Star of africa, p.15
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       Star of Africa, p.15

           Scott Mariani
 

  A tall bare-chested African bedecked in gleaming cartridge belts stepped towards Pender and laid down the huge machine gun he was carrying. With no expression on his face, he drew the machete from his belt. Pender’s jaw dropped. He backed away another step, but that was as far as he got before two more of Khosa’s men seized his arms.

  ‘No! What are you doing? Stop!’

  For Jude and the others, the worst thing was knowing exactly what was about to happen. Khosa’s men threw Pender to the gleaming wet deck. It took four of them to pin him down as he screamed and writhed. Taking hold of the case, a fifth man pulled it away to stretch Pender’s left arm out, until it was fully extended across the iron floor. The handcuff bit into Pender’s wrist and he screamed even more loudly, like a pig in a slaughterhouse.

  The man called Zolani raised the machete and brought it down with a chopping sound that was all but drowned out by Pender’s shriek.

  Jude looked away and felt sick.

  Zolani calmly picked up the case and took it over to Khosa. The severed hand and forearm were still dangling from the chain. Khosa took the case, laid it down on the deck, flipped the catches and opened the lid. He took out the leather pouch, upended it and its contents rolled out into his palm.

  Even under the darkening storm clouds and the pouring rain, the diamond seemed to glitter like a small sun on the African’s open hand.

  ‘Now I understand,’ Khosa murmured, gazing at the enormous stone. Pender was squealing and squirming and clutching his stump. It was jetting blood faster than the rain could wash it away.

  ‘Kill him,’ Khosa said, without taking his eyes off the diamond.

  Zolani sheathed the machete and picked up his machine gun. He pressed the muzzle to the back of Pender’s neck, pinning him down. The ear-splitting blast of fully automatic fire spattered Pender’s skull like a rotten melon. The screams were instantly silenced. Pender twitched once, and went limp on the wet deck.

  Jude watched the life go out of him. It was a terrible thing to see. He wondered if that was how he would look when he died, too. He cleared his throat and tried to make his voice strong.

  ‘You have nothing to gain by killing us,’ he said to Khosa. ‘You have what you want. Let us go on our way.’

  Khosa seemed not to hear. He closed his fist around the stone, clenching it tightly as if he dared anyone to try to claim it from him. He tossed the case over the rail, still trailing the severed arm. It disappeared over the side and its splash was lost in the roar of the wind.

  ‘Execute them,’ Khosa ordered his men.

  Jude watched numbly as Khosa turned and started walking away. The men raised their rifles. He was drenched to the bone, but his mouth was dry as desert sand. Without thinking, he called out the first thing that came into his head.

  ‘I’m rich.’

  Khosa stopped. Slowly turned back to face Jude through the rain, grinning a demonic grin. ‘So am I, white boy,’ he said. He held up the fist that was clutching the diamond.

  Jude swallowed. He fought the shake in his voice and the mad desire to rush for the opposite rail and hurl himself over it into the sea. ‘That’s nothing,’ he said, pointing at the diamond in Khosa’s hand. ‘It’s a bauble compared to what my family have. We wouldn’t even bend down to pick it up out of the gutter. This ship? It’s mine. And twenty more like it. You let me go, and my friends, and you can be the richest man in your country.’

  Khosa’s expression became serious and he studied Jude intently for a moment or two before the grin spread slowly back over his mutilated face. ‘That was a very good try, my young friend.’

  Khosa turned away again. His men pointed their guns.

  Jude looked sadly at his crewmates, kneeling huddled and soaked together on the deck.

  I’m sorry. I did everything I could.

  He closed his eyes. This is it. This is where we die. He’d thought he would be ready, when the time came. But you could never be ready.

  Jude felt a searing flash and a powerful force knocked him sideways.

  He hit the deck.

  He was dead.

  Chapter 25

  But if this was what it was like to be dead, it was the strangest thing. Jude blinked and gasped for air. He was stunned. He could feel the hard, cold, wet iron deck under him. He could hear noise all around him. Confusion. Men yelling. Guns firing.

  No, he wasn’t dead. He craned his neck upwards to see what was happening.

  A second explosion made the Andromeda quiver and rock as if an earthquake had struck it. A violent eruption of flame as tall as the ship’s superstructure shot into the sky, lighting the clouds. The pirate trawler alongside was lifted out of the water and ripped virtually in half by the blast. Its shattered hull crashed down into the foaming sea and disappeared amid a rolling mushroom cloud of flame and black smoke that poured across the deck of the cargo ship, so thick that the storm could barely disperse it. Pieces of wreckage rained down out of the blackness and spattered the deck like bullets.

  Jude thought, Am I dreaming?

  The pirates were in chaos. One lay on the deck, his legs separated from his torso where a piece of shrapnel had sliced him in two. The rest had been knocked flat, like Jude. Some of them were engulfed in the thick smoke. Others were back on their feet and discharging their weapons wildly and randomly towards the unseen enemy that was attacking them, no less stunned and disorientated than the cargo ship crewmen they’d been about to execute.

  Jude staggered to his feet and saw Khosa. The General was clutching at the rail with one hand, the other still clasping the diamond. He was bent and sagging at the knees, as if the explosion had winded him. Without thinking, Jude charged him. Head low, shoulders bunched, like a bull. He rammed Khosa in the midriff and knocked him flat. Khosa let out a grunt as he went down, lashing out at Jude to bludgeon him with the rock. Jude blocked Khosa’s wrist with his knee, stopping the blow with enough force to make the African lose his grip on the diamond. It hit the deck and bounced towards the rail. Jude dived onto his belly and caught it before it went overboard and was lost forever. Khosa’s flailing hand gripped his arm. Jude pounded the diamond into the African’s face, once, twice, with all the strength he had in him, and felt the hand loosen on his arm.

  Jude scrambled away without looking back, clutching the lump of rock to his chest as he skidded across the slippery deck. Guns were firing all over the place, muzzle flashes strobing through the smoke and the deluge of rain.

  ‘Come on!’ he screamed at Gerber and the others, waving crazily at them to get behind the cover of the container stacks. Then the fuel lines aboard the shattered trawler ignited and a second, even thicker pall of black smoke rolled up over the side to swallow him. Blinded, guttering, choking, he ran headlong into the solid steel wall of a container and fell back, knocked dizzy by the impact.

  Khosa came storming through the blanket of smoke like a man possessed. Blood was streaming from a gash on his cheek where the diamond had cut him. He saw Jude lying on the deck and came for him with his teeth bared in a snarl. ‘I will KILL YOU!’ Then his hands were around Jude’s throat and his heavy body was crushing the air out of Jude’s lungs. Jude managed to get his knee up so that it pressed against the African’s chest, and shoved with all his might. Khosa went sprawling backwards and his head slammed into the corner of the container stack.

  Jude started scrambling to his feet to escape.

  But he couldn’t get away. Something was stopping him, tugging at the back of his trousers and holding him back. For an instant he thought he’d snagged his belt on one of the iron fasteners that held the container stack fast to the deck. But when he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw with a jab of terror that Khosa was no longer alone in the fight.

  Still clutching Jude’s belt with one powerful fist, Zolani drew the machete from its sheath.

  ‘Cut off his arms and his legs!’ Khosa roared from the deck. He had lost his beret and he was bleeding from a fresh injury to his brow. ‘
I want to see him crawl like a worm!’

  Jude struggled frantically, so afraid that his heart felt as if it was in flames. But he couldn’t break Zolani’s grip. It was like being snared by a machine. As if in slow motion, he saw the machete blade rise up in the air, glinting like a living thing from the flames that squirmed and danced through the smoke. He imagined he could already feel it slicing his flesh. First one arm, then the other. Then his legs. Reduced to a trunk. Crawling like a worm. He cried out.

  The machete came down.

  And tumbled harmlessly with a clatter to the deck.

  Zolani’s wide eyes stared into Jude’s for a second or two before they rolled back white. He swayed on his feet. His knees gave way under him and he crumpled and dropped like a demolished tower.

  Jude hadn’t registered the gunshot and had no idea what was happening, until he saw that the top of Zolani’s head was blown away, pink cauliflower brains bubbling out of the hole. He scrambled away from the corpse on his elbows and heels, bewildered. Then he looked up, and his confusion doubled.

  The surreal black apparition stepped out of the smoke and the sheeting rain. It was the figure of a man, but he had no face. He was covered from head to toe in gleaming wet black skin, like a seal, and festooned with belts and straps and tubes and armament. His eyes were hidden behind goggles, their lenses filled with fire. In his gloved hands was the stubby submachine gun he’d used to shoot Zolani.

  The frogman moved as fluidly as the water from which he’d emerged. He stepped up to Zolani and his silencer coughed out two more rounds into the African’s head. Then he turned the weapon on Khosa, who was staggering to his feet, bloodied and unsteady.

  For an instant, it looked as if Khosa was about to reach for the large revolver holstered at his right hip.

  The frogman shook his head. Uh-uh, pal. Don’t even think about it.

  Khosa did think about it, but only for a second longer. The hand that had been snaking its way down towards the holster stopped moving. The frogman shoved him hard against the container stack, spun him around and held the subgun to the back of his head as he relieved him of the heavy revolver and threw it overboard. Then Khosa was on his face and his hands were being secured behind his back with a cable tie.

  In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the gunfire on board the cargo ship had dwindled, the sharp, sporadic crackle of AK-47s giving way to the muted BRRPP … BRRPP of silenced automatic weapons. As the rising wind parted the curtains of smoke, Jude saw two more frogmen striding over the deck. He saw pirates on their knees, weapons thrown down, hands in the air. The corpses of those who hadn’t surrendered sprawled here and there like dead rats, their clothing torn from bullet strikes and dark with blood and rain and seawater spray. The assault had been short, sharp and brutal, and now it was over. The ship was retaken. But that, for the moment, was all Jude knew.

  ‘Who are you?’ he asked the frogman. His voice came out as a thin, shaky croak.

  The frogman reached up a gleaming black arm and peeled away his goggles. Jude stared into the glacier-blue eyes that locked onto his.

  ‘Ben?’

  Chapter 26

  The truth was, if Jude hadn’t been eight feet away and watching every move, Ben wouldn’t have hesitated to empty the rest of his magazine into the big African in the combat khakis and the fancy gold watch who’d been threatening his son. There would have been no prisoners, no quarter. Ben wasn’t in the mood for mercy that morning. But he held back, because it wouldn’t have been the first time he’d killed a man in Jude’s presence and he’d vowed to himself that he’d never do it again.

  Ben took the gun away from the back of the African’s head. He reached a hand out to Jude. ‘Are you okay?’

  Jude took the hand, and got unsteadily to his feet. ‘I – I – I – what are you doing here?’ His voice was weak and trembly. Ben could see the first stages of shock. Jude had reached the outer limits of his endurance, and now the traumatic stress was piling in on him.

  ‘I thought maybe you could do with a little help,’ Ben said.

  Before Jude could reply, Jeff Dekker joined them. He was suited up in the same frogman kit as Ben, his goggles and breathing apparatus dangling from his neck, and grinning all over his face.

  ‘Got your email, mate. Felt like a trip anyway. So here we are. In the nick of time, too, looks like.’ Jeff glanced down at the trussed-up prisoner at their feet. ‘Who’s the arsehole?’

  ‘Luckiest man on earth,’ Ben said. ‘Nearly ended up like his friend with the machete here.’ He waved the muzzle of his gun at the corpse at their feet. The rain was already washing the deck clean of Zolani’s blood.

  ‘That one’s called Zolani,’ Jude said. ‘And that one’s called Khosa. He’s their leader.’

  ‘Funny kind of get-up for a pirate,’ Jeff said, eyeing Khosa’s military fatigues. ‘Love the tribal scars, too. Looks like a fucking Klingon. Bet the girls love it.’ Jeff’s relief at finding Jude intact and safe had put him in a jovial mood, one that Ben wasn’t ready to share just yet.

  ‘I will kill you all,’ Khosa said from the deck.

  ‘I’ve had pretty much enough of this guy,’ Ben said.

  Jeff grinned. ‘Be my guest.’

  Ben knocked him out with a sharp kick to the head. Khosa’s skull bounced off the deck and he went as limp as a dead fish.

  ‘Don’t hurt him any more,’ Jude said. ‘We’re not like them.’

  ‘You’re right,’ Ben said. ‘We’re nothing like these people.’

  ‘Bad news for them,’ Jeff said.

  Jude could see a third frogman stalking the deck from one trussed-up prisoner to another, checking their bonds and collecting all their weapons, unloaded and made safe, into a heap that looked like a terrorist arsenal. He blinked as he recognised the face behind the goggles. ‘I know him. That’s Tuesday.’

  ‘On-the-job training, the Le Val way,’ Jeff joked.

  ‘The plane,’ Jude said, still incredulous. ‘That was you? How did—?’

  ‘We can talk later,’ Ben said. ‘We have a lot to do.’

  Jude ran and found the rest of the crew gathered in a small crowd inside the main entrance passage to A Deck, where they were sheltering from the weather. Gerber, Hercules and everyone else except Scagnetti inevitably had a thousand questions about what the hell had just happened and who these three guys were that Jude had apparently summoned to their aid, just like that – but Jude had little time to explain. Nobody had yet mentioned the diamond. Jude sensed that would come later, too.

  More pressing matters were at hand for the moment. Ben, Jeff and Tuesday joined them for a lightning conference, during which it was decided that getting the engines put back together and running again was a matter of urgent priority. The pummelling rain was falling even harder and the waves had grown up into towering mountains crested with white foam that rolled relentlessly towards them and shook the Andromeda with every crashing impact.

  ‘We don’t get powered up fast,’ Cherry warned, ‘we’re gonna drift side-on to one of these big sumbitches and we’ll broach and flip right over.’ He and Peters had been Diesel’s assistants in the engine room and they knew every twitch of every switch down there. It was quickly voted that Scagnetti should go with them, being a dab hand with a spanner. Jude was pleased to get Scagnetti out of the way. In the meantime, Trent and Lorenz, who both had experience, were to run up to the bridge, assess the amount of damage up there and take over the helm once the power was back on.

  Other duties weren’t going to be so pleasant. Jude and Gerber picked Hercules and Condor to help clear the bodies of their fellow crewmates that the pirates hadn’t already slung overboard. That left Allen and Lang, who were assigned to help their rescuers take care of the prisoners. Ben issued them each a rifle from the captured store of arms, just in case of trouble.

  The crewmen all hurried to their separate stations. As he and the other three in his group set about gathering their dead, Jude began to wish he
hadn’t volunteered for the grisly detail. It was sickening, but he felt partially responsible for what had happened to Diesel and the guilt spurred him to get on with it in grim silence. They carried the chief to the ship’s tiny medical clinic, which housed an even smaller refrigerated morgue compartment. The body of poor Park was next. As they heaved the Korean up from below, they talked about what to do with the dead pirates still sliding around the deck.

  ‘We can’t just leave them there,’ Jude said.

  ‘Well,’ Gerber told him, ‘unless you want to wrap each one up in a Somali flag, say a prayer for his immortal soul and consign him to the depths with a full honours and a three-volley salute, I’d say we oughta dump their filthy carcasses over the side like they were going to do to us. Same goes for that sorry sonofabitch Carter, or Pender, or whoever he was.’

  Jude was dead set against the idea. ‘We’re not animals. As for Pender, his body should be handed over to the police along with the rest of them. He’s evidence of a crime.’

  ‘Not the only evidence,’ Gerber said, with a knowing tone.

  Jude knew what Gerber was going to say next.

  ‘That thing in your pocket, were you thinking of handing that in to the cops too?’

  ‘Yeah, that ain’t no glass paperweight, man,’ Hercules said.

  Jude stopped and let go of Park’s body as he shone his torch at them each in turn, appalled by the insinuation. ‘Why, you think I was planning on keeping it for myself?’

  ‘Certainly kept quiet about it all night long. Just my observation, son. I’m not accusing you of anything.’

  ‘I was going to tell you,’ Jude protested. ‘Down in the engine room, before they stormed us. Here, you want it? Take it. I wish I hadn’t laid eyes on the damn thing.’

  ‘Not me,’ Hercules said, as if Jude was offering them a lump of plutonium. ‘That’s a whole lotta trouble I don’t need.’

  Gerber showed his palms. ‘Nor me, son. I’ve had enough excitement to last me the rest of my life, and now I just want to get home in one piece. All I’m saying is, and I’m no expert, if that there rock is what I think it is, I’d be damned careful if I were you. We weren’t the only ones in this crew who saw it, if you get my meaning. Better watch your six, before someone puts a knife in your back.’

 
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