiled to myself as I crossed the hall into the living room. Honeymoons and maternity leave. Now that I’d sold the script, we could finally start making our own plans instead of being forced to watch as the realisation of everyone else’s clogged up our Facebook feeds.
I collected Mike’s card from the coffee table, then dropped into my preferred spot on the couch. It offered a clear line of sight to my desk, which was tucked into the far corner of the living room and so, crucially, was only a few feet from the kitchen and thus the coffee-maker.
A stack of well-thumbed A4 pages were piled on it, curled sticky notes giving it a neon-coloured fringe down its right side. I got a dull ache in the pit of my stomach just looking at it.
The rewrite. I had to start it tomorrow. And I would. I’d drive straight home after dropping Sarah to the airport and get stuck in, make the most of the few days and nights that I’d have the apartment to myself.
Sarah emerged from our bedroom, wearing a dress I hadn’t seen before.
The money from the script deal hadn’t arrived yet but since I’d learned it was on its way, I’d been melting my credit card. Sarah had supported me for long enough, paying utility bills and covering my rent shortfalls with money she could’ve been – should’ve been – spending on herself. That morning I’d sent her into town with a gift card for a high-end department store, the kind that comes wrapped in delicate tissue and in a smooth, matt-finish gift bag.
‘This is just a token,’ I’d said. ‘Just a little something for now, for tonight. You know when the money comes through…’
‘Ad, what are you doing? You don’t know how long that money is going to take to arrive. You should be hanging onto what you’ve got.’
‘I put it on the credit card.’
‘But you might need that credit yet. I really wish you’d think before you spend.’
‘Look, it’s fine. We’ll be fine. I just wanted to…’ Sarah’s mouth was set tight in disapproval. ‘Okay, I’m sorry. I am. It’s just that I don’t want to wait to start paying you back for… For everything.’
She’d seemed annoyed. Disappointed too, which was worse. But then, later, she’d come home with a larger version of the same bag, and now she was twirling around to show me the dress that had been inside it: red and crossed in the front, the skirt part long and flowing out from her hips.
‘Well?’ she asked me. ‘What do you think?’
She looked beautiful in it. More beautiful than usual. But with the new hair, not quite the Sarah I was used to.
‘Nice,’ I said. I pointed to my jeans and my dark, plain T-shirt. ‘But now I feel underdressed.’
‘Change, if you want to.’
Our buzzer went. The cab was here.
‘No, it’s fine,’ I said. ‘Let’s just go.’
Aside from the clothes Sarah was wearing when I drove her to the airport the next morning, that red dress was the only item I could tell the Gardaí was missing for sure.
* * *