Star of africa, p.11
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       Star of Africa, p.11

           Scott Mariani
 

  Jude decided that he should keep his secret to himself, at least for now. Then what was he going to do with it? He’d had no clear idea in his head when he’d picked it up, just a vague notion that he didn’t want Carter to have it. Should he toss it in the sea, first chance he got? Return it to the hijackers and hope for leniency? Use it as a bargaining chip to plead for the lives of the crew? Some hope. The pirates would just take it and kill them all anyway.

  If the pirates didn’t, Carter certainly would. When the man came to and found it was gone, he was going to know exactly who took it, and he was going to want that person’s blood. Jude had seen him personally execute four men as if it were nothing. What wouldn’t he do to the thief who’d stolen this from him?

  Even in the oppressive heat of the engine room, Jude felt a coldness wash over him. In taking this thing, he might have just made the worst mistake of his life.

  Chapter 18

  Pender let out a long, tortured groan as he opened his eyes and the agony shuddered through his skull. ‘Jesus Christ!’ He tried to shake his head to clear it, but that only made the pain worse. ‘Motherfucker!’

  He managed to prop himself up on one elbow. There was a burst of panic before he remembered that the blood on the floor had been there before, and wasn’t his own. With that memory came the recollection of the last thing he’d seen before the white flash and the ensuing unconsciousness. It was the thin young blond-haired guy sneaking up behind him with the torch in his hand. The bastard who’d clobbered him. He could have busted his damn head open. Must have been one of the crew. Why wasn’t he dead already?

  Pender struggled into a kneeling position. As he moved, he felt the tug on his left wrist from the chain connecting him to the metal case. He had to smile. That was all that mattered. The crew weren’t his problem. Headaches, he could deal with. What was a little knock on the nut? A man in his position could forgive and forget such minor transgressions with great magnanimity.

  But then the smile dropped like a ton weight from Pender’s face when he saw that the lid of the case was open. Someone had been through his pockets and got the key. The bundles of cash were strewn about. The thick envelope was torn open, the phony legal papers it contained scattered on the floor.

  He didn’t give a shit about the papers, not even about the money. With a despairing moan he yanked the case to him and delved inside. He blinked. It was empty. Empty!

  No. No. It couldn’t be. Please Christ oh Christ don’t let it be. Pender searched frantically about the floor, but there was nothing there.

  It was gone. His rock. Fucking GONE!

  He wanted to scream. He did scream. A howl like a wounded dog.

  His aching head was completely forgotten. He leapt to his feet and dashed from the mess room, running aimlessly in a breathless panic until he got a grip on himself.

  Gone. Stolen. By the same dirty rotten little shit who’d sneaked up on him. Was this a targeted attack? How could he have known what was in the case? No, it was impossible. It was just some sailor.

  Pender was floored by this unthinkable turn of events. For this to happen, after all he’d been through, after planning everything so carefully down to the last detail!

  The plan had been so beautifully worked out. Starting with the escape from Oman, personally organised weeks in advance by none other than Eugene Svalgaard, heir to the shipping line dynasty, as the perfect way to smuggle out of the country what was possibly the hottest piece of stolen property in modern history. Who better to set up a passage for three anonymous stowaways on board a ship than the owner of the whole fleet? All it had really taken was a small donation to Captain O’Keefe’s retirement fund. Fifty thousand bucks was a drop in all the world’s oceans put together for a man as obscenely rich as Svalgaard.

  Pender’s fee for the job had been a little steeper, but then five million dollars was the going rate for hiring a professional mercenary and sometime jewel thief, never caught, to assemble a crew of hitters and carry out a home invasion robbery so serious that its perpetrators could never work again. The third-generation Dutch shipping magnate from New York hadn’t even blinked at the cost. As both Svalgaard and Pender knew very well, five million was a ridiculously small investment to make in return for such incredible booty.

  Of course, ol’ Svalgaard had never had the faintest suspicion that, when he turned up in Mombasa for the rendezvous, there would be no ship, no Pender, and worst of all, no magnificent uncut rock the size of your fist waiting for him to collect and hustle home to his secure vault. The smug little crook was so used to getting his own way, it hadn’t seemed to even occur to him that a common gun-for-hire like Lee Pender could outfox him and snatch the loot for himself.

  Yet it had been so damned easy. Already drooling over the fifty-thousand-dollar bribe Svalgaard had slipped him to take on the unauthorised passengers, Captain O’Keefe hadn’t needed too much persuading to accept a further hundred grand in cash from ‘Ty Carter’ to look the other way and make sure nothing was reported when the pirates appeared. Nobody would get hurt, Pender had assured O’Keefe. The pirates would help themselves to a few cargo containers and then go on their way rejoicing. It was just business. What did the captain care, anyway? This was to be his last voyage.

  Pender had been a step ahead of everyone. The look on O’Keefe’s face when the old fart clocked that he’d been tricked! And how that arrogant burger-stuffing hog Svalgaard would rant and rave on the dockside in Mombasa, when it hit him that he’d been double-crossed and that the fortune he’d been so sure of had just slipped irretrievably out of his hands, and he couldn’t breathe a word about it to anyone! Pender hoped he’d have an apoplexy and drop dead on the spot.

  Meanwhile Pender would be far, far away and laughing. Exactly where was the only part of his plan he hadn’t finalised yet: with this kind of wealth, he could spend the rest of his life in any paradise he chose. Monaco or Mustique? Palm Springs or Tahiti? Such tough decisions. Why not all of them, he’d dreamed over and over again. He could just hop back and forth from one palatial beachside mansion to another in his jet whenever he got bored.

  The most worrying part of his plan had been put in place weeks earlier, two days after Svalgaard had confirmed the ship’s departure date from Salalah. That was when Pender had flown to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with Jean-Pierre Khosa, known to hard-bitten veterans of African wars like Pender as ‘the General’. General of what exactly, nobody knew for sure. Pender had never met Khosa before, but he’d heard the stories. Who hadn’t? If even just half the stuff people whispered about the man was true, it was still enough to make you piss dust.

  It hadn’t been easy making contact with Khosa. Until the last minute, Pender had been nervous about whether he’d even turn up for the lunchtime appointment in the lavish suite in Nairobi’s exclusive Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel. When the General eventually made his appearance, he was wearing a tailored Italian silk suit and accompanied by a pair of stone-faced bodyguards, who frisked Pender thoroughly for weapons and wires. Finally, the meeting was allowed to take place. Its purpose: to put the lucrative and highly illegal business proposition to Khosa, whom Pender knew to be badly in need of cash to further his own cause, one that Pender had no interest in.

  He’d had to be extremely careful not to let too much slip with Khosa. The General might be one scary-looking sonofabitch, but he was also very, very smart. Over French cuisine and expensive wine, Pender had laid out the carefully concocted fiction that he was acting as a courier on behalf of a very rich client – that much was more or less accurate. Where Pender’s story deviated from the truth was that he was tasked with delivering certain documents which, without going into all the boring details, were worth a vast amount of money to the client and legally too sensitive to be carried by normal means, hence Pender’s involvement and the unorthodox means of transportation.

  Khosa had just nodded through all of that. To Pender’s indescribable but very well-hidden relief, the General was content to s
kim over the boring details. He was just waiting to find out what was in this for him.

  The fiction continued: Pender’s client had powerful enemies who stood to gain equally from the destruction of these documents, and thanks to new intelligence it was now believed that these people might have somehow infiltrated the client’s network in an attempt to intercept the package on arrival in Mombasa, or possibly even sooner. This made it essential for the documents to be removed from the ship, either by helicopter or boat, before someone else got to them first.

  The tale was all highly improbable, of course, but it was the best Pender could come up with, and he’d put on a good act of making it sound semi-plausible. A lawyer would have laughed – but the General was no lawyer (although he had allegedly ordered the murders of a few in his time, and good for him). Pender’s hope had been that the promise of hard cash would be sufficient to distract Khosa from looking too hard for holes in the story.

  And Pender’s gamble had paid off. The offer of one-point-five million dollars, either in cash or wired to the account of Khosa’s choice, had got the General’s eyes twinkling exactly as hoped. For that sum, Khosa’s task would be to supply the manpower and the means to whisk Pender and his precious ‘documents’ away, mid-ocean.

  It was Khosa who had come up with the clever notion of the faked-up pirate attack, and Pender had jumped at the idea as enthusiastically as Khosa had jumped at the money. Piracy offered the perfect cover for the hijack. So many ships were already being knocked off around Africa that one more would attract very few questions. Pender’s only concern had been that there were so many real pirate gangs hunting about the Indian Ocean for easy victims. What if one of them hit the Andromeda before Khosa showed up? It was a risk he had to take.

  An aggressive negotiator, Khosa had imposed certain conditions to sweeten the deal his way: in addition to the flat fee, which was quickly bumped up to two million dollars, the General laid claim to both the ship and her cargo, as spoils of war to take away and dispose of as he saw fit. This would, of course, Khosa had added with a smile, include the crew, on the understanding that he could either just kill them all on the spot or put them to other uses of his own choosing. If Pender would agree to that, they were in business.

  Pender had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going along with Khosa’s whims. The $500,000 price hike had been expected and allowed for. He couldn’t care less what happened to Eugene Svalgaard’s valuable property, and he didn’t give a rolling rat fuck if the General’s band of cutthroats got their jollies slaughtering a bunch of ignorant sailors, either. Screw ’em.

  And so, not without some trepidation, Lee Pender had entered into a binding agreement with the most notoriously unpredictable, grasping, violent and ruthless maniac in Africa. The phony legal papers purporting to be worth so much to his nonexistent client had already been forged, just in case he’d needed to show something to back up his cover story. White and Brown, the two expendables, had already been hired. The passage from Salalah was all set up with Svalgaard and O’Keefe. All that remained was to break into the home of Hussein Al Bu Said at the appointed time, take care of business there, snatch the rock, race undetected across the city to the port, jump aboard ship, endure a few days’ discomfort cooped up in the company of White and Brown, wait for Khosa’s dramatic entry and, at last, get the hell out of there a fabulously rich man. All the while letting not a living soul, least of all Jean-Pierre Khosa, know what he was really carrying. Piece of cake.

  But for all its dangers and complexities, it had been the most beautiful plan. This had been the Big One that Pender had spent his life ready and willing to do anything to make happen. After surviving twenty-four years in the private military contractor business, he wanted out before his well ran dry or he met a bullet. At age fifty-five, with thirty more years of life expectancy, he’d literally wept with joy that such unbelievable good fortune could have fallen into his lap. He could walk away from the whole shitty world, the richest fugitive in history. Another new identity with passport and driver’s licence to match, a nose job to alter his appearance a little, a high-rolling lifestyle of fast cars and beautiful women and casinos and more money than he could hope to spend if he lived to be a hundred, no matter how hard he tried. That was the intoxicatingly wonderful future he’d envisaged.

  He’d been so close to the finish line that he could taste the Martini cocktails, feel the soft white warm sand between his toes and hear the giggles of the adoring bikini-clad girls.

  And now everything was suddenly falling apart. Pender could actually visualise his plans cracking and raining to the floor in pieces like fragmented china.

  He could already have been out of here, if fucking Khosa hadn’t insisted on personally staying aboard the cargo ship until his guys finished off the last of the crew and sorted out the mysterious engine and power failure, instead of taking straight off in the fishing boat as first agreed. They were wasting time. What Khosa did with the ship was his business; Pender had been hopping with impatience to get on with his own. He’d been so disgusted with the circus up on the bridge that he’d wandered down to the empty mess room to find some coffee. And now look what had happened! Who let some young whippersnapper of a sailor go running amok like that? Pender couldn’t believe that he’d survived decades of warfare and dodged bullets everywhere from Angola to Libya, only to get cold-cocked by some kid with a flashlight.

  Now Pender was compelled to remain aboard until he got back what was his. He’d tear the vessel apart with his own bare hands if he had to.

  Furious, still clutching his splitting head, he stormed up onto the bridge to marshal a few men to come help him find that little shit who’d clobbered him, take back what he’d stolen and then disembowel the bastard. About eight Africans were scratching their heads around the dead instruments of the conning station, debating in flurries of their own language what switch they could press or lever to pull to restore the power. Until they could figure out what had caused the shutdown, the ship was going nowhere.

  ‘Maybe if you assholes didn’t butcher everyone on sight,’ thought Pender – the man who’d murdered the captain and mates – ‘then you might have a clue how to sail the ship.’

  He was about to start yelling at them in fury when he saw the formidable figure of Jean-Pierre Khosa standing by the windows, casually lighting up another of his giant Cohibas. Standing with him was his right-hand man, Zolani Tembe, tall and muscular and apparently made of granite. Tembe wore ammunition belts the way Los Angeles rappers wore gold chains. His personal weapon was an M60 machine gun that was never out of his huge hands. A long, curved machete was stuck crossways in his belt.

  Pender swallowed and tried to play it cool. Only a very foolish man would vent his anger to the General’s face. Pender had no wish to end up as chopped shark bait.

  ‘You, you and you,’ he said, jabbing a finger at three Africans who didn’t seem to be doing much. ‘Come with me.’

  ‘What do you want them for?’ Khosa said, in that deep, calm voice of his. Whenever he spoke, it was always with great deliberation, as if he considered every syllable in advance.

  ‘I’ve been robbed.’ Pender held up his left arm with the empty case dangling from it. ‘One of the crew is running around loose, and he took my papers.’

  Khosa’s mutilated brow distorted into an even deeper frown. ‘Why would he do this?’

  ‘How the hell do I know what some illiterate deckhand would want with them? Use them to wipe his ass with, for all I know. That’s not the point. I have to have them.’

  Khosa roared with amusement amid a cloud of cigar smoke. Then, turning to the puzzled gang at the conning station, he dropped the smile and laid a big hand on the dead electronic consoles. ‘The problem is not with the equipment. The crew have done this. They are controlling the ship from the engine room. That is where we will find them. And that is where you will find your paper thief, messenger boy,’ he added for Pender’s benefit. He motioned at Zolani
Tembe. ‘Gather the men and find this engine room. We must get this ship working.’

  ‘And the crew?’ Tembe said.

  ‘Bring them to me. We will take the ones that we can sell or use, and kill the rest.’

  Chapter 19

  The first of many urgent calls that day had an instantly positive outcome. The octogenarian billionaire Auguste Kaprisky was overjoyed by the chance to repay what he saw as his debt to Monsieur Hope for saving his life. His greatest fear, he told Ben on the phone, had been that Ben would never ask. Without any hesitation and not a single question about why it was needed, Kaprisky granted them full and free use of his private jet. The aircraft was kept in its own hangar at Le Mans Arnage airport, just a few kilometres from Kaprisky’s estate, and he maintained two pilots on full-time salary, ready to fly at a moment’s notice. The weather forecast was looking dicey, but they’d taken off in worse.

  The old man upgraded his plane every couple of years. His latest acquisition, he proudly declared, was a brand new Gulfstream G650ER, capable of covering thirteen thousand kilometres at a stretch, travelling at a steady Mach .85 with up to nineteen passengers on board.

  ‘That’s more than plenty,’ Ben said. ‘I can’t thank you enough, Auguste.’

  ‘Anything for you, my friend. I mean it.’

  Jeff was on his iPhone, cancelling clients and calling in the security firm they employed to look after Le Val when there was nobody around. With time so short, the rest of the plan was going to have to come together en route.

  Kaprisky had additionally offered to send his personal Bell 407 helicopter up to Le Val to collect them, but Ben had declined, thinking he could make slightly better time by road in the Alpina. While Jeff was making the last of the calls, Ben and Tuesday set about transferring equipment from the armoury to the back of the car.

 
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