2017 International Thriller Writers Award — Shortlisted, Best Paperback Original Novel
Phillip Scarnum must employ his cunning and seamanship to stay alive and out of prison in this fast-paced, gritty thriller.
Phillip Scarnum is sailing along Nova Scotia’s South Shore when he finds an abandoned lobster boat smashed on the rocks. He risks his life to haul it in, hoping to collect a big salvage fee, but before he can cash in, a fisherman’s body full of bullet holes washes up on a nearby beach. The Mounties seize Scarnum’s prize and start asking tricky questions about how well he knows the fisherman's wild widow. Scarnum needs to find out what happened on the boat, but as soon as he starts to investigate, some heavily armed Mexican drug runners show up, looking for 100 kilos of missing cocaine. Scarnum needs to keep a step ahead of the police and the gangsters if he wants to stay alive and out of prison and get the salvage fee that’s coming to him.
About the author
Stephen Maher is a columnist with Postmedia News, covering national politics on Parliament Hill since 2004, often writing about corruption and electoral wrongdoing. In 2012, after he and a colleague uncovered a telephone voter suppression campaign, he won several journalism awards, including a Michener Award, a National Newspaper Award, and the Canadian Hillman Prize. Stephen lives in Ottawa.
- Short-listed, International Thriller Writers Award, Best Paperback Original Novel
Excerpt: Salvage (by (author) Stephen Maher)
Thursday, April 22
Phillip Scarnum grinned into the cold sea breeze as he steered the schooner out of the shelter of Mahone Bay and into the swells and spray of the open ocean.
The green wooden hull of Cerebus bounded through the white-capped waves. Scarnum was at the wheel, in a thick sweater, an old pea jacket and wool watchman’s cap, feeling the salt spray for the first time that spring, steering the boat he’d worked on all winter through the surging ocean, watching the clouds scudding over the sea and the distant rocky green shore.
The sails were taut as drum skins on the port side in the stiff southwest wind, and the ropes creaked as they worked against the varnished booms. Sheets of spray splashed up on the deck, beading nicely on the wood he had spent so much time sanding and varnishing.
Scarnum scowled with pleasure at each gust, his bright blue eyes full of light, and every now and then took a drink of tea and black rum from his Thermos and smoked a cigarette.
It come on to blow in the early evening, as he steered the boat toward the spray-plumed rocks of the Sambro Ledges. He ought to have shortened sail, but he held off and let the overpowered boat struggle in the hard wind, thrashing through the waves, sending sheets of freezing spray up into the air.
He lit a smoke when he passed the first buoys that marked the passage through the ledges, hunching down into his jacket to keep his lighter out of the wind. With his face buried in his chest, he didn’t see the angry wind line on the grey water ahead of him, so he didn’t steer the schooner upwind, as he ought to have done.
The gale-force gust caught Cerebus in its teeth and made to knock her down, tearing at the sails and rigging with terrible force, pushing the boat over farther than it ought to have gone, so that the port rail went under the water.
Scarnum jerked his head up, clenched his teeth, and grimaced as the wind tore the jib near in two.
He cursed — “son of a whore!” — spat out his smoke and scampered forward, his rubber boots slipping on the lurching sea-slick wooden deck as he made his way to the bow of the schooner, where the ripped sail flapped hard on its wire stay.
He shinnied out the bowsprit, over the ocean, both legs and one arm wrapped around the varnished wooden pole, and tried to grab hold of the twisting sail with his free hand, the hard cold wind in his face.
At the moment he caught hold of the flapping sail, he felt a sickening lurch, and looked down just as the bow plunged forward into the trough of a rogue wave.
He was suddenly underwater, terrified and shocked out of his wits, breathless, and in the cold, terrible grip of the sea.
He was not strong enough to hold onto the pole. The sudden force of the water wrenched his hands free, and sucked him down and back. It would have pulled him free of the schooner, but for a heavy chain that ran from the bowsprit back to the hull. As he was pulled into the water, Scarnum’s right leg jammed, and when the bow sprang free, his thigh was wedged painfully between the chain and the hull. He surfaced upside down, hanging by his leg as the schooner sailed on. He spat a mouthful of brine, gasped with horror at the cold, and clutched desperately at the chain. He managed to wrap his arms in a death grip around the bowsprit and to wrestle himself upright.
He held on to the oak pole with all his strength, with his eyes closed, gasping for breath, shivering like a bastard, terribly cold, coughing water and breathing deeply.
When he finally opened his eyes, and started to wriggle backwards off the bowsprit, he spied the lobster boat off Sandy Cove.
It was a rectangle of white off the port bow, tiny in the distance, a speck in the jumble of green sea and white spray and grey rocks, and he only saw it for a second, since the swells were a good eight feet high and the bow of the schooner was lurching up and down, but he had spent years on the water, staring at shoreline in the distance, and he knew immediately that it was a boat, and that it was fetched up on the Sambro Ledges.
The ledges are killers, a series of kelp-covered slate outcroppings rising from the sea floor just off Chebucto Head, the last point of land before Halifax Harbour. A narrow channel runs between the rocks, and it is safe enough, with red and green buoys marking the way, but it is not a place where a sailor can afford to make mistakes, since the waves rolling in off the wide Atlantic Ocean get taller and rougher in the shallow channel, smashing on the rocks with all the power in the world.
By the time Scarnum got back to the wheel, Cerebus had left the channel and was heading for the rocks, so he had to stand, shivering, to wrestle the schooner back on course. When he was bound for the safety of the channel again, he went below, quickly changed into dry clothes and came back to the wheel, where he finally drank his mug of tea, lit a fresh cigarette, and steered the boat through the ledges.
The wind had veered east, and the big rolling swells he’d been surfing all day in a southwest breeze were jumbled with nasty, urgent little waves blowing east from the harbour, so the sea was confused and angry, and the schooner, which had been bounding through the waves all day, struggled through the ugly slop without a jib to power her.
A chill haze stretched out from the point of land at Chebucto Head, and the light turned grey and the air got colder. Scarnum lifted his binoculars and panned over the chaotic sea, seeking the boat among the vast white plumes of spray.
As he grew closer, he came to see that there surely was a boat where no boat should be, fetched up on the rocks between Sambro Island and Sandy Cove.
As Scarnum steered Cerebus through the passage, he looked frequently through his binoculars, watching the flat speck of white slowly take form. By the time he came abreast of the vessel, he could see it was a forty-foot fibreglass lobster boat, and it was pitched at a queer angle, its bow wedged up on the rocks, so that its stern was low in the water. The waves were smashing up over the deck, sending sheets of spray into the wind.
The lobstermen of Nova Scotia build their hulls thick, to withstand the worst battering that fierce winter gales can dish out, but they are not designed to rest on a reef of Halifax slate in a storm, and it seemed to Scarnum that the hull would soon breach, if it wasn’t already holed.
As he passed the boat, he sounded his air horn, but there was no answer, and he could see nobody on the deck. “Salvage,” he said to the wind, his lips tight and grey with cold.
He started to sing softly under his breath, a Newfoundland song his father used to sing when he was fishing.
I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her,
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.
A few hundred yards farther up the channel, he cranked up the schooner’s diesel, dropped the sails, turned the boat around, and motored back toward Sandy Cove.
When he was as close as he could get to the lobster boat without leaving the channel, a few hundred yards south, he lit a smoke, looked at his GPS, and fixed his position on his chart.
His depth sounder told him he was in 120 feet of water. The chart told him that the shore grew sharply shallower in between his position and the rock ledge off Sandy Cove, as shallow in places as four feet at low tide.
Cerebus’s shapely wooden keel stretched down six feet below the surface. It was a Tancook Schooner built in the 1950s, a sleek masterpiece of pine and oak, and Scarnum had spent the better part of the winter replacing her half-rotten planks, patiently steaming and bending and nailing pine boards into place, learning lessons of patience and cunning from the long-dead men who had built her, and he would be damned if he would touch bottom.
If he did, he would have to tell Doctor Greely, the Halifax dentist who owned her, that he had holed Cerebus on the Sambro Ledges on a routine delivery run, and everyone who knew him would soon know he’d hit a reef that every sailor in the province knew to avoid. People would assume he’d been drunk, and that wouldn’t do much for the career of a man who made most of his money doing sailboat delivery runs.
On the other hand, a new lobster boat costs something like $200,000, and the salvage fee would be a good chunk of money. Scarnum looked at the darkening sky, the churning water around him, and over at the lobster boat. If he sat too long, his prize might sink and he’d get nothing.
When he finished his smoke he turned the schooner toward the shore.
He eased the throttle and steered her in, glancing constantly at the depth sounder, the boat on the rocks, and back over his shoulder into the chaotic sea and the south wind.
After fifty yards, the number on the depth sounder started getting smaller, as he reached the beginning of the undersea ledge. The swells, which farther out were gentle and rolling even if they were eight feet high, got more forceful as the water got shallower, and the wind blew more spray off the top of them. The waves slapped against the stern of the schooner and spray blew up in the cockpit.
The depth sounder’s numbers changed as the swell lifted and lowered the boat: 40, 34, 38, 32.
When the depth sounder read twelve feet on the top of the swells, and eight at the bottom — as close to bottom as Scarnum wanted to get — Cerebus was still about one hundred feet from the lobster boat.
“Son of a whore,” he said, and he goosed the diesel and spun the wheel, bringing the bow into the chop. He powered offshore another 20 feet, set the engine to idle and ran up to the bow and dropped to his knees over the anchor winch. He opened it up and yanked on the chain as it spun off the spool, measuring it between his outstretched arms — six feet from fingertip to fingertip — so he would know how much line he was dropping. When he’d played out sixty feet of rope, he wrapped it around the cleat on the bow and moved back to the cockpit.
He sang to himself as he waited for the anchor to catch.
I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her.
When the line pulled tight, and the schooner pulled itself straight into the wind, Scarnum went below to the rope locker, put on a life jacket, and fetched a plastic bucket, a coil of light yellow nylon rope, a coil of heavy white rope, and an inflatable boat in a nylon bag.
It took him half an hour of pumping and cursing to fill the boat. When he was done, he cut two pieces from the end of the nylon rope, one short and one long. He used the short piece to tie the bucket to the inflatable. The longer piece he used to tie his life jacket to the inflatable — a lifeline in case he was washed out of the boat.
He tied one end of the yellow line to the bow of the little boat. The white rope he coiled carefully on the inflatable’s floor. He then tied the ends of both lines to a big cleat on the stern of the schooner.
He stood on the deck for a moment, thinking, then untied his lifeline, went below and lit the diesel heater in the cabin, then went back to the cockpit and retied his lifeline.
Scarnum cursed as he eased the boat over the stern of the schooner, and he cursed as he climbed down the little ladder. He cursed as he pulled the boat closer with his feet, and cursed as he sat down heavily in it, clutching an oar and the yellow nylon line in one hand.
Somehow, there was already water in the damned thing, and he could feel the seat of his pants get wet. He wedged his legs against the walls of the boat, pulled himself up to his knees and started to let out some of the yellow line tied to the stern of the schooner, letting the wind push the inflatable away from the schooner, toward the lobster boat. The boat rose and fell on the swells, jerking on the line as he let it out. The thick white line uncoiled slowly, falling into the grey sea in front of him. Spray splashed over the bow of the little boat and into his face. Scarnum grimaced, then grinned, and sang, out loud now.
I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her,
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.
There were more verses to the song, and Scarnum knew them, but he sang only the first, over and over again.
With his left hand he played out yellow line. With his right he held the oar. He jammed the end of it into his armpit, and jammed the blade into the water and used is as a rudder, managing to steer the inflatable boat through the swells a bit to the east, so that he would reach the lobster boat. As he let out the line, he looked anxiously back and forth between the schooner and the lobster boat.
When he was six feet away from his prize, he held the line taut, and looked over his shoulder at the lobster boat. The stern was being hammered by the choppy sea. It was so low in the water that the waves were splashing up onto the deck, but it was not so low that there would be any easy way to get up on the deck to make a line fast.
Scarnum eased out more line and steered the inflatable toward the surging stern of the lobster boat, until the two boats touched. He put his hand against the smooth fibreglass hull of the lobster boat’s stern and cursed when the boats slipped apart again. He had to drop to his arse to keep from falling in the roiling, freezing water between the boats, and had to paddle frantically to get the inflatable against the lobster boat again. Again he clutched the lobster boat, this time with both hands. He could hear the hull of the lobster boat grinding against the rocks below, and for the first time he could see the name of his prize, painted on the stern just below the water’s surface: the Kelly Lynn.
With each swell, the inflatable rode higher against the stern of the Kelly Lynn, which was shifting unpredictably on its rock pivot. Scarnum grabbed the white line, pulled it over his shoulder and looked up at the stern rail of the Kelly Lynn. As the two boats rose and fell, the plastic lip at the top of the lobster boat’s stern came tantalizingly close. Scarnum had to keep his hands moving constantly to keep the boats together. It started to rain.
After a few minutes of scrabbling against the stern of the Kelly Lynn, Scarnum realized he was never going to get hold of the stern rail from his knees.
“Son of a whore,” he said, quite loudly, and rose to his feet in the little boat, jamming his boots into the space where the inflated tube met the floor. He pressed his chest and face against the stern of the Kelly Lynn and reached up toward the stern rail. The inflatable twisted and pulled at his feet. For one sickening moment, the two boats pulled apart and Scarnum thought he was going to drop into the water.
On the next swell, the inflatable rose at the same moment that the Kelly Lynn sank down. Scarnum managed to get his hands and his elbows over the rail. When the sea rose again, he grunted and launched himself off the inflatable boat and managed to get his arms entirely up over the stern rail, so that his forearms were inside the Kelly Lynn. Behind him, the inflatable drifted away. His legs were in the icy sea, which surged and splashed at him as the Kelly Lynn rose and fell. Waves smacked hard against his back.
This, Scarnum knew, was as close as he was going to get to being on the deck of the boat. There was no way he could pull himself up. Behind him, the inflatable rode the waves. The line from the boat tugged at his life jacket.
To Scarnum’s right, on the starboard gunwale, there was a stainless steel cleat. He pulled himself toward it, his freezing hands clutching against the smooth fibreglass, the waves surging around his legs.
When he was next to the cleat, Scarnum held himself to the boat with his left arm and pulled the white line off his right shoulder and wrapped it around the steel post. It took him five minutes of exhausting work to manage a simple cleat hitch, with the heavy wet line, and the inflatable tugging hard at his life jacket and the sea pulling at his legs. By the time the line was fast, linking the lobster boat to the schooner, his left arm felt like it was going to be pulled out of its socket.
“I’s the b’y that builds the boat,” he sang softly through clenched teeth as he hauled the inflatable toward him. “I’s the b’y that builds the fucking boat.”
Scarnum’s left arm was getting weak and he was shivering uncontrollably. He had no choice but to drop into the little inflatable boat. His upper body landed in the boat but his legs were in the sea. A sickening amount of water surged into the boat as he pulled himself in. It was very cold.
The inflatable swung away from the lobster boat on its yellow nylon tether, riding the confused swells, jerking roughly on the line. Scarnum hauled himself to his hands and knees and set about bailing, his frigid fingers like claws holding the plastic bucket.
When he finished, he peeled off his gloves and jammed his icy grey hands in his armpits to warm them. He laid down in the boat, with his face buried in its rubber wall. When he could finally feel his fingertips again — when his hands changed from numb to sore — he started the long, tiring job of hauling the inflatable back to the schooner, pulling hand over hand on the nylon rope. The rain pelting his face was so cold it felt like sleet. Twice he had to stop to rest, warming his hands in his armpits again. The spray and rain mixed with tears on his face.
“I’s the b’y that sails her,” he sang. “I’s the b’y that sails her.”
S carnum almost fell in the water as his frozen hands clawed uselessly at the ladder on the Cerebus and his feet slipped on the rungs. He heaved himself into the cockpit and finally stopped singing. He lay on his back and cackled wildly, staring up into the falling rain, hugging himself.
“I got you, you son of a whore!” he shouted. “I fucking got you, you fucking whore!”
Then he crawled to the warmth of the cabin, where he wrapped himself around the diesel heater. His hands hurt badly as they filled with blood again, but it was the pain of life, and Scarnum grinned as he flexed his throbbing fingers. When the cold came out of his bones, he changed into dry clothes and had some long drinks of rum from the neck of the rum bottle. Then he went to the cockpit and smoked a cigarette in the rain, looking back at the lobster boat.
The Kelly Lynn came off the rocks eventually, but it took some doing.
On his first try, as the rain turned to snow, Scarnum pulled gently, slowly accelerating until the tow line went taut and the schooner strained in the waves. The old diesel was wide open but the Kelly Lynn wouldn’t give up her perch, even when he steered from side to side and tried to work her loose.
Scarnum figured that if he let the line go slack and ran the schooner at full speed the sudden shock might pull the Kelly Lynn loose, but he was afraid it might tear the stern cleat out of the old schooner, so he hauled in the tow line and tied several smaller lines to it about ten feet out. These lines he tied to other cleats on the schooner, hoping to distribute the strain. Then he opened the diesel up and ran due south, bracing himself for the shock.
When the lines pulled taut, one of the lighter ones rent with a sickening snap and the schooner’s bow twisted to the port. Scarnum kept the engine wide open, the taut lines singing. He let out a deep breath when they slackened. The Kelly Lynn had budged.
It took twenty minutes of sawing back and forth and a few more sudden jerks before she was fully afloat and he could start to tow her, stern-first, into the channel and back toward Chester through the snow in the darkness.
In the sheltered waters behind Betty Island, Scarnum managed to get a line around the bow cleat of the Kelly Lynn, so that she would tow more easily, and he shortened the tow line considerably when he got near to Chester, so that he could manoeuvre it more easily through the tangle of lobster buoys and moored yachts in Mahone Bay.
Scarnum slowed way down as he steered into the Back Harbour, and drifted slowly through the mooring field at Charlie Isenor’s boatyard, where he kept his boat. He used a gaff to pluck a spare mooring buoy out of the water, then waited as the Kelly Lynn drifted in, hauling the tow line out of the water onto the deck of the schooner. When the lobster boat was close, he tied the tow line to the mooring buoy and goosed the schooner’s engine so it was out of the way when the lobster boat came up short on its new mooring.
Scarnum’s exhaustion settled in suddenly as soon as the Kelly Lynn was moored, and he could think of nothing but his bunk aboard his own boat as he tied up the Cerebus to Charlie’s dock.
Charlie was there on the wharf, waiting for him, a yellow slicker pulled over the workout clothes he liked to wear in the evenings. He was holding a big six-volt flashlight, playing the beam over the Kelly Lynn, which was floating free, although low in the water.
The house that he shared with his wife Annabelle overlooked the boatyard and mooring field at the tip of the Back Harbour, and Charlie liked to sit at his kitchen table and look out at his domain while Annabelle watched television in the evening. Down the little hill from the Isenor’s bungalow was his workshop, an old barn of unpainted, weathered wood. A bit farther up the bay was the boat shed, where Scarnum had replanked Cerebus. The rest of the yard was full of sailboats on steel cradles, and piles of scrap lumber and marine detritus.
A long grey wooden wharf ran between the edge of the yard and the bay, its deck resting on a crib of heavy, stone-filled wooden timbers. A floating dock with a few boats tied up to it was attached to the wharf. Beyond was the mooring field — with buoys for sailboats.
“Holy fuck, Scarnum!” said Charlie as Scarnum climbed up onto the wharf. “Whatcha, buy a fucking lobster boat? Did you inhale too much of that paint thinner? Jesus Murphy!”
“Salvage,” he said. “Found it banging on the rocks on Chebucto Head.”
“Holy fuck,” said Charlie. “You managed to haul that rig off the Sambro Ledges, by yourself, in a fucking snowstorm?” Scarnum was too tired to do anything but nod.
Charlie, for once struck speechless, pulled off his ball cap and scratched at his bristly grey hair, looking first at the Kelly Lynn then back at Scarnum. He let out a cackle.
“Lord tundering fuck, Phillip, you son of a whore, that must have been a job of work. How’d you get a line on her?” Scarnum smiled.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Charlie,” he said. “It weren’t fucking easy.”
Then the two men laughed together, Charlie giggling, Scarnum chuckling and wheezing.
When they finished, Charlie took a good look at Scarnum, taking in the stooped shoulders and the grey pallor of his normally tanned face.
“You look like an old bag of shit,” he said. “Your eyes are like two piss holes in the snow. You’d better get to bed and you can tell me about it in the morning. You want a bowl of chowder before you turn in? Annabelle made one today.”
Scarnum shook his head and nodded toward his boat. “I wanna hit me bunk,” he said.
Charlie put his hand on his shoulder and pushed him toward his boat.
As Scarnum started to open the hatch on the deck of his boat, Charlie called out to him.
“Hey,” he said. “You been aboard the Kelly Lynn?”
Scarnum looked up at him and shook his head.
“Funny thing for there to be a lobster boat floating around without a crew, isn’t it?” he said. “Could be it broke free of its mooring and drifted there, I suppose.”
He let that sink in for a minute.
“Yuh,” Scarnum said. “Or it could be some poor bastard fell off the damn thing and drowned and his widow’s home fretting, not sure if he’s at the bar or dead in the fucking water.”
He shook himself and climbed back onto the wharf. Charlie held out the flashlight for him to take.
“I’ll go out and make sure there’s not somebody dead of a heart attack below. You call the Coast Guard and report the salvage.”
Charlie brightened and put the ball cap back on his head.
“That I will do,” he said and started to climb back to his warm house as Scarnum climbed into the little aluminum runabout that Charlie kept at the end of the dock.
“If there’s a body aboard I’ll come tell you,” Scarnum called out. “Otherwise I’m going to sleep, and in the morning I’m going to see a lawyer about a salvage claim.”
It was easy as pie to climb onto the lobster boat from the little rowboat in the sheltered bay, and Scarnum shivered as he thought of his struggle hours ago.
He played the light around the deck of the boat. There was nothing to see, just a heavy winch, some of the plastic boxes used to store lobsters lashed to the back of the wheelhouse, some old rope, and a few buoys.
Scarnum held his breath before he entered the wheelhouse, half expecting to see some old fishermen dead of a heart attack on the floor.
“I’s the b’y that builds the boat,” he sang to himself. “I’s the b’y that sails her.”
But inside, there was nothing special. The instrument screens were all dead. The throttle handle, Scarnum noticed, was pushed all the way forward. He absently pulled it back to the off position.
Below, there was six inches of water sloshing around in the crew quarters. There was small TV, three narrow bunks, a duffle bag and a little galley with a propane stove and fridge and some little cupboards.
In a daze, he made his way back to his boat and collapsed into his berth, still fully dressed.
Peppered with plenty of sex and salty language, [Salvage] shows that Maher knows his way around Nova Scotia and boats.
Salvage soars above the average paperback thriller … exciting, entertaining, and a lot of fun.
Maher is a writer to watch; his talent takes you right into the action and is well worth the price of admission.
Don Graves, Canadian Mystery Reviews
One fast-paced action scene after another.
The richly detailed descriptions and sharply plotted story should pull you right in.
The Chronicle Herald Metro Edition
Salvage is the real thing — a picture of Nova Scotia’s South Shore as it is today and really good contemporary noir fiction.
Reviewing the Evidence
An interesting work by a writer of talent and, for the sailing enthusiast, a fun read.
Globe and Mail
Maher vividly captures the East Coast, not only the wind and the tangy scent of the sea but the accents and talk of the people in Scarnum’s world — as rough and salty as the waters they sail.
Mood and setting are the real appeals here, though readers will be tantalized about the identity of Scarnum.