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Star of africa, p.13
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       Star of Africa, p.13

           Scott Mariani
 

  Jeff would know what to do. Jeff would find a way to help.

  Just for something to help occupy his mind, Jude reached down and took the diamond – as he was now certain it was – out of his pocket. He fingered its rough contours in the darkness, and once more wondered what he was going to do with the thing.

  He was lost in meditation when a torch beam suddenly shone into his face out of nowhere. Startled, Jude whipped the diamond out of sight as the figure holding the torch came up close and bent low to speak to him.

  It was Gerber. ‘Got a moment?’ he whispered. As if he was butting into Jude’s busy schedule. Gerber turned off the torch, settled himself down next to Jude and they sat in the darkness, shoulder to shoulder. Any other time, Jude would have welcomed the company. He was clutching the diamond tightly in both hands, jammed between his knees.

  ‘I’m worried about Park,’ Gerber said in a low voice.

  ‘Yeah, I know. Me too.’

  Right on cue, came another mournful groan from somewhere in the darkness.

  ‘I think he’s losing his mind.’

  ‘Maybe.’

  ‘It’s the stress. Saw it in ’Nam. Some fellas just fall apart, you know? I think we should watch Park.’ Gerber paused. ‘What about you, son? How’re you holdin’ up?’

  ‘Loving every minute of it.’

  ‘Tell me something,’ Gerber whispered. ‘This Jeff guy you’re in contact with. He’s a cop, right?’

  ‘Something like that.’

  ‘Then he’ll have known who to call. They should be here any time. Right?’

  ‘Right.’

  ‘Let’s hope so,’ Gerber said quietly.

  Jude was getting cramps from sitting so long on the hard metal floor, and he still had Pender’s pistol hidden in his waistband, where it kept digging into him. He shifted, trying to get comfortable. In the process, the diamond slipped out of his fingers and hit the floor with a dull clunk.

  ‘What’ve you got there?’

  ‘Nothing,’ Jude said, quickly scrabbling in the dark for it. His fingers found it and clasped it tightly. It felt like a heavy burden, one that Jude badly wanted to share with someone. The pressure of keeping it secret was wearing him down. Lou Gerber was a good guy. He was a friend. Surely he could be trusted?

  Jude wrestled with the idea, and relented. ‘If I tell you, you have to promise to keep it to yourself,’ he said in an extra-low whisper, leaning close to Gerber’s ear.

  ‘Sure. What?’ Gerber murmured.

  Jude took a deep breath, hoping it wasn’t an unwise move to take Gerber into his confidence. He opened the fist that was clutching the diamond.

  Just then, there was the thump of footsteps very close by, and the jabber of loud voices just the other side of the engine room hatch.

  Gerber forgot all about what Jude had been about to show him. He gripped Jude’s arm. ‘They’re here.’

  More voices. The pirates were trying to spin the wheel that opened the watertight seal, but it was all locked solid from inside. When the lock wouldn’t open, there was a pounding against the thick steel that sounded like a battery of lump-hammers and echoed loudly through the whole engine room.

  Every single one of the thirteen men inside was up on his feet, frozen. Nobody breathed or spoke, or dared to turn on a torch.

  The clanging stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The voices receded. Could the pirates have given up so quickly, and moved on elsewhere?

  Gerber relaxed his grip on Jude’s arm. Jude sensed the older man turn towards him in the darkness. Gerber seemed about to say something. But whatever words came out of his mouth were drowned out by the huge, crashing explosion that seemed to rock the whole ship.

  Jude’s ears were filled with a high-pitched whine. Beside him, Gerber had staggered backwards and nearly fallen over. Jude grabbed his torch and shone it towards the hatch. The steel was buckled, the seal broken, smoke from the blast seeping in through the uneven gaps that had appeared around the edges of the door. But the solid hinges and locks had held. The door was still in place. There was a strong stink of cordite.

  ‘Those crazy bastards!’ Diesel yelled.

  ‘RPG,’ Gerber said. ‘Gotta be.’

  Jude had no idea what an RPG was. But he knew it was bad news. The pirates had finally located the engine room and they were determined enough to use artillery to break their way in.

  Jude shone his torch around the room. Park was groaning continuously. Even Scagnetti had stopped humming and cackling. They all backed away as far as they could from the door.

  Moments later, another stunning explosion punched Jude’s eardrums and made him rock on his feet. The pirates had fired another missile at the door, but still, the door had taken the impact. Flames were licking through the widened gaps around the edges of the buckled steel. Fire had broken out in the passage. The pirates could be heard yabbering in a chorus of panic. After a few moments, there was the whoosh of a fire extinguisher, and the flames died down.

  ‘They keep this up, they’re gonna sink us,’ Gerber said.

  ‘Or burn us out and barbecue us,’ Diesel added.

  Jude shook his head. ‘They’re not about to destroy the engine room. They want to keep the ship. Why else would they still be here?’ It was little comfort either way.

  There were no more explosions. It took another ten minutes of voices calling out commands in their own language, and more footsteps and pounding and the scrape and rattle of equipment being lugged into the passageway, before it became apparent what the pirates were planning to try next.

  They were going to cut their way through the hatch door with an oxyacetylene torch.

  Chapter 22

  The murky day had been merging into evening by the time the Alpina screeched up at the private terminal of Le Mans Arnage airport. Ben, Jeff and Tuesday were met by Auguste Kaprisky’s men, who introduced themselves as Adrien Leroy, the chief pilot with whom Jeff had already spoken on the phone, and his number two Noël Marchand. Both appeared to be quick-witted and businesslike, and well aware of the urgency of the situation as they ushered them briskly across the tarmac to meet the waiting aircraft.

  Ben explained the slight detour that was necessary to pick up equipment en route. Leroy said he would make the necessary adjustment to the flight plan, no problem. The Gulfstream was fully fuelled, and wouldn’t need to touch the ground anywhere else. The only concern was weather. Sleet was forecast for Stuttgart that evening, but Leroy insisted that nothing short of a blizzard would prevent them from flying.

  No questions were asked about the nature of the equipment they were picking up in Germany. Nor did either Leroy or Marchand pay any attention to the heavy bags that Jeff and Tuesday were loading aboard the sleek, white Gulfstream while they talked with Ben.

  The aircraft was in the air just fifteen minutes later. Stiff from the fast two-hour drive and his neck and shoulders creaking with tension, Ben eased himself into one of the plush leather seats, closed his eyes and tried very hard to empty his mind of racing thoughts.

  He didn’t open them again until, just short of an hour later, they made their descent through the clouds and touched down on the glistening runway in a very cold and wet Stuttgart, for what might have been the quickest stop-off in civil aviation history.

  Rudi Weinschlager had been as good as his word and come through with all their requirements, packed inside two large wooden crates and one bulging NATO-issue kit bag, in an unmarked black VW panel van that was waiting for them exactly as promised. With the van backed close by on the tarmac, Ben, Jeff and Tuesday hurriedly transferred the gear aboard. ‘You still haven’t told me what’s in these boxes,’ Tuesday grunted as they lugged the heavy crates aboard, each one more than six feet long. ‘They weigh a bloody ton.’

  ‘Why ruin a surprise?’ Jeff told him.

  The plane lacked any kind of cargo hold, but its forty-five-foot-long executive cabin offered some two hundred cubic feet of baggage space. The crates crammed the cent
re aisle, only just fitting between the seats and looking very out of place in the Gulfstream’s luxurious interior. Adrien Leroy frowned at the extra payload but said nothing.

  They left Stuttgart soon afterwards at 6.53 p.m., managing to get off the ground ahead of the forecast sleet, and without being bogged down by the weight of its unorthodox cargo. Jeff and Tuesday shared a plate of sandwiches offered to them by Noël Marchand. Ben could not eat, and returned to his seat for the longest leg of a journey that, so far, had progressed smoothly and precisely according to plan.

  But was his plan the right one? With nothing else to do but wait for the journey’s end, he finally allowed himself to voice the question that had been growing in his mind like a dark shadow. So many times in the past, Ben had always trusted his instincts. Now, suddenly, with so much at stake, he wasn’t so sure. Was this a mistake? Should he have called in the authorities, instead of jumping in with both feet and charging off to take care of matters himself?

  Doubts hovered at the back of his mind, like voices nagging him from deep within his consciousness.

  You’re a fool.

  You’re going to make it worse.

  You’re going to get him killed.

  Ben listened to the voices until they grew tired of taunting him. He didn’t try to argue with them. Maybe they were right. But he could see no other way.

  Just under six hours after leaving Stuttgart, at ten to three in the morning East Africa Time, the plane landed in a different world.

  The tiny airport, little more than a cluster of tin-roofed huts straddling a narrow runway, was no more or less than could be expected in a fragile region still reeling from civil war and slowly crawling towards stability for the first time since the old kingdom of Hobyo was carved out by a Somali sultan in the nineteenth century. After the sultan had made the mistake of letting his nation become an Italian protectorate, it was finally grabbed wholesale by Mussolini’s forces in 1925 and became part of Italian Somaliland until World War Two, when the British took control of the troubled colony. The shaky independence of the new integrated Somali Republic, declared in 1960, had lasted less than a decade before the nation had become mired in bloody revolution and entered a long and brutal cycle of wars and military dictatorships from which it had never fully recovered.

  As Ben already knew very well from experience, in such frail and desperately impoverished countries you couldn’t always expect things to go right. And from the moment they stepped onto the cracked runway at Obbia, things started going wrong.

  Chimp Chalmers had assured Jeff over the phone that the Land Cruiser would be there to meet them on arrival. Its driver, a local man by the name of Geedi who apparently worked as a taxi driver and courier all over the area, had been put on standby hours earlier, at the same time as the seaplane pilot in Mombasa. But there was no sign of Geedi. Tuesday volunteered to scout around the airport grounds and up and down the road, just in case of a misunderstanding. He returned shaking his head.

  ‘You didn’t see him?’

  ‘Saw a hyena,’ Tuesday said. ‘At least, that’s what I think it was. It was eating something dead in the bushes. There’s bugger all of anything in this place. No lights, not a soul in sight. I doubt they see more than a couple of vehicles a day pass through. We’re stuck, guys.’

  Three o’clock in the morning in an apparently deserted airport two kilometres away from a town that consisted of a few dismal buildings scattered over a few hundred metres of sand and scrub. It wasn’t a good time or place to be stranded with no transport.

  ‘What do you want me to do?’ asked Adrien Leroy. He looked edgy and kept glancing about, as if expecting hordes of gun-toting Somalis to appear at any moment and pillage and strip his boss’s precious Gulfstream to a skeleton right before his eyes. His anxieties were probably not all that unrealistic.

  ‘Just go,’ Ben said to him. ‘I appreciate your bringing us this far. We’ll manage.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Absolutely.’

  As the jet shrieked off into the night, Ben wished he could be so certain. He paced the empty runway and sucked the guts out of a Gauloise while Tuesday sat swinging his legs on one of the big wooden crates, and Jeff got on the phone to unload his anger and frustration on the Chimp. It was a short and unpleasant call, the upshot of which was that the driver must have got the time mixed up and would be with them shortly.

  They waited. November temperatures could easily average over thirty Celsius in Somalia, but it could get chilly at night. ‘I never thought you could freeze your arse off in frigging Africa,’ Tuesday complained. Jeff stood with his hands planted on his hips, frowning and looking at his watch every twenty seconds. Ben went on pacing and smoking to pass the time and settle his nerves enough to keep from tearing the place apart, or what little there was of it. The clock in his head was ticking louder than gunfire.

  After forty more agitated minutes, they heard the clatter of an approaching vehicle with a loose exhaust, lurching towards them out of the darkness by the light of its single working headlamp. Geedi had arrived. Whether he’d received an angry call to prompt him, or this was simply his idea of punctuality, they would never know. From the weaving, stop-start motion of the ancient Land Cruiser, it was instantly clear that something was up with Geedi.

  Jeff stared at the approaching vehicle. ‘Please don’t tell me the fucker’s—’

  ‘Looks that way to me,’ Ben replied tersely.

  The Toyota coasted to a halt approximately nearby. Ben strode up to the driver’s door, yanked it open, and the obese hulk of its occupant fell straight out of the driver’s seat and rolled to the ground, coming to rest with his fat arms splayed outwards and his enormous belly pointing at the stars. Along with him tumbled out an unlabelled open bottle that Geedi had apparently been clasping between his chubby thighs as he drove. It landed on the dome of his stomach, spilling some kind of pungent clear liquor over his grimy shirt. Geedi was too comatose to notice. The inside of the vehicle reeked of kill-me-quick African moonshine.

  ‘He’s completely fucking pie-eyed,’ Jeff said, shaking his head in disbelief.

  Ben grabbed Geedi’s ankles and hauled his limp carcass away from the Land Cruiser. With any luck, he wouldn’t wake up before he got run over by the next plane that landed.

  With the equipment crammed into the back of the vehicle, the worn-out rear suspension was down to the stops. The three of them piled in, Ben taking the wheel, and the exhaust gave a death rattle as they took off. The Toyota looked, felt and drove as if it had very few miles left in it, but the port of Hobyo was mercifully close by. Even so, they had to roll the windows down to escape being intoxicated by the alcoholic fumes. Jeff was ranting and cursing Chimp Chalmers. ‘I’m going to kill him.’

  ‘Let’s just hope the same thing won’t happen with our seaplane,’ Ben said.

  ‘Yeah, right. If there is a seaplane.’

  Chapter 23

  To cut through an armoured steel door that was sturdy enough and thick enough to keep out millions of tons of seawater was a task that took hours. But out here in the middle of the ocean, with no sign of anyone coming to the ship’s rescue, the pirates could afford to take their time.

  The torture of waiting had now reached new levels of agony. The passage outside was brightly illuminated with some kind of portable lamps, whose light shone around the twisted edges of the door as the pirates worked. Sparks hissed and fizzed and the super-hot flame from the torch roared. After twenty minutes, the first red-hot spot appeared on the inside of the door. After thirty, the red had turned white and the first sparks were beginning to penetrate the steel. By the end of the first hour, the pirates had cut a five-inch slot along the bottom of the door, slowly working their way up and around to create an oval opening big enough to clamber through.

  After the terror, and then the anger, came the crippling numbness. The crew fell into a state of passive acceptance as the fight went out of them, even out of Scagnetti, and they sat
around in the darkness and waited for the inevitable. Escape was impossible. Capture was guaranteed, along with whatever would come next. All anyone could ask for was a quick death.

  Hours came and went. The pirates ran out of gas and connected up a fresh bottle. The sparks went on hissing and fizzing, and the ragged slot grew longer. Ten inches. Eighteen. Two feet. On and on. Relentless.

  Some time before five in the morning, Jude lost the struggle against sleep, and curled up against the iron bulkhead, mercifully far away in his dreams. But not long afterwards, he woke with a start as someone shook him. It was Condor, his face half-lit by dancing torch beams. He looked grim.

  ‘It’s Park, man.’

  Two things had happened while Jude had been sleeping. The sea had grown much rougher and the ship was rocking more noticeably. Meanwhile, Park had given up hope. He had found a length of thin steel cable in a corner of the engine room. He had climbed up on the generator housing to loop one end around a pipe attached to the ceiling. Then he had looped the other end around his neck, and jumped. His body was swinging to and fro with the motion of the ship.

  Jude helped Condor and Trent hold Park steady while Diesel fetched a pair of bolt-croppers and cut the cable. Park’s dead weight sagged into their arms. They laid him on the floor and covered him with a tarpaulin. Someone said a prayer for the poor man. Come what may, Park was out of it now.

  The pirates were almost through the door. Just six more inches, and the ragged cut would meet itself in a rough oval shape, four feet high and three feet wide. Jude stared at the white-hot flame slowly burning its way through the last inches of steel.

  ‘Arm yourselves,’ Gerber said through clenched teeth. ‘Get ready, men. This is our last stand.’

 
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