Star of Africa, p.17Scott Mariani
‘And then some,’ Condor groaned. ‘Jesus Christ. Mercenaries. I heard about these fuckers, man. They’d slit their own sisters wide open from ass to eyeball for something like this.’
‘That’s right,’ Gerber said, scratching his beard. ‘The world’s chock full of evil sonsofbitches who’d do anything for even just a few bucks, let alone a rock like that. I wouldn’t feel safe with it, that’s for sure.’
Jude blanched and stared at the diamond in his hand. ‘I can’t stand hanging onto this thing any longer. It’s too much responsibility for me.’ He thrust it towards Ben. ‘You take it.’
‘What makes you think I want it?’ Ben said.
‘It’d be safer with you.’
‘Safest place for it would be at the bottom of the sea,’ Ben said. ‘That’s the only way you can guarantee it won’t do any more harm.’
Jeff interrupted. ‘Gents, I hate to break in on this sociological, philosophical or whatever-the-fuck-it-is discussion, but we need to talk about what we’re going to do with the prisoners. If we’re right and it now looks like we’re dealing with a bunch of hardcore warriors led by some nutjob who’s pretty highly bloody motivated to slaughter every single one of us on board to get his mitts on a bobby dazzler the size of Manchester, we need to be taking every possible precaution. That storage locker they’re in isn’t secure enough and I don’t feel good about having two inexperienced sailors down there on guard duty. No offence.’
‘None taken,’ Gerber said. ‘I was in the Corps myself, back in the day, final rank of staff sergeant. Most of these boys couldn’t guard a Quakers’ convention.’
‘Jeff’s right,’ Ben said. ‘Ideas?’
Jeff shrugged. ‘What about all these containers up on deck? Those things are built like tanks. Empty one out, dump whatever cargo’s inside and bung the bastards in there in its place.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ Ben said.
‘In this weather?’ Jude objected. ‘What if it breaks free and goes overboard? That can happen. We almost ran into a forty-footer floating adrift just after we left Djibouti. They’d drown inside.’
‘Then let them,’ Ben said.
‘And even if it doesn’t, once the storm’s over, they’ll bake in there.’
‘Then let them,’ Ben repeated.
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘You’re not that cruel, surely.’
‘There are quicker ways,’ Ben said. ‘If you’re concerned about inflicting cruelty on your fellow man.’
‘Meaning what?’ Jude said.
Ben just shrugged.
‘I can’t believe you would even contemplate that,’ Jude said. ‘What, you want to line them up on the deck, make them kneel, bullet in the back of the head and dump them in the ocean? Execute them in cold blood?’
Ben said nothing.
‘No. Absolutely not. That’s not who we are,’ Jude said.
‘Compassion is great, Jude. But if these men had half a chance to get free, do you think they’d show you an ounce of quarter? Have you forgotten what they did to your friends, and almost did to you?’
Jude was silent for a second. ‘Fine. I agree that’s a risk we can’t afford. But I can’t accept that we stick them in a container, and we’re certainly not going to murder these people. So we find another way.’
‘Such as, we don’t keep them on the ship. We let them go.’
‘I see. Drop them off at the nearest port, nice and easy, wave bye bye and put it all behind us?’
‘Or something,’ Jude said.
Ben looked at him. ‘Think about who you’re dealing with, Jude. Khosa won’t give up easily. He’s seen what’s at stake here. He’s had the diamond in his hands once already. And you can be sure he’s got the contacts to put together as many men and as much hardware as he’s going to need to reclaim it. If you let him go, he’ll be back again before you know it, and I don’t think he’ll be any more interested in negotiating than he was first time around.’
‘They’re murderers. I know.’
‘No, Jude. You don’t know.’
‘But we’re better than that. At least, I thought we were. What happened to you?’
Too much, Ben thought. ‘That’s just the way it is.’
‘Here’s what we’ll do,’ Jude said. ‘We’ll put them in the lifeboat and cut them loose.’
‘Aren’t you listening to a word I say?’ Ben asked.
‘Apart from anything else, it’s getting awful heavy out there,’ Jeff said.
‘No shit,’ Condor said miserably.
‘That thing’s pretty much unsinkable. They’ll have a chance,’ Jude replied. ‘You know, they’re still human beings. We owe them a chance, don’t we? Or what does it say about us?’
‘And you want to make a go of it in Special Forces,’ Ben said, looking straight at him.
Jude flinched. ‘Who told you?’
Ben pointed at Jeff. ‘He did. Apparently that’s what you’re gunning for, to get into the SBS. Starting with the navy interview in February. Tell me I’m wrong. I’d love to be.’
Jude said nothing. Jeff was frowning.
‘Trust me, Jude, you don’t want to be a part of that,’ Ben said. ‘You couldn’t be. Because it’s shit, and it makes stone-cold killers out of people, and you just proved to me that you’re better than that.’
‘Hey, thanks,’ Jeff said. ‘Speak for yourself.’
Ben went on, ‘And you also proved to me that you wouldn’t survive in that environment. This is not your world, Jude. It’s my world and I know what makes it go round and round. So listen to me.’
‘We’re going to put them in the lifeboat,’ Jude insisted. ‘It’s the only way that we can get rid of them without losing our humanity. We’ll make sure they have enough fuel and supplies to make it back to the Somali coast.’
‘So they can reorganise themselves and come right back after us with double the forces?’ Ben said. ‘It’s a mistake.’
‘It’s my decision,’ Jude said. ‘It’s the right thing to do. Everyone agreed?’
‘I’m getting too old for this shit,’ Gerber said, shaking his head resignedly. ‘I’ve seen enough blood for one day. Let’s do what the young fella says and get shot of ’em, and be done with it.’
‘Whatever, man,’ Condor said. ‘I ain’t up for no killin’.’
‘Not in cold blood, anyway,’ Tuesday said. ‘Seems like this is the best option.’
‘Don’t look at me, boys,’ Jeff said. ‘I’m just a dyed-in-the-wool heartless killing machine.’
Ben held back from saying more. He’d said too much already.
‘Then it’s agreed,’ Jude said. ‘The lifeboat it is.’
It had been many, many years since shipwrecked crews had been forced to take their chances at sea in open rowing boats. The Andromeda was equipped with a modern MOB, or Man Overboard rescue vessel, a bright orange fibreglass craft some eighteen feet long, with an outboard engine and basic bench seating inside for a whole crew, as well as internal storage space for spare fuel and supplies. Jude had always thought it looked like the submersible Thunderbird 4 from the old TV series. The MOB hung forty feet above the sea from external mountings on A Deck. To release it from its cradle it had to be winched up a few feet, then swung out clear of the ship’s side and lowered down on cables using the davit, a small crane used for hoisting materials up and down from the water.
Which was a straightforward enough operation in still and clement conditions. In the middle of a howling tropical storm, it was anything but. The wind was blasting them so ferociously that it was hard to stand up on deck without clinging onto something solid for support. A murky midday had become an even more cloud-laden afternoon, with visibility reduced to almost zero by the time Ben and Jeff had finished loading up the extra water, provisions and fuel that Khosa and his men would need to make it back to the coast.
Next, the prisoners were marched labor
Khosa was the last to board the lifeboat. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Jude the entire time, and they were filled with a crazy fire that made the back of Jude’s neck tingle. The African’s horribly scarred face twisted into a leer of hatred mixed with triumph. His cheek and brow were swollen and crusted with dried blood. One or two extra scars to add to his collection.
‘You will see me again soon, White Meat,’ he told Jude as Ben grabbed his arm and shoved him into the boat.
‘Not if we see you first, sunshine,’ Jeff said.
Ben slammed the hatch and activated the winding gear to crank the MOB off its cradle. The winch took up the slack in the cables. They released the catches holding the craft to its moorings. Then the davit swung the lifeboat outwards from the deck. It dangled, rocking in the gale, before the pulleys began to turn and the swaying craft descended to the water. Once it was floating on the surface, Ben yanked the lever to detach the MOB at the other end, and set the winch into reverse to spool the empty cable back up the ship’s side.
In the name of human compassion, the ship was now minus its only lifeboat.
They leaned over the rail and watched as the MOB tossed and bobbed like a rubber duck on the waves. Its outboard motor burbled and churned foam. In minutes, the ship was cleaving away and leaving it behind as it struggled away in the opposite direction, just a tiny orange blob in the midst of the vast, dark, boiling ocean. Ben thought he saw a wild-eyed monstrous face staring up at them from one of the lifeboat’s little porthole windows. He might have imagined it, but it was an image that he wasn’t able to shake from his mind for a long time afterwards.
‘Well, that’s that,’ Jeff yelled over the wind as they headed indoors to dry off.
And that could have been that. But it wasn’t.
As the afternoon wore on, the storm kept worsening steadily. Waves that before had been as tall as houses now loomed vertically like mountains of water, peaking high above the deck of the Svalgaard Andromeda and smashing thousands of tons of water over her bows with a violence that made the ship quiver from stem to stern and every man aboard catch his breath with fearful anticipation. The news from the bridge was grim: the latest weather update from the GMDSS reported that the severe tropical storm that had been lashing the Somali coast was now being upgraded to a full-blown cyclone. And from the readings, it looked as if the Andromeda was heading right into it.
Assuming the role of captain, Trent ordered the engine room to crack on under full power while he deviated course to try to outflank the storm. But it was moving so fast and erratically that it was impossible to anticipate where the cyclone might hit.
Sometime after 4 p.m., Jeff Dekker and Tuesday climbed up to the bridge to relieve the exhausted Trent and Lang. Ben had last been seen heading out onto the main deck to check on the fixings holding the fore and aft cargo cranes in place, lest they be torn loose by the incredible wind and start swinging destructively about.
In the galley, plates and cutlery were crashing all over the floor with the wild motion of the ship, and Murphy was squawking and flapping about in a panic. Jude helped Hercules clear up the mess and stow everything safely in place. As he worked, he was feeling unsettled and restless, and not just because of the storm. He couldn’t get Pender out of his head. Who was he? Jude wanted to know more. It suddenly occurred to him that, with all that had been happening, nobody had thought to search the cabin where the three mystery passengers had been accommodated.
Jude told Hercules he was going to the head, which was what they called the ship’s toilets. Instead, he crept unnoticed up the ladder way to E Deck and made his way to the cabin down the hall from O’Keefe’s quarters.
That was where Jude made his discovery.
Pender had apparently been in such a tearing rush to get off the ship with his prize that he’d left a number of items behind. On the bed lay an abandoned holdall containing some clothes and toiletries. There was a yellowed old Wilbur Smith paperback lying propped open on the floor. And a phone.
He found it under a bunk, where it had either been kicked by accident or had slid across the floor with the motion of the ship. Jude fished it out and examined it with a thumping heart. It looked like a normal Motorola cellphone, except for its unusually chunky size and the thick antenna attached to the casing. Jude quickly realised what it was. A satellite phone.
Jude turned it on and the logo IRIDIUM flashed up on its screen. It took him only a few moments to find a menu listing all the recent calls that had been made from it. There had been only two – and both to the same number, with the international prefix code for the USA. Jude redialled the number and pressed the phone to his ear. He wasn’t sure if the phone could work in such weather conditions, but he had to try. After a hissing pause, he heard a variety of electronic and static noises as the signal was bounced off the satellite.
His heart jumped as the connection was made. The dial tone was faint, and he had to clamp his hand over his other ear to hear it above the howl of the wind outside and the rain that crackled like fire against the cabin window. After five rings, there was an answer. It was a recorded answerphone message. A man’s voice, speaking with an American accent.
‘This is Eugene Svalgaard’s phone. I’m not here right now, so do the thing and I’ll get back to you.’
Jude cancelled the call, thinking, Svalgaard, as in Svalgaard Line? Confused, he racked his brain to recall the reading he’d done about the company before heading out to Oman. Its founder, Aksel Svalgaard, a young Danish émigré to New York in the early twentieth century, had ruthlessly built his empire from tiny beginnings in the 1920s. Having grown to become the fifth-largest shipping line in America, it was currently run and owned by his grandson, Eugene Svalgaard. The name had stuck in Jude’s mind. He was certain of it.
And Eugene Svalgaard was in communication with Pender? How could that be possible? Jude was thinking he must be getting it wrong. Maybe the lines had got crossed somehow.
He was about to try the number again when the sat phone rang in his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he pressed the reply button and held the phone to his ear without speaking.
‘Pender? Is that you?’
The connection was poor, but there was no question that it was the same voice Jude had heard on the answerphone message. Eugene Svalgaard, CEO of the shipping line, owner of the Andromeda.
Jude was afraid to speak.
‘Talk to me, Pender,’ said the voice, sounding irritable and agitated. ‘What the hell’s going on out there? Hello? Hello? Jesus, it’s a godawful connection.’
Jude knew he had to reply if he was to understand what this was all about. He deepened his voice and put on a passable imitation of Pender’s accent, hoping that the crackly interference and bursts of white noise would cover up for him. ‘Where are you?’
After a delay for the satellite, the voice replied: ‘I’m about to leave for Mombasa. Got some business to take care of in Rome on the way. I’ll be there to meet you and take delivery as planned. Why are you calling? Is there a problem? Hello? Hello?’
Jude cut him off, hardly believing what he’d just heard. He had to go and find Ben and tell him about this. It was incredible.
Clutching the phone, he rushed from the cabin and hurried back down below, zigzagging and slamming into bulkheads as the floor pitched under his feet. The first person he ran into was Condor, who was bent double in a passage and looking as if he was about to expire from seasickness. ‘Have you seen my— have you seen Ben?’ Jude asked breathlessly.
Neither had Allen, the next person Jude found. Then, a moment la
Jude reached the A Deck hatchway and tore it open. The wind screamed in his ears and he was instantly soaked all over again as he staggered out on deck. He glanced up at the windows of the ship’s superstructure behind him, lit up like a tower block behind the curtain of rain, and wanted to be back in the safety of indoors. Out in the open was no place to be. It was as dark as night out there. The gale was frighteningly strong, snatching the air from his lungs and threatening to uproot the hair from his scalp. He ventured a few steps from the hatchway, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, ‘Ben!’
No reply. Jude battled the wind a few more steps, until he reached the first container stack. The giant cargo crane was a towering black shape against the darkness, like the silhouette of a prehistoric monster disturbed from the deep. He yelled at the top of his voice, ‘BEN! WHERE ARE YOU?’
Dread began to grip him. Nobody could survive out here long without getting swept overboard. What if—?
Jude sensed a presence behind him. He turned, clutching the locking bar of the nearest container for support against the gale. ‘Ben?’ he said, relief flooding through him.
The figure that stepped out of the shadows wasn’t Ben.
A sudden flash of lightning snaked and writhed from the sky and glinted off something long and pointed in Scagnetti’s hand. His clothes and hair were plastered to him and his muscled arms were gleaming from the rainwater. He came on a step. Another lightning flash; Jude saw the expression on Scagnetti’s face, the ragged teeth bared like a snarling dog’s.
Star of Africa by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 1 out of 5 / Based on2 votes