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Star of africa, p.18
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       Star of Africa, p.18

           Scott Mariani

  ‘Give it to me, Limey boy,’ Scagnetti yelled. ‘Hand it over. I want it, you hear me?’

  Jude’s blood turned to ice. Gerber had warned him about Scagnetti. Jude knew what he wanted.

  ‘Don’t be stupid, Scagnetti. Put the knife down.’

  ‘Give me that diamond,’ Scagnetti shouted over the wind, coming on another step. ‘Or I’ll spill your guts all over this fuckin’ deck.’ He raised the switchblade and twirled it between his fingers.

  Jude let go of the container and held up both hands to show they were empty. ‘I don’t have it!’ he yelled back.

  ‘I’ve heard you say that before, you lying fuck!’ And before Jude could back away, Scagnetti reached out with the knife faster than a striking cobra. Jude felt the steel bite his hand. A third fork of lightning split the darkness, its strobing white dazzle illuminating the deck. Jude saw the blood streaming from his lacerated palm. He clenched his fist over the cut and staggered back. He was level with the base of the crane now, glancing around him for some place to run, but couldn’t see a thing through the sheeting rain.

  Scagnetti kept coming. ‘I hate people like you,’ he shouted. ‘Fuckin’ rich boys, you’re all the same. Want everything for yourself. Well, not this time. Give it to me! It’s mine!’

  Scagnetti didn’t see the shadow that detached itself silently from the darkness, until it was right beside him.

  Chapter 30

  Ben stepped out from behind the crane and placed himself between Jude and this man who wished him harm. That wasn’t going to happen. Not today, not ever, not while Ben lived and breathed.

  Ben patted the zipped pocket of his combat vest where the hard lump of the diamond nestled. ‘You want it?’ he said calmly, just loudly enough to be heard over the roar of the wind. ‘It’s right here. Come and get it.’

  Scagnetti hesitated, and for a moment he seemed to deflate as his confidence wavered. But only for a moment. He was the one with the knife. Ben’s hands were empty. In Scagnetti’s world, that meant just one thing. It meant I win. If this guy facing him wasn’t afraid of that, he soon would be.

  Scagnetti tossed his head, flicking his straggly wet hair out of his eyes. He lowered his stance like the big knife fighter he was, feet braced, knees bent, arms spread, playing the blade in sweeps and circles. ‘You got it, huh? Then do yourself a favour, asshole. Hand it over or I’m gonna carve you up real bad.’

  ‘It’s not a fair fight,’ Ben said. ‘You with a knife.’

  Scagnetti laughed. ‘Not so fuckin’ tough now, are ya?’

  ‘I mean it’s unfair on you, Scagnetti.’ Ben took a step closer to him. ‘You should have brought a gun if you meant to tangle with me.’

  ‘Yeah? That a fact?’

  Ben nodded. ‘Yes. It is.’

  Scagnetti moved in quickly and lashed out with the blade, low and fast. He was a good mover, even on a badly rolling deck slick with seawater. Footwork was everything in knife fighting, and Ben could see he was practised. He was the kind of scrapper who was tough and mean and wily, with years of experience and many a bloodied bar-room floor to his account. He plied the knife with dexterity, never taking his eyes off Ben, shifting his body weight from side to side, ready to feint and jab, duck and slash. A dangerous man with a blade. Hard to beat.

  So Ben took a whole five seconds, instead of three, to break his scrawny neck.

  The blade flashed towards Ben’s chest. Ben sidestepped the stab and palmed Scagnetti’s arm away from him, tried to get control of the knife hand but missed, and had to withdraw fast to avoid the knife as it thrust at his throat. Scagnetti was quick, all right, but he wasn’t quick enough to dart out of the way of the low kick that Ben aimed hard and square at an imaginary point about eight inches behind Scagnetti’s right knee.

  A hard blow is one that connects forcefully with a vital part of the body. A crippling blow is one that goes right through. Which Ben’s boot did, with a crunch that folded Scagnetti’s right leg in the opposite direction to which nature had intended. Scagnetti would have screamed in pain, but in the same moment he had no air to expel from his lungs because Ben had crushed his larynx with a brutal elbow strike while seizing Scagnetti’s knife arm and dashing it against the side of the container stack. The knife whipped away across the deck. Ben beat Scagnetti’s head twice into a container’s steel edge. Disarming a man like this wasn’t enough, because he would always find a way to come back at you. Brain damage wasn’t enough either, because his mind was already deranged. A man like this, you had to end it; and end it decisively and without hesitation. That was exactly what Ben was trained to do. And exactly what he intended to do. No hesitation, no pity.

  The secret of a good neck break, one that ensured instant death, wasn’t the side-to-side movement you saw in movies. It was a combination twist in two planes, sideways and up at an angle. Ben supported Scagnetti’s limp weight in his arms, placed one hand behind his head and gripped his chin with the other, and snapped it clean. Scagnetti never made a sound.

  Then Ben flipped him over his shoulder and carried him to the rail and dumped him over the ship’s side. Five seconds from the first knife jab, Scagnetti’s broken body was engulfed in the leaping, crashing waves and vanished forever.

  It was as if the storm gods had been animated into a renewed frenzy by the violence of their fight to the death, drawing in the primal energy and ramping it up to redirect it ten thousandfold stronger. The deafening scream of the wind seemed to have peaked to a new crescendo an octave higher in pitch. The sea was like a wild animal driven berserk, as if all the rage and fury of the world had concentrated itself in the forces of the storm. The deck heaved and juddered under Ben’s feet as he turned to Jude.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sorry. Jude was clinging to the container stack, looking at him with wide eyes in a face that looked ghostly-pale through the murk and the driving rain. Ben started going over to him. Then suddenly, he was pitching forwards as the world seemed to tilt at an impossible angle under him.

  For a disorientated fraction of a second he thought that Scagnetti’s spirit had arisen from the waves, and come back to attack him, possessed with some inhuman power. In the next, cold water filled his ears and nose and the massive wave that had broken over the deck of the Andromeda lifted him off his feet and slammed him headlong against the container stack. His shoulder connected with bone-crushing force into something hard, jolting pain through his body. He gasped, sucked water, couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t cry out for Jude or see where he was. Then the deck under him was tilting the other way and he was sliding backwards in a torrent of white foam, scrabbling for a hold but powerless against the primal force that was enveloping his body and drawing him back. It was going to suck him under the rail and drag him down into the depths. He kicked and struggled and reached out in desperation for something to hold onto, but his clawing hand found nothing but water. The fear was a pure, burning white light inside him. As the certainty of death closed over him, he thought of nothing but Jude.

  He felt a hand close around his own, gripping tightly.

  ‘ … en!’

  Jude’s voice, a million miles away through the roaring in his ears.

  ‘ … ng on! I’ve … you!’

  Ben felt Jude’s other hand grip his arm. He kicked against the slippery deck with all the strength he had, and now he suddenly had a foothold against the power of the receding wave. He gasped and blinked the stinging saltwater from his eyes and looked up, and saw Jude’s face looking back at him.

  ‘I’ve got you!’ Jude yelled. ‘Hang on!’ Jude was stretched across the impossibly tilting deck with one foot hooked underneath the bottom edge of the container stack and both arms reaching out with a death grip on Ben’s left hand and arm.

  Ben opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was lost in the ripping, cracking, groaning, buckling and rending of metal as the crane above them came shearing loose from its mountings and started to topple. Its forty-foot jib sw
ung like a giant arm over the containers as it fell, its momentum carrying it with unstoppable force straight into the windows of the ship’s superstructure. The crane buried itself into the Andromeda’s bridge as if it had been made of paper mâché, ripping through steel and glass. Wreckage and flailing cables crashed down over the deck. Then the crane ripped itself free as the ship went into another wild tilt, toppled over and smashed down into the container stack, hanging far out over the edge of the deck.

  Its unbalanced weight was too much for the ship to bear.

  The Andromeda began to capsize.

  As the deck rose into a near-vertical incline, Jude lost his grip and both he and Ben slid helplessly towards the rail. But it was the angle of the slope that saved them from being crushed like insects as the container stack ripped loose of the deck and separated into its individual steel boxes that came bouncing and tumbling down over their heads like loose bricks into the ocean. The wind was screaming all around them now, coming from everywhere at once, more water than air. They were in the eye of the cyclone and there was no force on earth that could stand up to it.

  Ben’s feet hit the rail as he slid to the edge of the deck. He clung on with his legs and braced himself to avoid slipping through its bars. He wouldn’t let go of Jude. No matter what, he’d never let go.

  As if in slow motion and with a terrible deep grinding groan, dragged under by the wrecked crane, the Andromeda kept rolling over until her superstructure overhung the ocean at a crazy angle, the whole side of her massive hull submerged so deep beneath the waves that the port rail was engulfed in foam.

  Ben’s head went under the surface. All he could hear for a few seconds was the bubbling roar of the water in his ears. Jude was right there with him, eyes wide and gaping into his under the water. So close, yet so infinitely beyond Ben’s power to save him.

  Nobody is ever so utterly alone as when death is near – and at that moment it was so near that Ben could taste it. Jude’s fingers felt like iron claws locked onto Ben’s left hand. Ben could feel every joint in his body stretching as the sea tried to drag him down, but he clung on as he’d never clung to anything in his life. For an instant, his head broke the surface. He spouted water and gasped for air but then the ship gave another lurch as it rolled over further still, and he was plunged back deeper under until his lungs seemed about to burst. Just when he was on the point of drowning he heaved himself free of the boiling foam and managed to snatch more air – but then he realised that his left hand was empty.

  Jude wasn’t there any more.

  ‘—ude!’ Ben’s scream tore his throat, but it was soundless in the insane wail of the cyclone.

  The giant wave that finally broke the back of the foundering Andromeda took its time coming. It seemed to pause above the capsized vessel before it hit, frozen like a mountain face as it gathered its power.

  Ben had time to stare up at the sheer wall looming high overhead and say ‘Come on, then, you bastard’, before a million tons of water crashed down and smashed him under like a fist and everything dissolved into blackness.

  Chapter 31

  Thirty-seven paces long by twenty-two wide. Those were the exact dimensions of the vast antique Oriental rug that graced the centre of the mosaic floor in Eugene Svalgaard’s hotel room. The measurements would remain lodged in his head for a long time to come, after having spent the entire morning pacing up and down and round and round its edge like a mental health patient in the grip of an obsessive-compulsive neurosis. His diary had been wiped clean for the day; all meetings cancelled, the business conference that was his sole reason for being here in Rome in the first damn place now completely unimportant to him.

  Eugene halted at the window and glared out at the view beyond his private sun deck, over Via Vittorio Veneto to the splendid panorama of the city and its hallowed and ancient monuments.

  What a shit pit. He couldn’t wait to get out of the place.

  ‘Damn it all,’ Eugene muttered. ‘Damn and hell and blast and—’ He’d never been much for strong language, but now the occasion seemed to merit nothing less and he could feel the urge rising up from deep inside his restless being like a trapped bubble desperate to escape.

  ‘FUUUUCK!!’ He screamed it at the top of his voice, as if he wanted every living soul in Rome to hear it.

  There. He felt a little better now, though only a little. His heartbeat still fluttering and his face flushed, he threw his squat frame down into an antique armchair for a few moments before he jumped restlessly up again and resumed pacing the living room.

  Needless to say, this wasn’t any ordinary hotel room, because nothing Eugene Svalgaard possessed, or merely rented for a single night – whether of the bricks-and-mortar, automotive, airborne or fleshly variety – was ever remotely ordinary. When in Rome, his natural inclination was to take the palatial Villa La Cupola suite that occupied the whole two uppermost floors of the Westin Excelsior. It was the largest hotel suite in Italy and reputed to be the grandest in all of Europe, complete with its own private cinema and wine cellar, magnificently frescoed vaulted ceilings and enough priceless classical artwork to outfit a modestly sized gallery. Eugene had booked the suite complete with the five optional extra bedrooms. He had no intention of using them, but he’d taken them anyway, just because he could, without even blinking at the $20,000-dollar-a-night price tag.

  But as much as Eugene Svalgaard appreciated and expected the best of everything, at this moment he could have been cooped up in the city’s most pitiful hovel, and barely have noticed the difference. The lavish lunch prepared for him by one of Rome’s top chefs in the suite’s own private kitchen had gone cold, and he didn’t care about that either, oblivious of the hunger pangs that emanated from somewhere deep inside his forty-eight-inch waistline. The fact was, very little in his life mattered to him right now; and that which did matter was in the process of going very horribly wrong.

  How, how, how could this have happened to him? He’d had it all sewn up. Everything had been going his way. And now, catastrophe.

  Eugene contemplated the downturn in his fortunes like a defeated general surveying the devastation of the battlefield. The worst of it all was not even knowing what was happening over there, three and a half thousand miles away where what should have been one of the milestone moments of his life had suddenly turned into a nightmare.

  Out of all the vast fleet of cargo ships of the Svalgaard Line, everything hinged on just that one vessel, the Andromeda. The disaster had taken shape so bewilderingly fast, within a matter of hours. First the total loss of radio contact with the ship, which was most certainly not part of his carefully hatched plan. Then yesterday’s weird call from Pender on the sat phone, with Pender not sounding like himself at all and then hanging up abruptly without saying why he was calling.

  Then, just to deepen Eugene’s anxiety still further, there had been the email at six that morning from Sondra Winkelman at the Svalgaard Line head offices in New York, reporting the ominous news that not only were the company still unable to make contact with Andromeda, far worse, according to their sources the tropical storm tearing up the Somali coast had developed into one of the biggest cyclones seen in those seas for a decade. A decade! Of all the cursed bad luck in the world, this had to land on him now.

  Getting straight on the phone to Sondra before breakfast – 2 a.m. there, but the old harridan was getting well enough paid to work around the clock for him – Eugene had learned to his horror that a fresh communiqué from navy destroyer USS Zumwalt, which had been patrolling the east coast of Africa and forced to retreat to port by the violence of the storm, reported sightings of large amounts of shipping wreckage floating across a wide area of the Indian Ocean in the wake of the cyclone. So far, there seemed to be no clear evidence that the Andromeda was among the victims, but fears in New York were rising. They’d lost vessels at sea before. It was every shipping company’s worst nightmare – though Sondra Winkelman could have no idea what the loss of the Andromed
a would mean for her boss.

  ‘If O’Keefe doesn’t resume radio contact in another few hours, we’ll have no choice but to mount a search and rescue operation,’ Sondra had insisted over the phone.

  ‘Fine, fine. Keep me posted,’ Eugene had replied, gut-punched and becoming numb all over. But there had been no more from her since.

  Of course, Eugene didn’t give a damn about the Andromeda herself, or her crew, or her worthless captain. O’Keefe was nothing but a washed-up drunkard whom Eugene would have fired already if he hadn’t been useful to his plan. The ship and cargo were fully insured against losses. Let them wind up on the bottom of the ocean, for all Eugene was concerned.

  No, the one thing he cared about – the only thing he cared about, with an ardour that set his soul afire – was what his hired accomplice Lee Pender was carrying inside that case cuffed to his wrist.

  It was the thing Eugene had lusted after all these years. The thing he’d been so close to finally acquiring and holding in his hand.

  Eugene Svalgaard had been rich all his life. He’d been born into huge wealth and would die considerably wealthier. Nothing would ever change that. It was just the way things were. As he knew very well, enjoying such vast fortunes was something you actually had to work at, so as not to let the experience go stale. Most of the millionaires and billionaires Eugene golfed with had little trouble fuelling their passions with whatever turned them on by way of ever-fancier jets and superyachts, fast cars, faster women, Bahamian mansions and Scottish castles, all the routine trappings. But that was simply because most of Eugene’s super-rich acquaintances were, in his opinion, a bunch of brain-stunted unimaginative Viagra-popping shit-assed numbskulls whose empty pursuits held no appeal for a man of his calibre. From an early age, Eugene had yearned for more. The material objects he lusted after were things of pure beauty: immaculate, eternal, transcendent.

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