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by Pat McDermott

Chapter One / Fargan

The Twenty-first Century . . .

The Fancy Annie plowed through waters speckled by midmorning sun. A fine catch of groundfish filled the hold, all gutted, sorted and iced. The yellow-slickered crew—eight weathered fishermen who'd worked the sea together since boyhood—had already hosed the decks and stowed the gear. Matt Foley kept a tidy boat.

The smaller boats couldn't handle the winter seas, but these men would risk the rugged weather on trawlers like Fancy Annie. They had families to feed, and the big boats could command high market prices for a winter catch.

Fancy Annie had hit some chop this time out, but the weather held and the fishing was good. When the crew talked of being home with their families for Christmas, Matt cut the ten-day trip to eight. On that brisk winter morning, he radioed his wife to say that the wind was on their tail and they'd make Killybegs by eight o'clock that night. Her response was the same as it had been for over forty years: a squeal of joy and a promise to have his supper ready. After a week at sea, thoughts of Annie's cooking—and Annie—had Matt smiling.

He left the wheelhouse and planted his six-foot frame on the forward deck. The sunny skies offset the cold salt air that stung his cheeks and blew at the curls peeking from beneath his wool cap. His hand shaded his eyes while he scanned the horizon. We'll pay for such a fine stretch of weather, he thought, and then he saw it.

The men had seen it too. After a week of hauling nets and dressing tons of fish, they cheered the sight of the salt-sprayed rock. They were on their way home.

The tip of the ancient volcano rose eighty feet above the rolling ocean. Named for its single granite ledge, Fargan served as a navigational guide in the Irish Sea lanes two hundred miles off the Donegal coast. The ocean around it provided some of the finest fishing in the North Atlantic, at least when the oil companies and their sonar weren't scaring all the fish away.

Matt was about to give the order to turn southeast when he caught sight of a vessel drifting north of Fargan. He sprinted to the wheelhouse and snatched his binoculars. The boat was too far away to decipher her markings, but Matt knew her for an English gunboat, one of the fast attack craft used for coastal patrol and training exercises—but not in Irish waters.

He lowered the binoculars, though his gaze remained fixed on the gunboat. "Keep your ear to the radio, Eddie. That boat might be in trouble. Ronnie, cut the throttles."

Fancy Annie slowed until she rocked in the swells. A dinghy drifted from behind the gunboat. One of three men sitting in it started an outboard motor and steered the craft to the edge of the rocky outcrop. Laden with backpacks, the other two jumped onto the tiny island.

While the dinghy returned to the gunboat, the men scaled the rock and hoisted themselves onto the ledge. One man drove a pole into a fissure and raised an English flag; the other set up a small survival tent.
Matt stared in amazement. "What in holy hell are they doing? Anything, Eddie?"

"Nothing, Matt."

The gunboat glided toward the Fancy Annie. Her name was clear now: HMS Coulter. Armed men had gathered on her deck.

A voice boomed through a bullhorn. "This is Captain Andrew Mayne of HMS Coulter. Heave to, Fancy Annie, and prepare to be boarded."

Matt had no bullhorn and didn't care if Captain Mayne heard his bellowed response. "The hell I will, you bastard. What do you think you're doing? These are Irish waters!"

Concerned now for the safety of his crew, Matt shouted to his first mate: "Get underway, Ronnie. Full speed ahead!"

The engines growled. Fancy Annie turned to starboard and cut through the swells. Smoke wafted from Coulter's forward-mounted gun turret. A moment later a loud boom thundered over the water. A shot had crossed the trawler's bow.

Grabbing the handset from Eddie, Matt called out to any and every nearby vessel, though the nearest, according to the radar screen, was more than two hundred miles away. Switching from frequency to frequency, he shouted into the radio as if the mere loudness of his voice could get his message through.

Matt slapped the top of the receiver and flung the handset back to Eddie. "Keep trying, lad. Reach anyone you can and tell them what's happening here!"

He flew down the stairs to his quarters. Pistols couldn't defeat a gunboat, but he'd be damned if he'd cower before pirates.

As he always did when he entered his cabin, Matt glanced at the photograph of his wife hanging over the gun cabinet. "Keep my supper warm, darlin'. I'll be a little late."

He'd just snapped magazines into two of the pistols when a thunderous impact knocked him down. The guns went flying.

"Bedammit!" Matt seized the nearest pistol and shoved it into his belt. He raced up to the deck. Fancy Annie was listing to port. Her burst of speed had placed her in Coulter's path. Unable to stop, the gunboat had rammed the trawler. Now ten English marines, all armed, stood on Fancy Annie's slanting deck.

A pallid man in his mid-forties swaggered before them. His choice civilian attire didn't conceal the beginnings of flabbiness around his middle. He glanced about the trawler, plainly seeking whoever was in charge.

Matt wasted no time obliging him. Fists clenched tight, he charged across the swaying deck and confronted the intruders. "I'm the captain here. Who the hell are you?"

The man's strange eyes—one was blue, the other brown—settled on Matt. "We didn't mean to hit your boat, Captain. I'm Prince Geoffrey Wessex, Regent of the Kingdom of England. These men are my royal marines, and you're trespassing. We will, of course, escort you safely out of English waters."

"English waters because you say so?" Matt spat on the deck. "Never happen."

Prince Geoffrey's face reddened. Before he could reply, Matt's first mate came running from the stern.

"We're taking on water, Matt. If we don't seal her and start the pumps, she'll go down!"

Matt thought of the fine catch of groundfish in the hold and started chuckling. The chuckling grew to wild laughter. The laughter stopped when he tore the pistol from his belt and fired a round into the air. "Get the hell off my boat."

His first mate seized a gaff hook and hefted it with deadly precision. The rest of the crew grabbed gutting knives. All stood ready to fight.

Matt was proud of them. Still, they were sinking. "You gobshites will patch my boat, and learn some manners in the process." He raised the pistol to add weight to his demands.

Prince Geoffrey's different-colored eyes widened in alarm. He pointed his weapon at Matt and fired, crying "Shoot!" as he did.

The marines obeyed. A pistol and gutting knives were no match for semiautomatic weapons. Before the gunshots stopped echoing over the ocean, Fancy Annie's crew lay dead on her deck.


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