The Dark Below Sneak Peek


The first signs of spring came early that year, with clear blue skies and a pale yellow sun that shone over the drab concrete of Porthenev Harbour. Although winter’s stranglehold was loosening, the air remained crisp and thin, slipping beneath the folds of Blake Hollow’s long black coat as she climbed out of her car and shut the door. She shivered, slid her hands inside her pockets. At the other end of the half empty car park, a tall, silver-haired man stood next to a white transit van. Dressed in dusty overalls, heavy work boots, and a donkey jacket that had seen better days, he appeared strong and healthy despite nearing retirement age. His bare hands were currently wrapped around a cup of takeaway coffee, warming them against the cold. As Blake approached, he opened the van door, leaned inside, and took out a crumpled paper bag and another cup of coffee.

‘Your mother insisted I bring you breakfast,’ he said, holding out the bag. ‘Says you’re wasting away.’

Blake rolled her eyes. ‘She knows I don’t do breakfast.’

She accepted the coffee and brought it to her lips. Ed Hollow stared at the paper bag in his hand, shrugged, then removed a sugary pastry and bit into it. ‘I’ll tell your mother you ate it anyway.’

Blake turned her back on her father to peer up at Porthenev. The fishing village was hundreds of years old, consisting of small white cottages that clustered together on a sloping hill, their windows watching over the harbour and the ocean beyond. It was Blake’s first visit to Porthenev, but it reminded her of so many other Cornish coastal towns nestled between towering cliffs. She had already researched the place, learning that what had once been a thriving community built on the back of prime pilchard fishing was now a ghost town for half the year. Tourism, second homes, and holiday lets had sent local property value soaring, which had resulted in not only pricing local people out of the area but doing serious damage to the fishing crews’ livelihoods.

The seafront cottages that had once been home to generations of fishermen and their families had all been snapped up by property developers and converted into short-stay summer rentals and seasonal gift shops, forcing the current cohort of fishermen to live further from the shore, even in other towns and villages. Worse still, younger crew members, who were needed to work on the trawlers, were growing increasingly scant, because who could afford to live in a town where the cost of living was three times higher than the local average salary? Which meant several of the remaining fishermen had no choice but to set out on solo trips that yielded fewer hauls of fish and put their lives at greater risk. Add to the mix the growing tension between locals and second home buyers who left their dwellings empty for most of the year, and you had a village that had become a boiling pot of frustration, resentment, and a begrudging dependency on tourism.

Standing in the freezing car park, Blake could taste the uneasiness in the air. She sipped more coffee and turned back to her father. ‘Shall we get this over with?’

{Continue reading from the Readers Club newsletter here.}

Ed nodded as he swallowed the last bite of pastry, then tucked the paper bag inside his jacket pocket. There were grains of sugar caught in his stubble that Blake decided could stay there. She was annoyed her father had insisted on accompanying her to Porthenev Harbour, using the excuse that he had been friends with the harbourmaster, Jasper Rowe, for years, and it was he who Jasper had reached out to in the first place. Blake believed his presence had more to do with a need to protect his daughter from a harbour full of grizzled old fishermen with wandering eyes. But what he hadn’t accounted for was that in Blake’s long career as a private investigator she had dealt with all kinds of violent and unsavoury people. She could handle a few surly fishermen with her eyes closed. And yet, for the sake of their fragile relationship, she had agreed to let her father come along.

Exiting the car park, they walked along a stony path, passing a row of empty cottages and closed shops, until they reached the main harbour. A long granite pier stretched out into the green water, while an angular seawall to the right enclosed the harbour in the crook of its arm. High tide had come and gone two hours ago. Now the water was restlessly ebbing and flowing as it gradually receded. Most of the larger fishing trawlers were already at sea, with only a few smaller boats left behind. The stench of fish guts hung thickly in the air, making Blake grateful that she hadn’t eaten the pastry.

She cast her gaze over the rest of the harbour. Stacks of lobster and crab pots lined the quayside. A row of net lofts stood behind them, filled with fishing nets and related equipment. Over to the right, two industrial-looking ice plants towered over the cold storage units where trays of freshly caught fish were stored before being taken to market.

At the top of the main slipway that sloped down to the harbour water, a fishing trawler named Laura-Lynn had been hauled up and secured. A large, ragged hole was visible in its side. Standing next to the trawler was a group of men wearing yellow waterproof over trousers, dirty jackets, and rubber boots. None of their faces had seen a razor in weeks. The men looked up as Blake and her father headed towards the harbourmaster’s office, which was tucked in next to the storage lofts. One of them nodded at Ed, while the others stared, unsmiling, at Blake.

‘Friendly bunch,’ she muttered.

Ed knocked on the office door then pushed it open. Jasper Rowe was waiting inside. The office was a single room, not much more than a shack, but Jasper kept it immaculately tidy, the paperwork on his desk organised neatly in trays and the noticeboard on the wall symmetrically arranged. The harbourmaster got to his feet as they entered and shook hands with Ed. Unlike Blake’s father, Jasper Rowe was a short man, but he was stockily built with thick white hair, a silver beard, and smiling eyes that reminded Blake of a friendly sea captain featured in a TV ad from her childhood. He had a weathered, outdoor complexion, and as he shook Blake’s hand, she felt the roughness of his skin borne from years of working at sea.

‘Good to see you, Ed,’ Jasper said, in a heavy Cornish accent. ‘Nice to meet you, Blake. Your father speaks highly of you.’

Blake glanced at Ed and arched an eyebrow. He avoided her gaze.

‘I was about to offer you coffee, but I see you already came armed,’ Jasper continued. ‘Please, sit.’

He took two wooden chairs from a stack in the corner and set them down on one side of his desk. Once they were all seated, Blake got straight down to business.

‘So, how can I help?’

A frown rippled over Jasper’s forehead. ‘I expect your father already filled you in.’

‘All the same, I’d like to hear it in your own words.’

The man scratched his chin. Ed automatically did the same and discovered his sugar crumb coating, which he quickly brushed away before glancing at Jasper and Blake to see if they had noticed.

‘The boys outside will tell you more,’ Jasper said, ‘but it all started a few weeks ago. Just a bit of graffiti at first, on one of the boats. We assumed it was kids from the village, bored and playing up. There’s not much for them to do around here. Still, it’s no excuse to vandalise private property. Anyway, the paint came off easily enough after a good scrub, and we thought it was over and done with. But then a couple of days later, the net lofts were broken into and some of the nets torn up. After that, it was the cold storage units. Someone tampered with the refrigerators, so that was thousands of pounds worth of fish gone to ruin.’

Ed shook his head in disgust. ‘Youngsters have no respect these days.’

‘We don’t know it was youngsters,’ Blake said, shooting him a look before turning back to Jasper. ‘What did the police say?’

‘Oh, they came down and had a look around, took out their notepads and pens. But that was about it. They said the same thing, that it was probably just kids mucking about. Said they couldn’t do much beyond asking around, and that if anything else was to occur we were to get in touch.’ He blew air through his nose. ‘Fat lot of good that did.’

‘What about cameras?’ Blake asked. ‘CCTV?’

The harbourmaster shrugged. ‘We don’t have anything like that. We’re not some fancy port like Padstow or Falmouth. Anyway, that seemed to be the end of the trouble for a few days. We thought whoever was behind it had been scared off by the police. But then, a week later, it started again.’

‘What happened?’

‘This time it was broken windows and smashed lobster pots. By this point, the men had had enough, so a group of them camped out in the harbour the following night to see if they could catch the bastard.’ He glanced at Blake. ‘Pardon my language.’

‘I’ve said a lot worse. Go on.’

‘Well, they waited and waited. Nothing happened. A few more days went by, and then Albert Roskilly and his crew came to take his trawler out in the early hours, only to find someone had put a bloody great hole in the side of it. Now she’s out of action. You probably saw her on the slipway as you came in. That’s Albert’s livelihood gone right there, along with his crew’s. Don’t know if or when she’ll be seaworthy again.’

Blake glanced at her father, whose face was pulled into a scowl, then back at Jasper Rowe. ‘Please tell me you went back to the police.’

‘We did,’ the harbourmaster said. ‘But again they said they couldn’t do much about it.’

Blake sat up. ‘I can understand that for a bit of graffiti. But for sinking a fishing trawler?’

‘They said without us having any security cameras or witnesses they didn’t have a lot to go on.’

Jasper was quiet for a minute before solemnly shaking his head.

‘Do you have any idea who might be behind all this?’ Blake asked.

‘At first, I put it down to rivalry, some disgruntled fishermen with empty nets trying to thin the competition. The waters around here were overfished for years, and although the fish are coming back, it’s still not how it used to be.’

‘And now?’

‘Now, I’m not so sure. These attacks feel personal to me. Like someone’s bearing a grudge.’

Blake thought a grudge was possible; the repeated offences, and the scaling ferocity of it all certainly felt like a vendetta.

Jasper regarded Blake from across the desk. ‘So, I’ve told you what I know. Do you think you can help us? Do you think you can find out who’s doing this? Because Alberty Roskilly and his boys can’t afford to lose another day at sea, and the other crews are worried their boats will be next. These men, they don’t have much, but they’re willing to club together to pay your fees. But I want it to be worth their time and their hard-earned money.’

Blake leaned back on the hard seat. Her father stared at her, his cool eyes unblinking.

‘I’ll talk to Albert Roskilly before I answer that,’ she said.

‘You passed him when you came in. He and his crew are repairing nets just outside.’

Blake rose from her seat. Ed did the same. ‘No, Dad. You stay here and catch up with Jasper.’

Her father opened his mouth to protest, but a sharp look from Blake made him sit down again.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she said.



Closing the harbourmaster’s office door behind her, Blake buttoned her coat up to her neck and began a slow approach towards the men she had seen earlier. They had climbed up from the slipway and were now gathered at the foot of the pier, busy repairing a large fishing net that was unrolled and spread across the ground. They hadn’t noticed Blake yet, so she took a moment to observe their surprisingly nimble hands fashioning intricate knots. The oldest of the men was a stern figure of average height, with salt and pepper hair and steely eyes. Blake guessed him to be in his mid-fifties, but his sea-weathered appearance made it hard to be specific. What was easy to see was his confidence. This man was the leader of the group, which meant he was almost certainly the trawler captain, Albert Roskilly, that Jasper Rowe had mentioned.

Working next to him, was a younger man who looked to be in his late teens. A tall and stringy figure, he had pallid skin and blonde hair that protruded like straw from beneath his black hand-knitted hat. His sparse beard was little more than fluff and he had a nervous energy about him, his eyes constantly flitting between the other men, then back to his slim fingers as they worked on the net.

The third man was early thirties, broad and powerful-looking, with a square jaw and a straight nose. He wore a black and yellow striped woollen hat, Cornish rugby colours, and had emerald green eyes that creased at the corners as he talked. He was an attractive man, but Blake could tell from the way he held himself that he was very aware of the fact. Suddenly, he glanced in her direction and those green eyes turned as dark as seawater on a stormy night. He muttered to the other men. All eyes turned towards her.

Blake felt a flutter of uncertainty as she drew closer. She had met men like this before. Men who believed they were still in charge of the world and that women were subservient. She held her head a little higher as she came to a halt in front of them.

‘Morning, gentlemen,’ she said, ensuring her voice was confident and even. ‘My name is Blake Hollow. I’m a private investigator. I’m assuming you know why I’m here.’

The older man straightened, wiped his left hand on his jacket and extended it towards her.

‘Albert Roskilly,’ he said in a gruff voice. Blake shook his hand, which was icy and calloused. He nodded to the young boy next to him. This here is Ewan, and that’s my son, Conrad.’

Blake nodded at them both. The young man, Ewan, stared at the ground, while Conrad took a moment to appraise her, a leery smile spreading across his full lips. Blake was surprised to learn he was the older man’s son; they looked nothing alike.

‘I didn’t realise there were girl private detectives,’ Conrad said, flashing his eyes at her in an unsubtle attempt at flirtation.

‘Well, what can I say? We women get up to all kinds of things these days.’ She peered down at the fishing trawler that had been hauled up the slipway. She could see the hole in the side of the boat now. It was large and ragged, like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. She turned back to Albert Roskilly. ‘Is that your boat? I heard someone tried to sink it.’

The fisherman’s eyes darkened. ‘That’s right.’

‘Can you tell me what happened?’

‘Not much to tell. Some bastard put a hole in it one night last week. When we came in the morning, the tide was in and the boat was already half under. If we’d come any later, she would have been lost to us.’

‘How long until it’s back on the water?’

‘God knows. We’re still waiting for the insurance company to send someone out. The repairs won’t get done until I know they’ll pay up. I can’t afford to take out another loan if they don’t.’ He nodded at the other men. ‘This is my crew. Until we can get that boat seaworthy again we’re all suffering. We’ve got mouths to feed, bills to pay.’

‘Little Ewan doesn’t,’ Conrad said, elbowing the young man. ‘He still lives with his mummy and daddy, don’t you, Ewan?’

The young man was quiet, staring intensely at his feet.

Blake had spent less than a minute in Conrad Roskilly’s company, but she already knew him well. She had met his type before—a misogynist and a bully, the type of man who got off on belittling those he saw as weak and vulnerable, undoubtedly to cover up his own deep-rooted insecurities and fears. She ignored him for now, focusing her attention on his father.

‘No one saw anything the night someone tried to sink your boat?’ she asked.

Albert shook his head. ‘You spoke to Jasper?’

Blake told him that she had.

‘Then you already know about the graffiti, the nets, all the rest.’

‘It sounds like whoever’s responsible has done quite a number on the harbour. Whose fish got ruined in the cold storage? Yours?’

‘Mine, and a few of the other boys’ catches as well.’

‘Any other boats attacked apart from yours?’

Albert shrugged. ‘Not to my knowledge.’

Blake’s eyes wandered back to the damaged trawler. ‘Have you had a problem with anyone lately, Albert?’

The man narrowed his eyes. ‘I mind my own business. Try not to have a problem with anyone.’

Conrad was staring at Blake again, that smug smile only serving to irritate her.

‘What about outside of the harbour? No strange phone calls, anonymous threats?’

‘Not me,’ Albert said, then glanced at the others. ‘Ewan?’

The teenager shoved his hands inside his jacket pockets and shrugged.

‘Is that no?’ Blake asked.

He shook his head.

Conrad jabbed the boy in the arm. ‘He’s not used to talking to girls. Probably too scared he’ll squirt in his pants.’

‘Leave the boy be,’ Albert said, a warning tone in his voice.’ You’ll have to forgive my son, Miss Hollow. Sometimes I think he was born with fish guts for brains.’

‘What about you?’ Blake settled her gaze on Conrad. ‘You seem like you could easily make a few enemies.’

The smile faded from the man’s lips and his eyes widened in mock innocence. ‘Me? You must be mistaken. I used to be a choir boy.’

‘John George Haigh used to be a choir boy, too.’


‘The Acid Bath Killer. He murdered a bunch of people and disposed of their bodies using sulphuric acid. He also thought he was a vampire.’

Conrad stared at her, momentarily speechless.

Blake suppressed a smile. ‘So no run-ins for you, either?’

‘No,’ Conrad said.

‘So, we have smashed windows and damaged nets, sabotaged freezer units, graffiti, and a hole in the side of your boat. Has anything else happened I should know about?’

Conrad cleared his throat. His expression was serious now, as if he had finally accepted Blake was here to help. ‘There’s one more thing. The night after the boat was hit, me and some of the other lads camped out again in the harbour, in case that fucker came back to do more damage. It was getting late. We were cold and about ready to give up for the night. But then I thought I saw someone creeping around one of the other boats. We tried to sneak up on him, but he must have heard us coming because once we reached the boat, it was like he’d vanished into thin air.’ He smiled grimly. ‘That was when we found the blood.’

Blake shivered as an icy chill swept across the harbour. The fishermen hardly seemed to notice it.

Conrad continued. ‘It was on the side of the boat. A large cross painted with a finger. “X” marks the spot.’

‘You’re sure it was blood?’

‘Looked like it to me.’

‘Whose boat?’

‘Tom Mathers’,’ Albert said. ‘He’s at sea right now. Back in a few days, I believe.’

Blake’s gaze shifted from man to man. ‘And this happened last week?’

‘My boat got hit Wednesday night,’ Albert said. ‘Police came around again the next day and did nothing. Conrad found the blood on Friday. Mathers and his crew camped out Saturday night in case someone decided to put a hole in the side of his boat. But nothing happened. They took her back out yesterday.’

Blake peered at the harbour and the swelling sea beyond. ‘Bored teenagers might spray graffiti on a wall or two, but they don’t sink boats. Which is why you should have called the police back when you discovered the blood.’

Albert Roskilly scowled. ‘What was the point? They’d already made it clear they weren’t going to lift a finger. That’s why Jasper had the idea to get hold of your dad and bring you down here. So what do you think? Are you going to catch this bastard for us or what?’

Movement to her left made Blake turn in the direction of the harbourmaster’s office. Her father stood at the window, watching silently. She heaved her shoulders then turned back to the fisherman. Conrad looked at her indignantly, while Ewan continued to stare at his feet.

‘It’s an “I’ll look into it but I can’t promise anything”,’ she said. ‘I work by the hour, and I expect to get paid regardless of the results. I won’t waste your time or money either. If I can’t find any leads, you’ll be the first to know. Does that work for you?’

Albert nodded slowly, mulling the words over, then held out his hand. Blake shook it.

‘You’ve got yourself a deal,’ he said.


Copyright © 2023 Malcolm Richards


The Dark Below releases 28th November 2023 in eBook, paperback, large print & hardcover editions.

Pre-order the ebook now.


Before you go

Did you claim your free books? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter and they're yours.

You can unsubscribe anytime and keep your free gift. I promise not to spam you. Read my privacy policy.

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.