The Emperor
by Frederick Forsyth
(Narrated by Nigel Davenport)


It was on the Friday evening that Higgins sidled up to him in the main hall as he waited for his wife to come out of the ladies.

'I've got to talk to you ... alone,' Higgins hissed from the corner of his mouth with enough secrecy to attract attention for miles around.

'I see,' said Murgatroyd. 'Can't you say it here?'

'No,' grunted Higgins, examining a fern. 'Your wife may come back at any minute. Follow me.'

He strolled away with elaborate nonchalance, walked several yards into the garden and went behind a tree, against which he leaned and waited. Murgatroyd padded after him.

'What's the matter?' he asked when he caught up with Higgins in the darkness of the shrubbery. Higgins glanced back at the lighted hallway through the arches to ensure the distaff side of Murgatroyd was not following.

'Game fishing,' he said. 'Have you ever done it?'

'No, of course not,' said Murgatroyd.

'Nor me. But I'd like to. Just once. Give it a try. Listen, there were three Johannesburg businessmen who booked a boat for tomorrow morning. Now it seems they can't make it. So the boat's available and half the cost is paid because they forfeited their deposits. What do you say? Shall we take it?'

Murgatroyd was surprised to be asked. 'Why don't you go with a couple of mates from the group you're with?' he asked.

Higgins shrugged. 'They all want to spend the last day with their girlfriends, and the girls don't want to go. Come on, Murgatroyd, let's give it a try.'

'How much does it cost?' asked Murgatroyd.

'Normally, a hundred American dollars a head,' said Higgins, 'but with half paid, it's only fifty dollars each.'

'For a few hours? That's twenty-five pounds.'

'Twenty-six pounds seventy-five pence,' said Higgins automatically. He was after all in foreign exchange.

Murgatroyd calculated. With the taxi back to the airport and the various extra charges to get him home to Ponder's End, he had little more than that left. The balance would be assigned by Mrs Murgatroyd for duty-free purchases and gifts for her sister in Bognor. He shook his head.

'Edna would never agree,' he said.

'Don't teU her.'

'Not tell her?' He was aghast at the idea.

'That's right,' urged Higgins. He leaned closer and Murgatroyd caught the whiff of planter's punch. 'Just do it. She'll give you hell later, but she'll do that anyway. Think of it. We'll probably not come back here again. Probably not see the Indian Ocean again. So why not?'

'WeU, I don't know

'Just one morning out there on the open sea in a small boat, man. Wind in your hair, lines out for bonito, tuna or kingfish. We might even catch one. At least it would be an adventure to remember back in London.'

Murgatroyd stiffened. He thought of the young man on the ski, hammering his way across the lagoon.

'I'll do it,' he said. 'You're on. When do we leave?'

He took out his wallet, tore off three £10 traveller's cheques, leaving only two in the booklet, signed the bottom line and gave them to Higgins.

'Very early start,' Higgins whispered, taking the cheques. 'Four o'clock we get up. Leave here by car at four-thirty. At the harbour at five. Leave port at a quarter to six to be on the fishing grounds just before seven. That's the best time; around dawn. The activities manager will be coming as escort, and he knows the ropes. I'll see you in the main lobby at four-thirty.'

He strode back to the main hall and headed for the bar. Murgatroyd followed in bemusement at his own foolhardiness and found his wife testily waiting. He escorted her in to dinner.

Murgatroyd hardly slept at all that night. Although he had a small alarm clock he dared not set it for fear it would waken his wife when it went off. Nor could he afford to oversleep and have Higgins rapping on the door at half past four. He catnapped several times until he saw the illuminated hands approaching four o'clock. Beyond the curtains it was still pitch dark.

He slipped quietly out of bed and glanced at Mrs Murgatroyd. She was on her back as usual, breathing stertorously, her arsenal of curlers held in place by a net. He dropped his pyjamas silently on the bed and pulled on his underpants. Taking plimsoles, shorts and shirt, he went quietly out by the door and closed it behind him. In the darkened corridor he pulled on the rest of his clothes and shivered in the unexpected chill.

In the hall he found Higgins and their guide, a tall, raw-boned South African called Andre Kilian, who was in charge of all sporting activities for the guests. Kilian glanced at his attire.

'It's cold on the water before dawn,' he said, 'and bloody hot afterwards. The sun can fry you out there. Haven't you got a pair of long trousers and a long-sleeved windcheater?'

'I didn't think,' said Murgatroyd. 'No, er, I haven't.' He did not dare go back to his room now.

'I've got a spare,' said Kilian and handed him a pullover. 'Let's go.'

They drove for fifteen minutes through the dark countryside, past shacks where a single glim indicated someone else was already awake. At length they wound their way down from the main road to the small harbour of Trou d'Eau Douce, Cove of Sweet Water, so called by some long-gone French captain who must have found a drinkable spring at that point. The houses of the village were battened and dark, but at the harbourside Murgatroyd could make out the shape of a moored boat and other shapes working on board it by the light of torches. They pulled up close to the wooden jetty and Kilian took a flask of hot coffee from the glove compartment and handed it round. It was very welcome.

The South African left the car and went along the jetty to the boat. Snatches of a low conversation in Creole French drifted back to the car. It is strange how people always speak quietly in the darkness before dawn.

After ten minutes he came back. There was by now a pale streak on the eastern horizon and a few low, ribbed clouds gleamed faintly out there. The water was discernible by its own glow, and the outlines of jetty, boat and men were becoming clearer.

'We can get the gear aboard now,' said Kilian.

From the rear of the estate car he hauled a refrigerated vacuum box which was later to provide the cold beer, and he and Higgins carried it down the jetty. Murgatroyd took the packs and two more coffee flasks.

The boat was not one of the new, luxurious fibreglass models, but an old and beamy lady of timber hull and marine-ply decking. She had a small cabin up forward which seemed to be crammed with assorted gear. To starboard of the cabin door was a single padded chair on a high stem, facing the wheel and the basic controls. This area was covered in. The after area was open and contained hard benches along each side. At the stern was a single swivel chair, as one sees in a city office, except that this one had harness straps hanging loose from it and was cleated to the deck.

From either side of the afterdeck two long rods stuck out at angles, like wasp aerials. Murgatroyd thought at first they were fishing rods, but later learned they were outriggers to hold the outer lines clear of the inboard lines and prevent tangling.

An old man sat on the skipper's chair, one hand on the wheel, and watched the last preparations in silence. Kilian heaved the beer chest under one of the benches and gestured the others to sit down. A young boat boy, hardly in his teens, unhitched the after painter and threw it on the deck. A villager on the planks beside them did the same up front and pushed the boat away from the quay. The old man started the engines and a dull rumble began beneath their feet. The boat turned its nose slowly towards the lagoon.

The sun was rising fast now, only just below the horizon, and its light was spreading westwards across the water. Murgatroyd could clearly see the houses of the village along the lagoon's edge and rising plumes of smoke as the women prepared the breakfast coffee. In a few minutes the last stars had faded, the sky turned robin's egg blue and swords of shimmering light thrust through the water. A catspaw, sudden, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, ruffled the surface of the lagoon and the light broke up into shards of silver. Then it was gone. The flat calm returned, broken only by the long wake of the boat from its stern to the receding jetty. Murgatroyd looked over the side and could make out clumps of coral already, and they were four fathoms down.

'By the way,' said Kilian, 'let me introduce you.' With the growing light, his voice was louder. 'This boat is the Avant, in French that means "Forward". She's old but sound as a rock, and she's caught a few fish in her time. The captain is Monsieur Patient, and this is his grandson Jean-Paul.'

The old man turned and nodded a greeting at his guests. He said nothing. He was dressed in tough blue canvas shirt and trousers from which two gnarled bare feet hung downwards. His face was dark and wizened like an old walnut and topped by a battered chip hat. He gazed at the sea with eyes wreathed in wrinkles from a lifetime of looking at bright water.

'Monsieur Patient has been fishing these waters man and boy for sixty years at least,' said Kilian. 'Even he doesn't know just how long and no one else can remember. He knows the water and he knows the fish. That's the secret of catching them.'

Higgins produced a camera from his shoulder bag. 'I'd like to take a picture,' he said.

' I'd wait a few minutes,' said Kilian. 'Andhold on. We'll be going through the reef in a short while.'

Murgatroyd stared ahead at the approaching reef. From his hotel balcony it looked feathery soft, the spray like splashing milk. Close up, he could hear the boom of the ocean breakers pounding themselves into the coral heads, tearing themselves apart on ranks of sharp knives just below the surface. He could see no break in the line.

Just short of the foam, old Patient spun the wheel hard right and the Avant positioned herself parallel to the white foaming line 20 yards away. Then he saw the channel. It occurred where two banks of coral ran side by side with a narrow gap between them. Five seconds later they were in the channel, with breakers left and right, running parallel to the shore half a mile to the east. As the surge caught them, the Avant bucked and swung.

Murgatroyd looked down. There were breakers now on both sides, but on his, as the foam withdrew, he could see the coral ten feet away, fragile feathery to the sight but razor sharp to the touch. One brush and it could peel boat or man with contemptuous ease. The skipper seemed not to be looking. He sat with one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle, staring ahead through the windshield as if receiving signals from some beacon known only to him on that blank horizon. Occasionally he tweaked the wheel or surged the power and the Avant moved surely away from some new threat. Murgatroyd only saw the threats as they swept frustrated past his eyes.

In sixty seconds that seemed an age it was over. On the right side the reef continued, but on the left it ended and they were through the gap. The captain spun the wheel again and the Avant turned her nose towards the open sea. At once they hit the fearsome Indian Ocean swell. Murgatroyd realized this was no boating for the squeamish and he hoped he would not disgrace himself.

'I say, Murgatroyd, did you see that damned coral?' said Higgins.

Kilian grinned. 'Quite something, isn't it? Coffee?'

'After that I could do with something stronger,' said Higgins.

'We think of everything,' said Kilian. 'There's brandy in it.' He unscrewed the second vacuum flask.

The boat boy began at once to prepare the rods. There were four of them which he brought from the cabin, strong fibreglass rods about 8 feet long with the lower 2 feet wrapped in cork to aid the grip. Each was adorned with a huge reel containing 800 yards of monofilament nylon line. The butts were of solid brass and cut with a cleft to fit into the sockets in the boat to prevent twisting. He slotted each one into its socket and secured them with lanyard and dogclip lest they fall overboard.

The first arc of the sun's edge rose out of the ocean and flooded its rays across the heaving sea. Within minutes the dark water had turned to a deep indigo blue, becoming lighter and greener as the sun rose.

Murgatroyd braced himself against the pitch and roll of the boat as he tried to drink his coffee, and watched the preparations of the boat boy with fascination. From a large tackle box he took a variety of lengths of steel wire, called traces, and a selection of different lures. Some looked like brilliant pink or green baby squids in soft rubber; there were red and white cockerel feathers and glittering spoons or spinners, designed to flicker in the water and attract the attention of a hunting predator. There were also thick, cigar-shaped lead weights, each with a clip in the snout for attachment to the line.

The boy asked something in Creole of his grandfather and the old man grunted a reply. The boy selected two baby squids, a feather and a spoon. Each had a 10-inch steel trace protruding from one end and a single or triple hook at the other. The boy attached the clip on the lure to a longer trace and the other end of that to the line of a rod. Onto each also went a lead weight to keep the bait just under the surface as it ran through the water. Kilian noted the baits being used.

'That spinner,' he said, 'is good for the odd roving barracuda. The squid and the feather will bring in bonito, dorado or even a big tuna.'

Monsieur Patient suddenly altered course and they craned to see why. There was nothing on the horizon ahead. Sixty seconds later they made out what the old man had already seen. On the far horizon a group of sea birds dived and wheeled above the sea, tiny specks at that distance.

'Terns,' said Kilian. 'The birds have spotted a shoal of small fry and are diving for them.'

'Do we want small fry?' asked Higgins.

'No,' said Kilian, 'but other fish do. The birds act as our signal for the shoal. But bonito hunt the sprats and so do the tuna.'

The captain turned and nodded to the boy, who began to cast the prepared lines into the wake. As each bobbed frantically on the foam he unlocked a catch on the reel to which it was attached and the reel spun free. The drag took the bait, lead and trace far away down the wake until it disappeared completely. The boy let the line rim Out until he was satisfied it was well over a hundred feet clear of the boat. Then he locked the reel again. The rod tip bent slightly, took the strain and began to tow the lure. Somewhere, far back in the green water, the bait and hook were running steady and true beneath the surface like a fast-swimming fish.

There were two rods slotted into the after edge of the boat, one in the left-hand corner, the other at the right. The other two rods were in sockets farther up each side of the afterdeck. Their lines were clipped into large clothespegs, the pegs attached to cords running up the outriggers. The boy threw the baits from these rods into the sea and then ran the pegs up to the tip of the rigger. The spread of the riggers would keep the outer lines free of the inner ones and parallel to them. If a fish struck, it would pull the line free of the mouth of the peg, and the strain . would revert direct from reel to rod to fish.

'Have either of you ever fished before?' asked Kilian. Murgatroyd and Higgins shook then-heads. 'Then I'd better show you what happens when we get a strike. It's a bit late after that. Come and have a look.'

The South African sat in the fighting chair and took one of the rods. 'What happens when a

strike occurs is that the line is suddenly torn out through the reel which, in turning, emits a high-pitched scream. That's how you know. When that happens the person whose turn it is takes his place here and either Jean- Paul or I will hand him the rod. OK?'

The Englishmen nodded.

'Now, you take the rod and place the butt here in this socket between your thighs. Then you clip on this dogclip, with its lanyard secured to the seat frame. If it is torn from your grasp, we don't lose an expensive rod and all its tackle. Now, see this thing here ...'

Kilian pointed to a brass wheel with spokes that jutted out from the side of the reel drum. Murgatroyd and Higgins nodded.

'That's the slipping clutch,' said Kilian. 'At the moment it is set for a very light strain, say five pounds, so that when the fish bites the line will run out, the reel will turn and the clicking noise of a turning reel is so fast it sounds like a scream. When you are settled — and be quick about it because the longer you spend getting ready the more line you have to pull in later — you turn the clutch control slowly forward, like this. The effect is to stiffen up the reel until the line stops going out. The fish is now being pulled by the boat, instead of the fish pulling out your line.

'After that, you reel him in. Grip the cork here with the left hand and reel in. If he's really heavy, grip with both hands and haul back till the rod is vertical. Then drop the right hand to the reel and reel in while lowering the rod towards the stern. That makes reeling easier. Then do it again. Double grip, haul back, ease forward while reeling in at the same time. Eventually you'll see your prize coming up in the foam beneath the stern. Then the boat boy will gaff him and bring him inboard.'

'What are those marks for, on the slipping clutch and the brass casing of the drum?' asked Higgins.

'They mark the maximum permissible strain,' said Kilian. 'These lines have a one-hundred-and-thirty-pound breaking strain. With wet line, deduct ten per cent. To be on the safe side, this reel is marked so that when these marks are opposite each other, the slipping clutch will only concede line when there's a hundred pounds pulling on the other end. But to hold a hundred pounds for very long, let alone reel it in, will nearly pull your arms out, so I don't think we need bother about that.'

'But what happens if we get a big one?' persisted Higgins.

'Then,' said Kilian, 'the only thing is to tire him out. That's when the battle begins. You have to let him have line, reel in, let him run again against the strain, reel in, and so forth, until he is so exhausted he can pull no more. But we'll handle that if we get to it.'

Almost as he spoke the Avant was among the wheeling terns, having covered the three miles in thirty minutes. Monsieur Patient reduced power and they began to cruise through the unseen shoal beneath them. The tiny birds with tireless grace circled twenty feet above the sea, heads down, wings rigid, until their keen eyes spotted some glitter along the heaving hills of water. Then they would drop, wings back, needle beak forward, into the heart of the swell.

A second later the same bird would emerge with a struggling silver matchstick in the mouth, which instantly went down the slim gullet. Their quest was as endless as their energy.

'I say, Murgatroyd,' said Higgins, 'we'd better decide who gets first strike. Toss you for it.'

He produced a Mauritian rupee from his pocket. They tossed and Higgins won. A few seconds later one of the inner rods bucked violently and the line hissed out. The turning reel gave a sound that rose from a whine to a scream.

'Mine,' shouted Higgins delightedly and leaped into the swivel chair. Jean-Paul passed him the rod, still unreeling but slower now, and Higgins slammed the butt downward into its socket. He attached the dogclip and lanyard, and began to close the slipping clutch. The unreeling line stopped almost at once. The rod bent at the tip. Holding with his left hand, Higgins reeled in with his right. The rod bent some more, but the winding went on.

'I can feel him thudding on the line,' gasped Higgins. He went on winding. The line came in without objection and Jean-Paul leaned over the stern. Taking the line in his hand he swung a small, rigid silver fish over into the boat.

'Bonito, about four pounds,' said Kilian.

The boat boy took a pair of pliers and unhooked the barb from the bonito's mouth. Murgatroyd saw that above its silver belly it was blue-black striped like a mackerel. Higgins looked disappointed. The cloud of terns dropped astern and they were through the shoal of sprats. It was just after eight o'clock and the fishing deck was becoming warm but only pleasantly so. Monsieur Patient turned the Avantin a slow circle to head back to the shoal and its marker of diving terns, while his grandson threw the hook and its baby- squid lure back into the sea for another run.