Star of Africa, p.16Scott Mariani
After the crew had hurried off to attend to their duties Ben took a quiet moment to himself on deck, feeling that familiar old sense of post-battle melancholia as the adrenalin slowly oozed out of his system. The blood-red dawn had darkened like evening as unbroken black clouds scudded menacingly overhead, blotting out the light. Ben had seen tropical storms like it before. At this time of year in these waters, they could sweep in out of nowhere with shocking suddenness and not burn themselves out for days on end.
He stood at the rail, lashed by salt spray and craving a Gauloise, which wouldn’t have stayed lit for long in this gale. Far below him, the wreckage of the pirate trawler was dispersing on the waves. Its shattered hull had long since sunk to the bottom – or what was left of it after the high-explosive limpet mine, supplied by their man in Stuttgart, had done its destructive work. The two ex-military Rotinor Diver Propulsion Vehicles that had propelled them swiftly and silently underwater for the last mile of the journey would soon be joining the wreckage on the sea bed, if they hadn’t already. Ben felt a pang about consigning twenty grand’s worth of equipment to Davy Jones’s locker, but it was a momentary regret lost in a sense of relief so overpowering that he almost wanted to cry.
It had been a close run thing. The delay at Obbia airport had filled him with dread that the seaplane might not materialise either; that Chimp Chalmers had diddled them; that they wouldn’t make it. But Ben’s fears had been allayed when they found the aircraft floating just offshore at Hobyo port, ready to take off at a moment’s notice. Geedi’s Toyota had served its purpose as an improvised amphibious transport to deliver their cargo to the plane, before being abandoned half-submerged in the surf. Geedi would mourn the loss of his vehicle, but to hell with the drunken bastard.
From there, everything had gone smoothly except for the unexpected turn in the weather. They’d located the ship just a couple of nautical miles from the coordinates in Jude’s email. The tricky bail-out at low altitude into heavy seas had gone without a hitch. Tuesday might have balked at his first-ever underwater assault, clinging wild-eyed to a two-man diver propulsion vehicle as it sped thirty metres beneath the waves to zero in on their target, but he’d taken it in his stride and Ben was pleased with him.
And now it was over. They’d pulled it off.
Most importantly of all, Jude was safe. Until this moment, Ben hadn’t allowed himself to fully consider the alternative. The mind can work in strange ways. Now that he knew it wouldn’t happen, the worst images bubbled up in his imagination as if the brain needed to release the pressure of keeping them stored up. It hit him like a brick. His throat tightened up, his stomach was knotted and his hands shook. He gripped the rail and closed his eyes for a few moments, suddenly so washed out with feeling that he could have lain down and curled up right there on the rainswept deck. Sensing Jeff’s presence behind him, he kept his back turned so that his friend wouldn’t see his emotion.
‘You all right?’ Jeff said, joining him at the rail. He had to yell to be heard over the wind.
Ben nodded wordlessly.
Jeff clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Got the shakes? Fucking bet I’ve got them too, mate. We haven’t had a run like that in a while.’
‘Not since the last time. Thanks, Jeff. I couldn’t have done it without you.’
Jeff laughed it off. He looked up. ‘Christ, I’ve never seen the morning sky so black. Blacker than the inside of the devil’s arsehole.’
‘You’re a natural born poet, Dekker.’
‘So everyone tells me. Any sign of Mussa?’
Ben had tried to raise the pilot several times, but he was out of handheld radio range. He scanned the sky once again, and would have been very surprised if there’d been any sign of the aircraft circling overhead somewhere in those clouds. The plan had been for Mussa to double back and land alongside the ship once the pirate threat was neutralised. Then, after spending the minimum amount of time making sure the ship was secure, they were going to leave it to its own devices, load Jude on the plane and return to Obbia to call Adrien Leroy and wait for the Gulfstream to carry them back home.
All of which had been assuming a successful outcome to the mission. And none of which had reckoned on the dramatic downturn in the weather conditions. The sea had been slick and bright with starlight when they’d left Hobyo port.
‘Not a chance. Headed back to land, if he’s got any sense. This crap isn’t going to lift in a hurry.’
‘Then it looks like we’re stuck on board this tub until it does.’
Ben nodded. ‘Yup. Let’s get to work.’
Ben’s first and main priority was to stow the prisoners securely under lock and key. Of the sixteen African pirates who had been aboard the ship at the time of the rescue assault, nine were still alive including their leader, Khosa. Those who had stayed on board the smaller vessel could be presumed drowned or blown to bits. Ben, Jeff and Tuesday hurriedly stripped off their dive apparatus and wetsuits. Once they had changed into combat trousers and T-shirts and swapped the cumbersome flippers for the lightweight assault boots they’d packed in the watertight kit bags along with the rest of the gear, Tuesday took charge of guarding the prisoners while Ben and Jeff hunted about below by torchlight for a suitable temporary cell space. They soon found a storage compartment in the aft cargo hold that would serve as a makeshift brig.
Three at a time, the prisoners had their ankle bonds slashed and were frogmarched below at gunpoint and bundled into the pitch-black hole that would be their home for the foreseeable future. Allen and Lang were stationed on sentry duty outside the door.
‘I don’t like it much,’ Jeff said. ‘That room isn’t half secure enough to hold them. Especially Scarface. I look at that guy, I see trouble.’
They were making their way back up through the pitch-darkness below decks when the electrical power flickered on and the winding passages, hatchways and stairways that honeycombed the vast bowels of the ship were lit up in a stark neon glow. Seconds later, they felt the thrum of the restarted engines and the vibration of the ship’s massive twin screws resonate under their feet. Cherry’s guys had done their work and the Andromeda was back in business.
Ben’s next priority was to check on the bridge. Now that the power was restored, he needed to make sure that the two crewmen up there, Trent and Lorenz, didn’t do anything stupid like radio the coastguard and inform them of the attack. If the storm should suddenly abate, the last thing he needed was for a squad of trigger-happy Somali police to show up in a fast cruiser and spark an international incident when they discovered an unofficial hostage rescue team on board, with enough small arms to start a war.
Ben needn’t have worried. When he stepped onto the rocking, swaying bridge he found Trent and Lorenz bent anxiously over the bullet-holed remains of the long-range radio receiver. ‘It’s fubar,’ was Trent’s technical assessment. Lorenz looked at Ben. ‘Mister, I hope you know how to fix this or we’re cut off from the whole freakin’ universe.’
Ben examined it. One time, in his early days with 22 SAS, he had been on patrol in the Middle East when his unit’s radio operator lost the top half of his body to a high-explosive 30-mm cannon shell. Even though much of the radio set had been pulverised along with him, Ben had managed to twist enough loose wires together to get it operational again. But that had been years ago, when they were still making technology he could understand. This thing was all circuit boards and computer chips, reduced to tiny shards of silicon that lay like dust in the metal casing. He could tell from the holes that two large-calibre handgun bullets had smashed through the electronics, ploughing through just about everything they needed to hit in order to ruin the radio beyond salvation.
‘You’re right,’ he told Trent. ‘It is fubar.’ The whole freakin’ universe would have to do without them for now.
Ben found Jeff and Tuesday below on A Deck. Smelling the scent of freshly brewed coffee, they followed their noses to the mess canteen where Jude and t
They pulled up three more chairs and sat together. The floor of the mess canteen was rocking from side to side so much from the weather that the sailors had to hold their mugs to stop them sliding off the table. Ben put his hand on Jude’s arm and gave him a look that said, ‘You okay?’
Jude quietly nodded, but he didn’t look okay. His face fell even more when Ben broke the news to them about the damaged radio. First the attack, then the storm, and now this.
Jude broke the dejected silence with introductions. ‘This is Lou Gerber,’ he said, nodding at the older man at the table. ‘And this is Condor.’
Jeff smiled. ‘Condor?’
‘That’s right, man, just Condor.’ Condor’s face was the colour of a long-dead fish and he kept clutching at his stomach as though he was about to throw up.
‘Call yourself a mariner,’ Gerber snorted. ‘Seasick, at your age?’
Jude went on with the intros. ‘This is Tuesday Fletcher—’
‘Welcome to the silly names club,’ Tuesday said.
‘—and this is Jeff Dekker—’
‘Uncle Jeff,’ Gerber said with a thin smile.
Jeff raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s a new one on me. I’ve never been an uncle before.’
Jude motioned towards Ben. ‘And this is … this is …’ As if he couldn’t bring himself to say the words ‘my father’.
Ben respected that. He had never deserved the title, anyway. ‘Ben,’ he finished for Jude. ‘Jude and I go back a long way.’
The happiest person in the mess canteen was the large black man introduced to Ben and the others as Hercules. He couldn’t stop chuckling and grinning as he navigated across to the table and served more mugs of steaming coffee for the honoured guests. A grey parrot with a red tail and suspicious eyes was perched on his shoulder, regarding them all with great disdain.
‘I see you got reunited with Murphy,’ Jude said, forcing a smile.
Hercules tenderly held up a finger for the parrot to gnaw at. ‘Yeah, he was the only one of us who had the sense not to let himself get caught by those motherfuckers.’
‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ Jeff said to the bird.
‘Up yours, buttcrack,’ the bird shot back, giving him a look that would terrify a hawk.
‘He’s a charmer, isn’t he?’ Jeff said.
‘He don’t like to be patronised,’ Hercules said.
‘Sorry I spoke.’
Ben smiled and took a sip of the coffee. It tasted like something that had been ladled up from the recesses of the ship’s hold and mixed with engine oil, but it was strong and hot and that was good enough.
‘Speaking of those motherfuckers,’ Gerber said when Hercules had gone weaving off over the listing floor, ‘I’m not going to ask you fellas how you did it, where you came from or who you are. But I am going to thank you, on behalf of all of us, for saving our bacon, which you well and truly did.’
‘Yeah, man,’ Condor mumbled. ‘We were dead meat.’ The thought of actual dead meat almost made him vomit, and he went back to groaning and clutching his stomach.
Jude looked solemnly at the three of them. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Then say nothing,’ Ben said.
‘We do this kind of thing all the time, dear boy,’ Jeff said.
‘That’s right,’ Tuesday laughed. ‘Piece of cake. Especially the hanging-on-like-grim-death-to-a-manned-torpedo-with-eighty-pounds-of-RDX-high-explosive-strapped-six-inches-from-my-bollocks part. I’d do it again tomorrow.’
‘Let’s hope we won’t need to,’ Ben said. ‘And let me just say this, that the person everyone should be thanking is Jude. He’s the one who sent the message.’
‘Jude already knows how grateful we are,’ Gerber said. ‘But hey, does no one else know about this?’
‘Not that we’re aware of,’ Jeff replied. ‘And we’d prefer to keep it that way until we’re off this ship, so as to avoid any unwanted, uh, entanglements, know what I mean?’ Turning to Jude, he said, ‘Seriously, mate, I feel like shit that I got you into it. If I’d thought there was the slightest risk of you getting hit by pirates—’
‘It wasn’t pirates,’ Jude cut in. ‘This was no ordinary attack.’
Ben looked at him. ‘What are you saying, Jude? How do you know that?’
The rest of them sat in silence and sipped coffee as Jude laid it all out, starting with his visit to the bridge, the radar alert and the appearance of the three passengers who had turned out to be hijackers and murdered the captain and ship’s mates right in front of his eyes.
‘Pender, he was the one in charge, except he was calling himself Carter. I think he bribed Captain O’Keefe to let them on board in secret. O’Keefe said something about a deal. I think he knew what was about to happen. I think he was paid to let it happen. That’s why he seemed to turn a blind eye when the radar showed up the boats heading towards us. But he didn’t realise they were going to kill anyone, least of all him.’
‘Fuckers,’ Condor breathed. Gerber looked sombre. They were hearing this story for the first time, too.
‘You’re saying this Pender hired Khosa and his men to attack the ship?’ Ben asked.
Jude nodded. ‘That’s what it looks like to me. Then after he killed the captain, he killed his own accomplices. But then when Khosa saw it, he double-crossed Pender and tried to take it for himself.’
‘Slow down,’ Ben said. ‘You’re not making any sense. Saw what? Tried to take what?’
‘This,’ Jude said. ‘This is what this whole thing is all about.’
He took out the diamond.
Jude held the diamond out on the flat of his palm. It was as if the canteen lights had suddenly grown brighter. A hush fell over the table. Tuesday boggled at the sight of it, and almost spilled his coffee in his lap.
‘That’s not real,’ Jeff said, gaping. ‘No bloody way.’
Jude quickly explained how he’d taken it from Pender, and how Pender had later accidentally allowed Khosa to see it when they were all on deck. ‘They murdered him for it like stepping on a beetle.’
‘He had it coming,’ Gerber muttered.
‘May I?’ Ben took the diamond from Jude and examined it. He’d never seen anything like it before. ‘I’d say it’s real, all right.’
‘Oh, so you’re the big expert now,’ Jeff said, without taking his eyes off it.
‘People are liable to start massacring each other over a lot of things,’ Ben said. ‘But a lump of cut glass isn’t one of them.’ He handed it back to Jude.
‘What would it be worth?’ Jude asked.
Jeff whistled. ‘If you have to ask, mate, you can’t afford it. Millions? Tens of millions?’
‘Hundreds of millions,’ Ben said. ‘Question is, where did it come from?’
‘I think Pender stole it,’ Jude said. ‘Who from, I have no idea. Someone in Oman, I thought. That would explain why he was on the ship, why he bribed his way on board incognito. He needed to get out of the country unnoticed.’
‘To Dar es Salaam?’ Jeff said. ‘Or Mombasa, maybe?’
‘Except he had no intention of going that far,’ Jude said. ‘He could have disembarked at Djibouti just as easily, but he didn’t. He wanted to disappear into thin air with the diamond. That’s why he set up the attack, to intercept us midway.’
‘A staged pirate attack,’ Ben said. It made an awful lot of sense. But it also raised more questions, and he could see from Jude’s expression that he had already figured that much out for himself.
‘Question is, why he’d need to get away in the middle of the Indian Ocean,’ Jude w
Ben could see another possibility. ‘Or unless there was a third party involved. If we can suppose that Pender was the active partner in the robbery, the one who did the crime and took the biggest risk, it would make sense that maybe someone employed him to snatch it and deliver it to them, either at Mombasa or Dar es Salaam.’
‘A sleeping partner,’ Jeff said, cottoning on to the idea. ‘Mister Big. The head honcho.’
‘Who at this point may not even realise that Pender was planning to cut him out and do a runner,’ Ben said. ‘I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.’
Gerber took a noisy slurp of coffee. ‘Here’s another question for you, folks. If this Khosa character and his boys aren’t Somali pirates, then who and what in hell’s name are they?’
‘Not Somalis, for a start,’ Ben said. ‘They speak Swahili among themselves.’
‘You speak it?’ Gerber said, surprised.
‘Some,’ Ben said.
‘So they’re from Kenya?’ Jude asked.
‘Possibly. Or Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, the Congo; pretty much anywhere in central or south-east Africa. It’s not where they’re from that concerns me. It’s what they do for a living.’
‘Boosting ships?’ Gerber said.
Ben shook his head. ‘No. Jude’s right. These guys are in a whole other line of work. They’re PMCs. Private military contractors. Professional guns for hire, most or all with some kind of army or militia training, or what passes for that in Africa.’
‘Freakin’ mercenaries?’ Condor gasped, almost letting go of his stomach contents.
Ben nodded. ‘That’s who you’d approach if you were planning something like this, or at least, I would. Someone who could bring the necessary firepower to the table and get the job done quickly and effectively. Or at least more quickly and effectively than a band of complete amateurs. All it really takes is a few guys who can yank a trigger, aren’t afraid of a little blood and won’t run away if anyone starts shooting back. But it seems that Pender slipped up. He obviously didn’t reckon on what his mercenaries would do to him if they got an inkling of what this was really about. I’ve come across men like this Khosa before. Pender made a big mistake with him.’
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