Star of africa, p.12
Star of Africa, p.12Scott Mariani
‘I got to spend a little time with Jude while he was here,’ Tuesday said, a little awkwardly, searching for the right words. ‘I like him. I’m really sorry, you know?’
‘He’s not dead yet,’ Ben said.
Le Val’s armoury room was buried beneath several feet of reinforced concrete, with an armoured steel door and hi-tech security system. It housed scores of military-grade weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, all painstakingly licensed by the authorities, itemised down to the last round and wrapped in enough red tape to tie up the French navy. One or two items stored down there, however, had never been registered officially, so that they could be set aside for a rainy day and never traced if things went awry or the guns had to be ditched. Over the years Ben had ‘collected’ four MP5 submachine guns and an assortment of shotguns, rifles and pistols whose serial numbers were unlisted. It was the pick of those that would be travelling with them to Africa.
Ben was still unsure about the wisdom of bringing Tuesday Fletcher along. The young guy had proved his worth as a soldier, no doubt about that, but he was an unknown quantity. ‘How’s that leg?’ Ben asked him as they hauled the gear up from the armoury.
‘Never better,’ Tuesday replied, grabbing another case of ammo.
‘This isn’t going be a walk in the park. I don’t want to be responsible for you if it goes south.’
‘I get it,’ Tuesday said with a frown. ‘Just because I was invalided out of the service, you think I’m not fit for this, yeah? You worry about Jude. I’ll worry about my leg. I won’t let you down.’ He paused. ‘It’s an honour working with you, man. You’re a legend.’
‘I’m just a person like anybody else,’ Ben said, wishing Tuesday would shut up.
‘Seriously. I heard stuff some of the older guys still talk about. Like the thing in Basra in 2003. That was the bollocks. I mean, forget the Iranian Embassy siege, right? Who dares wins.’
Ben put down the heavy kit bag he was carrying towards the car and turned to glare at him. ‘What you’ve heard is bullshit. You want to know what your glorious SAS were really doing in Basra? Setting up false-flag bombing targets against civilians to create PR spin for the war on terror. Killing innocent people so that puppet leaders in the West could wave their bloody flags on TV and get re-elected. That’s what we were doing. It’s why I disobeyed orders and almost got myself court-martialled. It’s also one of the main reasons I quit the regiment and never looked back. So you can stuff your “legend”. Don’t ever call me that again, okay? If you want to come, come. Just try not to get killed out there. I’ve enough crap to deal with already.’
Tuesday looked as if he’d been gut-punched. His smile vanished and he fell silent. When Ben’s anger died down, he felt bad for having lashed out at the younger guy and thought about saying so, but didn’t.
Minutes later, they were throwing hastily packed personal belongings into the back of the car and piling in after them. Jeff sat up front next to Ben, still talking on his iPhone, and Tuesday clambered in the back. Ben fired up the engine, popped the clutch and scattered gravel as the BMW took off.
It was 3.16 p.m.
Le Val to Le Mans Arnage airport and the waiting jet was just over two hundred and sixty kilometres. For the next two hours, Ben concentrated on getting them there in one piece and not attracting unwanted police attention, while Jeff worked the phone and covered pages of a pad in his lap with scrawled notes and numbers.
The sky was darkening as the sun, invisible all day behind a blanket of grey cloud, now began to set. Ben kept his foot down hard while icy rain lashed the Alpina and the wipers worked hard to swat the deluge aside. The road was slick and shiny, too treacherous to be driving so fast. The taillights of other vehicles starred and flared on the wet windscreen as Ben blew past everything in front of him. Lost in his own anxious thoughts and chain-smoking one cigarette after another, he was barely aware of what Jeff was saying over the phone. Every minute felt to him like days. He gripped the wheel and fought to stay focused, telling himself over and over again that Jude was still alive. He was tough and resourceful. He’d hang in there. He’d make it through this.
‘Okay,’ Jeff said, after a series of long calls and internet searches. They were speeding at a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour along the Nationale 13, just past Caen. ‘Here’s what we’ve got so far. The plane is fuelled up and good to go the second we get the gear on board. There won’t be any questions the other end. We wing it to Obbia – that’s the nearest airport to where we need to be. It’s right on the Somali coast, next to the town of Hobyo, ’bout five hundred klicks up from dear old Mog.’
The Somali capital Mogadishu had been the scene of several incidents involving British and US Special Forces over the years, and wasn’t a place much beloved by anyone who’d been remotely involved.
Jeff went on, ‘Le Mans Arnage to Obbia is just a shade over six and a half thousand Ks. I just talked to Adrien, that’s Kaprisky’s pilot, and he reckons at a steady Mach point eight-five, depending on conditions, we’re looking at less than six and a half hours in the air, point to point.’
‘Not counting the hundred and thirty-plus nautical miles east to the ship’s last position,’ Ben reminded him.
‘That’s where it gets trickier. Hobyo isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis, even by African standards. It’s supposed to have a port, but I wouldn’t expect to find much there. So the big question is, how do we get a fast boat from there to take us out the rest of the way? We’ll be lucky if we can find a rusty fishing trawler.’
‘There’s got to be a bigger port where we can charter a speedboat or a fast cabin cruiser,’ Ben said.
‘Yeah, no problem, if we travel from Mombasa. I’ve already checked. World’s your oyster down there. Only problem is, you’re looking at over sixteen hundred kilometres distance. There isn’t a small, fast craft that’ll cover it.’
‘How about the Seychelles? The islands are full of boats, and they’re a little bit closer to where Jude is than Mombasa.’
‘Thought about that already,’ Jeff said. ‘Not much in it, distance-wise. Same problem.’
Ben tossed the stub of his Gauloise through the inch-wide gap in the window and instantly lit another without taking his eyes off the road. His thoughts were rushing faster than the tarmac under the wheels of the speeding Alpina. ‘Remember Chimp Chalmers?’
Jeff looked at Ben. ‘Mate, Chimp Chalmers is a fucking lunatic.’
‘I know he is,’ Ben said. ‘But he might be a useful fucking lunatic. We can’t afford to get picky. Can you get his number?’
‘I can ask around,’ Jeff said reluctantly.
‘You don’t want to deal with that bloke. He’s not stable. And he’s a crook.’
‘Do it, Jeff.’
Chaz ‘the Chimp’ Chalmers, named as much for his physical appearance as for his ever-readiness to pull apart with his bare hands anyone who crossed him, had been one of the many who had quit the SF track to pursue a marginally safer and far more lucrative career in international security, and other things. Ben and Jeff hadn’t heard from him in a few years, but rumour had it he’d jobbed around central and east Africa for much of that time, not always on the right side of the law. He was the kind of person who could thrive and make contacts in places most sane men would steer well clear of, which had made him a natural to drift into arms dealing. These days, he was reportedly based in Prague and had built himself up to be the go-to guy for anyone looking to get hold of anything from an ex-Soviet tank or attack helicopter to a Scud missile, delivered to the location of your choice, anywhere in the world, for the right fee. He had connections everywhere, an extensive bag of tricks and a magician’s reputation for being able to pull rabbits out of hats, to order. Something as mundane as arranging a fast boat from Hobyo port should be a cinch for him.
Jeff got straight back on the phone while Ben, stealing a glance at the dashboard clock and wincing at the time, drove faster.
It took three more calls before Jeff finally managed to dig up the number for Chimp Chalmers. He dialled it and was put through to Chalmers’s offices in Prague, where he was put on hold by a receptionist before getting to talk to the man himself.
Jeff quickly explained what he required, managing not to reveal any specifics about their situation while stressing that it was urgent. The conversation lasted nearly ten minutes, during which the Chimp did most of the talking and Jeff did most of the listening, bent over his phone with a finger in his other ear to keep out the roar of the Alpina’s engine.
‘Hmm,’ Jeff said to Chalmers after a long silence. ‘We’re not looking to buy it, Chaz. We just want to charter it. Day, maybe two.’
More silence. Jeff looked dubious and impatient. ‘Okay. Okay. Then talk to your guy and call me back as soon as you know. Make it snappy, all right? We’re on the clock here.’
‘Well?’ Ben asked as Jeff ended the call.
‘That arsehole can’t get enough of talking about himself,’ Jeff said with a sigh. ‘But anyway, we could be on to something. Chalmers deals with some bloke who deals with some other bloke who plays poker with the head of the port authority in Mog.’
‘They can get us the kind of boat we need?’
Jeff shook his head. ‘Not a boat. They have a seaplane in the harbour that was confiscated from a Somali smuggling gang the cops nabbed last month. It’s been sitting there waiting for some legal clerk to sign off on a compulsory destruction order for it. Chalmers heard about it a couple of weeks back through the grapevine and was thinking of taking it off their hands to sell on, but the port authority guy was being awkward over the price. Theoretically, it’s still up for grabs.’
‘What kind of seaplane? What condition is it in?’
‘Some kind of big ex-Soviet flying boat, he says. The smugglers souped up the engines and kitted it out with extra-large tanks for long range. It’s old and tatty as fuck, but Chalmers reckons it’s in good nick.’ Jeff spread his hands and looked sceptical. ‘I don’t know, Ben.’
‘How much does this guy want?’
‘Unknown. The Chimp says he needs to make a couple of calls and get back to us.’
‘We don’t have a lot of time,’ Ben said. They were three-quarters of the way to Le Mans now, and the minutes were ticking by faster than he liked.
‘You heard me tell him that. We’ll just have to wait, for what it’s worth.’
Fifteen anxious minutes later, Jeff’s iPhone started buzzing in his hand. He answered immediately. ‘Dekker.’
Jeff listened, stone-faced. Ben glanced at him as he drove, trying to gauge what was being said.
‘Let me think about it and call you right back,’ Jeff said after a couple of minutes.
‘What did he say?’
Jeff still didn’t look happy. ‘He talked to his guy. The port authority fella will rent us the plane, and he’s got a local pilot called Achmed Mussa who’ll agree to fly it the five hundred klicks from Mog and meet us at the port in Hobyo. Reckons Mussa can be on his way within the hour and be there waiting for us when we arrive. In with the deal, no extra cost, there’s another local guy who’ll drive us there from Obbia airport in his Land Cruiser.’
Ben was well aware of how things worked in Africa. You could get pretty much absolutely anything you wanted there, which was what made the place such a goldmine for the likes of Chimp Chalmers. Across much of the continent, laws were seldom observed and even more seldom enforced, especially when the odd palm was crossed with silver and the odd blind eye was turned, both of which were the norm. But that kind of handy corruption inevitably came at a price.
‘Thirty thousand dollars for the rental, plus another ten for the pilot. Plus another ten as a finder’s fee for the Chimp.’
‘What?!’ Tuesday exclaimed from the back seat.
Ben didn’t blink at the extortionate price. There was no choice, and they were in no position to haggle. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ he said to Jeff, immediately back to wondering how much he could get for his place in Paris.
‘I’m not worried about the money,’ Jeff said. ‘I’m worried that we get there and this thing’s missing its props and the fucking wings are about to drop off. I told you, Chimp Chalmers is a shyster. But it’s your call, Ben. The money’s in the bank. I can wire him the fifty grand online, right now. Take me half a minute.’
‘Do it,’ Ben said.
Without a word, Jeff got to work.
‘It’s done,’ he said soon afterwards.
‘We have a seaplane,’ Ben said.
‘We have a seaplane.’
‘How do you want to do this?’ Ben asked. He glanced away from the road to look quizzically at his friend, and could see from the look on Jeff’s face that they were both thinking the same thing. Whether it was with an AK-47 or a rocket-propelled grenade, seaplanes weren’t the hardest of things to blow out of the air. Assuming that they’d find the Andromeda at the coordinates Jude had given them, there would be no easy way to get close to a container ship loaded with heavily armed pirates. They’d be heard and spotted a mile away.
Jeff said, ‘I’m thinking, MV Nisha, but underwater.’
‘Me too.’ Ben angled the rearview mirror to look back at Tuesday in the rear seat, and asked him, ‘Can you swim?’
Tuesday’s eyes met Ben’s in the mirror. ‘Black guys sink like a stone. It’s a well-known fact. Yeah, of course I can swim.’
‘Ever jumped out of a plane?’
‘I’ve done the basic two-week army parachute course. Never got into the nitty gritty stuff of the SAS training, for obvious reasons.’
Ben nodded. That would have to be good enough. ‘Do we still have dealings with that guy in Stuttgart?’ he asked Jeff.
‘Rudi Weinschlager? Time to time, yeah. I’ve got his number here on my phone.’
‘Ask him if he’s still doing deals on those ex-military DPVs. If he can promise to have two of them ready and prepped and delivered in time to meet us at Stuttgart airport, we can divert to pick them up on the way. Along with all the other necessary kit.’
Jeff hesitated. ‘That’s a lot of gear. What’s the max takeoff weight of a Gulfstream?’
‘We’ll get off the ground,’ Ben said. ‘If we have to tear the seats out to lose weight.’
‘Kaprisky’s going to love us.’
Jeff dialled the number, and moments later was through to one of Europe’s biggest suppliers to the police and security industry, trade customers only. Ben gritted his teeth and waited through the brief conversation. Then Jeff was back to wiring upwards of another twenty grand from the Le Val account, and the deal was done.
It was turning into an expensive afternoon, but Ben was past caring. He’d gladly have given ten times more to get Jude off that ship. He could only pray they could make a difference.
‘What’s a DPV?’ Tuesday wanted to know.
‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ Jeff told him with a grin. ‘Best get ready to get your feet wet.’
It was coming together. A few quick calculations told Ben that with luck, they could make the whole trip from Le Mans to the last known position of the Andromeda in around ten hours.
All Jude had to do was stay alive until then.
Down there in the darkness and the heat and the stink of sweat and fear, tobacco smoke and diesel oil and stale urine, they waited for something to happen, and tried not to think about what it might be.
It had only been three-quarters of an hour or so since Jude had returned from above decks, but it seemed as if hours had passed. The pitch blackness of the engine room just made it worse. The torches were all switched off, to save on batteries. The only light was the occasional flare of a lighter and the tiny red glow of cigarettes burning as anxious men tried to calm themselves by smoking. The engine room echoed to the sound of the eerie creakings that resonated through the hull of the immobilised sh
There remained nothing to do but sit it out. The silence was broken now and then by a nervous whisper, and the tune that Scagnetti kept quietly humming to himself, somewhere in the darkness. Scagnetti would occasionally break off from humming to mutter and cackle to himself. If he’d been deliberately trying to unsettle the others, he couldn’t have done it better. Even Gerber had given up telling him to shut the hell up.
The only other voice that could be heard was that of Park. In between long silences, he would begin to mutter to himself in Korean and break into a whimper. The whimper would sometimes die away, or else grow into a tortured moan, like the whine of a sick dog.
Further away, they could hear the dull thud and clatter of running footsteps and hatches opening and closing as the pirates hunted through the bowels of the ship for the hiding crew. The sounds of movement and voices seemed to be drawing steadily closer and closer. Everyone knew that the pirates must have figured out the remaining crew members were hiding in the engine room, and that it was just a question of their locating it. The pirates were working their way down towards them methodically, level by level, investigating one compartment after another.
It was a big ship, but it wasn’t that big. Not big enough. They would be here soon.
Jude could feel the tension growing among the others. It wasn’t helped by Park, who was growing more nervous and vocal by the minute. It was obvious what the Korean was thinking, and he wasn’t the only one. They were doomed. Nobody was coming to rescue them. The pirates were going to find them and butcher them, one by one.
Hunched cross-legged in a lonely corner of the darkness, Jude was finding it difficult not to believe it, too. He was the only one who’d personally witnessed the bodies of their dead fellow sailors being slung overboard like garbage for the sharks, something he had wisely chosen not to share with the others. He had to will himself to stay calm, which he did by mentally reciting over and over the words of the message he’d emailed to Jeff Dekker. It was the only glimmer of hope he could cling to.
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