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Star of africa, p.10
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       Star of Africa, p.10

           Scott Mariani

  But in the location Jude had given, there was nothing but blank blue ocean. No markers anywhere close. If the incident map could be trusted – and Ben knew it could – there were two current piracy attacks taking place along the east coast of Africa. One was happening off Tanzania near Zanzibar, a thousand miles to the south of Jude’s coordinates. The other stricken vessel was in the five-hundred-mile stretch of waters between Mozambique and Madagascar, a further thousand miles south again. Neither of them could possibly be the Svalgaard Andromeda.

  The distances were impossible. Having set out from Salalah in Oman, it was extremely unlikely that the vessel could have reached Zanzibar by now, let alone the coast of Mozambique.

  The obvious question came into Ben’s mind. Could Jude have got the coordinates wrong?

  Ben couldn’t believe that. Firstly, Jude was a quick and precise thinker, with a superb memory for facts and numbers. He knew better than to make such a huge error. Besides which, the coordinates were too specific not to have come from the ship’s own navigation computer. Ben was certain that, however Jude had been able to see them, he’d have noted them down correctly to the last number.

  Which left two further possibilities. One, that the incident was in the process of being recorded by the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. Or two, that they didn’t yet know it was happening.

  ‘Why wouldn’t the crew have called it in before it kicked off?’ Ben said. ‘You can’t miss an incoming pirate attack on radar. They must have known what was about to happen.’

  Jeff just shook his head. ‘Unless it all went down too fast. Surprise attack? In open sea, I agree, it seems unlikely. But however it happened, the pirates must’ve gained control quick enough to prevent them from getting out a distress call in time, and cut off their radio access. Sounds like a seriously well-planned op.’

  The scenario made sense to Ben. But Jude had somehow been able to get an email through. ‘Why send the message here, to you?’ he wondered aloud. ‘Why not contact the authorities? The ship’s officers would have known who to go to in this situation.’

  It only took Ben another moment to realise what that had to mean. He glanced at Jeff, whose expression told him his friend was thinking the same thing he was.

  ‘That’s because there are no ship’s officers,’ Jeff said grimly. ‘They’re toast, and all that’s left are the ordinary deckhands. Those blokes wouldn’t have the first idea who to call in an emergency. They’re on their own out there.’

  Ben brought Jude’s email back up onscreen, staring at it as though he could will the words to squeeze out more information. ‘“Maintaining position”,’ he read out, tapping the screen with a finger. ‘What’s that about?’

  ‘What else?’ Jeff said. ‘They’re not moving, that’s all it means.’

  ‘But why would he tell us? I know him. He’s a planner. He wouldn’t waste words on the obvious. He’s thinking two steps ahead here.’ Ben chewed his lip and struggled to think what it could be. An idea flashed into his mind. ‘Where would the crew hide when the ship was taken?’

  ‘Below decks,’ Jeff said. ‘For sure. That’s where I’d go.’

  ‘Me too. I’d head straight for the engine room. Chances are the guys already down there wouldn’t even know it was happening at first, until the others ran down and told them. They’d bunch together. Strength in numbers.’

  Jeff nodded, seeing where Ben was going with this. ‘And the engine room has the strongest hatches to keep out water in an emergency. They could lock themselves down tighter than a fish’s arse in there, and they’d have independent control over the engines and power. They could shut everything down and hold her steady, and there’s bugger all the pirates could do about it from up top.’

  ‘Which would mean we’re looking at a sitting target,’ Ben said. ‘And assuming that Jude got these position coordinates just before, or just after, it all started going down, we know where to find it.’

  ‘Give or take,’ Jeff said, raising an eyebrow. ‘It’s the ocean. Things tend to drift around on it.’

  Ben said nothing. He turned his attention back on the computer screen. His heart was thudding. He sat frozen in indecision for a moment, then grabbed the desk phone and started punching out the number. Then he stopped.

  His whole career between leaving the SAS and starting up the business at Le Val had been predicated on the simple and well-proven fact that calling in law enforcement authorities was not always the most effective or advisable way to deal with a problem. Ben had been involved with several kidnap and hostage situations in which local police and paramilitary units had got there before him. Too many times, he’d seen the results of botched tactics, conflicting orders, poor communication and general inefficiency result in the wholesale slaughter of members of the raid team, the hostage takers and the hostages themselves. He did not trust these people. He was not going to let the same thing happen to his son.

  Ben put the phone down.

  Jeff’s look was so intense that his eyes were like lasers. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ he said.

  ‘There isn’t a lot of choice,’ Ben said. ‘And even less time. I’d better get moving.’

  Jeff kept up the intense stare. ‘What’s with the I?’

  ‘He’s my kid,’ Ben said.

  ‘And he’s my responsibility,’ Jeff said. ‘I’m the one he’s asking for help.’

  Jeff would never know how much that stung. Ben’s guts writhed at the reminder that in such a moment of danger, Jude hadn’t even been able to get in touch with his own father.

  ‘I’m not asking you to come with me,’ Ben said.

  ‘And you’d better not ask me not to,’ Jeff said hotly. ‘I’m in, and that’s it. Don’t fucking fight me on this one, mate.’

  Ben pursed his lips. There was no use arguing. And Jeff was right. There was no way one man on his own could handle this task.

  ‘Okay,’ he said after a pause. ‘If we’re going to get Jude out of there in one piece, we need to do it right. Full-on operation, no half measures. You know as well as I do what that’s going to involve. A lot more than I can afford right now.’

  Jeff looked affronted. ‘Money? I can’t believe you’d even talk to me about money. I got Jude into this. I’ll do whatever it takes to get him out of it. I don’t care if it costs every last penny in the bank.’

  Ben lit a Gauloise. In ten seconds, he’d already smoked it down halfway. ‘The biggest problem we have is getting there. We need to be over six thousand kilometres away, and we need to be there now. There’s no time to mess about with visas. And the kind of hardware we’re going to need won’t pass for hand luggage. We’ll need our own aircraft.’

  Jeff spread his hands. ‘That, as you say, is a problem.’

  Ben worked on the cigarette a few more moments, puffing great clouds of smoke. Then it came to him. ‘Not when you can walk on water, it isn’t.’

  Jeff’s face lit up. ‘Kaprisky.’

  Ben nodded. ‘Time to call in that favour.’

  Jeff was already looking up the number. ‘You know, two is going in a bit light for a job like this. There’s no shortage of blokes who’ll jump in if we ask.’

  Ben agreed. At least four names sprang to mind and were just a phone call or a text message away. Men he trusted, and whom he knew would drop everything to rush to his aid. But the clock was working against them. It could take forty-eight hours to scramble everyone together in one place. ‘There’s no time for that, Jeff. It’ll just have to be the two of us.’

  ‘You mean the three of us,’ said a voice from behind them.

  Ben and Jeff turned. Tuesday Fletcher was standing in the office doorway and he’d been listening to every word they’d been saying.

  Chapter 17

  Three more times on his way down from D Deck, Jude almost got caught. What saved him was the gloom in the windowless passages, now that the bright neon lights that normally burned day and night had gone out. The deeper he ventured into the bowe
ls of the ship, the darker it would get. He didn’t dare to use the Maglite until he could see nothing at all.

  It was clear that the pirates were palpably more agitated now than before. The sudden loss of power to the whole ship was a real problem for them, and the fuss it seemed to be causing convinced Jude more than ever that they needed the vessel to be serviceable in order to steal it.

  He was beginning to get a sense of their plans. If they’d wanted to hold it for ransom, he was certain they’d be keeping the crew alive to give them more bargaining leverage. But they weren’t doing that. They were apparently set on killing everyone on board, which told Jude they had other intentions. To use it as a floating base, maybe, as Gerber had said. Or sell it. The cargo alone must be worth a fortune.

  Those weren’t comforting thoughts. Somehow, Jude kept telling himself, he and the rest of the crew were just going to have to hang on tight and hope that help arrived before it was too late.

  Doubts were already crowding his mind. What if Jeff didn’t receive the email? What if nobody came?

  Looking in all directions, Jude reached the corridor where the bosun’s body had been dragged away earlier. The floor was still slippery with blood. Jude gingerly sidestepped the trail of it and hurried on, past the open door of the mess.

  He skidded to a halt. Crept back to the doorway and peered furtively through it.

  Inside the mess canteen, a white man was standing with his back to the doorway. He was alone, bathed in the light from a porthole window and gazing out of it as if deep in contemplation, calmly sipping on a Coke and obviously unbothered by the blood all over the floor. The same small metal case Jude had seen him with before was still cuffed to his left wrist.


  Jude froze in the doorway, uncertain what to do. He desperately wanted to keep moving and rejoin his friends down below in the relative safety of the engine room. But he couldn’t ignore the part of him that wanted to understand what was happening here, and who this guy Carter really was.

  Jude stepped silently into the room and sneaked up behind Carter, terrified that the man might suddenly whip round, spot him and put a bullet in his heart. He hardly dared to breathe as he eased the heavy torch out of his belt.

  He was just three steps away when Carter sensed the presence in the room, and turned suddenly. They stared at each other. Then Carter dropped his Coke and his right hand dived for his pistol and Jude closed in and lashed out with the Maglite. The solid aluminium tube thumped into the side of Carter’s head with a dull meaty crack.

  Carter dropped the gun. His eyes rolled back in their sockets and he went over sideways, collapsed against a plastic chair and then slumped to the floor.

  Jude ran and shut the door, then hurried back to the still body. For a second he was concerned he might have killed the man, but a check of his pulse told him Carter was just unconscious. Thankfully, the torch was still working after being used as a club. Jude started searching through the man’s pockets for a wallet or a passport. He found a packet of gum, loose change, a loaded spare magazine for the pistol, and a ring with a pair of small keys.

  Jude guessed that one of the keys must be for the handcuff on Carter’s left wrist. The other, presumably, was for the case. Why would anyone go around with a reinforced metal box chained to them unless they were protecting something important? Jude wanted to know what. He soon found which key was which. The case had two locks. They opened smoothly and easily. With a glance at Carter to check he was still unconscious, Jude flipped up the lid.

  The case was lined with black egg-box foam and contained five thick rolls of cash that between them added up to more money than Jude had ever seen before. Tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds. Beside the rolls, a collection of three US passports were banded together with elastic. Jude checked them each in turn. Each had the same photograph of the man he’d just knocked out, but all three had different names: Tyrone Carter, Larry Holder and Payton Bequette.

  So which one of them was he, if any?

  Under the passports lay a thick, sealed manila envelope. Jude pulled it out and ripped it open and found that it was stuffed with printed papers, some kind of legal documentation that was meaningless to him.

  That was when he noticed, nestling inside the foam under where the envelope had been, a leather pouch tied with a thong. He let the papers spill to the floor, reached down and picked it up. Something hard inside. And heavy. It felt like a lump of stone, big enough to fill his hand. Jude untied the leather thong and opened the pouch. The thing inside was wrapped in tissue paper.

  Jude peeled the wrapping open to reveal the object. He held it raised up on the flat of his palm, so that the light from the porthole shone on it.

  What the—?

  At first sight, it looked like a big lump of clear crystal, like one of those pieces of quartz his mother had once collected. She’d lined every window-sill and mantelpiece in the vicarage with a whole variety of ornamental rocks and as a young boy Jude had learned all their different names – moonstone, amethyst, haematite, jasper, citrine, rose quartz. This one was much larger and more uneven in shape, all angles and pits and sharp edges. But despite its roughness its clarity was like no crystal he’d ever seen before. It seemed to glow with an inner light of its own.

  Jude swallowed. He felt suddenly dizzy with confusion. It couldn’t be. It was way too big. Impossible.

  Or maybe it wasn’t impossible. He could think of only one reason why a person would carry something like this inside a locked box chained to their wrist.

  Jude couldn’t take his eyes off the thing. He couldn’t believe it. He could have stared at it all day long – but then he remembered where he was. On a hijacked ship with armed pirates swarming from deck to deck looking for someone to kill. He hurriedly wrapped the lump of whatever it was back inside the tissue paper, replaced it in its pouch and jammed it into his jeans pocket. It only just fit in there. As an afterthought, he snatched up Carter’s fallen pistol, which looked pretty much like the one Jeff Dekker had let him shoot at Le Val. He remembered roughly how it worked. ‘Designed for morons to use,’ Jeff had laughed. ‘And they do, so you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.’ Jude stuffed the gun into his waistband against the small of his back, dropped the spare magazine in his other pocket, then snatched up the torch and stuck it back through his belt, like a sword. He sprang to his feet, ran to the door and tentatively peeked out.

  The coast was still clear, but Jude could hear voices and footsteps approaching from up the passage. With a last glance back at Carter’s inert body, he slipped out and ran like crazy.

  The others heard him pounding on the engine room door. ‘It’s me,’ he panted. ‘Let me in!’

  The bowels of the ship were plunged into near-total darkness, and without the Maglite, Jude could have been groping blindly about for weeks through the maze of passageways. As the hatch opened, he was dazzled by a torch beam shining in his face. Unseen hands grabbed him by the arms and hauled him in through the hatch. It seemed eerily quiet and still down here, without the steady background chatter and vibration of the engines. When the hatch clanged shut behind him, it felt to Jude as if he was stepping inside a tomb. The heat and stench of enclosed bodies hit him. Shadows danced everywhere. The beams of several flashlights pointed at him from the darkness.

  ‘We were worried as hell,’ Gerber said. ‘Those bastards must be all over the ship by now.’

  ‘They are,’ Jude said, nodding and gasping for breath, which wasn’t easy in the airless atmosphere so far below decks. ‘They started going apeshit when the power went down. But they didn’t see me.’

  ‘Did you manage to do it?’ Everyone but Scagnetti was crowded around Jude, anxiously waiting for the answer to the big question.

  ‘I did it,’ Jude said. ‘The message went off without a hitch. That’s the best we can do.’

  There were grins and sighs of relief all round. ‘Well done, son,’ Diesel said, thumping Jude on the shoulder.

So now what?’ Condor asked nervously.

  ‘Now we wait,’ Gerber said. ‘What the hell else is there to do?’

  ‘Pray to God we make it through this,’ said Trent.

  Gerber gave a grunt. ‘You go ahead and pray to that sonofabitch, if it pleases you. I stopped wasting my breath on him thirty years ago.’

  ‘I need to use the bathroom,’ Jude said, and Gerber motioned with his torch to show him over to a corner of the engine room where a bucket had been placed, out of sight in as private a spot as possible. It had already been used more than once. One bucket, for thirteen trapped men. As time went by, the smells inside the enclosed space would become horrendous.

  In all the excitement, nobody had noticed the lump in Jude’s pocket sticking out as big as a tennis ball. Now that he had a moment’s privacy, he took it out and reopened the leather pouch to examine its contents more closely under the beam of his Maglite.

  There was little doubt in his mind what it was he was holding. It was hard to believe the thing was even real. But it was real, all right. The more he stared at it, the more bewildered he became as questions layered up in his mind. Was this what the pirate leader was after, the big man with the awful scarred face? Or had Carter, or whatever his name was, been keeping it from him?

  Amid all the uncertainty, one thing was for sure. If this thing was what Jude thought it was, forget the value of the cargo. Forget the value of the whole ship and everything aboard. Jude was no expert, but he was pretty certain you could buy an entire fleet of ships for the value of what he was holding in his hand.

  He spent a fevered moment debating with himself whether he should tell the others what he’d found. Gerber, Hercules and Diesel, he felt strongly that he could trust. Some, like Trent, Allen, Lorenz and Park, he knew much less well, and it worried him how they might react. As for Scagnetti, it would be running a huge risk. Jude remembered Mitch’s warning. Scagnetti would be the first to slip a blade between your ribs for even a few bucks. With something like this, Jude wouldn’t trust him any more than he trusted the pirates. He wasn’t closed inside a steel box with them.

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