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Star of africa, p.14
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       Star of Africa, p.14

           Scott Mariani
 

  As an unsettled red dawn broke over the Indian Ocean, Pender couldn’t understand what the hell was taking so long. He’d barged his way into the passage to watch as they finished cutting through the hatch. Now he was pacing up and down, cursing to himself and becoming increasingly restless. The sea was growing choppy as hell out there. The ship was pitching more than he was used to, making him nauseous, and he couldn’t wait to get off it. What was taking so damn long?

  Khosa had been watching Pender very closely, and taking a keen interest in his mood. He was beginning to wonder what the white mercenary was so worked up about. Whatever it was, the General was thinking, it was obviously worth considerably more than the paltry two million dollars Pender had paid him to stage the phony pirate attack. That offended Jean-Pierre Khosa’s sense of pride. He and his men were not some rag-tag bunch of common fishermen who had taken to boosting ships for a living. Maybe one of those poor bastards would have fallen for this ploy. Not him.

  Khosa did not like to be lied to, or tricked. Nor had he believed a word of Pender’s convoluted tale about carrying legal documents for some vague and nameless rich client. It was insulting to him that the white man had thought he could feed him such a pack of lies. Khosa’s intention all along had been to find out what this was really about, and what Pender had actually been keeping so close to him inside that case of his. He was looking forward to the moment.

  Khosa returned to the deck, clutching the rail to steady himself against the yaw and pitch of the ship. Yesterday’s marble-smooth blue-green ocean was now a heaving patchwork of white foam that rolled and crashed into the sides of the vessel with explosions of spray leaping up high. The smaller vessel alongside was tossing and bobbing on the waves as its crew struggled to keep it from being swept into the towering hull of the Andromeda. The dawn sky looked turbulent and menacing, as if it was full of angry gods ready to smite their wrath down on everything below.

  Khosa envied them that power. He filled his lungs with the wind and relished the violence of the coming storm. The storm was him, or what he wanted to be. He was part of it, a force of nature. Men feared him just as they feared the elements. And they were right to fear him. One day, the whole world would understand, and would feel the fear. One day.

  Such thoughts made Jean-Pierre Khosa happy.

  Soon afterwards, Zolani Tembe came up on deck to tell him that they had finished cutting through the door. ‘Good,’ Khosa said with a smile that tugged at the mass of scar tissue down his cheeks. They had to raise their voices over the noise of the wind. ‘Do not let the white man inside the engine room. Bring him here.’

  ‘And the prisoners?’

  ‘Bring them too.’

  Jude and the others watched helplessly as the ragged oval cut-line finally met itself, full circle. The flames and sparks that had been roaring and spitting all night long now ceased. The white-hot edges of the gash in the steel rapidly cooled and darkened. A moment later came the pounding of heavy blows and what sounded like several men all kicking at the hatch at once.

  Then, slowly, horribly, the cut-out shape in the steel door gave a lurch and began to topple inwards. It fell against the metal floor of the engine room with a loud echoing crash. Bright light from the pirates’ portable work lamps shone in through the hole, blinding Jude and the rest of the crew after so many hours trapped in pitch-darkness.

  The next moment, armed men were swarming in through the hole and the engine room was filled with yelling as they advanced, waving their guns and ordering the crew in broken English to get on their knees and put their hands on their heads. Gerber’s will to fight failed him, and he fell to his knees. Even Scagnetti threw down his knife. To fight them would mean certain and immediate death. They were mariners, not warriors. In moments like this, ordinary men always clung to whatever thin hope of survival they could pray for.

  Jude’s right hand strayed behind his back and for a crazy moment he wanted to tear out Pender’s pistol and start blasting away. He flashed on a wild vision of himself taking the bastards down in quick succession, pulling the trigger over and over until every one of them was dead. But the reality would be very different, he knew.

  There was nowhere to hide. As the pirates spread through the engine room Jude shrank into a corner and managed to drop the gun into the oily dirt of a recess behind a duct pipe before they spotted him. Acting on an impulsive afterthought he grabbed the leather pouch from his pocket and shoved it in there too, poking it out of sight with his fingers. He barely had time to do it before there was a rifle wagging in his face and an angry-looking African barking at him from the other end of it. He did what he was told, dropped to his knees and laced his fingers above his head.

  The pirates pulled back the tarp to inspect Park’s dead body. They kicked him in the ribs a few times to make sure he wasn’t faking it. Jude wanted to scream at them to leave him alone, but he bit his lip and stayed quiet. Satisfied he was dead, the Africans lost interest in Park and got the remaining twelve on their feet.

  Prodded and shoved like cattle with rifle barrels jabbing into their backs, Jude and the rest of the survivors were herded out of the engine room and into the bright passage outside where the cutting equipment lay strewn messily over the floor.

  ‘Move, move, move! General Khosa is waiting for you!’

  Minutes later, they staggered out onto a main deck that was unsteady underfoot and appeared bathed in blood by the angry dawn light. Darker clouds were rolling in from the east. The storm was building by the minute. Waves lashed the hull and burst into leaping towers of spray that broke over the rail and rained down to soak them all to the skin.

  ‘There, there, there!’ commanded the barking voices. Jude felt another rifle jab the small of his back and followed the others to the clear area of deck where the pirates were making them all kneel. Condor was shaking uncontrollably. Hercules looked as if he was struggling to contain his urge to lash out at the pirates. Diesel was bowed over, staring resolutely at the spray-lashed deck and refusing to make eye contact with their captors. Jude and Gerber exchanged glances. A semicircle of rifles pointed steadily at them.

  Jude counted fifteen pirates, plus two more. Their fearsome leader had been waiting for the prisoners to be brought on deck. Jude thought he must be General Khosa. General of what? He looked like a soldier, but in whose army? The hideously scarred African was leaning nonchalantly against the railing, smiling at them as if he loved nothing more than the rising storm. Beside him stood the man Jude knew as Carter, with the metal case still attached to his left wrist. He wasn’t smiling. There was an angry weal across his face where Jude had hit him, and his right fist was clenching a different handgun, to replace the one Jude had stolen from him. A man like him probably had a whole arsenal of the damn things. He scanned the small crowd of kneeling prisoners as if he couldn’t wait to execute them all personally. His gaze alighted on Jude, and something blazed in his eyes.

  He pointed. ‘You. Yeah you, you bastard. I know you. You’re the sonofabitch who robbed me. Search him.’

  Two of the Africans stepped up and shoved Jude face-first against the deck. One pressed a rifle muzzle against his head while the other bent down and started frisking Jude all over. He was very thorough. Jude was glad he’d emptied his pockets.

  The pirate leader, General Khosa, was watching with a frown that made the terrible ridges on his face crinkle like a Halloween mask. ‘Pender,’ he said in a deep, calm voice that Jude had to strain to hear over the wind. Carter turned to look at Khosa.

  Pender? Jude thought. It wasn’t a surprise that Carter was a fake name. Maybe Pender was too.

  ‘You told me this boy stole papers from you,’ Khosa said, more loudly. ‘The legal documents for your client.’

  Pender turned a little pale and beads of sweat instantly appeared on his brow, despite the strong breeze. ‘That’s right.’

  Khosa smiled. The scar tissue distorted the smile into a sinister rictus. ‘How many paper files can he be hidi
ng in his pockets?’

  ‘It’s – it’s a digital flash drive,’ Pender said quickly, and unconvincingly. ‘It’s tiny. He could be hiding it anywhere.’

  ‘I see,’ Khosa said. Jude could see the deep suspicion in his eyes as he gazed at Pender.

  Finding nothing, Jude’s searcher stepped back and shook his head as if to say, ‘He’s clean.’ The rifle was pulled away from Jude’s head. He eased himself slowly upright into a kneeling position.

  Furious, Pender marched up to shove his pistol in Jude’s face. ‘Okay, no fucking around. Where is it? Give it back to me, right now.’

  Jude’s expression remained perfectly blank as he replied, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I took nothing from you.’

  ‘Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, huh, kid? Just what were you doing sneaking around the ship, anyway? Sending emails?’ Pender gave a mirthless chuckle. ‘What, you didn’t think we’d find it?’

  Jude’s stomach clenched and he suddenly felt very cold. ‘I don’t know what—’ he began.

  ‘Oh, I think you do. Maybe you’re not that smart after all, hmm, Jude?’ Pender said, grinning. ‘Should have deleted it after you sent it. Not that it’s gonna make a spot of difference. Nobody’s coming for you. It’s just you and me out here. So give it back. Come on. You took a crack at me; I say, screw that. No hard feelings. I’ve been hit before, and besides you hit like a pussy. Just hand over my property, and we’re cool.’

  Jude said, ‘I don’t have it.’ Which, as far as it went, was the truth.

  Gerber was staring at him, as were several of the others. What’s he talking about? was the question in the older man’s eyes.

  ‘You don’t have it,’ Pender said. ‘Okay, so then maybe you’d like to tell me WHERE YOU PUT IT?!’ Pender screamed the last words.

  ‘I threw it overboard.’

  Pender cast a horrified glance at the waves, but quickly recovered as he saw through the lie. ‘Don’t try to bullshit me, Jude. That would be a big fucking mistake, my sneaky little friend.’

  ‘I don’t remember what I did with it,’ Jude said.

  ‘Really. Let’s see if this jogs your memory.’ Pender swung the pistol away from Jude, randomly picked another target among the huddled prisoners, and pulled the trigger before Jude could react.

  The gunshot cracked out and was whipped away by the wind. Diesel’s eyes were wide and staring as a red hole appeared in the middle of his forehead. He slumped forwards on his face, blood pumping from the huge exit wound in the back of his skull.

  ‘REMEMBER NOW, ASSHOLE?’ Pender screamed at Jude.

  Chapter 24

  The nightmare was unfolding fast now, as fast as the rising storm. Jude gaped in mute horror at Diesel’s body. He began to shake as waves of nausea gripped him. Do something, he thought. But what? He was certain that if he handed the diamond over, they would all soon be dead. If he didn’t, someone else would be the next to be shot. What kind of choice was that?

  Just then, Pender and a few of the pirates looked up, suddenly distracted. Jude could hear it too: the thrumming rumble of a propeller aircraft, faint but unmistakable. He craned his neck to gaze upwards, and saw what his captors were looking at, just as the storm clouds parted to reveal a crack of sky in the distance. It was still a long way off, just a tiny blob over the horizon, but it seemed to be heading their way. His horror deflated for a second as he felt a sudden stab of excitement. Could it be the police? The coastguard? Another passing ship might have seen something. They might have alerted the authorities.

  Or it could be Jeff Dekker, riding in like the cavalry.

  Pender had had the same thought. ‘Who did you email?’ he demanded. ‘This Jeff guy, who the fuck is he?’

  ‘He’s – he’s my … uncle.’

  Pender stared at Jude as if he were an idiot. ‘Your uncle?’

  Khosa turned to face the ocean and observed the distant aircraft slicing through the clouds. The drone of its propellers could clearly be heard now. It was losing altitude to skim low over the waves, still more than a mile away. As Khosa watched, he thought he saw a tiny white splash hit the water in its wake, followed by a second that was just as quickly lost in the rough sea. But it was too distant to be sure what he’d seen. Then the plane picked up altitude again and banked away in a sloping curve.

  Jude’s heart sank into his boots as the plane veered off and quickly began to recede into the distance, its sound fading into the wind. It was nothing to do with them after all.

  Pender turned back towards Jude, his feet braced wide to counter the rocking of the deck. ‘Well, looks like Uncle Jeff decided to stay home and watch TV. Now, where was I? That’s right. You were about to tell me where you’ve hidden my property. Maybe your memory needs refreshing again? No problem. Let’s play eeny-meeny.’

  He swept the gun over the huddle of prisoners. Diesel’s blood was spreading over the deck, pink where it mingled with the seawater that rained down to soak them with each new wave that crashed into the side. Pender was swaying on his feet but his aim was steady as it settled on Gerber.

  ‘How about you, old timer? You want to be next?’

  ‘Fuck you,’ Gerber said, staring up at him.

  ‘Fuck me? Really? Let’s see about that.’ Pender stepped up to him and pressed the gun against Gerber’s head.

  Jude’s eyes met Gerber’s. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mouthed.

  ‘It’s okay,’ Gerber’s eyes replied. Then Gerber closed them and bowed his head, waiting for the white flash and the boom of the gunshot he would never hear.

  ‘You have three seconds before I blow this guy away,’ Pender told Jude, pressing the gun harder against Gerber’s temple. His finger tightened on the trigger. ‘One.’

  ‘You’re making a big mistake,’ Jude said. But it was just bravado. Just words. He felt empty, hollowed out. There was nothing any more between him, his friends, and death.

  At that moment, Khosa’s radio gave a crackle. ‘What?’ he barked into it, irritated at the further distraction. One of his men aboard the trawler was telling him they had picked up something on the fish-finder sonar. A pair of unidentified objects, moving together and travelling fast straight towards them.

  Khosa scanned the empty waves beyond. The aircraft was now lost in the clouds, barely audible. Nothing there.

  ‘Two,’ Pender said.

  ‘Engine room,’ Jude blurted out. He quickly described where he’d hidden the leather pouch. ‘That’s where it is. I swear. Don’t kill him.’

  Pender took the gun away from Gerber’s head and let it dangle at his side. ‘You and you,’ he said, pointing at two of the pirates. ‘Go get it.’ The two looked to Khosa. Khosa gave a nod, and the two hurried away across the lurching deck.

  For five unbearable minutes, they waited as the storm continued to loom over them. The first raindrop spattered the deck. Then another. In moments, it was sheeting down thick and hard. Jude’s hair was dripping and plastered over his face. His eyes were stinging from the salt spray as he watched Pender.

  And Khosa was watching him, too. There was a nasty grin on the General’s face. It was hard to tell what he was thinking.

  Finally, the two pirates returned on deck. One of them was holding the leather pouch, grimy from where Jude had hidden it, and already wet from the lashing rain. Pender’s eyes lit up at the sight of his prize.

  ‘So now you have it,’ Jude said. ‘Let us go. You want to take the ship, fine. We can use the lifeboat. Please. You don’t need to kill anyone else.’

  Pender tucked his pistol under his left arm and grabbed the pouch from the pirate. He quickly opened his metal case, stuffed the pouch inside and clicked the catches shut as fast as he could, before anyone could notice what was inside. He whipped the pistol out from under his arm and thrust it at Jude’s head.

  ‘Thanks, kid. You made the right choice. But I’m going to blow your brains out anyway. Then I’m gonna kill all your pals, just because I feel like it. How
s that grab you?’

  ‘Wait,’ Khosa said. He stepped up and snatched the gun from Pender’s hand.

  At first, Jude thought the African was trying to save him. But the pirate leader had no interest in Jude. He was looking at the case attached to Pender’s wrist.

  Pender froze.

  Jude didn’t breathe.

  ‘Do you think I am an idiot?’ Khosa asked Pender. There was no anger in his voice. The eyes set wide in that terrible face were perfectly calm.

  ‘Of – of course not.’

  ‘What is in the case?’ Khosa said.

  Pender turned white, then red. ‘It’s nothing that concerns you,’ he blustered. ‘I paid you to do a job. So do it. We’re getting off this floating graveyard and getting out of here. Give me back my gun.’

  Khosa shook his head. ‘I do not think you give the orders here.’ With a wave of his hand, there were suddenly two men standing either side of Pender, aiming rifles at his head.

  ‘Open the case,’ Khosa ordered Pender. ‘I want to see what is so small and can be so precious to you that you pay two million dollars for it as if it was pennies.’

  ‘You don’t understand—’ Pender began.

  ‘I understand that you are trying to take me for a fool,’ Khosa said. ‘That is a very big mistake. Have you forgotten who I am?’

  Pender backed slowly away. The rifles followed him. ‘Okay, okay. You want to renegotiate the fee, huh? Fine, I can go with that. I’ll double your money. Four million. All right? That’s the best deal you’re going to get from anyone, anywhere.’ If his face hadn’t been slick with rainwater, it would have been pouring sweat. He was trying to brass it out, but Jude could see the terror in his eyes. Maybe he was thinking he shouldn’t have killed his own men. They might have come in useful at this moment. Too late for those kind of regrets now.

  ‘No negotiations,’ Khosa said. ‘Show me what is inside the case.’

  Pender hesitated just a fraction too long.

  Khosa snapped his fingers. ‘Zolani. Bring it to me.’

 
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